Chapter Ten

 

Southward Bound

 
Two days of southbound travel had brought Stockholm’s company no trouble.  As they made camp on the third night, at the end of yet another day without incident, Bradley Ashford used his night-vision binoculars to check their surroundings, thus sparing Hina and Timothy the use of any of their mana stores. To the north, on their back trail, he found nothing of interest.  The same could be said of the east and south.  To the west, however, he spotted several figures that he didn’t much care for.  Nothing approaching, but he still didn’t care for the bulking forms in his night vision goggles.

 

“Stockholm, Tim, Hina,” he said, coming back toward where they’d built a fire to cook on and keep themselves warm.  “Three something or others to the west of us, maybe two and a half miles off.  Any ideas what they might be,” he asked, mostly directing his question as Stockholm.

 

“Probably Khan, from the Allenians,” Stockholm said, not bothering to scent the air.  He’d smelled them an hour earlier, before his companions had asked for a halt for the day.  But he’d also caught another odor, and not too far south of the Khan, and that scent had been Simpa, the Werelions who were the tiger-men’s eternal enemies.  Let them hash it out among themselves, and if the Simpa won out, all the better.  The noble Simpa of the Allenians seldom bothered outsiders so long as they kept their distance from the vast Allenian Hills region.  If the Khan should win out, however, they would be severely beaten and wanting to get home and lick their wounds.  The overall point, he supposed, was that the lycanthropes west of them weren’t going to prove to be any trouble.

 

As he stood guard on the first watch shift of the evening with Bradley Ashford, however, Stockholm did pick up a third scent, this one coming slowly in their direction from the south.  “Bradley, take those binoculars of yours and take a look south,” he said quietly.  The colonel rummaged in his bag for his night vision binoculars again, and did as Stockholm bade.  “Do you see anything out of the ordinary?”

 

“Several large fellows, well armed from the look of them,” Bradley said as he peered through his binoculars.  The green tinted light appeared to shimmer off of the approaching strangers’ skin, however, a phenomenon he’d never experienced.  “They look kind of meaty, and there’s something off about their skin color.”

 

“Probably Orcs and Hobgoblins,” Stockholm said.  He took his axe off of his hip, and cracked his neck.  “Get your speed-shooter, and get ready to spill some blood or scare some idiots, whatever may come.”  Orcs, Ashford thought, like in Lord of the Rings!  Yet somehow he had the feeling that they wouldn’t be quite so brutish as Tolkien’s green fleshed monsters.  These creatures, while they had indeed appeared large in his binoculars, didn’t move with the lack of grace or in the large numbers that Middle Earth’s brutes had.  There were only five of them, and their movements had been furtive.  Did they already know that they were approaching the company?  Most likely they did, and they’d probably sighted them by their campfire.

 

Ashford slung his M-16 into his hands, and joined Stockholm on the road, slowly moving southward.  The land dipped slightly as they went, and both men walked with the open gait of those heading to battle.  Stockholm held his axe in his left hand, Ashford gripping his rifle in both hands, both men prepared to wound or kill as appropriate, but avoid it where possible.  They thought a great deal alike, Stockholm mused, because both were made for war in their own regard.

 

Five minutes later, they were within visual range of the roving band of Greenskins, and Stockholm found that he’d guessed pretty much dead-on.  Three Orcs, and two Hobgoblins, all wearing banded bronze armor plating and wielding stumpy cleavers.  Stockholm took the measure of these men at a glance, and figured them for cowards if shown some real strength.  Ashford assumed that they would soon show hostility, though none of the Greenskins had as yet looked up from the road at them.  When finally the Orc at the forefront did look up, he put his arms out to stop his posse.

 

The Orc in front, the leader of their group, brandished the flat end of his cleaver at Stockholm.  “You, Werewolf!  You and the Human give us your gold, and we leave you alone!  And give us your food as well, for we are craving a snack, aren’t we boys?”  The other assembled Greenskins barked harsh laughter at this, and nodded dumbly at their leader.

 

Ashford, eager to be rid of these fools, aimed his rifle at the ground in front of the lead Orc and opened fire with a three-round burst.  The dirt shot up toward the lead Orc, and all five bumbling men stumbled backward in a blind panic.  Two of the Orcs went down on their behinds, and the leader scowled at the Human with the mecha weapon before him.  He pointed his cleaver menacingly at Ashford.  “You I will kill now,” the Orc growled, and started to scream as he charged forward.

 

Ashford had been hollered at by many men who stormed his units in battle-choked cities and jungles.  The first time it had happened, he’d nearly frozen up, but at the time, a sergeant who’d served in Vietnam stepped up and cut down his assailant with his weapon’s fire.  Ashford had thanked the sergeant, who shrugged, and merely told him that hey, it happened to the best of them.  The second time it had happened, Ashford had hesitated again, but managed to shoot his attacker cleanly in the chest for a quick and final kill.

 

This time he didn’t even hesitate, and the result was immediate and lethal. A three-round burst, like the first one he’d fired, belched out of the end of the automatic weapon.  The first bullet punched into the Orc’s square jaw, blowing blood and jawbone out to the sides.  The second bullet, only a tenth of a second behind the first, shattered the Orc’s teeth, sending them to the back of his throat and down eventually to his dead stomach.  The third bullet, a tenth of a second behind the second, blew through its pig-like snout.  Blood and gray matter sprayed out the back of the Orc’s head in a grisly shower, landing with a splash on the ground.

 

The raiders’ leader fell slowly backward, his right hand loosening and dropping his cleaver, which bounced off of the hard ground with a dull thudding noise.  The other Greenskin ruffians took two flailing steps backward as he fell, folding up as he went.  There was a strange, strangled mewling sound from one of the Hobgoblins, and one of the remaining Orcs turned his head to vomit, his nerves shattered.  None of them had been prepared for a mecha weapon to spell the doom of their leader.

 

“You’ll be wanting to turn around and run, boys,” said Stockholm with a wide, toothy grin.  “All the way south and west, back to the Greenskin Nation. We’ll give you five minutes to get out of sight, and you’ll be leaving your friend’s body behind.”  Two Orcs and two Hobgoblins, fully grown and on the average day about as ready to retreat as a boulder, tucked tail and ran, sheathing their weapons just a second before fleeing with their lives.

 

The Red Tribe Werewolf started moving slowly toward the Orc’s corpse, setting his axe’s handle through the rawhide loop that held it to his belt.  Bradley Ashford, meanwhile, kept his eyes peeled and his guard up.  Something was still amiss, though he couldn’t immediately say what.  After a moment’s contemplation, he felt pretty certain he knew what it was.  There was another campfire in view, and it was farther along to the south and slightly east.  Ashford took a look through his binoculars, and spotted only one man, apparently Human, sitting by the fire.  A man traveling alone in such dangerous territories could probably handle himself, Ashford thought.  Best they avoid him.

 

He turned to mention the loner by his campfire to Stockholm, and found the Werewolf doing something that Ashford had done himself on various fields of battle.  Ignatious Stockholm was grave robbing the fallen Orc.  Stockholm took very little interest in the Orc’s rucksack, which he imagined (and smelled) was filled with dirty clothes and useless brick-a-brack.  What interested him were the heavy pouches along the Orc’s belt, and he opened these to dump out their contents. One pouch, however, he avoided taking off, for he sensed the silver coins in that bag.

 

He counted the coins, which came to an even forty gold pieces and eight copper.  He poured the gold coins all into one of the pouches, and tossed it toward Ashford, who caught it deftly in his left hand.  “Your kill, your bounty,” Stockholm said, grabbing three of the copper coins.  One of these he placed over each of the dead Orc’s closed eyes, and the third he placed in its mouth full of shattered teeth, placing it under his tongue.

 

“What’s with that,” Bradley asked, pointing the barrel of his gun to the fallen Orc.

 

“Most Orcs believe that when they pass from this world, they go into a place known to them as the Anarvisti.  It is a tunnel, and they must pass through this place without looking over their shoulders, lest they be dropped into the eternal void and forced to roam the world as ghosts.  To prevent this, they blind their fallen with coins in the eyes, or dirt, whatever is handy.  The coin under their tongue they keep to give to the Ageless Boatswain, who carries them on his raft across the Black River to Vanel, their paradise.  If they do not have this coin to give, then they must catch fish for the Ageless Boatswain from the Black River, until he is satisfied with their catch.”  Stockholm thought over this fable of old, and thought that perhaps, with the way Greenskin society was moving along these days, this little ritual had been unnecessary.

 

“You know an awful lot about them,” Ashford said, slinging his M-16 up over his shoulder.  “How old are you, Mr. Stockholm?”

 

“Old enough to know better,” the Red Tribesman replied slyly.  It wasn’t exactly the answer that Ashford was looking for, but that worthy knew better than to press the issue.  “And old enough to know a goodly deal about these people.  To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure they still hold to that old myth Brad.  Might be easier if they did, though a bit more costly in my line of work.”  Ashford let out a small laugh at this, and shook his head.  Stockholm stood up, and turned toward his newest companion.  “Come on, let’s get back to Tim and Hina.  It’s just about their time to wake up and keep the watch anyway.”

 

For two whole days, Ran’Atao and his remaining subordinates learned all the Lizardmen of the local tribe could teach them of the lands of Tamalaria.  This required intensely long palavering between the Rukon and the tribe elder and shaman, and there seemed to be a lot of gray area as far as the Minotaur Race was concerned.  While the Lizardman Race had held a long lasting hatred toward the Minotaurs, the elder and shaman of the tribe admitted that they were not demons.  “But don’t be mistaken,” the shaman said.  “They are mighty big assholes, by Ra, and we’d kill every last one we came across, given the chance.”

 

The flood of information had been a little too much for Ran’Atao, though Chuchurin and Don-Shin took closely guided notes in their log books.  The three Rukon were allowed to make camp close to the village, and were even supplied a good-sized tent that accommodated all three of them for rest and private council. The floor of their tent consisted of several long, leathery hides from beasts the Lizardmen of the tribe hunted called proshar, and though it served better than the bare sand of the desert, the hides emitted a subtle but foul odor as they sat talking amongst themselves or sleeping.  Ran’Atao wondered if perhaps the hides hadn’t been completely stripped of meat, but he wasn’t about to turn one over and find out for himself if this was so.

 

On the evening of their third day in the tribe’s hospitality, Ran’Atao called an early end to their day-long palaver with the elder and shaman, bringing his men with him back to their tent just outside of the village proper.  He eased himself into a cross-legged sitting position in the middle of the tent, and Chuchurin and Don-Shin sat across from him similarly.  “All right, men, let us confer.  I would ask you how much of what we have learned you believe to be the truth of this world.”

 

“Well, these people obviously have some issues with the species they call Minotaurs,” said Don-Shin immediately.  “They sound to me a good deal similar to the Bull Demon tribe that infest our home world.  It is good for these folks to be afraid of them.”

 

“Yes, but they aren’t demons,” said Chuchurin.  “The shaman of these people said so himself, though it appeared to pain him to do so.”  Ran’Atao grunted and mulled the facts over for himself silently, trying to grasp at some final conclusion.  “We also have to take into account what they said of this worlds humans, that they are not quite like our own.  The humans of this world, the elder claims, are heathen folk who have no strong unity with one another, and are dishonorable and despicable creatures.”

 

“That may well be more opinion than fact,” said Ran’Atao, though the statement had made a small impact in the wall before his inner vision.  Light spilled out through the few cracks in that wall, and he knew that behind the blocks of that internal wall gleamed a brilliant light, the light of revelation.  He felt himself on the brink of breaking through that wall, but he needed his men to help him, and the information they had gathered on this world thus far had brought him close to something vital.  “However, we have seen no humans thus far, so I won’t dismiss the elder’s words out of hand.  What else?”

 

“Well,” said Don-Shin, adjusting his shades with a twitch of his hand.  “Their shaman seems to possess powers much akin to our own, from what my vision tells me.  These are not bad people, captain.  They are, however, rather cut off from the rest of their world.  Consider the map they gave us.”  Don-Shin pointed to his right, where a map of the realm of Tamalaria hung from a support beam in the middle of the tent.

 

“This is true,” said Ran’Atao.  “However, were we Rukon not ourselves cut off once upon a time?  We were, my friends, and we would do well not to forget that.  Chuchurin, what of the Shifters?  They call them something quite different here.”

 

“Lycanthropes, sir,” said Chuchurin.  “They too were said to be rather vicious and barbaric.  Do you have something in mind, captain?”  Indeed, Ran’Atao thought, he finally did have something in mind.  In his mind’s eye, he saw himself taking a mighty, glowing sledgehammer to that wall, and finally with one ferocious blow, he knocked it down.  Ran’Atao sat up stiff and ramrod straight.  He had his revelation.

 

“Gentlemen, I know what we must do in this world.  For whatever reason, things run opposite in this place.  The Reptile Demon tribe are Lizardmen, and are noble and honorable people.  The Bull Demon tribe are Minotaurs, and though they do war with the Lizardmen, they too are not evil.  The shaman, as you said Chuchurin, admitted as much.  Yet humans and Shifters are vile and selfish creatures, barbarians.  Chuchurin, Don-Shin, we have work to do in this world.”

 

“And what is that, captain,” asked Don-Shin.

 

“Gentlemen,” said Ran’Atao, standing and drawing his blade.  “It has always been our sacred duty to destroy demons wherever we find them, has it not?” Chuchurin and Don-Shin didn’t know where their captain was heading with this, so for the time being simply nodded.  “And I sense no falsehood in the elder or shaman’s words over these last three days that we have been with them.  The Human Race of this world, and the Shifters, are wicked creatures, of that these Lizardmen have assured us.”

 

“So, what are you suggesting,” asked Don-Shin, though he already had a fair idea what it was Ran’Atao thought.

 

“Gentlemen, our duties do not cease simply because we are in a different world.  Our job has ever been to strike down demons and the wicked.  Therefor, we must find and destroy this world’s demons and wicked.  We must strike down the Humans and Shifters!”

 

Stockholm ran along ahead of Tim, Hina and Bradley Ashford, his long lupine legs stretching and relaxing with each lunging stride he took.  It felt good to be running along like this, his thoughts less complicated as he spent more time in his animus form, but his senses of smell and hearing perking up to higher and higher ranges.  He did not possess the climbing perceptive powers of a certain Simpa Bounty Hunter he’d fought with once, but he had a strong enough sense of smell to know that they were approaching an area they might like to avoid, to the west. He couldn’t clearly say what it was he smelled that way, but they didn’t need anymore delays in their schedule.

 

An hour later, at around noon, the company came to a stop for a midday meal consisting of cold rations.  Ashford had a selection of pouches in his bag, and he started a small fire to boil water on.  “You just tear open the packet and pour in the hot water, then hold the top closed and slosh the water around,” he said, handing each member of the company their own pouch.  “We call them muck bags in the Marines, though I can’t clearly remember what they’re really called,” he said, rubbing his forehead above the temples.

 

“Are you all right,” Timothy asked, noting the rubbing gesture.

 

“I’m fine,” Bradley said softly, “though I suspect I’m starting to forget some minor stuff about my world.”

 

“It’s probably a side-effect of being in our world for as long as you’ve been,” said Hina, opening her pouch and pouring some of the hot water inside.  She held the bag closed and shook it, listening to the sick sloshing sound from within.  She opened the bag and smelled inside, grimacing a little at the pungent odor from within.  “Are you sure this stuff is safe to eat?”  Ashford laughed a little at this.

 

“It’s safe, if not exactly premium eats,” the colonel said with a smile.  Hina took a plastic spoon he’d offered her, though she wasn’t too familiar with the material it was made of.  Plastics were a relatively new thing in Tamalaria, after all.  Only the Dwarves and Gnomes really had a handle on the various uses of the new material.  She dipped the spoon into the pouch and pulled out a steaming pile of, well, something.  Hina plopped the glob into her mouth, chewing experimentally.  She swallowed, and grimaced slightly once again.  “You see now why we call them muck bags.”

 

“Indeed,” Hina said.  The company ate their rations slowly, only Stockholm seeming to have no problem with the food within his pouch.  His attention kept pulling to the west, and he withdrew his map from the inside of his vest.  He unrolled the parchment, and tried to calculate where they were at the moment. Using his godly powers, he looked off in all directions, focusing his will on his Eye of Divination to get a good view.  To the northeast of their position, perhaps twelve or fifteen miles behind, lay a wooded area with deep, rolling mists pluming up out of it.  This woods he knew quite well, as he’d been within its mysterious confines a few times before.  It was a place known as The Fogs, and the creatures that lived there grew twisted and vile.  Rashum and wraiths dominated the northern half of that forest, and strange, mutated animals roamed and killed all things they could find as prey in the southern half.

 

Using those woods as a reference point, he looked down once again at the map.  To the west of them, if his calculations stood true, lay the ruined township of Makel Mal.  Few if any pilgrims ever went into that damned place, for it lay steeped in some malodorous air and an aura of pain and sorrow.  Roaming bands of revenants, zombies with the ability to turn mortal men into slavering, drooling undead creatures like themselves with a single bite, were known to frequent the area.  That, Stockholm figured, explained the strange scents he kept picking up from the west.  A normal zombie’s flesh rot odor only carried a few hundred yards, maybe a little further with a strong wind.  A revenant’s odor, however, could carry for miles and miles, especially a cluster of them.

 

“Let us hurry this meal up,” Stockholm said, rolling up his map and tucking it away again.  “There are revenants coming along from the west, and we’ll want to avoid them if possible,” said the Red Tribesman.

 

“Revenants,” Ashford asked.  Timothy explained the undead creatures to Ashford as they packed up the remains of their meal, and Hina kicked some loose soil over their fire.  “Reminds me of a George Romero flick,” Ashford said after Tim’s explanation.

 

“Who?”

 

“George Romero.  Do you have moving pictures here,” Ashford asked.

 

“A few,” said Hina, mounting up in front of Timothy.  “Mostly the Gnomes know how to make and run them, though they’ve not really caught on very well in this age.  During the Age of Mecha, I understand that there were hundreds of them made, and shown in places called movie theaters.  Why?”

 

“Well, Romero is well known in my world for making movies about zombies.  They aren’t real in my world, you see, and these revenants you talk about sound like something from the remakes of his flicks.  You say these revenants can run?”

 

“Like the devil, when the urge takes them,” said Timothy.  “Not like normal zombies, though.  Your average zombie can no more run than a shoat could fly without magic, you ken,” he said.  “Also, a normal zombie’s bite isn’t able to turn men into more zombies.  It is sometimes poisonous, true, but it doesn’t have the same power of a revenant’s bite.  Not even Uberzombies can do that.”

 

“Uberzombies,” Ashford asked, thinking about the little German he’d picked up at Rammstein Air Force Base.  “Super zombies?  What’re those?”

 

“Loathsome creatures, to be sure,” said Hina.  “They are sentient zombies, capable of rational thought and speech.  Some are powerful enough to retain the magic or fighting skills they possessed as mortals.  Unlike zombies or revenants, however, they are usually loners.  The largest group you’ll find Uberzombies in is if they are commanding a pack of normal zombies or revenants.”

 

The mages continued to tell Ashford more about the undead creatures of Tamalaria as they rode on south, taking up most of the afternoon with information about wraiths, mummies (which interested Ashford quite a bit), Vampires, and Dreadnoughts.  The Dreadnoughts made Ashford think about the Frankenstein monster, composed of the various bits of dead mages and warriors, with little concern for what Race the body parts came from.

 

As evening approached, they had managed to clear themselves mostly of the stench of revenants, though Stockholm thought it would be a good idea, to keep two-person watches again this night.  The others agreed, and tucked into a meal of venison, which Stockholm had salted to preserve it, and a few apples that Hina had plucked from a tree before heading out this very morning.  After the meal was eaten, Timothy and Hina tucked themselves into a single bedroll, and fell almost immediately asleep.

 

Ashford looked at the young mage couple as they drifted quickly off to sleep.  Finally, he walked around the fire toward Stockholm, his M-16 in hands.  “I envy them a little,” he said quietly to the Red Tribesman, who was looking off north and west.  “They really go well together, don’t they?”

 

“Indeed they do,” said Stockholm, tearing his thoughts away from the scent of the revenants.  “She’s fiery and determined, with a wealth of knowledge on all things concerning the realm around us.  He’s faithful and kind, with a vast collection of spells at his disposal, and the will to use them when necessary.  The do have another thing going for them, and that is their relative youth.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well, she’s a full blood Elf, Bradley,” Stockholm said, starting to move in a loose circle around their camp, his eyes darting here and there in the gathering darkness of full night.  “Elves live to be about fifteen-hundred years old before the maladies of age creep up on them.”

 

“Christ on a cracker, fifteen-hundred years,” Ashford asked, losing some of the color in his cheeks.  “That’s a long damn time to be alive!”

 

“It is, and you speak truly.  Humans live roughly a century if they manage to avoid murder at the hands of another.  That’s a large gap, you know.  However, the world is becoming more and more heavily populated by members of your Race,” said Stockholm.  “The lycanthropes and other humanoid Races are slowing down, in a way.  We produce fewer and fewer offspring these years, and at the current birth and death rates, if a war were to consume the realm of Tamalaria again, it would be the Humans who would provide the bulk of the trooper ranks.”

 

“For goodness sakes, why,” asked Bradley.  He took out his night vision binoculars now and again, sweeping the area.  He spotted little more than animals and the occasional creature or life form that he couldn’t readily identify.

 

“Nobody knows for certain, but I’ll tell you this,” said Stockholm.  “For every pair of parents among the lycanthrope Races, one child is born for the last three or four hundred years, and that’s it.  No more, no less.  At the same time, Human parents have three or four children to their families, thus expanding their numbers greatly.”

 

“You make it sound like a bad thing,” Ashford said.  This got a smile out of the Red Tribesman, though a small and bitter one at best.

 

“It isn’t bad, per se.  But Humans are a confusing breed to me, and I’ve had a long time to observe such as they.  They squabble among themselves quite easily, and turn an angry weapon on those they deem untrustworthy without much cause or justification.  Their anger bubbles barely concealed beneath the surface as a whole, as does their love for those close to them.  They are quick with emotions as well as logic.  They’re easily the most adaptable of all the Races in Tamalaria.”

 

“Well, with a shorter life span, you have to adapt pretty quickly.”

 

“True, though the Gnomes haven’t learned that lesson,” said Stockholm. “They live roughly four hundred years to a man, fifty more for their women, but they are still trapped in the Age of Mecha mindset.  They have ever had a love of science and technology, but they don’t seem to have learned their lesson as a whole with the Fall of Mecha.  Technology is fine in small doses, but they want to revitalize the world with it.  I’d like nothing better than for them to fail miserably in that pursuit.”

 

Stockholm was thinking about the Cuyotai he’d been with in those days, in the age of Mecha.  The bitterness of that dry click from the young man’s rifle as it misfired, followed by the automatic weapon’s chatter from the criminal on the roof of the weapons shop.  There had been so much blood that day, and surely a goodly amount of it to be blamed on technology.  Stockholm himself hadn’t used a firearm in a long time as a result.  But he’d rather not share that story with Ashford.  It wasn’t for him to know, after all.

 

“What about Tim,” Ashford was asking him, and Stockholm shook his head, bringing himself back to the present.  “He said he’s a half-Elf.  What sort of life span will he have?”

 

“Well, considering the vast power of his father and the Elven blood of his mother, I should guess that he’ll live almost as long as Hina, though not quite. Besides, that is only if they avoid being killed during their journeys, for they are wandering spirits, if you noticed.”  Ashford nodded, for he himself was becoming accustomed to life on the road.  He always had been, in his way, since first joining the Marines.  The corps had never kept him in one place for very long.  Then Ashford’s mind stuck on something Stockholm had just said.  The ‘vast power of his father’, Stockholm had said.

 

“Was Tim’s father someone famous,” Ashford asked quietly, not wanting to disturb either of the slumbering mages as their patrol circle brought them close once more to the pair.  “Some big shot mage or something?”  Stockholm grumbled a little, and shook his head, but at the moment, he wouldn’t get into it.  It wasn’t his story to tell.

 

“If you’d know more about Timothy’s father, you should ask him yourself,” said the Red Tribesman quietly and without the twinge of anger he felt inside. “Though I warn you, he’s just as apt to not want to bring it up.  I’ll tell you this and this only, though; all of Tamalaria knew his father.  T’would be best not to bring the subject up in a public place, if you’d bring it up at all.  Now, keep circling for now.  I’m going a little northwest.”

 

“You see something that way?  Smell something?”  Stockholm turned to Ashford and gave him an impish grin.

 

“No, I just have to use those shrubs or that tree.  That venison rips through a man quite quickly,” he said, laughing at his own low humor.

 

Far along Stockholm, Timothy, Hina and Ashford’s path to the south, perhaps a full eight days away, a different kind of night had fallen on the small settlement of Tarenloll.  There, in a township that supported less than five hundred assorted Humans, Jafts and Elves just north of the Desperation, the night that befell the citizens held a darkness with a red tint, not a black one.

 

Ran’Atao had asked the Lizardman elder where the nearest grouping of Humans was, and his reply had been immediate.  “Tarenloll, to the north of us half a day’s run and just outside of the desert.  They are evil people who rely on hunting the same animals as us, and they often cross into our mighty lands to steal our kills!”  This was, of course, a bold-faced lie, but it was one that the crafty elder saw worked well on these strange purple men.  “If you would make penance for Pumari’s death, make it by destroying those evil people!”

 

“Are there any we should be wary of,” asked Ran’Atao.

 

“Aye, the blue skins,” said the elder quietly.  “They are called Jafts, and they are mighty warriors.  Their bodies can heal themselves quickly, so strike them down as fast and as hard as you can, Ran’Atao of the Rukon.  And beware the Elves!  They often house magical powers beyond our understanding,” the elder said, another lie that was more half-truth than big black fib.  They understood the elemental magic employed by many of the Elves in Tarenloll.  Most were Gaiamancers, using earthen magic, but a few were Pyromancers, they who wielded the magical powers of fire.

 

Now, as true night fell upon Tarenloll, Ran’Atao, Chuchurin, and Don-Shin crouched behind a large outcropping of rocks on the border of the Desperation, looking around the boulders at the small township.  Ran’Atao could feel the cry of his sword, calling out to him to draw it and make death on those who would harm such noble souls as the Lizardmen they’d left only that morning.  But not yet, no.

 

“Don-Shin, you know what we need you to do,” Ran’Atao said in a harsh whisper, still looking out from around the rocks.  Don-Shin grunted his acknowledgement, and sat with his back flat to the rocks.  He closed his eyes, and concentrated his considerable force of will toward the township.  After a minute of concentration, Don-Shin opened his lips slightly, and a black stream of energy spilled out.  His body went limp, and started to fall over onto its side, but was caught by Chuchurin, who set it gently down.  The stream of energy coagulated in midair into a small black blob, barely visible in the light starved night of the new moon.  “Go and see what you will, Don-Shin, and be swift about it.  If you are caught out by guards of the watch or something similar, return to us immediately.”

 

The blob made a grunting sound, and then skidded around the rocks, still floating through the air, and was then speeding off toward Tarenloll.  Ran’Atao sat down behind the outcropping, and looked over at Chuchurin as the smaller Rukon produced a small packet from one of his pouches, as well as a blue tipped match. Chuchurin pulled a slender white cylinder from the packet, stuck one end in his mouth, and popped the match alight with his thumb, using the flame on the opposite end of the stick in his mouth.

 

“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke those things,” said Ran’Atao, referring to the cigarette stuck in Chuchurin’s mouth.  “They’ll be the death of you.”

 

“We all die some day,” said the healing specialist.  “I know, that’s contradictory to my purpose in the battlefield as a medic, but it’s the truth, captain.  Would you like one,” he asked in his high, lilting voice, offering the pack to Ran’Atao.  The big Rukon waved his hand and shook his head politely.  “Suit yourself.  Captain?”

 

“Yes, Chuchurin?”

 

“Are you certain we’re doing the right thing here?  I mean, couldn’t the elder of those reptile people be lying to us?”

 

“I did not sense falsehood in his words,” said Ran’Atao.  “Did you?”

 

“Not exactly, sir, but it did have the feel of an opinionated speech for a great deal of the information’s passage.  I just don’t know what to think, sir.  But you know me.  You are the captain.  What you decide is what we will do, sir.” Ran’Atao smiled a little at this.  Yes, he had the smallest of all the squads of Rukon, and now it was even smaller.  However, no other captain commanded as much respect or obedience from his troops.  That, he mused, was all to the better for what he had planned, for what he had in mind was nothing short of total slaughter.

 

At first, Guirdejef felt nothing but contempt for the small group of Greater Gods who were seated at the table before him.  However, as more gods came streaming in from the grand doors behind him, and the Greater Gods moved from the table to form a circle around him, he grew from spiteful to quite fearful, and the transition did not take long.  He knew that Churiya’s miracle had been revoked.  His continued freedom, such as it was, had come to a swift and brutal end.

 

Oun stood directly before him, the Great God of order and light.  Guirdejef found he did not dislike the astral being necessarily, but Oun seemed to be taking a perverse sort of pleasure in watching the assembled gods make their rings around the Great God of portals and doorways.  This was the sort of ceremony for which Oun waited patiently, for if nothing else, that worthy was highly judgmental, and he judged Guirdejef to be a threat to all things orderly and correct.  In that, at least, he might be right.

 

It was Lenos, actually, that Guirdejef found himself most infuriated with. The God of Bishops and the way of the battle priests of Tamalaria.  Yes, Guirdejef found himself furious with him, for the robe wearing, pipe smoking god almost always claimed neutrality, and referred to himself as being ‘all loving’.  Followers of Lenos acknowledged and honored the existence of the other gods, a thing rare in most religions, but the fact that he was willing to assist in the sealing of Guirdejef stank to the Great God of portals of hypocrisy.  Wasn’t one of Lenos’s commandments ‘judge not lest ye be judged thyself’?  Guirdejef knew it was, and found himself hateful because of it.

 

“Mighty Guirdejef, Great God,” said Oun, commanding silence from the other assembled gods.  Behind him, near the doors opposite those Guirdejef had entered through, stood the golden masked figure known as Fate, one of the Holy Triad.  His presence told Guirdejef one thing he hadn’t been entirely certain of until this moment- he would have no chance to argue his case.  When one of the Holy Triad passed or accepted a judgement, it was beyond final, as it had always been in the Heavenly Plane.  “You have been freed from your sealed space far before your time, and by a lowly prankster who has already received his own judgement.  The miracle that released you has been revoked, and you stand now guilty of causing disorder in the Mortal Realm of a severe degree.  For this breach of conduct, you shall be sealed away again by this council, who stand in unified agreement of your sentence.  Do you understand?”

 

The shackled and guarded god raised his head until his eyes met those of Oun.  “I understand your judgement and my sentence, though I disagree with them, fellow Great God.  I ask only that you do what you have gathered to do, and be quick about it.”  Oun nodded silently, and throughout the Great Hall, a low thrumming began radiating from the assembled gods.  A golden sphere blinked into existence above Guirdejef, and he had a moment to consider where he’d seen that globe before.  Ah, yes, he thought, that is to be my prison.  A version of the Great Void.

 

“I, Oun, hereby cast judgement!  Be sealed away, says I,” the god cried out into the chamber, and the golden globe filled with more brilliance, streamed to it by the force of Oun’s will.  The inner ring rotated around Guirdejef, who stood still in his shackles with his head held high. He would not give them the satisfaction of his fear or contempt.  Let them think him calm and collected when he went out this time, not writhing and gibbering like a cornered animal as he had the first time.

 

Lenos now stood across from him.  “I, Lenos, hereby cast my judgement!  Be sealed away, says I!”  More power streamed from him into the globe.  The circle once more shifted.

 

“I, Aeros, hereby cast my judgement!  Be sealed away, says I!”  On and on in this fashion the ritual went, until the globe over Guirdejef’s head began convulsing with power.  Before the globe unleashed its light and drew Guirdejef up into it, he had time to make one more mental note.  There was someone absent from the rings around him, two people actually, and their absence gave him a glimmer of hope.  Absent from the sealing ritual were Maragshet, the mad god, and Sonamo, the Great God of chaos.

 

He would remember that during his seemingly endless time sealed away.

 

Normally, I would not invite you to look at scenes overly macabre or gruesome in the smaller townships of Tamalaria.  The folk who live in these smaller, rural settings are usually good folk who lead simple lives, working honestly for very little real money, but sharing communally with those around them, in order to secure peace and prosperity for all around.  It is usually the role of the larger cities and kingdoms of Tamalaria to house the awful events of the lands’ histories.

 

However, much like the small city of Koreindar in the time of Byron of Sidius and the opening act of the War of Vandross, the township of Tarenloll must unfortunately become the scene of much viscera and death.  In this tiny hamlet, hundreds of lives must be snuffed out far before their natural time, and all because a small trio of powerful beings from a world outside of this one have come to a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the folk who live here. Where before the sight of blood on their blades may have ceased the flowing movements of the Rukon blades, tonight there is no stopping them, not for long. Not even the thick bones of the handful of Jafts who live here can stop Ran’Atao, Don-Shin, or Chuchurin from fulfilling their duties.

 

Of all of the town’s inhabitants, only one is heavily armed, a burly Jaft man who served on the ship of a certain Jaft captain whom some of you may remember.  This Jaft’s time with captain Gronen is long since over, almost by fifty years and some change, but he remembers all too well how to stand up and fight. He wears a heavy chain shirt, with banded scale leggings, for he is a guard o’ the watch in this township, one of only five who see the duty as a necessity.  Tonight, he is glad to have his armor and his war hammer.

 

Ran’Atao’s eyes are watering, for the stench of ruptured and death-released bowels and the natural funk of Jaft corpses fills the air of the township as Chuchurin releases blasts of fire from his left index finger, lighting the various wooden abodes on fire.  There is no second thought of mercy now that the captain has given what is known as the Genocide Directive in their military command.  All are subject to death who are not Lizardman or Minotaur, and that number totals exactly zero.  Humanoids with pointed ears, what would be called the Elven tribe in the world of the Rukon, come streaming out of their homes in a panic. There are a few brave enough to wield their earthen magic against the Rukon trio, only to find their magic repulsed by the strange purple-fleshed man wearing the sunglasses despite the time of night.  He merely sinks his katana into the ground, and their spells are disrupted.

 

Ran’Atao wastes no time spilling these men and women’s guts across the dusty ground.  His sword is imbued with his own powers, and his is the power to cut through anything at all, and cleanly.  Only opponents with a deep fighting will can face his blade without losing their weapons and armor.  As Ran’Atao cuts the head off of one of these men, there comes a furious war cry from one of the blue skins nearby, a man fully suited in armor, wielding what appears to be a war hammer made entirely of one piece of stone.  Ran’Atao’s blood is up, and he does not even slow to assess his opponent’s capabilities, a mistake that nearly costs his life and puts and end to this massacre on the spot.

 

The enormous Rukon stands only a foot taller than the Jaft, and as Ran’Atao charges the hammer wielding guard o’ the watch, he does not see the subtle shift in the man’s stance.  As he lunges with his blade tip first, meaning to stab the Jaft in the throat, the guard spins to his left, parrying the stab and bringing the head of his monstrous weapon around into the back of Ran’Atao’s legs.  The blow sends Ran’Atao flying forward with his feet before him, his balance lost and his limbs flailing akimbo.  This is it, he has time to think.  The blue skin is going to kill me.

 

But the surging swarm of fleeing townsfolk from the southern part of town rushes past these combatants, several of them bumping into the Jaft and distracting him from making his killing downward strike.  He has to settle for putting up his guard and waiting for the throng of fleeing refugees to get past him. Ran’Atao, intent on killing everyone here, however, has no such qualms.  He regains his footing, and comes at the Jaft with a wide arc swing, cleaving several fleeing Elves in half at the chest before his attack is blocked, incredibly, by the long shaft of the war hammer the Jaft guard wields.

 

“Bastard,” the Jaft shouts, and that shout has more of a sobering effect on Ran’Atao than the fact that his attack has been blocked, and by a weapon made of nothing more sturdy than stone!  The crimson tinge that has previously clouded his vision and thinking recedes, and Ran’Atao is able to think more clearly.  The blue skin’s arms are quivering, he sees, which means that Ran’Atao has an advantage in sheer strength over him.  However, Ran’Atao also has a disadvantage in that he is striking at a smaller, possibly more agile target.  It isn’t too much of an advantage; he consistently lands blows on Chuchurin during sparring sessions, and Chuchurin is only six feet tall at best.  But that’s sparring, play fighting at the worst.  This is a life and death battle, and for the first time in many missions, Ran’Atao isn’t entirely sure he can kill this creature without being injured himself.  He has already been downed once by the blue skin, hasn’t he?

 

He must think, he knows this with all of his being.  The blue skin thrusts the sword away and comes at him with a roundhouse attack with the hammer, which Ran’Atao fully ducks and expects to be able to counterattack when he rises. However, while his head is dipping down, the blue skin, the Jaft, launches a hard kick up into his chin, knocking Ran’Atao stumbling backward with his sword in hand.  Truth be told, this is not an attack the Jaft would normally have thought of. But his blood is now up, and he is operating more on killer instinct than strategy. Ran’Atao must take advantage of that, for Don-Shin and Chuchurin are busy laying waste to the rest of the men and women they have been informed are ‘wicked creatures’ by the Lizardmen.

 

Remarkably, while still reeling from the kick, Ran’Atao is set upon once again, and only gets his sword up over his head to block the next attack by fractions of a second, sparks flying from his blade as the hammer comes down toward his skull.  Yes, he thinks, the gleam of anger is deeply embedded in the Jaft’s eyes, and now Ran’Atao, a captain not only due to power but also because of his cunning, sinks himself to one knee and purposely shakes his arms, making a show of being overpowered.  The Jaft drives harder down now, and Ran’Atao has a moment to realize that now he is being overpowered, but it will only last a moment.

 

Ran’Atao takes his left hand off of his primary weapon, and reaches behind his back for the long knife tucked into the back of his sash.  He grips the handle, and brings the tip of the blade around into the Jaft’s side.  There is a soft punching sound from the impact, and the Jaft’s body stiffens, his current task forgotten.  In the momentary panic racing through the Jaft’s mind, his confidence is shaken, and this momentary slippage in willpower is enough for Ran’Atao to focus his power on his sword.  The blade mystically sharpens, and he cuts the head off of the war hammer, and follows through, cutting the throat of the Jaft through to the spinal cord.  Thick red blood sprays in a fountain out over Ran’Atao’s face, and he basks in the primal tingle back in the darkest part of his mind as it wets his lips.

 

Tarenloll’s last bit of resistance falls dead to the dirt, and Ran’Atao stands tall, his sword pointed at the ground.  The Elves he killed while attacking the Jaft lay in spreading pools of blood and guts, and Ran’Atao waits for guilt to overtake him.  But it does not.  These creatures are not like the Humans of his world, after all.  He is not assaulted by regret, for have not the Lizardmen told him how evil these people are?

 

Is not this bloodshed honorable?

 

Timothy and Hina slowly came awake as Stockholm and Ashford gently prodded them inside their shared bedroll.  Hina blinked her eyes a few times, and stretched, her knee lifting painfully up into Tim’s groin, though he made no visible show of having been struck.  He played off the sound that escaped his mouth as a yawn, thankfully, though his testicles were telling him to get out of the bag and hunker with his knees spread apart.  He’d been hit in the balls before, and this worked best to alleviate the pain.

 

Timothy hunkered and made as if to stretch his legs while Hina splashed some water from her canteen on her face.  Ashford and Stockholm wished them a good night and slipped off to their own respective sleeping bags.  Ashford kept himself nice and close to the fire they were maintaining, though not so close as to risk lighting himself on fire if he should roll during the remaining hours of the night.

 

As Tim felt the pain recede from his groin, Hina came bouncing over to him in a spritely fashion, a grin playing roguishly across her lips.  “Take a look that way,” she whispered to him, so as not to alert Ashford or Stockholm.  Timothy’s eyes followed her arm and finger, and some short distance away he found he could see a slumped figure on the ground.  “I already used my Farseeing spell.  It’s an Orc.  Brad tagged him, I think,” she said.  Tim noticed the abandoned items dropped by several other large humanoids, probably other Greenskins, trailing away south and west.  He counted the few sets of footprints he could from this distance, and guessed there had been four or five ruffians along the road.  “Did you even hear them?”

 

“No, not really,” Timothy said honestly.  “I was a little preoccupied with my dreams,” he said quietly, not daring to look Hina in the eyes.  He didn’t want to tell her that yes, he’d had the same nightmare again earlier this night.  He also didn’t want to tell her how it had been different on this occasion, because he had as yet not determined what that one small difference meant.  And that one difference? This time when he heard the spectral voice of his progenitor, there had been a trace of disappointment in it, and that sense of having failed someone had terrified Timothy. He was willing to do a lot of things to make people happy, especially including Hina (whom he thought he might be falling in love with), Stockholm, or Bradley, though he was newer to the group.

 

However, he felt the urge to please that voice in his mind because it belonged to his father, and that was not a good sign.  Richard Vandross had been a brutal tyrant and madman.  Timothy wanted to break away from the legacy of his bloodline, but he wasn’t sure how he could.  He had done some limited research on the Vandross family, going back seven generations from Richard, and every one had been a power mad zealot of one sort or another.  Brandon Vandross, father of Richard, had been a Paladin in the Order of Oun, and had turned heretic at the age of twenty-five.  Brandon had abandoned his wife and son, and gone off to the ruins known as Tianjin, an area in the Elven Kingdom filled with wraiths and specters of the dead.  There, he had become an anti-Paladin, conjuring the powers of the seven hells to gain command of the spirits that resided in that bleak and barren ruins.  Brandon Vandross had led a force of these creatures against the surrounding forces of the Elven Kingdom, and he’d been ultimately defeated and killed.

 

Much the same tale went back through the Vandross family history for generations.  There had been one glitch, however, that Timothy had found most interesting.  Brandon Vandross’s father, Markus, had a brother, the only Vandross male in six generations to have a sibling, and that sibling was Roger Vandross. Roger had become a respected Aeromancer in the city of Ja-Wen, climbing the ranks of the Ja-Wen Unified Guild of Aeromancers to the position of Kinta, which was essentially the post just under that of Vice Headmaster.  When Markus became a savage serial killer, Roger had changed his name out of shame, and became Roger Handon.

 

So, Timothy had thought, there’s been one good seed.  During his dream earlier on this present night, he had felt the urge to please his father’s spirit, but he had known that to do so would be to condemn himself to the sort of life most of his bloodline had lived, one filled with murder and deception.  He wanted no part of such a lineage.

 

“Did you get enough rest,” he asked Hina, in order to distract himself from these thoughts.

 

“Yeah, I should be fine,” she replied, putting a hand on his shoulder gently. “But I’m worried about you,” she said quietly.  “Tim, you don’t look well,” she said, and he turned his face aside so he wouldn’t have to look her in the eyes.  “You should tell me about it.”

 

“Not right now, Hina.  Not tonight.  Maybe some other time, when all of this business with the rifts is over,” he said sullenly.

 

“Do you promise,” she asked from behind him.  Timothy sighed.  What harm could it do to eventually tell her?  None, he decided, no harm at all.

 

“Yes, I promise,” he said, finally giving her a wan smile of his own.  She walked over to him, took his hand in one of hers, and gave him a light kiss on the lips.  Timothy’s heart raced, and for a moment he thought his head might explode. Except wasn’t there also an easing of pressure from around his heart, as well?  Yes, he thought there might be.  This girl, Hina Hinas, might be just what he needed to get himself over this haunting from his father’s ghost.  The began walking in the same circling pattern that Ashford and Stockholm had around the camp, hand in hand.

 

For the first couple of hours, they talked a little about their childhood, filling in details that they had as yet not told one another.  But about halfway through the second hour, Timothy sensed something wrong from the northwest.  He let go of Hina’s hand, and focused his mana.  Instead of simply using his Farseeing spell to look off in that direction, he utilized a Q Mage spell she’d taught him some days ago, the spell of Identify.  His hair flapped about his head in long, unkempt tendrils, and Hina could smell the familiar odor of jasmine that often accompanied this spell’s casting.

 

At first, Timothy got nothing.  The lands north and west of them seemed somehow abandoned and silent, but after another five minutes of patient waiting, the spell locked onto the life form shambling in the direction of their camp.  It was a revenant, and probably accompanied by eight or nine of its kindred.  In his mind’s eye a collection of information ran itself like book text across his field of vision, but this was immediately wiped out by the Identify spell locking onto another target nearby.

 

An Uberzombie was leading the pack of revenants, and it was to this creature that the Identify spell shifted.  Only the presence of a more powerful being could cause the spell to shift like that on its own, and Timothy found himself looking at a decaying but moving corpse with one eye in its left socket.  The Uberzombie wore the old steel armor of a trooper of the Fiefdom of Lemago, and held a broken katana in its right hand.  It appeared to be barking orders to the revenants, but again, this detail escaped Timothy.  What he wanted to know about the creature was revealed to his mind’s eye, and he felt much better for having read the Identify spell’s findings.

 

“Well,” Hina asked.

 

“It isn’t anything much.  A pack of revenants lead by an Uberzombie, probably out of Makel Mal.  Nothing too much to worry about, though.  The Uberzombie is weak to fire,” he said with a grin.  “We’ve probably got about twenty minutes until we need to deal with them.  I actually don’t think we should deal with them at all,” he said.

 

“I’m two steps ahead of you,” Hina said, casting her Element Shift spell. They were going to have quite the welcoming party for the undead assailants.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Timothy and Hina sat among some low bushes along the path, watching the swatch of land that the undead party would be passing through with great interest.  Hina opened her bag, and produced a small pouch filled with cheese flavored crackers her mother had packed for her.  They had stayed remarkably fresh, as her mother had put them in one of the strange plastic containers the Gnomes often used for storing foodstuffs or nuts and bolts. “Crackers,” she asked, offering the container to Timothy.

 

He took a small handful and peered out through the foliage once again.  He could now hear the approaching revenants and the strange barking, yipping commands of the Uberzombie in their midst.  He leaned forward and grinned like a child in a candy store.  Oh, he thought, this is going to be entertaining.  Perhaps he shouldn’t think that way, but these creatures were following their back trail, intent on storming their little camp and killing and eating them.  Well, that didn’t truck well with either mage, and they therefor reserved to watch tonight’s festivities like a couple of young movie-goers.

 

Three revenants came into view in the distance, shambling along in a strange half-run that would have been more menacing, had they not each been dragging broken, twisted legs behind them.  Timothy could see the grayish, pock-marked flesh of their faces, the lips rotted away to reveal gleaming, pus-covered chins and saliva shiny teeth.  The tattered clothes and rusted armor they wore flapped about their ravaged bodies comically, and when a handful more revenants came over the ridge, one of them tumbled to the ground as the chest plate of its armor fell off onto the ground in front of its feet.

 

The Uberzombie rushed from his position in the back of the pack to the middle, growling something in a tongue that neither Timothy or Hina understood, but it didn’t matter.  A few seconds later, the foremost of the revenants stepped on the wrong patch of land, and the whole event started.

 

Mages across the lands of Tamalaria know of a particular magical art known as ‘locking spells’.  This is a process by which a mage may leave a spell on an object, piece of land, or person.  They cast the spell into the object, place or person, and mentally set a trigger condition for the spell to cast itself from the object, place or person at who or whatever sets off the trigger condition.  In Timothy and Hina’s case, they had chosen several hundred square yards of land along their back trail, and had planted various combative spells to ‘lock’ onto the ground itself.  The trigger condition that would cause the spells to be cast was for an undead creature to pass over that particular swatch of ground.

 

The first revenant to step on a locked spell cocked its head to one side as a loud CLICK sound cracked the night air.  A moment later, a cone of flames spewed up through its body from the ground, setting it on fire and destroying it within seconds of exposure to the magical flames.  The Uberzombie flailed away from the revenant, which had come back in his direction after being struck by the locked spell.

 

This trap had been tied to another locked spell, which Hina had set a few yards away from it.  One of her Ancient Art spells, known as the Gravity Well, burst free from its magic seal, drawing the surrounding revenants toward it.  Six total revenants were pulled by the invisible force of the spell toward its location, and as soon as they bumbled into one another, the air directly in front of them shimmered as a third spell in the sequence burst free of its seal.  Timothy’s Holy Cannon spell sent a ring of white light spinning in the air before the struggling revenants, thrumming and pulsing with energy.  A shaft of pure energy sprang from the ring’s center, and the six revenants were vaporized, turned into piles of grit and salt and clothes.

 

“Water,” Timothy asked in a whisper from the bushes, offering Hina his canteen.  She nodded, keeping her eyes on the action, and took the canteen from him with a word of thanks.  She drank, and watched as more of their locked magic exploded forth into the few remaining revenants.

 

An Amplified Raybolt spell ripped into a pair of revenants that tried to escape the deathtrap they’d stumbled into, blasting their already rotted guts and lungs out of their bodies onto the ground.  Amid these guts were their hearts, however, and that was enough to stop them permanently.  The Uberzombie, dazed and suddenly very, very afraid of the creatures he’d intended to hunt and devour, thought to turn around and flee.  However, he managed to walk all of six steps when Hina’s Dome of Force spell stopped him.  As soon as the first revenant had set off Tim’s locked Column of Fire spell, Hina’s attached Dome of Force had gone into effect, trapping the undead creatures in the killing zone for a full six minutes.  If the Uberzombie just waited, he could flee with his un-life intact. However, as with most sentient creatures when trapped and unsure of the odds of survival, the Uberzombie panicked.

 

The creature turned around and, seeing that all of its comrades lay dead, started to run south and east, back along the road path.  It got halfway across when Hina’s locked Haste spell caught it, and it wound up running clear into the opposite end of the Dome of Force.  There, its foot pressing down close enough to trigger another spell, it perished, for Timothy’s High Pressure spell pressed against the back of its head, pinning it between the Dome of Force and the High Pressure. There issued from its rotting skull and explosive popping noise, and then its head caved in and squeezed gray matter over its shoulders, trailing blood down its back and throat.

 

The entire undead raiding party lay in tattered ruins, and after another minute, Hina dropped her Dome of Force.  The Uberzombie’s pressed body folded in on itself like a slice of spoiled meat, and Hina popped the lid onto her plastic container of crackers.  She clapped Timothy on the back heartily, and stood up. “Well, that was fun,” she said amiably.  “What did you think?”

 

“Quite a show, though a bit on the short side,” said Tim.  “Then again, I’m not one for epics when it comes to this sort of thing.”  With that, the two mages joined hands once more, and patrolled the area around the camp.

 

Daybreak found Stockholm and Bradley Ashford admiring the handiwork of the mages in their company.  “I thought I heard something a little ways off last night,” said Ashford, “but I didn’t think it was close enough to mean trouble.” Stockholm had awoken in the middle of the night needing to urinate, but he’d only taken a casual glance to the north when the magical eruptions began.  He knew that Tim and Hina had things in hand, despite not seeing them casting the spells themselves.  He knew all about locking spells, and admired Timothy and Hina all the more for their cunning.  The gods had chosen well in sending them with Ignatious Stockholm on his errand.

 

Stockholm started making breakfast for the company, and spoke while he did so.  “We’ve got about three or four days ahead of us until we reach the Desperation.  There isn’t much we can do to increase our pace, because we’ve been riding hard, and with Hina’s Haste spells nonetheless.  Yet I have received only a mild warning from the gods about what lies ahead.  That may change yet, but I doubt it will,” he said.  He had no idea that at that moment, the small town of Tarenloll lay in waste and ashes, its few streets choked with corpses.  Yet he spoke true about the gods’ warning.  He’d only received one, and it really hadn’t been too much of a shock to him.

 

“Did they tell you what sort of threat awaits us,” asked Hina.  “Did they give you any details?”

 

“Nay, not as yet.  I believe that they will let it fall to us to see for ourselves what sort of danger we’re in once danger becomes close enough to embrace,” said the Red Tribe Werewolf as he stirred the eggs in the pan over the fire pit.  “Come on, sit down and get something in your bellies.  We won’t be breaking for lunch today, so we can shave an hour off of our travel time in total.  We’ll also ride a full hour past dark tonight, and gain yet another hour.”

 

“Why, Mr. Stockholm,” asked Timothy, tucking into his breakfast.

 

“Because whatever awaits us has been in our world since at least the day I sealed the last rift,” said Stockholm.  His eyes stared off to the south, peering into the seemingly endless grasslands that lie that way.  “And I want to minimize any damage it might be doing.”

 

Ran’Atao didn’t often partake of spirits or alcohol, but this morning he felt it might be appropriate.  The trio of Rukon had taken refuge in the town of Tarenloll’s only inn, and Ran’Atao hadn’t been able to sleep very well.  His dreams had been filled with images of the demons of his home world, ravaging the countryside and the smaller townships on the outskirts of the Sacred Empire.  In his dreams, Ran’Atao commanded his unit and lead them toward the destruction. However, he always arrived only in time to find scores of humans laying dead in the street and their homes, the last few demons rampaging through the few survivors and then scampering away before the mighty Rukon could cut them down.

 

He awoke with the dawn, and washed his face in the basin in the tiny bathroom of the room he’d taken.  The bed had barely been large enough for him, but this was a problem he’d become accustomed to.  He stood taller than any other Rukon or human in his world, and accommodations had always been a little trickier due to his size.  This was just one more such case, and he made do with what was available.

 

Chuchurin and Don-Shin still lay asleep down the hall from him, and so Ran’Atao exited the building and went across the street to a tavern.  He could barely read the words on the signs in this world, but he recognized the odor of liquor wafting out of the abandoned building, which Chuchurin had not struck with his lancing streams of fire.  Ran’Atao entered, and fetched a heavy sigh as he looked around.  Not a single chair looked like it would support his weight.

 

So the captain headed to the bar, stepped over it, and found a bottle of something that smelled properly foul to his nostrils.  He poured a small portion of this into a glass tumbler, and took it down in one gulp.  It burned his throat going down, and he could easily identify it by its taste.  This stuff was scotch, and he decided that a few shots of this would patch him up just fine this morning.  He took down two more shots, and then grimaced.  Ran’Atao took a deep breath, and set the bottle back in place, an action that he took a moment later as somewhat redundant.  Nobody was going to be coming back here for the liquor, after all, so why bother?

 

“Because someone always comes,” he said aloud to the empty tavern. “Someone always comes, and when they do, they’ll salvage whatever they can. It’s the same thing, even if it’s a different world,” he whispered.  What was this he was feeling, he wondered.  Was this the guilt he’d been expecting?  Perhaps, he admitted to himself.  Perhaps he’d made another mistake, and if he had, would it come as any surprise?  He’d already made a few in this world, and if and when he and Chuchurin and Don-Shin went back to their world, what would he tell his superiors?  Two of his men had died coming through the portal, but he still had to stand responsible for their deaths, didn’t he?  Yes, he thought, he would have to answer for their demise.

 

And if something happened to Chuchurin and Don-Shin while in this world, what then?  Ran’Atao was loathe to admit it, but he needed his men more than they needed him right now.  Right now he was a complex array of strange emotional disturbances and second thoughts.  The night before, a guard o’ the watch, a man that Don-Shin’s reconnaissance puppet had reported as not being a threat, had stood well against him in combat.  Ran’Atao had laid waste to almost a hundred Elves, Jafts and this world’s Humans.  They’d bled, but he knew they were wicked and evil people, according to the Lizardmen.

 

And ah, wasn’t that the hell of the thing?  The Lizardman elder and shaman had forgiven him the death of their comrade, and their willingness to forgive had won Ran’Atao over, and he trusted their judgements and opinions because of it. Chuchurin and Don-Shin had also been quite charmed and trusting of the Lizardmen, despite the few doubts they had held.  In the end, though, they would always listen to their captain, and the captain had given the Genocide Directive to them regarding Tarneloll.  They could lay the blame for the bloodshed on orders. Ran’Atao could not.

 

Why this crisis of conscience, he wondered as he stepped out of the tavern and into the brightly lit morning.  The smell of the bodies laying out in the sun made him gag for a moment, mixing with the scotch in his stomach and conspiring with it against his senses.  Well, he thought, there’s one thing we have to do today.  Ran’Atao set about grabbing as much of the bodies as he could with his two huge arms, and started a pile in what he assumed was the town’s center, a large intersection of two of the town’s ten or eleven streets.

 

He had been working at this task for perhaps half an hour’s time when Don-Shin came outside and hiled to him.  “Morning, captain,” Don-Shin called as he approached, putting his sunglasses on over his eyes in the bright light.

 

“Good morning, Don-Shin.  How did you sleep last night,” Ran’Atao said, shuffling past with his arms loaded with Elf corpses.

 

“Just fine, captain.  Sir, have you been drinking,” Don-Shin asked quietly as he strode along next to Ran’Atao, picking up a partially severed  arm that finally came loose of its owner’s body when Ran’Atao shifted the load in his arms.

 

“I had a few shots of scotch from the tavern there across from the inn,” Ran’Atao admitted quietly.  “My body is aching from last night’s exertions,” he said by way of explanation, and Don-Shin gave him a brief grunt and a smile.

 

“I know what you mean,” said Don-Shin.  “I came across a guard o’ the watch who put up a decent fight myself, sir.  I caught the last half minute of your fight with that blue skinned man.  He may have been wicked, he may not have, but he put up a hell of a fight, didn’t he sir?”

 

“Damned right he did,” said Ran’Atao, and now a small flare of pain went off in the back of his left leg where the Jaft’s war hammer had struck him.  “What about you?  Did you incur any injuries?”

 

“Nothing that Chuchurin wasn’t able to set right before heading to bed last night,” said Don-Shin.  “You should have him give you a once-over, sir, if you don’t mind me saying so.  We don’t have any pain killers, so I can understand your indulgence this morning, but it would be best for us to have clear heads throughout the day.”

 

“Hmm, agreed,” said Ran’Atao, dumping his present load atop the first bodies he’d piled in the intersection.  “Help me get the bodies collected, Don-Shin, but not the blue skin I fought.  As you said, evil or no, he fought well, and deserves a warrior’s burial.”   Don-Shin raised a single eyebrow at this, but would not question his captain’s judgement.  It wasn’t his place to do so.

 

Stockholm had two reasons for not wanting to stop for lunch during the day.  The first reason he had given to the company, which was to shave off traveling time.  But there was a second reason, and surely Timothy would have an inkling of what it was when noon approached.  Midday would bring them within only a few miles of Mount Toane, the notorious mountain that had served as Tanarak of Sidius and Richard Vandross’s seat of power during their reigns of terror.  Timothy didn’t need to be so close to the place where his father had spent his last days on the mortal coil, losing his sanity and his humanity.

 

With any luck, he thought, Hina won’t mention the place, but her knowledge of the realm of Tamalaria was vast, and her curious Elven nature may cause her to comment on the place if they got too close.  To try to avoid this, Stockholm lead the group directly south instead of south and east, meaning to pass through a small sliver of the Greenskin Nation on their way during the late afternoon.  Greenskin troopers could be dealt with swiftly and if need be, fatally. Curiosity could not be countered so easily, nor could any megrims that Timothy might feel at the sight or feel of Mount Toane.

 

As the morning unwound, Stockholm found himself feeling confident that they could avoid coming in view of Mount Toane.  The mountain lay in a deep valley, and from a distance of five miles or less, its upper reaches could be easily seen from any direction.  However, the company was moving along at what he assumed was closer to six or seven miles distant, and if their course held, they could avoid Mount Toane entirely.

 

But there is a saying in all worlds, and it goes like this; even the best laid plans may meet with failure.  Around noon, Stockholm came to an abrupt halt, and he could hear the horses rearing up to a halt behind him.  Before them lay the Monen River, a geographical oddity that Stockholm hadn’t expected to encounter. The Monen River was said to change its course every few years, and on the map that Lenos had given Stockholm, it had turned onto its southerly route many miles west of here.  Now, however, it appeared that the river stretched from west to east for at least a few miles yet, and they would have to head directly east for the time being.  It would turn south again, but likely not before the company spied the upper reaches of Mount Toane in the north and east of them.

 

“Damnation,” Stockholm muttered.

 

“What’s up,” Ashford asked.

 

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” replied the Red Tribesman.  “We’ll have to turn eastward for now.  The river’s too wide and deep to try fording for now.  Come on,” he said, turning his snout east and trying to keep his eyes from wavering to the north.  But he couldn’t help himself, not a bit.  His eyes locked on the tall spire of Mount Toane, and he felt a small shiver run down his spine.  So much death had fallen in that place, he thought, and very little of it for any good reason other than the madness of a handful of men and demons.

 

He led the company away to the east.  Running along at a good clip, his hope now was to move them at a pace that would prevent them from stopping and staring in the direction of the mountain.  Yet after an hour’s riding, when they still had not yet come to the southward bend of the Menon, Bradley Ashford’s lack of worldly knowledge in Tamalaria came around and bit Stockholm in the ass. “What is that place,” Ashford asked from his mount, shouting the question to Timothy and Hina.  Stockholm could sense them slowing down to a walk behind him, and he turned around and headed back.  They hadn’t just slowed down, he saw.  Bradley had come to a complete halt atop his stallion.

 

“Yon is Mount Toane,” said Hina aloud, and she felt Timothy’s arms tighten around her waist until he was almost crushing her.  She tapped the back of one of his hands, and he eased up a little, but then she also felt him pressing his face softly into the small nell between her shoulders.  Oh crap, she thought, his old man had occupied that cursed place!  She, like Stockholm earlier, suddenly wanted to avoid discussing Mount Toane, even if it was a point of interest to the black Human from another world.  “T’is not in our road, Mr. Ashford, and so should not concern us right now.  We need to get going south as soon as we can,” said Hina. Ashford stared at the mountain, however, and didn’t seem able to tear his eyes free of its monolithic countenance.

 

“I’d like to know about it,” Ashford said.  “I’m not sure why, but the place looks pretty important to me,” he said.  His senses seemed sharper this morning, and it hadn’t escaped Ashford’s notice that he was starting to pick up on facts of this realm that he hadn’t learned from any of his three companions.  He also felt certain that the language coming from his mouth wasn’t entirely English any more.  Stockholm would have recognized that sensation for what it was.  Bradford was becoming more solid, more real in the realm of Tamalaria.

 

The Humans of Ashford’s world, Stockholm thought, probably hadn’t been exceptionally perceptive folk, and surely Ashford must be sensing a change in his own mind and body as he spent more time here in this world.  Though the New York they’d traveled to hadn’t been Ashford’s New York, Stockholm had observed how lazy and self-centered the folk of that place had been.  He didn’t know what could have made them that way, but Ashford no longer stood as a factor of that sort of world.  He lived in Tamalaria now, where one’s powers of perception kept one alive just as much as a weapon at the hip or on the back.

 

Stockholm was about to open his mouth and tell them that they should really get moving when Ashford did it himself.  “You folks can tell me about it some other time,” Brad said as he strode on his horse past the stunned Werewolf. Thank the gods, Stockholm thought.  Sometimes the best laid plans didn’t work, but sometimes people also realized when they’d gone wrong.  That, at least, was a small comfort.

 

An hour past high noon, Chuchurin pointed one finger at the large heap of bodies, and sent a jet of blue fire racing into the base of the pile.  The bodies quickly caught, and moments later were smoldering and burning, pitch black smoke roiling out in all directions and stinging his and Don-Shin’s eyes.  Ran’Atao was several hundred yards away, digging in the street with a spade located behind the town’s only hardware store.

 

“I’m worried about the captain,” Chuchurin whispered to Don-Shin as they stood and watched the bodies burn, listening to the wet crackle and snarl of body fat spitting and crisping up in the fire’s heat.  “He should have had me treat his injuries before dealing with this,” he said, tipping his head toward the bodies, his blond hair flipping a little as he did so.

 

“You shouldn’t be worried,” said Don-Shin, who’d served with Ran’Atao three years longer than Chuchurin.  “Whenever a worthy opponent injures him, the captain insists on a proper burial, and he will not let his wounds be treated fully until the body is underground.  It is a sign of respect to the worthy warrior who lays dead at his feet,” said Don-Shin.

 

“Oh,” said Chuchurin, looking up at the sky.  “I didn’t know.  Sorry Don-Shin.  I didn’t mean to waste your time.”

 

“Hardly a waste of time, Chuchurin,” said Don-Shin.  “Your concern for the captain is a good thing.  It shows your loyalty and determination.  Those are sacred traits to possess, you know.”

 

“I know,” said the Rukon battle medic.  Chuchurin stretched his back, cracking it in the process, and let out a relieved, “Ahhhh.  That’s much better.” Both men’s stomachs growled in unison then, and they looked at each other with their faces blank.  “That, however, isn’t.  We need to forage for something to eat.”

 

“Let’s hope you didn’t destroy the only buildings with food in them,” said Don-Shin, giving Chuchurin a friendly punch in the arm.  “Captain!”

 

“Yes, Don-Shin,” the huge Rukon said, turning and planting the spade in the loose soil at his feet.  He was fully four feet down into the ground, so he still almost stood at eye-height with his second-in-command.

 

“Sir, we’re going to search around and find something to eat.  We’ll bring you back something, but we don’t know how long it’ll take to find proper food. Are you going to be okay doing that by yourself, or would you like one of us to assist you?”

 

“No, I’ll be fine,” said Ran’Atao, looking to his left slightly, at the corpse of the Jaft.  Something strange had happened to the body in the night, and only Ran’Atao had noticed thus far.  He’d spread a sheet over the body, but now and again he stole a peek under the sheet, to confirm for himself that what he’d seen was real.  The Jaft remained dead, of that there was no doubt.  However, his throat appeared to have partially healed in the night, the wound he’d inflicted backing away from the spine.  Was that possible, he’d wondered, looking down at the body.  But thus far, nothing else had improved.  The blue skin remained dead as a doornail.  “Besides,” Ran’Atao said, turning back to Don-Shin.  “He fought with me alone, and I should do this alone as a result.  Fetch food and report back as soon as you can,” he called, settling the spade into the ground once again to dig.

 

Don-Shin nodded, and together left with Chuchurin to scour the town for edibles.

 

Afternoon opened up to Stockholm’s company with an unfriendly burst of rainfall that was blissfully short-lived for them.  The company actually rode through the southern border of the rainfall after a few hours’ travel, but Stockholm was cold and soaked and miserable still as late afternoon gave way to early evening.  His misery was partially a result of still being within view of Mount Toane when darkness flattened the sky into a black sheet dotted with stars.

 

The company kept to its travel plans, however, and continued on for an hour past darkness.  However, even this extra hour still left the last upper reaches of Mount Toane visible.  Timothy stared off to the north, his eyes firmly locked upon that towering mountain top, his guts squirming uncomfortably at the thoughts the sight of it conjured into his heart and mind.  Father, he thought, what happened to send you to such an evil place to begin with?

 

“You shouldn’t brood over it,” Hina whispered into his ear as she came up behind him from the campfire Stockholm and Ashford tended while making a hot meal.  She put a hand on his shoulder, and he gave her a brief smile as he reached up and squeezed the offered hand of comfort.  “You are not your father, Tim.”

 

“Thanks,” he said, looking north once again.  “I know that.”  Tonight a small crescent moon ascended into the skies, providing some limited illumination to the company.  The scent of soft, soaked soil wafted to his nostrils from the northwest, carried on the stiff wind that blew occasionally over them.  It reminded him of the odor of freshly laundered clothes as his mother hung them from a line in the side yard.  “Do you think he might still be there, haunting the place?”

 

“Tim, don’t,” Hina said, gripping his hand more tightly in her own.  “Unless this has something to do with your dreams.  Is that why you ask?”

 

“Actually, yes, a little,” he admitted.  “I never heard my father’s voice, you know.  By the time I was a little kid, he had started his great war with the world, and before I could speak, he’d been slain.  But I hear him sometimes in my dreams,” he said softly, gazing fixedly at Mount Toane.  “He calls out to me, demands that I follow the proper Vandross path, you know?  Me?  I don’t want any part of that,” Timothy Vandross snarled, finally tearing his eyes free of the mountaintop and turning to face Hina.  “I want something better,” he said, putting his arms around her neck.

 

Stockholm, seated contentedly by the fire as he stirred a large pot of stew, looked across the fire at Bradley Ashford, who was starting to look a little haggard. Dark, puffy circles had appeared under Ashford’s eyes, and his shoulders slumped poorly, giving him the appearance of a man half-dead from hard travel.  “Bradley?”

 

“Yes, Stockholm,” the man said, himself sounding fuzzy and dream-like.

 

“Are we going to have to tie you to yon horse to carry on, or will you take some medicine,” Stockholm asked abruptly.  Ashford let out a scraping, spectral laugh, and shook his head.

 

“If you have something that’ll make me feel less like a pile of shit in my clothes, I’ll be more than happy to take the stuff,” Ashford said with grim humor. “I’ve got one hell of a headache, and my ass hurts something powerful from all the hard riding.  I don’t suppose we can just stop someplace and find a Ford dealership, huh?”

 

“I’m afraid I don’t ken what you’re talking about,” Stockholm said, which was the absolute truth.  Ashford loosed a skeletal, raspy chuckle that gave Stockholm a bit of a chill in the darkness, especially so close to the taint of Mount Toane.

 

“No, I don’t suppose you would,” Ashford said.  “You call them autocarts, and I could sure use one of those.  Maybe something with a V-8 engine,” he said. He heaved a thick sigh, and looked at the stew in the pot. “You wanna’ know what I think it mostly is that’s wrong with me?”

 

“Fire away, Brad.”

 

“I think my body’s trying to get rid of the last traces of my home life,” Ashford said, turning his attention back to the fire.  “My thought process has been a bit muddled these last couple of days, and I swear I think I’m forgetting terms and phrases and such from my world.  I’m converting somehow to this world, finishing my adaptation.”

 

“Do you believe this the source of your ill look and pallor,” Stockholm asked, eyebrow cocked inquisitively.

 

“Most likely.  If’n you don’t mind, boss man, I think you’re apt to have to keep the watch for the first shift alone.”

 

“It’s not a problem,” said the Red Tribesman.  A few minutes later, he called Timothy and Hina over, and the four of them sat eating around the fire.  When the meal was finished and Stockholm started cleaning out the bowls and spoons, as well as the pot, Timothy surprised the others by clearing his throat and addressing Bradley Ashford.

 

“Mr. Ashford?”

 

“Yes, son?”

 

“You wanted to know about that mountain?”  Stockholm whipped his head up, and was glad to see that Timothy seemed on the verge of getting something enormous off his chest.  Yes, he could see the dread the telling held for the young half-Elf Void Mage, but it seemed Timothy had resolved to get this tale out of his system.  Bradley looked north to the mountain, and then back to Tim, nodding. “Well, I’ll tell you a little about it, and my father.  That place is called Mount Toane.  Toane is a word in the Elven language which means ‘tainted’, and there are few words better suited for a place such as that.

 

“The term also applied quite nicely to my father.”

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