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Volume 1682c
Chapters 16 - 20
Michael A Wexler


Over her teary eyed protests, I handed J'le to a young Odar woman who promised to tend her needs.

I felt horrible that I must abandon her. What could I do? Her mother dead, her father missing, presumed killed, Saja incapacitated by the vicious, cowardly attack of Horas, J’le needed administration beyond the skills of this poor warrior.

She needed an Amatan woman who shared her legacy of survival in these underground lairs a desperate society called home. In the bosom of the Odar, J'le would find the solace she required.

At once, Orjik emerged from the fissure. “We found a mechanism like those controlling the entrances to Tamor. That and traces of blood.”

“I'm going after them,” I said bluntly and moved towards the passageway.

“No!” Randak stepped unexpectedly in my path. A bold action dangerously played. I felt his hands on my chest and I growled. Though his eyes filled with surprise, his hands stayed. “Use your head, Kdal.  I empathize with your anger. We all feel equally violated, but a thoughtless and fiery reaction is exactly what Ksanj wants, it is what he expects. Consider what happened to N’tu and realize that beyond this cavern, a trap waits!”

Randak turned to face all the gather of the Odar.

“We are being systematically and methodically manipulated. Do you not see it? Ksanj knew of these chambers well in advance of his attack upon the Kul Aren. The attack upon the Dulara proves that even as it proves he plans yet other and larger assaults. He shall wipe us out to the last man unless we prepare, and we begin by radically alter our thinking.”

T’lu eyes animated by powerful emotions, stepped between Randak and I, a cool draft between hot blowing winds.


“Ksanj sits in the Kiel Aren as he stood in the fields and laughs at our predictability. Well, if predictability is our shame, than let unpredictability be our salvation.”

Powerful words, they stayed my hasty rush to probable death. I considered the wisdom Randak voiced and, in that wisdom, hatched a plan.

“I have often accused others of thinking with their swords and not their heads,” I opened. “Perhaps, as Randak suggests, we better serve the Dulara sheathing our temper and using our brains.”

“What are you suggesting Kdal?” T’lu asked pointedly.

“That I go after the Dulara Olana, alone.”

T’lu grinned. “Fear the quiet beast!”

I did not know the I’bar, but approved of the metaphor.

“I stand with Kdal,” Orjik exploded. “Ksanj will be looking for avans of spiteful warriors. He will brace for noise, not stealth.”

R’li looked to T’lu for guidance. “Whether one goes or a thousand, we must do something.”

“Do you intend to abandon this cavern?”

“No. There is nowhere else. Like the last blades of grass before the darkness of Kal Har, we live or die where Ana has placed us.”

“Then make your people ready,” T’lu said with grim finality. Drawing his sword, he turned to me. “Ksanj expects directness. We will send deception”


“I am going with you.”

“Your duty . . .” I began, but T'lu waved me off.

“My duty has not changed since those first moments together in the Kiida sanval. While Olana lives I am honor bound to her rescue.”
“I join you as well!” Orjik announced.

“No,” T'lu said shaking his head vehemently. “Your presence here is indispensable. What remnants of the Odar, what missing patrols or lost souls still wonder the Val Ponada, must be found and returned. That is your mission, Orjik.”

The giant bowed acquiescence.

 “The two of you would be as two blind men in the inner caverns. Take me with you. I can not only lead but perhaps, as Randak the Vor, be useful.”

I looked at T'lu and he inclined his head yes.

The time to talk past, Orjik leading, we entered the fissure which barely accommodated our four bodies. The cleverly concealed lever we found embedded in the far right corner. The passage beyond, about the width and height of a stout Hisl, led off into a deep darkness clove by a thin streak of lorqua.

“Bring her back,” Orjik grunted.

In turn, Randak, T’lu and I slipped into the corridor and the artificial entrance slammed shut in our wake. The next leg of my Jatoran odyssey begun.

The cleft ran straight for twenty kota at length widening into a larger passage that gave evidence of recent excavation, incontrovertible proof of a well-considered, long laid plan against the Odar. My blood seethed at the knowledge that in neither the novevar nor the Kiej Dular had my supposed heroic actions altered or delayed those plans. In truth, I may have escalated his timetable!

T’lu pointed to clear easily read marks in the earth. Horas, indifferent or insolent, had made no effort at covering his tracks. Hisl footprints abounded in the dusty corridor and, as T’lu noted; “Only one pair of moccasin prints, those of a man by their girth.”

“Olana would not walk willingly,” I said and the Dular O’Odanal nodded grimly.

We moved quickly but alertly through the endless Amatan mines. The track of the Hisl clear in the dust, abetted by a lingering scent all too familiar. According to Randak, reading the cavern markings, we moved upward and west but as to how long I am at a loss, for my mind riveted upon the fate of the Olana.

Suddenly, Randak dropped to a knee with an excited exclamation. “Look here,” he cried pointing to the ground. “Blood!

I fixed upon the spot and found multiple bright red droplets prominent in the dust, surrounded by blurred Hisl tracks.

 “That is human blood,” I told T’lu breathlessly. “Perhaps J’le wounded Horas more seriously that she realized.”

“Or the Dulara is making herself a most troublesome victim.”

With renewed vigor, we plunged along the glowing tunnel in the wake of the beasts, human and otherwise. As we ran, T’lu mumbled to me under his breath.

“I once thought Ksanj the most vicious man upon Jatora. I may have been premature in that assessment. As stale and misguided as his revenge may be, at least we understand his motivation. What under the rays of Emo, I ask you, drives Horas?”

Abruptly, I stopped dead in my tracks T’lu looked at me with a challenging frown. He knew my heart and demanded I be forthcoming.
“Motive! That is what has been bothering me, what is missing from all this! Despite his noxious declarations in the novevar, Ksanj made no effort to preserve the Dulara from the Ryka fires before destroying Tamora. Yet now, suddenly, in what we perceive as a prelude to striking again, he sends an assassin to save her.”

Randak spoke first, saying, “Indeed, you make a point Kdal. Why the change of heart?”

T'lu, a grim shadow darkening the tired outline of his eyes, provided the answer. “You have struck upon it, Randak. Heart. The heart is the greatest motivator of all. At times overriding every scrap of education, logic, and rationality. The pattern fits. Kdal humiliated Ksanj in the novevar, destroying his Vors and rescuing Olana and I while Mose and that Camtar, Lerok, watched. Furious, he reacted not with reason but blind spite. Now, with at least a portion of that hostility satiated, his desires towards the Dulara and the D’ jarval resurface. Desires which, as you said, he made appallingly clear in the novevar.”

“I am not so sure.”

T’lu cocked an eyebrow.

“Power! Power, ambition and greed, they can be as driving a force as either love or hate. It could be Ksanj had nothing whatever to do with the attack upon the Dulara.”

“Horas acted alone?” Randak whispered. His voice filled with skepticism. “Impossible! No man not of the Blood would dare risk it. The vengeance of Ksanj would bring against him would be . . ."

And words failed him.

We marched again. T’lu convinced his assessment the actions of Ksanj correct, I sensing some deeper, darker plot. I could not justify my feelings, but they haunted me surely as the walls of the Val Ponada surrounded me.

We reached branching corridors. Ahead, a mass of conflicting footprints led into both tunnels. Again, the alarms working the collective memory sounded.

“If Horas wanted to avoid pursuit, he would have taken pains to camouflage his flight.”

“Your point is well taken, except” T’lu offered, “Ksanj would anticipate at the least a full avan of warriors.”

“Either way, this smells of a trap.”

“Agreed and, would not the logical approach to dealing with a pursuing avan be divide and conquer? Split your enemy in two halves and then fall upon them at a time and place of your choosing?”

I nodded numbly, still plagued by some nagging fact I could not hold. I knew only that as I gazed at the two paths looming before us, I had the keen sensation of an elk at the end of the sighted bow.

T’lu, staying his course, determined we should remain together and, by the simple expedient of a guess, follow the right corridor.

“We came believing stealth would win where force would lose. We continue on and trust Ana to guide us.”

The decision made, we advanced into the right corridor, with an added measure of stealth missing from the first phase of our journey. At a distance of two hundred yards in, moisture showed upon the ceiling. The moss glistened and tiny liquid jewels formed on the lorqua rock. Another hundred yards and small pools formed under foot and the seepage was noticeably chilling to the touch.

“Run off from the snow caps?” Randak wondered aloud. “Can we be that close to the summit?”

In over a mile, ankle deep in what had become a steady stream, our feet splashed through swiftly running waters that had suddenly reversed and warmed.  I remarked as much to T'lu, who, through narrowed eyes, quoted me an ancient Jatoran verse.

“Like the thoughts closest to your heart, the sea warms as it nears the sand.” He put a hand to Randak’s shoulder and bid him pause. “We have been going downhill the last kotal.”

“I have wrestled with the same idea. It is possible,” the Thief returned thoughtfully. “Without the d’alpol, who is to say what unknown path we may have followed.”

Neither man elaborated their thoughts and so, wet and ignorant, I pressed on. The tunnel continued to descend and widen until we moved three abreast. Then, dimly at first but building rapidly, the distinctive tumult of water over rock filled the cavern. A slope of fifty yards and the corridor ended at cascading falls.

“We chose wrong. Horas did not come this way,” Randak observed bitterly. “We must go back and  . . ."

Above the boisterous falls, the sounds of scratching leather and clanking of swords, accompanied by unmistakable fetor of Hisl, rose at our backs and advanced.

I pulled at my longsword but T'lu put a hand to my wrist. “You will not need that.”

“There is no concealment here. We are exposed!”

T’lu nodded to the falls behind us. “Hisl do not swim and yet they advance. What does that suggest?”

For a moment I hesitated and then blurted, “Another of Ksanj’s confounded hidden doorways!”

“Then Horas may yet have used this passage?” Randak hissed excitedly. T’lu nodded.

“We will give the Hisl a few ar, then follow.”

“But that may be the very band we seek, and the Princess!”

“Stealth, my Mar, and trust in Ana.”

I trusted my longsword more but held with the bidding of T’lu, waiting tensely.  Listening as Hisl pads splashed through the shallow water, expectant. The sounds failed to abate, growing louder, drawing closer.  T’lu, jaw set, met my gaze in silence, but his right hand fell to the hilt of his sword.

The stench of Hisl strong in my nostrils, with the beasts not more than a fifty feet from discovery, their stride ceased. The echoes died and there was silence.

“Now,” T’lu hissed and we crept forward.

Suddenly, Randak gripped my arm and pointed to the froth buffeting our ankles. At first I did not grasp his concern. Then I saw what had drawn his attention. The agitation had increased markedly, as if some great body moved beneath the surface. Though the significance escaped my witless brain, T’lu stiffened.

“Ana, what a fool I have been!” he exclaimed. “We knew we entered a trap, but no the nature. We expected combat and got deceit. I should have remembered my heritage and the teachings of my fathers!”

I was lost and it showed on my face.

“Ksanj has lured us into a G’har fal.”

The phrase meant a false level or floor.

“The ancient Amatans emptied and filled passages such as these countless times over the eons,” T’lu explained breathlessly, “allowing men and, in larger caverns ships, to pass out in safety but barring or destroying any foe foolish enough to pursue a watery entrance to Amata. Once we passed the concealed doorway, he sent the Hisl to block retreat and  . . .”

“And now he floods the G’har fal,” Randak finished, voice wavering.

Already the water pushed at me knee high an irresistible force edging me backward. The slick walls offered no purchase and all thought of advancing upon the Hisl, no matter how desperate an act, was washed away with the silk and mud beneath my feet.

There was but one option and I voiced it to T’lu. “We go over the falls voluntarily or we are swept over.”

To my amazement, T’lu smiled. “We have survived worse.”

My thoughts shot to the Legions of K’Aldan and our harrowing escape off the ravaged slopes of the Val Ponada. Yes, we escaped and we survived. But how often can one joust with Death before Death wins?

Shrugging in resignation, as I had done so often since finding Jatora, I followed T’lu and then Randak over the edge of the embankment and down the rocky steppes of the cascading falls.

Pushed by the accelerating flow flooding the passage we bumped and banged at a fierce pace. One arm anchored my longsword to my body for fear it would wedge in the rocks and entangle me while my free arm attempted to negotiate the punishing boulders flashing by upon either hand. Shoulders and back bearing testimony to the danger of that mad slide into the unknown, my left arm bleeding from a ragged gash just above the biceps, I fought to keep my nose above water and my head free of the rocks.

We bounced, slid, and banged that ragged course for perhaps two hundred kotal before the falls abruptly leveled, fell away, and sent us plunging into the unknown.

Cold air rushed by me. I shot through space in a dizzying descent exacerbated by spill form the falls battering my head and shoulders. Then, with a sudden jolt of pain, my twisted body hit water but I continued to fall, into the depths of dark, cold pool.

It took several frightening seconds to arrest my downward momentum. When I at last surfaced, spitting water and gasping for air, I found we had arrived in deep quarry hemmed on all sides by worn and polished walls glistening with lorqua and radiant moss. T’lu and Randak treaded water beside me and beyond minor scrapes and bruises, neither of my companions had sustained serious injury.

We had arrived in a well, bell curved towards the lip of the falls over which we had tumbled. Randak already searched the slick walls for handholds.

 “These walls are worn smooth as malnor.”

  “Any chance there is ship at the bottom of this well we could use to sail out of here?” I sputtered with open sarcasm.

T’lu responded with a grin. “No, but perhaps there is something else that offers us a chance at life. If we find where the water drains, it may lead to safety.”

“We had best find it fast,” Randak cried, “before the G’har fal fills to the roof and we are drowned!”

Then as though to echo his words, two heinous forms dropped form the skies. Drowned Hisl, their bloated, soaking bodies reeking beyond description.  Soulless creatures that had voluntarily stepped into the same diabolical trap that ensnared us.

In rapid succession, a dozen more bodies plummeted the open space from falls to water. I dove, as much to seek the hoped for drain as to avoid being knocked unconscious by the raining Hisl.

To what depth I descended is impossible to know. The natural gleam of the lorqua, while giving light, tempered that gift with a false sense of height and breadth. Perhaps the true depth was measured in the pain suffusing my lungs as I circled the walls seeking a lever or some such mechanism hinting of an escape passage.

No surprise, Randak and T’lu stroked downward right and left of my position.

In estimating how long I could hold my breath before being forced to surface, I made a near fatal error. I had failed to account for the filing G’har fal. The well had risen at least thirty feet and I but barely broke the surface with my mouth closed.

Hisl bodies bobbed aimlessly all about me. Then Randak and T’lu broke the plain. Taking but a second to shake disappointed heads and refill our lungs, we dove again.

It was Randak who found it. I felt his hand pulling at my shoulders as I scoured the seemingly endless rock wall before me. I turned and found him gesturing wildly to a position about 10 kotal below me along the opposite wall. It could not have been simpler. A metal grate installed in the rock with a sliding door. As to what variety of pumps and bellows might also be associated with the operation of that drain, I plead ignorance.

Site marked, burned in our brains, we surfaced.

“It will take the three of us and our daggers,” Randak offered breathlessly, “but we should be able to pry the grating loose and enter the passage beyond. After that, it is up to Ana.”

A desperate man, I thought, might hold his breath perhaps two minutes? If the passage proved longer than that, we were dead.

It took four dives, with the ceiling so low upon that fourth foray that we all realized the futility of a fifth. The trap had closed; the jar had sealed.

So, with every resource that remained, we dug our blades at the edges and pulled upon the crosshatched bars. At last, with an audible groan, it gave way and floated quickly from view to the bottom of the well. Now, as Randak had delineated, everything depended upon the length of the tunnel ahead. Either breath or death waited.

T’lu first, then Randak, we swam into the unknown. I struggled with the gash on my arm. My muscles ached and my lungs burned. The tunnel went on without hint of end. How many minutes passed? How many seconds of breath, of life, remained?

I felt myself weaken. The burning in my chest became an irresistible cry to breathe. Breathe! Breathe! A dozen strokes more I forced through that endless burrow. Then, vaguely aware that the kicking feet of Randak were no longer visible before me, all resistance gone, I blacked out.

When I recovered, I lay upon solid ground. A panting T’lu knelt over me. Randak lay a few feet from us, breathing dramatically, his chest heaving as though driven by a great internal bellows.

“I thought I was dead.”

“He,” T’lu said nodding to Randak, “went back for you. I could not have done it. How he ever held his breath that long is beyond comprehension.”

“If there is one thing a Thief never lacks for, it is air.”

Randak had sat up and sat looking at me with a large grin. Slowly gaining my feet. I strode to his side.

“Thank you.” I offered simply. “You are a brave man.”

The look in Randak’s eyes said volumes.

We had reached a small sandy strip of land some ten kotal in length, no more. The waters of Tamor flowed past us in an unhurried stream. At the back edge of the beach, a stone pile rose up and barred the way. At first blush, it had the appearance of a damn, but T’lu thought otherwise.

“It looks to me as though the stones were moved here as excavators hollowed out the tunnel we just escaped.”

“Well, shall we see what lies beyond?” I asked.

“Yes, but cautiously.”

Climbing quickly, excitement of the unknown putting vigor to our tired muscles, we attained a position from where we could see over the stony barrier. T’lu gasped.

“The docks of Amata!”

Randak shook his head. “A dock, yes, but not the main docks.”

Our heads lowered that our eyes only peered upon the scene before us, we observed Hisl, Bujan, and podar moving about the crowded sands in the pursuit of individual or group tasks. An air of anticipation pervaded. Racks of aerlors stood dry and ready for imminent action and a full avan of Hisl, under the direction of Bujan Van in red cotral, stood eerily congregated at the great bridge to the city. A second group armed to the proverbial teeth, gathered by a large boulder set against the wall furthest from our hidden grotto.

At once, a commotion rose in the waters we had so recently quit. T'lu clambered agilely over our rocky cover, moving stealthily to a second knot of boulders strewn haphazardly a few kota left. Randak and I followed. We had barely ensconced in our new position when an aerlor of Hisl emerged from hidden cave mouth some hundred years behind us.

We drew back as they passed our position. There were six beasts, commanded by a Bujan Sor Van. A heavily muscled brute with semi-regular features suggestive of an officer advanced to the green cotral and pendant via above average intelligence. The aerlor beached and the Bujan strode purposefully across the sands towards a Bujan Van standing by a rope bridge leading into the mountain, bellowing as he walked.


The Van, whom had a beard in need of a scythe and two red-rimmed eyes above a nose that dipped awkwardly left, turned towards the new arrival.

“Mulct,” he cried advancing to meet the others. “What notal? Did you find them?”

They met, Mulct shaking his head.

“We found footprints. Clearly, they reached the point of the two branches. We divided and I followed tributary below the falls. They did not perish there, for we found no sign of them, only Hisl.”

“Well, if they retreated back in the depths of the mines, no harm. Let them live in ke’halm. If they have somehow avoided our traps and still advance, well, they are but three! We will stay vigilant. Great Halm to the Bujan who brings Ksanj their hides!” Droko’s pendulous lips were drooling with bile.

The pack moved across the dock, towards that opposite walls, their voices fading. I nudged Randak. “My guess is, had we taken the other branch, we would have arrived there, by that bridge.”

Randak nodded and suddenly added. “Incredible as it may seem, it would appear we found the one safe path to this dock.”
Safe path, he said? I smiled.

T'lu hissed in our ears. “Look!”

A large rock by the bridge moved! Another of the cleverly concealed passages that I now suspected honeycombed the Tamor. A figure emerged from the widening mouth and my blood roared in my temples.


Behind the V’Koo came a stinking Hisl, a biting, kicking Dulara Olana slung across its shoulder. Horas ordered the Dulara lowered to her feet. Upon which, she struck at him with a sharp blow that brought blood to his nose. In response, the V’Koo grabbed the Dulara by the hair and forcibly dragged her towards the bridge.

I do not know what possessed me or why. Perhaps it was the sight of the Dulara Olana unctuously towed by her raven hair, or my promise of T' Alar to J'll, or maybe just Fate pronouncing a time to react. Whatever the motivation, I went mad. With a cry of vengeance burning my throat, I leaped from concealment and raced across the golden sands of the heavily armed, enemy-riddled dock, longsword drawn, calling to Olana.

The stupid, impetuous actions of a krekal in love, earmarked for disaster.

Every eye in that cavern turned and, from the surprised roar of exultation rising from the podar, I knew that stupid or not, reckless or not, T'lu followed!

Recovered from their momentary shock, the Hisl and Bujan galvanized. Horas, eyes wide in horror, found his voice and screamed at the Bujan to kill me, though the scion of Ksanj needed little urging.

Flashing spears sang perilously close to my head. Under the howls of the Bujan and the silence of the Hisl I dodged death and darted towards the V'Koo and his stolen prize. I had deliberately angled my path towards the bridge to intercept Horas, but he dragged the Dulara towards the beach instead, and a waiting a two-seat aerlor, a move that caught me by surprise.  I turned to follow. Hisl intervened and forced me to delay my charge that might end their miserable lives.

Two Hisl died and a half dozen more took their place. Mulct screamed from a safe distance. I did not see Droko. I could but groan helplessly as Horas gained the aerlor, dumped the Dulara unceremoniously into the stern and pushed-off. The Hisl died and I raced for the water.

Olana looked unconscious, for she neither struggled nor rose to throw herself from the craft. Cognizant, she would be a veritable She-Jal forestalling Horas's effort to paddle.

Horas, for his part, paddled furiously. Once, his head snapped around and found me, drawing close, tearing through a wave charging Hisl while T’lu and Randak freed podar and advanced the fight to the withdrawing Bujan. A nasty sneer curled his pulled his twisted features, but no sign of panic.

A dozen dead creatures stretched behind me, a dozen more confronted me as the women I loved moved out upon the bosom of Tamor, I became running death. A power that no mortal on any world could stand against. I had failed Olana too many times before. Not again!
Not ever again.

Horas leaned into his solitary paddle with stringy tough muscle. The aerlor shot swiftly into the current. Escape seemed within his grasp.
The clamor behind me assured me T’lu, Randak and the podar had the fray controlled. Still, I turned me head to check, and in that brief instant I found Droko. He had crossed the bridge headed for the surface.

We did not have much time.

A half dozen Hisl remained between the water and me. We closed in a clang of metal. A swirl of noxious Hisl odor swept my nostrils. A furious exchange of lightning cuts and thrusts and I plowed through them as Mecca had done the Iochis at the walls of Asynth!

I sheathed my sword on the run and hit the water flying. Diving shallow, I surfaced immediately, striking out with bold, urgent strokes. Horas pulled fifty yards out; his back bent to his task. My heart leaped, for Olana stirred and her head and arms hung weakly over the gunwale. She looked dazed, her eyes unfocused. I swam on but dared not call out to her lest I make Horas aware his undoing had regained consciousness. I kept my eyes fixed on the Dulara and at last saw the light of reason return.

Here gaze found me, swimming towards her with long desperate strokes. For but a second they clouded in question, then she gripped the sides of the aerlor and rocked left and right with all her might. But the aerlor was too big, too heavy to capsize. She succeeded only in antagonizing Horas.

With an angry scowl, the sisk turned. Olana struggled to rise and leap to safety as I had envisioned, but Horas, coward of cowards, rose, took two steps towards the stern, and swung his bone-handled paddle in a vicious arc that would have killed the Dulara had it connected.
How Olana avoided the sweep of that improvised weapon I do not now. Somehow, Horas managed only a glancing blow that laid the Dulara once more into the bottom of the aerlor.

Horas laughed, but Olana had done enough! The delay she caused proved the edge I needed. My right hand closed upon the hardwood frame stretched over with Jal hide. With a surge, I pulled myself into the prow.

My weight tipped the aerlor. Horas spun about, upper lip curled into a victorious sneer. The heavy paddle swung again and I saw two things at the same time. Hanging from the scabbard slung crisscross from Horas's shoulder was the Redke Vandl, the Holy Sword of K'si, and a dazed and bleeding Olana launch herself at Horas's legs.

Through her intervention, that deadly missile missed me, thudding heavily against the thwart of the aerlor. With a cry of dismay, Horas hoisted it again and strove to retry his attack. I stepped under the pendulum sweep of the paddle and drove a terrific uppercut to his exposed jaw. Staggered, reeling drunkenly, he almost toppled from the boat. Though a sycophant and traitor, Horas was not a weakling.
Viciously, he kicked free of Olana, wiped the smear of blood from his mouth and, with cat like quickness, lunged for my throat. His hands closed around my windpipe with surprising strength; strength made more robust by desperation. For out of the corner of my eye, I had a quick glimpse of second aerlor pushing away from the docks, with T'lu, Randak, and dozen willing podar straining mightily at their oars. Behind them launched the Hisl, all in a mad race.

I reined punches at Horas's head and face until he lost his grip upon my throat. With a surge, my fingers found his throat. The situation reversed, I determined not to let go until Horas died.

I squeezed, enjoying it, watching as the V'koo's eyes bulged in their sockets and his tongue lolled against the sides of his open mouth. He turned blue. A few moments more and there would be one less V'Koo in the world.

His body went limp. I dropped him with an oath and freed the Sword of K'si. I can not convey the welling of strength that blade sent surging through my limbs. Perhaps it is a magical sword -- though I have never believed in magic.

I helped Olana sit upright. She was groggy, nursing a bruise upon her right temple. The aerlor carrying T'lu and Randak pulled alongside, the latter shouting at me in a voice that sounded strangely uneasy.

I glanced beyond Randak at the closing Hisl and considered our next action. Stand and fight or flee into the nearest channel with little to no chance of outdistancing the tireless Hisl.

And then, Olana screamed, her face ashen, her eyes spread wide as heaven's gate. She buried her slim fingers into my arms until they drew blood. Nor could I do more than follow her gaze and gasp as, from the mouth of the main channel, raced a thunderous wave of roaring death.

The Valcar, Demon Flood of Amata!


Gray Allen, whom Destiny granted Remembrance where others knew oblivion, could not collectively dredge a vision as imperious as that black-faced, frothy-white wall of death.

But now was a time of action and not refection. Already the fury of the Valcar churned under our aerlors. Our small crafts rocked with a sickening motion that filled me with an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Absorbed, mesmerized by the savage ferocity that bore down upon us with irresistible certainty, almost too late I felt the hairs stiffen at the nape of my neck. I spun even as T’lu shouted madly.


Blood flowing from his mouth, rage running at his eyes, the supposed new King of Amata had risen from the dead. Or had he only been shamming? He swung his paddle at my head. In reflex, my sword arm shot upward to cover my face. The Redke Vandal took the brunt of the blow, but still paddle slid along its length and bounced hard off my skull. Head snapping backwards, Olana's terrified scream ringing in my ears, I toppled over the thwart and into the teeth of the roaring Valcar.

Barely conscious, I felt the Pentecostal waters close over me, and the helpless aerlors. Incalculable power whipped me head over heals. Ramming me through pounding walls of water a twig in a gale. Conflicting currents dragged me to frightening depths then tossed me pell-mell upwards with such force and such height that my back cut on the razor-sharp ceiling.

Breath battered from my lungs by ramrod arms of black-water, disoriented and bleeding, I floundered helplessly on that angry white crest, certain of a swift demise hammered to a pulp against the rapidly approaching cavern wall.

A great wave scaled upwards as a watery Pegasus seeking the sun. I straddled precariously upon its winged back. Then it curled upon itself and raced for the far wall of the dock. As one, we pounded the ancient innards of the Val Ponada with bone-jarring intensity. That I survived I do not comprehend to this day, even so, blood flowed freely from a deep gashes to my chest and arms. Consciousness became an illusion. As the retreating breaker dragged me away from the wall by the retreating breaker, I breathed sporadically, at the whim of the Valcar.

Then another great wave lifted me up. This time I toppled from its crest with a compelling smack upon the churning water beneath. The horrific undertow gripped me with pincer strength. Held fast beneath the surface, I spiraled down into murky depths. A body smooth, swift and hairless brushed me. A terrified Tagor, bellowing and whistling, its one eye rotating in a blood-red arc searching for escape; leaving me ignored.

As erratic as a jilted lover, the surging Tamor that took me down then spit me up the way a skimmed stone darts across the surface. I bounced fifty Kota through a rollicking kaleidoscope of water, rock and debris, my buffered body passed to a second wave. It was then, locked in its curling embrace, that I saw the fate of the Hisl that had pursued T'lu onto the Tamor.

Carried helplessly to the cavern walls, their aerlors lay smashed into tinder-wood. Bloodied corpses Hisl dotted the laughing waters. My eyes shut, but images of this same fate overtaking T'lu, Randak, and my precious Olana punctured through.

Too battered to feel the pain, I succumbed to the inevitable and stopped struggling. In the dimming glint of life, I gave myself over to vague rambling.

Why did Ksanj do it? Why send Horas to spare Olana from the T’solavan, then loose the flood to kill anew?

My lungs ached and my mouth flapped as a fish on land. Tamor, clogged with grit and sand, flooded my mouth and chest.

Did passion or expedience make Olana a tool in his conquest of Jatora? Was the D’ jarval sincere? Or was all this some connivance of Horas to which I had no insight, only the hint of a hazy inner voice.

I knew that I floated upon my face, as dead men supposedly do. Would that I had retained the Redke Vandl that its weight could carry me to the bottom and lie as a headstone for my watery grave.

The Redke Vandl! Symbol of Horas' supposed title of Dular of Amata. The windfall for his deliverance of the Odar, the O' Odanal, and the Dulara Olana to Ksanj -- and perhaps even the immortal skein of Gray Allen. I wondered what lives, what destinies I would miss. What blueprint of Fate would be left unfulfilled, or had this always been the predestined path?

Tamor, Daughter of the Anor, whispered her song of dissolution and I wondered that seemed to move up. Truth skewered the fog of my benumbed brain. These were human voices shouting at me; voices attached to strong hands that gripped me hard by my arms, hair, and harness. Desperate hands that hauled me from the Tamor into the aerlor of T'lu and Randak where I lay gasping and spitting, trying to inject life into my soggy, violated lungs.

The aerlor, solid and whole, bounced violently on top of a dark, cresting wave, hovering wildly in mid-air before plunging into the next billowing trough as the Tamor bellied out between mountains of white-capped water.

“You floated up just in time!” T'lu cried into my ears. “I thought we lost you sure this time.”

“And I, all of you,” I gasped, only half believing my senses. T’lu offered a grim, waterlogged smile.

“Even under the yoke of Ksanj, the Amatans take pride in what they build. My ancestors would be quite pleased with the construction of these aerlors, and the skill and daring of they that row them!”

These, T'lu said these. My head snapped to the mouth of the grotto. Horas paddled a man possessed. I could not see the Dulara Olana. T'lu easily read my mind.

“The vektal struck her down, again.”

The viciousness of that fiend had me spewing venom from my heart that worked as a tonic for my pain. Another notch added to my inevitable accounting with the D’Notan V’koo.

“But the Hisl . . .”

“They are not danor,” Randak replied succinctly and then suddenly smiled, guilefully. “By the way, you dropped this.”

Randak reached down and raised up the Redke Vandl.

I breathed a deep sigh of gratitude and relief. Randak continue to speak. I listened through closed lids.

“Three are three major protective installations surrounding what used to be the main dock. We have rode out the first two waves, but we are running out of room.”

My eyes focused. I found where I assumed the main island had stood. There was nothing! A wall of water abutting solid rock, even the bridge to the Amatan fields submerged or destroyed. I could not verify which.

At once, I noticed the cavern roof had dropped significantly. Flooded Tamor had risen fifty kota. T'lu had been modest. The Amatan's were consummate ship builders, and the group of freed podar with us upon this incredible voyage, consummate sailors. That we had not perished quickly with the balance of life upon the Amatan Docks defied credence.

The Jatoran's called it Je' ndal.

To me it was Destiny. Incomprehensible Fate dangling me by a fragile thread while She plays, She toys. She throws before the Devil’s hand and then succors me.

“I am bored today, Let us do something creative!”

It is a difficult and astounding Kismet.

There were six warriors aboard. They held oars in the water to keep us upright. We pitched and yawed, rolling with the inward surge, waiting tensely as the hard current pushed our aerlor toward the speechless walls. Randak, surprising me with his expertise, shouted synchronous orders.

The Valcar broke against the rocky cavern, giving the walls the voice I had said they lacked. The roar warped across the riled Tamor a signal for the Odanal to bend their broad backs and pull with the natural motion of the wave. We shot forward if slung from a bow.
Ahead and to the left, Horas steered toward a narrow cleft just sufficiently above the water line water to embrace his craft. That he survived, paddling alone, confounded the odds and yet, without his cunning mastery of the waters, the Dulara Olana would lie drowned at the bottom of the river.

A distant roar built in my bones, for truly I felt it before I heard it. The third wave loomed in the wide-mouthed tunnel ahead. Horas increased his effort to a near frantic attack. Randak hollered encouragement in our ears while urging us to stroke for our lives.

“We have to make that fissure before this last arm of the Valcar strikes!”

“There!” cried one of the men. “There it is!”

Never had I seen so dark a force, so thick and voluminous a well of water. I looked ahead, measured the distance. Horas would make it – we would not.

I held my breath. Horas vanished into the cleft. The tempest struck. A liquid battering ram it pounded our careening craft. T'lu screamed at the men to pull their oars, to drive against the fury and top that rolling behemoth and ride it for our lives.

The first swell nearly swamped us straightaway. Our aerlor groaned like an old man struggling against the pain ripping at his bones. Forced to take on more water than it could hold, the aerlor listed dangerously left. Randak, T’lu, and I all bailed wildly with our bare hands. We righted the aerlor, which then plunged into the trough of the first wave, which swept us onto the curl of the next. A roller coaster going up, straight up, with incredible speed. As a hurtling spear soaring high above the swollen lagoon, we scarped the jagged ceiling and then angled back towards the racing, raging waves.

En masse, we stowed oars, bent low, and clung to the thwart and fragile hope.


I can still recall the awful sound of that impact, a sound of wood against water that rang like sword on stone. We had missed the rising crest and hit in the belly of the beast. For an absolute eternity, the frothing Valcar teetered overhead, then crashing inward, buried us in an endless galaxy of blackness and brine.

I recall a sensation of incredible pressure and then slowly the watery night receded. The Valcar finished, its fury spent.

Ana still rode in our sturdy little craft. We bobbed upon the shining-black surface of Tamor. How in Kal Har we were still in one piece defied logic -- though only two of the Odanal remained at their oars. Nor did several minutes of frantic search find those we had lost. They had died free, with full Halm.

The worst over, the waters stabilizing -- though they continued to roll forward and backward with an angry swell  -- we turned our attention to Horas. There was no sign of his aerlor, nor sign of splintered wreckage.

“I saw him make the fissure,” I said aloud.

T'lu offered that, “The wash would have carried him safely beyond the final crest of the Valcar.”

I crawled into a vacant place and grabbed an oar. “If Horas got through, than the Dulara Olana lives.”

Without urging, T'lu and Randak took seats before and behind me. It took some hard stroking against the current to reach the fissure. The choppy waters of swollen Tamor thumped against our gunwales as we steered left, leaving the death and destruction of the Amatan docks behind. Ahead lay the only life upon Jatora that mattered, the Dulara Olana.

The volume of the Tamor had swelled incredibly. From obliterated channels flotsam and jetsam floated onto Tamor, but only the surviving passage drew our attention. It seemed unlikely Horas could have pulled through into one of those branches, the currents were too severe draining into the main channel.

“Engineered drainage,” Randak said. “The Valcar will recede rapidly now. Ksanj enhanced the natural draw off of the Tamor. The purpose of the Valcar was to destroy an enemy, not end all commerce through the Tamor.”

It was as Randak said. The worst over, the water rose no higher and within ten, maybe fifteen minutes, had receded to near normal levels. We rowed blind. No quarry presented itself or visible evidence of Horas having taken an alternate course, though there always lurked the possibility of a concealed corridor. Still, we kept on and followed the main flow of the river. Our distance stretched out, the river calmed and widened in a downward flow that now emptied into a flat, bowel-shaped basin with numerous verging tributaries. Here, confounded, we drew oars and stared blankly at any of a dozen different channels Horas could have used.

I turned to the surviving warriors.

“Have either of you been here before? Do you have any idea which path Horas might have taken?”

The first man, a dark swarthy fellow from Syjal named Granal, shook his head. “I never left the docks in all my years in Amata,” he said sullenly. Then his eyes brightened and he turned to the other fellow, an Amatan.

“M'ol! You have been all the way to Agar, which way would Horas go?”

M'ol gave the matter serious reflection. He was an older man, with telltale gray in his Aal and hard learned patience in his eyes.

“It would help if I knew were he wanted to go.”

T'lu and I exchanged astonished stares. Randak laughed aloud. Perhaps it was just a reaction, a catharsis after the extreme tension and terror of the Valcar, the anxiety of the pursuit, but we all laughed at the sagacity of M'ol's question.

“Well struck M’ol!” Randak declared smiling broadly.

“Indeed,” T'lu seconded. “Where would Horas go and why?”

Insight illuminated my dun senses.


All eyes were upon me.

“I believe,” I ventured bravely, “that Horas acts alone. Unaided, he planned and executed the kidnapping of the Dulara, and his escape from the docks. Horas ran from Ksanj. The Valcar was for him. We just got in the way.”

Randak pointed to the Redke Vandal. “That blade and the title Dular of Amata were rewards for his treachery. It is what every V’Koo wants, power and wealth. Why would Horas throw that away?”

My eyes narrowed. “For something even more provocative than riches and power, the Dulara Olana.” My heart whipped against the gently lapping water on which we bobbed. “He approached me in the docks, at the time of our ill-fated rebellion, hinting he had friends in D’Nota that would shelter him and reward those who defended him. He threatened to go to Ksanj with our plot if I did not include him our plans. Though I dismissed him as a V’Koo, I have since grown to believe there was more truth than lie in Horas’s desire to escape Amata.”

“What are you suggesting?” T’lu asked. “That Horas has his own designs upon the Dulara Olana?”

“We discussed the contradiction in Ksanj’s actions. First, he condemns Olana to death in the Kul Aren, and then mounts a new abduction.” I paused. “I do not know T’lu. It is only a feeling, but a strong one. There is a game at play here, a heavy handed conspiracy we do not as yet understand.”

T’lu let a slow smile spread his face. “You present me with more than I care to worry about, but you make sense. Still, if there is a plot between Horas and Ksanj, it is their concern. Ours is to recover the Dulara Olana. That accomplished, we can address curtailing the traitorous career of Horas of D’Nota forever.”

Randak spoke, cold and detached, the Thief orating to his peers, a man experienced in the conspiracies and convolutions of politics, and human emotion.

“While I understand our Dular’s wanting to move forward, I submit we must paused a moment and consider what Kdal has laid out. His theory has merit. Horas had ambition, a trait that put him in conflict with Ksanj. He knew he could not trust Ksanj once he had outlived his usefulness. With his ways,” and Randak spat the word, “he may have gained insight to a threat against his life and struck against it. It would be consistent with how Ksanj treats those he mistrusts.”

 “By struck against it,” T’lu said quietly, “you infer kidnapping Olana?”

“Yes, for the safe return of Olana to Syjal, Horas could name his price anywhere upon Jatora, and under a pledge of Halm none would ever dare break. No matter how vile his crimes or how badly we wanted him brought to justice to account for his treachery against the Odanal, he would be safe and he would be rich.”

“Patar!” Granal, speaking for all of us, spit into the river. Patar has no literal translation, but then it hardly needs one.

“We blundered into the middle of their private war,” Randak smiled. “An unresolved war, for the docks will be serviceable in less than two ar and Ksanj will follow in force. And it is that point upon which we must attend. We trail Horas, yes, but Ksanj trails us both. A man of unbounded vengeance as we already know, and have known for three thousand years, his pursuit will be without reserve, his accounting without mercy.”

Suddenly, M'ol stood and pointed. There, bobbing out of the mouth of the opening to our immediate right, as if sent by Ana, appeared a sodden moccasin, fallen -- or dropped -- from a small, delicate foot.

Grabbing up my oar, I singled handedly propelled the aerlor. T’lu leaned over the side and scooped the tiny prize aboard.

“Was there ever such a woman!” T'lu cried.

Could I argue?

We needed no further encouragement to bend our oars and, bucking the current, struck out into this beckoning passage. We had traveled two or three kotal when our paddles struck bottom. We adjusted our stroke and forged ahead into the increasingly shallow water. Ten minutes more brought us to a long, narrow peninsula jutting cleanly into the dark waters. Drawn upon the sandy bar was an abandoned aerlor.

“Horas,” I breathed.

I stuffed the tiny moccasin into my harness and vaulted over the side, sloshing the remaining yards to the vacant aerlor, surveying the empty beach as I ran.

“No question they came this way!” I cried as T'lu joined me.

Muddy prints in the soft sand lead up the narrow neck of beach into a cramped fissure. Dimly glowing, lorqua laced the passageway. Not a man demurred. We entered the constricted passage of one mind, one purpose, and proceeded for a lengthy period without incident. I recall growing hungry and reasoned a considerable distance traveled; a considerable time passed.

Then we made a startling discovery. Empty Jal skins of meat and water, lines of rope made from Votag gut, and whatever else Horas had carried away without trace. They lay near a recently excavated mound of earth. Those empty skins spoke volumes of the long term treachery and cunning of Horas of D'Nota.

“By the Aal of my K'may,” T'lu growled. “The guile of the man.”

It would be pointless to recount the monotony and anxiety of that endless trek beneath the Val Ponada. I sensed we had moved far from Amata, though just how far I did not realize, yet. Wearied, spent, we conceded the inevitable and holed up to sleep.

“Horas will camp,” T’lu surmised. “He is only one man dragging a resistant Olana. He will stop.”

In my mind grew an image of Horas camping, sleeping, while a trussed and tortured Olana waited on his next pleasure, her next abuse. I slept fitfully.

Refreshed, if hungry and thirsty, we struck out again. Several more hours of heavy plodding passed and then abruptly the corridor ended, bursting without notice into an enormous subterranean hollow reminiscent of the area where T'lu and I first fell into the underground universe of Jatora. Except that it was more of a crater than a grotto, solid rock dry as dust.

The chasm gleamed brightly in the planetary luminance of Jatora, suggestive of an elevated topography. Unlike the caverns of my recent experience, this cave presented evidence of cliff face erosion rather than underground drainage.

“We are near the surface,” T’lu said bluntly.

“Perhaps even the Anor,” Randak added.

While being of no practical significance in our search for the Dulara, the thought of reaching the great ocean of Jatora thrilled me.
M'ol and Granal rested while T'lu, Randak and I, paced various directions in search of a fresh spoor.

“Over here,” Randak gestured feverishly.

What he had found were two flat, fan-shaped shells that I immediately recognized as dropped from the girdle encircling Olana's waist. My memory whirled back to the Mu' Derj and the deceptive serenity of that entrapping glade where I had found a similar marking -- and had first done battle the Kiida and the Votag. And suddenly, I drew cold. T'lu caught my eye and frowned.

“You seem untouched.”

“It is too obvious,” I said.

“I agree. One shell, maybe. But not two; Horas knows or suspects he is trailed. He arranged this.”

Another sharp underscore to the cunning and preparedness of the D’Notan. I grew more resentful of the creature each moment that I lingered in the interminable underworld of the Val Ponada.

 So again, standing before dozens of yawning mouths, I asked which one.

“We will split up,” T'lu announced, shifting easily into command. “Each of us takes an opening. Advance no more than K' lk (one thousand) paces, even if you find traces of their passage. Return here that we may go on as a unit. Though it is time consuming, we shall have what each cave offers.”

Indeed, while not expedient, trial and error presented our only reasonable course of action. Yet, after hours of tedious exploration, we again grouped by the two discarded shells no closer to Horas and Olana than before. All indications that man or beast had ever passed through this labyrinth underground world eluded us.

Astutely, M'ol reminded us that we could expect to see the Bujan and Hisl. “Soon!”

“We have been over every Kota of this cavern,” T’lu sighed.

“That is not entirely true,” I said. T'lu looked at me with surprise. “We only went in a short distance. Some of these caverns go on for miles! I know your strategy was to keep within hailing distance, but . . .”

“But a thousand yards is not every inch!” T'lu grinned.

“It may not be safe,” Randak commented, “but I am forced to agree with Kdal. We need to expand our search.”

“Perhaps we should go in pairs?” M'ol suggested.

“There are five of us,” Randak noted.

“I dragged you all out here,” I prompted. “I will take this passage!” I gestured to the man-sized fissure at my right. “Randak and T'lu, you take the one to my left. M'ol and Granal, the one to my left.”

“Who made you Dular?” T'lu asked with a slow spreading smile that beckoned an embarrassed response.

“I think it was Foot!” I laughed, and T’lu joined me. The others had no idea. “And since you are the Dular, that makes you too valuable to be left alone.”

“Sometimes,” T'lu breathed almost wistfully, “I get very tired of hearing that!”

I turned to my corridor and entered at a brisk walk with T'lu's trailing voice warning, “No more than two n'ar!”

My choice took me through a bland, monotonous corridor with a gentle upward slope. Bereft of constructive conversation, only my lamentable conscience for company, the hike was less than pleasant. I almost hoped for a stray Votag or lost Hisl.

As I searched, a thought occurred to me. Had T'lu meant I should not advance in over two hours, or an hour in and an hour to return to the rendezvous point? I pondered that bit of miscommunication to a fare-the-well, to relieve my overriding concerns for the Dulara.

The path I followed wound right, while the grade declined gradually until I almost ran to keep upright. From a distance, I heard the distinct drone of pounding surf. Not lapping, such as I would associate with the river Tamor caressing its banks, but powerful breakers combing a broad beach.

Now indeed I ran, even when the ground leveled I kept my legs moving, drawn as a bee scenting nectar, filled with a sudden, overwhelming urgency to see what my heart heard. Then, suddenly and incredibly, the cavern floor broke around a faintly glowing corner and I drew to a breathless halt fifty yards from where the great cavern emptied onto golden sands touched by a magnificent, blue ocean. Sweeping waters rolling free and clean beneath the great fire-red eye of Emo, sun of Jatora.

I gazed at last upon mighty Anor . . . and a score of terrifying creatures!



Such was my first impression of the strange apparitions framed in the glinting sunlight and watery mist. Ghouls barring my path to the ocean cuffing the rocky inlet with powerful surf, dousing me in salty spray scented with life.

My heart leaped many directions, but my hand only one -- to the Redke Vandl. In response, the creatures stepped forward. Moving wraith-like from sun to shadow but clearly hewed of flesh and bone.

The closest of the beings stood six feet, its general anatomy akin to human, proportioned and muscular. But the hands and feet were webbed, suggestive of aquatic proclivity. Their fingers were slim with long nails like knitting needles, sharply angled tine that looked exceedingly formidable for gutting fish -- or foe.

The creature’s face was unremarkable in contour, with squared chins and regular mouths, but two, great egg white eyes literally popped from their skulls. Lidless, and without irises, those disconcerting eyes neither focused nor blinked – though I did -- at sight of the crawling, wiggling mass of tentacles surmounting its head. If it was hair, it was alive. A slimy army of green worms radiating like antennae.

If my appearance among the fish-men generated any untoward emotions, they lay locked behind those expressionless faces and deadpan eyes. The lead warrior had stopped advancing and now stood regarding me coldly, waiting. He had the advantage of numbers, two swords -- one long and one short -- to each of the dozen strong bodies inhabiting the cave mouth. I thought of Olana possibly traversing this identical path to the sea with only Horas for protection and panicked.

No! I knew, or hoped, for better. These were humanoids, preternatural but human. If there had been contact between them and the Dulara . . .

Boldly, I sheathed the Redke Vandl and offered the Jatoran gesture of greeting, “Katal!”

The unblinking fish-man said nothing. Two of their number advanced and stood to either side of the first, a menacing move. Or was it defensive?

Suddenly, eerily, the bizarre growths on their heads turned away from me and stood on end. The ghouls matched the bend of their wiggling antennae. A moment later I detected the scuffle of running feet and then T'lu, Randak, M'ol and Granal burst into view, swords at the ready.

That I was long overdue and then had come to my rescue I did not doubt. I was grateful, for I now fully expected a fight. Experience dictated the fish-men would draw swords and attack, but instead, the wiry mass of hairs on their heads stiffened and glowed red, like heated irons, challenging the white radiance of their bulbous eyes. And one, he whom I had surmised as the leader, threw his wiry arms in the air and shouted, “T'lu of Amata!”

With an answering whoop of delight, T’lu bounded passed me and embraced this odd creature like a lost brother. I was flabbergasted. The other creatures cheered; or rather they whistled and stamped their webbed feet with noisy exuberance.

T'lu turned to me grinning ear to ear.

“Kdal, this is Ao, son of A, Dular of the Agala.”

“The Agala!” My mouth hung open. I must have looked both sheepish and foolish. “I had no idea . . . I thought they were monsters!” I was babbling; the Agala were whistling.

“Monsters?” Ao said, his face spreading into a revealing and pleasant smile, “T'rk said you were an interesting pavan!”

Had Ao thrown a handful of Ryka at us he could not have dropped a more thunderous bombshell. T'lu spun him by the shoulders and almost screamed at him.

“T'rk! T'rk is alive? You have seen him?”

“T'rk is well, as are most of your men.”

“The rest of my men! How many . . . how . . .”

“Be calm my friend,” Ao urged in a soft voice underscored by a breath that came in gentle whistles. “All in good time. There is much good news to share.”

Ao sounded excited, but it was impossible to gauge from his snowball orbs. Ana those eyes were unsettling!

“You will be surprised to know this is no accidental encounter.” Ao continued. “We have been searching these openings for hours, hoping we would cross paths.”

T'lu's eyes, already circles of incredulity, opened wider. Ao explained quickly, and it became my turn to start whistling.

“The Dulara Olana is safe at Furi, and we have a vektal named Horas tucked safely in our strongest thielhar.”

Outraged nature, pushed to exhaustion, gave up all pretense of composure. I dropped to my knees in the damp mud and closed my eyes in thanksgiving; inwardly I wept.

Olana was safe. T'rk and others of our ill-fated expedition upon the Val Ponada apparently lived and T'lu stood delivered into the hands of friends. Fate, by design or by coincidence, had reached out and guided my quest, granting my deepest wish.

“How,” T'lu demanded, equally drained. “How did all this happen?”

“Come,” Ao said, raising his voice energetically. “We shall return to our ship and sail for Furi. There will be an Ialora and a great telling of stories!”

I strained my eyes through the salty mist for sign of a vessel, an aerlor on the bosom of the ocean. “You have ships? Where?” I asked.

Ao smiled patiently. “If our ships were to stand so easily exposed to Ksanj, would there still be a free race of Agala on Jatora?”
I looked at T'lu and saw only amusement tinged with great relief. He came and put a hand on my shoulder.

“The Agala have their ways my Amar. For today, our turmoil has ended. Olana is safe, rejoice.” T'lu turned quickly to Ao. “I forget my manners. I have not introduced my other companions.”

Brief introductions followed. Randak, known by name to Ao, received a respectful greeting. Afterwards, several of Ao's warriors turned and headed out of the hazy cavern mouth towards the sea, into which they simply walked and were gone.

“Our Dre’ danor stands several miles off shore, anchored and manned,” Ao explained. “We swim under the sea, safe from observation.”

A Dre’ danor is a War Ship, larger and more elaborate than the mast trimmed Gaelors of the Bujan Avedor. It suggested -- as T'lu had said long ago -- that the Agala were the vastly superior aerdors.

One by one, the Agala entered the ocean while I watched transfixed. I knew I lacked pieces of this newest Jatoran puzzle and patiently waited explanations from either T'lu or Ao. I was getting proficient at waiting for the ambiguous Jatorans.

Randak stood silent and content while Granal and M'ol sat in the wet sand and stared at Ao. I wondered if either had seen an Agalan before.

“In a few minutes, we shall follow,” Ao said.

“Follow where? Into the ocean?” I exclaimed. “I am not a fish. I do not breathe underwater.”

T'lu and Ao exchanged glances, and broke into sputtering, happy laughter.

“Kdal thinks you are a gipos,” T’lu declared merrily. A gipos being a fish.

Deftly Ao reached up to his head and face. In the next instant, that writhing mass of fiber that contorted atop his head lay at his feet, and those confounding eyeballs were in the palm of his right hand.

One can only imagine how stupid I looked, staring open mouthed at a warrior who, under all that rigmarole, was quite handsome. The light in his frank, green eyes told me Ao enjoyed my discomfort immensely. It dawned upon me that the Agala had a well-developed sense of humor.

“The era,” Ao said, nodding cheerily to his unique focal attire. “We grind malnor with trace amounts of Lorqua and Aspar, added for color. The lenses refract light out of seawater, allowing us to see reasonably well underwater, and it filters out the salt. Without the era, one could not even open one’s eyes out there.” And Ao nodded toward the breaking surf.

“And that stuff?” I asked pointing at the still dancing fungus writhing merrily in the wet sand at my feet.

“That is the Ledal!” Ao laughed again. Then drew suddenly serious. “The Ledal is part of the heart and soul that are the Agala. It lives only upon Agar and has no known Hon D' jar. Having never experienced the P' dare Mor, it is what it is, what it has always been, having survived since the dawn of our world without change. It lives regenerating as the vines of the Mu' Derj. A harmless creature, its only means of self-preservation to avoid those who would devour it.”

Randak had picked up the queer looking creature and examined it closely. The tentacles immediately arched towards him, seeking, probing. “What does it do?” he asked. “And, so as you will not think me as krekal as Kdal, I realize that it in some manner aids you in the water. But how?”

Apparently, Randak also enjoyed my embarrassment.

“When the Ledal is in its natural, underwater habitat, it moves in clutches of several hundred or more, always wary of predators. Through the intricate system of feelers in its tendrils, they sense motion from great distances and transmit warnings to each other.”

Randak handed the Ledal to me. It felt more spongy than hairy. Immediately I sensed a palatable gentleness to its arching feelers.

“Ages ago, we Agala learned how to share those sensory perceptions with the Ledal, channeling their impulses directly into our minds. When carried in the manner you observed, we sense what the Ledal senses, we feel what it feels.”

“Incredible,” I breathed. “What a remarkable creature.”

“There is more,” Ao noted. “The Ledal is not true gipos in that it lacks gills, but is equally at home in water or on land. In the Anor, breathes by circulating water through its tendrils and converting waste into oxygen, (Ao said daunor) which it circulates through its tendrils.” Ao took the wriggling mass from me, which immediately leaned to him like a stroked pet. He put a few of the tendrils into his mouth and sucked lightly. “You need only inhale so . . . the Ledal can remain submerged indefinitely.”

“Anything else I should know?” I asked peevishly, though I did manage a large smile.

T'lu winked at Ao. Then the big Amatan slapped me hard on the back. “Show him Ao!”

Abruptly Ao whirled. His left arm shot forward. One of his long, slender nails broke away, hurtled across the intervening space, and imbedded in the slick rock wall of the cavern with a loud, metallic ping.

Ao grinned like a drunken groom. “Underwater, the Anu are vastly superior to a longsword, even that longsword!”

I thought how close I had been to learning of their efficiency the hard way. I shuddered as Ao reached into his leathery pouch hung at his hip and extracted a fresh Anu, which I now noticed as hollowed at the fat end. He slipped it over his now very ordinary finger.

The waters beyond the cavern rippled. The first two Agalans reappeared, with several warriors until their total reached a dozen. They brought with them medium sized sacks from which the warriors produced Ledal and era. Outfitting our party took but a moment. Becoming acclimated to the Agalan panoply took considerably longer.

T'lu laughed at the sight of me, as did Granal and M'ol. Randak attempted a stentorian disposition but without much success. Ao and his warriors laughed the hardest. I bid they all visit Kal Har -- and soon. The laughter turned to whistling.

The era presented no encumbrance. Despite their ungainly appearance, they were light and fit comfortably. Through them, the surface world turned a whitish tint reminiscent of reflected snow. Adjusting to the Ledal proved more complex.

Ao fitted one fellow upon my head. Thousands of tiny probes that lined the underbelly of the Ledal affixed themselves to my scalp, tapped into my mind. What at first was a disquieting intrusion, an invasion of my innermost senses, faded into a benign exchange of emotions that was at once euphoric and relaxing. I was in communication with the creature, though how it conveyed that knowledge I cannot conceive. Thoughts simply came to me, a communion as a mild narcotic.

Distances seemed enhanced and perceptions altered. I gained a sensitivity and awareness of animate and inanimate objects I had never before experienced. I had attuned with the environment through a creature that weighed no more than a bowler hat.

Roughly snapped from my empathic trance by Ao, the Agalan urged me to learn the Ledal breathing technique. What trepidation I still nursed, vanished under the comforting vibrations of Ledal as I took its undulating tendrils in my mouth and inhaled, breathing effortlessly, accepting not taking.

In all, the Ledal comprised a unique experience I would not soon forget.

In turn, each of us experienced the joining of the Ledal. Then, flanked by Agalan warriors, we left the cavern and headed for the Anor, joyously welcoming the warm Jatoran sun back into souls too long denied its glorious touch. My own heart responded like a folded flower opening its petals. My lungs filled with the aroma of sand, sea and salt. With a sense of the paradoxical, I felt reborn.

The Anor itself was a graceful ocean, bountiful and eminently unique. Common to my memory was the rolling surf and limitless expanse, as its blue-green coloring, uniquely tinged with the orange glow of the red-eyed furnace above, under whose austere mantle and peach colored sky, life teemed anew.

I closed my eyes and remembered. Eternal pools of lovely pale colors suspended in darkness. The sifting sands of time upon which Gray Allen had walked for a million lifetimes, listening to the surf and hearing the mermaids sing.

Hardly immune to the romance of Anor, T'lu stood beside me smiling, great chest puffed. I smiled back, hearing the rich, ancient voices of Mecca, Bodine and Falsworth whispering that the dark journey of Kdal of Jatora neared the foretold end. Ahead, lay sea and sunlight, the promise of a bright, new Destiny.

Ao, not privy to my altruistic vision, herded us quickly across the soft, gold sand and, without preliminaries, ushered us into the surprisingly warm waters.

As we dove, I reflected on the strange the pull of that mighty ocean upon my aged soul. Fifty kota above my head the surface waters lapped ceaselessly toward the sprawling landmass of the Val Ponada. Fifty kota below, new life and new terror lurked in a strange, otherworld silence. I swam suspended between them, Iccarus on his wings of wax.

I wanted to dive, to test the Gods who created the Deep and see what wonders challenged my warrior's heart. But urged by common sense -- and the Agala -- I held my place.

Submerged, the Ledal became an even a more provocative wonder. We communicated freely, the images and impressions I received understood without consideration. T'lu later said that experienced warriors, like Ao, were able to send commands to these wonderful, symbiotic life forms. Ao swore many of his people knew their Ledal by name and kept the same Ledal in the family for generations.

Seeing-eye dogs, the mind of Gray Allen mused, though Kdal knew nothing of such things.

Clearly amphibious by nature -- I am certain the P’ dare Mor lay through the ocean -- the Agala proved adroit swimmers. Their webbed feet propelled them rapidly through the pristine sea. So rapid did the Agala churn through the sun-drenched ocean that we land-lovers needed help to keep from falling behind. Held by the elbows, kicking frantically to match the Agalan effort, we raced through the water with breathtaking speed.

As we progressed, my affinity with the Ledal continued to grow. Perceptions of large, ominous shapes in the dim below impinged upon my subconscious. With chagrin, I hoped never to learn their true form, close up. But as is my lot, my hopes and my realities rarely coincide.
Ao lead, swimming easily a few yards ahead of T'lu, Randak, Granal, M'ol and myself who were bunched together with eight flanking Agalan aiding our progress. The remaining four Agalans swam to our right, left and two to the rear. Sentries I never doubted.

Suddenly, my Ledal tingled with an alarming, prickling sensation stabbing at me brain. At the same instant a large, brilliantly white form shot from the depths. Straight at Ao it fired, a Votagor or Sea Lion; though not so tame as the name implied.

The Votagor so named for its pure whiteness of color and stout and yellowed horn centered, was six Kota long. Further, when the beast rolled right, a position it assumed in order to gore it prey, it exposed a blue-stripe running the length of its amphibious body, again reminiscent of the land-bound Votag of the Mu' Derj and Val Ponada.

As the beast neared, my Ledal tingled furiously, with a heat impossible to ignore. The Agalans yanked on my arms, helping to pull me hard from the path of the saurian, which bubbled passed me, rolled right, and bore hard at Ao.

My personal danger addressed, the Ledal’s itch changed, the message reconfigured. I had not worn the creature long enough to divine each new nuance, but in this matter, the message rang clear. I tried to draw my sword, a useless enterprise underwater. The Agalan at my right placed a tined-hand over my knuckles and, at the same time, kicked backward, pulling away from Ao, leaving him alone to face the frenzied Votagor.

I was aghast, but it was needless worry. The Agala knew exactly what they were doing.

Ao's Ledal burned a bright red with tendrils stretched stiffly upright. The Agalan had turned at first appraisal of the danger and now treaded water, directly in the path of that hurtling saurian -- his vital organs invitingly open to the Votagor's lowered tusk.

Calm, almost nonchalant, Ao waited. The two, large and unblinking pink eyes of the Votagar zeroed in on the Agalan. It surged through the water a sleek, seeking arrow. Then, at that the last instant, impeccably timed, Ao pulled his hands close to his side and slipped beneath the snowy rush. No contact, no blood, no sounds, only a stream of expelled bubbles and the ripple of agitated sea.

The Votagor turned and rolled, surely aching to gore the upstart thing that had spoiled its charge. In turning, the saurian exposed itself. Ao reached high with his razor-sharp Anu and, with a single, savage stroke, disemboweled the beast the length of that blue-streaked belly. Streaming yellow blood and entrails, the Votagar floated back into the murky night from whence it came.

The Agalans pulled upon my arms, resuming our journey with no more care than had we stopped to pick flowers!

A tremor ran through me, like a wave rolling over the sea. And, like the sea, where one wave follows another in endless procession, I knew that the joyous news of Olana, T’rk, and Odanal would soon cool. Elation exchanged for the harsh reality of Ksanj waiting in the wings.

And like the eternally rolling waves of Anor, the currents of Destiny carried a revelation that was still forthcoming. Who was Ksanj that he should know the name of Gray Allen? Though suggestion and possibilities clung to me like heavy garments, Ksanj and the conniving, ever reinventing Fate that had brought me to the shining mountains and glistening seas of Jatora withheld the truth of it; a trial for another time. With a renewed commitment to the moment, I swam on.

The forced pace of the Agalan warriors had my legs and lungs ready to give out. But there loomed above us, riding on the surface, a massive, brown shadow. We angled upwards and ten yards from its bulk bobbed to the surface.

I let the Ledal take leave of my mouth and swallowed healthy draughts of real air peppered with salty spray. Gentle waves broke over my head, and through the curtain of water raining across my eyes, I beheld a magnificent full-rigged tall ship. A flag-bearing full canvassed trireme galley impressive and majestic, easily out-classing the Bujan fleets of Amata riding high upon the open sea, glistening in the unrestrained light of Emo, fire-red sun of Jatora.

The patched and filled-wood hull was a hundred kota long, with bowsprit and three square-rigged masts glowing luminous like all things Jatoran. I later learned, as protection against exposure to the sun, sea and windblown brine, the Agalans painted their Dre’ danor in a transparent lacquer of Aspar, the aluminum-like metal of Jatora. The resultant sheen radiated bright white against the soft peach horizon.
A ship encased in a cloud, the Dre’ danor was haunting – and no other word fits.

Beyond the beauty, the fire-hardened coating of Aspar also formed an effective armor plating against the formidable saurian and other foe roaming everywhere upon the broad bosom of Anor; more of these other foe in time.

The hull curved at either end. Six banks of single row oars, now at rest, extended through open portals lining her sides. Decorating the prow, a sumptuous wood carved Qualo, wings drawn back, head thrust into the wind. I wondered at its significance, for the Agalans were a seafaring race.

A rope later dropped over the ship's side, and we clambered over the metal railing onto the brown and gold planked main deck. It was a full third the ship's length, sloped, with a large cabin at the northern end. This was the Goel or Captain's Quarters. The seaward sides of the cabin formed galleon-like from the upward thrust of the ship's bows.

No sooner were we aboard, than Ao gave curt orders to raise anchor and make sail. His warriors moved briskly to their tasks. The main mast, which rose tapered and glowing from the center of the main deck as the Lu' tajalo stretched out of Amata, hung silken sheets to the wind. Sails spun from the golden threads of the K' kjor, a wondrous and deadly spider that lived upon Agar, island home of the Agala. Rapidly filled, the rigging fluffed and flapped and the ship lurched forward.


No other expression captures the sensation that gripped me upon the deck of that powerful Agalan Dre’ danor. A symbolic conveyance to carry Destiny forward. Sun on my face, friends at my side, I felt liberated. Kdal of Jatora emerged from the darkness.

Our Ledal we stored in large water-buckets below decks. I wondered if they ate, and what they eat. I later learned that, like true aquatic plants, they sustained on water and light.

T'lu and Randak were provided a room in the forecastle. Ganar, M'ol and I shared one astern, small but adequate seagoing quarters in which to rest.

While M'ol and Granal slept, there snoring pounding the slim knot-holed boards of our aren, I moved about the deck, too excited to rest, adrenaline banishing exhaustion.

With sails unfurled and aided by happy Agalan warriors who took voluntary turns at the oars, the rakish bow of the galley flew through the chaste waters of Anor. I stood by the gilded rail and watched the undulating blue-orange waves roll passed and fell in love again with the wondrous world of Jatora.

Night fell. The ship transformed and glowed a ghostly white, gliding as a pale phantom on the deep, dark sea. Where as upon the Val Ponada all about me had glowed, here, all about me drew black, a canvas upon which our ship shone.

We sailed due North, a bright running rig of liquid fire. I was enthralled. But, at last, the flush of adrenaline fled and my flesh could take no more. My head light with ecstasy, my eyes heavy with exhaustion, I returned to my cabin and the best sleep I had had in a thousand years.


Daylight found me on deck, hovering by the rail, staring into the misty horizon. Somewhere ahead, in the vast unsullied panorama of the Anor, lay the magical island of Agar. There, Olana waited.

My heart quickened. Under the spell of sea and sun, false hope for unrequited hope climbed the mast and unfurled in the cool, salty breeze. I knew the truth of the Blood, but I dared dream.

More realistically, I pondered what awaited T'lu in Agar. Joy, reunion, thanksgiving, yes, that for sure. Then the long journey home to Syjal where the unending war against the mad tyrant of Jatora would resume, Ana granting we escaped Agar before Ksanj found us and the Hisl hordes descended from the sky.

All this was plain, easily pictured. What part Fate carved for Gray Allen, vagabond voyager in the continuing saga of Jatora, only She knew, and to this, the wind, the sea, and even the birds kept a couched silence. But, facing the brilliant light of a glorious new day, feeling light, free, and rested, I forced pessimism under the rock of optimism and, the wind at my back, I spat into the sea.

Ao, up since dawn with the tasks of command, came to stand at my side on the busy quarterdeck. He regarded my reverent expression gazing out across the rolling waves and again read my mind. The Agalans were quite an intuitive race.
“Only the great island continent of Agar and the smaller island kingdoms of Mopal, Derhetti and D'Nota to the Southeast of Agar disturb her pristine beauty.”

“There are no other inhabited lands upon the Anor?”

“Some small islands,” Ao responded. “But they are home to the Ava Camtar and not a place a sane man would go!”
Ava Camtar, Black Pirates; once or twice before I had heard the reference among the podar of Amata. The words painted a swashbuckling portrait that plucked the strings of my warrior heart. I wanted to know more, immediately, but Ao seemed bent on other thoughts.

“I shall be ill at ease until we make Furi. The Winds of Ana have been silent too long. We shall be fortunate to avoid them.”

Experience made the immediate and correct analogy. These Winds of Ana were to the Anor as the Legions of K'Aldan to the Val Ponada. I prayed Fate spared me firsthand experience with this seagoing Goddess of thunder, lighting and mayhem. Perhaps just as tired of peril and obstacles, a generous Providence granted my wish; at least for this journey. Our trip aboard the Krill, the name of Ao's Dre’ danor -- and another Jatoran first, a ship with a surname -- passed in blissful serenity. Storms did not threaten our trek nor did we encounter the mysterious Camtar, although I would confess to a discreet disappointment concerning the Black Pirates of Jatora.

By noon, the crisp wind brought the Krill to docks of Furi, Capitol City of the five principalities of the Agalan protal.
Agar, largest of the islands, rambled for five hundred square miles. A tropical wilderness hemmed by a meandering coastline and indented with hundreds of inlets and coves. The lush tropical interior covered in green forests gave rise to tall rangy mountains abounding with life.

The timbered mountain range, the Bl'an, formed a natural barrier, a protective curtain, against the storms that blew out of the North. All five of the cities, Furi, Rali, Ject, Haro and Vol, had built their walls and ports on the leeward side of the great island. The southern slopes stood virtually deserted -- except for heavily manned patrols. Isolated and inhospitable, they were a favorite approach of the raiding Camtar, a testimonial to the bravery and audacity of these seagoing pirates.
The dock at Furi dwarfed the underground piers of Amata. Multi-tiered, weathered and ancient, it stretched two miles along the sandy peninsula, a devils-horn around her quay. I estimated a hundred clustered ships of every size and description and everywhere a drone of life. Life without podar, Jal whips or Bujan officers, just free people who fished, traded, flirted and laughed.

The Krill sought berth. Willing hands tossed long stout lines of woven hemp to her deck. Eagerly we took the lines and made the great craft fast. With a final groan as her wooden belly rubbed against the slime slicked posts of the dock, the Krill moored.

Thus came Kdal to Furi.

An appreciable hum of excitement accompanied our arrival. Magically, for I never see how these things happen, the working population of the Agala knew T'lu of Amata rode aboard the Krill. To me, T’lu was a comrade in arms. Prisoners of the Kiida become best friends. We were two savage souls fighting across a world. The deferential treatment accorded him everywhere we went continued to confound me.

Again, it crossed my mind to wonder at T’lu’s familiarity with the Agala, in particular Ao. When had he been here before? Reaching the Agala from Syjal was an arduous journey the involved crossing the horrid Mis Lew swamps along the southern tip of the Andar. Had T’lu made such a journey. When? What stories of daring-do might that adventure hold!
However, at that moment, my primary thoughts centered on the Dulara Olana. Disembarking under the cheers of the Agala, our little group headed towards Furi, where waited Ao's father, A, Dular of the combined cities of Agar.

Years of primitive, civil wars between the original five sharns, or clans, had resulted in a single surviving house over which A ruled supreme. The lesser cities, retaining a semblance of independence, were governed by A’s handpicked Thiefs.

Our way lead down a large spiral stairwell and across the warm, sandy beach. The city lay inland about a mile, raised at the base of the Bl'an mountains.

“By Ana! What is that!” M'ol cried in alarm.

We all turned. From the edge of the ocean, a bizarre half-lizard half-man creature regarded us with almost laughable intent, so utterly queer was its deportment. It stood the height of a German shepherd on frog-legs splayed like wickets. Its head and chest had human contours but its features were distinctly piscine with pop-eyes, bloated cheeks, and pursed lips that blew constantly. Hence the comical appearance.

A yellow-colored spine sloped from the joint of the neck to the lizard tail, ending in a broad green and white fan. The more man-like areas of skin were pink while from the hip to legs to tail it was a curious blend of greens and blacks with specks of white. I did not know whether to be amazed or amused.

“That is a Blusk,” Ao said. “It is not very aggressive, but watch out for the pilyns. They are deadly.”

“Pilyns?” I asked.

For an answer Ao shouted at the Blusk, which immediately turned tail (forgive me) and ran for the ocean. As it turned, several of the white specs on its posterior shot into the air. Ao pulled me out of the line of fire and let the specs pass.
They flew in a wide arc, circled, and headed back to the tail of the Blusk, arriving just in time for the ride into the brine.
“They are parasites. If they get into your blood you will be dead in . . .” and Ao snapped his fingers, an adequate gesture.
We marched, without further incident or Blusks, into the luxuriant green forest of Furi. A forest of arrow-straight trees and regular brush colored in greens and yellows and mottled browns. Nothing twisted or demented as in the fantastic Mu' Derj of my first rebirth. A mile inland we emerged before the rising alabaster walls of a mighty city. A city like Amata though I immediately sensed not so rich in art and history as that great citadel of the Val Ponada.

On three sides, her walls rose thirty kota high. Again as Amata, the rock face of the mountains formed her rear. A park-like clearing of a hundred yards fronted twelve-foot high wooden doors. The inscribed hieroglyphics proclaimed it the province of the Sharn of A. Slowly those doors drew back and a crowd of eager and curious men, women, and children poured forth.

They surrounded T'lu, dancing, their happy voices singing his praises. Randak received some small amount of attention. M'ol, Granal and I were ignored. Anxiously scouring the crowd, I saw a smaller, more dignified group approaching through the throng of jubilant Agalans.

By mien, bearing and the fineness of his leathers, I recognized A, Dular of Furi. At his side walked T'rk, the grizzled van of the Odanal, grinning broad as an ocean sunset. And beside T'rk, she whose path I had followed since the moment the fire cooled upon that death ravaged plain of the Mu' rala. Olana, Princess of Jatora -- one dainty foot shod, the other bared.

An Agalan warrior high upon the thirty-foot balustrade above Furi blew a series of long blasts on a great conk shell. T'lu embraced A, then T'rk, then Olana. The Agalan people crowded close.

Randak took his turn, beaming, even M'ol and Granal, who looked a little out of place and unsure of themselves in their heroes garments. Everyone seemed swept-up in the joy and the festive mood, and when large gourds of tup appeared, the joy turned to wild jubilation.

I got a great hug from T'rk, who grinned at me through a face marked with fresh scars. Wherever he had been, whatever wild road had brought him alive and whole to Furi, it had not been without trials.

For reasons difficult to understand, a sense of loneliness overwhelmed me. Surrounded with joyous, laughing Jatorans, I wished that I could disappear, a puff of smoke on a windy day.

Remaining inconspicuous in that crowd was impossible. Pressed by bodies on all sides, seeking an avenue of release, I suddenly found myself face to face with Olana. There I stood, naked and alone. I might as well have been on Ias, the invisible moon world that supposedly hung forever over Kal Har. It was awkward. I did not know what to say or do. Why did Ana give us hands, if one can not figure out what to do with them?

Olana spoke first. One word that told me everything there was to know about the nature and heart of this beautiful woman.


I dropped my eyes and shook my head. Her breasts heaved slightly. A single tear forced itself grudgingly from her green eyes and rolled down her graceful cheek. With an effort, she squared her slim shoulders. Her back straightened as if shrugging some unseen weight.

“A Princess should not cry,” she said quietly.

I knew better. Saja deserved at least that one tear from the Dulara Odanal. Later, in private, there would be more.
“You were very brave to come after me, again.”

Again! My poor heart leaped. What tiny kernels of hope desperation finds. Casual words, spoken without forethought, but to me an outpouring of optimism.

“You risked much to show us the way. You are the brave one,” I answered meekly.

My eyes were at her feet, as was my heart. Awkwardly, I fumbled in my harness. Olana's eyes widened. Those emerald crystals that had devoured my heart and my soul opened and glowed. Ana help me for my weakness as I handed her the waterlogged moccasin.

She took it from me and just gazed at it. Wondering, I am sure, at my puppy-dog stupidity. My mouth opened, then closed, fearful of some idiotic response. “Anyway, we, T'lu and the others, we did little enough. It was really the Agala who rescued you.”

Olana looked at me for a long moment with a quizzical expression. “Don't you know? Hasn't anyone told you?”
“Told me what?”

Another voice broke suddenly over my shoulder. “That it was I who rescued the Dulara from Horas!”


I turned in disbelief to stare upon the youthful, smiling features of Land of Syjal. “What! How . . .  when  . . .”

The young Syjalan warrior smiled merrily. “There will be time enough for talk,” he said. “But not now, look about you Kdal. The Agala have call for an Ialora, and reputation has it when the Agala dance all other troubles must wait.”

Nor could my hardiest demands change Land’s mine. Dance now; talk later. T’lu and Olana were safe in the bosom of the Odanal and that was all the mattered, until the sun rose upon a new day and the stern tasks of war came again to hand.

Land personally conducted the Dulara away. Further conversation, or revelation impossible, my hands bound, I relented to the Ialora.

It took little time for word to spread from ocean to mountain, from city to field. Throngs of excited and festive Agalans crowded the avenues to celebrate the coming of the Dulara and Dulara of the Odanal. I rode the festival wave of jubilant Agalans into the city until I could extricate myself and find a shadowed corner in which to hide and watch.

Purveyors of very variety of food and drink -- especially the ever present tup -- pushed wooden carts along the rutted dirt streets. Local musicians stood before shops quickly drawn and shuttered. They played unknown songs on unknown instruments, lovely and energetic melodies that urged the people to dance, occasional pieces of rounded, carefully sized Tr'qual thrown by the delirious populace their reward.

I knew little of fey, the monetary system of Jatora, other than the look and relative values of denomination varied according to different cultures. Nor was coinage the sole means of exchange. The barter system lived and prospered on Jatora and, among the working classes, was often preferred to momentary exchanges. A man could take pride in using his skills to help a neighbor build a table in return for a loaf of bread or shank of meat. Only in the trades, as in a Ram Ser, would coin be the preferred the method of transaction.

Care banished, the upper and lower terraces of the city flowed with life and happiness. A carnival atmosphere pervaded, still I knew better. Across the Anor a madman lurked, a fanatic who fumed and plotted in lost Amata.

Yes, I knew better, and so brooded on the retribution I saw lurking like a stalking tiger stealing upon a tethered lamb. Retribution, in the form of a thousand Hisl on winged Qualo, clove through my thoughts, though not the Agalans.

My worry strayed to the last great celebration I had witnessed, in the caverns of the Odar when we thought Ksanj destroyed. I contemplated the stark contrasts between those moments and these, the gaiety of the Odar night and the tragic morning that followed.

Ksanj, the T’ala T’sol lived. Unless serious minds took immediate heed, this reveling stronghold would be next to feel his wrathful hand.

A singing maiden happened by my lonely nook. She offered me food and drink in a wooden bowl and cup. I politely declined. She shrugged and danced on, leaving the victuals behind.

Engrossed in my morbid predictions for the Agala, I hardly noticed the timid approach of a curious five-legged creature. It was, as I learned, a Mu’t, I will call it a dog. It had the physical attributes of a beagle, a squared nose and long, floppy ears at opposite sides of an elongated face. Its legs were short, two behind and three in front. The third hind leg gave the animal incredible dexterity, both in hunting and in combat. It could turn on a . . . whatever passed for a dime on Jatora. My education lacked to a fault.

This particular fellow regarded me candidly through large, oval eyes, black with brown rings. A long red tongue lolled against the sides of his mouth, exposing the hard canine points of its teeth.

My eyes drifted casually to the bowl of meat; I doubted it wanted tup. I emerged from the shadows and, with some kind of perfunctory good boy, pushed the bowl forward with my foot. Moving passed the happily eating Mu't I stepped into the whirling party that filled the streets.

Superficially, I saw no sign of the ancient war touching Furi. The city stood remarkably free of the ravage and wear that had so deeply touched Amata. This I ascribed to both its rugged, sea-bound isolation and the tactile state of truce between the Agala and Ksanj. A truce I suddenly thought might explain their apparent indifference to the approaching storm of vengeance. A position seriously compromised by their sheltering of T’lu and Olana.

I walked the crowded streets immune to the merriment. I tried to fix blame upon the lighthearted attitude of the Agala. But, in the depths of my heart, I knew the truth. My pain sat in a striking pair of emerald eyes floating in a sea of raven hair. I loved the Dulara Olana. She rejected me. I had little stomach for the Ialora.

So, in something less than a cheerful mood, I found A, with T'lu at his side, seated at a great banquet table spread in the main square of the city's market district.

“Katal!” A beamed to me, eyes lit with ample amounts of tup. “We were all wondering where you were hiding!”

“I have been walking -– and thinking.” I responded.

“Thinking?” A replied with a wink at T’lu. “Pray tell, about what?”

“Ksanj,” I told him. “We should prepare. Ksanj will follow after the Dulara.”

“We know that,” A grumbled. “I have ships out, scouts ring the island and wend their way all the back to the Val Ponada. And, as may or may not know, we have Qualo upon Agar. The skies are watched.”

“I am sorry,” I said quickly, feeling every bit the Hoded I had acted.

“No need to apologize. You are new here and do not yet understand we Agalan. Bn' harat teaches that a wise man enjoys each moment of pleasure against the time that pleasure is taken away.”

Bn' harat, I learned, was the Agalan spiritual leader. Not a God, but a Prophet and a warrior ruling and writing about the time of K’si and Vopar. Ana was the only true deity upon Jatora. I held the opinion she did not like competition.

I had to admit A, in quoting Bn’ harat had a valid point. Still, fear and worry for the ongoing safety of the Dulara Olana overrode all other sentiments. I asked A would he at least grant me access to Horas, that I might question the V’Koo on his motives and plans.

A demurred, saying “We shall deal with Horas in the morning. Your concerns our noted, but tonight you will eat, you will dance, you will drink, and you will sleep. Tomorrow, you may worry all you wish!”

I turned to T'lu, leaning upon his familiarity with the politics of the Agala and the traditions of the Ialora. He greeted my entreaty with a faint shrug. I knew he echoed my concerns, but I read patience in the slight nod of his handsome mien. Then suddenly, he broke into a wide smile.

“Who is your friend?” He asked.

At first, I did comprehend his question. I followed his gaze and with some chagrin discovered the doe-eyed Mu't seated beside, albeit lopsided on his three hind legs, panting. His black nose dripped with tup. Obviously, I had erred in original assumption. I seem to have made quite a few errant assumptions since arriving in Furi.

“I seem to have a picked up a stray,” I said.

“Indeed,” T'lu responded.

For reasons I may never know, Mu't stayed at my side the rest of that long boring evening –- and for the rest of my days upon Jatora. After T’lu, the fiercest and best friend I had upon the magnificent planet.

“Does he have a name?” T'lu asked as the night and the dancing wore on. Unconsciously, I wrapped my right hand around the M'ut's floppy ears, delighting the fellow with a hardy scratch.

“Mut,” I said with a laugh. “Mut the Mu't.”

T'lu shook his head. Many were the times he failed to understand my humor. Many were the times I failed to understand myself! Thus Mut and I watched a procession of dancers and jugglers and tellers of tales, he helping me nurse my anxiety whilst I satisfied his strange craving for Tup.

As for the Agala, what unusual sentiments they roused. Not one warrior would speak of unpleasant things or looming danger. They rebuffed my trepidation until I felt like a child afraid of the dark when all the adults knew better, always quoting Bn’ harat and bidding me dance and be merry.

At last, unable to tolerate the monotony of the Ialora a moment longer, I made my excuses and headed for the Kiej Dular, Mut loping at my side.

The Kiej Dular of Furi was a sterling edifice, but it paled before the imposing Kiej Dular of Amata. Built to house and shelter, it stood lean on embellishments, a symbol of the Spartan philosophy of life common to all Agalan cities. Ao explained:

“The less you have that tyrants and Camtars want, the better!”

A guard announced us at the gate to a comely young woman who came to escort my new best friend and I to a quiet and unadorned aren. A fresh set of leathers lay upon a wooden bench. I had a nest of sleeping silks and furs, and a warmly drawn bath -- the tub being a Tr'qual fixture that looked too much like the Blusk for Mut's tastes. I laughed as he growled and bristled and snapped at its ceramic legs. From the stone terrace abutting my third story quarters I could see the glimmering coast, with its golden sands turned black under the starless night and eclipsing shadows of the Bl'an.

While not as flamboyant as the Val Ponada, the Bl'an owned its own unique glow. An amalgam of textures, as though Ana had taken the riotous flora of the Mu' Derj and lacquered it upon the face of the rolling mountain, most remarkable gleaming off the ocean. The Agalan's called the mirror-like effect of the Bl'an on the Anor, Lo' fal. Weaves of colors like a maiden's blush, spilling into the night air and sparkling in the nocturnal world above Anor. I confess it was an aesthetic loveliness I would have found more pleasing -- and more soothing -- without my troubled heart.

With a growl that startled poor old Mut, I decided to end this endless day. Saving the bath for morning, I took A's advice and slept. The knowledge that tomorrow would bring answers to the presence of T'rk and Land upon Agar, and a chance to interrogate Horas, cradled me. Though, I am certain I slept with furrowed brow. With Mut sprawled at my feet and a gentle rush of wind from the ocean caressing my face, I slept in the emptiness that banishes gloom.


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

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