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Volume 1682d

Chapters 21 - 25
Michael A Wexler


Emo entered my room. Warm fingers upon my neck waking me gently, without urgency. I stirred and Mut, who had slept soundly at my feet, stuck his panting face in mine and wined. 

With a sleepy laugh I rose, crossed the stone floor and opened the door. He was gone in a flash. 

I stretched and my rested spirit welcomed the new day. A keen freshness filled both mind and limb. The sea of alarm sailed the night before becalmed; though not departed. 

I bathed and dressed. Slipping the Redke Vandl and a handsome new dagger into the finely cured scabbards provided by A, I stepped to the breezeway beyond my apartment and stared out across the forest treetops to the milky lapis of the Anor. I breathed the clean, crisp air and felt alive.

A strange bird, with red crest, blue feet, and green and yellow wings, flapped to my balcony ledge. It considered my appearance with titled head. Unconcerned by Destiny and Duty, the little creature preened for my approval. I smiled and it whistled gaily in return. 

Suddenly, nailed paws rattled across the apartment. The bird squawked, spread its colorful wings, and flew away. 

Mut jumped for the sill, missed, and alighted with all five legs splayed, barking a series of guttural opinions of the departed intruder. I laughed loudly and the rascal rubbed against my legs with pleading eyes.

I knelt to rub his muscular flanks “Someone could be missing you rather badly, Mut,” I told him with a warm laugh. “I feel guilty, but I hope they never find you.” 

Mut declined to answer  -- other than to grin, broadly. Quitting my room, Mut following, I sought the central foyer assuming someone would be nearby to direct me to T'lu and the others.

The halls of the Keij Dular were oddly deserted. Ancient Agala warriors stared at us from rustic tapestries lining the walls at regular intervals, the only modicum of color in the drab, gray citadel. Perhaps there were no other occupants? Or they all slept after indulging in last night's Ialora. 

In fact, the royal family, with many of the nobles of Furi and their retainers, lived within these walls. Ao had rooms in the palace, as did A, whose mate had died ten years earlier, of natural causes. Not having seen fit to take another wife, A lived a bachelor existence. 

Natural causes! I wondered what constituted natural causes upon Jatora. On a world of beasts and swords and Ksanj, natural causes rang as a gift from Ana.

At last I came upon a young Agalan woman quietly scrubbing the Tr'qual floor of the central foyer. She provided the happy truth that, indeed, most who quartered or worked within the Kiej Dular still slept -- a Tup induced coma would be more apropos.

The girl, her name was El, informed me that the royal family and invited guests enjoyed their Iasapors in the Kiej Hadin, the Royal Gardens and pointed me east. 

From that point forward, I encountered sentinels. At stations and posture fixed from habit, I discerned a comforting air of vigilance. Not all the Agalans had danced far into the night; not all could neither wake nor man their posts. 

Peace and prosperity can undermine the safety of any community, even that of the most cultured. Individuals become less watchful and alert, and it is then that the gates fall. It pleased me to see A remained upon guard. 

 I arrived at a stained-glass doorway at the end of a short hall watched by two tall, stoic Agalans. 

“Lowdar are not permitted in the Kiej Hadin,” observed one, a lowdar being the Jatoran equivalent of a pet. Then he broke that frozen face with a witty smile. “However, I think we can make an exception for the Amar O'Odanal.” 

I looked at Mut, who panted patiently at my side. “You seem to have pull around here.” 

The warriors both laughed. My return smile seemed to run quickly from head to toe; and felt good.

Breathtaking is on the only word for the Royal Gardens of Furi. A large, circular affair enclosed on three sides by textured walls, as adobe. Great varieties of flowers and boughs abounded in potted vases or hung from latticed vine. My nostrils tingled to the scent of Oleo and Inure and Thoria, wild Jatoran species that bloomed in rainbow colors. An intoxicating aroma that forced my edgy soul to stop and smell the Thoria. 

At my entrance, Ao rose from a long wooden table crowded with meats and fish and motioned me forward, bidding I sit beside him. Nor did he offer complaint at Mut’s panting presence. T'lu sat on my left and bade me Katal. I saw no sign of servant. 

“You look well,” he said.

“As do you,” I replied for indeed the great Dular did look refreshed and invigorated. 

Randak sat across from us, his plate piled high. Though his eyes betrayed his over indulgence in tup, there was shine to his cheeks and a new energy about his movements that bespoke a man whose honor had been restored and to whom life was again worth living.

With him, dined Land and T’rk. The former perennially invested with youth and vigor, the later smiling grim as befit his nature.

I sampled the meats and added a tumbler of cold, clear, mountain water, passing ample amounts of both on to Mut, who attacked the food with gusto. T'lu laughed.

“You make an excellent K'may.”

I skewered my nose but took the rib without complaint. 

Presently, the doors opened again, this time to admit a retinue of Agalan dignitaries. Perhaps a dozen, last of whom came A, his right arm escorting the Dulara Olana.

The bit of meat before my mouth fell back to my plate unattended. My eyes blinked as if suddenly struck by intense sunlight. This was an Olana I had never seen, rested, bathed, her hair neatly wound atop her head -- a few careless fragments falling in raven wisps. Her warrior leather replaced with a silken sheath. Naked over her left shoulder the gown fell eloquently to her knees in gentle white folds that fluttered in the fragrant breezes blowing through the open windows of Kiej Harden. A bright shell girdle about her waist replaced her besieged remnant from Syjal. 

This was Olana the Princess! With a blush to her cheeks and a healthy glow to those almond eyes that sent my heart soaring and my happiness plummeting in one wild emotional ride. If only she could see me through the veil of duty and blood that surrounded her like an inviolate, impregnable cocoon. I sighed and thought the flowers of the Kiej Harden sadly overmatched by the radiant Dulara of Syjal. 
All seated, matters of formality attended, the various strings of destiny and chance that had united us again, here, on Agar, unfolded. Sojourns of courage and Halm that, even by the standards of the stalwart warriors with whom Fate had cast my lot, were neither commonplace nor mundane. The trail commenced with Land.

“While there are still many pieces of our puzzle outstanding, the Dulara has shared enough of her travails that I can make some sense of events we separated, and the Legions of K’Aldan stuck the Val Ponada.”

“Following your instructions, I had flown back to Syjal believing you safely on your way across the mountains. I arrived deep into the night. Unable to gain entrance to the city, for Podik languished in theilhar and Hisl and Bujan watched at every corvan, I camped at the fringe of the Mu' Derj. Tending Oko, I waited the N'dar that I might reconnoiter more thoroughly in hopes some means of access the city would reveal itself.”

“Emo’s light brought several Hisl dovans to the city walls. A hundred more lined the battlements above. The inescapable truth left me dismayed and bewildered. Syjal had fallen. The Bujan ruled with no visible sign of resistance.”

T'lu sat rigid. Grim lines tugged the corners of his mouth as Land continued.

“Bound by the Blood to complete my mission, I spent all the next day observing the coming and goings of the Hisl avans, seeking some predictable element in the opening of the gates. A pattern I could exploit. It was toward sunset that I stuck upon a plan.”

“Having taken a position in small gully overgrown with ochre brush, I observed an avan of Hisl returning to the city from a patrol near the Mu’ Derj. Their Bujan Van, a fat villain with a head large as his gut, lagged several kota behind his avan. I waited, as a Votag lies for the unsuspecting eloran, until the Hisl had safely passed. The Bujan continued to lag, moving as if the long day of marching had left him dead tired. A moment more and he was just dead. Chopping a clump of his hair from the carcass, I pressed the foul mess to my face, keeping my head down in emulation of his exhausted stride. Wrapped within the teal folds of his cotral, I caught up with the marching avan and, after a harrowing few seconds of trepidation, moved boldly through the main gate.” 

The eyes of the young warrior clouded as his recollection of events preceded his words. 

“I made it as far as the Kiej Dular. They fell on me before I could possibly know how or why. Beaten unconscious, disarmed and disgraced, I awoke below the city in a cell overflowing with the honest, loyal citizens of Syjal. How long I languished chained and ignored I can only gauge by all that has befallen my Dular and the rest of our avan. That it was several months I now know; it seemed a hundred years!”

“The Bujan fed us sporadically, and never cleaned our fouled cells. I endured my confinement stoically, as best Ana allowed. It was a bitter experience, without realistic hope. Nor did talking with my fellow prisoner’s help. I reconstructed circumstances since my last visit to Syjal, but saw little optimism for the future.” 

“Amid the cramped and confused walls of my confinement, there stared at me the faces of many men I did not know, any one of whom could be V’Koo and the one to doom all that T’lu planned. Time passed with difficulty. I slept often, scheming, dreaming of vast avans of warriors from Loer and Tlast gathering beyond the limits of the city, poised to strike.” Land paused, then brightened. He glanced earnestly at T'lu and I. “Nor was I so very wrong!”

T’lu started to ask his questions, then stopped, content to wait. 

“When you and Kdal breached Tamor, Ksanj recalled Mose to Amata. This I had from Mose himself, and though he boasted it boded ill for the Odanal, I sensed he worried. And with cause! For without Mose and the superior guidance he provided, the remaining Bujan were ill equipped to deal with the Odanal. 

“Odan Noar,” T’lu said quietly. Land nodded. My loose interpretation would be Blood Runners.

“Not all of Syjal sat clasped in chains. A strong core of resistance operated within the city. Odan Noar struck with scattered but effective incursions that impaired the Bujan efforts to maintain control. Though occupied, Syjal had not been conquered.” 

“I understand,” T'lu said with fiery eyes and fists tightly balled. “But you spoke of an army outside the walls of Syjal.”

“Indeed,” Land replied with a broad smile. “And for that I turn to Van T’rk.” 


The big Amatan, finishing a strip of Tagor meat with fiendish relish, shrugged his broad shoulders. 

“There is precious little to tell,” he said without rising. “I am a pavan of the Odanal. I serve until I die. That is all.”

“We thought you had died,” I said. 

T'rk looked up, my words beckoning a small smile.

“I am meaner than the mountain.” 

Quietly, T'lu urged T'rk to tell his story. 

“When the Legions of K'Aldan fell, Ana took pity on my cowardice. Though the floodwaters swept me thousands of kota down the K'al Kadre Mor, almost to where we had begun the ascent, I survived -- barely. Badly injured, broken and near death, I surely would have died had not the most amazing thing happened.”

T'rk's dark eyes lingered upon me, staring, clearly waiting on a response ere he would continue. My brows puckered and then a veiled and distant vision rose clear in my mind. A huddled mass of fledgling humanity scuttling through a rocky crevice under the fast falling darkness of the Val Ponada. I looked at T’rk and said, “The Kiida!” 

“The Kiida!”

I heard T'lu's mumbled exclamation of astonishment, enjoined by wonder and confusion from A and his son. At the poignant urging of his Dular, T'rk continued his astounding tale. 

 “The Kiida found me, unconscious, battered, near death, and carried me to their sanval. At first, I suspected Ana of a cruel jest. Better if I died on the mountain than fall into the Kiida's savage hands. But, after a fashion, primitive but effective, they tended to my needs, providing water, food and rest. My bones mended and slowly the Kiida nursed me to full health.”

“Impossible!” Ao blurted. “The Kiida help no one.”

“Perhaps,” T'rk volunteered, “it is because we never gave them reason to help. A leader of men, wiser than I, taught the Kiida and the Odanal a lesson in friendship. A life for a life; a debt the Kiida Dular remembered and repaid.” 

All eyes shifted to the O'Odanal, who shook his head and smiled. “Not me, my friends; Kdal.”

The heads came back to me. I sat solemn, reflective, feeling their eyes -- her eyes. A, unable to restrain himself, demanded a full accounting of my original encounter with the Kiida. I obliged in snatches of the event. When I had finished, A leaned across the table and let his worldly blue eyes rest upon mine. 

“One question,” he said. “Why?”

“Ancestry should be honored, not hunted. They are our Hon ‘Djar.” 

“The words of Bn' harat are so enlightened,” A extolled, his keen eyes smiling. Old eyes unafraid of new paths. “But the Agala, as the Odanal, have forgotten much of those teachings over three hundred lur of war with Ksanj. You embarrass us with your compassion, and for that we thank you.”

I bowed my head in appreciation of A’s candor. 

“I did little enough. I took a chance. It could have had quite the opposite effect.” 

“But it did not!” 

Olana! My eyes spun to her like a beggar catching the glint of golden coins. For just an instant that soft mantle of red seen long ago, at the base of the Val Ponada battling the Kiida and the Votag, touched the hollow dimple of her throat. Then it faded. Or was it controlled?

“The Dulara speaks for us all,” T'rk snapped. “Your actions in the Kiida sanval did more than save my life, Kdal, much more. If I read where You saved Syjal and preserved a Halm older than even the Kiida!”

“I saved Syjal?” I stammered. “I don’t understand. How could I . . .”

“Yes, what do you mean?” T’lu cried out. “Is Syjal . . .” 

“Please,” Olana urged interrupting our mutual bewilderment. “Let T’rk finish.”

“Once I had recovered, I learned that the Kiida had also found R'ri, F'ta and four other survivors of the Odanal. As I, they were badly mauled by the rocks and waters of K’Aldan. Their deaths on those inhospitable slopes a forgone certainty without Grr.”

“Grr is the Kiida Dular?” T’lu asked. T’rk nodded.

“Though the Kiida do not talk much,” T'rk continued, “they understand everything, and have strong opinions. Or should I call them feelings? Spend enough time with the Kiida, as I came to do, and you will learn their moods. When they are crying, when they are mad, when they are happy and when they are laughing.”

“The Kiida laugh?” We all said it at once.

“I stray from my story. Suffice to say that R’ri, the others and I recuperated at the Kiida compound for a considerable number of sleeps. So many that I lost count, though I roughly estimate the time equal to that spent by Land in the thielhar below Syjal. At length, our strength recovered, we agreed the time had come to attempt our return to Syjal. We believed our Dular dead, the Dulara too. With our quest for Amata in ruins, and surmising the city either openly besieged or already in Bujan hands, we saw no other use for our swords.” 

T’rk paused. He shook his head and glanced around the room. “I can not yet believe what happened next. I informed Grr of our intentions, and our mission. He had one response: 'Kiida help.' ”

T'lu rose, hands flat on the table and spread wide to hold his giant frame steady. He leaned at T'rk, quivering. Only his eyes spoke. T'rk, caught in the stir of his monarch's emotion, talked rapidly, as if attempting to get it all out lest the memory fade and be forgotten.

“As Ana judges our souls it is true. The Kiida marched with us to Syjal. The Kiida and the Votag! Thousands of them came snarling and roaring at Grr's calling from every corner of the Val Ponada. Ana but you should have seen it, my Dular! We stalked through the Mu' Derj five thousand strong, gaining numbers as we went. We massed upon the Mu' Rala a rolling, roaring aldar. An army as never dreamt of upon Jatora. Defiant and determined, pushing to the very walls of the city a sea of beasts led by a mere handful of faithful warriors, all come to serve the Blood.”

T'rk stopped to collect his breath. In the space allowed, we all paused to absorb the enormity of his revelations.

“You already now the conditions we found upon reaching Syjal. R’ri and I counseled with Grr and formed our strategy. Our aldar strung out in a great wedge, a living sword. From the apex I called to Randak to free the city.” T'rk paused and his head swiveled. “To what I thought was Randak.” 

Randak nodded graciously. Here, Land returned to the fore. 

“Word of the Kiida coming spread even to the dungeons,” he injected fiercely. “We did not know that T'rk headed this great aldar, thinking the beasts had come only to pillage. But, soon after the Kiida’s arrival, the Vor Randak came to the thielhar quaking in terror. He dragged me from my cell and ordered me to the western face, screaming I should cast out the invaders. It was then I recognized T'rk, and rejoicing in his unprecedented achievement, knowing hope had returned to the Odanal, I refused the Vor Randak, even when goaded at sword point.”

“One by one, other prominent Thiefs were dragged to the west wall. Each instructed to send the Kiida away or be cast-off the parapets and fed to the Votag.”

“You keep referring to it as the Vor,” Randak interrupted quietly, suddenly, for he had been very still through all of this. “Did you know, then?”

Land looked at Randak.

“What I knew,” Land said slowly, “was the real Randak, a brave and intelligent man, a trusted leader, would never betray the Blood. The blithering coward commanding the Bujan was not that Randak.”

“Thank you, Land. Thank you!” Appreciation floated at the corners of the Thief’s eyes. A great weight lifted at last.

“I had guessed at something akin to the real truth even before its dying confession.”

 “Dying? You said dying,” T'lu urged.

“In a moment my Dular. I should note that, from my vantage point on the west wall, I saw Vok and Nubl mounting Qualo and fleeing, the cowards heading for Amata, no doubt with words of warning to Ksanj. Meanwhile, emboldened by the great force confronting the city, the free Odan Noar stormed the main gates. Blood ran. Though badly outnumbered, they swept the Hisl aside and cracked the gate wide. The Kiida and Votag poured through and choked the central plaza with flailing bodies, waving swords, and roaring Votag.”

“It was a bloodbath,” T’rk chimed in. “And glorious.”

“Again, Mose’s absence was crucial. The leaderless Bujan, quickly routed, left the fighting to the Hisl.”

“Their resistance was stiff,” T’rk noted dryly. “But even those soulless creatures could not withstand the unprecedented force from the Val Ponada. R'ri lead a contingent to the dungeons and released all our brethren. I found Land fighting on the southern wall, a thousand Kiida against a hundred Odanal swords.”

“A battle I would surely have lost but for T'rk and the Kiida's timely intervention.”

Each time T'rk and Land exchanged places their story, and the level of their exuberance, rose until now Land fairly shouted. “Surrounded with the remnants of his Hisl avans, the Vor Randak and the few Bujan who had not already deserted or been killed -- or eaten -- stumbled about like krekal. They bellowed orders and threats, terrified and ineffectual.”

“We took control of the Qualo brought from Amata,” T'rk injected quickly. “Without Qualo, the Bujan had no escape. The Kiida avans filled the city, roaring Votag devouring Bujan and Hisl with equal glee. Death was brutal and quick.” 

“It ended,” Land said, “when the Vor Randak, eyes showing white around the irises, bleeding tainted Gopal and gibbering and screaming of its origins, turned and pitched itself over the parapet. I can still hear those mad screams, silenced in a sickening crunch of bones when the Votag reached him.” 

“The battle done,” T'rk cried, “we reclaimed the city, swords raised in victory and praise to Ana.”

All around the table, fists pounded and warriors shouted, the fire contagious.

“When there were no more living Hisl or Bujan to be found,” Land recapped, “the Votag settled down to a grizzly feast. Only Ana knows how Grr kept their bloodlust under control, but they never harmed a single citizen of Syjal. T'rk and I, along with the rest of the Odanal, Thiefs and selected pavans, retired to the Keij Dular to plan.”

T'rk noted they had confiscated fifty good Qualo, more than in a hundred known lifetimes. Several hundred Griffin remained safely compounded within the city and nearly a thousand willing fighters with vengeful hearts stood ready to fly.

“We left the city in the hands of the Thiefs,” Land said, “and undertook an effort to reach Amata. I was certain I could find the K'al Kadre Mor again, and now we had Qualo.”

T’rk again. “Grr, and a huge contingent of Kiida and Votag, accompanied us back to the Val Ponada, a joyous and hopeful company. A joy quickly dashed. K'Aldan had obliterated the K'al Kadre Mor. We found the Qualo mar easily enough, but demolished beyond recognition. We could guess at the general direction upward, but we could not be certain. Any attempt to bring our Kiida army to Amata foolhardy without evidence of a entrance.”

“A dozen of us flew Qualo,” Land explained, “in vain attempts to rediscover the trail, hoping against hope to find sign of the ancient crater wherein lay the City of Dreams. We flew to the summit and beyond, ascending where no Odanalan had gone in three thousand years -- I still thrill at the thought -- but we failed to find any semblance the Kal Kadre Mor, or trace of the crater. At the base of the mountain, the new army of the Odanal waited. Above, the way was lost.”


“The mountain retained her mystery, Ksanj and Amata still secreted from the justice of the Odanal. Still, we were determined; we kept flying and kept hoping. Then, upon my third trip over the summit,” Land's eyes lit with wonder, “I saw something upon the multi-colored bosom of Anor, something distant and impossible floating under the great eye of Emo. A lone aerlor!”

My heart stopped.

“We drew bearings and headed over the ocean in pursuit; curious, hopeful. Who could be thus adrift on the surface of this mighty sea?”
“Horas and Olana!” T'lu exclaimed.

My heart started again.

“To be swift about it, I plucked the Dulara from the aerlor while F’ta snatched up a screaming, kicking Horas. Imagine! He told us he was a hero! Claiming to have single-handedly saved the Dulara Olana from death in Amata.”

Tongues wagged; heads shook. 

“When we understood his destination was Furi, with the Dulara's consent, we headed there, desirous to understand the V’Koo's motives, certain it would give us insight to the fate of our Dular.”

“I told Land what I could,” Olana said quickly, her emerald eyes on T'lu, the spark of her royal training rising quick in the morning air. “His news of Syjal allayed many fears and, knowing I could return home at anytime, I enjoined A to search the Anor. If you lived, if you survived the Valcar and followed Horas, that was where we would find you.” She paused. “Find you all.”

My oft put upon heart halted, wondered. Did I hear too much in her words?

“An immediate search was launched,” Ao offered. Land noted that Qualo were dispatched back across the Val Ponada to inform Grr, R'ri and the others of Olana's rescue, that word could be carried back to Syjal.

“The rest you know,” T'rk said cheerily. “We are all together again!” 

“A,” T'lu said after a brief pause. “What have you learned from Horas?”

“Nothing. However, he has indicated a willingness to collaborate, now that you are here.”

T’lu raised an eyebrow. “Collaborate. Yes, he does that well. Where is he now?”

“In the theilhar below the Keij Dular,” the Agalan replied smiling. “I have already sent for him.”

T'lu nodded and turned to Olana. “Did Horas ever confide in you his plans?”

Olana shook her head. “He never said, only hinted.”

“At what?” Randak asked.

“That soon he would be the greatest man upon Jatora. Mightier than Ksanj, he claimed.” She stopped, bit her lip. I spoke the thought I knew followed.

“And that you would be his jo' lak?”

Olana nodded, though her head never turned to acknowledge my words.

In the deadly quiet following her acknowledgement, it began!

The fire!

That which had carried Mecca, Bodine, and Falsworth through untold fortunes and fates, simmering, tingling anew, putting an urgency in my speech that forced Olana to responded, to turn those embarrassed, burning-green eyes to meet my gaze. “Did he . . .”

Every eye and every heart at that table fixed on her answer. Each man had his reasons for wanting that question answered. When Horas entered the Kiej Harden, two stalwart Agala to either side, restrained in the chains of a podar but looking egregiously smug swaggering defiantly to the head of our table, Olana let her face drift towards him. A look of loathing smoldered in her emerald eyes like hot embers on an open hearth. Horas did not know that, at that moment, his life hung upon a yes or no.


Mut, who had lain passive and uncomplaining at my feet, rose and growled. The short hairs on his brown back bristled.

 T'lu, still standing, looked hard at Horas. The cur never blinked, never let his arrogance waiver. I knew him for what he was. A sneak, an assassin and a traitor, a parasite who fawned over Ksanj and delivered death to his own people in return for a crust of bread, a crumb of power. A little man on a big world. 

What possessed him then? Why the sudden backbone? The bravado?

“You have committed crimes against the Odanal,” T'lu said slowly, “for which death would be too simple a punishment. You have persecuted your own to aid the T'ala T'sol. You have compounded that sin with the abduction of the Dulara Olana of Syjal. Have you any words worth the time of these brave men who sit in your judgment?”

Horas lowered his eyelids as a snake drawing its head to strike. His lips curled in a knowing smirk. A cold sensation clogged my throat. The vektal did have something to say. Something, I feared, that would buy his life. 

“I can give you the Al' tajalo!”

“The Al' tajalo!” T'lu cried. He, and all about the table, sat in stunned disbelief, as if suddenly cast in stone, their eyes glued to the sneering, obnoxious Horas.

Al' tajalo.

It literally translated as the Path Beyond, as in beyond heaven. In Jatoran I’bar, a mythical site, a supposed location upon the Val Ponada from where all the valley of Amata stood revealed; the one chink in her otherwise impregnable armor of rock and cloud. 

It was Olana, who found her voice. Crying out, “It exists? It is real?” 

“It exists, it is real,” Horas answered, adding quickly, defiantly, “And I know where it is!”

T’rk sprang from his seat, now galvanized, whipping his sword from its sheath. “Where, vektal! Tell me where!” 

“T’rk!” T’lu admonished forcefully. The Van froze with eyes afire. But, heart and soul responding to the will of his Dular, he forced himself to sit. Albeit that his sword remained drawn and ready.

T’lu gathered his breath in his lungs. “If you meant to stir this audience, to shock us into attention, then you have succeeded. Speak then, tell us what you want exchanged for what you know. But understand, Horas, your past treachery casts doubt upon your every word and your claim is unsupported. If you would bargain for your life, be prepared to show us proof!”

Horas, unruffled, merely grinned. Saying only, “I expected, I prepared, for nothing less.” 

The conceit, the insufferable confidence of the V’Koo.

“Ksanj,” he began, “is mad. Mad as the Bujan he spawns. It was just after Kdal spirited T’lu and Olana from the novevar that word of the coup in Syjal reached him. The combined events were too much, he went J' nkar, crazy. He dispatched the T’solavan into the caverns of the Odar . . .”

“Using the maps and the Ryka you stole!” Randak cried, pointing an accusing finger at Horas. The man only smirked harder. 

“Rather an agent of mine,” he cooed. “The maps were for my personal use, later and when I needed them.” Then suddenly he exploded. “Fools! Idiots! Ksanj had no need of your obtuse maps! He knew where you were -- he has always known. He permitted the Odar their existence because it entertained him. I can recall his exact words. 'The greatest challenge in T'al Lodinar is escaping v' jre, boredom!' “
Horas' eyes glazed, but the fury left his face when he perceived our shock and our incredulity. 

“As I said, after his defeat in Syjal, compounded by the loss of T’lu and Olana from the novevar, no one could reason with him. Mose tried, counseling against killing the Dulara. He reminded Ksanj of his plans for Jo' dulak. But Ksanj ignored him, saying even she must die.” 

“ ‘I have had enough of the Odar, it is time to end their existence. They must all die now.’ ” 

“Why the change of heart?” T'lu demanded.

“I told you, he was mad. And yet, there was something deeper. Something no one had ever seen in the T’ala T’sol. A rage that bordered on obsession.” Horas turned and glowered at me, deliberately aggressive. “You, you were that obsession. He dwelt upon you incessantly, mumbling over and over of worlds beyond worlds and cursing the name Grayalen.”

Again: worlds beyond worlds, Ksanj inconceivably knowledgeable about Gray Allen. How, loomed a question too formidable for Kdal of Jatora. Perhaps too formidable for even Gray Allen, yet there was an answer. That I would ever learn it, I left to Destiny. 

That I shuddered with cold dread I admit. That Kdal fully appreciated the length and breadth of what Ksanj understood, I doubt. 
Horas continued to glare at me with prying eyes, mouthing words I but barely heard.

“ ‘He brings the very beasts of the field to the side of the Blood! Soon, to the gates of Amata! Our battle must end here. They must all die before he finds the way.’ ” 

Horas now looked around the room and jerked a thumb my direction.

“For some insane reason, Ksanj frets this vektal either knows or soon will know the way to the Al ‘tajalo. It would please me,” he smiled, as a snake distends its jaws to devour its prey, “to bring that particular prophecy to fruition.” 

The room grumbled. Eyes turned to me but I could but shake my head. Horas returned his attentions to me. Not through with his speech, he but barely warmed.

“You, Kdal, or Grayalen if that be your real name, are the reason Ksanj personally lead the T’solavan into the Kul Aren. He wanted you dead, but even more he sought to torture you and all those around you. He gave you that globe of Ryka knowing you would use it to cancel the fires and survive. He wanted you and the handful that survived to flee to those other caverns. Yes, Ksanj knew of those as well.”

Again, the rumble of surprised voices circulated the Kiej Hadin.  Horas shrugged his shoulders and wagged his head, as though showing pity at our naivete.

“And you thought I the only podar ever to serve Ksanj? I am but one of many, even now. He bragged to me that once, many lur past, he owned a R’li!”

“Impossible!” Randak cried.

“Nevertheless, there is no denying what Ksanj knew. Nor that the Odar stood in total ignorance of that knowledge. Thus armed, Ksanj readied the Hisl to move against you for the T’sal Lan, the death blow.”

“But sent you to kidnap the Dulara first. Why?” I demanded.

“A straight forward question,” Horas answered again with that salacious grin that grated my nerves as sharp claws raked across my back. “The destruction of the Kul Aren had a cathartic effect on his fury. He had seen the Dulara in the Arens of the podar and it had weakened his resolve. The emotions wrestling in that intellect I can not even imagine, but, in the end, Ksanj avowed he wanted Olana alive almost as much as he wanted you dead. He promised to make me Dular of Amata if I brought the Dulara out of harm's way before he destroyed you and the Odar.”

Horas eyed the Dulara Olana lasciviously. My teeth gnashed. 

“And you agreed,” I growled. To which, he shrugged enigmatically.

“After a fashion. I saw the look in his eyes as he strapped the Redke Vandl around my waist. Fetching the Dulara Olana would be my last service to Ksanj. I had seen and heard too much, he had revealed too many weaknesses that I could be permitted to live. Horas of D’Nota would be Dular of Amata – stuffed and mounted in the Asiej Dular, the Hall of Kings!”

I felt T’lu cringe at the suggestion of such an atrocity. He said nothing.

“In my dealings with the Bujan,” Horas accented the word heavily; “I learned much of interest concerning the construction of ancient Amata. Among other items I care not to discuss, was the trail you followed to the Anor. A trail I had taken the precaution to explore and cache with food against a time I there might be . . . trouble?” 

Horas grinned and it turned my stomach. 

“Ironic, isn't it? My best interests now lay in serving the Dulara, delivering her safely back to Syjal. My plan was perfect,” he turned and snarled at me. “Your stupid interference nearly killed us all. When you came charging across the dock, the great hero of the Odanal,” his tone was insufferable, “the Bujan immediately raised the alarm. I can only assume what happened next. Infuriated, recognizing my treachery and seeing the Dulara again snatched from under his very nose, Ksanj recanted his desire to save the Dulara and unleashed the Valcar!”

I thought of Droko while Horas regained his composure.

“Why Furi? Why come here?” T’lu asked.

“It was not my intention. My goal was D'Nota. I have friends there. Powerful friends! For a share of the reward . . .”

“Ransom!” I interjected.

“As you will,” Horas returned salaciously, “they would have arranged a dialogue with Syjal. But currents carried me more North than I wanted -- since your clumsy interference also deprived me of Hisl arms to do my rowing! Anyway, Land and the others found me. The rest you know.” 

“No, we do not know the rest, V'Koo,” I said rising menacingly from my seat, Mut coming to heel with bared teeth. “We have the Dulara. She is safe and there should be nothing more we need from you. Yet, you stand there smirking with self-assurance because you claim to know the way to the Al ‘tajalo. Speak then if you would bargain for your life. Where is it?”

Horas laughed. Not a chuckle, but a deep and vindictive roar. 

“Not until I have certain  . . . guarantees!”

T’lu had also risen from his seat and now moved past me to stand before Horas, towering over him, glowering. “Why should we trust you?” 

“Oh, I do not expect that you will ever trust me,” he shrugged. “I just do not see where you have a choice. Ksanj knows I have the secret of the Al' tajalo. I suspect it was that knowledge destined me for a Hisl blade. To compound my sins in the eyes of T’ala T’sol, I wrested the Dulara Olana from Amata. He will not rest until I am dead. The Hisl will scour every corner of Jatora. If killing me means killing the Dulara, they will not hesitate. He will eradicate every civilized race from Jatora if needed to get to me. Hence, I need -- protections. Both from him and, later, from you.”

T’lu laughed aloud, turned, and resumed his seat, still laughing. “So, the V’Koo seeks our protection. Now, there is irony!” T’lu suddenly looked grim as I had ever seen him. “You have sealed your own fate, Horas. You said Ksanj knows you can lead us to the Al ‘tajalo. He will move to fortify his defense, if not even obliterate the Al’ tajalo completely.” 

“An action undoubtedly underway while you fools sit here and talk!”

“You are the fool, V’Koo!” Randak shouted suddenly. “T’lu is right. Ksanj will make the Al tajalo useless to us. We need neither you nor your secrets, Horas. You have doomed yourself!”

Horas had played us like street-musicians for stakes far greater than a few scattered bits of fey, and now he drove his verbal dagger home with the hand of a schooled assassin.

 “I said that I know where the Al ‘tajalo lies. I never said Ksanj did!”


That had us all on our feet, standing as a unit, perplexed, stunned, our voices a chorus shouting questions all at once until T’lu restored decorum and confronted the grinning Horas directly.

“Explain, and be quick about it.”

“You accused me of pilfering the D’alpol, I said I had agents, remember? In Amata, conspiracies layer conspiracies. You can not fathom the depth of intrigue that exists within those ancient walls. Suffice to say that someone, someone close to Ksanj, in pursuit of his own ambitions, stumbled, wholly by accident, upon the secret location of the Al ‘tajalo.”

“Name him.”

“That, I will not do. Nor shall be coerced. It is enough that you understand the truth of my claim. This -- agent – confided in me, for you see he too sought possession of the Dulara Olana, though not for the rapacious designs of the T’ala T’sol. No, this conspirator thought to bargain the Dulara with the Odanal for the power to overthrow Ksanj and seize power for himself. Hence, he confided in me but not in Ksanj.”

I took a step closer to Horas. “No coercion is necessary. There is but creature in all Amata capable of that much ambition, Mose.”
Horas bowed at the waist. “I accede to your insights. It was Mose.”

“How is it then that Ksanj learned of your knowledge?”

“I will confess an ill-step on my part. While still believing myself in good favor, I suggested I had this knowledge to Droko and . . .”

“You need say no more,” I finished. “But you never revealed the location to the Bujan?”


I turned to T’lu.

“It is your call what we do with Horas and his assertions to the Al ‘tajalo. We can always return via the route we came -- through the caverns. If even a word of Horas’ story holds true, Ksanj will strip the city of Hisl in search of this vektal.”

Horas shot back. “As fast as the Hisl depart, Ksanj creates new ones.”

“Ksanj has no novevar, I destroyed it.” 

Horas shook his head. “Even you must realize the Ryka destroyed but one chamber. The caverns beneath Amata are a hive of laboratories. Furthermore, Ksanj boasts of an even greater stronghold secreted far to the North.”

“North!” A cried incredulously. “There is nothing to the north -- nothing but Kal Har! He is J’ nkar.”

I thought if anyone knew the truths of foreboding and forbidden Kal Har, the Dark World, it was the T'ala T'sol.

“Tell me, in the novevar, how did Ksanj survive the Ryka?”

“He didn’t.” Horas laughed a bitter and provocative laugh. “I would have thought you had figured that out on your own. You incinerated a Vor.”

The room fell into stunned silence. 

“I killed a Vor?” I finally stammered.

Horas nodded while his eyes grew dark and defiant.

“If you would defeat Ksanj, you must act, and you must act swiftly ere his hordes discover Agar as the hiding place of all those against whom he harbors his deepest revenge. To that end, you must agree to my terms, now, without delay.” He laughed loudly as without prompt he added, “And my price is a complete pardon and a Thief's title when I reach D'Nota.”

“You are the madman,” T'lu cried sharply. “We can win without you. Let Ksanj come. We will be ready. We have new allies in the Kiida and the Agala, our avans grow stronger than ever before.” 

“Oh, did I forget to mention,” Horas returned slowly, drawing each word as a blade slipping from well-oiled sheath, “that Ksanj has also raised new friends, from the North?”

Olana gasped. “The Camtar?”

This brought A to his feet. “No one has ever formed a bond with a Camtar clan. Not even Ksanj could do this.”

“Ksanj already has my fishy friend!” Horas crowed defiantly. “He will bring the Camtar to Agar invested with weapons and powers beyond anything you know. Ships that move on the ocean without sail, impervious to the Winds of Ana, able to attack through even the wildest storms. That and more which even I do not fully comprehend.”

 “Impossible! No such things exist,” A cried.

“I have seen them!” Horas hurled back. “They exist, they are real, and they will tear through Agar as a Votag tears its prey. I say again, you must move now or move not at all. And I, Horas of D’Nota, am the key.”

My collective memory showed me dark and distant images. Engines of destruction without name or reference but whose purpose lay clear, to deal death. With the surge of memory came again the burgeoning warmth uncoiling in my loins. Only a kindling flame but enough to bridge the eons and forge a remembrance and a dread. A fire I did not want to feel, not yet, for the web Fate had spun neared completion. It was time to pull the strands together, the day of the confrontation near at hand.

I must live to see it through.

“Give me what I ask,” Horas demanded, “and I will show you the Al' tajalo. It is I or the Camtar, choose!” 


Horas had won.

He had spoken the truth in that we had no choice.

T’lu gave his word, and, on Jatora, that word was inviolate. Horas would have his title; it would be up the people of D’Nota to decided the future of Horas the V’koo.

Though nursing reservations, working without trust and planning against every treachery we could conceive, over the next five dar T'lu and A, assisted by the Land, T'rk, Randak and the others, drew their battle plans. 

The Agala, ten thousand strong in the combined Avedor, would storm Amata from the docks, forcing strategic underground entrances to the hidden city as diagrammed by Mol, Ganar and Randak. A force of five hundred Griffin captured and brought forward from Syjal would lead the air strike on Amata, by way of the Al’ tajalo. Which Horas assured us was accessible to the Griffin. Messengers dispatched by T'lu had Dre’ danor from Derhetti, Mopal and D’Nota arriving daily. Ao would lead that mighty Avedor that now crammed the docks at Furi. Every warrior who could not mount a Griffin or fly the captured Qualo from Syjal manned a ship. Anxious warriors ready to die that a world could live. 

T'lu stated his desire to go with the first wave of Dre’ danor leaving Furi, a dangerous position. T'rk and Land, loud and long in their protests, knew their complaints fell on empty ears. T'lu was as adamant as they were appalled.

The assault looked formidable, well planned and organized. Still, we would need help from R'li and his people, and their knowledge of the city and the mines – assuming they survived. To that assignment, Randak volunteered. 

“I am certain I am up to the challenge,” the Thief ventured. “My only fear is that the Odar have not survived.”

T'lu demurred. “There will be no argument, Randak. To you falls the most important task of all, the safeguarding of the Dulara Olana. I need a wise and intelligent voice to succeed me in the event . . .well, you understand the possibilities.”

As for Kdal of Jatora, I was to fly with the Qualdar scouting party of four warriors on a reconnaissance of the Al tajalo. Our goal, verify the location and the righteousness of the Al' tajalo. Upon this covert mission hung the balance of the T’lu’s monumental assault upon Amata. Horas would remain in the theilhar pending our return. T’lu had given his word, his Halm, but that Halm rested upon verification of the Al ‘tajalo. If the T'lu's plan seemed tactically sound. Far better to risk four men than the entire force of the Odanal upon the word of one V'Koo. Tactically sound with one minor flaw; I have never flown a Qualo.

 “My inexperience makes me a liability.” I noted to my Amar.

“You will learn,” T’lu answered with a wide smile. “And fast!”

In some innate manner, T’lu understood the urgency of my being part of that mission to the Al’ tajalo. How or why, is irrelevant. It is enough that he did and did not deny me that Halm. 

Thought his, the fire built as the season’s change. I knew Fate had determined I should die in the fighting soon to fill the skies, the seas, and the underground vaults of Jatora, my destiny irrevocably entwined with Ksanj. All that remained was the exact moment. What Kdal of Jatora could accomplish before Fate ended what Fate had begun drove me forward with both apprehension and resolve.

I wondered if this fire brought a resolution to what I now perceived as my ancient conflict with he whom I knew as Ksanj. Though I wondered to where else and as whom else we had met, clarity of that memory Fate sought fit to withhold. Nor was there anything I could to about it. From deep in my soul, I head the voice of Mecca growling.

“We will top the crater of Amata and seek him out,” he said. “He will be waiting, and we will have our answer. Once and for all, for all eternity, we shall have our answer.” 

But first, Kdal had to learn to fly! 

That job fell to Land, who took to the task with great enthusiasm, although I will confess trepidation. The morning before the scout party was due to depart, Land lead me beyond the city and into the lower ranges of the Bl'an -- a journey not without points of interest. 
Agar was a peaceful island. There were few predators, the beasts of their isolated world being mostly herbivorous cousins to the red skinned, blue bellied antelope, or Ealoran, I had seen in the open areas between the Mu' Derj and the Val Ponada. Several varieties of winged residents were evident and of course, the Blusk.

The greatest danger lay in the Kjor, the giant spiders of the Bl'an, hairy, eight-legged beasts seven kota high with a bloodthirsty disposition heightened by a lack of natural prey. 

“Once, they had meat aplenty,” Land told me. “But they ate it all and now eat man -- and other Kjor.”

The Jatoran arachnids have but two eyes, centered in the cephalothorax. The poisonous fangs grow upward of twelve inches. The abdomen, like the head, is a prickly mass of black and yellow fur beneath which hang the spinnerets. The silken Kjor is highly prized by the Agalans for the weaving of sails. These threads, when loomed to the exacting tolerances of skilled Agalan women, are nearly indestructible, able to withstand (to a point) even the Winds of Ana. 

For fighting and killing, powerful mandible claws jutted from under the jaw line. More crab than spider, these pincers swiftly and painfully crushed the Kjor prey, making the spider’s meal soft and easy to swallow!

Kjor aside, my Bl'an expedition filled me with an overriding sense of optimism. It was easy to see how living in such an idyllic world could sway the personality of those flourishing beneath her shaded slopes, a serenity that seemed to have limited impact upon their hereditary enemy the Camtar.

Land informed me that these Ava Camtar were a race of throwbacks to the most primitive days of Jatora. They lived by a creed and way of life the modern Jatora had abandoned thousands of uncounted centuries ago. A time and memory lost in the dim antiquities of time. Many believed them blood of the first born of their world, the true Hon ‘djar of Jatora that swam the oceans then emerged out of the sea to walk upright upon the land.

If there were a hereditary prominence to the Camtar, it had vanished long ago. Today, they roamed the seas in patched up Dre’ danor, sacking and looting and living as all the cutthroats of your overworked imagination lived -- killing for fun, looting for profit, burning for the mere act of domination. 

Camtars measured Halm by one’s ability to rob his neighbor. It was common practice for a Camtar to steal you blind and then, in a few days, return your possessions. Your obligation, according to the Camtar I'bar, was to fight, to the death if necessary, to avenge this insult and save Halm. 

True nomads, without permanent home, though it was whispered by some they actually dared to live upon Kal Har, the Camtar foraged among the uncharted islands dotting the Anor. Sometimes, to scare children into good behavior, Agalan parents told wicked tales of watching Camtar, pirates who stole bad children away to Kal Har.

“Every once in awhile,” Land noted, “A bad seed runs off and joins the Camtar.”

“Like a Horas?”

“Would that he had!”

These lawless vagabonds divided their dominion into two clans, or Sharns as the Agala. These tribes were the Rolm Nor and the Tal Gar. Ao told me that the Camtar feared nothing, including the Winds of Ana. 

“United under the banner of Ksanj, they could wreck inconceivable havoc. But they are also fiercely independent, and Ao holds to his conviction that even Ksanj could not unite them. One, independently, maybe, but not all. The Hon ‘djar is far too dissipated and diverse.” 
This intrigued me. “Diverse how? They are not of one Hon ‘djar?”

“That tale is long and complex. It will keep for another day.”

It had come time to ride a Qualo. A large corral had been established at the foot of the Bl'an about two hundred kotan from the city, selected due the abundance of overhanging trees protruding off outwardly curved ledges. A natural shade from prying eyes.

There were a hundred Griffin and a dozen Qualo quartered here. More Qualo than any free warrior of Jatora had seen in his lifetime, other than when ridden by the Hisl or the Bujan in the attacking avans from Amata.

“The first step,” Land offered, is to acquaint you with the sojak.”

The sojak, or saddle, was similar in many respects to such devices I had known before but with some singular Jatoran differences. The sojak came from the hide of the great cave bear of the Val Ponada, the Lajak, another beast whose acquaintance I had yet to make.
The word 'so' means to sit. The sojak has no cantle. You ride by winding your hands into the featured mane of the great bird and firmly pressing your knees to its flanks. The sojak's purpose being more military than equestrian. Upon the rear of the saddle were sheaves for two spears, one to either side of the Qualo. Pocketed along those sheaves were four to six slots for daggers. I truly had to admire the skill of a warrior who could toss one those red-boned knives from the back of speeding Qualo.

The rider, or aldar, must also learn to be proficient in the use of the dalma. The dalma were leather wristbands with small metal rings affixed. These rings could support a thin line of nearly unbreakable Kjor webbing that ran from the tip of the Qualo's wings back to the dalma. The purpose of the dalma was, again, not for controlling the Qualo in flight but rather protecting the aldar in battle! The wings of the Qualo are very heavy, almost all muscle, and when brought into play by the dalma became a serviceable shield. When angled forward they became an effective battering ram, as I would soon see.

Jatorans only used the dalma on war mounts. There is no equivalent mechanism for the Griffin. Land told me their wings were simply too heavy.

My honorary rank, bestowed upon by T'lu, was an Ul Van or Lieutenant. My position was as a sodar, or scout. The sodars usually flew in a unit of five to ten called an avenel. They flew in a formation or wall of touching wings designed to draw first fire from the enemy. It took courage to be a sodar. 

I took to the air with a rush of adrenaline, in awe of the mighty Qualo of Jatora. My heart filled with rapture, I soared into the breathtaking skies over Furi and then banked east, charging out over the rolling Anor, pain, suffering, Camtars, and the fire rising in my gut forgotten in the ecstasy of the moment. 

My soul grew wings of its own as the Qualo streaked across the heavens, climbing to new heights, new dreams, and new dangers. I drove upwards at Emo and then turned and streaked seawards until the wind threw my tears back into my eyes and I had to draw reign or crash.
Kdal lived! If tomorrow he died, it did not matter. Today, this moment, there was only this glorious harmony between man and beast, warrior and Qualo. I wished only that Olana sat behind me. No, not Olana, for she was tied to an anchor even the Qualo could not shake. I longed for that simple golden girl with the emerald eyes I had found upon the edge of the Mu ‘Derj so long ago. The life I had defended before the rock face of the Qualo Mar, the hand that had held mine and made me dream. 

Reigning his Qualo close to mine, Land shouted above the streaking wind. “Flying is not the hard part, the Qualo does the work. Landing is more difficult, and one must always be on the watch . . .”

I waited to hear no more. Wishing to surprise Land and satisfy my own rising ego, I shot towards an open clearing at the edge of a row of trees footing a step cliff. Landing may have been the harder tasks, but I managed it with minimal fuss, as if I had always known how to fly a Qualo; and perhaps, in some distant memory, I always had.

I dismounted with a happy bounce and waited for Land, who circled above waving madly at me. I wondered at his strenuous actions. Was he jealous at how quickly I had mastered the art of the Qualdar? I doubted Land had a jealous bone in his body. Then what agitated him? 

Suddenly, a hideous screech broke from the trees behind me. I turned. With widening eyes, I beheld a hellish brown Kjor scuttling forward on its eight jointed legs. Its low hanging fangs drooled with venom and the cracked and weathered mandibles opened and closed with a sound like breaking eggs. I had nowhere to turn and no space in which to maneuver.

With judgement better than mine, the Qualo took flight. Ruefully I drew the Redke Vandl and faced the charging death wondering was this the path of the fire? Could all that I had borne and beheld upon Jatora end so mundanely, crushed and eaten by the angry arachnid now tearing limbs from trees to clear a path to its prey?

I wondered and waited.

Then Land appeared in the periphery of my vision. With a sound like bursting canon fire on a world with no cannon, he used the dalma to ram his great mount into the charging Kjor. It all happened so fast that I scarce guarantee the accuracy of my memory. One moment the hideous spider was there and the next it was gone, pushed over the rocky prominence by the impact of Land's Qualo. It plunged hissing and wailing until its body hit the surface of the Anor. In abrupt silence, the Kjor sank from view.

“Next time,” Land cautioned as he landed gently beside me. “You will wait for instructions, Ul Van Kdal!” he said with a grin. “I was about to say one must also watch for Kjors!”

“Then what is the problem?” I cracked. “I found one!”

“Tomorrow,” Land told me as we prepared to part company back at Furi, “you fly your mission. It may be that some that fly with you will die. It is customary you take your Emosapors with them.”

Which I did, meeting the three brave warriors of the Odanal who would ride beside me in the sodar. Loyal men who should have questioned my untutored role amongst them but did not, for T'lu had placed me there and T'lu was the law. 

We ate, we talked, and we laughed. If we should die, that was tomorrow's care. Tonight we had none. 

Somewhere beyond the Qualdar pens, in the city, Olana dined with T'lu, A, and others of rank and nobility. I ate with the pavans and was content to do so -- though my heart ached for the sight of her emerald eyes, the sound of her sweet voice.

Even as I lingered on those depressing emotions, conch blowing Agalan heralds signaled the coming of royalty. I recognized A, Ao, and T'lu and, with a start, the Dulara Olana, beautiful in the soft radiance of the Jatoran night. I could not keep my eyes from her, though she gave me not a glance. 

The royal family visited briefly with each warrior, inspecting their readiness for battle and wishing us notal. Pleasantries finished, they departed.

“That was unusual,” said one fellow with whom I sat. “Never saw that before.”

“Ao said it was the Dulara's idea. She was insistent.”

Later, too excited to sleep, I paced the terrace of my apartment alone with my thoughts -- such as they were. Mut lay curled on the sleeping furs, blissfully ignorant of the impending changes to his world, or the warm fire in his master's gut. 

Suddenly, his head shot up. He raised up on his forepaws but did not growl. A moment later, I heard what he had heard, the soft shuffle of feet in the hall outside my quarters. Almost noiselessly, a shadowy form in a hooded black cape entered my rooms. It glided across the room and with a deft motion the hood dropped away. Unbelievably, I stared into the emerald eyes of the Dulara Olana of Syjal! 

She had a hand to her lips, sealing me to silence. Stepping boldly forward, she slipped lightly into my arms. Her hands went to the back of my head and pulled my lips down to hers. I crushed her to my chest and drank, as a drowning man would drink, inhaling every fragrant drop of her sweetness.

My mind whirled, my heart a white-hot blaze. Then those delicate hands were upon my breast, pushing with that firm, royal touch that again told me, “No!”

“Say nothing, ever, my Kdal. Remember who I am and what I am!”

Her eyes were green-fire! 

“Forgive me this weakness, this desire, but only this once. Tomorrow you fly for the glory of the Odanal.” Her voice was deep and husky and the muscles of my arms knotted and would not come away from her silken frame. “Do so knowing you have won the love of the Dulara Olana. Do so and forgive that I am a Princess. That I can never, ever, hear the words our hearts have already spoken.”

Suddenly I felt something thrust into my hands and she was gone. 


It was many long, disbelieving minutes before I looked at the object I held in my still trembling hands. A tiny moccasin! The one I had carried from Amata to Agar.

The flaming eye of Emo rose over the Bl'an, to find me still standing where Olana had left me, my sleeping furs undisturbed. I walked to the balcony and observed the great black shape of the Odanal army amassed on the beaches of Furi. An awesome sight that symbolized all the hope and all the horror this world had endured for three thousand years. 

But my mind was north of the great dock, beyond the huge wave of men and beasts, where the Dulara Olana walked a distant, tiny figure on the golden sands of the Anor. She was alone, in a fashion, for a dozen Agalan warriors kept watch from a respectable but practical distance, her privacy guarded but respected. As she would always be watched and guarded forever more.

In another section of the palace T'lu, T'rk, and the others waited my corroboration of the Al' tajalo. A yes or no that could change a world, sending thousands of men to their deaths. Yet, it could also mean life, freedom and prosperity. I heard footfalls in the corridor. Land coming to summon Kdal to war, and the balance of his Destiny upon Jatora.

Again, my eyes sought the lonely figure of the Dulara Olana where she strolled in the softly glowing brilliance of the breaking dawn. I touched my heart and felt it ache. I touched my soul and felt the fire. The rising sun dipped furtively behind a passing cloud, fleeing my angered soul, ashamed that Fate offered me no solace, no justification for this ill-timed call to transition.

I looked for the wondrous woman I loved but could never hold. She was gone. 

“Come, Kdal,” Land said anxiously. “We must hurry. There is very little time left.”

With a wan smile, fueled by a cosmic irony I alone could understand let alone appreciate, I turned on a heel. My Mut dumbly following behind, I strode through the open door of destiny.



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

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