Chapter Nine

 

The Rukon

 

Ran’Atao didn’t know where he’d been transported to with the members of his squad when the portal appeared in his hometown, but he didn’t care at all for the environs the group had shown up in.  The area appeared desolate and desert-like.  Sand dunes and hills stretched for miles in all directions for as far as he could see, with the only break in his view being a far-off encampment of what he could only assume were locals.  He alone stood among his squad, for the others he stood near hadn’t yet regained consciousness.

 

Ran’Atao stood at eight and a half feet in height, and had the build of a steroid-fueled monster.  His thigh alone stretched as large around as most of his comrades’ throats.  He wore the long, black baggy pants and plain white v-necked tunic that were the traditional garb of his countrymen.  On his right hip rested the sword that was his weapon and symbol of his status among his country’s armed forces, while on his left hip was a wooden flask in which he kept a goodly supply of beer.

 

His tunic was not tucked into his white sash, and the wind fluttered the bottom up, briefly revealing the wraps around his stomach and midsection.  His knuckles crackled vulgarly as he flexed his hands, the purple flesh of his body dry from the lack of atmospheric moisture, and wondered how he and his companions had survived the tumble through the portal into this wasteland.

 

With the exception of his size and the coloration of his skin, anyone from the world he was presently interred in would assume he was simply a Human, albeit a strangely dressed one with an impressive sword at hand.  He had mostly Human facial features, and his hair was oily and black like some members of Tamalaria’s Human Race.  But he was not Human, not even in his own world, where his job, as well as the job of his companions, was the protection of Humans and their souls.

 

He was Ran’Atao, captain of the 112th Humanoid Protection Squad.  He was what the Humans of his world called a Rukon, and the sheath of his blade was emblazoned with characters which, in his world, translated to say, ‘High Holy Protector, Shield of the People and the House of Bakon’.  In this world, however, he was a stranger, and he didn’t feel very good about that at all.

 

“Don-Shin,” Ran’Atao said, slapping one of his companions in the cheek, trying to wake him up.  “Don-Shin!”

 

“Captain,” a weak voice muttered from behind the enormous Rukon. Ran’Atao turned around, remaining on his haunches as he did so, and was amazed to see that Chuchurin, the smallest and probably physically weakest of his unit, was moving around, trying to sit up.  Like Ran’Atao he appeared mostly Human, but Chuchurin didn’t have the monstrous size or brute, stone-like features of his commanding officers.  In most worlds, he would have been considered a pretty boy.

 

“Chuchurin, you’re awake,” Ran’Atao said, getting up and sauntering over to his ally.  Dressed the same as Ran’Atao, Chuchurin also had a fine blade sheathed at his hip.  However, his would say the same as the other three men of the unit, which was simply ‘Holy Protector, Shield of the People’.  “Thank goodness,” Ran’Atao said, offering the smaller purple-fleshed man one of his huge hands. Chuchurin took two fingers in hand and hauled himself up, shaking his head.  His long blond hair was matted with sweat to his head, but he didn’t seem to notice for the time being.  Small blessings must be appreciated, Ran’Atao thought.  When he realizes the state he’s in, he’ll be off to the races.

 

“Captain, what happened,” Chuchurin asked, his voice light and feminine. “The last thing I remember was being sucked into a portal of some kind.  Are the others all right,” he asked.  At this Ran’Atao had to hesitate a moment, because the other men were not all right at all.  Five members of his unit, including himself, had been pulled into the portal that had appeared over the Center of Justice building in his hometown.  Of the four in his command, Ran’Atao had only found two of them still alive.

 

“You, Don-Shin and I are just fine, though I can’t wake him up,” Ran’Atao said, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the unconscious heap that was Don-Shin.  “Benji and Mitsughishi, however,” he said, lowering his eyes.  Chuchurin hissed air through his teeth, and gasped when he looked to where Ran’Atao pointed next, in the direction they would soon learn was south.  There, a dozen or so yards away, lay two more men, their necks broken at obscene angles.

 

“Oh, gods,” Chuchurin whispered, scrunching up his face at the sight of his fellow officers.  “How the hell did we survive?”

 

“Don’t forget, Chuchurin, that they were pulled through that portal first,” Ran’Atao said, folding his thick, covered arms over his broad chest.  “Most likely the portal still had a great deal of force then, and this is the result.”

 

“Captain, where is the portal anyway,” asked Chuchurin, looking around the desert landscape.  Ran’Atao shrugged his shoulders in a way that inferred that he didn’t know, or much care.  The truth of the matter was, he did care, and quite a great deal.  Something about the quality of the air in this world, regardless of the fact that it was desert air, made him feel a little hinky.  He couldn’t clearly define hinky for himself at the moment; he just didn’t like this world they’d been deposited into.  “What should we do for now, sir?”

 

“You’re going to use your healing powers on Don-Shin, and get him woken up,” said Ran’Atao, using his tone of authority toward his subordinate.  It certainly wasn’t necessary, because he had these men’s loyalty without question.  However, he needed to put his own mind back into order, and acting as he usually did in a hostile situation would help him to do that.  “Once he’s awake and moving about, we’re going to head over to that encampment, see if we can’t get some help or information from the locals.  Understood?”

 

“Yes sir,” Chuchurin said, hustling over to where Don-Shin lay prone in the sand.  Ran’Atao, meanwhile, hunkered down close to the sand, and wondered about the world he was currently breathing in.

 

Two days had passed since Stockholm’s company had come back through the rift into their own realm of Tamalaria, and they had made little progress in that time.  Much of their time upon returning had been spent with Stockholm sealing the rift while Timothy and Hina scoured the area for their mounts, which they found in a wooded grove to the north of the rift’s location.  With Stockholm’s reserves of energy expended, they’d been forced to walk along with the Red Tribe Werewolf at a sluggish pace.

 

The next day hadn’t been much better, but this was mostly due to the fact that they’d had to stop and hunt for their meals.  Late into the evening, they came upon the small township of Hummel, where they got rooms at an inn at Stockholm’s expense.  “Thank your gods the fine officers of the NYPD didn’t decide to keep your gold pieces,” Ashford said after being handed a key to one of the rooms rented.  “Gold’s worth an awful lot back where I’m from, and I’m sure it’d been worth plenty in that version of my world too,” he said.

 

Now, as the sun came up over the horizon in the distance, Ignatious Stockholm sat up and swung his legs over the side of his rented bed, rubbing his eyes.  The last rift in reality lay in the Desperation, the vast expanse of desert in the southeastern region of the continent.  At their current pace, it would likely take a week and a half to get there, maybe a little longer.  Normally he wouldn’t mind the expenditure of time, but something was gnawing at him, some intangible concern.  This early in the morning, before having any coffee, he judged his thoughts too sleep-addled to get a grasp on the issue playing in the back of his mind.

 

A muscle spasm in his arms brought him violently awake, and he ground his teeth together.  He knew he still hadn’t fully recovered from the effort required to seal the second rift, and when he thought back on how much power he’d had to pour into the task, he realized what was plaguing his thoughts this early morning. It seemed that the longer the rifts remained open, the more difficult it became for him to seal them shut again.  If it took him, Timothy, Hina and Bradley a week and a half to reach the final rift, would he even have the power required to seal it?

 

“Time to pray,” he muttered aloud, and sent his spirit soaring skyward.

 

Oun never felt comfortable being alone with Death, but sometimes he felt compelled to confer with the Honored Guest.  Death seemed to hold a certain otherworldliness to all of the gods, Lesser and Greater alike, and Oun suspected that the life forms that had appeared in the Desperation might be under this Death’s jurisdiction.  He had posed just that question, and been told that yes, the beings were from a world under Death’s watch.

 

SO IF YOU’LL EXCUSE ME, OUN, I MUST GO PERFORM THE DUTIES TIED TO MY OFFICE, Death said before slashing the air in Oun’s study/office.  COULD YOU DO ME A FAVOR AND LET MAXI STAY HERE UNTIL I COME BACK FOR HIM?  Maxi, Oun thought, such a strange little animal.  Maxi was Death’s pet, a dog that had been killed on the Mortal Plane and now took the astral form of a half-rotted canine that reeked to no end of decay.  Oun made a face, but nodded his acceptance.  THANK YOU EVER SO MUCH, MY GOOD MAN, Death said, stepping through his own portal to the Mortal Plane.

 

Oun shivered, and despite the dog’s presence, felt quite relieved to be rid of Death’s aura.  However, he no more than shuffled a few of the various papers on his desk when another aura began asserting itself in his office, near his couch. “Oh, who now,” he mumbled, looking at the dog with it’s mutilated-looking face, panting at him.  “Don’t look at me,” he snarled at the mongrel.  There came from his couch a blare of reddish light, and then a popping sound as Ignatious Stockholm, in astral form, materialized on his long couch.  Oun was momentarily taken back; had he called the man here and then forgotten about him?  If not, then how had Stockholm been able to insinuate himself here, into his very sanctum?

 

Because he’s a Greater God, banished or not, he thought as the Red Tribesman sat up on his couch, rubbing his head in clear discomfort.  “Nee-yinga that smarts,” Stockholm whispered.

 

“Oh, come on in, show yourself at home, I don’t mind at all,” Oun sniped as viciously as he could at the banished god Ignatious Stockholm.

 

“Actually, the phrase is make yourself at home, and thanks, I will,” Stockholm said, grinning at Maxi.  The astral/undead dog padded over to him, bone tail thrashing the air as it swished back and forth, wafting its stench back at the Greater God of order.

 

“What are you doing here, and furthermore, how did you get here,” Oun snapped, pounding one mailed fist on his desktop.  Stockholm patted Maxi’s head, and even stroked his misbegotten head a few times before letting the dog sit next to his leg.

 

“Well, as for the reason, I have a few questions for you or Lenos, whoever can give me an answer,” said Stockholm.  “As for how, well, this did used to be my office, way back,” he said with a grin.  “Coming here is easier with the return of some of my powers, you see.”

 

“Hmm, I do see,” said Oun, heaving a sigh and bringing his temper into check.  “Well then, what’s your question,” he asked, his fingers folding his fingers together on his desk top.

 

“There’s only one rift left, and it’s in the Desperation,” Stockholm said. “Myself and my companions are about a week and a half, two weeks away from it. I need to know if the rift is going to widen or get more powerful between now and then,” Stockholm said.  Oun didn’t like to think about that, because the answer to the first part of the question was no, but the second part was yes.  The rift would retain its size, but become more powerful despite Guirdejef’s imprisonment.  Even once sealed away once more, the half-crazed god’s rift in reality would gain strength, stability, while it tore away at the fabric of realities it connected.   If not sealed in enough time, it would grow into a permanent portal, forever connecting the two worlds it existed between.

 

“Ignatious, the portal will retain its size, but will grow in strength until it has a permanent foothold in this reality.  Bad enough that there’s already two of those around from the first time Guirdejef went on a portal creating rampage,” the Greater God grunted.

 

“There are two permanent portals,” Stockholm asked, genuinely surprised.

 

“Yes, though we don’t like to talk about them,” Oun said, waving his hand in a manner that said ‘don’t go there’ to the Red Tribesman.  “Suffice it to say, however, that we have one of those portals to thank for the advent of the Jaft Race in our Mortal Plane.  Though they are simple-minded brutes for the most part, I have my fair share of followers from their more civilized quarter.”

 

“Well, that’s certainly handy information, but doesn’t bear much on this situation,” Stockholm said gently.

 

“Oh, but it does,” said Oun fiercely.  “I have seen the creatures that came through that third portal in the Desperation, Stockholm, and let me make this point perfectly clear.  If you have to engage them in hostile action, you are going to find yourself hard pressed to come away with a clean victory,” Oun said.  “The Heavenly Investigations Squad has done some rooting around, and they’ve discovered that the in the world these creatures come from, they are guardians of some sort known as the Rukon.”

 

“You rolled out the Investigations Squad for this,” Stockholm asked, a slight grin creasing his face.  “You must be pretty concerned then, I take it.”

 

“We are,” said Oun, maintaining his calm as best he could.  “In the world these Rukon inhabit, Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes are all lumped into the same classification, that being Human.  The difference in Race is referred to as a difference in Tribe in their world, much as your Werewolves have different Tribes according to fur color and lineage.”

 

“Aye, I grasp that,” Stockholm said.  “I fail to see the problem, however.”

 

“These Rukon’s task is to defend the Humans of their world from the demon Tribes.  One such group is the Lizard Demon Tribe,” Oun said meaningfully, letting the statement hang in the air.

 

“Oh mighty gods,” Stockholm whispered.  The Desperation!  That great desert land was inhabited almost solely by Lizardmen, Draconus and a few straggling Sidalis packs!  If these Rukon, whatever they were, held the sort of power to warrant a Heavenly Investigation, they could decimate entire nomad villages of the reptilian Races that lived there!

 

“You see now the danger in the situation,” Oun said.  “If our world remains attached to theirs, and the connection becomes permanent, there’s no telling when more of them might come bursting through and waging war on the assembled Races that aren’t Human, Elven, Dwarven or Gnomish.  There is one thing going for you, however,” Oun said.

 

“And that is?”

 

“In their world, there is a group of Rukon who have the ability to take the form of great man-beasts, and they are known simply as Shifters.  With any luck, if you come upon these Rukon, they may mistake you for one of their own Shifters,” Oun said.  “I’m afraid that at this time I can’t divulge any more information to you, Ignatious.  You have to simply get a move on and get to that rift, get it sealed, before the connection becomes permanent.”

 

“These Rukon,” Stockholm said, feeling himself being pressed almost physically by the will of Oun, back toward the Mortal Plane.  “Am I to make them return to their world if at all possible?”

 

“In a few hours, I don’t think that will be an option,” said the Greater God cryptically, and with that sentence echoing in his head, Ignatious Stockholm’s astral body was launched back to the Mortal Plane by the roughest of hands.

 

“Hey, are you alive in there,” Hina asked loudly as she banged once again on Stockholm’s door.  Timothy and herself had awakened that morning perhaps an hour before dawn, and had engaged in a swapping of tales from their youth that made them both long for home and peaceful surroundings.  However, their journey was only perhaps two-thirds of the way over, and they both knew it.  Their wandering days might not even end with the closing of the third rift.  They had both achieved what Hina’s father referred to as ‘The Travel Sickness,’ which according to him was a life-long mental condition that left a person wanting to roam for all the days of their life.  In truth, neither would have much minded such an affliction.

 

Now, however, they’d been standing outside of Stockholm’s room and pounding on the door for a good ten minutes.  Finally, they heard a muffled reply, though Tim, with his ear pressed to the door, wasn’t sure the Red Tribe Werewolf was talking to them at all.  “Pushy bastard,” he heard Stockholm say, and nothing more.  Surely Stockholm wasn’t talking about him or Hina, was he?  Tim thought not, but knew that he’d himself had occasion to be angry at whoever was waking him up, even his own mother.

 

The door swung inward on its hinges, and Stockholm stood in the doorway, pulling his brigandine vest on over his upper body.  He checked his axe with one hand, then nodded to the mages.  “All set.  Let’s get something to eat and then get the dust of this town off our heels.  We’ve got to get to the Desperation.  Where’s Bradley?”

 

“He went ahead to get us a table at the diner across the street,” Hina said. “The Desperation.  That’s the desert in the southeast, right?”  Timothy and Stockholm both nodded, though only the latter had actually visited those mostly barren sands.  “Any idea what we’re going to run into there?”  And with that question, Stockholm once again felt the need to lie a little to his magically inclined compadres.

 

“Not a clue, but we’ll find out when we get there,” he said.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky and whatever’s there will be having a tea party or something,” he said with a wry smile.

 

“Oh yes, a tea party,” Hina said, cracking a smile of her own.  “There’ll be tea and crumpets, and dipping bowls filled with stuff that’s made from pig’s blood, or something equally nasty!  And don’t mind the tentacles folks, or the oddly bent chairs, pull one up and have a spot of the queen’s finest,” she said, her tone running downward with this last little bit of mockery.

 

“Gods alive, you’ve got quite the tongue on you in the mornings,” Timothy commented, giving Hina a good-natured shove.

 

“Better than your breath at the same hour,” she chided, which was met by the Void Mage and Werewolf’s approving laughter.  Together they headed to the diner across the street from the quaint little hotel.  The place wasn’t much of a such, but at this early hour was a hurly-burly of activity, and Stockholm was heartened to see Bradley Ashford, in full uniform, waving them over to the table he’d reserved for them.  He had his speed-shooter propped in the booth next to him, a luxury that the man probably only ever enjoyed normally while on a dangerous assignment.  In Tamalaria, putting one’s weapon next to them while eating out was a habit of most traveling warriors.  As such, he really didn’t seem too out of place, with the exception of his fatigues.

 

He really would have been better suited to the Age of Mecha, Stockholm had time to think as he took a seat next to Ashford on one side of the booth. During those centuries, the armies of most of the lands wore similar uniforms for battle, and most utilized automatic weapons like the thing Bradley called an M-16. Even the militias of the continent of Tallowmere, far to the south across the ocean, wore similar garb in the few times the two continents made contact.  After the Fall of Mecha, Stockholm also had time to think, communication between the two continents had really dropped off quite a lot, hadn’t it?  Perhaps in the next Age things would go back to the way they had been, with sailors passing between the continents more often.

 

“How you sleep last night, big fellah,” Ashford asked of Stockholm, his eyes still blurred with sleep but a steaming cup of coffee already half emptied in his hands.

 

“Pretty good, actually.  Yourself?”

 

“Okay, I did okay,” Ashford replied.  “I did think of one question for you folks this morning, though.”

 

“Shoot,” Tim said, his eyes dropping for a moment to the mecha weapon next to Ashford.  He realized that it might not be such a good idea to say that word to a man with a gun.

 

“Well, it occurs to me that I’m quite fortunate to be able to talk with you folks,” Ashford said.  Hina and Tim exchanged a curious look, though they both knew precisely what Ashford meant.  The peoples of that other place had spoken Common as well, a curious thing by their estimation.  They’d heard one other language while in the realm of New York City, though it had sounded sharp and archaic to their ears.  “Almost too fortunate, if you catch my drift.  I wonder if I’m even speaking my own language anymore, but it sounds and feels like it to me.”

 

“The language is called Common, Mr. Ashford,” Timothy said politely.

 

“Not where I’m from,” Ashford replied.  “Where I’m from, it’s called English.  Now, I know it’d be a pretty large assumption, but I assume that Common, as you call it, is a second language to the three of you, though you speak it quite well.”

 

“Kyo,” said Hina, trilling light sylvan laughter at the expression rising on Ashford’s face.  “Mina halga tu Elvana set pic langue natura,” she said.  Timothy joined in her laughter a little, though not much, since Ashford seemed genuinely distressed.

 

“What the Christ did she just say,” Ashford asked Timothy and Stockholm, whichever gentleman would answer.

 

“She said ‘yes, the speech of the Elves is my natural language’,” Timothy translated for him.  “Common is my second language too, though a bit easier for me since I’m a half-Elf.  What about you, Mr. Stockholm?  What’s your native tongue?”  Stockholm let out a series of hisses, growls and grunts so primal it could hardly be properly termed speech, but the sound of it struck Ashford as sounding slightly Nordic in the few vocalizations he could make out.  Tim and Hina gazed at Stockholm like two frightened children in a dank woodland in a child’s tale, and Stockholm let out his own chuckle of dark mirth.

 

“It’s called Wolf Clan, and is the tongue spoken by most Werewolves.  Not quite so pretty as the languages of the Cuyotai or the Werebears, but also a little less rough around the edges than Khan or Simpa speech.  But don’t be mistaken, my friends.  The Werewolf language is harsh and guttural because our Race was the first among the lycanthropes in the world.  The kitty cats don’t like to hear that, and the Werebears will politely and peacefully debate with us on the matter, but that’s the downright truth of the matter.”  Ashford was giving him a smug smile that he didn’t care for in the least.  “What?”

 

“I’m sure the kitty cats would say the same thing about being the first, and if I ever see a Werebear, I think I’d shit my pants before thinking to ask them about their language,” he said, sipping his coffee.

 

“Why,” asked Hina.  “They’re the most peaceful people on all of Mother Gaia,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact.  Ashford thought back on all of the documentaries he’d ever seen about bears in his home world, especially the parts where they ripped apart the creatures that came too close for their liking.  He shuddered to think of one of those things crossed with a man.  They were already capable of upright posture, so why give them clothes and a culture?

 

“They’re peaceful,” Bradley asked wonderingly.  “I’m sorry, but the bears from my world tend to be a bit aloof and hostile if you come too close.”

 

“Well, not so with the Werebears,” Hina continued, asking their waitress for a cup of coffee and a few minutes for everyone to decide on what they wanted. Ashford received an immediate refill, which he felt in sore need of.  “Even during the Third Age, when all of the lycanthrope Races briefly ran mad and savage, their peoples simply hid themselves away from the world, and hibernated until things had gone back to normal.  It lasted almost an entire year, and brought much bloodshed to the world.”

 

“My God, I can imagine,” Ashford thought, trying to imagine the huge crimson warrior seated next to him on the warpath.  Once more he felt the urge to shiver, but suppressed it.

 

“Oh, this was before my time,” Stockholm said, lying once again.  He felt like heel for doing it, but it seemed to get easier with each lie told.  That was the hell of it, wasn’t it?  After a while, you started to believe that stuff yourself.

 

“So they just went into their caves and huts and whatnot and slept through the whole thing,” Ashford asked.

 

“Indeed they did.  Don’t get me wrong, sir, they’re no pushovers,” Hina warned, waggling a finger at the black Human in his battle gear uniform.  “Never think it.  But they tend to lean toward magic and the finer arts, and peaceful ways of life.  If pressed, one would more than willingly raise his fist or claw to protect himself, and woe to the man or woman in the path of that mighty limb when it came crashing down.”  Ashford took a moment in his own mind to think of a book he’d read once, not too long ago, by a man named Stephen King.  The book was called The Waste Lands, an entry in a larger collection called the Dark Tower.  He made two connections now in his mind to that tale, the first being the way he’d been pulled violently from his own home world into this one.  The second connection came in the form of the giant cyborg bear that had accosted the story’s main characters in the woods.  He felt sure that the Werebears of this world were a good deal smaller and wholly flesh and blood, but the way Hina had spoken of their ability to defend themselves reminded him a little of that fictional creature.

 

Over their morning meal, Ashford took the time to tell the rest of the company, the native inhabitants of Tamalaria, a little about the lands he was from.  He spoke to them mostly about the various countries and cultures of the world, and almost laughed when he started to tell them about the racial tensions that had marred his society.  Hina asked what he meant by racial tensions, weren’t they all Human?  At this Ashford said yes, but the color of one’s skin and the national origin of a person often singled them out in larger crowds of folks. Especially, he mentioned, a black man in the south of the lands of the United States.

 

This bit of information seemed to get under Stockholm’s skin.  “It is much the same among the Werewolf Tribes, as it ever has been,” he grumbled.  “There are the Red Tribesmen, such as myself, they of the crimson fur.  My people are mostly spell warriors, using both magic and might.  There are the Storm Tribesmen, they of the gray fur and shorter build, and they are almost all practitioners of magic.  There are the Golden Tribesmen, they of the blond fur and great, blocky bodies, and they have ever been the grunt-like warriors.  They’re a tad on the savage side.  Then there are also the Tanners, the most predominant Werewolf Tribe, who tend to be more flexible in their ways so far as Class is concerned.  There are more of their kind than any other.”

 

“What about the Shadow Tribe,” Hina asked, a question that, from the evil glare Stockholm shot her, she should have left in her head.  Ashford didn’t know anything about the Werewolf Tribes more than what he’d just heard, but he had a feeling that none of the Tribesmen just named would much care to admit to this last grouping being their kin.

 

“Vile scoundrels, every last one of them, and they are not even a proper Tribe to speak of,” Stockholm blurted out angrily.  Several other diners turned to look in his table’s direction, but he didn’t care a whit for their disapproving looks. “They swallowed what was left of the Silver Claws and Black Furs, and from there swept up as many weak-minded fools from the other Tribes as they could!  They are a bastardization of what my people stand for as a Race,” he growled heatedly, his thoughts turning toward Sonamo, the Great God of chaos who was responsible for the Shadow Tribe’s creation.  Yes, he’d been in the Heavenly Plane for that little sick joke, watching helplessly as Sonamo used his one miracle for the millennium to turn thousands of Werewolves from their olden, honor-bound ways.

 

“What do your people stand for,” Ashford asked between bites of his freshly arrived meal.  “If I might ask,” he added for safety’s sake.

 

“Most historical records state that the Werewolf Race was brought forth from the combined desire of Mother Moon and Mother Gaia to protect the humanoid Races from demons and the first, most powerful Vampire Clans,” Stockholm said huffily.  “While I may know a particularly pleasant Vampire trio, most others that fall in my sight bring my blood to an instant boil.  It’s instinct, you see,” he explained.

 

“I think I’ve read that somewhere,” Hina said absently.  “That Vampires and Werewolves are natural enemies.  Both first came into being during the late years of the First Age, right?”

 

“That’s what records indicate, yes,” said Stockholm.  Foolish, really, he thought.  The Vampires had been in existence since the times before the first recorded Age of Tamalaria, in what were only referred to as ‘The Long-Ago Times’. Werewolves had come during the scant years before recorded time, though back in those days they had concealed their packs quite well from the prying eyes of humanity.  And in truth it had not been the Humans who first discovered the Werewolves for history to record.  It had been the Elves of the first Unified Elven Kingdom.

 

“Man, that’s wild,” Ashford said.  “Vampires and Werewolves are mostly just myths in my world, though I’ve always sort of believed they were there, just waiting for the right time to, you know, introduce themselves.  In my world’s mythology, most times the Werewolves act as servants and foot soldiers of the Vampires.”

 

“Really,” asked Timothy, fascinated and a little concerned about what Stockholm’s reaction to this might be.  But he saw that Stockholm was only shaking his head in disapproval as he sank into his meal.  “What about Elves?  You said you don’t have them in your world?”

 

“No, but we have stories about them, just the same.  Not too much different from what you folks are here, I must say,” Bradley said with a touch of sadness in his voice.  “My world’s really not all that amazing, except for some of our technology, and quite frankly, I don’t think there’s any permanence in science. Some day I suspect it’ll all just come crashing down around our ears.”

 

“Much the same happened here, almost nine centuries ago,” said Timothy. “We called it the Fall of Mecha.  Our current Age is referred to as both the Fifth Age and the Age After the Fall of Mecha.  We abbreviate the years with the addition A.F., After the Fall.”

 

“We use A.D.  It stands for Anno Domini, or After the Death of Christ.”

 

“Who is Christ,” Hina asked, only mildly interested.  Bradley, born and raised as a faithful Protestant, thought for a moment to launch into a sermon on the Old and New Testament.  After a moment’s consideration, he found that in view of where he currently sat, and the surroundings of the world around him, it wouldn’t do him much good to discuss the finer points of religion.

 

“Well, let’s just say he was a great man in my world, and a lot of things have gone into keeping his teachings alive as a faith,” he said.  The quartet finished their meal without further discussion, and then headed down the street to the stables. Timothy offered to let Ashford ride with him, but he informed them that he’d done his fair share of riding in his youth.  “I’ll buy a horse of my own.”

 

“They won’t take your money,” Stockholm reminded him.  Ashford stopped with his hand in his pocket, his fingers loosely clutching his wallet.  No, they probably wouldn’t take his money, and that was a damned thing because he had his debit card on him, and quite a lot of cash in the bank.  He’d left that behind in his home world, along with all of his worldly possessions save what he presently had on him and in his bag.  “And tell the truth and shame the devil, I’m running low on funds myself, Brad.  You’ll have to double up with one of them.”

 

“Actually, Tim and I can ride double,” Hina offered, which raised quite a smile on Tim’s face.  Stockholm wondered momentarily how far along they’d come in their relationship.  He didn’t think they’d coupled yet, though he didn’t see how that could last much longer, despite Timothy’s general innocent nature and shyness.  Hina struck him as the sort of woman who didn’t often know what she wanted to do, but when she did, she did it, and obstacles be damned.

 

“That will do,” Stockholm said, shaking Tim out of his reverie with words. The mages saddled up, Hina in front with Tim’s hands around her stomach. Ashford showed off what horsemanship he had by fairly leaping atop his mount, which didn’t seem to mind having a new rider.  The animal, relatively intelligent, sent a quick message mentally to Timothy, who only had the most basic ability to communicate with nature, being only half Elven.  Is he okay, the horse wanted to know.  Yes, Timothy sent back, he’s a friend.  The Void Mage took a moment to wonder which animal proved more loyal most of the time, a man’s dog, or his horse?

 

The question didn’t really matter, but he thought about it a good while as they rode on to the south, their destination far too many days away.

 

Chuchurin concentrated hard and poured his healing power into Don-Shin, who came slowly awake after half an hour of this tiring magic’s use.  He blinked his eyes slowly, and tried to ask what was going on, but only managed to cough sand and dust from his mouth and throat.  “He’s awake,” Chuchurin called to his captain, Ran’Atao, who was hunkered down only ten yards away.  The giant Rukon stood up, cracked his back, and came sauntering heavily over to where Don-Shin lay under the ministering hands of Chuchurin.

 

“Good morning, Don-Shin,” Ran’Atao said amiably, smiling at his subordinate.  “How are you feeling,” he asked, his face pinching in as he turned to a more serious mind set.

 

“Water,” Don-Shin asked.  Ran’Atao took off his small packsack and pulled out a bottle of clear liquid, slowly pouring some into Don-Shin’s mouth.  The purple skinned humanoid drank greedily, and then sat up slowly, rubbing his head. “Thank you captain,” Don-Shin said.  He turned his head a few times in each direction, trying to get a hold on his bearings, then reached into his upper tunic for his sunglasses.  He put them on over his narrow eyes, and looked up at his commanding officer, stroking his thin little mustache.  “Where are we, sir?”

 

“Haven’t got a clue, Don-Shin,” the captain rumbled.  “All I know is that the nearest settlement appears to be about an hour walk that way,” he said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder.  “Can he move, Chuchurin?”

 

“Not right now, sir,” the smaller Rukon said gravely.  “He’s suffered a break in his right leg, which I’ve isolated.  It’ll take me about another hour to heal the break properly enough for him to move and fight, sir.”

 

“Hmm,” offered Ran’Atao.  He ran a hand through his hair, trying to think over their situation.  He could leave Chuchurin with his belongings and head to the settlement alone, try to ask for help and information, but something about that far away settlement bothered him.  Even from a distance he could tell that the encampment wasn’t a permanent thing, but rather had the look of belonging to a nomadic tribe of some sort.  The Elven Tribes of his world often moved around, never settling in one place for long, but something about this far off settlement seemed even less permanent than that.  In his world, only one group of sentient creatures lived like that- demons.

 

“Sir, I can assure you that it can’t be that serious,” said Don-Shin, interrupting the flow of Ran’Atao’s thoughts.  He tried to sit up, but Chuchurin shoved him back down roughly.

 

“It can be and is, Don-Shin,” chided the smaller Rukon.  “Don’t try to move around so much!  You’ll undo what good I’ve managed to do for you!  Sir, perhaps you could go without us for now,” said Chuchurin, seeming to read Ran’Atao’s mind, which Ran’Atao knew he could sometimes do.  “Leave your travel bag with me and Don-Shin, and see if you can find someone who can help us out.” Ran’Atao grunted and took off his packsack, dropping it to the sand next to the diminutive Rukon.

 

“You can fight if you need to, Chuchurin,” he asked.

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“Good,” said Ran’Atao with an approving grin.  “Heal and protect Don-Shin until I return.  Hopefully there will be someone yonder who can help us out.  Let us just hope that this entire world isn’t one big desert.  We could be in trouble if that is so.”  And with that, Ran’Atao parted ways with the surviving members of his unit.

 

Ran’Atao approached the small nomad village at an easy pace, but he didn’t like what he sensed at all.  The huts he could see now appeared to be things made of tarp and cloth, held up and together most likely with poles and tent spikes attached to ropes.  Yes, this was definitely a temporary place.  What struck him further as unpleasant were the cabalistic designs painted or sewn into the fabrics of the tent structures.

 

Had there been a guard present on the outskirts of the little village, perhaps a warning cry of some sort could have been sent through the town in time to mobilize the warriors of the tribe.  However, there were no such guards, and when Ran’Atao got to within fifteen yards of the first tent, its resident, coming outside for a nice lie in the desert sun, was his first witness.  The Lizardman, baffled at the appearance of what his people might call a Sidalis (mutant), merely stared at the huge colossus, struck dumb by Ran’Atao’s sheer size and mass.

 

What Ran’Atao saw before him, though, was not just a humble, tribal Lizardman, for he didn’t know that term.  What he saw was a member of the Reptile Demon Clan without either armor or a weapon on him.  In short, he saw an enemy who was unprepared for battle, and Ran’Atao would not waste this golden opportunity.  The towering Rukon let out a fierce battle cry, unsheathed his sword, and brought it crashing down through the reptilian man, splitting his body cleanly in half.

 

The strike had been clean and quite final, but the aftermath was, for Ran’Atao, rather unexpected.  When he and his men slew the demons of his world, their bodies emitted a strange black gunk and then turned to dust.  This creature, however, sprayed hot red blood all over the sand, and organs came spilling out all over the ground, clearly identifiable guts!  Heart, lungs, intestines, stomach, Ran’Atao thought in a moment of horror.  What have I slain, he thought.  What sort of demon trickery is this?

 

“What have you done,” cried a shocked, terrified voice from nearby. Ran’Atao looked up from his kill, and spotted three more of the reptilian creatures, all of them dressed in the humble cassocks of this particularly peaceful Lizardman tribe.  “Who are you, and why have you slain Pumari?”  Ran’Atao’s heart started jackhammering in his chest, and he felt a lump rising in his throat.  Dozens of these creatures started coming out of their huts and tents, several of them of a child’s size.  No, Ran’Atao thought, they are children!

 

Behind all of these assembling creatures, the few warriors of the tribe began assembling in the main street of their village, spears and pikes in hands that trembled with fear and adrenaline.  The tribe’s elder came shuffling along shortly behind them, his wrinkled, scaly face barely visible beneath layers of face paint. “What’s this, what’s this,” he croaked to the warriors.  One of them turned to the elder, and in the harsh, raspy tongue of the Lizardmen, explained that the stranger at the far end of the crowd had slain Pumari, a young man most in the tribe considered the tribe’s laze-about.  The elder made a hand gesture toward the warriors, bidding them pull aside and let him through.

 

Ran’Atao sheathed his sword, and stood to full height, his thoughts racing back and forth through his mind like wasps hectic to get their pollen stores back to the hive.  What if these creatures pass for Human in this world, Ran’Atao thought, the idea sending him into a near panic.  What if I have just broken the one most holy commandment of my people, to never bring harm to a Human?  Ran’Atao faced the gathered crowd, and saw that a single elderly member of their people was approaching, casting people aside with a gentle touch.  This elder approached, and stopped at the front of the crowd, a good ten yards away from the Rukon.

 

“Speak you Common,” the Lizardman elder asked of Ran’Atao.

 

“If that is what you call this language, then yes, I speak Common,” he managed to reply, his heart still filling with grief for what he’d just done.

 

“Tell us your name, and why you have slain Pumari, that pile of guts that lays before your sandals,” the elder commanded, using his most authoritative tone.

 

“My name is Ran’Atao, elder,” said the Rukon, taking a knee before the wiry old Lizardman.  “I am of the Rukon.  As for why I slew this man, I thought he was a demon, and it is the duty of the Rukon to destroy all demons who threaten the human race.  I see, however, that your people, too, are human,” he said, lowering his head.

 

“Humans?  No, friend, we are not Humans,” said the elder.  “We are humanoid, true, but we are not Humans, as you say.”  This bit of information confused Ran’Atao quite thoroughly, for had the man he killed not bled?  He hadn’t turned to dust, and his flesh was of a mottled green, so he was neither demon nor Rukon, either.  What sort of humanoid was he, then?  “Nor are we demons, Ran’Atao of the Rukon.  We are Lizardmen, of the tribe Cunathoo.”

 

“I am afraid I do not comprehend,” Ran’Atao said, raising his eyes to meet those of the wizened elder.  “My allies and I are from a distant world, and do not belong here, though we seem to be trapped in this world for the time being.  I came here seeking aid and information, and found what I assumed was a demon encampment.”

 

“Ah, assumption is the bitterest of mistakes we can make as mortal beings,” said the elder with a smile.  He approached Ran’Atao without fear, without hesitation.  He put one gnarled old hand up on the tall man’s shoulder as he knelt in the sand, and patted him for good measure.  “But it is a mistake we all make from time to time.  Where are your friends, Ran’Atao of the Rukon?”

 

“They are that way,” he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder as he often did.  “They are Chuchurin and Don-Shin.  Don-Shin is leg broke, and Chuchurin heals him while they await my return.  Will you give me parole, and let me retrieve them?  Or shall I face judgement for my crime against your people now,” he asked, hoping for the former, but believing he would receive the latter.

 

“Go now, and fetch your allies,” said the elder, despite Ran’Atao’s clear guilt.  “Return to us here, and we shall give you what aid and knowledge we may, outworlder.  You are not the first strange thing we have seen in recent days from that direction, and I have a feeling that what came before did indeed come from among your world’s demons.”

 

“Do you speak truly,” Ran’Atao said in a rush, looking into the old man’s eyes.

 

“Yes, I do.  Now go, and I shall tell you more when you return,” said the tribe elder.  Ran’Atao bowed, stood, and sprinted off toward his companions from his world.  As he faded into the distance, one of the warriors of the tribe approached the elder.

 

“Elder, are we really going to do nothing about Pumari’s death?”

 

“Nay, we shall have the debt of his death repaid, but not in blood,” the elder said calmly, breathing deeply.  “That man knew no better.  But we all saw that it wouldn’t be hard to mistake us for demons, considering what passed by us some days ago,” the elder said.  “I shall be in my tent.  Send the foreigners to me when they return, Monin.  And for Surya’s sake, someone clean up that mess,” he said, pointing vaguely in the direction of Pumari’s corpse.

 

Chuchurin had finished sealing the last bit of the broken leg fifteen minutes after the captain parted ways with them temporarily.  Don-Shin sat up, drinking a little water from one of the bottles in his own packsack.  “The captain may have run into trouble,” Don-Shin said after a moment’s silence.

 

“If he did, it’s nothing he can’t handle,” said Chuchurin, looking in the direction of the far off encampment.  “The captain is more than capable of looking out for himself.”

 

“Where are the others,” Don-Shin asked, looking around the desert wastelands through his sunglasses.

 

“Dead,” Chuchurin said plainly, pointing in the direction of the bodies. “Broken necks.  We got lucky when we landed, apparently, though I can’t seem to locate the portal that brought us here.  That suggests, along with the trench leading from one of the bodies, that we were flung with a great deal of force from the portal.  Can you use your powers yet, Don-Shin?”  The Rukon warrior with the medium build and sunglasses shrugged his shoulders, and then took another look around.

 

“Not sure, Chuchurin.  I suppose I can try, though.”  Don-Shin slowly closed his eyes, and then concentrated on the darkness behind his closed eyelids.  Shortly there appeared a brief shimmer in the middle of this darkness, and he focused a little harder on it.  He was looking at himself and Chuchurin from above, and he could clearly make out an aura of power coming from around them.  He mentally scaled back the focus of his vision a little, himself and Chuchurin appearing to shrink, but their auras still a vibrant ripple of purple light.

 

As the field of vision widened, Don-Shin soon was able to make out Ran’Atao’s aura, but this was not startling to him.  What was surprising, however, were the various other colors of powerful auras in the region he was viewing from above.  He scaled back his internal vision again, and had a perfect overview of the lands they were in.  They appeared to be in a desert that only covered a small portion of the overall lands they’d come hurtling into, though his vision was still too close to get a look at the entire realm they’d landed in.  Still, it did his mind good to know that they hadn’t entered a world that stretched wastelands to eternity.

 

Don-Shin opened his eyes, thus snapping off one of his various powers. “The captain isn’t far off, but I must tell you, Chuchurin, that there are others in this desert who have considerable power.  Power to rival our captain,” Don-Shin said.  Chuchurin gave him a look that said clearly how much he doubted that, but Don-Shin merely looked at him gravely through his shades.

 

“You’re serious,” Chuchurin said after a full minute of this silent scrutiny.

 

“Yes.  I should also tell you that I could not find the portal that brought us here.  If it has power, it is hidden away from even my sight.”  Silence fell then between them, and they waited for almost another full hour before their captain approached to within shouting distance.

 

“Chuchurin, Don-Shin, rise and come to me,” Ran’Atao shouted to them across the sandy dunes.  Don-Shin gained his feet, and with Chuchurin carrying their captain’s bag, they ran over the grit to where he towered.  “Listen my friends, and hear me well.  I found the encampment, and it is filled with humans who appear quite reptilian.  They call themselves Lizardmen,” Ran’Atao said.

 

“Reptile Tribe demons,” said Don-Shin, but Ran’Atao was already shaking his head, indicating that wasn’t so.

 

“I made the same assumption, and I cut one of them down.  Men, he bled and died, but he bled red like any human, and did not turn to dust like a demon,” Ran’Atao said.  “The tribe’s elder spoke with me, and informed me that his people are members of a Race known as the Lizardmen, and they are humanoid.  I am forced to believe them, gentlemen.  They are not demons,” he said.  “And I slew one of their number in ignorance.”  He let this statement settle into his companions’ minds.

 

“They granted you parole for your crime against them,” Don-Shin said after a few minutes.

 

“Yes.  Their elder asked that I come gather you and return to them, that they might give us knowledge of this land.”

 

“That could be dangerous,” said Chuchurin.  “What if the blood was a mind trap?  What if the thing you destroyed was indeed a demon, and these creatures tricked your mind into believing it was human?  Have you considered that?”

 

“He has a point,” said Don-Shin.  “I used my aura vision, and there is some strange power at work in that encampment, coming from several of those creatures.  It is possible that they tricked you, captain.”  Ran’Atao thought the possibility through, but it didn’t make sense to him.  Surely the creatures would have slain him if they had access to such powers, wouldn’t they?  And he, unlike his subordinates, had had many years of experience in dealing with demonic trickery.  He had sensed nothing of the sort from the Lizardmen.

 

“No,” Ran’Atao said firmly.  “I committed a sin against our teachings, friends.  I took the life of a humanoid, not a demon.  Had they used demon powers, I would have sensed it.  As, I imagine, you would have,” Ran’Atao said, and both of his lower ranked officers had to nod in agreement to this.  “I have promised that we would return to them, and that we shall do.  We shall ask what they require from us as punishment for my crime against their people.  With any luck, it won’t be severe,” he said.

 

Ran’Atao and his fellow Rukon turned and headed back for the Lizardman encampment.

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