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Avenger : a skulls and swords fantasy

 

AVENGER

 

A skulls and swords fantasy

 

Chris Turner

 

Copyright 2017 Chris Turner

Cover Art and Map: Trevor Porter

Published by Innersky Books on Shakespir

 

Discover other titles by Chris Turner at Shakespir.com

 

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this story are either fictitious or are used fictitiously

 

 

CONTENTS

 

 

DRAGON LORDS

 

VALLEY OF THE GODS

 

THE LAND OF MAJA

 

 

DRAGON LORDS

 

I: Dragonskull

 

Vetravincus, wandering mercenary, was on a mission to fence a jewel. He soon found himself jostling shoulders amongst the crowd in the central market of Dragonskull, a lawless oasis in the arid wastes, also famous for dragon bones scattered amongst the dunes. Less than two generations had passed since a slave caravan of brigands, deviants and cutthroats, bound for King Juna’s prison mines, broke their chains and took control of the town. Often a man was beaten for some minor offence, or his throat cut or his valuables seized; worse was done to women.

Of foul play, Vetra was little worried. His broadsword was forged with crucible steel, sharp enough to lacerate through bone, and hung from his armoured back in a shagreen scabbard. His hard features, broad shoulders, sure step and reinforced ringmail were enough to give pause to the most impulsive footpads.

Vetra heard someone cry out and he quickly grasped the pommel of his sword. A boy struggled in the hairy arms of a red-faced merchant. A yam and a cuchri fruit lay mashed at their feet. A flash of steel glinted in the noonday sun; the merchant raised a cleaver to the gaunt-faced boy. Vetra lunged and pulled the boy away.

“What’re you doing?” the merchant screamed, his cleaver missing the youthful hand and sticking deep into a wooden table. “He stole—”

Vetra smashed the pommel of his broadsword into the merchant’s mouth. Blood, broken teeth, and curses filled the air. Vetra grabbed the man by his scraggly beard and pulled him close. He could smell the fruit merchant’s fear; piss ran down the vendor’s leg and rancid meat wafted from his agonized face.

Vetra put his blade to the merchant’s throat. “Have you ever swiped a grape? Have you ever been that hungry?”

The merchant opened his bloody mouth to say something but stopped. His eyes flicked to the side.

Vetra turned and saw a large man quickly approaching. Dragon tattoos rippled on bare, muscled arms, and a dirty blond beard curled low under a pointed chin.

The big man snarled. “Who are you to impose law on us, outlander?”

Vetra sheathed his weapon. “I meant no imposition to your laws.” He glanced down at the child and mouthed the word ‘Run.’

The boy jumped to feet and tore off through the crowd, panic-stricken, eluding the grasping hands of bystanders. He squeezed his way through moving carts, tables and milling bodies.

“Stop that weasel!” the big man yelled to the crowd. He then put his hand out to Vetra. “Out of my way! I’ll not kill the thieving brat! Just put him to work in Berit’s smithy, or chain him to a post in the tannery.”

Vetra chuckled and stepped aside. “You’ll never catch him. His feet are faster than a rabbit’s.” He shook his head and sauntered up the monger’s lane, merging with the crowd. He peered left and right, his dark eyes on the alert for trouble. At least he had saved a hungry young urchin from mutilation, no doubt a better deed than anybody in that motley crowd had done that day.

The aisle merged into a common square packed with bustling traffic. Carts jolted past without heed for people safety; noise and dust were like layers of froth off a devil’s brew. A camel came bearing down on him and he stepped aside from the grunting beast, whose rider shook a fist at him. The diversity of the throng fascinated him. Lean Guirites from Amashra swarmed the streets with keen, curved, gold-chased swords belted at their hips. Thrules, four to five feet tall, wore loose, purple robes to the ankle, whispering amongst themselves with hoods drawn tight, concealing all but their cat-like eyes. Wood traders from Kamuchaya trundled in by cart; silk merchants from Asban on their desert ponies, whipping their dust-ridden beasts through the throng. Behundrians dominated the scene, swarthy, stocky residents with tempers and arrogance to match, who imposed their law, which was cruel at best.

Spices, jewels, and fruit, along with silk and ivory flowed from the east while fish, wheat, timber, and steel came from the west. The odd caravan of gold came from the south, with armed escort, from as far as Pakshar and then by way of Senesch on the coast. The Kirns of the South, the Mosetes of the North, the Guirites of the East, all plied the common route, some friends, some foes. They travelled the same dusty streets, rubbing shoulders with each other on foot or donkey or camel, drank by each other’s side in the seedy ale holes and saloons or rolled dice in the gambling houses that graced the town.

Vetra ducked under awnings and pushed through the back curtain of a fabric shop. He gave not a glance at the fine silks and Damir linens, and took a shadowy route through a narrow alley with wet clothes strung up from the railings of the overhead apartments. A particular dealer resided here who could fence these emeralds of his. Pity he had to come all the way to this remote outpost for this. He had learned upon arrival that a recent entry permit was imposed on non-Behundrians. Persons in transit were exempt, but to be caught without one while even entering the bazaar was considered an offense—a hefty ten talon fine, or time done in the stockade. Nothing more than a local collection tax, he thought. Two silver talons, one permit.

He pushed down his disgust and wiped the back of his shiny black hair. He was sweating like a horse.

The three small emeralds were uncut, likely stolen, and payment for his last job. Easier to fence it here in out-of-the-way Dragonskull than be caught in Lausern, pegged as a smuggler by the Vizier’s street watch. He had to find the dealer who would move it first, otherwise his trip was a waste of time. As for the permit, well, he was willing to take a chance…

The alley reeked of sour cabbage and spoiled wine. Trickles of noisome grey water ran in gutters. Vetra turned. A man’s cry? A scream of pain? His lips parted in a scowl. Best to keep walking. But he knew he would not.

Down the narrow, littered alley he stole like a thief, his garbandia knife clutched in one hand, his other on the pommel of his sword in its worn scabbard. He thought he heard a sound behind him, a stalker, crouching hidden behind refuse heap and crumbled wall. He paused.

Nothing.

A large rat suddenly skittered out and down a dark hole.

Angry shouts drifted through a canvas-covered gap in a plastered wall. The sounds rose in pitch, the wheezing gasp of a pleading man, grunts and blows, then various chuckles and throaty murmurs. Hackles raised, Vetra bent his head, unable to overcome his curiosity. He pulled back the canvas flap, and peered into a windowless chamber dimly lit by oil lamps. A man was gibbering, spread-eagled on a low table. A dozen figures surrounded the victim, and taunted him with cruel knives and wicked bits of sharp, rusted iron.

“I tell you, Rafa, I don’t know where the map is.” The prisoner was lashed hand and foot in stout cord and struggled helplessly as he wailed.

“Liar!” cried Rafa. “I saw you chewing the parchment and swallowing it. Only a knave or fool would do that before looking at the map. Nestor! Jangir! Put the tong to him. This rogue deceives us.”

Nestor nodded, a brawny ape of a man, with a ragged overcloak and iron wristbands and yellow front teeth.

The sound of sizzling flesh came to Vetra’s ears. He clenched his jaw.

Predatory laughs added to the tortured man’s howls.

Vetra, for the life of him, could not stand by and witness a defenceless man tortured and killed, even if he were possibly a villain.

He ripped a hole through the canvas and leaped in, sword in hand. He saw they had branded the victim’s right calf with a lurid mark: a long knife piercing a dragon skull. The victim was a short man, no more than five feet tall. He looked Thrule, but for his wincing features, thin Behundrian nose and more strongly defined jaw. It was hard to see past his shaggy mop of sweat-matted brown hair.

The victim was struggling anew now, and in a fierce display of strength had to be restrained with force despite the strong cords binding his limbs.

Vetra barrelled straight for the man with the tongs. The best attack was a surprise one, so without preamble, Vetra pounced, cleaving skull and jawbone in a spray of blood and brains. The villains around him fell back with cries of horror, and leaning in, Vetra slashed more throats and limbs.

They circled closer, having wits to stay out of reach of his hissing blade. Now they came rounding in, and he was penned like a boar amongst huntsmen.

A bold young voice called out from the shadows. “Oi! Ugly face!”

The rogues quickly faced the unknown voice, and Vetra took the opportunity to slice the next nearest man’s throat. The man staggered into his fellow villains, gurgling blood, a ghastly expression on his face.

Vetra ducked a whooshing blade. Darting sideways, he crouched as another sword edge thumped off his padded leather undershirt, ripping white desert robe. In the same motion he slashed the victim’s cords that bound legs and arms. The prisoner gleefully rolled off the table and crawled across the floor out of reach of the scrabbling men. He snatched up the tong while Vetra held off the attackers then hurled it into the face of his captors, eliciting a cry of anguish.

“Get her!” the leader cried.

A flat-faced thug broke from the pack and turned on the intruder who had voiced the taunt, a young woman with cinnamon hair trailing down her slender shoulders. A gleaming knife was gripped in her hand, a dangling scourge clasped in the other.

The aggressor towered a foot over her, sword hanging loosely at his side, sizing her up, as a bull eyes a ripe cow. His leering face bobbed closer to inspect her more carefully. He reached a hand out like a snake to grab her wrist.

Her blade flashed and slashed a crimson line across the back of the hand. He grunted in surprise. A knee to the groin doubled him over. Her lithe body then spun with a long leg arching up to crack the side of his head. The man crunched to the floor. The smack of leather on flesh resounded throughout the room. Two more leering figures broke away and came leaping after her, their hoods rustling and white desert garb trailing to their ankles. She sprang forth, whip whirling behind her head. She moved in sync with the rhythm of her foes as they came at her, cursing and grunting.

“A girl? Really, swordster?” Rafa sneered. “You are quite the hero, bringing an entourage from the local bordello!”

Vetra grunted, ignoring the taunts. He twisted to avoid the rake of the grinning man’s two-foot Shamari blade. He was in the thick of the fray, besieged by foes. Parrying left and right, he swore and swivelled left, evading a one-eared attacker who lunged for his vitals. Blood ran down the hilt of Vetra’s naked blade as he cut down hard. A high squeal erupted from a bowed over man.

Meanwhile, the freed victim rolled underfoot. Despite his pitiful state, he hobbled to his feet and grabbed a weapon from the hand of the felled torturer then met an upraised sword aimed for his skull. Vetra laughed, cutting down a man to edge closer to the ginger-haired girl who had so fortuitously saved his neck.

Vetra saw her scourge rising and falling in sprays of red. A wicked weapon of leather strips and rusted nails, meting out an unforgiving punishment. She disarmed the first attacker, lashing out with a shrill cry, to leave a gaping gash on the man’s arm.

Rafa came striding in with a howl of disgust, keen on despatching the hellcat. But in his anger he underestimated his opponent, driving in too close too fast. A quick lash took out his eye. His lips gave rise to a screech of a pain. Hand thrust to his bloody socket, the man reeled, trying to stop the jet of blood gushing from between his fingers.

Vetra, summoning a savage fire from deep in his warrior’s heart, gave a beserker’s yell and launched full on the last four villains who faced him. Sword swung like a mallet, dismembering jaws and bursting brains. But more foes came pouring out from the shadows of a hidden entrance. Many more.

He shook the blood and sweat out of his eyes. He edged back, sword dripping in a white-fisted hand, snarling like a panther. “Quick! If you value your lives!”

The girl and the freed man wasted no time: together the three of them cleared a path to the back flap.

Vetra squinted under the daytime glare to examine his mysterious aide in better light now. She was lighter skinned and wore a sleeveless vest, short leather breeches, brown belt and soft leather boots. Her shins were bare, and small ornamental bracelets and cheap rings decorated her ankles and fingers. She was barely a day over sixteen: in fit shape, green eyes, luscious curves, scarcely winded.

The three staggered out of the shadows, scuttling to the end of the alley.

“What’s your name, girl?” demanded Vetra as they ran.

“Jhara. And yours?”

“Vetra. Why did you help me back there?”

“You saved my brother. I was curious about your business in Dragonskull. Not often does a stranger risk his neck for a nameless urchin.” Her breath caught in her throat as she kept abreast the mercenary while the rescued man was struggling to keep up, wheezing up a storm.

Vetra laughed, a snort of contempt.

“You seem to have a knack for getting yourself in trouble,” she accused. “That’s Rafa’s lair, don’t you know? His thugs pay allegiance to Cthan, the sheriff. Are you a daft brute or just a simpleton, going in there and taking on the whole crew?”

Vetra grunted. “Where did you learn to fight like that, girl?” He halted, peering back down the alley. The Thrule held his branded leg, wincing with every step. Only three of the dozen pursued and they strode leisurely, as if they had all the time in the world. Vetra frowned. Confident swine they were, to saunter so lazily, as if they had the luxury of kings to ferret out a cocky outlander and some rebels.

“My father… He never let me use a sword.” The girl offered a wry, white-toothed grin, though there was pain in that smile. “Said I would kill somebody.”

Vetra shook his head bemusedly. The whip she used earlier was sewn with hooked, rusted nails and ended with a blood-stained wooden handle. “In that I have no doubt.”

He glanced at the hectic market scene. Folk and mongers moved about their business, oblivious to the violence that had just taken place. His puzzled curl of lip returned upon remembering the girl’s performance.

“One learns to think fast on her feet,” she added coyly, seeing his appraising look, “especially a woman, growing up on the streets.”

“My advice, get a proper sword,” he muttered. “And you, Thrule, what’s your story?” He peered at the man they rescued sharply.

“I am not a Thrule,” he gasped, stumbling up, lungs heaving. “I am a half Thrule. Lehundr. Snatched by those thugs but an hour ago.” A flicker of doubt passed his eyes as he debated whether or not he could trust the swordsman who hulked before him. “I have desert ponies waiting in the stables of the Prospector’s Inn. My uncle runs the place. Not the fastest steeds, but sturdy ones and reliable. We can be out of here in short order.”

Vetra considered the prospect while rubbing his jaw. Recent events had gone awry and suggested it was time to quit Dragonskull. His gems he could leave till another day. They were not worth his life. Though he liked not the prospect of delay.

“The fools, they thought I was eating a map,” Lehundr continued, croaking out a harsh laugh. Again, a doubtful hesitation, but he went on. “It was but a decoy. The real one is weaved into my caftan here.” He lifted his torn cloak for an instant and Vetra caught a fleeting glimpse of two dragon heads facing each other—a mystical and sinister sign if he ever saw one—the beasts poised as if a cleverly woven part of the fabric, evoking mystic terror in any who saw it. The fabric was ancient and the pigments dyeing the wool were dulled and faded by years of sun.

“They wanted the map and were ready to kill for it,” he explained. “The rest you can guess.”

Vetra grunted. “Those villains are not going to give up their hunt to lynch a few ornery trespassers. We got lucky. And I don’t know why they haven’t pinned us down and gutted us already.”

Almost as if in answer, his keen eyes detected five grim figures on the other side of the market, blood trailing from their cheeks and arms.

A quick glance over his shoulder showed four more of the bravos stumbling out of the adjoining alleyway.

Vetra pulled the two into a nearby back alley. “Quick, girl! Make yourself scarce. You, Thrule—or half Thrule, whatever you are—follow me!”

“What about the treasure?” Jhara demanded. “I heard about the map. We’re all going to be rich!”

“Are we now?” grunted Vetra. “Recall, we just narrowly escaped getting our throats cut. Look yonder, what do you see?”

“A market and a bunch of bustling fools.”

“No, death. Go take care of your brother. Begone, this is my last warning.”

“That’s not how this is going to play out—” She gave lip to a rush of words, but seeing Vetra’s inflexible face, her mouth curled in a mischievous scowl and she turned and dashed off. She disappeared down the alley in a flash of gleaming brown leather and bouncing hair.

Vetra shook his head with puzzlement. Her appearance was certainly one of the more bizarre things he had seen in a long time. He had a hunch yet more bizarre things were to follow.

Lehundr stared awkwardly, wiping his bloody blade on his torn garment.

“Where did you get that map?” Vetra demanded as he forged his way through the market crowd.

“Off a wandering Guirite, who knew not what he had. He was selling knicknacks and memorabilia from his market stand and I happened to notice it hanging there, pinned to a hide, as an emblem or decoration. He said it was a good luck charm. I recognized it for what it was—the mark of the Dragon Keeper—for my father had schooled me well in the legends of the Dragon Lords. He said their treasure was an ancient secret woven into a map.”

“Well, you paid a hefty price for that bit of fabric.” He motioned to Lehundr’s quivering leg.

“Help me get to the Thrule district. I have healing ointments there.”

“I doubt any salve is going to fix that burn too swiftly.”

“You don’t know Thrule medicine.”

Vetra’s eyes darted about uneasily. What to do about this Thrule? He was in bad shape and likely would not survive another assault if the band of ruffians caught him again.

Almost as if in answer he saw a garishly painted sign to the trader’s post looming like a sore thumb: a wooden slab with carved-out pickaxes and shovels crossed together.

Another reckless camel came veering in, the scowling man cursing from its saddle. Vetra was deafened by the animal’s grunt in his ear. He stumbled into a wizened merchant, carrying a load of silk bales, who rang out some Mosete words at him for being in his way.

“Quick, in here!” Vetra growled, annoyed with the overloaded street. The oppressive heat was getting to him. He pushed the Thrule on through.

They plunged past the swinging wooden door. Immediately, they were assailed by a wall of noise, the babel of impatient voices and general confusion.

Figures moved every which way in a bright-lit open pavilion. Sunlight streamed from the long windows that ran along the upper gallery below an arched, bricked ceiling.

Weigh scales lined the immediate wall, men measuring vials of silver dust, gold nuggets and ore chips, others wielding heavy sacks of precious metals. A few gripped freshly signed deeds and land rights. The depot was a central hub where all the traders secured their commerce, signed trade deals, filed mineral claims, and lodged complaints.

An open area at the back of the depot fronted a sprawling cobbled courtyard rich with milling folk who toted sacks of grains and other goods to the weigh stations—barrels of precious water, crates of Thorian metal, rolls of silk, or linen, baskets of dates and coconuts, raw leather, rugs, amphorae of wine. The heaving, jostling men swarmed about like ants. Vetra stared past the figures and tethered horses at the temple of Dergath and its forked spires and shiny jade dome rising into the white-washed sky. To its side rose the great curving bulk of the stone reservoir of water that kept the town alive.

Shaking his head at the chaos, Vetra strode to the central area. Immediately he was accosted by a uniformed man selling trading permits at an alleged discount. The man shuffled clay tokens through his fingers with confident ease and pushed one in Vetra’s hands. Vetra squinted at the disk sceptically, then, seeing it bore a true Dragonskull seal, flipped a silver coin at him, thinking it could come in handy if they were accosted by the town watch. The hyena-like cackles of men came from behind and he turned upon the three grubby traders who stared at him with obvious amusement.

A sudden suspicion dawned on Vetra and he stared at Lehundr who straggled behind in a daze, in no shape to call out a warning. Leaning back, Vetra shifted angrily, realizing he had been duped and reached out to grab the vendor. But the smiley-faced con was gone.

He herded Lehundr up ahead and they inserted themselves in a line leading to a main counter, trying to appear as unobtrusive as possible. Lehundr’s darting eyes and burn on his leg marked him out.

The trade-clerk of the depot shouted across the nearby counter over the din of voices. “You’ll get your blasted silver dust, you damned rogue!”

The fuming, red-eared figure on the other side of the wicket glared. “I doubt that, you jackal! Give me back my coins. All five hundred. Shipment was due a week ago, and it still hasn’t arrived out of Dalispar. I’ve been swilling Jirrir’s sour ale and eating stringy mutton with my bully-boys for the last week, itching to carve out someone’s liver.”

The trade-clerk snarled. “Hire yourselves some trollops then, down Smeldra’s way. Amuse yourself for a few more days. Your silver’ll come, by Dron, or I’ll cut off my beard and eat it.”

“Well, you’d better get a knife ready because—”

A loud shout pierced the air. Then a thud and clash of arms as a dispute over a transaction gained momentum.

Wood flashed in a fist and a burly brute cracked his club over the head of a lean desert man with a rat-face. “That will teach you to backbite, you lily-livered Kirn.”

The brute’s aide grumbled, “Well, Onast, any more of your bullies got a beef with us?”

“Ah,” the tradepost-clerk grunted. “This place is a barn.” He turned to Vetra, who had thrust himself next in line while a long line of men were distracted. “Well, what’s your complaint, outlander?” The clerk glared at Vetra, and the mercenary casually loosened his outer garment to better disguise his rugged physique.

“No complaint,” Vetra remarked simply. “I came to get a trader’s permit.”

“Trader’s permit? That’s that office down the hall,” he barked, jerking a thumb. “Why waste my time here?”

“I was ripped off by your so-called assistant who carries no more than a few trinkets of pretty clay.”

“Say what?”

Vetra ground his teeth, his anger not allowing him to let it go. “I said, the ‘imposter’ claims he was the one I should pay money for a ‘permit’.” He held up a faked token stained with yellow and red.

The clerked grinned. “Well, if you were fool enough to give honest coins to that good-for-nothing—”

“You!” burst out a voice. Vetra whirled to recognize an oily-skinned, turbanned man from back at the market “—you were the rascal who Vilivet was talking about, some foreigner who thought to flout our market law.”

A rustle came from behind the clerk. A tall, broad-chested man came lumbering out of the back office, his ears pricked. “What’s this I hear about Vilivet?” There was a dangerous glitter in his eyes, as a lizard eyes a cringing mouse. “Is there a problem here?”

“No problem, Cthan,” mumbled the trade-clerk soothingly.

“Aye, no problem,” grunted Vetra. “I just suggest you teach your clerk better manners.” He recalled the name ‘Cthan’ dropped by Jhara and noticed that Lehundr seemed to shrink in the presence of the hulking lawbringer of Dragonskull.

The oily-skinned man piped up angrily: “The outlander’s a sword-trickster. Took a thieving urchin from under our thumbs and stared down Vilivet.”

Cthan snorted. “What do I care of your little squabbles? If Vilivet can’t handle one grubby foreigner, then he deserves his tail whipped. Serve the man and be done, Sabias, before I wallop you. I get enough complaints about your surliness as it is.”

“As you like.” Sabias growled. “And you, Thrule,” he grunted down at Lehundr, “what are you looking at? I should have you thrown out and whipped. Thrules go in the other line!” He clutched his writing stick in a white-knuckled fist.

The Thrule had been staring in fascination, still dazed from his near encounter with death. A line of drool slithered down from the corner of his mouth, a detail which had likely triggered the clerk’s animosity.

Lehundr, whose natural habit seemed to be to look down, let the flap of his torn hood hide his face. His noiseless movement of upraised hand with open palm seemed a gesture of implicit subservience. Yet Vetra could see by his shrug of resentment he was not pleased to be insulted.

“Leave him out of this,” Vetra grumbled impatiently. “The half Thrule’s with me.”

“And what’s your claim in this affair?”

“First of all he’s a half Thrule, not a Thrule, and he’s got your blood in him too,” reiterated Vetra loudly, “and if there’s any thrashing or bullying to do, it’ll be done by me. He glared down at the clerk who was starting to irk him.

The trade-clerk bristled at the outlander’s insolence. Seeing the merciless fire in Vetra’s eyes and the glint of steel rising out of his scabbard, he grumbled an oath and crashed a fist on the table. “Your door’s down there, big man. Take your Thrule with you.”

Vetra marched away like a lazy cat, earning the appreciative stares of several onlookers. He and Lehundr pushed past several grumbling, jeering men, tired of waiting in line.

Vetra motioned to the Thrule. “Don’t like you, do they?” He stared down at his companion’s five-foot height.

“They don’t like anyone here,” muttered the shorter man. “The Behundrians, I mean. A word of advice, friend, not that I don’t appreciate your grit in sticking up for me, but watch your step. One man and a sword isn’t going to take on a whole gang of villains. You don’t know them like I do.”

Vetra gave a sinister laugh. He pushed his gleaming blade back in his scabbard and sauntered through the throng. “I see you are eager to be gone, and for that I don’t blame you. Best be on your way, Thrule, before those bullies target you again.”

At that moment two riders thundered up to the depot’s back station, kicking up a dust storm. Their mounts were lathered with sweat and looked to have seen some heavy riding. One cried out hoarsely, “The main water pipe is down again. No breaches for a league or so, we checked. But ’tis the Thrules! They’ve taken the pipe somewhere further up the line. Rebels from the north—the Thorian mines have been hit too.”

The booming voice of the sheriff rolled over the general noise. “Damn those nomads! They’ve probably sabotaged the main water head at Sunswatch. Outback rebels, I wager. Round up your swords, men—and your camels. We have a rebellion to quash.”

A chorus of fierce shouts and vengeful murmurs rose from the gathered men.

Vetra frowned. That the Thorian mines were compromised meant there would be a major movement of militia eastward. Large coin was at stake. The rare mineral Thorian, the magical element from which the wizard Slune had figured out how to manufacture the finest steel, was a lifeline of the Sahir trade. The Dragonskull constabulary, as their purpose demanded, would have to protect the common interest.

Cthan swore, grimaced at an arguing deputy, fit to be tied. “I’ll send word to Thraxen’s force at Menihem. We’ll meet them and rout out the vermin and put an end to this little rebellion once and for all. A round of stiff arrack for the lads.”

Vetra forewent his trader’s permit. He slipped out the back of the station with Lehundr close on his heels. This place was too conspicuous and crowded. While a hubbub of desert mounts being saddled and packed for war reigned there was no better time to escape unnoticed. Even so, Vetra paused. The excited jabber of men’s voices aside, he had not liked the suspicious retreat of a squint-eyed, curly-haired man on mention of ‘outlander’ earlier. He had no doubt there were more of Rafa’s spies about.

 

The midafternoon sun blazed down like an angry furnace. Vetra and Lehundr crouched outside the stables at the back of Lehundr’s uncle’s Inn, for fear of being seen. The smell of dung lay thick in their noses. Three sturdy ponies swished tails at the pesky flies in the shade of the alley behind the stables. The inn rose several feet over the horse stalls: a two storey clay and stone dwelling with arched doors and painted gumwood typical of the region’s desert dwellings. Few folk were about these quarters. The air was hot and heavy and would not be cooling down for some hours. Not fast enough for Vetra’s tastes.

“We should be travelling by night,” Vetra murmured, “for reasons of stealth and coolness.” He poked about in the dusty shadows and gathered what extra supplies from the stable he thought they needed: lantern, rope, extra wicks, a pickaxe.

Lehundr gave his head a decided shake, fingering the salve he had acquired from the stable. “Rafa will learn that we were at the depot and come hunting for us. So we can’t wait until nightfall. In fact, they will be coming here before long.” To his burn wound he applied more of the ointment, a mixture of cactus and eucalyptus leaf.

“Nothing we can do about that,” mused Vetra. “Better pack up and go.”

“Come with me, Vetra!” Lehundr urged in a fierce whisper. “I need a good man on this job. A fighter! A swordsman. You are a man of mettle. We will split the spoils. The map is genuine, I know it!” He lifted his outer robe again in excitement.

Vetra stared critically at the folds of fabric which showed the dragons and some crude, cryptic sketch of valleys and temples and skulls. It seemed to point to a hidden tomb, delineated by a dragon rune stone, north of the place where the pipeline snaked, if his bearings were right. “It follows the line of the pipe,” he grumbled.

“So—we’ll give the invading rebel Thrules wide berth.”

“Meaning, you think I’m going to hunt down this will-o-the-wisp of yours? Get knifed, and die with gold in my hands? No, I’ll get out of town with you, hide my head for a while, but that’s all I can guarantee. This treasure seems too much of a longshot.”

“Why, though? The girl was not stupid—she could smell the promise of riches.”

Vetra ignored the remark and noticed the short, gleaming falchion Lehundr had tucked at his waist. “I see you favour the shorter blade.”

“Yes, it’s lighter, quicker and more versatile in battle.”

“The reach is shorter and you could get yourself gutted by a better fighter with a longer blade, especially on horseback.”

“You would know.”

Vetra chuckled. “Well, I hope you know how to use it. My experience with treasure is that plenty of blood flows with it.”

Lehundr crafted a furtive grin. He draped the soft woollen scarf about his neck to ward off the daytime flies. He adjusted his coiled turban. Vetra thought he looked less like a Thrule, and more like a Behundrian.

“Daytime could be dangerous,” Vetra commented idly. “The deserts are populated with nomads, like tics on a dog’s hide. I don’t know what tribes are out there but their allegiance may not be to our favour, nor their temperaments. The region is unfamiliar to me, but I’ve heard many a tale of wayfarers and traders alike, pulled down by grasping hands, ambushed by desperados.”

Lehundr clicked his tongue. “Relax, I know the terrain. I can guide us.”

Even in daylight hours the sounds of men’s shouts and laughter rang from a nearby canteen. Vetra heard loud coarse music, the odd bray of a donkey or the whinny of a horse. Not even he noticed the slim, covert form who had snuck up alongside Lehundr’s extra packbeast while the men stood conversing in the heat, downing some cheap ale at the stable’s gate before their jaunt into the scrublands.

Vetra winced and shook his head. “Bah, this tastes like tar.”

“Only the best Thrule stock,” chided Lehundr. “What, don’t like my uncle’s mix? Drink up, friend. It may be all you’ll get for a long time.”

Vetra peered around, the smells and sights registering only as blips on his consciousness. The day had unfolded unexpectedly and now his senses prickled with a sense of danger. He upended the tankard on the sand by the stable. “I think I’d rather die and go to Dergath than take this swill.”

The mercenary loosened his caftan, itching with the sweat that soaked the soft wool and made it stick to the back of his neck. The sour ale sloshing in his stomach did him no favours. He scratched at his stubbled cheeks, brushing back his shiny black hair under the coiled desert cap that he had chosen to stave off the desert heat. He was glad he had decided to ‘go local’, wearing lighter, more airy garb, to downplay his real status as a mercenary. No small number of enemies had he made in his line of work, even as far as Dragonskull. Eyes and ears and noses were no less sharp in this town. Under his flowing white caftan, the boiled hide and ring mail protected his chest and vitals. One could never be too careful, even while not on the job. Time for him to skip town.

Vetra’s eyes widened at the size of the half Thrule’s saddlebag, to which Lehundr was adding a sieve and trowel. “What? I thought you were talking about a few day’s trip, not a five-year hunting mission? Lighten your load. And what’s with all the cooking utensils and mineral-hunting gear?”

“Hush. One can never be too careful,” the half Thrule argued. “The desert is a dangerous place. Besides, we need some story, some alibi. There are many prying eyes about.”

Vetra shrugged. He saw that his companion’s stride had greatly improved.

Lehundr, catching his expression, showed a wide grin. “We Thrules know something of healing.”

“You’re a half Thrule,” Vetra reminded him.

“Does it matter? I still have a nomadic heritage.”

“You seem proud of it—also ashamed.”

Lehundr looked away. It seemed the Thrule kept more than one dark secret.

Already a disturbance gripped the nearby inn—cries, broken glass, the distant thuds of fists and crashing furniture. Vetra tensed, gripping blade, while Lehundr’s troubled hiss rasped between his teeth. He tightened fingers on Vetra’s arm. From the open window drifted hoarse demands, whimperings of pain, and the screams of tavern wenches.

Four turbaned figures in dirty caftans burst out of the back of the inn, dragging Lehundr’s uncle by the ears. They thrust him out into the yard and kneed him down. His face was a bloody mess, his lip cut, eyes wild and puffed, cheeks dripping with blood.

Vetra drew his blade. He strode to meet them. The ponies started at the clamour, nostrils flared at the smell of blood and they yanked at their tethers.

The foremost man flourished a long scimitar at Lehundr. “Both of you are liars—” he thundered, referring disgustedly to Lehundr’s uncle. “Who’s this then? Your map-bearing rat?”

They kicked the old man rolling in the dust. He clawed at his torturer’s feet, hooking fingers into the baggy folds draping their shins.

“The map, or your life, Thrule,” threatened the lead thug, ignoring Vetra. He pointed his curved blade at the map bearer.

Vetra brought his sword high and gleaming steel crashing toward the man who was pressing his foot on the innkeeper’s neck.

The thug swung a silver falchion and nearly chopped the innkeeper in two, but Vetra’s stroke caught the blade. A rasp of metal and Vetra’s weapon shimmered in a blinding arc. The sweaty grin froze on the swarthy face as three feet of glittering steel ploughed through his chest and up out his back. He crumpled in a bloody heap.

His colleagues gaped at the sudden violence of the attack and scrambled back in horror. Two circled in to lay swords to their new enemy.

Vetra dodged his foes, parrying strikes which would have impaled him like a hog. He stepped over the body—then smote with savage strength. He followed up with a lightning-fast riposte, a bellowing roar on his lips.

The half Thrule scurried out of the fray to help his uncle, but was drawn into a vicious swordfight with the fourth man. They circled and shuffled around like barbaric warriors, grunting, clashing, muscles bunched and triceps straining, while Vetra contended with his two foes.

Vetra’s temper grew more fierce. The heat burned down on his head, tapping wounds of raw rage and frustration. He hewed and smote like a wild man. His temples throbbed; every muscle in his body rippled and stood out like lumps of iron. Ever since he had come to this wretched hub, men had been trying to kill him, and it made his blood boil. He grunted and whirled about, ducking, stabbed steel at the figures. They grew warier, their eyes widening at the efficient skill of this enemy they faced. His closest attacker feinted, a crafty, drawn out lunge. The man was a lean, hawk-faced fighter, and pretended to fall while his comrade came in leering with upraised blade.

Vetra saw the plan in an instant. He crouched low—and before his head went rolling across the sand, he twisted, surprise registering on their faces, in time to jam an elbow in the kidneys of the jeering man that Lehundr now faced.

The half Thrule ripped blade across his attacker’s throat.

Two down.

Vetra was bowled over in the rush by the two others in the brief moment it took him to make that rippling thrust. He staggered across the dirt, narrowly avoiding a mortal jab and follow-up boot heel in his face. A grisly vision of death swept across his mind as a desert rogue’s blade slipped past his guard. But Lehundr came in grunting with weapon raised and swinging two-handed over his shoulder. The blade met the assailant’s and the gleaming steel only glanced off Vetra’s arm, slicing his forearm. The mercenary winced in pain, but he shot his blade out to meet the man’s desperate counterstrike even as he felt the throb of the wound up to his elbow.

Vetra’s blade rang mercilessly, a flurry of cuts that were too fast for his foe to follow. The groaning man fell to his knees, choking on his own blood. Vetra put his boot on the dying figure, pulled his blade free and used his left heel to mangle the man’s face.

While the other bled out on the sand, the remaining rogue fled wheezing and grunting up the alley, holding his flayed ribs.

“Coward!”

Lehundr sought to chase after him but Vetra pulled him back. “Forget that scum, we have to leave!”

“But he’ll blab to Rafa—”

“Forget Rafa! Dergath weeps, but warm blood runs everywhere your cursed map goes!”

The half Thrule grimaced, acknowledging the truth of it. He stumbled over to his crawling uncle.

“Go,” his uncle croaked at him, pushing him away. “These swine will bring more with them. Better for you to be far away from here. I’ll close the cursed hostel and hide away in Cyr-Down.”

Lehundr hung his head. Vetra gathered the ponies and barked at Lehundr to get a move on.

The half Thrule struggled up onto his mount, blinking, squinting back his rage and frustration, muttering at the his ill choices he had made.

Vetra sat his pony, a figure of silent wrath. He bandaged his arm, wrapping the sleeve of his caftan in a rude sash around his bloody wound.

Lehundr and he cantered back out the alley with the packbeast in tow. The great eastern road, now a ribbon of white satin shimmered in the drowsy heat through the gaps between the plaster homes. They left the rowdy sounds of Dragonskull behind.

 

II: The Ring of Pain

 

Their progress was stalled by the presence of a bearded rogue watching the eastern gateway—two flanking walls of loose sandstone blocks piled one on another, crossed by a wooden gate. Not much of a barrier, Vetra thought, but it was what Dragonskull had to offer. The man leaned on a spear, fingering a long blade clutched in a brown fist, his eyes trained on the horizon. Vetra recognized the thug from the alley, so he signalled Lehundr to a halt.

Quicker to split the man’s skull and be done with the scoundrel, Vetra mused. But that would leave a clear signal to Rafa and his gang where they were headed. No, better to double back through town and dispose of the spy who was predictably stationed at the western entrance, to throw off the scent. But he rejected the plan: too risky. It entailed a complex detour and chance for a skirmish. No…easier to make a roundabout route and escape by stealth, winding around Dragonskull.

They ducked low in their saddles, and threaded their way back through narrow alleys and deserted service yards, leaving by another unguarded exit of the town that Lehundr knew of. On the way they passed the stone water reservoir and its snaking pipe which swung out over its wide, glaring lip.

Vetra recalled that Dragonskull had also once been a thriving mining community named New Thoria after the famed metal Thorian. The mines had dwindled since and Dragonskull would have become a ghost town, if it were not for the trade route, and ultimately the discovery of a water source.

Where water would normally gurgle from the pipe to fill the reservoir’s basin, the spout was dry as desert bones. Vetra saw men clustered at the reservoir’s base trying to sort out matters about the stopped flow, arguing and gesticulating, and the local constabulary was having a tough time trying to stop ambitious, panicked locals from climbing the rungs up the vessel to fill bucket and barrel and drain what was now a scarce resource. Not a trickle came from its stony mouth; the work of the rebel Thrules, if the informers were to be believed. How they pumped water that distance was beyond Vetra. He shook his head, figuring it must by some sorcery or esoteric science.

Breaking through a rickety fence and a stand of eucalyptus swaying in the afternoon breeze, they took a goat path north and east that crossed the dusty highway, not two bowshots away.

Here, past the edge of town, the well worn track led to the Great Highway, a twin rutted path that snaked in a straight, lonely line for leagues to come, as far as Dalispar in distant Mekutomia.

The oasis that graced this ore-rich area had dried up, much to the disappointment of the early prospectors who pumped water from the nearest water source—a massive oasis some five leagues out. It was here where Vetra and Lehundr fled, and turned their treasure-seeking eyes.

They passed wagons, driven by camels, or teams of desert bullock, many a mean-eyed blue-black ruminant with huge horns and flaring, flat-faced snouts. They snorted and bawled, swinging heads back and forth in their yokes and nursing bellows deep in wattled throats.

They were no more past these when the white tips of bones appeared, peeking up from the sand. A gigantic dragon skull lay on its side, twisted askew. Eye sockets gaped like empty pools.

From where it had come, Vetra could hardly guess. He only knew that the beast was one of the great winged fliers that came from an age well in the past when dragons ruled the skies. This parched region had been a dragon haunt.

But now the ignorant Behundrians had affixed wooden signs and crude placards on the magnificent beast’s brow. Carven characters were etched on its gleaming white skull: “Dragonskull. Now entering the golden settlement: Dragonnook, of old.

“Why’d they scribe the old skull? Nobody around here can read.”

Lehundr shook his head, muttering his distaste for the lurid script. “The old ones would roll in their graves should they witness such sacrilege.”

Vetra’s brows rose, wondering what attracted the half Thrule to dragons.

He saw only a few of the larger vertebrae of the dragon peeking through the sand, indicative of the creature’s massive girth. The rest of the bones he assumed were scavenged long ago by the locals to be made into souvenirs.

He could not help but marvel at this awesome creature that spanned twenty wagons’ lengths.

“It’s the largest in all of Behundria and Sahir,” commented Lehundr. “So was the town named, Dragonskull. Whether they could fly is not known. What is left of their wing bones are shrunken parodies for beasts of their size.”

Vetra rubbed his sweaty brow.

“It was said their empire stretched as far as Lausern in Lvendar to Mekutomia in the far east. That their lords were half human, half dragon with bodies of men and feet, head and necks of dragons.”

“I am glad to live in this age, rather than theirs,” muttered Vetra.

“Really? Are you sure?” challenged Lehundr. “What makes you think this age so much better?”

Any argument he realized would not alter the Thrule’s opinion. What did he really know about the dragons anyway?—and their lords, half man, half dragon? He was about to snort out a response when Lehundr replied:

“’Twas their half human-dragon lords that held a reign that lasted a thousand years. Legend says they came from a faraway world. I don’t personally believe it. There are as many tales of their existence as there are grains of sand in this desert. A certain chilling legend relates at one time dragons had flown to earth from a distant world beyond the moon. Others say a band of wizards created the lords and morphed with the dragons themselves through wizardly agencies to become the hybrids we see in the crumbled statues poised before us.”

“If the old dragons were so masterful, why did they die? Why would a dead race have treasure?”

Lehundr gave a sullen shrug. “Their empire was vast, and their riches as lavish. Dwelling on earth so long, they lost their powers, ’tis said, and the dragon-men came to lord over them in their weakened state, and thus become their masters. The new dragon-lords were fortunately somewhat of a benign force, as far as lords go.”

Vetra struggled to control his contempt at such a concept. “Men masquerading as dragons. Putting on headresses and dancing around a fire in the dead of night. I’ve seen it from tribe to tribe, temple to temple. Men or dragons, if either had such treasure, they would have kept it well hidden.”

“Perhaps, but as to which age is better, if you live long enough here,” said Lehundr sharply, “you come to believe otherwise.”

The miles passed, the sun a beating scourge, and the clop of ponies’ hooves a monotonous beat on the packed sand. The old dragon ruins jutted more frequently out of the scrub, and the dunes took on a shimmering quality—sheltering half-fallen fanes, monuments and temples carved in crumbling stone: eerie statues of dragon men, or weathered full dragon, carved with uncanny skill.

A rambling cart with rickety wheels carrying silks and olives from the east came trundling in a cloud of dust: turbaned Guirites driving a team of desert horse. The outriders stood in their high, leather-padded saddles and coloured caftans, with crossbows raised. Vetra lifted his hand in greeting.

Seeing no threat from two lone wayfarers dawdling along the road on their ponies, the caravan men lowered their weapons. “Akzam San!” they chorused in a lively shout, meaning “Peace go with you”.

Vetra and Lehundr respectfully tipped heads and moved off the road to let them pass.

They drove their ponies in a leisurely trot, squinting into the bright glare off the sand, a hot dry breeze in their face bringing sand flies and dust into their eyes. Alongside the road and twisting through the desert came the stone pipeline that carried the lifeblood water to Dragonskull. Vetra stared at it, shaking his head in curious wonder. He marvelled at the human engineering and ingenuity that could create something of this magnitude.

They encountered various traffic, from single caravans, to long trains of covered wagons and bulls with camp-following doxies and footmen wielding pikes. But never solo travellers or even packs of two. Two lone wayfarers with their light packs and blood-stained garments and blithe salutes caused many a suspicious look—and interest.

A painted harlot approached Vetra who had paused to rest his pony, her hips swinging, and cheap bangles tinkling on ankles and wrists.

Vetra scanned her long bare legs and inviting, full lips and quickly declined the unsaid offer. “Business over pleasure, princess. I’m sure you’ll find many a dog in Dragonskull that’ll lap at your well-mounted behind.”

“Not nearly as manly as you.”

“Perhaps.”

“What about your little friend?” the trollop followed up with a suggestive wink, her smirk hardened around the edges. “Half price for him.”

Vetra laughed. So did the trollop. But Lehundr did not laugh, miffed as he was at being compared so harshly to the mercenary.

Vetra reached over and slapped Lehundr playfully on the back. “Don’t take it so hard, Thrule. These sluts are ignorant.” He gazed in amusement as another of the doxy’s painted friends slunk by. “I know better wares in Lausern who would practically give it to you for mug of mead.”

A ghost of a grin touched Lehundr’s dry lips, and he shrugged off his sudden resentment.

They made progress east with their sweating hides and panting mounts with the sun glaring at their backs.

No sign of Rafa or any headstrong, galloping host of his. It was a bare, desolate place, these outlands. Sand-scorched and dust-swept, as wild as the wind, with animal tracks zizgagging every which way across the parched landscape. The moan of the wind around carven rocks or twisted gumtrees caused Vetra a lonely shiver. His keen eyes saw the odd footpath of nomads, a distant low ridge strewn with boulders and dotted with the spiky azenia shrub, brown and faded green, and some faint yellow desert flowers.

Not a bowshot off the roadside, the remains of a stone dragon’s tail curled around a huge sandstone man-shaped god with bicorn crown and hooked stave. The symbolism implied some form of an alliance perhaps—denoting a period when men and dragons had been at peace. Flanking the other side of the thoroughfare teetered a gigantic toppled statue with a dragonish head and tail, fangs and detailed scales, but the legs and torso of a man holding a trident.

It brought an eerie chill down Vetra’s back, for reasons he could not explain. Lehundr and he rode past the monument in solemn silence, the Thrule bowing his head in honour of the old lords of the desert.

Vetra frowned. “Why do you bow?”

“Why not? I pay obeisance to the ancient ones, like all the Thrules do.”

“The Thrules—a people without a leader, beaten down and treated like curs by the Behundrians.”

Lenhundr grunted, “I could say the same for a dozen races across the lands.”

Vetra shrugged. He chewed his lip while Lehundr rode on in silence.

They stopped an hour or so later off the beaten caravan trail to rest the ponies. Both were tasked by the late afternoon heat and vigorous ride.

Dismounting to stretch his legs, Vetra gazed around warily at the desolate surroundings. “I almost feel as if ears are listening to our every conversation. Though we are nowhere near that hive of Dragonskull. Are there sprites hiding behind each cactus waiting for their chance?”

Lehundr gave a low chuckle. He leaned elbows on thighs as he crouched. “Take it easy, Vetra. You have a tall imagination for a fighter of your standing. Still, it pays to be vigilant.” The Thrule darted a wary glance over his shoulder.

The heat waves shimmered with a wanton fury. Cactus and low, spiked shrubs merged to the eye on the horizon to dance with the rhythms of the hot, dry wind. The land of the ancient dragons was a harsh environment, thought Vetra.

He gained his mount and heeled his pony on, taking only a sparing draught of water from his canteen, grateful that Lehundr had packed extra water bladders on the packbeast.

A band of five horsemen riding hard for Dragonskull, slowed and on a signal from their leader, reigned in and surrounded the two men.

The leader squinted curiously at the mercenary and Thrule. “Afternoon, outlander. Mighty hot for a pilgrimage. You bound for Sunswatch?”

Vetra said nothing, sizing up his questioner, sitting his mount in easy, carefree manner. Lehundr stared hard at the men: cruel, sardonic bullies with iron at their hips, whips in their hand, axes and water bladders strapped at their mount’s sides. The Thrule’s pony backed up a few steps.

“The desert’s a dangerous place,” the tall Mozete continued in an easy drawl. His finger twirled his sandy-coloured moustache. “Man can get his valuables robbed, his throat cut. What do you say? Me and my deputy Needs here can protect you—for a fee, of course.”

Vetra gazed in amusement. “Funny, I was just going to extend you the same offer. The oafs we killed back in Dragonskull were slow in accepting our token of friendship.”

The man’s scarred face went hard. “Really? How many?”

“A dozen, I reckon.”

The rider snorted. “Well, I think you are a liar.” On a signal of his leader, Needs came charging in, blade swinging.

Vetra leaned back easily in his saddle. A vicious sweep, too fast for the eye, slashed into the rider’s shoulder, slitting flesh from neck to ribs.

A ghastly spray of blood wetted the sand, and the man toppled off his brown bay, writhing in blood, choking.

With a malicious roar, another rider came reeling in. Lehundr pulled away, falchion gleaming, but Vetra was faster, and his blade hissed out, parrying sword, and Vetra’s left fist crashed into the man’s jaw, breaking teeth and bone.

The man slumped in his saddle. Vetra turned hard and drove steel through the man’s chest. The bandit’s horse fled off into the desert, dragging the dead man by the heel, whose foot had caught in his stirrup.

The leader took off his cap and wiped down his brow. “Well, that’s an unexpected turn of events. What to do, what to do…” With an ugly scowl, the expectant looks of his men hot on his back, he urged his mount forward, hand reaching for his hilt.

Vetra glanced sideways, as if the lizard at his horse’s hooves was of more interest than the man’s approach. Their eyes locked, but the attacker seemed fazed by the mercenary’s unflinching gaze, and a sudden perturbation crept over his face, like a shadow fleeting by under a passing cloud.

Vetra had stared down men like this before, and he knew the man for the bully he was: a callous, condescending brute who had won perhaps too many well-picked fights and had a knack for preying on weaklings which by uncanny luck had boosted his confidence. He had judged his marks by the size of their ponies. But for all his cowardice, the man was not completely daft, for when a cloud of dust rose up the trail, he reined aside.

“You’ve just been saved by luck.”

Vetra laughed. “Sure, keep on believing that.”

The leader snarled and the survivors rode off in a cloud of dust, mouths full of foul oaths.

“Cowards,” spat Vetra. “The whole lot of them. Is all this backhill country full of villains?”

Lehundr shrugged, dabbing at his brow. “No shortage of ruffians and bullies, I’m afraid. It gets worse.”

Vetra shook his head. “Well, it’s good that I am a tolerant man, Lehundr. Have a care, Thrule, and don’t sweat so much.”

They slowed their own ponies, to let the oncoming riders and their guarded caravan pass. Even as he stopped to check the jewels were still there, Vetra frowned at Lehundr’s packbeast’s cargo bag which seemed exceptionally laden and bulkier than normal. Something didn’t seem quite right about it and Vetra stared at it for a long time, as if it had moved in the shimmering heat. Finally he shook his head and muttered some words about the desert heat getting to him.

The miles passed in a blur of dust and heat. The soil tended to a slightly reddish hue, and sometimes white sand would form dunes, caked with twitch-weeds and low shrubs like juniper. Always the tall, smooth-boled gumtrees dotted the landscape, arching their pale grey and green limbs skyward. Such giants offered welcome shade when they passed by. The only creature that dared the daytime sun were the tiny lizards that darted around the trees’ trunks.

Lehundr lifted a hand in warning before long. “The great oasis is fast approaching. See how the pipe runs up the hill alongside the road? We should be on guard for hostility.”

They moved more cautiously now, well off the dusty track. But not as far as Vetra would have liked for he saw a ravine drop sharply to their left.

The sun pushed its somnolent face lower in the sky, turning a slightly more jaundiced hue. The wind had died, and Vetra brought his pony around to climb a low hill, north of the one where the pipe ran.

Commotion echoed from the valley below. Vetra quickly pulled his mount out of sight, before crouching in the warm sand atop the high dune. He hissed at Lehundr to do the same.

Vultures circled above. He smelled the strong scent of carrion. A battle had raged here recently, for he could see the dark sand below was stained blood red and bodies lay strewn everywhere, both Thrule and Behundrian.

A cluster of Thrules in wine-coloured robes and loose hoods milled about a strange wheel, or some gigantic gumwood ring. The wheel lay flat on the sand, fifty feet in diameter and turned slowly under the desert heat. Its movement was aided by eight, heaving bullocks with upturned horns, yoked to the ring’s perimeter. The mechanism powered a conveyor system up the slope, consisting of large buckets attached to chain and pulley. The conveyor drew water from the nearby oasis up the hill into the great pipe which ran from the summit down the hill’s opposite side and alongside the eastern road. Now the pipe lay broken at a lower point, pierced by pickaxe and hammer, and Thrules collected the spouting water into barrels and water bladders of their own, which they hauled with their packbeasts to a roped-off area.

The oasis was surrounded by giant gum trees and billowing palm with branches laden with ripe dates. A line of ruined stone columns rose up at its centre. The site was ancient, Vetra recognized. Flanking it were two stone, gaunt dragon-men, the lords of the time, holding wine cups up to the air as if to catch the rain.

At least a hundred Thrules swarmed the area. A central leader, waving falchion, gesticulated at the others. A red shawl flared around his shoulders. A score of hooded figures scouted the dead, scavenging the bodies for supplies and weapons. Vultures continued to wheel and to drop down hungrily to examine and plunder the corpses with parted beaks thick with flesh. Vetra saw some animals had been killed too. Bloated bellies of bullocks lay upturned, exposed to the sun, their hides teeming with flies, and an awful stench. Whether they had died from sickness, or purposeful violence was not evident. Some of the brute beasts’ places had been supplanted by Thrules who were chained at the leg to do the task normally done by bulls. They were being unshackled with growls of disgust and anger.

Vetra’s lip twisted in contempt. Likely the Thrules had taken revenge, had come to liberate their kin.

“The Ring of Pain,” muttered Lehundr. “The symbol of our brothers’ bondage. This time they have not been idle.”

“A pump?”

“That wheel down there is where our people have been enslaved ever since I can remember, to draw water for the precious Behundrians. Look at the chained oxen which drive the capstan. It pumps water to the Dragonskull traders’ post. Sometimes when the bulls die, ’tis only Thrules who drive it. Their oasis at Dragonskull dried up long ago, and some engineer had the clever idea to pump water from this oasis, which is as you see.”

Vetra rubbed his jaw, frowning reflectively. Like the spokes of a radiating wheel had the oxen been stationed. Where one of the yokes was empty, a great plank of wood had been strapped to outfit what looked ten Thrules to take the brute beast’s place. He saw the Thrules had taken axes to the chained shackles that held their remaining brothers.

He shook his head in marvel. His lip pressed in a grim line.

Some of the mystery of the water’s propulsion was dissipated in the course of his intense scrutiny. Gravity more or less pulled the water down the stone pipe toward Dragonskull. It was just a matter of getting the flow started, which the great pump with the wheel powered by the bullocks, provided.

Vetra caught the glint of vats and screens by the oasis shore. A thin tributary pipe drew water from the sparkling waters. The pump also served a parallel purpose: to draw out emerald-speckled water which when dried, left a precious Thorian residue. Slune the wizard-alchemist had long ago discovered such sediments could manufacture the hardest steel.

Vetra and Lehundr crouched, studying the proceedings below from the nearby hill, squinting eyes against the glare of the sinking sun. “The way I see it, we have to get by this pump site to get to your tomb or dragon fort, but this ravine below us makes it treacherous. If we can skirt its edge maybe, slip by them without—”

A sudden sound of a rock tumbling down the hill had him whirling toward the bushes behind him. Five dark-robed Thrules scrambled out of the cacti grove, training crossbows at them.

“Down!” One motioned with his weapon to Vetra and Lehundr. “Move. Now!—down the slope! No tricks!”

The offender was a young bowman, of more than average height who he sized up in a glance. His swarthy features and thin hooked nose shadowed behind a hood. Fingers twitched on a mechanical trigger bar.

Vetra knew they would riddle him full of bolts before he could take two steps to cut them down. With a rumbling oath, he jerked about and made his way down the crumbling slope. White-knuckled, he gripped his sword. That they let him keep it was a sign of inexperience. Lehundr scrambled behind. The other Thrules snatched up the reins of their ponies and led them down toward the encampment, prodding them with the ends of their bows. One nudged Vetra a little too forcefully in the back with the end of his crossbow and Vetra turned snarling, swatting the weapon aside with a sputter of rage. The bolt flew wide. The other Thrules came running, sending Lehundr sprawling forward.

“Down!” they cried. The lead Thrule, sweating and quivering in rancour at Vetra’s truculent manner, pushed and prodded him on, while two others stepped in beside him, bows trained at his midsection. One Thrule tried to tear the sword from Vetra’s iron grip, and the mercenary laughed at his pathetic attempt. That they hadn’t riddled him full of bolts meant they wanted to keep the prisoners alive, probably because Lehundr himself was half Thrule. He pegged his young captor: unschooled and without seasoning, a new recruit whose heart was probably hammering in his chest.

He let itchy fingers play on the hilt of his sword. The chance that he could gain advantage in this situation was slim; reluctantly he forewent a quick skirmish. Not the right moment…

Surprised shouts came drifting from below. The captain of the troop came marching up, curses thick on his lips at intruders who dared approach the wheel. The lead bowman ordered the five who held Vetra captive to a halt.

Vetra saw some gripped falchions in their hands, others short curved blades with ends wider than their middles. No taller than chest-height, these Thrules had polished boomerangs strapped in small packs on their backs. Their loose hoods showed only their eyes and mouths; their bare hands, browned by desert sun. Plump ponies laden with supplies stood a pebble’s toss away near the bullock ring, swishing tails to keep away the flies.

Vetra thought hard how he was going to outwit these men. Lehundr, rigid as a board, uttered no word, but his black eyes darted wildly about and passed over Vetra with meaningful fervour. He and Lehundr exchanged conspiratorial glances.

As the leader approached, a great cry went up amongst the Thrules. Vetra could only assume they thought that more of the enemy Behundrians had been caught spying.

He noticed the relaxed stance of the bowmen, and the weapons slackened in their hands. At the moment of the first cry, he made his move. With an instinctive ferocity, he struck. Fists and hilt flew out, then he ducked in a protective crouch. The Thrule next to him dropped like a stone.

Bows came up. His Thrule captor gave a choked cry.

Vetra pulled the body of the nearest bowman toward himself. The struggling Thrule took the other’s bolt square in the chest.

Vetra threw the body aside while Lehundr stumbled in a limping dash toward his pony. He seized its reins as the bolt of a Thrule whizzed mere inches from his ear.

Vetra grunted. He sprinted to take out the next man between him and his horse. Blades came up to lock in feverish clangour with a competent Thrule, dancing on his sandaled feet. The robed man swirled close to his back, ready to arc a murderous backhand sweep across Vetra’s throat. But Vetra twisted around him and lifted a knee to plunge his boot in the small of his back. He pushed savagely to send him rolling down the slope. Vetra threw himself to the ground, while bolts sped overhead to smash into the foliage.

“Stop this madness!” a booming voice roared over the clangour and thunk of bolts. The commanding figure of the voice pushed aside one of the aggressors while wrenching the weapon out of the young Thrule’s hand that was trained on Vetra. He rounded fiercely upon the mercenary. “You look like no friends of Behundrians.”

Vetra snorted. “You think? Maybe we’re dragons then? Out to spit fire at you and burn up your water—an ugly sod of an outlander and a half Thrule? Dergath weeps. Muzzle your dogs!”

Something in Vetra’s sarcasm caused the other to pause and scowl. “Who are you then?”

“I’m Vetravincus. This is Lehundr. I’m a trader and a sometimes mercenary.”

“Well, what do you do here? This is sacred land. Don’t you know it is a time of war?”

“That we know. We heard it all the way back in Dragonskull.” He spat out a gob of phlegm. “We came in search of—”

“What he means to say,” interrupted Lehundr quickly, “is that we are prospectors—in search of new lodes of silver and iron. You’ll see our tools on my pony, picks and screens, and more strapped to our packbeast.”

“Is that so? Then I expect if I search your belongings, I’ll find more of these gold-hunters’s wares?” He strode over toward the mounts. “Zren, Yuel, Munan, go search—” he jerked his head.

The surly youth who had escorted Vetra originally pushed past the two other Thrules, thumbing his thin, hooked nose to rifle through the packs strapped on the packbeast. One jolted under his touch and he cursed it, but he jerked back with a sharp cry as a lithe form came springing out of the large bag, bowling him over. She sprang back, her hair matted with sweat, wielding a crude knife and a strange knout, with wicked metal barbs.

His cry rang with choked surprise as steel gleamed in her hands.

The others poised ready to attack. Jhara stood with her legs braced, blinking in the sun, eyeing the three, hooded foes who circled her with curled lips. Her face creased in wary appraisal, then amusement, crouching on the balls of her feet like a she-cat.

The younger Thrule came at her, underestimating her puny weaponry. “Come to me, birdie!” She round-house kicked him in the head. He fell with a crunch, clutching at his head, moaning.

The other came in, swinging high a curved blade.

She grunted and ducked, elbows out, fists clenched and landed a fierce punch. Springing up from her crouch, she was ready to lash into flesh. The young one was rising to his feet, shaking his head and groaning.

“Is that all you got?” she taunted him. One hand clutched tightly on her curled dagger that gleamed in the noonday sun. The dangling whip in the other traced shimmering circles and drew blood and bits of skin. Already it had snagged black cloth and blood was flowing from it.

Vetra could not hold back a strange surge of admiration for this spunky girl, in spite of his surprise.

“Stealing young girls now, are we?” grunted the Thrule leader, disgust clear on his face.

“I had no knowledge of her,” Vetra sneered, miffed at the chief’s quizzical and cold stare.

Creeping like cats, many Thrules moved to surround Vetra. Others blocked the girl’s path and Lehundr’s prancing feet found no avenue of escape. Vetra drew his blade in fierce reprisal. Snarling through his teeth, he stood bent-kneed and dared any to take him.

Lehundr gibbered attestations in Vetra’s defence, but to no avail. “He speaks truth. I came with him from Dragonskull, escaping the persecutions of Behundrian thugs.”

“Do not listen to them, Zaln,” hissed the young Thrule guard who had prodded Vetra down the hill. “Ulra lies dead with a bolt through his chest because of these pigs’ aggression.”

“No thanks to your stupidity in holding us under crossbow threat,” growled Vetra.

Zaln, the Thrule leader, paused, nodding silently to his scout. He turned to Lehundr. “And we should listen to you now, why? Because you lied to us earlier? Coming from a half Thrule, this means nothing. Take them!”

“Peace!” uttered the girl. “They all speak the truth. I emptied out their cargo bag and stowed away in it when they were swilling ale at the stables. Nothing more. They had nothing to do with me and are not ‘women stealers’. I merely wanted to follow them—this rogue in particular.” She waved her bloody whip at Vetra.

The leader frowned incredulously. “And why should you do that?”

“Because this big ox helped save my brother…and because of the map.”

“Map? What map?” Zaln growled.

“Stupid girl!” yowled Lehundr. “Shut your mouth or I’ll—”

“No, you’ll do nothing—so hold your tongue, half Thrule!” Zaln ordered his men to keep the half Thrule constrained, who had rushed over to the girl’s mount.

“I ask you again, what do you do here at the Ring of Pain?”

“It is as we have said,” muttered Lehundr stubbornly. “Prospectors.”

The leader sneered explosively. “A girl who fights with knives and scourge, and a limping, lying half Thrule and a sullen mercenary? I doubt it. I hardly think the word ‘prospectors’ applies to you. What’s your game?”

“Let it go, Lehundr,” sighed Vetra. “Sometimes it’s better to tell the truth.”

“But—”

Vetra waved him off. He pushed past the scowling Thrules, ignoring the wicked crossbows trained at him. He pulled up Lehundr’s caftan and exposed the vest beneath. “Because of this, we are here: an ancient roadmap. It shows where the secret hoard of the Dragon-lords is.” There was a leaden pause as dull murmurs passed through the awed group. “It could mean immense riches. Not that we’re expecting anything,” added Vetra with a cryptic grin. “The reality is there’s no way we’re getting past armed men, or your own patrols and camps. That’s why we were skulking so close, and that ravine is not helping. It will be seething here by sundown with avengers from Dragonskull. Either you help us, or let us go.”

“How be we just kill you?” piped up Zren like a surly badger. “Like we did these Behundrians, and take the map for our own?”

“And be just as treacherous and base as your enemies!” cried Vetra with comic irony. “That’s exactly what the Bethundrians tried to do.”

“Cool your head, Zren. You’re much too hot under the hood. I’m in charge here,” murmured Zaln. “Nothing is decided yet.”

“Perhaps you could help us?” suggested Vetra, half sarcastically to the young Thrule. “Unless you’re all just as shifty and treacherous as that blackguard Cthan and his Behundrian scum at the outpost? I don’t think you’re as cold-blooded as that snake and his cronies like Rafa, otherwise your whole rebellion is just a sham here, a web of hypocrisy.”

“You do not know all,” said Zaln through clenched teeth. “We defend what is ours.”

“You broke the pipe they made,” argued Vetra. “You incited their wrath. Don’t you expect retaliation?” he growled.

The leader turned on him, bristling. “They kidnap our women. They sell us and use us as slaves. They breed us for more slaves to work for the cruel lords of the east—Eustan, Daranthia, Gattrland and other parts. You do not know all, outlander. So, do not judge us through the eyes of your own biases.”

Vetra frowned, licking his lips. “It seems Cthan has severely misrepresented your cause.”

The leader spat a contemptible wad of phlegm. “Cthan is no more than a lying desert tyrant and double-talking torturer. He promised us our lands back under the last treaty—that we may pasture our goats and llamas upon the lush oases. He waves instead a charter of forged signatures in front of our noses, saying that we all agree to forfeit our lands to his prospectors and overlords.”

The Thrule chief’s eyes flickered with fury, but then he pulled back his hood to reveal wisps of long steely grey hair. His eyes softened into wide pools as he crept closer to examine Lehundr’s map. “Maybe. Can it be…? Yes. It must.” He traced his gnarled fingers across the ancient fabric. “This looks more like the inner sanctum of the old temple, that of the ancient Dhraken. A tomb of exotic mystery.”

“It is,” assured Lehundr with triumph.

“There—” he stabbed a finger “—the key in the tomb.” His eyes glazed, passed swiftly over the ancient dragon script, as if he knew the gist of that ancient dead language. “A key that would open the great fortress, Dragon Forge?…one closed for an age.”

Lehundr wagged his head furiously; a hushed whisper was on his lips.

“I don’t know if anyone’s been up to the fortress for years. ’Tis hallowed ground—”

“Some say it is cursed, but it isn’t,” Lehundr cut in. “The dragon-lords were wise; they hid their treasure from the likes of greedy and ambitious overlords.”

Zaln wasted no time in arguing. “Take captain Dunon and Gefzad along and five others. Assemble packbeasts with water bladders to head north. The rest will stay here to defend the Ring of Pain and the Oasis from our foes.”

Dunon motioned around the scattered bodies and still burning wreckage. “Are you sure we should split our forces right now? The Behundrians will be on the move soon enough.”

Zren shook his head like a wild dog. “Aye, I say we slay this rabble, take the map, and search for the treasure at a later time.”

The chief laughed sharply. “There’s enough death here today. I’m sure you can see that.”

Vetra shrugged, casting a sad look around him. As much as he despised the pesky Thrule, he had to agree with him on one point. They had enough on their plate without watering down their forces. Somewhere he had a bad feeling that these resistance fighters were living on borrowed time.

The attack came sooner than expected.

No sooner had Gefzad organized the team when the hoofs of enemy horse and camel came raising clods of dirt and the chorus of vindictive wails of men came howling like wolves. A team of camels came pouring over the rise; men were pointing and gesticulating and sabres swinging in their hands. Others loped on foot, wielding crossbows and maces.

The Thrules jolted to attention, bringing up weapons and forming ranks.

Vetra swore. “Down!”

Bolts came whizzing by. Crossbow men from the attackers were kneeling in the sand, ready to arm and shoot again. A volley of lethal iron whooshed by and thudded into date palms and Thrule flesh like the swarm of many bees.

Camels burst out of the dunes with snarls on their lips. Men atop the beasts hacked down on the surprised Thrules.

The little robed figures scrabbled on their knees, ducking strikes and stabs and hacking at the legs of the cantering camels. Thrules died under those hoofs, but three of the ornery beasts fell hamstrung, spilling their riders to the sand where they were quickly despatched with glinting, gore-flecked Thrule knives.

“Stay back! And follow my lead,” Vetra roared at Jhara.

“Fall back!” Dunon cried. “Take cover in the scrub, damn you. Use the cactii as shields! Rake them with bolts!”

In the melee Vetra recognized such rogues as Rafa and Vilivet and several other odd rough-looking characters from the depot—the bullies and cutthroats who ran the town.

Vilivet snarled, spittle flecking from his fleshy lips: “It’s that damn bitch from the market,” he cried, “the same whose brother has been stealing from our honest merchants. Get her! She carved up a bunch of Rafa’s men.”

Cthan and his men cursed gustily, made the quick leap that Vetra and the girl had joined ranks with the rebels, seeing him rubbing shoulders with Zaln and Lehundr.

A cry came from a sandy-haired ruffian waving a broadsword with leather helm flapping down his cheeks. “Aye, and it’s that meddlesome outlander. Take him alive! I want him alive.”

Vetra gave back an insulting roar. “Only in hell’s last inferno will you take me alive.”

They charged into the Thrule huddle. Vetra and the others scattered. Jhara scrambled forward to grab a sabre from a fallen camel rider. Cthan rose in his stirrups and looped back with a snarl, smashing down sabre to send a Thrule running alongside to oblivion. “First the Thrule leader, you jackleg fools,” he bellowed. “The girl’ll be spreadeagled on a mattress before long.” He arched out a swinging strike and ran a Thrule through the mouth who scrambled beside his camel. “We’re here to slay the oasis robbers, not some ragbag trio of thieves.”

Cthan pushed his camel through the defenders. The Thrule charge had lost its momentum and the sheriff mowed down Thrules like wheat. His sword raged up and down taking cuts and parries, hewing crimson bodies with it. Bolts whipped around him. Two of his henchmen fell from their beasts pierced through the hearts, but not him. Rafa at one side rode one-eyed with a patch over his left eye. His sleek roan bucked and snorted in battle lust. The sands bloomed red. Footmen of the oncoming host chopped and stabbed down at bodies that lay twitching and bleeding.

Jhara wielded the two-foot sabre two-handed. She blocked a cut, ducked, and a Behundrian’s whistling blade glanced off her forearm, drawing a thin line of blood. She wailed, and momentarily shrank back.

“That young slut with him is an accomplice. Take her! She’s a dervish with knives.”

Vetra, fighting whistling cuts of his own, smote alongside her, shouldered his weight in to block the slash that would have surely taken off her head. He jerked a hard, disembowelling thrust that lay the Behundrian attacker howling in his own blood and entrails.

Lehundr gasped and flailed with awkward mobility. He stumbled on his branded left leg. He struggled in an arm lock with a Dragonskull guard who tried to twist the short blade from his hand. Thrules came clambering up and plunged their knives into the aggressor’s back, and Lehundr rolled free.

Vetra winced as a glancing blow from the flat end of a Behundrian’s sword laid open a gash in his scalp. He shook the blood out of his eyes. He and his allies were hopelessly outnumbered and it looked as if they were all dead men. Like it or not, he was caught in a war which he wished no part of. In his dim vision, he caught a glimpse of the immobile Ring of Pain and the raging beasts trying to escape, terrorized by the stench of blood.

It gave him an idea, albeit a risky one. He staggered to the ring, spurred by his sudden inspiration. The bulls were pawing at the dirt, snorting, ready to tear the whole harness and hitch off their heads if they must. With vicious hacks of his blade Vetra loosed the first yoke and the bulls stormed out, razor-curled horns lowered in offense. They shook their heads and bellowed while Vetra hewed the yokes off two more of them.

These were wild bulls, chosen for their powerful pulling ability and their dogged endurance to withstand the extreme heat of the Behundrian wastes. The dreaded bullocks were mean creatures in their own right with eight inch horns and powerful hindquarters. They went mad, kicking hind legs and rearing with foam on their muzzles, drunk with the delight of freedom.

Four more Vetra freed, and he leapt aside to avoid their goring horns and trampling hooves. He roared at Jhara to get down. She narrowly jerked aside in time, as a raging, bucking beast fled by and aimed straight for the warring Behundrians. Four more beasts were stampeding their way into the Behundrian fray, mowing down Thrules who could not get out of the way fast enough. In a bloodlust frenzy, the bulls’ natural instincts to gore and trample was whetted.

Smashing horns into camels, the beasts ploughed on like battering rams, toppling anything in sight. They were unstoppable. Men fell shrieking, dying, gored and bowled over only to be trampled by the hoofs or the wild rush of the camels.

Bolts flew and felled two of the monsters. But not before other bulls had broken through and done significant damage. A dozen camels had been gored or lay groaning in streaming, blood-drenched heaps.

Two younger bulls fled into the scrub, bloodied and rearing with wrath, while the remaining three beasts, still caught in the fray, kept heads down and charged anything in their path.

Cthan’s camel, impaled by horns, lay in a twitching heap, bleeding out in the sand, while both human and bullock trampled over its belly and the other corpses littering the sandy plain.

Vetra’s steel split the skull of a charging Behundrian. He turned in time to clash swords with Cthan who came charging at him like a bull. The sheriff’s strength was phenomenal, uncanny in the suffocating heat and the stench of blood as the fighters struggled in a death dance. Their leg muscles knotted, swords quivering in deadlock over their heads. The near bald giant heaved Vetra back and he staggered away from the broken length of pipe. Vetra looked up as in a dream, dwarfed under the shadow of the dragon-lord statue tipping his cup in mocking salute. He shook the haze from his head and parried Cthan’s strikes as his obstinate enemy came in again, roaring a curse. The strident clang of their swords resounded but was lost in the noise of the jostling bodies and dying shrieks of men who slashed and hewed, oblivious to the baying and bleating of brute beasts and the roar of battle and thunk of their horns as they found flesh.

In a sudden burst of volcanic strength, Vetra plunged forth and forced back Cthan’s advance. A surprised grimace fled over the villain’s face. Wide-eyed, he careened back, but with a grotesque laugh. He was actually enjoying this, wallowing in blood! Vetra thought with amazement.

“So, you have some fight in you after all, outland scum. Thank the gods! I thought you were just a spineless imp like the Thrules.”

“Come and find out,” spat Vetra. He twisted sideways and lashed out, kicked the sheriff and sent him reeling backward into a ghastly pile of dead bodies. The sheriff sprang to his feet and Vetra lunged in to run the lawman through, put steel through his gullet. But one of Cthan’s men edged in, brushing aside the mercenary’s stroke and raised steel for his own mortal strike. Denied vengeance on the sheriff, Vetra bellowed. He wormed forward, breaking half the protector’s teeth with a jabbing elbow before running him through to the heart, blade standing out of the back of his chest like a spike. The glaze-eyed figure fell and Vetra pulled the dripping steel free with a snarl. He kicked the corpse away, blocking in time to parry Cthan’s follow-up thrust.

Two Thrules came smashing in to send Cthan staggering. A group of Behundrians joined the fray. A seethe and roil of bodies made it difficult to make sense of who was friend and who was foe, as the fighters were swept away in a tide as a dying camel crashed headlong into the attackers. Vetra plunged his blade into a man’s back, wrenching his sword free in a gush of blood. Taking deep breaths, he crouched, looking about. Nearby Lehundr defended against Rafa’s whirlwind of blades, beaten back mercilessly like a scarecrow.

The Dragonskull thug yelled, “I’ll see you in hell, half Thrule! You’ll give me that cursed map now, or I’ll peel each layer of skin from your sorry hide and stuff them down your throat! You’ll beg me for mercy to kill you.”

Despite his loss of an eye, the gang leader was about to carve Lehundr to pieces, when silent and deadly as a viper, a thong laid into his side and he jerked around with a gasp. Jhara savagely pulled the weapon free with its flap of flesh. Holding his ribs, Rafa screeched and doubled over and Lehundr kicked him away, his sword barely moving up in time to block the thrust of another bloody shaft as one of Rafa’s bravos came chopping down at him in blind fury.

It was a fierce free-for-all in every sense of the word, where only the rules of the wasteland prevailed. The Thrules, disorganized and disheartened and weaving in and out of the chaotic skirmish like rabbits, were fading fast. The wreckage and slumped bodies were appalling, and without any leadership or direction, the defenders fled in terror.

“Retreat! Into the brush,” shouted Vetra over the mad slaughter. “There are too many of them.”

Some heeded his advice while others kept on fighting. Those who backed their chief Zaln, parried and blocked sabre blows, but were quickly surrounded by howling enemy and put to the sword.

“Fools! They will die in vain,” grunted Vetra. “Why don’t they pull back, hack their way through?” Rage and frustration soured his blood lust. “All for some water, and futile moments of holding a doomed position?”

Gefzad cried through his teeth, “We gain victory over an age-old enemy!”

“You die in your glory! Quick!” he pulled at Jhara and shouldered Lehundr back toward the hill. “We must get to cover. We will fight them in the scrublands—on our own terms!” They cut their way through Cthan’s scattered flanks.

Up the hill they scrambled—the same from whence they came. The crash of camels thundered after them.

Dunon saw the practicality of the mercenary’s plan and hurried after, though he was torn by the image of his chief who fought a valiant fight, a last stand, but for a lost cause. Grimly, with a bolt shivering close to his ear, he put a hand to a jagged cut on his forehead and clambered after Vetra, Jhara and the others, dodging missiles while Gefzad and others stumbled at his heels.

What others of the miserable Thrule band scrambled after, Vetra did not know, for he was clearing a path up the hill through bush and stump. But a band of blood-dripping Behundrians joined in pursuit.

 

III: Road to Nowhere

 

The whine of bolts and savage cries rang long after their headlong escape. Doggedly, Vetra and company weaved their way through stump and scrub bush, in an attempt to lose their pursuers.

Vetra pushed on, panting raggedly, blazing a trail for his allies along the thicketed ridge, hacking spiky fronds and low desert thorn. How he hated to be chased like a wounded animal, but this was the reality of the day. They had been hopelessly outnumbered. The fact that any of them were still alive was testament to their combined skill. The sounds of pursuit faded. He moved amongst the company, taking a head count and scanning for injuries..

Lehundr was cut and scratched and his limp had gotten worse. Jhara looked battered and sore, flexing the fingers of her left hand whose wrist bore a raw wound, but she held her head high, her fierce pride shining through. The ragtag of Thrule infantry were in no better shape, scrabbling and gasping with wounds, cuts and injured pride. One’s arm was broken, others were torn, dishevelled, bleeding and dedhydrated from battle and the harrowing escape. Twenty eight of them stood sullen and bedraggled amidst the foliage, dragging two packbeasts laden with gear. Zren the truculent bowman, scowled and cursed and whipped his sword about, shredding cactii. Dunon and Besu conversed in animated tones, spittle dribbling from their lips. Aus, a squad leader and his aide Gefzad kept eyes trained on the hillside, while the magician-priest, who Vetra learned was Samos, twirled his stave and muttered chants to his amulets. Vetra reflected sourly that his magic had done little to protect the beleaguered rebels. Amongst the dust-bitten Thrules, there were maybe a dozen bowmen, all additionally armed with swords or knives.

From his cacti-strewn dune, Vetra and the others crouched on their hands and knees. They gazed forlornly through a screen of juniper at the corpse-littered battle plain below. The party of Behundrians that had been sent out to kill them returned and gesticulated to their leader, the bald-headed Cthan and the sword-wielding Dragonskull constabulary. The Behundrians, washed in blood and grime, assessed the gushing rent in the pipe, and knelt to repair it with what tools they had brought with them.

“They don’t know where we are,” whispered Dunon with gratification.

“They will soon,” grunted Vetra. “Look.”

“’Tis Zaln!” cursed Aus.

They had stripped and beaten the Thrule leader, who those on the hill recognized only by his ragged wisps of grey hair.

“They will torture your leader before long, who will tell them of your strategies, secrets and hidden lairs.”

“He will not talk,” asserted Gefzad stubbornly.

Aus, whose hood had been torn off, gave fierce acknowledgement of his comrade’s avowal. His hair was matted with blood and Vetra could see his teeth gleaming white in the sun.

“They’ll make him,” assured Vetra grimly.

Dunon looked away. He was a man grown old and weary from too many desert feuds.

“We’ll travel together toward the canyons of shadows, in the vale of Zabenzar,” he said soberly. “Let me see this map again.” He lifted Lehundr’s desert robe. “Aye, see the eagle’s croft on this left tear above the dragon head? Only on the bluffs could be where tombs lie. They must have been looted or destroyed by tomb robbers by now.”

“We will travel as a group and hope they are intact,” agreed Besu. He was one of the taller, leaner members of the Thrule company. “Well, by Besthra! We might as well head for this ridge to get to the key. It was Zaln’s last wish that we set forth. With such treasure we will be able to buy an army and crush Cthan and his rogues. The dragon treasure is to be discovered by Thrules, not Behundrians.”

Vetra grinned at the snarl that spilled from Lehundr’s lips. Evidently the half Thrule resented the prospect of splitting a treasure multiple ways.

Aus clicked his tongue sceptically. “There hasn’t been a jackleg prospector come through Dragonskull that tried to discover the treasure and succeeded.”

“But this time there’s a map,” said Besu.

“But likely a fable too,” asserted Samos the priest-shaman. His bone-carved femur-staff bobbed in his hand while magical amulets draped on gut-cord around his neck jiggled with his every motion.

“If we don’t try,” Jhara said quickly, “then nothing is to be gained.”

The Thrules looked at her with surprise. Some peered with something of envy at her sleek, toned body which was glitter for the eyes; the swell of her high breasts pressed appealingly through her tattered jerkin and she held herself erect like a young barbaric queen.

For some reason, her words affected the Thrules in a curious way. There was a fierce note of passion in her voice, and her confidence was such that stirred the dispirited hearts of these Thrules who were too used to persecution and failure.

“Best we get as much distance from those vengeful Behundrians as possible,” advised Vetra. His warning glance was enough at the Thrules who gazed too long on Jhara. Two had limped over to rummage amongst the supplies strapped to the packbeasts. Vetra and Dunon joined to take inventory. They had dried food and grains for a few days, several bladders of water that had not been slashed by the leaping, looting and howling Behundrians and various other necessities: pots, loops of rope, torches, wineskins, blankets and weapons.

Dunon pointed ahead to the waves shimmering in the heat. “East along the ridge then. The eagle ridge is north of here. First break in this ravine we take! We cannot reach it today, but maybe tomorrow.”

“Then let us move, lest those fiends rout us out or try to flank us,” advised Vetra.

They followed a series of wild goat paths along the ridge before the desert scrub broke and gave way into a flatlands. The road, the Great Highway, ran straight as an arrow and the last shoulder of ridge rose up from the sands to grant views of both sides, particularly the shallow bowl north and into the land of desolation.

Vetra marvelled at the vast, breathtaking solitude of the windswept terrain. Nothing but animal paths, red dirt, tumbleweed, the odd cluster of towering cactii or gum tree. Ridges sprawled in the distances in a sinking haze of twilight.

The east-west road wound to their right like a ribbon of glinting silver. It branched north.

On Dunon’s advice, the pack followed the lesser road north. After an hour’s brisk slog up the valley, the sun was a flaming copper ball sinking on the horizon. They had not ventured a league when signs of human activity became apparent. The pack drew back, crouching under a stand of withered eucalyptus whose shadow cast a dusky blanket over the hot sand.

Enemy soldiers wearing helms and glinting mail bore falchions and crossbows. They walked the perimeter like lords. A fence surrounded the compound with broken posts in places, but these had been stitched over time with wire.

Black smoke swirled about wreckage and bodies. Corpses, mostly Thrule, lay broken and mangled, pecked by vultures which clustered upon the sand dunes.

Dunon, Gefzad and the others crouched restlessly in the desert scrub, grimacing in hate.

The soldiers had irreverently set up a camp around the huge, chipped and worn dragon statue that marked yet another sacred oasis of the Thrules. It was a small Thorian mine too. The water was pumped by means not dissimilar to the last pump site, similar machinery used to control the working beasts that hauled the ore. A tall wood-framed rig towered thirty feet high on a small mound, with thick ropes looped over its summit that a dozen oxen pulled through a clever pulley system: an operation designed to filter the ore dug from the ground while camels lugged wheeled drays nearby to transport the Thorian ore out to Dragonskull or elsewhere.

Samos gazed sourly upon the enterprise. “The Behundrians blaspheme the old ones, by corrupting this site. You see, outlander, how they take our water? The dragon lords used this water for sacred purposes to lave their holy ornaments and purify their bodies. Much of the ritual is lost in time and beyond our knowledge. We revere these waters, for they are life-giving. The spirit of the dragon-lords though deceased, gave us permission to use the lands that were once theirs. So it was said in dream quests by our shamans.”

Vetra frowned at such ceremonious mystique. He had not much to say about such glorified devotion, so deigned no comment.

Gefzad, as if he sensing the mercenary’s critical attitude toward their reverence, growled his endorsement. “They drain our oases! It’s our water. We were here first. The Behundrians forbid us to use our own water, for their greedy purposes. Can you not see our frustration? Can you not fathom our hate, anger, and why we revolt and take command of the pipe heads?”

Zren had shambled forth, like a moth to the flame of confrontation. His eyes burned on Vetra, who, though now unofficially an ally, he had no love for.

Vetra rubbed his cheek with a reflective scowl. He surveyed the pumps and the water gushing from the open-mouthed pipe, and the three-score armed guards with their spired helms and plumes who moved about with an air of lordly arrogance.

Smoke billowed up over the low-lying trees to the east. Vetra frowned. Another mine? Doubtless the smoking ruin was that of a site that had been attacked and overrun by invading Thrules, if Cthan’s informants were to be trusted. Such signs meant that Cthan and his vigilantes would be coming to avenge the mine’s capture. Whether they would venture on and track their steps and attack from the rear was another matter. Vetra recalled the wild look of vindictive fury on the sheriff’s face while he battled him tooth and nail, also his boasts back at the trader’s post that he would end the Thrule’s little rebellion once and for all. He doubted much he was a man who would give up his vindictive duty.

“Let us storm in and attack the soldiers,” suggested Lehundr adamantly. Vetra caught the sly look in his eye, as if it were a covert way to ditch the headstrong Thrules and secretly make off to the tomb.

“Best not rile them,” advised Besu. “We are tired and wounded. The eagle ridge lies yonder.” He gestured beyond the guarded mine.

“They have killed our people!” raged Gefzad.

Samos silenced the argument with a jerk of his stave and an imperial rattle of his neck amulet.

Slinking amongst pulpy flowering aloe vera, they skirted the miners’ camp, Vetra leading Lehundr and Jhara, masking the jingle of their weapons.

A wild, angry shout went up in the compound. A glint off a Thrule sword had betrayed them.

Vetra gave a scathing curse. They burst out of their hiding place, crouching low to the ground. Bolts came spraying from the fenceline as bowmen who stood on their high perches took aim. There was a loud thunk and a groaning Thrule fell flat, throwing his hands up, a chunk of iron through his back. Seeing the skulkers fleeing like dogs, the defenders of the mine sent horsemen out to ride them down.

The packbeasts ran amok and some of the retreating Thrules halted, knelt and took aim. One bolt caught a rider in the throat and he tumbled from his mount gurgling, clutching at his neck. His body lay splayed in the red dirt. Two others came crashing with their black steeds through the knot of scrambling Thrules, and more Thrules fell.

Vetra and Besu came rushing in and struck up at the horseman. Besu hacked from one side while Vetra ran his blade in a fierce uppercut and caught an exposed leg. The rider screeched and bent over, gurgling in pain, his upper thigh streaming blood.

Jhara had the foresight to snatch the reins of the terrified horse. Any extra mount would give the rebels advantage.

The last rider kneed his horse round upon seeing the quick deaths of his peers, then turned in a cowardly retreat, deciding that the small band was not worth dying for.

“Into the scrub, before they send more riders after us!” screamed Aus.

“Frightened sheep,” cried Dunon, shaking a fist.

“Never mind them,” Vetra growled. Though his brows lifted in irony, thinking that from the enemy’s perspective they too were little more than cowards.

No retaliation came from the guarded complex. Too few of an enemy for the Behundrians to make the effort. The Thrules gathered themselves in a knot, death hovering over them like a black cloud.

Vetra wiped the sweat from his face. “A bad turn of luck. We lost five back there. The Behundrians spotted us. Now they have an indication of our presence, and may come after us, if they think us a serious threat.”

“Easier now they know the direction we are heading.”

“And the packbeasts have fled,” stated Besu sourly.

“We will find them,” assured Aus.

“Our pal Cthan will come seeking revenge for the loss of the mines,” panted Dunon.

“Are you forgetting the havoc you created back at the pipe?” questioned Vetra incredulously. “They would have to split their forces to repair the pump and defend it while coming after us.”

Reluctantly, the Thrules left the bodies where they were and melted into the wild foliage ahead of them, a low-shrubbed panorama that formed a vast net to the north. The scrub thinned; they moved from island to island of sand, along worn trails between strands of brush.

A keen-eyed scout, following a trail of broken vegetation and hoofprints, caught sight of a swish of tail, and he gave a muffled shout. Vetra caught a glimpse of two beasts wandering aimlessly. A moment later a group of Thrules came bursting out of the shrubbery to retake the packbeasts. To their relief the supplies were intact.

Twilight was almost upon them. They had many leagues to cover before an organized pursuit caught up with them.

Besu, the old Thrule, suggested they find a place to camp.

On Vetra’s lead they crossed a low ridge, thus placing more distance between them and the enemy who guarded the mine.

A soft blue haze hung over the gumtrees and cypress, casting the lands in shadows. Samos, versed in such things, selected a cleared area, protected by spirits and barred on the east by tall gumtrees to camp for the night.

They unpacked their supplies and tended to the wounds of their company, wrapping cloth around bloody arms and cut thighs, disinfected scratches and gashes with dampened cloth sprinkled with herbs and potent grasses that Aus and Samos had gathered.

The tenting gear was unravelled and laid out on a flat sandy area near the trees. The extra horse Jhara tethered to the tall gumtrees by the packbeasts. Both hung their heads in gloom and swatted tails at the last few flies that buzzed in the dusk-laden air. There was some argument over whether they should light a fire. In the end, they decided in favour, Dunon believing the Dragonskull men would not venture out for a night attack, or face the hazards of the desert at this hour. His feeling was the Behundrians had suffered enough losses, and had not the Thrules’ instinct or skill of surviving the desert. A watch was posted on the hills, to look for any sign of invading enemies.

Several Thrules under Samos’ direction laid stones down around the campsite while the magician sprinkled drops of water in the four directions, North, South, East and West—an offering for protection, as was Thrule custom—for water, precious as it was, was the life-blood of the desert gods. The Thrule magician, sinister in his jingling, bone-sewn garb and his mud-caked hair, dug an inch-wide trench and poured sparing drops in ritual fashion from his canteen. A long flexible sapling was arched over to create a crude portal under which everyone ducked to cross the trench and enter the campground.

By a small fire they dared to cook broad beans and mutton, while others created crude lean-to style shelters, with hides and blankets strung overtop, using the trees as braces.

Losses had been heavy and despite the lack of gaiety amongst this group, they sat around the glowing embers, humming folk songs and staring into the gloom.

Dunon raised his hands for attention and gave encouragement to their flagging spirits: “Stand tall, you doom-mongers! A score of us are left, so let us be happy for that. We have survived an onslaught and where others fell, we live and should rejoice at our fortune. Do not forget that we are Thrules and hold the map to gain us Dragon Forge!”

Vetra lips curved in a smile and he saw Lehundr squirm in his seat on the fallen log. Jhara squinted in boredom.

Murmurs of approval passed amongst the surviving Thrules. Only a few retained their solemn and gloomy faces, amongst them Zren who did not feel uplifted in any way by the lecture.

The discovery of the map had prompted a lighter mood, many wishing to forget the death of Zaln, their leader. Camaraderie and a united purpose made the Thrules come alive while the night deepened and the whine of night insects grew. Even Dunon believed they had lost pursuers and no enemy roamed within leagues of their hidden camp.

Some wineskins were passed around, and the stiff kick of the desert mead burned hot trails down their throats. They did not stint on it. Before long, tongues were loosened and feet and hands began to move.

The half moon was already a golden globe rising over the low ridges and the desert glowed with an eerie light. Akin to the gloaming on the misty downs Vetra recalled, of his native Tolizia. One brought out a small batttered zither from a saddlebag and strummed a few tentative, plaintive chords. Soon others joined up in a refrain and a slow dance. Men soon were whirling in high-kicking dances, toe to toe. Vetra wondered what it was like when their women were with them.

He gazed around him. These nomads were people who were always prepared for transit, in grief or celebration, with ponies laden with supplies and cured hides quick to become rude shelter or whisked back on a pony when enemies came upon them. The nomad’s life was one that few dreamed of, sleeping under the stars, moving from place to place, locked in an endless movement of caravan and packbeast, seeking out food and shelter, water and safety, never having any designated place to call home.

Vetra smiled gamely. How was he any different? The last time he had stayed more than three days in any one place had been back in Trallgate and that had been brief, on recalling the altercation with Rufus the smuggler and the scandal with a certain noble’s daughter. He frowned and brushed the memory aside. True to form, here he was in a band of vagabonds in the middle of a war…

Vetra sat like a carven idol, grim and moody in his restless thoughts while the Thrules and their blood-grimed companions drank. His eyes roved constantly in the desert, alert for shadows and movement where every clump and bush looked like some cutthroat creeping from the wilds ready to leap out and hack out his throat. He sighed. His muscled strength lay dormant under the tattered, grimy desert garb of his, but he was ready to uncoil at the slightest sound of danger. Such wariness had kept him alive for more years than he could remember…

Jhara had come to sit by him and he shifted with grudging welcome. His eyes stared moodily into the fire and off into the moonlit knolls.

Jhara’s voice intruded on the peace. “So many weak men in Dragonskull. You are strong and noble.”

Vetra grunted. “If you want noble, think of Bekr the Berserker. He fought the Brusites across the Rouge banks at Brine-Halt at the cost of their own lives.”

The girl chuckled and clicked her tongue. “You were noble enough to save my brother. Fight a war that is not yours. I think that’s noble.”

Vetra grumbled and rubbed his jaw. “Why do you care anyway?”

“Decent men are hard to come by these days.”

“Here, come,” he muttered. True to his word he fetched swords and positioned her in front of him, moon over his shoulder, the dying fire to one side. It was time to teach the girl some of the art of swordplay.

“Like this,” he said, coming behind her and taking the hilt and placing his hands over hers. He lifted the hilt, blade pointed down. “Watch your flanks, protect your vitals with a strong block.” He swung with authority. “Watch for feints and quick flicks—like this!—” He twisted sideways on the balls of his feet, facing her, letting shimmering steel batter her sword, nearly knocking it out of her grasp. “Develop a rhythm, girl, don’t waver—” He sped back behind her and crossed over nimbly, and she stumbled, trying to keep up with his feet that moved like those of a panther.

By Dergath, she was going to be a force to be reckoned with, he thought. But he didn’t want to let her know. He knew, give her too much praise, and somewhere it would sabotage her growth, perhaps end up getting her killed.

He remembered with a grimace his own trial-by-fire training by the old Grayhurst, master and soldier in his own right, whose bloody campaigns had been without number, and at whose hands he had faced trials at best gruelling. His father had taken Grayhurst into his company to train his son, or knock some sense into him. The many bloody bashings and thumpings he had received at that badgering hand—to ‘temper his stubborn pride’…he preferred not to remember.

She fixed him a coy glance. “Do you find me fair?”

He narrowed his gaze.

She pressed herself close to Vetra’s muscled girth. Vetra, slightly taken aback, could feel the warm pulse of the girl’s heart in a completely unexpected turn of events. Without warning she pushed her lips full on his.

Vetra loosed an explosive breath. He grabbed up the quivering girl and herded her into the bushes, much to the suprised exclamation of the Thrules. The mercenary found a cleared area not far away. He spread her on a matt of sand and leaves. Before long, the sounds of their passion rose to animal heights, raking the stillness with its primal beat.

Jhara’s langorous moans and cries of laughter burst upon the glade as she followed his muscular shoulder, along his rippling arm, to his strong hand that moved from naked thighs to buttocks.

There came a skullish face peering through the folds of foliage, then the rattling of beads and murmuring curses that spoke of outlanders soiling the protection on the very soil he had blessed with magic. The shaman lurched back on a snarl from Vetra’s lips and the mercenary’s gleaming blade flashed violently. The shaman disappeared back in the shrubs, and Vetra went back to his business, his passion undiminished. Nor the girl’s, whose pale skin gleamed in the soft moonlight streaming through the twisted branches of the gumtrees. Their passion escalated to a new rhythm in tune with the distant howls of the desert animals.

The moon rose notches higher. Two flush-faced figures finally stumbled out of the brush. The shaman was nowhere to be seen, nor was Zren. Facts which did not bother Vetra.

A feverish heat rose from Jhara’s moist skin and sultry curves, and her dark, burning eyes had the potential to enslave a man.

“The Kirns say drink helps a man overcome his fears before battle,” Vetra remarked amusedly, swaggering forth to swig a gulp from the wooden cup on the fallen log. “More the act of love, in my opinion.”

Jhara made a husky avowal.

“Keep my extra sword. You’ll need it. You’ve earned it. I’ll show you how to use it properly later.”

Her eyes lit up. “You mean it?”

“Of course, girl! You’d think I’d joke at a time like this? We are in the midst of war. Come on, let’s dance.” He grunted heartily, a sound deep in his throat and offered his arm. “That’ll get the rest of that minx-energy out of your loins. I see it has no end.”

She laughed at that and grabbed his arm and he pulled her up to the dance area, a squared section of cool sand that felt good on their bare feet. Makeshift drums were beating hypnotically. Many Thrules had joined in dancing. A lively melody, unknown to his ears had him reminiscing on days of youth in many a tavern on his journeys. He thought he had heard all the strange melodies and rhythms of the lesser-known tribes.

Vetra failed to see Zren’s burning gaze fall on him and the girl, gyrating in the heat of merriment. The Thrule’s eyes were sullen and looked with resentment that an older man, an outlander had captured the girl’s interest.

Later that evening, while the embers glowered, Zren went off to a quiet, private place to lash himself with a thorn-tipped branch and in a fever of murmurings, recount his vows, taught him by Samos the shaman, to remain pure of spirit and redeem himself of sins. To pray also to Turga, the quiet, wrathful dragon god for revenge on the shame and humiliation caused by the outlander and his female friend.

When the moon rose higher still, Vetra spoke in low tones to Jhara. “Your father did well.”

Her face fell. “He passed away a year ago, cast out of the league of protectors. He came to Dragonskull an innocent Mercian trader and died penniless. Someone murdered him. My brother Aeke and I have been on our own since.”

Vetra frowned. “You’re worried about him, aren’t you?”

“Much so, I admit. I left him with friends of mine. I hope he is well.”

“Likely he’s faring better than us,” grunted Vetra.

“If he keeps his hands off the vendors’ apples,” she muttered gloomily. “Hold me. It has been a long time since I felt the touch of a strong man.”

Though the hides spread unevenly on the ground, she came next to him and thrust her warm back against his bear-like chest. He roused with a grunt, surprised at her unfettered way of showing her need. He clasped her gently, his fingers tracing suggestive lines down her thigh, and thought with a wry breath, “Let us enjoy this interlude. Tomorrow may not bring as gentle tidings.”

 

IV: Tomb of the Ancients

 

The way to the vale of Zabenzar was cut with dry gullies and boulder-strewn ridges. A strange range of sparsely populated woodland rose up in their path—a deadlands in its own right. At one time the blackened trunks must have been healthy eucalyptus. What had killed them, Vetra did not know. Dunon suggested a blight had passed through these lands long ago. Besu, who was more knowledgeable about such matters, remarked that fires had ravaged the area, taken the trunks and hollowed out their cores. It was apparent that over the years, they had developed a resilience to fire. Miraculously some still showed green leaves in the tops. Smooth, ghostly limbs twined from stem, like withered bones of skeletons. The odd lizard darted underfoot with long tail, sliding behind one of the trees, or down a hole of one of the blackened hulks. Overhead the squawk of a desert bird came as an eerie intrusion, likewise the shadow of a circling buzzard, appearances which set a forlorn mood over the company in the sweltering heat of the noonday sun. They broke out of the trees and stood panting at the fringe to see a rugged canyon wall facing them.

“Call a halt!” grumbled Vetra, wiping sweat from his brow. It had been two days since the attack at the mines and his eyes burned like pits, squinting under the yellow glare.

“I think we’re lost,” called the old Thrule Besu at his side, slumping his bowed frame on a charred log.

“I think that landmark is familiar,” muttered Lehundr. He lifted a finger to the canyon face. “Is that not the eagle ridge crest depicted here in this hill mesa?”

Dunon stirred while Jhara hissed an excited breath.

Eyes scanned the area; indeed, the shape of the hills and its eagle-winged formation resembled a section of the ancient fabric at Lehundr’s ribs, all purple and gold, with its cryptic collection of images

“It’s the only place remotely looking like any place for a tomb,” announced Aus. “We might as well investigate.”

A trail wound up the cliff, crudely-cut in the form of a ledge into the crumbling rock.

They took it, though there were many grumbles amongst the Thrules. Like outcasts on a singular mission, they trudged up the desolate path, boots crunching on pebbles, the sun beating down on their backs.

Vetra looked over the edge. A sprawl of boulders and prickly foliage promised a quick doom should a careless person fall. He felt a queasy feeling crawling in his gut at the sight.

The trail curved around the far side of the cliff, veering away from the valley. The ravine was quiet, save for a soft sigh of wind that brushed the cliff’s sides. The path widened to twenty feet. Ahead in the narrow gully loomed two rounded boulders rising three times a man’s height, poised precariously. Both looked menacing, balanced as they were on sinister angles. Positioned to ward off intruders? Or only a natural formation?

Regardless, the boulders nearly blocked their path, only a narrow gap between them.

Samos gushed out a jabber of warnings about the cursed nature of the boulders. “They are jinxed”, he cried.

Vetra rubbed his jaw with great weariness. He had not expected such a timorous reaction from the shaman. It seemed even the Thrules were doubtful about treading here. So, an omen—likely men would avoid this way believing it was cursed. What better place to hide a tomb? Vetra allowed himself a grin. Possibly tombs that had not been rifled in these long ages… He flourished a fist. “A small team and I will go on ahead,” he ordered. “Dunon, Besu, Lehundr and Jhara.”

Zren’s red hot face pushed forth. “Why shouldn’t the rest of us go? We’ve come this far.”

“No,” grunted Vetra. “Cthan and his dogs could be marching up the valley soon to liberate the Thorian mine. I need you here to watch the valley and signal if necessary. It’s not hard for them to track us here.”

Besu nodded grimly. “Aye, better to take no chances.”

A flicker of resentment flashed in Zren’s eyes. He spat at the outlander’s feet. “Why not keep back your precious girl then?” He flung a finger at Jhara and glared enviously at her.

Vetra’s mouth curled in a sneer.

Zren capitulated, shrinking in the shadow of the mercenary.

Despite the shaman’s gibbering and amulet-waving, Dunon waved them through.

They left the packbeasts behind, and the majority of Thrules were invested with instructions to make traps, triggering piles of rock to fall down from the steep trails and defend the gap on the other side should enemies be sighted.

Jhara and the three Thrules slipped through the crack and it was all that Vetra could do to squeeze sideways between the two mammoth boulders.

He stared up the valley and turned warily to Lehundr. “I don’t like the fact that we can’t see the valley from past this barrier, with a Behundrian army on our tail…”

“Nothing we can do,” the half Thrule muttered. “As you said, we have the scouts.”

Jhara struck light-footed up the trail with inexhaustible energy.

Vetra called her back with the others. “Slow down, girl. We don’t know what dangers lie ahead.”

Jhara reluctantly dropped back.

Eagles made their nests in the low crags rising to either side of the canyon and screeched at the intrusion to their domain. The canyon was appropriately named. Vetra looked down at the rough crumble of shale and chips at his feet. He had a feeling no one had been in this corridor for hundreds of years. The whole canyon had a dead, eerie feel to it, as if it were separated from the rest of the lands and sinister eyes watched from realms unseen.

Before long a daunting cliff rose to their left. Sculpted out of the rock jutted a fearsome, weathered face in full relief. It might once have been that of a dragon with its great gaping mouth and hollowed-out eyes rising head heights above them. At one time the entrance had been sealed but the giant snout had cracked and toppled, maybe from an earthquake, leaving only a crumble of boulders at the foot, blocking out the dark path that led into the stony maw.

The three Thrules regarded it with spellstruck wonder. Besu muttered while fingering the oil lamp he had brought along. Primitive, old beyond imagining, the gateway to the tomb was awesome and mystifying—and creepy enough, thought Vetra, unable to stop the shiver that crept over his flesh.

Lehundr crawled past the boulders and made two steps into the dark interior. The four plunged after him into the darkness, Lehundr leading with bluff confidence. The entrance opened up into a small domed cavern. Vetra’s eyes widened in the gloom, his blood quickening to the echo of booted feet on smooth stone and the mysterious weight of ages.

The sprinkling of daylight from the entrance revealed a massive stone sarcophagus looming at the far end of the chamber. Besu lit the lamp with trembling fingers. Any jewels or gold which had lain strewn about the chamber had long been pillaged. The cratelike sarcophagus lay flush to the far wall and was flanked by serpent pillars. Draped in shadows under the flickering light, a hulking animal statue with a dragon’s head and leopard’s body sat watching, eyes glued ahead like an unforgiving sphinx. Vetra felt his blood pulse; he heard others’ sharp breaths as they squinted in the gloom.

The sarcophagus’s head was mantled with a carven dragon skull. At the foot stretched a stone tail into a darkened passage. All looked with dread, loath to enter that passage. Lehundr, for all his mettle, feared to tread over the vile, serpentish tail, as if it would come to life. Vetra reached down a finger tip, driving back the apprehension that inspired such irrational superstition. Cold, dead to the touch, the ancient stone was smooth carved and painted yellowish green from what weak light shone from the lamp or in from the entrance. He could not help but shudder at the thought of groping blindly and stumbling down into a crevasse or some sepulchral pit of doom.

The floor gave Vetra cause for conjecture. The polished paves were crusted with bones and ancient remains which altogether seemed abnormal, for no reason availed such mangled flesh. The paves showed rough scratches, but the ceiling was bare. No chute for boulders to tumble from upon high to crush a skulking thief. Dragon carvings raked the walls, wings lifted in majesty, jaws agape, eyes burning, as if portals to some inside knowledge beyond time and space. In the same panoramas the rightmost wall was smeared with ancient blood and bits of gristle and bone, unless Vetra missed his guess.

He kicked a clump of sinew and the bones rattled like fiendish dice, sending ghoulish echoes and dust around the chamber.

Jhara’s teeth chattered. “Would you stop that?” she hissed.

“Aye, it’s disrespectful,” muttered Lehundr, “not to mention jarring on the nerves.”

Vetra grunted. He thrust his head into the tunnel, calling his own name. The echoes died in a dull murmur. Tink, tink. A drip of distant water—and a wash of dusty vapours, sediment and musty layers compiled from the ages. “Goes on a long way, I think,” he mused.

“This must be where the dragon lord who was buried in yon sarcophagus once walked,” whispered Besu in reverence.

“Aye, probably where he went to feed his faithful protectors,” said Dunon. “’Tis said the oldest dragons lived in caves, dark and deep, that stretched to the centre of the earth.”

Vetra snorted. “Or perhaps it’s just some old underground cave carved by water and time. I think you have too vivid a imagination.”

Lehundr frowned and folded his arms over his chest. He gripped his cloth-sewn map like a beggar would his last morsel of food.

Jhara spoke, “I heard that the dragons were gatekeepers to the world below, and used to judge human souls when they passed the river of death for their deeds, good or evil. Men fought and died to tame them because they thought that they would have victory over death. So my father told me.”

Vetra uttered a soft laugh. “Or how about it’s all a myth? And that men built this tomb, not dragons, and dressed it up like a dragon tomb, and inside that stone crate there’s at worst some mouldered human bones, of a petty lord or forgotten king?”

Lehundr scowled, his mouth drawn tight. He refused to accept that the treasure was not real and that dragons were anything less than magical.

Dunon tested the slab. “The lid’s heavier than sin. We may never know. None of us could lift that.”

“Unless we all get our swords under it and pry it off?” suggested Besu.

Vetra shook his head. “We’d bend all our blades.”

“Maybe the dragon things were not the mystical creatures with untold wisdom and the wealth of ages past we think,” argued Besu.

Dunon’s eyes grew solemn. “Those with dragon heads and bodies of men were ancient before the stars were young,” he intoned. “The dragon lords tamed the dragons and became their masters. This is one of their tombs.”

The group fell silent and edged their way along the far wall.

By the arched way, squinting, they could make out the tunnel which stretched off into murk. None wanted to go down there, not even Lehundr, for all his keenness.

Maybe they did not have to. Glyphs and symbols were carved into the wall around the door. Possibly the makings of a map. And there, at a place below, alongside carven knobs and levers, was a foot-long, sharp and hard thing, pointed like a claw, a great dragon claw.

Besu gaped. “Can it be? A real dragon claw. They are rarer than finding the gilded elephant tusks of the Kirns!”

“Now do you believe me?” gasped Lehundr with triumph. “Look! There are signs. This must be the key!” The half Thrule gingerly lifted the claw out of its cradle.

While they murmured and argued, none recognized the shadowy figure creeping over to the sarcophagus.

“This dragon claw must be the key to opening the portal to the fortress!” cried Lehundr. “Though I can’t understand the script, it’s like some form of dragon runes.”

“Why didn’t thieves take it?” persisted Vetra.

“They were looking for gold, not claws. They wouldn’t have known it was the key either, unless they had the map.”

Besu objected, “I’ve heard the dragon fort’s never been opened since it was sealed by the curse of a dragon’s death, or some old dragon magic. Many a plunderer has tried to and all have failed!”

“Aye,” Dunon affirmed. “Most died. It’s leagues from here out in the middle of the desert.”

Vetra suddenly felt a chill crawl over his skin. He peered up and around. And felt an unknown presence in the chamber. A razor-sharpened sense of danger told him trouble was near. He reached for his sword. There—a shift of movement near the sarcophagus—some thin, skulking shape. And something else caught his attention—the perfectly polished wall at his side, almost too much so, and there were those vertical seams forward and back that ran suspiciously up to the ceiling, as if they were—

He gave a harsh cry. “Watch out! Fall back!”

Sliding stone sounded from underfoot. In the moment that the skulking Zren had passed his hands over some hidden lever behind the sarcophagus, the floor suddenly sank a foot lower.

A sharp choking cry rang out and Jhara somersaulted backward, landing on her feet like a cat. The floor gave way several more feet and with the others, she clawed desperately for something to hang on to—to no avail.

Vetra fell and was knocked on his back, gasping for air. Zren tumbled into the pit too, his fall cushioned by Dunon and Lehundr who gurgled surprised oaths.

Twenty feet up the sheer walls of the twelve foot square prison, Vetra peered and heard a sound more terrible than the hiss of vipers—the grinding and scraping of heavy stone on stone. Two parallel walls of massive construction writ with dragon insignias, one which slowly advanced toward them with ominous implication. Desperately he tried to mount the walls, but they were too sheer and high.

He stared in mute astonishment. Someone had triggered the trap, likely the Thrule, or perhaps it was the girl impulsively taking hold of the jeweled lever? No, it couldn’t have been Jhara. She had been tracing fingers on the map. Her fingers had not yet touched the ancient runes. It was that wretched Thrule lolling at his feet. “You idiot!” He kicked him in the gut. Zren squawked in pain.

“Quick!” Vetra snarled. “Up the wall. Climb on my back!” He crouched and motioned Dunon to climb on. The Thrule wasted no time and Vetra yelled harshly at Lehundr next. Putting backs to wall and boots to the advancing opposite wall, they formed a human ladder, Vetra on the bottom, Dunon and Lehundr next, and then Zren. Finally Jhara scrambled last over, legs and arms pinwheeling, and the others palm-lifted her up to grasp the rim. She heaved herself up over the lip.

Falling dust from the ceiling caught the weak sunlight and Jhara’s sweat-grimed face suddenly peered over the ledge.

Vetra tossed the dragon claw to her. She caught it deftly and set it aside, then continued to help each man out of the pit. First pulling Zren up, his fingers groping thin air. Reaching over the edge, she just managed to grab Besu’s fingers while Zren kept her from falling. Besu was scrambling over the top, gasping into his beard, and together they formed a backward chain.

The wall was inching slowly closer. Vetra, last in the pit, bared his teeth in a growl. With no less than three feet to spare, he jammed his blade lengthwise between the constricting walls. The steel quivered, buckling fast. He hated to see his only weapon compromised—but it purchased him a few more seconds…

He squeezed himself part way up, pushing with boots on one wall and inching spider-like with back against the other. Barely had he hooked fingers over the edge when hands hauled him up and over and the walls clanged together like jaws.

He squatted painfully on the cold stone, staring at the pit of death below him. The sound of machinery died. His sword and the lamp lay mashed down there somewhere. He sorely cursed the loss of his sword.

Doubtless the trap had been ingeniously constructed, operating in some mysterious pulley and lever system beyond the feet of stone.

Clever minds were at work here, he mused, and somehow he doubted they had anything to do with dragons.

A trap…to foil who? Would-be treasure seekers?

Vetra craned his neck, looking back toward where the crushing wall originated. A hidden chamber behind the wall?

He stooped and peered wolfishly down into the gloom and beyond the wall saw a passage that disappeared off beside the massive, battering ram that powered the slab.

Another dragon claw was fastened on the inside of that wall in ceremonial fashion, like pieces of a puzzle. Almost fearful to touch the cursed thing, Vetra hesitated then gripped it with loathing and tore it off its brackets. Nothing happened.

“So, now we have two of these claws,” he muttered. “Like parts of a toy. So much for your key,” scoffed Vetra.

“Any one of them could be the key,” Lehundr objected. “I’m guessing it’s probably this one.”

Zren clambered forward to have a look; the others glared at him.

“Your curiosity nearly killed us all!” Vetra said through clenched teeth.

“But if Zren had not tripped the mechanism,” remarked Dunon sombrely, “we could not see the exposed chamber behind the wall.”

Lehundr weighed the truth of the matter. “’Tis true.”

An uncomfortable silence gripped the group. Jhara awkwardly examined the lethal dragon levers on the wall behind the sarcophagus.

“Can’t see what’s down there,” muttered Vetra. He squatted to peer down, straining eyes in the faint light that streamed from the entrance. He saw shadows of strange statues huddled in the murk farther up and more carvings on the wall. “Dergath’s ghouls,” he swore softly. “What is this place?”

“We are going to need a light.”

“Maybe if you use the small brand I brought along,” Zren said in thick irony. He rifled through the sack tied at his waist and produced torch with flint and tinder.

While Besu grunted and Dunon snatched the items and lit the torch, Vetra turned to the others: “Well, we’ve come this far, we might as well explore the likes of this treasure.” He pushed his legs over the edge and jumped down with the torch. “Anyone else coming? I’ll have a look around and when I’m done, you can help me back up again.”

Besu was the only one who volunteered for the task. But Zren, blood dripping from his lip from his fall, gave a sullen grunt and on impulse jumped down, as if to redeem himself for his grave mistake.

The pit looked like a chamber out of legend, a crude, cobble-stoned dungeon laced in thick cobwebs that spread amid dense shadows underneath the floor above. The three groped their way about the chamber, Besu and Zren creeping behind Vetra. Unease had him padding like a wolf and blinking into the dusty murk, straining eyes to see what demon or horror would jump out at them.

Vetra’s keen eyes discerned a dark opening in the floor some twenty paces to the side, crisscrossed with cobwebs, something resembling a stair descending to unknown depths.

The cylindrical stone ram rolled on wheels, Vetra saw, and was crudely chiselled and affixed to some large stone mechanism. The ram itself was cold and rough to the touch, a work of monumental proportions.

He moved on, transfixed. Following it back under the floor above, he trained the torch up.

A dragon statue loomed out of the darkness, towering heads above them on its hind legs. Clawed feet were outstretched, cupped in a gesture of offering—its toothy jowl carved in an austere grin. Vetra gave the thing wide berth, circling round it with bared teeth. His toe snagged on something rough and he realized his foot passed over a long seam that divided a false floor from the real one. He figured the falling floor of stone was powered by a similar mechanism hidden underneath the tons of stone underfoot. Why the elaborate engineering to ensnare a few thieves?

Above, a large disc with pulleys and chains hung down to fasten on the stone ram. A chute allowed a trail of boulders to fall and power the wheel. The boulders had already spilled, powering the ram to do its bloodthirsty work. Ingeniously constructed, thought Vetra. His hairs were set on end. How floor and walls retracted was beyond his knowledge.

They inched along like mice in a snake’s lair, passing one springy cobweb after another and ever-present moulder and frightful shadow, and the chamber narrowed to a dingy tunnel underneath the floor above. They followed it for about sixty feet.

It ended in a sheer wall, edged by supporting pillars, old as time.

Besu pointed. “There! Over by that column, the wall!” They stumbled warily to stand gaping aside a closed-off arch. Two skeletons lay sprawled in layers of dust and filth by the wall, one still clutching a corroded pickaxe in its hand. The wall was gouged with crude strikes. Obviously the figures had been hewing a hole, digging for something—or perhaps digging to get out? Vetra rubbed his jaw. “These sods likely starved to death before completing their mission.”

He held the torch up to the wall. A grim pantheon of dragon faces and scenes met his eye: dragons, men, beasts, weapons, gathered armies and mesmerizing symbols.

Zren looked at him, his face a wild mix of angst and wonder. Besu looked like an old hunted owl, his wings clipped. They retraced their steps back underneath what would have been the chamber’s wall above.

A harsh grating of massive slabs sent hackles rising on Vetra’s back.

“What are those fools up to? Do they want to kill us?” He raced back down the tunnel, torch guttering dangerously close to extinction, the others at his heels. “They must have jiggled the controls!”

They came stumbling back to the death-dealing wall. But this time the stone slab was moving back toward them at an alarming rate. Jhara was leaning over the edge up top, whimpering, her face white with tension and a wail stuck in her throat. “Get up!” she cried. “Grab my hands!” While Dunon held her legs and lowered her down, she snatched at Besu’s wrists and together the two hauled him up.

Besu scrambled to his feet and helped Dunon lower Jhara to attempt to get Zren and Vetra up.

Vetra glared daggers from below.

“We did nothing,” Jhara protested, answering his vitriolic stare. “The slab started moving of its own accord. Lehundr is trying to reverse it now.”

“Well, tell Lehundr to get a move on,” Vetra thundered.

“It’s starting to close over completely. Faster now!”

The Thrule looked up with fear that he would be the last left behind.

“Get up there!” ordered Vetra and dropping the torch, hoisted the smaller man up on his back, pushing him up with a grunt.

No sooner had the Thrule been hauled up when Vetra felt the slab push him back. He caught a brief glimpse of Jhara’s look of absolute horror as the wall slapped shut.

The resounding smack of stone echoed about the chamber. Her fading, sundered wail echoed about the chamber and Vetra blinked, and then silence. The beat of his heart.

“They’ll flip the switches and spring it open,” he assured himself.

But no such welcome scrape of stone came to his ear.

He grimaced. Likely the mechanism had a mind of its own.

He stared around his gloomy surroundings, struggling to contain his frustration. The torch would not last forever; it sprayed sparks at his feet, smoking and hissing. He stooped to clutch it in a sweaty palm, eyes wide. A square chamber stretched off in the distance perhaps thirty feet.

Something told him he could not depend on his comrades’ efforts. Wretched traps! He should have known where one was sprung, another would follow.

He recalled the ancient pickaxe. Could he chip his way through the wall? It was at least a foot and a half of solid rock. Not easy, perhaps a work of many hours, if not days, if the corroded metal didn’t give out. What of the poor sods who tried to chisel their way through? Could he chip at the moveable slab above? Perhaps where the stone joined the ceiling it was less thick. He studied the dragon statue and imagined poising on its neck and shoulders and striking upward at solid rock. He frowned anew. Only to have stone chips blind him? It seemed a foolhardy plan.

He prowled his prison like a caged lion and retraced his steps back to the two skeletons. Crouching on his haunches, he pulled the tool from the moulder, wincing. Why? Where? To what end? What had these fools been hewing for? Did they have knowledge of what lay beyond?

He passed fingers along the wall. Rough, cold. It was both inscribed and embossed with relief.

The arched door was five feet wide and sealed to perfection. The seams were so tight as to be hardly detectable. What lay beyond? Had the diggers been trying to get to an adjoining chamber?

He weighed his options and fingered the rusty implement, peeling off the layers of flaking metal at its head. The pick had a stout, four foot wooden handle, the iron was flaked with orange on the surface, but it was black and strong underneath.

He concluded that such men, despite their evident failure, had entertained a worthwhile mission. At least they carried tools with them, so likely they had some purpose. Hand on chin, he sat engrossed for several instants in some lip-chewing thought. Were there other options?

Nothing seemed of immediate interest in the vicinity of the tunnel wall. No chance of scaling the chute. It was too high, and it looked dead and dark up there. What he wouldn’t give to have access to the tunnel he had shunned earlier near the sarcophagus.

Yet off toward the far wall, in the centre of the hall a wide staircase wound down, now cracked and sunken with age. He was almost afraid of what he might find and crept cautiously over to investigate. Drunken steps trailed down into the gloom, perhaps thirty feet. But that was not what held his attention. They were flanked with low-riding dragon statues, of most familiar design.

Insanely lifelike! Almost like giant lizards, but with the bodies of leopards and the heads of dragons—not dissimilar to that strange, sphinx-like guardian lurking by the sarcophagus. He saw that more of them crouched, on the level below.

Vetra forced himself to walk warily down the stairs, on the odd chance that something might offer an avenue of escape.

No such luck. More of the repulsive things lurked in the shadowy darkness, head to tail in what seemed random postures. Some were flatfooted, other poised in midstep with necks bent and eyes glaring, as if frozen in time.

He stared in bemusement. The chamber was like an insular menagerie, of size and configuration to the one above, circular, and admitting no exits, save but one corridor which ended abruptly. The walls and ceiling of this chamber, unlike its predecessors, bore no carvings or bas relief, only simple smooth stone, as if it were a chamber to house only the repugnant things. Dergath, but they swarmed around him in so life-like manner that he had to catch his breath! Every swell and lip, crack of bared fang and sharpened claw was depicted in startling detail. The things waited in an attitude of frozen menace for what was untold centuries.

He thrust the torch into the face of one of the uncanny creatures, better to study its features. The flickering light showed the black-eyed face of a dragon and sleek torso of a jungle cat but with the scales of lizards and an alligator tail. The legs were stubby like those of a lizard’s. Though the eyes and horns were distinctly dragon, it sported the wide snout of elder, extinct amphibians with razor-sharp serrated teeth. The stone was glazed over with red pigments; like sleepwalkers, the watchers poised in a frozen prowl, as if they were in an induced trance. Jaws were slightly agape as if they were ready to mouth a toothy roar, and Vetra frowned. Such pantomine reeked of an ancient mystery that was impossible to decipher so many centuries later. He tugged furiously at his chin. The whole place stank of menace and decay, as if upon the dragon-lord’s bidding, or perhaps his death, all had come to a standstill, frozen in time.

He had heard of old tales spoken by the Kirns and the Guirites, of incredible life-like statues secreted in tombs. That they were watchers of the deceased, that they had been cast in stone, or iron, or some other form by arcane wizardry too old to name. That they could come to life at will to protect their deceased masters from unwanted intruders.

He brushed aside the thought with a wry grunt. These hobgoblins certainly had not come to life upon his entering. Mere fables. The stuff of myth.

Yet the mercenary’s finger reached out to stroke the leafed stone of the massive gargoyle in front of him. Instantly he recoiled. The thing had a peculiar rubbery texture, as if made of old mouldered clay. Could it be true? Dead but alive—? Hard but yielding? His mind reeled. Too many incredible things lurked in this chamber to make sense of. He backed away.

What was that? A sound? He retreated cautiously to the broad stair. A wretched slithering? No, nothing. Just one of those many uncanny moments when a man lets imagination get the better of him. One of the repulsive dragon statues stared eerily at him with its sightless gaze. A sudden swish of movement, as of a tail had him whirling. He crouched, drawing his pick. A tongue flickered and a soft sibilance… The torch guttered and hissed. He blinked. His imagination again. He relaxed, loosed a breath. The sound had played havoc on his nerves; a product only of his hissing brand and the illusive shadows in this dim, otherworldly place.

His torch would be burning down soon. How much time did he have? An hour? More? Why was he wasting time here?

He hurried back to the skeleton tunnel and propped the fragile flame on the wall. Time to pursue the digger’s cause. Taking up his tool, he began hewing at the hole where the others had failed.

Flakes of rock chipped on the rude paves.

Before long a pile amassed at his feet. He hoped the iron head would last long enough for him to hack his way through this barrier. How long had it lain here in the dust and silence?

The minutes passed and sweat oozed from his pores, down his arms and brow. His muscles stood out like iron bands as he strained under the flickering flame. Should that light go out… The clinks landed like blacksmith’s blows, the tinny smacks ringing in his ears like bells with every strike, while ghostly shadows played on the tunnel walls.

All the while he felt a strange presence weighing upon this place. He felt the intolerant dragon statues glaring over his shoulders and their visionless eyes scrutinizing him and his movements. That he was trapped here underground with them he sensed they knew and had waited for. Who knew what sinister purpose they guarded?

The minutes passed; he cleared the pile of rock away with his boot. Minutes of life remained in the hissing flame. No sound of help from his colleagues. Surely they could hear his tapping? He had the sickening feeling they had failed; forced to move on.

The torch flickered and died. Vetra slumped down, back to the wall, arms and shoulders sagging. The first vestiges of panic began to crawl over his limbs. The bones of the diggers rattled at his feet as he kicked out boots in front of him. A bleak feeling of failure washed over him. What a fate to die here in this darkness with these skeletons! He lurched to his feet, a snarl on his lips, rejecting such a demise. It was getting hot in this chamber. The air was less potent, less breathable. He knew now the sods had likely died of asphyxiation; two mouths breathing the same air. His head swam, his bloodshot eyes burned, and now his throat felt clogged with dust; his senses had started to reel.

He pounded on without pause, merciless stroke after stroke, every muscle feeling the battering shockwave of steel on rock up his arm. Suddenly, there came a different sound to his swing. A thunk versus a thwack. Had the blunt head hit air? He smashed with blind fury. A tremor of hope bloomed in his chest. He pulled the iron free and passed fingers through a small notch. Yes! Air! A tiny finger-sized hole.

Like a prospector striking gold, he hacked and hacked with furious zeal, surrendering all restraint, flakes of rock flying at his feet. He knelt and with heart beating, passed a hand through the arm-sized opening. The air was cooler there, and a glow, very faint, almost imperceptible drifted from behind that hole. The presence of air meant some fresher source and possibly an escape route out of this stifling burrow. He chipped some more and squeezed his sweaty head through and snuffed welcome air.

He had a two foot hole gouged out, and crouched, peering through excitedly.

Some natural light shone from a slit in the rock from high overhead.

Solid objects loomed in the dimness. More statues? He could not be sure.

He crawled through, eyes widened pools in the murk, pick raised. The hall was huge, for his scuffing boots echoed cavernously. It was like a great amphitheatre, with lofty ceiling lost in gloom. The air was pervaded with an ancient grandeur and the uncaring loneliness of ages.

He crept forward like a man in trance. In front of him at the hall’s front stood a dragon lord statue, eight feet high. On either side crouched two guardians, miniature versions of the ones in the adjacent chambers. Draped on the statue’s chest was another dragon claw similar to the others but worn as an amulet. The look on the lord’s face was one of solemn wonder and sublime reflection, and yet, a sadness, which struck Vetra as odd.

The statue was not dissimilar to those he had seen in the desert. Was this the last lord of the dying dragon realm?

The lord faced the outer semicircle, as if addressing a vast crowd. A proprietal hand was placed on one of the small leopard-lizard’s heads like a pet hound. Vetra turned to see benches spread and tiered on high, row after row, rising from floor to domed ceiling. He shook his head in wonder. What a hall of the ancients! His head swivelled in full circle. The acoustics were perfect here, and he could hear the scuff of his boots and the heavy breathing amplified three-fold.

Wait. There—a light gleamed in the dead dragon lord’s eyes. A chill crawled down Vetra’s spine. The glint vanished, whatever it was. Only a glister off his tool perhaps from the pale sunlight that streamed through the shaft above.

He went to stroke the claw-amulet. Two or three of the precious gems encrusted in the ornament rattled free of the ancient collar and clattered to the paves. Quickly he picked them up and put them in his pocket.

Almost with reverent grace he lifted the chain and amulet with trembling hand off the lord’s jewelled head. Why, he did not know. Perhaps all Lehundr’s wild talk about ‘keys’ and treasure had affected him. This was the third dragon claw, and intuition told him it was more important than the others.

He turned to peer in suspicion. Rows of spectator-seats rose up tier by tier along the back wall, connected by aisles of stone steps at some ancient time. It was a vast auditorium, a honeycomb-shaped dome, hollowed out and built like an amphitheatre into the cliffside.

The vents above were too distant to make out—but had all been long sealed with stone slabs by expert masons. All except one had crumbled. Vetra wondered if these vents admitted light when the dragon lord was alive. Perhaps this was his oratory.

His eyes flicked back to the statue.

There, another glint in the thing’s eye?

No sooner had this flash of light dawned, than a slither of movement disturbed the silence. He wheeled. What was it? A distinct set of glowing eyes peered from the gap he had crawled through. Teeth gnawed at the edges of the rock. Wild fear stung his brain. It was one of the reptilian, leopard statues—struggling to squeeze through. What eldritch sorcery was this? A thing come to life upon the robbery of the dragon claw? Fool! How could he have been so stupid to think he could snatch an item like the dragon claw and not be punished? Could he put it back? Hardly—the guardians were awake, and likely deadlier than vipers. Frantically, he cast eyes around him for some avenue of escape. The rock he had hewn through would hold the creatures for now. But there were more of them, sawing and biting their way at the edges of the rude opening, like hounds digging for a favourite bone. The hole widened with every gnaw and bite. A snout was almost already out, and with it a bellow and snarl.

Besthra take him for sacrificing his sword!

He took up the pickaxe and raced over to hew them back. He smashed the iron tip into the skull of one of the slavering beasts. It died, thrashing, but the first guardians of the tomb burst through, waddling on all fours like lizards. The monsters blinked and made small hissing sounds and glared at him with repellent eyes. They spat a foul black liquid that sizzled on the stone like acid and scored holes in it.

With a gasp of horror, he hopped back, scrambling for the stairs heading up to the semicircle of spectator seats. High ground! It may be his only hope. Some globs came shooting at his chest and he jerked aside to avoid getting splattered by it. He lurched, struggling to stay erect, and could not help but tread in a pool of acid before the first steps. The sticky goo stuck to his boot and melted part of it away before he could fling it off. With a ghastly moan he leapt back, clawing at the air, aghast at the nightmare around him.

He bounded up the stairs.

Up the crumbling steps one came at him, maw agape, tongue ready to lob another foul, sizzling dollop at him. He swung the pickaxe and it smashed straight through the thing’s ear. He pulled his axe free, seeing that iron tip had passed through claylike flesh and pierced the brain. The leopard-lizard jerked in a bray of bellowing agony, and slumped to the stone. It gave a final spasmodic shiver and lay sprawled on the steps, tongue splayed. Vetra turned and blundered up the steps past the first tier, leaping like a deer, though he bashed his knees on fallen rock that lay obscured in the murk. Others came shambling up, tails sliding over their dead brother and rustling the crumbled heaps of stone partially blocking the steps.

That curve of rough-hewn ceiling where the vents glowed must be near the cliff face to afford such light. Years of erosion and perhaps quakes had loosened the rock. Vetra scrambled up the steps where the middle section lay in ruin, stomach reeling from the heights. At one time this auditorium had been packed with dragon folk listening to a lord’s speech, or being entertained with some other performance. He had to squat and catch his breath. How he hated high places. Dergath was always putting them before him! He clenched his fist, bit back the bile that crawled up his throat, grimacing at the cruel irony of the god.

He mounted the steps, two at a time, feet pushing through dust and moulder. He groped his way past fallen rock and cracked benches. His blundering rush had started a cascading tumble of rocks and debris underfoot. A whole section of seats gave out, heaving up a maelstrom of dust.

He lay there clinging to edges of benches, legs dangling in space, while chunks of seats fell underneath him. His lungs heaved to the smell of dust and decay. More creatures were scrambling up after him along alternate routes. It was lucky for him they were more lizard than leopard and that their climbing skill was limited. The range of their spit balls, withal, was no more than eight feet, else he’d have been peppered full of holes.

Dust motes drifted like listless fireflies. He pulled himself up and checked the racing of his heart. He crept on, pick clutched in hand while the dragon-lord from far down watched impassively.

Two guardians had now cornered him. They had sidled up from nearby stairways and flanked him, licking jowls in anticipation. Vetra hacked and slashed wildly, snouts and claws flying, black goop spraying everywhere and him ducking the slime. He watched, heard it lap into the other beast’s face, blinding one of its eyes. The thing bellowed in agony. Some sprayed on his caftan and sizzling smoke clouded him, momentarily blinding him. He tried to brush it off with his sleeve and nearly gagged at the rank odour. He sprang upward to the next tier in a nail-clawing attempt to save his life. An eyeless head came lurching up, fangs seeking to rip into his arm. He smashed down on it with the pickaxe. The dragon creature fell back, its face and neck still sizzling with goo. The shelf of seats gave under the monster’s weight, and the rock crashed down, crushing a half dozen of the horrid brutes that struggled to get at him. Bestial whines filled the spacious arena, highlighting the madness of the scene.

Scrabbling with the best of his speed, he crawled through the rubble. At last he made it near the vents. Every stumbling step up those crumbled, haunted steps was a herculean effort. Sunbeams traced dust-streaked rays in the air. He leapt up on the carved, polished backs of the highest stone benches, and bracing his feet, began chipping with mad fervour at the cleft that admitted welcome sunshine. It was not wide enough to let him squeeze through. His muscles burned with the effort, and the precipitous drop showed the ruined section of amphitheatre yawning below like an abyss that made his senses swim. Clang! He struck again and again with mighty swings. Ever did the dragon beasts below slip on the rubble and blocks of masonry, unable for the moment to edge higher and closer to flank him. He could hear their sinister rustlings amongst those shattered, broken, clogged steps, slipping and sliding on debris and emitting ominous bellows. Should they clear a path… He shuddered and smashed at the flaky sandstone, his tool sending hard flakes and chips flying. He closed his eyes to avoid stray fragments. At last he cleared an area large enough for him to squeeze through. With a grunting gasp he pushed his bulk through. At the same time he dragged his axe, ducking the black spitballs of beasts that were at his heels.

A wash of blazing sunlight stung his eyes. He could discern a patch of white clouds somwhere greeting his beleaguered sight, and he hauled himself on through the gap, feet wriggling in air. The hisses, and red snouts and black teeth came angling up.

But they could not get past the narrow gap.

He crabbed his way on hands and knees down the slope, gulping breaths into his lungs.

He was on the side of the cliff, up higher than where he had entered the dragon tomb. Below the familiar canyon spread like an engorged snake. He blinked, squinting into the sun. Untold relief flooded his body, and yet, the feeling of height sickness still clung in his gut and would not abate.

Farther below he could see the vestiges of a steep, crumbled stone trail that connected to the path in the ravine. Cautiously he wormed his way on his belly down toward it, pickaxe lodged in crooks to brace himself should he slip.

After painful effort his boots crunched on the gravel path. He approached the mouth of the broken dragon that marked the tomb. Not a sound. Not a soul.

Quite a different space than before. A pall of death hung over the sepulchral chamber. The floor was up—and the wall was back to its regular place, exhibiting no sign of having moved at all.

New bits of gristle and bone lay clumped in ghastly heaps in the floor’s centre, now awash in a thick pool of fresh blood…

Vetra grimaced. The sphinx-like guardian lurking by the sarcophagus had vanished. Bloody crimson pawprints stained the floor where it had walked…on towards the eerie, ink-stained tunnel at the back of the sarcophagus. Where had the Thrules gone? What had happened to Lehundr and Jhara? He shuddered, his mad thoughts reminiscing on who or what it had dragged to that mouldering corridor.

He reached down to touch the warm substance staining the rock, and knew before he touched it, it was blood.

He heard a spine-tingling slithering of non-human feet from the eerie tunnel and he backed away, feeling a shiver up his limbs. A suicide mission should he go back there.

His worst nightmares had come to pass. A hundred grotesque thoughts swarmed in his mind. Likely whatever had created that heap of flesh had dragged the victim or victims down that tunnel. He would be next if he lingered too long. He would not fare well against such a grisly guardian. Could ancient iron continue to prevail against demons that came back to life to haunt the living?

Vetra dragged himself away from that gruesome chamber. His fingers clutched the dragon-claw in a death grip.

Not a hundred paces down the trail he knelt and dizzily let fingers pass over what looked like crimson drops on the dusty soil. A fresh blood trail—maybe two hours old. A hope flared in his breast that there were survivors.

 

V: Dragon Forge

 

Vetra squinted longingly south. The sun’s flaming orb had swung significantly westward since he had taken up his peers’ trail. From his wobbly crouch on the hillside his weary eyes struggled to discern movement. He saw an endless plain of red dirt and sand, lost in a shimmer of haze. A blur of something else: dust clouds on the horizon, of caravans and camels wheeling in a long line. Supply caravans of war? Whether Behundrian or Thrule he could not tell. All practicality screamed at him to leg it back to the great eastern road and hire passage back to Lvendar, giving Dragonskull wide berth. With what money was a concern, considering his emeralds were still back on the pony. But the thought of Jhara stayed his hand. She could be wandering or enslaved by cruel lords, likewise, Lehundr. Without food and water he would not last long. He looked down at the dragon claw. The fort was far to the north of this desolate valley. That’s where they would be heading, if they were still alive and held the other dragon claw keys. If the Behundrians caught them, that would be another matter: the scum would either kill them or take them prisoner, or force them on to the Dragon Fort to unlock the treasure. Rafa knew about the map and Vetra was under no illusion that they would torture them for the truth. He took a calculated risk and pushed on, past the cacti and windscarred shrubbery, ever north.

The road that he had come up on with the Thrules was nothing more than a narrow, dusty track, winding up the broad, shallow valley dotted with small boulders and husks of ancient eucalyptus. He staggered on, feeling the fire of thirst, keeping a path well off, but parallel to the road.

A disquieting stillness lay over the land, over the low moan of wind that crept around crumbled rock forms. He gazed into the distance. At his feet trailed a vague set of prints, lightly dusted over.

Before long his lips were parched and split from heat, his legs burning, but he stumbled doggedly on, bitten by fatigue and privation.

Black smoke—perhaps phantom mist for all his delusion—rose over the low hills to the east. More fires? Vetra guessed that the Thrules had been busy burning the Behundrian mines to the ground. He swept a hand over his face streaked with sweat and blood, where a claw had raked his brow and torn his left arm above the wrist. He shook the fatigue from his mind, shook out the throbbing in his arm. His belly ached with a fierce rumbling hunger and his tongue scraped around his dry mouth.

The grunt of a condor occasionally intruded on his thoughts—merging then back into the background thrum. He stumbled on a loose stone, collapsed, got up again, stumbled again. A scorpion suddenly scudded across his path, a foot from his head. He cursed, staggered up to his knees, slashing at it with his rusty pickaxe, head spinning in a dizzy spell of heat.

His vision blurred. What was this? Puppet figures in the shimmering of heat? At least fifty of them, ragged nomads, no more than five feet tall.

Thrules! No mirage.

He stood to his full height and seemed a giant. He squinted almost in amusement. The desert Thrules either lacked ponies or prefered walking on foot.

“Where go you?” one demanded brusquely.

Another strode forward, passing hands over Vetra’s empty scabbard. Vetra saw that they had scimitars belted at their hips. A group of them fanned out, covering him with bows.

“Kill him if he tries anything.”

Vetra weighed the advantages of trying to conceal the truth and realized there were none. But bluster would not hurt. “Fool!” he snarled at the leader. “Would you slay the finder of the Dragon Claw?” He took a step, wielding the claw. The Thrules shrank back in surprise. “What would your gods think of you then? Slayers of the holder of the key to the Dragon fort—Dragon Forge!”

The Thrule’s eyes widened. “Where have you learned that name?” With glazed fascination they stared at the claw and suspicion swarmed over his features. A murmur of astonishment rose from the gathering.

“He lies!” came an angry voice.

“’Tis a mummer’s trick,” others cried, lifting bows and weapons menacingly.

The archaic pickaxe with wooden handle seemed to disturb and fascinate the Thrules and with curious amusement, he lifted it with its dried black blood. They rotated around him in a circle, murmuring in suspicious awe and indecision.

“Where have you come from? Why do you trespass on our lands?”

“Water,” croaked Vetra, “do you have water? Some Thrules and I, from Dragonskull, we entered a tomb back in the valley. Give me water.” A familiar light-headedness threatened to have him swaying and sinking to his knees.

“We have water, but you may not get any, outlander,” snapped the leader, “at least until we discover more about this sacred relic you hold. You say you came from the Valley of the Dragons. Maybe you stole this dragon claw from some wealthy collector and are fleeing the law, feeding us a yarn, only to slit our throats in the night and steal our gold.”

“Aye, Nhfer, but so odd is the tale,” objected another. “Look! Here are tracks of the band that he talks about. The prints head toward Dragon Forge.”

Nhfer gave a grudging assent.

Vetra snorted. “If you believe anything of slitting throats and stealing gold, you’re as simple-minded as those Behundrians. Help me find my friends.”

The leader scowled.

“What was in this tomb?”

“Guardians, blood, secrets of ages past. It is guarded by ancient creatures—dragon leopards. Their skin was black and they came to life from some foul magic.”

The Thrules looked at him in awe. “You survived the Guardians?”

Vetra grunted.

The Thrule leader stirred restlessly. “I knew there was some truth to the old tales. You are lucky to have seen them. Only the aged mystics who induced visions by chewing the sacred mushroom and crawling into caves for months on end have claimed to have been graced by their presence.”

Vetra shrugged, a lackadaisical droop to his lips. He was hardly thinking coherently, after being hunted by dragon-leopards, yet he was used to the blind reverence with which these people clung to the long dead race of their dragon people.

“And the others?”

“I don’t know what happened to them. I was trapped in a lower section of the tomb. One of them was surely killed as I saw bones and fresh blood. You haven’t seen sign of a band, about twenty, travelling light with a girl?”

“Naught.”

“She may be wounded,” said Vetra fiercely. “I must find them.” He turned to leave.

The Thrule blocked his path and held him back with his bow. “You smell like lizard piss.”

Vetra recalled the thick black acid that had almost engulfed him.

“There are hot springs not a league from here. There you can soak your dirty hide.” He gazed at the dragon claw with awakened interest. “If there is a chance, we will take it. There could be great riches to aid us in this war. We must go to Dragon Forge.”

There were grumbles and several raised their bows and shook their heads with animosity.

“Listen, you fools! The long lost key is legendary. Many have died, starving and perishing of thirst in the desert looking for it. I will call for the brothers in the north. We have stirred up a hornet’s nest in these parts. We will need reinforcements.”

Vetra saw that he sent no scout but reached for some beat-up instrument in his pack. “With what? Talk into the wind?”

“No, with this.” He produced a lacklustre horn from his back. “Zaln from Sunswatch gave it to me, should I need it.”

Vetra stared at the horn—small, sleek, archaic, coiled with antique tubing, like a bugle from a far off time.

Nhfer climbed to the top of a boulder and pushed the nondescript thing to his lips. Vetra frowned, for it made no sound, but a hollow whooshing of air, yet was strangely lit in glorious gold when he blew into it.

“’Tis done. They will come before sundown tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?” Vetra shook his head in wonder. “How will they find you?”

“An old Thrule secret, which you would not understand.”

Vetra shrugged, a lazy indifferent shrug. “I came from Sunswatch, the pump site. It is lost, and Zaln is dead. I saw him tortured before my eyes.”

The Thrule bit his thin lips. “Sunswatch fallen? So are the mines. We came from Maniswaning, and it was taken. Though we made a ruin of their precious Thorian rigs. It will take them weeks to get it operational again.”

Vetra shook his head. “Not the wisest move. Unless you plan to defeat them utterly, you have made your deathbed when they come after you. These small petty skirmishes and acts of vandalism accomplish little.”

Nhfer rounded on him in anger. “What do you know? Do you suggest we sit back and let those Behundrian pigs dominate us like rats and take our land and our women?”

“I suggest nothing of the sort.”

“Then hold your tongue, outlander. Give him water.” He flourished a hand. A Thrule snapped to attention and brought a canteen from his pack. Vetra snatched the canteen gratefully out of his hand and chugged warm gulps of water—nectar of the gods!

“Then we head north—to the fortress.’Tis but eight leagues away. To Dragon Forge!”

An hour’s march later, with the dull ball of the sun arching a sweltering arc over their sweating skulls, they stopped at a low thicketed wall of foliage.

Vetra frowned with suspicion, wondering what this place was.

Nhfer led them through the thicket, cutting bramble with his blade, revealing hot springs camouflaged in a net of green alphanel fronds. A bubbling pool gave off an acrid sulphurous scent. Following with grinning anticipation, Vetra shambled on to strip down and clean his grimy skin and cleanse his wounds. Others bathed and took fresh water. It had a sulphury taste to it, but Vetra never felt better.

They made camp shortly thereafter. Though they had no packbeasts, the Thrules were efficient, but taciturn.

This company was not so merry as his own, erstwhile band, and for this, Vetra felt a pang. No song, or merriment, only grumbles, stares and solemn predictions by this crew of nomads. After a time, around a low, glowering fire, Vetra lay down to sleep. But Nhfer’s slightly slurred speech and fumes of mead from his breath caused Vetra to stir. “All this blood and fire, and woe. When will it end?” Several other members mumbled their commiserations.

Vetra answered, “Do you not feel satisfied with your accomplishments then, Thrule?”

“When I was young I thought there might have been some purpose to it all.” Nfher heaved a heavy sigh. “Some cause to our fighting. But seeing the cruelty I have, the sorrow that man inflicts on his fellows, I started to lose hope. Now, I just scurry about like a rat in a cage trying to survive, to fight the cretinous swine who inflict injustice on us and every day creep closer to my backdoor. Running, hiding, fighting… It seems an endless loop of misery.”

“You think too deeply into purpose, Thrule,” grunted Vetra, unable to sleep. “You expect too much from your fellow man. The bad ones are swine, and there are all too many of them. Things seem not what they are. They will not change with your restless expectations.”

The Thrule exhaled a breath. “Perhaps you are right, outlander.” He stroked his beard under the loose hood, and his thoughts were faraway, as were his eyes.

“Sleep easy, fellow. Tomorrow we will reach Dragon Forge, then test this claw of yours. Maybe something will change. For all our sakes.”

Dusk was well advanced and the stars twinkled like a web of sparkling jewels. The cicadas were out and chirping in the dry desert weed.

Vetra lay dreaming, and in his dreams came Jhara. She was in a frost-glittering field, a maiden fair as the dawn, wielding sword, with a forest not far off, dusted with ice. He grinned, threw down his own crusted blade and caught her up and bore her down and they writhed in love in the welcoming onset of winter, and there was no feeling of coldness, only warmth, their combined heat melting the ice crystals around them.

He tossed and turned. A vague recollection gripped him of sleeping on hides under the stars with the Thrules, hearing the call of the jackals, and the answering howl of a rival pack. He woke in a sweat, the moon glaring overtop like a sinister runestone, his thoughts heavy with the lingering question if any of his party had survived. He thought of Jhara again and a guilt pricked his heart and left him with a sadness that had no relief—that he had failed to protect her and the others of the Thrule company.

 

Vetra and the company of Thrules trudged ever north up the valley. Shimmering waves of heat hovered always out of reach, merging with the low shrubbery in the flat distance. The Thrules gritted teeth to the growing heat, trodding on with single-minded purpose as the sun rose in the morning haze. There were few places to hide in this open, sweltering bowl of desert scrubland if a force sprang upon them from behind.

A faint wind came from across a nearby salt marsh, carrying with it a dry, tangy odour. The pale green desert plants faded in the distance. It was not until noon that the ruin of a mighty fort loomed like broken teeth on the horizon. At first only jagged stumps or spears of rock showed themselves, then a domed mesa, grey and blue, thrust itself out of the haze like the molar of a prehistoric beast.

“Unexpected, isn’t it?” remarked Nhfer.

Vetra offered no comment.

A group of white-hooded Thrules moved about the plain, clearing rocks and arranging wooden totem forms. Vetra guessed they were preparing for a ceremony. As they neared, he saw that some were women playing with groups of children. Several of the clanspeople moved in a solemn line up the hills toward the caves to the left, dragging bundles tied with string or carrying baskets.

Twin hills ranged to the north, blocking access to the valley. On both hills reared Dragon stones, huge megaliths, shaped like twin forks, which rose like enchanted spires in the yellow afternoon light, glinting like ancient, cyclopean earth talismans. They cast long shadows down on the plain below—intersecting mysteriously to play mischief with the eye, as if defying natural laws, and held some astrological or zodiacal significance. At one time an ancient river had gushed between the hills, but now was dry. Stray boulders and seashells populated the pebbly earth.

Nhfer pointed to the hills surrounding the left flank of the valley. “There is water in those caves yonder. That is why the temple Thrules go there—to fetch sacred water. ’Twas a precinct revered by the dragon-lords.”

The temple Thrules were dressed in flowing ceremonial garments, with colourful braided designs and brilliant white hoods, a stark contrast to the dark rags of the hill Thrules. Vetra noticed complex beadwork showing emblems of dragons on breast and back.

He also saw the low sandy plain looked blasted as if by huge rocks hurled down from the sky. The whole area at their feet was a jumble of masonry and sprawling sand-filled ruins. Dragon-headed temples were carved into the cliffs. At one time it had been a majestic city, that much he could see. Metal doors and architraves had been forged by fiery breaths, he imagined from their exotic tints. By such unusual means, metals had been melted and reformed into fabulous forms: of dragons and giants and lords. Fluted columns and dragon-headed turrets rose like broken masts out of the ruins, teetering drunkenly, and the lines of ancient walls and stone pathways were but the skeletal remains of what was once a great, flourishing centre under the rule of titans.

As for the actual fort, Dragon Forge, Vetra’s eyes strayed to a long white-washed limestone portico rising up the mesa’s front with a line of columns and four great dragon lord statues. There was an elemental beauty and stark vibrancy to the place which seemed incongruent with its age. It was remarkably well-preserved for something so old.

“It was cited that the desert giants built this fortress to protect their realm, though they died off as a race. They fought here and were turned into stone, by the mighty dragon-serpent Ermgen’s fire and bite. It was said a star fell out of the sky and became the avatar that was Ermgen. Dragons and their lords fought giants and took over the old kingdoms. Thus the giants languished. That is why everything is so monumental. See there—those gleaming columns—” Nhfer gestured to the sprawl of massive pillars in the ancient city beside the fort “—they are intact—as is the great dragon hall.”

Nhfer approached the curious Thrules who blinked and stood gazing. Many dropped whatever they were doing. Nhfer lifted Vetra’s hand that held the claw. “All hail the finder of the Dragon claw—the Claw Bearer!”

“What do you mean, Claw Bearer?” a Thrule cried out.

“Can it be?—the talisman to open the gates?” another whispered.

Vetra tensed in recognition of several faces, thoroughly startled. A ginger-haired beauty with perky bosom stood out like a hot, sweaty beacon in a sea of shadows. Jhara! She was entertaining a group of Thrule children and had them enraptured, singing in her melodious voice of the legends of the lands that her father had told her.

Vetra exhaled an explosive breath of relief, feeling the weight of days slip from his shoulders. She and others must have caught up with these temple Thrules.

Lehundr was conversing excitedly with Thrules under the colonnade of the Dragon fort beside the great dragon door.

A circle of domed-shaped yurts stretched to the side, past the ruins and shattered columns and time-eaten stumps of masonry that was once the dragon-lord kingdom. Houses? Dwellings? Communal halls? Vetra was undecided. Others came hurrying from the small caves up the hills; several were walking down a well worn trail, tents and yurt tarps draped over their shoulders. Samos, the shaman, roved amongst them, directing, whispering blessings.

Knots of Thrules moved about in animated conversation and Lehundr had taken pains to gesticulate his theories about the dragon claws to the people who sat on the steps glumly, their downcast heads in their hands.

When Jhara caught sight of Vetra, she jumped up and raced over to wrap clinging arms around his neck. She hung on him with her knees bent and small feet angled to the sky. “We thought you were dead!”

“Good to see you,” he said with a smile. The familiar smell of her brought back pleasant memories. “I thought you were lost out there, or worse.”

Lehundr came sauntering up and gave him a brisk handshake. His cracked smile split his sun-browned features. “How did you survive?”

Vetra quickly told his tale. Others approached, Aus, Gefzad, Dunon, eyes blazing with surprise.

“Incredible! We have been looking for sign of you—and gave up, I fear. We failed in releasing you from the tomb as we had our own trials with the Guardian. But you have survived—”

“Yes, everyone says that this must be the key to unlock the door.” He displayed the claw trophy.

Lehundr gaped in astonishment. “Small wonder the others failed,” he mumbled.

A low, soft female voice spoke from behind, “I am Sebju, leader of the Dragon Forge People. We are the Dragon-Thrule, keepers of the Dragon Lords. You claim to hold a relic. Let me see it—”

Lehundr grabbed the claw before she could examine it, and caressed it avidly in his fingers. He passed it on to the middle-aged woman who frowned, her long greying hair curling out around her neck. A grunt of child-like disbelief passed from her lips. Tracing its contours with her trembling fingers, she uttered a startled gasp and swept back her hood. “It seems genuine. Old beyond belief.”

“Then let us try the doors!” Nhfer cried impatiently.

Lehundr held up a hand. “Hold! You need this. The map speaks of three dragon claws. We have two.” He held up the other scored and ancient dragon relics.

“You brought them?” asked Vetra in a hushed whisper.

“Who is this?” barked Nhfer.

“The one who had the map that led me to this—” Vetra lifted the woman’s hand that held the claw.

Nhfer passed eyes over Lehundr, frowning. “What would a half Behundrian want with dragon claws, and why have half a care of our heritage? If not but to steal our treasures?”

Lehundr objected to the remark but Jhara clutched his arm. “He has everything to do with it, and we would not be here, if it were not for him.” Her features clouded as if struck with melancholy. She hung her head. “Besu didn’t make it,” she told Vetra quietly. “He was snatched by something hideous and dragged off and mauled. It was horrible! The leopard-sphinx, or Guardian of the tomb, came to life. It got to him before we could—”

“I know,” Vetra consoled. “I saw the remnants of the struggle.” He looked around at the hollow-eyed group. “Where is that rat, Zren?”

“Gone,” snapped Dunon. “Disappeared after our escape from the tomb.”

“You mean after all the trouble I went through trying to save his hide, he up and leaves?”

Dunon nodded. “He was ashamed of what he had done, particularly to you, and couldn’t stand our glowers and cold stares. I would have done the same thing, if I were in his shoes. We shan’t see him again.”

Vetra shrugged, torn with mixed emotions.

“The Behundrians will be coming up the valley before long,” warned one of Nhfer’s aides.

“Right, I heard that hound Cthan boasting that he would take an army up and strip every flab of flesh from our hides,” murmured Aus.

“Let him try. We laid waste to plenty of their mines,” rasped Nhfer through gritted teeth. “Though many of us died in the doing. All of what you see is what’s left of us, barely fifty, when we were three hundred!”

One of the Thrule women consoled a crying child in her arms. “Why do you bring this evil upon us?” she wailed. “We don’t want your wars! This is sacred land to us, and the old ones—they ruled the dragons.”

A chorus of sympathetic protests went up amongst the women of the clan.

“War is war, woman!” Nhfer shouted back at them. “We cannot control or predict what and where it will strike. Pack your belongings. Delhas! Nesthu!” he snarled at his assistants. “See that the children are prepared for travel. At dawn’s light they will go north, with you, to seek a place of safety. The Behundrians must pay for their insolence!”

Shocked murmurs rang amongst the women. “This has been our peaceful haven for years! We are the caretakers of the dragon lords.”

Another insisted, “If you force us, so be it. But why not flee to the hills with us?”

“What?” snorted Nhfer. “And tuck our tails between our legs like whipped dogs?”

“At least you’ll be alive,” returned one of the more influential women, taller and more composed.

“Do you have that little faith in us, woman?” Nhfer asked with sad incomprehension.

“No, it’s because I have too much faith in you, captain. You will give your life to support our independence. Knowing that, I am sad that you will spill your life blood on sacred soil, if that is what is asked of you.”

Nhfer growled, but curbed his tongue, for it was clear in his gaze that he saw the possibility of it and was moved by the genuine concern in the woman’s eyes. His lip firmed up into a sullen scowl. “No matter. If death is to be mine, then that I must accept.”

Vetra saw the hopeful faces vanish and the feverish whites of their eyes glint underneath their monkish hoods.

“Take the girl with the others.” Nhfer jerked a hand toward Jhara.

Jhara stepped back, steel flashing in her palm. “The first one touches me, dies,” she hissed.

Nhfer blinked, raised brows in surprise, as did others of his company. Low, nervous chuckles spread through their ranks.

“The girl stays with me,” growled Vetra.

“As you like, outlander,” muttered Nhfer. “But her blood will be on your hands.”

“Let us focus on the effective things we can do,” said Vetra. “If the Behundrians fall on us, then those high pillars yonder are an ideal place to put your best marksmen. We can dig pits to ensnare careless invaders. This narrow tract of sandy plain is a perfect ambush ground.” He snarled with gratification. “The Behundrian host must necessarily pass through this vulnerable neck to get to the dragon hall. We will trap them here! Pick them off like ripe fruit. We will hide up in the crags with our spears and bows and rain holy terror down on them. We used tactics like this when I was stationed in Sarnhill, on the Sahir border.”

A flicker of resentment passed across Nhfer’s face, as if he disliked counselling on strategies of war, but he held his tongue. Perhaps the Thrule was afraid of looking inexperienced in his men’s eyes. Vetra did not know. With a wave of his fist, the Thrule leader ordered his men to comply with Vetra’s wishes and assist him in any way they could.

Despite the unhappy faces of the retreating group of women, the crying children, and the wails of the angry wives, Vetra closed his ears to their tears and sobs. Many would not see the men of their family again. He had witnessed it all before.

“I need a sword,” he demanded.

Nhfer motioned to Euth who pulled an extra blade off his packbeast.

Vetra examined the weapon. It felt light in his grip. The blade had a wide end—too wide for his tastes—but it was a wicked weapon, nonetheless. The broadsword was always his weapon of choice. But the curved falchions of the Thrules would do just as well if it came down to a slaughter.

Down wide avenues of fine sand, Lehundr and the temple Thrule leader, led Vetra through the ruined city over to the Dragon fort, accompanied by various other Thrules. Dunes sculpted by winds curled over the gleaming white vertebrae of dragon tails. Vetra and others pushed deeper into the ancient sprawl of tumbled blocks and walls. More often than not, his keen eyes saw more: scattered bones, a monstrous skull tilted barbarously, half submerged in sand, or shattered by a broken column, or an elongated snout protruding out from a grave of sand. It was a place that snakes and lizards made their playground, scuttling amongst the scattered stones and dried earth.

They mounted the steps of Dragon Forge and began a long march down a marble terrace, a few hundred feet. White limestone, buffed smooth as glass, glistened in the intense sunlight. Tall, proud statues of dragon lords stood in a long line at intervals down the court with austere dragon faces and arms cupped in offering in front of them.

Vetra stared at the entrance to the temple, and could not help but be engulfed in a sense of wonder for the construction that spanned ages beyond his imagining.

A thousand years had passed of lashing wind and sun, and still the structure bore a look of gleaming vitality, unbroken and true, something which could not be explained by natural upkeeping. Surely it must have been forged under the protection of advanced sorcery! Its shadow cast a sombre hue over the plain, as if steeped in a memory of ancient antiquity.

“Long ago dragons warred with men over land and the precious water supply of the oases,” said the leader. “As you see, bones lie strewn over the plain that was the last Dragon Lord outpost. We temple Thrules call it the Temple of the North. Bleached and sun-dried by centuries of sun and wind, it now lies mostly covered by dust storm after dust storm, and their secret was forgotten, by all but a few.”

She continued in a proud voice, “The Dragon Lords sealed up their secrets and treasures in their dragon mesa. It was once a great covered fortress, of iron and stone. But it had been battered by invading armies, forgotten but for the low, squared-off vault that shows now. Still the portal stands, invested with carved, copper double-valves, initially fired and cast by powerful dragons’ breath.”

It was lined and coated, as Vetra now saw, with their own gleaming white bones, the most resilient things in the world, withstanding the test of time over rock, and the legendary Thorian. He gazed at the key in his hand, supposedly a talisman existing to unlock this portal, one that had been lost for ages.

Vetra followed Lehundr toward the middle of the colonnade, his bootfall echoing off the polished stone. The dragon door, unlike the gleaming walls, was reddened as if bathed in the ancient blood of dragons. Massive ringed handles faced inwards like great ox-yokes, for equally massive hands, as if the doors were handled by giants.

Vetra rubbed his scalp. A score of paces away, an ancient dragon lord statue stood fixed in timeless majesty. Palm held open, the giant stood enthralled, riveted in a gaze of sublime contemplation. A tall man with a dragon’s head carved in stone, it sported a bronze girdle about his waist, a sculpted boomerang tucked within.

No keyhole was apparent in that solid door and Vetra paused in puzzlement. There were no visible seams or signs that indicated whether it opened inward or outward. The temple Thrule leader solemnly passed the dragon claw over the smooth face of the door. The door neither budged or wavered. Lehundr grabbed the talisman from the elder’s hands and moved it in different directions, jamming it in faint grooves that showed on its massive face.

“No human hammer will break that gate, half Thrule,” the wise woman in the weathered white hood said, chuckling. “None knows where such stone was quarried from, or how such metal was forged. Some say the eldest, most powerful dragons, breathed fire and brimstone on them and blasted them with their fiery breaths, making them indestructible.”

It seemed probable, looking at them now. Vetra stood back, bemused.

An hour later, feverish, fruitless efforts had failed, resulting only in disappointment and no budging of the door.

“Maybe we should think of trying something else,” snapped Nhfer.

“Or adopt some other profession than grave robbery,” murmured Vetra.

They had gained no more access by late afternoon and they sat slumped, chin in hands, scowling in dissatisfaction. A shout came up from the plain.

Those whom Nhfer had summoned came marching over the gap where the two hills to the north met.

Vetra blinked in surprise. He saw their numbers approximating the order of a hundred, a welcome addition to their war band. He felt a twinge of relief, for they were a hundred more than he expected. A weary bunch too, for they had travelled much distance, non-stop and in haste, he guessed.

Nhfer greeted them with warm enthusiasm and exchanged embraces with Vasuth, the leader, and nods of head and broad smiles with certain of his peers. He introduced his companions, Vetra, Sebju. They nodded and clasped arms, the Thrules clutching boomerangs, with only a few spears and bows amongst them.

Vetra gazed curiously at the newcomers. When he saw their meagre, limited arsenal, he winced, massaging his temples.

“Not enough bloody bolts,” he muttered.

“Boomerangs will serve us,” asserted a proud member of the new company.

“Boomerangs will do you no good against those savages and their camels in close-quarter fighting,” argued Vetra. “Make spears from the deadwood at least. They lack the metal heads, but are better than no weapons at all. I’d advise sharpening and hardening their tips well. Twirl them in open fires.” He motioned to a zealous, gleaming-eyed Thrule, who gripped a prime example of a spear in hand.

“Aye, Claw Bearer.”

Vetra did not care for the title, but let it pass. A faint strain of condescension edged the tone: an unnecessary attitude, considering he was helping these vandalistic, impulsive Thrules who had gotten themselves in a mess through no fault of his own. A part of him wanted to walk away from this dusty plain and never look back, and let them fight their own misguided battles. But he always fought for the underdog, and that was definitely these nomadic Thrules. And there was always the spoils. But the thrill of the chase was his real inspiration, as was it the heart’s drive of any mercenary.

After instructing them on spear-making, he went on to set up archer hides atop the pillars, and lead in digging snare-pits: shallow ovals hollowed in the sand upthrust with pointed stakes. They covered them with withered branches, goat hides and a false floor of sand. He went so far as to oversee some crude catapults operated from the caves, and the collecting of larger stones to roll down on enemies from the craggy hills and crumbling pinnacles of rock. He sank wearily on a broken stump of column, squinting against the sun as it sank in a weltering sea of red.

Lehundr sat down aside Vetra some moments later. “We’ll not see a gold speck of the treasure once these Thrules get their share. It was me who found the map. Me who had the vision!”

Vetra shrugged. “We haven’t even penetrated the blasted vault yet.”

“Which is why I think we should work through the night, try to crack it open, carry out what gold we can and steal off under the stars.”

“A brilliant plan, Lehundr, but it may be these very Thrules who keep us alive, if the Behundrians are haunting the desert to the south. Unless you are thinking of crossing the wastes north into Sahir? With an armload of riches and nosy Thrules all the way? All the gold in Behundria won’t buy you water out there either, or food.”

Lehundr clenched his fists impatiently. “It was unwise of you to give up the claw. The old woman has it now.”

“You already have two claws!” grunted Vetra.

“I don’t think they’re the right ones. Decoys maybe. Your claw is different from the others. You said you found it draped around a Dragon Lord’s neck, hidden in a secluded chamber. The others were in plain sight, too easy to snatch.”

Vetra gritted his teeth. “That claw didn’t work!” He shook his head in incomprehension. “Take whatever claws you must and do what you like with them. I’ll not have part in your plots.”

 

Before the women had left with Delhas, several of them had prepared a feast for the defenders of their lands who stayed: dates, mashed figs, dried mutton. The threat of battle lingered heavily on Thrule shoulders. All felt that tomorrow would bring red maelstrom and slaughter to the hallowed grounds.

In the early evening Vetra further trained Jhara in swordsmanship by the ruins of the dragon-lord’s ancillary hypostyle hall. “Use the same motions as you would with the knife,” he instructed her. “Better not change your technique that much. Just use the shorter blade, remembering you have longer reach.”

“It’s all new—but I will adapt.” She clutched Lehundr’s blade with eagerness, nodding, and with a grunt of raw vigour, came at him in a rush.

“Easy girl!” he chided laughingly. “You’ll exhaust yourself.” He parried her short, aggressive thrusts. “Feint in like this—” he made a quick sweeping motion “—then draw back.” He drew her into a defensive crouch and turned in an unexpected circle to edge around her lean hide, with the blunt edge of his sword touching her neck. “You see—your opponent wouldn’t expect this.”

Mouth hanging slack, crouching low, she repeated what she had seen, improving her technique.

“That’s it,” he encouraged. “Make your opponent waste his energy, not yours.”

She gave an exasperated cry. “I always use my cat o’ nine tails! If some dumb mule gets too close, whack—” She whipped out the ring-hooked weapon to clash against Vetra’s outstretched blade.

Vetra glared. “Perhaps. But don’t rely on that thing. It can be thwarted easily. Some ‘dumb mule’ can come in and—snatch it out of your hands—like this.” He shot forward, hooked out his sword and instinctively her whip lashed around the gleaming flash of its attack. With a lightning-fast yank, he grabbed it and pulled it, jerking her off her feet.

She snatched the whip back angrily. “That’s not fair.”

He stepped back with a laugh. “Fair? Are we back to that again? And watch that temper of yours. It won’t serve you in a battle.”

“It could also save me,” she argued. “If I see enough red, I can fight like Mother Dalki, demoness of the hunt. So I was told by my mother.”

“Well, she’s right, and she’s also wrong. You could miss the obvious and end up dead.” He wiped sweat from his brow.

He saw that Dunon and Nhfer and other Thrules had been watching the sparring, whispering amongst themselves like adolescent boys, the odd lewd comment inserting itself in their observations. Both he and Jhara ignored them.

“Come on—it seems we need some privacy from the spectator gallery. We’ll wait till dusk when the little boys have gone to bed.” He found a shrubbed-off area and lay down with Jhara in his arms, resting, feeling her soft warmness pressed against him, his back to the cool sand, though with one ear and one eye always open.

Twilight brought a salmon glow creeping over the naked desert. The thrum of activity merged into that pleasant bustle and cricketsong that the hill Thrules knew best. Temple Thrules mixed with hill Thrules and men’s high voices, laughs and spirited arguments rose over the sounds of desert instruments, zither and palm drum, and the crackling of cook fires. The temple Thrules had rolled out casks of ale from sand-covered holes near the foot of the hills. Samos and the Sebju participated in sprinkling a protective trail of spirits around the common ground, the same spirits brewed from a cactus like plant that grew in these parts. Vetra and Jhara chose to join the company, languid and unhurried of stride.

Scouts had been posted as far as two leagues down the valley to warn of any attack. But none came. The security cushion of advance warning nonetheless lessened their worry of ambush, and allowed the men to relax.

Some of the women had refused to travel north with the others, and Sebju and story-tellers of the hill Thrules revealed tales of their heritage, mostly for the entertainment of all:

“We dragon-Thrule come from an ancient race, long before the Behundrians or the Sahirians came and wrested this land from us, and set us scurrying to the hills—We knew much about the lore of this hallowed land, and how the giants came and founded this city long ago, and died in war with dragons, leaving their treasures with them. Plates of gold and iron meld were then fused on dragons’ hides which made them invincible. Stone dragons, colossal statues, piles of bones. The city of Dragon Forge was but a shattered rock when the last dragon lord lay in his tomb…”

Vetra could see the city had been a major centre…with its dragon-headed temples carved into rock cliffs, its wide ways and stone-carved avenues that hosted dragons, giants and men at one time.

“It was said a great smoke came over the land when the islands of the sea erupted and spewed filthy ash into the air—and this earthy plain, then a leafy green paradise, turned to dust and cinders, and a coldness settled over the lands. Men turned to war with dragons. They came with a vast host before Dragon Forge. The Dragon Lords raised their hands to the sky, and the dragons dipped down at their command from the clouds to smote the army ranked before them. But the black blood froze in the dragons’ veins when the champion of the men, Percias the mad witcher, launched a glowing ball of power into the air which beguiled the swooping beasts as a flame does moths. They flew into its illimitable interior, consumed by sorcery, to fall as one, cleaving mighty domes and cloud pillars of the city of Dragon Forge, as you see before you.

“The Lords quivered, their magic fled them, then men with pikes speared them down like marlins…All except one, the most powerful lord—Macemas, who turned within to his abode of power and closed the vault forever.”

Murmurs rang through the gathering; many asked how Percias had won favour with the men.

Sebju’s voice tolled low and serene. “The Dragon Lords strove amongst each other, vying for control of the realm. They were not immune to vice. One betrayed his master: a certain protégé and coming lord bound under Macemas. He contracted Percias, the witcher from old Angoram in Mozete, to build him a weapon to usurp his superiors and make him king. The witcher granted it to the aspirant but betrayed him and withdrew his talisman, the magical orb, and he teamed with the men, who he knew could defeat the dragons and their lords, and thus deliver him the wealth of all Dragon Forge…”

There was a pause as many blinked while absorbing the tale. The Thrule magician Samos clapped his hands. He regaled everyone with a few entertaining tricks, letting a hawk land on his shoulder and then outstretched arm, and after encouraging it to clutch up several objects the magician had secretly stuffed up his sleeves, let it fly about their heads, dropping things: seeds, papers, ornaments, from its beak and talons. To the tune of amused applause, Sebju brought out her story tellers, and Nhfer his jugglers and Vasuth, the other hill Tribe leader, let his acrobats perform a comic routine. Some men, drunk on mead so early on, fell into the fire and shouts and laughs went up in wild peals as beards and hoods were singed. Vetra gave short shrift to such antics; for all the time his warrior’s brain worked on the problems of tomorrow.

Vetra and Jhara and Lehundr enjoyed, or more aptly suffered politely through, the entertainment and conversed some, mingling with the fiery-tempered Thrules and their reckless sports, but Vetra grew restless, as men indulged in ale and grew boisterous, perhaps preparing themselves for the trials and fighting ahead, with its uncertain outcome.

It was easy to evade notice of the two sentinels who watched the inner perimeter. He did it more to test his powers of stealth, than out of necessity, though Jhara certainly got a kick out of it. Vetra had much experience of getting past guards in his day.

He moved into the shadows, with Jhara at his heels, away from the hubbub, shouts, laughter and song.

The two weaved their way up the hill that hosted the dark stones and they fought and trained under the forked megaliths limned against the rising moon. Though the landmarks towered like devil tridents under the pale, ghostly light, they paid them no heed. The eerie radiance lit up the sand like molten silver.

At the feet of the nearest megalith a gap opened where a crumbled stairway angled down to gloomy depths. An entrance to another tomb? The passage was half filled with sand, Vetra saw, out of which poked a dragon snout.

“What do you think their purpose was—the dragon lords?” asked Jhara, wiping the sweat that still poured from her brow after their vigorous sparring.

Vetra shrugged. “What do you think?”

“I mean, why did they die off? I don’t believe Sebju’s tale about mad dragons and witchers and orbs. Did they die in vain?”

“They are remembered still centuries later,” Vetra observed. “Our dwarfish Thrules somewhat idolize them, so in that sense, no, they did not die in vain.” He looked up at the garland of stars pricking the sky and reflected. “It’s quite likely, some species altogether more alien than us, might look down on our bones and see our mouldered towers a thousand years from now and think the same of us.” He grinned at the thought.

Jhara’s lips parted in a thoughtful breath.

Vetra caught a sudden glimmer of motion down in the valley. He peered, surprise dilating his pupils. On the terrace before the portal to Dragon Forge, a tiny figure toiled under flickering torchlight, tinkering with hammer and claw. He shook his head, wondering if the half Thrule would find his pot of gold. Then vanish like a bird in the wind.

He and Jhara slept on the hill under the stars and the warm desert air, their bodies twined in a comforting embrace, Jhara squirming her lithe body into Vetra’s chest while he clasped her tight and drew in the lush fragrance of her hair. She whispered languorous sounds in his ear and wormed her way closer into the crooks and strong folds of his muscles, and he burned with the feline heat of her. It was all the mercenary could do to keep himself from falling into a torrent of passion, given her pliant fervency and strong lust for him. Something he had no intention of resisting. For some moments he forgot the horror of yesterday and the trials to come.

 

VI: Red Sands

 

Pale light was spilling over the barrens when Vetra and Jhara ambled down to find sleepy-eyed Thrules ranged about the remains of last night’s fires. Sporadic groans emanated from their lips.

“Up, you fools,” growled Vetra. He flourished his blade. “The alarm could sound and you hounds would be caught unprepared.”

Grumbles and curses coursed amongst the hooded men. They eyed the outlander with sullen respect as he moved through the camp. The girl trailed flush-faced behind him.

Hardly had they indulged in wedges of cactus fruit and handfuls of dates when a shout arose from the shimmering plain.

Scouts came riding in on desert ponies, out of breath. “They are here!”

Eyes darted to the south. The sign of distant dust clouds rose like smoke on the horizon.

“To your positions,” ordered Vetra. He and Nhfer scrambled forward onto the open plain, drawing swords. The Thrule leaders rallied each of their detachments and moved them into position. As the minutes passed, the rumble of hooves grew steadier.

Vetra and Nhfer steeled themselves with their limited forces to face the approaching enemies. Jhara and a red-eyed Lehundr joined the bulk of Thrules up the sides of the hill breasting the mesa to await and ambush the host at the appropriate instant. Some of the Thrules lay hidden up in the crumbling rocks and peg-like pinnacles near the ruins, overlooking the dragon fort, while others ran up the shale-flaked paths and crouched behind the fallen columns and cyclopean masonry, or barricaded themselves atop the designated pillars with crossbows and bolts. The dust cloud ranged closer and camel riders and footsoldiers took form. Through the haze and promise of crippling heat, slaughter rode towards them.

Dozens of camels and horses broke through the shimmering mirage of dawn. The former were driven by white-turbanned riders, some Kirns and Guirites, the latter Behundrians from what Vetra could see. The rest, a mixture of races, marched on foot.

They had brought reinforcements—some three hundred strong, forcing a collective gasp. The fifty Thrules, for all their mettle, shifted from foot to foot at the sight of such a host. Flags and banners flew from the backs of the enemy riders, the blue and red of the Southern Behundrians: a flag much different, Vetra noticed, from the corrupt satrap of Behundria whose reign beyond the northern hills did not extend to these lawless southern wastes.

“Fire!” one of the enemy yelled, and the first bolts peppered the air. The crossbowmen knelt and reloaded.

Curses flew amongst the arrayed soldiers and those of the Thrule resistance fighters alike.

Nhfer crouched grimly at Vetra’s side, watching the spectacle unfold. He and the Thrule leader had earlier rehearsed a tactic to draw out the Behundrians, while others would ambush them from the crumbling slopes. The pits were ready below and the marksmen on the pillars hunched behind their barricades, bolts ready to loose.

“Stand firm,” Vetra reminded the uneasy throng of Thrules. Nhfer motioned to his men and they glared at the gathering enemy and whirled shiny blades before them, as if to give them confidence.

Samos, the Thrule magician, readied his stones and his bones of magic.

Cthan, the sheriff of Dragonskull, came boldly riding on a shaggy roan at the head of the vanguard. He peered around with insolent self-assurance, of a lord grown fat and irritable with the fruits of success.

“I know there’s more of you, you mangy rats! I can smell your cook fires and taste your rotten meat and I can see your rat prints in the sand. We have your Thrule,” he bellowed contemptuously. He made a savage flourish of sabre and one of his riders yanked a cord tied to a blood-streaked bound man and sent his heel into his back. The man fell to his knees. Zren!

“Give yourself up!” the voice boomed again over the ruin of stone. The impudent tone echoed off the face of the dragon fortress. “You cannot win. You will be slaughtered to a man!”

Vetra grimaced, his fingers clenched on the hilt of his sword.

“If you want this wretch alive, bring us gold and proof of the treasure from the dragon ruin. We know you have it. This scum babbled on about some dragon key, but we had to force it out of his stubborn mouth.” He rode over to slap the head that was lolling. He gave a cruel laugh, a wolfish, half-taunting guffaw.

“We have no treasure,” yelled Vetra. “All the keys we sought turned out useless. We have nothing to give you. So go back. Go home. There’s nothing here for you.”

“Liars!” boomed Cthan in a bantering, hysterical laugh. “Do you take me for a fool?” His grating laughter was like the slither of a sword from a unoiled sheath. “We’ll burn this place down and ferret out every one of your sand-hugging hides. You bed with the weasel, so be prepared to have your pelt skinned!”

Closer the army came and a grim smile flitted across Vetra’s face. Let them walk into the trap. Behundrian falchions glinted in the blazing light and the tramp of booted feet grew louder. Camels grunted in the toiling ranks. The mercenary held his breath; he sensed victory, despite the odds.

Cthan rode on, confident in his high saddle. He hurled more insults at the approaching line of warriors, hoping to rile them into an attack.

One of Nhfer’s headstrong, trigger-happy Thrules crouching above in the rocks, stepped out of hiding, and in a moment of bitter passion, fired a bolt, taking Zren’s captor in the throat. Zren stumbled and fell, then ran. A cry broke out from amongst the Behundrians. One caught up with the runaway and jerked the rope back with a proprietary tug, as if he were some toy pet on a leash. It had the Thrule landing hard on his back.

Vetra cursed. Their position was compromised; there was no choice but to attack. He wanted to lead them further up into the ambush but the idiot Thrule had loosed prematurely; Dergath, he would pay! Vetra threw down a fist. The Thrules on the slopes stormed out of hiding and streamed down like a pack of wolves, blades hefted, bows trained.

The boomerangs sang out first like strange birds from a far star and swift destruction fell upon the Behundrians. Those that found their mark, broke necks or smashed limbs. Others that missed their mark flew back toward the throwers to land clattering amongst the rocks. Hands snatched them up, or some were caught expertly in flight by Thrules who wore heavy gloves.

The defenders continued to swarm down, as crossbows loosed from both sides.

The unarmoured Thrules fought helmless, and for that they suffered losses. The Behundrians wore no mail or iron helmets, but their chests were padded with tough leather jerkins worn beneath their loose, light-coloured vests which stopped a jabbing scimitar tip or whirling knife hurled from far.

The marksmen, bedded on their high places on the columns, rained bolt after bolt into the seething fray. Some caught camels’ flanks and sent riders careening sideways and elicited screeching brays from the crippled animals. As horses rode in, the dragon fort was cut off from access. Horse and camel rode over the sand-covered hides and fell in the pits impaled on sharpened stakes. Footmen also fell prey, shrieking to their doom, while others pushed behind them. The crossbowmen rose swiftly from behind their stone barricades atop the ruined columns and released streams of bolts, killing dozens. Riders and footmen alike fell with iron in their gullets and limbs.

The Thrule magician threw his stones and spell bones into the raging horde. With an odd whistling movement they sank into small sinkholes in the sand. Footsoldiers watched aghast as rivers of flame beetles and fire scorpions came burrowing from their holes to crawl up their legs, wherever the bones landed. The creatures came swarming, and the attackers cried out, clawing at their backs, their legs and arms. Quickly the Thrules drove in and cut them down.

Where the last of the magician bones fell, they erupted in a yellow singeing flame that lit up like candles any in the front lines.

Vetra grimaced as he ducked a spear arching through the air which plunged on to pierce Samos’s neck. The wizard gave a high-pitched gurgle and sank, bloody froth wheezing from his throat.

“I want that sorceror’s head pinned to my saddle!” howled Cthan.

The hill Thrules fought alongside the plains Thrules as one. Around the Behudrian flanks they darted, to hamstring enemies and plunge steel into thighs or exposed flanks. The Behundrians surged forward in fury. With brute force and greater numbers they ploughed their camels through the Thrules like scythes through wheat, despite the traps and crossbowmen the Thrules had posted. One Thrule marksman fell with a bolt through his chest; another slumped, arms flung forward as a spear plunged through his spine. The protective stone shields erected the day before were crumbled, riddled by bolt fire from the ground.

The boomerangs flew true but were less in number, and did not wreak the same terrible damage as before.

Vetra ran into the fray, roaring like a lion, falchion rising and falling in red waves. He took blood and lives, parrying and blocking thrusts to his vitals, penetrating through leather padding to bare flesh beneath. Blade-wielding Thrules and bowmen poured in behind him, inspired by his fearless assault.

Dunon and Nhfer fought shoulder to shoulder. In a moment of ill chance, Nhfer fell as a Behundrian’s sabre ripped upward through his chest and he was trampled under the boots of the charging Behundrians. His men gave a fierce cry, but kept on slashing and hacking with inhuman strength. Their rage rose and showed in the hewing, steely resolve carved on their faces.

Dunon wavered, blood-stained and torn, narrowly side-stepping a curved sword aimed for his neck. He shook the blood out of his eyes and, helped to his feet by Gefzad, forged ahead, clanking swords with the spitting, one-eyed Rafa.

Vetra stepped in to block Rafa’s strike that would have disemboweled the smaller Thrule, then thrust blade forward to engage Cthan’s henchman.

Vetra’s corded muscles rippled and lent him strength for his every savage strike. Jhara fought behind him like a hellcat, whipping her cat o’ nine tails, taking with it wads of Behundrian flesh. A burly Behundrian charged her, veins popping on his brow, enraged at his colleague’s death, the man she had just slain.

Jhara twisted like a snake, then spun outward into a crescent kick, smashing his face with the edge of her heel. The man crumpled, and was run through by a nearby Thrule. Jhara’s triumphant cry rose above the clank of steel.

Vetra saw Cthan in the forest of heads and he pushed toward him like a moving shadow, beating his way with bull-like anticipation. If he could take down that pig-headed tyrant, this battle would take on an altogether different flavour.

But such happening was not to be. The surge ebbed sideways and the mercenary was swept along with the mob like flotsam on a sea, as a new wave of attackers entered the scene.

With a dogged fanaticism, Cthan led his charge, thundering orders left, right and centre in the hot wind of the morning and thrusting a fist forward. “Forward! Kill them all! Take not a man alive!”

The Behundrians roared their war cries and their thundering charge was like the crash of boulders down a ravine. Their combined momentum was like a runaway deluge. It took the Thrules by surprise and hurled them back with fury.

Below the men screamed and died like corn stalks flattened in a hailstorm. They fought in close-packed knots, the leather-helmed Dragonskull men towering a head over their robed enemies.

The butchery came and went in appalling waves. Steel fell and blades chopped like cleavers; lives drained away as blade lifted and thunked in men’s sides. The sands of the Dragon lords ran red that day, not with Dragon blood as men had spilled in the past, but with human. Could the Dragon lords witness such desecration to their hallowed land, they would have rolled in their graves. They would have commanded their mightiest dragons to hew down the barbarous men who fought here.

The Behundrians with their superior numbers were edging out the smaller force, rallying together in a final pitched wave, despite their losses. Their last camels tore through the Thrule line, trampling any who stood in their path. Jhara and he were brushed aside in a flurry of hooves and slashing swords and whirling dust. Vetra was pitched onto his back, scrabbling to avoid the clomping hooves that would surely break his bones. A warning tremor shivered in his head, that this battle was lost. He grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled her toward the dragon fort. He twirled his sword, and gave a thundering call for retreat. The camels could not mount the steps; it was apparent that a last stand at the dragon temple was all they could hope for. He and Dunon and Lehundr and others staggered in a dust-choked frenzy, avoiding pits where dead men stared up impaled on stakes. They slid their way through a lake of blood-soaked hooded Thrules and robed Behundrians lying bent and broken.

Knots of Thrules fought still in the dust and mayhem, cut off from the main retreat.

Vetra gave another bellowing roar and he and Jhara and Lehundr and a motley band of Thrules clattered up the central steps, backs to the portal, holding the one key that Lehundr believed unlocked the mighty gate.

They stumbled backwards down the limestone way, thirty of them, ragged, cut and dusty and fervidly beat back the howling mob. They raced for the last stairway that edged out on the ruins of the old city where they might lose their pursuers amongst the dunes and fallen masonry.

Vetra brought up the rear, smashing his sword on heads, stabbing and hewing limbs, taking cuts and bruises as he retreated down the ancient terrace. The way was narrow, flanked by a low balustrade and intermittent statues, but in their favour while fighting in close quarters.

A quick glance ahead showed a carpet of dead on the blood-drenched sands. The thirty Thrules were already reduced to half their numbers.

The survivors ran along to the dragon gate in a fierce rush of panic.

Lehundr jealously drew the dragon claw from his vest and began scraping and slashing it along the impenetrable portal.

To no avail.

Vetra slashed an invader. With a wolfish howl, he kneed another bloodthirsty attacker down the steps into the sandy bloodpit below. The howling Behundrians who dared to come near the dragon hall, felt the bite of his dripping sword. His lungs heaved; a dizzy veil of crimson hate swam before his eyes. The sun beat down like a scourge. The raging horde had exhausted their supply of bolts it seemed, or their crossbow men would have picked them off like flies. He saw Thrule bodies sagging over the tops of most of the pillars like straw puppets, pincushioned at last by volleys of Behundrian bolts.

“Hold the stair!” shouted Vetra, panting. “If we lose it, we’re dead.”

The invaders were flanking them, cutting off their escape, pinning them to the terrace. Vetra had hoped to make it to the end of the terrace and lose them in the ruined city, not a stone’s throw away. Only three sets of stairs gave access to the temple, one in the terrace’s middle and stairs at both ends.

A bloody wretch of a figure came staggering up the step—Vetra sucked in a puzzled breath—his arms bound and a long bloody rope trailing from his neck. His hood and garments were torn and shredded. It seemed that Zren had killed his latest captor and had managed to scramble and dodge his way through the mad onslaught. How? Vetra could not guess. Surely a testament to his ruthless craft, and no doubt, luck. Vetra winced at the sight of him, his hooked nose was mashed, one eye fused and swollen shut.

Snarling, Vetra cut once at the cords that bound his arms to his torso and the Thrule gave a gasping sigh, flexed hands and lacerated arms while Vetra severed the rope dangling from his neck.

Behundrians charged in ruthlessly and defenders’ blades were hard pressed to keep them at bay.

The youth gurgled out a sound of renewed vengeance. His keen eyes burned with an unquenchable fire; they had not lost their sullen passion. A flash of steel and a chopping thunk and Zren deftly snatched the blood-smeared blade from the dying man’s hand that Dunon had slain.

Leaping off his camel, Cthan bodily pushed aside his own men and came charging up the steep dragon-stone steps like a blood-mad bull. His blade met Vetra’s in a blinding clash of fury. The two strained and heaved, slashing and parrying, until they closed together, fierce adversaries breathing hot air into each other’s faces with swords locked high over their heads.

Vetra twisted on his hips while nearby, Dunon closed with two sword-stabbing Behundrians—“Die, you mongrel curs!” Dunon lanced his blade through the first man’s guts.

Cthan cried out with a piglike grunt when Vetra’s knee rammed viciously in his crotch and knocked him down the stairs. The sheriff toppled over into others, sending his men reeling to the sand.

“Open, blast you!” cried Aus. “I’ll drag this claw across your throat.” He snatched the relic from Lehundr’s hands and raked it across the glinting stone.

“To hell with the claw,” cried Gefzad. “By Dergath. I’ll kick this door down. Open! Open!”

Jhara rushed about in frantic dismay. Her eyes narrowed on the statue, then blazed in a freak hunch. They had been focussing so much on the door that they had neglected the statue. She grabbed the claw from Dunon, and pushed it into the outstretched palm of the dragon lord.

Nothing.

One of Cthan’s rogues hacked through the rebel net and knocked the claw off the palm. Jhara howled in frustration. She laid back her whip to slash him. The man rose, blade gleaming in an angry hand to cut her throat. He fell in a crimson tide as Vetra’s sword arched in a deadly sweep and sliced him from shoulder to navel. His blood ran slickly over the fallen claw.

Jhara desperately reached for the claw. More men rushed in to savage the mercenary. Jhara flailed her whip in a fit of panic, snatched up the blood-drenched claw and slapped it back in the statue’s hands.

Almost instantly, there came a rending screech and groan of stone, as of tortured metal and buckling forces from deep in the earth. Then a slither, as of massive gears winding and stone grinding below. The portal slid open.

Vetra’s mouth twisted in a snarl of satisfaction. He drove his sword through the last of the attackers. The claw needed only a blood offering to open the door. By what sorcery, he could barely guess.

With a breathless gasp and wheeze of stale, gushing air, a grey slab that hadn’t moved for centuries yawned open like some mouth of a prehistoric fish. In their goggling disbelief, Vetra and the others pushed through. Spears clattered on the steps behind them. New bolts whined and whistled over their heads. Swords clanked about the opening that was fast jamming with heaving, roiling figures. Thrule blood spilled, as did Behundrian. Vetra was the last defender through, grabbing the claw from the statue’s hand; the door started to grind shut.

Not fast enough.

Cthan, wheezing in pain, also managed to stagger through with a clutch of his fighters and sent steel into a Thrule’s gut and kicked the dying man back and away.

The heavy door slammed shut and Thrules and Behundrians were plunged into near darkness.

 

VII: Trove of the Forgotten Ones

 

Vetra stared into the shadowy interior, slack-jawed. Blood trickled down his cheek where a blade had flicked perilously close to his left eye.

A dim watery light leaked around the edges of the portal—perhaps the mechanism in its extreme age had grown faulty. Groans and livid curses rang off the echoing stone of the inner vault. Men pounded at the door, trying to win past the portal with their fists and weapons. Others who were trapped inside slashed in blind desperation at what they believed were enemies, sending sparks along the cold stone walls.

Vetra ducked whistling blades and stumbled ahead through the cobwebs with the others, straining eyes in the gloom. The hall was about twenty feet wide, with a lofty ceiling running up into darkness. Lehundr, Jhara and Dunon were beside him—others he guessed included Zren, Aus and Sebju. All hunched, awaiting his order, their lungs heaving, as did four other Thrules.

Dragon bones littered the long corridor, for their boots crunched on them: a twisted mess of dragons and men, helms and swords and shields. A battle had been fought here, that much was clear, a scene untouched for centuries.

Vetra glimpsed the small details of this last stand: a rusted battleaxe, the handle cleaved in twain, a fallen shield held possibly up over a man’s helmed skull to stop murderous dragon’s teeth. In his mind’s eye, a sword poking up from a skeletal hand plunged into the white underbelly of a bellowing beast as its tail thrashed in agony. Ahead, more haunted ruins; even this far in, the thin light streamed from the cracks around the massive portal to bathe the cobwebbed interiors in a ghoulish glow.

Vetra urged his comrades down the hall, feet crunching on bones and skulls. “There! Make for that back passage,” he hissed.

There came the tramp of men’s feet and the rustle of arms.

“Listen! I can hear the Thrule rats,” came a voice from behind that sounded like Cthan’s. “Follow them!” The voice yelled out at them again, with disgust: “So, you have no treasure, eh? No key to the dragon fort? I knew you were liars!”

Even then as the sheriff’s voice broke, men came clattering after them. Despite all their spells and wisdom, dragons had died defending their sanctuary against rogues such as the sheriff, Vetra thought morosely.

He mounted a short flight of steps. He paused at the landing and looked back down the stair littered with broken rock and pale bones to hear the shuffle and stamp of feet and the angry murmurs of men.

“Get a light,” Cthan yelled from the darkness. There were fumbles and shouts, and then a slap as a heavy hand smote a henchman.

“This place is cursed,” cried a voice that sounded like Vilivet, the rogue from the Dragonskull market. “Did you see the old dragon skulls, the half man, half dragon bones?”

Cthan spat with disgust. “You halfwit. Curses? Really? Get a hold of yourself! We fight these rats to the end and win. I want that treasure! For the damage to our pipeline, for the deaths of our comrades, I hold them ransom for all these insults.” He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Vetravincus! I know you are there. Why scurry and cower like your abominable rodent friends? Come out and fight like a man.”

Vetra’s fist whitened in anger. He clenched his hilt. He hated the truth of the bully’s words—but it was foolhardy to engage them, as much as he despised being branded a coward. They were thrice his number and thrashing blindly at them in the dark would only mean certain death. No—far better to lure these fools into some trap ahead—hopefully something would arise, if it didn’t get them first. Jhara opened her mouth to speak but Vetra silenced her with a hand over her lips. He ushered the others up the stairs and they halted before an arched doorway to their left. He hoped that a last-minute plan would avail itself. If not, Dergath help them…

A faint gleam showed in that passage beyond.

They heard a strange bubbling, almost a gurgling echo of water about the ancient stone, and a warm waft of humid air drifting with it.

To continue past the landing would lead to more stairs snaking down into murk. Already, faint sounds were stirring down that eerie way: low rusty bellows, sinister croaks and scuttling, things not human. A tingling shot up Vetra’s spine—such rustlings were not dissimilar to the leopard-lizards he had heard back in the dragon tomb.

He ducked into the passage where the glow burned stronger. Down a low ramp they crept into the bowels of a huge cavern.

There they beheld a fantastic scene.

The inner sanctum of the lost dragon empire… Deep in the heart of the mesa, ceilings rose crusted with riches, jewels beyond imagining—countless sapphires, diamonds, opals, rubies, emeralds, and smatterings of shiny jet, lapis-lazuli and jade which provided garish colour to the panoramic maps and designs portrayed there. Dragon gems, the plunder of ages, glittering with shameless abandon on high. Treasures fetched from all corners of the world, anointed in lonely splendour and protected for untold centuries.

Vetra gaped. Dergath, what a horde! He had seen treasure troves before, but never like this. If it could be quarried, then that prospector would be rich beyond his dreams. But how to reach the cavern’s ceiling? The walls rose vertically from the floor without chink or crack where a boot could gain purchase.

Before them spread an enormous bubbling pool, some manner of giant hot springs. It radiated a peculiar brazen luminosity, hence the source of the glow earlier. In the centre, accessed by a broad stone ramp, rose an island on which stood a crystal-like pedestal of petrified bone, shimmering green, orange and white. Its quality was of an otherworldly radiance, as if activated to fey life with the sudden opening of the portal after centuries. In spite of the countless jewels overhead, here was what the dragons valued most—water!—thousands of bubbling barrels of it.

He glanced quickly behind him. No sign of Cthan.

He cautiously edged toward the shore of that strange pool. And in the mysterious light cast by it, he dimly discerned the familiar faces he had come to know of late: Aus, Gefzad and Sebju, the venerable leader of the Thrules who had fought alongside the men with sword and survived. But she wore a face set grimly and writ with fierce meaning, that she and others would not make it out of this crypt alive.

Vetra hissed through his teeth at such fatalism and turned to the vast pool. A lattice of stone walkways spanned the waters, from one to three feet wide. Like a spider web, these lesser walkways branched out from the central island to intersect each other, like some intricate mosaic.

Each way gave passage across the water in its unique way. A broad stone ramp gave clear access to the island, at first angling down on a shallow grade from where they stood peering in awe, before it spread over the bubbling waters. Almost on impulse, Vetra set his feet down this path and Jhara and Lehundr ran close by.

Zren hunched defensively like a cornered animal, peering up with his one good eye, the other completely swollen over, lips pressed in a scowl despite the glistening wealth.

“That eye will do you no good in a fight, Thrule,” muttered Vetra.

Zren grunted. “I can see well enough, thank you.”

Lehundr’s face lit with greed, but dimmed upon seeing the difficulty in chipping the priceless gems out of the ceiling.

“How could anybody build such a place?” Jhara whispered. “Where are you going?” She strode after Vetra with frightened eyes.

Vetra made no answer.

Lehundr spoke in a voice of hollow wonder. “‘Tis surely the heart of the dragon lords.”

Great dragon king statues looked down from the far edges of the cavern where their stony feet touched the water. The ceiling was a rugged dome crafted of blasted rock, embedded with untold crystals, and as Vetra’s eyes probed deeper, he could see the pattern of the star maps and the legends of the dragons woven in the crusted weave of gems: of faraway kingdoms, glorious and singular vistas, a story of Dragon history told from the beginning. But it was so vast a panorama for the eye to comprehend that Vetra’s struggling senses balked, unable to absorb in any single glance the immensity of it all, and he staggered back, speechless.

He turned his eyes away. The water had risen over the stone walkways, if these even were human or dragon-lord walkways at one time. To peer down at and contemplate the pool? Or up at the magnificent maps of ages, and stars? The water’s surface seemed in constant turmoil, bubbling with a feverish energy of its own. Why or how? Vetra did not know.

But there, the perfectly carved pedestal…and hovering a foot over it, a shining globe about three feet wide, on whose circumference shimmered a veil of transparent water—or yet some type of filmy, magical glass. Impossible, but true.

Vetra shook his head to be sure he wasn’t dreaming. Jhara’s fingers clutched his arm, her lips parted in a gasp. The orb defied the mind’s reasoning, an apparition of mindless impossibility, as if all forms of laws of nature were broken. Inside floated a golden dragon’s eye, suspended in some transparent medium. Liquid? Air? It was as if held immobile by incomprehensible sorcery—and fashioned of intricate detail.

Vetra went to reach for it, but an inner voice stayed him. At the pedestal’s base on the dusty cold stone sat a circle of small dragon skulls plated with gleaming silver, eyes inset and glaring with flaming garnet. Vetra saw human skulls set similarly at each junction of the walkways over the water, perhaps the gory trophies of past skirmishes between humans and the dragon lords.

The invaders from Dragonskull stormed in, reeling, humbled by the sight of scintillating jewels and brilliant colour. There were three dozen at least; at the head, Cthan’s eyes were lit with rapacity, his jaw clenched. His fingers flexed on a dripping falchion, ready to exact his thirst for vengeance.

Vetra’s eyes roved for sanctuary, some strategy to foil these boorish marauders, but before him only the waters bubbled and the steam rose over the yellowish pool. The mosaic of stone walkways seemed at best random, some unpredictable labyrinth architected by minds of the distant past. And yet, perhaps this was just what they needed…

A ledge with sections of steep stair switchbacked up the tail end of the cavern to the ceiling, like that of the dragon tomb. For what purpose? A frown curled Vetra’s cracked lips. A ritual stair in bygone days? Dragon lords ascending and descending from some hidden entrance or exit? Could they use them to make an escape?

Vetra gave a violent start and lurched back as he nearly stumbled over one of the skulls at his feet. He snapped out of his reverie. “No time to probe the mysteries,” he murmured softly under his breath. “Let’s lure them into the waterways.” He motioned swiftly. “You two, Dunon and Lehundr, draw them away hither—” he jerked his head toward a distant statue on the side wall. “Over there. Jhara, you follow me.”

Stealthy as a panther, he skirted around the pedestal and took to the main path toward the cavern’s far wall. Jhara struggled to keep up with him.

The ragged, blood-tattered Behundrians charged up to the shore and halted before the bubbling water, their eyes gleaming upon the gems above. They had not yet spotted the scattered band loping down the walkways. With circumspect glares, the thirty of them threaded their way along the main waterway to the island where they stared at the pedestal and the steam rising in ghostly wisps. Several of them murmured in suspicious awe at the magical construction and the chilling array of skulls set at its foot.

“Ho, what’s this eldritch fane?” grunted Cthan.

“It’s worth a fortune!” Vilivet cried in blank wonder. He greedily reached for the shimmering eye in the white-lit globe, but Cthan slapped his twitching hand away.

“Keep your dirty paws off that eye. It’s mine!”

Rafa hunched at his side, a hooded figure who leered like a jackal with his one beady eye. A bloody patch lay draped over his missing orb, taken by Jhara’s scourge back in Dragonskull. Others crowded around the pedestal to gawk rapaciously at the impossible treasures gleaming on high. A few ran back to the shore to try and scale the wall and chip out some of the gems glistening from above.

The luminous eye had got to Vilivet’s brain. He drew his blade. “Says who? I’ll kill you, you dog. I have just as much right to the treasure. Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” His eyes blazed as Cthan drew his own sabre. “’Twas I who saw it first.”

“Be careful how you speak, ‘dog’, and watch your insubordinate tongue,” hissed Cthan dangerously.

“Why, you arrogant slug,” spat Vilivet. “After all the deeds I’ve done for you? I ought to slice you. The Thrules aren’t half as stupid as you think. They knew there was power here. That’s why they sought out this key that Rafa has harped on about, having some fool map that he claimed he almost had in his hand. The eye thing’s proof of it. Here, Rafa. Help me wrest this golden nugget from its socket, and we’ll take the magic for our own, and—”

Cthan upended the butt of his sword into Vilivet’s teeth, smashing them back in his throat in a spray of bright crimson. The man pitched sideways, staggered back and slipped into the water. He blubbered, flailing like a fish, his sword flashing in a palm aching yet to gut Cthan, but some disturbance came arching over the water. The Thrules watched in uneasy silence from a safe distance. Vetra couldn’t decide whether the foaming roil was some type of jellyfish or octopus, but it wrapped opalescent streamers around the villain’s thighs. There came a wretched screaming and terrified thrashing as Vilivet scrabbled to gain the walkway. The thing, whatever it was, must have mutated over the years, Vetra guessed, judging from the elongated tentacles and the ghoulish suckers on each end. Now it pulled down the screaming ruffian to his death into the bubbling water.

The Behundrians recoiled and hopped back from the edge of the water, sucking in air, brandishing their swords.

Cthan’s face wrinkled in corded knots and his hard features locked in a strange sneer. “He was a fool, Vilivet. Serves him right for defying me and believing in the likes of ignorant superstition.” He glared about him at the men who still looked on in horror. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let that be a warning to you fools!” he cried, waving his sword with fanatic displeasure. “Don’t get too close to the water. Who knows, you’ll end up like our erstwhile friends.” His words caught in his throat as his eyes caught a whisper of movement—Vetra and his gang, pushing toward the back of the cavern. “Well, what are looking at? After them!”

The ragged Behundrians stared reluctantly at the walkways but hurried forth, cringing at the possibility that they too might fall in the infested waters.

Cthan’s hand reached for the mystical eye.

“Beware the old ones,” Rafa mumbled in his ear, gazing spellbound at the shimmering globe and what fate it had in store for them.

Cthan’s hand stopped inches from the eye. “What old ones? A myth. Nothing but outworn statues, old skeletons and fossils dredged up to scare old women.”

“You are mistaken,” said Rafa in a quiet but shaky voice.

Cthan rounded on him. “You too, Rafa?” He glared in wonder. “I expected more from you.”

Rafa opened his mouth to speak, but Cthan cut him off. “Get them, you idiot! What am I paying you for?” With sword thick-smeared with blood, the sheriff stomped after his henchman and beat the backs of three other laggards with the flat of his blade.

A sinister shuffling came from behind them near the back of the chamber. Cthan wheeled and his twisted features grew to blank-faced dismay. A curse caught in his throat, one full of regret committing his men so hastily to the walkways.

“They live still? It can’t be—” His voice trailed off.

Out of the gloom shambled seven primitive-looking reptiles. Dragon-leopards—the guardians of the chamber, like those of the tomb. They crouched on all fours with dragonish heads lifted, the torsos of leopards and clawed feet of lizards. A look of madness shone from iridescent eyes that darted all ways at once.

With a need for distance, Cthan plunged after his fellows, abandoning the treasure of the golden eye.

The six dragon guardians fanned out to examine their numerous prey, who they rightfully considered invaders of their realm. Already they had cut off any escape and a silent unblinking stare passed amongst them. A deep-toned rumble echoed from cavernous throats. Tongues flicked out in anticipatory unison. With slow, lizardlike deliberation three of the largest shambled across the water, straight up the main path. The others stayed back to guard the exit passage.

While Vetra and Jhara snatched glances over their backs, others of his band slunk deeper into the maze of walkways. The guardians soon reached the isle and fanned out toward Dunon and Aus, and now Cthan and Rafa circled their way like weasels, far from the oncoming brood.

Vetra crouched on his walkway before a human skull. He eyed the waters and the rapidly approaching enemies with grave concern, wondering what sinister creature watched him from below. Jhara hunched at his side, breathless, her ginger hair matted with sweat and blood. “What do we do?” she said defiantly.

“We wait. No choice.”

Jhara’s fingers tightened on her whip.

From under the tangled mass of his matted black hair he looked at her, seeing the gleam of hope in her fiery eyes, and his heart burned with a fierce pride.

 

VIII: Jaws of Death

 

Vetra turned to face the oncoming horrors. One spat a ball of viscous phlegm down an adjacent walkway to affix itself to a nearby Behundrian’s vest. Ooze soaked through the man’s middle and he slapped at his chest in wild desperation. “Agh—get it off!” his horror-brimmed shriek filled the air. “It burns!” His fingers smoked on contact and the sizzled flesh gave off reeking grey vapours.

Vetra cursed. He sprinted onto an interconnecting walkway just in time to avoid gobs coming his way. Waters bubbled, carrying a sulphurous stench. The chamber was unbearably humid; the air pained his lungs.

“The guardians have increased our chances!” he cried. “Make for the ledge where their fangs can’t get us.”

He stared with bloodshot eyes at that distant place across the luminous waters. Shadowy shapes circled closer, glints of wheeling light reflecting off a dozen swords. He bared his teeth.

At places along the opposite shore the steaming pool ran flush to the crusted wall; elsewhere the shore widened allowing room for fighting men to move—to this place Vetra wished to flee, for the ledge wound its way up, away from the pool and the dragon beasts. The shore sloped before the far wall where colossal dragon-lord statues stood in solemn procession, staring in reflection at the sinister waters.

He and Jhara had scrambled as far away as they could from the circling fiends without being flanked, but now steel would have to decide their fate.

“Slay them!” Cthan shrieked hoarsely from a walkway not a dozen paces from where they gathered. “Catch them and cut them down, you fools! We cannot relieve this cavern of its treasure with these salamanders spitting acid at us. Kill the outlanders! Kill all these wretched Thrules.”

“What do you expect us to do?” sneered Rafa. “Pull them in with our front teeth? They have feet as swift as wolves.”

Cthan scrutinized Rafa with rancorous displeasure. “Fifty gold talons for the first to cut off the outlander’s head! Twenty for the girl’s. No—take the wench alive!”

A roar went up amongst the swarming Behundrians and they came charging hard down the walkways at both fugitives.

A quick glance told him that only a head-on assault would make any difference. Throwing caution to the wind, he ran to meet them. Rejecting the odds, the mercenary swung his sword in sharp, whistling loops and drove in hard and furious. His blade struck home in a splatter of crimson; sword met sword in a clanking echo around the skull-littered walkways. Raging blades bit into flesh while steel smashed through bone and sinew, driving the foremost attacker back like a mule into the other Behundrian jackals.

The dead man’s guts spilled out on the stone. His colleagues seethed forward, struggling to get around the standing corpse that was wedged between opposing forces, eager to stab at the berserker and win their reward.

Vetra roared and drove his blade more fiercely into them. He could see the bearded dead face lolling in front of him. He could smell the hot rank breath of the men behind. Jhara’s whip snapped past Vetra’s shoulders and cut into Behundrian flesh. Their fates hung in balance; men’s muscles strained and grisly shrieks rent the air. Dragon guardians snapped, gnawing at the enemies’ backs. Vetra felt the mass of men surge and a chill wave of horror as the line of Behundrians shivered under the first beast’s mauling assault. He released his lock on his attacker’s sword arm in a sudden twist and unleashed a flurry of slashes. The next man fell dead, ribboned with cuts. Another took his place, his blade arching, but was cleaved to the bone. The mercenary showed no mercy. The blood flew from his blade and boiled in his veins; a battle lust was upon him, and for the moment he was unstoppable.

Fortune did not favour the cursing Behundrians. For all their numbers, they were hampered by this lack of space and the lizard attack from the rear. Despite their initial advantage, another of the brute dragon guardians appeared, lumbering up from a side path like a ravenous ghoul. The thing ripped into their flanks, and the ones in the back screamed and fell, hands outstretched, clawing at stone as they either slipped into the lethal waters or the monster rended them with teeth and claws and dragged them away in its mouth.

Vetra saw a creature shaking its maw like a dog and a screaming victim was tossed like a windblown leaf into the pool.

Vetra gave ground, snarling as dying men pushed forward like zombies. They struggled to escape the snapping jaws, the sharp claws and trampling feet. The first two in the thing’s path died horribly, crushed and mangled between sets of serrated teeth. Down they went trampled by its clawed feet.

Sandwiched between foes, Jhara fought tooth and nail at Vetra’s back. Yowling like a banshee, she kicked savagely and lashed out her whip at the three rogues who tried to grab her and pull her down.

Vetra abandoned his fight. The wall of flesh was pressing in on him. He pushed Jhara aside and smashed his bloody falchion like a club into her nearest attacker’s face. The other he kicked in the stomach and sent him gasping into the waters. The Behundrian reached for the ankles of his fellow man to save himself, only to end up pulling him in too. Vetra ran with the girl, barely keeping ahead of the mad rush of the surviving horde who drove from behind, while the dragon guardian made grisly work of anybody left in its path.

“Fight back to back!” he snarled at Jhara over the din of the tortured screams and eviscerated bodies. “The narrow walkways give us an edge over their numbers!”

Down the walkway they scrambled. Vetra’s feet skipped past an intersecting path, his eyes roving for solution, knowing a wrong choice could be their last.

Another ball of black mucus came slapping at their feet, perilously close. He stumbled sideways to avoid it. Not a dozen feet away, three Behundrians crouched on a narrow walkway, weapons bared, cringing. They realized they had taken a wrong turn several steps back. Now they stared into the orange face of one of the waddling, lumbering beasts that had swung past a narrow bend and was fast gaining on them.

Vetra wasted no time to observe the inevitable carnage. Behind them, yelping attackers wheeled in confusion. Boots rang on stone.

The girl turned and feinted and cut a man just as he was bearing down on her. Vetra marvelled at her fluid skill. She moved just as he had taught her. In a quick follow up lash, another chunk of flesh ripped free from the man’s sword arm. He wailed, clamped a free hand to staunch the growing gush of blood. Twirling, she ducked the man’s strike, and sent him howling into the steaming water with a swift kick. Immediately a swarm of spidery tentacles engulfed the writhing body. The blubbering shrieks were lost in the hiss of water.

The man’s comrade shrank back, the whites of his eyes showing fear, blade hanging limp.

Vetra sucked in a breath. The slimy things must have infested the waters ever since the demise of the dragon lords. He couldn’t for the life of him imagine what had impelled the lords to allow such vermin in their splendorous hall.

He raced on, fingers locked on Jhara’s arm. They clambered for a point along the far edge of the cavern, but a half dozen Behundrians read their intentions. Vetra found the way was soon cut off. “Is there no end to you rats?” he cried, sneering at the enemies who blocked his path.

Cthan’s rogues leapt and snarled, striving to cut them off before they could get to the next crossway. Too late. They leaped over a narrow gap of water onto a cross path which headed back toward where the men quailed, struggling with the dragon guardian.

Vetra cursed this place. The irregular web-like layout of the walkways made it impossible to predict any enemy’s movements for more than a dozen steps. A sudden turn down a crosspath or a doubling back down another could leave a man sandwiched between foes.

A long stretch of open water lay between them and the three Behundrians. The stone path had evidently sagged over time. None wished to chance that water and the loathsome squid creatures that teemed within.

Vetra weighed his options.

The doomed trio slashed wantonly at the dragon guardian that was menacing them from behind, trying to keep it at bay. No such luck.

A glob of acid spewed from a gaping maw and hit a man square in the temple. He danced a devil’s jig, howling, clawing at his face which melted away in a waxy ruin before the astonished onlookers could react. The gasp died in his throat, black goo sizzled from his flesh. He sank, twitching, legs draped over the side, his arms the other. In an instant, crawly, green, plant-like tendrils pulled the sightless body under.

Vetra and Jhara halted in dismay. Water foamed over the stone at their feet.

To race across that long sunken stretch invited disaster. No matter—the beast decided it for them. It charged across, unafraid of what dwelled in the frothing cauldron. Vetra stood grimly poised to face the thing. Jhara held back attackers at the rear. Sucker-vine tentacles hooked onto the running beast’s forelegs and claws, but these were easily stamped to oblivion in its angry dash toward them.

Vetra staggered back, pushing Jhara hard into him and onto an intersecting path that sank into water not three strides out. He wheeled and crouched low as the beast’s head reared up to smash him from the side. Had he stood where he was, he would have been mowed down by nothing less than the driving force of a battering ram.

A noisome, fetid wind hit him as he ducked under that looming wall of flesh and ripped his sword across the thing’s throat, and while dark fluid spurted forth, dripping on him and staining the decayed stone, a slippery white tentacle arched from the water to grab a twitching leg. Wild cries sounded behind him.

The thing died with a hissing gurgle, blocking the path.

Vetra shoved Jhara back. Taking a run, they leaped over its humped back. The Behundrians came after them howling, bounding over the beast’s glistening hide with another raging dragon beast snapping at their heels.

Vetra and Jhara leaped between winding paths, the stone lapping with blood and corpses. Vetra’s feet slipped in a wide pool of blood. Jhara crashed into him. Her whimper and sob sounded in his ear. “We are doomed! There is nowhere to run.”

They pulled each other to their feet, and the blood drained from Vetra’s features. Another monster with fanged snout was bearing down on them. The skin of his back crawled. They scuttled down a cross path and Vetra cringed at the meaty sounds of carnage as the beast tore into fleeing Behundrians. Whatever sorcery animated these brutish killers from the past could only have been brewed from the blackest pits.

He closed his ears to more gristle-rending sounds and his hand fled to his blood-matted scalp, a growing lump gathering there where a grazing rake of sword had glanced off his skull.

“Come on,” he muttered at Jhara. “We don’t want to fall into ruin like those unfortunate sods.”

“Cthan’s rogues will catch us and corner us!” she protested.

“Move!”

They scrambled over corpses and a menacing whoosh of peril flew past their heads. Vetra looked back to see a hill Thrule boomerang catching the loping beast full in the eyes. It stumbled out of control and splashed into the frothing water. Grinning with satisfaction, Vetra clapped the approaching Thrule on the back. “Great throw, friend!” He saw the sweating man had a healthy supply of boomerangs strapped to his back.

Vetra’s quick, sharp eyes took in the scene in a glance: the fleeing figures, the hacking blades, the shambling beasts. His tactician’s mind registered all. How to win this fight? Lehundr and Aus were knee deep in hewn corpses and cloven skulls. The Thrule marksman crouched and stabbed and launched boomerangs at advancing foes. Zren raged like a ghoul, his sword gripped and flailing, tossing ear-heavy curses and hacking with unfettered lust. Of the Temple Thrule leader there was no sign; Vetra assumed she had fallen.

His inner sense told him to take a weaving course toward the clotted path where Dunon, Gefzad and Aus battled not a stone’s throw from the cavern’s edge against a guardian.

Arching and twisting in its confidence, the monster got too close to the water and found its foreleg gripped by a probing tentacle. With a mournful croak, the beast bit at the curling menace, but more tendrils came lurching out of the water, like sucker vines, alive with alien force. Festoons of the snake-like things wrapped around its other leg, then its neck, and slowly dragged the creature into the gushing seethe of water. Its head came bobbing up. There it thrashed, seeking release, sending keening moans into the air. But snaking cords webbed over its snout, fangs and into nostrils, and it dropped from sight.

Vetra closed with two blood-drenched attackers. His sword found soft flesh beneath the leather. One attacker gave a last sighing gasp and Vetra put a foot on his chest to pull out the blade. He slipped on the spurting blood, lost his grip, was unable to pry the weapon loose from the breastbone in time to prevent the blade from falling into the steaming water. Instinct took over; he kicked the corpse away and winced as his only weapon bubbled away into oblivion.

The mercenary’s tired eyes roamed about the chamber. He felt naked without his sword. Not long would he last amid these fiends without familiar, protective steel. His flesh quivered with the thought of being rended by these foes.

Six feet out in the water, another guardian thrashed, struggling to stay afloat. Crossbow bolts stuck in its neck. Now its snout and humped back rose above the steaming bubbles. Vetra’s eyes caught the glint of scimitars lying not far away on the stone walkway, in the hands of dead men, mauled by the guardians. It gave him an idea.

“Skirt around that way!” he whispered fiercely to Jhara. “We’ll meet at that adjacent walkway.” He stabbed out a finger.

“It’s insane!” she cried. “You’ll be eaten alive.” She saw what the mercenary was planning—and she caught him in a convulsive grip.

“Do it!” cried Vetra.

No sooner had he uttered his cry when a blade came whistling by his head. He made a last savage leap.

Over the guardian’s head he launched himself onto its back, now crawling with great, green, slimy tendrils. Even as the shiny, flesh-flecked teeth snapped up to chomp him or its lips vomit out deadly goop, his feet were in the air again and he was lunging for the opposite walk. Where was Jhara?

He came slamming down on the crude-cut stone, his boots in the water, and the fingers of one hand clawing on the wet stone.

He pulled himself up, legs burning with pain from the scorching water, and the feel of sucker-vines latching onto his leg.

Scrambling to his feet, he jigged around, a frantic fury on him, smashing boot heels down on the crawly things that threatened to twine around his ankles, then thighs. He grabbed an abandoned sword and beat it against the things creeping up his legs. He shook the horror out of his skull, feeling his limbs quivering.

No time to lose.

Sword in hand, he regained his footing and lunged for Cthan and the rogues who guarded the junction. Jhara was alone and against many. He cut the first opponent down in a wave of red mist, cleaving flesh to the bone, and faced the others.

Cthan darted away, laughing, directing others to take the place of the dead minion. “Hold him! The fool has nowhere to go!” He raced back toward the island, where the dragon eye lay.

Vetra caught a glimpse of that unfathomable orb, pulsing away like a ghoulish, living thing, vibrating as if it were of demented, elemental origin, alive and quickening, and shining a weird translucent glow.

Cthan had been lucky, or smarter than his hapless men. He and Rafa bolted along a narrow ledge lapping over with water. Leaping over those sections, with the intent to skirt around the guardians, they now closed with Lehundr and Aus, and the boomerang thrower who came rushing up to assist them.

Dunon, Gefzad and three hill Thrules saw the Behundrian enemies storming up to murder Lehundr and Aus. They came at Cthan and Rafa from the rear with howls of rage on their lips.

Cthan gave a rancorous roar. He turned to engage Dunon, who was snarling from lips caked with froth. Dunon turned at a whizzing blade that sliced close to his ear. He stumbled, tripped by a foot snaking out.

Gefzad jumped over and caught Cthan’s whickering blade. It would have driven into Dunon’s ear. Cthan’s blade slid rasping over Gefzad’s hilt and Gefzad’s finger was shorn off. His blade again locked with Gefzad’s. Then with a quick, snake-like flick, he ran the Thrule through the chest, and the gape-mouthed man toppled across the pathway with a squashy thud.

Vetra watched as jelly-like forms swarmed over him, the man’s face a parody of comic surprise. Cthan booted him out of the way. He came driving onward. Dunon was inches behind and tried to jab past his man to get to Cthan’s jugular, but the path was too narrow and he could do little without suffering damage, nor do much for fear of skewering his own man.

Ten feet in front, the boomerang thrower parried Rafa, and realizing that even with a patch over his eye, the man was more than his match, he drew back in defeat.

“Retreat!” came Vetra’s pained voice rising across the water. He called to Aus as well who was spidering his way back with Rafa’s opponent to regroup—there both he and Dunon were but two dozen paces away on a parallel walkway.

Lehundr pulled back the boomerang thrower and with Jhara, they ran to Vetra’s place of cover.

The boomerang thrower slipped and Rafa, seizing the opportunity, ran a sword through his back, his face lit in fierce triumph. Aus gave an agonized bellow.

“Forget him!” cried Vetra. “To the ledge! The beasts can’t follow us up there.”

Cthan turned and glared at the speaker. “You’re a dead man, mercenary!” Hearing Rafa’s triumphant cry ring from not far away, he shambled off to the pedestal where gleamed the dragon’s eye. Dunon and the two others came shrieking after him, blades flailing. “Coward! Fight like a man!” Dunon cried with frothing anger at Cthan’s back as he stumbled after.

Cthan ignored such insults. Grinning, he strode with blade hoisted with imperious confidence to carve out any Thrule flesh that would thwart him.

The rest of the Behundrians, crowded by circling guardians, foiled Vetra’s plan of regrouping. They cut off Dunon and Aus, with a wall of bristling blades.

“Up the ledge!” Vetra thundered in frustration. He and Jhara reached the opposite shore while Lehundr puffed behind them, and now the shadow of a towering dragon lord statue fell over all of them and they scrambled past its huge stone feet. They reached the ledge that wound up the cavern wall.

Up the crumbling slope they scrambled, a crust of fallen jewels crunching underfoot, sparkling in the luminous glow of the water. Cthan’s men saw what they were doing and gave angry shouts. Cthan gesticulated wildly. Half of the forces raced to cut them off at another stairway leading to the same ledge. Vetra clenched his fist grimly and hoped the others could make it in time.

There was an advantage to this route. The sinister dragon lords could not scale the wall, and the Behundrians would be hard pressed to take them on the high ground.

The plan was flawed. Foes were coursing behind them, and up ahead on the straight section of ledge, squeezing past dead bodies, and encircling the defenders in a knot. A flash of figures appeared in the dimness and he and Jhara and Lehundr raced to meet them.

They were backed out on a ledge. Below the waters boiled. There was no way to escape.

On the death of Cthan’s rear guard, Zren had managed to worm his way through the battle and up the ledge. Panting, with new cuts and bruises, he was like a dripping beast, and Vetra almost cut him down, crouched as he was, lips asnarl and streaming sweat and blood.

“Fight with Jhara and protect each other’s backs!” Vetra ordered the Thrule.

He listened, for once.

To his credit, Zren had knocked Rafa’s man aside and had just saved the mercenary from a direct hit. He was willing to waste himself for the girl whom he eyed with almost possessive fanaticism. Young, impulsive fool! thought Vetra. He would get them all killed with his headstrong impulses.

Bellowing a savage war cry, Vetra wheeled and smote in reckless abandon, giving Jhara space and time to crouch and round-house kick, “Die, you ass-licking dogs!” she cried, and she thrust a boot out into a bearded face. Vetra heard the crunch of bone. Rafa rounded in, grinning, lunging in to trip her.

Jhara fell with a thud, crying out sharply, the wind knocked out of her lungs. Her cat o’ nine tails licked out, but Rafa caught the twirling thong as it curled about his sword and he yanked it out of her grasp. She squealed in frustration and Rafa pounced like a tiger, flicking her hateful weapon over the edge.

The girl crawled away but Rafa pulled her up shrieking by the hair.

Zren came stabbing in like a wildman and Rafa snarled with fury at the fierce passion of the man’s attack. Rafa gave ground, stabbing wide-eyed, but his men shouldered in and booted the Thrule back.

“Away from me, you stinking cur. Back to the reeking pools you were born in to lap like the beast you are.”

Blood-torn and seething, Zren leered. He swung two-handed frenzied sweeps of blade while Rafa dragged Jhara back into the protection of his knot of rogues.

She writhed in his cruel grip, her face pushed over the ledge overlooking the pool, but he clasped her tighter and circled her with his ape-like arms, crooning a foul proposition in her ear.

Vetra lunged forth, but too late, blades kept him in check too. Lehundr crowded behind Vetra, hilt quivering in his bloody fist.

Cthan paused below, a saturnine croak of laughter on his lips like the hyena who has cornered the rat. The smug insolence of the tyrant showed on his face. He stared up at the vice his men had sprung on the rebels while others of his forces contended with the dragon beasts.

Back toward the centre of the island he sauntered leisurely, a pleased expression on his face at the turn of events. Three of the guardians were down, one guarded the exit and only two remained to harry the walkways, these far away and under the control of his men.

“That’s right, Rafa,” Cthan called up savagely. “Hold the bitch. She’s a she-cat.” The sheriff’s one eye lingered on the guardian that menaced Dunon and his men at the other end of the ledge. “I’ll see what this precious dragon eye is all about.”

Rubbing his hands in satisfaction, he paused to appraise the glimmering globe and its treasure. “A fair march to this god-forsaken place”, he said hoarsely, “and losses to go with it, but well worth it.”

“Aye,” gloated Rafa, yelling down from his ragged patch on the ledge. “These Thrules will pay for our losses. And this filthy outlander.” He shook Jhara vindictively as a dog does a rat and flashed her a lascivious smile. “In quarts of their own blood and in bed favours. Starting with these mangy rebels before us, trapped in this treasure den.”

Rafa relaxed his grip, overconfident in his advantage. It was an open invitation for Jhara and with a snake-like movement, too quick for the eye to see, she twisted out of Rafa’s grip, ramming elbow full into his teeth. The man howled. Vetra lunged forth, knocking one of Rafa’s henchman off the ledge. He cut through another man and ground a heel into Rafa’s foot, catching the flailing arm and bending it backwards.

One of Rafa’s remaining henchmen grabbed Jhara from behind and put a knife to her throat.

With a savage wrench, Vetra pulled Rafa down to the stone so he was on one knee, gasping in pain, putting blade to his throat. Lehundr vaulted over the two of them, and his curved falchion quivered inches from Jhara’s captor’s face.

“Drop the swords!” barked Cthan, seething at the sudden assault on the ledge. “Let my man Rafa go free, or my other man will slay the girl. That I promise!”

Jhara protested, struggling with feverish desperation. “No! I got you into this mess, following you here. Don’t give into this monster! Let him die, Vetra. Let me die, kill all these vermin.”

Cthan laughed cynically. “He’s not that much of a hero, doll face. Besides, that wouldn’t be very heroic of him, would it, ‘Vetra’?” he sneered. “Our knight in shining armour can not live with himself, responsible for the slaying of a girl, could he?”

Vetra growled. It wouldn’t be easy for him to sacrifice the girl. Was there another way?

Rafa’s henchman now had the screaming rebel over a precipice. Reluctantly Vetra released his hold on Rafa. The thug unruffled himself from Vetra’s grip, shaking out the hurts.

“Now hold her this time, you idiot. I give you a simple task and you do things like get your eye gouged out.”

Rafa snarled and turned maliciously on the girl. “You’re a tasty piece of meat. I think I’ll take out my pound of flesh on you later.” He ogled her sleek body, her luscious curves pleasing to him. He fondled her breasts like a drunken soldier in a brothel. “Do you remember how you gave me this, you wretched spitfire?” He jerked a hand to his eye, lifted the blood-torn patch, displaying an ugly red socket.

Jhara turned her head away. Though she struggled, there was no overpowering the brute who now held her and thrust her arm cruelly behind her back.

A voice from the haunted past, echoing dim and terrible, suddenly smote the chamber. Or was it only in their minds?

So, this is what mankind has evolved to after a thousand years?”

The startled Behundrians peered around in abject wonder. Strangled murmurs hissed through their teeth.

Vetra looked around in no less surprise. But he could discover no source for the mysterious voice that rolled doomfully in his mind. A stir began to form in the waters abreast the pedestal.

Scowling into his beard, Cthan reached out with impatient urgency toward the mystical, glowing dragon eye.

Through the ethereal film, his hands thrust boldly to seize the eye for his own. A keen thrill of ecstasy seemed to ripple through his body and light up his face.

“A life’s fortune,” he hissed in marvel.

The iris of the eye was cut like an exquisite diamond. A ruby pupil fitted dead centre glared forth. Like a cosmic egg it glowed, solid gold, silver, or both—one could not distinguish. The treasure harboured a shimmering aliveness that tantalized the beholder. Just as he was about to withdraw the prize from the globe, a fierce wave of agony and horror passed over his face. A searing blast of radiance burst from the eye and lit up Cthan’s face. From a distance Vetra squinted, the flare was so bright.

“I see your bloody past!” he raved. “Dragon wars over aeons!” It was as if Cthan came to understand all of the dragons’ secrets in that one greedy grasp. A secret not meant for man. The eye lit with the brutal sum of knowledge of the aeons that the dragons had lived, and died and warred. All blasted into Cthan’s brain—embodied into one blinding pulse, like a hundred possessed lightning strikes.

With a choking cry the sheriff stumbled backwards, his lips mouthing shrieks of pain. The skin of his palms stuck to the white-lit egg, so supercharged it was with heat and mystical energy.

The rogue’s eye sockets hung in red and dripping flaps. Smoke billowed from his hands, his eyes scalded by liquid light.

The sheriff of Dragonskull jerked about like a mad puppet, stumbling in blind terror, as he learned how the dragon lords became rulers of the earth, how all the battles they had won and fought were in vain, and how they had been lords of the sky and the earth ever since the beginning when the oceans boiled and the first islands rose out of the sea to become the fabulous continents on which the first humans stood.

The eye fell from his grasp and hung suspended in the sulphurous air to return magically like a faithful sentinel to perch inside the globe.

At the same moment a liquid column of strangeness rose from the pool at the stone’s edge. A water spirit? One of the feral jellyfish-like horrors? Vetra was at a loss. The thing was a giant cyclone of raging water at first, then an amorphous mass that bulged and formed the dim outline of one of the dragon lords, tall and imposing, with eyes unblinking, arms crossed and staff in hand.

The dragonish head tipped gravely, staring down at the fly-sized humans. A shimmering yellow halo surrounded its watery form, this solemn giant of all creatures.

 

IX: The Dragon Lord

 

Cthan groped back blindly, as if aware of the foaming rush of some horror in close proximity. With pathetic whimpers, he pawed for his sword, senses still intact, but his eyes beyond repair. He found his blade where it had fallen and gripping it in a clenched fist, swung wildly, flailing at an apparition he could not see. His blade passed right through it without drawing a drop of water.

The thing ignored him as if he were no more than a gnat.

Vetra swiftly elbowed Rafa in the ribs, taking advantage of the moment. He seized the man’s sword and while he was doubled over, sent him reeling into the hot springs. Lehundr ducked a whistling blade just as Zren surged through the pack and rammed his head into Jhara’s captor. Jhara gave a wild screech. In a burst of hysterical strength, she pulled herself into a ball and brought her assailant rolling over her back. Vetra plunged steel into his throat and kicked the dying man down the slope.

Jhara scrambled past Zren and Vetra felt her shudder pass over his body as she brushed close, seeking his protection. She shook with fierce outrage, her fingers digging in his back.

At the same time, words came into Vetra’s mind—thoughts forged from the hidden wells of the subconscious. It was a deep rumbling sibilance like low waves breaking on an ocean.

None can lift the dragon eye, the jewel of our heritage, so waste no efforts. ’Tis the heart blood of our race, the greatest treasure we have ever known—excluding the water that gives life, for the eye links soul with body, body with earth and air. Though we be centuries dead, our memory is preserved. You have brought a blight upon us…”

Rafa floundered in the water, quivering and thrashing as his flesh burned. He clawed his way up the shore, flesh raw, red and seared. Swarming green and white tentacles crawled over the gang leader’s shins and began their evil work. He clawed at them with his quivering fingers, tearing clumps of flesh off. The things wound tighter about his legs. He pounded fists with strengthening intensity, tearing with fingers now bloody and his gruesome shrieks were awful to hear as he struggled in vain to get the ghastly things off him.

Up the path Vetra, Jhara, Lehundr and Zren clambered, blocking out the sounds of Rafa’s and Cthan’s distress. They skidded up higher while the Behundrians stared in speechless wonder like stunned deer. Vetra bowled through their startled ranks, leaving two writhing on the jewel-crumbled stone while he, Zren and the girl vaulted over them.

Dunon and Aus scrambled up a stair that ran parallel and now cut down the last resistance from the back even as Vetra barrelled through.

More invaders, rousing from their shock, rushed, grunting and hacking up from behind them. As soon as Vetra herded the others up a set of steep, crumbled steps, he turned and chopped the pursuers down from the narrow stairway. Slowly he was getting pushed up, his back to his peers.

“We need to climb higher!” he raved.

Dunon cried, “To where?”

“Doesn’t matter! They can’t surround us on the narrower ledges.”

The voice from the ages boomed again:

People from this far age—be my witness! Feast thy eyes on Naklion, our Dragon Heart. I am Macemas, last lord of Aslante, but only in memory do I impart this message. Take your wars and squabbles elsewhere and wrest no bauble from this place, lest my curse befall you!

All gaped in wonder as the voice reverberated through their bones.

We, the lords of dragons, have languished; our reign passed a millennium ago. Yet all must live together in this world… Leave in peace! Whether in life or death that you understand my words, take this memory with you, that whether dragons or their lords live or live not, you are the masters of your own destiny…nothing comes to pass that is not a form of your own doing…”

Dunon gasped, clambering up higher behind Vetra. “What manner of creature is this water devil?”

“Who knows?” grunted Vetra. “Something to mash our brains, despite its flowery tongue.”

“The dragon lords have left a remnant of their past, you fools!” snarled Lehundr, “—a living, conscious memory! None heeded the call for peace ages ago.”

“Get higher!” Vetra yelled.

In the midst of clanking blades Vetra slowly gave ground. A long, ghastly line of guardians advanced like hungry predators from the exit tunnel. The mercenary grimaced and gripped his blood-caked blade tighter. Doom crawled at every corner of this forsaken pit.

The water god seemed to watch them with detached interest. Vetra expected it to kill them all then and there, and drown them in lakes of quicksilver. But it just rose higher, a shimmering tower of judgement.

Vetra craned his neck upward. The crust of jewels glinting like fireflies to the senses was tantalizingly close. While he slashed down at Behundrians still fighting for a cause without a leader, the dragon pool seemed to cool, the billows of steam flattened oddly. An ominous scrape echoed from overhead, like a heavy stone slab lifting off an impregnable tomb.

Vetra’s eyes narrowed. He saw a patch of open sky reveal itself above them, pale sunlight momentarily blinding him. The water lord shimmered and compressed its liquid form into a long, rippling spiral, up around Cthan, who flailed blindly with sword like a madman as the dragon guards advanced on him. Up it rose, like a living cobra, swirling like a whirlwind to disappear in the opening and was gone.

Vetra’s senses reeled. He shook off the dizziness, a fear of heights returning in full. Sweat streamed off his face; his stomach quivered with nausea.

The rush of booted feet came from below. He edged back and struck all the harder at a leather-helmed skull that bobbed up at him. He pointed to the opening, then at the sky, and his parched throat gave voice to a hoarse shout. “There! Our only chance out of this burrow. Quick! before the portal closes!”

Like harried thieves they crawled up the stairs, quivering fingers reaching for the opening, as the Behundrians came roaring after them, scrabbling at their heels like bloodhounds.

“Cthan’s dead!” blurted one. “There goes our reward.”

“Aye, let’s kill these rogues anyways and be out of here!”

Water hissed below and the Behundrian’s wild curses were lost amidst the wrathful echo of the dragon lord’s exodus.

Through gritted teeth, Vetra held the throng back, his blade whistling wild arcs of death. Dunon helped Jhara up the hole, while he and Aus and the others pushed Zren and Lehundr through. When all were up and out, Vetra leapt, fingers clutching the opening’s rim. Feet dangling, body swaying, he kicked at enemy blades that licked out at him like vipers. His friends snatched at his arms while rough hands from below sought to use him as a ladder. These Vetra smashed with his boot heels; a tumultuous wail rent the air as a man plummeted to his doom.

Then he was out, blinking in dazzling light. The open sky yawned above them. The searing heat of the desert beat down on their skin.

The stone slab was too heavy to pull over to stop the snarling Behundrians who seethed up in a mad, feverish wave. Vetra and Dunon hunched over the opening like vultures, slashing at fingers that tried to hoist themselves up. Dying shrieks echoed below; more fell flailing to crash down the stairs and to the cavern below.

Vetra stared about, his eyes wandering to the place where the dragon lord had drifted. He shook his head, saw only a film before his vision. His eyes smarted as he looked into the overwhelming, golden light.

The dragon lord glided solemnly across the skullish, scar-topped rock of the mesa.

Halting at the summit’s edge, he, or what they thought was he, traced circles in the air with his slightly clawed hands. He had shed his watery body, yet his skin glistened as brightly as before. For all intents and purposes, he was now a real flesh and blood dragon lord, stern-faced and regal, and majestically lifted a hand in the direction of the two megalith fangs perched high on the adjacent hills. An unearthly aureole surrounded him like a wizard from another age.

The Dragon Lord stared out over the edge of the cliff rising high above the plain. On the battlefield below, the straw-like figures of Behundrians, drenched in blood and sorrow, gasped and stumbled away in terror at the sight of the apparition. Searing light and flame came lancing from the megaliths, arching out and striking the dragon bones that littered the ruins below at the warriors’ feet.

Like ants before the raging storm, the fighting men scurried on all fours, gusting curses. But no such easy escape was given them.

Again the sombre words from faraway spoke, splitting the fabric of the air, the fabric of their minds, the monstrous intonations rising and falling like deep musical waves:

Fools! Alas, ignorant fools! Do you flee like vermin without a moment’s understanding? Die now, and start afresh in your incarnations. Tragic remunerations are in order. Suffer then for your actions in face of these Thrules who have struggled to uphold the heritage of the dragon lords. Now they lie broken like dolls on a god’s playground. But they die not in vain…”

Thus these words came as not human born, but from an incalculable place beyond the stars.

In his days of life, as centuries ago he had moved in magical ways from hill to hill and tomb to tomb, the dragon lord spirit moved now, the same which had discovered secrets and forbidden pathways far under the earth—the same which had forged the labyrinthic ways under the Dragon fortress of Aslante, whose vastness and mystery mortal minds could not fathom.

Irreversible doom…” came the disembodied, almost hypnotic voice. “Our knowledge is too advanced for you. On your journey of life let you plod in an endless cycle of war, strife and grief until ultimate awakening dawns.

Maybe he was some great lord or magician, who knew? Vetra stood spellbound. The knowledge of such things was lost to him, and lost in the gulfs of time.

Dead brothers. Rise again!” came the dread voice like a thunderclap over the sunburnt plain. The speech was lost in sand, air and cloud and the last dragon lord’s murmurs washed over the shallow valley to end in a final command.

Rise brothers, rise!”

And the dragon skeletons came to life, bones clattering together in an animated collective, tinkling like a thousand sinister wind chimes. An army of them creaked to life, rippling and rattling to unnatural form by some unseen magic the dragon-lord wielded after so many ages of rest. Their fierce sun-bleached skulls tilted skyward, seeing a firmament not witnessed for a thousand years; then their necks swivelled to assess the fleeing remnants of the Behundrian army through their empty eye sockets.

A horrific murmur of panic rose through the Behundrian’s ranks. Dragons vaulted the rocky moulder of their ancient death beds, springing after routed soldiers who ran in sheer terror. Ageless, undead creatures of bone and teeth rent flesh and crushed skulls, tails sweeping, snouts ramming, soldiers’ armour and weapons proving impotent.

Then these enchanted spectres took to the air, skeletal wings spread like monstrous bats, flapping at air that should not keep them afloat, and soared low and high, searching for enemies to their realm. As they swooped and dove like merciless raptors, they killed in numbers the invaders to their sanctuary.

From his majestic perch the Dragon lord watched all his creation with no apparent emotion. Perhaps the briefest flicker of understanding fled across the imperturbable face, that the doom claiming these warriors sprang from the same source governing his own demise aeons ago.

When the shimmering lord had seen enough, his glowing eyes blinked once more and pulsing vision sent out the signal to the megaliths on the hill. The animus left the dragons, and like one they fell, their bones scattering like broken twigs over the dismal, corpse-strewn plain. There came a hail of bone on the last scrambling men, crushed and hammered to pulp beneath a storm of undead remains.

Vetra and his company watched aghast.

Satisfied at the death and destruction, the dragon lord walked on solemn feet back to the open slab and Vetra and his ragged fellows drew back with awe and apprehension. Under the natural light of day, the dragon being was a complete replica of one of the old, carven lords of the elder age. The perfect folds of the flesh on his face and naked shoulders and thighs glistened in the raging sunlight and burned pits in Vetra’s memory: the chilling, daunting dragon’s mane of scales and the corselet of fur, and the clawed feet.

There was no place to run so Vetra clutched his sword, ready to fight or die. “Kill us, if you must, fiend,” he grunted. Muscles taut, pulsing with instinctive self preservation, Jhara uttered a soft sob. While Lehundr gazed in trance-like stupor, the Thrules shrank back, expecting instant death, swallowing dry lumps in their throats, bowing heads in reverent terror.

The apparition briefly studied them, though those seconds seemed to last a hundred years, then its kohl-shadowed eyes gave them a blinking appraisal, then shimmered back into its watery, mystical form. Like the column of liquid nothingness it was, it coursed wraith-like back through the black gap and the sad, shrieking cries of the doomed Behundrians trapped below rang out like a gallow-man’s song, their white eyes blazing in desolation. To a man they tumbled back before the unfathomable terror that was the dragon lord of Naklion, and the heavy slab slid back and closed with crushing finality.

The Thrules shuddered and shrank back. Jhara gave an exhausted moan of relief. “Am I in a dream, or in one of Dergath’s afterlives?”

Vetra gave a grim laugh; he sheathed his sword and faced the Thrules. “So, your dragon lord crawls back in his hole with his riches. Who would have believed it?”

“You should pray to your Dergath that you still guard your head,” came Aus’s hot remark, which Dunon and Lehundr endorsed with nods and mutters.

“Aye, let us count our blessings and be gone from this sorrowful place,” murmured the half Thrule.

White-faced, they threaded their way down the side of the mesa, squinting under the unforgiving sun.

Thrule reinforcements were making their way from the north, hundreds of them streaming down like ants from the hillside with rune-scribed boomerangs on their backs as they surveyed the dead. The broken bodies lay strewn from rim to rim in the valley, amongst the ruined columns and the toppled masonry and the bleached, lifeless bones of the old dragon lord empire. Vultures had already started their ghoulish work, hunched about the crumpled shapes in the sand, tearing chunks of flesh in red beaks.

Vetra stared dazedly at the dragon temple—an old, silent mausoleum, its facade of stone glimmering strangely, inexplicably. Regal and austere, it stood towering over the dragon lord’s last stronghold and the insignificant band of survivors with an ancient, ominous grandeur.

The dragon claw was gone. Gefzad, Nhfer, Samos and Sebju amongst others had perished. The great gate was closed, doubtless never to be opened again. The Behundrians were trapped within, like the last unfortunate invaders from bygone days. A chill ran through Vetra’s body as he envisaged the horror they faced at the claws and spewing acid of the guardians.

Vetra scratched his head as new questions fled through his mind. Macemas had spared them, for reasons which were not entirely clear. Was it not by his hands, and his companions, that they had spilled blood on sacred soil? A foul taste surged at the back of his throat as he eyed those who lay in stringy heaps before the dragon door, buzzing with flies.

He stepped back with revulsion, shaking his head, a hollow feeling within his chest.

His limbs and torso tingled with dozens of cuts. He limped over to where Jhara slumped in an untidy sprawl with others on the steps. Her bare arms and cheeks were dust-caked and smeared with blood; her leather pants were torn, her hair tousled like a drunken doxy’s yet she grinned, and stirred restlessly, with a lively gleam in her eyes. She had escaped relatively unharmed as had Lehundr, who had a cloth circling his brow and a splint wrapped around his arm, which was either sprained or broken.

The Thrules rounded up the surviving Behundrians to take as prisoners; they helped bury the dead and gave treatment to those Thrules who were injured.

The leader of the newly-arrived company, Arast, approached and addressed the bedraggled group of survivors, “Hail, battle heroes. By Zeldra and Dergath! A war of wars you have here. I was loath to drive my men faster, lest their hearts give out on them. Pity we could not lend aid. Where is Nhfer?”

“Slain,” mumbled Dunon. “Sebju too.”

“These are ill tidings!” he croaked. He hung his head; wide fingers played idly over the double falchions at his belt. He was broad and heavy-limbed for a Thrule and he rubbed his chin with a sweaty hand. “Nhfer summoned us on the magic horn, and we came as quickly as we could.”

“Albeit tardily,” Zren pointed out, with a characteristic lack of tact.

The leader flourished a sword. “It is as it is, boy! Men on foot can only travel so fast.”

“The last dragon lord has come and gone,” announced Dunon wearily, “and will likely never appear again.”

The Thrule’s eyes glinted. “Macemas, the damned? At this forsaken place? It can’t be. Tell me about it!”

Dunon told the tale, motioning often to the great dragon fort behind him and tracing measurements in the air describing the guardians. Several of Arast’s men gathered to listen and Lehundr eagerly took up the tale. Vetra and Jhara added their parts when the leader pressed for details. Even Aus and Zren picked up the story at certain key moments.

After listening, the chief eyed them with some amazement and returned to the battlefield and ruins with his men to oversee the cleanup, still shaking his head in awe.

Vetra sighed and turned to face Dunon: “The Behundrians will come searching this place to carve out the jewels when news of the breach of the interior reaches Dragonskull.”

The Thrule uttered a hollow laugh. “They can try, but the dragons will defy them even in death. You saw what happened to Cthan and his villains.”

“Perhaps.” Vetra shrugged. He could not refute the fact. “That will not stop their thirst for Thrule blood.”

Dunon shrugged and squinted at the dragon fort whose timeless presence had persisted throughout onslaught after onslaught. “The dragons of all beings realized that water was the most precious resource in the lands—more valuable than gold, or all the jewels of the world. That’s why they built this impregnable sanctuary rich with both water and gems. They celebrated beauty and life, and presented it fantastically in the greatest hot spring in all of Behundria and Sahir. They saw the evil that rubies and the like wreaked on the greedy hearts of men, grew wary of its lures and perils, and so thus hid them away. As the spirit of Macemas pointed out, men like Cthan have still not learned that primal truth.”

Zren shook his head in contempt. “The dragon lords are dead, as are all the marshalls of Dragonskull, as we all should be. ‘’Tis a flaming miracle we are standing here right now.”

Vetra snorted his agreement. “It’s some part of a greater design, which only Dergath knows.”

Aus, bursting to get something off his chest, offered an egg-sized garnet to the blood-stained mercenary. “I nabbed it on the scramble up the ledge. You deserve it, I think.”

Vetra shook his shaggy head. “The treasure belongs to the dragon lords, not I, at worst the Thrules,” he declared. “Keep it!” He caught the look of painful disapproval etched on Jhara’s face.

Dunon, too, shook his head with a laugh. “The bulk will stay with the dragon lords behind that impregnable wall.”

Aus’s eyes dropped. “I don’t feel right to keep it, Dunon. Cthan learned the error of his ways, in his attempt to steal the mystical eye of the master dragon lord for himself. I have a feeling some doom will come of this.” He cast his eyes to the sand.

“Maybe. You did what you did, perhaps no more than what a nobler man would have done, Aus.”

“What will you do?” Vetra asked Dunon.

“For now, the captive Behundrians will take the place of the bullocks at Sunswatch and draw water for Thrules.”

“They will rise up,” Vetra muttered with a frown. “Reinforcements will ride across the desert, ferret you out.”

“Let them—we will be ready.”

Aus flourished a hand. “Aye, we will be ready! We will fight them. We may die and flee to the hills, but until then, we will continue our vendetta—or retreat north, living in yurts, not the sheltered sacred caves of Zabenzar. We have the map, the garment and a glimpse of the old treasures of the dragon-lords. Their secrets, we know now to be real. The fact that we are alive, tells us that the dragon lords are our allies.”

Vetra stared and rubbed his chin in admiration for the bravery of these tenacious nomads whom he could not help but think, nonetheless, a trifle mad. “Then Dergath be with you!” He laid a hand on Aus’s shoulder and Dunon’s too, a friendly gesture the Thrules gratefully returned.

With a crinkly eye, Aus pursed his lips. “I will be sad to see you go, outlander. As far as men go, you are a deserving one.”

Dunon murmured agreement. Zren made no effort to control his grimace and stalked off, grumbling.

“Let us clean up this mess and go,” insisted Aus. “We have many weapons to forge and plans to make. Send riders to the hills on foot to Hruen! Call the other Thrule clans from the north! They will be needing to come down and help us for the aid we have given them in the past. We have offered them sheep for slaughter and supplies when they have had need of it.”

The Thrules turned their ponies toward the eastern road, but Lehundr hung back from the milling group, pulling at his thickening beard.

“What is wrong, half Thrule?” Vetra inquired with a mischievous grin. “Will you not come back with us to Dragonskull, or do you hanker for another shower of dragon bones falling from the sky?”

Lehundr shook his head, his brow creased with warring thoughts. “I grow weary of rogues and swindlers in that dusty town. Cthan has fallen and an inevitable new order will arise, but the trader’s post will decline or sink back into its old habits, I fear. I will head north, my friend, to Vespia, the spire-ridden capital of Sahir. From there? Who knows? A fresh start and hopefully a chance to buy some fortune.” He scrutinized the mercenary whom he had come to know as a fearless ally. “And you, Vetra? Will you seek more bloody misadventures?”

Jhara broke in sourly, “Aye, will you go with this vagabond and seek out death?”

Vetra thought for some time, brows lifting at Jhara’s unexpected vehemence, then his gaze drifted to the red glow of the setting sun. “I will take you as far as Dragonskull, girl, but no farther, nor will I tarry there. I must return west—to Lausern, the pits and scum dives of Lvendar.”

Jhara’s lips parted in a desolate look of loss. Her eyes dilated and her lips quivered for an instant in despair. “Take me with you!” she pleaded.

His eyes passed over her sleek, muscular lines. Keen approval showed in his gaze. But in a brief glimmer of prescience he glimpsed a foul scene: her flesh bloodied and torn during one of his bloody, underground assignments. “As tempting as it, girl, I fear not.” At the look of her crestfallen expression, he quickly added, “The dark places I go are no place for one of your persuasion, as fierce as you are. You are young, inexperienced, have many adventures before you and fair men to meet. Maybe you will take a fancy to one of these hot-headed Thrules.” His eyes strayed disparagingly to a group of hill Thrules digging amongst the wreckage and where Zren stood motioning in heated argument.

She looked away, her sour expression saying all. “They’re too short.”

Vetra laughed, but quickly stifled his amusement. “Continue your sword practices. Find yourself a good teacher, as rare as they are in this world. Dergath’s cats, woman, with your skill, you could probably teach the art yourself.” He paused, shifted, his sweat-draped leather under his mail shirt becoming an uncomfortable burden. “Maybe that headstrong Thrule, Zren, will make a decent swordsman himself too one day. He flails like a fish and blunders like a newborn ox, but somehow I see potential in him. You could teach him. Show him how to move and feint. Your zeal and restless impulsiveness reminds me of myself in my younger years.”

She beamed at the roundabout praise, and a glimpse of the old Jhara came radiating once more from her eyes. There was comfort and protection in the mercenary’s gaze, withal, the ever-present lure of high adventure, but also the keen promise of death.

“Go then, Vetra. I see where your heart lies. Bloody quests, fighting for the underdog, killing for hire, nothing permanent or satisfying there for me, likely the thrill of a long line of paramours to go along with life on the road. I will remember you, if that means anything. If you remember anything of me, think of a woman who wanted to be at your side, enjoying our tyrsts, fighting as an equal. It seems you have much to do. Go! I will not hold you back. Nor will I go back with you to Dragonskull—others will make the journey, I will go with them. Return to Dragonskull one day, if you wish. I pray that our paths meet again.”

Vetra hesitated, then collected himself, his mouth carved in a crooked grin. “Until our paths meet again.” He tipped his head. Dergath, but the ways of women were inscrutable.

 

So Vetra turned to the dusty road south, but an afterthought struck him, and he halted and turned back to seek out Jhara. The weight of something familiar jingled in his pocket. The others had left, and she was alone on the steps, sitting chin in hands, in despondent self pity. Vetra approached, put on his most amiable face. “Here are three diamonds and rubies that came to me in the dragon temple. They came from about the stony neck of a dragon lord.” He pushed them into her hand. “Take them and buy you and your brother freedom from the streets of Dragonskull.”

An expression of wonder softened her gaze. “You don’t want them?”

“Nay. I’ve enough good fortune to last a lifetime.” He clapped a hand on his chest, calmly remembering all the death that stalked him through the years, a silent partner treading quietly in his shadow.

She mumbled a dry response. “Nine lives of it. If I could count the times I thought you were dead back in that cavern.” Her features furrowed and a faraway look clouded her eyes. “Should I be worried about curses and the like cast on these gems? Aus seemed serious about it with which you agreed.”

Vetra shrugged. “The jewels fell from the dragon lord statue’s garland. I see it as an offering he gifted me with, rather than a theft. The spirit of the lord gave them of his own free will, otherwise I wouldn’t have felt compelled to snatch them, and would probably have perished back in that sepulchral chamber. It would have been my tomb as well.”

Her lips slackened in a wry grin. “Then go with my blessing, and I thank you. Be gone, mercenary, before I tear up!…a warrior should not cry on a day of victory and good fortune, should she?”

He took her in his arms and her forced veneer peeled away. Her breathless sobs poured out in heaving waves against his chest; her hot breath stormed on his throat, and Vetra, for all his faults in the arena of love, drank in this woman’s passion like a stag at the lake, an antidote to the grim business of his trade.

“Come on, Dragonskull’s a long ways away…”

 

VALLEY OF THE GODS

 

I

 

“Hold off, Balir. There’s no way we’re getting this thing past the bend.” Vetravincus halted, muscles straining, staring ahead down the narrow moonlit ledge where the priest had disappeared. A sheer drop at his side into the canyon below made him wary of his every step.

“It’s as heavy as iron,” grumbled Balir, his black curls matted in sweat, swarthy features chased in a grimace. He struggled with the large, unwieldy seashell, all coral-rose and white, that held some mysterious idol, a winged creature of jade coveted by the wizard Caglios. “I curse that priest, Iokru, for funnelling us down these wretched paths.”

The shell was indeed cumbersome. One man could only carry it for short lengths of time. With two it was manageable. Balir held the strap attached to a brass ring on the back side and Vetravincus the one on the front. Behind them trailed Kalaman, a stocky, steel-helmed mercenary with a scimitar belted at his hip. A few feet back, Laskar the tall, lean crossbowman took up the rear. Vetravincus, or Vetra as they called him, led the group stumbling and cursing on the treacherous path.

“Spare me the grousing,” he said. “What’s done is done. We have to get this idol out of here before the moon sets.”

Kalaman laughed cynically. “Already this seashell’s enough trouble as it is. That high-priest Rojarsh looked ready to slit our throats after we gave him the supposed magic wine cup entrusted to us by your wizard, Caglios. A commission I wished we hadn’t taken.”

“You don’t have to remind me,” sighed Vetra.

“Don’t forget,” added Balir, “how many gold talons we’re getting out of this.”

“It’s the only thing keeping me on this fool’s errand,” said Kalaman. Scratching his coppery beard, he loosed a gusty sigh, “Wizards, priests… Who needs them? “If we get out of this venture without any broken bones—” he glanced over the edge into the moonlit canyon below “—the tankards are on me.”

“Here, help me fix the strap on this shell,” requested Vetra. “It’s slipping again.” He bent to catch it as its spiralled bulk clattered to the stone. He wiped the sweat from his helmed brow. “We have to haul this thing past that narrowed arch up there. Hard to see much of anything in this abysmal gloom. Hopefully the path will widen up again.” He stared upward at a sheer cliff one hundred and fifty feet to the blue-black night sky. The ascending ledge carved in the cliff rose up from the base of the canyon; already they were about a quarter of the way up. The temple city of Old Gyzia was ancient beyond his belief—and overwhelming. Nothing but a maze of avenues and alleys flanked by carven-beast temples on the canyon floor. Some darkened ways admitted only one person while others were wide enough to walk three elephants abreast. Vetra caught the rustle below of robed priests of some faction or other, and the flicker of torches. “Seems as if this place is a rats’ haunt,” he muttered. “Besthra’s teats! This strap unravels again and I’ll be breaking somebody’s arm!” He stopped short, feeling the tug of something alive in his cargo, as if the jade idol had a life of its own.

The tremor ceased, and Vetra shook off the quivering movement as only due to nerves. “Wonder what the old peacock Rojarsh was doing with it, hoarding this jade piece for all this time? The way he looked at it before it was handed off to us, was as if the idol was cursed. I’m guessing he was glad to get rid of it.”

“As valuable as the thing is, it strikes me as odd,” agreed Balir.

“Who cares at this point?” laughed Kalaman.

“What of our friend, the priest, Iokru?”

Vetra grunted. “I don’t know where the jackal’s gone. Just some stooge of Rojarsh’s. So far up the sleeve and cult of the Clam-followers, he’ll do anything to appease his master or further their cause. I’ve seen his kind before—fanatic devotees, eerie men, ready to sell their soul to the devil, or their mother’s. I trust him no further than an adder in this swamp of chanting, gibbering priests.”

“A dangerous snake, if you ask me,” growled Balir.

“Looks as if he’s not coming back. Deserted us on his scouting mission, I’ll wager. Best we rely on our own resources.”

Like a puff of magic—or perhaps having ears on the back of his head—a lithe, sinuous figure came slinking back on long legs. Yet he had crept up from behind, not ahead, as if he had looped back through some tunnel in the cliff.

Startled, Laskar aimed his crossbow at him, looking irritated and dismayed that anyone could appear so inexplicably from behind.

“Back this way,” the priest intoned in a low, dark voice. “The path ahead is too narrow. But the junction we passed leads to the Way of Serpents, then down to the lower temples which host the pool.”

Kalaman rolled his eyes. “Snakes, oh joy.”

The priest waved a staff which doubled as torch, inset with a strange jewel near its tip which matched the disturbing, skull-shaped amulet he wore around his neck. The ‘torch’, Vetra noticed, had been doused again. It seemed the priest preferred the darkness of the night—and the ease to sneak around without notice.

Balir frowned, distrust growing in his eyes. “Don’t sneak up on us like that, shaman. I thought you knew these ways—‘Like the back of your hand’, your high priest said. Now we have to backtrack. Yet didn’t I specifically remember him bidding you to lead us post-haste to the pool, and more recently, some mysterious waterfall?”

Iokru gave a cryptic leer. “My lord spoke truth. He has great faith in my abilities. It has been many years since I’ve been down these paths.” He lifted his stave in airy ease and spoke in an unnerving voice. “Calm your suspicious minds. To me you are all servants of that head-in-the-clouds traitor, Caglios. I’ll get you to the pool without fail. All you need do is have trust—” and here he added in an ominous tone “—There you will meet Dapi, your destiny, and fulfil your prophetic charge to your master, Caglios.”

“Hardly ‘my master’,” growled Vetra. Yet he could not help but feel a chill crawl up his spine.

“Bold words, priest,” asserted Balir, but even his voice lacked conviction.

They took to the ledge path again, the passage narrowing to a few feet wide in places. Vetra felt dizzy from the journey down and now the ascending heights above the canyon floor. Despite his resilience, navigating high places while transporting goods was not his strength, a handicap that was shared by his hirelings.

Back down in the canyon he saw boulders carved into shapes of gods and beastly things with wings, trunks, strange limbs and faces. From what he could further make of it, he saw that the gorge was a long fishbone crossed at right angles with fissures, side valleys and narrow ravines. Temples were cut into the various valleys, with crossways and footpaths running high above and sometimes through temples, like the one they trod, which swept up the cliff face like a dark scar.

“Is it really necessary, this circuitous route along this devil-hewn ledge?” Vetra demanded.

Iokru stared at him as if he were a simpleton. “No god can be taken from the Gyzian valley until being exorcised, or baptized—cleansed in Otorio, the Waters of Life. A god in limbo will haunt the plane of mortal men for an eternity. The proper steps must be employed.”

Kalaman loosed a choked chuckle.

Balir grunted. “What do you mean ‘god’? It’s a tawdry piece of jade we carry, for Krasson’s sake!”

Iokru smiled in wincing condescension. “You know nothing of the power of the gods! Or, how we imprison the essence of our deities in some stone statue or living creature in order to make use of a god’s power. This idol is jade, which has the power of the moon. ’Twas said that the idol you carry, the falcon-man Dapi, was smeared with moon dust from a magic rock that fell from the sky in a smouldering heap.”

“A fanciful tale, surely,” scoffed Kalaman.

Iokru ignored the remark. “Our god, Meru, the Old One, the Great Clam, is trapped in a seashell, of some extinct species, whose shell covering is like a giant crab’s or crayfish’s. None really know. It is secluded in a lower cave. Certain brave acolytes go down to feed it, sometimes to their doom. But should our god escape?…” Even the under-priest shuddered in the murk and seemed to shrink at that thought.

Vetra wondered what hellish world these priests lived in to merit such macabre devotion and constant fear.

Kalaman gripped the hilt of his scimitar, snuffling out a yawn. “Well, all I know is I’m getting paid a hefty bag of gold to get a jade piece out of a canyon where murmuring priests and beastly statues make their home.”

Iokru pursed his lips, his features clouded with contempt.

Vetra gingerly set down his load. “This ‘baptism’ as you call it, priest, makes me nervous and suspicious. Caglios made no specific mention of any waterfall.”

Iokru gave a careless shrug under his priest’s vest. “Caglios does not know of our priest-craft here, or the ways or places of the old gods. He is only a lowly magician revelling in the surface-level powers writ in the common tongue.”

“Well, whatever he is,” muttered Vetra, “he can still make a green serpent turn into a spitting dragon and slither through the air on gilded wings. Such metamorphoses I’ve witnessed with my own eyes. Let’s get on with this! The sooner we complete this miserable task and get this dead weight off my back, the better.”

Iokru’s dark eyes seethed at the irreverence of the comment, but he made no retort.

Vetra looked about the shadowy spaces, the cold light of the rising moon staining stone and dusty ways in an ethereal pall. The god-carven faces on the cliff wall seemed to leer out at him. What the priests and acolytes used for food, he had no idea. Did they hunt buzzards out in the wastes? There were rumours that cannibalism was practiced in these canyons, and things far worse, if such were possible. Kidnappings. Torture and bondage. People snatched from the streets of the nearest city never to be seen again. Devil worship. Rites of terrible and obscene nature. Still, people should be free to worship whatever gods they liked, Vetra thought resignedly. He clenched his hands, hefted his sword with a quiver of disgust. Just as long as it did not affect him. Lausern, gargoyle-towered capital of the province of Lvendar, loomed two leagues away from this mad maze of sorcerer-priests—a city of filchpurses and blackguards, vagrants, merchants, farmers and politicians. Yet all were known to kowtow to the priests. Tithing to certain temples, some of the more affluent patrons offered gold and riches and would wait to reap the reward of their spiritual transactions. These, inevitably in the form of more profitable trade, rains for crops, higher yields, success in elections, wine, women and long life. Basically all the trappings that came with the priests’ chanting and thaumaturgy.

Vetra bared his teeth. More a black market ring than a service. If one didn’t support a certain faction, the priests would inevitably blackmail them with tastes of their voodoo-like curses. A very unethical, ‘unworthy of the gods’ practice, Vetra thought resentfully. He remained sceptical of this ‘fair-trade’ agreement. Any god that accepted material wealth in return for blessings, in his humble opinion, was as greedy and corrupt as any mortal man—a force which could just as easily turn on the benefactor and extort more wealth. Vetra scowled at the realization, thinking of the bondage that had resulted in these ‘arrangements’. He thought it not his concern. Licking his lips, he curled fingers around his hilt. His role was to deliver the goods and be gone from this degenerate maze. Luckily he had received a third of his earnings already from Caglios. The bloodless wizard had warned him of the consequences of double-dealings and shown him what had happened to others who had attempted to take their advance and flee the city without fulfilling their part of the bargain. Vetra winced, recalling the husk of a man Caglios kept in chains, encaged in a dome of glass. It looked as if the wretch had no tongue, as he gibbered through a set of froth-flecked lips, blinking, staring into space with an idiot’s leer, as if his mind had been blasted of all thinking power, while the wizard’s two subhuman imps tottered around witlessly ministering to their master’s every need.

Vetra shook off the chilling memory. Upon more of Iokru’s sidelong glances, his distrust of their smiley-eyed guide only grew. “No tricks, priest,” he grumbled. “We gave your two-toothed master, Rojarsh, Caglio’s gold and a magic vessel in return for our transporting this ghoulish idol on to Caglios. We expect safe passage out of here.”

Laskar’s endorsement came as an emphatic grunt, the archer not being one for conversation.

Iokru gave a croak of sinister laughter. He lifted a shell-ringed finger in an attempt perhaps to lighten the moment. “What you see below are a series of tombs and crypts which are set at the back of the many temples. We call it the Way of Temples, or Alley for short. ’Tis our main area of worship. Rites and secret communions are conducted on a regular basis, and each sect has its own liturgy and procedures, customized to its gods.”

Fidgeting with impatience, Vetra’s mind wandered upon the dark tales he had heard regarding the horrific blood legacy of dark worship. Nameless civilizations had sprung up and crumbled since the day the first primitive temples erected here had been chiselled out of bare rock. How old these were was a detail lost in time. All a fantastic blur in Vetra’s mind, as were those ancients who had carved them. His impulses to take on this mission had been various: wealth, adventure, and not a small amount of challenge.

His eyes caught a brief glimpse of Balir behind, grunting under the weight of the load. He grinned wryly. Balir was a good man, a maverick, one to be trusted. His loose fitting mail did not mask the hard lines of a sinewy body. His hair was dark and cropped short with loose curls along with sideburns slanting down to a bristling beard, whereas Kalaman’s crop of golden hair gleamed lightly underneath peaked helm. Kalaman’s strong, surly features and flattened fighter’s nose promised a skull-bashing to any who defied him. Laskar’s locks were braided and tied back, naturally complementing his amber, catlike eyes. The man was light as a lynx on his feet and wore no armour. Long, ivory-engraved knives hung from his hips, a leather baldric was strung across his lanky shoulders to hold his crossbow.

Vetra recalled how he had picked Balir up at the Grand Jackal’s Inn in the labourers’ quarters of Lausern, the randy rogue’s paws reaching readily for some wench. Kalaman he had recruited from a ring fight in the city’s brewmasters’ district—a hefty, hawk-eyed ruffian, handy with knives—prize-fighting for his next meal against the meanest circle of blood-hungry basher-boys Lausern had to offer.

Like phantoms the company drifted through the shadows, above a vague world of rustling shapes and flickering torches. To dispel the gloom, Iokru lit his torch with flint and tinder and beckoned them on. Vetra saw he wore only furred boots and a thin, sleeveless vest decorated with fur and shells. His naked bronze shoulders were browned by daytime sun and not unmuscled. The flat-topped conch for a helm, plumed with feathers, made him look almost comical. Vetra shook his head, not knowing whether to chuckle or feel pity for the cleric. The ineffective thing would not last long in a battle.

Battle, why was he thinking battle? He reached down to touch the wicked garbandia knife strapped to the inside flank of his right calf. Should his sword ever fail him…that curved, hidden blade would prove a backup. He laughed at that thought. Why would it fail? The sword was a rare, strongly and perfectly balanced piece, the most valuable thing on his person, given by a noble benefactor in return for hunting down two blackguards who had been stealing gold and weapons from him.

Vetra’s hazel eyes burned with a calculating flame as he thought of this mission, and he shook back his long, shiny, straight black mane with unease. Only the sound of boots crunching on stones marked their passing, mingled with the jingle of mail of armed men. Vetra’s was perhaps the quieter of those mercenaries’ mailshirts, oiled and fitting his battle-hardened body snugly under green sleeveless jerkin. He looked less the common mercenary or thief amongst that company and more the nobleman in his flaring surcoat of brown and red silk draped over his leather and mail. The leather girdle at his waist was of fine quality, and held a scabbard of no small worth. Those who saw him would see a man not softened by idle living, or plump by decadent eating. Lean muscle showed through his fine raiment.

His mind suddenly strayed to Caglios and the time when the wayward wizard had given him a relic to bring to the pool. There were very specific instructions how the relic was to be used to ‘bridle’ the idol. Instructions which, oddly, seemed to come in and out of his memory, as if they had been imprinted there by unnatural forces. His lips pinched in a frown. Something about his last visit to the wizard’s abode suddenly raised his hackles…a space of time elapsing of which he had no recollection.

His hand brushed the relic. A collar of rough metal. Iron? What exactly was it? It looked like a ring of strong quality that would encircle the neck of an unruly hound. With uncut gems embedded in the once molten metal—gems, surely serpentine and carnelian, it exuded a magical presence. He felt its rough contours again in the folds of his vest, and felt a supernatural quiver of danger tingle in his fingers, continuing on up his forearm.

He recalled stoically accepting it, despite his reservations. He wondered if it were a talisman given him by the wizard to brand or track him. He resisted the urge to crush the thing under his boot, or toss it down one of the many winding alleys disappearing into disquieting blackness. The thing pulsed with an eerie glow when exposed to even the faintest light. More than once he had seen the yellow-faced Iokru eyeing his furtive gropings in his pockets for the ‘collar’, while the priest twirled the plumed feather on the back of his headdress as if avaricious thoughts brewed in his mind. How glad he would be to rid himself of the priest and his penetrating gaze—and the collar.

Why the wizard Caglios had enlisted him, Vetravincus, for the task, was still a mystery. He could have easily hired someone else with more experience, and ultimately for less gold. The problem was irksome, and one which brought a vision of doom.

Iokru, torch clutched in his hand, led the men with an assured step. Ahead, before an oval patch of light, two fangs of rock rose from the stony path. These had all the semblance of stalagmites. But treading closer, Vetra saw they looked like the polished, bottom incisors of a giant, sabre-tooth tiger—a primitive thing carved of stone by hands from an ancient time. Out of the tunnel he stumbled—out of the mouth of the stone-carved beast—onto another, even narrower ledge. The canyon spread wide before them. Across it a sheer cliff faced them with similar grim visages and carven figures. The glare of red torchlight and voices below bore testament to company.

Vetra peered warily. Nothing could be seen but indistinct motion. The ledge wound across the canyon face into shadows, where more carven faces teetered above them and led, much to Vetra’s dismay, to the great looming eye socket of some ghastly monkey face, the shadowy exterior of some other temple. To this black gap, Iokru bid them, with an expression of sinister amusement.

The priest extinguished his torch, and once again, they trudged in semi-darkness. The sky opened up to admit a wash of silver moonlight. Iokru pushed ahead and turned back to scowl at Balir and Vetra: “You two had better muffle your grunts and scuffing.”

The monkey god loomed over them, several man-heights in size, crudely carved into the sheer cliff. Bulging lips curled back in a scornful snarl showing a gaping mouth of square-blocked teeth. The god-effigy exulted in some inside knowledge, Vetra thought, its grisly eyes dark pools into another world. To Vetra’s relief they passed the face and Iokru signalled them down a set of stairs under the monkey’s rounded chin. The ledge’s curve of narrow rock continued where the stairs left off, looping down to a place only triple a man’s height above the canyon floor.

On quiet feet the troupe followed the priest on this exposed jut, smoothed by thousands of passing acolytes. The avenue below, they saw, was a natural floor, partly sandy, the rest stone. Laskar cocked his crossbow, as if sensing the weight of acute danger.

The torches guttered and the sound of chants rose ahead in a low, murmurous thrum that brought the hairs up on Vetra’s back.

Despite his eccentric habits, Iokru led the company with an air of stealth. His plumed headdress bobbed noiselessly in the windless air; meanwhile, the red glare of torches gleamed, and the first hint of crackling flames came to their ears.

Three priests with bison masks suddenly appeared in front of them, moving swiftly, casting furtive glances over their shoulders. Grunting, they squeezed past the load carriers on the high ledge in the ruddy gloom. A tense moment passed when Vetra and Balir halted, set down their burden and gripped their swords in their free hands. Iokru indulged the trio with a serene nod, which they returned with only a chilling salute. The priests passed by without comment.

Iokru grimaced as the men resumed their heaving, Vetra somewhat perplexed by the bison-headed priests’ haste. Iokru steered the company closer to a group of forty or more figures massed below on the other side of the canyon. They were dressed in bizarre animal costumes and rodent-like masks, red furred with pointed ears and black snouts. The figures’ backs were to them, and the throng gathered about a glaring fire, ceremoniously observing their rite with the absorbed attention of slaves fulfilling a task for an unforgiving master.

“We must pass near them,” Iokru hissed. “There is no other choice but an hour’s detour through unlit tunnels that drop to steep crevasses. Even then, the way is not sure. If you value your skins, utter no word. Do not insult these acolytes or get caught in the middle of their ceremonies.”

“Who are they?” inquired Vetra.

“Members of the Rat Fang sect. Ratmangers.” His teeth glinted. “A gang of extreme fanatics, prone to blood sacrifice and kidnappings.”

“How enchanting,” murmured Balir.

Vetra took note of the unpriestly weapons belted at their hips: knives, hooked bills. Spears were clutched in white-knuckled hands. The muscled guards who moved amongst them were stationed at disquieting intervals.

“’Tis the celebration of dark Dathra they hold,” Iokru whispered, “to commemorate the five hundredth year of their cult. They resurrect their god every season. Tonight is the first ceremony of the year, spring yule, on the full moon.

“Just our luck,” muttered Balir.

The pungent smell of incense and herbs drifted in the night air, along with the stench of burning blood. Vetra’s lips peeled back from his teeth. He winced at the cliff looming up in front of him, sporting a gigantic rat sculpture, sixty feet high, rearing hideously upon its hind legs, sniffing the air with ham paws outstretched—the embodiment of the Rat Fang god, he guessed. The effigy stood on a massive stone dais below which spread a colonnaded court whose flaming interiors teemed with the priests who were conducting their macabre ritual.

Along the far side of the cliff the five crept, with Vetra and Balir taking care not to jiggle their load. Sounds did echo in the valley and Vetra had no doubt the priests had ears of wolves, despite the low, background chanting that masked the company’s progress. Vetra caught a glint amidst the gathering, of chains fastened on heavy rings bolted into the polished stone. Those iron loops held back some obscene, agitated rat creature, grown huge beyond imagining. It had something of an aardvark’s body and a mix of fur and iridescent scales on hide and flanks.

The rodent swished its powerful tail and pawed at its furry behind, fretting and gnashing at its bonds. Plumes of flame kept the creature contained in a tight, fiery circle. If the creature could emerge from that circle…Vetra shuddered. Whoever tended the creature was surely endangering his life.

Whenever the creature stalked too close to the flames, its rodent-like snout bore a blast of heat. And when it did, the crowd ululated in a wave of awe. Torches guttered; fires raged around the ring. The acolytes bowed and murmured dark supplications to their flesh-and-blood rat-like god, “Ratang! Ratang! We worship you in death and with this crimson elixir of life we bathe our souls.” Such glories extended to the looming behemoth that towered above in carven glory. Bowing and falling prostrate in devotional vacuity with each sizzle and flare of the sacred flames, the followers then doused their spears and sharp gleaming knives in vats of blood to the side and smeared it on their brows gleaming above the masks. Others smeared their thighs. Several gripped live rats despite the creatures’ struggles and squeaks and gnashing teeth questing their fingers. The throats of these creatures they quickly cut in sacrifice to the great rat poised in hideous splendour above them, and the devotees let the blood spill over their grotesque masks. Some stuck out tongues to drink of the rodents’ blood. Then the rodent carcasses were hurled to the great stone dais before the rat creature which devoured them in noisy gulps.

Vetra felt the sweat bead on his brow. Snuffling and pawing, the thing rose on its hind legs as the devotees’ voices rose in a chant of shade-possessed unison.

On a signal to Balir, Vetra paused to wipe his brow. He twisted to get a better grip on the strap, clutching his sword, but the wretched thing had the ill timing of unravelling just as the chant’s refrain ended. Before he could catch it, the conch slipped out of his grasp and thudded to the ground.

Vetra grunted a vile curse. A few heads had turned from the gathering, alerted by the sharp, echoing clap of shell on stone. On a rancorous gesture from the priest, the men of the party dove headlong and fell flat on their bellies.

Vetra stifled more oaths and sank in a grim crouch. The toxic glare of Iokru felt like a flaming knife in his back from ten feet away.

The collar he carried slipped from his pouch and lay gleaming in plain sight. Though Vetra swept a hand out to retrieve the item, Iokru’s keen eyes glistened in the darkness. The priest’s body stiffened, his gaze drinking in the sight of the corroded, but magical ring-collar. Vetra did not miss the envious sneer.

“If high priest Rojarsh knew you had the ring of Dapi, the falcon man,” he hissed, “he would have gutted—”

“Would he now?”

The priest scowled and bit his tongue, knowing he had said more than he should have.

Kalaman and Laskar scrambled to help Vetra and Balir drag the shell several paces past the ratmen’s rite but Iokru jerked a thumb back toward the monkey temple. “Go back the other way, fools! ’Tis safer that way.”

The shell’s two halves had wrenched ajar and within they could see the dusky outline of a hawk-like idol. Vetra snapped it shut with a grimace.

Iokru crept at their heels, face a ghoul-like mask, urging them on faster. Whether the ratmangers saw their mad scramble up the path toward the monkey’s face, or the glint of green and red light off the strange gems on the collar, Vetra did not know. He hastily stuffed it back under his belt, glad to hear no swift scud of feet piping after them, and glad that his crew was somewhat concealed, squatting in the inky shadows.

Nonetheless several priests pointed blood-soaked fingers up at them and gave voice to hoarse jeering calls. Spears hurled from below clattered up the cliff to strike rock and seashell. A steel tip brushed Vetra’s mail and skittered harmlessly off, prompting him to grunt and curse.

The rat-masked acolytes shambled forth but they could not scale the cliff, the ledge was a dozen feet above their heads. Others were already scrambling up the steep stairway farther down the avenue that gave access to the ledge.

“Quick!” hissed Iokru. “Up! Into the eye of the Jeering Monkey. We can outwit the rat-priests in the tunnels.”

Another flurry of spears clattered up at them, one jabbing Laskar’s boot above the ankle. The archer plucked it out of the leather and hurled it back down at them. There came a shrill cry as a man was impaled by a steel tip. Harsh voices sounded in the fiery gloom: shouts and promises of doom.

Iokru’s eyes bulged in dismay. “Now you’ve done it!” he wailed. “You’ve drawn blood against the ratmangers. If they associate me with your aggressive handiwork, there’ll be war amongst the clam worshippers and the ratmen!”

Laskar shrugged, not seeming to mind either way.

Vetra set down his load and frowned. He signalled Balir and the two edged their way down the path toward their enemies, drawing weapons. Kalaman, grinning fiercely, was close on their heels. A crew of forerunners had gained the ledge and were clambering up at them. Vetra saw four furred and masked figures come charging up the slope, spears in hand. One hurled a shaft at close range, narrowly missing Kalaman. But it slammed into Balir’s chest mail just above the left breast. In a rage, he pulled it out and with an angry grunt hurled the spear back at the offender with terrific force. The missile caught the attacker on his bare thigh. He snuffled out a cry and sank to his knees, clutching his leg. His three rat-masked comrades pressed around him, white teeth flashing in the gloom through their masks.

Iokru moaned. As Vetra and Kalaman rose to meet them, Laskar trained his crossbow and loosed, as calmly as if he were practicing in a noonday meadow. A bolt hissed through the air and took the nearest one in the chest. He fell back howling into the arms of his fellows.

“Stop! Stop!” Iokru hissed. He clutched his headdress, stamping his feet like a spoiled child.

But there was no stopping. Kalaman twisted sideways and brought back his blade. Ducking a lightning-fast spear tip, he took a two-handed swing and the dusky, rat-faced priest went down in a wash of crimson. He booted the croaking, gasping man down the ledge. Vetra stepped past Kalaman’s hulking frame and parried the glinting spear that came whistling for his own throat. His blade came fast over his shoulder, smashing down onto the man’s spear. Dumbly, the man blinked at his cloven weapon. Vetra ran cold steel through the man’s belly before he knew what hit him.

Iokru, panting, jaw-agape, cried out in misery, “Do you not know what you do?”

“Shut your mouth, priest!” thundered Vetra. “Or lend us a hand. Do you expect us to sit here and get pincushioned by your cronies?”

Iokru shook his head in blind frustration. “Hardly, but…don’t you see, don’t you know?—Fools! They will flay us alive. The ratmen will feed us to their god. Did you not see the thing? Quick, into the monkey’s cave!”

Sheathing his dripping sword, Vetra stalked gloweringly back to the shell and he and Balir hauled it on.

The whole episode had taken less than two minutes. More ratmen were on their way, judging from the feverish clamour and sounds of boot heels and men’s shouts, but they were a minute or more distant. Iokru grimaced. He shuttled the men up the path in a very black mood, herding his charges toward the dark monkey-god face that loomed like a monster out of a ghostly dream.

Vetra’s gaze caught the reflection of torchlight on the spears and the flashing of knives. He had a split-second vision of dozens of ratmen crawling up the switch-backed ledges after them…with a shake of head, he ducked back into the shadowy gap of the monkey’s eye and staggered on with his cargo.

The darkness closed about them. Iokru lit the torch with shaky hands and prodded them along with the hopeless resignation of a condemned man. The eerie tunnel reached out like a dusky glove, a passage with no end. Down the smooth stone, they lurched, Balir and Vetra panting with their ungainly load. Many smaller side passages gaped to left and right. Some of these the priest took, others he ignored with a wrinkle of his nose. His choices seemed almost arbitrary—ill-hewn, chill, damp, and depressing passages with no markers or carven glyphs or signs of human hewing to identify them. He weaved down side passages, ones which looked to have seen no human foot for decades.

“What’s with all this plunging hither and yon?” demanded Vetra. “Don’t we have a destination in mind?”

“The roundabout scramble is necessary, if we wish to survive.”

“We should have taken that hour-long detour,” growled Vetra petulantly.

The priest said nothing. There were no signs of pursuit. They had either lost the ratmen, or the rat worshippers had given up.

The tunnel widened, to their good fortune, and open air rose again above their heads.

The sour-faced priest urged them down another intersecting canyon lit only by dim moonlight that streamed down from a rocky gap. The canyon itself, however, felt dead of life and dark as a tomb. Laskar and Kalaman took up the idol and struggled with their burden. The party came down into a smaller avenue than the last—silent, dry, sepulchral, with only the whisper of a cold draught on their cheeks.

They passed under a massive arch that blotted out the moon. Iokru, looking back, nodded in new satisfaction.

Vetra’s strong fingers closed reflexively about the collar. Muttering second thoughts to himself, he swallowed back a bitter taste in his throat.

Caglios had given him the collar. A thing that made him feel dread. Green gems glowed dimly, yet felt cold as ice in his palm. A voice sprang out at him in his mind’s ear. Caglios’s? It was as if from a dream he heard the wizard’s words echoing like the roar one hears in a seashell:

Douse the idol in the magic spring. Ring the collar round the winged one’s neck. A reward awaits when I have the idol in my hands. Be wary! Dapi bears little mercy…”

Vetra scowled at the words and the memory of the wizard’s imperial way of speaking. He shrugged it off, thinking it no more than apprehension, or some inner noise of foreboding.

Iokru studied the outlander, as if reading his thoughts. His dusky complexion turned a shade darker. “Hither—” he pointed eerily. “The temple of Dapi resides down this alley, past the winged arch. Inside you will find your god. Be swift!”

“You are not coming?” pressed Vetra.

The priest glanced at him as if he had not heard the question.

A flicker of distrust crossed Balir’s face. “Why is it your master, Rojarsh, who worships the clam, possessed something belonging to a competing god?”

Iokru paused, his face inscrutable. “Best for you not to ask. You are priest killers and will all die. I await you here at the entrance to the god’s sanctum. Return when you have ‘performed’ your deed.”

Balir snorted a curse at the priest’s arrogant tone. “You fear the dark judgements of your gods, don’t you, priest? Can’t stand a little blood. A coward, like the rest. The mystic mumbo jumbo of Dapi—’tis all a front.”

Iokru showed yellow teeth in scorn. “You speak the words of a fool.”

The sneering Balir chuckled at the cleric’s reaction. But an evil glint pierced the priest’s eye, and Vetra saw the left incisor was filed like a vampire’s.

“I am not afraid of anything,” said Iokru. “Merely practical.”

“Practical, eh? We’ll see,” Kalaman snorted. “And not afraid of anything except the ratmen’s toothy god.”

Iokru stooped to light a spare torch he had concealed on his person. He pushed the thing into Vetra’s hand which guttered in the chill draft that wafted up the corridor. Kalaman and Laskar took up the conch and moved like wraiths ahead.

Vetra’s eyes traced distrustful paths into the gloom. After a while, he snatched a look back. The priest, like the silent ghost he was, had vanished. And with him his malignant aura.

Vetra glanced about, tracing his fingers on the eerie porous rock walls around him. They were scored with the faintest markings, cryptic runes and figures. “Something must have spooked our priest.”

“Like the rat men and their blood lust?” gusted Balir sourly.

“Well, he’s gone now,” muttered Vetra. “We’ll have to find the blasted pool on our own. The priest did give us directions to follow.”

“Yet without the priest I don’t think we can easily find our way out of here, especially with those ratmen crawling about. Not to mention if Iokru slinks back to Rojarsh babbling about some collar…”

“And what of it?” growled Vetra. “By sunrise, we’ll be able to see our way about these defiles—ratmen, collar or not. Hopefully our rodentish enemies will have crept back to their burrows by then.”

“We’re like rats in a maze here,” observed Kalaman. “Pardon the pun. I never knew these temple grounds were so extensive.”

“I would hope to be out of here before sunrise,” muttered Balir tonelessly.

“Caglios gave specific instructions on how to ‘activate the idol’,” Vetra echoed mechanically, his mind elsewhere. “Put the collar on first, lest the falcon’s wrath burst.

“What’s with the banal rhyme?” grunted Balir.

“How am I to know?” snapped Vetra, jarred from his daydream. “The ways of wizards are beyond me.”

 

II

 

Side passages branched everywhere but led nowhere. The four men kept to the main way on the priest’s advice, with Vetra pausing at each cross-tunnel to listen for the angry pad of ratmen. But no sign of babbling voices or bobbing torches came from the dimness. The priest perhaps had lost them in all his taxing twists and turns. As for Dapi’s sanctum, they would see…

He heard trickling water up ahead. Also the patter of feet and restless flap of wings. Rats? Bats? The sounds caused Vetra to shiver and they halted, ears pricked. Eyes darted overhead at a sudden movement. The dark flitting shape of a buzzard passed over the moon; in the open spaces above, dim stars hung in the night sky.

Vetra urged them on down the cracked, stone-paved path. Balir frowned at the fantastic carvings on the walls—gargoyles, seraphims, the heads of giraffes, turtles, various other wild beasts, all chiselled in marvellous unity by masterful tools. He scratched the stubble on his chin, eyes seeking any hidden threats in the shadows draping the carvings. Kalaman pulled at his golden hair, fingers hooked on the hilt of his scimitar. Laskar said no word, but his hand clutched tensely at his crossbow.

A lone torch burned from a bracket in the wall. The smell of rank pitch came to Vetra’s nostrils. Who had lit it? Others had been lit and hung on the richly-hewn walls in niches at curious intervals.

On they shambled, each feeling a sensation of crawling unease.

As the priest had mentioned, an arched way opened on the wall to the right. Ahead the path they were on seemed to peter out to utter blackness.

“The end of the line,” Kalaman murmured.

Vetra peered through the arch, cringing as he might look into the lair of a man-eating spider. The trickling of water grew louder in their ears, and as they passed through the portal, two pools glimmered into view on the far side of the chamber abreast the wall. Twin waterfalls purled down the cliff facing them to make a small wake in the pools, whose waters were of two different colours—dark crimson and yellow umber. Several torches lit the high-ceiling chamber.

They advanced warily, weapons gripped, lips parted in grimacing wonder. They noted that the pools were deep, without discernible bottom. Vetra took careful steps while Laskar crept close on his heels with one hand gripping a ring on the conch and Kalaman stalked behind him, hoisting the back ring.

Ancient bird statues jutted out fiendishly from the walls at disquieting intervals with parted beaks. Hawks? Falcons? The menacing statues had heavily muscled male-torsos and claw-like feet. Some ranged over seven feet tall. In the looming stone above, more anthropomorphic shapes stood carved out of polished onyx and dolomite and leered down on them with little welcome.

Grimacing, Vetra recalled the inquiries he had made about this legend of the falcon god. Local bards had sung of a prince of Araham long ago who had wanted to fly. He had become so obsessed with the thought, he had sought out a dark wizard to fulfil his wish. Prince Dapi was enslaved by the very magic that gave him his wings and talons. The wizard forced Dapi to do his bidding and the prince became like a god, enacting terrible deeds by the light of the moon and worshipped by votaries by day, thus the wizard gained power and acclaim beyond measure. As to what happened to the wizard, nothing is known definitely, but it is said his passing was not a pleasant one. So the legend spoke, and so the crumbling mausoleum of the wizard had writ on its entablatures. The deathless God-Prince Dapi lived on, shunned by man and beast while the cursed mausoleum was forgotten.

Vetra grunted. The legend was no more fantastic than any of the hundred others that floated on the lips of jackleg bards and skalds about the lands.

Balir fingered his blade nervously. “I have a bad feeling about this, Vetra. All these tons of rock, all these vile faces embedded in them…how can they bring anything but a curse upon us?”

Vetra exhaled softly. They did look down on them as if he and his men were no more than prey for the taking.

“And this baneful thing you clutch. What is it?” mumbled Balir.

“A thing to contain and bind the statue.”

Balir gave a sceptical croak. “A cursed relic the wizard gave you for no good, or gain.”

“Why don’t we just split the talons Caglios gave you?” suggested Kalaman. “Leave the old goat in the lurch, and the idol here for Iokru and his ghouls to fight over.”

Vetra’s eyes smouldered. “After all the trouble we have gone through? What of our oath? The dangers of crossing the wizard, or tarnishing our reputations?” He scowled through his teeth, scratching at his chin. “Still, there is something in what you say. I promised the spellcaster I would deliver and I am generally a man of my word—unless thieves and liars double-cross me.”

“You’re a stupid fool then, Vetra. Your code of honour will get one or more of us killed. I don’t trust the wizard. What do we owe him? And I like not this chamber. I would not revisit it or this temple maze for a thousand talons!”

“Gather your wits about you,” growled Vetra. “Are we mice or men? Let’s finish this. Swear on it again!”

Grudgingly, they did. Vetra’s eyes probed the shadow-chased ceiling. He thought at one time this place had been a cave; but for the pool and faint mist spray, the chamber was mostly bone dry. He traced fingers along one of the statues, a horned falconish thing with long, horrid beak. It was poised on human legs and torso, possibly a depiction of Dapi in elder times. The stone was smooth to the touch, remarkably smooth. The realism was astounding, and a chill ran up his back, for it was carved almost too skilfully, as if stone could become living flesh at any moment. He stepped back, expecting it to flutter to life. But it did not.

His eyes wandered. He figured the waterfalls came from some spring higher up in the sprawling mantle of rock. They were two hundred feet down in the canyon as it stood, he estimated, judging from the notch of open sky that allowed a grudging moonlight. Stalactites fell from the rest of the ceiling which had been carved and polished into the shape of sharp teeth. A grotesque bat-like falcon seemed hewn out of nothingness in those shadowy spurs, causing Vetra to shudder.

A swish of feet alerted them. Wheeling, they gave ground with cold steel swift in their hands. A hunched form shambled forth from a dimly-lit archway somewhere in the back of the chamber.

It was a woman, though this one was no beauty, with hunch-back, and drooping ears peeking from a wisp of thinning silver hair. She seemed like an old fossil dug from the deep ways. Waist and torso were clad in thick, rough furs. Her skin was dewlapped on the throat. Apart from some furs wrapped about torso and waist, the rest of her withered body was naked. Though she shuffled like a turtle a century old, her lustrous eyes burned with a glare of intelligence.

“Who are you, woman?” called Vetra, stepping closer.

“I am Nimeska,” she answered boldly. “Wherefore do you come to Dapi’s lair? I was born and raised here in the canyons. So my father, and his father before him.”

“You gave us a right jolt, sneaking up on us like that,” grunted Vetra. “I advise you not to repeat it.” He re-sheathed his blade.

She chuckled a rich, gravelly laugh. “I am grateful for your indulgence. Again, why tarry at Dauphid? Nobody but me has come into this chamber for years. ’Tis not usual to see the like of outlanders—and armed men at that.” She gestured at their bared weapons. Her cheeks flushed the colour of old redwood and her eyes raked the magnificent conch gleaming under the torchlight.

“We have a private errand to attend here.”

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion and surprise.

Vetra motioned. “And you? What is your business here?”

“I light the altar, that is all, as is our custom in this temple city of Gyzia. If any altar remains unlit or untended, a terrible curse will beset us.”

“It seems a harsh penalty,” Balir observed.

“More an old wives’ tale,” spat Kalaman. He struck off, examining the sinister statues and the two pools lurking by the far wall. The water that trickled down the face into the twin pools tinkled like skeleton fingers on ivory.

“Tell me, Nimeska, why does Dapi sit idle, while the other gods in these temples burn with so much oil and fire?” inquired Vetra.

The old keeper thought for a while and shrugged. “’Tis rumoured that a century passed and the falcons flew to the other side of the earth, and with them the spirit of Dapi. The cult died with it—” she hissed through her crooked teeth “—their messengers had abandoned them, their very sources of power.” She frowned. “The oracle of Sarle would have thoughts on the matter. Yet she hasn’t been seen in years.”

“I heard the legend had something to do with a prince,” Vetra ventured.

She croaked out a sound of amusement. “Well, your version is as good as mine.” Her harsh laugh was hoarse as a crow’s. “Do your mysterious deeds as you must. I have no doubt it has something to do with a transfer of coins from one man’s greedy pouch to another. But desecrate not the altars or sacred places of the old ones! Nergid, the wizard who gave Dapi his godlike powers, sleeps but he is not dead. Aye, they both sleep—” she stared wild-eyed at the conch on the floor and Vetra believed the old crone had guessed in an instant his dark purpose. “I feel a plague in the air tonight,” she croaked. “This very temple stirs with madness—mayhap an evil that you have brought with you.”

Balir grunted an oath. “Careful what you speak, crone, or I’ll—”

But Vetra waved him back. With a placid nod, he smiled, sensing an ally in this odd-mannered keeper. “We have a deed to perform here, as you have no doubt already guessed. I hope you could advise us on it.”

“Nay!” The old keeper pushed forth palms adamantly. “I wish no part of your rites. Dark purpose smacks in it. I smell death and danger in your presence. This fancy case you tote—’tis what?” Having shuffled forward, she now tapped its curled lid before Vetra could object and she leaned over it, starting curiously at the dull echoes of something apparently large inside.

She tapped her nose. “I know—this sense-organ smells all. It has something to do with Dapi.” She gusted out a loud snort. “Be on your guard. Dapi is not a kind god. Withal, ratmen abound and pad through these dark ways like restless vermin. ’Tis the hour of the rodent. I feel them skulking and crawling…”

“You are a bundle of joyous news, old woman,” chided Kalaman. “Give us something happy to mull over, why don’t you?”

The keeper fixed the fighter a dark look. With a weary sigh, she shuffled up the passage from where she had come, humming to herself an unsettling tune.

Balir gave a dour chuckle. “Well, so it goes. Shall we slit our throats now, or simply fall on our swords?”

Vetra gestured impatiently: “Quiet. Let’s get this ‘baptism’ over with.”

“To hell with this baptism!” roared Kalaman. “Are you insane? I say we leave this cursed thing here and fob Caglios’s charge. Keep our gold.”

“I agree, the priest Iokru, is gone,” mumbled Balir. “No support from that slinking jackal. Nothing but a load of mumbo jumbo comes from his lips every time we see him.”

“There are merits to your arguments,” mused Vetra. He pulled at his chin, but the warning of the wizard and the priest had him warring with indecision. “Let’s douse the wretched thing with some of this lighter-coloured water and be done with it.” Vetra’s mouth sagged as he watched Balir begin to hack and pry at the lips of the clam. “Are you daft?” he cried.

“Trying to get a peek at it.”

“You’ll damage the idol!”

Vetra strode over to help his impatient henchman and together they pried open the shell. None of them repressed a gasp of horror and disgust. Gently they lifted the statue on its side and set it upright beside the crimson pool. The thing was a repulsive monstrosity, having a falcon’s head, a set of leprous human hands and arms as well as bat-like wings folded over its stone-ribbed back. Clawed feet with four-taloned toes had the squat thing standing at half a man’s height, nursing a malevolent look with hungry, down-turned eyes and a vicious, pointed beak. It had every look of some stony devil from a primeval time.

Balir examined it with critical eyes. “’Tis an ugly thing.”

“You think?” Kalaman grunted, his fingers twitching. “Surely this old mallard won’t win any beauty awards.” He pressed his lips together in distaste.

Kalaman growled, “Now the business with these pools—which one? We’ve got the one that tinkles red like blood here and the one slightly less murky over there, which could be old, spoiled egg yolk.”

Vetra’s eyes glazed over. “The wizard was vague in this regard.”

“Just what we need, a vague wizard. So we have ‘rot’ or ‘blood’.”

“I opt for ‘blood’,” Laskar murmured. He had stepped out of the shadows and hefted his grim, steel-sprung bow with a decisive grin.

The other men blinked at him. It was unusual for the archer to offer any input at all.

Vetra lifted a hand in weary resignation. “Then on with it.” He produced the collar and wandered forward on hesitant feet. “Let me cincture this thing around its neck first. My mind seems hazy on the details. The wizard’s instructions seemed particularly clear-cut at the time.”

“Give me that!” Balir called impatiently and snatched the collar out of Vetra’s hand. “I’ll sling it around this cursed thing’s neck, while you cup your hands under that waterfall and splash it some and we’ll lug it back here—”

“Listen!” Vetra rasped. “Enemies about. Quick!”

Kalaman crouched on the balls of his feet. Laskar ducked, eyes probing the murk. A patter of feet echoed in the corridor. The three ran fleet-footed to the archway.

Balir, wheeling, stuffed the collar in his pocket.

Booted feet thudded in the stony darkness. Hitching forward, Vetra and Kalaman gripped hilts and ducked to either side of the portal, raising blades. Four rat-masked priests leaped in, menacing Balir and Laskar with spears, howling in frenzy. But the big warriors hidden to the side plunged steel through their fur-clad chests. They were cutdown to a man to fall screaming in pools of blood.

More rat-masks rushed in from behind, tripped unexpectedly over the fallen bodies.

Kalaman stepped in neatly, parrying multiple knife thrusts. His scimitar flashed scarlet ruin. He hacked a hissing attacker from sternum to groin, while Laskar aimed his bow and loosed a bolt into his companion’s chest. But not before the man had hurled a knife. The missile stuck in the archer’s upper arm, the leather from his jerkin catching the knife’s brunt. Laskar pulled it out grimly and with his good arm, hurled the blade back into another’s throat. There came a gurgle of pain and a tall figure with rat-mask fell like a stone.

Kalaman and Vetra hacked at enemies pushing through the arch and Balir joined in the melee. Some uttered ghastly shrieks, others died horribly, blood jetting, screaming last breaths to their rat god. Kalaman was dripping blood like a wounded animal from a spear stab just below his shoulder.

A desperate hand grabbed at Vetra’s sword, but Kalaman turned and slashed, despite his arm wound. He roared a foul oath, and carved an arm off at the elbow.

Priests were pouring in like moths. Balir smashed a fist into a masked face. A hole tore through the garishly-painted wood. He rushed through the knot of attackers, but was pushed back toward the pool with Vetra, cursing and shouting.

One of the ratmen stumbled backward into the idol which crouched there, staring fiendishly in the glare of the flickering torches. The jade falcon teetered and toppled backward into the water with a great splash.

Vetra cried out. He lunged for the thing, but the idol sank from sight in waters glimmering redly in the wake of magical currents. It was impossible to get the thing out—a commission that was worth three bags of gold. He was too harassed with stabbing foes to make any difference. He staggered back, blade rasping against steel, while dying men’s shrieks filled the air.

Two snarling attackers hustled to bring him to the ground. But Balir jumped in, tore the weapon from the closest’s hands and while their feather-plumed headdresses bobbed in waves of blood fury, he speared a gibbering man with his own weapon through the guts. The other he kicked sprawling into the blood-red pool.

Vetra turned, croaked out a low moan of anguish. He saw a strange, nightmarish shape suddenly materialize from the water and settle aside the pool—a stocky, brazen, avian-like mass. Could it be? Impossible—it was Dapi! The stone idol had changed in some way he could not fathom. Bigger and more intimidating? and more gruesome-looking. How had the thing—? But he wheeled, steeling himself. The statue was of solid jade. But the beak glowed dark crimson and had hooked on a corpse fished out from the pool. Vetra and Balir and several of the priests watched on as the stone god rose before their eyes. Its lustreless wings bore its weight a few feet off the ground and brought itself down again on the bloody floor with a delicate precision. Its four-toed claws clacked like goat hoofs on the stone. But was it a god or some demon? Vetra backed away. It tossed off the corpse with an indifferent croak and shake of its gore-flecked beak. Vetra’s throat groped for the cry that would not come. He scrabbled back in mute astonishment, thinking to himself he must be in some depraved dream.

The idol thing had grown a foot higher. It was broader and brimmed with a lurid orange aureole.

Vetra drew his blade back and swung in a wide circle, making ruin of an eager priest’s face and another’s knife arm. “Quick!” he yelled through bloody teeth at his comrades. “Snap the collar round its neck. Balir! You have it. Hurry! The thing has risen. We can’t hold off these fiends any longer.”

Balir glared at his henchman with awe and wonder. “Seriously?” He ducked a jabbing spear and gripped the collar in a white-knuckled fist. He moved nimbly toward the stone god, dripping crimson water from the pool. Bright blood smeared the evil, cone-like beak which had skewered the corpse.

“Here, birdie, birdie, birdie,” Balir called mockingly. He stooped to snap the iron ring around the beast’s neck. But there came a sharp movement and the blur of stone and beak. The mercenary’s eyes blazed in sudden horror.

Vetra whirled in astonishment and caught a glimpse of the frightful thing vaulting in the air. It came to hawk-like life with beak snipping out like a hedge-clipper. Then came a horrible cry of pain as two of Balir’s fingers thunked to the pavestones. He reeled back, barely avoiding the fiend’s thrusting beak, holding his hand which jetted blood.

The ominous bird-god floated on spindly legs in the dimness, fresh blood on its beak.

Now the creature hovered with impossible menace, jade wings flapping with an insane, batlike fury. Half of the collar was seared to the thing’s stony neck, still smoking as if it had melted on contact with the jade. The other half was pulsing brilliantly at its feet. Balir had obviously hooked the thing, but something had gone awry. The relic smoked and sizzled while Balir hopped about madly, trying to staunch the flow jetting from his severed fingers. The agonized man wrapped his hand under his tunic, ripped off a portion, and struggled to twine a leather cord from the hem of his pouch to secure the bandage with his good hand.

The miniature god fluttered a few feet forward, eyeing the knot of quivering figures with disdain. The eyes of the thing were lit with an inhuman burning intensity. As if an alien force had possessed it. The blood water—infused the fiend life. But how?

The monster cawed out a guttural shriek which Vetra could only construe as rancour at the desecration of its temple by the many fighting men milling about. With a brisk pulsing of wings it gained height and flew full into the fray. A ratmask came running at it with full speed and an upraised spear. It jabbed out its beak, and pierced the offender through the chest.

The man gave a sickening gurgle. The stone-carved beast whizzed past Balir, brushing a sharp edge of wing across his cheek, drawing blood.

Wings beat furiously at the air. It tore through the attacking ratmen pack, transfixing another with its bill and plunging it into the foremost man’s mouth, sucking. Vetra gaped in flesh-crawling revulsion. The others fled back in terror.

Dapi’s throat worked, as if drawing the man’s innards with every spasm—the victim’s eyes went dead, as if his soul had been sucked out of his body. Deeper the beak plunged into the man’s mouth and worked down the bulging throat until he was a blood-soaked mess. Beak pulled out innards while tiny hands caught up the slop to gulp it down like a ghoul. The bird rammed beak in again and loosed a belligerent caw, a bellow which half blew out the man’s stomach.

Vetra and Kalaman staggered back in horror.

“Get away from it!” Vetra cried out madly. “The thing sucks up men’s souls!”

The mercenaries from Lausern howled in dismay. The bird quivered at its conquest, wormed its beak deeper into human mouth and flesh. The defenders clambered back into the shadows, as did the ratmen, utterly aghast at the husk of man which had fallen away like a butcher’s beef slab. The corpse was completely bloodless and white-faced. Dapi, or whatever the demon god’s name was, burned with a fierce, vampirish glow.

Balir clutched his blade in his good hand and tottered back toward Vetra and Kalaman to engage the small knot of masked foes who scrambled alongside the retreating mercenaries.

Despite his handicap, Balir smote heavily with his sword and moved spryly on his feet, agile enough to foil the clacking spears and knives of the ratmen. His muscular sword arm made up for any missing fingers.

Vetra, for the life of him, could not understand why the ratmen continued to menace them in the presence of the ghoul. Was so much priestly blood worth that of a few outlanders?

A ringing clang of a spearhead landed on his helm, sending his head swimming in a dizzy fog. The torchlit gloom wavered; it shimmered in clouds of mist. A priest had snuck up behind him and outmanoeuvred him, damn his rat-hide! He roused himself from his stupor, while flashing stars careened about in his head, but he ploughed on, shoving merciless steel into human guts, parrying forked spears questing for his vitals.

The priests were bold but ineffective fighters. The only advantage they had over Vetra was their numbers, and their long spears which kept whirling blades at bay with their longer handles, helping the wielders avoid a gut slash.

Bodies lay thick in the ghastly splendour. Vetra clashed sword against the spears of the fool priests who still fought him. He wheeled as the god-thing passed within a hair’s breadth. The ratmen fled on terrified heels back up the corridor, nursing terrible losses, calling supplications to their rat god. The demon bird croaked grisly, guttural vocables, an utterly un-human sound unlike anything Vetra had ever before heard.

“Back the way of the old keeper!” he roared. A strange compulsion had him dashing over to where the smoking collar lay discarded. He flicked it up with the tip of his sword, and caught it in midair, before pushing through the knot of wild-eyed rat-men. Why waste time on the relic? His mission was botched. But there might be a chance he could make things right. Perhaps he could bridle the horror that had been loosed? And yet, some other stubborn, sinister reason burned at the back of his mind.

Laskar, grabbing bolts out of victims, slapped them in his leather pouch then scrambled up the tunnel after Vetra and the others.

While Balir pressed his hand to his side, he winced through his pain and gripped his weapon with fierce force in his good right hand.

How the day had gone terribly wrong! Vetra cursed as he fled up the tunnel where the old woman had disappeared. If the bird did not finish them, or the wrathful ratmen, there was always Caglios. The old wizard would not forgive this botch-up, Vetra knew, and he shuddered for the hundredth time at the memory of the wretch who had flouted the wizard’s authority. Dergath’s blood! What fiendish end would come of them all?

The four men limped their way along the gloomy passage, trying to put as much distance between the god-fiend as possible. The corridor was narrow and lit with torches hung sporadically on polished walls.

“What a grand bungling!” Vetra raged, shaking the half segment of collar in his white-knuckled fist. He stared at Balir. “Why did you have to snatch the collar out of my hands? I yelled at you to snap it on the thing’s neck. Remember the rhyme? ‘Put the collar on first, lest the falcon’s wrath burst.’ Instead, you go and whisper ‘birdie, birdie’ in its ear.”

Balir gave a blood-flecked snarl. “Dergath’s three hells about the rhyme, Vetra! I’m a warrior not a necromancer. No bard either to fuss around with some mawkish verse.” He grimaced through his pain, pausing to redress his wound. He sheathed blade in his bloody scabbard and tottered up the corridor to keep up with his fellows.

In the torchlit gloom behind, dim echoes rang—the bloody hackwork of beak thrusting against bodies, chirping cries, the clink and chop of death, the faint whisper of woe dwindling to an unreal nightmare. The tinkling waters of the devil pool faded from earshot.

Vetra pulled Balir alongside him. He saw his henchman was now white with shock. “A bad business getting your fingers snapped off like that. Was the thing really stone, or something of flesh and blood?”

“Its beak was stone,” murmured Balir hoarsely. “It was like no living thing I ever saw.” He rattled out a gasp. “It’s a devil! Not a god, Vetra. A cursed thing of the swamps!”

“Quiet down.” Vetra ducked his head, trying to see back down the passage in the dark. “We’ve loosed some barbarous entity in these corridors. Or that swine Caglios has, courtesy of his macabre magic. It has something to do with his prophecies and that devil pool,” he rasped, “not that everything in this damnable canyon isn’t cursed. At least the god-bird is taking care of our masked pests. You, my friend,” he grunted at Balir, “drew the short straw.”

Balir laughed sourly at the remark and coughed up phlegm. “A hefty price to pay for a blunder. I’ll survive. But I’ll have my revenge on these rat mongers, if it’s the last thing I do—and that conniving wizard of yours.”

“Famous last words,” muttered Vetra. “We have yet to get out of this creepy labyrinth.” He turned the collar over in his hand. The remnant was half broken, blackened, and its rough surface gleamed like obsidian as if at one time it had been subjected to extreme heat. The primitive serpentine and garnet gems in it glowered with ominous purpose.

“The collar was given me as a countering force,” Vetra mused. “The old wizard said it was a container, should the deity become too powerful.”

“A little late for that now,” Kalaman muttered.

“I had it in my hands,” Balir lamented. “Next thing I know this demon jumps at me like some spider from hell. I should have—” He choked back the words, unable to continue the thought.

“Take it easy, Balir.”

Kalaman stared at Balir’s mangled hand. “I saw it with my own eyes. The collar seared into the statue’s skin. A stone goblin if I ever saw one. It was animated by unknown forces, something that should not exist. It whipped its beak round and snapped the collar out of Balir’s hand, snipping two of Balir’s fingers at the same time like they were twigs in a vice.”

“No matter. What’s done is done.”

“Let’s hope the old keeper kept this way lighted,” grumbled Kalaman. “The glow seems to be petering out—red as the blood water from that damnable pool. We may be able to get ourselves back to the main avenue, if we keep our wits about us.”

On heavy feet the four stumbled up the passage, panting and grunting like pigs. The last path that the keeper took they followed, leaving blood-stained prints on the floor. The lighted way grew duskier with smoking torchlight. They blinked in the gloom, and the irregularly-spaced torches guttered and cast dancing shadows along the rough stone walls.

The paves petered out to bare rock, which lay buckled and heaved up at places. The two-dimensional carvings were worn and chipped and depicted ancient priests carrying offerings to winged gods, as well as sinister beast-headed deities, suns, moons, and constellations. Walls and ceiling ran with them, the latter looming a few feet above their heads. No reassuring open sky in this corridor.

“Let’s move our feet,” rasped Vetra. “We need to get as far from that ghoul as possible.”

Laskar gave a muffled growl. In addition to the shallow knife puncture, he had lost part of his ear in the fight with the god-bird. Part of the blood that they trailed was his, despite his efforts to cup a hand over it. Kalaman suffered a great clotted gash bulging out on his left shoulder. Grunting profusely, he massaged the wound where a glancing spear had nicked him. Vetra flexed his knee which had swelled since he slipped in a slain priest’s blood.

If Dapi hadn’t appeared when it did, the ratmen likely would have carved them ear to ear… The senseless soul-suckings of the god burned luridly in Vetra’s mind. How had the pool given it life? What kept the god’s essence contained within the stone? His thoughts did not grant him any peace.

“Demons only exist to kill,” muttered Kalaman, picking up on Vetra’s grimaces. “Being newly-birthed, maybe the thing needs to feed.”

“Or maybe it’s growing,” offered Balir in grunting cynicism.

The minutes wore on, infused with a tense, sinister silence. Like wounded deer they half limped, half bounded down the corridor, as if stalked by a tiger. A cloying dampness infected the night air, which the few lighted torches failed to dispel. Vetra could see great spider webs hanging from them in the dimming red light. Snatches of fierce, god-like faces leaped out from the shadows. Archways led to various other mini-temples in whose dusky interiors he caught glimpses of winged stone dragons, or simian faces of elder apes of doom.

In a tumbling rush, it occurred to Vetra what this place was: an accursed network of temples spanning many ages that sheltered multiple, hideous and nameless gods; a place where carven facades of temples towered on high—where priests gave themselves over to dark forces conjured by occult means, a monstrous sanctuary where half human, half bestial entities lurked, and very likely used the priests in ways more slavish than the priests believed they used the gods.

At least there was no further pursuit. Vetra dwelled on the thought with satisfaction, and members of the band eased up their pace. He pushed back his dented helm, wiped the blood from his brow. Balir’s wretched grumbling had them all pondering the twist of fate that had them fleeing blindly down this musty tunnel. Not two days ago they had all lounged merrily together at the Hetman’s pub, with Kalaman cracking many a ribald joke.

Vetra’s face crinkled in a grin, still remembering how he had met the blond-haired ring-fighter. How he had pushed his way up to the front of that mob of fevered gamblers waving coins in their hands that late night in the brewers’ district, wagering on who would win the next fight. He had scrutinized the combatants in that sweaty pen—a mixture of ex-convicts, bodyguards and thugs. Confidence, brawn, ingenuity—that’s what he had been looking for—someone with the ability to size up an opponent in an instant. Next up was Kal—Kal the Dragon. Vetra recalled watching the stocky brute casually circle his unfortunate, squint-eyed opponent; then, in a sudden rush and burst of strength a mallet fist knocked his adversary senseless in less than five seconds, though he was the smaller man, and the one everyone was betting against.

Vetra had been sold then on the rogue and had come striding up to recruit him. Kalaman had looked at him sideways, like a curious panther, with many a scar and stitch around his eye and nose. Kalaman, in his up-front way, had told him his pub-crawling friend Laskar was in need of work and that unless the two of them were both hired for the job, he would walk…

Vetra shook his head at the pleasant memory. A far cry from the rude, blooded messes they were, scrambling through a ratman-haunted tunnel in the valley of Gyzia.

Eventually they stumbled upon a candlelit chamber rudely carved in the tunnel wall. Inside, the old crone who was the temple keeper sat cross-legged on a ledge of stone. Curiously, her back was set against the rough wall of the cave-like passage whose ceiling was very low. She was surrounded by tiny wicks suspended in oil. Her eyes were drawn in an eerie, somnolent stare, fixed on a six-pointed star on the far wall lit with smouldering torches.

She was so absorbed she did not notice them at first. Vetra ducked inside and guessed she was in a trance from the way she sat motionless without a word. The others watched her and looked on, blinking with puzzlement.

Her eyes fluttered a few times and she spoke at last. “I knew ere your coming that there would be trouble in the temples of Gyzia.”

“If you knew,” scoffed Balir, “why didn’t you try to stop us?”

The keeper gave a long sigh, seemingly unmoved by their wounds. “How could that have helped? That’s why I give thanks to the Elder gods of the Five Destinies, lest they work against me. So far, my labours have borne fruit. I have twice outlived my family. Others are long gone, and so I quit not my devotional practices.”

Vetra rattled his bloody sword with impatience. “Very comforting, woman, but show us the way out, if you please.”

“’Tis said that Dapi would come to life again, and that he has. Risen again, like a demon prince, he will be worshipped by many as a force of terror. I did not expect to see it in my lifetime…Great Dergath, Revered Jano! The visions I had in my last meditation…Do you not know what you have done?”

Vetra’s lips parted in a cynical curl.

“I can assist you, as I assist all beings on their journeys,” she declared. She raked them with a stare, her greenish-grey eyes boring craters in them. “I see that you are not bad men, just misguided, full of blind hopes like most. Seduced by plunder and the misty promise of gold, you have raced to folly. I have no love for the ratmen. Yes, I will show you the way back to the Avenue of Tombs, where you can make your way to the gates of Gyzia, and above, to take your chances with the gate-priests and the watchtower…”

Vetra raised his brows in a sardonic grin and suppressed the urge to contrive a mocking bow. “Any time soon then.”

Showing no pique, the old keeper stepped down from her ledge to hobble stiffly across the cracked, slightly upheaved pavestones. “Come, this way then.” She pushed a candle in Balir’s cloth-bound hand and pulled a torch off the wall for herself. “Take brands and pay heed to the wandering priests. They war amongst themselves and are not pleasant to cross. The path of the ancients lies long and winding and mysterious, open only to believers. The ratmen cannot pass, for their hearts are dark and their minds heavy with the weight of corruption and the sacrifices they have committed. The spirits will not allow them to pass to the forbidden regions, or the higher realms of the afterlife, or offer them any protection whatsoever.”

Balir beamed ingenuously. “I always knew I had a halo over my head. Must have been all the prayers I recited.”

“Do not ridicule the old gods,” she warned. “They breathe life into this ancient canyon. Possibly the same into your own body. Your life may depend on the gods one day, and their mercy.”

Balir glared at the thought, yet Vetra flashed him a dangerous look, warning him not to rile the old woman.

Down a side tunnel she hobbled, leading them with one hand pressed to hip, the other bearing a torch. They passed along a crude passage barely a man tall in places. Behind a vague veil of dimness, a murmur of ghastly avian croakings drifted in and out of the ghostly shadows. Sound and movement crawled there: fiendish shouts, the tumult of fighting men, horrid, unsettling bangs with spears clattering against stone.

Nimeska murmured, “Listen to the sounds of strife amongst the children of fools…”

Vetra tightened fist on his weapon, his dark features clouded with unease.

“The night is much alive with mischief,” she announced sombrely, a pale and weary light shining in her eyes. “False worshippers abound in these ancient halls!”

The yawning rock opened up into a fissure above their heads. There they caught a momentary glimpse of open sky and glittering stars. Then the mouth of crumbled sandstone folded over them and the tunnel wound on in silence and murk. Their boots crunched on shale; endless fissures and forgotten abysses dropped sometimes inches away, black as midnight, wafting cool vapours and murmurings of tumbling water. Dimly they could make out aged carved faces of outworn deities, untended by priest or cleric—on wall, ceiling and in pit. The hairs rose on the back of Vetra’s neck.

 

Where they had encountered no foliage before, now battered tree trunks appeared intermittently in the gloom, thrusting up like silent ghosts. They were thick-boled things, the product of who knew what sorcery or diseased magic. The fugitives squeezed around these dark trunks that loomed up in their path. Evidently the trees were nourished by the open air, wind, rain and sunlight that streamed from above. But how they could live on in bare rock was a mystery—the corridor seemed inhospitable, supporting little in the way of soil down here, where the invasive roots bored and upheaved the rock.

“What are these strange trees?” asked Vetra. “They look petrified. With barely a limb, they are like dead hulks.” His and Kalaman’s swords clanged in dull thuds when they tested them with their blades. Vetra’s fingers reached out to stroke its hard, ageless contours and found it smooth to the touch. With a shiver, he withdrew his fingers. The black trunk crawled with a sinister life, something he felt rather than could explain. Though the trunk gleamed under his torchlight, hard and dead as bone, there was something else that spoke of malevolence, something tainted by the weight of the ages. In the ethereal light, he saw what few branches there were, lay broken and twisted, ash-grey like bone. Most had snapped off and fallen.

The temple keeper seemed pleased with Vetra’s interest in the trees. “These are the trunks of Kaphra. Once they were living things. A mystic wanderer brought seeds from a distant land, prophesying they would grow to become Jano’s children. In the end, these twisted growths grew from acorn to sapling to their full height, burrowing down through cracks to suck up the blood of the victims of Dapi and his pantheon of violent gods. ‘Blood death trees’, we called them, whose trunks would ooze rank blood on nights of the full moon. Centuries of Dapi’s sacrifices were buried here in this hall—whose warm blood seeped deep and stained the stone forever.”

Vetra shook his head in baffled loathing. “A grim, fiendish heritage you have here, woman.”

“Some would call it a hellhole,” remarked Balir.

Nimeska only grunted, a spooky sound, almost as chilling as her tale. “I grow old. Not long from now I will pass and these halls will be silent again.” Vetra saw a flicker of dreaminess pass in those ageless eyes. “One day I would like to become immortalized like these trees—the magnificent ones. I would become one with their grandeur, forever watch over these halls, like the guardians of my heritage.” Her voice sank in a hushed whisper, eyes lit with the vision of which she spoke.

Vetra shrugged. “One should be careful what she wishes for.”

She chuckled. “I know what you’re thinking, outlander. That I am a loony old coot.”

Vetra smiled, but said nothing.

Back down the tunnel, the beating of stone wings echoed out of the murk. Something was tracking them, unless Vetra missed his guess. Dapi, seemingly, would not be thwarted.

“The thing hunts us,” Vetra murmured.

“You seem to have something it wants.” The keeper scanned their persons and trained eyes on Vetra, paying particular attention to his anxious fingers fumbling under his surcoat. “Is it your lives Dapi hunts, or your souls?”

Vetra uttered something incoherent. His fingers closed over the fragment of collar that burned warmly at his belt. The urge to toss it down the passage was overwhelming. Yet he kept it.

The path curved around a bend and the old keeper stooped to catch her breath before another withered, stone tree. With one elbow propped on a knee and the other hand clutching her torch pressed to the trunk, she loosed a ragged gasp. “I grow weary. My bones are not what they used to be. I bid you go!” She flung out a gnarled hand. “Follow the path. Turn at the sigil of the Panther, the Bear and the Hound. If Jano favours you, you will come out to the main avenue of sphinxes. May Jano protect you!”

Vetra blinked, thumbing his chin. “Are you sure you can’t accompany us farther? We cannot repay your services immediately. But will do so at the earliest convenience.”

She smiled at Vetra’s offer and shook off his hand. “Go! Dapi is coming for you. Whatever you have done to the god, I dare not imagine. He is not kind, and like all gods, demands sacrifices to keep him alive.”

“And you?” Vetra pressed.

“Do not worry. I am protected.”

The words lingered strangely in the air. Vetra pursed his lips. “As you wish.” Fatalistic temperaments always perplexed him. He shouldered Balir ahead.

 

III

 

Down the passage they tramped, their boots sending up a hail of echoes. As the old woman crouched by the blood tree, they caught snatches of her last mumbling prayers to her god. Vetra was reluctant to leave her behind, yet there was new relief in his heart, for her presence was somewhat unsettling. It cast doubts on himself and his mission. So far, her advice and guidance had only been helpful.

After a time, he and the others came out on a bend in the open passage where a cryptic symbol showed in the middle of a three way junction—just as the old woman had predicted. The canyon walls rose up a hundred feet on either side of the split. The left passage plunged down to dark, disturbing depths. The middle corridor wound up and showed promise of light, while the right was footed with large stones and appeared shielded by a heavy iron gate.

“Which way did the old crone say?” growled Balir.

Kalaman pointed vaguely at the engraved figure that looked something akin to a hybrid ape and condor. “Left, toward the sign of the Grinning Monkey, or lewd Owl.”

“You numbskull!” Vetra grunted. “That’s no owl.” He pushed ahead with a disgusted scowl. “We take the way straight… The high road, always the high road.”

From the middle passage, a drunken form came lurching out, his chest heaving. A priest, of sorts, judging by the glinting chest ornaments. The figure spied the armed men and gasped. He turned on his heels and scrambled back the way he had come. Vetra gave a grim shout and they thundered after him, up the murky corridor, caught a glimpse of his coral-coloured conch, which was not dissimilar to Iokru’s headdress. While they waved swords and grunted curses, the fleet-footed figure seemed to slip into the darkness like a wraith, and his footfall suddenly faded from earshot.

They came out of the gloom up a wide, sunken stair whose stones were cracked by time. A circular hall stretched before them and they caught glimpses of rounded forms of crouching statues bathed in moonlight stationed around the perimeter, the features eroded by rain and wind of ages past. They stood, catching their breaths. Vetra peered uncertainly; a tiny glow seemed to emanate from some place beyond. More torches glowed from niches along the walls, emanating faint light. Perhaps the doings of another cult like the ratmen? He frowned suspiciously. The old woman had not mentioned hostile votaries along the way…unless, she was so weak of breath to have forgotten to mention them. Other forces were yet to play out in this eerie sanctuary of Gyzia’s mystery.

The chamber was rich with carven figures and must, bat dung and decay. The space breathed of an ancient stillness, and a horror, which lay thick like a curse. One that caused Vetra some grimacing, not the least at the lurid echoes that lingered back in the corridor behind—human footfall, priests’ shouts, dying screams. He gaped at a grisly sight that slowly took the breath from his lungs as it took form under the glare of their torches.

“What the—?”

For a monstrous second he stood completely bewildered—a petrified tree standing ancient and tall, vastly disturbing with its huge branches, thrust up through the hollowed-out mouth of a gigantic stone-carved osprey moulded out of the stone wall. Desiccated husks of what were once human and animal limbs lay crumpled at the idol’s base: sacrifices of some past ritual, drained of vitals and fluids—or perhaps what had been chewed off by some abomination like Dapi. The carven image was not dissimilar to Dapi, but this was chiselled in the form of a massive, half human bird, whose beaked face hung pasted on human neck and shoulders and was drawn out in a rictus of intense emotion.

Vetra couldn’t decide whether it was anguish or rapture. Not that he cared to find out.

The thick trunk of the petrified tree, blackened with the blood of victims of past ages, rose from the paves, spreading rocky limbs like coral across the bird face and twining around the neck and crown. Branches thicker than pythons’ coils plunged down into the open maw and into the eyes, like some ghastly fungal growth.

Vetra sucked in a breath of amazement. It filled him with enough horror to stop dead in his tracks. And not leastly, the place was a dead end…

The men peered about in astonishment. The ceiling rose in a dome where a cone of moonlight spilled down from a glaring, bat-eyed gap to bathe the ancient floor below in soft, grey moonlight. Where had the priest disappeared to?

Vetra rubbed his jaw in consternation. The priestly footprints were etched in the thick dust and disappeared at the edge of the far wall. A low, mouldering altar lurked to the side, set with twisted candelabra. The altar, Vetra saw, reposed by the hideous god-statue and supported a litter of bird skulls, and decomposed candles, shells, furs, glass ornaments, gewgaws, claws and bones.

A sudden scuffling sound had Vetra turning, swinging his sword.

A tall, lithe figure came shambling out of the dimness at the back of the chamber. He was wheezing and wiping what looked like a bloody gash across his brow. The rattled figure had that panicked look of a cornered animal. Stave gripped in hand, he appeared to have come magically from some hidden exit aside the altar, darkened in the wall.

“You!” growled Vetra wrathfully. “Skulking about again!”

“Yes, me…” Iokru muttered, looking equally rankled. He stared at the four of them disdainfully, a gratified smirk slowly surfacing upon seeing their blood-clotted wounds and scowling faces. “I see you have met your ‘god’…and accomplished your task.” Though this last statement was uttered with no small amount of malice.

“No thanks to you, you deserting priest,” rumbled Kalaman. “Where have you been?” He let out a savage roar and lifted his blade. A score of Iokru’s swarthy, Clam-cult priests came gliding out of the murk with grim purpose. This was definitely a hidden tunnel, concealed cunningly with secret hinges and mirror-smooth seams, thought Vetra. The priests were tall, unsmiling men, wearing coral headdresses similar to the fugitive’s with glinting knives tucked at their waists. Spears and flickering torches were clutched at the ready.

“One of you,” accused Iokru, “if not your bungling accomplice, seems to have doused your idol in the wrong water.” He gestured insolently at Balir whose bandaged hand tucked under an armpit peeked out like a sore thumb.

“Watch your tongue,” snarled Balir. “I did not come here to be insulted by some high-priest’s lapdog.” He lifted his sword and gave a rancorous curse.

Vetra redirected, teeth bared. “What happened to you anyway?”

Iokru gave a dimunitive shrug. “I was waylaid. Isn’t it obvious? By the cursed ratmangers.”

“Those rat masks?”

“Who else?” Iokru spat impatiently. “What’s with the twenty questions? One of them who we passed back at their temple must have put two and two together seeing you carrying that conch shell.” His glare fixed on Vetra. “Likewise decided we were planning to raise some god or other in secret communion. You idiot!” He flourished his stave. “I curse you for flashing that jade idol and its magical collar at that moment! Rojarsh will have my head for this. Dark Carcassis! The Falcon God was never supposed to live again. I’m as good as a dead man!”

“The devil with Rojarsh!” snarled Vetra. “What do you see, priest? My man’s lost fingers. This Dapi thing, or whatever you call it, has turned into a fiend, and now lives, or flies as some demon bird, killing men like lemmings in these tunnels. You’re right, it was not supposed to end like this.” He shook his head.

Iokru clicked his tongue. “Settle yourself down. The dark forces prevail. The law of seraphim, or the handmaid of Fate, foils all. Men’s plans wither in her hallowed shadow.” Iokru’s masked priests murmured a prayer and other cryptic words. A group of them huddled closer and Vetra could see their gleaming skin and hear their vindictive breaths hiss in and out of helm-like masks. Their naked bellies tinkled with the seashells suspended from thin cords while feathers bristled on their muscled arms over armlets of whalebone.

Vetra half turned the broken collar in his hand. Animosity burned in that gaze. “And all for this.” He pulled the collar out and shook it like a dog would a rat.

Iokru’s eyes almost bulged out of their sockets. “You?—you still guard the collar? But by Dapi, how—?” His eyes gleamed with a malignant energy. “A chosen one you must be, to clutch it while Dapi lives!”

Vetra grunted impassively. “You mean, how is it that this bloodthirsty deity is still living and not some inanimate piece of jade? Who knows? Ask that of the wretches whose souls it has sucked!”

Iokru was at a loss for words. The priest had grown silent and Vetra could almost see the gears working in his diabolical skull. And he did not like what he saw.

If Iokru and his weaponed priests decided to strike, he and his men would have to be fast. A well-timed explosive attack and a quick, gutting flurry of steel to cut down as many of them as they could. Kalaman was in accord, as his private nod affirmed.

Iokru gestured carelessly. “Look around you—these halls were once the old lairs of the priests, the dark dens of Dapi. Forbidden, of course, by the priest-kings of the order, after the destruction of the ‘middle path’ and the gradual degradation of Dapi. You would quiver if you could comprehend the sacrilege for us to be even treading in this hall now! If Rojarsh or any of his senior priests were to find us…it would mean high treason for us all.” His eyes gleamed and lower lip twitched. “It was only the ratmen and Dapi who forced us here…yet fitting now that we are here face to face, wizard lackey.”

As insulting as the priest’s words were, his voice was somewhat strange and disjointed, and prompted Vetra to think that he was nervous, and possibly as clueless of the events that had passed as he was himself.

Iokru caught the look of cold musing and the veiled disgust on Vetra’s face as his eyes darted to the stone-carved god with its twisted tangle of limbs. He gave a dark, croaking chuckle. “You marvel at Osipres? You look upon the dead god of the Hunt, brother to Dapi, the Osprey god, a cult which sprang up like wildfire soon after Dapi’s fall, a century ago.”

“And the invasive tree?”

Iokru wiped his hands on his reeking, blood-clotted cloak and murmured some words in a priestly tongue. “As for that, I’m not sure why it was not cut down ages ago. Jano waged war with us and the winged gods, and I know followers of Jano, the mother god, worshipped these unnatural things.”

He spat with distaste and his fists knotted into claws. A faraway but delirious glint drifted in his eyes.

“How I wanted to snatch that collar from you the moment I saw it back in the passage of Antali.” His eyes narrowed in hungry anticipation. “I could have snatched it. But with risk of my own neck slitted by your swords. Now it looks as if the tables have turned. I have my warrior-guard on my side. You are wounded and outnumbered. I can wrest the collar from you at any time.” He glared at them, his voice rising in a throaty chuckle.

Vetra growled, “Try it.”

Iokru barked out a laugh. “Why resist? I shall harness the power of this new bird god, rogue though it is. With the help of the god collar, I will overthrow that condescending fool of a high priest, Rojarsh. He has mistreated me for the last time, patronized my abilities.”

Iokru gestured and a group of his warrior-priests advanced, clutching wicked, single-edged spears barbed with razor tips.

Vetra crept back a step, gauging the mettle of the tallest warrior. His bronzed shoulders showed a muscular sheen of slick sinew that was not to be discounted. But then Vetra’s own muscles rippled with a pent-up battle heat. The priest, a powerful bear of a man, sprang at him, all gleaming teeth and cool smile, but betraying an overconfident grip on his long spear. Such presumption marked a man susceptible to ruse, and it was on this weakness that Vetra capitalized.

Vetra sidestepped the snarling lunge and rumbled deep in his throat. “Back, clam-spawn, and you too, Iokru. I have not come this far to be thwarted by a traitor-priest as the likes of you!”

Steel flashed in Vetra’s hand and in the dim light, blood flowed, as the tall priest thrust his spear forward. Vetra swivelled on his hips, deflected the ill-timed strike and leaned in and struck powerfully upward, running bright steel from the outstretched man’s groin to sternum. The priest cried out, his bare flesh laid open in a blossoming crimson.

“Enough!” called Iokru, glaring at the writhing form at his feet.

A commanding voice called from the dim distance, “Aye, enough.”

Heads whirled in unison. Vetra’s eyes widened in amazement as he stared at a spare form treading closer. Nimeska! How had she…? She had a new spring in her step and zeal burned in her expression. As she approached, Vetra could see she was still the old wandering crone, but new energy flowed in her limbs, as if her god had given her new purchase on life.

Iokru mustered a gasp. “You?—lowly ‘incense burner’! What do you do here?” he cried angrily.

“I can ask the same of you. I see you for what you are, priest.”

Iokru gave a sardonic grunt. “Oh, what is that? A crafty visionary?”

Her eyes narrowed in contempt, possibly pity. “I remember you of old. Rojarsh, your master, kidnapped and enslaved my daughter years ago, luring her with promises of beauty and wealth into your depraved cult. She died a raving lunatic, poisoned by your sect’s foul magic and dogma. I vowed to avenge her when I was younger. Now it seems the time has come. I have always loathed your sect, and now fate binds us together. To here it brings us—to the dark doorstep of Dapi.”

Iokru shrugged, unimpressed with the keeper’s rhetoric. “It was Rojarsh’s way,” he muttered. “I was but a boy at the time. Eager to be elevated into the ranks of the clam priesthood. I rose quickly. Rojarsh saw to that. He was not displeased with the potential I showed.”

The keeper’s face remained unmoved. “You are no different than the other ambitious simpletons of your creed. Your master was the vilest snake of all, an extortionist, and a tyrant and murderer—” She left off on that, stabbed a finger at the cursed, whalebone idol-amulet in the form of Rojarsh riding the sacred clam that hung round the priest’s neck. “Beware! Dapi does not forgive fools, nor does he fear to ride our heels like a banshee and will make sacrifices of us all ere the setting of the moon.”

“Take her, and these sputtering fools!” Iokru bellowed in disgust. The priests muttered in unison and advanced in dark knots. But Laskar knocked a bolt to his crossbow and pointed it at the foremost priest. The three in the front halted, wary of the archer’s steadfast aim and his merciless, unwavering gaze.

“You will be judged by the gods you worship!” warned Nimeska. “Stand back! My deities will protect me.”

“Your deities?” Iokru laughed. “Just like your precious Jano? I don’t think so.” He snorted out a hot breath through flared nostrils. “They will drag you through pools of your own blood and then eat out your eyeballs! Dapi will be under my control.” He jerked a finger at his underlings. “Seize this wench of a witch and take her to the pit of clams! She will feed Metru—our great, old clam.”

“The old Clam of our god!” echoed one of Iokru’s faithful followers who shook a fist and hailed his priest-superior.

“First one touches her dies,” growled Vetra. His sword raked out, slashing the man’s garment and drawing a liquid line under the rough fur on the man’s partially naked brown chest.

A cry rang out and a spear clattered to the stone. Nimeska nodded in triumph, her visage coming alive and her priestess-like form seeming to rise a foot off the ground. Vetra marvelled at her trust and faith in her god. Another warrior-priest jerked forward, thrusting spear in her face in anger at the challenge and the injuries of his fellows. But she didn’t flinch.

Vetra sprang forward, turned aside the metal tip of the spear that would surely have pierced her breast. “Knave!” he snarled at Iokru. “Would you kill a defenceless woman?”

“If I must,” Iokru grunted. “Kill them all, every last one of these snivelling dungmites!” His priests pushed forward and lifted spears to hurl at the defenders.

Balir’s throat rumbled an oath; Laskar loosed a bolt into the advancing throng, taking the first running priest square between the eyes.

His body fell like a limp rag and a dog-eyed priest thrust his gleaming shaft at Kalaman. Balir barrelled forward and kicked the weapon out of the startled priest’s hands. The mercenary slashed a murderous stroke down on bared flesh, eliciting a shriek of pain.

The hall erupted into a wild melee, men yelling as spears thrust and swords cut.

A lunging priest feinted at Vetra while another crouching attacker sprang with a villainous yell. A knife stabbed for his groin. Vetra parried both and booted the crouching man in the teeth as Iokru surged forward, wresting the collar from Vetra’s side belt.

Vetra wheeled like a cat, evading the first lunging attacker and swinging out a lashing cut. But the blade fell on empty air. It struck the paves, and as quick as a snake, Iokru darted back with the collar in his grip, gloating venomously over his prize.

“With this piece, Dapi will be mine to control!” The priest laughed, foam dribbling from his lips. “You will feed our clam!”

“Not just yet,” came Nimeska’s explosive shout. She held her hands over her head and her face grew dark and fierce—and Vetra saw in her wild eyes something sinister, rising like a terrible serpent.

The warrior priests drew back, eyes widening as if sensing something unearthly. Iokru stared at her in puzzlement. A dim understanding crawled over his expression.

“I am not without magic, priest! Watch!—Nimeska, the witch, becomes the embodiment of her goddess!” And with a sudden, swift stamp of heel, greenish light as deeply rich as all the plants of the wildest jungles of Taro coursed around her in a flaring aureole and she invoked the spell and power of Jano, her patron goddess.

Iokru snorted, shaking in rage. “You, the incarnation of the priestess of Mith? Never!” He grimaced in denial. “The treed one has been dead for an age.”

Nimeska guffawed, obviously enjoying the rich discomfort of the priest’s astonishment and the intoxicating wave of power flowing through her. “My power will make Dapi’s look like a worm on the hook in the swamps of nameless jungles.”

The keeper’s body then glowed yellow and she began to pulse and shift. Her thin body surged upward—grander than life, growing taller, wider, her rhythmic movement like one of the big snakes of deep jungles from the south. Her legs stood rooted while her arms sprouted slender limbs, like those Vetra and his men had passed earlier, with dead leaves crackling on the ends to fall in crisp heaps at her feet. Writhing, twisting, growing like vine tendrils, roots displanted toes and thrust in the age-worn stone of the derelict temple and upheaved the pavestones like chalk.

The screams and wails of dying men echoed up the corridor from the hidden exit.

Vetra turned. He could not decide which was worse, this ill scene or what transpired in the nearby corridor. He watched priestly fingers close on weapons, eyes dart about with thin, wary fervour, men gauging the balance, or the imbalance of power that existed in this gloomy hall of the ancients. None knew what Iokru’s henchmen would do. None knew what the treed horror was doing, nor what the menace swiftly progressing up the secret tunnel was. But it sounded all too much like Dapi’s bloody handiwork.

Vetra turned a feral glance at Iokru who gripped the collar with growing doubt. Vetra launched himself at the priest, his blade promising swift death.

Iokru ducked under Vetra’s strike and scrambled away from the wrathful tree. “No matter. Wield your obscure magic, witch!” he croaked. “Turn into a tree and regale us with a paltry parlour trick for all we care.”

As if in response, a newly-budding limb sprouting from Nimeska lashed out and sent priests flying. It blocked the hidden exit where Iokru pumped long legs, hoping to escape.

Five of Iokru’s priests were down. The others legged it in a mad rush to win past Nimeska’s thrashing limb and flee the chamber. But the tree-keeper clapped her branches together overhead and the deserters fled back gibbering in awe at the quivering statues hovering over the lintel that suddenly fell with a crash at their feet. Rocks blocked the passage. The priests stumbled around in confusion as a cloud of dust and moulder washed over them. Howling and scrabbling amongst themselves, they groped for shelter.

Nimeska’s arboreal plumage was now a violent fan of loose, writhing branches, alive and bristling in the air like angry snakes.

Her tree-deep voice boomed over the din. “Sons of Rojarsh, you shall get your wretched wish. Entombed and encaged—protectors of the halls of the damned!—” and with a gruesome crackling of expanding wood the trunk bulged and grew. New branches snaked off in unison like vines from faraway jungles, sealing off the entrance forever.

The smile froze on Iokru’s face. He held up the collar, strung it around his neck abreast the amulet. “I am not done yet, witch! Pay heed, I guard the talisman. ’Tis I who have power over the god!” He croaked out the words with a hysterical vindictiveness.

“Ah, no you don’t,” whispered Balir, reeling up beside him.

“You!” Iokru frowned. “Get away from me!” He dodged past Balir toward the last passage. But he came to a crunching halt. Something untoward hovered in the dimness. His heart seemed to leap in his throat. From the passage that Vetra and his men had emerged, burst a red-eyed ghoul.

For a naked second, the thing paused, with its stone talons clacking on the aged pavestones. Then it leaped in the air, wings beating a horrendous din.

Dapi loomed over Iokru like a winged avatar. Down at him it came tearing; he struck out with his stave. The bird wavered, did a half roll in the air, stunned by the rod’s magic. Iokru gave a rasping chuckle. Quickly he reached up—and the pulsing iron collar latched on with magnetic force to something metallic already there around its neck—but which did nothing in the shadow of the falcon god, to his inconceivable disbelief.

The priest paled. The segment of collar he tore off, staring at it in dismay. It had failed. His exultant haste had led him astray. Only now he realized that it was but a half ring he held, that the god had the other half fused to its neck, something he had overlooked.

The red, slitted eyes glowed dusky orbs of balefire. It sent a bloodstained beak straight for the villain’s throat.

The priest gave a shrill wail of dismay and twisted sideways, lurching as the stony thing sideswiped him by a hair. The talisman went flying from his hand, torn from the priest’s trembling fingers, to clack against the nearest wall and lie rolling on the floor.

Kalaman made a grab for the fragment. Iokru, dazed but not witless, scrambled like a crab. He sank his teeth into the mercenary’s wrist. Kalaman’s agonized shout rang above the din. The priest’s strength was three-fold.

Kalaman struggled with his blade and only swung a glancing blow to the villain’s painted face. Iokru parried with a jerk of his stave. Then, like some screaming banshee, the madman raced around the mercenary and sank his teeth into the nape of Kalaman’s neck.

Kalaman clawed back, bellowing in agony. He threw the priest to the ground, blood streaming from the back of his neck.

Vetra dodged the assaults of Iokru’s minions, scrambling through the horrified wake of the Clam-cult priests. He grabbed the collar from the floor, then bolted to the back of the chamber, while Kalaman bled and the god battled Iokru’s minions.

Iokru gurgled froth. A foamy shriek was on his lips, thus thwarted of his prize. Distracted by the loss of his talisman, he was buffeted sideways as Dapi’s smashing beak came again to ram him, but this time full in the face.

The beak pushed through the snarling teeth of the defenceless man and thrust itself down his throat. The priest’s eyes gaped. His jaw cracked and the bird started sucking—blood, innards, the force of life out of him. Iokru’s back arched. His legs dangled in dancing death over the paves as a gurgle of dark crimson streamed from his wide-stretched mouth. His body went limp; he hung there like a ragdoll, while Vetra watched in numb horror. The god-bird held him suspended in the air, then slung the lifeless body to the side and turned its fiendish attention to the wild-eyed company.

Dapi slowly descended to the ground, eyeing the scrambling figures who surged every which way. With impassive detachment, the god watched—and its eyes flicked briefly over its brother god-statue, Osipres. The bird burned and radiated a lambent heat, bloody beak stretched wide. Red, inhuman eyes pierced the humans, as if they were but plump hares.

The moments passed in a blinding flash of blood and death as all hell broke loose and the god tore through the ranks of priests and outlanders alike, taking the slowest first.

Vetra pitched backwards, knocking Kalaman on his haunches. Balir weaved in and out of the bloody fray like a crazed lynx, his foes knocked about like pins. Crimson blade thunked into priestly flesh while he deftly avoided death. A priest’s spear snapped on the stone beak as the bird rammed into the attacker’s face, and the victim mustered a flesh-curdling cry, before the creature began sucking the life out of him as it had Iokru before him. The fear-maddened priests clawed their way across the stone, struggling to get away from the thing, but there was nowhere to go. The exits were blocked. Nimeska’s magic limbs had sealed them. The tree stopped its infernal swaying and the face of the keeper, now a misshapen oval in the trunk, uttered spell-ridden words.

There came a stony spray of debris showering down from on high as the enchanted trunk raked limbs across the upper half of the chamber. Statues dropped like flies. A beating of godly wings, and the hint of ignoble death, then the monstrous shape of Dapi emerged behind them.

Laskar aimed his weapon for the swooping shape but his bolts clattered uselessly against the stone-hard body. He raced amongst the screaming mob, kicking priests away with his spiked boots, or smashing them with the butt end of his crossbow. Narrowly he avoided a swipe from Dapi’s beak. But then his expression turned to ash as the beast veered in toward him. With a flicking wing, it sent him crashing back in a litter of fallen masonry.

Vetra could not watch. In swift panic, he leapt through the throng of dazed, blood-stained priests, wondering if his stride could close the gap to Laskar in time. The archer struck again, the butt end of his crossbow splintering, but it had no more effect than a broom wisp on solid steel. For an instant Dapi came surging at him—a vile fiend of insuperable force. There ensued a scrambling, grunting skirmish as demon flapped forward and back, pressing gore-flecked beak into Laskar’s face. The archer’s terrified shriek was thick on his lips…then Vetra’s blade struck home.

The savage chop had distracted the crimson bill from invading Laskar’s gullet. Vetra whipped to intercept the terror and now he smote another clanking blow off its impenetrable beak. The bird turned with an inhuman shriek, looking more like a man with a hideous beak than a god-born falcon. Vetra heeded not. Again and again his fine Magnelian blade rose and fell until it was scored and notched. And yet, the indomitable stone of Dapi’s hide remained unblemished. With a growling curse, Vetra pulled his blade away and Laskar, freed for an instant from his pinned position, stumbled on through the litter of mangled bodies while the god-bird turned its wrath on Vetra. The archer shook his head, wheezing in astonishment at his lucky escape. He reached for his cracked but serviceable weapon, but a priest kicked the thing out of the way. Laskar thrust a boot up into the priest’s gut and the enemy doubled over. Scrabbling, Laskar retrieved his bow, pulled a bolt from his belt, armed it, and loosed it into the fray. A scream died in a rattling gurgle.

Vetra, blood-dripping, staggered back as Dapi turned, snapping its beak at him. Vetra crouched, flailing with his ruined sword. Twice its reeking beak came perilously close to stabbing into his mouth. But back he beat it with a furious pounding of blade and fist. The murderous, clacking bill clamped on the glistening metal and chomped hard. The hardy steel snapped in two.

In dumb fascination, Vetra felt the broken hilt sag in his hands. And he threw it back at the bird in snarling despair. He leapt sideways, caught himself in time from stumbling over a dead body, narrowly dodging a soul-sucking lunge. Down he ducked…barely escaping another bout of death.

His priceless Magnelian blade was lost, sword of a master craftsman, but he was at least alive.

He pulled out his knife that was strapped above his boot. Behind a chunk of broken statue he crouched, sucking in ragged gasps of air while waiting for death.

The tree’s lashing branches had subsided. Nimeska’s power, it seemed, had waned. Only her face showed, a gnarled oval of aged eye and cheek sunken in the black trunk. But those eyes twinkled brightly with the power of god-like magic. The trunk was scored, riven deep by Dapi’s beak that had rammed it time and again. The roots still drew sustenance from the ancient blood under the stone, as spoken in the legends of old.

The tree-keeper laughed, barely coherently. “Into the mouth of Osipres! Down the chute of oblivion!”

Vetra ran to comply, knowing that he could not stop the bloodthirsty god that was Dapi. Nor could anybody.

Nimeska lashed one last mighty limb out at the ceiling and a large mass of stones fell straight on the bird-beast. The creature lay engulfed in a cloud of rubble, pressed into the dust. A follow-up patter of rocks fell from on high, blocking the last remaining passage beyond hope. Already the bird had pinned priest and mercenary down like flies, a prince in devil’s disguise. Its ramming thrusts had crumbled the chamber in concert with Nimeska’s magical terror.

The dust dissipated. The rubble moved, and a dusty wing knifed up from the ruin. Dapi fluttered free, wings flapping upward, tossing massive chunks aside.

Vetra crouched in smoke and ruin, staring in disbelief. He watched the thing hop about drunkenly while more debris tumbled from the ceiling. And so, Dapi gained the air again.

Nimeska’s limbs had writhed to new life. While the gods warred, Vetra grabbed up Balir and the two struggled to reach Osipres’ beak. Kalaman and Laskar still battled priests further in, and though Vetra called to them, his shouts were lost in the din. Dapi struck over and again and priests fell and lay still. The stone tree that was Nimeska blocked the assaults with more of her wavering branches, while the god-fervour was on her, and she lashed out limbs which hit Dapi sideways and sent the bird reeling. It crashed against the wall, crushing another priest underneath it. Dapi had grown stronger with all its sickening soul-suckings and now it coursed to life with new devilry. It sprang airborne and roared, whistling through the air on notched wings to smash a thrashing limb off the treed Nimeska.

The keeper uttered a dismal cry. A new member grew in its place. Such was the power of Jano and Nimeska’s faith in her one god.

With the exits blocked, there was only one way out of this chamber—through the mouth of the demon god Osipres. Vetra had long rallied his men to gather at the base of the trunk that rose alongside the shoulders and neck of the stone god’s likeness. The statue towered thirty feet over them; the older tree’s twining branches invaded beak and eyes in symbolic desecration. In its dark shadow, Vetra saw the dusky crimson beak of the effigy hook toward the hall’s middle. The open bill loomed several feet over their heads. The petrified trunk was mirror smooth and not to be climbed easily.

Kalaman gripped Vetra’s shoulder. He cupped both hands and motioned for him to slip a boot in the crook of his palms so he could climb up into the great beak.

Vetra complied. Grunting, Kalaman pushed him up a foot higher and Vetra, hanging over the lower bill, thrust down a hand to pull Kalaman up, but was denied.

A spear hurled with terrific force slammed into Kalaman’s back and Vetra saw the look of sheer agony cross his companion’s face. Kalaman saw no more, for he fell like an ox, and the enemy was on him, the killing shaft projecting from between his shoulders.

Vetra gave a foul cry. Balir and Laskar gazed on in like horror. Already desperate priests were trampling on Kalaman’s back, trying to scale the osprey’s stone face, having seen the only means of escape was via the god’s mouth.

Iokru lay sprawled in his own blood, his sightless gaze trained upward. Scattered torches had lit feathers and fur and now dead bodies crawled with flame. The clam worshippers were trapped in the chamber, facing gruesome death as the demon god flew about in wrathful abandon, augmenting its power with each soul it sucked.

Looking out over the fray, Vetra saw, from the bottom bill of the osprey’s parted beak, a fiery maze of smouldering corpses and scurrying figures. Many grotesque, creeper-like limbs of Nimeska slung everywhere. Dapi flew among all, choosing hapless victims at will. The lower bill of the osprey’s beak was wide enough for Vetra to manoeuvre. Yet the back part of the bird’s throat was hollowed out; some gloomy passage ran down the beast’s throat. Thuds, shrieks, clinks of weapons, the sound of pounding feet and shouts of frantic men echoed about the polished stone.

Vetra kicked priests clambering up the trunk back into the seething mob to die skewered by Dapi’s beak as the god-bird flew back and forth like a ravenous dactyl. The thing wreaked mad destruction. Laskar helped Balir worm his way up the trunk then struggled to shimmy up on his own, hanging off a tall priest’s boots who was almost already up. Some spears flew up at him, but they whistled wide. The archer kicked gibbering priests in the face who grabbed at his ankles.

Balir heaved a tortured gasp, clinging to the osprey’s bottom bill, his maimed arm hooked at the elbow over the bird’s beak.

A warrior-priest jumped up to hang off Balir’s legs. Balir roared in rage and pain, but Vetra stamped down and smashed the priest in the teeth. Bone and broken teeth crunched and sent him flailing back, shrieking through a mouth of bloody froth into the howling mob.

Vetra knelt to pull the wheezing Balir up. Another frantic, climbing priest competed with Laskar to monkey-scramble up the trunk. In blood-fueled lunacy, he gained the osprey’s lower bill, where its beak parted in a silent chilling cry.

Vetra ducked the man’s arching blade he had pulled from his seashell belt and blocked a quick strike to his throat. He took hold of the quivering wrist and yanked it, splintering bone and tearing tendon.

The knife dropped from the madman’s wrist and clattered to the stone. Vetra gutted him with a disembowelling chop. Dragging out his knife, letting blood and offal spill out, he slashed at another who tried to hamstring him. Another snarling figure gained the mouth of the osprey. They struggled in the cramped space, elbows hooking jaws, backs to cold stone walls, nose to jowl, grunts and curses loud and echoing off the walls.

Vetra staggered back on his haunches. He drew gasps of breath in his lungs. Balir crawled on all fours, wincing with the pressure on his mangled hand. The mercenary struck out at a priest’s legs which now crowded in to kick at Vetra. Laskar was just pulling his wracked body over the stone-carved lip. His crossbow lay strapped at his back, bloodied face a grim sight. A torch came twirling up from below and it rolled at Vetra’s feet; he looked at it dazedly, the smoke stinging his eyes. The grinning priest tackled Vetra’s legs, loosed an anguished howl, sinking now with Vetra’s knife protruding from the middle of his back. Balir and Vetra wrestled madly with another attacker, and felt themselves slipping down a smooth, steep grade into the god’s throat. All three toppled down the black gullet of the stone god.

End over end the three tumbled—down a series of polished stone chutes, crying out in the blackness.

Vetra vaguely remembered his head spinning like a kite in a frenzied windstorm. Somehow the torch tumbled with them. He caught nightmarish flashes of beastly images carved in stone, boot heels flashing in his face, hands like claws reaching for his eyes.

Then there was a thud, and an echoing crunch of bone.

 

IV

 

How far the hapless three fell, Vetra did not know. Bereft of senses they tumbled through the tunnels of solid rock down some zigzagging chute to land in a strange, darkened pit.

Wump! A fourth body thudded on the dead priest—the weight of Laskar. Balir’s howl rang out as Laskar caught the edge of his leg.

The bone-jarring impact had knocked the wind out of Vetra and he wheezed air back in his lungs. A growing lump throbbed behind his ear. His helm had saved him from a cracked skull—and his landing on his side.

Two torches plummeted next, sizzling the men’s jerkins now wet with blood. Swords had skidded out of their scabbards during the plummet down the chutes, and lay gleaming in the flickering light.

Vetra crawled to his feet, nursing bruises and a dazed skull. A searing heat had him swatting the flames from his torn coat. He blinked in the gloom, idly running his fingers over the ugly dent in his helm.

He glared about him, the grumbles and groans of his peers hardly registering in his aching skull as they disentangled themselves. A half inch of water lay three feet from where the twisted body of the priest lay, wide eyes staring in ignoble death. The mercenary shook his head, amazed he himself was still alive.

Another thought slowly registered: if Dapi had not taken out so many of the enemy, Iokru and his minions might have overpowered them, and taken them as fodder to their clam god.

Vetra’s shoulders tensed at the memory of the battle and Iokru twitching in his death throes with Dapi.

The torches on the mouldered stone beside him sputtered and hissed like angry snakes. They had just missed the water. He snatched one up and caught chilling glimpses of chains coiled in the shadows on the floor strung on the walls. All were draped with thick webs. Corroded vats of stone and bronze cauldrons loomed in the wavering torch-shadows. The peg-like stumps of columns arranged in a circle reared ominously out of the shadows. Cryptic symbols lay engraved in the circled pit with a seven pointed star, six feet from where he stood. It was a demon worship pit, Vetra thought. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the dimness, he walked warily amongst the ruins and perceived sarcophagi ranging about the perimeter. Seven lay on low slab-like pedestals and were scrolled with goat’s horns and serpent coils. All were inscribed with ancient symbols. A series of glass tubes and metal pipes extended from sarcophagus to sarcophagus in some incomprehensible lattice-work.

Vetra stopped short. To transfer elixirs, fluids and magical airs? The concept seemed unreal. What was this place? Possibly not a worship pit. A wizard’s spell-chamber? A priest’s deranged laboratory? Though somewhat indifferent to sorcery, the mercenary felt a black pall of death surround him in this place of darkness and decay. Most of what was labelled ‘spellcraft’ in his mind had ended up being mummers’ tricks or manipulation of men’s belief and hypnotism over weak minds. But this—and the recent macabre transformation of both Nimeska and Dapi—? His skin crawled with unease.

Oblivious to the stirring of his comrades, he swallowed back fear and admitted that part of him could not resist the lure to peel back the lid of one of those dust-caked sarcophagi. He lifted off the broken tube that linked one of the vessels with its silent neighbour, then, biting his tongue, chiselled off the lid of a cracked one with his knife.

He held his breath, stared within. There, the withered corpse of some vaguely human thing lay inside, like some spider-eaten carcass of a bygone race. It was webbed with thick brown crinkled flesh, long dried and cured from ages of settling. Sunken cheeks mantled the nondescript face. Worm-withered lips peeled back, and the skull was framed by wisps of grizzled hair.

It was the claws on the end of the shrivelled arms that got Vetra’s attention—like the paws of a wolf. The legs stretched to the sarcophagi’s end, protruding with what looked like talons. Then there was some monstrous tail that descended from the rump, akin to some alien hawser, curling over the thing’s waist. Perhaps this is what those dark-minded priests of old were doing back in distant ages—manufacturing god-hybrids to provide the mindless acolytes something to worship and drive their fanatical cults. Through necromancy, they concocted aberrations like this, like the rat-god of the ratmangers? Like Dapi?

The ghoulish hulk had died long ago, or perhaps its wretched hatching had gone afoul. Vetra shuddered to think what else lurked under the lids of other intact vessels, but he had no time to satisfy that curiosity. The muffled thuds of sliding bodies and shrieks of terror echoed from the oval gap in the ceiling.

Vetra stared up. The chute from which they had tumbled was as before, looking back at him blackly. Yet the opening looked revered, gilded around its edges and set with massive jewels, shaped like the birth-hole of a female animal. A chill shivered through Vetra’s marrow.

He knew they must have tumbled into some lower section of the temple complex, below the Temple of Osipres, a cave of sorts, he guessed, or some primordial cavern formed by the ocean—when seawater had risen up as far as the chasms of Gyzia. The ceiling rose rough-hewn, like the inside of a whale’s mouth, damp with moisture.

Balir was stirring and Laskar was already poking his bow about the litter, his baldric hanging loose over his back. His head jerked to the sounds of imminent death above him.

Grimly, even in his half stupor, Vetra realized that only through the providence of the keeper’s magic had they even survived Dapi’s deadly skirmish. The god beast had meant to finish them all—as Iokru and many of his crew had found out.

He looked up at the chute. Should other priests pass through that dark opening, another fight would be upon them…no less, a death clash with the flesh-champing Dapi. With clenched teeth, he bridled that thought.

Laskar signalled the others. Vetra hobbled over to where the archer stood, extending a finger at something in the dimness. Chains and bones lay in the filth. A skeletal hand and animal skull poked up from the debris, yet still, something else—an ancient broadsword, leaning up against a fallen block of a ruined column. The weapon was magnificent and Vetra’s face lit up. He scooped it up at once and wiped off the layers of dust and cobwebs. He hefted it, tested its weight. The weapon was well-balanced and fashioned in the style of the old Belarion blades of the wizard-kings. He grunted with appreciation.

Another skull and a headless skeleton lay a few yards away, strewn amongst lesser weapons—knives and rusted scimitars, causing Vetra a crawling unease. Perhaps the mishmash of bones belonged to a warrior of some distant age. Not unlikely—nor implausible that the fallen man had suffered a gruesome fate like Kalaman. Vetra’s teeth flashed in a grimace. At all costs, he must not fall prey to a similar doom. Nor his company.

The sword lying almost hidden in the moulder felt like a gift from the gods, the benevolent ones anyway, that haunted these burrows. Despite the age and size of the weapon, it had the feel of power in it, for stark, cryptic runes were engraved in the gold-worked hilt, in a language that he guessed was a lost tongue from the east. The guard on the hilt curled with serpents’ heads; the blade was fine steel, of a silver-colour, with a faint shade of green, the like of which had not lost its colour or rusted into uselessness after all these years. It narrowed to a fine tip at its end. A strange skewering instrument, Vetra thought. The ancient weapon quivered with a compelling energy, almost mystical, as if wise gods lent force to it when he made mock thrusts.

“That’s a fine blade,” Balir remarked.

Vetra grunted, starting at the sound of Balir’s voice that crept from behind him out of nowhere. “It will replace my lost Magnelian one,” he declared, “smashed by Dapi’s beak in that chamber of death.”

Balir looked a royal mess, as did they all, torn and bleeding from dozens of cuts. Distant tumult continued to rumble from above—muted screams and now the clatter of spears—from where the dark chute gaped all the more like an obscene birthing canal. Balir looked up, his spirit full of gloom. “If I had known that our bane Dapi would have caused us all this mischief, I would have tossed that idol down the canyon long ago. Or never agreed to the wizard’s commission in the first place.”

“If I know that fiend,” said Vetra hollowly, “it will break down walls of rock to skewer us.” His lips peeled back in a bleak grimace.

Balir combed his blooded beard. “I don’t understand why it has it in for us, Vetra. Are we are not somewhat its fathers?”

“We are as much its birth fathers as those damned ratmen. Don’t kid yourself, Balir. Didn’t one of their cult members kick the idol over into the magic pool?”

Balir grudgingly accepted the logic. He moved around, poking bits of rubble with the rusty scimitar he had dug out of the rot. It looked as if this chamber hadn’t been disturbed in centuries.

Vetra watched the proceedings with a sleepwalker’s detachment. More than ever he felt like a man in a dream. Should he not be finding a way out of this pit? The thought came as a vague stirring in the back of his mind. He thought to discern an arched exit peeking somewhere at the back of the chamber. But it was such a wash of murk over there that he wondered if his eyes were playing tricks on him. He shook his head, tried to clear the haze from his mind, but he could not shake the feeling of unavoidable doom clutching at his soul.

There came a smack of bone as a man plummeted through the gap in the ceiling, his leg twisted unnaturally.

Vetra saw the flash of several grisly figures struggling above. Somehow they were jammed in a great knot in the narrowing chute; then he heard the shriek of a god-bird.

The man who had fallen cried out in a pitiful voice. “’Tis the pit of Ocelos! Kill me now, before the ghost of the warlock king of Gyzia comes to rip my heart out. Or that beastly bird comes to rape me of my soul!” His fingers clawed at the clammy rock, pulling his body uselessly away from his dead peer.

“Gladly, priest,” grated Balir. He marched over to where the man crawled. “Any last prayers?”

“Just to Meru, my clam god, but you must pray for me—without Meru, I will—”

Balir ran him through, before the priest could utter the last words of his plea. “That’s better. The man’s keening was starting to annoy me.”

Vetra snarled. “Come on.” He started to pull Balir away from the corpses, then had an idea.

He hunkered down to strip the dead men of their priestly capes with scowling impatience. They could be used for subterfuge if they ran into more of their kind on the way. Laskar, wincing at the blood, donned the most tattered and filthy one, Balir slung the other over his shoulder. The shell helm one wore, was cracked and of limited utility. A brownish face gazed up vacuously under the mask.

The tangle of men caught in the jam above twisted and writhed with terror, unable to free themselves. A muffled cawing reverberated through their numbers.

The three stumbled back in horror, almost overcome by a blast of Dapi’s bloody reek as it skewered priests and attempted to squeeze past the trapped men.

They plunged off to the archway, hoping for a connecting passage. Into a large chamber they peered: one equally dark and sinister.

“In! Dapi will strip our souls if it catches us!” They pushed feet through the moulder and refuse. Laskar, crossbow nocked, trailed behind, weapon slung over his shoulder. Further behind they could hear the thud of more bodies tumbling on their fellow cultists. They were not a few hundred yards on before the echoes of falconish shrieks rattled in their ears amidst the moans and screams of doomed men. Vetra shook off the ghosts of the past that haunted the age-old stone: victims forced up a ramp and plunged down the osprey’s maw to fall into the wizard’s pit, never to see the light of day again.

He edged fingers around the collar, feeling a pang of guilt over the vicious slaughter of Kalaman. Had the thing caused his death by his keeping the sinister half ring? It seemed to bind the bird-god in some inexplicable way. He could not jettison it, try as he might. Every time his fingers curled around its broken edge, with the aim to hurl it far away, a quivering palsy stayed his hand. Every intuitive fibre screamed at him to get rid of the thing. And yet, he could not. Only could he cling on to it tighter. His tongue felt swollen when he tried to talk about it, like a beggar’s cloth were knitted around it. Whenever he licked his lips to speak, no words would come.

The passage split and the brush of fresher air on their cheeks had them choosing the rightmost passage. They came out under a low, crumbling arch. In his haste, Vetra almost toppled to his doom, for the path ended abruptly in a precipitous drop into one of the cross canyons. The night sky reared above them and they felt naked and insignificant under its vastness. A narrow ledge at their feet ran along the cliff, cut starkly in the rock face. Torches winked in the wells of darkness below, lighting more of the various temples which Vetra hoped connected to the main Way of Temples. At least they had some semblance of direction, he thought. There was a buzz of activity below, a low murmur of voices speaking of priestly things which morphed into a drone of devotional chanting. The priests had not yet been alerted to the horror that was Dapi at their doorstep. He looked down bleakly. He guessed this canyon had once hosted a raging torrent, but had not seen a flash flood in years.

The moon, far in its sweep across the sky, stained the crumbling landscape a ghostly grey, and they trudged up the shale-flaked path with wary steps. Any misstep meant doom, a swift tumble down a headlong drop over fifty feet below. The world that they knew loomed yet a hundred feet higher still: tantalizingly close, but no way to reach it by way of those sheer, ominous cliffs.

Sweat poured from Vetra’s pores. The prospect of eluding Dapi’s lusts for yet another hour was too horrifying to entertain. The god-bird evidently had no intention of abandoning their flesh; recent experience spoke that it would pursue them forever, to their deaths, at whatever cost, and for what—the collar? But he could not get rid of it!

Balir and Vetra groaned. Not forty feet ahead along the ledge rose another impasse: iron bars meshed for untold feet up the side of the canyon, at whose feet sat some sort of chained gate. Vetra gave a sour grimace. He strode up to the barrier and halted to glare sullenly at the chains—chains which he seized in both fists and rattled like a captive prisoner. The lock was cast iron, not to be shattered with any easy hewing. The gate was only twice a man’s height, but the iron mesh riveted into the rock rose up into the gloom, lost from sight. The barrier was meant to keep wanderers or curious priests, out. A forbidden zone? Likely Ocelos’s work area, however long ago that dreaded figure had lived. Half way up the cliff, they could see another ledge running parallel in rough-hewn fashion over their heads. It intersected the mesh at a high point and a dark entrance showed in the cliff several yards down the ledge. A cave? Some tunnel into the canyon face?

“We could make for that ledge,” suggested Balir.

“We could.”

They could climb up the iron bars like monkeys, thought Vetra, except maybe for Balir. Dapi of course, could fly, and they would all be ripped to pieces.

“Well, nothing to do, except get you up,” Vetra declared.

Balir’s eyes glowed in surprise, for in all practicality the other two should have left him behind.

Sheathing their swords, they craned their necks up to stare at the height they must ascend. Laskar ensured his crossbow was snug in his baldric. Balir secured the knives and sword at his hip. They left the stubs of torches burning on the loose gravel at their feet.

Vetra and Laskar took to the gate, heaving their bulks up. Cold to the touch, the heavy iron rattled and creaked like a castle’s rusty portcullis.

Some feet up, the two paused to hang one-handedly on the mesh while grabbing Balir’s arm and pulling him up, while he clung awkwardly with one hand.

Balir muttered resentful words at the assistance, but his pride soon gave way. Panting and sweating, he secured his footholds and pulled his bulk up with his good arm, hooking elbow over the higher bars. Vetra saw the man’s injured hand trembling. “Keep steady,” he advised.

Painstaking efforts later, Vetra saw the ledge grow smaller and smaller underneath them. Smoke stole through the canyon like cloud mist below. More ritual fires glared, like fireflies of doom.

Laskar hissed at Vetra, “Should we rely on luck and try to climb higher, over the top of the mesh, or go for the ledge within sight on this side?”

Vetra peered down at a struggling form of Balir and the distant glare of torches. “Take the ledge. No time for climbing higher. I can hear that hellish flapping not too far away; I intuit that beast is within killing radius. How its cawing haunts me! We may have a chance to lose it in the tunnel.”

Laskar grunted acknowledgement of the plan. He pulled himself higher.

They were barely arm-lengths from the ledge when, as Vetra had predicted, the sweep of frenzied wings came slashing the air like a miniature dragon’s. Terrible croaking caws echoed down the valley.

Laskar choked out a strangled gasp. Vetra jerked his head back and discerned a gruesome shape limned vaguely against the moon, coming straight at them. The thing had obviously made bait of many more victims, judging from the blood and flesh on its beak.

Laskar gained the stony ledge and he crouched there breathless. Fingers fumbled to arm his crossbow. The beast came angling in on him and Balir.

Balir howled, steeling himself for death. He jerked sideways and slipped down several rungs, but the action had saved his life.

The bird smashed into the iron bars inches from where his head had been. The fingers of his good right hand caught the bars, saving him from plummeting to his doom on the sharp rocks below.

Dapi circled the air above them, dripping in blood and with a tumultuous screech thick in its throat. It fluttered in a wide loop and swooped down on them for another pass. A stir came from the priests far below. Vetra swung down like some spry monkey to help pull Balir up.

Balir, hanging from a quaking hand, shrieked in his ear. “Leave me…And curse you, you wretched falcon ghoul! Die, why don’t you just die?”

Vetra winced at Balir’s fatalism. He cursed their folly at not climbing the iron gate faster when they had the chance. The bird had caught them too easily out in the open.

Laskar hung over the lip of the ledge, frantically reaching on his belly for Balir’s palm. Fingers met fingers. Laskar gave a mighty heave.

With a savage cry, Vetra pushed his shoulders up on Balir’s buttocks from below. Balir rolled like a bear over the ledge. The cursing rogue was up!

Dapi attacked again from the air, swooping and cawing in mournful petulance. Laskar pushed away from Balir, rolling on his side, at the same time loosing a bolt. Dapi, wings beating the air in menace, had looped in for a second strike and the iron missile clattered harmlessly off its wing. The bird swerved, targeted Laskar, and dove headlong toward its harasser, eyes glaring.

Laskar abandoned his weapon and rolled away down the path. The bird crashed into the cliff face directly behind him, shattering flakes of rock. A jagged crack grew in the surface.

Vetra grimaced; he gained the ledge and stumbled awkwardly toward Laskar, pulling him roughly to his feet. “Get away from the thing. Move! Down the ledge!” He staggered again, grabbed Balir by the arm and they all scrabbled in a crouching shamble, while the stone bird hopped groggily behind them, slipping on the rubble of loose chips it had created.

The bird sprang at them in flying hops and bounds, snapping beak in an attempt to gore them. Vetra flailed blindly with his sword. The ancient blade caught an edge of Dapi’s wing and grazed crown and neck to knock the bird back. The god-bird glared in surprise, crouching back on its short legs. Its princely features were stretched in a ghastly leer. Yet for the moment it was stunned by Vetra’s assault.

Vetra croaked out a laugh. He swiped loops at the bird, inspired to new confidence by the blade’s power. Dapi hopped sideways, wings outstretched in a cloud of wrath. On clumsy impulse, it leaped, missed Vetra and spilled drunkenly over the edge into empty space down the cliff.

Vetra swore in triumph. So, the fiend could be hurt—or at least stunned! A cascading wave of hope lifted his spirits. His blade strokes had somehow disoriented the thing, as had the crash against the cliff face.

The three ran helter-skelter across the ledge, not daring a look down. They scrambled toward a dark, arch-shaped entrance into a protective overhang of rock. The burrow would offer some protection from the airborne menace—at least, for now.

The men lurched under the overhang. Plunged into momentary darkness, they gained some respite from Dapi’s assaults. But an oval shaft of moonlight appeared before them, and the rocky canopy petered out and Vetra saw they would be left in the open again, exposed on the ledge to assault from above.

Vetra gritted his teeth. They couldn’t linger here. But what hope was there ahead?

Down the narrow path, he saw more dark openings and caves gaping out of the cliff. He turned wildly to his haggard fellows. “We must make a run for it! I’ll stay back, keep Dapi at bay for as long as I can. Quick. Let’s muster a charge!”

Out under the moonlight the three staggered, clenching swords and knives, for what little good it would do them. Far below, on the deep drop at their side, the shale-flaked ledge wound. Farther down, priests ran like stricken ants. Dapi’s calls drifted distantly like forlorn warnings in the air.

A small bend appeared in the trail. With pebbles crunching underfoot and rattling over the side, they fled past a cave with iron-gridded gate, this one man-high, held with lighter chains and an ancient lock that opened into the cliff face.

Vetra hissed the others to a halt, struck by a sudden idea. “Swiftly! Strike down the lock. We can lure the fiend in and close the gate on him.”

Balir yelled, “And if we can’t?”

“We must!”

Like wild barbarians they hacked at the chains, swinging with all their might. Sweat dripped from their naked brows. They took turns raining blows while standing glaring in a grim ring. It became clear those chains were not going to give easily…

Balir’s scimitar arced along the iron loops. The fingers under his blood-caked bandage clenched like claws. Some links splintered and a segment of chain fell away, but not sufficient to allow Vetra to pull open the gate.

Vetra cursed. “Can the day be full of any more ill luck?” He drew back a pace and smote the lock a gargantuan hammer-blow. The ancient sword’s impact had the valley ringing with its clangour.

The iron held, but sparks flew from the metal and more links showed promising deep-grooved notches. The air seemed to whine with a mystical hum of the sword’s every stroke.

Dapi had gained the air again and soared abreast the canyon wall, momentarily confused. Its ghastly prince-like head swung to and fro, wondering where its charges had disappeared. To their misfortune, the bird-god had heard the clangour of blade on metal and came vaulting over the overhang, searching for them with falconish eyes burning. It loosed a vengeful shriek, then came pelting down at them with a blood-gored beak.

Balir roared a bitter curse. “Better do something with that fancy sword, Vetra. Now! Or we are doomed.”

Vetra muttered between parted lips, “Everyone must die sometime.” With fanatic force, he hewed at the lock. The sword’s hilt burned in his hand. Laskar bashed with the blunt end of his crossbow. Only through incessant striking of Vetra’s magical blade did the last loop finally give. He loosed a gasp of triumph as he pulled the chain free. Eager hands seized the bars and wrenched open the gate.

The rusty gate creaked inward. With cheering shouts they tumbled into the cave like prisoners freed from a dungeon. The bird-god pressed its awful weight against the bars and beat its way in before they could swing the heavy door shut.

“Get out!” cried Balir in panic. “Before the thing rips us to shreds!” He ducked, howling, side-swiped by Dapi’s sharp wing against the bare skin of his arm. The thing was inside the cave, somewhat of a lofty tunnel, flapping around with violent confusion, creating a fearful din.

Vetra thundered, “Back through the gate! We can trap it in here.”

Like madmen, they scrambled past the partially open mesh and clapped the gate shut.

Balir and Laskar leaned the full weight of their shoulders against it, digging heels deep in the loose shale, struggling to keep it from bulging outward and the fiend from flying through. Vetra fumbled to wrap chain link upon link around the bars. The bird rammed beak and talons on the metal, almost mashing Vetra’s fingers in the process. He pulled his bloody hand away, wincing, amazed he hadn’t broken or lost any fingers. The last loop he coiled held it and the beast smashed vainly against the gate.

Indescribable frustration and hate radiated from that gargoyle-carven thing. Between the bars its rictus took on a perverse cast, a stone-falconish demon gobbed with flesh of dozens of victims. The beak thrust through the bars, questing for souls. It was hungry for flesh. The horn-hard bill reeked of blood and offal; the death and sorrow of the dozens of souls it had sucked weighed heavily on the air about it. The bloodthirsty tales of the prince were confirmed in the presence of this brute. The avian face had changed—from a stone carving of a beast to one of living, manlike proportions. Vetra saw an aristocratic nose, piercing eyes with black bushy brows, a philosopher’s chin. But for the unruly beak it would be a strong-featured prince, the princely Dapi of old. But its croaking roar echoed vaguely human speech:

God bearers, die!’ came the ultimatum, and then a rasp of reeking breath fouled the air.

Whether it was the face and voice of the prince Dapi of long ago, Vetra could not say. Possibly in all its soul-feeding, the great god had started to become more of the man it once was.

Dapi hovered there like some evil spectre in between its aggressive smashes on the rungs. Vetra paled. The thing was getting larger, as if the very stone were soaking up the soul flesh it sucked. A foot higher its shadowy form rose over them, bigger and more menacing than when they had lugged it as a stone idol.

The beast could not drive its weight through the bars. Though it crashed and rammed against the gate, denting iron and leaving gobs of blood and human flesh stuck on the metal, the iron bars held, and the three hobbled away down the narrow ledge in a stitch of dazed apathy. Benevolent spirits had favoured them that day.

The bars would hold, Vetra told himself, and he felt a wave of relief wash over his aching skull. Clenching fists in exhaustion, black hair damp with sweat and his chest heaving, he stumbled down the crumbled path with Laskar and Balir at his heels.

He chanced a look back. The bird was contained, yet it seemed to study him with a malevolent interest. Up and down his spine chills crept, the crawling sensation of being watched by something not of this world. And yet, a thought smote him. What was to stop the bird from backtracking, discovering a way back through the tunnels, catching them by surprise in the open ground?

He thrust the grim worry from his mind. Wrapping an arm around Balir’s shoulders, he steered him down the ledge. The bird was restrained, for now…

 

[V
**]

The fugitives wandered for what seemed hours through the dimness. The ledge dead-ended in a tunnel carved in the cliff face which fanned out to a network of tunnels. They tried to keep a straight path parallel to the cross canyon, but this was not straightforward. Many winding side passages veered up in silent defiance and their senses were disoriented by insufficient markers and the violence of the recent past. At times, they groped their way in complete darkness—inching along for fear of some lurking horror. Periodically the rock would open up to expose a gash of night sky, admitting cold, glistening moonlight playing down on the carven rock.

Who had made these pathways? Vetra scowled. The priests? It seemed doubtful. The tunnels looked hewn by savage forces—some of the cuts hewn by sharp teeth. The chipped shale underfoot and rough-hewn walls seemed evidence of it. Carved by some power older still? He gave up guessing.

The bones of rats crunched underfoot. Bats flitted overhead. All the while booms and sinister, insistent thuds caught their ears, and sounds of distant activity: the ceremonial beat of a priest’s mallet on a deerskin drum, chanting, the faraway screams of fighting men. Whether Dapi’s work or some other frightful rite, Vetra shuddered to speculate. At one time the trickling purl of water came to his ears. They forged their way along, and Vetra held out his hand to feel cool water strike his fingers as it spilled down the rough, cold wall.

A glow appeared in the tunnel ahead: a soft moonlit oval. The tunnel wound down to a ledge, presumably the one they had quit long before. Vetra was grateful to see the end of the lightless passage. They filled their lungs with fresh air and took to the narrow path. The moon was a large orb on its downward arc; the stars wheeled above in profusion. Commotion reigned in the canyon below: voices of excited priests, drumbeats, flaring torches, the hectic scrambling of figures who wore various masks—bear, rat and bison—but mostly buzzard or the garish plumage of parrots.

Vetra guessed they worshipped Wausulo, the great buzzard god of the Four Winds, seen in obscure temples on little-trod streets in Lausern.

Priests moved in and out of arched doorways and colonnaded terraces in the canyon below—like ghosts, conducting the dark rituals of their creed. Vetra felt a crawling chill. The unearthly terror that had struck in the dead of the night, had inspired them. They knew that terrible and unnatural things were about in the air—omens of foul breeding. They signalled times of change, shifts of power…So the priests and their priest-lords chanted their dirges and mumbled their hymns; they consulted their star charts, and heeded the wisdom of black shamans who told them to pay dark tribute to their patron gods.

Vetra’s face twisted in a dry grimace. A stir of fierce delight struck him as his eyes drank in a familiar sight. Fires burned in the great crenellated stone watchtowers at either end of the wide avenue stretching below…the Way of Temples. The battlements atop the blackstone walls flickered with torchlight. Men stalked those summits; whether they had bows or such weapons, he did not know. The canyon was up in arms; furred, masked and robed figures moved below like beetles bringing food to nest.

“There seems to be a stir amongst our buzzard men,” murmured Balir. The fire was alive in his eyes. He seemed numbed to whatever pain he had suffered from his mutilation. Vetra saw the remaining fingers wrapped under the bloody cloth twitch with reckless anticipation.

The ledge veered down at a steep angle toward the busy avenue and the canyon floor.

Vetra beckoned his men. They would have to expose themselves. But there was no other way to get to the watchtower.

Acolytes moved stolidly down these ways in their buzzard garb, their masks embellished with curved beaks, waists and torsos pasted with bristling feathers, thighs gleaming nakedly in the torchlight, feet outfitted with claw-tipped boots dipped in oil and blood. These devotees appeared and melted back into patches of gloom and eerily-lit cones of light from the fires. They chattered excitedly amongst themselves in some disquieting priest-tongue.

The three men did their best to keep to the shadows, hiding behind the priestly garb they had accumulated as disguise. Balir and Vetra wrapped the clam-cult capes around their bodies, Laskar held the broken clam-cult mask to his face. But even as they did so, a priest clad in a bear mask came striding up the ledge straight at them. Inevitably curious priestly eyes took in their company. No time to turn. They could take him, Vetra thought, but if the bear-mask cried out and alerted others…

Laskar skipped back in the shadows readying his weapon. He tossed Balir his mask. Balir hastily snatched it up and donned it. He lifted his hand in salute as the priest approached, the same as Iokru had done, placing a proprietary grip on Vetra’s shoulder, as if escorting the mercenary as an outland prisoner. The acolyte passed by awkwardly. But he stopped, wearing an expression of inquiry. He thrust out an accusing finger. Then his throat gurgled with the beginnings of a cry.

Before the priest could react, Vetra plunged his dagger in the cleric’s throat, silencing the warning cry. The victim slumped to the ground, uttering a last strangled gasp. They hid the body in the shadows where Laskar skulked. He stalked forth, weapon trained, frowning at the bleeding corpse.

Vetra crouched, listening for pursuit; he donned the dead man’s bear mask and set his own helm down reverentially to the side. The gasp had gone unnoticed, and so the priests below remained absorbed in some other event farther up the canyon. Vetra was reluctant to discard his own helm. It had saved him more than one time. But if its absence could fool a few priests at a distance… Two disparate masks, one clam, the other bear and Laskar with his clam-cape. Probably not an entirely believable scenario, but it would have to do.

A dismal shriek pierced the air. The men of the buzzard cult below looked up while the men of Vetra’s company froze in their tracks. Out of the air came a horrible, dusky shape dipping out of the sky.

Dapi! The fiend flew low over the canyon floor. It was a hellion coming their way. The creature had been alerted by some disturbance of which Vetra and his companions knew not. Now it rose to the tops of the temples, honing in on them.

Vetra ducked and pulled Balir down. They thrust themselves flat on the ledge, hardly daring to breathe. It was as if the thing knew their every movement. Dergath! How could it have backtracked and sniffed them out so quickly? Vetra stifled a curse. Either it had torn its way through the bars or, as he had feared, looped back to an adjoining passage that led to the Way of Temples. Either way, they were under attack.

Spears clattered up and smote the swooping, talon-twitching bird.

Dapi gave a ravening shriek. A thrum of screeching voices coursed from the throng. The bird dove toward the offending priests, eager for their souls. Squawks and the snapping of spears and the thunks of stone into flesh came to Vetra’s ears.

What drove the beast? He searched vainly for an answer, but received none. His mind roiled in frustration. Surely they had not been in the tunnels that long?

Squatting here in the dark meant death. The way back was yet an inky crypt, full of violence and savage surprises. The way out was through the shadowy canyon and on to the watchtower, where a steep stairway wound alongside and up the canyon wall…

Vetra picked himself up and they plunged down the shadowy path toward the fires housing the strange rites of the priests. “Quick!” Vetra hissed. “Mingle with the priests. We’ll have a fighting chance. Dapi can’t target us as easily.”

There was no argument. They reached the sandy floor and scrabbled over upended urns and amphorae of wax, then through clots of fleeing priests to the nearby side of the canyon. Slinking past a low carven sphinx, with lion paws splayed into the avenue’s middle, Vetra and Balir gaped at a bizarre sight. On a natural pillar of rock rearing sixty feet above the canyon loomed a strange cage, whose resilient bars contained a hulking bird-beast. The thing glared defiantly through the stone mesh and was the same they had seen from a distance upon entering the canyon.

A white-faced acolyte drew the bolt back and leaped aside.

The bars of the cage swung wide. The buzzard squawked, hopped out of its prison, and bounded forth toward the edge of its oval perch. A gleeful, guttural sound escaped the thing’s throat which hung with loose wads of flesh. News of the Dapi’s resurrection had prompted the priests to summon their god, Vetra thought in grim reflection. Another horror to plague the air? The summoning acolyte fled in haste down a winding staircase circling the pillar, narrowly escaping the champing bill that snapped out its yellowed beak to behead him. The giant buzzard clung to the edge of the pillar’s summit with its sharp claws.

It spread wings and swooped.

Down into the fray it dove, skimming over the heads of the acolytes who crouched below on the canyon floor cringing in terror and wonder. One it knocked flying, sending his brains splattering to the stone.

The devotees raised hoarse cries of rapture in awe of their god; they hefted glinting spears. One sacrifice in a sea of others meant little. There was too much ruckus for anyone to notice him and his band, who half-crouched, slinking in the shadows. The buzzard god was arching and screeching; Dapi was circling about, on the hunt, ruling the air like a ghoulish bounty-hunter.

Vetra saw the buzzard swing nearby and surge after the falcon like a gust of wind. The thing was one-eyed like a cyclops as if it were the inbred progeny of monstrous titans. It lifted its bald red skull to the sky and its yellow beak arched moonward with pompous authority. Dapi dipped and the buzzard dove with horrible purpose. The grey-tipped wings barely moved as it picked up speed. The priests must be desperate to have released such a leviathan, thought Vetra. With determined efforts, the outlanders pushed past members of other cults. Vetra caught glimpses of bear heads, bizarre amulets, weapons of steel belted at hips.

Vetra pushed on, but Balir trailed back. “Hurry up,” Vetra hissed at him.

Balir frowned in fascination. “One minute. I want to see this fight.”

“Are you daft? We’ve no time!” Vetra dragged him away from the scene. “Do you want to get skewered?”

Balir cast him a sullen look. He showed every desire to see Dapi die.

The buzzard god soared over the temples and was a giant blot against the moon. It banked sharply and swooped down after Dapi who soared low over the avenue. The frenzied masses cheered and buzzard-helmed priests clashed spears against ceremonial shields in praise of their champion—a violent god unleashed and come to defeat the newly-risen demon prince. The thing was five times the size of Dapi, but Dapi was made of stone, while the buzzard-god was of flesh and blood.

“Quickly now,” rasped Vetra. “Let them battle it out in blood and fire—while we escape!”

A ramp directly ahead cut in the canyon’s side. The narrow ledge it joined continued on, straight toward the far watchtower where the exit to the complex lay. The company took the ramp, but with a restrained urgency. Foremost on Vetra’s mind was to dull suspicion of their retreat from the screaming mob.

Craning his neck, he saw the ledge wind up and switch-back over the canyon. From here, he and his companions got a clear view of the Alley and its activities below.

The buzzard and Dapi circled each other—one a looming juggernaut, the other a dark fly in comparison. They met in a clash of thunder. Blood and feathers flew every which way and feral squawks echoed about the canyon.

Dapi was sent corkscrewing in a tailspin, buffeted by the larger beast’s attack. It careened toward the far cliff wall and swiped a tall statue, shearing the bull’s head off. The shattered chunks cascaded down its man-body and crashed into the boulders and sand below, crushing a half dozen priests.

Dapi rolled dizzily in midair, but recovered, hurtling after the buzzard, circling it like some fiendish gnat before smashing its beak square in the black buzzard’s feathered hide.

Blind-sided, the buzzard swerved out of control, heaving a horrendous croak. But Dapi circled up and around it, attacking again and the buzzard squawked in shrill agony.

Dapi’s last strike pierced its fleshy underbelly and the maimed buzzard fell like a stone to the fire-lit avenue, rolling and thumping and shrieking. It lifted itself from its broken, tumbled sprawl and limped away, croaking miserably down the Way of Temples while knots of priests fled in gibbering throngs. Dapi combed the air above, batting aside the spear thrusts of the priests and guards with beak and wing, dodging their hurled stones.

Dapi, however, would not let the buzzard go. The crippled thing was hopping lamely, but Dapi smashed headlong into its face, sending its riven bulk back several feet. The stone-devil went right inside the thing’s gullet.

The buzzard thrashed and bucked; it gave a choked gurgle and in one convulsion fell over dead, its soul sucked clean. Dapi burst out of the thing’s beak, shredding its black buzzard throat, in a trail of slime and bloody feathers. It loomed larger than before, a shadow of monstrous evil, a minion of preternatural destruction. It flexed wings and hopped about, wiping its beak, while its stony, blood-soaked body gleamed with a greenish slime, and its eyes blazed crimson.

Vetra and his men watched appalled, crouched on the ledge behind a boulder. Vetra’s fist clenched tighter on his hilt. A sour, queasy feeling rose up in his throat. To witness a god’s demise in the valley of the damned was no small grisly affair.

Hostile new shouts echoed from the ledge directly below.

Striding with grim purpose, a cult leader crowned in a massive headdress paused and studied the new development, his teeth flashing. Following him loped a band of his priestly rogues.

Rojarsh and his jackals! cursed Vetra. A murderous rage brought red mist clouding his vision. The death of Kalaman swept quickly to mind. His comrade-in-arms had died agonizingly at the hands of these devils and their kind.

Doubtless they were revising their original mission, in light of the buzzard god’s fall.

Vetra dropped to his belly and pulled Balir and Laskar down with him.

The voice of the high priest came grumbling at his advisor.

“If you see that knave, Vetravincus, kill him and his crew on sight. I don’t want them getting past our guard, or escaping our punishment—or worse—back to that hound Caglios with relics of ours. He has caused us too much ruin.” The high-priest rubbed his brow and ruffled his weighty headdress, a giant pink and white crab with wicked white pincers.

“Agreed, lord,” murmured the priest’s advisor. He adjusted his own feral headdress. The man was near naked, but for a pair of furred boots and a furred strip of loin-cloth.

“He must be up the old Ocelos tunnels,” Rojarsh grunted. “He couldn’t have gotten far from Dapi’s pool. Take a team and flush them out.”

“I wonder what has become of our priest, Iokru?” another cleric muttered, gazing fretfully at a winged shape. He ducked instinctively as the bird-god dipped and dove not far from their position. “Not a man from his party has returned. You saw the state of him when he came back begging for men and weapons to hunt down those swine. He was white with excitement.”

Rojarsh’s features remained neutral.

“A bad business, master Rojarsh. I never trusted that smirking Iokru from the beginning.”

Rojarsh grunted to ease his advisor’s mistrust. “I’ve known Iokru since a babe. He wouldn’t dare cross me—and yet—” the old cult leader frowned. A sullen glare and clamped jaw showed some niggling doubt. A cruel deliberation in his face showed a man capable of formidable deeds; his throat worked while his nose wrinkled.

Yet he seemed to stiffen at more sounds, as Dapi lunged in one swift fatal swoop to take down another priest, plunging beak through maw. “Curse this Dapi demon! Those filthy outlanders have loosed a hellfowl amongst our ranks!”

“Our power is no more than that of ants compared to this stony fiend. What will become of—”

“Find them!” Rojarsh growled, swatting a stave at his henchman. “The buzzardmen said they saw three rogues similar to Vetravincus and his band skulking around the hallowed ways of Wausolo not long ago. But they disappeared into the shadows. They must have come out of the forbidden tunnels, damn their skulking hides!”

The conch-helmed man who was the team leader ran off ahead with several masked priest-guards to fulfil their lord’s command.

“Come, Zitanger,” grunted Rojarsh to his elder priest. “Let us take refuge in the Cavern of the Great Clam. We can draw the bronze portal shut and neither Dapi’s beak nor any other god’s will reach us.”

Vetra looked up as guttural croaks suddenly streamed down from the winged god’s throat. The horror was aiming right for him and his men.

Sword gripped, he squared himself for an assault but pitched sideways in time, evading a mortal strike. The rake of talons passed just hair widths from his neck. He mumbled coarse words and readied himself for another attack.

Dapi came low and fast and Vetra crouched, rose catlike on his feet and struck the thing full across the body. He felt the resounding clunk of steel on stone shiver through his arms. Laskar swatted at it with his bow end, knowing bolts were useless against the creature, yet refusing all the same to give up. Balir notched his dully gleaming blade on the thing’s hide as it swept by.

A bevy of spears clattered up at them from Rojarsh’s crew.

Vetra fell back. He danced on his toes, howling, barely avoiding getting pin-cushioned by the spears’ razor-sharp tips. “Fools!” he sputtered. “’Tis clear the bird fiend’s the enemy, not us.”

“They are imbeciles,” Balir roared. “Let us quit this ledge—or find some higher perch!”

Vetra prepared a defence, but the thing circled back to finish them off, its red eyes blazing.

A spear tip slid off Dapi’s side. The creature swooped low at a breakneck angle and dove at the attacking priests huddled on the ledge below. The priests bleated in wonder and fled like wild dogs along the ledge. Too late. Dapi smashed into their huddle, knocking fleeing clerics flat on their faces, noses broken and faces mangled. It flew back in a circle to focus on wild-eyed Rojarsh, who stood exposed, clutching stave in hand and combing his black beard with a hand in disbelief and terror.

Vetra felt an oppressive presence in his pocket. Every time Dapi swung close by, he could feel a throbbing against his skin and see the melted collar fused on the bird-god’s neck pulse in synchrony. Frowning, he pulled the collar out, shook his fist at the sky. “It’s this vile thing you want, isn’t it?”

Balir gasped at the sight of the collar. “What? You still have that cursed thing? Get rid of it! Why do you hold it? Are you some witless maniac?”

“Don’t call me witless. ’Tis not me who has a mangled hand.”

Balir, fuelled with rage, tried to wrest the thing from Vetra’s grip. Vetra twisted away and knocked Balir off his feet. Laskar grabbed Vetra’s fist before it could smack into Balir’s skull.

“Stop! Are you insane?” thundered Laskar.

The sounds of inhuman shrieks had them all halting and scrambling to their feet.

Vetra and Balir masked their heavy breathing and peered down over the ledge. They watched the carnage below as Rojarsh’s bodyguards were tossed everywhere. A fleet shape wreaked havoc upon their blood-stained numbers. The protectors fought with mad desperation to keep their priest-lord from getting mauled and gored by the terror.

In the dim shadows Vetra gritted his teeth, breath rasping, searching for a solution. Pinned to this ledge by Dapi and the priests, there were not many options. But he had an idea. “Help me roll this boulder over the ledge. We can drop it on that devil.”

“It would kill us more pesky priests in the meantime,” growled Balir. He wiped his split lip, looking rankled by Vetra’s recent aggression.

Arms and shoulders straining, the three got the stone rocking and with a rumble and clatter of pebbles, the thing careened down the canyon wall.

The priests looked up in horror as a wave of red ruin mashed brains and limbs and tore a half of Dapi’s wing off. The creature croaked in outrage as its body was sent spinning sideways. Down the slope it tumbled, a stony ball of beastly fury, maimed, but not dead. In a cloud of dust it collapsed at the feet of several stunned priests who gaped at it from the canyon floor.

The stone devil writhed—and to Vetra’s vast shock, wriggled with life.

“Unbelievable!” murmured Balir. He shook his head in wonder and mumbled several bitter oaths. The god half-hopped and flapped drunkenly to its feet, but could gain no more than six feet in the air.

“Its wings are finished,” grunted Vetra with some vindication. “The fiend was lucky. A direct strike would have immobilized it. The thing’s still dangerous…”

“But not them—” Balir pointed a quivering finger down in the ghoulish abattoir below. “Dapi has made short work of our priestly friends.”

Vetra frowned. “Let’s go.”

Even as he uttered the words, his jaw sagged. A large, dark brown shape shambled on all fours down the ruin of the avenue. The creature occasionally stopped, snout lifted in the air or teeth snapping at corpses. “The rat-god of the ratmangers!” The beast snarled a low, guttural bray. Somehow the god had broken its chains—and leaped out of its ring of fire. Its fur was singed, pelt smoking, and the sounds that whinged from its thick throat were chilling to hear.

The creature charged up the path where Dapi sent priests toppling to their doom.

Vetra and the others turned, staggering up the ledge while Rojarsh’s cries alerted more of his followers. Reinforcements surged out of the shadows, and Vetra flinched as footfall pounded behind the mercenaries.

He risked a glance back and saw some twenty determined rear guard who had looped around from the ledge below, scrabbling like monkeys.

Laskar loosed a bolt over his shoulder. A priest fell. The archer paused to reload. One of Rojarsh’s tall, clam-helmed giants was close behind, with evil intentions carved on his face. Vetra heard a knife whistling through the air. He turned to see a gleaming blade sticking from the side of Laskar’s throat. The archer sagged, gave a gurgling gasp and toppled face down, blade sunk hilt-deep in his neck.

Vetra howled a curse. He stooped over Laskar’s twitching body. He rose in time to kick at the ogre-like priest who had flung himself at him.

The mercenary’s ancient blade deflected the priest’s murderous knife thrusts. Balir dodged a fist from his enemy’s companion and hip-checked him spinning close to the edge. The groping man’s foot slipped on stone chips and he tottered over the ledge, his scream echoing in darkness.

Vetra elbowed his assailant in the teeth and rammed a sword into his guts. The priest sank with a strangled sob, clutching at his vitals as if trying to keep them from slipping out. The mercenary sheathed his sword; he snatched up Laskar’s abandoned crossbow and pulled back the firing arm. He advanced on the throng of priests that faced them, sour rage clouding his reason. With chest heaving, he trained the weapon, mouth curled in a vindictive grimace, ready to shoot anything that moved. The archer had been a staunch ally, and though he had not said much, neither he nor Balir would be alive if not for his courage and unswerving skill in combat.

Vetra watched the priests hang back, huddled in murmuring indecision. None were sure of their next move, or Vetra’s state of mind, and none dared to tempt the wrath of his teeth-bared fury.

Balir yelled at him to get back, but Vetra held his ground. A few threw spears at him which glanced harmlessly off his mail, or flew past when he dodged. There was not enough space on the ledge for an organized rush without incurring casualties.

A fanatic charged and Vetra loosed point blank, catching the runner full in the face. The buzzard mask erupted in a ruin of feathers, balsam and human features. Goaded to frenzy, the horde sprang over the body, and lurched screaming after him.

Vetra scrambled back, realizing his options had run dry. He stumbled down a less steep section of the ledge, somewhat of a scree slope.

Balir roared, eyes wide, “Are you kidding?”

“Make a decision,” Vetra thundered, “or you’re dead!”

Balir sucked in a breath. He gazed where Dapi continued to rage in a heated fang versus beak battle with the rat god not a stone’s throw below.

“Dapi will protect us,” snarled Vetra sardonically.

Balir stumbled after Vetra and the bloodstained god below, growling as his damaged hand shot out to balance him on the steep grade and its shattered flakes.

Vetra reloaded Laskar’s crossbow. He slid down the slope, grim retribution illuminating his features and a crazed battle fever running thick in his blood.

The pursuers looked down the slope at the ferocious battle between rat and falcon. Their eyes dimmed with hesitation. The canyon was a litter of bodies. Stray fires burned, setting corpses and ceremonial banners aflame. Broken statues teetered on cracked legs and glowered under crimson firelight while screaming acolytes ran amok. Old priests stumbled along, beating tired drums tied at their bellies in wild confusion. Vats of ceremonial oil had spilled, and spat and blazed. Masked men ran hither in their panic, trampling their fellows or their rivals who were too slow.

The rat god leapt to tear at Dapi. Its front fangs found the bird’s throat and ripped at it like a wild hound. Dapi’s supernatural stone was impervious to such molestations and it whipped itself free, rejecting both fangs and rending claws alike. It flew straight at its adversary, beak speared out like a skewer.

The rat god groaned transfixed. Dapi began sucking the life out of its mouth. The rat’s squeals of horror dwindled while blood gushed from its cloven mouth. Now Dapi sent a bestial cry to the nighted sky that resounded about the stone canyon. More powerful than ever the fiend had grown, pulsing with a devil’s malevolence. It wallowed in a sultry brown glow, its return for sucking the rat’s soul dry.

“This falconish devil is beyond us.” Vetra whispered in Balir’s ear.

Dapi’s power trully had multiplied as it consumed souls, absorbing the qualities of that which it sucked. It hunched grotesquely on its talons, face and eyes gleaming with hate. For a brief moment, Vetra thought it looked particularly rodent-like—yet then, like a man.

The priests, crushed with the demise of both rat and buzzard, decided that Dapi was unkillable, at least by flesh alone and they pelted the dark, grey stone god with rocks. Stone bowls they lifted, and ceremonial objects, anything they could get their hands on to smash the foe to oblivion. An act of desperation, and yet, in a brief twist of irony, it was these material objects that seemed the only deterrent against the horror.

While one would bait it, the bird would hop and croak with mad fury toward the stone-thrower and another priest would pelt it from a different direction. In such wise, the priests kept Dapi distracted. Fire did not seem to affect it. Broken-masked priests thrust torches up at its clacking beak only to be mowed down in a beak-and-tooth embrace. Their resistance may have slowed the bird’s advance, but it only made the falcon more aggressive.

Balir crouched, glaring up from a crumble of statues and broken bits of entablature. He had caught up to Vetra now in the Avenue, and Vetra, exhaling a curse, staggered onward down the broad path. He herded Balir alongside him. The columns of the Rose Temple of the Serpent towered high above them. It was quieter here, for Dapi’s carnage was raging in places distant and only a far thrum came drifting to their ears. Clam and rat priests had taken up the chase on Rojarsh’s order, forcing the fugitives to swerve around a pillared bend and clamber into a columned court carved into the cliff. The rebels stood motionless. A larger open worship area loomed in front of them: the Temple of the Serpent. While the clatter of footsteps pounded straight past, they edged gratefully into the dimly-lit inner court and saw they were in a sanctuary with six, obsidian bull-headed gods. Coiled jade snakes hung from the walls, tongues flickering out through fanged mouths. Other grotesque shapes hunched about the tiled floor with various heads of bullfrogs, snakes, and the horns of bulls.

Vetra shuddered at the nightmarish forms and lit a candle on the lintel of an altar carved rudely in the wall. The two proceeded noiselessly down the tapestried hall, through an incense chamber at the back.

Vetra pushed aside a tattered curtain that protected a doorway. The temple edged out onto another avenue, this one minor.

Two hundred feet up, Vetra looked upon an open patch of sky. The sky was just starting to lighten—a patch indicating dawn. He strode grimly along side routes, with Balir clutching warily at his gleaming blade. Somehow, using his innate sense of direction, he managed to steer them back to the Way of Temples. Farther away from the slaughter, the vindictive intents of the ratmen and clam-cult sympathizers seemed a surreal threat.

The mercenaries were panting, nerves frayed. Like weasels they slunk along the shadowy wall. Vetra’s legs burned with exhaustion, his mouth hung open, parched as a desert. In the near distance they heard the fervid beat of drums and the intense chanting of masked votaries, all wishing for the demise of Dapi and the quick sacrifice of the infidels who had incited the falcon god’s wrath. Beads of sweat budded on Balir’s face. His eyes looked wild and haunted, like a starveling wolf. Deep in his lined face, Vetra saw the gaze of a man who had survived multiple deaths, a hunted animal. Only the threat of gruesome slaughter and the constant rush of adrenaline kept the mercenary from succumbing to shock.

Sensing no sign of pursuit, Vetra slowly poked his head out from an alcove. They stood blinking in the half gloom, while towering columns ranged on either side of them and squat, ram-headed statues protruded from the solid cliffs. No priests were in sight—at least what they could see. Then suddenly, a shiver of movement came from down the Way of Temples. They watched as a tall form of a priest with a ram-headed mask emerged from between the outstretched paws of a massive chimaera-like statue. The figure edged down the Alley toward sounds of a gathering commotion that grew in intensity. To the threat, he seemed immune, despite his peers running in the opposite direction. What the devil was he up to? The cleric raised arms, almost twice as long as their own, extended by thin planks strapped to his forearms. Between his extended wooden palms a red ball of flame began to grow into a whirling blaze. It formed into some hideous creature: a demon reminiscent of a smoke-wreathed grey scorpion with a lashing tail, the embodiment of his god.

A low-hopping shape came suddenly into view—to meet the conjured shape, cawing with distinct familiarity. Dapi! The grey mass of the scorpion grew to a crimson whirlwind. Whipping fire from its tail, it engulfed the bird-god in flame. Like a mosquito that flies into the lantern’s light, Dapi had stormed right into the sorcerer’s trap.

The god rolled to the ground, smoking and cawing miserably. But, not surprisingly, it spread its broken wings and stretched to its full height, hopping, and snapping back. The priest stiffened and curled his lips. In a flutter of robes, he scrambled away, aghast.

Dapi hopped, and tore after the sorcerer. The man, recognizing that his grim god had failed, burst away furiously to distance himself from the oncoming stone menace. He pushed aside other priests who had come to watch, pointing and lifting his macabre hands. With magic blasts he smote them when they did not move fast enough.

The sorcerer had given Vetra the diversion they needed. In a swift burst of speed, they made for the farthest watchtower—the final bastion for their getting out of this cursed city. Thus far, they had navigated the avenue unmolested…

The walkways forming the exit breasted the iron-worked tower. The path switch-backed up the steep face of the canyon like a slithering snake frozen in motion. Torches marked its banisters; hundreds of steps up the canyon face, the stairs crossed back on themselves high above the watchtower, gleaming like white teeth.

“We have to reach that point,” Vetra hissed, motioning a hand.

Balir acknowledged the truth with a silent nod. The guardpost at the tower’s base led to the zigzagging stairway and was illumined with burning torches. To this area, Vetra and his henchman crept. Fortune was with them. They had a lighted way to follow. No bowmen walked the battlements that they could see. Vetra and Balir stalked closer. Signs of activity came to their ears: the hum of voices, a clink of cups. News of the god on the loose had spread to all quarters of the complex, but the men within this outpost looked as if they had been ordered to keep their posts. Two sentries in the guardhouse mumbled in low conversation. They peered over their shoulders, scowling darkly at the proceedings in the Alley. At times, one of them would throw dice or half-heartedly toss gaming chips on a pile. Their unicorned helms lay untended on the table. The desultory sounds they heard, evidently had them glad to be posted here rather than elsewhere.

“We may have some trouble with our friends here,” announced Vetra quietly.

Balir gave an idle shrug. “I’m guessing it’s easy to get into the canyon. But hard to get out.”

Vetra shifted uneasily in his disguise. He adjusted the bear’s mask that itched like the plague.

“Nothing we can’t handle. Move over to the side, Vetra, near that beast-headed column. Cover me when I give the signal. Watch how a pro handles this.”

Before Vetra could object, the confident Balir swaggered up to the two gamblers, raising a ruby stump like a flag and grinning like a simpleton from the market. “Been a hard night,” he quipped. “A wee accident up the tunnels put a damper on my day. Mind you, could be worse! Could have been a leg of mine that old Dapi snipped off. Could I trouble you for a little arrack? To cleanse my throat and wounds?” He gave them an oafish laugh and then a conspiratorial wink.

The two sentries jerked to attention, knocking over wooden stools. They snatched up hooked spears and roared at him. “Stand back, you simpleton! How did you get here?” The first sentry’s eyes narrowed in confusion; he gaped. “You?” he cried in recognition. “You’re one of those damned outlanders, the ones who awoke Dapi, and caused us all this woe! One more step and I’ll gut you!”

Balir gestured helplessly. “I stand guilty as charged.” He held up his sword in a gesture of surrender.

The guard came surging over to relieve Balir of his weapon and on his sharp grunt, Vetra, edged out of the shadows like a panther and brained the guard from behind. He fell with a squashy sound, skull caved. Balir speared the other who came rushing in to help his colleague and he crumpled in a gibbering heap. Balir ran the writhing man through, thus squelching any excess noise, and wiped the blade on the back of the guard’s caftan. The two crouched over the bodies, breaths held. Each gauged his next move. They blinked in the flickering light, gripping blood-soaked weapons.

Balir’s face finally fell in a friendly grin. “Well, all that to hit home the penalty of not wearing one’s helmet.” He rose and squinted about critically.

Only the low murmur of voices drifting from the antechamber where the gamblers drank and laughed gave them further cause for concern.

Vetra sheathed his sword. “It won’t be as easy to get by those sods at the guardhouse. Let’s strip these hounds and pose as them. It may not fool them for long, but long enough that we might sneak by the main force and get out of here.”

Balir’s nod was slow in coming. He glanced at Vetra hesitantly, his sidelong gaze speaking of how much he despised this priestly garb.

Vetra paid no heed. They dragged the fresh corpses into the shadows, dumping them behind the serpent-scrolled pillar.

After stripping the sentries of their white robes, their belts and tanned leather breeches, Vetra doffed his own garments and put on the guard’s. He bundled the clothes under his arm and grabbed a torch.

“Why take our old clothes with us?” Balir demanded.

“We can still change back up top—if we make it that far. We have yet to make it back to the city, remember?”

Balir grunted. His clothes-changing was a more lengthy affair and Vetra helped him with an impatient flourish.

At least Balir seemed happy to toss aside his ill-smelling clam mask. He drained one of the tankards of ale left behind. Vetra grabbed a half-filled canteen.

Vetra peered about and saw there were roughly twenty men crammed into the ill-lit pillared guardhouse: a square-topped stone outbuilding that reeked of smoke, incense and unwashed bodies.

Lazy sods, Vetra thought moodily, to be so holed up gambling, so grossly inattentive while Dapi raged in the Alley.

Together the two treaded noiselessly past the bulk of guards. They edged through the lingering shadows, then up the first of the stairs.

A voice called out in the torchlit gloom, freezing Vetra in his tracks. He gripped his sword hilt under his robe, thinking quickly.

“Oi! What gives? Aren’t you supposed to be watching the Alley?”

Vetra cleared his throat, choosing his words carefully. “Thought I heard something suspicious up the landing.” He was grateful to be masked in shadows and stationed about thirty feet away. “The gatemaster would have our heads if I let intruders in or out.

The other grumbled. “Anything to report up the Alley?”

Vetra blinked and shifted nervously. “Poor old Rojarsh and his gang got hit by Dapi, I heard. But the buzzards and ratmangers likely’ll round up the infidels. Bold of the outlanders to rob the priest-king under his nose.”

The man growled out a surly oath. “Let’s hope they catch them and this be the end of such dismal business. I’m bored of hanging around this spider haunt, as nice as it is to take Ifgin’s money.” He jerked a thumb and tossed a coin in the air. “Yet the high priests told us to not let a man up or down these stairs on threat of severe penalties. That can only mean a rendezvous with Rojarsh’s cursed clam. Only a moron would be stupid enough to try to escape by this way.” The priest leaned forward, frowning at his own words. “What with the double guard we have posted.”

“You’re right in that,” Vetra agreed, masking a strangled laugh. “Well, back to our watch. I’ll be up and down in a flash. Keep up the good work with your game. If Ifgin has any coins left, I’ll be sure to take them.”

The other grunted indifferently. He went back to his dice rolling. Vetra heard more loud shouting, fist-banging on tables and obscenities.

“Oblivious fools,” he hissed under his breath. Balir came shuffling out beside him, a disparaging look on his face.

Up the steep stairs the two crept. They passed out of the line of sight of the guardhouse crew and bounded up the narrow stairs in haste. The steps were sunken and crudely skewed, as if long ages ago they had seen much upheaval over time. A lone torch glimmered several paces on up. The way was flanked by ghastly-looking canine statues, with elongated snouts, vampirish incisors and peculiar curled tails with three manicured knouts on the end.

“Horrid little creatures,” muttered Balir. “Somebody ought to give these clerics advice on decor.”

Vetra’s lips pursed.

Their ruse did not last for long. Echoing shouts of angry men came stabbing out of the darkness and a glitter of knives and scuff of feet came pelting from behind up the hallowed, ancient steps.

“Too many of them,” hissed Balir. “They’ll bring us to ground.”

“Help me then,” called Vetra. He motioned to one of the ugly dog statues. “We can roll this thing down and hopefully crush a few in the meantime.”

With all their strength, they heaved. Balir wrapped his good arm under the dog’s belly and put the full weight of his foul, sweat-reeking body behind him. They got the monstrosity rolling down the stair. It gained speed, cracking off tail and paws, as the horde came thundering up the stair in a blade-wielding fury. A half dozen soon lay crushed in a gruesome heap under its jagged rush. Others were scrambling over the wreckage. Vetra seized a glowing lantern off the wall and hurled it down at them. It smashed and flamed. He upended the pot of replacement oil stationed at his feet and the steps below ignited in a whoosh of fire. Vetra glared. Any who broke through the clotted mass of crushed bodies was engulfed in flames.

Balir guffawed, seeing these devotees of Gyzia lit up like candle wicks, dancing like mad puppets in the wild firelight.

The stairwell was narrow but more foes scrambled up the winding way, hoping to catch the rebels. Arrows skidded up at them from torchlit holes in the tower, the archers below alerted to their presence. They scrambled higher in a low, frantic crouch. Fletched shafts skittered off the stone, whining like bees. Another of the dog statues proved a tempting target and they rolled it down, this one larger, and it stuck lengthwise in the torchlit stairway.

Vetra ripped a lantern off the wall and tossed more oil down, creating a wall of fire. With satisfaction, he bounded up the switch-backing heights with Balir struggling at his heels.

They were out of range of the arrows; the last step was in sight. They clambered up and over it with relish. A cool breeze brushed their cheeks and they crouched, hands on knees, panting for breath.

They had reached the top at last; the moon swung low in a muted glow on the horizon. Only a single, square-topped watchtower rose over the lip of the canyon, casting a faint, predawn shadow in the small walled courtyard in which they stood. They plunged through an inner gate and Vetra almost ran face first into a lone sentry who stood gripping a two-pronged spear and torch. He glowered in consternation. Sword met spear in a shrill clangour, fierce as any that had clashed below in the valley. The clink of weaponry echoed off the silent stone as it had not for many a moon. Balir watched in grinning amusement as the duel gained fire. He fingered his own blade, with an expression mirroring his expectations of the outcome. At the man’s clanging strokes, Vetra parried. At an appropriate moment, he plunged his blade into the gasping man’s ribs and the man sank with a howl.

Vetra, lungs heaving, could see the wink of torches and angry commotion far below. He wiped his silvery weapon on the sentry’s cloak, cleansing it of blood. Both he and Balir donned their original clothes, keeping the others to discard later. Vetra had expected more of a fight here. There had been at least four of the unicorn-helmed priests guarding the gatehouse on the way down. As it stood, he thanked Dapi for the poorly manned state of this lonely outpost.

Wasting no time, the two bit back their exhaustion and stumbled toward the outer gate in this court…the worshippers of the buzzard and clam could be at their heels at any moment. It was higher ground here past the low wall and the unlocked gate. They caught clear glimpses of the glowing lights of the city of Lausern winking a few leagues away east over the top of the swaying thickets and the stunted shrubs. They took to the weed-choked path through the heath and scrub with hopeful hearts. After a time, Vetra threw the priests’ bloody clothes into the brush. With eager relish, they trudged on toward Lausern.

 

VI

 

The moon was a glowering orb in the west, setting in a smoky bank of cloud. At last they were dogging their way down the cobbled road south through the precincts of the wine district, bordering the shanties of the immigrant workers, and thus the outer gate.

A high wall of rough-hewn stone blocks surrounded the entire city. A man stood atop the barbican, looking down from a crudely-squared notch, double-armed crossbow in hand.

The guard posted below the city’s West Gate uttered a challenge and approached with authority. Another hefted a pike with a wicked, up-curled tip, the dwindling moonlight glinting off steel morion and greaves. “Where are you going, friends?”

“Into the city,” growled Balir. “Where else?”

The mace chain jangled at a hip as he cast Balir a cold glare. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Vetra cast Balir a warning look, which Balir chose to casually ignore.

“Coming from where?” The second guard eyed Balir’s wound with frowning suspicion.

“Took the long way, by the north road from Juraxton,” lied Vetra.

“Juraxton, eh?” he barked. “Didn’t realize it was rough enough to merit losing an arm.” He jabbed a long spear at the bloody rag wrapped about Balir’s left hand.

“Met a band of thugs there, surly brutes, where the woods meet the miller’s road,” remarked Vetra. “Bad place for ambushes, if you ask me. Went the worst for those villains. We left them there in pools of their own blood.” He flashed the sentry an ingenuous grin.

The man nodded, as if understanding all, hissing air through his nose. But his expression sized Vetra up for a simpleton. “So, if we follow up on this story of yours and go back with a patrol to see how many of these ‘bandits’ you despatched, we’re going to find, how many of them, ten at least?”

Vetra shrugged in a disinterested manner. “More like eight. But only if you get to them before the wolves do. Heard howls close by. Was either them or the wood elves.” He grinned. “Would have made short work of those bloody corpses by now, I’d reckon. Fools they were.”

“The elves too,” corroborated Balir with a quick, snorting laugh that had Vetra cringing.

The guard grunted. Stepping a foot closer, he searched Vetra roughly while his partner pawed at Balir, somewhat less enthusiastically. The mercenary’s grunts, grim scowl and his twitching fingers on his sharp weapon had the guard pulling dubiously at his beard.

“What’s this?” the sallow-eyed watchman demanded, pulling out the collar Vetra tucked in the pouch at his belt.

“A trinket, no more,” answered Vetra. “I hawked it off a blind man a few days back in Nisgard. For a few talons, I figured I could trade it at the Lausern bazaar for double what I paid for it.”

The other sneered. He fingered the relic, tightening his lips in a disdainful curl. He was obviously unnerved with the way the green jewels glared back at him with lurid force, radiating an unwholesome heat. “I’d get rid of this piece quick, friend, if I were you. It has an evil look to it. And I’m no slack judge of omens.”

“That you are, Jeral,” laughed his comrade-in-arms.

“In this case, I agree,” asserted Balir.

Vetra flashed Balir an ominous look; the maimed man remained silent. The sentries did not follow up on the mercenary’s dark hint.

The tall, more heavily built guard waved them through with a quiver of impatience. The man on the top of barbican pulled a chained wheel and the gate slowly swung open. “Move on then,” the sentry snarled. “And make no trouble. Steer clear of the harlot’s district. ’Tis likely a lot like you will end up with your throats cut before dawn.”

Vetra nodded. He tipped his head in the traditional way of soldiers. As was second nature, he thrust out a fisted hand, a token of farewell—so habit spoke from his martial posting on the borders of Behundria.

They ducked into a back alley and Vetra addressed his friend with approval, “Good show, Balir. Though a little surly. I thought I told you to let me do the talking?”

Balir gave a phlegmatic yawn.

“We can hole up at a friend of mine’s, Suleman’s, down the Albion Cross way,” commented Vetra. “Lie low for a while, clean ourselves up.”

Balir growled. “Clean ourselves up? Is that what you call it?” The mercenary held up his three-fingered stump. “This is where we part ways, Vetra.”

“What do you mean?” grunted Vetra in surprise. “We still have a reckoning with that snake Caglios. Don’t you remember? We still have to get our spoils for our work.”

Balir gave an explosive cry. “What work? You’ve got to be out of your head? I want nothing to do with that cursed sorcerer and his quests and his magic collars and idols. I’d piss down his throat if I had a chance. We have nothing to show except a botched job. No, I’ll bail out of this one, Vetra. Forget this ever happened. I’ll slit that magicker’s gullet the next I cross paths with him—” his right fist curled in a claw “—but not now.”

Vetro bit his lip. He shook his head in slow consternation. “You’re making a big mistake, Balir. We’re a good team. We have to finish this job together. You and I. We can go far.”

Balir sneered at Vetra’s romanticism. “It’s finished. You’re washed up. Bad luck. Can’t say as I’ll be sorry to see the end of you.”

And Vetra watched him storm off, lost in the gloom and the decadence that was Lausern.

Vetra loosed a soft breath. He turned to amble back the other way but he heard a scornful echo reaching out at him, “And get rid of that cursed collar, will you?”

Vetra shook his head, grumbling an oath. “I shall, dear Balir—I shall.” But he knew his former friend could care less what he’d do. He knew that he’d never see the likes of the man again.

A hollow emptiness hit Vetra and he gnawed at his knuckles. The pain of loss struck him between the eyes. All the toil, misery and blood, for what? He shook his head. A sundered friendship, two comrades dead and now a few measly talons to show for it. It seemed stupid and unjust. A reckoning was in order. This he vowed. But it would not happen before the next moon. Now was not the time or place.

 

A series of killings had stricken Lausern overnight. Some strange night marauder, so the constabulary said, taking random victims. Not surprising, none knew of a long dead god with a princely face. The perpetrator was described as some ‘beaked and clawed’ monster, some hybrid of bird and man. A whole squad of city guards had fled in panic one evening, as the horror chased them through the night’s dimly-lit streets, clawing down helpless victims who could not get out of the way fast enough. There was nothing recognizable of the bodies in the end. A characteristic, four-toed claw mark imprinted on a back, eyes and tongue gouged out, throat distended and mangled, as if some large predator had been to work on it. It seemed the killer stole the soul or ‘soul identity’ of its victims, so the local witcher said upon examining the bodies, and the thing grew more powerful, more insidious, more menacing with each brutish kill—a demon, a thing from the ghoulish pits of hell equipped with glaring red eyes that seared the darkness. Something that could fly, though not well.

While the locals laughed at the impossibility of such a thing, Vetra had shuddered at the news. He had hid away in the Marksman’s Inn under a false name: ‘Varillisus’, disguising his face and age by donning a black cap and scarf and covering his skin with ash, wax and dye. He cleverly hid his wounds, and posed as a merchant of spices and knick-knacks from a far city on the River Waiin. Somehow the mercenary perceived that the thing was hunting him—he who guarded the fragment of enchanted collar and it would not rest until it found its mark…or slain the keeper of the missing relic that bound it.

Vetra had to lie low for other reasons. The Rat Fang people and the members of Iokru’s shell cult longed for his blood. It was no leap to assume that certain members affiliated with the local temples of both cults would have been informed of a renegade who had escaped the temples of Gyzia after defiling their sanctuaries and loosing the bird-god Dapi.

That the god-fiend was tracking him was disturbing enough, but on a shrewd hunch Vetra guessed the beast could not follow him when the collar was buried in earth. There he had cunningly hid it. Securing the cursed thing in an iron-bound box, he had gone on to bury it in the graveyard on the edge of the city, the soldiers’ memorial ground. Sure enough, the shadows stalking him diminished in number, and the killings abated.

Meanwhile, as Vetra recovered from his wounds, the arms of a willing barmaid helped ease his past hurts over the next few weeks, though his dwindling supply of coin was forcing his hand. The memory of the slaughter in the canyons was still fresh in his mind. He had hidden the collar in the strongbox with no plan in mind. The cemetery plot he had chosen had been a necessary precaution. In this line of work, one could never be too careful. The grave-keeper had asked no questions. As long as Vetra paid him talons on the strike of midnight under the dead oak, he could do what he liked.

Dreams, strange visions and odysseys of body and mind haunted Vetra—of a beastly bird with a man’s face chasing him through the shadows, always hunting him, seeking vengeance, ready to rip into his throat and steal the talisman that mastered it.

The thing was evil. But the object it craved was more so…it had power—and could sustain life in inanimate stone forever.

If it came to a showdown with Dapi, Vetra was under no illusion who the winner would be. Nevertheless, to resume the life he had known, he would have to face down the sorcerer. With grim determination, he decided to take the broken collar with him, well appreciating the risk he faced. Things might go badly if the wizard used it against him.

In the hours before dawn, he brewed a kettle of black coffee mixed with cups of strong arrack to steel his nerves. Then he dug up the relic. The sight of the collar stirred many memories of gruesome terror and atrocities, and a wave of nausea from the wrath of the strange, bloodthirsty beast that tracked him.

 

Through the cobbled marketplaces and winding ways of Lausern, Vetra made his way. When the throngs subsided from their market going, and the hawkers’ cries faded to thin, hoarse calls, Vetra heard only the brief clatter of carts that jolted through the dingy streets. He saw the odd, furtive face that sought to greet him, or women crouched miserably at thresholds of dark households, washing frayed clothes in rusty tubs while old men sang sour songs and sat twirling prayer beads.

In the seedy district of Lo-asmar, the city dungeons were kept. All the riffraff and down-and-out beggars resided in the older, poorer section. Elsewhere, dark-cobbled streets ran with filth, green puddles splashed underfoot, looking much akin to bilgewater. This was the haunt of thieves and cutthroats. Where honest citizens shunned the streets at night, where only the city patrols tread: thickset, sharp-eyed men clad in steel and morions, with spears gripped in gloved palms and marched in details of eight or more. One had passed and Vetra had ducked out of sight, wishing no questions. Now, he half turned. His ears perked at a drunken shout or some shrill shriek of a man being knifed in a seedy warehouse or storeroom. It was none of his business. There was nothing he could do, except maybe get his throat cut, all for a show of unsolicited philanthropy. Ironic that such district was where Caglios the wizard made his abode.

In the lower precincts of a tower, a metal-works warehouse converted to a workshop, Caglios also kept a laboratory. Smoke churned from double chimneys high atop the old blackened brick where vines crawled up the ancient stone like ominous snakes. Some necromancy was in order here, judging from the heavy smelting and various signs of industry, sinister in nature…

Vetra’s face creased in a frown. He felt a strange unease at this mission. For a second he almost turned back and thought to quit Lausern. Only a dogged thirst for vengeance kept his feet rooted on the spot in the guttered street. He firmed his tongue and knocked on the brass knocker: a repugnant gargoyle with a blackened face stretched in a rictus of despair. Fitting for Caglios, thought Vetra.

His memory of dealings with Caglios were fresh in his mind. He sat back on his heels, fingering the hilt of his sword. This time, he would be ready.

The heavy door opened and a thin, wispy-haired man of serious face and medium height stood blinking in the entranceway. His gnarled features and greying hair spoke of a man advanced in years. He wore a soiled overcoat of blue and white leather and special iron-studded gloves which clutched a squirming form, something akin to a lizard.

“Ah, Vetra, you have returned. Very good. I see you have survived. Against all odds. You have renewed my faith in the human race! There’re so many treacherous dogs running about.”

“Glad you approve,” muttered Vetra. He inclined his head toward the wriggling black lizard. “I see you have acquired a new friend.”

The wizard looked at him blankly, then raised eyebrows in sudden understanding. “Oh, you mean, Igor! You seem to have caught me in the middle of a trying task. A certain spell requires an ‘eye of lizard’, if I read correctly. I’m afraid there’ll only be lizard stew on the menu today, much to Igor’s dismay. Blades be cursed, Vetravincus, you are the mercenary’s dream! A delivery-man extraordinaire—a minstrel of the sword and blood—who brings me such spoils from afar! Anything to report? How goes your quest for my jade piece? ’Tis a dirty, amoral world out there!”

“Indeed, it is,” said Vetra, indulging the wizard’s banter. “But hearken, let us talk in private. There be wary ears in this seedy neighbourhood.”

“A wise plan!” Caglios beckoned the swordsman inside. He led them to his workroom with a grand sweep of arm—up a wide staircase at the back of a dimly-lit, spartanly-furnished antechamber.

Bronze censers blazed from the walls of the upper level, cutting through the daytime gloom of an otherwise cloistered place. Scroll-worked pillars lining the walls in the style of old Monath, lent an air of antiquity to the place. Vetra saw an old temple masquerading in the barbaric splendour, and the various shrines which set the columns alight with their gleaming ornaments and ceremonial trinkets, harked back to his time at Gyzia. A thin wash of pale light streamed from a brass-worked window where the smoke breezed down from the high turrets to billow in a foul smoke. Hearth and forge burned with coals, their black-iron frames connected by metal piping to the chimneys, the source of the black fumes. A stairway wound away to an upper level while a closed door led to an area at the back.

Caglio’s work delved into long lost arts which Vetra now recalled with distaste. A hideous and unique blend of necromancy and alchemy which captured the power of gods, or spirits through the agency of rare and magical metals. Caglios considered himself a Sorceas, a sorcerer who strove to perfect such arts, which picked up on the lore of the great sage Mercifor, one of the Five Great Mages of the Ages, who wrote many a volume on the subject, all but two which are lost today. As Vetra understood, the presence of certain metals wielded by an adept hand could release the magical properties of anything in their midst. That, or serve as a catalyst to channel energy from the very air itself. Such things were generally incomprehensible to people of ordinary intellect, and in such wise, Caglios capitalized on his special understanding of it.

Caglios employed sub-world imps to do his bidding, as the two hairless, nearly featureless, dwarfed men working at the forge exemplified. They were creatures of quiet, sombre disposition with tiny ears and flat, noseless faces and long bare feet, garbed in a strange mix of armour and leather. They forged iron and certain metallic crystals with which Caglios moulded his eerie talismans.

The wizard returned his lizard to a glass bottle, then doffed his gloves and bent his nose to examine the samples he had laid out neatly on the worktable. There were many to inspect, including an array of interconnecting glass tubes winding in crazy directions, ceramic bottles, wire brushes and odd instruments of distillation. He sighed in satisfaction and moved toward the forge. “That’s it, Gisryn!” he congratulated his imp. “Stir the melt well. We shall forge excellent talismans!”

The creature addressed as Gisryn returned Caglios a grunt of gratitude, beaming upon its master’s praise.

Caglios gave it an affectionate pat on the head, straightening its leather cap in the process. “And work well too, Peson,” he told its twin. “We do not want to suffer the pains of your erstwhile brothers, do we? Recall how hideously they died in the smelts—burning, howling in all their agony.”

The creature moaned, a curious lament and crooning gibber, which repulsed Vetra, and prompted Caglios to chuckle. Gisryn clutched the metal tongs with renewed zeal and stirred the coals in the forge with a passion while Peson let sizzle some pulsing, parrot-green chunks of metal in a big metal basin of water, a child’s tune lisping from his lips.

Through the open window came a breeze, carrying a scent reminscent of sour cabbage and other smells that Vetra cared not to identify. He saw the spires of the Vizier’s palace looming not far across the city—the wealthier end of the city, where Lake Argentia glimmered, its waters of silver sheen glistening from trace elements in the soil. Caglios had made Lausern his base of operations as certain elements, or ‘ingredients’, were deposited around the lakeshore. The lake had spawned a series of hopeful prospectors at one time, but the Vizier had forbade miners and opportunists to exploit it, despising their greedy ways, and erected a fabulous park and garden instead, around its shores. Farther beyond and to the west, lay the canyons of Gyzia and the accursed temples where the priests bent to their abominable rites.

Vetra caught a furtive movement below in the court. A squat, skulking shape with a beak? The figure was gone in a flash and a cold sweat broke out on the back of his neck.

Caglios grinned in curious amusement. “You seem jittery, Vetra. Is everything all right?”

“Fine,” assured Vetra. “A nervous mannerism only.”

“I have several herbs for you, if not smelling salts, that will aid with this type of malaise. I divine that you have had a rough haul these past days?”

“Yes—and no herbs today for me, thank you. What about you? You seem to be in lively spirits this afternoon and up to your ears in industry.”

Caglios smiled with an air of pride. “You are observant, and slightly dry in humour, Vetravincus. ’Tis nothing.” He blushed, waving a pale, gnarled hand. “Mere trifles in the grand realm of things. The great masters of the Five Ages have tallied so many magnificent works! In the wake of their achievements we can only be humbled.” He sighed and his eyes assumed a faraway look. “Humankind is but an innocent waif in the arms of a winsome maiden, in a world rich with monsters, greedy seraphims, crafty overlords and wolves. But I maunder on! ’Tis only the Malimon I forge here. A talisman. A miracle set of armour to protect the wearer. Watch as I don it! Peson, Gisryn! Fetch me the armour and strike me!”

The foremost imp whimpered with an air of bemusement, unsure of what its master meant.

“Hurry! You know the penalties of disobedience. Tarry not!”

With a squeak and grunt, the imp stumbled on short legs to take down the light, gleaming set of silver plate hanging on a trim stand. He brought it piece by piece to the master and helped him don it, and it seemed to adjust to his contours with surprising ease. When Caglios had donned helm, gleaming breastplate and arm and shin greaves, the imp lunged forward with the poker raised. The iron rod bounced off the wizard’s chest as if the old man wore a foot of protecting iron.

“Impressive!” cried Vetra, clapping his hands.

Caglios nodded in approval. He doffed the armour and laid it on the floor, waiting expectantly. Finally with a playful toe, he nudged the imp, which stared blinking in the forge-light, neglecting to put the armour back in its proper place. He turned his attention more sharply to the mercenary. “So, what have you brought me then?”

Vetra paused, gauging his options. Then he threw down the fragment of collar on Caglios’s workbench, where it rolled to a stop, glowing luridly in the pale light. “Only this.”

“What? I thought your powers greater than this? I gave you an intact magic item, a legitimate relic, and you flippantly throw down nothing more than a ruined version of it. What have you done? Where is the idol?”

“Questions that surely must be burning in your mind,” Vetra grunted savagely. He glared venemously at the collar.

“And?” Caglios’s voice trailed off in cold inquiry, drowned by the crackling of fire from hearth and forge.

Vetra’s voice rose in an ugly snarl. “You threw us to the dogs! There was no hope of survival on that mission. You knew it! Rojarsh, rest his rat-hearted soul, would have slit our throats. But I’m curious as to your twisted motive. It has puzzled me for a long time. It has kept me awake, tossing in my bed.”

“A shame about your insomnia,” Caglios remarked dryly, “but daring of you to come here with nothing to show for it…” He stroked his button-like chin. “For your courage I will appease your foolhardy whim and fill you in on some detail.”

“Then ‘fill me in’ wizard,” Vetra grated harshly, swinging his gleaming weapon.

Caglios sighed in vexation. “You swashbucklers are all the same. Listen, rogue! The temple city is a complex, ornate society. Once I was under-priest at the Temple of the Clam. There I met Rojarsh and discovered the art of conjuring through voice, and an obscure power known as ‘auditory obfuscation’—this amongst other things, including magical transference, became items of fascination for me. I also came to acquire certain knowledge of the legend of this ‘falcon man’, ‘Dapi’. As you see, I am now an adherent of Dapi.” He motioned a ringed finger at the small shrines set about his workroom. Various falconish memorabilia was inset in their scrollwork and designs and littered on their altars: polished beaks, painted skulls, talons, incense vessels, candles. “These fanes, outward manifestations of the real god power, are only garish props, and help me channel the power of the god—and somewhat recently, a new fixation, Smarg the elephant god.” He laughed. “A little aside, I am somewhat of a dilettante in this area, as you can see by the many symbols of my gods—over there, regard, on my altar.” Vetra’s eyes darted sceptically to where the spellcaster gestured. “The ivory trunk and inset jewels are of rare quality. Pay close attention to the wings and trunks of the hooked and horned elephant idol. Perhaps you encountered the followers of Smarg on your sojourn to the temple?”

“I was denied the pleasure,” Vetra said coolly.

“Pity. ’Tis truly a worthy experience. The temple is not to be missed. The sandstone palms, the ferns, the scrolled columns… But I digress.”

“Iokru says the collar has power, even when sundered, being touched by the god.”

Caglios lips parted in a smile. “No doubt he did.” He turned the item over in his hands with amusement. “The collar of Dapi pulses with a weird energy. Nothing is of its like! Touch it!” He held it out for Vetra to grasp, but the mercenary just scowled at him and said nothing. “It has been tainted by the god himself in bygone days. No matter. I will use the relic, despite its damaged condition to craft my new shield!” He lifted his head back in a gleeful cackle and curled the collar round his wrist, moulding it, pressing it by some unknown means, to wear it like a bracelet.

Vetra frowned, thinking the wizard slightly mad.

But Vetra’s assessment was premature, for the wizard’s glare grew moody, and deadly. “You were only supposed to douse the idol with the clear waters of the pool. I see by all the killings in the region and your sudden appearance that you must have failed in this regard. I needed that task done correctly to ‘wet’ the sorcery, and to maintain a measure of control. Fool! Despite the mesmeric suggestions I gave you when you were last here, you have released the demon through blind ignorance. And now you have brought it here! Or what is that queer thing I sense creeping around my courtyard?” He strode over to the open window and peered down. “Ah! I am proven correct! Dapi skulks in his most demonic form.”

“My heart bleeds,” snorted Vetra, though his contempt was masked by the fact that the wizard seemed calmly unconcerned by the presence of the violent god lurking nearby.

“Well, the truth then,” Caglios sighed. Stepping away from the open window, he gave an impatient hiss. “I knew that if by chance you managed to succeed in this little mission, as slim a possibility as that might be, I would have acquired a talisman in the form of Dapi. If you failed, I would have the last laugh. For a fact I knew Rojarsh would make sacrifices of you, leaving no witnesses. Egad!—he feeds all to his bloodthirsty god, withal I would have fulfilled my obligation to him for taking me under his wing at the temple. Knowing the value of the collar, he would have lusted after it, then easy for me to steal it back from him at a later date. He alone would know from my nature how I duped you, and how I had led such innocent lambs to the slaughter.”

Anger boiled up in Vetra’s throat. “What of the gold you paid me?”

“The gold is nothing to me.” The wizard grunted with a flourish. “I can find crates of it in the ruins of Yaeshar not a few leagues away. Fools! All men are avaricious fools.”

Vetra’s clenched fists grew white. “And what are you but an arrogant conjurer who has spread lies in order to recruit valiant men?”

The Sorceas’s left eye twitched, as if in recognition of the fact. “What you do not know is that I laid a subtle spell on you, with the wish or suggestion, that before you left for the temple of Dapi you would return me my collar. You were not supposed to let it out of your sight for an instant, unless it was snapped around the winged god’s neck. You failed in bridling the god and bringing me a peacable Dapi. But not in returning me the collar—” he gazed at its broken curve with disfavour “—The fact that you are standing before me is a miracle.” He looked at Vetra with new curiosity. “If I had time I would perform a divination on you, then I could look deep into your soul and past and discover what actually went on down there in the canyon.”

Vetra’s limbs shook. A flood of understanding washed over him. Suddenly he realized that his compulsion to hang onto the collar all this time had cost him the lives of his men. “So, the collar was bewitched.” He bared his sword, pricked by a sudden urge for revenge.

Caglios chuckled with a sad smile. “I have to protect my investment. Your gold is on the table. Take it. ’Tis three bags minus two. Two less for your failure. Be glad that I don’t extract more toll than I am of mind.”

“To hell with your gold!” thundered Vetra. “And to hell with Dapi. To Dergath with your blood money and your evil machinations.” He threw down the handful of coins he carried in his pockets on the table. The veins stood out on his forehead. “I lost two associates and a friend, who would have been faithful allies to me in the future, but for your trickery.”

The wizard shrugged, a soft sigh escaping his thin lips. “So goes the tides of fate.”

“Take your collar and eat it.” On swift strides, Vetra started forward to gut the blackguard. “This is for Kalaman and Laskar!—” Gleaming steel whistled in the air, eager to cut a chunk out the wizard’s throat.

But Caglios sprang back on nimble feet. He reached a hand for an object under his robe. “Back, I say!” The imps stepped dutifully between mercenary and wizard. “Careful, sword meister! Lest I sic Gisryn and Peson on you.”

The imps flashed hot tongs and poker at Vetra. They grew sullen with small, pale grimaces on their noseless faces.

Vetra was in no humour for games. With a vicious kick, he sent one of the loathsome creatures back into the blazing hearth. The other, he batted with the flat of his sword and sent it wailing on its haunches. Gisryn flung himself out of the fires, whooping and dancing like an ape trying to douse the flames from his leather jerkin.

“So much for your idiot imps,” called Vetra. “Anything else you have?”

Caglios gave a cackle of sinister laughter.

Furtive noises drifted from the window: the clacking of claws and beak on stone. The croak of a familiar, weird bird had chills peeling down Vetra’s spine. A flurry of wings became a dismal reality on this day as a dim, impressive form came clawing its way over the sill.

Vetra stared, rooted on spot. The thing couldn’t fly, but had managed to crawl its way slowly up the rough stone wall.

“Ah, a twist of fortune!” chortled the wizard. “The broken collar. Dapi drawn to the thing of its bondage. I should have known you had tricks up your sleeve. I seem to have underestimated you, Vetra! No matter. And what have we here? A god—or is it half a god?”

The thing had grown and was as ugly as ever—dirty, green and bloodstained, poised on the sill like some alien baboon, broken wings outstretched in hideous glory, its beaked, inhuman face leering. The mournful, aristocratic features of the long-dead prince radiated in the bird-like face stronger than ever; the slightly down-turned beak was gored and caked with noxious layers of blood of untold victims. Tiny human-arms reached and flexed baby fingers. It was a monstrous perversion of nature, prematurely-birthed, an aberration of the cosmos.

Dapi hopped down from the sill and clacked awkwardly toward the men. Then, with the briefest study of their startled faces, shrieked a vile cry while Caglios raised his arm with the bracelet as shield. It seemed to ward off the beast’s advance temporarily. The imps scattered and cowered behind armour stand and the worktable.

Caglios calmly assessed the god-bird, hand on chin, as if the five-foot-high creature with its jagged half of wing and bloodsmeared beak and vaguely prince-like face were more an intellectual curiosity than a force of brutal savagery.

Vetra lurched sideways as the thing flew at him and a sharp stone talon grazed his temple. He wiped away a stream of blood. He remembered all that the god-bird had done to the worshippers of the rat and with a short quick gasp, leaped back, as any warrior would, sword whistling in front of him to avert disaster.

But now it was his turn for a cruel grin to crease his blood-dripping face as the thing launched itself at the wizard. Caglios held up the bracelet and dodged like a spider. He leaped over stool and scrabbled under workbench, cackling insanely.

Vetra had no doubt about what would be his fate if he remained locked in close quarters with the god-brute, and he began backing away, searching for any way to stay out of its clutches. Desperately, he ran over to the armour and, on a sudden impulse, grabbed the breastplate. Would it fit him? He donned the shiny plate, and it snugged around his torso like magic, courtesy of Caglios’s sorcery. Next the helm. He snapped down the visor. The magical metal felt hot to his skin, hanging only a few yards from the hearth.

Snatching up his sword, he stood teeth-clenched while Dapi looked up from its advance on Caglios, assessing him with a cool, evil gaze. He strode to meet it.

The bird smashed beak into his chest, knocking him back several feet. But the armour held; likewise did helm when the bird veered in to ram him from the side.

Vetra picked himself up and charged on with shattering force, slashing with blade, drawing sparks on the stone. He smote two-handed: savage, brutal strikes that were the hews of gods in his strange armour. He cursed the stony, bloodstained god that faced him, each strike taking the weight of myriad past aggressions out on the fiend. And yet, his sword could not penetrate that ghoulish jade. Strongly as it was forged, it was no match for the idol’s stone, nor did it notch, but struck more sparks into the air. Such was the calibre of its metal.

The two were in deadlock.

The beast croaked, words not altogether un-human.

God-bringers…all of you must die!

Vetra froze in midstep. The voice was that of a man’s!

Caglios was panting, visibly pale with sweat, but still with a thin, high grin on his face. “Die?” he cried out in amusement. “What do you mean ‘die’? Dapi, you are a killjoy!”

The bird stepped up to its full height, towering like a man, croaking, wings a-flutter.

I am alive…only by cruel mockery, and the gods shun my very existence. The prince in me that was Dapi is dead…I can talk, but only as a living memory of a man passed the plane of oblivion, who flies with all the other lost souls…I live, but only in hours of darkness. I lie stretched on the rack of life, tortured by the gods’ fire and brimstone, bound by searing chains thick as pythons…I have but one dim memory of being animated by a savage god whom I know not, yet bound by a wizard’s curse…I curse you…all of you humans…and I curse men, all men…and wizards throughout time…For that you must die!...”

Caglios frowned. “Well, a very unhappy speech to bring so early in the day.” He waved a jaunty hand, as if to toss off the god-demon’s lament. “Mind you, I see that you are becoming more of your old self, Sir Prince, what with your tongue, or beak, able to frame such eloquent words. For this, I am sufficiently impressed and pleased. That said, why don’t we sit down and discuss this like sensible men and demons? I’ll have the imps serve tea and crumpets in the parlour. We can—”

“Silence your tongue!” the god roared miserably. “Your hosting means nothing to me. You are a dead man, wizard. Prepare to meet your doom!”

Caglios frowned, rubbing his chin with indignant surprise. “And I had planned to take a stroll about the shops later on.”

The god gave a screech and flung itself at the wizard with barbaric ferocity known only to a creature of its kind.

Caglios dove back under the worktable. The Sorceas was not so dim as to have left all his escape routes blocked off. With smug agility, he popped up on the other side of the table, reaching for a diamond-shaped talisman in progress.

Dapi hopped up on the table, scattering talismans every which way, making a ruin of Caglios’s precious objects and assemblies. The wizard crouched, and blinking through his sweat and displeasure, launched the talisman right at it, blasting it with magic.

A green, glasslike smoke enveloped the leaping shape and pitched the thing back on its haunches—the elephant shrine came crashing down in a shower of shards and broken glass. Enraged, the god burst through the holding screen of pale green smoke that somehow protected the wizard. Caglios’s smirk vanished. The horrific beak came snapping at him out of the eerie cloud—in a fiendish blur it clipped off his arm at the elbow.

The wizard uttered a bloodcurdling howl. The collar fell free from his bodiless arm, clattering on the floor. The god fastened claws on the collar as if to tear it to bits with its beak. But the magical item had a mind of its own. It tore loose from the clacking talons and—as if compelled to be whole again, the same way it had in Iokru’s fist—fitted together with the fragment around the bird’s neck. Dapi’s small, human-like hands clawed at the hated ring, trying to rip it off.

Caglios sank to his knees, bleeding profusely and crying out in agony, watching the events as a dreamer witnesses a nightmare. Wizard and mercenary stared in horror as if by strange providence, the god became whole.

Vetra’s jaw sagged. Somehow Caglios’s magic had failed him, and now the wizard lay in dire straits.

But the Sorceas had not become the wizard he was to bleed out at the feet of some god-cursed fiend. Somewhere the collar had not lost its force, only its primal directive. With his good right hand he cupped the elbow that gushed blood and managed to cauterize the wound with whatever magic powers he still possessed. The same trembling hand reached for the strange, brilliant orb cached earlier in his robe. It flashed in his palsied hand. He pushed down on a hidden depression. The orb pulsed twice, then suddenly a wicked gleam of light flew out, and smote the collar about the bird’s neck.

The beast clutched at its throat, gasping out choking caws. The stone around its neck grew red with heat and sizzled noisily.

The thing tried to claw off the collar again but could not. Fatefully, the collar had snapped on never to be released again, except in death. The relic, the thing of its dark dreams, was the binding force of the wizard Nergid who had created it for his own protection, and ultimately Dapi’s own device of doom.

In a brilliant wash of flame the collar exploded and flew off, taking Dapi’s head with it. The iron collar blazed in a bed of fire, coals sparking to white life. The jewels in it crackled and it burst into a green flame. The headless god-bird howled like a demonic wolf while the body hopped around mindlessly. But with some last intelligent purpose of mission, it bounded toward Caglios who knelt moaning at the ruin of his arm, and his life’s work.

The imps came bumbling out of their hiding places, took up pokers to defend their lord, but too late. The headless body of the bird swatted them away with sweeps of its flailing wings and fell on them, trying to tear into their necks with its grasping talons.

The explosion had set fire to all combustible objects in the area: worktable, silk hangings, rags, workclothes. Such things crackled and spit and seethed with tongues of red.

While Vetra stared in heart-pounding apprehension, gripping sword, the Sorceas gave a grunt of awe as the headless body of Dapi staggered to a halt. Like a candle caught in noonday sun, it melted into oblivion, leaving only a pool of molten green goo. A last piercing shriek and the bodiless head emitted a gurgling hiss. Smouldering in the hearth, it flared up once and was no more.

The hearth suddenly spewed forth a tongue of fire and another thundering blast rent the workroom as the hearth erupted in bouts of orange flame.

The last explosion pitched Caglios’s lab in an inferno. Dark smoke choked the entire room. Caglios, cupping palm painfully at his elbow, rose jerkily to his feet and hobbled down the stairs, hacking and coughing. Vetra followed at a brisk gait in his armour. He took a last glance back, saw that the gold was scattered, melting in the hungry flames without chance of recovery. The imps, their leather smoking, fled under the mercenary’s legs and out into the pale sunshine.

“The god is dead—a minion lost, curse you!” Caglios wailed. He shook a fist as the mercenary sauntered out of the tower. And then Caglios uttered a high-pitched laugh, cursing the beggars and thieves and all the riffraff who were gathering outside his court. Many had come to gawk at the spectacle of his burning workshop and misfortune. He screeched some expletives at his imps, gave poor Peson a boot, and pulled at Gisryn’s bloody ear. Thus thwarted of ambition, he stamped about like a bull, overcome with a rage, the work of a lifetime lost.

Vetra shook his head and marched on.

Caglios’s ghastly ravings faded in his ears even as the crackles and snaps of fire leapt to new life. He wondered, how hands were dealt by the gods in this card game of life. Of the wizard’s anguish, he thought nothing as he strode from the flame-torn place, recalling the woes of the past days and the many deaths he had seen. The wizard’s ravings now turned to whimpers of regret, and like so many fading screams he had heard in the past days, those of Caglios’s passed from his ear like water through a sieve.

Vetra had been fortunate to acquire Caglios’s magical armour. Certainly it would find its use. It had not come without price, nor was it worth the lives of his men, or any of the innocents who had died by Dapi’s beak. Vetra’s rancour could only be surpassed by his hatred of treacherous men. Dergath’s bane, but the fools of his trade were more honest than the crafty wiles of these wizards and priests! Though he might be a killer himself, he only took another’s life when he had to, and he never relished it, nor did he rob men of their wealth or livelihood.

Feeling somewhat unstoppable in his armour, he strode through the dingy back-alleys of Lausern, a chill tickling his spine and an unpleasant grin passing over his darksome features. Drawing the ancient sword dredged from the canyons of Gyzia, he whirled it with passion, testing its grace and balance with a fighter’s pride. A worthy replacement for the one he had lost. Maybe he would take a detour via the shops to the thieves’ district to see what rogues were gadding about. After all, he needed some new allies on this mission of life when ripe opportunity came his way.

 

 

THE LAND OF MAJA

 

I

 

The Lord Vizier stared at his advisor, his eyes hinting at a hundred different ways to kill a man. “Tell me of Vetravincus, the mercenary.”

Kalvium nodded. “He comes highly recommended, Lord Ragnum. He dealt with Parsius, the counterfeiter, and helped sort out that sordid affair with the witch burner. Word reached us he succeeded in rooting out that gang of smugglers who killed our agents, and who sent their heads back to us in snakeskin bags.”

The Lord Vizier of Lvendar stroked his chin. “An unfortunate event, yet this comes as a high testimonial for the mercenary. What of this other fellow, this Basineus?”

“A crass, unsubtle rogue. The lesser of the two in wit perhaps. I suggest picking one or the other. Word is, they hate each other—”

“What do I care of that, Kalvium? You saw the deplorable state of my daughter!” The nobleman struggled to regain control of himself, his intense gaze settling on the amber-dipped skull that hung on a far wall. “I would prefer that we have two trained and proven men on this assignment. When one fails, the other can pick up the trail.”

Kalvium toyed with a silver button on his doublet, shivering at the many animal skull trophies that Ragnum found so gratifying. “That is difficult, lord. They are not a good match.”

Ragnum waved an impatient hand. “It will be as I say, Kalvium. Assign them at once.”

“As you wish, my lord.”

Ragnum turned to leave, but he paused under the statue of his father poised over the lintel. “And Kalvium—this better work, or it will be your head in a snakeskin bag.”

Kalvium bowed in formal acknowledgement.

 

Kalvium stood rubbing his temples a day later back in the Vizier’s study, choosing his words carefully. In front of him, a scowling man stood feet planted apart, towering over the advisor’s spindly frame. His features were hard, rugged, but handsome, with no trace of a smile or leniency. The man was broad-shouldered, impassive, physically indomitable. His long weave of sable hair streamed from underneath his peaked steel helm. A broadsword was sheathed in a baldric at his back; knives and an axe belted at the hip.

Another man entered. A straw blond type, stockier of build, with similar gear, and riddled with tattoos on his bare forearms.

The first man turned to him with a sneer. “You! What are you doing here?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing,” retorted the newcomer.

“Let me explain why you have been summoned,” Kalvium said with little ado. He brushed his delicate chin. “More and more people of this city are turning up addicted—to some mysterious substance, an alchemic, my witchers say. Victims turn into monsters. Ghouls, if you will have it. We believe the drug is being sold somewhere in the nearby hills. Somewhere on the warring kingdom, Galashad’s border.” He flicked his fingers southward as if to indicate any destination from here to the southern sea might be the drug smuggler’s hidden den, causing Vetravincus, tallest of the three men, to shift in annoyance.

Kalvium unfolded a tattered sheepskin map. He pointed to a remote place on his province’s southern border of Lvendar with Galashad. “This particular pass across the canyon is where we suspect the contraband is being grown and trafficked. ’Tis hard, if next to impossible, to identify the origin of the compound due to the remoteness of the region. If the trade is left unchecked, our capital Lausern and possibly all of Lvendar, will be facing a ghastly horde down the road. Turned into a race of green-faced monsters. Hair and teeth falling out, violent and unpredictably inclined, craving the drug as a wolverine craves blood!”

“What is the nature of this drug to cause such madness?” inquired Vetravincus with revulsion, staring coldly at the other mercenary standing nearby.

“Some sort of plant oil squeezed from the bulb of a root. Other than that we know nothing. Where it grows, or how it is smuggled. It is beyond our knowledge. Some of the poison appears in leaf form; some with oil squeezed on leaves. Others as a brown gummy wad, possibly the heart of the bulb. The poison, if termed such, is highly addictive. It is said that regular eaters of this foul ichor sprout roots and vines from their skin.”

Basineus, the other man, grunted and gestured idly. “Why don’t you go along the border up there with a strong force and take out the ring-leaders?”

“We have thought of that.” Kalvium scratched at his cheek. “However, the site we had been monitoring has recently been abandoned. So, we’re not sure where to concentrate our forces to eliminate such scum. We’ve lost touch with the head of our operation, Tas. We lost contact with him and his team weeks ago. Meanwhile, the bulk of the contraband continues to flow across our southern borders, from somewhere between Galashad and Lausern.”

“So, what do you want from us?” growled Vetra.

“The situation is unstable—or more accurately, out of control. We need somebody like yourselves to go in secretly and assess the situation, get a fix on Tas. Take him out if he’s been corrupted. We’ve lost communications with all of them. Tas’s last reply, a cryptic message at best, was something about a ‘savage attack’, and ‘must regroup’. The message came in by carrier pigeon over a fortnight ago.”

“This seems like a task for more than a few spies and two mercenaries,” remarked Basineus doubtfully.

A low moaning wail came drifting through the wall, followed by the scrape of heavy chain.

Vetra grunted, whirling. “What’s that?” His hand sprang to his sword.

Kalvium swallowed. An uneasy frown crawled over his face and he started toward the door, as if deciding whether or not to reveal a secret. “Come!” he hissed. “I’ll show you something. But keep your voices down. Make no aggressive movements.”

He led them to a chamber down the hall where he opened a door with a long key. He looked up and down the hall fearfully, the curl on his lips more marked. A growl escaped Vetra’s throat as he saw what lay within that room—a young maid crouched in a feverish, semi-sprawl in a corner of the room. She wore a metal girdle around her waist attached by a chain to the wall. Her brown hair was dishevelled and matted. She had about six feet of slack and only a basin of water, not much for a youthful prisoner, thought Vetra. A feral expression infected her face. The stout rings of chain rattled to life as she sprang up and snapped at them like a wolf.

Vetra jerked back involuntarily. Basineus rounded on the Vizier’s aide, snarling.

“Stand down,” Kalvium ordered. “’Tis not what you think!” He pushed both palms up awkwardly. Such gestures did nothing to placate Basineus or Vetra.

“Well?” demanded Vetra harshly.

Basineus strode closer. Vetra stepped in to squint at the girl, his lips crooking in distaste at the sight of the red welts pocked all over her haggard face and arms. Upon closer inspection he saw thin, plant-like fibres growing from pores on her naked shoulders, casting that part of her anatomy in a strange greenish hue. It was as if her follicles had widened to permit such growths. Her garments were tattered and near stripped, as if she had been gnawing at them with her own teeth. Her nails were dirty and unnaturally long; skin and blood clotted the spaces under them. A pot for urination lay askew, which she had obviously spilled. The acrid reek was palpable. A strange lacklustre gaze glazed her face, as if she were possessed.

Kalvium pointed. “She is a victim of addiction to this mystery drug, Ragnum’s own daughter! I can hardly bear to look at her. Nor can her father, for she seems not to recognize him. Or if she does, she only reacts with violence, wanting to bite, claw and hiss at him.” He shook his head, scowling in distress.

Basineus hopped closer, reaching out a hand.

“I wouldn’t get too close. She—”

Basineus jumped back as claw-like nails raked his wrist, drawing blood, and he instinctively drew his sword. “Cursed bitch!”

Kalvium launched himself between the girl and mercenary, slapping back the mercenary’s sword arm. “Fool! Do you wish us all dead? Think twice about harming a Vizier’s daughter, you brute, if you value your head!”

Basineus flashed the advisor a sinister look. “Relax, old man. I’ll not harm her, as much as she looks like she wants to be put out of her misery.” He inspected his wound, as if wondering if he would catch whatever the girl had.

Vetra approached with more caution, pushing Basineus back sharply. “What grows from her shoulders?”

Kalvium gave a shivering grimace. “We think it may be the drug’s doing. The castle’s finest doctors have not found a cure. We have tried everything, leeching, powerful herbs, medicines, even shamanic exorcism. Nothing has helped.”

Basineus’s face grew pale with recognition. “Besthra’s ghosts! I’ve seen this before. In the slums of Lausern on the west side. Beggars lolling in their own filth. Harlots, glaze-eyed, violent, clawing their clients. I thought it was a plague.”

“No plague, master Basineus. ’Tis evil personified. A man-made scourge.”

Vetra shook his head in wonderment. “What inspires anyone to take something so noxious?”

Kalvium could not answer. The woman’s breasts heaved, a peculiar wail erupted from her lips, a half moan and cry. Sweat sheened on her olive skin. Her breasts peeked out where she had gnawed or clawed at her own garment.

Kalvium spread his palms. “So, now you see. Who can explain the motives or practices of the addict? Tragedy has befallen poor Kealasa, and it is heart-wrenching. A sweet innocent child, betrothed to the governor of Xenses’s son in a formal ceremony. Now look at her!”

“I could give a rat’s ass for any of your royal liaisons,” murmured Vetra. “She’s a human being, a child, no more, for Dergath’s sake. She didn’t deserve this.”

“Let us quit this vile, reeking place before one of the doctors checks on her,” suggested Kalvium.

Neither offered objection. They returned to the study, Vetra casting one last look back at the maiden, who was drooling and clawing at her upper garment. He shook his head in dismay.

“Let me emphasize the delicacy of this mission,” reiterated Kalvium. “Our investigators have come up with nothing—in fact, three recent spies have gone missing, presumed dead.”

“What makes you think we won’t end up in a similar state?” inquired Basineus sardonically.

“You have come highly recommended; it is my employer’s wish that this be done in—in haste and in secret.”

“You have chosen well,” asserted Vetra. He cast Basineus a chill gaze. “What about him? ’Tis no secret that we are sworn enemies. Pick one of us. Not both.”

“The Lord Vizier wishes—”

“I care not a whit for your Lord’s demands, steward,” interrupted Vetra angrily.

Kalvium’s eyes flashed in warning. “Careful with your tone, mercenary. You do not wish Ragnum as an enemy.”

Basineus gave an amused chuckle. “Vetravincus is known as the ‘hothead hammer’ in my circle of associates. You would be best to leave him behind and contract my services alone.”

“As much as I would like—”

Vetra turned to leave, but Kalvium eyed him coolly. “You wouldn’t let an innocent girl die, would you? Let others turn into ghouls?” He turned frostily to Basineus. “And your opinion is noted, mercenary, but the decision is beyond me. Either the two of you accede to my master’s wishes, or both of you walk out of here without fat purses. I’ll contract it out to the army—and gods only know what scandalous aftermath will come of that, when the truth is out.”

Vetra made a non-committal sound, unable to suppress a stir at the thought of the innocent girl suffering, and the repercussion of a rampant drug addiction. “You will look far elsewhere for one such as myself.”

“Then make a decision!”

Vetra and Basineus shot each other heated glances, the dislike clear in their eyes. The history between the two was scored with treachery and intrigue. Vetra heaved a sigh. His dark locks swished like a stallion’s mane under his helm.

“Fine,” he grumbled.

Basineus flicked fingers rudely at Vetra. “And if this arrogant simpleton agrees not to enact some impulsive stunt—”

“Then it is settled.” Kalvium pulled two bags of coins from a small chest and slapped them on the table. “A bag of fresh-minted gold for each of you to start. Three more to come when you return with the heads of the dealers. With proof of their complicity—I might add.”

Vetra nodded, reaching for the gold. His scarred, hairy arm flexed fingers with a grip tight as an eagle’s talons.

“Hold up, I am not yet done,” chastised Kalvium. “The leader of the original team, this Tas, is a ranger of repute, a veteran captain in our outfit for five years. He is formerly a veteran out of Varim and King Blestidarius’s elite outfit, in Umbria. We hired him from a rival company. He was a guard for Grand Vizier Akhbas too and worked as an escort for Hazim of Galashad’s seraglio prior.”

“And?” grunted Vetra.

“We have reason to believe Tas has switched allegiance or is running an angle of his own, but he always seems to have some alibi. He hobbed together a team of at least two dozen mercenaries with Ragnum’s money. You will, of necessity, be obliged to rub shoulders with some of the worst killers and thugs in the lands. It will be extremely dangerous. I bid you good luck.”

Vetra grunted while Basineus growled his own acknowledgement.

 

Grooms outfitted Vetra and Basineus at the lord’s garrisons with new coats, boots, and assorted weaponry. Hauberks too, but Vetra rejected their proffers of dressing him, preferring his own armour. Only a stable-girl did he allow adjust his new garments, who had taken a fancy to him and promised free favours on his return in not so many words. Horsemasters prepared two roans in sturdy condition, laden with supplies. Vetra smoothed out his leather jerkin and the grey-gold cape slung over his shoulders; Basineus blinked gamely in his blue and white jupon with new, black knee-high leather boots. He tested the double-knocked high-powered crossbow at his side, grunting in appreciation. “A masterwork of Kirn design, I think.”

Kalvium shoved a map in Vetra’s hand and pointed to a spot roughly delineated on the border. “Crow canyon is the last contact point, fifteen leagues due south on the border of Lvendar and Galashad. A no-man’s land, the haunt of fierce hill tribes.”

Vetra edged past Basineus roughly and hopped on his horse. He spurred the mount off without a backward glance. Basineus followed, in jaunty mood. They cantered through the iron gates of the castle and rode out under a cloud of dust.

For a long time neither talked, both immersed in their own thoughts, Vetra particularly unable to get the shocking image of Kealasa out of his head.

Their riding grew more intense, as they weaved between caravans and peddlers and locals bound for southern destinations. The sun grew hotter, dipped in the sky, a blazing copper disc. More than once Vetra caught Basineus’s jealous stare at his gleaming coat of mail that caught the sun’s rays and reflected it in a bluish, magical glitter.

“I feel like we are being led by our noses to our doom.”

“Why, going soft, Vetra, old boy?” croaked Basineus, the smirk never leaving his face.

“No, we don’t know what we are getting into. Kalvium is a trained spokesman, a master of words. He could have just as easily shown us a nutcase with the pox.”

“Possibly, but for what purpose? Why are they paying us so much?”

Vetra stirred restlessly in his saddle as he negotiated the long grassy hill. “I still think old Ragnum needs more men for this mission. A bad feeling I get. It’s an oddity that he only has selected two men for the job.”

Basineus blew air out of his cheeks. “A covert operation. Too many bodies attract attention. What with the Vizier’s daughter all poxed up like that. It’s a dicey matter for these high-borns, their citizens succumbing to zombie juice. He doesn’t want to draw attention to his daughter being a user.”

Vetra’s sneer was less of an affirmation than a disparagement. “The worst case is that Ragnum doesn’t want witnesses after the fact. Our mission done—” Vetra made the gesture of a sword across his throat “—then so are we.”

Basineus’s hand clenched on his scabbard. “The Lord Vizier? It’s a bad business killing the hired help. I guess we’ll see, come time to collect the rest of our loot.”

Vetra grew disinterested in Basineus’s talk, scowling moodily at the surroundings, his thoughts restless ghosts in the trackless haze of his mind.

After a hard day of riding, the grasslands gave way to rolling, rugged hills. What little fields and passable crops on the meagre arable land they witnessed in the last leagues, came to an end. Now a dry barren landscape stretched endlessly. Few words passed between Vetra and Basineus and the laconic exchanges they shared were in no way cordial.

The road ended abruptly overlooking a desolate, dry canyon. Low hills domed the space across the canyon, precursors to the mountains that ranged higher still. Vetra looked at the map. The ‘x’ marking a spot was west of their current location. Yet his intuition told him to put aside the map and his eyes strayed in the opposite direction to the trail running east along the rim of the canyon.

“The end of the line?—or maybe not…”

He urged his mount up the trail along the ridge, squinting in critical inspection.

“Hey, what about the map?” Basineus called after him.

Vetra ignored him.

“I’m talking to you!” Basineus rode up to the other mount’s rump. He paused, puzzled at Vetra’s choice of direction. He looked about him, as if the trail could lead somewhere, judging from the broken plant stems and overturned stones under the horses’ hoofs. They followed a zigzagging course varying distances from the canyon until Basineus was hopelessly disoriented. After a time, Vetra halted, confused himself at the wheeling of carrion birds against a sky where the sun was beginning to fall. Tumbled masonry and fallen blocks, and patches of blackened fire pits lay strewn about an open area beside the canyon that cut a sawtooth pattern through the primordial shale. They rode up a steep, lofty lookout and rested their labouring mounts.

“I’m not liking the look of that ruined outpost over there.” Vetra inclined his head. “Looks like barbarians took the torch to it.” He frowned, gesturing to blackened stone and charred timbers piled in rough heaps. Dismounting to investigate, he strolled down a ways where he found them cold to the touch. The reek of rotting flesh was thick in his nostrils. A barracks and garrison joined the charred outbuildings and several carcasses littered the area, all human. Some were riddled with arrows and bolts, others looked scavenged by birds of prey, or mauled by some animal.

“Big, whatever it was chewed them,” Basineus grumbled.

Vetra grunted, his boots crunching on the dry gravel. The hoot of a screech owl echoed eerily from somewhere amidst the scraggly tamaracks at the foot of the adjacent hill. The agitated croak of a raven echoed high overhead.

Basineus descended from his mount and knelt, flinching. A long, two-foot print with four toes lay embedded in the soil, edges marred by rainfall, but deep enough to still be visible. The mercenary pointed at the prints that led away into the scrub, away from the ravine. Parallel scuff marks and trails of blood looked to be two human corpses dragged forth, to Dergath knew where.

“These bodies littered about are probably three weeks old,” Basineus idly mused.

Vetra looked around with renewed suspicion which grew to apprehension. A strange stillness hovered in the air; it did not fit well with the drowsy silence that lay thick with menace. He wondered what the hill peoples did up here, or what food they foraged. They lived on nothing but rabbits and snakes from what he had heard. He ran fingers through his tangled black hair.

Likewise, Basineus wiped back his golden curls that framed his sweat-beaded brow. Vetra’s leather jerkin creaked as he got up from his crouch, meditating on the carnage that had ensued here. His high leather boots trod over the pebbles underfoot. Some of the bodies were those of hill savages, with their long braided hair, feathered-headdresses, fingers locked on axes carved of bone. But many were men from the cities: tall, proud, disfigured forms with armour and surcoats hacked—Behundrians and Lvendarian stock, whose pale, eyeless faces gaped up in horror. No doubt members of the spy party sent to infiltrate the drug operators, he mused. But so many? The sinking sun glinted on dented helms, broken breastplates and notched swords darkened with old blood.

“Why didn’t weapon mongers loot the area?” Basineus growled.

Vetra shrugged. “Kalvium said it was a no man’s land.” He chewed his lip. “No attempt to bury the corpses… Either there were no survivors, or they all up and left in a hell of a hurry.”

“Probably the latter,” grunted Basineus.

“Brilliant deduction, scavengers,” came a coarse, jeering voice arching out of the late afternoon shadows behind them.

Vetra wheeled. He saw a man in camouflaged leather on foot, stealthy as a panther, training a crossbow at them. Just as suddenly, three men on sleek, black-haired horses came riding up over the ridge, their eyes cold and steel glinting in their hands. Vetra cursed, squinting into the sun. He was too far from his mount to get the jump on either riders or footman. Basineus was likewise caught off guard. Steady hands trained bows on the two before they could draw weapons.

Vetra’s blade nonetheless came out in a rasping shimmer. He cursed himself for his daydreaming.

The lead rider snarled, “Who are you, rogues? Speak, or be riddled with bolts.” He kneed his horse forward, his brow budded with dirt and sweat. His rooster red bristle of hair spiked up the middle of an otherwise bald scalp, made him look like a barbarian chief of old. His flared, wide nose, flattened, broken a half dozen times was like a bull’s. But what the man lacked in looks he made up in muscle. Vetra perceived fine layers of it, judging from the bulges in his studded leather.

The rider motioned to the others to disarm the intruders. “I’ll ask you again. Who are you?”

“I am Vetravincus,” Vetra said without emotion. “This is my associate, Basineus. Who are you? For what purpose—accosting friendly wayfarers?”

“Just call me the ‘Enforcer’ for now.”

“Enforcer,” Vetra mocked, his teeth bared in a sardonic grin. “We’re looking for a fellow by the name of Tas.”

The other barked out a coarse laugh. “Tas, is it? Well, you came to the right place. You’ll see him soon enough. Doubtless he’ll be curious to see you too. Now move! Down the path!”

They prodded the mercenaries onward, the footman herding them along the crumbled path. The weapons, they examined with sinister interest, especially Basineus’s fancy crossbow. The mercenaries’ two horses, they towed along down a vague trail, which looked nothing more than a goat path that followed east along the ridge, with the rocky canyon dropping to their right. To Vetra’s eye, it was nothing more than a dry gulch that had seen no rain for months, if not years.

Vetra carefully adjusted to the situation, his eyes conducting swift inspection of the unwanted company. The three others were unkempt, poorly groomed, with greasy, tousled hair. Leather was stained with blood. They were quiet, sullen ruffians, gaunt men from lack of proper nutrition, as if they hadn’t had a square meal for weeks. Hired bandits? Vetra scowled. No, the leader was purposeful, organized, confident, not simply an average ruthless cutthroat. Military-trained. Likely one of Tas’s captains, if any of them had survived that bloodbath.

A half second of opportunity arose. A blur of movement—Basineus tripped the captor behind, but unluckily stumbled on an upturned stone. A boot licked out and smashed him in the face. He scrambled to his feet, spitting blood, fists clenched in a boxer’s stance, nose hooked on an unnatural angle.

Vetra lurched forward to follow up with an upward swing, but shook his head as a bow sprang up trained at his face. “None of that!” the leader’s henchman grunted, waving a warning finger toward the mercenary. “Little boys get themselves hurt when they play with fists.”

Vetra cursed. The sod Basineus had acted impulsively. They might have had a chance if the riders were not now alert.

“Tell your underling to wisen up,” growled Enforcer.

“You heard him,” Vetra grunted at Basineus.

Basineus shook the blood out of his nose and struggled to put Vetra in his place, but was herded back at crossbow point. Vetra felt no compassion for Basineus’s bloodied up state. A fitting setback for the oaf and his arrogance.

While they navigated the steep ascent, Vetra gauged his opponents with a practiced eye. They were seasoned enough to keep some distance from him and Basineus, not foolish enough to stay bunched up. He played various manoeuvres over in his active mind: a quick leap under the lead rider’s mount, a snatch at the lax guard’s axe in his belt, a scrambling rush to take down as many men as possible.

Vetra curled his lip. Too complex—and messy—and too wide a margin of error.

With cold frustration, he marched on.

Perhaps half an hour passed of stumbling along and being goaded at sword point through winding terrain, before they came to a cleared area. Vetra caught a whiff of fried meat, acrid smoke, burning dung. Stone blocks had been dragged over to fashion a crude outbuilding, a square hovel with logs and branches placed over the top for a roof. Two score men ranged about, sharpening weapons, repairing boots, banging pots. Some bent over cooking fires, heating blades—lean, wary-eyed men in mixtures of mail. They had rigged up a small smithy, where one man hammered on a piece of red hot metal. A pile of crude crossbow bolts lay to the side. Nothing more than a bandits’ lair, Vetra concluded.

A figure dressed in a dusty hauberk emerged from the stone hut. He clutched a sheaf of arrows, an axe bobbing at his hip. Vetra saw he was a big man with tawny hair under a leather cap, a relaxed stance, like some big confident cat. He was chewing on a grass stick, conversing with his men. But Vetra knew better, the man was as hard as nails.

“Hoy Kraddus, your sloth is memorable,” the man called. “Took you longer to complete your rounds. Have you no shame?”

“Shame is not part of my vocabulary, Tas, you should know that,” came Kraddus’s growl.

“What have we here?” the man inquired.

“A couple of birds flew in to roost, courtesy of Lord Ragnum, I wouldn’t doubt.”

The big man chuckled. “Are you sure of that? They look more like hill thieves dressed as nobles, strayed too far from home. Or mercenaries having come into some unexpected spoils.”

“Spare me the sarcasm,” retorted Vetra. “Either explain to us what all this ill-treatment is about or—”

“Or what?” Kraddus jeered, his face twisted in an unpleasant leer. “How be we put steel in your guts and leave you tied to a tree for the jackals to chew on?”

“He has a surly cast to him,” said another man with a repellent flat face and dented steel cap. “Jackals are too good for him. I say we leave him to the trolls.”

“You on about trolls again, Nurus?” croaked Kraddus, shaking his head in disgust.

Tas waved his underlings off. Frowning, he rubbed his chin, as if in contemplation. He took in Vetra’s imperturbable bearing, as if he suddenly made a decision about both of them. “Excuse the rude lodgings, gentlemen, but we had to relocate in haste, as you can see, farther away from the original site than we had hoped.”

“After you nearly got us all killed,” jeered Kraddus.

“Shut your mouth,” Tas barked. He shifted his attention back to Vetra. “Your rude reception was only an error on the side of caution. One can never be too careful in these circumstances…” His eyes flicked on a fuming Basineus whose face was caked in blood. “Seems as if your aide got in a fight with the dirt, and lost. That or old Kraddus got too eager with his boots.”

Vetra gave a complacent nod. “He’s known for his clumsiness.” He smirked, pleased for once that Basineus decided to keep his mouth shut; though his face had purpled and his eyes stared at him from under a ghastly mask of bruised and disfigured flesh.

The remark seemed to appease Kraddus and crew, and a smattering of chuckles and approving grunts rose from the gathered crowd.

The leader ignored the murmur. “So, you’re the fresh fish they sent from Lausern?”

Vetra bowed mockingly. “None other.”

“Sorry to have treated you so poorly. But we are in the middle of a ‘situation’.”

Vetra frowned, struggling to bridle his irritation. “So, I’ve heard. Would be nice if you were to tell your employers. Would have saved us the trip up here.”

Tas made a negligent gesture. “Perhaps. Return them their weapons, Kraddus.” Curiously, he stared at the two again. “Well, get yourself cleaned up. Buckets are behind the armoury. A fresh spring up the hill. The armoury’s over there. We have weapons galore.” He strode past the open fire and pulled out a battle axe from the squared stone building. Vetra saw swords and knives of various sizes and shapes, axes of bronze and some carved of bone, and a stack of crossbows, mostly serviceable, but some with trigger arms damaged.

Basineus snatched up two curved daggers to complement his arsenal. Vetra reached out a hand and hefted one of the bigger battle axes.

“Ah, a man of the axe?” Tas said with a grin. “Get yourself equipped then. The ceremonial mail you’re wearing is thin as a woman’s shift, though it’s finely crafted. Your squire seems outfitted better than you.”

Vetra grinned. “It comes well-earned, and is hardly ceremonial. Let’s just say a little elf gave it to me.”

Kraddus had chanced to stride up and overhear the boast. “And owls fly to the moon.”

Tas shook his head in wonder. “I find it hard to believe that delicate mesh is as formidable as you claim.”

Vetra shrugged. It seemed pointless to waste his breath.

“We have a meeting slated on the morrow with the drug lord, Grebu.”

“Suicide, more like it,” muttered Nurus.

“Our archers will be behind us.”

“What’s left of them,” Kraddus said snidely.

“You needn’t remind me, Kraddus, nor do I need your constant impudence. The plan stands for now.”

“It’s a dumb plan,” Kraddus scoffed.

Tas rounded on him with anger. “We made a pact, recall—with Ragnum. We would flush out these monsters of his. If we wish to curry favour with our Vizier Lord, we cannot shirk our duty.”

Kraddus yelled back, “You already have done that, by keeping them in the dark. Look at these two jackals dogging our heels.” He motioned insolently to Vetra and Basineus. “Ready to put a knife in our ribs when we sleep!”

A lean hireling wearing an eye patch raised his voice. “He speaks truth.”

Burning eyes raked over the mercenaries; surly curses murmured under men’s breaths.

Basineus took a step backward. His hand reached for his broadsword, a wolfish snarl spilling past his lips.

Vetra likewise braced himself for a confrontation. His inner sense told him that some action was required. “Fool! Do you think we mean to start a fight with a superior force?”

The man stepped back, embarrassed.

“Show some respect, you dogs,” called Tas. “These men are guests—for now.”

Kraddus shook his head. “Better to lie with a wolf.” Others of the militia growled in agreement.

“If we are not to be hunted like outlaws for deserting, we must follow through,” said Tas quietly. “The alternatives are not pleasant. Think about a life constantly on the run, never knowing when some bounty hunter or bravo might pluck you out of your bed, or plunge a knife into your heart. I want to get Grebu to sign the agreement. Then he will be bound to back off. Ragnum will get the rebel upstart of Galashad to sign it. Our task is then done. All of us can quit this dismal rock heap with impunity.”

“What good is a signature on vellum to devils like this Grebu?” demanded Vetra.

“It’s what Kalvium commissioned us for. What do I care? Three months in this wretched wasteland is enough to make a man slit his throat. Enough misery to last a lifetime.”

There were mumbles of agreement.

Screams and roars filled the air. Heads turned to the howls of running men.

An axe came flying out of nowhere and brained a man standing beside Nurus. Men roared and scrambled for safety. The victim fell backward, eyes staring up, blood and brains dripping down his face.

“Damn! Get down! Dergath’s hells!” cried Tas. Arrows whipped by and clattered on chipped shale.

Fierce yells rose over the mad scramble. There was a clash of arms. Vetra cursed. Looking up from his instinctual crouch, he saw a screaming horde of ragged savages clawing their way up out of the canyon, at a place where it was less steep and full of gravel. Others came bursting through the scraggly larch and the tamaracks crowding the hill behind the armoury; the devils had managed to cross the canyon undetected and were now flanking them.

“A chance to prove yourself!” cried Tas to Vetra. “They’re Kalkassians! Quick, draw your weapons! After me!” He charged down the slope, axe hefted; his men snatched up weapons, in hot pursuit.

Enemy throngs had slunk along the ridge like weasels, slipped by the sleepy watch, and now stormed the camp, whirling axes over heads, throwing knives from white-knuckled fists.

Tas came barrelling forth, a war cry whistling from his lips.

Vetra met the raging horde. With a mighty sweep, he took out an axe-swinging warrior in a wash of crimson. Basineus slashed a yowling attacker shoulder to sternum. The Kalkassians were lean, barbaric fighters garbed in camel-hair robes, leather sandals, and headbands of coloured cloth. They wore no armour, making them easy prey of the heavy weapons of iron and bronze of the defenders.

The ones who had come creeping down from the hills, howled like blood-mad fiends and plunged knives into ribs and bellies. Tas’s men were hard pressed, but efficient, ruthless; they slit throats as easily as butchers carve steers. Steel rose and fell in crimson waves, and Vetra and Basineus battled back to back; hewing and smiting until their surcoats ran red.

Kraddus and Nurus likewise formed a wedge, and kept the invaders from overrunning the compound. Tas’s swift-footed archers ran to the canyon’s rim, dropped into a crouch and poured down arrows at the savages who still clambered up the gravelly slopes. Vetra heard men’s agonized screams. The dozens that got through were met with swords and whizzing bolts.

Basineus twisted sideways, crying out in pain, as an axe gouged through his mail and caught the flesh in his side. He recovered, shifting his balance, parried a crushing arc of axe.

Three charged Vetra. A bone-carved axe smote heavily on his ribs, normally a stroke that would have felled a champion. But the axe head bounced off his light mail like magic, thunking back like a chunk of wood. Vetra grinned, tasting the grotesque, greenish war paint on the savages’ cheeks. He whirled and two-handed, smote the offender, taking two of them out at a time. The third’s head fell in a blood-spurting spray as the mercenary’s sword severed it from his body.

Kraddus blinked. He shook his head, as if refusing to believe his eyes, that such light mail could stop heavy blows. For a moment he was lost in wonder and was almost brained in his stupor as the Karkassian chief came hurtling out of the melee at him, gnashing like a snarling cougar. Axe met sword. The ex-soldier was pushed back into a forest of axes.

Vetra came vaulting into the fray; Tas circled in vulture-like, using his axe like a club with an ox-like strength and resolve. But it was all over. The Karkassian leader swayed, then reeled. All around, the men’s breath heaved, blades fell on flesh, as the last survivors fled with bolts and curses at their backs.

Six of Tas’s men lay dead in the gravelly crumble. Two dozen of the enemy lay strewn in ghastly mounds. More sprawled, dead with arrows in their throats, flung in heaps down the ravine. His men began searching the bodies for loot or hillman knives.

Basineus clutched his side. He held up a hand when Tas came hobbling over with a searching glance. “Merias! Bathe this man’s wounds and bandage it. There are others wounded too.” He motioned curtly. “Swiftly!” The man so summoned, a stocky Guirite, went to fetch bitter herbs and wetted cloth.

Tas nudged a corpse with a toe, the fallen invader with his head almost hacked off. “What a sorry waste of human flesh.”

“These Karkassians are plain stupid,” growled Kraddus, spitting out blood and a cracked tooth. “A daytime attack with inferior numbers? They must be desperate. These are not sane men. Look! Under the influence of the maja they stormed us senselessly. Can you not see the green growth on their necks and arms?” He tore aside a patch of deer hide from a corpse’s blood-soaked shoulder.

Nurus recoiled in a flushed daze, sucking in a breath. “Dergath take us!”

Vetra flinched, recalling the advanced stage of Kealasa’s affliction, not dissimilar to the corpse at his feet.

Tas wearily gripped his weapon. He shook his head, as if he felt the dead warrior’s pain himself.

Vetra was confused by the clear display of emotion, and he drew back, scowling.

The bodies of the hill rogues were pitched over the cliffs. The half dozen dead Lvendar men were taken away from camp and buried under rocks far up the slope away from the clutch of carrion birds.

“Your choice of camp leaves something to be desired,” muttered Vetra grimly.

“Every place here along this cursed ridge is a bad choice,” grunted Tas. “The Karkassians fire up at us from the Galashad side. They think we are encroaching on their territory. The fools! We are merely trying to negotiate with that madman Grebu. What would we want of their hovels, their cacti-strewn barrens and vultures? They have little fertile land here. They have no idea the magnitude of Grebu’s illicit operation.”

“So, he brews this product here?” asked Vetra incredulously. “Where?”

“Somewhere up there—” Tas flung a hand up at the mountain-mesa towering on the canyon’s hither side. “I suspect he has slaves to do it for him. Probably uses these fools, as it’s easy to snatch a few of them here and there—“ he flung out a foot at the eye-staring corpses. “Over a period of months, an enterprising man could accumulate a sizeable crew.”

Vetra shrugged noncommittally. “It seems incredible.”

“Grebu is an incredible man—as you will soon see.”

Kraddus affirmed the claim, a saturnine grin creasing his face.

Vetra did not like that grin, nor did he like Nurus’s cloying presence, or the general level of apprehension and distrust amongst these fighters. Bad blood bred mishap, Vetra mused, which in turn fostered death. He recalled the rotting bodies back at the blackened outpost as he stared over at Basineus who returned the glare, still nursing some minor wounds from the encounter, in addition to his recent disfigurement, his slights still raw. Conflict and petty squabbles everywhere… When would it ever end?

 

The sun was sinking in a veil of haze when the battle-hardened men hunched around a crackling fire, sitting cross legged or on logs. Over a meal of roasted rabbit, rattlesnake and boiled broth and home brew, the defenders celebrated their victory, in moods most mixed.

“You would still have us attempt this foray of yours with six less of us?” Nurus grumbled bitterly.

Tas continued to munch his meal in silence.

Vetra marked the general solemnity of the grim-eyed crew. He could not help but broach a question that had been bothering him ever since the attack. “Why don’t the local Lvendarians clear out these savages who persist in invading their lands?”

Tas muttered a gruff exclamation. “The hill people fled long ago. The Karkassians raided their territory for sheep, and killed them when they didn’t tithe or yield to their bloodthirsty gods, on lands they believed their own.”

“But they don’t overrun these hills now?”

“The mountain trolls are the only thing that prevent them from invading these parts,” Nurus stated flatly.

“Trolls this far south?” Vetra frowned, trying to imagine the scenario, suddenly remembering the large prints he had seen back at the ruined outpost.

Tas rubbed his bloodshot eyes and downed a cup of spicy home brew. “I’ve yet to see one. A legend, no more.”

Nurus took a swig from his own cup. “They’re around. I grew up not far from here in Fawia, and I’ve seen them. Aye, the Megwans, we called them—the old hill trolls, around since the time men fought with clubs.”

“But you’ve the mindset of a child,” laughed Kraddus. “Seen the troll outside your tent too many times?”

Nurus’s blade flashed out in resentment and Kraddus caught it effortlessly on his own. He flicked it off, grinning in sour amusement.

“Enough squabbling, you rabble!” roared Tas. He sprang to his feet, upending his plate of fried snake. “I’ll not have my own captains cutting each other’s throats.”

There came chuckles and rude cheers from the gathered militia.

“You too, you monkeys!” Tas yelled at them, glowering. They finally quieted down.

A pregnant silence spread like a wet damper over the company. The sound of intense mastication and gulps of men who stabbed stridently at their plates with dull forks went on too long. There was an uneasiness about this crew that puzzled Vetra over and above what he had learned from Kraddus’s and Nurus’s sullen disclosures. After a period of subsequent grumbling, Vetra caught Basineus’s gaze and he cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, with a firm desire to leave.

That’s when he noticed a man drinking somewhat apart from the others, a man with blond beard, flat face, small eyes, and a chiselled pattern of scars on his forearms. When the man belched and turned up the path to relieve himself, Vetra got the idea to relieve himself too.

They were far enough away from the fire to hear only the odd, lingering curses of slightly drunk men.

Vetra crept up and waited patiently while the other swayed, the splash of urine running its course, spilling noisily on the gravel, glinting under the flickering torches mantling the armoury.

When the bowman turned and saw the hulking mercenary standing there, eyeing him, he wheeled, nearly falling back on his heels.

Vetra put out his hands and raised an eyebrow. “Easy, friend. Just wanted to ask your opinion on all of this.”

The man’s eyes darted about nervously, as if gauging his chance to slip by the mercenary. There was little. “What do you mean?” he hissed.

Vetra stared impassively. “You know what I mean.”

The man saw Vetra was not going to stand down and he looked as if he were pondering whether he could, in fact, trust the mercenary.

In a voice barely a whisper, he took Vetra aside, “We think Tas is losing it. As a leader he made some bad decisions and got a bunch of our men dead, thirty-eight, all hired under Ragnum’s own coin. A horrible sight last month. A fan of corpses lie in open graves upon the ridge.”

“I’ve had the privilege of witnessing such carnage.”

The man nodded. “He lied to the overseers in the home office at Lausern. Said it was an accident. Mishap, my eye! Human error, more like. Tas walked into a trap…like this farce tomorrow. I think he has been corrupted by the maja.”

“What do you mean?” demanded Vetra.

The bowman’s eyes roved and he spoke in a hushed whisper. “The man doesn’t sleep. It’s not natural. He stays up all night staring into space, tossing pebbles into a pot, or mumbling on about ‘Memju’ or ‘Bemju’ or some daft thing. We don’t know what it is. You notice his movements. Well, they’re wrought with—”

“Everything all right here, Jasti?”

The crunch of boots on pebbles marked someone’s approach.

The bowman flinched. “Mighty fine night, Tas. Stars galore,” he remarked awkwardly, buttoning up his pants, which he saw he had neglected earlier.

“That it is. Why don’t you take a walk? I don’t think our friend Vetra here is up for some grab ass just at this moment.”

Quivering in rancour, he stomped off.

When the man had shuffled out of earshot, Tas sighed and grunted without friendliness. “Men fighting in these hills frighten easily, men like Jasti. The land gets under their skin, like a chill creeping from the sea. Old legends speak of old gods, and evil bred since the beginning. ’Tis embedded in the very rock around us. Makes a person think twice about his life, that his own shadow is just a ghost haunting him, like some ghoul or venerated god, ready to snuff out his life. Even a fighting man, stout as Jasti, is afflicted. I think he’s gone soft in the head.” He brushed his temple, as if to emphasize the point.

Vetra remained silent. He noted the dark circles under Tas’s eyes, the haunted appearance of some inanimate tribal mask, his fingers twitching on his hilt, the perceptible welts standing out on his brow. For a second, the ghoulish face of Kealasa merged with Tas’s.

Vetra shook off the apparition. Tas grinned, his ghoulish, devil’s glare more pronounced than ever. Then it vanished and the leader was himself once more.

He gestured to the grass pallets beyond the open door of the barracks beside the armoury. “Rest up, mercenary. Tomorrow will be a tasking day for all of us—our meeting awaits.”

 

II

 

By midday, a team of twenty militiamen strode grimly back alongside the canyon, crossbows at the ready, where Kraddus had earlier herded the captives to the camp. Tas and his captains rode in front followed by Vetra and Basineus, gripping swords, but they swerved off the main trail and cantered up a hidden, smaller one winding along the edge of the canyon.

Vetra peered all around at the inhospitable terrain. Below dropped a chaotic jumble of boulders amongst twisted shrubs. Hills rose beyond, rife with crumbling outcrops and gnarled trees, hosting plenty of places for hill folk to hide. Basineus, armour still caked with blood, rode close at his side, too close for Vetra’s tastes, and Vetra motioned him back. “Seems like a bad place for a parley.”

“Prey for ambush,” muttered Kraddus carelessly.

Tas spoke with annoyance, “Grebu agrees only to deal with us on his turf.”

“And you agreed?” Vetra asked, jerking upright in his saddle, brows raised.

“We have been stalled for too long. I had to accelerate the process. Don’t worry. I’ve had my archers dug in behind the bridge since the morning. If things go sour, they will loose a rain of arrows on them.”

“And on us, too?” sneered Kraddus.

Tas did not answer. He dismounted from his stalwart roan and beckoned for his men to follow him.

The sky blazed a deep blue. The air was chill, and a pungent scent of cook fires rode on the tails of the southern breeze—smoke curling from hill-savage camps across the canyon.

The border was crossed only by a crude wooden bridge over a dry, narrow canyon, deep and boulder strewn.

What few of them rode, left their horses tied to trees and advanced to the bridge. Somewhere back there, Vetra envisaged Tas’s archers crouched in weeds and brush, noses to the dust.

The clomp of the men’s boots sounded like an eerie drumbeat in the afternoon stillness, impinging on the scant chirps of songbirds, and the distant hum of insects far below. The timbers trembled, causing Vetra a backward glance. Not so much out of fear, but as if wondering about those supposed reinforcements that had dug in behind the ragged shrubs. How reliable would they be? He had not seen much in the way of arrows back at the armoury. In truth, the man he had milked for information at the campfire, was not in their present company, nor his comrade, so he assumed that the bowmen of the camp were part of the hidden party.

They passed safely to the other side. Vetra saw a group assembled on the barren plateau to meet them. Lean, unsmiling men, dressed with steel caps, clutching axes and swords.

Halfway across the way, Tas warned Vetra: “Quiet. Let me do the talking. You and your man are here only as muscle to add to our forces in case things go wrong.”

“Which they surely will,” Nurus croaked, hunching like a bullfrog at Tas’s side.

Tas ignored him.

Vetra remained grimly silent. Kraddus flashed him a leer of amusement which Vetra had come to despise.

The parley was designated at an exposed place, windswept and deserted, on a plateau of scarred rock. In the shadow of the low crumbling mountain, the sun seemed to be a shrinking blemish, already sinking past the ancient summit, though it was not far past noon. A crude stone table and rough boulders had been dragged forth on some pretence of comfort for the negotiators. A dozen men met them, stiffly bearing arms. Everyone stood still, faces set in tight frowns. The rearguard in the black leather jerkins were central Galashadians, with square heads, fat, gnarled fingers and fresh blooded garb and weapons.

The man who commanded these ruffians was stocky, just shorter than Basineus, but with a menace about him that commanded respect. A dangerous man, whose vibrant aura of malignant energy asserted itself and prompted Vetra to curl his lips in repulsion. Wide-spaced eyes of bear-like intensity took in the men gathered before him and then dropped downward, as if having taken their measure. The man stood, legs wide apart, draped in a long brown cape that dragged to his glossy black boots. A faint reek preceded him: like that of rotting undergrowth.

But this was not the oddest thing about the drug king.

Peculiar vines seemed to crawl on his shoulders, questing restlessly at nothing; his massive ribs bulged out with growths like tubes, yellow leaves grew in his hair like some grotesque garland and rustled when he moved. His face was repulsive, but it gleamed with a preternatural energy. His three immediate henchmen to either side seemed afflicted with the same disease: plant men, Vetra thought. But not exhibiting the singular health of their master.

Whoever these beings were, they seemed to be in a highly advanced stage of metamorphosis—or some ghoulish alchemy, at which Vetra shuddered to guess. They hunched with otherworldly confidence, like strange beings from a far world rooted of their own making, as if guarding some secret knowledge. But deadly danger burned in those carrot-coloured eyes and their wavering stalks jutted out from their shoulders like spikes, as if ready to grip a man and squeeze the life out of him.

“A pleasant day to you, gentlemen,” said the one called Grebu, or the ‘plant king’ as Vetra had coined him. He gave a sardonic bow to Tas. “Can I offer you some beverages, or maja juice, a mix with lemon and cactus?” The voice was deep-throated, matching the man’s heavy-barrelled frame.

Tas grimaced. He looked as if he’d rather drink rattlesnake poison. “You know why we are here, Grebu.”

“A pity. ’Tis quite soothing to the palate, quenches thirst like no other.” He shrugged, took up a goblet of his own and downed it in a single ceremonious gulp. On closer inspection, Vetra saw that this ringleader’s hands seemed to have retreated into themselves, deformed, undeveloped appendages like the hands of an aborted fetus. All his minions had dark green bottles of the precious bulbs’ mash at their belts, like a milky elixir for an infant.

“In good faith I agreed to this negotiation,” Tas declared, his eyes cast of steel. “On your turf, even at great risk to myself.”

The plant king raised his eyebrows in concern. “Where would you have us gather, in the middle of the bridge? Remember, our last meeting turned ugly after your most wanton and uncalled for behaviour.”

“Right after you started firing arrows down our throats.”

Grebu sighed sadly. “I see you are intending to inveigle more leverage out of me. In addition, you have brought some new faces; indeed, more men than I had specified—” he tipped his head mockingly toward Vetra and Basineus. “You see my forces are quite spartan in comparison.” He swept a plant-like hand to his immediate minions. “Meet my three lieutenants. Fine fellows. As are yours, doubtless. Replacements for the men you lost on the ridge?”

Tas waved carelessly. “Just my men. Why do you ask? You would do no differently.”

“I hardly think so,” said Grebu. “I am meticulous in these matters. Yours are well-trained men, I can tell by their disciplined stances, their hardened gazes, their well-muscled bodies, something you could do well to emulate. Not your regular stooges, like Kraddus and Nurus here.”

Nurus grinned good-naturedly but Kraddus seemed to jerk back in indignation, for reasons Vetra could not altogether fathom. Why would the captain care what the mutant thought of him?

“New terms,” growled the drug lord impatiently. “I continue to traffic maja to Lausern; you take your sword-swinging men and begone. Lose yourselves in the backwoods, I don’t care, maybe Umbria, Mercia? In exchange, I offer you a sack of gold talons and fifty pounds of product, a small pittance of the spoils I intend to spread to cities of Xalgossa and Masern in the north.”

Tas spoke through gritted teeth. “Your demands are unreasonable. ’Tis I who came to propose concessions. Back off Lvendar and take your miserable trade elsewhere, preferably south or east. No more flow of the accursed maja to Lausern. In return, Ragnum promises not to attack you on his borders—and to join no alliances with other territories to shut you down.”

Grebu looked about with humour. “Gentlemen! Does a river merely stop flowing because some dullard wishes it? It’s all about supply and demand. I have the supply; you have the demand. You know how business goes…” His face twisted in a sinister leer and the snake-like vines on his shoulders twitched in insolent anticipation. “I think you have nothing to offer. A bit of talk, some idle threats, and much gilding of the lily thrown in for good measure.”

Tas compressed his lips in exasperation.

Grebu smiled. “Yes, I see. ’Tis bluster. It’s the power I hanker for, command over all the kingdoms. One way or other I will have it, with or without your endless counteroffers and concessions.”

Tas persisted, “Lvendar will crush you with an army, if they must.”

“Where is this army then?” sneered Grebu. “I see none. The Lord Vizier and his cowardly allies—fools and braggarts! Present a few washed up mercenaries to intimidate me? Ha! It’s laughable. The problem with Lvendar and its arrogant lords is they underestimate the reach of my power.”

“You flatter yourself, Grebu.”

“Fool yourself, Tas! I breed a new race. Did you not know? Do they think I will shut down my emprise at your lord’s beck and call? They have no power in my lands, not even in their own; the law of the jungle will prevail.”

“They’ll bring steel and fire on your heels. Does this not mean anything to you? Terror, blood and slaughter.”

“All pale under the power of addiction. You can’t fight that power. Once it gets in the blood it never leaves, as you readily know. It feeds on one’s blood; it devours anything in its path.”

Tas shook his head savagely like a dog. “You will not win this war.”

The mogul hissed through his teeth. “But I will!” His eyes blazed like a devil’s fire. “It is you who do not see the light, misguided fool.” He glanced around at his audience, who were entranced by his speech, except Vetra and Tas. He had a definite charisma. Almost with pity, he bored eyes like snakes into Tas’s soul. “Already the maja runs thick in your blood, does it not, Tas? I can see it seeps into your pores. You know how it feels, don’t you? Yes. And it takes the soul from the inside out. Of course, your mana is now entwined, indistinguishable from the fibres of the maja. Is your desire satisfied yet?” He laughed aloud uncontrollably, head tilted back like a howling jackal.

Tas’s eyes reeled about him. A mix of hopeless anger and despair washed over his face; his fists balled like iron. But he did regain his composure and spat full at the mogul’s feet. “Do not try to subvert me with your taunts and sly deflections. I’ve killed men better than you.”

Grebu reared up, snarling. “Try it.” Vines lashed out to take any man who challenged him. The plant king settled down quickly; his voice calm again, like flowing syrup, sweet, placid, his tentacles inert. “Which brings us to other issues.” He tipped his leaf-clumped head toward Kraddus. “Well, Kraddus?”

“My lord?”

Tas’s jaw dropped in stupefaction. “Lord? Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“No joke, ‘Tas’,” mocked Kraddus.

Vetra crouched on the balls of his feet, his sword flying out of the sheath.

Basineus whipped out his axe as Grebu’s closest lieutenant moved on him like a panther. Axe crunched full into the minion’s shoulder blade, biting into his neck in a blinding sweep. The half mutant sank to his knees, shrieking, gushing blood.

“Kill him, you fool!” the plant king’s yell fractured the air.

Kraddus’s face contorted. “Gladly, lord, but the ransom—”

Grebu unsheathed his own blade. “I could give a rat’s ass for any ransom. You are far too mealy-mouthed for a traitor.” He bumped him aside and lunged for Vetra, whose muscled arm had begun a downward swing and whose blade cut a vine that twined close to Vetra’s ear.

The plant king winced but came closer, like a belligerent bull, the tips of the feelers questing Vetra’s skin. Vetra jerked as he saw the damaged feeler grow back gruesomely before his eyes.

Nurus’s mouth worked in sick dismay. The slither of steel shivered from his sheath. Basineus sprang over the corpse he had dispatched, to assist Vetra. The strident rasp of men’s blades echoed from all round.

The man at Tas’s right fell in a splatter of blood and brains, his head cleaved by an axe hurled from the hand of Grebu’s ugliest lieutenant. Arrows skittered down from the caves above from which hillmen emerged, as if by magic.

“You treacherous dog!” yowled Tas.

“What do you expect from me?” cried Grebu. “Now die!” He turned away from Vetra’s blade and came charging in. Claw fingers clenched, nails not dissimilar to those of the Vizier’s daughter. Bolts pumped from all directions. Vetra caught a glimpse of many figures from beyond the bridge, Tas’s archers, true to his word, pumping bolts into the fray. Swords flew in red loops hacking at both attacker and defender. But Grebu’s minions, moved with an uncanny precision and parried, despite their ungainly looks, and they were gaining ground over the defenders.

Vetra closed with the plant king, felt a stinging lash swipe across his cheek, almost taking out his left eye. He cursed, wiped away the blood, ducked more of those whitish feelers as he raised his blade to dice them. Grebu’s other lieutenant advanced to defend his lord. Vetra took him out in a sledgehammer sweep that had the plant-man writhing on his knees.

Kraddus rounded on Tas with a wild yell.

Tas parried Kraddus’s blade. “So, that’s how Grebu’s marksmen got through our net,” he bellowed in Kraddus’s ear. “I thought it was the machinations of this vicious devil.” He cut sideways at Grebu. The drug lord deftly hopped aside. Tas switched back to Kraddus and smashed blade at Kraddus’s middle. “It was you!” Kraddus caught the stroke on his guard, barely avoiding a blood-letting.

Grebu laughed. He jumped back avoiding again the hissing blade of his enemy and ducked Basineus’s sweeping axe that would have lopped off his yellow head.

“What did he promise you?” Tas cried, slashing hard at his former captain’s exposed flank.

Kraddus moved in time with Tas’s slices and forced his superior back on his heels with a vicious series of cuts. “A captaincy and ten times the spoil you offered.”

“You’re a fool!—he’d have slit you ear to ear before he gave you a groat. You’ll die for your treachery and greed!” He drove in, whirling his blade and stabbing it like a skewer. Kraddus blocked, gasped, and darted in, spitting blood where Tas’s hilt had smashed a tooth out of his mouth.

Tas let out a shrill whistle—the signal for his archers to advance, but his look back became one of dismay. They had risen minutes ago from their place of concealment behind boulders, low shrubs, some covered with sand, but a horde of blood mad Karkassians came streaming down the slopes after them, to wreak their blood lust upon them. Some hurled knives or plunged daggers into their backs. Multiple arrows sung, loosed from the archers’ midst, but most flew astray, clattering on stones. Above Vetra and his company, a steady stream of arrows rained down on them from the rocky sanctuaries.

Vetra roared with frustration. “Down! To the ground!”

A shaft cut into the earth at Vetra’s feet. It quivered there like a snake’s head.

Vetra ducked, scrabbling almost flat on his belly, to avoid a whistling shaft that would have otherwise passed through his throat. He chopped down viciously at Grebu’s last lieutenant, the ugly one, who was tensed up in fury and hate. Vetra staggered and chopped again, feeling the bite of glimmering steel connect with flesh, the attacker’s bestial reek in his nostrils. An arm came loose, spraying off at the elbow. The mutant laughed. The mutilation was nothing to him. Feelers from his shoulders came writhing out to grapple Vetra. The mercenary dodged, grimacing with horror that a man could endure such punishment and still be standing. A stinging sensation sank into his flesh as one of the loathsome tendrils lashed his upper shoulder and sent a stabbing pain into his nerve ends.

“Stay away from the cursed feelers!” Vetra yelled. “Don’t let them touch you!” His shout was lost in the fray. There was no getting across the bridge; they were cut off from behind. Raging hillmen flooded in numbers across the quivering timbers. Tas cried out a solemn oath. “Make for the cliff.” The survivors followed his lead, ploughed straight to the cliffside into the teeth of the arrows that streamed out from the caves yawning two men’s heights above.

Men went down in scarlet ruin. Vetra felt a bolt bite into his mailshirt. He slipped on a pool of blood and fell to his knees. He picked himself up and with a burst of rage grabbed a corpse and shielded himself from a spray of lethal iron. Men rounded behind him as Vetra pushed on. Basineus plucked a bolt painfully from the side of his boot and hobbled into the sheltered line.

Nurus, straggling too far back, was peppered with shafts, and staggered to a gasping halt, sinking like a straw doll. A vine curled around his throat. The writhing white mass pulled him down on his back. Grebu’s massive boot stomped down on the captain’s neck, crushing his windpipe. Stinging tentacles whipped from the plant king’s shoulders to grapple more defenders who ran behind Vetra and Tas. Kraddus’s foul mouth rang with expletives and blood dripped from his lips down into his goatee as he cut down like wheat men he once called his own. Grebu laughed with sinister delight, taking the carnage in with triumph, latching tentacles onto men’s throats and lifting them off their feet, like man-made puppets of straw, not muscle and bone.

Vetra grimaced, gagging at the repulsive scene, and raced for the hill ahead, Basineus stumbling at his heels. There were ravines to either side, dressed in cool shadow. Under no circumstance must they be dragged down by those ghoulish appendages of Grebu.

Dark openings in the rock gaped to either side, avenues that Vetra instinctively liked not at all. Tas had dropped back to pull Vetra and Basineus aside who were scrambling for the higher, leftmost path. “Not there! Down the other ravine,” Tas called. “I’ve a bad feeling about that one.”

Vetra threw the corpse off his back, the weight slowing his pace, and he and Basineus fled into the ravine to the side that curled around the base of the hill. They watched as Tas and the others beetled into a blue-shadowed cross canyon, dozens of shrieking hillmen pouring after them.

“Let them run!” laughed Grebu. “Like rabbits, they run. Foil us by splitting up? The maja will kill them all.” His deep-throated laughter echoed fiendishly about the striated rock.

Vetra and Basineus staggered down the slope into a rocky corridor, flanked by tall, sheer cliffs, half running, half stumbling.

The canyon sides were steep, blocking out any vestiges of the sun. A gloomy, cloying feel draped the open passage; chill draughts seeped up the avenue like wind tunnels. Shouts of men echoed in Vetra’s ears. He saw crumbling stone arches to either side, and heard the whine of arrows. Bolts snapped off his mailshirt, whizzing by both their ears.

“It’s a death trap,” snarled Vetra. “Run!”

Basineus needed no urging. The majority of the enemy pursued Tas and the others. For this Vetra was thankful. Tas was nowhere in sight. They had gotten separated from the others.

Vetra squinted ahead. He knew to stay alive they had to outwit their pursuers, or slit their throats. “This way.” He darted left into a cross canyon through an oval gap three men wide.

Basineus stumbled after him, fresh wounds dripping from his arms and torso.

The pounding of booted feet thundered from behind.

Vetra stopped to flatten his back against the wall of this new canyon. When the pursuers first charged through this opening, he ripped his blade into flesh and teeth. A feather-crowned Galashad warrior crumpled with a thud. Basineus reeled in to skewer the attacker’s closest comrade. Blood sprayed on the canyon wall as the mercenary’s sword severed the victim’s throat.

Vetra exalted, snorting wrath through his teeth.

Three more charged in. Vetra felt steel rake across his mailshirt, deflected somehow as he stove in a skull and landed in a crouch to pass sword through the astounded Karkassian’s loins like a skewer. Basineus thrust bloody steel up through the sternum of the remaining rogue and out through his back. The man fell dying in a crunching heap.

An eerie silence ensued. The distant sounds only of steel and screams of dying men.

“Hide the bodies,” muttered Basineus.

“No time,” argued Vetra. “We’ll toss these jackals’ bodies up this way a bit. Then we’ll backtrack and take the other canyon. It’s time for us to do the unexpected.”

With a vicious sweep, he hacked the head off one of the corpses and Basineus dragged the other body and threw it up the path. The trail seemed to meander to a place up the hill. Good, thought Vetra. Make it look as if the fugitives fled up the crumbling trail. Basineus dragged the last attacker’s corpse, and with a grimace of disgust let it fall in a ghastly heap.

“It seems obvious to say we’re in a jam. What now?”

“To Dergath with that! That we ever agreed to this mission, I should have my head examined.”

They slunk down the path. The sounds of pursuit faded.

 

III

 

Through a graveyard of fallen rocks, they picked their way, skirting boulders, avoiding pits, crevasses, and the like. Basineus looked at Vetra queerly and snatched at his arm. “Dergath, that mail is something else, Vetra. How ’bout we swap for a while? Help out an old friend?”

Vetra accelerated his pace.

Basineus laughed at his joke.

The canyon was stark, forbidding. The sides rose sheer out of the bedrock, unscalable, formidable walls of a giant’s tomb. A patch of clear sky loomed far over their heads. Eccentric forms seemed to grow from the rock face, the stone of which was cold to the touch. Vetra saw animal heads and demons, perhaps carved by some inspired tribesmen.

“Remember that tavern at Ajstan?” Basineus hissed, limping in a bent-kneed hobble.

Vetra’s eyes roved ahead, scouting for danger, his fingers itching to lay steel into any whooping enemy that would threaten them. After a time, he sneered. “How can I forget?”

“Just so you know, the brawl was staged.” Basineus coughed up blood. “The slut chose you. It was a bet. Tarkus and his men dared me. I had no idea what was going down, that it was enough to get you jailed, or that Hurdan was your enemy.”

Vetra growled between gritted teeth. “I never forgave you for that.”

Basineus smiled grimly through his blood-clotted face. “Always a hothead, weren’t you, Vetra?”

“A little too conniving for your own good, aren’t you, Basineus?” grunted Vetra. “Watch your step. If your antics don’t get your throat cut, my sword will.” He flourished his blade, stepping over a wide crack that oozed rank vapours from its dark depths. “I’ve forgotten that catty wench anyway, she wasn’t worth it. I was young, foolish. Some time in the irons did me good. Taught me how prisoners think. I won them over in the end. Now the ones that walk free are my allies.”

“So, all was not lost then,” said Basineus with a grim sigh. “Well, here’s to better times, by Dergath!” He slapped his thigh. “Glad that’s all out and the air is cleared.”

“Look, if you think—quiet!” he warned, pulling Basineus down. “There are sounds up ahead.” They both strained eyes in the blue shadows. Flickers of motion caught the edge of their vision. The light patter of feet echoed faintly at Vetra’s ear. “It’s those damned Karkassians.”

“No…just good old Tas.”

The leader came up, stumbling out of the shadow, out of breath, gasping, his eyes wild with feverish intensity. His pupils were dilated, like the amber trance-stare of a rabid wolf. His soiled leather was bloodstained and blackened lips flecked with foam, peeled back to show bared teeth.

“You look horrible,” croaked Basineus.

“And you don’t?” snapped the ranger, hoisting his blood-dripping axe.

“What happened?” The mercenary’s gaze dropped to the extra bottle at his belt.

The ranger’s head inclined. His hand flexed, reached involuntarily for the glass vial at his waist. “I confiscated this from one of the scum of Grebu’s rabble. I took out dozens of them. But they killed the others of our group. All our bowmen are dead.” He gripped his axe, dripping with fresh blood. “The enemy followed me, but I lost them. I fear they are not far behind.”

“Then come on, we must move!” gestured Vetra.

 

A cramped, narrow space in the canyon opened up, darkened with the sun angled low. Parallel walls of rock hemmed them in like lemmings. Vetra felt as if he scurried in an open crypt. There was no refreshing slant of sunshine to penetrate this shale-crumbled hell. The sun seemed muted by tribal magic, a place both hallowed and damned.

A cold sweat broke out on Vetra’s skin when he saw what lay before him. The familiar waving of stalk-like tentacles quested out from the crevices in the sheer rock faces to either side. He gaped, refusing to believe his eyes. White slimy things had overtaken the wall, giving them about eight feet of grace to walk unhindered. The feelers had the familiar cast of Grebu’s ghastly appendages, slime-ticklers exuding from shoulders and ribs. Could the wretched things pierce flesh? He crabbed back in involuntary reaction. A dreadful familiarity to certain octopi-like creatures he had seen washed up on the western shores of Umbria. His sword fell loose in his grip.

“What are they?” quavered Basineus.

“Grebu’s creation,” said Tas, glowering. “I don’t doubt this is his birthplace—Or his experimental grounds,” he added cynically.

“Experimental what—”

“Hush, silence!” hissed the ranger. “Noise riles these creatures. It tells them there’s prey lurking about.”

The three slunk like wary weasels through the narrow defile. Careful not to let the things sense them, they edged by, ever fearful to dislodge a loose pebble. Basineus, the inattentive fool he was, slipped on loose flakes underfoot, and came perilously close to one of the things touching him and latching onto his shin. Vetra stifled a curse; Tas cast him a dark look. Water dripped from the walls, but that was not what captured Vetra’s attention and held it like a vice. It was more the weird, garnet-coloured globules growing from the ends of the sinister stalks. Foul, thick liquid oozed with some putrid, yellow-brown oil from the stigma to the chalky stone underfoot. They were alive with motion, these things, writhing in synchrony like underwater anemones, ready to entangle a man with them. Vetra’s blood froze in his veins.

The cackle of a familiar voice echoed up the ravine, followed by wrenching screams, then the chopping of flesh, and then sheathed steel.

A corpse fell tumbling to smash head-first down on the stone before them, spilling brains and blood, its limbs shattered. Vetra recognized the bloody mass as one of the militia men of Tas’s unit.

“Sweet Dergath!” he hissed in despair.

Tas crept backward, his head craned upward, cursing at the enemy who lurked unseen above them.

“The cursed ghoul walks on the ledge,” Basineus muttered. “Is he a spider or a baboon?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him, both.”

The plant tentacles came to life with the smack of the falling corpse and movement and probed the shale for warm flesh. One quested at a twisted leg and dragged it. The mangled body jerked and left a foul blood trail.

The men lost all inhibitions and scrambled past the opposing walls of the white fleshy feelers as the ghoulish feast progressed.

No sooner had they stepped beyond the swath of fiendish foliage than Kraddus came striding up, in a triumphant mood, his head thrown back in wild mockery and a red grin on his face. “Ah, the wild maja!” he croaked gleefully. He motioned at the writhing plants. “Do you not like them? ’Tis Grebu’s pride and joy. He grows his most malevolent creatures here—or one of them. I for one, am partial to barbarous fiends.”

“Lovely,” snorted Vetra. “How about a garland to twist about your neck?”

“Draw your sword, you damn renegade!” cursed Tas, rounding in on the rogue.

Kraddus danced back, ignoring him. “They are seedlings from a man-eating strain,” he remarked with a shrug. “A whimsical experiment of Grebu’s.”

“You sicken me, Kraddus,” blurted Tas, clenching axe and shaking his head.

“It’s still not too late to join us, Tas. Show the king your loyalty. Kill these spies, show it as a token of your fealty, and the master will go easy on you. I know he will. I’ll see to it.”

“I’d rather wash my stones in pigs’ blood,” spat Tas. “That was not the deal, Kraddus. You swore an oath to us—to defend Lvendar’s interests.”

“Pacts are meant to be cast aside like old clothes off a man’s back. You are getting old, Tas, barely able to do what you were set aside to do. I’ll let the master know your decision.” The traitor backed away and made a signal of fist, thumb and finger. Men came creeping out of the shadows: from up the path past the tentacled area like spectres.

Tas visible recoiled, whether from the men who gathered, or the mention of the master. The fierce expression on his face echoed some animated struggle which amused Kraddus. “I’ll gut you like a fish, Kraddus, the dog you are.”

“Back, fool!” bawled Kraddus. “You condemn Grebu for his bestiality. But look at yourself! You’re no better than him. Are you not the fool who ate some experimental version of the bulb. Now you are some type of monster. I can see it in your greenish face, you’ve been taking the bulb.”

“You lie!” Froth flecked from Tas’s lips. Vetra saw the leader’s fists clench into balls, his nails twitch, like the claws that depended from Kealasa’s hands.

The big tawny man gave a spitting howl. He reached out to brain Kraddus with his axe, but five of his thugs hitched in with swords.

“Ah, ah,” Kraddus chided, waving a dirty finger. “Back! Do you think I would be fool enough to let you lord over this outfit? While you were out gnawing on your bulb, I gained control over the militia, the few that are left. And I gained Grebu’s trust.”

“You dirty scum,” Tas swore low under his breath.

Kraddus thumbed his blade in an offhand manner. “Which of you dies first?”

Vetra stepped forward, drawing his weapon to strike.

Kraddus signalled to his men and a dozen came out to surround them.

Vetra parried Kraddus’s arching blade and squared in close enough to smell the man’s rank breath. He ducked a stalk’s stigma which extended with a ruby-eye end. The thing’s poison kiss swept by with mere inches to spare.

Kraddus laughed. “Mind Grebu’s pets, mercenary. Their sting can bring a man to tears.”

“Shut it, cretinous oaf,” Vetra snarled. He lashed out at the captain while Tas engaged foes at their back. Basineus was caught in the middle, slashing and cursing the oncoming native Galashadians, a surge of square-faces, dirty-blond hair and square steel caps.

“Ack!” A feeler raked at Vetra’s throat, leaving him with a red stinging mark. He hunched and tottered off-balance, shaking his head and the sting out of his neck.

Kraddus let loose a sneering laugh. “Smarts, doesn’t it?”

Tas’s axe fell with a squashing thunk, and a Galashad warrior with stubbled jowl and anguished cry rolled at Vetra’s feet minus an arm. The writhing body tripped him. Kraddus pounced, but Vetra rolled free, pulling his knees to his chest and uncoiled in a vicious kick, to fling boot heels first into Kraddus’s gut. He lifted the traitor in the air and hurled him backward toward the writhing wall of stalks.

Quick as adders, the ghastly roots latched on to him and whipped him sideways, transfixing the back of his head.

Kraddus’s mouth worked in a parody of a dismal scream. Another grabbed his shoulder and pierced his flesh. His white lips gave rise to a bloodcurdling screech. Grunting and slashing ineffectually he managed to cut some of the feelers that fanned out to grip him. But he was quickly stymied as more latched on to him, leech-like—in his mouth, down his throat. Other vine-feelers hooked and tore at his flesh, hoisting him up like a grim, flapping puppet. On those string-tentacles he dangled like a hanged man, legs kicking.

Vetra grimaced, scrambling to his feet. He reacted in time to catch the vicious uppercut of a drawn blade. Kraddus’s body began to jerk, caught in an abysmal puppet-wrenching palsy. More of the ghoulish feelers hooked onto his legs, pulling his body into the damp crevice until only his boots could be seen, kicking spasmodically. His shrieks faded amid a symphony of grotesque feeding sounds.

Vetra had to turn his head. What hideous mouths lurked beyond that dank stone, he did not care to imagine.

Basineus toiled at his sides, raining blows heavy enough to fell trees amongst the Galashadian guard. One croaked out a strangled screech. Tas cut into a white probing stalk, ere it whipped around the mercenary. With an appalling yank, the man Basineus was hewing was lifted up and pulled into the wall by the man-eating stalks. The cleft in the canyon wall was narrow, so his body was mutilated as it was forced through a hole smaller than his torso. Finally, only his boots showed, flailing.

Vetra paled, twitching, aghast at the sudden violence of the grisly carnage.

Tas threw another man back into the rippling menace. A puzzled expression fled over his face as white, writhing vines gripped him in an obscene embrace. His muffled scream died in his throat as they tore apart his mouth.

Basineus struggled with his brawny contender, matching blade for blade, feelers whistling inches from his ears. In a sudden vengeful motion, Vetra’s shadow loomed overhead and steel chopped the man’s shoulder clean to the bone and the man sank to his knees in a gruesome crunch. Five enemies remained. Crimson steel struck and slashed in the dimness and Basineus’s blade bit into the neck and spine of the attacker’s comrade.

Tas pulled Vetra and Basineus on up the ravine. Vetra was not averse to following the blood-drenched ranger this time, knowing that it meant death to remain.

Vetra scrambled up the stony defile, Basineus stumbling and cursing all the way, the dying cries of mangled men enveloped and eaten by the carnivorous plants. Booted feet echoed on the stone.

“These catacombs,” Tas gasped between ragged breaths, “I explored when I was here not too long ago.” He shook his head like a dog as he ran. “There is only one way we can hope to double around the mountain from the top.” The ranger pointed up a the rocky cliff face. “We can descend the canyon under cover of night, before the moon rises.” He wiped the sweat from his face and spat on the ground. “The canyon is impassable for many leagues. We must navigate the bridge and cross the wretched border back to Lvendar.” He looked around warily. “We mustn’t be seen, ’tis the haunt of fell beasts and the Karkassian cannibals.”

“What could be worse than Grebu and his ghouls?” muttered Vetra under his breath.

“Trolls, perhaps?” offered Basineus with a sarcastic sneer.

Tas snarled with disgust. “Come on!”

“What of the mission?” quipped Basineus.

“Sod the mission!” thundered Tas. “Everything is lost. Mission, our honour, our life as free men while we wallow in this failure and Ragnum hears of this. We are dead men.”

Vetra grumbled. “Let us go. Grebu will be on to us soon. He’s like a spider free of the web, spinning a worsening web of pain and treachery. He knows every square inch of his lair.”

Through a labyrinth of stony ways open to the sky, the three groped and stumbled their way. Sometimes they passed through a tunnel of rock, and the air would grow damp and dim, but Tas, in the grip of some disquieting trance seemed impervious to all obstacles. He had the red, staring eyes of a werewolf, the strength of five men… Vetra shook his head, remembering how he had lifted a man by the throat in one hand and tossed him into the maja creepers as if he were no more than a sheaf of wheat.

 

It seemed like hours that they had wandered through a maze of narrow, interconnected canyons. With his throat choked with dust and parched from thirst, Vetra could only hear the clopping echo of boots and Basineus’s foul curses. Looking ahead sourly, he saw Tas beating a swift pace, his eyes gleaming in the late afternoon light, reflecting a faraway, frenzied purpose, as if his mind and thoughts were not his own.

Vetra frowned. More of those grisly red bumps had broken out on the man’s brow, adding to the cluster that had first appeared after the slaughter back at the ravine. But Vetra’s mind roved elsewhere, and he trudged on after Tas as the sun dipped lower. The heat lessened, as did the light, three men facing the press of darkness on enemy lands.

The boulder-strewn trail continued down a narrow gorge of crumbling rock. Layers of shale rose in towering folds. To Vetra’s relief, not encrusted or flowered with any of the abominable feelers of Grebu’s creation.

“This maze is going to kill us,” Vetra grumbled to no one in particular.

Tas seemed not to hear. His wolfhound-sharp eyes trained on the shadows. Basineus stumbled on like a man sleepwalking.

At last, they came to a high, stout wooden door, brass-bound, caked with verdigris and set into the rock face. It was much scarred and timeworn, lock and hinges rusted with disuse, as Vetra’s keen eyes took notice; perhaps the secret escape tunnel to some ancient fort, or defensive palisade.

The path ahead continued, winding off into dim shadows. Tas halted, tugging at his chin.

His eyes lit with recognition at the path ahead, and his ears perked up, as would a hound’s upon nearing some unseen foe. Either way, a smile of delight crossed his face and Vetra frowned, fearing the man had started to lose his senses.

“You investigate this door,” the ranger ordered. “I’ll ensure there are no enemies lurking about.”

“But that’s a foolish—” Vetra started, but the ranger was off in a flash, before either Basineus or he could object. “There he goes again,” grunted Vetra, throwing up his hands. “What is it with the man?”

Basineus shrugged. “I’ve a feeling we’re going to run into death soon enough.” He began to hack at the rusted lock that held the great portal shut. “Forget Tas. Brute force may suffice here. Hurry. There could be a well or water spring on the other side. My throat’s dry as sand.”

Vetra lent the butt end of his blade to the hewing, rather than ruining his blade, though the bad feeling in his gut did not lessen.

The ringing of steel on corroded iron echoed about them. The stout balewood shivered. In a spray of sparks, the ancient lock splintered into many rusty shards and they wrestled with the door, heaving and grunting, until it gave way with an abysmal creaking. They edged down a narrow corridor on wary legs. A musty odour crept forth and stung their nostrils; there came the sound of shuffling further on. They crouched instinctively, swords gripped, staring in the sepia gloom. A tense expectancy hung in the air, as thick as drying blood.

Vetra caught his breath. Blurred shapes milled about a large open area exposed to the darkening sky. He strained his eyes. Human figures? Gaunt frames stooping with slow, mechanical movements. He lifted his gaze over the eccentric rock formations. A slave colony of some kind? Curse Tas’s hide—had he led them into a trap?

Suddenly, a stabbing realization smote him when he saw the tall maja plants. He blinked in comprehension, as his eyes adjusted to the dimness.

The place was akin to some dry seabed, a bowl-shaped cavity, a natural pit for prisoners. Strange, curved pathways wove in and out amongst the rubble and the fluted rock carved out over time. Vetra moved forward, sword clenched. Doomed figures hunched in the periphery with picks and hoes in hand, chipping shale to create more arable land; others crouched, watering plants and planting seeds in what scant soil there was. Here was water at least but—

A rustle of movement to the side made Vetra spin on his heels. There in the half cave to the right, he glimpsed a long snake-like trunk, or some fiendish stalk, as it shot back into the gloom. He advanced to get a closer look.

In that long section of pumpkin-like vine was held a large shape—akin to some horrid chrysalis.

His hand crossed blade in front of him. He gave back a short hollow gasp of horror and disgust. Basineus stood frozen like a stone idol.

Vetra staggered back, muttering oaths. Closer inspection revealed the long stalked feeler trailing on the ground and twitching from time to time. It had swallowed a man whole…

The vine was feeding on the corpse’s essence. The man was days dead, his grey skin and withered features seemed only vaguely human through the filmy circumference of the transparent green stalk. It had captured the unfortunate, or contained him, in its green, pulsing housing, like some mutated pupa. The stalk was slowly devouring the victim, curled in the foetal position, like a fly in a web.

Vetra felt the urge to retch at such lunatic atrocity.

One of the emaciated captives wandered over to gaze curiously at the newcomers. He held a battered hoe in hand, wiping snot from his wizened face. In crazed fury, Vetra grabbed the gawker and shook him like a rag doll. “What are you thinking? You callous idiot! Why didn’t you hack the wretch free?”

The ragged man squeaked out a hoarse objection. “Are you crazy? And have that madman Grebu hack us to bits for harming his pets?” The gaunt slave blinked and struggled in the grip of the mercenary. “You don’t know what goes on here! You understand nothing of the workings of this hell.”

Vetra released him, appalled.

The slave ruffled out his tattered garments. “He grows monsters in this hell pit,” continued the malnourished man. “We are all part of Grebu’s madness, his menagerie, destined to die in the belly of one of his fiends, like this one, when we are too old to work.” He stabbed out a gnarled finger at the vile sprawl of vines, bulbs, and sucking plant-like tendrils, the ends which were graced with obscene lips crusted with tiny teeth.

Basineus sneered. “Seems to me as if our ghoul Grebu needs to be put down, like a sick dog.” He took up his sword and hacked at the offending vine, shredding it to pieces. A hissing shriek exuded from the mini mouths of the stalks; pus and gases flowed, causing Vetra and Basineus to gag.

Vetra stalked deeper into the open compound, shaking off his nausea, a man in a trance. He raked at his chin while Basineus trailed behind, a sullen frown on his face, his lips slightly parted.

It was a veritable slave colony, Vetra thought to himself dismally. Up the cliff to the right, a metal hoist and conveyor belt held a system of baskets heaped with harvested bulbs. It was a rudimentary apparatus designed to haul the maja from the pit to the summit. At the crest, a crude wooden crane outfitted with chains transported the cargo to a large circular vat and millstone which doubtless caught and crushed the bulbs. Squinting against the reddening sky, Vetra could see a stone outbuilding with a long, crooked chimney, part of a roasting assembly, he surmised, that cured the crushed bulbs, and extracted the precious, lethal oil. As to what hellish sorcery Grebu applied to his seedlings, was anybody’s guess. All Vetra knew was that sorcery demanded fire. And Grebu would have plenty of it.

He gazed about with growing dismay. The cliffs were insurmountable, if not for a narrow staircase that ran a partial way up aside the conveyor. Now the operation was inactive, as the overlords were engaged elsewhere.

However, Vetra gave little heed to these hoists and baskets stretching up the cliff wall. His attention was focussed on the dispirited huddle who squatted listlessly about a penned-in area. A rustling field of maja buds adjoined the pen. Vetra guessed they harvested the maja stalks before they became man-eaters.

Basineus motioned Vetra aside, inclining his head toward the primitive drays scattered about the fields: “My guess is those chained wretches grow and harvest the plants, while the others cart them to the conveyor.”

Vetra nodded in acknowledgement. And as suddenly, a sharp memory assaulted his brain. A memory buried deep but which cut like a fiery knife. The night Umbrian slavers had stormed his father’s villa and captured his sister Retia years ago. Where she was now, he could not guess, if she were even still alive. The scum of slavers he had never found, but he vowed someday he would extract his revenge, though the trail was long cold.

He trailed in grim silence as Basineus hopped the staked-off fence of ropes and hewed through the thinly chicken-wired pen. Basineus hacked some slaves free of their balls and chains. The two mercenaries stared meaningfully at the mouldy potato peels and fruit rinds that lay at their feet in heaps. Haggard faces peered up at them in glazed torpor, but in spite of the bony limbs, a fierce light shone in their eyes, inspired by the presence of the liberators and the sudden hope of escape.

“We are the sons of slaves,” came the voice of the man Vetra had shaken. Vetra saw half his teeth had rotted away; his tattered garment reeked of piss and sweat. “I remember once working in a dim cave somewhere,” he croaked solemnly, “long years ago, then a harrowing journey by cart to this forsaken pit. Told by Grebu, the plant ogre, to work as my fingers have never worked before! Lest Bekroma, the gluttonous plant monster you slew, make a meal of me. Picking plants, peeling bulbs, though the oil stung my eyes and made my skin burn like nettle stings.” He held up both hands, all raw and pink from the plant excretions. His nails were dirty as pig wallow, caked with years of grime. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks haggard, and he walked with an irreparable limp.

“And why do you not fight back?” growled Basineus.

The man shrugged his crooked shoulders. “He threatens us with death—fodder for Bekroma—forces us to pick the bulbs and fill the baskets. Sometimes the plants grow large.” He lifted a palsying finger to the crop at the outer edge of the compound. “Those grandfathers, they take one or more of us regularly, for the wretched things must eat too.”

Another took up the story, “But Grebu always finds replacements.”

“From where?”

“From these neighbouring hills mostly. There are plenty of wandering tribesmen. But he will go as far as the plains of Galashad to get more. Sobui here, comes from the village of Urkue in a dusty valley.”

Basineus asked, motioning to the primitive drays: “So these barrows—”

The man nodded resignedly. “Crude drays on stone wheels pulled by ropes, raw contraband hauled by us to be transported to Lausern. Those who don’t get eaten, at least.”

Vetra craned his neck and imagined the odious process, as drug lords worked above on the flat top, curing, processing, while the slaves toiled below like ants, hauling cart and drawing stone bucket up the cliff via rope and pulley to meet Grebu’s avaricious demands.

Vetra shook his head in disquiet. He struggled to grasp the madness of it all. But it was too deranged to rationalize, recalling the desiccated corpse being digested in the vine’s pulpy middle.

“No matter,” he said, snapping out of his reverie. “If you want your freedom, then join us! Fight this madman, though it may mean your deaths. You will die, one way or the other, anyway.”

Some shook their heads with vigorous abnegation and cowered back, as if the very thought of crossing their master was heinous; others ground their rotting teeth, licked blackened gums, their eyes glittering like dying embers.

“We were Kalkassians and Galashadians!” cried one fiercely, beating his chest. More joined in the chant, clutching beat-up buckets: “Stripped of our humanity by a despot who reduces us to living corpses! Let us fight! Fight!”

He and Basineus pursed their lips grimly. They set to smashing the chains of those whose ankles were fastened together with a few feet of slack. A long line of them. Only a few roamed free, such as the skeletal man who gaped at them, as if he were dreaming that rescue was possible.

They tensed as a crunch of boots on stone signalled the approach of a figure—Tas, who came stumbling down the pebbly path, breathing heavily, his hair tousled and tawny locks matted with sweat. Something was not right about him, if there ever had been anything right about him.

Vetra motioned to Basineus. Both noted two more bottles of the dark green bulb maja oil at the ranger’s belt. “Where did you go?” he demanded.

Tas shrugged lazily. “I guessed there would be more scoundrels lurking about, so I lay in wait and gutted them like fish. What’s it to you? You should be thankful there are now a half dozen fewer villains to plunge knives in our backs.”

“Appreciated, but unasked for. I see you got your maja juice,” commented Basineus.

Tas gave a noncommittal shrug.

“Good resale value?” quipped Basineus, enjoying the rise he got out of the man.

Tas’s face burned with anger and his fists knotted like iron balls. He advanced on Basineus. “I am collecting evidence,” he growled. “What’s your beef? It would be a waste to leave the contraband behind.”

Vetra smiled unpleasantly. He shook his head in reflection. “You are a dark soul in a dark world, Tas. Or, you are a simpleton in total denial.” He watched the ranger grit his teeth and his facial muscles tighten, as he calculated his next move. The ranger’s fingers hovered over his axe handle. The man looked like some feral animal of the forest, hungry for blood. His bloodshot eyes scanned the brood around him with critical contempt, and breath hissed out in short wheezing pants. Judging from the half empty bottle at his hip, he had downed the other half. There was a haunted, unkempt craziness about his expression, reminiscent of the plant king’s.

The ranger gripped his freshly blooded axe and swung it around in threatening loops. “I’d give my eye teeth to slit that nutcase’s throat!” he cried, glaring with contempt at the gross privation of the grime-caked beings around him.

“You may get your chance,” Vetra intoned. “Look.” He gestured a hand to the lip above. A ponderous shadow flitted above, like some grotesque bat.

“The plant king!” howled a cowering, wasted man, stumbling about the littered yard, awkward in his new found freedom.

Others of his brood had drifted over and quailed in the shadow of that sinister being.

Vetra stared in bewilderment. He and Basineus pushed past a pile of decayed bulbs, reeking of rot and crawling with insects. A low growl burst from Basineus’s throat. He kicked over a lopsided, rusted dray with one wheel missing.

Grebu’s stocky silhouette hopped spiritedly on the ridge’s edge. The madman threw up his hands and some weird pods began to drift down as would lazy leaves in an autumn wind. Was he a magician?

On the high lip of crumbled rock, more figures emerged at his side and scooped up handfuls of the husk-like pods to cast them down. Like a predatory eagle perched on a favourite eyrie, the plant king gazed on the scene below with anticipation.

Vetra squinted up curiously, then his eyes widened in shock and revulsion. Some of the foolish slaves, so used to being dependent on a master for food, reached up to snatch at the floating pods and stuffed them hungrily in their mouths. Their faces immediately turned red and their eyes burned like coals. Horrible moans ripped from their throats.

“Stay clear of them!” cried Vetra. “His cursed bulbs have turned them into ghouls!”

Basineus needed no convincing. He lurched back on his heels, as one snapped at his arm.

Tas looked on in silence, his axe falling limp in his hand, as if part of him knew the ultimate horror that was upon them.

The slaves thus affected, jerked like marionettes and began attacking their peers, taking whole chunks of their throats out with brown-gummed teeth. Their fingernails were clawed and elongated like a werewolf’s, which they used to scratch and rend their fellow slaves’ skin and flesh.

Grebu’s head tipped back in a fiendish mirth and a hideous laugh ripped out of his veined throat, the echo of which rang off the pit’s stone. He hurled down more of the pods, and his tentacled minions at his side aped his obscene action.

The plants below which had been brushed by the pods, rustled and quivered, as if touched by an unnatural wind. The ensorcelled pods drove the plants mad and gave them sinister life. Roots ripped from the soil, pulling pebbly rock up with them. They took tentative steps in unison, like caricatures of demons possessed. To Vetra’s horror, they started to jerk toward him, like an advancing army of corn stalks.

The figure on the ridge was gone. Vetra stared around, hacking at those slaves who had turned against him. As for the plant king, he knew the fiend would be back.

“Take cover, quick—back the way we came,” he yelled at Basineus who was edging away from the advancing stalks and the infected slaves.

Basineus grunted, slicing the arm off a rampaging worker.

The maja stalks quivered forth with fiendish energy; with a moaning whistle to stir the very demons of hell, they moved as one.

The stairway came up to a place thirty feet beside the conveyor, ending in a brass-bound door etched into the cliff. Bolted from the inside, thought Vetra, so not likely a place of escape.

From this door burst a triumphant figure. Grebu! He stood squared in the doorway, his face cast in a ghoulish grin.

“Come, my pets!” he crooned ominously. His tentacle feelers swayed in horrid synchrony with the leaves on his head. He pushed his bulk forward, arms spread, and slowly he sauntered down the crooked steps, like the king of a vast domain. But he halted to survey the effect of his machinations.

A stream of two dozen henchmen poured out of the portal, hefting axes, swords and crossbows. Feral grins shone on their faces. Most were clad in mixes of leather and light armour, but a few were budding mutants like Grebu with tentacles rippling on their shoulders

Some of the slaves whom pods had touched, ramped up their crazy spree and charged into the marching stalks which gripped them and tore at their limbs, sending tendrils through their eyeballs, up through their noses and into their mouths.

Vetra’s roar rose over the inhuman shrieks: “Away from them, you fools!” he called to the slaves who were unaffected. He shoved a wretch roughly aside who would have been speared. Basineus skilfully dodged an invasive stalk that came perilously close to his ear.

Vetra kept turning to glance over his shoulder at the sinister maja stems shambling closer still, dry leaves rustling in nightmarish synchrony. Behind them, they left strewn a trail of mangled bodies.

Tas, at last took up his axe and hewed down a whole row of them.

Strange alchemic accoutrements tinkled on the plant king’s nail-studded jerkin, which Vetra could make no sense of. Whistles and bells carved of bone and shell to invoke spirits? Metallic emblems of coloured metals he had never seen before, smoking with a strange, kelp-like reek? Doubtless, these adornments had infused the pods with malign life. Perhaps the same instruments the plant king used to ensorcel his man-eating strains.

With the stealth of the plant-spider mutant he was, he came weaving toward them. His keen eyes swept the area and stopped at the mangled vine. His face blazed with menace.

“Fool!” he growled at the lead slave. “I told you to guard Bekroma with your life! Now, look what you have done! My oldest and most revered pet!” He took the last few steps down and flew at the gibbering idiot backing away in jerky hops.

Before Vetra could react, vines lashed out from Grebu’s shoulders and lifted the slave off the ground. The man only had time to let out an inhuman scream before a white tendril went through his ear to tickle the brain. Another curled around his eye and entered to come out the back of his head. “That will be your reward,” he raged.

“And now you all shall die!” cried Grebu fanatically. The man dangled inches off the ground and gave a final involuntary twitch. The mutant threw him aside in a lifeless heap.

He turned on Vetra who swung his sword with vindictive purpose.

Grebu dodged. “How do you like my slaves?”

Vetra snarled, twisting sideways to unleash another savage blow. He could not help but gape at the advancing slaves and the red welts on their brows. Infection showed on bare shins and scrawny arms.

“I have tainted them with the bulb, so that they remain enslaved to me, only to me.” He leered at the pitiful opposition that faced him.

A slave frothing at the mouth raked his fingers into the eyes of one of his ensorcelled brothers. Whether in defiance of Grebu’s dominance or out of self-preservation, Vetra could not tell.

“They are not as obedient as you think, Grebu,” growled Tas, lifting aloft his axe, cutting menacing loops at the plant king’s gathering minions. “Perhaps we should haul you forth in chains to till this scrap of land, so that one of your monsters can ingest you alive.”

Grebu laughed. “You have a colourful imagination, ranger. Let’s just say it’s a doubtful prospect at best.”

At a gesture, Grebu’s men, a dozen swarthy, steel-helmed bravos, circled about to block access to the exit to the compound. The advancing stalks guarded their other flank closer to the edge of the pit. The remaining crazed slaves joined their ranks.

Vetra and Basineus crouched like panthers back to back, weapons gripped in white-knuckled fingers, assessing their enemy. That mass that crowded closer with each passing second was a sinister threat. Grim faces of mesmerized men, a few with vines rippling on their shoulders, grunted with the imminent pleasure of gutting men and the reward their master would surely give, for offering up the heads of the rebels.

Tas joined their side like a slinking wolf, his dripping axe a bane for human and plant alike. His face radiated an almost demon-possessed glow. He ripped one of the bottles from his belt and downed it in a single gulp.

“What in Dergath’s name are you doing, you fool?” hissed Vetra, staring in bafflement.

“Break through!” he snarled at them. “And don’t wait up for me.”

He underwent a disturbing transformation, as sinister and unsettling as a witch’s death hex. His face took on a green cast, his eyes dilated, sightless orbs into nowhere. He wobbled on his feet. “Go, I say. Fools! Slay as you’ve never slayed—and die valiantly.” This was his last croak as he rushed giddily to face the monsters that approached from all sides.

He ripped through Grebu’s ranks like a storm-tossed wind, shredding vines and human flesh, while tentacles and stalks rippled out to take chunks out of him.

With wincing horror, Vetra figured the ranger wouldn’t last long. He would be a bloody mess of flesh before the plant king could tilt back his head in ghoulish laughter.

And yet, amidst Tas’s bloody diversion, Vetra gave a war cry enough to chill the blood of any Karkassian warrior. Blade lifted high, he tore into the enemy massed before him.

Corded muscle rippled; steel slashed through ripe flesh and howls came from men’s mouths. He braced his knotted legs and swung again and again, the massive sword taking howling foes square on.

“Straight on, rogue!” he yelled at Basineus who was at his side, scrambling and hewing and needing no prompting. Basineus’s blade sliced into foes and he kicked bloody bodies out of the way, then dashed through the narrow rent in their ranks toward the exit.

The two cut a path side by side through the leather-armoured throng dismembering limbs and slashing throats. Vetra parried and dodged; Basineus ducked and spun. Clinking steel and gut-wrenching howls filled the air. Vetra felt a sharp tug on his left shoulder, realizing an axe head had glanced off his upper arm, somehow finding a rent in his magical armour. Blood spurted from that wound and he snarled in frustration. All in all, a minor flesh wound compared to what Tas must be suffering.

The slaves, mobile at his feet, stumbled along, swinging what picks and warped hoes they had amongst them. Many prisoners died in thrashing agony under the roots of stalks and by the axes of Grebu’s butchers.

Vetra’s weapon was notched and red; his muscled arm was splashed in crimson and gore.

Tas came clambering through, slipping in blood over fallen bodies, a grisly, gore-splattered bear. The maja had lent him miraculous strength and kept him alive. He blocked the deadly cut of a Karkassian hillman, creeping at Vetra’s back, that would have severed his head. He and Vetra exchanged fervid looks, knowing it was a benevolent act of fate. They wasted no time, lunging once more, parrying, burying steel in flesh, pushing on through the shouting throng while blood flew everywhere.

Vetra and Basineus staggered through the wrenched-open door while Tas blundered behind. A bestial look gleamed in his eyes; his jerkin was shredded, face bloodied, but he roared laughter, spitting out blood and a few teeth.

A dozen or more able-bodied slaves clambered after the blood-soaked mercenaries, those who were not mauled by the ghoulish horde, or the man-eating plants. A few had snatched up weapons of the fallen. The rest had perished under the demonic maja stalks or the sorcerous assaults of the plant king who took up pursuit, screeching orders and flinging malignant pods.

The rebels fled up the ravine the way they had come, a narrow, dim corridor, now washed in sultry hues of the gloaming twilight. Grebu’s shrieks tore at their backs as bolts whined by their ears, clattering on the stone around them.

Basineus stumbled, half howling as a bolt grazed his side. He pitched forward, grimacing, picked himself up again. Vetra felt a heavy blow smash into his back, his enchanted armour taking the bulk of the hit. He wheeled about to see, in a flush of florid anger, three ragged shapes of slaves fall shattered, riddled by bolts. The grime-streaked wretches had no chance.

Vetra fled on with Basineus, and Tas now pushed past, taking the lead. While the light grew dimmer, edged with leaping shadows, it seemed that madness and death were all around them, that there would be no chance of escape.

 

IV

 

Tas’s brawny form sped ahead through the gathering darkness, a shape lit only by the first glimmers of moonlight. Vetra kept a brisk pace with the man, his eyes roving for danger while Basineus clambered, nursing a wound, snuffling and panting, not two feet behind him.

The ranger took them on a circuitous route: a blur of shadowy gulches, some no wider than five men abreast, through shadowy tunnels, where rock arched overhead like cathedral grottos from out of time. The blustering voice of the plant king echoed behind with sinister force.

Vetra cast a backward look. Twenty one men were left. The slaves, wearying fast, wheezed and huffed, struggling to keep up to the mercenaries, like old hounds that should have been culled from the pack.

He studied them with critical eyes: a motley group, gripping broken hoes or rusty pickaxes, eyes gleaming, despite the starvation and hopelessness that lingered in those orbs.

At last, the plant king and his minions’ howls and clomping bootfalls faded, thanks to Tas’s ingenious manoeuvring. Vetra hurried on, jaw clenched, bloody sword dripping. Basineus’s face was a gleaming mask in the rising moonlight, his grinning teeth white and shiny in the pale glow.

At times, some dark oval opening appeared in the rock face of the canyon. These the fugitives shunned in light of Tas’s white-eyed scowls which spoke volumes of what horrors and perils lurked therein.

Vetra sensed death and darkness stalking through these shadowy corridors. But he thrust these aside. On he loped after the indefatigable ranger. Tas bled and limped, and contained his pain in a contorted grimace. How could a man endure such a beating and still be standing?

The transformation that had come over the ranger was terrible to witness. He seemed to have retreated into an inner hell, one without bounds. He had only one bottle of his precious maja left, bobbing at his waist; his eyes darted to it every few minutes. Vetra noted the fact, and saw that his hand moved to the gleaming vial, but by superhuman will would go no further. The man somehow squelched the urge to glob it back like a hungry pig laps swill. When that bottle ran out… Vetra frowned. Doubtless these matters were heavy on the ranger’s mind.

Some minutes later, Vetra had a suspicion they were running in circles. Didn’t they just pass this wind-battered fluted pillar of rock? And that darker than dark mouth of a yawning cavern? All these landmarks seemed the same.

At a mouth of a corkscrew-shaped canyon, Tas paused, bringing all to a halt.

An eldritch rustling of unnatural leaves thrust out from the ghostly gloom. On a signal from Tas they dropped to all fours.

Vetra tensed, quivered, as if sensing life in those folds of darkness. None dared breathe. A thrum-thrum and twitching swish like spiders on rock, or root-like feet invested with life.

Tas edged forward; they waited until the horror passed. More of the marching plants! Vetra could see them in the hazy murk, quivering not a few dozen feet away. The plant king must have unleashed pockets of them to hunt down the rebels in these winding canyons with his sinister magic.

A foolish slave whimpered.

The plants halted their sinister motion and reaching to their full height, jerked backward like living, abominable things.

A wild and lusty curse rang from Tas’s lips. “Besthra flog you, you careless idiot!” They all took up voice and ran. The slaves stumbled on.

Basineus trailed behind to belt the offending man in the mouth. Blood ran down his chin. The slave staggered. The lead plants bristled forward with fiendish expectation. The man slipped. The plants caught up to him and pulled him down, engulfing his frail frame in their writhing masses.

Vetra turned his head. The slave’s screams were as a man tortured on the rack. Leafy tendrils groped and writhed; others squeezed and tore. Roots grasped the twitching body and tore chunks of raw meat off.

Vetra winced. He slashed at the offending stalks whipping past to menace him. Dergath, but they were as tall as a bear on its hind legs, wild, waving things! He scrambled back, hacking, sidling left and right like a prisoner under the lash. When it was all over, the victim was indistinguishable from any of the blurred stumps or misshapen boulders that stained this woebegone place.

 

Far up the ravine they came to another stop as Tas doubled over, smitten with a coughing fit, his body convulsing.

Vetra despised halting at this exposed spot, given the horrors that wandered about these nightmarish corridors. But nothing was to be done. The ranger was beset with more seizures, his body bent over, quivering in an obscene paroxysm. His face was green under the ghastly moonlight. How much maja had he consumed in the last few hours? Vetra shook his head in concerned disbelief. The man’s bouts were getting worse.

Tas laughed bitterly. Words spilled from his mouth with the acidity of gall stones. “I know it will kill me in the end,” he croaked. “I’ve seen victims in their final stages. Slavering, monstrous caricatures of living flesh.” His eyes were dilated, his face an unreadable shaman’s mask, lit with a terrible certainty.

Basineus’s face was a mocking leer. “Why do you ingest it, if you know how toxic the junk is?”

Tas’s voice took on a rumble of anger. “You do not know what you say! If you did, you would not pose such a naive question. A few months ago some of the oil spilled on my skin. I was leading an expedition to take out the first convoy, a night job, with my recruits into our band of mercenaries. We intercepted the drug smugglers and we fought. We lost to those fierce mongrels—juiced on maja, their tentacles twitching. A basket of the bulbs fell and the oil trickled out on the stones where I landed.” Tas’s mouth quivered at the memory.

A slave whispered, “I know of what you speak. Ever since Grebu forced me to swallow a bulb whole, I have craved the stuff. It took everything I could to resist that sprinkling earlier Grebu fed us.”

Another voiced his own opinion, grimacing. “He’s right. Now that we’re hooked, we are slaves to the maja. We sneak raw unfiltered bulbs all the time from the early crops when the guards aren’t looking. When Grebu dropped the snap pods on us, most of us lifted our hands. You saw the result.”

Vetra shook his head in undisguised disgust. “You’re all crazy.”

“What do you know, outlander?” sneered Tas. “You’ve never been afflicted by the stuff. It’s like a coal that burns your innards, creates the fiercest craving you can imagine. Just when I think I’ve licked it, the image of the red bulb flashes into my mind, like some pulsing demon. If I’ve gone for a few days without it, I feel numb, chilled to my bones! Even now, I’m resisting the urge to swallow what’s left in this foul vial at my belt. I’ve tried to buck it, but I can’t. The craving always resurfaces, like some slug from the pits of hell.”

The ranger seemed to shake and rock in an even more uncontrollable palsy.

Vetra grimaced. He had seen men wracked by the yellow poppy before, but this was worse. He remembered being posted in the far east, in the rebel lands of Condoria, and witnessed soldiers’ delirium from addiction to the roots of the Angris bush. It was not a pleasant sight.

Tas sat up, coughing. “I curse that rotten hound, Grebu,” he cried. “I curse that I was ever put on this wretched mission and crossed paths with that devil.”

Vetra muttered his endorsement. He shook off the tale-sharing with a shrug. The monsters would be coming for them soon. No time to delay the inevitable.

The slaves were flagging. They loped on, like dead men in a lost dream. Two keeled over. From exhaustion? Dehydration? Heart attack? Vetra would be surprised if any of them made it to the bridge. No time to bury the corpses or put up tombstone markers. The mercenaries dragged them into a nearby cave. The less obvious for trackers to detect their passage.

Vetra was convinced they were hopelessly lost, despite Tas’s denials. He only knew that they were wandering in a land of shades and terrors.

 

A high cave presented itself after a time. They gained its mouth by a steep, winding ledge. No food was to be found in these bare circular confines, only some old bones dressed in cobwebs in a shadowy corner, long chewed and gleaned of gristle. While poking about, Basineus discovered a small pool of water not far from the cave entrance, glimmering under the moonlight between weathered columns of shale. Perhaps it was a natural spring, Vetra mused. The water was brackish, or had some heavy mineral flavour to it. Though his stomach roiled to the greasy taste, he relished it as it slipped down his gullet. Some of the slaves gaped in awe and washed away the layers of grime caked from years of confinement. It was a luxury many had never known in the years of confinement in the pit. Their eyes gaped in the moonlight that filtered through the cave entrance.

“Let us wait here, until Grebu’s ghouls have passed,” asserted Tas. “We will backtrack and brave the bridge in first light. He will not expect it.”

Vetra grunted. He did not believe it, but he was too weary and defeated to argue.

Basineus grumbled oaths and paced about, unable to contain his restless angst. “Where did this fiend come from?” he demanded. “I’ve never heard of him until a few days ago. Gods, but he has the strength of an ox.”

One of the bolder slaves, a man with missing front teeth, balding top with ragged hair trailing to his shoulders, involuntarily shuddered. “The maja bulb has given Grebu extraordinary powers. To others it brings pain, but him it feeds.”

A shaky-handed comrade balled a fist. “The old Karkassian legends foretold of a being with snakes not in his hair, but on his shoulders, who would be a demon amongst men, and create demons of his fellow man.”

Basineus spat out an explosive breath. “You speak of him as if he were a demigod.” He lifted his sword in a blood-caked hand.

The slave shivered. “Rumours run long and rife. A wizard told a tale of stardust falling from the sky, and sprinkling a mountain peak. A Karkassian witch woman, Dalkuusa, was dozing by her night fire one evening. Then the stardust drifted down and set her crackling flames blazing to demonic life. A star sprite sprang out of the hissing flames. It carried her away to a cave in Gromet mountain not two leagues from here.”

“Aye, I’ve heard the tale too,” murmured another. “From the unholy union of the witch and star sprite, came Grebu—cast out of the wild tribes, for his ugliness and deformities. These were too much for the tribespeople to accept. While less than a year old, he crawled, wandering the lonely, deserted hills and learned many unusual things. Communicated with the feral animals, the jackals, the vultures. He danced with the bears and talked with spirits of the night, exploring pits and crevices not known to man in these antediluvian hills. It was said he discovered the maja in a high place on the mountain.”

“A wives’ tale, old man,” crowed Tas. “No one could survive that young in the wilds.”

“’Tisn’t. His sorcerous ability from an early age grew in intensity year by year.”

A shudder passed through the ragged group who listened to the chirps of night insects and the flit of bats echoing in the stone-crumbled canyon.

“It sounds too fanciful to be true,” mumbled Vetra, but a part of him which sheltered his atavistic instincts, felt a certain truth in the slave’s tale, as he did most folklore of the lands.

The company lay down on the cold, dry stone, and slept while they traded guard. Basineus took first watch.

 

An unknown time later, Vetra was jerked awake. Slimy, stinging feelers brushed his cheek. The sword was in his hand. Tas hovered about, cutting rippling vines that sought to curl about his neck.

Vetra lunged to his feet, slashed green shoots from the walking plants as white milky fluid ran in profusion, sizzling faintly as it sprayed on the cave floor. The ranger stood over him glowering grimly, as an army of maja stalks came thrashing in. Dergath! The fiends must have crept in from the back of the cave. That ape Basineus had likely fallen asleep. Doubtless they had wormed their way through some secret passage to penetrate the silent cave. Basineus and he beat their way through the fiendish crop, cursing, though they were being whipped and lacerated by the lashing shoots.

“Dergath’s hells!” Vetra swore aloud. “Is there no end to this nightmare?”

Tas’s grunt was a sarcastic acknowledgement.

With wild abandon, they slashed their way through the foliage. Spidery roots gripped the stone, questing their next step with whispering anticipation. Basineus’s neck was raw with new welts; barbed leaves tore open his leg; his sword swept hissing arcs in a bloody grip. Tas grinned in feral amusement. Madness, lunacy. That’s what this place was.

Mercenary and slave crabbed down the ledge, as the plants jostled after with stiff, awkward lurches.

Outside the cave, the first blood glimmer of dawn was upon them, creeping over the rim of the world.

They dogged their way through the misty gorge, leaving the plants toiling behind.

The stone showed rounded, carven shapes, smoothed by aeons of wind and rain. Shadows fell over the land like dew-dappled rain streamers. A restless wind blew down the canyon, drying the wet blood on their faces.

The canyon was desolate. Some fresh animal tracks showed in the dirt—likely coyotes. A crow squawked over a trapped lizard it held clutched in its claws. A scraggly marpus tree sheltered black ravens that heralded them with baleful croaks, and hawks wheeled in the sky.

They tottered up the ravine, the straggling slaves well back, Tas leading them in a direction Vetra thought, headed vaguely west.

How much time passed, he could not know, for the sun did not penetrate the mist easily in this land of maja.

 

They climbed a boulder-strewn ravine choked with stunted bush, and the pale morning light fell upon crumbled pillars of rock. Vetra’s hopes began to soar.

The reek of drifting smoke filled Vetra’s nostrils. And yet, a sour feeling stirred in his gut once more.

The Karkassians despatched yesterday in the canyon hung from sharpened stakes like ghoulish scarecrows, as if they were grisly reminders, of failure. Sacrifices to mountain spirits? Vetra had no idea. These hillmen’s primitive superstitions were as foreign to him as pure ivory. Or maybe it was Grebu’s ghastly doing?

They passed the corpses with silent unease. Flies buzzed on the rotting bodies; a neck hung loosely with no head, another perched with gaping eye sockets pecked by scavengers.

Up the pebbly ravine they crept in single file like weasels. Minutes passed; they entered the open space where they had held parley so long ago. All was quiet. Too quiet for Vetra’s tastes. Basineus and he traded uneasy glances.

Tas and the slaves padded forward toward the boulders and the slab where they had conversed with the plant king. A heavy mist hung like a thick blanket over the barren stone. The canyon lay like a sleeping snake, cutting through the mist-laden rock like some titan’s scythe cutting through rock and mist.

Vetra noticed small fires glimmering from the caves carved in the hill. A lurking danger pervaded all and hung thick like a predator lying in wait. Humans had been here recently, Vetra knew. Grebu had anticipated their destination as sure as more fiends were waiting for them, like vultures at a slaughter.

Arrows skidded from on high and clattered on the stone around them.

The slaves flung up their arms in panic. Two crumpled in agonized heaps, writhing, quivering shafts buried in their throats.

Tas gave a strangled curse. A long black-fledged shaft skidded into Vetra’s mail, just below the left shoulder and knocked him back a step. He extracted it and grunted an oath. “On! Don’t look back! Across the gap.”

Tas ducked a whining projectile. He staggered in a daze, urging them furiously on toward the bridge. The span swept two-hundred feet across the canyon. He and Basineus ran, stumbling for the sagging, bowed trestle that lay draped in mist and shadow. Vetra gripped his sword. He faced the band of two dozen fresh Karkassians that came bounding out of their hidey holes in the caves up the hill with fur on their backs and axes in their hands. The plant king’s influence must have been broad to include such fierce tribesmen on such short notice.

Grebu raced at their heels. “After them, you fools!” he rasped, panting like a boar in heat.

Too many of the enemy for Vetra’s eyes and he sheathed his sword and sped on with the others, heart pounding with the thought of escaping this nightmare. The bridge lay only a stone’s throw away.

Grebu would lose his advantage, if they could gain the bridge. He hoped the horses were still cached amidst the rocks and weeds on the other side of the bridge.

But he and Basineus ground to a sudden halt. Vetra’s jaw dropped and a pang rose in his chest. Before the first timbers of the bridge loomed a formidable shape, feeding on the fresh corpses left sprawled about from the last slaughter. The sinister shape lifted its head. The wild Karkassians also halted in their tracks, grunting with dismay. trading shocked murmurs.

The plant king hitched himself forward. “Why do you stall, you cowards? Move on!” His boot found the shin of a shaven-headed warrior and he laid him low with a sharp, savage blow to the skull.

“The troll, lord, it is feeding,” croaked another. “It will—”

“To fiend’s hell with the troll! Slay them! I want them all dead!”

The tendrils on the plant king’s shoulders flicked riotously in disquieting foreboding. The hillmen ground their teeth; many shied away from their bristling overlord, rather choosing to face the lurking troll.

“No—I want them alive! They will be fed to Zbeus, my successor grandfather maja. I will watch these rebel scum worm in his vine-belly for a week as his fluids eats them away. Zbeus will seed the next generation of our plants. He needs human flesh to seed my crops!”

Ponderous were the plant king’s pronouncements, but more frightful and hideous yet was the formidable troll that hunched like a shadow cast by one of the great beasts of yesteryear. It surveyed the cringing men as if they were mere, insectoid curiosities.

A grimace froze on Vetra’s face. His knuckles clenched whitely on his hilt. There was no battling this primeval beast. It would amount to an attempt at the impossible. But could any of them get by it? Doubtless the beast had been attracted by the smell of blood of the corpses from afar. Vetra had heard rumour of these creatures loping for miles to feed on fresh flesh.

Tas sought gingerly to edge around the troll, giving the creature wide berth while it continued to feed, as the slaves behind kept a sidelong course to the bridge. Vetra and Basineus made no more noise than slinking rodents on their heels. Grebu howled an order, and his band surged forward.

The sudden motion alerted the beast. It lifted its bear-like snout and emitted a feral roar, blood and rotten offal trailing from its grizzled jowl. The troll hitched its lumbersome bulk toward Tas who was closest, looming up in his path like a ghoulish monstrosity.

The ranger jerked spasmodically; he skittered for safety, axe in hand, up the bridge.

The troll caught up in three bounds. A massive paw swatted out, sending the fleeing man careening into the bridge railing like a rag doll. Vetra rushed forth onto the bridge and laid a sword to the beast’s matted hide. He leapt back in time to avoid the snapping jaws that sought his throat while Basineus charged in to hack at the creature’s leg, prompting a spurt of black blood to spew from the wound. The troll snorted out a bellow through its nostrils; it lurched forward on its good leg. The mercenaries ran, and while the hillmen charged in, the two split in either direction, leaving the hillmen exposed to the monster’s teeth.

The troll smashed its bulk into the fur-clad men like a battering ram, crushing bones and skulls like grapes. One victim it lifted over its head and broke his back over its knee, gnawing the man’s head off. It snapped out a dripping fanged maw and bit the head off another who came too close.

Grebu, grunting curses, hopped in frustration. “Kill it! Are you imbeciles? A hundred talons for the live heads of the rebels. Bekroma’s blood! I see I must do this job myself!” He slipped around the bloody back of the fighting men and tore after the escaping mercenaries, arms and tentacles outstretched like the plant aberration he was.

In spite of their initial hesitation and devastating losses, the Karkassians were not cowards, and by sheer numbers they beat the troll back onto the bridge. Each struggled to reach the greater prize, the fleeing rebels and Grebu’s promise of reward.

The combined weight of the troll and the men had the timbers groaning. The rush of more enemy feet increased the sag. And still, the timbers creaked and sagged to the rush of more enemy feet.

Vetra and Basineus leaped over fallen bodies, dodged blades in their lurching scramble away from the teeming enemy and the teeth of death. They must break through the net, get past the troll and cross the bridge. The straggling slaves who had not made it across already, fell with bolts in their backs or reeled back with gaping sword wounds through their gullets.

Tas and the first wave of slaves stood panting midway across the bridge. The ranger proceeded across the remaining distance, a stretch of no more than hundred feet, but Vetra saw Tas hesitate. He had only a stone’s throw to traverse and disappear into the foliage.

Vetra’s eyes widened. The ranger came loping back to savage the troll from behind. He fixed his axe head in its tough hide.

The beast turned in a shuddersome roar, lunging for him. Tas rumbled out a laugh, and ducked and skirted its sweeping arm. He was an addict with nothing to lose.

Vetra watched him guzzle the last bottle in a single, fierce gulp. The ranger staggered back, shaking his head like a rain-soaked dog. His eyes turned upward as an ecstatic man would, but those same eyes opened in wide, fearsome vengeance, and his bloodshot orbs turned from not red to white but red to yellow while his brow burst in a crop of red welts, his face greened like algae. It seemed as if he felt not his hurts from the troll. And he stared down the thing, as if it were no more than a huge, overstuffed rabbit.

The troll paused, hissing out a quiet breath. Even its primitive brain seemed to struggle with the concept of some creature much punier than itself facing off eye to eye, neither cowering nor fleeing in the wake of its fierce might.

Its jaws opened wide and it threw back its head. Despite the bolts thwacking into its back, it loosed another thundering roar, which blew the tawny hair of Tas’s head back like straw.

But Tas did the oddest thing. He ducked that sweep of hairy clawed arm and swung under its legs like an acrobat and brandishing an axe in bloody salute, smote head on into the slack-jawed Karkassians. It was as if the maja had invested him with insuperable courage.

With ear to ear grins, Vetra and Basineus sprinted forward, running right up the middle of the parted line. They hewed and roared war cries, and heads flew from shoulders and blood sprayed in crimson sheets.

Grebu charged in, shrieking orders to his astonished men.

While the Karkassians recovered their wit, and trained crossbows, troll and mutant faced each other. But the troll wheeled with a death-defying snarl as bolts thunked into its hide. It cast about, blinking at audacity of such ant-like vermin that dared to harry him and tempt death.

Now arrows buzzed like bees around Vetra. In panic he flung the plant man to his side to shield himself from the arrow storm. Tendrils whipped out from the creature’s shoulders and lanced into Vetra’s ribs. He cried out in agony as they found the hole in his enchanted mail. He whipped his body around and cut the offensive festoons loose. An arrow slammed into Tas’s arm and his face contorted in a flinching grimace, but he just rained more terrible blows on his snarling, bearded foes. Basineus caught a bolt in the ankle and he blundered sideways, groaning in pain, almost knocking Vetra off his feet. The plant king’s tendrils lashed out and caught the stumbling Basineus’s left arm, piercing leather and flesh.

Basineus loosed a howl. He slashed out at the offending shoot with his free arm. He rolled free, staggering to a crouch, pulling the hateful, writhing white shoot out from his arm.

Fire pulsed in Vetra’s veins. The figures before him were like so many waxed dolls; in a dream haze, he hewed and hacked at them like a doomed avenger in slow motion. His mighty thews laid steel into flesh; he leaped over broken bodies and pools of blood.

His blade arched scything loops. Grebu, who crouched gore-splattered before him like some grinning, gruesome toad, was a monster who needed to be put down. How he would like to be the one to do it!

Grebu moved in to spring, but the troll’s shadow fell upon him like a chill rain.

The creature tore off Grebu’s rippling tendrils from his left shoulder and flung the offensive things into the canyon below.

The plant king keened a dismal screech, as would lift the hairs on a hyena’s back.

Vetra danced in with wild triumph, dodging the troll’s mallet-hand and drove in to stab through Grebu’s other shoulder.

The plant king hardly felt it; the thing had the vitality of a jungle tiger and he lunged in to ravage Vetra with his remaining tendrils. The mercenary ducked the lashes and dove behind the troll.

Grebu’s tentacle stumps flapped uselessly, slapping at faces and arms, leaving cuts. Victims were lying on the ground, some blooded, some dazed, most crawling painfully to get away.

The troll grabbed Grebu by a leg and whirled him round and round and threw him headlong into the Karkassian horde. They toppled back, crushed and maimed. The plant king lifted himself up slowly in dazed confusion, shaking the black blood out of his eyes.

Tas still menaced the Karkassian throng and took them all on at once, so juiced was he on the maja. Basineus was at his side, flailing jerkily, revelling in the invincible ally he had. The ranger’s axe rose and fell in red ruinous sweeps, cleaving heads, arms and shoulders. Basineus stabbed and skewered, from time to time stomping boots into faces of men who fell reeling before Tas’s murderous sweeps, and plunged axe into fallen men’s hearts. Gore flew everywhere, and vultures wheeled on high, in frenzied anticipation of the ghastly feasts to come.

A shudder coursed through Vetra’s body, but he swung his sword in a bloody, two-handed grip and cracked a Karkassian’s skull like an egg. Now it was time to flee this nightmarish scene of carnage.

He vaulted over bodies, and Basineus and Tas parried enemy blades in their stumbling rush away from the swarming tribesmen and the trollish teeth of death.

A roar from behind and the bridge timbers quivered to thundering footsteps. Vetra wheeled briefly to see the godawful troll, punctured by dozens of wounds, lurching in to rend them, having taken care of the bulk of the Karkassians. Despite losing blood and weakening, it was in no way yet a dismissible threat.

The last archers amongst the company made the mistake of peppering the monster with more black-feathered shafts. The onslaught only angered the beast all the more. The arrows stuck in its tough grey hide but did not penetrate the pulsing organs beneath.

The troll swept out a mallet paw at Basineus, who ducked, but not fast enough and the massive fist grazed his side and sent him sprawling. He lay on his back, hands clutching at his midriff. More arrows came whizzing out of the thinning mist. Still the troll came on, oblivious of its wounds.

It mashed men like flies.

But a fierce cracking and snapping of timbers brought new cacophony to the already chaotic scene. Vetra whirled, gaping as a wide crack spread under his boot heels.

Desperately he took two quick bounds toward Basineus and pulled the supine man along by an arm down the bridge.

“Leave me, you fool. I am a dead man,” croaked Basineus.

Vetra shook his head as the planks buckled under his feet. “Never! I will not leave you in jeopardy.”

“You’re as stubborn as an ox!” The mercenary coughed. “Can’t say as I’m complaining.”

Vetra’s right leg plunged through the timbers. Cursing fiercely, he pulled himself up and continued dragging the wounded mercenary down the heaving, shuddering way. He lurched and fell again. Under the troll’s weight, the planks were crumbling fast, taking men and half-plant mutants with them.

Tas reached safety first and grabbed Vetra by the arm and hauled him the last few feet before Vetra slid down the buckling way. Vetra rolled on his stomach and swung out a hand and barely caught Basineus’s wrist in time before the timbers shattered and ripped away, sending screaming tribesmen plunging to their deaths, and a roaring troll and flailing plant mutant smashing on the jagged rocks far below.

Vetra roared, “Here, quickly, help me get this lug up!”

Tas grasped Basineus’s blood-soaked waist and helped drag the injured man up. The mercenary lay wheezing on his back in the dust, moaning and gasping and a general sorry mess. Tas and Vetra crouched there like battered wolves, trading grimaces, panting and muttering.

The few enemy stragglers who halted at the other side, were stranded on Lvendar territory and stared dumbstruck at the destruction, wondering if they still owed a dead master their allegiance.

Evidently not—they loped into the wastes while a few surviving Karkassians shook fists at them from the other side of the ruined bridge. Bolts flew from this assemblage but landed harmlessly at the mercenaries’ feet.

Vetra laughed, his vindictive wrath reaching an apex. Their opposition was reduced to no more than a half dozen. He pulled a shaft from his boot; one had lodged also in his side, stuck within the leather and rings. Tas had a black-fletched arrow protruding from his upper arm, passing out the other side, but it was if the man felt no pain. Vetra stared, uncomprehending. Tas and what few slaves remained hobbled toward the wooded hillside where the horses lay tethered. Vetra hoisted up Basineus’s hulk, an arm wrapped around his shoulder, and joined them, feeling the wild beating of his heart and aching in his temples subside to a dull throb, as he listened to the sounds of dying and mayhem below from those who still clung maimed to the canyon walls.

A few of the slaves who had managed to clear the bridge bobbed at Vetra’s side like abandoned children. “Give us food. Food and water, we ask.”

Vetra glared. “Unless you want to munch on decayed flesh, or troll’s fare, you’ll get none.”

“There’s food up in the outpost stores,” murmured Tas, flicking a hand toward the wooded slopes. He was still in a delirium of shock and hypertension, as he scratched absently at a blackened wound on his neck. “A league or two yonder maybe. Unless your Karkassian brothers have looted it.”

The survivors scrambled up the broken path like starving lemmings.

“Wretches,” mumbled Tas loosely. “You should have left them back there to rot in the slave pit.”

Vetra scowled. “Even slaves deserve a chance at life.” He moved toward the horses.

“And you, mercenary,” Tas said to Basineus, “you look in bad shape.”

“You not much better, ranger.” Basineus laughed bleakly, spitting blood. “I’m glad of your insane charge back there. I don’t know how you pulled it off. You should be dead with all that maja and the beating you took. So what now?”

“I already am dead,” groaned Tas fatalistically. “The Lvendar justice will hunt me down with their bounty hunters soon enough for this cock up.”

“Why is it a cock up?” Basineus grunted painfully. “The plant king is dead.”

“Dead, yes.” Tas shook his head. “But like a bad weed the trade will start up again. Trust me. All that matters is that there’s more maja to harvest here. There will be others who answer the call. All the lords want is their stupid scrap of paper. Without it, they’ll treat this mission as a failure, and me to blame.”

Vetra shrugged wryly as if in silent accord. Basineus admitted as much.

Tas was peppered with gashes and ugly wounds. By all odds he should be three steps in the grave. Yet the man was still standing. Vetra frowned. “Are you a ghoul?” He looked at him with awe, yet not without a certain wariness.

“Let’s move,” Tas grumbled. He staggered up toward the stand of boulders where the first horses stood, while he bled from a dozen suppurating wounds. “Let’s just say I have nine lives.” His blood-flecked grin flashed in the sunlight, bits of flesh still clung between his teeth, remnants of his chewing through a Karkassian’s neck in a close quarter death-wrestle, as if he, like the ghoulish plants, had become a man-eater. Vetra shuddered, stepped a repulsed pace back.

“It would have become obvious to my lords and bosses that I’m messed up with the bulb and that it contributed to the blunders with the bowmen’s deaths. I’d be court-martialed before the sun rose and strung out to dry; maybe even put to the executioner’s block.” He turned bitterly toward the mercenary. “So, your job I take it, was to despatch me—or bring me in.”

“Yes,” admitted Vetra. Lying to the man would accomplish nothing. “But I have no desire to do so.”

“What do you mean? That you’ll vouch for me to Ragnum?”

“No. How be you just disappear?”

“As in—?”

“Meaning, I look the other way.”

Tas loosened the tethers and took his roan down to the bridge side where he snatched up as many of the green bottles of maja from the corpses strewn on the last timbers, as he could. He returned, gave a grim, grateful salute and mounted his steed and was gone.

Basineus scratched his bleeding scalp, his eyes troubled. “You let him off that easy? How are we to explain to Kalvium his absence?”

“Think again, Basineus. He saved our hides ten times over. The least we can do for him is grant him his life, however short it may be.” The mercenary looked off into the thinning mist and shuddered, thinking of the painful road of addiction that valiant man would still have to face.

Vetravincus shook his massive shoulders and the blood from his face. It was a long ride back to Lausern—it would be slower with Basineus in his maimed state. Nor did he like breaking the news of the Lvendar casualties to Ragnum, but he could almost see the curl of vindication on the old Lord’s face when he told him that the plant king was finally dead, and his daughter avenged.

He turned his eyes northward and a grim resolve flared in his breast: to attempt once more to track down those scum of raiders who had stolen his sister so long ago.

 

  • * *

So ends Book I of Vetravincus’s adventures…

 

Watch for new releases

 

If you like this book, be sure to read:

 

Beastlayer : Rise of the Rgnadon

Conan: the Dragon of Skar

Curse of the Crugmut

 

And read all of Chris’s free books here:

http://innersky.ca/booktrack

 

Other books by Chris Turner:

  • * *

Fantastic Realms

The Relic Retriever

Freebooter

Denibus Ar

Future Destinies

 

Discover other titles by Chris Turner at Shakespir.com:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/Innersky

 


Avenger : a skulls and swords fantasy

From the desert oasis of Dragonskull to the priest-haunted gullies of Gyzia, Vetravincus, wandering mercenary and swordster, battles gods, demons, drug lords and villains in his quest to uphold justice in a lawless world. Tombs of plunder blessed by ancient gods, demonic idols sprung to life by treacherous wizards, no commission is too small for this minstrel of the sword with a fierce heart for the underdog. Three tales of adventure and skullduggery to satisfy all lovers of sword and sorcery.

  • ISBN: 9781927117804
  • Author: Chris Turner
  • Published: 2017-08-25 02:20:17
  • Words: 116114
Avenger : a skulls and swords fantasy Avenger : a skulls and swords fantasy