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Volume 1682b

Chapters 11-15
Michael A Wexler



Token of Destiny, manipulated and controlled to advance whatever eventuality She finds most fascinating, or a broker of Fate dealing in a greater purpose?

I have yet to learn my role; though I have learned some of the rules.

Though my heart screamed crash that rusted Broqua barrier and leap pell-mell into the Novevar of Ksanj, rescue those you have struggled so mightily to find, a greater discipline held my impetuous nature, the voice of Falsworth of Gaela, reasonable and patient, hissing in my ear.

 “You have found the beast’s lair, now wait upon the beast.”

Wise counsel. Once before, from that tiny alcove behind the throne room of Amata, I had rashly entered a stronghold of Ksanj. A precipitous action engaged to change a world but resulted in the capture of the Dulara Olana and my own, ignoble death.

I yielded to Falsworth, his prudent advice that care has its place beside force, discretion beside impulse. Concealed from view, I studied the remarkable Novevar of Ksanj.

I saw a natural cave with indications of some mine workings. Mineral dust sparkled on the floor while untapped veins of lorqua crisscrossed the chamber walls. The trench marks of a dried up river indicated that, at one time, water had formed the cave. A river that probably existed during the ancient ages of Jatora and fed by the melting ice of the Val Ponada glaciers. Long before the maturing Emo heated the clouds and thawed the lower mountain levels.

A windowless room with a cathedral ceiling lost to my line of vision, the chamber ran in a rough circle a hundred kotan round. The only visible access through massive wooden unadorned tightly secured, guarded by a pair of motionless, soulless Hisl.

At the far right extent of my view, hand-hewn ledges carved from the living rock of the Val Ponada bulged with rolled parchment and leather bound books. Curiously, the first evidence of formalized learning on Jatora. Testimony to the devastation Ksanj had wrought on the heritage of Jatora. The rest of the chamber was awash in tables and machines, medical and scientific apparatus of which some was analogous to worlds of my collective memory, others, by contrast, distinctly Jatoran or perhaps distinctly Ksanj.

Vials and receptacles with bubbling liquids, ocean blue and sky orange, scalpels, sutures, beakers, test tubes and jars housing living organisms beyond my humble abilities of description but upon which my imagination ran riot.

Clustered in a half-moon circle about the tables holding T’lu and Olana, a collection of strange, angular contraptions I will call engines for lack of a Jatoran translation hummed steadily, streaming sparkling lights upward along a complex maze of wires and filaments. A spider web of crisscrossing lights that disappeared into the vaulted ceiling shadows. A crackling Jacob’s ladder that kindled memories out of place and out of sync here, in the bowels of the mountains of Jatora.

Another time another place, it would be all some laughable cliche, a banal parody, a badly written story. But here and now, at this time and this place, I could not dismiss this Frankenstein’s laboratory. Not only the reality of it, but I wondered, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, if this were not the truest reality of all. The substance from which all those other mad tales and wild allegories grew.

Every myth has its basis in fact. Remember the Griffin?

I shivered once at the sheer immensity of the impossibly convoluted and confusing array of science and technology below. Impossible that is to all but one, the pernicious figure at the center of that dizzying disarray.

My right hand crept to the hilt of my longsword as Ksanj moved towards T’lu, slithering with the singularity of a serpent. A lithe, intelligent serpent more smoke than substance. As he moved, my thoughts moved. Whistling backward across vast eons of image and memory and a thousand childhood-fables meant to discipline the young and fill the gullible with ethereal visions of punishment for the disobedient, damnation for the sinful.

Ksanj seemed to be examining T’lu. The Dular of Amata looked lean and weary. Bandages, such as those upon the vektal, swathed his right shoulder. I recalled the battle in the Kiel aren and nodded grimly. I thanked Ana that T'lu lived; knowing Ksanj deserved full credit.
Olana, while physically unharmed, looked exhausted, emotionally drained. Noting the paleness of her features, the bow of her slim shoulders, suggestive of the inconceivable travails she had endured, my heart absorbed a sharp jag of pain. Though I rejoiced she lived, all else made me anguish.

Ksanj finished with T’lu and presently attended to a large, black-metal box, a monstrosity of wires and dials suspended above the table holding the Dular. A clear gray tube, the size of man's wrist, connected this device to a pair of smaller gray boxes clamped to the floor by each table. From there, the tubes flowed to a wooden platform raised four kota off the ground and running twenty wide. It supported six, body-sized cylinders blown from malnor. A dark gray coating hid their contents from prying eyes.

At the left end of that platform bellows pumped like angry heartbeats. That thump being the sound I first detected in pursuit of the vektal. Above the pump, Ksanj had mounted a generator. Above that, a malnor vat filled with a thick, bubbling, white fluid draining into a series of bulky, black tubes linked in series from the cylinders to the tables.

The sinewy form of the T'ala T'sol had moved beyond the range of my vision. I waited tensely until, at length, he returned and approached his helpless prisoners.

“Hifel is a clever man.” The familiar timber of that hard voice sent chills to my spine. “I should have dispensed with him in Syjal. He has proved more formidable that anticipated, but entertaining as well. The stimuli of a good mental challenge is refreshing and not to be dismissed.”

T'lu coughed once, a small fleck of blood at his lips. He tried to speak but his head fell back. If I could just put a good longsword in hands, we would see how beaten was T'lu of Amata.

Ksanj leered at T'lu, pressing so close as to almost touch his face. “My plans progress well,” he said. “Soon, T'lu, you will personally perform my D' jarval to Olana.”

To this T'lu found breath. “Not so long as  . . .”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Ksanj interrupted in icy retort. “Not as long as there is blood in your veins, or something heroic like that. Always the same tired rhetoric. You will give your blessing T'lu, one way or another.”

The coldness from my spine licked the nape of my neck as Ksanj turned from T'lu to adjust a dial here, a diode there, continuing to talk, boasting of his prowess to those who least wanted to hear.

I pressed closer to the metal grating, hungry for a scrap, a loose morsel of knowledge that I might convert to a weapon. Ksanj thought himself alone and unobserved before a captive audience. It is in such moments, where ego and arrogance override prudence, that sandcastles have been known to crumple.

He moved to Olana, a hunting lion, prowling, hungry. My blood roiled but I held fast in my nest.

“Nothing to add, my jo' lak?”

At use of the Jatoran familiarity, Olana screwed her face into mask of loathing. She answered Ksanj in a manner that bespoke her heritage, her training.

“Your constant prattling bores me. You seek some grotesque satisfaction from tormenting me, but fail miserably. All you will ever earn is my contempt.”

Ksanj stiffened and the back of his right hand arched upwards. I almost went through the barrier and into the novevar, but his self-control regained, Ksanj relaxed, as did I.

“Such fire! But it will avail you nothing. You will be my Princess.”

“Then you wed a corpse.”

“Only as a last resort.”

The dark eyes of Ksanj glittered and danced as he snaked to the end of the elevated table. After a cursory check of the bellows and the bubbling fluid draining from the suspended vats above, he grasped a bone-handled lever and pulled. The machinery ground into motion, chugging harshly. The cylinders ascended on invisible wires, protective sheathes that exposed transparent glass pods. Within, encased in cooking fluids of quicksilver gray, two bodies floated in a pool of gaseous clouds.

Ksanj adjusted another dial and the gas thinned, the mist cleared and there, like cadavers in glass coffins, were T’lu of Amata and Olana of Syjal!

Olana screamed. T’lu surged against his bonds until they cut his flesh, letting fresh blood. With two hands I clasped the winged hilt of my longsword that it would neither scrape nor creak as I eased it from its cradle.

“They live?” I heard Olana gasp and I waited with red rimmed eyes and black edged heart.

“Of course,” Ksanj answered with a throaty laugh. “Why would you think otherwise?”

Olana bit down upon her ruby lips trying to deny the horror her eyes betrayed. All the motivation Ksanj required.

“How little you understand of life, Princess, its myriad forms and wondrous variations. You of the Odanal, you live on a tiny island in a vast sea insisting yours is the essential existence, the one and only morality by which to judge all creation.”

“It is you without morals, without principal. You brought death and suffering to Jatora with your incipient search for the T’al Lodinar.”

“Search?” Ksanj shouted angrily. “Are you truly that blind? The T’al Lodinar is not some fanciful dream, some whimsical quest. It exists, it is real; you saw the proof in the Kiej Dular.”

Olana recoiled as though physically struck. Ksanj but shook his head and turned to stare at the waxwork figures in the glass cocoons. His voice drooped and there came a distant glaze to his eyes.

“I can see them at my trial, K’si and Vopar, so grim and warlike in their royal trappings, but no less grim, no less resolute than I. Do not interfere, I told them. What I do is for the betterment of our world, the T’al Lodinar a gift shared with all Jatora.”

He spun back to Olana.

“For three thousand years have the Odanal blathered on about war; without once acknowledging that the blame lies upon the heads of K’si and Vopar. I ask you as I asked them, what could be more preposterous than a war where no one ever died? Who would fight it? No one, war would cease to exist and man would live in peace. There would be no alternative but to fight forever without hope of resolution. But no! Theirs was the great crusade. In the name of some blind, undefined righteousness I am beheaded, my novevar burned and my experiments destroyed. Or so the fools believed!”

Olana, struggling to find her voice, retorted in a tone strangely lacking of conviction. “Only a krekal would swallow the fuil you spout.”

Ksanj laughed and shook his head. “I will not argue the point, for you are as a stubborn and unaware as those of the Blood you revere. You will never accept the truth that your heritage of intolerance brought my vengeance down upon the Odanal. Ignorance keeps it in place.”

The novevar fell eerily silent until a sudden rapping at the chamber doors.

At the bark of Ksanj, the Hisl stepped aside and the doors opened in advance of a swarthy, dark-skinned dark-haired warrior with the first full beard I had seen upon Jatora. Dressed in bottle green breeches tapered into black boots cut close above the ankles and a flamboyant sash round his waist I knew him at once as Ava Camtar, the fabled Black Pirates of Jatora.

Crisscrossed scabbards on his chest and bands of brightly-pounded metal around his muscular arms completed the colorful regalia. Lerok approached Ksanj with a practiced familiarity, smirking at T’lu, leering at Olana.

“This is Lerok, a Van of the Rolm Nor.”

“The greatest of the Camtar Clans!” Lerok hissed proudly, to which Ksanj allowed himself a condescending smile. Saying:

“Lerok is my primary liaison to the Rolm Nor who, after a careful examination of our mutual goals and needs, saw fit to establish a working alliance with Amata. Is that not so, Lerok?”

“We have an accord,” nodded the Camtar. “One that the Rolm Nor will honor to the death.”

“The Camtar,” Ksanj noted, “are second to none in matters of Halm.”

Lerok beamed, chest puffing. T’lu maintained a mask of indifference though the impact of this declaration cut soul deep. Hifel had spoken to the lack of governing prowess threatening the empire of Ksanj. How his conquests had outstripped the meager organizational skills of the Bujan. In the Ava Camtar, Ksanj addressed those issues three fold.  In enlisting this cruel, bloodthirsty people that had successfully resisted his dominance these three thousand years, he had strengthened his stranglehold upon the Odanal, removed a once worrisome foe, and relegated the Bujan to that which they could do best, murder and maim.

With what promises of wealth and power he wooed the Camtar I did not know. The details not withstanding, the implications of that pact were horrific.

“Lerok has also been instrumental in the creation of my Vors. You see, from the onset I realized avoiding the gopal was crucial to my plan of replacing Randak, and others to follow. I needed emissaries more reliable than my Bujan and to invest in another as Mose, whose long-term stability is untested, I rejected. Lerok had the answer.”

I cocked an ear; sensing the tide running on the beach where the sandcastles stood. His narcissism seldom satisfied amongst the Hisl and Bujan, Ksanj slipped into easily into vanity's gown. Speaking not to T'lu or Olana but to the nameless the gods or demons tormenting his psychotic soul.

“The gas in those cylinders softens tissue and bone into an mucous almost liquid state I can easily mold to my desires. Later, I return the subject to the cylinder and introduce cooling gases that create a sealant to preserve the reconstructed body parts. No scars, no tissue deformity, no need of gopal. I call the process T'al Ksanj. To reproduce the two of you, I needed only a male and female of the right height and weight. Lerok volunteered the couple you see before you. That is all there is to it, that and a touch of genius to insure the Vor is an exact physical duplicate.”

I felt myself go numb. Ksanj waved a sinewy arm at the Vors stewing in the whitish ooze as he stormed into T'lu's face, voice cutting like a razor shredding skin.

“The secret is in the blood! Not their blood, not Camtar blood, not Bujan blood, but the Blood replete with the necessary Ki’ djar to transform rearranged skin and bone into living souls. In a few moments from now, I shall gift these Camtar your ceadar! Think of it, T’lu. A Vor that looks, sounds, is the O'Odanal. Leading the dovans of Syjal, ruling your Protal, but under my command. So, Dular O’Odanal, after three thousand years, what do you think of my final solution to our little war?”

“You are insane.”

“Perhaps,” Ksanj scoffed, unruffled. “Upon a time, I fancied that portrayal. But now it wearies me, as does the ignorance it typifies. The ignorance that typifies all Jatora.”

A cold foreboding scratched at my psyche. A deeper import lay behind Ksanj’s words. How deep, even Mecca did not suspect.
“I rather doubt you will understand me, T'lu, but I will try to explain. Consider it my parting to gift to you!”

Ksanj let his eyes close. His voice dropping to devil’s depth.

“As I have already said, I did not create this war nor the three thousand years of pain that followed. Your ancestors did that through their insufferable interference. I had brought science and healing millennia forward. But, instead of accepting the inexorable price of that advancement, your ancestors persecuted me. They shunned me and ridiculed my work. Employing some archaic moral posture to punish my genius when it should have been praised! When the window for peace closed, their destiny and your inheritance became my relentless and unforgiving retribution.”

“And now, the wheel comes full circle. Shortly, you will die T’lu and your Vor will rule in your place. A physical replica invested with every willful, sadistic, vengeful faculty of the Ava Camtar but loyal to me, Ksanj. It will perform the D' jarval. I will ascend the throne of Amata as Dular and rule Jatora. Think of it. The perfect revenge. The people will hail my ascension. They will have no choice but to obey the orders of T'lu.”

He pointed furiously at Olana.

“To cement that coup, she shall stand at my side, my Jo lak.  Whether Vor or the true Dulara Olana is her decision.” Now, his eyes came to the Dulara. “Say yes, relent to me, and live. Not just for the moment, but for tomorrow and all the tomorrows forever after in the T’al Lodinar. Reject this offer, and I swear to you, I shall take more than your caedar, Princess. I shall steal the very seed from you womb and, in the bellies of a dozen Bujan, will I grow the ultimate desecration of the Blood! And therein complete my prophecy of revenge.”

Olana screamed. T’lu struggled uselessly. Lerok leered and Ksanj laughed. And I, sword drawn, soul iced, put my shoulder to the weak point in the Broqua grating and leaned forward, bringing pressure to bear.

“Choose,” Ksanj cried out. “Come to my bed willingly or die. What will it be Princess, life or death? Choose!”


“The Dulara Olana chooses life!”

At the sound of my challenge, and the thunderous crash of the grillwork upon the stone flagging, all heads turned. For a dizzying moment life stopped, frozen by my sudden and dramatic entrance until broken by the piercing cry of Olana and the guttural curse of Ksanj.


I landed crouched, battle ready, and well I had. Lerok moved on me with cat-like swiftness, a skilled swordsmen with wiry strength. Simultaneously, Ksanj shouted crisp commands and the Hisl retreated through the doors of the chamber. In the minute it took me to start Lerok back towards T’lu they had returned with an avan of soulless brothers urged on by the Bujan Van Mose, a trio of howling Camtar yapping at his heels.

That I should have sought R’li and support I knew, but Olana, T’lu, their lives teetered at the brink. I had made my choice and I would live with it; or die with it as Fate decreed.

First to the side of Lerok were his Camtar comrades. Emboldened, they pressed me. Unwillingly, I gave ground and my heels bumped a wooden table neither seen nor accounted for from my elevated perch. My left hand reached down to steady me, and, at once, my fingers closed over an object round, smooth, and impossibly familiar.

A wicked smile scored the corners of my mouth. My eyes darted about the chamber, passing from the disdain of Ksanj to the surprise of T'lu to the open mouthed bewilderment of Olana whose ruby lips framed my name and sent my heart soaring.

With a feeling akin to triumph, I rushed the Camtar, rendering one permanently hors de combats and sending the other two into the faces of the onrushing Hisl. In the confusion, a spaced cleared; I raised the Ryka high.

“Stop!” I directed the command to Mose. Nor was he long to heed the command, pulling up short and flinging his arms wide and crying S’ti. Clearly, the Bujan Van understood the nature of the sphere. To Ksanj, I ordered, “Clear the novevar!”

Through lids lowered over glinting eyes, the tyrant of Jatora met my gaze. His hot glare bore into my brain testing my conviction, determining my resolve.

“You wouldn’t dare,” he cried with an angry scowl, eyes darting to T’lu and Olana. “You would kill them, too.”

“Has not the Dulara made that preference clear? Death a thousand times over to life with you!”

The cheeks of the T’ala T’sol darkened. Red veins of anger swelled his neck and forehead. Then he laughed; a verbal dagger hurled across the novevar on a draft of depraved wind.

“The blind beggar thinks he sees.”

Ksanj walked toward me, slowly, wringing his hands as though they held a rag, or perhaps my neck, long fingers alternately balled into fists or flexed into talons. He looked immersed in thought; a dreamy net thrown over baleful eyes traveling far afield of the novevar.

“You would have more luck piercing a stone with a feather than matching wits with me. Whatever you think you know, I know more. You are, and always have been, nothing more than a bungler in the dark. I shall allow you to prove it once again.”  Ksanj moved his eyes to Mose. “Leave us.”

“But Dular . . .” the Bujan Van Vopodar protested vigorously.


Face a black scowl, Mose withdrew taking with him Lerok and the surviving Camtar and Hisl. Anxious moments thick with tension ticked off until the doors to the novevar thudded shut and we were alone.

“Release them,” I ordered of Ksanj.

Without petition or enthusiasm he acquiesced. Straps slipped from his chest, T'lu stepped stiffly to my side, carrying Ksanj's confiscated longsword. Though haggard and drawn, he managed one of those great, comforting smiles so dearly missed since our parting in the Kiel Aren of Amata, confirming my earlier conjecture about a good blade.

“Somehow,” he grinned, “I am not surprised to see you. Though how you survived the Kiel Aren is beyond me.”

“But not beyond him,” I replied.

T'lu looked to Ksanj as the bonds fell from the Dulara Olana. I handed T'lu the Ryka and stepped forward ready to sweep her frail form into my arms. I was a warrior, in love, with a blindly aching heart that urged me to claim my reward.

But Olana lowered her eyes and dropped to a knee, right arm raised, her palm opened flat. “Your service to One of True Blood indentures me.”

As a wounded animal tries to stagger to its feet, to keep moving, to flee the flying arrow, I reeled at her words. The surrounding terror and indecision of the novevar faded and vanished; the urgencies of the universe shed like a snake its skin.

That cold and perfunctory ritual greeting, delivered without feeling, acknowledged a debt according to Jatoran custom. Dumbfounded, I placed my dagger in her upturned palm. Olana rose, handed it back, and swept by me to stand with T'lu.

As she passed, my head filled with her delicate scent, raising the memory of the shared intimacy, the fledging passion explored in the antechamber behind the Kiej Dular. Liquid green eyes fired with unspoken love, the pressure of her straining breasts, and the softness of her fingers caressing my cheeks. Those sudden, desperate words, “No! It is the Blood!”

The Blood! She had told me then but I was too stupid, too bewitched to hear; too caught up in my own delusions to understand that which could never be!

This was not the golden girl of my daydreams, a wild barbarian woman whom I could claim by right of battle. No more than she was Lys, shalan to the house of Balkar. This was the Dulara Olana, sacrosanct Princess of the Odanal, unattainable hope of a world.

How could I have imagined such a woman willingly forsaking her honor and her world for love of Gray Allen? I, loose joint, ill fitting spoke on the wobbly wheel of Fate. Ksanj was right, I am a fool.

Approaching T’lu and Olana, I laid my dagger at her feet and, fulfilling the demands of Jatoran Halm, I released her from all bonds of indebtedness.

“It was my Halm to serve, nothing more is asked.”

I closed my eyes lest she see my pain as she slipped the blade back into its sheath.

“How do we get out of here?” T'lu asked, his words breaking my mental fog.

“The same way I got in,” I returned pointing to the shaft. “And quickly before Mose figures out what happened.”

T’lu smiled, handed me the Ryka, and loudly cleared a nearby table, positioned it under the opening.

“And what of him?” Olana asked coldly, eyes fixed, voice quivering with hatred. “What of Ksanj?”

Again, the Ryka changed hands. This time, to Olana.

“If he flinches . . .” I turned to T'lu. “Come, help me strap him down.”

T'lu obliged with an enormous grin. Ksanj offered no resistance. With Ksanj securely trussed, my sword sheathed and the fruit of Hifel's genius hefted easily in my right hand, I instructed T’lu, “Get Olana into the shaft. It runs straight to a steep chimney. At the bottom lies a narrow opening, recently dug. The corridors on the other side lead to the Odar caverns. Follow the vektal blood smears on the walls. Hifel is there, Falja too. You will be safe.”

“Hifel!” Olana exclaimed, “I thought him dead!”

“No, he is alive and well,” I said. “You will be reunited soon. Hurry, go!”

“But what of you?” T'lu protested.

My eyes rested squarely upon Ksanj. “I will be right behind you. But first, he was right. It is time to finish this war.”

Without a word, T'lu stepped atop the table and leaped upward, grasped the ledge, and pulled himself into the open shaft. Reaching back, he extended a hand for Olana.

“No!” she said emphatically, “I will stay.”

I turned to her. My heart leaped at the promise held in her words.

“Please go,” I said. “I will be all right.”

She stamped her foot imperiously, eyes aflame. “I do not fear for you, warrior. I fear for our world! I must see him die; I have to know it is done, for my father, for my people.”

Her words frosted my heart. I could not speak. Ksanj laughed viciously, a springtime snow burying the flowers freshly grown.

“Fool!” he screamed. “Trade your ardor for armor if you wish to survive! She loves you no more than she loves me!”

I blanched, Olana flushed, a mantle of hate and loathing that swept her perfect features. A fire equal to the hot rage pervading my own soul.

“Enough!” I cried, pained and angry.

“Never enough!” Ksanj retorted. With stunning abruptness, his voice dropped, sounding like a cold echo ringing up from a bottomless gorge. A disembodied voice I had heard before but could not place. His eyes locked upon mine. “Our war ends when I say it ends!”

I blinked. The haunting familiarity of that voice, a voice that was not Ksanj but a ghost impossible and inconceivable blowing a gale across my bewildered soul. Even to the very choice of the words, ‘our war’. Ksanj grinned hungrily.

“Are you remembering, Kdal? Tell me, are you beginning to see?”

Did Ksanj see what I saw? A dim light from the path, a fleeting awareness that clutched my throat and cried we, Mecca, Bodine, Falsworth, we had fought Ksanj before. In lifetimes immemorial, in nameless wars on forgotten worlds, we had fought Ksanj before, an aged cycle of battle and blood that pecked at my soul like a hungry crow on a fresh corpse.

My spirit still tumbled through a dark terrain of irreparably scarred emotions, a once inviolate shelter ripped asunder, tempest-tossed. With a physical effort, I threw that impossible image from me as Ksanj turned his piercing black eyes upon Olana.

“Untie me, Princess,” he demanded coldly. “Yield to the inevitable! Untie me and join with me, for at my side is where your destiny lies. The choice is no longer yours to make!”

With a cry of pent rage, screaming, “The Dulara Olana decides whom she loves and when,” Olana pushed passed me and struck Ksanj. No dainty court-softened slap but a closed fist that drew blood. Ksanj only laughed, licking at the trickle started from the corner of his mouth.

I faced Ksanj with glowering eyes. “You are wrong Ksanj, it ends here.”

In near abject pity, he shook his head. “You will accomplish no more here than you did in the Kiel Aren. No more than K’si three thousand years ago. Perhaps someday we will finish this, but not here, not now . . . Allen!”

I trembled, blinked and stumbled about in darkness so vast, so loud, I barley heard T'lu crying out, Kdal, behind you!”

I whirled. A section of the novevar wall had slid noiselessly open on concealed hinges. Hisl poured through with Mose directing the clandestine assault. Ksanj roared in triumph, T'lu cursed, Olana screamed. I acted.

In a single, fluid motion I placed the Ryka on the vacant table beside Ksanj and swept a startled and protesting Olana into my arms. Four quick steps and then, with a surge of thews such as had once moved the Rocks of Taern from before the Walls of Asynth, I flung the protesting Olana at a wide-eyed but ready T'lu.

She sailed cleanly into his outstretched hands. Together they tumbled backwards into the shaft safely out of sight.

I raced back to the Ryka, taking two Hisl as the sea takes sand. The snapping voice of Ksanj broke over the shuffle of Hisl feet and the rasp of drawing blades, shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!”

My arm cocked. A half dozen of the fetid Hisl reached for me. I backed them up with a slashing, penetrating attack, a furious assault that permitted no resistance. Three of the creatures fell and those behind stumbled over their dispatched comrades, an ineffectual mass of hairy, flailing arms and disjointed, kicking legs.

With a near maniacal glee, I threw the Ryka and bolted towards the ventilator shaft and my one chance at life, a half dozen Hisl moving close the path.

The body of the Camtar lay two steps away. With a savage howl, my feet hit the dead torso as a springboard and I catapulted over the heads and swords of the reaching Hisl. Behind me, invisible to my eyes but keen to my ears, rose the faint tinkle of smashed malnor and a trailing moment of silence shattered by an inhuman wail. Then the novevar of Ksanj erupted into a raging, roaring inferno.

The flash burnt my eyelids. A thick rolling cloud of smoke pushed by a wall of consuming flame, dirt, and debris blew across the room and consumed the Hisl, then swept on towards my outstretched form.

This, I thought, was how it would end. Gray Allen, stopped forever, here, in the novevar of Ksanj. The red-hot Ryka wall drove against me, forcing my body to angle away from the chimney opening and life.

Caught in the powerful upward draft of the Ryka, my body smacked the rough stone wall. Flames licked at my arms and legs. I clawed frantically at the stone flagging thinking I could still escape by scrambling upwards. But I found only loosened shale. With irresistible certainty, I slipped towards the floor and a fiery death. When suddenly, steely fingers closed over my wrists, yanked hard, and dragged me from death's maw.

Securely notched beyond harm’s way, I watched the rolling wave of fiery-death grow into an all-consuming inferno, dancing destruction that obliterated the novevar of Ksanj and all within.

“So, that is the Ryka!” T'lu gasped, squatting on his haunches, panting for breath.

I nodded. “A gift from Hifel, stolen by Ksanj.”

“Hifel?” T’lu challenged, cocking his head to one side. “Ksanj begged otherwise. He claimed Hifel stole it from him.”

I looked to the roaring wall of fire beyond the shattered grating now melted molten metal and said, “It hardly matters what Ksanj says . . . anymore.”

Olana sat huddled in a ball that made her look small and fragile. Reflections of fire framed her cheeks, though her eyes lacked for emotion. Was it shock or disbelief?

“How ironic,” she said slowly, “that science, instead of the sword, should end the I’bar of Ksanj.”

I prayed that she was right. In my heart, I knew that no one could have survived that flaming hell. Ksanj was finished, dead. The Ryka had claimed him; the novevar was his crematorium.

Secondary eruptions continued to tear through the novevar. Latent explosions from the volatile fluids that filled the laboratory, feeding the Ryka and setting off a chain of lesser blasts that now sent flames leaping into our little sanctuary. Bits and pieces of the low ceiling fell about our heads and shoulders. We choked on roiling smoke.

“Come, we must get away from here!” I urged, coughing violently.

Without argument, T’lu and Olana followed as I crawled quickly, without stop, until we reached confluence of tunnel and chimney. The descent proved arduous for the wearied T’lu and Olana, both lean from hunger and exhausted from torment. I did my best to assist a reluctant Olana. Each occasion that our hands touched or our bodies bumped the specter of our divergent destinies and the cold slap of her words in the novevar rose up to haunt me. Involuntarily, I found myself drawing away, quarreling with my own emotions, the darkest sea upon which a man can sail.

We did not speak.

At last we made the floor and crawled through the excavated hole to the Odar side of the mountain. Olana, relenting to outraged nature, collapsed in a breathless heap and begged we rest. T'lu, even his great stamina sorely taxed, willingly acquiesced.

“I suppose,” he offered with a gentle smile, “with Ksanj dead, it would do no harm to sit a while.”

“Can it be?” Olana mused at length. “Can he really be dead? Is it really over at last!” Her delicate frame shuddered.

I wondered the same. Asking of myself “Why do monumental accomplishments always walk hand-in-hand with prodigious disbelief? Must man always be so bankrupt of self-esteem?”

“No one, not even Ksanj,” I ventured aloud, “could have lived through that explosion. We all heard his scream. It is over, Dulara. Ksanj is finished.”

And though with him went the stunning secrets so nearly unveiled in the bleak caverns of the Val Ponada, I gave it not a moments thought. Nor would I ever think of it again.

“Finished.” Olana breathed the thought, a barely audible whisper. “If only I could make myself believe it. To awaken from this nightmare . . .”

“Courage,” I told her. “The nightmare is over. It is time you dreamed of a new life, a happy life. To begin that journey, we must find the Odar.”

I exchanged meaningful glances with T’lu. We both understood that, even with Ksanj dead, Hisl and Bujan stirred afield. The head was off the serpent but the body endured, a danger that had me anxious to connect with R’li and the others. A truth we both withheld from Olana.
The Dulara took heart from my lies. She stood, shaking her auburn mane and straightening her tattered garments into a semblance of order and dignity. How regal she looked, though hardly one bit less worn and bloodied than that day, long ago, upon the steps of the Val Ponada.

Then she had been just a golden girl at the mercy of the evil about her, a hunted orphan in need of a champion, overwhelmed by the moment. Her father assassinated, abducted from Syjal, pursued by the Hisl, abused, battered, and emotionally drained, she had cleaved to me in a moment of weakness; allowing herself to be fragile, to be a woman.

With the slow-witted sensitivity of a man, I realized that I, my presence, embarrassed the Dulara Olana! I had a seen a secret part of her. My company mortified her.

That she appreciated my service I knew. She had paid her respects in the traditional Jatoran fashion. I was the Hoded who had expected more. I should be Jal whipped!

Jal whipped twice for what followed.

I retraced my steps until the blood swatches ended. From there I went blind until at length, noting the increasingly painful gate of Olana, I halted our little party and confessed my failure. We were lost.

“But surely the Odar are looking for you,” the Dulara said with open anxiety.

“You do not exactly brim with confidence,” T'lu chastised, taking my deficiencies with good humor.

“I do not brim well,” I snarled back.

After an appropriate respite we took up the aimless march, drudging deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Val Ponada. My eyes and mind set to the task of searching the walls for any suggestion of the Odar hieroglyphics.

Olana looked exhausted. How long since she ate or drank? I feared to ask and she did not volunteer. Thought T'lu faired no better he smiled encouragement and I lauded his brave bravado.

Suddenly, a frightful explosion reverberated through the ancient corridor. Chunks of wall fell away and the ground rattled violently, throwing us from our feet. Olana screamed. My heart chilled.



The thunderous detonation receded into the din of battle. Swords ringing in violent combat and the outcry of challenged warriors.

I staggered to my feet and looked to the Dulara Olana, who stood beside T’lu dazed but unharmed. Satisfied to her safety, I shouted for them to follow, turned, and raced toward the dancing light of the Ryka fire.

Grotesque shadows as dark fingers raked the passage walls. The atrocious scent and thick smoke of the Ryka thick choked the corridor. I gulped but my parched throat would not swallow.

Then, spinning a final curve, I burst upon the rear of a full avan of Hisl, a living barrier of unblinking beasts at crossed swords with R'li, Hifel, Falja and the Odar. Outnumbered and heavily pressed, a solid wall of blazing Ryka barring retreat, the smaller band of Odar warriors fought fiercely.

T’lu, longsword of Ksanj drawn, strode grimly to my side. We exchanged a single, meaningful glance.

 “For Jatora!”

With that wild cry, T’lu threw myself at the Hisl, I at his elbow. Whether surprised, astonished, or indifferent to the sudden attack I will never know. They simply turned and met our slashing, hacking blades with blank equanimity.

My spirit soared at the feel of good metal sinking deep into their gross, woolly hides. The fighting lust of a thousand ancient souls ignited, emotions as nothing to the reaction of the Odar, who, seeing T’lu fighting beside me, grinning, crashing through the Hisl a human-scythe, went jubilant. They cried his name until their exuberance topped the tumult of the Ryka. Fifty Hisl or a thousand, it would not have made a difference. Led by the inspired swordplay of their O'Odanal, the Odar blades sang a song of death. The Hisl could only listen and die.

With inevitable certainty, we turned the spawn of Ksanj around and backed them into the Ryka, laughing and singing, dancing and killing; torturing those who had so long tormented us. Forcing them into the swallowing wall of red and yellow flame until the last Hisl died and the Ryka, satiated upon bone and fur, dissipated with a sickly-sweet smell like soured honeysuckle.

The men surrounded T’lu. Never had I heard such cheering, I thought no voice could be raised happier, no cheer made louder, until the Dulara Olana emerged from the bend in the corridor. The ensuing eruption transcended all that had gone before. It broke as the thunder of K’Aldan echoing across the frozen summits of the Val Ponada. Overwhelmed with joy, hearts exposed, the Odar entered a new battle as man after man fought to be the next to kiss the tiny foot of the Princess of Syjal.

I stood apart, breathing hard, watching the final flickering flames of Ryka and the inspired devotion of the Odar. I thought how often death and joy, joy and death, follow one upon the other. How often by our own hand! I watched the proceedings head up but heart down. My despair had no place in this joyous reunification. Nor would I inflict my feelings upon the happy men hugging, laughing, and wiping tears.
And when, at length, T’lu delivered the news of Ksanj's death I expected the commotion to zenith. But surprisingly, the mood sobered. A long silence hung in the air, a questioning, disbelieving hush. And as I thought on it, the Odar restraint became both plausible and appropriate. After three thousand years of war, of slain children and murdered dreams, the truth swallowed hard. As with Olana, clouds of doubt cosseted the breaking dawn of a bright, new day. But soon, sunshine and joy would rain from the heavens as Jatora celebrated the passing of the T’ala T’sol.

Hifel formally introduced R'li to T'lu and Olana. The moment lacked for some prestigious chronicler of Jatoran history. Surely a new I’bar needed composing. I smiled, thinking it undoubtedly happen. Such things have a way of taking care of themselves.

R’li coaxed his men into a semblance of decorum and formed a reception line that each warrior might properly present his dagger to the Dulara. In kind, patiently, Olana accepted their gestures of fidelity, returning the blades to their owners with polite words of praise. The last in line was R’li.

“My life, and the lives of my men, are yours,” he said solemnly.

Olana responded gracefully, saying, “I ask Ana to make me worthy.”

Olana impressed me with her quiet dignity, elegance that cam effortlessly as she executed this simple task-of-state in the incongruous confines of the Amatan underground. I imagined her standing jeweled and gowned in the most glorious halls Jatora offered, halls I knew would pale in contrast to her radiant beauty.

Seeing Olana in this new light, revered by the simple warriors of her world, only confirmed the tremendous gulf between us. Without realizing, I found my hand over my chest. I wondered that a heart could hurt so yet continue to beat.

In this erratic frame of mind I marched back to the Kiel Aren, taking some relief in idle conversation with R'li and the others. But, overall, Kdal made poor company in what was, for the Odar, a joyous and triumphal walk.

Falja walked with me.

“Lon lead us to your last position. We followed your ingenious markers to the whole in the cavern wall. Even as we debated our next action, the Hisl appeared but retreated at sight of us, prompting R’li to give chase. The trap sprung, we have had perished in the Ryka if not for your fortuitous and somewhat miraculous appearance.”

“What became of the Bujan?”

Falja exhaled and shook his head. He did not need to confirm the Bujan and the Ryka had escaped.

I cursed aloud then caught myself. Ksanj was dead; the war no longer mattered. Battles remained but without the brain the body would die.

As we approached Tamora, R'li dispatched a runner to inform the people of the wondrous turn of fortunes, the rescue of T’lu and Olana and the blessed news of Ksanj's demise. The spirit of the marches grew openly festive, with I the one moribund exception. But I kept my inner voice silent, my thoughts private.

As a cheering populace swarmed the returning heroes, my heart flew to a blood-spattered ledge on the Val Ponada. Where a warm flush of sunshine splashed upon my face and a cryptic piece of carved rock challenged my freebooter spirit. I had been a stranger then, Olana just a waif, a nameless golden girl; would it could be that way again.

During this time, I had little opportunity for reflection as the Odar kept me busy, mostly in dodging their well-meant but annoying protestations of gratitude. Not that I was ungrateful, I simply felt uncomfortable acknowledging their public displays. T’lu took advantage of my discomfort to chide me unmercifully.

 “Once we move from these caverns into the sunlight, ” he told me, “you will be the most revered man on Jatora. The man who killed Ksanj! Ana, but it is hard to believe it is finally over, that Ksanj is dead. It is a pity though.”

“What is a pity,” I asked with sudden curiosity.

“Ksanj seemed to know you. What was it he called you? Al’n? Yes, that was it. But Ksanj is dead and the I’bars say some food is swallowed, some is but tasted.”

Nor could I find a more fitting thought to reflect what rang in my soul, the last words of Ksanj.

“ Perhaps someday we will finish this, but not here, not now . . .Allen!”

With his death the answer to the most bewildering, most impossibly convoluted question in all my lives, what did Ksanj know, passed into oblivion. The same oblivion where lived the secret of my immortality. I growled, knowing that in some incomprehensibly selfish manner I resented even regretted the death of Ksanj.

For two full days the dancing and singing, rousting and jousting, eating -- and of course the drinking -- filled the Kul Aren. Smiles of unfettered joy lit Odar faces like sunshine after a long rain. Warriors rolled huge wooden barrels of tup from the storage caves, with no lack of partakers amongst the revelers.

Men and women laughed and joked in ways universal to the sexes. Even Hifel, with a snoot full of tup, found occasion to comment on the extraordinary charms of a certain lady acquaintance, just before he fell asleep for the third time that day.

I spent the majority my time with J'le and other children, finding solace for my wounded heart in the innocence of their company. It seemed strange that I, a warrior, who remembered nothing of family or childhood, should have felt so drawn to this bright-eyed baby of a distant world but, with Olana distant and untouchable, little J'le found an open path to my heart. She moved in and made herself welcome.

We sat by the small pool abutting the Tamora, surrounded by the distant drone of happy voices meeting the sweetly singing water.

“Will you kill all the Bujan and Hisl now?” she asked innocently, and if her words sounded savage remember the nature of life amongst the Odar.

“Well, not all at once,” I said with a laugh. “A true warrior finds no Halm in needless killing, J'le.”

“I used to wish I were a man,” she said with a yawn, for the day had been long and she was very tired. “So I could fight like my K'may. But now, I am glad I am a girl.”

“I'm glad, too.”

J’le giggled, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me on the cheek. It was at that moment that J'll came to fetch her daughter to bed.

“Enough for one day,” she scolded playfully. “You can see Kdal tomorrow.”

As the two moved away, Saja came and sat beside me, sober and sad. I wondered if I dared ask why, needlessly, for Saja had come to talk.

“My jo' lak died three years ago, fighting in the tunnels,” she began, her words carefully drawn. “He was a brave man, Kdal, a strong warrior. You would have liked him. I bore his child at the time.”

My raised eyebrow hovered on that thin line between interest and intrusion.

“Stillborn,” Saja answered my unspoken question. “There is a simple I’bar here, that under the hand of Ksanj dying is easy. Living is hard.”

“You can leave Tamora now, Saja,” I told her gently. “The Odanal will reclaim Amata. Soon, all the Odar will move back into the sunlight where you belong. You and Falja, you can find the happiness of which you were robbed.”

Saja sighed. “I have taught you some small measure of our heritage, Kdal. You still have much to learn.” She waved a hand to stifle my retort. “T’lu sent me to find you. You presence is requested in the Tear Aren. The O’Odanal will explain”

Curiosity piqued, I departed from Saja and made my way through the caverns to the Tear Aren. While the fete rolled on, T’lu and R'li had called a small group of sober and solemn warriors to the great table. I attended glad to separate myself from the merriment for which I had no belly.

T'lu and R'li held court. Falja was there, as were Orjik, Kurl and P'tn, the Vans of the Odar avans. Randak, I learned, had departed the caverns upon a solitary mission at the behest of his Dular.

A cursory glance at the hard faces around me only reinforced what I had already reminded myself a dozen times over. Ksanj was dead; the war lived on. T'lu had the floor.

“Without leadership, the Bujan will squabble amongst themselves. While their numbers are formidable, they lack organization. Their immediate threat is limited.”

“But they are a threat!” Orjik noted, “They must be dealt with quickly and expediently.”

“Agreed, but the question before this table is how? Would a campaign of slaughter satisfy your definition of quickly and expediently.”

“Well, I did not mean . . .” the Van stammered searching for words. T’lu interrupted, sparing Orjik his discomfiture.

“Of course you didn’t. Revenge was the way of Ksanj, not K’si and Vopar. They taught us a nobler path.”

“Amnesty?” R’li suggested.

“We forget that no matter how tainted or distorted, each Bujan holds the Hon D’jar of the Odanal. They are as Jatoran as the Kiida or the Agala or any man at this table.”

I stared at T’lu with unabashed admiration. A man capable of a killing ferocity equal to any in my endless past, yet within that lion’s heart lay the compassion and wisdom that elevated mere men to visionaries.

Orjik, a man of somewhat limited vision, wiry frame draped carelessly in his great chair, cold eyes gazing towards the rocky roof of the cavern, now asked, “Could the people ever accept the sight of Bujan living amongst them? I do not believe I could.”

T'lu understood the passion in Orjik. A passion he shared but controlled.

“They would need their own land. Jatora is largely enough. But that is neither for you nor I to say, Orjik. A referendum should go forth. Let the judgement of the people be law and, if the Bujan are spared, it must be upon condition they too obey the laws of the Odanal or face the consequences.”

“What about Vok and the rest of the V'Koo?” It was Kurl now voicing concerns. “Do we fold them to our breasts as well?”

“Yes,” P'tn grunted, pounding a ham-like fist onto the table. “What of the V'Koo?”

“They made a conscious choice. A choice to which I hold them accountable.” T'lu's eyes narrowed, glinting hard. “I cited the laws of K’si and Vopar relative to the Bujan and shall do so again for the V’Koo. The fate of traitors is clear and irrevocable, death.”

“Then we must act at once,” Orjik cried. “We know Vok to be in Amata. He must be hunted down before the vektal flees the city and manages to find safe haven.”

“R’li already addressed the issue of Vok.”

“Randak?” I said and all eyes turned questioningly to R’li.

“It would restore a full measure of his Halm.”

The men nodded grimly. Orjik smiled.

An assassination mission! Cruel? Barbaric? I do not believe so. Neither did any at the table. R'li had offered Randak vindication, a restitution of his Halm through the execution of a bitter enemy, a traitor T’lu had sentenced to die. Randak only carried out the sentence.

While pleased for Randak, thoughts of the maligned Thief raised deeper concerns to discuss with T'lu.

“There is another, more dangerous than Vok, Nubl and all their class combined, Mose.” The rumble went around the table. “From the position he had in the doorway, I am certain he escaped the Novevar.”

“I have no doubt of that,” T’lu answered. “R’li and I have also discussed the potential in his continued role amongst the Bujan.”

“Of all the Bujan,” R’li chimed in, “he alone has the faculties to control the Hisl. Without Ksanj, we know how they would react. They would breed, their sense of self-preservation inherent, but be of no great danger to anyone but their cannibalistic selves. However,” and the Amatan shrugged coyly, “if that Bujan were to step into Ksanj's place, there is no limit to the havoc he could raise! Even Ksanj admitted a concern over the ambitiousness of his Van.”

T'lu, his back straight reflecting the resolve that filled his eyes said, “R’li and I agree that we must assume Mose survived the novevar and has already implemented plans of his own.”

“Are we forgetting one other problem?”

The voice came from behind us. From the bridge that spanned the meandering Tamora, Hifel approached with his eyes red rimmed and glassy. He looked as he probably felt; but the urgency in his words bore bidding.

“What have we forgotten?” R'li demanded.

The thief-evar of Syjal leaned his arms upon the edge of the great table for support. “At my age, you should not let me drink so much tup.” 
He smiled for a moment then with the speed of a serpent seizing its prey he turned deadly serious. “You have forgotten the Ryka.”

“But without Ksanj,” I said, “what do have to fear other than the five or so pilfered globes?”

“Think it through Kdal. You know the answer.”

I tried to digest the full import of Hifel’s words. Slowly, a new terror crawled out of my subconscious and ate into my belly. To steal the Ryka Hifel had left behind when we destroyed the Ki' luveva, someone would need to know two things. The way in and they way out of the Odar tunnels. No other explanation was possible.

As a candle carried into the great black abyss of my memory, I recalled the incident of Saja’s basket, the cover askew. Someone had removed the maps long enough to make a copy! Who could be that conniving, that devious, passing amongst the Odar unnoticed and unsuspected. A ghostly image formed in my brain, floating in the dark while I grasped for face. I stared at Hifel and suddenly my dread had a name.


My exclamation came as cold water on Hifel's haggard face, made worse by his now forced divulgence of the pilfered Odar maps.
“The sisk,” I hissed, lips drawn into a grim line. “It could be no other!”

T’lu was on his feet, face grim and shadowed. “If Horas has both the Ryka and the Odar maps, and has aligned himself with Mose as he did Ksanj, then we are in great danger here. We . . .”

Deadly and deafening came the explosion. The Odar dream of peace, prosperity, and a return to sovereignty, gone in a fiery flash that rocked the outer caverns. A moment before the Odar had celebrated and danced, now they suffocated and died. Their death wails mixed with the ugly roar of Ryka.

The first explosion, emanating from the main cavern, broke with force enough to crack the ground beneath us and drop slabs of rock from the roof of the Tear Aren, one shattering the great meeting table of the Odar. That we all survived the initial blast was a Je’ ndal, though blood flowed from Orjik’s scalp and T’lu’s shoulder had opened anew.

Thick acrid smoke, smelling of Satan, blew across our faces as we grouped our way across the bridge towards the frightening sound, pieces of ceiling continuing to fall and threatening our every footfall. A jagged bit hit the bridge a scant foot from me and, with a great crunching sound, plunged through the shattered planks and into the waters below.

In the Redke Aren, warriors moving towards the Kul Aren surrounded us. Here also were women and children to consider.

R’li commanded the women to remain in the Redke Aren and shelter the children. He left six warriors to support them while we, now a force of fifty leaping through clouds of choking smoke, burst into the Kul Aren. A Kul Aren ripped asunder and torn in half by a wall of living, moving fire. An unbearable, withering heat, An open furnace incinerating all combustibles in its path, clothing and fur, furniture and Odar. Perhaps a hundred men, women, and children staggered our side of the firewall attempting to collect possessions and drag them towards the Tear Aren or to the upper levels where they hoped the fire would not spread. Already, I saw many of the Odar families had sought refuge on the second tiers.

They could hire from the fire, perhaps, but not from that which brought it to us!

Above the crackle, hiss and spit of the flame, from the opposite end of the flaming barrier and hidden by the smoke and scalding light, rose the screams of women, the shouts of men, and the ring of steel. It was there the battle raged. Nor did the pungent Ryka or the burning life and debris in its midst conceal the fetid odor of the Hisl.

I felt a hand grip my arm. T’lu, hissed in my ear, “Olana! Where is Olana?”

Panic stricken, I raced along the edge of the Ryka wall, and, at a point no more than a foot from the far cavern wall, I found a space to pass. Screaming like some godless heathen, I darted across the breech and straight into the teeth of the attacking Hisl, driving my blade into the milieu of hairy beasts with murderous force.

It took only a moment for the T’lu and the Odar to follow and engage. Cutting and hacking we raged about the room, I in constant search of Olana, shouting her name and killing as I went. Gutted, burned, or beheaded Hisl littered the floor. Smoke and fire licked at their hairy hides and filled the air and mixed with the Ryka into a poison tearing at my throat.

Gasping, eyes awash in burning tears, I slashed two beasts in half. Watching as they burned side by side with the brave dead of the Odar caught in the Ryka blast or dragged down by the invading spawn of Ksanj.

The heat became insufferable and I knew that, given the time, we could beat the Hisl. Could we survive the fires?

As if to answer me with a grim finality, a new series of jolting explosions rocked the upper levels. Fierce flames leaped out of the sleeping caves. Bodies flew through the air aflame, crashing to the floor of the Kul Aren charred beyond recognition. I tried closing my mind to the madness, to shut out the images of death that accompanied the blasts. But the demands of staying alive hammered my eyelids open.

From where came the Ryka? I saw no Bujan in the cavern. Who threw the globes?

Suddenly, I found T’lu beside me, his face bearing fresh burns, his shoulders fresh scars.

“How!” I cried over my shoulder as another Hisl fell, “How could this be?”

The great Amatan Dular had no answer, no smile, and no reassuring words. The sudden and stunning turn of events lay beyond his comprehension. Suddenly he pointed.

“Kdal, there! Olana!”

I spun right. There, green eyes blazing red, the Dulara Olana stood at the edge of the black-river wielding a longsword snatched from a dead hand. Blood-spattered and covered in sweat, fighting, using gut and determination to compensate what she lacked in skill she looked again my simple golden girl of the forest. To T’lu, she was everything her people stood for, pride, heritage, and a will to survive. She was magnificent.

Dashing forward I shouted a warning for Death lumbered close upon her left hand on the hairy legs of a Hisl. The hulking brute drew up poised to strike. The painted blue-eye at the end of his spear angled at her unprotected back. Olana tried to turn and swing her sword, but two other beasts tested her ragged guard head-on, trapping her. The unfettered Hisl raised his arm and the spear flew.

Was it the hand of Mecca or any of a thousand unclaimed souls storming my unconscious existence that threw my dagger? Like opposite points on the compass of Fate, my blade and the Hisl spear clove the intervening distance and collided, with such force that the Hisl spear, splintered and spent, clattered broken and ineffectual at Olana’s feet.

Foolishly, anxiously, I pressed deep into the massing His. Too deeply I waded, for quickly they surrounded me and I became hard pressed to fend off their furious assaults. T’lu, as reckless as I for the life of the Dulara, fought his way to my side, his longsword plunged not a moment too soon into the black gut of a Hisl. Insides spilt like mud in the sun the beast spun about and disappeared over the embankment into Tamora.

Suddenly, I found Hifel had joined in the battle surrounding and protecting Olana. Ana the man could fight. Age had lent his longsword wisdom equal to his science. Thus we stood a living triangle of swords, our backs to the river, fighting through flames, blood, and gore. How long? There was none to count to count the minutes.

The battle was brutal, bitter, but the results inevitably written. From sources we could not fathom, the Hisl continually reinforced their numbers. Our numbers dwindled. Though I could not state with certainty who survived, who had fled, who had found shelter elsewhere, it appeared that any and all living Odar congregated at this narrow stretch of the Tamora. Before us stood the Hisl. Behind them the advancing Ryka, a ten-foot high wall of fire. That the flames would ultimately consume the Hisl too mattered not. Soulless, without conscience, they would fall into the Ryka and become the fuel that fanned the flames, the fire that ended the world of the Odar and took with it the heart and soul of Jatora, T’lu and Olana.

Though my heart numbed and my mind shocked to near insensibility; I found a small corner open to wonder: who was responsible? Was there yet a way that Kdal of Jatora could lay hands upon the throat of this final oppressor?

Then, abruptly, defying reason, as if sent some silent, sinister command, the Hisl ceased fighting and drew back. All hostility brought to a standstill.

Regrouped, they formed a sweating, breathing barricade fronting the forward moving wall of Ryka. The surviving Odar, as penned cattle, clustered about T’lu, nervous eyes fixed upon the unblinking Hisl in whose milky orbs our wearied and bloodied bodies reflected in hypnotic clarity.

And then all reason and all sanity fled Jatora; justice and righteousness sucked in its wake. Deep within the heart of the fiercely flaming Ryka, a figure moved. Something lived and something walked within that uncontrollable fire. Impossibly, a dark form took shape and strode forth leering and laughing.

There, face twisted into a sardonic grin, playing with a silver globe of Ryka held in his long, sinewy fingers, stood Ksanj!


Though the fires licked, danced, and reached for him with flaming fingers, they could not consume him.

Impossible and implausible, Ksanj stood laughing as the flames engulfed the apathetic Hisl; sacrificed for fuel that energized and escalated the Ryka into an incinerating mountain. The funeral pyre of the Odar underworld, the charred bones of the Hisl their final cross.

As the smoke of the Ryka fires swept us into choking darkness, dimly, in the blind and frozen recesses of my mind, I sensed Olana beside me. Her slim fingers slipping into mine under that mantle of black char, squeezing willing. An incredible peace surged over me, even as she voiced the thought none could believe.

“He lives; Ksanj lives!”

Sinuous as any serpent ever conceived, Ksanj hovered at the edge of that fiery storm, impossible to reach. Still laughing, mouth split frog-wide with vengeful glee he suddenly tossed the Ryka globe at my chest. “Good-bye, Gray Allen!”

Without thought I dropped my sword, lunged, and caught the Ryka globe as the cackling Ksanj retreated and melted into the advancing wall of flame, as lovers slip into each another’s embrace. United, the Ryka roared forward spewing acrid smoke. A funeral shroud smothering we mourners, we the tattered remnants of a valiant race bunched together helpless sheep, our backs to the river.

The river!

With a bloody oath I snapped free of the fearsome trance holding my soul. I found T’lu at my shoulder. Choking, I shouted, “T’lu, get the Odar into the river. There may yet be a way out of this!”

The pain glowing sallow and distant in his weary bloodshot eyes hardened with resolve. “Odar,” he boomed, squaring his shoulders and raising his head. “Into the river. Into the river!”

Responding to the voice of their leader the warriors, women and children of the Odar stirred. Hifel staggered through the asphyxiating smoke, calling to Olana. The hand of the Dulara left mine as though it held a burning ember. She faded into the smoke where Hifel found her.

The heat of the Ryka bore down upon us with winged swiftness. We had only seconds more. I looked very hard at Hifel. “Get Olana into the water.”

“But you . . ."

“In every evil, there is the potential for good.”

Hifel looked at the Ryka clutched in my hand. I believe he understood for he whispered something into the ear of Olana, and, stepping to the edge of the water, she jumped. Hifel followed without a backward glance. All the Odar were in the water now, all but one. T'lu still stood at my side.

“Whatever you plan we do it together, Grayalen.” T’lu said attempting my name as close as any true Jatoran could. The glint in his eye brooked no argument. I did not offer one. Instead, I shoved against him with all my might. Eyes wide with astonishment, T’lu stumbled backward, struggled for a moment to regain his equilibrium, and then went over the bank.

My death the Fates could proclaim poetic justice, a trifling loss Jatora could survive. Not so with T’lu. Too many had given too much to sacrifice him now.

Fingers of flame scratched at my face. My singed flesh hissed. I raised the Ryka above my head and then, unbelievably, a flame enveloped Hisl ran from the Ryka fire and lunged at me with a burning-brand of a spear. I dodged the thrust, kicked the creature hard and watched in awe as it exploded, insides dissolved.

“Enough! I cried aloud to whatever God or Goddess fancied this moment a good moment for games and pranks! I hurled the globe, spun, and dove for Tamora. In my head, a word without a Jatoran equivalent, backfire.

Behind me an already shattered world shuttered once more. My skull vibrated with the roar of Armageddon as the two great walls of fire collided, rocked, and spit at each other. A black and red firestorm of flame, smoke and scalding steam swept forward with a thunderous fury that struck me in mid-leap. Caught by the flat of this monstrous hand, my eyelids scalded shut by harsh, burning chemicals that seared my lungs and coated my stomach with black ash, I flew at the far wall of the Tamora with hurricane force.

Ghosts will not haunt Gray Allen. I have long known that Death would be a final flicker of light and then oblivion. When it came, I would embrace it. Flying wildly across the black Tamora, deaf to all but the violent roar of the Ryka, I expected to die.

I was ready.

Calmly, I thought of the incredible destructive force a well-meaning Hifel had unleashed upon his beloved Jatora, the irony of his last desperate gasp at salvation. I wondered why men manufactured such devastation. While from a distant place hidden within the collective memory, eyes that saw the whole of the universe told me the Ryka of Jatora was but a snowflake in an unbounded blizzard.

The fireball in which I rode raced toward the rear wall of the Val Ponada, a span of fifty empty yards, a fearsome wave. I hit the scathing rock a rolling ball of exposed flesh and bone. Barely conscious, blood sweeping my vision, I plunged through an avalanche of smoke and charred debris towards the water. Barely aware the backfire had done its work. The fire was out, the flames extinguished.

With an audible smack, I hit the Tamora. Immediately, several pairs of hands raised me to the surface, beating upon my back, forcing my shocked lungs to cough up their cache of hot, poisonous Ryka vapor.

When I could, I laughed. I had cheated them both, Death and Ksanj; I still lived!

The Odar dragged my battered body to the bank where the more badly burned survivors received what minimal care the women amongst our lot could muster. I saw Olana, thankfully unhurt, at the fore of that effort and my heart swelled. T'lu came and knelt beside me in sand seared to the semblance of glass.

“Can nothing kill you?” he asked in dark tones tinged with awe. I chilled over the gulf those words implied, a distance suddenly grown.

“Death comes to all, T'lu,” I offered in short, painful gasps, for my lungs still burned from the Ryka. “Each of us will know our own passing, in our own time, our own way. Mine will come -- as it will yet come to Ksanj.”

T'lu regarded me. Slowly he smiled. “That it will, my Amar. That it will!”

I smiled back and my injuries hurt a little less.

Ksanj had reduced the vaunted caverns of the Odar to cinder and ash. The oppressive stench of Death, thick with the fetor of the combusted Hisl, filled my soul with a desperate pity.

And what of T’lu? What did he feel? What thoughts held that noble head high after this heinous attack and incomprehensible resurrection, this newest tragedy heaped as dead leaves before Amata’s door. With Ksanj as alive and monstrous as ever, with distant Syjal already fallen, what optimism could even the greatest leader cull for his people? From what depth of soul could T’lu find the strength to carry on?

“Once the inner caverns cool,” T’lu said interrupting my depressing reverie, “we can begin searching for survivors.” He paused, adding, “It is a shame to abandon Tamora, but it is not safe to remain here. Ksanj is gloating now, his guard lax. We need to press our advantage.”

Our advantage!

That is why T'lu is a Dular and I am not.

Hifel joined us. He looked despondent and weary beyond even his advanced years.

“How?” he said to us, “How? How did he do this?”

“Take heart, it was but a battle. We lost the skirmish but the war remains unsettled. Let us be thankful, old friend,” T’lu consoled, “that we live to fight on.”

Hifel smiled, weakly. T’lu had found a balm for grief stricken conscience of the thief-evar.

T'lu left us, to speak with several warriors who would put his search for a new home into motion. Hifel took advantage of the moment to address me in a knife-edged timber I did not recognize.

“What is this bond, this cedar you and Ksanj share unknown to the rest of us? You risk your life time and time again and yet there is an affinity between you and Ksanj. Clearly, he fears you. He fears you in a way so, so  . . .”

Words failed Hifel and he just threw his hands wide and begged me with his eyes for an explanation.

“I can not help you Hifel. I can only tell you what I have told T'lu. I am Odanal. My blood burns as yours burns. What other tortures I endure are not part of your struggles.”

“No, Kdal,” Hifel shot back. “They are very much a part of our struggles. Somehow, what you and Ksanj share, is the answer to our war. I do not know how or why, but the way of the Blood lies through you.”

Hifel had drawn a line in the sand, a ragged cut. How deep I could not say. As to what ill it may bode for the future, I had only conjecture. I could hope for the best.

The Ryka fires continued to cool as searches went forward of the other chambers. The horror found begs deletion from memory and paper. Thirty men, twenty women and a dozen children survived. Following the example of T’lu, they handled their grief stoically.
I wondered: How could the children be so strong?

Then, in the midst of death there was life. By the grace of Ana, we found fifty more buried under charred rubble and crammed into a vacant, dead-end mining shaft at the rears of the main cavern. Emotionally spent Odar with weary faces black with soot and ash, eyes sunken by lost hope, emerged to a tempered, dignified reunion. It would be a long journey before those eyes shone again.

Why these chosen few? How the Gods men venerate select Death’s exemptions defies even my collective comprehension. Like the cyclone that takes the field but spares the house, the Ryka had passed-over this huddled group. Further evidence to the indiscriminate amnesty of the Ryka was everywhere. A standing table here, a missed barrel there. Random whims of Chance? It is as good an explanation as I have.

At last, those who could stand gathered in the Kul Aren to listen as a strong, confident T’lu planned their future. Olana stood at his side, bruised and burnt but beautiful beyond compare. I noted R’li among the unaccounted. In a world that confined mourning to the moments between battles, he passed in silence. Later, perhaps, there would be time for words.

T’lu announced, “It is time to leave Tamora.”

Someone shouted from the crowd. “And go where? The surface?”

“No,” T'lu smiled subtly. “We must find new homes here in the caverns, and the balance of the Odar.”

People murmured and Orjik stepped up. “Dozens of avans were out on patrol when Ksanj struck. There is every reason to believe they are still out there, alive and well.”

Olana moved closed to her Dular. “T’lu is right!” she exhorted the crowed. “We live. We are not finished yet!”

“Well said, Dulara!”

That voice seemed to descend from the solid rock behind T’lu and Olana. All heads snapped round. Gasps of shock mingled with cries of unexpected joy flushed apart the stagnant air left by the dissipated Ryka.

“R'li!” T'lu exclaimed.

The bloodied, blackened figure of the Odar Van stepped from a nearly invisible cleft in the wall. He grinned broadly and jerked a thumb backwards.

“An emergency avenue known to very few. I got a hundred warriors through, and an equal number of women and children, then came back to look for weapons and supplies. Frankly, I did not expect to find anyone else alive. That I should find this group to greet me is beyond my wildest hopes. Thank Ana you escaped.”

“We did not escape, but we did survive,” T'lu corrected.

“I understand,” R’li returned perceptively. His quick eyes scanned the piled stores of supplies. “I see you have already salvaged what the Ryka spared. Good, time is crucial. We must leave before Ksanj returns. And return he will!”

“We had but just expressed that point we must vacate these caverns,” T’lu offered. “The question was where?”

R’li smiled. “Those that built Tamora knew the inherent risks of a subterranean homeland. Long ago, against just such an eventuality as this, they prepared a place. A place never marked upon any map, a clandestine location, a second Tamora passed by mouth to each succeeding R’li. A secret unknown even to the D’kel.”

 “Another Tamora!” Olana said in a hushed whisper barely audible above the collective tongues waging at this new hope raised from the rubble of Tamora.

“Yes. A place that can no longer be a secret from any of the Blood! Come, we must hurry. Many are already at work readying our new home.”

“How many are left from the patrols?” Hifel asked.

“I am not sure, three hundred maybe. The Hisl vigorously sought us out. Many patrols remain unreported. Once we have seen to the safety of T’lu and Olana, we can organize search parties.”

Olana was right. We were not finished yet.

Gathering our bundles of useable weapons, food, silks, and tools, we left the gutted caverns of the Odar forever. An odor of ash, burnt flesh, and charred Hisl clinging to our nostrils like crust in unclean oven.

Single file, we moved into the narrow fissure, which extended a considerable distance into the rocky bowels of the mountain, at length spilling into a more regular Amatan mining corridor. Olana walked with T'lu and ignored me. I wanted to speak to her, but hung-back. I tried not to dwell on her repudiation of our moment under the smoke, holding hands and facing death. That it gave me encouragement I do not deny. That it also added weight to my step, I glumly concede.

I do not understand women. I never have and probably never will; and I have had eons to consider the subject. How can I? They do not seem to understand themselves.

Hazarding a guess, based upon my meager familiarity of the Odar maps, I read Tunnel Dol (61). If accurate, it meant we moved towards the surface. But after another fifteen minutes of bends and twists and diverging corridors I grew lost as ever though R'li, as I had seen him do before, moved with a steady, confident stride.

I moved closer to R'li and T'lu.

“We have supplies, caches of weapons, medicines,” R'li explained. “Nothing like the Kul Aren, but with what we have salvaged, life will go on.”

We descended into a narrow, partially collapsed shaft, a crack in the mountain. At the bottom, after a steep decline of a hundred yards, other survivors of the Ryka massacre waited. Grim warriors evidencing a multitude of wounds and burns. Hard, bitter men who knelt and wept openly at the sight of T'lu and Olana. The first man in line was a bloodied Gale.

“I was with one of the patrols set upon by two hundred Hisl. Not a beast survived.”

Gale personally conducted us the final hundred kota of rocky corridor. We emerged into a large, airy cavern, a near exact duplicate of the war room, the Tear Aren of the Kul Aren complex, complete with a slow moving tributary of the Tamor wending through its rear circumference. A hundred-yard universe pressed into service, replacing all three of the original Kul Aren chambers.

Glowing fissures like notched arrows cut the walls at irregular intervals. None seemed large enough to accommodate occupancy so I dismissed them from my immediate thoughts.

I watched the Odar. Their world stood pitched into chaos. But they dealt head-on with that bitter reality. In these cramped new surroundings, depression would have been an understandable reaction. Instead, matters of sleeping assignments and labor details moved orderly and efficiently. Work a salve for their wounded souls.

One could not help being impressed at the foresight of the ancient Odar in devising this alternate sanctuary, anticipating that something of this magnitude could happen and preparing.

A sarevar, a doctor, from far distant Tlast in the southern lands beyond Syjal approached. Inured to pain I suffered in silence. My skin scalded red by the Ryka, burned steadily. On my head I nursed a substantial welt from dashing it against the grotto wall.

“Pain and I are old companions,” I said. “Find a more deserving soul.”

He nodded and moved on while I explored this new Tear Aren. I came upon Saja, haggard but whole, tending to the wounded. At her side worked the Dulara Olana, no robe of royalty weighing her delicate shoulders or holding back her giving heart. At my approached, Saja stood and, to my utter surprise, embraced me.

At first taken back, I quickly realized how profound her despair that it had been her maps Mose copied, assuming Mose to be the culprit. That Saja took the blame upon herself I did not doubt.

“You left the maps with me, and I wandered off . . .”

Quick hands covered my lips. “We will never speak of it again.”

I nodded, then asked her of Falja whom I had not seen since the disaster fell.

“He was among the patrols absent from the Kul Aren when Ksanj attacked. His fate remains undetermined.”

Saja returned to the side of Olana, whom clearly strained to keep her eyes from me. My presence made her uncomfortable. The whirl of bewilderment had my head spinning. Feigning indifference I made my excuses and moved off, cursing the women I loved and women in general. As men have done for more eons than God has numbers.

A moment later, however, my eyes found another. She whose tiny face and frail form crumbled my antagonism as the winds of time turn stone to sand, J’le.

Cheeks stained by tears flowing through soot and grime, face spattered in blood, she sat amongst a group of twenty injured women and children waiting their turn with the half dozen sarevar amongst our number, looking so small in that crowd of devastated souls, so frightened and alone. I approached and knelt close, calling her name gently. The distracted look of shock in her eyes alarmed me.
J'le but stared blankly, eyes red rimmed and weary. I tried again, asking her, “J'le, where is your C'maya?”

Sounds behind me, someone approached and knelt beside me, putting a hand upon my shoulder. It was Saja, and her touch that told me better than words what had happened to J'll.


“He was on a mission when  . . . when it happened. We don't know.”

I lifted J'le into my arms. She did not resist. For a long moment, it was as if I held a lifeless doll. Then her eyes focused. Her arms went about my neck and she started to cry. Tears that turned to a torrent poured from a broken heart, a small trusting heart that had been betrayed by forces so much bigger than frail, tiny J’le.

Someday, to survive this blighted world of her birthright, she would recover and grow strong, resilient like her mother, like Saja, like Olana and all the brave women of the Odanal. That was someday. This day, small sad orphaned J’le stood as a symbol of the everlasting tyranny of Ksanj. In desperation, J’le clung to me, sobbing uncontrollably, shredding my soul to ribbons, all I could do was hold her and swear, “I will be your vengeance J'le. I will be your T' Alar! I swear it”

“Give her to me, Kdal.”

I turned, surprised, to find Olana with outstretched arms, tears falling from the corners of her perfect emerald eyes. For an instant I pulled J'le closer, aching to protect her from all the dangers of the universe. Olana gestured with her finger tips, her lips framing a silent, please!

Reluctantly, almost mechanically, I acquiesced. The Dulara took the sobbing J'le and, with Saja, joined a group of women organizing the caches of food and water being stored in one of the larger crevices. The image of the sad eyes of little J'le moving further and further away burned an indelible brand upon my conscience. I knew her face would return to me in the days and nights ahead, mostly the nights. I prayed it would be a source of motivation and not regret.

Sorrow given short shrift against the needs of the Blood, Saja and the Dulara put J’le to work, assigning responsibilities as dressing for the hurt. Responsibilities! In war, they start at birth.

I stood and stared about me struggling to absorb all that had occurred in so short a timeframe, a world given life, then crushed, and then born again!

Even as Gray Allen lives, dies, and lives again. Watching the Odar, I felt as though I stood stranded on a floating island, unable to reach the nearby shore. I wanted to draw my sword and kill something, something Bujan or Hisl. A low, savage growl parted my lips. I had sworn an oath to J'le. To be her T' Alar, her Protector. I meant to keep that vow.

To keep that promise, I needed to rest and heal that I would be ready to embrace the unfulfilled destiny still stretched before me.  The Destiny that had stood in that wall of fire and spoken my name, the name of Gray Allen, an impossible and improbable event that now, in its aftermath, bothered me less and less.

I already knew there was another as I who had crossed the voids. Once, we had fought together. Now, though the shapes of our passage took wide and varied turns, in the Path, our bond persisted.

Why not another? Where on the dim and dusty road of fate Ksanj and I had crossed paths I knew not, but I would find out. For wrapped in that mystery lay salvation of Jatora, freedom for the Odanal and my wild golden girl with the emerald eyes.


“Randak, Randak returns!”

All other reveries dispersed, I wormed through the curious and concerned to stand with R'li and T'lu as Randak, his face lined with stress, approached from the main tunnel entrance. Orjik and Kurl joined us and T’lu said hurriedly, “We should find a quiet corner, away from the women and children.”

Quickly, R’li lead us to one of the fissures I had noted earlier, the ones I had so casually dismissed. We entered; or rather we squeezed into, and emerged into a commodious circular chamber dominated by a round table and nine carved chairs, strikingly familiar. My mouth fell open at this perfectly scaled reproduction of the original Tear Aren of Tamora. In awe for the depth of the Odar contingency preparations, in sorrow their foresight had come to fruition.

We sat as we had in Tamora. Randak, composed and professional but clearly rattled spoke crisply and to the point.

“You all knew or guessed the nature of my charge. I went in search of Vok. I left the Kul Aren with minimum avan of twenty-five men, all R’li dared spare. N'tu commanded.”

My ears perked for word of the father of J’le.  What follows are the words of the Thief from Syjal as nearly as I recall them.

We reached the central docks without resistance, encountering nary a single Bujan or Hisl much less a threatening avan. I attributed the good fortune to confusion, the disorder that followed the death of Ksanj. Leaderless for the first time in their miserable lives, the Bujan had doubtless migrated to the city where perhaps a Mose or Vok might rally some semblance of order. The Hisl either followed the Bujan or roved the underground without purpose or direction.

N'tu however, a more seasoned pavan, expressed concern. Suspicion long ingrained in his feelings and dreadfully corroborated when our avan emerged from the great tunnel into the fields when the trap, neatly done, swiftly closed.

If Mose or Vok or whomever now commanded the Hisl set upon us in numbers three to one had envisioned a quick annihilation of our group, he or they had planned wrong. Though our position looked hopeless, N’tu and the grim men of the Odar fought heroically.

The Hisl encircled us blocking the main tunnel, cutting off retreat.  N’tu responded by turning back to the cave mouth and forming a wheel of Odar swords, pushing me to the center as he attempted to drive through the ring of Hisl swords and spears. At first, the Hisl recoiled, hesitant in their response to this brazen tactic. Encouraged, our keen blades began ripping through the hairy flesh of our enemy as K’Aldan tears through a mountain pass.

Bodies banged and thrashed, razor-sharp weapons cutting limbs until even I, locked in the heart of the formation, found myself smeared head to foot in the sickly-sour blood of the Hisl, who met their deaths in the gross silence every Jatoran abhors.

The least engaged of the Odar, I might have been the only one who heard the strange, shrill laughter that arose from the nearby fields. At first, too engrossed with the battle to search it out or give it meaning, I dismissed it. A Bujan, no doubt chortling at the maiming death and destruction that swirled under the red eye of Emo.

In the chaos a surge of hope washed over me. Through such sweat and valor as gives birth to I’bars, the battle turned in our favor! The wall of attacking beasts cracked and the tunnel mouth beckoned. N’tu ordered the final push that would win us escape from the fields. Though safety via that route remained a distant hope, it was a raft upon a stormy sea.

I heard it again, the laughter. Only this time I sought it out, and to my everlasting horror you all know what I found. Ksanj, standing in a row of trampled grain, laughing as at some great joke while summoning forth the reinforcements that crushed our spirits and spelled certain doom. The Hisl poured from a narrow opening in the cliff face twenty kotan left of our position. A secreted opening, considering its proximity to the main tunnel, I swear did not exist two ar ago.

We had already lost half our avan. We could not survive this new onslaught. I made my peace with Ana, but not N’tu. Where I saw death he saw life.

Having spat out its allocation of Hisl, the new opening, no more than a crevice, possibly an ancient fissure easily defended, stood unguarded and inviting. N'tu ordered the charge.

Ksanj, now aware of his tactical mistake, sent the Hisl after us in a rolling, suffocating wave that chased at our heels and crashed against the cliff face and, by the sheer weight of its power, swept us inside. Now but a half dozen exhausted, blood covered men who could defend that opening forever.

“Randak,” N’tu cried, turning to me. “Follow the cavern back, theremust be another opening. The Hisl were not born inside this hole. Get back to the Kul Aren. R’li must know that Ksanj still lives!”

I protested, “Ksanj will send the Hisl from that end and . . .”

“A risk we must take. Remember your place. We shall meet our Halm here, your obligation is get back to the Odar caverns with all possible speed.”

Here, Randak paused. Clearly the emotional retelling of the events surrounding his disastrous mission to Amata had taken a toll. T’lu arose and approached.

“We understand,” he said gently. “You are a vital player in our campaign, Randak. N'tu understood that. Your wisdom and judgment make a difference.”

Randak bowed his head, truly moved by T'lu's words.

“Now, if you are ready, pray continue with your story.”

The tunnel spun in a circuitous route and emptied upon one of the smaller docks. Vacant of all life, I paused to wash the blood from my body and consider my position.

Three connecting corridors lead from this dock. Which one lead to the main docks and markers to Tamora? As I debated my decision, an avan of Hisl emerged from the farthest left of the openings. Support summoned by Ksanj, no doubt.

A Bujan Sor Van, with a head molded as two boulders lain side by side, spotted me easily and approached with drawn sword. Ana, I thought sure my days finished. Then, a mad thought possessed me. I affected an impatient attitude, acting imperious as a bellicose Hoded and praying the Bujan too inept to pierce my desperate ruse.

“I am Randak's Vor!” I shouted. “Who are you?”

For a moment the misshapen thing hesitated, then lowered its sword, head listing.

“I am Reock, Sor Van of the first avandal.”

“Reock! Good! Ksanj said I would find you here. Your Dular has a mission for you.”

“Yes, I march to take the podar at the edge of the city.”

I blanched, but held my tongue. Here stood a chance to save N’tu and myself to boot. I pressed my bluff, telling Reock those orders had changed. That the real Randak lay dead in the fields.

“In this, Ksanj sees an opportunity to crush the Odar from within.”

Chancing an even larger stab in the dark, I asked Reock if he knew the path to the Odar Caverns. To my delight, his oddly shaped head bobbed up and down.

“I am Van of the first avandal. There are few in all Amata who know as much as Reock!”

“Then Ksanj choose wisely! This mission will bring great Halm to the name of Reock.”

The fool almost fell over me in his exuberance to lead the way. I ordered Reock to lead me to the Kul Aren, protecting me from any Bujan patrols we happened upon that, naturally, would be unaware of my true identity.

“We will penetrate the Odar caverns and, once I am entrenched, you will wait carry word back to Ksanj. Use the main dock, avoid the secreted trail as the Odar may have escaped in that direction.”

Accompanied by three other Bujan, we started back through the caverns. Nor had we progressed far before Reock, overwhelmed with self-importance, started to talk. He spoke of many things, much of it dealing with Bujan Halm that caused me little interest. But gradually, his ramblings turned to the war and Ksanj.

“The war is all but over,” Reock assured me. “The T’solavan scour the caverns and the Dular of Amata leads them.”


“No. The new Dular, the one called Horas.”

So there it was! The death and destruction that befell the Odar named. Horas of D’Nota, traitor and murderer, butcher of innocent women and children, a fiend without peer. None at the table spoke for several minutes, the venal emotion of that silence palpable.
“The Dular of Amata!” T’lu hissed at last.

If words could ever gain the power to kill, Horas would have died that instant.

Again, T’lu addressed Randak.

“It took nerve to so boldly confront and confound our enemy. T a man, we acknowledge that courage.”

Around the table, we rumbled agreement. Attacked, Randak had fought with the weapons Ana had gifted him, his brains. Fought, and won.

“Where is Reock now?”

“Waiting where I left in, perhaps fifty or sixty kotal from Tamora. Waiting further word from me.”

For a time, we reviewed what his story added to our situation. In the end, T'lu sketched the outline of a plan that offered a semblance of renewed resistance to Ksanj. A small step, but a beginning.

I do not recall the details. Whether good, bad or indifferent does not matter. It never happened. You need only know that R'li dispatched Randak to visit Reock with false information that would dispatch the Bujan home and probably to decapitation from Ksanj. Where we could not discount anything Horas knew or had betrayed, warriors patrolled and guarded against possible incursions into this new sanctuary. Other Odar prowled the ancient shafts and corridors in search of life, some whom waited amidst the rubble of old Tamora lest others lost as Randak returned home.

As for me, I waited for Fate to intervene.

I found an empty spot on the floor of the cavern and, wrapped in a charred silk Saja provided, slept for almost an entire day. I awoke stronger but despondent over all that had transpired. To that, add a disheartening sense of confinement. A creature of sunshine and fresh air, wind and sea, land and hill, I had lingered too long in the harsh subterranean life of the Odar. My soul clamored for freedom with a prescient voice that pecked at my core like crows at corn.

“Out beyond this damnable walls and unending caverns Destiny awaits. My answers lie in glowing woods of the Mu-Derj, or upon the shimmering slopes of the Val Ponada under the warmth of Emo, not here. This is a life for vektals, not warriors.”

Though, I could not help wonder how much of my misery, my yearning for daylight and open spaces, lay in mystifying contradictions of Olana, golden girl with the emerald eyes. She crowded my thoughts without reprieve.

She rejects me; she embraces me. She seeks me out; she ignores me.

Confronting Olana could have ended my misery. But that thought terrified me more than all the Hisl on Jatora. I would rather hang from my neck, legs kicking in the wind, than speak my heart. My mind dug a hole, a dark place, darker than the pit of sisks, darker than even the unknown continent of Kal Har. Crawling in, I pulled the dirt over me and went back to sleep.

Darkness comes in many forms, though none so bitter as unrequited love.

I awoke to a sudden series of screams, a small voice filled with terror. A great commotion followed as men cursed and charged about angrily, some asking questions, some shouting orders. Women cried.

I sprang to my feet, wiping the dust from eyes and whipping my sword from its sheath. The disturbance centered at the rear wall of cavern. I saw T’lu and Orjik prominent in the gathering crowd. As I approached, T'lu stepped into my path with narrowed eyes, his lips pulled thin showing white. My nostrils filled with the hot scent of fresh blood and something in my heart cried Olana.

“The Dulara?” I hissed in near panic.

“Gone!” T’lu cried. “Snatched from right under our very noses!” The quiver in his voice betrayed the shudder in his heart.
A bolt of outrage and hurt such as I have seldom known rifled through me. Again, all I could manage was, “How?”

 T’lu only shook his head.

R'li, and a warrior I recognized as one of our sarevar, knelt over a crumpled female form. Behind R'li, stood a terrified little J’le. At sight of me she bolted forward and threw her tiny arms around my legs. I lifted her up and, at the same time, saw that R'li and the sarevar attended an unmoving Saja.

I advanced holding J’le tightly. I looked down as R’li looked up. “Someone took a sword to the side of her head. She is badly hurt, but K’oi says she will live, thank Ana.”

I noted her bandaged right arm and surmised Saja had managed to deflect just enough of the attacking blow to save her life. Again I sputtered ineffectually, “How did this happen?”

R'li rose and put a gentle hand on J'le's chin. He tilted her tear-streaked face to his. “It was J’le who roused the camp. Tell us what you saw, little one.”

The girl nodded her head bravely, arms locked around my neck.

“We were sitting together, there.” J’le nodded to a spot just to the right of a narrow fissure in the rocks. “Saja and the Dulara talked. I was supposed to be sleeping, but I only pretended. I liked listening to them talk.”

J'le stopped, her wide-eyes sweeping around a sea of war-weary, manly faces. I could almost hear her thoughts. Would anyone understand? Would we reprimand her for wanting to act grown up, to be like the other women of her tiny world?

“It's all right,” I told her. “We understand. Go on.”

“Well, I guess I fell asleep, maybe we all did.” Her voice rose, I felt her trembling. “All I remember is hands on me, lifting me up. I thought it was my C’maya.” Suddenly, the tears came, uncontrollable sorrow and horror emptying in warm runnels down her cheeks. I tried to comfort J’le, an awkward if well-meant effort. I, we, could only wait as a final sob wracked her tiny body and she continued, haltingly.

“It happened so fast! A man and two Bujan attacked us. The man struck at Saja as she tried to stand up and fight him. A huge Bujan had the Dulara across his shoulder. I think she was unconscious. He was carrying her  . . . there.” She pointed towards the fissure. Without prompt, Orjik, all blades drawn, slid his long-frame into the opening and was gone. “The other Bujan had a hand over my mouth. He was hurting me so I bit him.” Her little head whipped round to me, eyes wide and fired. “I bit him good, Kdal! I made him bleed. When he let go I screamed! Everyone started shouting and running . . .”

Out of breath, energy expunged, J’le’s words faded into a torrent of fresh tears and sobs.

Poor indigent child, witness to more death in a single day than any should see in a lifetime. The heritage of the Odar; living in a holocaust cradle to grave. I held her small form to my breast and asked what kind of God allows such atrocity to persist? On this world or any world!

“It is all right, little one,” T'lu said quietly, revealing a tenderness that wore well on the great Amatan. “Your screams roused the camp and saved Saja. You did well. One more question, then you can rest. The man that took the Dulara, can you tell us who it was?”

J'le wiped her tears with a grimy hand. She sniffled and struggled to be strong, the battle of youth and innocence against blood and brutality. She looked at me with those great, round eyes and nodded. Though somehow, I already knew her answer.

“Just before the man hit Saja, I heard her cry out. She called him Horas.”


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

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