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Volume 1682a

Chapters 6 - 10
Michael A Wexler



My story begins with the heinous murder of Balkar, Dular of Syjal, and the ensuing abduction of his daughter, the Dulara Olana. I speak now not in some foolish attempt to mollify my own Halm, but to emphasize the appalling turn the intrigues of war have taken in Syjal. 

I am Randak, a Syjalan Thief, loyal to the Dulara and the cause of the Odanal. As Dl (First) Thief of the D’kel of Balkar, I have longed served the Blood with my voice and my judgement in matters pertaining to state. That is my role. Over the years, in that capacity, I have been both close advisor and good friend to the Dular. 

On the fateful night to which I now address myself, a courier arrived at my quarters to advise me the Dular needed my council immediately. The matter being urgent and confidential, he directed I come at once his chambers, and alone. Balkar waited.

The messenger I knew to be a trusted family servant going back to the Dulan Ora, the mother of Olana, who had died at childbirth, one of the great tragedies in the history of Syjal. I left straight away, unsuspecting and unprepared. Some delicate affair of state, I thought. Mayhap some female indiscretion upon the part of another Thief. 

That last thought made me smile and in that light frame of mind, I arrived at the Keij Dular. So you can imagine my stunned disbelief, my shock and inconsolable grief, upon finding my Amar and my King dead in his bed, assassinated. His blood staining his sleeping-silks a grizzly red. Disbelief transformed to incredulous at site of the hideous, unblinking Hisl standing above him; murderous dagger still gripped in its remorseless hand.

Even as I stood there, my hands knotting, fisting hard, trying to comprehend the enormous catastrophe fallen upon Syjal, a half dozen more of the beasts, lead by a Bujan Van, entered from the hallway, the Bujan issuing crisp commands. Ere I could believe what happened, I found myself disarmed, arms trussed behind my back, and forced to kneel at the foot of the bed, beside my dead Dular.
Forgive me that I pause. It is hard fighting a memory so riddled with guilt and sadness. I know it is vital I continue, just allow me a moment to collect my thoughts.

As I struggled with the knots to no avail, two more Bujan entered the Dular’s bedroom in advance of the Dulara Olana who, similarly bound, paced between two giant Hisl. Ah, but she walked with unbroken step, her head high. These ill-kept brutes of Ksanj would provoke no tears from Olana of Syjal! 

That her heart had broken, I, who knew her from childhood, understood. Yet, one could read neither grief nor fear. Only the nobility bequeathed her from an unbroken line of Blood three thousand years old. A heritage that soared above the lowly beasts that defiled the Keij Dular!

Perhaps the Bujan felt her superiority and it angered them. The brutes forced Olana to stand by her father's bloodied corpse. They made her look upon his butchered body, sword sheathed, denied Karn Are, the Last Fight. It worked only to harden her resolve. Her lips trembled not with sorrow but anger. Has there ever lived, I thought, a truer Princess of the Blood than dear Olana.

It seemed an eternity the Hisl and Bujan held us thus. I sensed they waited upon someone, perhaps a messenger carrying a command from Ksanj. I was not far wrong. At last, the Hisl hauled me to my feet, and I met Mose. It took but a few moments to understand the ill wind that followed his arrival in Syjal. 

However, in that place and time Mose stands as but a drop of water beside the Legions of K’Aldan. Another man joined Mose. A man who so provoked Olana as to force an uncontrolled scream. My own mind seemed to swim in delirium. In every outward aspect of appearance, feature and voice, we looked upon Randak of Syjal!

Mose called it a Vor and, in my time in Amata, I have learned bits and pieces of how significantly this Vor differed from Mose. 

As even the youngest child of the Blood knows, Ksanj has worked at the blood properties of his gopal for centuries, attempting to correct the ki' djar (the gene) deficiency that caused the Bujan deformities. But his experiments had always ended in failure, until Mose. In Mose, Ksanj had proof of safer, more refined gopal. A serum Ksanj envisioned as the key to a new nation of perfect Bujan, but a dream that stumbled upon one overlooked effect of the new gopal. 

Mose had exchange deformity for individuality. 

This surprising and undesirable effect irked Ksanj. To which, he focused his immense intellect on a correcting that problem, and applied the result to a secondary undertaking, creation of the Vor. 

We know little of the Vor; and most of that is pure speculation. Somehow, Ksanj has remolded his Bujan into a creature free of deformity, but without loss of the wholly submissive mind-set engendered by the original gopal.

This terror, this deviant Vor, is no mere medical oddity. Ana! Any descent healer can adjust a man’s eyes, his nose or his mouth to a limited extent. The sarevar of the cities have long employed similar surgical procedures to mask the grim scars of war. What Ksanj accomplished is a full-blown forest compared to a blade of grass. 

The Vor had my voice, my memories, my mannerisms, my smallest idiosyncrasies precisely duplicated. A technique that defies understanding, an achievement that may be more Je’ndal than any of us would care to believe.

ness. Conducted across the Great Plain to the edge of the Mu' Derj, we discovered a full hundred dovan of Hisl massed to march upon the city. Interred in the Bujan camp, we bore witness to one of the bloodiest battles in the annals of Jatora. 

Clearly, Ksanj believed disarray would follow the assassination of our beloved Dular. In that, he miscalculated. The warriors of Syjal rallied behind T'lu’s call to arms. Hearts hard with vengeance, they met the Hisl legions with unbending bravery. Ten Hisl fell for every Odanal sacrificed. Ana but such fighting! Such wasted lives. Will it never end!

In the end, I saw my fellow Thiefs gathered on the parapets above the city, urging the warriors of Syjal on for the Halm of Balkar. To my enduring horror, I saw that Randak, the Vor, standing alongside my brethren shouting as one with the Odanal. No lurking in the shadows or hiding in the corners for this spawn of Ksanj. The T’ala T’sol had brought duplicity into the open. It would fester in the ranks of the D’kel, weaving a web of suspicion to haunt and divide.

I recall telling myself; one Vor can not turn an ocean or stem a tide. Hisl courage is a sterile seed, without passion or purpose. The will to win has always lain with the Odanal. If Olana could be found, if T’lu returned, the ultimate victory would still be ours. 

When the fighting ebbed and the course of the battle turned fully to the victorious Odanal, Mose retreated, his mission to bring Syjal to its knees thwarted. So I thought.

‘Do not gloat, Thief,’” Mose told me as he ordered the Hisl withdrawal. ‘We would have been pleased had our assault reduced Syjal, but in truth, we were prepared for less. Sacking Syjal was never our primary goal.’ 

I perceived the assassination of Balkar and the abduction of the Dulara Olana as the goal. To lure T’lu from the city in pursuit while, in his absence, the Vor established itself as a force.

With the battle conceded, a Bujan Sovran and an avan of Hisl brought Qualo transport for Olana and I freeing our hands that we might mount. Olana, dear, brave Olana, struck at her Bujan guard, sent him stumbling against a startled and at once agitated Qualo. The bird began to flap and kick out wildly, killing at least three Hisl died and knocking two more senseless before the Bujan subdued the struggling beast. In that melee, dropped from dead hands, a Hisl sword rattled temptingly at my feet.

I have said I am a statesman, not a swordsman. Still, grabbing up that lost blade, I attacked, shouting at Olana to run. Run for her life. Mose gave quick, curt orders to the Hisl to disarm me. I fought best that I was able. My great revenge accounting for one, lone Hisl. However, in those brief seconds of confusion, Olana had escaped. The last I saw of her she sped towards the Mu' Derj, picking her way through the dead and dying towards freedom.  An angry Mose dispatched an avan of Hisl in pursuit, instructing them, to my utter astonishment, to rendezvous at the K'al Kadre Mor. The balance of Ksanj’s force mounted their Qualo and soared for Amata.


Missing pieces of Destiny’s puzzle snapped neatly into place as I stood, facing Randak. 

Drawing my dagger, I reversed the blade and extended it. He stared open mouthed, then straightened his back and accepted the gesture with grace and dignity, returning it accordingly. 

“To say your are not a warrior does you disservice, Randak. Without regard to your own life, you fought insurmountable odds that your Dulara might have her chance at freedom. That is bravery worthy of the mightiest warrior.”

My eyes shifted to Orjik, fired with a new appreciation for the concern goading the giant redhead. He met my gaze, nodding slightly. He drew his dagger from its shoulder strap and wrapped the heavy handle hard upon the wooden table. It rang, echoing the bitterness of his statement forthcoming. 

“You know now what we ask of ourselves every hour of every day, How many?  How far has Ksanj taken this sorcery!”

Hifel added his voice. “It is a horror overshadowing our every waking moment. After three thousand lur, Ksanj has literally and figuratively changed the face of the war.”

Where the moment might travel, I shall never know. Women appeared as by magic, carrying platters of meats and nuts and drink, including tup, the ale of Jatora. I had only tasted tup once, back upon the steppes of the Val Ponada with T'rk and the Odanal. It impressed me as a powerful brew. I preferred water.

Conversation halted while we tended to our bellies, always a serious concern for fighting men. We adjourned to the Kul Aren. The talk grew light. There was laughter and tall tales of hunting Lajak and fighting Hisl. 

The idle chat and the rhythmic beat of the black waters of Tamora played a gentle refrain for my wearied ears. I inhaled a scent of green moss that hovered in the underground night and felt my ceadar, my soul, relax. We reclined upon soft furs and talked softly. Nor was it long ere warriors slept; some more soundly than others as judged by Kurl’s obtrusive snoring. 

Left, alone, without the distraction of life in the Odar, my thoughts inevitably turned to T’lu, Olana, and my soul flooded with a quick anxiety. Though I assumed, and rightly so, that the Odar had manifold missions afoot centered upon winning the freedom of the Dular and Dulara, I ached to know more of them, to participate, to make a difference. 

Much later, Hifel stirred. It seemed he too had trouble sleeping. Thus, I had the opportunity to broach him for an explanation to his remarkable presence in Tamora, he and Falja. 

“I thought we were Bujan fodder,” the thief-evar said spitting into the black waters of Tamora. “Flar and an avan of Hisl fell upon us the moment you entered the Kiej Dular.”

“Horas,” I shot back. 

Hifel nodded.

“He was with Flar, preening and strutting pompous as any fat-faced Bujan.”

“But he was not at the docks when we . . .”

“Ah, but he was!” Hifel countered. “None of us saw him, but he was there. You recall the room where you hid with the Dulara?”

At once, I understood. The insidious preparedness of Ksanj, the perfidy of the V’koo, Horas. Even at the docks, Ksanj had his secret rooms, his spies, and his methods of coercion. We were defeated before ere we struck a blow. 

“The only fault in his plan,” Hifel observed, “was that you won that battle in the docks. That, Ksanj had not expected. Still, he regrouped quickly as you know and trapped you in the Kiel Aren.”

“How did you two escape?”

“Not escape, rescued. When word of the revolt reached R’li, he suspected the Novevar as the ultimate destination of survivors, if there were any. They were waiting, though our rescue was not without a price.” 

At that moment, R’li sat up and grinned at us from the lorqua glimmering shadows. “If you two are going to babble all night . . .no one will get any rest.”

I laughed. “Frankly, I still have no idea how you know day from night down here, but I suppose I will learn.” My tone grew serious. “And if you are not going to sleep, then I have a few questions for you, too!”

R’li shrugged resignedly. He sensed the uselessness in protest. “Ask your questions, Kdal.”

“How did you find me?”

“To be blunt, by accident. We were looking for T'lu. In that action, we stumbled first upon Randak. Freed, restored to a measure of health, for he was badly beaten and abused, Randak lead us to you. The rest you know.”

“Randak knew where I was held?”

“He had a good idea. We still had to scour several thousand kotan to ferret you out, the smell of dead sisks helped.” R’li grinned.
I studied this man, R'li. He had sat quietly through my earlier indoctrination, in the manner of a skillful leader. Study the situation; evaluate friend and foe alike. An impressive and capable warrior, a strong individual, he reminded me of T’lu.

“And T’lu?”

 “We have scoured the underground novevars of Ksanj until men have collapsed from exhaustion. Wherever Ksanj spirited the O'Odanal, it eludes us.” 

“But the search continues?”

“Without relent, as does hope for Olana. We know the Dulara sits barricaded within the impregnable fortress of the Kiej Dular. If all else fails, we will risk direct assault. We will all die, but better death than what awaits Jatora if we do not stop Ksanj.”

That statement closed the conversation. Soon, all slept but I. My restless mind raced with mounting unease. Concern for my beloved Olana, a love so new it was an agony. 

I rose and paced along the running waters of Tamora, deep in thought. I whirled, growling, startled by the sudden hand upon my shoulder. Randak drew back, startled.

“Sorry, you surprised me. I was thinking.”

“Of T’lu and Olana.”

I nodded. Suddenly, the white of Randak’s eyes were as fireballs. A stare that told me the moccasin was on the other foot; it had become my turn to answer questions. 

“Is there something you want of me?” I ventured. “Something private you dared not introduce before the others?”

“Ksanj is boastful,” Randak began innocuously. “His enormous ego needs continual gratification, and there are few upon this world to whom he may speak freely.”

On this world! Randak said it plainly without contrition. 

“In one of his many visits to my thielhar, before R’li rescued me, he waxed fanciful about you, an I’bar that, from anyone else save Ksanj, I would have dismissed as sheer idiocy.”

“And yet?”

“And yet he evidenced such conviction, such excitement.” 

“Excitement?” I repeated.

“Perhaps agitation would be more accurate. He ranted and raved about your escape.” Randak paused, studying me without hostility, just a slow-burning curiosity. An archer with an arrow to loose. “He brought me to your crypt, a great hole in which he claimed lay the remains of K'si.”

“ ‘A fit companion for such as he,’ Ksanj had crowed. Adding, ‘I shall have to check this place from time to time. Someday, he will return and we will begin again’.”

Randak lowered his eyes. 

“He said it twice. Someday, he will return and we will begin again. I saw your body, Kdal, your chest flayed open by a Hisl sword.”

“Let it pass Randak,” I said, my voice dark and cold as the Tamora, from whose bosom the light of the Val Ponada glanced and shone in steely reflection. “Let it pass.”

“Hifel told all that you are Amar O'Odanal.” Randak paused and smiled. “For that reason I will, as you say, let it pass. But someday I will ask you again of Ksanj’s words. For I believe there exists a connection, a bond between you and the T’ala T’sol that in some is bound up in the destiny of Jatora.”

Randak turned and went to his sleeping furs. I studied him and the slumbering knot of warriors. If voiced, his suspicions would have that grim lot at my throat, certainly Orjik. The friendship, and the trust, of T'lu provided me an inviolate shield, at least for now. Randak would keep silent. As long as my actions befit trust.

Suddenly, I smiled. The remains of K’si! What an incredible irony if true, that the bones of Ksanj’s first and perhaps greatest enemy should have been the means of my salvation over the sisks. 

Through the remainder of the night -- a rhythm I finally deduced the Odar religiously maintained by the extinguishing of the Taz bulbs -- I lay sleepless upon the colorful silks and furs Saja had spread. I thought of T’lu but more often of Olana. 

Where was she? Did she think of me? Those final, frantic moments in the Kiel Aren came back as bandits crossing a dark and deadly dale. The wondrous beauty of the Dulara Olana faded into the contentious sneer of the Ksanj, the T’ala T’sol.

‘Someday, he will return and we will begin again’. 

I shuddered, though I agonized over words so full of possibilities and contradictions it staggered me even to contemplate their meaning, I thought, “Then so be it. Let it begin again, only this time, we will finish our fight, forever.”


The invigorating smell of cooking fires beckoned. The caverns bustled as I made my way back to the Tear Aren to join R’li and the other warriors of Odar.

“Are you feeling strong enough to join my avans?” R’li asked with an easy grin.

“Feed me and I am yours,” I joked.

R’li laughed. “Very well, we will eat and then put you to work, if your keeper permits.”

He pointed to where Saja had entered the cavern, regarding R’li and I with a baleful and clearly disapproving eye.

“She will raise the Winds of Ana if I unchain you from her tender administrations before she things your are ready.”


He leaned close to my ear. “Choose your words carefully, she has spies everywhere!”

We laughed and Saja, adding clairvoyance to her other abilities, quickly produced a breakfast of mixed meat and porridge, the meat I learned being a variety of small saurian the Odar netted from Tamora. We ate together, I relishing every morsel of the delectable stew, which delighted Saja no end. When it came time to talk of serious things, to my surprise, R’li bid Saja remain. I soon learned why.

“Nearly two thousand years ago, in the vektal-ridden rooms that dot the ancient city above, a small group of escaped podar, seeking safety in the gutted edifices of Amata, discovered a set of rotted maps. Maps that detailed an intricate but deserted network of docks and tunnels far below their burned-out homes. These ancient blueprints, the d'alpol, were the keys to the establishment of this subterranean protal and remain, to the this day, a revered treasure, solemnly guarded.”

R'li told me his real name was E'da. R’li had been the name of first Van of the Odar. A designation assumed by each successive Van. A bit of gamesmanship aimed at blunting the mystique of their dreaded and deathless nemesis. A simple tool but a good one.

Of all the admirable qualities in the Odar, none so kindled a kindred flame in the collective memory than their sense of C'lar, the Jatoran word for destiny. R’li, and all his people, held a steadfast conviction that, if they kept chipping away, piece by piece, like an artist working a block of granite, the empire of Ksanj must fall.

T'lu was a prisoner lost in the bowels of Amata. Syjal balanced precariously on precipice of collapse with the Vor Randak in command. The long shadow of the final obscenity, the Jo' dulak of Ksanj to the Dulara Olana hung over their heads a grim cloud that would crush a less hardy breed. Through it all, the Odar clung to their belief in the C’lar. Their faith was unshakeable.

R’li nodded surreptitiously to Saja her and she departed, moving with fixed purpose to her stride.

“I want you to spend time with Saja today.” The Odar Van noticed my grimace and smiled easily. “Don’t worry, I’ll see she is unarmed! Come, walk with me and I will explain.”

We moved into the Redke Aren. R'li paused at the sight of a young boy, an Amatan child, bald of head and chin, for the cherished Aal was a function of puberty, brandishing a diminutive longsword of polished wood with which he skewered an invisible foe.

“U'rl,” R’li cried, his eyes sparkling. “How many Hisl this day?”

The boy's head snapped around from the empty air he battled. “A warrior does not count his conquests,” U'rl challenged with so much seriousness for one so young. R'li laughed.

“Spoken with Halm.”

The boy beamed brightly and returned to his jousting.

“My sister’s boy and, unless I marry, the next R’li.”

Today shadows, tomorrow ghosts. Young U'rl stood as a grim reminder of the urgency of life here. The harsh future should the Odar fail.
“You were saying something about Saja?”

“Of course. If you are to survive here, and be of use to us, you must learn our underground world. Saja is one of three Odar trained from childhood to translate encrypted copies of the d'alpol. She will be your teacher.”

“Who are the other two?”

“I, and I alone, will ever know that.”

I needed no explanation of that sound precaution.

We talked a bit more as R’li toured the cavern, a daily routine for the busy Van. Inspecting weapons and supplies, the caches of food and medicine built against all circumstances common and uncommon of war. On the tiered arval of the underground Potral, women moved to the routine needs of life in the Odar. They wove new silks or mended old ones, cleaned furs and harnesses scrubbed their Broqua cooking pots free of the morning meal. An orderly and purposeful cadence, for everyone in Tamora had duties. Everyone contributed.

Falja approached with Saja pressed at his heels, a bundle of weather-beaten documents folded tight to her breast. The D'alpol, the maps of the Odar caverns. I noticed that around Falja, Saja smiled pleasantly. She could be very attractive when she tried.

Falja greeted me with a rough slap that nearly broke my neck. The sweat of a hard journey glistened on his white skin. He pulled R'li aside. They whispered urgently for a few moments, R'li nodding often.

“I have responsibilities to attend,” R'li announced. “I shall send for you later. We go Hisl hunting today and I expect you will want to join us.”

With that, R'li bid us Katal and strode away. Falja followed, but not before exchanging a surreptitious wink with Saja. I smiled, happy for the big D’Notan, and for Saja, though I dared not voice any sentiments that might bring her cooking pots down upon the head.

“Hisl hunting?” I asked of Saja.

“You will find out, if you pay attention and learn. Though I doubt you have the brains to comprehend much beyond sword and dagger.”

The Saja I knew and loved had returned.

We repaired to a quiet corner at the northeast end of the cavern, away from the river where most of the populace gathered in their allotted leisure time. Saja spread her hand-tooled copies of the old parchment maps upon a bed of furs. She motioned me to sit.

“Your first question,” she began with a grim smile, “is why we do not use these maps to leave Amata.”

I laughed at her perceptiveness. I had wondered.

“Because there is no Halm in retreat?”

“A wise answer,” Saja said with a strong display of white teeth. “And not without elements of truth, Kdal. But there is more. Ksanj commands the Tamor as you command your longsword. He has damning mechanisms installed all along the river. Their primary function is to regulate the tides, necessary to the maintenance of Bujan commerce, though I am probably overly generous calling it commerce. Mostly it is rape and plunder; but sometimes they trade. The Bujan are users only Kdal, they produce nothing. What the podar can not grow or cultivate the Bujan must get elsewhere.”

“You say they trade. With whom?”

“Chiefly with the Agala. They give Ksanj what he wants or he sends the Hisl to take it. He also deals with the Camtar, for when the Bujan fail him, those scoundrels do not.”

Saja explained the precarious perch the Odar had on life, here, miles beneath the shimmering summit of the Val Ponada. Where Ksanj to open the floodgates beneath Amata, everything that lived upon the bosom of the lost river, mightiest Tagor to the Odar, would drown beneath the inundating waters of Tamor. She called it Valcar, the demon flood.

“You could shut down those damns,” I suggested.

“That war,” Saja huffed at me, eyes expressive, “continues daily. R'li and his warriors have slain a thousand Hisl and shut down a hundred locks. We destroy; Ksanj rebuilds. To us it is life and death. To Ksanj, it is just a game.”

Her head turned slowly over her shoulder, to where the slow, nomadic waters of Tamora drifted through the heart of the sleeping caverns of the Odar. I saw a flicker in Saja's eyes, a veiled suggestion of terror that told me the depth of fear held for the Valcar.

“Over the centuries, we have come to accept that part of our C’lar.”

“And now,” I finished for Saja, “most would rather die, here, in this great underground of yours, than abandon the fight.”

“R'li's dream is to depart Amata riding the back of a great Qualo. A victory flight. Ksanj dead, the city fallen and reclaimed by the Odanal of Jatora!” Her eyes cleared; drew calm. “But come, we have studying to do!”

I lay no claim to an aptitude for geography. Learning the labyrinth underground world of the Odar proved tedious and difficult. But Saja's tutelage was relentless. Despite my shortcomings, we progressed rapidly; and Saja grew pleased.

“You are bright for a warrior,” she commented. And though I felt distinctly obtuse, I graciously accepted the compliment.

We had squatted, focused and isolated from the rest of the world, for many hours. Long enough that I now proclaimed a ravenous hunger, and a need to stretch my legs. After much wrinkling of her nose, Saja yielded.

“I shall bring you back something healthy to eat. You are not so healed as you pretend!”

Carefully folding her maps and placing them in a woven basket at her back, Saja move off with the stern admonition that I should stay put. However, I am a restive blade. The caverns of the Odar offered too many distractions. Curiosity drew me like a fish to a baited hook.

In the Redke Aren, the hard schooling of Saja produced immediate dividends. Straightaway, I recognized many of the hieroglyphic-like markings upon the walls, designations of the branching tunnels that scored the Redke Aren. Passages through which, men and women streamed carrying raw materials in and newly forged weapons out. Nor did ever I hear a word of complaint amongst them. They absorbed the taxing weights and long hours with pleasant smiles and always a friendly “Katal,” as we passed.

I heard my name called. A tiny voice that I recognized immediately. I faced about to see little J'le running towards me, giggling with unrepressed delight, N'tu and J'll a step or two behind. When they caught up, J'le had already built up a full head of steam.

“See K'may, isn't he handsome! Kdal and I are going to be jo' lak when I am old enough. He thinks I am beautiful.”

If I looked embarrassed, J'll and N'tu were kind enough not remark upon it.

“J'le!” her mother admonished. “I have told you not to make such assumptions! Kdal might have a mate already.”

J'le looked at me with the biggest, saddest eyes I had ever seen. “Do you? Do you have a jo' lak?” she asked, her voice a bare whisper.
“No, I do not have a jo' lak,” I said honestly.

J'le brightened. She looked like a flower unfolding on a warm spring day.       “You see,” she chortled. “Everything is all right now.”

“Well then,” N'tu said with a most serious frown, “we shall have to make plans. Tell me Kdal, do you have property? My J'le should marry a man of possessions.”

“Do you prefer white or red for your colors?” J'll chimed in, both of them apparently enjoying my predicament. While I had no inkling to Amatan wedding customs, I perceived the good humor in their faces and the cheerful banter nourished my soul. Within striking distance of the degradation and terror of Ksanj, love, family, hope and dreams survived, as they survived tyranny everywhere.

Nearly carrying J’le, she did not want to leave her prospective groom, N'tu and his family took their leave. The parents off to continue preparations for a war that never ended, preparations the youthful J'le attended for the hours of innocence and the time for play in Tamora where all too brief.

As they withdrew, J’le threw a kiss over her shoulder. I could not help myself; I threw one back. Her cheeks puffed and went red as rubies as she disappeared into an adjoining tunnel.

Soon after, still smiling, I found Hifel in a secluded corner of the Redke Aren. He perspired mightily over a large, black pot suspended from a metal tripod over a roaring fire. Within the pot, the reason for his isolation, a noxious mixture that boiled as a witch’s cauldron.
“What is that? Fuil?” I said with an exaggerated cough as a particularly odorous smattering wafted my direction.

The Thief-evar raised his aquiline features from deep inside his putrid pot, apparently unaware of the awful reek. “Kdal, it is good to see you!”

Suddenly, his eyes darkened. He raised a slim finger and pointed towards the main entrance of the Redke Aren.

“You bring trouble.”

I whirled with a hand upon my sword, ready. Even here, in the apparent peace and solitude of the Odar I trusted Destiny to bring the fight to Kdal. However, the vision that had so perturbed Hifel, was Saja, scowling savagely, stomping across the room, warriors scurrying from her path. She carried a platter of meat and gourd of water.

“Katal, Thief-evar Hifel,” she said respectfully, eyes flashing at me. “I knew he would be here. I made enough for two. You will rest a moment and eat?”

She said it politely, but it was an order, which I believe only Saja could have made Hifel obey.

“Thank you, Saja. I am rather hungry,” Hifel said setting his labors aside.

“You and I,” she said to me, “shall talk later!”

Saja moved off, though the black cloud she hauled could start a downpour.

“She makes Falja very happy,” Hifel noted nonchalantly, motioning me to a small table with two chairs. Just far enough away from his poison pot that we could eat without choking.

“Somehow, I sense my experience with Saja will be less fulsome.” We laughed together and I asked,  “So, just what kind of a contaminate are you brewing here?”

Hifel downed a strip of meat and poured us each a cup of water. “Hope, my young warrior, hope. “Ksanj is not the only evar upon Jatora!”” Hifel radiated pride and a healthy hint of ego not previously seen. It sat well on his elderly shoulders. However, before he could expound on the deleterious stew bubbling in his pot, Gale approached.

“I apologize for the intrusion, Thief-Evar Hifel, but . . .”

“You have found a luveva!” Hifel finished, leaping to his feet and growing visibly excited.

“Yes, a renegade, too!” Gale said it with vigor.

Hifel, eyes shining brightly, turned to me and said, “You wanted to know about my experiments, well, you came at a most fortunate moment, Kdal. Today, we hunt Hisl!”


Hunt Hisl!

I could not even begin to absorb the interpretation of that phrase. That it involved the Hisl and that it most likely involved fighting, I surmised. Beyond that, I needed to wait on Hifel to unwind an explanation.

With Gale departed, Hifel set to work upon his bubbling potion with great earnest. On a wood table set behind his bubbling bowl of stink, he arranged a row of silver globes. Each rounded sphere the size of a man's fist and fashioned from Malnor, the wondrous glassy by-product of the sands coating Anor's shores. Hifel explained that though Malnor is colorless, the globes acquired their silvery appearance from a thin coating of Aspar paste.

“The Aspar,” Hifel explained as I watched him cap the globes, “keeps the Ryka reasonably stable until it is ignited.”

“Ignited,” I said quickly. “This mixture then, is Ryka?”

Hifel, exhibiting extreme caution, began spooning the soupy concoction into the silver vessels which, gorged with the dusky Ryka, darkened perceptibly. The care he took, and the level of concentration upon his face, spoke eloquently to the nature of the Ryka.

“It is a weapon,” I blurted.

Hifel looked up and regarded me. His normally fierce and piercing eyes growing distant and introspective. “How do you define a weapon, Kdal, by how many people it kills?

But, you are correct. It is a weapon. More precisely, an ancient evil raised anew to maim and butcher in the name of peace. The rock, club, fire and now the Ryka, invention escalating war in the hope of ending it.”

“War is inherent,” I said simply.

“Yes, philosophically, concede that. But as a civilized people, the nations of Jatora, under K’si and Vopar, learned to suspend the passions that drove men to fight. We achieved peace. Ages ago, as written the great I’bar, the Odanal passed laws that restricted our stupidly and violence. Our aggressive natures channeled into peaceful pursuits. K’si and Vopar left just enough fighting to keep Amata and Syjal from each other’s throat.” Hifel spat, vehemently. “When the law was broken, punishment was swift and irrevocable. And it begot us what? Ksanj, and three thousand lur of death and servitude. So long as there live two men, one shall covet more than the other. Both shall seek the greater riches, and one will win and one will lose.”

“And the loser shall seek his revenge.”

“And then there will be one. And the wars will end.”

I had not heretofore seen this side of Hifel. Nor was it long before I realized why such passions flamed his judgement of the Ryka.
As to his statement of an ancient evil, Hifel explained how, when first brought to the Odar caverns, the Odar showed him many of the ancient Amatan documents preserved here. Among them, lay the blueprints for the Ryka, the use of which had been whispered of in I’bars older even than K’si and Vopar, from the Dar’ Alur.

The Ryka was an incendiary device scuttled by the laws of the Odanal; its science lost to the antiquities but now resurrected by the brilliant and energetic Thief from Syjal who hoped it might yet tip the balance of power to the Odanal.

“R’li, Orjik, those of the counsel, they begged I do this. For the Odanal, in the name of Ana.”

A begrudging smile snaked the corners of my mouth. No science of my collective memory had ever built a deliberately destructive force. They always created for the betterment of mankind, for the satisfaction of scientific curiosity. It was the Profiteers and the Zealots who despoiled the good science would do, though more so the zealots for they controlled the masses.

In the name of Ana! But then, when have science and religion not been at odds?

We had twelve globes. Hifel carefully stored eight in a fur lined wooden chest by his work area. The remaining four he carried in the sack now slung over his right shoulder.

Best I could understand, the Ryka, when detonated, burned with an intense, consuming heat and foul smelling flame. In the ancient wars, warriors fired Ryka canisters from great slings or dropped them from diving Qualo.

“It was a dangerous weapon, Kdal. Although, like any fire, extinguishable with sufficient amounts of water, the phosphorus qualities could re-ignite a day, a month, or even years later, given sufficient force applied against them. In storage, the corks used to seal the carriers are prone to corrosion. Premature explosions vaporized many a friendly avan. My Aspar lining is an improvement, still, K’si and Vopar did well to ban it from manufacture.”

Hifel explained the Ryka reacted to violent stimulus like a tuning fork to sound. Strong vibrations triggering the explosion.

“It does not take much,” he said with devilish smile. Raising his right arm, he made a throwing motion. “Boom!”

I instinctively took a step backward. Hifel laughed.

“Fret not, the Aspar should keep us safe, provided I do not fall into a hole or the Val Ponada suffers a major quake. Now, make ready. We leave at once.”

I hastened back to my furs to collect my longsword and dagger, my heart beating in earnest. The scent of adventure, long overdue, blew strong in my nostrils. Sufficiently recovered from my ordeal in the pits, I felt eager to stretch my muscles and feel the hot sweat of action on my brow.

Strapping on my harness, I noticed the lid of Saja’s basket askew. With concern, for I had been told to stay and watch over them d’alpol, I inspected the contents. With relief, I found the maps as Saja had left them. I secured the cover properly and, the matter dismissed, joined the Odar.

Lead by R'li, an avan of warriors moved off at sharp pace through the twisting caverns of this underground world. Even with the newly acquired details of the d'alpol fresh in my mind, the march brought quick disorientation. We went up, we went down, we went left, and we went right. I struggled to follow. No hint of hesitation in his steady gait, R'li strode confidently though the beleaguering maze of corridors, but with eyes that moved constantly, wary, searching, always searching.

Though my time amongst the sisks lay fresh in my memory, I realized the enemy R’li sought lived not in shadows but in sun. Great hairy bodies that went upright upon buckled legs carrying weapons of honed metal, creatures as silent as disease and equally deadly.

As the march lengthened, I pressed Hifel for a greater explanation of our impending adventure, which unfolded as a remarkable and absorbing narrative into the creation of the Hisl.

“The Hisl are artificially enhanced Vlis, a blood-sucking insect spawned in the steamy marshes of the Mis Lew, south of Syjal. Ksanj, in a manner unknown to even the most brilliant of Jatora's modern evars, had continually experimented upon these vermin and, after many years, achieved a genetic mutation that steadily gained in size, strength and dexterity. At first, enough only to hold an object. But eventually, to run, to battle, to wield a weapon with deadly proficiency. Invested with only the rudimentary intelligence of the indigenous species, bereft of all sentiment and fears, the Hisl made the perfect army. They followed orders blindly, to the death.”

The Hisl, Hifel noted, retained the asexual nature of the Vlis. They bred independently.

“Many of my colleagues believe the Hisl are the true P'dare Mor of the Vlis. They speculate that, had Ksanj left their genesis to Ana, the Hisl would have evolved naturally.”

“As the Kiida Hon djar man?”

“Yes, exactly. The Hisl, as the Vlis, procreate in cocoons, the luveva. They shed their luveva by excreting a powerful corrosive that dissolves the sack and releases the newly born creature. The corrosive is part of their genes”

What Hifel actually said was the hondrama d'jar j' tehn. The cellular map that determines life, which, in the case of the Hisl and the Bujan, Ksanj had altered to his own devious desires.

“Within the Hisl j' tehn, Kdal, Ksanj harvests the chemical basis for his gopal, the undisclosed formula for Tal Lodinar that drives Bujan immortality, and their deformities. Perhaps it is related to the accelerated glandular condition in the Hisl, though no amount of Hisl dissection has ever revealed the key to unlocking, and thereby preventing, Hisl reproduction.”

It pleased me Hifel shared these thoughts with me. My mind wound backwards to our first meeting, upon the bosom of Tamor, and the skepticism that greeted my I’bar of resurrection. I noticed we lagged. “If we do not hurry, R'li will leave us behind.”

“Not likely, I have the Ryka.”

          Moving in silence now, I organized the intricacies Hifel had lain before me. Each Vlis carried individual reproductive codes. Ksanj, by a science known only to him, had introduced a mutated gene into the Vlis and produced the Hisl. In turn, he extracted from the Hisl the genetic material for his Bujan gopal.

A distant vision filled me. An army, an army of red ants the size of horses, with all the ingenuity, strength, tenacity and violence of that species intact, manifold many hundreds of times. What havoc, what horror, would such a force wreck upon the world of your reality?
Such was the force Ksanj has thrown again the peoples of Jatora.

A shudder shook my shoulders at the uncontrolled genius of Ksanj and the terror, death, and lingering subjugation that genius had wrought. The sorrow that forever follows when man plays God. A sudden scurrying sound at my left broke my reveries.

For reasons known only to Ana, the universe seems to have settled on a standard appearance -- and personality -- for rodents. Black noses, red eyes, pink skins. Whiskers at one end, disproportionately long tail at the other. Though upon Jatora, Nature had assigned these vektals hairless, transparent bodies analogous to the Kiida, but managing to be somehow more repellent than those distant dwellers of the Mu Derj. Perhaps because they lacked the dignity of the others mighty wings, or the facility to walk erect in a semblance of humanity.
“They have tunnels everywhere,” Hifel noted casually as the vektals slipped form view through a variety of halls in the rocky walls. He launched a rather prodigious discharge at their disappearing tails and moved on.

I studied the wiry frame of the Thief-Evar; his sack of Ryka carried delicately over his shoulder. Still in the dark as to how the Ryka would change the course of the war, I commenced to form a picture, a picture replete with more death, more suffering, and more men playing God.

Hifel was right, there is but a single criteria for judging a weapon. How many will it kill!

The tunnel ahead dipped and angled downward, turning left. I tried to establish bearings but we had traversed far beyond my meager education.

“We are close,” Hifel whispered tersely as we followed the gradual slope of the tunnel. “Soon, we shall arrive at the Ku’ luveva.”

A Ku’luveva, but the way, meant a renegade breeding ground or nest. There are simply far too many Hisl upon Jatora for Ksanj to account for them all. Disoriented in battle, or simply lost while scouring the underground in search of the Odar, separated from their kind, they seek out their own fetid existences. When they come of age to reproduce, they form a Ku' luveva. Hifel noted Ku' luveva could contain as many as a thousand Hisl.

“What I find astonishing, is the long-term effect of the hondrama d'jar j' tehn. Any Hisl from a Ku’ luveva coming upon a Hisl of the empire, is immediately absorbed into the body, as though born with a homing instinct to serve Ksanj.”

“How do you know for a certain it is a Ku' luveva?”

Hifel paused in his stride and smacked me across the top of my head.

“No Bujan guards!”

For the Odar, Hisl hunting was a battle without end, without hope of end. A fact Hifel sought to change on a grand a scale. Until today, the Odar hunted with brawn and blade, courageous, yes, but a tedious, slow and ineffective tactic against the rabid spread of the Hisl. And even a dead Hisl contained all the genetic codes Ksanj required. A bone fragment, a fingernail, a scrap of hair, even the ash of skin, all Ksanj needed to ferment his Bujan gopal and continue his desecration of Jatora.

No fire known could consume every vestige of a living organism. A truism Hifel sought this day to change.

Suddenly, I spotted a wall designation I knew. Aren 234, kul number one, only two levels below where we started. R’li announced that sixteen levels below this one lay our destination. He had marched us in a great circle. To confuse and confound any unseen enemy lurking in the dim corners of these forgotten mines I never doubted. I smiled, not at the cunning of the Odar leader, but at the tactful reminder of the depth and duration of their war.

The sloping corridor ended at a blank wall, a dead-end.

“Now, we go down,” R’li announced.

“A mining shaft,” Hifel said, anticipating my question. He pointed to the left edge of the wall where several warriors worked at a large stone projecting at a stiff right angle from the wall. “Well concealed. Like the opening through which we entered Amata from Tamor.”

On ancient Broqua hinges that groaned as an old man forced to rise from his bed, the rock swung out to reveal a dark shaft that bore straight down into the depths of the inner mountain. I edged forward and peered into the shaft, dimly lit by lorqua-veined walls. I perceived a ladder, weathered and ancient, driven into the wall via a series of sharpened metal pegs. A waft of air, harsh, offensive, and smelling of Hisl, blew up from the invisible nadir below. I drew sharply back from the offending smell.

“The luveva,” R'li offered.

“That much I guessed!” I returned with a dour smile.

“T'an!” R'li turned to his Ul van, a strapping fellow with the long scar of a Jal lash across his right cheek. “Remain here. Pick two men.” Then in a loud voice to the rest of us, “Single file, I will lead. Hifel, stay in the middle. If you fall, then perhaps only half of us will be killed.”
Hifel protested. His lament drowned under the laughter of the Odar. Joining in the merriment, I hooked the Thief-evar by his elbow, silently bidding him stay at my side.

One at time, all that the narrow rungs allowed, we descended into the increasingly bitter bite of the Hisl breeding ground. At each of the sixteen levels, intersecting corridors branched right or left from the main shaft and at each, R'li left a warrior. He took no chances.

Rusted and abandoned tools and apparatus strew those bisecting corridors. Equipment from an industrious Amatan civilization, long stilled. How easily I imagined the crisp bustle of mining activity, the swift passage of man and conveyance moving along endless miles of track and tunnel below the city. The heights Amata had attained; the depths to which she plunged!

Of our original complement of twenty-five, only R'li, Hifel, two warriors and I, exited upon Level 17. R'li immediately ordered one of those warriors to descend to level 18. No risk unaccounted for above or below.

We stood in a broad corridor that ran fifty-kotal back into the mountain. A dozen paces ahead, it spilled onto a narrow ledge that ran in a half-moon arc around a yawning chasm. A bottomless shaft, so deep, that even the lorqua gleam faded and was lost in the distant depths. The narrow catwalk circled left. No more than three feet at its widest.

Below the crater rim, shielded from my vision, rose a strange gurgling noise my mind married to the odious, overpowering stench of the luveva. I fought to keep my head clear and my senses fixed. A false step . . .

We advanced cautiously, stepping gingerly out the cave mouth onto the ledge. Our backs pressed firm to the rough shale of the walls, we commenced to circle right around the rim. The reek of the Hisl luveva devastated my equilibrium. A sense of queasiness suffused me. Nor was I alone. Hifel looked white as winter.

At about fifty feet, the curve of the ledge brought us opposite the entrance wall, affording me my unforgettable first glimpse of a Hisl luveva.

It covered the underbelly of the ledge a slimy, monstrous fabrication, a living wall pulsing of gray ooze and breathing in a rhythmic cadence, pumping, as some immense feral heart seething in evil, inherently vile, buckling my legs. My senses shot with a feeling of revulsion I wanted to run, to flee the sight of it. I stood with naked feet upon hot desert sand.

Hifel had not prepared me. How could he?

The rows of luveva occupied an area fully fifty-by-fifty; clinging to the stark gray-brown rock with powerful mucilage seeped from their filmy membranes. Inside the mucous housings, Hisl grew two per sack. The Hisl always bred in pairs, twins, evolved from one giant embryo, self-dividing. Each cocoon containing two, distinct Hisl fetus.

A Hisl spun the luveva, molted and died, its body eaten by its own acidic blood. Two are born, pernicious pairs of terror advancing towards a soulless birth with the singular purpose of killing Jatorans.

My blood raced. The stench of their cadaverous reproduction spilled over me like nailed fingers scratching a sour harp. I estimated a two hundred sacks clinging to the walls. Two hundred sacks, four hundred Hisl.

“We are fortunate,” R'li said to me in a tone ruffled by emotion. “It is a large nest.”

“Yes,” Hifel agreed, “and very near to juva.”

“How can you tell that?” I asked.

He pointed with a trembling hand. Was it the vision of these hideous nests or the importance of our mission that set his nerves tingling?
“Their size. The Hisl within this luveva are full-grown. We have come at a propitious time!”

“Let us be about our business!” R'li growled. His voice quivered. Clearly, this place, this den of iniquity, distressed the Odar. Fear thrust forward from a primal level. “There is no air in here that I can or care to breathe.”

To that, I heartily agreed. Beyond the tangible stink of the fetid Hisl lurked an ethereal evil that clutched our throats, suffocating. It tested our resolve.

Hifel removed the sack from his shoulder and handed it to me. “Hold still,” he warned. I did not move a muscle as he gingerly withdrew one shimmering silver orb from the shadow of its resting-place.

R'li, war-hard and battle-tough, dropped to a knee. He watched Hifel through eyes wide and fixed, fingers entwined before his lips. Whether in expectation or prayer, there wasn't time to ask.

“For the Odanal!”

Without hesitation or ceremony, Hifel hurled the globe. We held our collective breath as the hope of a world flew across the intervening distance in a gentle arc, seeming to bend and curl in the thick, humid air. For an eternity, it soared. How could it move so slowly? How could it spin so perfectly, yet never close the distance between our ledge and the luveva? Though a more sage inner voice assured me that I contemplated an illusion, the moment remained compellingly hypnotic.

The Ryka struck the luveva dead center and shattered into a million, twinkling flakes of colored light. A waterfall of color that cascaded down the spun sheets of rotting j' tehn and spread over the pulsing mounds of Hisl flesh in eerie silence. That starkly prevalent silence that occupies the seconds between impact and explosion, a hush that filled my mind with a surge of buried memories, other wars and other weapons, and a powerful premonition.

Then, with a roar for the ages, the Ryka erupted!

An explosion that was as boiling oil and shrieking steam dropped from stormed bastions. White flame shot upward and an intense heat drove across the intervening distance with unprecedented swiftness. I felt the fine-hair of my arms singe and curl. My face burned as if thrust into an open fire. Had the full fury of that force been outward, it would have incinerated us all.

Even so, that terrific blast pinned our quartet to the narrow ledge. With my eyes forced shut, head turned away from the hurtful glare, I felt like char on the walls of an oven.

But now, its initial ferocity spent, the fury of the Ryka receded in to a licking, consuming inferno climbing swiftly upwards. Eyes open now, I watched as it engulfed every last vestige of the luveva and its heinous contents. Nothing survived the wrath of the Ryka. Not bone, nor hair. No shred of skin. Hifel had used the word vaporized in describing the ancient use of the Ryka. I had thought it but a casual expression. Nothing could have been more apropos.

If Ksanj were to stumble upon this hidden place, there would be no reclamation of Hisl life, no harvesting of gopal. Hifel and his Ryka had effected a total and complete annihilation of the luveva.

I saw that the remaining warrior witness inched towards the interior corridor and knew word of Hifel’s success relayed up the shafts to eager, waiting ears.

Quickly now, R’li summoned the man sent down to level eighteen. The moment his head topped the sunken well, the Van, lips stern, no outward semblance of joy detectable in his voice or manner, ordered our departure.

“This is a great day for the Odar,” I ventured.

“Hifel has done well,” R’li agreed. “But I have an uneasy feeling that will not be quelled until we are home and the Ryka safely stored and guarded.”

I studied R'li closely. I understood his emotions. Good leaders are short on celebration and long on preparedness. To his mind, the success of the day still hinged on a safe return to Tamora.

By the light of the dying Ryka we made our cautious way from the exterminated luveva, gathering our party of happy, smiling warriors.  R'li pressed for speed and the faster we climbed, the more his emotions intensified. Hifel finally brought R'li up upon charges of being an O' boor -- the nearest translation being a party poop!

“Forgive me, but I have lived in these caverns since birth. Though I have no tangible support for my apprehension, the hairs of my Aal tingle against my chin. A itch I have learned to heed.”

I have long held that of all the creatures of the cosmos, to man went the honor of least perceptive. The sensory world about him is a closed book. Poets of other worlds write in vainglorious rhetoric that praises reason for human supremacy over the beasts. I maintain it is intuition. Without that sixth sense, we, as a species, would have expired long ago.

Suddenly, though I had no Aal, my own chin tingled, even as I heard R’li whispering fiercely, “We are being watched!”

The Odar Van kept us moving, though his eyes darted right and left, lids drawn under a brooding brow. We passed naught but stone wall, still, we all felt it now, foreign eyes, hostile and of ill intent lurked close to hand. I thought of the Tamor, of hidden springs and secret passages, and increased my vigilance.

The Odar drew ranks as R’li ordered war formation, a stratagem unique to the underground battlefield of the Odar. Two warriors pushed ahead while two lagged behind. At intervals of a thousand kotan, one from each pair returned and reported. Another dispatched to replace him.

The rotation gave the Odar a synchronous flow of eyes and ears, fore and aft. Break the timing of that circle and the alarm sounded. Presently, it became my turn to scout forward. Drawing sword, I raced ahead and joined with an Amatan, Lon. We walked, nay, tiptoed through the silent cavern, alert and watchful.

The faintly glowing walls of black, brown and gold encrusted rock offered no indication life other than our own existed anywhere below the streets of the unseen city above. I heard our heartbeats and the rasp of creaking leather, the scratch of scabbard rubbing against body and harness, nothing more, though the prickling sense of unseen eyes persisted.

At length, possessed of some inbred clock, Lon spun on a heel and headed back. At the same instant, from a sharp right turn ten kota ahead, streamed the Hisl. Giant locusts sprung from a rock garden.

Lon immediately reversed field to engage. As quickly, I put myself between he and the Hisl and screamed, “Get R'li!”

“I will fight,” he cried pushing past me. “The rhythm of the watch is broken, R'li and the Odar will not be far behind, we must hold the battle here.”

The horde upon us, I could only trust to the superior experience of the Odar.  Parrying a thrust, I struck down the nearest Hisl and watched it die with a salacious sense of satisfaction. Too long the blood of Mecca had lain silent.

I do not attempt to justify the brutal nature of my existence. No more than I can deny my heritage.

My flailing longsword filled the narrow cavern. I cut a Hisl chin to chest and charged hard into the compacted swarm. Startled by the unexpected attack, the vermin gave ground. A space opened between us. I grabbed Lon by the harness and screamed in his ear, pointing.
“R’li must be told!”

Lon saw, turned and ran. I stayed, ready to fight, ready to die, facing the horrific sight of a Bujan Van skulking behind the heaving Hisl clutching a black-leather sack to his hairy chest. A sack holding the future, the hopes, and the Destiny of Jatora falling dashed and shattered upon the rocky shoals of deceit and deception.

Protruding from the sack, eight round silver globes!


I hacked through the Hisl with frantic urgency; eyes set upon the pilfered Ryka. That these were the eight globes left behind by Hifel there could be no argument. Though, how Ksanj managed the theft, how he even divined their existence, lay beyond my limited powers.

In the space of a dozen cuts, a dozen thrusts, half the Hisl dovan tasted the poisonous bite of my blade. With frantic vocal encouragement, the Bujan tried to rally his horde but I would not be stopped. I drew within arm’s length of the Bujan Van ere the filthy, thieving lout realized the tide flowed against him.

He was the target, not I.

Cursing loudly, the lone voice amongst that silent avan, he ordered a retreat. Quandary filled me. Stay or pursue? Risk distancing myself from the R’li, Hifel, and the Odar or stand resting upon my naked blade while the Ryka disappeared.

The tap of nailed feet receding into the distance more than I could countenance, I threw caution to whatever wild wind Fate blew in my face and launched after the Hisl. At a dozen yards I stumbled and nearly went down across a Hisl carcass, a latent casualty of our deadly swordplay, oozing blood. An idea surfaced.

Without emotion, I crudely hacked a bony arm from the dead beast and ran on, the repulsive thing brandished before me, splotching the walls of the cavern with fresh gore at strategic intervals. A mad artist, painting a trail for the Odar to follow.

Though my tactic cost me precious moments, I had reason for optimism. While the Hisl were strong runners capable of deceptive speed, the Bujan moved as thickening cement. I should overtake the Ryka quickly. But, as nearly a mile of corridors and tunnel spun passed without sign of Hisl, Bujan, or shimmering globes, confidence retreated.

I strained my ears forward, but no sounds beyond my own breathing played in the echoing tunnels. At length, winded and worried, I drew to a halt, cast my grizzly trophy from me in disgust, and inventoried my situation.

I had missed a turn, or more likely one of the confounded secret devises and corridors peppering the Val Ponada. No other explanation seemed probable. Emulating Hifel, I spit upon the cavern floor and as I raised the questioned what next, Fate answered.

A disquieting, crunching noise sounded ahead. A noise was foreign to me. I advanced cautiously, sword ready, suspect of a Bujan trap, but prepared for any contingency known or unknown, except perhaps that which greeted my startled senses.

Round a bend in the path, I came suddenly upon a knot of vektals gnawing ravenously upon the near skeleton remains of a Hisl. The sight of its blood and flesh visibly coursing their internal organs, shading their already pinkish hue bright crimson, turned my stomach. I wanted to wretch.

For their part, the vektals paid me no heed, greedily devouring the grizzly remains, fur and all, oblivious of my intrusion. Not so much as a whisker flicked or tail twitched. They either did not see me or simply did not care, but I saw them and one above all others.

A vektal with its head swathed in fresh, white bandages!

The rodent’s appearance screamed at me with fiery singularity. I considered their ghoulishly thin skin and I thought of stray comments heard from Hifel. You did not have to dissect a vektal. It was living anatomy exceedingly useful if you were the T’ala T’sol of Jatora!
Acting without consideration, I stepped among them, stomping my feet and waving my arms. As the vektal had no ears, either under the skin or otherwise, I did not waste my time shouting. My actions had the desired result. The feasting ceased and the rodents bared fangs. Angry whistling filled the cavern. Then, true to the disposition of rats of every world, they turned and fled squealing down the corridor.

I followed, eyes locked upon the bandaged vektal, the rag of white cloth streaming from its head a beckoning flag. That this creature was merely some insignificant vermin, injured, found and mended by a benevolent Amatan soul, defied credibility. No! My heart recognized Destiny’s hand and my feet followed.

Amid my frequent and earnest struggles to garner meaning from the nothingness of my incarnations, there have been moments when the shadows of memory echo distinctly. A reverberation of vague horrors and forbidden things confronted and survived, and now suddenly faced again. A powerful sensation I should know what is about to happen, and how to react.

You may call it déjà vu, it may help you to understand something of the feelings haunting my steps as I raced after the scurrying pack of rodents speeding through a dozen twisted passages, outwardly without purpose or end. A wearisome race for, barely recuperated from the sisks, further drained from the battle with the Hisl, my already depleted resources drained quickly. If the Vektal did not slowdown or stop soon I would of necessity have to abandon the chase.

Even as I thought this, the horde turned left and swarmed into seemingly solid rock, gone with the suddenness of lost breath. I closed the distance and dropped to my belly at the spot where the last rodent vanished, he of the trussed head. A small opening loomed in the rock. Stretched prone, I peered into the hole hoping for a glimpse of my quarry and, wonder of wonders, though mixed with the noxious scent of the vektals, my nose filled with draughts of fresh air!

Only one possible explanation presented itself, a ventilation duct. The maps of the Odar had revealed the ancient Amatans had left a world honeycombed with wells and shafts, of all shapes and sizes.

I attacked the earthen barrier with bare hands and dagger. Aided by age and the thinness of the partition, I made rapid progress. Lose chunks of rock fell away with comparative ease. Nor was it long before I had excavated an opening sufficient for me to snake through. It was then that a sudden hesitation gripped me fueled by an unwelcome memory of slithering sisks covering my body, coiling and biting. I shivered as a cold sweat formed on my brow.

I pushed it aside with a savage growl. I had bested them once. I could do so again. Trusting that R’li would follow my blood-blazed trail and follow, I stretched flat and wormed into the unknown.

My improvised excavation emptied into a substantial chimney, a ventilation shaft that once fed the great underground mines of Amata. Immensely old and fossilized chunks of black soot embedded the dimly glowing walls, the lorqua showing torpid under the crusted layers of ancient smoke.

I had no difficulty standing upright at the base of this rocky chute. Gazing upward, I tried to determine its height, but the shaft curved creating the illusion of a horizon. Suffice that it looked long and narrow, being only about three feet in diameter.

Vektals paw prints dotted the chimney walls showing the direction the creatures had fled. But, I am not a vektal. I can not run up walls.

I tested the funnel and found it solid but uneven. Fingers and toes digging into available spaces in the rough shale, back and legs braced against opposite sides, I began my pursuit.

Though tedious work, I inched upward one Kota at a time until I achieved a height two hundred feet above the chimney floor, a point where the curve of the chute began its bend. An aggressive veer to the left that rapidly flattened until I no longer climbed but crawled as though in a rolling barrel.

My pace increased. My alertness rose. A sense of impending confrontation filled me I could not explain. Just ahead, from around the next bend, a glowing light radiated that had no part of the natural luminance of the rocky walls. I scuffled forward curious, drawn to the light which brightened quickly, and to which was added a steady hum. A droning vibration I could not place.

Over the next ten yards the passage filled with the throbbing sound. It rankled my consciousness with its familiarity. I crawled forward. The sound grew louder and then recognition. Machinery!

The first heard upon Jatora.

For whatever value it may add to this narrative, I will tell you that Jatora had no practical equivalent of electricity. Jatorans, long ago, had learned to harness certain Potential Energies in the malnor. It took one Mal' agat, something abstractly like a joule, to bring a positive charge from infinity to potential, that potential being the equivalent of a common electrical charge, the Ti J'gat.

Hifel described it as a compressed spring; know where to touch the spring and you control the power. The compacted energy in a Ti J'gat charge was enormous. Hifel claimed one Mal' agat could generate enough Ti J'gat to run the novevar of Ksanj for a lur.

How they conducted current was even more complex. I will say only that, whatever Hifel knew about Mal' agats and Ti J'gats, Ksanj knew more, as I would soon learn!

Straight on, the passage ended at a grated aperture two foot high by six-foot wide. Beyond, the sound pulsed on while this side of the barrier light fell as a dusty spot upon the vektals grouped to one corner. Squatting low on its fat hind-legs at the front of the pack sat the one with bandaged skull, object of my bizarre chase.

For just an instant, the agitated rodents glowered at me, perhaps wondering at my lack of timidity, assuming they had such lofty thoughts. Then, hissing hotly, they turned en masse and bolted though a well-worn hole where the metal grating had rusted away from the rock wall.

The vektals, and Fate, had done their work. Now, in this strangest of strange embrasures, Destiny and I held hands and moved together.

Silently, knees drawn under my chest, I pressed my face against the ancient lattice. What I saw through that metal mesh iced the blood in my veins. Twenty feet below sat a commodious rock-bound chamber centered by a pair of large rectangular tables tilted to an upright position, surrounded by strange machines, carts, wires, dials, and gauges. Strapped to those tables, T'lu of Amata and the Dulara Olana, sacrosanct Princess of Syjal.

The golden girl with the emerald eyes!


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

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