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
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,
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
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
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.
“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
“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
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
“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.
“We have scoured the underground novevars of Ksanj until men have
collapsed from exhaustion. Wherever Ksanj spirited the O'Odanal, it eludes
“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
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 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
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
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
“Are you feeling strong enough to join my avans?” R’li asked with an
“Feed me and I am yours,” I joked.
R’li laughed. “Very well, we will eat and then put you to work, if your
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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!”
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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!