Strange to write the ending first, but for me there is no other way.
It is barely midday, the sky fittingly black. I sit in a sodden alley,
a rusted awning sheltering my precious packet of papers from a blowing
rain. I am tired, tired and old. Older than I have ever been. Too long
wayward Destiny left me here forgotten and alone but, at last, the fire
Soon, the indescribable warmth touching my soul, foretelling my death,
will become a roaring beacon drawing me to the next life and next adventure.
Beckoning with the promise that we, Mecca, Bodine, Falsworth, all the infinite
others Fate has gathered in my undying spirit will continue. Death denied
Even now, the dampness feeding on my bones and numbing my hands fades.
I must hurry if I am to finish these few, final lines.
Read what I have left this world with an open mind and when next you
stand beneath a starry sky dreaming of love, adventure, and worlds to believe
in, think of me.
I will be there.
I have never known the truth of it, not in all my lives before or after.
Named Gray Allen for the dreary, rainy day of my birth, I passed beyond
this incarnation in 1864. The Great War between the Northern and Southern
States of America, that had taken me from my Virginia home and as far north
as the bloody fields of Gettysburg, had come full circle. When Ulysses
S Grant charged into Cold Harbor, doorway to Richmond and the heart of
the Confederacy, I was there; and there I died.
For the fire burned.
I recall a nebulous rush of blue and gray, a flash of powder in sweat-thickened
twilight, and then nothing beyond blackness momentary or infinite until,
as a wing unfolds, the darkness lifted. The flutter of a fresh heart tripped
against my ribs, my blood cooled and I was reborn.
No poetry to recite, no secrets to betray. Just a private affinity with
a jealous Creator that had carried me to a vast ochre plain bathed by a
fire-red sun; a crimson furnace hung in a lightly clouded peach-colored
A man of gold, not the desert-bronze of that other world but a lithe
blush that rippled across steel sinew, I stood a hundred yards shy of a
wildly twisted wood. Boles of red, green, and heliotrope reached out like
gnarled fingers, their boughs sagging under unearthly rainbow foliage.
My eyes closed. A breeze scented as jasmine filled my lungs and I tingled
with the seductive lure of a new life on a New World, dramatically filled
with new death!
I walked in the aftermath of a great confrontation. Corpses lay thick
in all directions, the grass bloodstained and matted from a torrent of
mortal wounds. I had a fleeting memory of that other life and that other
war, recent and distant, now meaningless compared to this.
The fallen from whose numbers I had risen wore cured animal skins stitched
into loincloth and moccasin. Dark leather straps crossed each warrior’s
chest and circled their waists. In the embroidered scabbards nested red-tempered
longswords and daggers with bone-handles carved into the likeness of an
unknown winged creature, the dagger blades curled as a gleaming talon.
Strewn about, or protruding from the dead, were numerous short, heavy spears.
I noted the blue eyes painted upon the whetted points and smiled grimly.
I held an easy kinship with a majority of the slain, with my black hair
and golden skin. Others were quite bald and but distinctive tuffs of hair
upon their chins while some, though far less, had red hair and markedly
white skins. Starkly white, when matched against the gold of their comrades.
Warriors all, natural brethren of a genus that was human.
Not so the others.
Alive, the creature I examined would have reared seven feet with the
arms of a gorilla, the chest of a buffalo, and the stench of perdition.
Long bony hands and heavily nailed feet hinted at a clumsy grasp and gait,
an impression opposed by a narrow waist and powerful, upswept chest. Covered
head to foot in a coat of curly black hair the beast reeked of sweat, gore
and personal waste.
Sunk between bony shoulders, the head thrust outward a bulbous deformity
without visible neck. Cadaverous cheeks and a sharply jutting jaw conspired
to form a foul, toothless opening that was more a black cavity than anything
I could sanely call a mouth. Red-raw slits served the purpose of nostrils.
Above this grim muzzle bulged oversized, multifaceted eyes. Rimmed in
blood, conical and lidless, they held a hundred riveting reflections of
both I and the carnage spread around me. Even in death mirroring life,
was the involuntarily thought filling my mind.
The countless numbers of this heinous dead wore the same simple attire
and carried the same basic weaponry as the human of the slain.
Too many lives lived on too many worlds for me to discount the ways
of Nature. Man, as we envision him, may not be the crowning achievement
of creation. Still, I found the notion this loathsome thing was my equal
or possible superior repellent.
I attempted to shrug my natural prejudice aside. I knew Nature and expected
better of her.
It may be my unique ability to transcend death, to recall other lives
and other plains of existence prejudicing my opinion, but I do not believe
in instinct. For others perhaps, but not me. Instead, I possess (what I
have fancied calling) a collective memory, a reservoir of previous life
experiences drawn upon in times of emerging crisis. It might explain something
of the common personality that runs unbroken through my incarnations and
my apparent blind trust in Fate. A trust that, at a sudden snapping of
branches and rustling of brush, sent me racing across the littered landscape
towards a living dozen of these nightmarish creatures pursuing the slim
figure of a golden girl.
The girl saw me first and hesitated in her flight, casting a frightened
look back toward the advancing horde. Her breasts heaved within a soft
leather brazier and a girdle of bright shells encircled her muscular waist.
I shouted an encouragement and her eyes swung back to me, a lone warrior,
pushing to her aid.
Those eyes! Even now, writing this story, eons removed from those first,
chaotic moments, I recall those eyes. Alluring, exotic, bright green and
almond shaped, set in a perfect oval face surrounded by a tousle of raven
hair; smoke circling fire.
Her lips drew a determined line that seemed to shed her hesitancy and
she ran towards me. The beasts followed, covering the ground with an undulating
swiftness I would not have thought possible given their ungainly size and
I moved forward swiftly and we met, the girl speaking in a breathless
stream I could not understand. I shook my head and watched those wondrous
eyes cloud in question then toss back to the advancing beasts. She spoke
again, one word uttered with all the contempt and loathing a being could
muster into a single phrase.
Reacting to the first rule of Nature, survival, I hefted the spear of
a dead warrior. He did not need it now. I did.
Backed by the muscles and memories of a thousand fighting souls, the
painted eye of my missile split the intervening distance and plowed through
the breast of the lead Hisl, impaling a second creature that followed too
close behind. They went down in a skewered heap that brought the balance
of the pack to an abrupt halt.
The golden girl turned to me in wide-eyed amazement and I smiled, understanding
that I gazed upon the face of a Destiny plotted and planned ere I had drawn
first breath upon this strange and savage world.
The Hisl were moving again as they fanned out in a circle, stepping
indiscriminately on expired friend and foe alike to spin an entrapping
web. I noted the intelligence in their action and shuddered once. All the
time I could spare for fear or trepidation.
Handing my dagger to the girl, I nodded toward our only option, an open
space in the ring of Hisl that led straight back into the fantastic forest
she had just escaped. She placed her free hand in mine and nodded grimly.
I felt her tremble and measured it against the anxiety filling my own heart.
We ran a race with death, through the dead, as we picked our way across
the corpse littered plain. Two of the beasts, at the far extremity of their
closing formation, pushed to intercept us. My longsword flashed with an
effortless grace and I sliced through them, sunlight through shadow.
As the Hisl fell, the golden girl tightened her grip upon my free hand.
Her almond-eyes seemed to smile and I marveled at the resources a man summons
forth when given so striking an audience.
A few feet more and . . .
Perhaps it was a dead beast reaching back across the void for a final
vengeance. I did not know nor care. It was enough that I tripped and fell.
The golden girl, unable to check herself, stumbled over me and ran headlong
into the arms of the closing Hisl.
They were on me before I could get to my feet. My sword, jerked from
my grasp, disappeared into a mass of fetid bodies.
Grunting loudly, I struck out left and right, bare knuckles pummeling
hairy flesh, flinching involuntarily at the incongruity of these Hisl who
fought and died in an eerie, unbroken silence. The silence of the grave
I have never known, though loud enough I heard bones crack beneath my furious
Somewhere in the back of my mind, in that nameless region functioning
dispassionately from the violence of my realities, I realized the Hisl
simply had no capacity for sound.
I had only a quick glimpse of the golden girl stabbing at the Hisl with
my pitifully insufficient blade, a wild fury firing her eyes. My heart
cheered and then something struck the back of my head and there was only
That I had lain insensible a considerable time I read in the peach sky
folded into a blood-red dusk, the sun setting in a fiery, fast falling
arc. Gore cached my right cheek. A dried and nasty gash clotted my scalp.
Fighting waves of nausea, I stood and surveyed the landscape. No Hisl,
no golden girl, only an omnipresence of death and a trail of blood, testament
to my aching knuckles, that led away into the so close but so far forest.
With a growl suspect more of my heritage than my humanity, I glanced
up into the deepening night sky. Then to the corpse of an unknown brother
of dark hair and golden skin with a bloodied sword still clutched in his
“I need your blade.”
My statement beckoned no complaint. Gently, with an innate reverence,
I freed his metal that it could live again. Adding a fresh dagger and a
blood-encrusted spear to my armament, I entered the fanciful forest in
pursuit of the golden girl with the emerald eyes.
As to why, call it Destiny. It wears well in the telling of my tale.
My relentless search for a purpose, an explanation of the question consuming
my every incarnation; why am I here?
Night fell as a door closing. I glowered skyward, my eyes narrowing,
for nowhere in the sparsely mottled star field above did I see sign of
a rising moon. The darkness was absolute. I drew a deep breath, my head
filling with fresh air and fresh doubt. However, I never looked back.
I said that I knew Nature and expected better of Her. She did not disappoint.
Dimly at first, then brighter and bolder as I advanced into that mangled
maze, the trees began to shimmer. The forest grew incandescent, every leaf,
blade of grass, clump of moss or looping liana, radiating singular and
indescribable hues. Though Night descended an inviolable black, Nature
lit the path before me, painting with bold strokes on a dark and forsworn
I followed the primary corridor, wending my way through the weirdly
bent and ghostly-glowing underbrush. Though I passed numerous diverging
paths, they did not draw me. I kept to the predominant trail.
For a time, I made rapid progress, but gradually the boles of the trees
crowded and cramped and my passage slowed. Doubt assailed me, for this
thick inner forest looked pristine, lacking any sign of passing Hisl or
other beasts yet unknown.
Trusting Fate and stubborn to a fault, I drew my sword intent upon hacking
my own path through the misshapen forest. I sliced into a rubbery vine
and then stepped back in awe.
Sap bled as liquid light. Where it splashed upon the spongy carpet at
my feet, roots pushed upward like starving worms escaping an earthen grave.
Roots that blazed, pulsed, and grew vines with stunning speed while the
severed bough above glowed, healed, and flowered anew.
I estimated an hour, a little more, a little less, before the self-regenerating
forest erased all trace of my passage, as I now believed it had done with
the golden girl and the Hisl. While I had lain unconscious at the edge
of the great plain a hundred beasts could have hewn through this alien
wood, all vestige of their transition swallowed by the perpetually renewing
Dangerous flora! Lost in thought, almost too late I realized the wildly
growing roots and vines had become tentacles snaked around my ankles trying
to drag me down, to what ghastly purpose I could only imagine. To linger
With a snarl of disgust, I hacked free and drove deep into the timbre.
Where the fancifulcolors subdued and the encroaching foliage grew so dense
as to be black. Where within shadows sleek and sinister life stirred. An
occasional cough or roar floated to my ears and I heard, or thought I heard,
the stealthy fall of padded feet. While from the impenetrable terraces
above, a suggestion of fluttering wings and the rougher passage of something
heavy, something unknown.
Though I carried this blackness as an unwelcome weight, nothing physical
emerged to interfere with my journey and so I grew philosophical. Ahead
lay the surviving Hisl and the alluring green-eyed girl; to what lay between
I was unaware and unafraid.
My distance lengthened. The depressing stretch of dark forest teased
me with occasional breaks where the more brightly colored flora reappeared.
My steps and hopes would quicken then, until the darker boles and a darker
mood would again close about me. My natural if misplaced sense of optimism
fading in the dusky and discordant interior.
Unable to rest amongst the wildly regenerating wood, I grew arm weary
from incessant chopping. Again, the low growl of a primitive soul, unhappy
in the dark, pursed my lips. I smacked at a mesh of spidery veins entangling
my ankles with unreasoning violence. A clawing chill running down my back.
How long I waged my battle with that dark and twisted path I cannot say.
Fatigue, and that throbbing crack upon my skull, made my steps leaden.
I pressed on by power of will, though my sword felt made of stone.
Then, at last, the forest again changed faces. The air grew dank, the
leafy mold underfoot sodden and pasty, but the trees had thinned and I
was free of the seemingly endless miles of thick brush and leaf I had just
In this more open space, a diaphanous haze covered the forest floor
and I felt as primitive man walking a path from the dawn of creation. Sheathing
my sword, hurting and exhausted, I stumbled into a park-like clearing bathed
in milky fog and centered by a red glowing tree, at the base of which,
nearly buried in ochre grass, lay a small burnished shell. That it had
dropped from the girdle about her waist I never doubted. Elated, my faith
in Destiny affirmed, I slumped against that shining bole, the tiny prize
clutched to my breast.
The gentle radiance of that glade baited an irresistible trap. Weak
and wearied, my defenses dulled by an outraged nature I had forced too
far too long, my eyes closed.
Dawn filtered through the restored canopy of wildly colored leaves a
pale stream of warmth. An ethereal gown perceived through some introspective
corner of my mind. For nothing could have long drawn my attention from
the feline creature crouched menacingly at the edge of the clearing, glaring
balefully at the sleepy fool at the base of a phosphorescent tree. The
fool, who should have been in the tree had he wished to live.
Sight of the beast drew an immediate comparison to the great sabretooth
tigers of a different world’s earliest epochs. The great curving incisors
had transferred complete, partnered with a third tusk centered obliquely
between feral eyes.
From snarling countenance to muscled flanks it was snow-white but for
a single blue streak that blazed from trebled tusk to twitching tail; a
hauntingly beautiful, deadly-dangerous creation.
Its head lowered almost imperceptibly, blood-red eyes narrowed into
serpentine slits. Bloodthirsty drool glistened upon exposed canines while
I, Don Quixote, vulnerable and exposed, rued the deceptive serenity of
that entrapping glade.
Cautiously, my hand sought my spear where it had dropped in my ill-advised
slumber. At that first quiver of muscle, the blue-tipped tail shot rigid.
With a roar meant to freeze a less sentient soul, that mountain of white
muscle and yellowed fang hurtled for my unprotected throat.
Reaction was innate or not at all. I met the beast in a half-crouch,
spear unconsciously extended forward. A bone-jarring crunch buried me in
a blur of snowy-rage, driving me hard against the unyielding tree. My backed
screamed in agony, my lungs felt separated from my body.
Breathing pain, smothered in the hot odor of that fearsome cat, I closed
my eyes and waited to die.
Eternal death, the end I have always suspected of lurking over the next
horizon. A stalking tiger of another kind, watching, waiting for that one
time when the fire did not burn and life would not continue, such as that
ghostly gray morning in the heart of that alien forest.
Hot, fetid breath lingered on my cheeks. A single, well-clawed forepaw
rested over my heart. My eyes opened and I saw the blue-eyed spear protruding
blood red from the carnivore’s spine. The beast had impaled itself. Heart
pierced, it lay silent. The bestial countenance pressed flush against me,
fangs frozen in death.
With shaking hands I pushed the heavy carcass from me and rose to my
feet. Once more, I had cheated Death . . . perhaps.
Like the moth drawn to the flame, adventure courts Gray Allen.
Have you ever heard of the Harpy, mythological demons carrying departed
souls to Hell? This, upon my word, is what now faced me across the vanquished
Baleful and bizarre, a perplexing contradiction to all the rules of
nature as I have known them, it stood at five feet with a pronounced stoop
caused by the large, bat-like wings hinged and folded behind its shoulders.
Well-muscled legs buckled thickly outwards. The sinewy arms were slender
but tipped with hard talons menacingly curved for raking and tearing.
Its sex eluded me, though it was quite naked, a nudity that was the
most exceptional feature of this strange inhabitant of this increasingly
complex world. Like the forest, the Harpy had luminous skin but wholly
transparent. Every muscle, every fiber, every vein coursing blood exposed
in glaring clarity. When it moved, it churned. When it flexed, it gurgled.
The thing struck me as obscene, deviant on an emotional level I cannot
The creature was observing me from under dark, beetling brows that furrowed
over deep, bloodshot eyes and black nostrils stretched flat above a slattern
muscular jaw that angled outwards, bill-like, and added to the overall
avian impression. Two cracked and yellowed fangs hung from the outer-edge
of that bill and twitched spasmodically with its every breath.
I had no need of a collective memory to divine my situation. Again,
trouble had found Gray Allen.
Oddly impinging upon my consciousness was something unusual, something
common to the Hisl, the birdman, and the great cat I had so fortuitously
slain, a complete lack of discernible ears. Wondering what it could mean,
if it had any meaning at all, I also pondered why I so often thought of
these things at such inappropriate moments.
The Harpy, as I had dubbed him, pawed tenuously at the remains of the
dead cat with its flat, flayed feet. If the saber-tooth was food, the Harpy
could have it. I was in no mood or condition for further quarrel.
I began to withdraw from the clearing, slowly, wanting only to escape
with body and soul intact. The birdman’s brow snapped up sharply. It stepped
over the body of the tiger, wings expanding, head thrown back to vent a
shrill, whistling scream.
My longsword flew from its scabbard. I had come in pursuit of the golden
girl and the greater destiny embodied in those emerald-green eyes. I wanted
an end to this forest, these beasts, and these sidebars of danger.
Without warning, I stood as a stag between two wolves. The air teemed
with brightly colored, loudly scolding little birds, hundreds of them.
So intensely plumed as to be incongruous with the morose, milky haze that
shrouded the glen and distorted my perception.
That the Harpy’s scream had summoned these tiny devils went without
challenge for a second cry, one higher and more emoting, sent them darting
at my arms, my legs, my head, and my eyes. There is no defense, no cover.
Minute beaks as needles pierced my skin. In the space of a ragged thought,
I bled profusely from dozens of tiny, painful bites.
The sepulchral Harpy undulated from side to side, wings beating in a
frantic tempo that stirred the birds to new heights of hostility. A height
I had to match or perish. One arm thrown protectively across my eyes, I
charged through the diving, whistling circle of birds and closed with the
birdman, the true author of my torment.
A hissing growl met my rush. Ivory talons swept aside my longsword,
the blade snapped at the handle in an appalling display of speed and power
that brought the battle to primitive terms, muscle against muscle. A battle
I am too weak to win. Sinewy hands clutched at
my throat. Sharp claws cut my veins, letting blood. My senses swam and
my breath came in quick gasps. My eyes misted but a voice rose from the
veil. I was a man, facing a dumb brute. I had reason; it had nothing.
My fingers found my dagger. Contact ignited my flagging senses and the
blade flew upwards and arced downward. I shouted in triumph, eyes flashing.
Elation expressed too soon. For a furious blur of motion met my action
and a powerful talon-like hand gripped my arm, the blade held at bay.
Dumb brute? The pomposity of man!
With the inevitable certainty of a leaf drifting to earth, the creature
turned my hand, bending it backwards. Again, Death swirled before my winded
consciousness. Did I only imagine my antagonist grinning?
Whether inspiration or desperation, my mind’s eye saw the snow-white
carcass sprawled behind the Harpy. With faltering strength scarce equal
to the task, I rammed the creature hard. It staggered, and I slammed forward
again. This time, its left foot struck against the dead sabretooth and,
equilibrium disturbed, the birdman teetered. A moment plucked from time,
but all that this warrior needed!
My hand wrenched upward and the freed dagger plunged downward, driven
to the hilt between the narrow eyes of the doomed birdman. With a long
shrill whistle that seeped into the soil as sand swallows water, the Harpy
For a small part of forever, I panted wild-eyed over my fallen foe.
I felt the unbridled flush of triumph and a savage, primordial urge to
pound my chest and roar my victory. An ardor that blinded me to the unresolved
dilemma of the biting birds now demanding a bounty, revenge for their slain
comrade and fallen master.
How else do I describe this strange triad between tiger, Harpy, and
They encircled me in a dizzying ring of hateful color hitched to biting
beaks, but now I had a shield. The body of their Lord sheltered me!
Eyes alert, heart pounding, I backed from the glade, stopping just long
enough to hurl the cloaking carcass at the strafing birds. Then, without
a backward glance, I turned and plunged into the rapidly brightening forest
I bolted through the thick underbrush, now upright, now bent, until
outraged and exhausted nature forced me to stop.
Paused among the mighty forest giants, hands on my knees gasping great
mouthfuls of air, my ears strained for sounds of a pursuit that did not
come. Buoyed, but not convinced, I forced my pace, every fiber of my being
alert. I knew what lay behind. I could only imagine what lie ahead.
At last, at the base of another great forest giant with tempting, low
hung limbs, I ended my flight. Clambering laboriously into the lower terraces
and nestling snugly into a suitable notch that I had tapped as my refuge,
I closed my eyes and slept the deep slumber of total exhaustion.
Though some ancient voice whispered that I forfeited the trail of the
Hisl, and therefore the girl, a more sanguine Nature demanded I lay up
and regain some measure of strength. To have pressed on would have been
foolhardy, which upon reflection, was an apt description of my behavior
for having ever ventured into this vile wood.
I awoke stiff and sore, covered in bites and scratches. The latter more
nuisance than hindrance. My spear and sword were gone, but I retained the
dagger. Some natural reserve over my ability to deal with the future in
general and the Hisl in particular crossed my mind, but I ignored it.
The hot sun, sitting high in the peach sky, beating down through the
canopy of green, gold, and blue colored leaves, had restored the forest
to full brilliance. Free flowing sweat stung my wounds. The welts on my
body, rubbed raw against overhanging limbs and vines, pained me greatly.
I needed to eat. I needed to bathe. Food and fresh water being the tonics
to cure my ills. However, nothing that could pass for food or water presented
itself, and, though, for the present, I did not suffer from hunger or thirst,
a sense of jeopardy wormed into my consciousness. A feeling as real as
the nasty, biting insects I swatted with irritating regularity.
From leaves, I suckled a few drops of dewy moisture, enough to keep
me moving but wholly inadequate to my growing needs. I tried a few plants
and tubers but nothing passed further than my lips.
I trudged on, thinking often of the golden girl with the emerald eyes,
never doubting she still lived, trusting Destiny would reveal the purpose
of her presence upon that death littered plain. The sole human thus encountered
upon this fantastic world.
Two or three miles further into the shifting colors and twisted boles
of this hypocritical forest, I came to an abrupt halt. From ahead, came
the distinct sound of running water. My pace quickened, my feet moving
with a reservoir of strength long thought emptied until, as a child from
a maze, I burst into an invigorating openness. A sun drenched vista teeming
And such life!
Swiftly bounding deer that were not deer, with their red hides and blue-bellies.
Small, curious rabbits that were not rabbits with flat backs and green
fur, and lack of ears. Birds filled the sky or grouped upon the branches
of nearby trees. Gentle things, starkly contrasting the sharp beaked fiends
so recently escaped, these brightly-feathered songsters filled me with
an effervescence of life, hope reborn.
Wonders surrounded me, though none so at once inspiring as the towering
snowcapped peaks thrusting boldly skyward above the timberline. A ragged
range caressed by the sun, whose embrace wrapped the mountain in wondrous
almost celestial swirl of color that surpassed the mightiest rainbows of
Nature had truly given the foundations of this planet a unique set of
rules. Boundaries of beauty and ugliness that were as opposite horns on
the same goat.
A hundred yards to my right ran the clear stream whose steady flow had
drawn me from forest to field. Losing not a moment more, I stripped and
immersed my tired, battered body. The water was cool, surprising so, given
the warmth of the sun above. However, I did not dwell on speculation, opting
to slurp mouthfuls of lifesaving elixir while splashing about with the
innocence of youth, an immortal youth, forever old yet eternally young.
I found the stream stocked with a variety of brightly colored residents.
Fish that were not fish because they had feet and could climb out of the
water and run away, though not all. Retrieving my dagger, I skewered a
satisfying if salty meal.
Whether a lingering memory of some early progenitor or a natural act
of this wondrous world, I feasted raw.
Limbs flushed, mind focused, my body cleansed and soul enervated, I
lay back upon the soft ochre grasses and let my eyes rove over the spellbinding
rock fortress in the distance. Lost in the lights, I daydreamed of marvels,
miracles, and golden girls with emerald eyes, or rather the one, and wondered:
I had covered a hundred yards before that timorous note died. The cry
did not repeat. It did not have to. Endowed with eternal conceit I knew
it was she, the golden girl with emerald eyes, and danger threatened.
The landscape changed rapidly. The ochre grasses faded into hard clay
that gradually inclined. The woods receded and the mountain approached.
The stream, which I paralleled, widened. At once, I drew up before the
body of a dead Hisl, badly mauled, face down in the flowing water. For
a breath, I paused before that stinking omen. Just long enough to arm myself
with a confiscated blade.
Now came the roar of beasts and a sound I knew as metal eating into
flesh, cutting bone. A second scream and I fairly flew round a rocky bend
at the threshold of the incandescent mountain. Clustered on a ledge twenty
feet up from the base, facing a sea of savage tigers and screaming Harpies,
I saw the seven remaining Hisl and the golden girl.
If insanity is a measure of courage, I am the bravest man ever born.
If not, then I am the most foolish.
Brandishing the blade of that dead Hisl so briefly met, I bounded into
the narrow trail howling madly. I thought to appear an entire army fallen
upon the rear of the attacking beasts, trusting deception to win me passed
claw and fang to the side of the girl.
Again, I had underestimated the intelligence of the Harpies! Almost
at once, the birdmen realized only one foolish warrior challenged their
position upon the mountain, their claim to the prize. They beat their wings
and whistled, and a dozen tigers turned snarling canines my direction.
Too late, I reconsidered the dubious wisdom of that mad charge onto
the mountain and attempted to withdraw. Surrounded, hemmed by growling
beasts, there was no choice save stand and fight.
What an astounding Destiny I serve! I had followed and endured to kill
the Hisl. Instead, I owed them my life as they waded fearlessly into the
thick of the leaping, roaring denizens of the deep woods. We stood shoulder
to shoulder and braced each other. The hunted joined with the hunter.
A tiger leapt at my throat, and met a fierce cut from my longsword.
A Harpy clambered over its back, whistling, furiously seeking me out and
quietly dying at my feet. Fur, blood, sweat and drool whipped round my
head. My eyes watered from the stench of the Hisl and the odor of the great
Another birdman fell at my feet with gushing gore visible the length
of its gutted corpse, emptying as sap from a broken vessel. Heavily nailed
hands grasped at my shoulders and raked downward, drawing blood. I dropped
to a knee and stabbed blindly backward. A Harpy wailed hideously and the
The battle madness of Mecca, Lord of the Seven worlds of Caan, fighting
before the Walls of Asynth, touched my eyes. My muscles filled with adrenaline
and I swung my sword in an impenetrable circle. The head of a birdman,
lopped clean from its shoulders, turned oddly upside-down and rolled away.
The circle widened. A saber-tooth went down beneath the spear of a Hisl,
whose numbers had shrunk to two, and the battle ebbed into an unspoken
truce. A silent communication never voiced but mutually accepted.
Neither noting nor caring if the Hisl followed, I turned from the beasts
and, over the backs of the dead and dying, vaulted to the ledge. Once more,
I found myself face to face with the golden girl with the emerald eyes.
She spoke quickly, her eyes filled with wonder and curiosity. I shook
my head, incapable of comprehending the lyrical questions spilled from
her ruby lips. She abandoned her attempt and turned instead to the myriad
of wounds covering my flesh, and I thrilled at the intimacy of her delicate
hands. Her sympathetic smile a salve for my hurt.
The Hisl stood downwind, no inkling of intent visible in their cold,
insect-like faces. Though they made no move against us, their ultimate
designs remained suspect.
The ledge was a cul-de-sac of crumbled shale and broken stones. The
upward trail clogged by a great slide, a wall fallen. Hoping against hope,
I circled left in search of an avenue off the horns of our dilemma and
came upon a curious phenomenon. An exotic outcropping of rock half-covered
or half-exposed in the debris, a wholly natural formation that bore a striking
resemblance to the winged handles of my blades.
To me, it was a remarkable oddity, but to the golden girl, it was something
more. She stood open-mouthed before the fanciful outcropping, eyes transfixed
on the structure with awe I did not understand. Watching her, I longed
for wings of my own!
I laid my bloodied fingers over hers. She turned, smiling warmly through
the dirt and gore that smeared her face. A sudden awareness of my own condition,
covered head to toe in the blood of my enemies, flustered me. Though this
disheveled maiden of an alien world was not one bit less bloodstained and
weary then I, how different my perception. How magnificent she looked standing
there, proud and defiant, awaiting the renewed assaults of the Harpies
and the tigers, puny knife in hand.
Do I sound like a fool? No more so than I felt watching her lithe form
move away from the rock formation to view the beasts regrouping at the
base of the mountain. Shamelessly, my eyes devoured the flawless symmetry
of her form, the wild sweep of her hair, the determined square of her slender
Perhaps she sensed my gaze, for she turned quickly. Our eyes met. There
was neither anger nor rejection of my frank appraisal. Nor could I mistake
the gentle flush that stole across her cheeks.
A thousand lifetimes, countless destinies, two bedraggled figures perched
upon a glowing mountain ledge with the inhuman Hisl facing a snarl of hostile
creatures. Yet, there was time to hold hands and wonder.
When the beasts of the deep woods came again, I was Mecca, Bodine, and
Falsworth. I was the eons and I was the cosmos.
I swung my longsword until the last Hisl fell and only my solitary metal
stood between life and death for the strangely compelling, starkly beautiful
golden girl with the emerald eyes.
Suddenly and dramatically, as I remembered the locusts covering the
fields of Pharaoh, a great shadow obscured the sky, a moving darkness that
stretched over the startled creatures of the forest provoking an unexplained
hysteria. As one, birdman and tiger turned and fled the mountain, a riptide
of panic that separated me from the girl and trapped me within their sweltering
The shadow followed, floating eerily above the fleeing predators. Then
it turned and swung back over the ledge. I heard her scream; one drawn
out cry as that mysterious black specter swooped, steadied, and lifted
away just as I lost consciousness beneath the suffocating weight of those
I lay prone upon my back staring blankly upwards breathing stale air.
The strange luminosity of this world present but faint, making images indistinct.
In hindsight, I learned the light-giving properties of the planet originated
in the photosynthesis process. The further removed one was from the source,
the weaker the effect. Thus, the torpor light in this suspected tomb compared
with the extraordinary displays witnessed on the sun-doused face of the
I growled, and a shadowy figure stirred beside me.
Startled, I sat up sharply and simultaneously discovered two points
of interest: my empty scabbard and the painfully scant distance between
floor and ceiling. Falling back, I howled smartly. The vague shape beside
me laughed. A chortle really, a human reaction. Someone had found merriment
in my discomfort. Though if friend or foe I did not yet know.
Sitting cramped, head bent, scarce drawing a breath, I waited for my
eyes to adjust. Tense moments that passed without incident, the stranger
beside me equally silent and still.
At length the darkness lessened to reveal a golden warrior less than
a foot from me. A handsome, open countenance with broad shoulders and steel
bands for arms. Bald of pate and adorned with the elaborate chin-hair seen
upon many of the dead that covered the plain of my rebirth, he regarded
me curiously. I noticed that he too wore empty scabbards.
Perhaps two feet from floor to ceiling and no more than fifteen feet
square, neither of could sit upright in our sepulcher-like prison. However,
stretched upon the floor, Hercules had a frame several inches taller than
Turned sideways, head propped upon an elbow, the warrior essayed a conversation.
As with the golden girl, I shook my head and smiled benignly. For a moment,
the stared at me quizzically, then lay down and soon snored soundly.
My options sorely limited and conservation of resources a reasonable
priority, I followed my companions lead and slept.
Nothing in all the cosmos galls at a warrior more than confinement.
I awoke to a world tented by dark rock, bounded by feeble glimmer. Though
I felt refreshed of body my soul ached, chafed by the narrow, sunless tomb
and the unexplained nature of my confinement.
My cohort was also awake and again lay on his side regarding me, one
hand supporting his head while the other stroked the Mandarin hair on his
chin. Over time, I learned to appreciate the Aal as a respected symbol
of manhood. At length, this warrior tapped his chest in a universally explicit
What of this gift, this singularity of incarnation to which I am privy?
To what marvelous conspiracy of Fate and Destiny do I owe what followed?
From some darkly stirred, inexplicably tapped corridor of my subconscious
strode the voice of this turbulent new destiny, adding itself to the ancient
chorus that is the sum and substance of Gray Allen. With uncanny ease,
I answered T’lu.
“I do not have a name.”
“You have a name,” he commented smiling warmly, then reached out and
touched the half-healed laceration upon my forehead. “Perhaps you have
just forgotten. Well, until your memory returns, I will call you Kdal.”
It meant Stranger, a label apropos to my situation.
As unmeasured time passed, T’lu displayed an impressive strength of
character. A warrior spirit unbroken by our confinement or the unstated
fate that waited like a stalking beast. I felt heartened by his companionship,
and saddened by the wall of suspicion rising between us at my open ignorance
of Jatora, the world to which I had journeyed.
In some matters, T’lu was loquacious and outgoing in answering my questions.
We were captives of the Kiida; the birdmen of the Mu Derj (the great forest).
Held in their sanval somewhere deep in the heart of the Val Ponada, the
Mountain of Lights, we awaited a disposition that ultimately involved our
deaths, though the exact nature of that demise T’lu did not disclose. However,
when I asked the wrong question, he would frown and say: “You are not Odanal.”
Then withdraw, becoming reticent. Nor did I ever fully understand what,
in his eyes, constituted a right or wrong query. What I did understand,
emphatically, was my need for a tutor and confidant; and a good second
sword when the chance to escape came. As I never doubted but it would.
Vexed at the distance between us, I determined to tell T’lu the truth
of my origin; or such scarps and fragments as permeated this new existence.
As difficult to express as it is to understand, what Gray Allen remembers,
here, in the path, writing this tale, is not the whole of what Kdal remembered
there, upon Jatora, in that claustrophobic prison.
I know who I am, and what I am, but pieces of the puzzle drop out, fall
away. I can remember a war, but not the people in it. I can remember circumstances
but not outcomes. The images grow vague. The longer the new life carries
on, the further removed from my mind they become until they grow nonexistent
and there is only the one life, this life to which I reincarnated.
Do not bother trying to understand it. If I cannot, how could you?
T’lu heard my tale without comment. When I had finished, he offered
the following observation. “Yours is not the most fanciful I’bar I have
ever heard, though it is close!”
An I’bar is an ode, or recounting, an interesting turn on the grandeur
of my eternal travels. As to the incredulity commonly engendered by my
improbable birthright, T’lu sounded pragmatic in his evaluation.
“You do not seem like a liar, Kdal. I will assume you have not lied.”
I wondered if the rest of Jatora shared T’lu’s uncomplicated philosophy,
a point-of-view that would not have survived the distrust of Gray Allen’s
T’lu displayed a keen interest for my recent travails within the Mu
Derj and upon the Val Ponada. He asked numerous questions concerning my
pursuit of the golden girl and subsequent battles. He seemed continually
verged upon making a point, only to drift into introspection, my questions
left unanswered. T’lu may not have thought me a liar, but clearly, he continued
to nurse reservations.
“I believe you exited the Mu Derj at the Ki’ Krvala, where the K’ris
end and the Kiida begin.” The K’ris being the feathered devils of the inner
“There are no K’ris here?” I said. T’lu returned quietly that the Kris
never leave the Mu Derj.
“The great forest is there S’ti.” The word meant stop. “The K’ris are
the Hon djar of the Kiida. None has ever progressed beyond the Mu Derj,
just as no Kiida will T’al (go) beyond the Val Ponada.”
I had my first primer on Jatoran evolution! The Hon djar I understood
as an evolutionary demarcation. A perceived physical boundary where one
line of inherent adaptation ended and another began. Jatora marked evolution
by geography instead of epochs. Intrigued, I vowed to pursue the subject
further, but at a more appropriate time.
“You were fortunate to have crossed the Mu Derj alone and survived.
Ana must have must rode in your scabbard.”
Ana being the supreme Jatoran deity.
“Perhaps,” I said with a rueful smile. “But at the moment, my scabbards
T’lu glanced at his own vacant sheaths and flashed an understanding
Talk of that grim and dangerous forest always returned my thoughts to
the golden girl with the emerald eyes. That shadow, that last scream, what
had happened? I knew, with conviction born in the unrelenting Fate I served,
if she lived I would find her. She was part if not all of the destiny that
awaited me upon Jatora, the intermingling of our paths an inescapable certainty.
Provided I escaped the Kiida, and the Votag!
I pressed T’lu for an explanation of our possible fate. He smiled at
my use of the word possible, and at last, grudgingly acquiesced.
“They will keep us until Ki’ Juva, and then kill us.”
“You say that very casually.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It is only the truth, though I suspect
we will be harder to kill than the Kiida anticipate.”
My turn to smile. “What is a Ki’ Juva?”
“It is a Kiida ritual. One in which we die.”
“So you keep telling me,” I shot back with some irritation. “It is how
we die you continually avoid.”
“If you must know, the I’bar says the Kiida will eat us.”
The import of his words had me spitting denial. “How can you say such
a thing so, so . . . Calmly?”
“Yes. You should be outraged!”
“At what? It is as natural to the Kiida as it is unnatural for us. The
Kiida do what Ana intended they should do. No more, no less.”
I was taken back at the appropriateness of his answer, and the moral
arrogance passed from Mecca to Gray Allen to Kdal. A conceit no number
of incarnations would ever shed.
T’lu drew my attention with stern eyes and a cold voice. “Understand
me well, Kdal. I have no particular desire to wind up in the belly of a
Kiida. I am a Warrior of the Blood, one with a purpose in life and reasons
“But you seem so . . .so unaffected!”
T’lu smiled. “Unaffected? No, is just facing the reality. I will always
choose life over death, but some day, somehow, I will die. I will not to
waste my time fretting the manner of that death.”
“Well then,” I told my golden companion as he lay back to sleep, “I
suppose I will just have to sit here and worry for the both of us!”
Six sleeps counted since awakening in this suffocating coffin. Thirst,
hunger, and our own foul scents tolled upon my patience. My concentration
wandered. I thought of the golden girl and what had become of her, and
I thought of T’lu and the guarded friendship between us.
Circumstances had thrust us together; reticence still held us apart.
Clearly, my golden companion struggled with my I’bar. He did not remark
as much aloud, but the inferences were apparent. He continued to withhold
selective information. When approached on the intimacies of his people,
their beliefs and customs, he hesitated, artfully skirting the subject
of politics entirely. I knew only that he was from Amata, a proud, ancient
city somewhere in the vast expanse of the Val Ponada. There, the trail
of disclosure ended.
Respectful of his restraint, knowing confidence to be a function of
time, I pursued other commonalties such as how he came to be prisoner of
the Kiida. However, even here, the exchange remained ambiguous.
“I left Syjal, the sister-city of Amata, to search for the Dulara Olana.
The trail lead to the Mu Derj, where, after much argument, an avan of Hisl
took me prisoner. I had thought my fate settled. However, the Kiida attacked
the Hisl and again my destiny changed hands. I arrived but one dar before
Upon Jatora, the passage of the great sun Emo across the firmament is
one O’ Dar or Light Day. The passing of Ias, the Invisible Demon (my interpretation)
who chases the fleeing Emo, causing the darkness, is the N’dar or Dark
Day. The combined time is one Dar. The N’dar and the O’dar are divided
into twelve parts, or n’ar, each n’ar having seventy ar or minutes. Twelve
dar equals the uldar, or week. Six uldar equals the dur, or month. Twelve
dur equals one lur or year.
All of which are approximations based upon Jatoran standards of measurement;
however, you should now be able to follow time as a Jatoran.
“Who is this Dulara Olana?” I knew Dulara to be the rough equivalent
of a Princess.
“Let us rest, I sense we will need our strength, and soon.” Fast as
Emo, the great red sun of Jatora sets, T’lu had drawn the veil of caution.
I had been dozing fitfully, hungry and parched, when suddenly and without
warning, a crack appeared in the wall of our prison. A slim stream of light
seeped through and rudely invaded our Stygian world.
Quickly the crack widened. By the scrapping sounds and the aced shape
of the expanding light, I knew that a great oval stone was being rolled
away. The darkness exited and Emo entered. Not as welcomed warmth, but
as a sudden, blinding heat, like a baker opening his oven.
With an arm thrown across half-shut smarting eyes, I peered upwards
at a snarling Votag framed beside the misshapen shadow of a giant Kiida.
Symbolic of my lives in transition, I harbored no surprise at the throaty,
canine snarl of the Kiida as it barked, “Ki’ Juva.”
Truly the blind leading the blind, struggling to stand on limbs uncertain
as newborn foal, I followed T’lu into the bright light of the Jatoran day.
Four Kiida and two Votag waited. Rough creatures that displayed no sympathy
for the stiffness tightening our cramped and aching joints. They poked
talons in our backs and barked commands. Snarling Votag skulking at our
sides, we fell into a coerced march along a lazy stream trickling out of
The pain in my eyes subsided and, as I acclimated to the brilliance
of Jatora’s fiery sun, saw that the Kiida compound sat in a natural box-canyon.
Sheer cliffs soared a thousand feet straight up, weatherworn and impressive
but useless as an avenue of escape. The entrance to the canyon held promise,
being a narrow notch hemmed on three sides by those insurmountable glowing
walls, but it receded behind.
As I gazed upon the ragged cliff-face, a rustle of wind whipped through
the Kiida sanval and murmured she is out here, the golden girl with the
emerald eyes. Emotions impossible to convey welled in me. I shivered in
the hot noonday sun.
I saw now that the stream emptied into a large pool in the center of
the village, such as it was. For I saw naught but misshapen mounds of dirt
littered with twigs and occasional bits of broken bone, the filth-laden
nests of the Kiida. Hundreds of Votag lolled about these nests or laid-up
in the heat, excepting those that paced menacingly alongside our weaponless
Weaponless! A grim smile touched my lips, for what blade fashioned by
man could be more deadly than these ill-tempered carnivores snapping at
The Kiida populace, having emerged from their warrens, milled eerily
in our direction. Hundreds of animated cadavers of both sexes, though it
is T’lu’s word to the females. I discerned no visible difference between
the genders except, perhaps, that the female of the species had appreciably
Candidly, the Kiida had no visible reproductive organs. That being the
only bodily process not painfully in evidence. T’lu maintained the Kiida
reproduced asexually. When a female ovulated, her genital glands swelled
and opened that she might deliver her eggs. The males fertilized the eggs
independent of the female, the seed carried in its saliva glands. Unique
as their reproductive process was, it sufficed the Kiida and worked to
maintain a semblance of a family unit.
The Kiida children, diminutive versions of their heinous parents, were
notable for their underdeveloped wings and overdeveloped sense of cruelty.
They taunted T’lu and I with shrill whistles, hurling twigs and stones
at our unprotected heads until blood spilled and a thin, stubborn line
pulled my lips.
Their parents watched in stoic apathy. Once, when a particularly sharp
bit of rock glanced off the side of my head, I thought to step amongst
the bastard things, but Votag shrunk close to their skulking charges and
growled, ominously protective. T’lu took my arm and bade me reconsider.
“The blood ties are deep, as you will learn soon enough.”
Using that cheery optimism to buoy my spirits, my eyes returned to long
sweeps of the sanval. I sought inspiration and found Kiida, Votag, and
the insurmountable cliff-face of the gleaming Val Ponada. I knew Gray Allen
had survived worse, though the exact memory of that circumstance escaped
“Ki-kival,” T’lu said.
The word loosely meant birthing place. We had reached the pool, site
of the Kiida Ki’ Juva. Boulders, of various sizes placed in an irregular
circle about a twenty-five yard circumference, ringed the shallow waters
and formed a natural amphitheater. The largest rock deposited centrally
in the ceremonial pool. Upon the far bank grew a solitary tree, forlorn
and leafless, as unable to escape the barren squalor of the Kiida sanval
as T’lu and I.
Now the macabre activity within in the pool drew my undivided attention.
Spread upon a bed of multicolored pebbles, hundreds of pale-blue eggs
leaped about, bubbles in boiling pot colliding violently. Each agitated
contact producing pulses of blue lightning that scourged the waters and
sent the glowing shells into increasing discord. I gasped at this pell-mell
A barking misanthrope, that evidently desired my presence on that singular
boulder in the center of the pool, shoved a hard talon into my already
tender back. Outraged, blind to common sense, reacting to the violence
below and the peril beyond, I turned on the stinking thing. A good right
hand dropped it face down in the turbulent water even as a pair of snarling
Votag reared up as if breaching white stallions. Only T’lu’s muscular clamp
around of my waist, hauling me backward, saved me. Heavily nailed paws
raked empty air inches from my heart.
“There may yet be a way out,” T’lu cautioned as other Kiida, amidst
much hissing and whistling, extracted their unconscious member and calmed
the angered cats. “I will need you alive to find it.”
I nodded and followed T’lu through the agitated pool to the boulder,
doing my best to avoid the wildly dancing eggs. Looking back, I saw the
Votag huddled at the sides of the birdmen, glowering but quiescent.
“How do they control them?” I asked of T’lu, straining to keep my emotions
“It is the D’ jarval,” T’lu indulged me, showing no outward regard for
the terror our situation warranted. It meant the Joining or the Alliance.
“The I’ bar of the Kiida sings that Ana, in remorse for abandoning the
Kiida at such a primitive state of Hon djar, gifted them the Votag as her
penitence. D’ jarval!”
My rumination, on the lack of weapons amongst the Kiida, answered.
As we stood waiting, watching, the hostility in the water noticeably
increased. Meanwhile, the Kiida had formed a multi-layered queue upon either
side of the stream. A cordon of beating wings growing louder by the moment
that ran from the largest nest of the sanval directly to the edge of our
pool, a distance of one hundred yards. I perceived a ritual performed a
thousand times before. A barbaric rite with origins buried in savage, undocumented
“Now,” T’lu offered with a grin, “things should get interesting.”
Fighting, loving, dying, it made little difference to T’lu. Seize the
moment. Take what Ana offered and leave no challenge unmet. If it was time
to fight, then fight. If it was time to die, then die, but do it bravely,
not bewailing the moment.
The violence in the Ki’ Juva pool increased to match the steady, monotonous
cadence forged from beating Kiida wings. Summoned by that savage symphony,
he emerged from the central nest at the head of the sonorous corridor,
a mountain of transparent muscle a foot taller than his nearest rival and
the first to wear any manner of personal adornment. Atop his head, a grotesque
headdress culled from broken pieces of Kiida wings and laced with colorful
feathers pulled from the K’ris. Rings of dried bone hung around his neck
and whitened skulls looped through twisted vines circled his waist; trophies
secured in his violent rise to power. Left and right of this colossal beast-man
slunk the two largest Votag in the compound.
“The Dular,” T’lu said simply.
There stood the King!
Look how he preened, this insignificant chieftain walking out of the
twilight of evolution, his transparent wings spread wide, unconscious of
his Lilliputian status in the cosmos. My blood burned. My ingrained sense
of self-worth screaming, “How dare this vainglorious creature sentence
me to death.”
Joined left and right by several Kiida I assumed to be lesser dignitaries
of the tribe, the Dular and his court marched to the pool. They took seats
upon the many boulders that circled the agitated, egg-filled tarn, the
Votag creeping onto slabs upon either hand. Royal etiquette satisfied the
balance of the sanval scrambled for any available perch. Some contests
grew quite violent. It would have been amusing, had not our immediate situation
been so perilous.
Seating complete, the Dular rose and inspected the pool. I wondered
what emotions, if any at all, passed through that primitive brain. Did
the Kiida feel for the children encased within those wildly gyrating shells?
It occurred to me that a creature capable of love was capable of compassion.
Was it foolish to hope? I grinned wickedly, for Hope is never foolish.
Eons of ritual rendered the Kiida timing impeccable. The eggs, glowing
red, were beginning to hatch. Hideously dwarfed replicas of the grown Kiida,
hairless and covered with the transparent saliva membrane that passed for
Kiida skin. Obscene little beasts that burst into the world fighting and
eating; eating each other!
I paled at the ferocious, inherent cannibalism. Born with raking talons
fully developed, presumed brothers and sisters battled to the death for
the nauseating right to devour one another in a feeding frenzy that quickly
turned the blue pool a bright-bloody red.
The skirmishes were grizzly and quick as, for the majority of the Kiida
young, birth and death came as one moment. Nor did devouring their gutted
siblings satiate the horrid little creatures. Not satisfied with meat and
bone, they sucked the slimy birth residue from the emptied shells, their
distended bellies digesting in garish clarity.
Remarkably, they seemed quite at home breathing underwater. A facility
they lost upon extraction from their liquid incubator.
Even T’lu, accustomed to the savagery and brutality of his world, blanched
at the rabid display in the Ki’ Juva pool, shaking his head and muttering
under his breath. While I, a traveler, a sojourner of worlds and lives
beyond the greatest imaginations, found my lips curled and my stomach turned.
I recalled T’lu’s earlier reprobation on our impending fates and smiled
grimly. Who was I to question Nature?
At once, the Kiida Dular gave forth with a guttural bark that sent his
warriors into the fading carnage searching for survivors.
Eggs yet to hatch they summarily destroyed. T’lu said it was to maintain
the eon’s old rhythm of the ritual. I had no reason to believe otherwise.
The survivors they placed in small mud and grass nests carried to the
water by the females of the tribe. Of the thousand or so eggs that had
begun the savage ordeal of birth, only a dozen new Kiida survived. Inexplicably,
upon exposure to the warm sun of the Jatoran day, all hostility in the
brood ended. Afforded a chance to view these ghastly children in these
early moments of birth, I solved one Jatoran riddle, the lack of discernable
ears. The organs were camouflaged under the flat skin of the temples and,
as the beasts matured and the skin thickened, they became nearly invisible.
A faculty common to all beats upon Jatora, though possession of that knowledge
offered nothing of value in my immediate crisis!
The Kiida Dular descended to preen, prance, and make what I construed
as a ceremonial tour of these newest members of his empire, then clambered
apelike back upon his stony dais.
Deep in my being a voice whispered. It is time!
The warming tingle of imminent combat pounded my temples. My hands clenched
into fists ready to batter and bruise. I would not sell my soul cheaply.
The Kiida Dular, oblivious to my rising ardor, regarded T’lu and I balefully
through red-rimmed eyes. I wondered if he could sense my readiness or fathom
the utter contempt filling my soul. Perhaps he could, for the King of the
birdmen seemed to answer me. Throwing back his head he let loose and long,
almost plaintive whistle, beating his wings in a new rhythm, different
from the one proceeding the Ki’ juva.
His eager flock flapped and whistled in excited response, the sanval
reverberating to this wild, primordial rhythm. Several of the tribe began
to leap and sway, their grotesque bodies undulating in an awkward yet compelling
series of motions. The spellbinding, primitive dance of the Kiida Ki’ Juva,
a bizarre ballet that incited the tribe to the brink of frenzy.
Their eyes blazed. Their bodies contorted. The Votag snarled ominously,
sinewy frames crouched menacingly with hungry eyes fixed upon the supposed
weak and helpless flesh before them. Waiting on the command that would
send them at our throats.
T’lu stood steady, stood silent. There was nothing worth saying, so
he said nothing. My own thoughts turned to a slim, golden girl lost somewhere
in the hushed vastness of the incredible Val Ponada. I smiled and looked
upon the Kiida with sudden compassion.
They were not the Destiny that Gray Allen had crossed the eons to challenge.
Today would not end what had so promisingly begun. I thought of a distant
I’bar that I knew, of the fisherman caught in his own nets. I swore I would
not be that fisherman, this day in these nets.
There would be more!
I watched the Kiida Dular dance, his mighty wings stretched to their
apex, furrowed brows drawn low over his flat, dilating nostrils. At once,
he halted in mid-stride. His slim, avian hands opened and closed. His head
arched backward, nestling into the knot of muscle that hinged his wings
to his shoulders. With a suddenness that startled me, so rapt my fixation,
he unleashed a chilling scream that rang loud and long above the thumping,
pounding volley of the gyrating Kiida. A voice lifted undiminished from
the creation of the first demon.
As from the mouth of our cul-de-sac erupted a whistling-roar unlike
anything I had ever heard before.