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Volume 1681c
Michael A. Wexler
Chapters 16 - 20


Frantically, I searched for a break in the watery universe that engulfed me.

My head flamed, my lungs ready to burst, and a strange sweep of emotions possessed me. Remorse first, then unbridled anger. Remorse for T’lu, for the men of the Odanal, and for a pair of emerald green eyes peering from a mass of raven black hair. A Destiny once judged certain, now dashed.

Anger at imperfect Fate that had dangled the promise of Jatora before me and then ripped it away. Anger at dying empty and unfilled, a battered body rotting amidst unexplored riches.

No fire, no second-chances.

I let that rage fuel a last desperate surge against the strangling waters of K’Aldan. I was a wild mare fighting the lariat to no avail until, strength surrendered, arms hanging heavily at my side, my eyes closed and my spirit calmed. I grew incredibly light. No need to struggle further. I had done my best; it was over. For a moment, I wondered what death would be like, and then I floated free of the raging flood.

So, this was it, an unfettered fall through empty space. I had expected something more dramatic, more sudden as the snapping off a light. I consigned my disappointment to a farewell jest from cruel and capricious Fate.

Abruptly, all motioned ceased and my sensation of flight terminated in a sharp, stabbing pain. It felt as if my back had broken. My chest heaved and cold water spilled from my mouth, as, with a shutter to last for all eternity, I blacked out.

How long I lay unconscious in that dreamless void I do not know. Nor did consciousness return as other than a vague, faltering wonder. Had I died? Could this peaceful solitude of soul be the death I had so long feared?

What else explained it? I must be dead.

Yet my heart beat. Moist, cool air crowded my tortured chest. Pained and disoriented, uncertain of a great deal except that, for a dead-man, I was surprisingly lucid.


The sound of the familiar voice snapped me to consciousness. I opened my eyes to a dripping T’lu of Amata knelt beside me with anxious face.

“You're dead!” I gasped.

“Not yet, though I should be,” T’lu answered rubbing at a large welt raised under his left eye. “Both of us!”

I tried to rise but dizziness overwhelmed me.

“Careful.” T’lu forced me to lie back. “That crack on your forehead opened again; though the bleeding has since stopped.”

Headstrong always, I pushed myself to an elbow. My thoughts cleared. My eyes focused. Fate had deposited us in an enormous, underground-cavern replete with moss-covered walls. Jagged stalactite formations peppered the ceiling glistening with perpetual moisture.  A steady symphony of droplets rained into small, rock-bound pools that dotted the floor.

The roof rose two hundred feet. Thirty yards up the left wall, through a yawning cavity ages old, flowed the remnants of K’Aldan’s wrath. A diminished stream that splashed upon a splintered bridge collapsed by the last gasp of that raging flood.

T’lu and I had run out of that cave and into empty space, plunging headlong to the cavern floor. It was a Je’ ndal we had not broken every bone in our bodies.

I looked at T’lu and saw that his eyes were glazed and distant. He spoke softly.

“At the cost of many good men, we have found by accident what we had sought with purpose, a hidden stairway into the bowels of the mountain.” His focus shifted to the slow flowing stream running at her feet. “Whether we have tumbled through the right doorway or fallen into another dead end, only Ana knows.”

“What Ana knows, we can know,” I said with sincerity.

T’lu smiled at me, a sense of sympathy floating through the agony for his men I knew throbbed beneath his managed composure.

“At the least, we can try! We have found caverns of this nature before, often.  Each explored with the single-minded hope it would lead to Tamor and Amata, but always the water would flow steadily for a few miles then disappear into some inaccessible, subterranean outlet, taking hope and enthusiasm with it.”

“But still you search.” I noted.

“I have quoted many I’bar these past days. I will favor you with one more. Water and hope run together.”

I stood, my legs wobbly but ready for the march. Falling in behind the great Amata Dular, I noticed the droop of his giant shoulders, the sadness easily read. A sudden despondency clutched my heart. That T’lu fought tears for T’rk and the warriors of the Odanal I did not doubt. Had they come, it would be without shame. Men of valor respect the sanctity of life far more than the uninitiated can understand.

I put a hand to his shoulder.

“It would give them peace,” I told him, “to know you survived. They died for the Blood, their King, and the Dulara Olana. If, even by gross accident, this cavern becomes a thread in the salvation of Jatora then their sacrifice had Halm.”

T’lu straightened his back, but said nothing.

We followed the declining grade of the stream. The lapping waters, sounding as wind chimes in the subterranean cavern, a tranquilizer for our tired souls. We had been through much, T’lu and I. Walking gave us time to heal, or at least to form the physical and emotional scars that would numb our pains.

The miles slipped rapidly behind. This vast, shimmering, underground world had a diverting charm. An attraction laced with bitter realism. If, as T’lu hoped, the stream lead to some corridor connecting to Amata then our dream rekindled. However, if the stream poured into some bleak cul-de-sac, then the hopes of the Odanal, and perhaps even the eternity of Gray Allen, ended here. I thought of the crumbled stairway and hoped for better.

The texture of the water had changed. At first, her banks simply widened and ran quicker. Then, as we pressed deeper into the belly of the mountain, it markedly darkened. An indication it had also deepened. From a gentle lapping, its passage became a leaden rumble, a constant chugging sound as of a great engine straining to be unleashed.

Encouraged, sensing but not speaking, we hiked on. Our distance grew. The ceiling dropped to less than sixty feet with jagged, dripping stalactite thirty kota long strung like drooling fangs. The river continued to swell and blacken, demanding more and more of the bank until we traversed a ledge narrowed to twenty kota while the opposite shore disappeared and became a water-stained wall.

I observed the transformation from mild stream to raging black-river with a growing ardor. That powerful and primitive picture moved me forcefully. Moreover, the darker and more forbidding a presence the river became, the more acute my arousal. Still, an inner voice, some innate sensitivity, kept me from pressing my suspicions to T’lu, though clearly the same spirit that stirred me, touched him.

We took our second sleep since leaving the grotto. T’lu introduced me to the abundant and edible fungi that grew beneath the stones and pebbles along the black shore. While preferable to starvation G’ral, like Tugra only spicier, fell far short of satisfying this warrior’s pallet.

“I am getting a bit fed up with eating grass!”

T’lu laughed. I leaned over the bank for a taste of water. For the bitter bite of the G’ral thirsted me. I drew back sharply, spitting loudly.

Quickly, T’lu knelt and cupped a handful of the tart water.

“Salt!” He exclaimed. “The river has an outlet to the sea!”

His eyes glowed, pinpoints of fiery hope in a long, cold night of tyranny.

“Look at her Kdal! The depth, the color! Have you ever seen waters so black? No, no man has. Not even in K’al Har would a river run so black and taste of salt; unless . . .”

“I suspected, but dared not voice it.”

“You understand then?”

“That this may be Tamor?” I felt my own excitement crescendo. “By the Aal of your great, great, great, great, great-grandfather I understand.”

“You forgot a great!” T’lu reprimanded me, though his eyes danced with joy and his body quivered with excitement. “Think of the irony Kdal. You have borne witness to the havoc K’Aldan has wrought upon the Val Ponada. The power that hid the K’al Kadre Mor from the eyes of men for three thousand years, and has now buried it again. Yet it was there, revealed, waiting for you, the Stranger, to find it. That this should happen in quest of the Dulara Olana, and even more incredibly, we should find ourselves lying side by side in the pit of the Kiida defies coincidence. No, there is a purpose to this, Kdal, a divine hand. Ana has sent us upon a quest where freedom and retribution for all Jatora is the prize, the lives of our comrades the price. A sacrifice we dare not dishonor!”

A divine hand! Of all the creatures in the cosmos, who was I to argue?

Suddenly and without warning all thoughts of gods and rivers, lost cities and unfolding Destinies vanished. The black enamel of the river churned with a great force rising from the unfathomable depths. Our longswords flashed frosty white. Two warriors, tested and ready, obeying the dictates of a lifetime of battles, drawing steel.

For a long moment, a teetering stillness hovered in the hollow universe of the inner Val Ponada. The cavern filled with a serpentine scent. Then, the dark bosom of the river exploded with a massive head perched atop a long neck. Thick enough to crush a man, it rose twenty feet above the parted surface.


My eyes fixed upon this hissing, screaming saurian, sniffing nostrils flared open, wicked, razor-sharp teeth lining a heavily muscled jaw snapping open and closed. Centered in that evil black poll was a single, red-rimmed eye, a glassy, bloody orb that circled clockwise around the foam-flecked face of the Tagor. For an instant or two it orbited the cavern then fixed upon T’lu and I. Prey found, the massive neck of the Tagor shot forward, and no arrow ever flew faster.

T’lu thrust hard against my shoulder. I stumbled left; he dove right. Like black lightning, the Tagor split the spot we had unceremoniously quit, its head bashing the rugged stone-face of the cavern. Bloodied and bellowing, spraying phlegm and rage, the wounded saurian pulled back but quickly rose to strike again.

Hesitant, uncertain of how to battle such a behemoth, I braced against the cavern wall sword at the ready. Not T’lu.

I watched incredulously as he dashed forward and flung himself bodily over the dark waters and full onto the throbbing snout of the monster. His sword arm went up and time stopped as the blade plunged downward in a single, fluid motion that pierced the fierce red eye of the frozen Tagor. Buried to the hilt, the sword sat quivering in grotesque salute.

The stricken Tagor trumpeted its blinded agony. The walls shook; the ground quaked. That great neck reared backward then whipped upwards as some great band stretched and released, launching T’lu violently airborne. I gasped as the giant Amatan twisted mightily, narrowly avoiding impaling on the end of a jagged stalactite. Then gasped again as he tumbled a hairsbreadth from the blindly snapping jaws of the Tagor. He hit the coldly black waters of Tamor with a resounding smack.

To my relief, he surfaced immediately. Casting my ill-timed indecision aside, I knelt upon the edge of the bank, extended a ready arm, and hauled the dripping Dular O’Odanal ashore.

“Run!” He cried. “It is mad now and will kill itself and anything stupid enough to be in its way.”

Mad? The Tagor was berserk!

Blinded, bleeding profusely, it lashed against the cavern walls, beating itself to a gory pulp. Absolutely nothing remained of its face. It staggered me that the thing still lived, more that it still seemed capable of scenting or sensing our retreat. For, as we began to run, the blind poll came round and froze.

Working by smell, instinct, or the insight of the Gods, the screaming Tagor bore down upon T’lu and I with alarming speed. I sensed it closing, felt the wind of its darting neck at my back as I leaped high as my muscles would take me. The Tagor hit the bank, hit it hard. I hit the Tagor, landing atop its slippery snout my feet still moving, all that preserved me from those vicious jaws that snapped a scant inch short of my ankles.

Bashed beyond recognition, but still ardent, possessed of an incredible vitality and a will for vengeance, the Tagor reared up and, venting a horrendous, anguished roar, charged downstream. It simply refused to renounce its quarry, lie down, and die.

Still even a beast this mighty must perish when all strength expires.

One last time it blundered blindly into the walls of the river, this time met by twin longswords plunging into an already lacerated neck. The shock froze the beast, or so I thought, for the Tagor ceased its flailing, hovering above us with distended jaws, its bloodied neck pulsing, panting deeply. Then, without a sound, it slipped beneath the frigid waters of Tamor and was gone.

“Ana, what a beast!” I panted. “I thought it would never . . .

With a roar such as collapsed the Walls of Jericho, the Tagor, or its ghost, surviving on desire alone, rose again. Shredding the black waters of Tamor after T’lu and I, who ran from the blind determination of this gory beast.

The mingled scent of saurian odor and oozing gore, hot as a desert wind, fell on my back and neck. I winced at the sound of gnashing teeth inches long and razor sharp snapping at my heels and saw with dread the bank upon which we ran ended less than a hundred kota ahead. Behind came the thunderous splash of that monstrous body, roaring in pain and rage. I cursed under my breath. T’lu bit upon his lip. We turned.

That the Tagor still sensed our every action confounded me. Yet, sense us it did. With lowered head and feral screams it charged, arrow straight, those crunching jaws working frantically in the bloody stump of its butchered head.

This time, without provocation from T’lu, I sidestepped the heavy snap of that rubbery neck. The bloodied poll bounced off the cavern wall. The Tagor bellowed in rage, then wailed in pain as my longsword sheared through its sinewy muscle.

Convulsed horribly the beast pulled back and then rose upward, incredibly swift. While I, frozen to the hilt of my blade, hung as Ahab hung to the whale, suspended twenty kota above the surface of Tamor, doused in the blood and gore that gushed from the mangled throat of the Tagor.

The saurian lunged forward. The cavern walls rushed at me. My breathing stopped. Too inane or too insane to take leave of my weapon, I twisted in the wind of that wild ride helpless to do more than hold on and brace for the bone-crushing collision of man, wall, and Tagor. That impact triumphed where common sense had failed.

Separated me from my sword, I hit the bosom of Tamor with the flat of my back, a surface as unforgiving as the rock face of the Val Ponada. Stunned, with all vestige of air ripped from my breast, I sank quickly. A panic of recent memory wrapped my heart, a terror so acute that it surmounted any transient fear of snapping jaws and battering black body. Legs kicking, arms pushing, I sputtered to the surface prepared to embrace the Tagor rather than drown. Eyes awash in a mix of blood and brine, I sought my adversary.

“If you have finished bathing, we can eat. There is nothing so tasty as Tagor.”

T’lu stood upon the riverbank grinning mightily, one leg placed high on the neck of a very dead monster. I clambered from the chilling waters and scrutinized the dead saurian in alternate shock and disbelief while a happy T’lu hacked large steaks from its exposed flank. I would note in passing the Tagor was bipedal with elongated flippers as a seal, exceeding proficient propellers in water but useless on land.

“Retrieve your sword,” T’lu declared with earnest. “We must get away from here quickly.”

As if in answer to T’lu’s urgency, Tamor churned. Saurian stench easily separated from the reeking carcass at my feet filled the cavern. A blood-red orb topped the unplumbed depths, seeking and searching.

“Death demands an audience,” T’lu quoted from an unknown I’bar as, with the suddenness of a summer storm, this new Tagor fixed on our position and, screaming shrilly, charged.

I sometimes wish that Nature had considered quieter carnivore. My head ached.

Casting an eye back over my shoulder as T’lu and I made our hasty retreat, I saw that a second and third beast had surfaced, but they did not pursue. Vengeance played no part in this fresh gathering of monsters that closed upon their gutted kin in a cannibalistic feast at once nauseating and enthralling.

“Only a Tagor is enough meat to fill a Tagor,” T’lu philosophized. “What the creatures of Ana need, Ana provides.”

We retraced our steps through the subterranean passage until the growls and whistles of the feeding beasts faded into a welcomed silence.

“Now,” T’lu said joyfully coming to rest, “we eat like proper warriors.”

I marveled at T’lu. Since our meeting, in the forced confinement of the Kiida prison, we had passed through adventures to fuel ten lifetimes, yet here he was, electrified by the prospect of a choice meal. With our bits of flint and moss for fuel, we soon had our fire and our dinner. T’lu was right about the Tagor steak, it was delicious; and we badly needed solid sustenance. I had had enough roots and bushes for twenty lifetimes.

 “So, what now?” I asked patting my stomach and leaning back upon my elbows, mellow in the warmth of the fire.

“We sleep,” T’lu offered with a smile.

“Not what I meant and you know it. The banks ended back there,” I jerked my head rearwards along the Tamor. “The bank, but not the river.”


“Meaning we need a canoe.” I used the Jatoran equivalent, an aerlor.

“Perhaps,” T’lu answered thoughtfully. “Or, perhaps somewhere between here and the Ana forsaken hole through which we fell, the doorway to Amata awaits. As I said, for now we will do as the I’bar of P’go suggests.”

I arched my brows in question.

“P’go was boy from a small farming village on the Mu Rala, who, as his parents tilled their gardens, wondered into the mazes of the Mu Derj and became lost. The story goes that his parents searched and searched, beating the brush and crying his name until they themselves became lost, never to return. When the elders of the village entered the parent’s hut, they found P’go asleep in his bed, where he had been the entire time. You see P’go had not wandered into the woods at all. Bored of work, as child might become, he had gone home. It was his parents who had assumed the worst, drew the wrong conclusion, and became lost.”

I smiled sleepily at the I’bar. T’lu returned my smile, saying, “Perhaps when rested, opportunities will present themselves, Kdal.” He paused, voice growing dark and cautious. “While uncertain of great deal, Kdal, I am positive of two things. The first is I will never again look upon the face of Emo unless it is from the Valley of Amata.”

“And the other?”

“Neither will you!”

I laughed. With my stomach full, and my nerves settled by the warm fire, optimism came easy.

“Trust, Ana?” I asked with a smile.

T’lu grinned impishly and poked my ribs with a long forefinger. “You have found her disappointing?”

I offered no rebuttal.

“Tell me, Kdal,” T’lu asked with a stifled yawn, stretching out on the mossy carpet of the cavern, “how do the petty problems of Jatora measure against those other worlds of yours?”

It has never been easy to explain Gray Allen, my wild immortality and improbable jousts with time and space. My lives are an intricate puzzle filled with missing pieces. Destinies that intertwine, visited by the shadows of worlds barely recalled; talking with the ghosts of lives fleetingly lived. It has always been thus for Mecca, Bodine, Falsworth and all the others. It is for Gray Allen, in the path, the home life, to remember it all.

However, those are my thoughts now, writing this tale. Upon Jatora, T’lu’s question went unanswered as Kdal drifted into welcomed sleep. All that tired, golden warrior of Jatora knew was that what ever else tomorrow held, it brought him one day closer to the golden girl with the emerald eyes.


My subconscious heard it first.

I awoke, but lay deathly still, listening. It repeated. Decidedly more distinct, the splash of oars moving our direction. I roused T’lu with a hushed word of warning. Like all that wished to live a long life on a hostile world, he awoke cognizant of his surroundings, battle ready.

Forty or fifty kotan ahead the river curled. Lying flattened to the mossy bank, we watched breathlessly as ripples of water broke round that bend in advance of a large, double-ended craft, my first view of a Jatoran aerlor. I was borne a comparison to a small bireme, sans sail.

Stem to stern, it measured forty feet. Construction consisted of the oily skin of some dark beast stretched across hollowed logs carefully ribbed and bound together by cord and pitch. The belly of the craft accommodated twelve rowers, banked in pairs, with oars extended over, not through, the gunwale. The rowers were warriors of the Odanal, members of the varied races already familiar to me. However, on the prow, and on a large, squared platform hinged across the scimitar-like upsweep of the stern, stood the others.

Two stood on the stern. A third sat before a leather-skinned drum and hammered the dismal cadence the rowers followed. A fourth, that I assumed had command, posed on the prow of the aerlor with (to me) a pompous, affected sense of self-importance. All wore the standard armament of Jatora, which the Bujan enhanced with wicked looking whips lashed to their harnesses on red-metal hooks. There, all similarities to the Odanal ended.

How to describe these beings? To call them Men riled my tongue. To call them Beasts lent them a dignity they did not deserve.      Squat, muscular, and hairy, the one on the prow had a grizzled, brown mane and beard that enclosed an improbable face. The left eye looked normal, but the right eye rolled in an endless orbit that neither paused nor focused. A single protruding incisor, more a fang than tooth, angled out from pendulous lips. Only when that swollen mouth opened, did more teeth appear. Cracked and yellowed tombstones without discernible placement or direction. Its right hand had two thumbs. The other three creatures possessed equally obscene but individual disfigurements, descriptions of which I shall forgo.

Each wore a colored cape draped down their backs and like colored egg-shaped stones about their necks. The varying hues signified rank. The one on the prow, in red cape and pendant, was a Sor Van or sergeant. The green colors of the other three denoted their status as pavan.

Though I had heard Land’s story of Syjal and sat mesmerized through T’lu’s recital of the I’bar of Jatora, neither had prepared me for my first glimpse of flesh-and-gopal Bujan, the misshapen and misbegotten minions of Ksanj.

The aerlor drew near. With a pain that spoke to the inherited Odanal blood pulsing in my veins, I observed the human element chained to the oars, bending to the Bujan drum. Podar, the slaves of Jatora, men of many races thrown together in common bandage, their backs covered in red welts lain on by Bujan whips.

My heart grew heavy and yet I saw vitality in the eyes of these men of the Odanal, a spark undiminished by their condition. If they but knew the Dulara O’Odanal lay a stone throw from their craft, I knew they would rise-up and turn on their oppressors in a heartbeat.

This then, is what I felt. What T’lu felt I could only guess from the knotted muscles of his back, the quick breaths sucked through lips pulled tight as the skins that lined the aerlor.

The ship pulled swiftly passed us on its way up the cavern. I tired to rise, to give pursuit, but T’lu held my arm, pulling me down. “Wait, let them pass.”

When the aerlor had disappeared safely out of view, T’lu rose saying only, “Now!”

At a discreet distance, we padded softly behind the aerlor, the rhythmic dip of its oars distinctive in the serene confines of that subterranean world. We trailed for a considerable distance when suddenly we heard the Bujan Sor Van give the command to S’ti. Our pace quickened. A last twist in the river brought the aerlor into view for a second time, at rest against the sleek rock walls on the opposite side of the river.

Dropped prone behind a few small rocks, minimal cover that it afforded, T’lu and I became interested spectators of what followed.

The Bujan Sor Van, his behemoth head gyrating upon his thick neck, leaned forward and reached into a narrow crevice. He jerked back upon something hidden within that fissure and slowly, noiselessly, a section of the wall slid sideways revealing an upwardly sloped passage. The Bujan whips cracked and the podar propelled the aerlor through the mysterious doorway. A moment later the opening shut. Once more leaving T’lu and I alone and stunned upon the banks of the Black River Tamor.

“Well,” I said with a large grin spreading my face. “It would seem we have found P’go.”

T’lu laughed, but his next words, by their composure and insight, showed the full measure of this leader of men with whom Fate had paired me.

“Your jest holds a greater wisdom, Kdal. If there is any assumption to be drawn, it must be that Ksanj has anticipated this day. That someone, man or army, by chance or exploit, would happen upon this trail to Amata and attempt to follow it. There will be guards and traps; no obstacle is beyond imagination. We will need to keep our wits about us.”

“You intend to commandeer the next aerlor through here and endeavor to reach the city.” It was a statement not a question. T’lu nodded.

“You saw the men piloting that last boat. Odanal, warriors of Jatora, their backs bowed but unbroken. With a good aerlor and the men who row her, we would have both a way in and a way out of Amata!”

T’lu fell silent and he began to pace, lost in thought.

“By now, Land has returned to the K’al Kadre Mor. He will find the horrors K’Aldan has wrought and, assuming us dead, will follow my orders. He will intercept the armies of Sojas, Loer, and Tlast and lead the war on Randak. Ksanj will send the Hisl. Thousands will die and there is nothing I can do unless . . .”

“Unless we find the Dulara Olana.”

“Her presence would unify the city. Randak could not hold power against a true daughter of the Blood. My duty is to bring the Dulara home and, Ana willing, show the Odanal the way to Amata!”

“Our duty,” I corrected.

“So be it! Then understand this.” T’lu accented every word with a fierce, underlying strength of purpose. “We succeed Kdal, we rescue the Dulara Olana from the den of Ksanj, from a city lost to men of Blood for three thousand years, and we rip the heart from the T’ala T’sol. His stranglehold of terror is no more! We do this, and the people of Jatora see Ksanj is neither invincible nor invulnerable. With Amata found, I could make a new appeal to the Agala, the Camtar, to every race upon Jatora. They would join us in a fighting force unlike any before. A force that would drive Ksanj from Amata upon the point of his own sword!”

In those heated words, I saw the crucible hung upon T'lu's shoulders, an inheritance of hate driving every man of the blood. A burden to which T’lu added the sacrifice of his brothers upon the slopes of the Val Ponada. I wondered to his objectivity. Could he, when the crucial moment came, make the right choices? Would judgment win out over his passion for revenge?

I need not have worried. The fire in T’lu cooled into a self-effacing grin as he offered, “Though before I save all Jatora, I must beg a ride in a Bujan aerlor.”

I knew then that T’lu fully understood the dangers ahead. Further, he had judged those risks both necessary and acceptable. Nor did he turn a hair knowing death was the inescapable payment for failure.

In ten minutes, we hatched our plan. In fifteen, T’lu slept. Jatorans seemed possessed of a remarkable facility to sleep when time suggested a conservation of strength prudent. For me, such objective detachment proved a tougher pill to swallow. Contemplation of the journey ahead, the anticipation of adventures beyond the ken of my collective memory, toyed with my composure. With a groan formed in the eternal disquiet I toil to keep buried, I forswore sleep. Choosing instead to maintain a dreary watch over Tamor while T’lu snored.

I retraced our footsteps from the Kiida compound to the precipice of this final adventure. As I had followed my Destiny through the hauntingly beautiful Mu Derj, T’lu had followed his East along the Val Ponada.  We each sought the golden girl with the emerald eyes, but for vastly different reasons. I pursued a memory of soft hands and blushing cheeks. T’lu sought a sacrosanct princess and the hope of a world. Still, at day’s end, our goals stood united.

I must have dosed, though I have no memory of falling asleep. I roused when, once more, the sound of oars splashing in the cold waters of Tamor touched my ears. I turned to nudge T’lu but found him awake and ready, stretched flat upon the riverbank with his longsword and dagger drawn. Our plans made, I rose in plain view of the approaching craft, arms waving.

I observed this aerlor to be a duplicate of the first, the complement of podar and Bujan being equal. The Sor Van, a bull with a great mass of black beard, had all his fingers. In fact, he possessed several extra. Spying me through lopsided eyes roughly north and south of each other but fully functional, though the south-eye, having no lid, never shut, the Bujan commander shouted an order. The podar responded with a lateral sweep of their oars. The aerlor swung toward the bank.

 “Where is your Vopodar?” the Sor Van growled. His inflection smacked of some impediment invisible through his forest of facial hair. “Podar are not permitted outside Amata without their guard.”

“We are not podar, Vektal!”


To his credit, the Sor Van grasped the import of my words immediately and reached for his sword. He died reaching for that weapon, T’lu’s dagger jangling as near the center of those beastly eyes as its deformities allowed.

Our own swords reflecting coolly off the ebony waters of Tamor, T’lu and I hurtled the short distance from bank to aerlor full into the ugly faces of the astonished Bujan.

It was a battle swiftly begun and swiftly ended. For scarce had our feet touched wood then a spreading tree of a man, a redheaded Hercules crying out, “For T’lu! For T’lu of Amata!” rose in his seat and, seizing a Bujan guard about the waist and throat, hoisted the squealing, misshapen thing over his head and tossed it overboard.

The mutiny launched the men rose as one. A second and third Bujan splashed into the brine. From the Sor Van dead at my feet, the podar ripped a key that passed quickly from hand to hand. Following the lead of the redheaded Colossus, the warriors dumped the Sor Van overboard to the rattle of metal chains falling free upon the wooden boards.

Suddenly, the black poll of a huge Tagor surfaced alongside our craft, the tattered pieces of a Bujan clenched between bloody teeth. Then another and another, now fighting each other for the remnants of Bujan bodies. The orgy lasted a minute, no more, and then the beasts slipped beneath the water and disappeared. Tamor rippled, calmed, then floated at peace.

The drama passed, the giant redhead prostrated himself at the feet of T’lu.

“Falja of D’Nota offers his life to the O’Odanal of Jatora!”

I thought of the sunlight breaking the protracted darkness of the Kiida prison. I compared it to the exuberance of these long-suffering warriors pressing forward with a furor that threatened to capsize the aerlor, fighting to kneel before their King, crying aloud for the downfall of Ksanj and the resurrection of Amata. T’lu, as was his way, would have none of it.

“Your eagerness is welcomed, but misplaced warriors of the Odanal. There is no conquering army here, just two tired warriors. Two pavan in need of help.”

“Then you will have it, my Dular.”

A man, slim and wiry, graying at the temples, emerged from the compacted group of celebrating warriors. At sight of him, T’lu cried out in genuine delight and surprise.

“Hifel! By the Aal of my father!”

Hifel, the Thief-evar from Syjal, and the man Land recounted as leader of the Odanal opposed to Randak.

A sinister premonition traveled my spine. If Hifel were here, in the underground caverns of Tamor, in the chains of a podar, then something monstrous had happened in Syjal. Something foreboding of which T’lu and I had no knowledge.

T’lu read my thoughts, or perhaps simply had those thoughts of his own.

“It would seem, Hifel, we have much to discuss. Come, pavans, row us to shore that we may sit and talk.”

We had drifted toward the center of the river. It took only a moment to correct our course and regain the bank. The aerlor had a bow rope, which a warrior made fast by planting a confiscated sword point down in the earth. Disembarked, the men gathered in a rough circle to listen to their Dular and enjoy these first, precious moments of freedom.

T’lu introduced me to Hifel. Wisdom resided in those keen, gray eyes, and there was a competence to his wiry frame difficult to discount despite his advanced years. I liked Hifel immediately, and the big D’Notan, Falja.

T’lu advised Hifel on what Land had related, and our adventures hence. The thief-evar listened intently, nodding as the tale went along. Occasionally he bridged the gaps, but mostly remained quiet until the telling fell to him.

“After Land departed Syjal, Mose continued my interrogation.” Hifel, who impressed me as both intelligent and feisty, took a moment to spit. “He then placed me under arrest, secreted out of Syjal, and flown to Amata. There, brought before Ksanj.”

“For what purpose?” T’lu asked quickly.

“To cover a weakness in his sword, my Dular.”

T’lu leaned forward. A wicked light set in his eyes.

“Go on.”

Hifel inhaled slightly, rubbing at his nose, gathering his thoughts.

“The empire of the T’ala T’sol has grown too large for him to manage, and his insipid Bujan too belligerent to be trusted.”

“Too belligerent?” T’lu echoed. “I do not understand.”

“Even a krekal can grow tired with his lot and desire better.”

“There is revolt amongst the Bujan?”

“Revolt is perhaps too strong. There is dissension and therein lies the growing problem for Ksanj. Make no mistake, my Dular. Ksanj’s intellect is staggering. His grasp of the sciences dwarfs all contemporaries. But, brilliant as he may be in those disciplines, he is not an efficient governor.”

Hifel detailed how the immense boundaries and populations under the tyrant’s subjugation had moved beyond Ksanj’s powers of administration.

“Hunger and disease permeate his domain. The people are desperate, and where there are desperate people there are desperate acts. Even amongst the Bujan.”

I thought of the prophetic wisdom of K’si and Vopar and pondered the idea of Bujan that aspired to be more than Ksanj would allow, and an I’bar of Gray Allen’s world, the one of Lucifer fallen into the pits.

“What Hifel says is true, my Dular,” Falja added. “I have been here many lur laboring in the fields around Amata, sailing aerlors to the sea. Mutiny amongst the Bujan grows as sure as flowers under Emo. Today, it is but boisterous swagger. But tomorrow, swords may be drawn.”

“And all this has pressured Ksanj to move against Syjal while he still can.” T’lu concluded. “Once in control of Syjal, he can buy back Bujan subordination with wealth and position, enough to satiate this new found ambition of theirs.”

Hifel agreed.

At once, T’lu’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly did Ksanj want from you Hifel.”

Hifel let his own eyes narrow. “I think you know. A quick victory; he wants Syjal to capitulate. Lacking you, he expected me to convince her.”

“Olana!” T’lu cried. He leaped to his feet, drawing his sword as if there were bodies to cut and vengeance to take. He turned to me, eyes wide with a wild light. “We were right Kdal. She is in Amata! And alive!”

“Yes, Olana is here,” Hifel sadly acknowledged, gently taking his King’s hand and drawing him down to earth. “A prisoner in a pit of sisks. Take care, my Dular. There is much that you do not know, nor understand.  A blind man tests the road before him.”

“I know the I’bar, Hifel,” T’lu shot back. “What is it you are trying to say.”

“I have seen the road. The Amata you seek is not the Amata of your dreams, the Halm and glory of that city died three thousand years ago. You must prepare yourself for  . . .”

“Amata is Amata,” T’lu interrupted. Hifel smiled with that condescending light we all permit our elders and dropped his argument. It was then that I chose to speak.

“We saw another aerlor pass through a concealed passage, there.” I pointed. Falja responded.

“Yes, there are many hidden passages like that one along the river. They lead to the docks beneath the city. That particular entrance runs directly to the main dock, a channel vigorously patrolled.”

“Could we get through?” T’lu pressed.

“We would be boarded and killed,” spoke up a burly Syjalan warrior seated next to Falja.

“Turl, is right. It would be suicide to run the open channels.”

“Is there another way?” T’lu asked of Falja. “Secondary corridors perhaps.”

“There are side channels, dotted with caves used for storage, but none that do not return to the main channel.”

I stood up and went to the aerlor. I snatched up an object that lay discarded in the prow where it had fallen during the brief mutiny. All eyes upon me, I draped the flowing purple robe over my shoulders and smiled broadly.

The warriors laughed, maybe for the first time in a long while.

“A bold idea, Kdal!” T’lu shouted, grinning at last. “And you are almost ugly enough!”

“We really need four Bujan,” Falja offered. “Although it is not unusual for Bujan not to return from a mission, for one reason or another.” He smiled grimly.

“Perhaps,” T’lu said thoughtfully, “it will be a sufficient deception to win us the outer passages. Once within the inner lesser frequented channels Falja noted, we might find a Bujan or two willing to aide our venture.”

All understood that daring statement; and the danger implied. Yet it was a plan with a chance for success, albeit slim.

“But he does not look anything like a Bujan, even from far away,” hollered a warrior. In answer, a second redheaded fellow stood and spoke.

“My name is Baldan. I was a rensol (barber would be the closest equivalent) in Derhetti. I could make a Bujan of Kdal. With moss for hair and beard and a little fungus for skin coloring, he would pass. Not all Bujan are as deformed as the group we threw in the river.”

Good to his word, in little more than an hour, Baldan had transformed me into a fair approximation of a Bujan. It gave the men merriment to see me, though they took pains to keep a distance! The pungent odor of the G’ral, while adding a touch of authenticity to my masquerade, made me stink!

Nor did I mind that I became the butt of their barbs. I endured it readily. The laughter raised their spirits and put color in their cheeks. Though some if not all of us would soon be dead, we did not talk of that, nor care. We were free men of Jatora; anything seemed possible.

Falja noted that, “The best time to make a run for the docks would be when the guard changes, in roughly six hours.”

“Oh, wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Now that I look and smell like a Bujan, I have to sit around for six hours and wait.”

“Sorry,” Falja said through a wide grin. “I did not think to mention it before.”

“A sighted man ought to be able to see the road before him!” I badly misquoted from Hifel’s I’bar, and we all had another good laugh.

“What about encountering other aerlors before we are ready?” T’lu asked.

“We were the last aerlor out this dar, my Dular. There will not be another until the next avandal.”

“Good. Then no more talk. We rest and gather our strength for the journey ahead.”

The order given and met, the caverns of Tamor soon filled with the easy breathing of men in unfettered, unchained dreams. I had no heart for sleep and so sat with T’lu, again keeping watch on the black waters of Tamor. After a few minutes, Hifel rose from the cluster of slumbering Odanal and approached. That he wished an audience with T’lu was clear, as was his hesitation to speak in my presence. I excused myself, but T’lu laid a detaining hand upon my arm.

“Stay. What ever you would say can be said in confidence to my Amar.”

Whether Hifel or I registered the greater shock, I cannot say. Hifel sought no clarification, nor was any forthcoming from T’lu. Though a touch of reticence still played at his eyes, the spirited thief-evar plowed ahead. “I have heard disturbing stories amongst the podar laboring in the fields outside the city, for gossip knows no walls through which it cannot pass.”

“Nor an ear that will not listen,” T’lu added frowning slightly. “The I’bar is steeped in the villainy that strangles our world. What have you heard?”

“Be warned, for what I tell you now goes beyond the simple administrative turmoil that plagues the tyrant. It strikes at the heart of the man. If he has a heart.”

“Speak plainly Hifel; out with it,” T’lu ordered. When he wanted, T’lu could be quite forceful.

“You know that Vok, Nubl, and the others of their ilk are ultimately useless to Ksanj. Only Olana matters.”

T’lu nodded. “The Dulara is the means to all his ends. Coercing her to surrender the Odanal was always the most plausible explanation for her abduction.”

“Yes, but you, I and Ksanj know that even had I acceded to his demands, Olana would never acquiesce.”

 “No, she would die of her own hand before that. There could be no worse fate for a daughter of the Blood than surrender to Ksanj.”

“But there is,” Hifel hissed. “The podar whisper of something more alarming, more disheartening than any mere threat of death or reprisal. They say Ksanj has avowed love to Olana.”

T’lu stiffened as if stabbed in the back. His breath caught in his chest and his fingers clenched, knuckles turning white. Hifel continued.

“Ah but she has spirit my Dular! She has spit in his face and turned her back, declaring, as all who know her would expect, that she would die before surrendering her chastity by force!”

“But that is not the end of it. It never is with Ksanj.”

“No,” Hifel said sadly. “Ksanj has placed a heavy guard over our Dulara, there will be no opportunity for Olana to die before the Jo’ dulak.”

The joining! Ksanj the Usurper and Olana, golden girl with the emerald eyes. I shivered, at once grateful for the darkness of the bank. I heard T’lu balling his hands into fists, cracking the knuckles.


“Sooner than later. More than that I do not know.”

“Then it is more fortunate than ever,” T’lu stated grimly, “that Kdal and I are here.”

Hifel nodded and spat. T’lu put a hand to the old man’s shoulder.

“I have not thanked you, old friend, for guarding the sanctity of the Dulara and the gates of Syjal.”

Hifel replied with a tired smile.

“Would that I was younger! Be warned, my Dular. Randak is a force. The people listen to his council. He has backbone and brains, if not Blood.”

“Blood I will see spilled in the dirt before the city ere this war is over.”

There followed a silence in which each of us contemplated the menace and the moment before us. Then T’lu moved in a new direction.

“How is that we found you here, Hifel, upon Tamor? I would have thought you far too dangerous for Ksanj to spare.”

Hifel smiled. “I appreciate the compliment. However, for the moment, Ksanj finds me more obstinate than dangerous. He thought a few weeks in the docks would soften my resistance. He makes a great pretense of wanting my assistance in developing new agents that will solve his gopal problems. In truth, in view of Olana’s open hostility and threats of self-sacrifice, my role will be that of lever to bend her will. To force Olana into marriage.”

“That does not bother you?” I asked. Hifel smiled ruefully.

“What bothers me is that Ksanj would think a few rough trips in a aerlor would compel to turn V’Koo. He must know I would never yield to such a demand. Therefore, some other malfeasance simmers in his brain for this thief-evar, and that would worry any sane man!”

Hifel rose and moved off to rest amongst his comrades. The lost caverns of Tamor fell into a deep, soul-searching quiet. Each man alone with his thoughts, or dreams. T’lu, of Amata. I, of a pair of sparkling green almond shaped eyes I knew belonged to the Dulara Olana of Syjal, a truth against which I struggled with perplexing insistence.

“Dulara or not, in Amata or not,” I thought as the lapping waters of the river Tamor drifted me into dreamless slumber, “I shall scour Jatora until the fire burns and life ends to find her. Find her and save her, for that is my Destiny and no other Fate comes before it.”

We boarded the aerlor holding no false expectations. We were a handful of rabble setting out to topple an impregnable fortress, rescue a princess, free a world, and reclaim an empire. A fairytale, the stuff of dreams, except that here, upon Jatora, a task deadly real.

“Will not the Bujan miss this aerlor?” I asked of Falja, assuming my weak Bujan impersonation upon the thwart.

“Aerlors get lost,” he answered simply. “The Winds of Ana, the great saurian, and of course the Camtars, are all reasons a ship might never return to Amata. Besides, who cares about a small fishing aerlor? Only the loss of a larger, mast-rigged Gaerlor or Dre’ darnor might warrant a search.”

Falja’s explanation sounded reassuring.

“I would feel better,” Turl joked as he happily took his once hated position behind the oars, “if your ears were in your nose.”

The men laughed and then, with no urging at all, shot the aerlor away from the bank and across to the hidden entrance to Amata. Hifel sprang the lock to the inner passage. The craftily concealed mechanism responded immediately and the passage yawned open, whether inviting or entrapping time would tell.

Falja positioned himself near the bow. T’lu stood upon the stern to give us a semblance of a normal Bujan complement. However, there was nothing Bujan about him, Baldan’s administrations being useless without the cotral, the Bujan accouterments of office, and we had only the one.

“The Bujan would rather die than be seen without their cotral,” Falja explained. “In fact, going forth without your cotral is a serious breach of Halm to the Bujan, often resulting in challenge and death, depending upon the strength and skills of the offending parties.”

I learned that the taking of a cotral, in any manner, elevated the taker to the rank plundered -- promotion in the Bujan army of Ksanj.

The inner passage evidenced numerous diverging corridors. On Falja’s lead, we steered steady in the main channel. The dip of our oars matched the beating of our hearts.

“I am curious, Falja,” I said to the red-haired Goliath, trying to divert my anxiety. “You recognized T’lu so quickly. Have you been to Syjal?”

“Me? No. I am Popodar.” The term loosely meant a born slave. Falja, child of interned parents, had spent his life in servitude. He called himself a Derhettian, but had never been any closer to Derhetti than I. “My mother was from Mopal, my father from Derhetti. Not for one ar did they allow me to forget my birthright, or the Halm of the Odanal.”

“But T’lu . . .”

“There are many skilled artisans amongst us Kdal. The faces of our heritage adorn our writings as well as the I’bars of our world. Though we keep such contraband hidden, as it is death to be discovered, I would have recognized the Dular of Amata in the blackest, foulest pit in all K’al Har.”

We rowed onward. Tamor a black canvas brushed in light reflecting the luminous glow of the mossy caverns. We were alone. Only the steady dip of the oars and the breathing of the men broke the monotony. Then, ahead, the river forked.

 “The right fork leads to the main dock and the city,” Falja announced. “To the left, run the less frequented channels and secondary docks which eventually connect at the main lagoon.”

Orders unnecessary the men rowed left. Once entered, this secondary corridor, cut with numerous arteries, carried the distant drone of voices and the crack of whips. I drew my cotral close to my shoulders to absorb the sweat prickling my skin.

We had swung into a long, slow bend in the channel when, without warning, a vessel stood in our path. It must have emerged from a bisecting corridor, for one second the dark waters lay empty and the next the ship loomed upon us. Evading confrontation was impossible.

From Falja’s description, I recognized the ship as a Gaerlor. Being a trireme, it rose several inches over the gunwale of our smaller, two-banked craft. Besides the prerequisite three-banks of oars lowered through slatted shutters in her hardwood sides, she carried a square-rigged mainmast, single canvassed. Double ended and curved like a Viking Longship, the lines proclaimed the Gaerlor a worthy seagoing vessel. One equal to plowing the great ocean of Jatora; fit to survive the raging Winds of Ana.

The galley of this Bujan trireme held thirty slaves. A Bujan Sor Van stood upon the bow; five of his comrades socialized astern while a dozen more paced the length of the rowing hollow, lashes ready. Again, I will spare you lengthy descriptions for deformed and hideous sufficed for with one notable exception, the Sor Van standing upon the bow. He had a uniform countenance and symmetrical physique that easily separated him from the balance of the Bujan.

I thought of Mose. If less deformed equated to intelligence in a Bujan, this brute promised a challenge. A promise brought quickly to fruition as he hailed us with a demanding, S’ti. A quiet word from T’lu had us bobbing in place as the Gaerlor pulled along side. The Sor Van eyed me intently.

“I am Gald,” he announced, his tongue splitting like a snake. Gald had not escaped all irregularities of the gopal. “That is Jagdar’s aerlor. What happened to Jagdar?”

“Probably dead,” I lied in my best Bujan affectation. “The Winds of Ana caught us and he fell overboard.”

Brazenly, the Bujan’s red-rimmed eyes searched our ship. I imagined all manner of suspicion forming in his loutish brain, a natural predilection under the circumstances.

“Flage and Varnin?”

“They are with another aerlor now,” I responded glibly, praying that Flage and Varnin where the other dispatched Bujan, “they stayed behind to search after Jagdar.”

“Why? No one liked Jagdar very much.”

“They wanted his cotral.”

“Ah!” Gald cried, grinning, adding teeth that looked as broken bones to that snake like tongue. “They are ambitious Bujan. I hope they kill each other.”

With that sobriquet, the Bujan ordered his podar to man their oars. Nor did a soul aboard our tiny craft blink until Gald had pushed around a gentle bend in the river and disappeared. For several minutes we continued to stand upon the water without movement, allowing what we hoped was safe distance between us and the Bujan.

“That piece about the cotral,” Falja offered when we seemed out of harm's way, “brilliant!”

“Inspired maybe,” I joked to cut the dryness in my mouth. “Just be glad Gald did not think to ask just who in K’al Har I was.”

“Be careful of the Bujan,” Falja warned, “Their looks are deceptive. Like a sisk in tall grass, they are not so slow or so stupid as you would want to believe.” He paused. His gaze wandered down river where the silver ripples of Gald’s Gaerlor bubbled upon the black water. “I know Gald. He is both vicious and clever.”

Suddenly, from the spot in the corridor that had taken Gald, accenting Falja’s words, as thunder underscores lightning, a huge trireme emerged. Larger than Gald’s, this new ship had lateen-rigged after-masts on two sides with sixty rowers sitting amidships, and a hundred hideous Hisl lining the gunwales.

She pulled toward us with sweeping strokes. On the prow, urging his rowers to greater speed, his legs splayed over an intricately rendered Qualo-head rising and falling with the pulse of the ship, face locked in a chilling, victorious grin, stood the Bujan Gald!


“Left! Go left! Our only chance is in the smaller branches where Gald might run aground.”

Falja, threatening to capsize us in his anxiety, stood wildly gesturing toward a nearby channel.  At T’lu’s command, we cut across Gald’s bow driven by bold strokes and bolder hopes. Though out manned, propelled by free men pulling their weights, our lighter craft easily outdistanced the larger, slowly turning Gaerlor. In the short sprint, the advantage ours.

We entered the bisecting corridor, the trireme in pursuit. Gald’s entreaty that we surrender drowned in the slap of oars and the grunts of hard breathing men.

The men pulled relying on muscle, heart, and an unbreakable will to win the day. For my part, I wondered to the resolve of the podar pulling Gald’s ship. If they could be made to know they chased the O’Odanal of Jatora! To a man, I knew they would have stowed oars and died ere they rowed another foot.

But those podar, whose arms numbered ten times ours, did not know whom they pursued or the dream they shattered and so Gald the Bujan bore down upon us with alarming speed. The distance closed. The dream faded.

Our single hope lay in the river bottoming out, trapping the Gaerlor in a vice of mud. However, as the watery yards passed, and the river held a steady depth, hope dwindled. At last, under the shadow of the trireme, T’lu made his decision, pointing forward to a bend in the channel.

“Men of the Odanal, we will hold our position there. Gald will follow. When he does, we shall board and take his ship!”

The men cheered, their optimism fueled by their years of slavery. A realist would have prayed for divine intervention. We had no chance. T’lu knew it. I knew it. In truth, we all knew it. It held no meaning. If death was at hand, it was death with Halm, as free men unchained and unfettered.

We shot around the rocky outcropping, pulled our oars from the water and made ourselves ready. Gritty, determined, primed to board Gald in a fight to the death with but six swords and handful of daggers against the hundred Hisl that waited. To the last soul, we were ready. Three thousand years of war had prepared the Odanal as a thousand lifetimes in a thousand immortal souls had prepared Gray Allen.

Our craft lilted with the current, the wash of the approaching Gald rocking us backward so that we slipped beyond the outline of the prominence. At once, Hifel rose as though pierced through the heart, his face ashen with consternation.

“We are lost!”

Behind us stretched a golden beach, crushing hope. Rows, or vidors, of aerlors dotted the sandy peninsula fronted by a great wooden quay. Large caches of weapons and supplies surrounded cooking fires and forges tended by teams of shackled podar watched by Bujan guards and the ever-present Hisl.

We had found the docks of Amata!

Another day, a discovery of unparalleled importance in the struggles of Jatora, this day, an ill-fated end to T’lu’s attempt to breach the city of his forefathers. The desperately strung bow of Chance snapped clean, arrows spent, quiver emptied, the chase ended.

Ahead came Gald. Behind, a hundred soulless, insect-eyed Hisl boarded aerlors and Gaerlors of all sizes and configurations. T’lu faced the cul-de-sac Fate had thrown upon us stoically. To my surprise, he eased his longsword back into its sheath. Nor did I at first understand the cold, calculating light that lit his eyes.

“Falja, will they accept our surrender?”

“I would rather die than . . .

“I did not ask you that!” T’lu thundered back. “I asked would they accept surrender?”

“They will.”

“Then we surrender. Enough brave men have died at my expense. There will be no more deaths today!” A grim smile spread his handsome face. “I wanted to reach Amata, let the Bujan take me there.”

T’lu’s bravado entertained a certain pragmatic wisdom. In death, we gained nothing. In surrender, hope survived. We lived. While Gray Allen lived, possibilities abounded.

Gald pulled alongside, screaming orders, cursing friend and foe with equal vigor. My disguise lay in a heap at my feet. I paid little attention to his vitriol save one pronouncement that caught my ear.

“When Ksanj learns I have captured T’lu of Amata, I shall be the most important Bujan in Amata.”

From the first, that Cretan had recognized T’lu. Perhaps from those treasured artifacts and writings Falja thought secreted and safe. I swore never to underestimate a Bujan again.

The naming of the Dular O’Odanal had the effect I had predicted. However, any advantage it might have brought us was lost. The podar rattled their chains and sought to rip the links from the wooden rings. They shouted and cried, ignoring the Bujan who laid hard lash to naked skin. Fearless Bujan, because they knew they those chains would not break.

Surrounded by aerlors and bristling Hisl spears, we, reckless plunderers of Amata, herded into the aerlors amassed alongside our surrendered ship, squatted at the feet of the podar rowers form whom we garnered many a wide-eyed stare. Rowers who would have died at their posts had not T’lu nodded quietly, his eyes urging them to conceded the inevitable and tend to their oars

I found myself with T’lu and Falja in Gald’s aerlor. As for Gald, the pretentious Bujan swaggered along the quarterdeck rail like the Votag that had swallowed the K’ris! A smile of that split tongue and broken teeth that turned his otherwise neutral features into a grinning mask of imbecility. Pledges and good intentions aside, I had to keep telling myself Gald was not as stupid as he looked, but a dangerously clever opponent who had outfoxed the foxes. He had spotted T’lu and said nothing. Nor had he been over zealous in his actions. Resourcefully marshaling his forces and planning his assault in an attack well conceived and flawlessly executed.

Kdal of Jatora began to understand the deep sense of dread and loathing the Odanal held for these malformed creatures. I recalled the early pity their prosaic origins had generated in my breast. An ambiguity lost before Gald’s gloating prance.

They were Bujan; they were the enemy. They needed to die.

Falja sat between T’lu and I. He leaned close to his Dular, speaking in a hushed whisper.

“Be careful, my Dular. Gald has brought a V’Koo amongst us.”

T’lu’s eyes flashed. His lips framed two, silent words. “Show me.”

Falja’s surreptitious gaze targeted a man seated at the oars, near the stern. An immediate aversion welled in me; the first Jatoran so met.

The man under scrutiny had flaming red-hair cropped close to his head that, unlike Falja’s long locks, detracted rather than enhanced his features. Narrow, furtive eyes and thin white lips that smiled but showed no mirth tightened the discordant knot in my stomach. For, though slouched over oars, he showed neither blisters nor scars. His appearance was soft, his skin pasty. Naught about him suggested prolonged exposure to the rigorous labors of an aerlor podar.

“A kinsman, Falja?” I whispered.

 “In appearance only. His name is Horas.” Falja spit the appellation. “Once a powerful thief in D’Nota, when the city fell he fawned before Ksanj seeking privilege and favor in return for his caedar.” Soul would be the closest translation. “The mealy sisk is worse than any Bujan.”

 “Why is he not dead?” T’lu whispered bluntly.

“It will happen, someday,” Falja offered quietly. “But this V’Koo has made himself a place beside Ksanj. Were Horas to disappear, so would many brave men. Their families left to face terrible retribution.”


The hair at the nape of my neck stood upright. The fleeting images that played in my head sent cold shudders racing along my spine. Family! Yet, why should I feel surprise? It only bore testimony to what I have always known. The indomitable will of humanity is a steady rain that grows love and hope even in the foulest garden of despair.

Unintentionally, my eyes lingered on Horas. Warned by that strange sixth sense common to rodents everywhere, his head snaked about. Our eyes met. The seeds of mutual distrust sewn, I had my first enemy among the peoples of Jatora.

Rebirth is so languidly optimistic. How easily I imagined all Jatorans as simple, honest, and handsome. Reality is always more diverse, more dangerous.

We had reached the docks where a great commotion stirred. News of T’lu’s advent into the underground of Amata had preceded the returning ships, carried by the currents of Tamor. The murmur in the air was palpable.

“It will spread like grain in the wind,” Falja spoke softly. “There will be a great demonstration; many will suffer.”

“None more than I,” T’lu said quietly. “None more than I!”

This great Dock of Amata was actually an island of about a hundred yards in circumference. A sturdy wooden bridge, rope secured and peg driven, curved upward from the golden sands, over the water, and into a long tunnel I assumed lead to the city. Under that bridge, Tamor disappeared into the mossy face of the inner Val Ponada. Across this avenue traversed teams of podar and their ubiquitous Vopodar. I estimated five hundred men and women crowded onto the island, continually moving, working under the brutal demands of their Bujan guards.

The Hisl aerlors pulled into long wooden quays thrusting out from the inner crescent of the island. Some were full, but most stood empty awaiting the triumphant return of the Bujan. Through some foggy, arrhythmic recess of my mind, I heard the moan and grind of the buckling timbers as the aerlors harbored and moored. To me, they cried for the vanquished Odanal.

Reluctant podar shuffled forward and swung metal grapnels over the ship’s rails. Precision movement that offered me grave speculation on the extent and might of Ksanj’s Avedor. I turned to Falja with a question, the nature of which I cannot recall for immediately the hot sting of a raw lash bit into my left shoulder.

A stain of blood creased my chest; it was slight and I swallowed the urge to wince. If my attacker sought reaction, he needed to look elsewhere. I turned my head and faced the sneering, glowering Gald.

“Talking is not permitted.”

A slight fleck of foam tinted his colorless lips. I added a marker to the debt owed this Bujan. Silently, I plotted his death.

The nose of our craft crunched dully to the dock. Podar swarmed our bow, tying the trireme down. I observed their ankle chains with grim tolerance of T’lu’s order, swearing inwardly that Kdal of Jatora would never suffer those bonds of humiliation.

As a blanket of heavy air, an aura of excitement covered the golden sands and lapping waters. I felt it keenly, as did all the Odanal. Even the Bujan stood uneasy restlessly playing with their whips, troubled by that which they could not see but only feel. I smiled. What could they do about air? Only the soulless, unfeeling Hisl seemed immune to the impending drama.

When T’lu, Dular O’Odanal, rose to his full height in the center of the Gaerlor, that crackling current of expectation ignited. Like flames leaping from the wood it consumes, the repressed anguish of the long-suffering podar of Amata set the underground world of Amata afire. In its roar, I stood humbled and breathless.

T’lu, arms folded across his chest, absorbed the cheers and the tears of his people in stony dignity. None dared intrude. The Bujan milled about like fatted cattle, gawking and blinking. A few cracks of their whips, a few well-placed commands to the Hisl, and the demonstrations stop. However, they did none of these things, for they were as overwhelmed as their podar, if for vastly different reasons.

No wonder!

Men fell to their knees and wept openly. Tears that ran a crooked course through the forlorn that scarred their faces. Emboldened by the apathetic Bujan, they clanged their chains and chanted, “T’lu! T’lu!”

My heart welled. Within the collective memory, the constant struggle of men to be free of other men rolled by in endless waves of time and space. Why can civilization be of one mind? When will jealousy and animosity against our fellow souls end? Must it be war and slavery, death and retribution down the ages to the final extinction?

We hate each other though sprung from a long forgotten common ancestor. Blind to light of peace and fellowship. Deaf to the whispering winds of Time and all the worthless bigotry it has seen.

Ksanj, his experiments, his madness, his creations and his revenge while outlasting many of his ilk known to my immortal being, was still but a stone in the water. Time, dissolution, always proved the final victor. No man outlived his hate – not even the T’ala T’sol. Even the highest mountain must one day become a hill of sand.

Finally, Gald cast off the trance thrown by the one true Dular of Amata. He started bellowing. “The podar will follow Gald to the city.”

T’lu smiled grimly as the Hisl pressed about him. With quick, proud steps, he crossed the wooden quay, the creek of the boards and the whoosh of the water lost in the cries and clatter of people and chains. He moved with clarity of purpose that confused his slow-witted captors, across the golden sands toward the bridge to Amata. A stride vested with the grace of a Votag and the dignity of a Qualo that had his captors scrambling to keep pace.

Gald shouted at T’lu to S’ti, to which the Dular grinned in open defiance.

Joined by Hifel, who had disembarked from a second aerlor, Falja and I fell in and marched in our leader’s wake. The Bujan, slowly repossessed of their bluster, summarily began whipping, punching, and kicking at the chained men and women who surged forward to touch T’lu as he passed, belated reprisals that neither restored order nor dampened enthusiasm.

At the bridge, Gald detailed a Hisl detachment to prevent an ill-advised attempt of the podar to follow our procession to the city. If the Bujan feared insurrection, Gald did not say as much aloud, but I had a suspicion the fear loitered in his thoughts. An idea to nurture for another time.

Never breaking stride, T’lu lead the avan of Hisl and Bujan while an absurdly assertive Gald kept shrieking, “S’ti, S’ti!” Supplications T’lu ignored, his gait continuing undiminished.

The voices of his people receded and fell behind. Ahead, sunlight nibbled upon the lorqua fashioned shadows. At once, Gald abandoned his efforts to slow T’lu and raced ahead of the avan and out of view.

“He goes to find his Van,” Hifel said, spitting at the earth.

With the sunlight came warmth mixing with the tunnel damp. A faint scent of fresh air met our nostrils and at last, T’lu evidenced the raw emotion chewing at this stomach. He stopped. Attuned to the cadence he had set, our procession came to an abrupt and awkward halt. He motioned me to his side and with Gald absent, none emerged to prevent that action.

“Remember my words, Kdal?” T’lu hissed. “That I would never see the light of Emo again unless standing in the Valley of Amata?” He sucked in quick gasps of air and would have said more, but for the whip snapped across his back.

Like a dull blade through course stubble, it left a jagged wound and a thin trickle of blood. Apparently, someone amongst these pathetic things had found a backbone. I turned. A huge Bujan Sor Van limped forward. An ogre with a nose spread half across his face and a left foot so ridiculously mismatched that it forced the aforementioned limp.

“Why did you stop? Grod gave no order to stop. Keep moving.”

T’lu ignored the Bujan. He met his vainglorious posturing with a level gaze that acknowledged no pain. The Bujan edged closer with a wicked smile pulled back over yellowed and broken teeth spotted around a thick, black tongue.

In their own, perverted fashion, the Bujan were individuals. They shared the deformities of their gopal and their subservience to Ksanj, but there the commonalties ended. As the humans from whom they spawned, they had a diversity of character and a propensity for cunning and guile that warranted constant vigilance. I thought again of Falja’s warning about Bujan intelligence. I remembered Gald and my own pledge of alertness and drew ready.

“Move!” Grod cried flicking the end of his whip against the tunnel floor. Then I opened my foolish mouth.

“Try your lash on me, krekal!”

One could hear the air sucked from the tunnel. Pulled by invisible hands, every head turned my direction. I concentrated on Grod.

Some opponents view combat as a chance to talk, to offer a sermon on the human condition before attempting to riddle your body with sword holes, not Grod. Like the mad bull he resembled he pawed the ground, snorting phlegm through his contorted nostrils, his already ruddy complexion burning bright orange. Whip and sword forgotten, he came for me with bulging arms ready to crush and kill, ready but not able.

I slipped his awkward charge and planted a right hand to his disfigured jaw. He dropped like a stone. The podar gasped and, to my surprise, the pressing cordon of Bujan soldiery laughed uproariously as Grod staggered to his feet spitting teeth I doubted he would miss.

Uncouth tongue lolling against the bloodied crease of his broken jaw like a panting dog, his discomfort and embarrassment evident, Grod’s eyes swept the hideous faces of his peers. With a bellow that would do justice to a Tagor, he lowered his head and charged again, with the same disastrous results. The podar cheered and the Bujan roared their mirthless laughter.

For a third time, Grod rushed me. For a third time I buckled his knees and sent him to the ground with a solid uppercut.

“Stay down!” I shouted.

Grod spat an unintelligible epithet from his broken mouth and climbed drunkenly to his feet, one meaty hand going for his longsword. I crouched, prepared.


A new avan of Bujan and Hisl advanced lead by Gald and a tall Bujan officer. He wore the black cotral of a Van; a strain of color that ebbed into his cold, derisive voice, augmented by a vicious scar upon the left side of his neck. At his order, a ring of Hisl spears ended my lopsided confrontation with Grod. I turned. Even a first blush, I perceived symmetry of form in this newcomer a notch above Gald that I accounted a danger.

“Grod, explain!”

“Van Flar,” Grod mumbled thickly through his broken jaw, “this podar struck me. It is my Halm to kill him.”

Matters of honor amongst the Bujan dominated their culture. It dictated their every independent action. Individual status in what I came to see as an elaborate and well ordered Bujan society rested upon the maintenance of Halm. It determined power and how wielded.

Lacking a true monetary system, the Bujan defined wealth by how many cotrals they accrued and the numbers of podar they commanded, podar over whom they had absolute power of life and death with one significant exception. Killing a slave in another Bujan’s podaren evoked the ultimate ke’halm, dishonor, unless, of course, you were invited to do so.

“He attacked the Dular,” I said rather foolishly in my defense. Stupidity properly rewarded when Flar turned and struck me across the mouth with the back of his hand.

“There is only one Dular in Amata,” he said pointing a menacing finger at T’lu. “And it is not him!”

I wiped the blood from my lips. T’lu’s eyes fell hard upon me in an unspoken plea. I sheathed my fury and fell silent. One day, I would kill Flar, and Grod, and Gald, and every other Bujan I could get my hands on -- just not this day.

“Get this line moving,” Flar ordered. “Ksanj grows impatient.”

“But he should die,” Grod cried, persistent to a fault and clearly angering his superior, who stepped close to his Sor Van with a malicious sarcasm flavoring his words.

“Before Ksanj speaks with him?”

Grod blanched. Flar cocked a glinting eye my direction.

“Perhaps, when Ksanj has finished, he will give you this one.”

To that, Grod smiled, exposing his bloodied and broken teeth. The Bujan laughed. I shivered.

The episode ended, we resumed our interrupted march under Grod’s endless taunting about the horrid fate awaiting me in Amata.

“I have a new friend,” I whispered.

“A friend,” Falja whispered from behind, “will kill you first chance he gets.”

The end of the tunnel drew near. Faintly at first, then growing stronger, Emo crept upon us. My body embraced the invigorating warmth long missed in the cheerless caverns that had been our lot since the moment K’Aldan had descended over the Val Ponada.

Exiting the tunnel, Flar ordered the procession S’ti. Well he did, for a thousand whips could not push T’lu another step. He stood under the caressing rays of the great red sun of Jatora breathing rapidly. His eyes, fired with unparalleled emotions, shone in riveting competition to that burning furnace. After three thousand years, the true Dular of Amata returned! Whether in chain or chariot made no difference, T’lu was home.

The fabled crater of Amata lay in a natural basin bound by sheer cliffs rising several thousand feet into the peach heavens. An imposing and inescapable arena of stone, the craggy walls and shimmering buffs dwarfed my remembrances of the Kiida sanval. This valley, covered with richly irrigated fields of grain and vegetable carefully tended by vast legions of podar and their Vopodar, left me breathless.

Beyond the fields, pulling my eyes as love pulls the heart, stood Amata. It loomed grand and gray in a sun-drenched haze. Her buttressed walls filled my head with rambling visions of warriors and Qualo, glory and freedom at once overshadowed by images of slavery and death.

To my immediate left lay a large fenced area sprinkled with flimsily thatched huts fashioned from dried stalks of t’rel, the Jatoran wheat. A long, golden grain that grew all about the irrigated crater, waving gently with the lilting breeze that flowed over the crater rim. These huts were the sanval of the podar. It was here that family endured. At least what passed for family amongst the slaves of Amata, a hard, cruel life under the constant patrol of Hisl, Bujan, and Jal.

Great panther-like felines, the presence of the Jal among the Bujan smacked of the Votag among the Kiida. Powerful creatures, night-black with a single red eye fixed in the center of their heads, the Bujan employed the Jal as watchdog, scavenger and, in a curiously synergetic relationship, as pets. No other race upon Jatora had ever domesticated this man-eater, and why would they? For even among the Bujan of Amata, when sufficiently aroused, the Jal's natural blood instincts defied control.

From the mouth of the cavern a long, rutted road of dirt and stone, wheel-tracked and padded flat, split the fields to the city gates. The mountains at her back, Amata ran in an expansive semi-circle that started along the Western slope of the basin and curved in a half-moon arc. The Val Ponada stood clothed in clouds but, directly over the heart of the valley, the sky lay open with Emo bathing all it touched in a warm, enervating light. While wonder some of the legend of invisible Amata, that issue I consigned to some later explanation. If ever, I had the time.

We were perhaps a mile distant of Amata, yet I could see her bulwark’s luster in the sunlight and heard the call of her ancient lineage. This white jewel carved from the heart of the Val Ponada, statues lining her ramparts in bold relief, leaning toward the heart of the city, from which, rose an immense scarlet tower a minimum thousand kota high.

T’lu stood with his eyes fixed upon that scarlet spire, his hands balled into fists.

“The Lu’ tajalo!”

The Way to Heaven!

Possessor of an awe-inspiring subtlety of construction, the great rising tower stood uniquely independent within the collective memory. Smooth as blown-glass, a blood-red goblet toasting the sanctity of Amata, its radiance was pure Jatoran, singular and distinct.

“Once, on a day such as today,” T’lu whispered, “you would have seen avans of Amatan warriors riding their Qualo to trade, to sport, to battle. What a spectacle it must have been.”

Flar, who perhaps sensed the passion riding the moment and thought to deny it, ordered the march resumed. Prodding Hisl spears ensured compliance.

What followed, to me, a simple warrior, was inexplicable. To the last soul, the podar in the fields knew T’lu walked amongst them. Dropping their wooden rakes and hoes, risking lash and claw, they raised their voices and cheered his name. Again, the Bujan did naught to prevent it. They paced nervously, the evil-eyed Jal growling irritably at their sides held in check.

By sheer force of numbers, the demonstrations of the podar of the fields exceeded their brethren in the docks. Pride welled in their eyes and joy rang from their throats, a sound that belied the unmitigated suffering etched in their bodies. Their love moved me deeply, as did the horror of their bondage.

Still, with biting emphasis on the reality of our position, the more vociferous the podar grew the more Gald puffed with self-importance. Perhaps therein lay the reason for the Bujan inaction; Gald enjoyed watching the hope of the resurrection Ksanj would soon dash.

“Gald thinks he is a very great Bujan,” I said to T’lu.

T’lu shrugged enigmatically. “Today, he is.”

Of all the Bujan, Flar maintained the most military bearing, suggestive of his greater intelligence and his greater danger when compared to Gald. I notched the impressions in my memory. When I crossed swords with Flar and Gald, I needed to remember the one’s capacity for deception and the other’s potential for calm.

I caught an occasional glimpse of Horas far to our rear. He walked beside the Sor Van Grod. Whether guarded or escorted I could not say, though I surmised the latter. For Horas kept his eyes averted and head down against the occasional invective or stone hurled his direction. The stones less frequent for they earned a severe lashing. Still, there were those willing to pay that price.

At last, Amata came into sharp relief. An astonishing feat of engineering, I marveled at the intricacies of the stone settings of her great walls. Each block weighed over a ton yet was mortared in symmetrical perfection. T’lu told me the stones were quarried on the island of Agar and hauled to Amata on the mighty Dre’ darnor of an epoch past. Grooved and sealed against the ravages of time and nature, each slab shimmered lightly in a highly individualized, wholly Jatoran hue resulting in an arresting mosaic of light and color that challenged the surrounding Val Ponada. I imagined the effect at night and longed to bear witness.

The top ridges of this great wall were crenellated by upswept merlons and gapping crenels, a saw-toothed pattern potted with chips and blackened streaks that spoke of frequent attacks and repelled invaders. Repelled save one!

Fashioned from a thick hickory-textured wood, the gates of Amata loomed fifty kota high. These tapestries of timber hung by ancient artists survived as living tributes to the culture that had supervised their construction. Each door carried sixteen equal panels, eight per side and individually sectioned into a lavish, expertly crafted depiction of the splendor of life in Amata. The upper lattice work, a flowing field of flower.

One panel displayed men and women walking; in another they played; and in others they sang, danced, and loved. In some frames, Votag and Kiida, Jal and Lajak prowled and hunted. I saw myriad other life forms, known and unknown, rendered with painstaking precision. However, prominent above all others, soaring across the wooden frames singularly or ridden by warriors of the city, the Qualo of Amata leaped from great doors and gripped me, holding me spellbound.

One great circular panel, rendered half upon each door and connecting the gates at the center, illustrated a moving pictorial of the mighty war with Syjal. The Qualdar winging off to enjoin the Griffin, racing over the Val Ponada and across the Mu Derj thousands strong. I smiled, thinking; these are only the doors to Amata! In a moment, they would open and T’lu, true-blood descendant of K’si, would pass into the lost city of his ancestors.

Now, we would know what splendors lay beyond.


Hinges and backs groaned in pain, and the gates of Amata rolled open.

Lead by the Bujan Flar and flanked by Hisl spears, we entered the City of Dreams. Behind me, lay the convoluted course by which Fate had directed my steps, while ahead, waited Ksanj, Olana, and the entwining paths of our Destinies.

The city unfolded into a circular plaza . A magnificent expanse of soft mosaic tiles inlaid with renderings of life in Amata fifty yards around. Green lawns and polished stone walkways splashed with color surrounded the heart of the square, a bright ochre esplanade centered by a pristine pool spanned by a vine covered bridge.

My mind pictured men and women talking and courting under the Emo’s approving smile.

Throughout the great square, sculptured warriors and Qualo stood guard, occasionally joined by the beasts of the fields and the mountains, or a delicately rendered child at play. Works wrought in lorqua, malnor, and plasters of which I had no reference. My eyes hardly feasted upon one before devouring another, and then another. Here, at last, was the glory and beauty T’lu had foretold of Amata, the Shangri La of Jatora.

Three thousand years ago!

As day chases night, the illusion fell away and in its place, the consequence of centuries of enslavement under the despotic hand of Ksanj.

In this Amata, the true Amata, the Amata Hifel had warned against, that lovely figurine of a child lay toppled and smashed. A once perfectly executed Qualo, wings spread to the sky, leaned upon its side; cracked, yellowed, and covered in a thick layer of grime.

The central plaza had deteriorated to a weed-infested riot, the ancient bridge a splintered artifact. A relic of a bygone era that sagged under centuries of decay and the weight of withered vines. The pool beneath those rotted boards lay stagnant with three thousand lur of accumulated slime, too ashamed to reflect, too diminished to ripple.

Frail as the idealism that had driven T’lu to her gates, a city strangled by neglect, Amata staggered under the turgidity of the Bujan, the squalor of the Hisl, and the sorrow of the podar.

The Dular O’Odanal showed no emotion as we stepped through or around the litter of uncollected garbage. His head remained high but I knew his heart had broken, because mine had.

We left the plaza and headed for the inner city. Here, Bujan trafficked along filth-bespattered thoroughfares, both males and females, the latter with the slattern young. No better to look upon than the men, the sight of these moribund creatures regenerated the unwanted pity that lingered in my soul. I fought it down, or tried. I could muster it aside for the men; they were warriors, accountable and able to defend themselves, but the women and the children worked at my heart.

For while Bujan fathers wandered alleys searching for fresh fodder to satiate their insipid lusts, ignored mothers stood in sallow doorways with their hideous children suckling their breasts, scrounging in the refuse for what unwholesome prize I dared not ask. To them, all that mattered was seeing their children fed.

I had no authority to assign moral values to these sad creatures, these Bujan C’maya, yet I truly believed whatever vestige of a soul they retained revolted at their condition. I saw it keen in the squalid homes they jealously kept and the nurturing attention lavished upon their ill-favored young, children in whom they evoked that universal measure of filial devotion to which all females aspire.

Indeed, these sad Bujan women touched me in a way I cannot explain. Nor do I try, not when measured against the appalling plight of the human inhabitants of Amata!

These were not the same brave Jatorans observed in the docks and fields. No one cheered. No one cried. No one prostrated themselves in fervent recognition of their returning Dular. These lost souls were a beaten, vanquished people, their emaciated bodies, maimed and broken by Bujan whips and the malingering indignities of Ksanj, only adding to the hunted look of these poor devils.

I shuddered once for Amata, City of Dreams!

The deeper we advanced, the more pronounced the Bujan atrocities. The Market area stood boarded and shut. I cringed as the stench of three thousand years accumulated rot assaulted my nostrils.

The traditional four-tiered arval, as described in Land’s tale of Syjal, looked and smelled as a rodent’s warren, from which, empty faces peered down from windowless frames, regarding us from bloodshot eyes sunk into uncaring sockets. Occasionally, an unsavory soul appeared in a doorway or alley to forage in the trash until, some fetid morsel found, the creature skulked back into shadows clutching its treasure and a small piece of my soul.

“The G’an T’sol,” Falja hissed from clenched jaws.

The Living Dead! Abandoned podar; too weak, too sick or too old to be of value, they become Bujan sport and worse, food for the Jal! I growled at the injustice, grinding my teeth. Suddenly, I was aware that, of our original party, only Falja still traveled with us. When and where Horas and the others had been spirited away I knew not.

In the streets, avans of Hisl moved swiftly and silently. Falja called them the T’solavan, the Death Squads.

“The T’solavan roam the streets and buildings of Amata thinning the ranks of the G’an T’sol.”

Repugnant recollections of a distant holocaust, a bitter memory I knew would outlast eternity, flitted through the collective memory. Images saturated with every despicable act man perpetrates upon his fellow man swamped me, breaches of humanity that warranted no illumination – and still, it was not the worst that Amata offered.

What happened next, broke T’lu. To the building burden T'lu carried since the great portals had rolled aside, was added the final straw, the last defilement.

Wild packs of filthy, naked children, orphans that jabbered, drooled, and threw debris at us from crud encrusted doorways. Rape induced, shunned even by the C’maya that birthed them, these progeny of the Bujan wandered Amata like vektals scavenging for garbage, fighting for places to sleep.

These unloved and unwanted bastards of Ksanj, though riddled in gopal disease, clearly carried a strain of pure Jatoran blood. A heritage no depth of wild stare or gross deformity could deny. It was that undeniable hint of the blood that sent T’lu to a knee, his palms clasped over his eyes, a futile attempt to block the sights and sounds of an Amata too painful to bear.

For a minute T’lu knelt thus, our Bujan captors grinning ridicule. Then his chest heaved and he strove to his feet and faced Flar with eyes cold as death. The Bujan Van, while neither coward nor fool, could but turn away and weakly order us to march, mouthing invectives that deceived no one.

“Better that I died with my men, on the slopes of the Val Ponada, still believing, still dreaming, that this.”

“Death is never better,” I told T’lu. “Olana is here. She lives. We have a mission, a duty.”

He turned to me with a slow, sad smile. “You shame me. Thank you, Kdal, thank you.”

We turned a corner, literally and figuratively. As the lowly insect becomes the butterfly, so Amata changed. The decay faded. The rampant vicissitude that heretofore had engulfed the city evaporated. The tiles glistened and the statues gleamed, the squalor replaced by scrubbed stone and polished metal. Were we had tread in slop, we stepped upon soft luminescent grasses, a park lawn fronting a sprawling and immaculate edifice that rose shining in the noonday sun.

“The Keij Dular,” T’lu cried.

The Palace of the King, where every window sparkled and the statues gracing the eaves or dotting the encircling terraces gleamed in their original luster. While from the center of the Kiej Dular, preserved in all its majesty and seen by the true Dular for the first time in three thousand years, rose the magnificent Lu’ tajalo.

A memory left intact by the usurper for his personal employ.

The Keij Dular itself stood sixty kotal high, circular in nature, and hewn primarily of Tr’qual, the Jatoran equivalent of marble. A strong building material with a soft, luminous texture highly resistant to age and weather. The roof of the palace inclined outward. Ringed with innumerable carvings of the Qualo, it also displayed a sculpture previously unseen, A magnificent steely-eyed warrior leaning upon a broad crimson sword, facing North from the geometric center of the building, guarding the Lu’ tajalo for all posterity. No one had to tell me. This was K’si.

The Lu’ tajalo rose from an invisible core deep within the building and extended upward to the lip of the great canyon enclosing the city. A masterpiece of engineering, it derived its vivid scarlet color from the malnor used in its construction. Malnor is a rigid nearly indestructible metal difficult to mine and dangerous to kiln. Oddly, the base element, a dark-red earth called Mal, is quite malleable and easily molded. The Amatans harvest the raw material out of the deepest bowels of the Val Ponada; a skill vanished in the society of Ksanj.

Before Ksanj, the Amatans mixed the Mal with salt water carried by aqueduct from the ocean, another art of Amata long since crumpled to dust. Molded to individual needs, the clay-like compound baked in stone ovens subject to the occasional violent explosions that rendered its kiln so dangerous. Hifel could have explained it in detail, but suffice that Malnor lost that high degree of combustible once it solidified into the deep rosy glow of the Lu’ tajalo.

We had reached our destination. All roads converged. The trail ended here.

Flar halted before two magnificently scaled replicas of the city gates. Bujan guards, numbering six, saluted the Van. Abstractly, I noted these were all reasonably formed Bujan, chosen for this station based upon certain attainments of appearance and (I supposed) intellect.

“I have the prisoners,” Flar proclaimed loudly. “Announce us to Mose.”

Mose! T’lu glanced at me with raised brow. We had thought him in Syjal. While the exact significance of his presence in Amata was yet to be determined, it did not bode well for Odanal.

A guard turned and entered the palace. There was a short wait and then the doors to the Kiej Dular opened in advance of a small retinue of Hisl and Bujan. Flar stepped close to me, his hot, offensive breath against my cheek, his lowered voice spilling into my ear.

“A kind word about me to Van Vopodar Mose will earn you lenience in my podaren. Remember that I saved you from Grod.”

I did not quite remember it that way. Still, I smiled and told Flar, “I will be delighted to tell Van Vopodar Mose exactly what I think of Van Flar.”

Flar grinned from ear to ear, no easy feet considering that deviant scar he carried along the left side of his neck. T’lu caught my eye, winked, and smiled lightly. I drew encouragement in knowing my giant friend had regained his sense of humor.

The retinues had finished exchanging their simple acknowledgments of rank and Halm and I had my first look at the Bujan, Mose.

Outwardly, he was a handsome golden warrior who by no flush of skin or twitch of muscle betrayed the gopal in his loins. Even his eyes looked perfect, eyes that, remembering Land’s story, I had taken pains to mark.

“Lenses,” Mose said suddenly, plucking the words from my head. “Ksanj has many skills.”

Mose offered me an inoffensive smile that, under different circumstances, I would have called disarming. He then turned that amiable smile upon T’lu, who frowned deeply. I shared his consternation. In their ancient war of subterfuge and treachery, Mose clearly represented a fresh hand, deftly played. The havoc a mere handful such as he could wreck upon the Odanal horrified me.

Attired in the black cape of the Van, Mose also wore a striking medallion that alternately sparkled in red and black, the colors of the Van Vopodar. I noticed that his right hand continually clasped and unclasped at his sword handle, betraying nervousness beneath the calm.

“You have no future here, T’lu. This is not your Amata. You have come a long way for nothing and I am sorry for you.”

T’lu looked curiously at the creature. It was not what he said, but the way he said it, as if expressing genuine compassion. To the outward guise of human perfection, add the dark mask of human deception. With each passing heartbeat, the Bujan Mose grew more dangerous, and more disconcerting.

A Bujan officer ambled forward with clanking chains tightly grasped. At once, Mose laid out a restraining arm.

“I will not use the okar unless you make it necessary. Understood?”

“As you said,” T’lu answered without hesitation, “I have come a long way to find Ksanj. He waits and I grow impatient with the delay. There will be no need of chains; I have no intention of running.”

“No, I don’t believe you do,” Mose said. Nor was there any mistaking the tart, biting sarcasm. Whirling on his heel, Mose barked, “Flar, you and Gald will accompany me to the Kiel Aren.”

The two Bujan grew six inches taller as our procession, inclusive of six Hisl, entered the Kiej Dular and our appointment with Ksanj . . . and Destiny.

As we stepped into a large immaculately preserved oval foyer, the antiquity of Amata reached out to embrace us. Glory, laced with heartrending sadness. Tapestries, sculptures and paintings that depicted the loving leisure of a bygone era lined walls lit by Taz bulbs, a luminous liquid extracted from the belly of the Jatoran lizard of the same name. Once more, I feasted on Qualo, warriors, women, and children and, for the first time, the Griffin; manned by the black-haired warriors of Syjal. More prominent in the tapestries that the paintings, these depictions bore witness to the evolution of the Odanal, the alliance of Jatora’s two great powers and the trade and commerce produced. However, Mose marched with a purpose that allowed little time for appreciation of ancient artistry.

We climbed an ornate, circular stairway, the tap of nailed Hisl feet sounding smartly upon the polished metal until, at the third level, we left the stairs, crossed a landing, and passed through an unadorned lorqua door. I should mention that metal doors were rare upon Jatora. Their presence indicated a strong desire to keep someone, or something, out.

Beyond that seminal barrier lay a lustrously tiled room bathed by Emo and filled with larger than life woodcarvings. I counted twenty warriors posed atop a polished lorqua platform. Fully regaled in ceremonial leathers and red-tempered longswords, they sat astride equally resplendent Qualo. T’lu stopped. Nor would he be coerced another step. Mose relented and our procession paused.

“The Asiej Dular,” T’lu breathed. “Amata’s Hall of Kings.

We, we of the Blood, stood awed, without words. T’lu studied each figure with open veneration, quietly naming each as a schoolboy his Presidents. The room emanated with a palpable reverence. Even Flar and Gald shifted their feet and gawked nervously at the warrior monarchs of Amata. Who regarded us with dead eyes and lost grandeur. Only the implacable Hisl stood unaffected.

Slowly, T’lu moved us forward until we reached the last warrior in that noble row. A figure less ornate but far sterner of eye and form leaning upon a great, red blade, the warrior king K’si of Amata, one half the O’Odanal.

 “It is impossible not to feel the power of this man,” Mose offered with an odd quiver of emotion that sparked my curiosity but ignited T’lu’s ire.

“What could you possibly know of K’si, Dular of Dulars?” T’lu glowered fiercely. “You feel nothing!”

“You have much to learn about what a Bujan can and cannot feel,” the Van Vopodar cracked sharply. He stepped a hairsbreadth from to T’lu, those now perfect eyes rife with emotion. “And what a Bujan may aspire to be!”

Again, I sensed an undercurrent of innuendo impossible to interpret.

“For three-thousand years,” Mose advised pointedly, “The Hall of Kings has stood as you see. Men who have called themselves Dular O’Odanal have rose up, lived, and died, without addition to the line. Yet, I know you see yourself here, T’lu, someday, taking what you perceive as your rightful place alongside the Dulars of Amata. Well, it is a noble ambition, but war, and those that win those wars, determine what is just and what is not. Concern yourself with today, Dular O’Odanal, Ksanj will determine tomorrow!”

Mose chose not to hear a rebuttal, instead turning away to take up our march through the Keij Dular of Amata.

At the far end of the Asiej Dular we encountered a second spiral stairwell, an exquisite architectural achievement unlike any of my memory. A single, contiguous construction shaped as a Qualo winging in twisted metallic flight toward the darkly scrolled upper levels. T’lu whispered to me that these stairs lead to the Lu’ tajalo, the great rose-colored tower from whence the armies of Amata had launched to every corner of Jatora. My heart quickened. How I longed to ascend those mighty stairs. To stand under the eye of Emo and see that grand view of this grander world.

A day to anticipate, for we did not mount those stairs this day. Passing out of the Asiej Dular, we entered an adjacent room and climbed a less ostentatious staircase opening onto a thriving mezzanine. Bujan and shuffling podar milled singly or in crowds. We had arrived at the heart of Ksanj’s world.

The expansive corridor, dotted with numerous sleeping rooms, storage apartments and eating areas, lead toward two massive doors, beautifully if simply carved. The image of K’si on one panel and his great Qualo on the other, incongruously offset by mountainous Hisl armed with blue-eyed spears and longswords the length of a fully-grown man.

Beyond, lay the Kiel Aren, throne room of Amata.

Gald grew visibly apprehensive. A painfully transparent individual, this fool, this miscreant, contemplated an audience with his creator. No doubt a humbling thought for any creature but doubly so for a Bujan. I breathed deeply, attempting to clear my mind and curtail undue speculation concerning what lay ahead, a noble if hopeless task.

Without prompt, the Hisl granted passage. The doors opened inward. Mose lead, then Flar, then T’lu and I. Gald cowered at my back sweating profusely.

What a magnificent people had raised this palace and established this culture, what a monumental disaster had been the sacking of Amata. The ageless splendor of the Kiel Aren reached out from pillar and bench, window and wall, floor and ceiling.  In some distant life, some far away recollection, I recalled other throne rooms of marble and granite, with alabaster columns and erudite benches, stained-glass windows and tiled floors. Though connected in concept, they paled in comparison. For no matter what richness of craft or intricacy of design these other edifices of my memory held, none had the Qualo!

This magnificent creature set Jatora apart from all other worlds. Their influence dominated each tapestry, mural, and bench. In every painted window and inlaid column they clustered. But supreme amongst them, embedded in exact center of the room in an oval relief cut from millions of polished stones that glowed in an equal number of singular hues, lay the greatest Qualo of all.

It had widespread wings twenty-five feet around and an arched head crowned by tiled feathers I was prepared to swear fluttered in the rose colored sunlight dropped from the open ceiling above. That this Qualo guarded the Lu’ tajalo I did not for a moment doubt. Nor did its timeless beauty prevent me from realizing this magnificently rendered beast, this Dular’s Qualo, lay poised beneath a private opening into and out of Amata.

The royalty of the Bujan Empire steadily filled the room. The best that Ksanj offered. My blood quivered at the grotesque collection that now passed for the citizens of Amata. They sat on the benches, leaned against the walls, or generally milled about, gazing at T’lu, laughing at him under the safety of the unblinking Hisl, a half-hundred of whom secured the room.

“Hifel was right,” I said to T’lu, “Ksanj is not without worry.”

The floor followed a gentle slope to a carpeted rostrum. A dozen steps lead to the top where stood a simple, hand-carved wooden chair, the singularly ordinary throne of Amata.

For a moment, I viewed that seemingly misplaced object with open question. Then a slow, understanding smile spread my lips. Here, amidst hard fought and hard won splendors, the foresighted leaders of ancient Amata had taken pains to remind posterity of the simplicity of the road, the humbleness of the journey. An unpretentious message desecrated by the handsome group of men who gathered round it.

Not as Mose, not Bujan at all, but traitors who had exchanged their caedar for a place beside the Devil of Jatora. The V’Koo, more fearful than any Hisl or Bujan because each had been of the Blood and chosen conspiracy and deceit over loyalty. With an undisguised growl of disgust, I turned my eyes from these creatures. Nor could any force in the universe have long held my eyes from the man now emerged from behind the rostrum escorted by Hisl two hands higher than any seen before. A man not of the Blood, but who took the throne of Amata with an unquestioned air of superiority.

Imagine the crags of the Val Ponada given life. Such was my impression of Ksanj.

Tall and sinewy, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist draped in a lavish jeweled harness, purple cotral and matching medallion, a puritanical jewel wove into his Aal, Ksanj commanded attention. Though he reclined easily in the hand-hewn throne of Amata, I read insatiable evil in those piercing black eyes nestled beneath bristly brows; ruthless cunning in the hawk nose and squared jaw.

Laconically surveying his audience, disdaining even a casual glance at our procession as it reached the foot of the dais, I understood the measure of his game; he played with his power, relishing his moment of triumph. The hour was his and he would revel in it.

We waited. The room silenced. At length, perhaps grown tired of vicarious amusement, Ksanj uncurled that long muscular frame, stood, and at last brought those prying eyes to bear upon T’lu and I.

I make no claim to innocence. I have crossed swords with the beast in man a hundred times over on many worlds in many guises; yet never had I felt the malevolence as radiated from Ksanj of Jatora. When he spoke, it was brimstone.

“T’lu of Syjal. We meet at last.”

T’lu bit upon his lips and said nothing. Ksanj threw his arms wide and rocked upon the balls of his feet.

“Come now! It has been three thousand years that you and your Hon djar have sought me. I am here. Speak!”

That T’lu maintained his steadfast silence mattered not. This was a performance, rehearsed, carefully orchestrated and presented. Ksanj stepped rapidly down the stairs. His voice rose until it thundered and filled the Kiel Aren.

“Then I will speak for you, and acknowledge your courage. Many have tried to find their way here. Brave men whose bones litter the Val Ponada. Yet here you stand! I can only imagine the hardships you endured, or the ingenuity brought to bear.” Ksanj raised his head and spoke to the room. “Such valor deserves our Halm!”

There came a ripple of agreement from the less-than-objective audience. Ksanj nodded at their approval, though his eyes sparkled with sarcasm.

“It is agreed then,” Ksanj continued. “We honor this visit from the Dulara O’Odanal. And how better to show our Halm than to offer him the power to end this long and bitter war?” His head snapped to T’lu, a long held supremacy etched in granite. “Make a truce, end the carnage! What say you to that, T’lu of Amata?”

For a hushed second, time dangled unattended with all eyes riveted upon the Dular O’Odanal, though none more expectantly than Ksanj whose black wells searched his opponent for a trace of emotion, a hint of direction. Emotions T'lu held in check with lion’s grasp as, in an action borrowed from the wise and wily Hifel, he spat upon the floor.

Now, it was Ksanj betrayed by his emotions as, incensed, he rolled his hands into white-knuckled fists.

“You call yourself Dular! I offer you the chance to restore the heritage of your people and that is your answer. Be a King, T’lu, reclaim your Halm!”

Suddenly, incredibly, T’lu laughed nswered. His face lit with a fierce and terrible pride that would not absorb another blow.

“Reclaim my Halm! It was you who betrayed K’si and Vopar and the honors they accorded your healing. You, who murdered and maimed the innocents of Amata, and in so doing, brought the wrath of justice upon your head. You are no better than the V’Koo that fawn about you, without Halm, without cedar. It is you who should beg Halm of me!”

Ksanj, emotions reigned, volleyed. Throwing back his head, he laughed. A horrid sound, that carried the wail of a million dead souls.

“Well said! Well said!” he cried in a voice that was as a steaming rift venting from a mountain fissure. “You are without doubt a blood descendant of K’si. It is refreshing to speak with a real man.” Ksanj rolled his head. “You are quite correct as to what surrounds me. Weaklings and cowards ruled by lust and avarice. Traitors who abandoned the Blood for pathetic material possessions, and, of course a chance to live.”

Ksanj paused to allow the import of words to ring, echo and die. His eyes hardened and found T’lu. I tensed knowing the banter ended. That dark voice rose and fell, echoing off the walls of the Kiel Aren even as the Legions of K’Aldan had reverberated through the Val Ponada.

“Syjal is lost. I have crushed her! Land languishes in the theilhar below the main court, along with Ganar, Podik, and all the other conspirators. Hifel’s fate you already know. I have eyes and ears in the skies, in the ground, in the scabbards you wear at your sides. Nothing escapes me. Syjal is mine. Amata is mine. All of Jatora is mine!”

“Jatora is not yours!” T’lu roared, not one whit less empowered. “Jatora belongs to the Odanal and we will reclaim it. It does not have to be T’lu of Amata, or Land, or Balkar, or Ganar. We can all die; it does not matter. There will be others, there are always others. You cannot prevail forever.”
Ksanj volleyed, crying, “I have prevailed for three thousand years. That is close enough to forever for me.”

I trembled at the thrust and parry of knife-edged flames three millennium old. Each stroke met and matched until Ksanj, his voice a bitter wind blowing against my soul, delivered the coup d'etat.

“Perhaps you are right. Of what matter are the lives of T’lu, Ganar, Land or a thousand more of your ilk. Warriors are born to die not as old men but young martyrs. Still, T’lu, if your own life means nothing, there is another here whose life does matter!”

For the briefest of moments, T’lu’s eyes betrayed his heart. The fear that no manner of personal threat could ever induce. Ksanj saw that momentary hesitation, that weakness in his rival, and pursued his advantage. Ksanj began to laugh. His eyes glittered, coal-black receptors of an incomprehensible evil, and a demonic intellect where, I now believed, a lurking madness played tiptoe with his sanity. Nor was it the sound of that laugh so disposing my thoughts, but that terrible, near insane look creeping over his flushed countenance.

Then swift as it came, the look faded.

“You need not tremble so, T’lu. I shall not harm that which I desire most.”

No sentence in the cosmos could have had a more devastating effect upon my Jatoran Amar. T’lu shook as if in the clutches of the invisible A’pel of the Mu Derj. Nor was I any less affected. Had either of us had a sword . . . but Ksanj controlled.

“You seem surprised. Why? Again, I urge you to look around you. What do you see? Who is there here to appreciate me, to admire my genius? In all these thousands of years, has there been anyone my equal who could clasp my hand and say I have done what no other man could do? What no other man could dream of doing? I come to this room and there is a loud crying of my name, and I am left cold.

“I have conquered men, cities and even Death. I have ventured where lesser men could not and would not dare. I thought nothing remained. Even the sacking of Syjal, the last link in my chain of vengeance, did not taste as sweet as I had dreamed. An emptiness hard to understand has overtaken me.” For an instant, I thought I saw Ksanj drop his guard. An action quickly reversed. “No more!” He thundered. “In the Dulara Olana, I have a new passion to savor.”

If was all a mere mortal man could stand. T’lu surged forward, nearly impaling himself upon a half dozen Hisl spears. “If you have harmed her . . .”

Ksanj laughed riotously.

“Have the perils of the day destroyed your ears? I told you I would never harm that which I desire most. That which has brought purpose back to my life. By the Aal of K’si, one word from her fair lips and I would fly from here. My wedding present to the Odanal, and the new Dulan, the new Queen, of Amata, freedom for the Odanal!”

 “Lies! All lies!” T’lu screamed with a mad fury.  “Olana is of the Blood, the daughter of Balkar and next in line to the throne of Syjal. She would never capitulate. She would never give that word. No more than you would abandon Amata! I swear upon the Blood of my ancestors, dare take the Dulara by force and, fly where you will, I will . . .

“Yes, yes, yes,” Ksanj laughed contemptuously. “You will hunt me down. You are thunder without rain T'lu, and sorrowfully ignorant. Were I to leave Amata, it would be to a place neither you nor any of your vaunted Odanal could follow.”

Suddenly, Ksanj whirled and raised a long, accusing finger at my face. “Is that not so, Kdal.”

He spit my name as a snake its venom, stomping towards me; eyes boring into my soul with a fiery intimacy that caught me unguarded.

“We have much to discuss you and I. Worlds beyond worlds! Take him to the Ulg fields.”

Worlds beyond worlds? Though I knew it meant nothing, only wasted words spoken in haste, in anger, I tingled unaccountably. Feet weighted by the uncertainty that swam through my eternal consciousness, pressured by Hisl spears, escorted by Mose, I was more dragged than lead from the Kiel Aren, the warm wind of a distant truth blowing at my back. A wind I felt but could not catch.

A commotion rose behind me. I tried to turn, but the Hisl muscled forward and the doors of the throne room thudded shut, though not before one final breath of misery reached my ears. A gasp from T’lu, a throb that exploded into the name propelling every wild flight of Fate since the moment I resurrected upon Jatora.



Reason lay in shambles.

The blood of the Odanal throbbed in my temples. I turned on my captors assured I could defeat an empire of Hisl, but found only the cold reality of naked steel leveled at my gut.

“Are you that ready to die?” Mose said with level stare. “Your heroics will earn you nothing Kdal, not even martyrdom. He has the skill to deny even that.”

Under the tantalizing nuances that played across my adversary’s face, my anger faded. Was it me, or did Mose’s too human-eyes hint at something rebellious, something subtly insubordinate. If true, could it be used to my advantage?

We retraced our steps without ceremony or pause and soon exited the palace of Ksanj. Hisl swelled our ranks. With them, came Horas, accompanied by a beaming Gald. I noted the shiny red cotral that now adorned his shoulders and smiled. Ksanj had made him an Ul Van, a Lieutenant. Somehow, I thought capturing T’lu of Amata would be worth a little more.

Horas clung close to Gald affecting the impoverished prisoner, the subjugated slave. We kept our distances and did not speak. However, on several occasions, my back felt the clammy stare of his shifty eyes.

Dully, I revisited the littered streets and diseased slums of Amata. I wrestled with my emotions, fighting to subdue the anxieties that threatened to hasten some foolhardy action. A rashness that would ultimately rob T’lu, and the Dulara Olana, of whatever slim margin of hope still lived.

Be soulless as the Hisl, I told myself. Be strong and be prepared. Righteousness will win out. In my mind, the image of Ksanj was as the stone tossed upon the pond, an evil rippling on without end, a conundrum so great, so vast, I could not suppress it, nor venture to understand it.

Worlds beyond worlds, what could he have meant?

The shuffling podar of the inner city paid our procession little or no mind. However, surreptitious glances arrears showed Horas kept a vigilant eye upon the vacant and shattered windows. There was something behind those battered buildings he feared. Was it retribution?

I growled openly, which prompted an admonishment from Flar accented by his whip upon my back. Only my newly found sense of purpose saved Flar’s life, for now. I addressed Mose.

“Will you keep me under Flar’s care?” I asked. “It would be difficult to escape from so great a Bujan as Flar.”

Flar all but burst his harness. Stepping closer, he urged me to speak up! So long as I complimented the imbecile, he would allow me to speak loud as I wished. Mose, however, saw my thinly veiled derision. A wry smile touched his lips.

“You think highly of the Van Flar,” Mose stated flatly, eyes appraising the beaming Van. He then leaned into my ear and whispered. His voice sweet wine. “Do not ever think to play me for the fool, Kdal. It would be a great mistake.” Then aloud, “You will work for Foot, under the commanded of Van Flar, until Ksanj calls for you.”

With that, Mose left us.

As we passed out of the inner city of Amata, Horas inched closer, eyes darting left and right, his actions subtle as one of K’Aldan’s thunderbolts. He deigned to speak with me, privately. A convenience Flar permitted.

“Mose is a powerful Bujan,” he hissed in a low, oily voice. “You would be wise not make him your enemy.”

“All Bujan are enemies of the Odanal,” I shot back.

Horas offered a patronizing smile. “Of course, of course. Only there are degrees of enemies behind these walls. It is wise to know where one stands.”

I offered no rebuttal and our discussion, such as it was, ended.

We paced left along the great wall of the city, following a well-plowed path through the open fields. Here the podar reaction to our passing grew markedly more alert. There were no demonstrations, but I caught many an encouraging smile. It gave me heart. Once or twice, a bold ‘for the Odanal’ floated upon a passing zephyr, followed fast by the crack of a Jal-hide whip.

Of a sudden, a strong, obnoxious order beset my nostrils, which only grew fouler as our retinue drew up before the most awful pile of rot under Emo. With displeasure akin to nausea, I had my introduction to Ulg and the nature of my immediate future. The prospect disgusted me.

A squat, bloated miscreant of a Bujan lay under a stunted tree, taking what shade was available from its abbreviated boughs. At his side lay a devil-eyed Jal which, at our approach, fixed its red eye upon me and growled menacingly.

“Foot!” Flar hollered.

The bleary-eyed Bujan roused from his slumber and awkwardly came to his feet, and what feet! At six feet even, Foot had paws to support a man twice that height. Clearly, his name suited him, though only Gray Allen could have appreciated the unintentional humor in the name of my first Bujan Vopodar.

“Van Flar! It is good to see you! I am honored!”

Flar swaggered about hands clasped behind his back. “We have a special podar for you. Work him hard and watch him close. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” the misshapen thing crowed. “He will work hard or he will die.”

“If he dies, Ksanj himself will stake your head on a Hisl spear and parade it through the Kiel Aren,” Flar returned coldly, “Do you understand that?”

Foot’s head bobbed up and down, his oversized eyes rolling around without regard for the laws of physics.

Flar turned to me. “You will not fair poorly here, if you behave. You did me a great service before Mose. You will see that a Bujan keeps his promise.”

In silence, I watched Flar move toward the docks, Horas in tow.

Authority departed, Foot approached. He surveyed me with a quizzical expression. “What makes you so special? You look rather ordinary to me.”

I smiled. “Ksanj has an interest in my staying alive so he can kill me.”

Foot’s face furrowed. “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!”

“Take that up with the J’ jerval!”

Foot paled.

So came Kdal of Jatora to labor in the Ulg fields of Amata, a podar of the Bujan, enduring long hours with little rest and even less sustenance. However, the work was not overly hard. As to Foot, I could have escaped him at any time. Such as when he chained the Jal to its watering trough that he could sleep without fretting the cat would eat me and get him into trouble. I could have escaped, but I did not. Snared in a trap of contradiction where I must chose between serving myself or serving a mission to which I had sworn a blood oath, that of the Odanal, I chose the Odanal. I accepted my internment as a step in some predestined plan, as I had so many times before, upon so many worlds in so many wondering souls.

 Locked behind the gates of the city, T’lu and Olana waited. In time, Fate would reveal her plan. Until then, I must persevere. Nor did my time spent under Foot entirely want of interest.

Never deliberately abusive, I found the simple qualities of Vopodar Foot both intriguing and ingratiating. Emotions further complicated by Halod, Foot’s mate. Deformed as any Bujan, Halod had many faults, but lack of devotion was not one of them. This woman, this Bujan jo’ lak, loved her Foot. She would visit him in the Ulg fields bringing a little tup and some dried meat. They would sit beneath Foot’s tree, holding hands and talking like children.

As a couple, they were incongruous yet undeniably happy unto themselves. Despite all my resolve to the contrary, they won my compassion. I watched them coo and took pity upon them as I had the Kiida. At times, when I realized life to T’lu and Olana could necessitate their death, I would growl. I would thrust my spade angrily in the Ulg, cursing the cupidity and vice of mankind in general and Ksanj in particular, powerless to do more than rail against it.

If for just one day, as a prelude to war, humanity had to live in the house of the enemy, few would be the wars we fought.

I cannot say with certainty the Bujan of Amata understood the contradiction of their existence, but it was clear they dreamed of being more, of the normalcy the gopal precluded. I had only to watch Foot and Halod to understand that aspiration. The intrigues of Amata were altogether too complex for their innocuous brains. They wished only peace and the simple bounties of home and hearth. I wondered how many of the Bujan were as these two. Though more, I wondered what use I might make of it.

My life in the manure patches of Amata consisted primarily of hitching my Hoded to a wagon and dragging Ulg from place to place. It was menial, degrading, and required no skill of any kind, though Foot found unending dissatisfaction with both my performance and the performance of the Hoded. The Hoded, by the way, is an uncommonly ugly beast. Slate gray and hairless, it had an elongated snout armed by two razor-sharp teeth protruding rabbit-like from its long face. With the disposition of a stone, the Hoded was the Jatoran first cousin to a jackass, minus any semblance of visible ears. Still, one had to be careful around the creatures. Surly to a fault, when aroused, they could kill with one swift kick of their formidable hind legs.

Therefore, I worked, Foot egging me on, persevering and planning. Not escape, for leaving Amata without T’lu and Olana remained unthinkable. I planned rescue or revenge, whichever Ana allowed.

My relative freedom in the fields did not deceive me. Ksanj knew I plotted against him, as would Hifel, or Falja, or any Odanal of good heart. I could but remember the words of T’ala T’sol confronting us in Kiel Aren.

“‘I have eyes and ears in the skies, in the ground, in the scabbards you wear at your sides.’”

I cold only conclude that Ksanj nursed a yet undisclosed fate for me, and, as the cat toys with the mouse, he toyed with me.

Of one fact, I was certain. To defeat those unknown designs, to foil Ksanj and have a chance to rescue anyone, I needed access to the city. Access which Foot and the omnipresent Jal restricted.

On those occasions when the duties of Foot incorporated entrance to Amata, to tend the gardens outside the central palace, Flar appeared, almost magically, with an avan of Hisl to accompany our rounds. Proof positive to the watchful eyes of Ksanj.

“You seem to be in good spirit,” Flar observed upon one such trip.

“How could I be otherwise,” I replied with a sarcasm lost on the Bujan officer. “Foot works me to death, I have had precious little to eat or drink, I stink of Ulg, and have not heard a word to the fate of my companions. Who would I not be in good spirits?”

“Well, happy though you may be tending the Ulg fields of Foot, I have not forgotten my promise. You have done me a great Halm. It is a debt that must be paid.”

“Then tell me of T’lu,” I answered.  Flar shook his head.

“I cannot satisfy my Halm by turning V’koo.”

Time dragged. I ate little and slept less, my life a constant struggle against depression, the natural order of things for podar. Perhaps one spectacle witnessed, one appalling and desperate display, best illustrates the true nature of that statement. Foot and the Jal trailed behind by several yards, their accustomed place when Foot bothered to roust from his near perpetual napping.

In a nearby field, podar scuffed in their chains, cultivating the waving stalks of t’rel. At our approach, a young girl digging in mud and rock looked up. Though covered in a thick layer of sweat and grime, she was beautiful, but with a strange and wild light in her eyes.

She dropped her wooden hoe without warning started towards me. She never batted an eye when her Bujan guard brought a flashing whip down flush across her back. Her steps quickened and a sad smile lifted the edges of her lovely mouth.

At once, the full horror of her intent struck me. She smiled not at me, but at the unshackled Jal!

With a motion too swift to stop she stooped, picked up a stone, and hurled the missile straight at the feline’s twitching snout. The Jal recoiled violently, snarled, and charged.

The last image I recall before my eyes closed was of the girl dropping to her knees with arms outstretched. The words, “Thank you,” framed on her lips. Lips that should have been drinking a delicate wine, laughing at a small joke, or kissing a devoted lover, not embracing a savage end to a bitter life.

Escape from bondage in the fields of Amata.


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

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