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Volume 1681b
Michael A. Wexler
Chapters 11 - 15


I flew directly to Syjal, landing unobserved in a small grove of trees a hundred kotan from the gates. Unsure how deeply the V’Koo had penetrated the guard I dared venture no closer, fearing the stables untrustworthy.

Spreading dirt over my harness and body, and strapping my sword and scabbard to Oko, I started toward Syjal to reconnoiter, hopefully passing as a jumo, a beggar. I would claim to be from the southern tiers. It was common for a jumo to travel up from Loer, or Tlast, seeking the richer handouts of Syjal. My presence would alarm no one, unless, of course, my deception failed.

I paced along the high gray walls of the city until I reached the main gates. Those staunch sentries, depicting in bold relief the noble history of Syjal, wars past and present, never fail to stir the soul. A warrior’s advocacy is the sword, and so I envy those who work so wondrously with their hands.

Today, however, was not a day for hero worship.

Steeled to my task, head down, fretting each step, I entered Syjal and proceeded unchallenged across the inner plaza. By the central wells and around the great Broqua scales, where traders tested the merit of their trappings or farmers the bulk of their wheat, citizens gathered in small knots speaking in whispers, voices conspicuously hushed.

I approached one such group, ostensibly for a handout, eavesdropping for any scarp of useful information. One fellow crossed my palm with a coin, while a second, whose conversation I disturbed, bade me move on and to mind my business. In each face, I read a grimness of moment. Political turmoil that simmered in the shadows and I felt suspicious eyes accompanying my trek towards the marketplace.

The empty shops chilled me. Though the merchants stood in their stalls or lolled in their doorways, none shouted, bartered, or plied their wares. Colorful but suddenly incongruent pennants fluttered from the slanted rooftops but customers were at a premium.

“Katal, traveler!” hailed one fellow, pressing a freshly baked loaf of bread beneath my nose. “You look hungry, perhaps you have already earned enough lenar to partake?”

I considered the coin in my belt but shook my head. “Thank you, but no. Your bread smells delicious, perhaps later.”

“Ah!” the fellow said with a sly smile. “Will it be drinking then? My cousin Abjor serves the best Tup in Syjal!”

I smiled. The merchant had intimated I would rather drink than eat, and yet his sarcasm proved fortuitous. He was right, I needed a ram ser. Not for drinking, but for finding loose tongues that would expose the true pulse of Syjal!

Where men drank, men talked.

Abjor’s ram ser, an eating and drinking establishment popular with many of the warriors of the city, was the perfect choice!

Emo had begun her long walk down the stairs of night. The working city prepared to close as I entered Abjor’s dark and noisy confines, I risked recognition, but it was a necessary peril.

Using my begged coin, I took a table and bought a drink. The tavern abounded with the rough conversation common to men of metal, the complaints of bad food and stubborn women, stupid officers and wasted lives. I sat attentive, hoping for a hint to the true state of Syjal.

I had but just received my tup when a pair of guards of the second avan entered. They paused at the doors, eyes sweeping the room until they lighted upon me. They came forward, stopped at my table, and came brusquely to the point.

“Strangers are not welcome in the city of Syjal after dark,” the man who confronted me stated. “Unless you have official-business here, you must leave immediately.”

Argument would have been futile, perhaps fatal. I reluctantly agreed to an escort back to the main gates, which pounded shut behind me with an angry finality.

I had learned nothing. Disappointed, I returned to the grove where Oko waited, grazing upon the ochre moss. I used some of my stored water to cleanse myself then tried to sleep, but spent most of the night wrestling with tomorrow. How would I amend today’s failure?

At last, I hit upon a plan. I would return to Syjal by the South Gate, a warrior’s entrance. There I would seek out Podik, guard of the first pavan, a brave warrior loyal to the Blood. A friend I could trust. If any knew the heart of Syjal, Podik knew!

It smacked of danger and risk. If V’Koo held the city, how could I know that Podik was not removed from the guard. Approaching the gate a jumo begged and immediate sword thrust; to go armed the same.

I resolved to go armed.

At dawn’s first light, I roused. I had a few bites of dried meat and some shared water with Oko. With Emo positioned for what should have been Podik’s watch, I headed to Syjal.

I reached the South Gate and, with jubilant heart, found Podik at his station. I tapped him upon his shoulder and, after taking the flat of his blade on the top of my head for startling him, saw his eyes go wide in recognition.

“Land, by Ana, it is good to see you. I thought you went with the avan seeking the Dul . . .” Podik stopped. His eyes narrowed eagerly. “You bring news of T’lu and Olana?”

I nodded. “T’lu lives, we found him.”

Podik gave thanks to Ana.

“And Olana?”

I shook my head. “Unknown.”

“I understand. But, if you found T’lu, why are you here? Alone?”

I explained to Podik how T’lu, appraised of the intrigues infesting Syjal, had commissioned me this task, learn what I could about the deceptions Randak had fostered upon Syjal and help form a strategy against them.

Podik grunted and leaned on his sword, his eyes downcast in thought.

“Syjal sits on the edge of a sharp blade. Randak urges the weak to usurp T’lu and place that weakling Vok upon the throne. Thief-evar Hifel leads a vocal opposition, but Vok has lineage and Randak uses T’lu’s prolonged absence to sway public opinion.”

“Lineage? His blood is so thin as to be water!”

Podik nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes, we all know that, but there is no one else whose Halm is closer.”

“Ganar!” I shot back. “T’lu wants Ganar to demand the throne. Immediately.”

Podik shook his head. “Hifel urged that same service of Balkar’s uncle. In return, Randak conjured some foulness against his claim, some papers that suggest there was a woman . . .

“Forgeries and lies! Clearly the hand of Ksanj.”

“Indeed, but it stirs the pot! Claims and counterclaims without proof until the people grow sick of it.”

“I cannot believe this of Randak. What happened to him?”

Podik could only shake his head. “Ksanj happened, and the people are afraid. Even those who would as soon put Randak upon the point of a sword understand the power behind him. With Balkar dead and Olana missing . . .” he shrugged his broad shoulders.

I growled, understanding what Podik meant, how our own internal instability had created opportunity for Ksanj. T’lu had to find Olana and bring her home. The people would listen to the Blood.”

“I must speak with Hifel.”

“Understood. Be warned, Land, the enemies of the noble-scientist Hifel watch him closely. No one knows how far Randak will go to further his position. Considering the nature of your mission when you left Syjal, it would not be wise being seen here without T’lu. That is a perception Randak could use against us.”

Podik stopped, reading my eyes, gauging my determination. He grinned and put a hand upon my shoulder.

“I will arrange the meeting for tonight.”

“Podik, you are a good man, loyal to the Blood.”

“I am Odanal!” He said it proudly. Then his eyes lidded. “We shall need to risk circumventing orders, but there are enough loyal Odanal about me to arrange the deception. Meet me at the west corvan at the tenth hour.”

The delay bade comparisons to a prisoner waiting the executioner. Nervous, anxious hours spent in idle speculation, fueling unwanted anger. I needed to be collected, wary, and rested. So somehow, I managed to nap.

Finally, the appointed ar arrived. With a word of encouragement to Oko and my sword and dagger strapped firmly to my side, I started back toward the city. My heart thumped.

Normally I would have expected two, maybe three guards circling the outer perimeter. Tonight, I met none. I hoped it was Podik’s influence and not a baited trap my gullibility would spring.

The corvan I sought was a simple, inconspicuous doorway in the monolith breastwork that encircled Syjal. Working my way along the western bulwark, I found it easily. There, drawn to a halt, I stretched my eyes into the darkness in search of Podik.

As I waited, my thoughts wandered. I debated whether I was happy or mad that the builders of Syjal fortified these thirty-foot walls of with jojce, nullifying the natural luminosity of the mosk. However, given my present situation, I saw the darkness as a boon.

I paced nervously, my mind caught between a dozen unrelated plots until the groan of the ancient hinges snapped me to attention. The door opened. No light emerged. Podik’s voice ushered from the darkness in a hasty admonishment.

“Hurry, step in and be quiet.”

The heavy doors shut with a thud. Within was the blackness of K’al Har.

“I have extinguished the Taz bulbs,” Podik spoke from the shadows. “Take care, Land. There are traitors even in the guard.” I heard his teeth clench. “Trust no one. No one!”

We hustled blindly along the interior corridors where slept the avans of Syjal’s guard. It was a way I knew well and our pace was quick, the darkness no hindrance. At length, we reached the long, spiral ramp that fed the inner city. Ascending, we emerged into the night-lights of Syjal.

Built free of man-made alterations, the city glowed, the wondrous luminosity not lost upon my anxious heart. The sudden thought of traitors and vektals attempting to pull Syjal down, angered me mightily.

We were on the second tier of dwellings, looking down upon the inner courtyard where the marketplace and the central-housing squares converged.

By outward appearance, all looked calm. The avenue shops, the first tier of buildings within the city, were shuttered and empty. Guards, in pairs, paced at regular intervals. The sleeping apartments of the dulak, the unmated, that formed the second tier of the inner city structure, flickered with sporadic life. Some citizens slept, others sat up and talked or read. The homes of the Jo’ dulak (the joined), the third tier of dwellings, showed similar intermittent light.
“See!” Podik hissed, pointing. “Guards, on the second and third levels. Guards that watch the people.”

A dread I had never known before pulsed in my veins. My gaze shifted to the d’lc, or fourth and final level of dwellings, set directly into the great wall itself. Here lived the Thiefs and Evars of Syjal. Late burning lights shone from a handful of scattered windows where I imagined plots and counter plots being born. It was there that I would find Hifel.

We descended to the street. Podik led me across the main thoroughfare, then between and behind the establishments of a leather artisan and an herb grower. Ahead, a stone stairwell ascended straightaway. Podik whispered between his teeth.

“This is my post,” he said. “I arranged it thus to give you a chance. Hifel is on the left corridor, ten kota from the head of the stairs.”

“I know the way. I will have no difficulty from here. Thank you, Podik, I will remember you to our Dular, with Halm.”

Podik blessed my efforts with the luck of Ana and we parted quietly. Ascending the stairs with dispatch, I headed directly to Hifel’s rooms. His door stood open.

Like most apartments in this quarter of the city, it consisted of two rooms. The kul aren, or sleeping quarters, with a balcony that overlooked the main square, and the dar aren, or day room. The dar aren of Hifel consisted of a small couch, an old wood desk, and four walls lined with shelves that burst with the ancient books and assorted collectibles unique to the tastes of the venerable Thief-evar of Syjal.

Hifel sat at his desk, reading. He looked pale and tired, but his face lit with a great smile as I slid noiselessly into the room and whispered his name.

“Land! By Ana, it is good to see you. I am glad Podik got you here. Quickly, close the door. Randak heard rumors you entered the city yesterday and doubled his guards.”

The incident at the Ram Ser flashed before me, though why Randak had me thrown from the city rather than arrested defied answer. Perhaps the V’Koo found it easier to dismiss a challenge than confront it.

Hifel rose from his chair. Thin and agile as always, he moved with a suppleness that belied his gray hair and advanced years. He took hold of my arms, gripping me as though testing my validity.

“You act as if I were an Impy.”

“With what I have seen over the past uldar . . .” Hifel shook his head. Nor did he bother to clarify his statement. “You have news of T’lu and the Dulara?”

I repeated all that had transpired since our avan had left Syjal. Hifel listened intently. His gray-green eyes glowed. I knew well that, blessed with tireless energy and unwavering loyalty, upon a world without a Ksanj, this learned evar and respected thief would have been an institution.

When I finished my recital, he immediately asked, “East? Why east?”

“He would not say, only that we were to trust him.”

“Yes, fine for him to say, he is not here. Still, if T’lu searches for Amata, he believes in the journey. With heart and soul, he believes. He understands the political expediency of returning Olana to the throne, and the crisis if he fails.” He paused, shaking his graying head sadly. “Poor girl, the suffering that she has endured. Ksanj knew what he was doing when he engineered her abduction. Without Olana to bolster the flagging courage of our people, his puppet Randak gains strength.”

“But the Odanal . . .” I tried to interject my complaint. Hifel would not have it.

“Randak says the time of the Blood has passed! We resist the inevitable. It will not be long before he has enough support to split any vote on treaty with Ksanj. Treaty! Forfeit of life and dignity is what the Vektal suggests.” He stemmed his oration long enough to spit on the floor. “Only Olana could demand back the loyalty of the Syjalan Thiefs that fear has swung to Randak.”

One hand touched the handle of my longsword. “Randak could disappear.”

“Sheathe your blade young warrior. Randak is not the issue. He dies and Ksanj replaces him. There are more than enough V’Koo to go around. Ksanj preys on the weaknesses that three thousand years of war has produced in our people and our erstwhile leaders; fears that assassinating Randak will not cure. No, if T’lu cannot find the Dulara, and soon, then I fear Mose will rule Syjal.”

“Mose? Who is Mose?”

Suddenly, dramatically, Hifel’s door exploded inward. I whirled through a shower of splinters, one hand protecting my eyes and the other pulling my longsword, prepared to battle whoever or whatever challenged the sanctity of a Thiefs private quarters.

Either I was too slow, or they were too fast.

In an instant, I stood disarmed, taken by warriors wearing the colors of Syjal.  No, not warriors, traitors, V’Koo, masquerading as poval, and who stood shoulder to shoulder with two pathetic spawn of the T’ala T’sol, the Bujan!

My soul screamed in protest, a righteous wave that denied what my eyes conceded. Even now, I but barely comprehend the enormity of what I witnessed. I tried to surge upward, to die fighting, but the Syjalan warriors held me fast.

“Surrender or die!” cried the first Bujan, a squat and hairy miscreant with a scraggly beard growing from what seemed to be its lower lip, for it had no chin and no neck. A single good eye, several inches south of the bad eye, glowered at me in red-rimmed mirth.

The second Bujan, the taller of the two, had a left arm a foot longer than the right; he tilted to stand. Since it had no tongue, it never spoke.

Common sense a blur, wanting only to put a sword to this nightmare ere I died, I managed to free my right arm and lashed out, raking the first Bujan hard across his bloated nose, starting a trickle of blood. The Bujan recoiled, cursing loudly, then shot a clubbed foot to my mid-section. I sank to one knee, breath expunged. My attacker laughed grossly. The other, the one with no tongue, grinned in repellent silence.


A warrior, a Van, entered the room. I heard Hifel protesting angrily.

“Surprised ancient one? I do have a few reliable resources; they spotted Land in the great square yesterday. I had him removed from the city and waited. Knowing he would seek out the leaders of the Odanal, I had you watched.”

The voice of the newcomer, while even and reasonable, had an iciness that was palatable. He turned upon me with eyes cold as that voice.

“Thank you, Land. You have provided me with incontrovertible proof of Hifel’s treachery against Vok, rightful leader of Syjal.”

I rose to my feet, my blood boiled. “Filthy V’Koo!”

“V’Koo?” Mose glanced to Hifel. “Have you not told the boy the truth?”

I turned to the thief-evar. “What truth.”

Hifel glowered, but kept silent. Mose laughed.

“That one would have to be a Syjalan to be a V’Koo. I am Bujan!”

His sanctimonious grin stabbed at my heart, filling me with an inexplicable sense of dread. I could barely comprehend the enormity of that statement; ‘I am Bujan’. Here stood a fresh terror beyond all that had befallen Jatora before, a perfect Bujan unmarred by the stamp of deformity marking his brothers, commanding warriors of the protal. Even with the confession and the silent corroboration from Hifel, the truth pressed hard for acceptance.

Mose read the doubt in my mind. Our eyes locked and I saw it there, the confirmation I sought. Mose was not as perfect as first shock lead me to believe. Though his face laughed, his eyes held a perpetual blankness. The telltale vacuity of the gopal, the reality of his diseased origin exposed by those cold, clammy sockets.

Looking at the warriors that stood over me with drawn swords, I wondered how many were Odanal, how many this new Bujan. I looked into the eyes of the warriors one by one, but even this told me nothing, for how could I know if what I saw in Mose was universal amongst this new and terrible menace.

I now understood my hesitant reception from Hifel and shuddered. If Ksanj had achieved this, we could never know again.

 “You are free to go.”

My ears perked at this sudden, unexpected pronouncement from Mose. I had expected death and so grew instantly wary. I would not be the Ealoran stepping unaware into a Kiida trap.

“I assume T’lu lives or you would not be here assessing Ksanj’s strengths,” Mose offered, those cold eyes searching for a reaction that I did not offer. His voice lowered. Again, the chill of impending disaster crept over me. “Tell your O’Odanal, only death awaits him here. Your long war has ended. Tonight, Vok sits upon the throne. In the morning, Randak will proclaim him Dular. Syjal belongs to Ksanj now and, should the Odanal be so foolhardy as to resist, well, ten thousand Hisl are but a day’s march to the North.”

“Send a hundred thousand Hisl, it will make no difference,” I cried defiantly. “The people of Syjal will fight you as we have always fought. To the death!”

For a second Mose stood quivering, overcome with emotions once believed beyond the Bujan. Then the mood passed and his fever quelled. “These warriors will escort you to the gate.”

My eyes found Hifel. Again, Mose read my mind.

“No harm shall befall Hifel. He is far too intelligent a resource to squander so callously.”

Returned to the Mu Rala, watched by Bujan and V’Koo, I mounted Oko and took wing, making one final pass over the city wall. In the courtyard below, shoulder to shoulder with the Bujan, I saw the final indignity, an avan of hideous black Hisl. V’koo, Bujan, Hisl, and this creature, Mose, all the spawn of the madman gathered in Syjal!

The urge to draw my sword and fly to my death fighting for the Halm of the Odanal stirred strong within my breast, but my duty was to my Dular. I turned Oko and headed for the Val Ponada.


Silence, stifling as shadow, followed Land recounting his adventures in Syjal.

Each warrior weighed the episode in his heart. Each made a judgment, formed a conclusion, and then bravely kept that conjecture private, though in the crestfallen expressions that surrounded me I saw the pain clearly writ.

“So, Bujan in Syjal,” T’lu said loudly, his bravado parting his lips in a wide smile. “At last, someone uglier than T’rk.”

I could not resist the urge to laugh, nor did I believe I should. I let it come, knowing that it would be contagious; providing the excuse the others needed to exhale and breathe again.

Which, of course, had been T’lu’s design. He moved amongst the men, pulling at their shoulders and hollering in their ears, exhorting them to rally and be brave.

“Do we stand here like pouting children who have lost a favorite plaything?” the Dular O’Odanal roared. “We live, we have our swords, and we have the same challenge today as when we left Syjal; find Olana, defeat Ksanj!”

T’rk, flustered but disposed to play devil’s advocate, asked what filled all our minds.

“But what can a mere handful of pavans accomplish?”

“We climb the Val Ponada to Amata.”

A quick rumble of dissent ran through the men.

 “My Dular,” T’rk cried, almost sounding desperate. “We are of the Blood and will follow where you lead. In the face of all the brave men that have died in unsuccessful assaults upon these mountains, we will follow. But,” T’rk paused, took a breath, “please, if you have a plan, shared it with us.”

The men voiced their accord with the grizzled Van, and T’lu nodded.

“A wise man once wrote that you can not find new shores by sailing old waters. I do have a plan brave men of the Odanal!” T’lu let his eyes drift skyward and then shouted loud enough for all creation to hear. “K’al Kadre Mor!”

Thunder has the capacity to shatter calm. Lightning to suck the fragrance out of a warm summer’s morning. Consummate forces of nature each, impotent measured against the mixed anguish and joy T’lu’s words brought to the Odanal. T’rk dropped to his knees, stunned, his eyes filled with disbelief. Several warriors cried openly. Only Land found voice to his incredulity, a gasp squeezed between clenched jaws.

“You have found it?”

“Not I, “Kdal!”

T’rk staggered to his feet. He pressed forward and gripped me hard by the shoulders. He glowered fiercely, his eyes blazing and his hands shaking. “Do not toy with us! You know where lies the K’al Kadre Mor?”

T’lu, gently disengaging me form T’rk’s grasp, slapped my back with force to keel an ox and poured the I’bar into my ears.

“By the Guardian Qualo will men of Amata know the K’al Kadre Mor.”

“The face in the rock,” I said, my map of Jatora adding a marker, connecting dots. “The face of a Qualo!”

It fell to T’lu to explain that the K’al Kadre Mor was a scaleable path up the Val Ponada. A trail that, according to legend, led to the cloud covered, low-lying summit above the valley of Amata. Whether this ancient trail to Amata was, like the river Tamor, a myth or a truth lost in antiquity I did not know. It was enough the Odanal believed, and that belief fathered hope.

K’al, by the way, was T’lu’s great, great, great, great, great, great, grandfather; the K’al Kadre Mor being the Way K’al Crossed.

 “My Dular,” Land cried. “If it is true, if Kdal has found the K’al Kadre Mor, it alters the entire course of the war. You could lead the avans of Syjal against Amata. Ksanj would be vulnerable, and . . .”

T’lu waved a hand, beckoning Land to hold his enthusiasm.

“Do not fly your Griffin so fast young Ul Van. Not a single warrior leaves Syjal while Randak conspires against me or while the emissary of Ksanj, this Mose, commands from the shadows.”

“But . . .” Land stammered.

“Finding the Qualo Mar does not place the armies of the Odanal within Amata. Though it is a great step forward, it is but a single step in a very long journey.”

“T’lu is right,” T’rk echoed, recovered from his initial shock. “Finding the K’al Kadre Mor is but half the battle. We must first find Amata! To Amata!”

The chant of the battle-gray Van rippled through the Odanal. T’lu surveyed his men and smiled. I suspected a forced smile. Whatever truths or doubts he held in his heart, he secreted them from the eyes of his warriors.

“Land. You and Oko fly east and locate the Qualo Mar, mark it well in your memory and then return. We will wait here and make preparations.”

“But how do I know where to search?” Land asked, at last rooted in reality. “The Val Ponada is vast and . . .”

T’lu turned a bemused eye my direction. From somewhere deep within and far away, I found the answer to Land’s question.

“You will find Kiida, Votag, and seven Hisl. All dead.”

On the first day of our preparations, several groups of men went into the Mu Derj in search of Votag. I remained behind and cannot recount their adventures other than to note of those that went, several returned with wounds of various intensity. The second day I spent in my learning how to braid ropes of Votag gut that proved to be immensely strong and light, unlike any rope or twine of my memory.

It was upon the third morning, that T’lu mentioned fashioning Dobar coats. Tongues wagged at the fashioning of these heavy cloaks, for the Odanal fretted the cold, understandable for warm-weather warriors.

The Dobar was a mastodon-like creature primarily hunted for meat and the making of sleeping furs. I state in advance of my story the primary resemblance to the mighty pachyderms of your world’s past lay in the overall size and shape of the beast and the elongated tusks protruding at right angles from the jaw. However, there, the similarity ended. In common with all the creatures thus met upon the wondrous world, the Dobar was without visible ears, nor did it possess a trunk.

My first sighting occurred in the morning of our second day after Land departed for Syjal. I had joined T’lu and a unit of ten warriors in the hunt. In compliment to the their normal arms, each man carried with a length of Votag gut over a shoulder. For a mile we had paralleled the Val Ponada and had now reached a point where it ran quite close to the Mu Derj. At once, a strange odor drifted over the scraggly grass that filled the hundred yards from rock to tree. T’lu signaled a halt and I had my introduction to the Dobar of Jatora.

What a beast! Twenty feet high with slate gray legs the size of tree trunks, the forelegs being several inches shorter than the hindquarters bestowing the creature a perpetual stoop. Remarkably, after the fashion of a giant lizard, the Dobar displayed a massive tail as long as its elephantine torso was high, which it lashed back and forth as it advanced from the forest.

Again noting the absence of a trunk, the Dobar had a blunted muzzle and shark-toothed jaws that ran backward to a point behind the pig-like eyes. The tusks, of a familiar ivory hue, lacked any noticeable curl and measured twelve feet root to tip. Irregular black and yellow spots danced along their length.

While the back of the Dobar was bare, covering the underside of that great chest, hindquarters and three quarters the length of the tail, grew the object of our hunt, a thick wooly coat of brownish-white hair. So thick as to be sheepish in nature, if you can picture a ewe the size of a small mountain!

I drew my sword. T’lu, who stood beside me, noted the action and put a hand upon my wrist.

“Not needed here,” he said simply. “Watch, and when I move, you move. Understood?”

I nodded, notching the emphasis T’lu placed upon the two words, you move.

The Dobar stood paused at about fifty yards distance regarding us with raised head swinging lightly side to side. Suddenly, T’lu shouted, a savage yell that startled me, though more so it startled the Dobar.

What happened next, I tell the best I recall. For the seconds blurred.

The great tusks of the Dobar began to glow. Even as the forest and mountains around us could gleam and glitter, the black spots pulsed red and the yellow spots seemed to sizzle white-hot. With a venting hiss that sounded as water thrown on a fire, the mighty beast lowered its head and charged. That challenging hiss rising to a terrific shriek.

The ground trembled; not a warrior moved. Dust churned as a dreamy haze; so unreal was the action before me.  Through that haze, I saw the glowing, lowered tusks of the thundering beast and shuddered, knowing those mottled weapons, backed by the muscles of a Titan, had the force of a hundred catapults. Nor was the tail one bit less formidable a weapon. Boulders ten men could not budge swatted aside with the ease of a pebble.

I had seen the Odanal against the Votag. I had learned a quick appreciation for both the daring and forethought of their combat strategies. I waited, as stoic as they in the flying dust, the pungent scent of the Dobar as vivid as its size and ferocity. At less than twenty yards, T’lu gave his first command. The men moved, huddling around their King, a compact target! What were they thinking?

The Dobar screamed, for no other word defines the sound it made, and bore down upon us. At ten years, T’lu gave his second command and the men leaped left and right, allowing the beast to rumble passed.

For the Odanal, it looked easy. I required an additional shove from T’lu to avoid a fatal goring. The warriors knew what to expect and how to react while I had to wait and follow their lead. Even so, I felt the hair upon head and arms singe from the white-fire that now blazed from the yellow spots dotting the tusks. A heat so intense that when the Dobar dug those projections into the earth to halt its change, the moss sizzled, flamed, and disintegrated into powder.

Its momentum turned, the Dobar swung around readying to charge anew. The lashing tail turned boulders and pebbles alike into streaking projectiles, striking one warrior at the legs and another a glancing blow off his scalp. Two men down, the Dobar shrieked elation.

 It was then T’lu gave the final command and the pavans began shouting feverishly and waving their arms above their heads. Immediately, I saw the ploy. The confronted Goliath reared like a stallion, sitting almost flat upon the great tail, rendering the powerful weapon hours de combat, opting to lowering its head and swipe the air with fiery tusks.

That, had been the action the Odanal sought.

Their lines snaked out and found the exposed forelegs. In a thrice, the beast was down with the golden warriors of the Odanal crisscrossing that great bulk in a skilled pattern that, if you will forgive the informality, hog-tied the Dobar. Though it brought every ounce of sinew to bear upon the lashings that held it, fallen upon its side, tail securely knotted to its flank, leverage gone, the Dobar was helpless.

In due course, it ceased to struggle and lay passive as the Odanal went about the task of shearing the creature, which took the better part of an hour. Fur piled higher than the tallest of our group. Only then did T’lu draw his sword and advance upon the helpless beast.  I held my breath but could not turn from the imminent slaughter.

I need not have been so dramatic. With warriors pulling for all their worth upon the lines that held the beast in check, the Dular of the Odanal hacked a two foot slab of meat from the tail. Oddly, the Dobar seemed unfazed by the incredible wound and, when released from its bonds, lumbered to its feet, shook itself as if wakening from a casual sleep, and rumbled for the safety of the Mu Derj.

“Despite their size, they are harmless when compared to the other denizens of the forest. That is if one knows how to deal with them. The Mu Derj is littered with Votag carcass gored raw and trampled.”

“What a fantastic beast,” I murmured.  “It is a wonder I did not encounter such a formidable animal in my crossing to the Val Ponada.”

 “The Dobar sees poorly and so rarely ventures forth at night, preferring to sleep in the many easily protected cave mouths dotting the mountainside.”

Once more, in another fashion, Fate had watched over my ignorant, newborn soul.

“I presume the Dobar is good eating,” I returned, watching as a warrior wrapped the severed hunk of tail with line and slung it across his back.
“Very!” T’lu smiled. “Would it surprise you to learn the Dobar will fully restore its own tail in less than a udar (a week)?”

I dared not answer but to nod. The Dobar was more a lizard than imagined.

“Why not domesticate such a beast!” I asked suddenly. “A few such could feed and clothe a . . .”

“It would lack J’hai.”

The word meant sport. It should tell you all you really needto know of the men of the Odanal.

Fortunately, neither of the two injured warriors sustained serious wounds. Our mission accomplished, the men singing happily, we returned to camp where the Odanal salted the meat in a mixture boiled from dried grass and crushed stones. I continued braiding the leathery guts of the versatile Votag while others took up the task of creating hoods, coats and boots from the Dobar fur.

For thread, once more the Odanal turned to the eminently versatile gut of the Votag. When stores ran short, a new hunt followed. Never was the obtaining of such a simple implement so fraught with danger. Still, without loss of life or limb, in due course, we had manufactured our clothing. These garments, stretched and dried under the warm rays of Emo, were extraordinarily durable and their warmth offering protection T’rk assured me we would need to survive.

I gazed towards the white crown coating the aloof and seemingly impassable Val Ponada and imagined the mighty winds and blowing snows that ruled those far-flung heights. By earthly calculations, I estimated elevations that ranged from 8,000 feet along the forest edges to 15,000 feet at the weather-ravaged interior peaks.

What manner of creation waited? Could it be any more incredible, any more dangerous, than that already to grace my path?

Land returned, his approach heralded by the large, black shadow of Oko cast across the sun. He wasted no words.

“I found the K’al Kadre Mor!”

The Odanal cheered and the young warrior shot me a swift aside. “You fought well.”

His smile paid homage to the battle I had waged. I returned the smile and committed his youthful accolade to memory.

“The K’al Kadre Mor snakes off into the Mountain of Lights in a great, zigzagging course, a difficult ascent greatly scarred by the Legions of K’Aldan, broken in many areas.” Again, K’Aldan. “The climb will test us, no doubt, but as best I could determine it is negotiable.”

“You could see the summit?” T’rk asked anxiously.

Land bobbed his head enthusiastically. “Yes, clearly. The snowcaps, poking through the clouds, were visible from the base. It is just as the I’bar foretells. It tempted Oko and I,” Land smiled. “Tempted us mightily! However, I realized the visible summit is not what we seek, but the hidden overlook where lies the hidden valley of Amata. I returned as ordered.”

“How long a march?” T’lu asked.

“Two days.”

A hand touched my shoulder. Fate, stirring.

The Qualo Mor had lain hidden for centuries in a tomb of rocky debris, lost to the eyes of those who needed it most. Then something disturbed the mountain. A slide of a magnitude sufficient to expose but not destroy her ancient, sleeping secret. This just as Gray Allen would happen along in pursuit of the very soul of Jatora, Olana, Princess of Syjal, my golden girl with the emerald eyes.

It defied coincidence. No, Destiny had fully plotted and planned my path upon Jatora ere I ever drew breath upon her wild and wonderful soil.


Votag bladders filled with fresh water completed our preparations, the journey continued.

Land flew ahead as signpost and guide for the Odanal whose anxious hearts lent swiftness to their feet. The first night out we barely slept. Breakfast was swift and attended to with an air of anticipation, an eagerness to resume marcing. Four hours into the new day, mountain and forest merged and there were but two choices for T’lu, climb or hack.

The Dular O’Odanal signaled Land to alight and they consulted.

“The Val Ponada has no visible trail, my Dular. Nor would it seem reasonable to try negotiating the mountain as it a minimum of k kotal (ten miles) before the path along the base is again clear of the Mu Derj.”

T’lu nodded, saying, “We will enter the Mu Derj.”

To my mind, I would have preferred the mountain. I had seen what the forest offered and fretted a return to its embrace. Nevertheless, I bowed to T’lu, for I realized how pitifully ignorant I stood of the true dangers posed by the Val Ponada.

“Keep to the air,” T’lu instructed his young Ul Van. “Signal us on with Oko that our way will be straight and swift.”

At first, the trees spaced generously and the looping lianas and perpetuating flora easily negotiated. That soon changed. As upon my first nightmarish journey through the Mu Derj, the trees crowded. A thick roof of heavy if colorful leaves blotted the rays of Emo. We advanced in semi shadow tinged with the natural radiance of the Mu Derj. A vague suggestion of a trail slanted right. However, since we knew the Val Ponada lay to our left shoulder, we followed its contour with reticence, and only so long as we heard the great Griffin whistling us on.

The trees continued to thicken and all sight of Land was lost. I feared the incessant chopping of our swords, the splash of sap, and wriggling sounds of growing vines, would deafen us to the whistles of his mount. I thought to raise this fear to T’lu when we emerged into large glade, where the Dular ordered an abrupt halt. Across the clearing two miniscule openings in the compacted brush. We stood quietly, listening. Then faint in the distance we heard the cry of Oko, too faint to say with certainty right or left.

“We take both trails,” T’lu said matter-of-factly as he turned to his Van. “T’rk, pick four men and reconnoiter the left fork. I will follow right. One hour, no more, then return here.”

The Van cast a glance my direction. “Volunteering?”

I nodded, eagerly. However, I noted that T’rk chose four warriors in addition to me, a compliment of five plus the Van. Evidently, T’rk thought of me more as spectator than resource. Perhaps, I thought, if things got too boring, the Odanal could poke fun at me to pass the time!

We were but ten minutes into our fork when a rustling in the branches above drew a swift S’ti from T’rk.

The brightly plumed boughs sagged unnaturally and there came to my nose an odor unmistakably mammal. You do not describe such things you simply understand them.

At once, a series of bizarre screams and snarls sparked the air. The branches warbled in a zigzag track as the creature moved quickly from tree to tree with apelike agility.

T’rk drew his blade, as did we all. The movement ceased and the forest drew quiet. In the denser shadows left and right, the forest glowed, wonderfully unaware of the fearsome presence hidden within its boughs. I drew a breath and waited, muscles tensed, wondering what next. The unseen beast let loose with a hideous scream. Then an equally heinous cry answered from just above my head. I saw it then; just the briefest glimpse of snarling, drooling jaws rimmed in reddish fur and then the image faded amidst the foliage. It did not withdraw, in that impression I was resolved. It vanished!

Were it not for the fact I never dream, I would have thought I slept. By the sword of Mecca, the apparition never moved. It had simply evaporated as some conjured spirit.

Whatever the truth, I had no time for questions. Another cry, this time directly at my back, had me turning even as bolt of bestial rage launched from a tree not twenty paces distant, claws extended. I reacted with every facet of the collective memory brought to bear. I swung my longsword but badly misjudged the incredible swiftness of the beast and missed completely, but so did the answering rake of those flying nails as I dove to the earth and rolled beneath their passing graze.

The creature alighted on all fours two feet from my heels where it crouched, perhaps perplexed by my action, glaring at me from three, triangular shaped eyes fire red!

Nor was it alone, for three more had dropped from the trees. These faced T’rk and the others. I stood on an island, separated, alone.

The creature that faced me in the glowing light of that alien forest stood about as large as a hyena. The rear haunches were feline and powerfully muscled, but the forelegs were long and slender, simian in contour with hand-like feet accounting for its arboreal dexterity. I realize now the length of those uniquely formed arms caused the creature’s slopping posture, conveying the initial comparison to the hyena. However, there the similarity ended, for the creatures had white pelts ringed in alternating bands of red, yellow, and a third color for which I have no description. The hideous head, while catlike in shape, bore no resemblance to any earthly animal. No external ears were visible, and in the snowy center of the forehead, the aforementioned triangles of fire. Powerful jaws, trimmed in a red beard and armed with long, sharp fangs completed the picture of the  A’pel of Jatora.

The spirit that been Mecca, Bodine, Falsworth, tingled with rushing adrenaline.

From a corner of my eye I saw T’rk circling around the beasts, which snarled and glowered but made no effort to curtail his moving to my side. 

“Follow my lead,” whispered the tensed Van. “When the A’pel fades, fight with your ears and nose as well as your eyes. Watch the grasses and fallen leaves for the imprint of their pads. Hear them, smell them.”

My mind ran riot with questions, but T’rk was again upon the move. With a sudden howl, the Van of the Odanal lunged forward and the most remarkable event followed. The A’pel, reacting as nature had so uniquely designed them to react, vanished! Blending into the flickering flora as steam fades in the air.

I recalled the vanishing face in the trees and gasped. However, to stand supinely by digesting the extraordinary endowment of these giant chameleons invited a painful and ignominious death. I tried to emulate T’rk who charged into the empty space where I had last seen the A’pel, cutting downward with a heavy grunt. Again, I came up empty. I spun about and fell into a ready crouch as the Odanal circled my inexperience with their waving blades. I started to say something but T’rk hushed me to silence.

“See with your ears,” he hissed.

I tried, concentrating with a singular energy until I heard what he heard. The A'pel moving right, circling us with deliberate calm. I could almost hear the drool of their jaws dripping upon the soft grasses near their assorted paws and hands, and in those grasses, I saw the tread of their passage. Nor were my eyes and ears alone heightened to the bizarre camouflage of the A’pel. The pungent warmth of their hides became as a compass fixed upon North.

Locked in what I knew to be an eons old ritual of stalk and attack, the A’pel continued to circle. They neither growled nor screamed. Their pace never altered, staying steady as a beaten drum. I waited with the warriors, breathed in the hot stench of their blood, and knew that in another instant they would spring.

Even as all I have described what had transpired in the space of a very few seconds, a new force interjected itself into the confrontation. As though possessed of sight impossible to this blind, stupid, traveler, a Votag vaulted from concealment behind the glowing bole of a forest giant. With a bloodcurdling roar, it fell upon the one of the invisible beasts with a surety impossible to deny. The great cat saw his prey even as I could see the trees and brush that erupted with inconceivable violence. In the throes of combat, the A’pel lost their chameleon cover, revealing a whirling, leaping, clawing mass of flesh spinning out of control. One A’pel was down, dead, and the remaining beasts, all interest in their human prey abandoned, enjoined a ferocious life and death struggle with the Votag.

Taking quick advantage of the boon Fate had delivered us, T’rk gripped me by the scruff of the next and shoved me to into the woods. Nor were any of the Odanal loath to disappearing from the ghastly fracas. Soon after, we reached another large clearing, and there we found Land pacing nervously beside a contented Oko grazing upon the abundant grasses. The entire incident, the drama, the chaos, forgotten as one would forget.

Having lost sight of the Odanal, he had been searching every open glade for a hint of our passage until, drawn by the sounds to the A’pel and Votag, he had caught a glimpse of our hurried departure. Noting our path, he had flown ahead to the next clearing and awaited our arrival.

“How far have we strayed,” I asked.

“Thanks to the A’pel, not so far as you might have. The forest thins quickly from here. You will regain passage along the base of the mountain less than a mile ahead.”

T’rk dispatched two of the men back to bring T’lu forwarded. I might note that in the final report to T’lu, no mention was made of the episode with the A’pel and the soul of a thousand fighting incarnations understood. Amongst the Odanal of Jatora, danger was commonplace and bravery in its face, expected if not demanded.

Reunited, with Land again in the air, eight hours forced pace brought us to our destination, which I recognized even at a distance. It had occurred to me the length of our trek seemed incongruous to the amount of time elapsed from my battle at K’al Kadre Mor to my awakening in the Kiida prison. Then I realized the Kiida had probably traversed the rocky paths of the mountain, greatly reducing the time and distance between those two points. Ana had engineered their bodies for climbing, not ours.

The scene greeting my eyes was as I had left it. The broken trail, littered with freshly rotting carcasses and dried pools of blood, elicited much excited comment.

Flesh eating carrion were a sparse breed upon Jatora, populating only the hideous swamps and jungles of the Mis Lew, far to the South of Syjal. Thus, the carnage wrought here lay undisturbed, stinking, festering under the sweltering rays of Emo.

 The Qualo formation stood as remembered, thirty meters up the left face of the cramped trail, on the narrow ledge that had been the temporary sanctuary of the golden girl. My encounter with a living, breathing Qualo only added to the striking resemblance of that stone head peering stoically out from the side of the mountain.

When here last, pressing matters had afforded me only a cursory examination of the powerful slide that had collapsed the mountain face, exposing the Qualo Mar and trapping the Hisl. Now, I could be more thorough.

Blasted by some great force of nature, sheared streaks of black, like an emblazoned scar, encrusted the surrounding stone. I thought perhaps a storm, though I had yet to experience any disturbance of the warm, perpetual beauty of Jatora. A quake seemed the more viable option.

Inevitably, as I stared at the Qualo Mar, and embraced the reverence and wonder the men of the Odanal brought to this sacred spot, my thoughts turned to the golden girl. I recalled the similar astonishment displayed when first she gazed upon this magical formation. I began to fathom the emotions that had filled her eyes. In shadows then, they were in sunlight now.

My right hand flexed, closing on the chiseled handle of my longsword. My fingers tingled, feeling not the hard-bone likeness of the Qualo, but her soft, slim fingers pressing mine, seeking reassurance and hope from the mute stranger thrust so spectacularly into her life.

Perhaps it is obsession. What rational basis is there for the passion enveloping me? However, when had common sense ever mired the immortal path of Gray Allen?

Alternately staring at or crying over the Qualo Mar and the winding K’al Kadre Mor wending away into the vast mountain range beyond the slide, the Odanal sought solace in each other’s company. For them, this was a religious experience. I struggled to share it, to understand it.

T’lu came to my side, whispering. A voice he clearly wanted no one else to hear. “You said seven Hisl.”

I started to respond then stopped. My eyes followed his down the trail to where the vanquished bodies ripened under the hot Jatoran sun, visited only by the drone of insects. I saw what T’lu saw. Twelve Hisl bodies.

We exchanged sharp looks.

“Walk with me Kdal; I need to know everything that happened here.”

I told it again, all of it, everything, just as I had in the rocky Kiida prison. Though I may have told it from a more enlightened perspective, the particulars did not change.

T’lu stared absently up into the Mountain of Lights, an absorbed, far-away look that masked his thoughts. After a moment, he turned.

“I believe the following happened here; a second avan of Hisl, with at least one Qualo, probably more, descended out of the K’al Kadre Mor and enjoined your battle. They came to rendezvous with the abducting party and take responsibility for the girl.”

“But why would they  . . .”

T’lu smiled sadly, almost in pity. Waiting while the light of reason lit the slow, pathetic corridors of my imagination.

“Of course, the Dulara Olana!”

He nodded.

Suddenly, inexplicably, I raged against that obvious conclusion. I did not want that golden girl with the emerald eyes to the Dulara Olana; and had no idea why. Still, who else could it have been? Who else but the Princess Olana would the Hisl so staunchly fight to save? Who else would they have dragged from the plains of Syjal to the foot of the K’al Kadre Mor and, presumably, on to their unseen Lord and Master, Ksanj?

I returned from my self-indulgent reveries to find T’lu standing with arms across his chest, his eyes wandering the glowing mountain.

“I believe I can reconstruct what happened. The Hisl came to this spot aware the trail had collapsed. The more reasonable assumption is that the Hisl knew the secret hidden here and anticipated a rendezvous and an unimpeded march on to Amata. That expectation dashed, the Kiida trapped them.” He turned to me before I could ask. “Yes, even the Kiida war with Ksanj.”

The grimness of that remark was not lost upon me.

“Between here and there,” T’lu offered, pointing to the visible summit of the ancient mountain, “we will find the crater leading to the valley of Amata.”
“And,” I added, “the Dulara Olana.”

“If she lives.”

“She lives,” I said.

T’lu cocked an eyebrow at my bold confidence, a response couched not in destiny or fate but in human passions and mortal needs.

“They could have killed her in Syjal, as they did Balkar; it would have been infinitely easier.”

The Dular sighed heavily. “I agree. Ksanj’s plan for our Dulara runs deep.”

“Perhaps Land is right?” I put forward. “Maybe you should return to Syjal, to forestall Randak and this Mose. Organize the avans for a counter offensive. You have proof of the Qualo Mar and . . .

“No!” T’lu admonished me sternly. “I have conjecture, nothing more. While I do believe this trail is the K’al Kadre Mor, it is not enough, too many years in the battle Kdal to trust intuition alone. I must determine, beyond doubt, that this is divine intervention and not a skillful trap.”

“A trap?”

T’lu waived broadly at the rolling escarpments above us. “As I think on it, Ksanj knew the Odanal would pursue the Dulara Olana. Exposing the Qualo Mar would be the perfect lure with which to bait an ambush.”

T’lu explained that after the fall of Amata, Ksanj had all known egress on and off the mountain destroyed, engineering a new series of entrances and exits for the exclusive use of his hordes. At any one of which, the Hisl might wait.

“Besides, this is the Val Ponada. There are reasons men have not tamed her. Just as there are reasons Amata stays lost. They trail ahead is marred with pitfalls and dangers you cannot imagine! Hazards that need to be considered and conquered before I dare march an army upon Amata.”

T’lu pounded a fist into his open palm.

“An act of generosity from Ana, or a clever subterfuge from Ksanj. Which? We may have found everything; we may have found nothing. Too many unanswered questions to risk my dovans.”

“You may be right.” I said and T’lu’s eyes brightened.

“Why thank you, Dular Kdal!”

T’lu bestowed a huge grin on my embarrassed ego. I rolled my eyes and laughed with him.

“There is rarely reward without effort,” the giant Amatan philosophized. “To unlock the mountain’s secrets, we must climb. We came prepared, and so shall we carry on.”

T’lu turned to move back amongst the men, then suddenly stopped, twisting his head over his shoulder. “Kdal, about Olana? Keep that between us until we are sure. The men, well, you understand.”

I nodded that I did.

T’lu counseled long and earnest with Land. He was sending the youth back to Syjal. While not privy to Land’s orders, logic suggested anything we accomplished upon the Val Ponada would be for naught unless Ana blessed that mission.

Wisely, T’lu directed us to camp, ordering a nights rest before engaging the arduous ascent of the Val Ponada. The men, tingling with a strange mix of anxiety and excitement, grumbled but obeyed.

Sleep came hard that portentous night, but it came. The next morning, rested and ready, we commenced the assault.


Once beyond the clutter of the Qualo Mar, a well-defined trail emerged and we walked briskly. However, as we ranged higher, the Val Ponada grew increasingly vertical and difficult. Subtle changes intruded on my consciousness. The scarring of the rocks gained in prominence. The air thinned, our breathing labored, and the elegant swirls of colored light diminished. I asked T’lu about the phenomenon.

“Below, the lights below burn bright as ever. But up here,” and he waved an arm to the vast expanse of mountain and sky, “the air is not so rich.” While neither of us were Evars, I grasped the principle.

“When you spoke of dangers,” I said, “I assumed you meant other than Hisl and Bujan or perhaps the occasional Lajak.”

“There are lesser beats that live upon these ancient crags, we might even encounter a wild Qualo. Without room to maneuver or place to hide, a Qualo can be a fearsome antagonist.”

“But not what you meant,” I stated firmly. “Who or what is K’Aldan?”

T’lu growled, taking me by surprise. “Pray to Ana we find Amata before K’Aldan finds us.”

Perhaps a function of my collective memory more than reality, I envisioned another Jatoran demon or deity that lived in the hearts and minds of the Odanal, but nowhere else. Shrugging the simple superstitions of these otherwise gallant people aside, I returned my full attention to the increasingly daunting Val Ponada.

Altitude and vigilance escalated in concert as we simultaneously climbed and poked into rock and crevice, searching for that clandestine doorway into the crater of Amata. At the end of the day, the great mountain remained an aloof hostess unwilling to yield her secret.

As Emo set, dropping fast beyond the summit, a fierce chill descended upon our band. We spent that inaugural night wrapped in our heavy Dobar cloaks considerably shivered, for T’lu commanded the Odanal refrain from a campfire. None complained, understanding the danger of discovery. Lying upon my belly, gazing over a rocky crag into the faint landscape falling away below, I marveled anew at the glittering show of lights. As T’lu had said, though the illumination was perceptibly thinner and less vibrant at our present altitude, beneath us the aerial display had lost none of its luster. To the contrary, my heightened perspective enhanced it. A web spun from silken threads of frosty air, the colors of the night danced like writhing souls. In the embrace of their hypnotic waltz, I slept, awakening chilled and grateful for the warming red eye of Emo.

The raggedness of the mountain pass intensified that second day. We traversed long sections marred by the dark shears and ragged streaks that might have been fossilized lava, where great pockets of fallen slabs and toppled debris barred the way. We employed our ropes with increasing regularity, each new delay more laborious and time-consuming than the last. The morning stretched to noon and noon to midday, but only time moved forward. Still, though we moved little to not at all, we searched every inch gained with careful hands and hopeful eyes.

“Have heart, Kdal!” T’rk told me. “Over the next rim, lies Amata.”

Optimism flourished amongst the cold winds and rugged rocks of the Val Ponada.

The third day, the trail opened and we made up ground, moving quickly but diligently upon the search until we reached the snow line. No more than an hour passed before I had my first experience with the remarkable oddity of Jatoran snow.

Crystal flakes of heavenly white escorted by brothers and sisters of green, gold and red that fell like chips of liquid paint. It glistened upon the dark rocks of the Val Ponada, overlaying the great tundra with a colorful blanket that froze into shimmering nighttime sculptures, then melted and ran into spinning pools of color by day.

It was T’rk who slapped my shoulder as I idly played with a handful of the colorful crystals. He glanced skyward. “Another dar, maybe two, that is all. All the leidt upon Jatora will not keep this warrior from Amata!”

His enthusiasm reflected the exhilarating sense of adventure pervading our expedition, the irresistible lure of the unknown and the undiscovered. We had fresh air in our lungs and a fresh challenge in our hearts; what more could a warrior want?

Perhaps the lost city of Amata, and a golden girl with emerald eyes.

That night, we camped in an artist’s pallet of falling flakes. In the morning, we struck upwards again. So long as the retarding rubble of the lower elevations did not return, the falling leidt proved no hindrance.

“You see Kdal,” T’rk offered, “I told you this would be easy.”

While I could not recall that contention, his joshing forced a smile as my gaze wandered the rough, jagged landscape in which Fate had placed me. Easy, T’rk said! For me, Fate has never made easy what She can make hard. She dances through my incarnations in veils tantalizing transparent. Still, I have never glimpsed Her naked. I expect I never shall.

On our fifth day the snows abated and new concerns came to the fore. The awesome crags narrowed dangerously. Tight ledges circled deep gorges. Here and there, the K’al Kadre Mor simply fell away into a bottomless precipice.

Still, T’lu pushed us forwards, certain the right path lay just around the next bend. A conviction unsupported by a single shred of evidence.

We were well within the interior slants of the Val Ponada. Yawning chasms, snow lined and treacherous, confronted us with intensifying regularity. On several occasions, we thought the K’al Kadre Mor lost completely. Errant routes, peppered with innumerable dead-ends, dogged our progress, forcing many lost hours to retraced steps. Nor was the true path more lenient, it too a painstaking and exhaustive trek breaching perilous ravines skirted by slick and flimsy rims.

Through it all, no sign of the City of Amata

We spent that fifth night huddled in exhaustion. Bitterly cold, the joy of the hunt gone, the mood amongst the men grew somber. The Odanal no longer laughed; and though they did not outwardly complain, I sensed objection building.

The sixth day brought a continuation of our snail-like pace. The leidt returned, adding a constant dampness to our misery. That night, chilled to the bone, I feared, wrongly, the men would to argue for a fire.

“It is no longer a matter of Bujan or Hisl that T’lu guards against, but the Val Ponada itself,” T’rk explained. He pointed to the heavy blanket of snow spread across the overhanging crags that surrounded us, serene and deceptive, a devastating slide in waiting. I understood. Heat, rising from a vibrant campfire, weakening that great mass, threatened us all with sudden death.

“There is an I’bar,” T’rk said simply. “Do not set out a light for trouble. It will find you easy enough!”

The seventh and coldest camp yet. I awoke with aching joints and frozen limbs to find T’rk pleasantly announcing we had depleted our food and water.

“The snow is good drinking,” T’lu demonstrated, wiping his lips of the magical, rainbow swirl. “And, there is food on the Val Ponada if you know where to look.”

“I know where,” T’rk groaned, huge flakes of multicolored snow stuck glistening to his Aal. “There is a hot, thick Dobar steak waiting me in Amata!”

The men grinned at his joke, and, for a moment, the hard edge of anxiety retreated. The dream of finding Amata still burned, if not fresh then at least resilient, though even that lofty promise lost its sheen over the next two days.

We had attained a height where the Val Ponada seemed particularly devastated. Immense slides gutted the mountain, littering our way; our ropes now constantly engaged to negotiate ridges and chasms where a single misstep meant death.

We did not so much climb the mountain, as move laterally, circling around it as the summit stared down with mocking indifference from a distance that never closed. Two arduous days and bone chilling nights without food that exacted a high price on our reserve strengths. Our hands bled, our feet froze, and ever the trail grew more rugged, more baffling, more impassable with every yard. Men started to lag, but a tireless T’lu urged them on, leading by example, determined that not a single warrior faltered. Though never voiced, all understood that their Dular would abandon any that could not or would not continue.

Still, at what point did desire become dementia? I began to fret what I thought had become an obsession in T’lu, and I wondered at which turn, at which challenge, did the Odanal defy his authority and say, enough, Amata is not here!

 The leidt blew, growing into an obscuring, pigmented storm impeding progress. To move at all required constant battle with the wet, slippery flakes caking the rocks. At best, the going was precarious and at worst, deadly.

As I swung one hand to a slippery crevice and used the other to wipe snow from the footstep of the man before me, I cursed Nature and her wearisome sport. Her universal penchant for mantling danger in a cloak of striking beauty.

Then, as though to rebuff my contention, She offered we disillusioned travelers renewed hope.

T’rk saw it first, growing in a mound of white-green leidt dusting a flat outcropping of rock. A plankton-like shrub, greenish-brown with a short stem and leafy, mushroomed cap hardy enough to spawn on the meager fluid and slim sunlight of the upper Val Ponada. Though it tasted as dead worms, Tugra, the plant T'lu and the others had anticipated finding, was edible and nutritious. For the moment, the meager pickings satiated our hunger and restored a needed measure of energy.

As we rested at the base of a huge rock fall just surmounted, munching our Tugra, I risked an honest question of T’lu.

“Do you think the Hisl could have come this far with the Dulara Olana? It does not seem plausible.”

“You forget the shadow,” he replied. “You said you had a sense of it Kdal, a sense of wings. Olana may not have been with the Hisl. A Qualo, even in a full-blown blizzard, could have been in Amata in an ar, wherever she lies, the Hisl following the K’al Kadre Mor to some landlocked entrance. It is equally possible they did not follow the Qualo at all, having moved on to other tasks set by Ksanj.”

T’lu paused and smiled.

“Do not abandon hope before the horizon is crossed,” he quoted from some ancient Jatoran verse. “There may yet be a way to bridle the heat of the sun!”

I shook my head. There was precious little sun, or heat, on the snow-packed slopes of the Val Ponada. T’lu poked the fanciful snow at his feet with a bit of broken rock watching overlaying gold, green, and red swirl into a kaleidoscope maze. A steady stream of freshly falling flakes glistened colorfully at the end of his Aal as he gazed up at the snow filled sky with a distant, self-absorbed detachment. Then quietly, more to himself than I, he said:

“Another day, no more, than we turn back.”

That night, sleep nudging the edges of my tired soul, I wearily asked of T’lu, “What will you do if you should find Amata?”

Though a wide yawn he answered, “I will think of something.”


Less than an ar from our last camp, the K’al Kadre Mor fell away into an abyss without discernible bottom. Two hundred feet above our heads, a snow-covered ledge skirted the crevasse in a harrowing crawl of about a hundred yards over sheer nothingness. Beyond, tempting, taunting, the ancient K’al Kadre Mor could be seen snaking steadily on towards the summit.

“It may be,” T’lu confided to me, “that Ana has forced my hand.”

Just what the Dulara O’Odanal would have ordered forever falls to conjecture as a dull, booming thunder floated over the frozen tableau. Shouts of anguish I could not fathom broke from the ranks. I whirled, expectant of Lajak or Hisl, or some monsters unknown. Instead, I found the warriors of the Odanal rigid as sudden death, gazing skyward, their faces emblazoned with panic.

I followed their gaze and my breath caught in my throat. Even Mecca, wandering through the primitive mountains of First Earth, would have understood the rakish black cloud that swirled across the sky. Understood, and been afraid.

With inconceivable dispatch, that gathering mass flared outward and shrouded the mountain in sudden, primeval darkness. Pushed by a rising wind, accompanied by a second pounding of thunder, it charged across the vault of heaven, angrily hurling great shreds of its billowy substance in all directions.

The rains broke in blinding sheets. Diamond-shaped droplets of stone water colored white and ruby red that exploded upon contact with the unprotected Val Ponada. Liquid light mad as Rasputin, dangerous as Death, and as incredibly diverse as anything this wild world offered. I looked to T’lu for guidance and found him rooted to the mountain, his face a mask of terror as he gasped the name I had already guessed.



Rock-hard rain pounded the K’al Kadre Mor, Heaven gutted and split asunder.

The elements shredded my Dobar coat and flogged my now naked skin. Lightening cracked and the thunder peeled, but it was another sound turning my heart to sand. A rumble that drove down from the indiscernible summit, gathering volume, building a demonic strength only unfettered Nature could command.

In advance of that avalanche of balled snow, rock, and debris slamming the K’al Kadre Mor, the once proud men of the Odanal panicked, clawing over one another in a hysterical bolt for escape. Yet where, in the god-awful cul-de-sac of that fateful ravine, could a man hide from that surging, white death? How do you run from the wind?

Reason washed away like the path beneath their feet, the warriors jostled and jolted to an inevitable end. A warrior, at the outer edge of the compacted retreat, went over the precipice. Then another followed. A third man, fallen in his fearful effort to withdraw down the mountain, slid kicking and screaming through the building froth and shot into space, joining his comrades in a mangled death on the rocks below.

I was aghast and immobile, doomed as the warriors of the Odanal until T’lu tried to push past me. That contact shook me from my lethargy. To Kdal of Jatora came images of Aern, Father of all Mountains, and the savage, primeval storms Mecca of Asynth had battled a thousand half-remembered lifetimes ago. I understood retreat meant death. With a howl of dismay I grabbed T’lu hard about the waist determined he would not add his name to the inexorable book of death K’Aldan composed.

“Up!” I screamed through the wind. “We must go up. The high ground is our only chance!”

Numbly, T’lu turned against the wind and thrashing rain. I saw fear dredged from superstitious belief, but also tears, the conscience of a King weeping for his soldiers and his world, for a dream suddenly and utterly exploded. Tears that K’Aldan, a force without compassion, callously blew aside. Though I shared that grief at our unthinkable loss, I could ill afford to wallow in pity.

“There is a ledge,” I cried my eyes straining upwards as I shoved the Dular O’Odanal flat against the naked wall of the cliff, washed clean under the gut of rain.

T’lu, physically shaking off the weight of remorse, the stupor of fear, titled his head upwards, dug his fingers into the slippery mountainside and climbed. I allowed him to gain the first few yards then followed.

The avalanche struck! And by all the Gods in the Universe, nothing human could have survived that battering ram of water and rock obliterating the last vestiges of the K’al Kadre Mor.

However, T’lu and I were not in the path of that deluge. We rose above it, inching up the exposed cliff face. K’Aldan, angered at our effrontery thundered fearsome, bellowing aloud, “No one escapes K’Aldan!”

A deluge of stony-droplets pounded out of the eviscerated sky, The rain slapped hard at our faces. The wind launched implausible, unholy blows at our bodies. I clung to the lathered face of the Val Ponada with fingers torn and bleeding, my blood streaming into the ion-charged air in long threads of red. The pain was horrendous. The more I suffered, the more K’Aldan laughed. Deafening detonations shook the soaking rocks and threatened to dislodge us from our precarious footing.

Gray Allen, who was Kdal, who was Mecca, Bodine, and Falsworth, who had known Death in roaring surf and rocky peak over untold destinies, had never, in all those lifetimes, seen the equal of K’Aldan of Jatora.

I glanced down, and what blood remained in my features blanched and went white. The flood, having filled the K’al Kadre Mor, piled upon itself and climbed out of the ravine, giving chase to two foolish mortals that would escape the inescapable.

T’lu already well above me, I did my desperate best to follow and stay ahead of the rising waters lapping hungrily at my heels. Jagged streaks of lightning leaped from the belly of that voracious black cloud searing hot. Bolts that rose upward in the wild air, building momentum, before turning and plunging demonically against the battered face of the Val Ponada, raining charred rock and ashen debris upon my unprotected head.

Each concussion shook the mountain as the Griffin shakes its prey. In its wake, a freshly glowing wound, a new scar cut deeply into this battered titan rooted at the center of this amazing world. I alternately clung or crawled with quiet desperation, listening to some disparate consciousness digest this secret littérateur, the broken sacraments of the Mountain of Lights.

K’Aldan, alchemist and architect of the scarred walls and burnt trails of the Val Ponada. K’Aldan, now closing what Fate had opened, the K’al Kadre Mor, the way to Amata.

Another blast lit the blackness. More chunks of the ancient peak exploded into space. The flood clutched at my ankles. I struggled to climb. An arduous battle where every inch gained became a monumental victory. Distracted, absorbed by my own challenge, minutes passed before I thought to T’lu. How well did he fare?

I squinted through the maelstrom and called his name, but the wind flung my voice back in my face. I no longer saw him working the rocks above me, but whether he had fallen to his death or only angled left or right to firmer footing, I had no way of knowing. Nor could I divert precious energy to searching him out. I could only pray T’lu made for the overhanging shelf barely distinguishable twenty feet overhead.

As some miserable sloth, flattened by the pounding rains, lacerated by the stinging winds, I snaked upwards. At ten feet distant from the ledge, I secured my position on the mountainside, uncurled the rope of Votag cut still hung about my shoulders and with my right hand played out the loop. My first attempt at an outcropping jutting dully outlined atop the prominence failed. My second effort was no better; the whipping wind blowing the line back ere it left my hand. I tensed for another throw, begging a boon of Fate. One more helping hand in the quest She had lain before me.

The thunder rumbled. Pitchfork lightning emblazoned the heavens with a heat that sucked the storm dry, stifling the rain if only for an instant. The instant I needed. My cast sailed true, settling lightly around the rock. Quickly drawing out the slack, I secured the rope about my waist as the gale roared anew.

In the riot of my thoughts, I perceived K’Aldan as a living entity with dark, scowling visage screwed into an angry mask. A mad God, omnipotent, seething at my imminent escape, smashing the Val Ponada with fists of lightning. Struck hard, the wall I climbed crumbled, hand and footholds vanished. My precarious purchase upon the mountain lost I dangled in open space, only the thin line about my waist saving me from death.

Suddenly, a dark shadow hurtled passed me, a black mass in a mix of mud, rock, and rain. Without conscious thought my right arm stabbed into K’Aldan’s watery bulwark. The rope jarred taut, nearly tearing my shoulder from its socket, but I held tight to unconscious T’lu of Amata.

K’Aldan screamed, his winds roared.

Helplessly we swung at the end of that thin line of Votag gut as K’Aldan blew us out over the bottomless gorge and then smashed us back into the mountain. Once, twice, a third time. My bones were battered and my teeth rattled. Each second, I expected the slim strands of our rope to fly apart; salvation parted to plunge us into the invisible chasm where the remains of the Odanal waited.

Once more, the winds slammed at us, but this time, daring Fate, I released my grip upon the rope. Immediately, we tipped forward threatening to go head over heels. I could not have held T’lu, but, one second from total disaster my groping fingers found and closed on jutting rock. Though my shoulders burned in their sockets and my eyes watered in agony, I held. The elements raged and roared, the Banshee winds howled and the hard-edged rains hit us with fanatical power, splitting open our frozen skins, but anchored fast we did not budge.

I shook T’lu, screaming into his ear, rallying him to consciousness. Even so, it was small eternity before I saw a semblance of coherency in his hazed eyes.

“Over me, grab the line and climb over me!”

Dully at first, and then with an awakening sense of urgency to our situation, T’lu responded. Crushing me flat against the slippery rock face as he climbed. I felt his knees in my back and then his feet upon my shoulders. My muscles cramped under the strain. After a long, tense moment, his weight released and I knew he clambered upward along the slick string of gut that, to this point, had been our savior.

I heard a shout and, looking up into that wild sky illuminated by multiple flashes of Jatoran lightning, I saw T’lu’s head appear over the ledge peering back. Arms extended, he seized the faint outline of our cord and hauled me bodily up and over the hard lip to safety.

Sprawled dazed and bruised, too exhausted to move, I heard T’lu thanking Ana for our succor. Prayers I echoed, if only for the briefest of moments. To my weary senses rose a scratching, gurgling sound unmistakable above the boom of thunder and slap of rain.

I rolled on my stomach and stared down. Fresh waves of terror scored my heart. Refusing to concede defeat the floodwaters of K’Aldan pursued, rabidly climbing the rocky walls, tracking us down. A minute maybe two and that sodden death would crest over the shelf and our erstwhile retreat crumbles.

I felt T’lu beside me and we exchange anxious looks. As one, we staggered to our feet, neither of us with the strength to climb another inch and yet no other choice remained. We took a step towards the cliff face. I jerked to an abrupt halt. The Votag line still girded my waist, the opposite end looping the projection.  At the same instant, a tremendous jolt of energy hit just below the rim of our retreat. The blast threw both T’lu and I to our backs, heat singeing hair and skin. Only the fast falling rain forestalled our roasting alive. I rolled over and, with unaccustomed horror, saw the far end of the rope, and the rock it circled, going over the ledge.

I wrenched backward, trying to brace myself, but a loose bit of shale tumbled from somewhere and struck me hard against the temple. Consciousness wavered and I slid toward oblivion and the edge of the cliff.

Then, through a fog, I saw T’lu crawl to my side, cutting the rope from about my waist, hauling me back to life, hope and a sitting position. Now, it was his voice in my ear, urging focus.

“Kdal, look! Look!”

Through clearing webs of pain and the curtain of falling rock and ash, I discerned what had galvanized T’lu. An enticing cave mouth cut by K’Aldan legions, newly formed and glowing red.

Had the Jatoran God of Storm defeated his own designs?

At the least, it was a chance, a refuge where the storm could not follow.

Another blast hit the Val Ponada! Under a hail of hot rock, we crawled for the refuge on balky knees. K’Aldan, perhaps enraged by his inadvertent contribution to our flight, moved among his legions wailing a final lamentation of destruction. Thunder and lightning roared and rang. The rain fell so heavy it trod us into the ground, forcing us to snake forward on our bellies, soaked and sorry worms on a field of rubble that cut our chests and rubbed our already bloodied limbs raw.

A final blast, greater than all that had gone before, crashed against the Val Ponada. Driven by the human will to survive and not much more, T’lu and I surged to our feet and dove the last yard through a rending hailstorm of mud, rock, and white-hot rubble that seared the mountain black. When the dust settled, we lay as when we met, side by side in the narrow confines of a rocky prison. Battered and bruised but alive, facing an unknown future. An unknown quickly revealed.

T’lu pointed to where the muddy waters of the great storm already probed the broken shale barricading our erstwhile retreat. Soon, they would blast through that frail barrier of rock and sludge, filling the cavern, our momentary illusion of shelter and safety shattered.

“Three thousand years,” T’lu mouthed with bitter sarcasm. “For three thousand men of the Odanal have sought the summit of the Val Ponada. Now we are here, and to what improbable, absurd fate? To drown! We have climbed to the top of Jatora to drown!”

My eyes moved around the chamber. “Maybe not!”

At the rear of the cave a deep corridor, tall enough to accommodate our full heights, drained into the belly of the mountain.

“We still live, and there is still a path to follow!”

“I have no right to live,” T’lu said slowly. “I should have died with my men. He turned his head to the sloping path. “But . . ."

“But Olana,” I finished for him, moving to his side. T’lu let his eyes close. He said nothing. He did not have to. So long as a shred of chance remained he was honor bound to prosecute the quest for the Dulara of Syjal; the Halm of those who died upon the journey demanded it.

“Pray to Ana,” he told me, “it is not a dead end.”

The wall of rubble holding K’Aldan back grunted and bent inward until, with a final, pathetic groan, resistance disintegrated. Swift as sudden pain, the floodwaters invaded the cavern; and T’lu and I put wings to our feet.

How eerie to run from a force I could not confront with fist or blade. How humbling to be hunted, no hounded, by the damnable storm, unable to strike back.

We pitched forward down that long and faintly glowing corridor putting our trust in Ana and our prayers in our scabbards. Once or twice, left or right, our slogging feet passed diverging corridors, but always we kept to the central passage. We considered no options. There would be no vain regrets. We ran straight on to life or to death.

The cold waters reached waist deep, inhibiting progress. We battled, with pitiable persistence, for every tortured foot of ground gained; our battered bodies, already pushed well-passed exhaustion, plodding desperately and blindly forward. Our only goal, escape; our only hope a miracle.

The cavern narrowed. The ceiling lowered and bent our bodies forward until our chins dipped in the froth. Still, K’Aldan pursued. With irresistible certainty the relentless wall of water, possessed of its own will, its own evil soul, pulled us down into its sucking current.

I felt the irresistible tug of the current, the smack of the heavy silt upon my legs and chest. Even stronger, I felt the cold hand of unfulfilled destiny tightening about my throat.

Then I was under water, fingers of icy liquid strangling me. I surged upward, spiting dirty water, coughing hard and breathing deeply. No more than two inches of free space remained as I turned to T’lu, to shout encouragement. The giant Amatan had vanished beneath the tumultuous flood that had overran our lives, our ambitions, our hopes, and our futures.

I dove, but saw nothing in the inky well of the flooded corridor. I surfaced gasping and calling T’lu by name. Only the roaring echo of the wild water answered.

A part of me died. Another part smiled. The part that was Gray Allen, alone, without the fire of Mecca, Bodine, and Falsworth, smiled and wondered: Was this the day death won?

My head scraped ceiling and I slipped beneath the icy waters of that life-claiming flood.


Chapters 1-5
Chapters 6-10
Chapters 11-15
Chapters 16-20
Chapters 21-25

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