The Cradle - Pavis, Hell & Corflu<

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1 - Dying Embers

The heroes travelled a long time in the protection of Zola Fel, and came ashore near the giant walls of Old Pavis. They have been led to shelter in a camp of the Riverfolk: a fairly ramshackle hob-nobbled series of huts cobbled together, normally housing perhaps 40 people.

Damp and shivering the heroes are helped into the largest boothie of the camp. A low fire smoulders, its smoke making those inside hack and cough; some huddle further into their blankets, others tread carefully, bearing bowls and folds of cloth. All stoop with the weary movement of the defeated. As their sight adjusts to the smoky gloom, the heroes begin to make out recognised faces - Urgi and one of his men are here; there is Jones; there Karrath Sing-and-Die. A few other faces are those of Cradle Riders.

Too few.

Several women tend the warriors, commanded imperiously by one they call Levru, clearly a gyda of Ernalda. As the heroes stand uncertainly in the boothie, clutching the blankets they have been handled, she turns and stumps meaningfully towards them.

"SIT! - Over there, not there, away from the door you great oaf! Sit! Use the blanket, warm yourselves! Yrsa! Frithig! Soup, bread, and lots of it. No cheese though. Hmmmm." By now she is inspecting the wounds of each hero, muttering the names of herbs under her breath. Her face, perhaps once beautiful, is aged prematurely they see. No crone, but maybe thirty and five summers, yet a hard road has withered a leg, ravaged her face and whitened her hair.

Levru smiles grimly at the heroes. "Lucky for you, eh? Jera works great magic in me, so sit down, shut up, and take your medicine."

She is the only energy in the room, for save her women who work in fear and silence, the others sit in despair and defeat.

Dori has been checking faces as they enter, gathering the Legion and its friends together. Her people first, then any of the other Cradle Riders who lack leadership and protection. The herbs and the mention of magic grab her attention away from her troops, though.

"A kind offer, but save your energies for others, my Lady. Mixing the magic of Life with that of Death is rarely wise even when Humakt has not forbidden it, and I think none of my people are so badly injured that the risk to us or to you would be worth it today."

And she pulls out her own stock of caffeine tablets, ginseng, bruise ointment, and so on from the waterproof wrappings. Levru nods and moves on to examine Aelfwyrd's injuries at length before setting about mixing up a paste to be applied to his wounds. Within a few hours he will find that the pain has diminished and he can move more easily.

She treats the others easily, and then inspects Dorinda's handiwork at which she sniffs approvingly. "A little more coltsfoot will help that along," she says. "Never be shy with the coltsfoot." They talk for a little while before Levru concludes that Dorinda is likely to not only need healing herbs, but knows what to do with them too.

Geran sits despondently to one side with some of his companions clustered around him; even the few enlo who survived are uncharacteristically quiet. The group stays as far away from the fire as they can; the enlo shield their eyes and avoid looking directly at it. When food is offered, Geran nods and devours it and the bowl in a few quick gulps. Some of the enlo, overcome with hunger shovel dirt into their mouths, but are too timid at the moment to fight over the food. A familiar low growl from their master stops any foolishness.

As the smoke fills the room Geran steps outside, with Kogad and Dask in tow. He can hear Hrolf begin to say something but doesn't stay to listen, probably just some Legion business - nothing to do with him. He tries to find some shade and relaxes a little as he lets Kogad tend to his hurts, her soothing song a comforting presence as he chews on his soggy blanket.

As she went round the group treating their injuries, Dori was vaguely aware that a shadow has lightened in a corner. It wasn't until a few minutes later that she realised why, and then she hesitated. He's one of her... no, he isn't. He'd called her... NO. But Garrath had asked him to fight with them. He was an ally. He WAS her responsibility. Sort of...

So, once she'd done what she could for the people inside, Legion and Cradle Riders alike, she slipped outside, glad of an excuse to breath the fresh, cold air. Spotting a shadow in darkness is difficult, but the sound of Trollish singing is unmistakable.

"Geran? Are you all right?" She notices Kogad's ministrations, and nods approvingly. "Sorry about forcing the issue back on the Cradle, but we couldn't just leave you there to die. You're... well, not really one of us, but you're a Cradle Rider, and our ally. The Legion doesn't leave its own, not when there's any choice."

Shivering slightly Aelfwyrd stares through the smoky gloom waving away another buzzing insect. With a cough and a sniff he absently eyes the squalid camp and its inhabitants before looking back into the fire. Unable to shift his gaze from the burning embers Aelfwyrd is lost in his own world: Furthest and the Arena.

The sound of metal pounding metal beats out a regular rhythm against the screams of the injured and dying. The overwhelming stench of old sweat and urine hang heavy in the dusty air. A blistering heat is thrown from a fire pit that dances and flickers around the chamber.

The cold Halls of Death in Alda-Chur far behind now, I am alone, abandoned, no brothers in arms, no glorious standard, no dawn muster here. But I am jaded too soon my Lord, slaughter and dishonour stalk this place day and night. My fifteenth year not yet over, faith seeps like some open wound; this is no blessing my Lord but a curse.

Looking about there are many men, seated and nervous in the near dark. I examine each in turn, a fiery glow illuminating their faces; every expression different but somehow the same. They are already beaten without taking a step into the arena. Most will be swiftly slain; a few wise with battle will make a stand, fighting dearly for their lives. This handful will provide today’s entertainment, for that it what it is, nothing else.

The great wooden doors are thrown open and Yelm streams into driving out the darkness, the arena beckons. The crowd roar their encouragement, is it just their blood lust which is to be sated today? Sword in hand I pray to my Lord. I ask for strength and honour, but does he listen and will it come?

The yell of a wounded man snaps Aelfwyrd from his reverie, it is cold and he is shivering, the fire burnt low. Trying to stand he gasps, the wound from a sword stroke which grins widely as blood begins to flow down the length of his thigh.

Slumping down he is enraged and curses into the gloom "I have done all that you ask, walked every path, fought every foe" and using his strange blade to try and stand he spits "Yet you reveal nothing, the Cradle is lost and at what cost?"

Tall, lean and well muscled Korol is ever alert to danger, his unforgiving stare, foreign features and proud nature the cause of many fights. His father and his fathers father both honoured Hiia Swordsman and served the Feathered Horse Queen well. The same could not be said of Korol: a dishonoured Vendref, he is far from home. Oathed to protect Aelfwyrd's life; then perhaps he will return to the Vale with some honour saved.

Although injured the Grazelander brushes the pain aside, intent on making good his weapons and armour before resting. Examining the blue and yellow shells affixed to his shield Korol muses how far way from home is really is; many weeks on foot for certain. Snorting, the warrior looks around the gloomy camp with a hint of disgust; could Aelfwyrd have chosen as worst place to journey? He thought Sartar a bad enough, but here, with all these filthy Praxians and their hellish beasts. Not to mention keeping company with trolls, his ancestors would turn their backs if they knew.

Hearing a raised voice Korol grabs up his sword and shield and makes quick time to the edge of the campfire. Scanning around it is obvious that there is no need for immediate concern; another of Aelfwyrd black moods, they are more common recently. Walking up quietly to his side Korol spots the Tarshite's open wound and says matter-of-factly "You must get that closed, it will fester in this evil place."

Aelfwyrd turns to Korol his eyes blaze for a moment and it looks like he may strike the Grazelander, but the anger fades "What are you doing here with me Korol? I know not the path, its purpose, nor where it leads. Yet you follow me."

"It is not the path that makes the man, it is the journey. My grandfather told me this," replies Korol without blinking an eye.

"You speak little but say much my friend, as it should be?

"I will see that the Earth woman tends that wound" says Korol before silently walking away into the gloom.

Like the others, Jamal is lost in thought, although he is vexed with the feeling that he has forgotten something. Something important. Finally he remembers what was troubling him: Abul made if off the Cradle, has he made it here? He scans that assembled warriors looking for any sign of the boy. As the earth woman passes to tend his wounds, he asks. "Have you seen a boy, about 13 or 14, come off the Cradle? He would be foreign by your account. Talks a little like me...."

Levru looks aghast at the Carmanian. "What kind of a man are you, to be taking your son on such a voyage?! Voriof protect him! Nalda! Quick child, quick! Take Leik and Minara upriver, look for a foreign man child and bring him to us. He may speak no tongue you know of, but the name 'Jamal' should comfort him. Go!" The woman Nalda runs for the door as though shot from a sling, whilst Levru turns back to Jamal. "Minara is a Vingan and will save your boy if she can. I do not know about customs in your home country, but you should be punished in mine. What were you thinking?"

Jamal bristles slightly at the woman's tone. "It may be that the men of these parts hang onto their mothers petty coats, but in Worion, boys are forged into men in the heat of battle. Abul has shown the heart of the Bull, and the courage of the lion."

"Well, it's a miracle that any of you make it to adulthood," says Levru with great disapproval.

His tone softens again. "He is the source if great pride to me, and it would be a joy to be reunited with him"

"Well, Minara and Nalda will do their best, but half of the city was watching the battle, and the Lunars have spies everywhere. He could be captive, washed down into the Rubble, or dead, and the last would be kinder to him than either of the former," she says bluntly.

2 - We Must Retake the Cradle!

Shaking with cold - or is it rage? - Hrolf crouches down next to Angus and Jones. He has already wolfed down his food, and begins sharpening and oiling his swords with disturbing intensity. As Levru passes by he shakes himself out of his reverie. "Thank you, Earth woman. Your fortitude shames these failed warriors. Your people, too, risk much for us," he says through gritted teeth.

He looks around thoughtfully, measuring the resignation in the faces of the Cradle Riders. A sneer of contempt begins to contort his face, but then he stops himself and his expression softens.

"We must go back, comrades. Our lives are worse than worthless if we fail our oaths. We eat; we rest briefly; then we scout the Lunar positions. Perhaps we can retake the Cradle; the Lunars too paid a heavy price. They will not expect us to return at all - let alone so soon. And if the Cradle defences are too strong then maybe their leaders or magicians are vulnerable."

Hrolf reads stubborn disbelief and cowardice in the faces of some of the warriors, and anger rises in his throat. A breeze, cold but fortifying, blows through the camp. "Look around you! Do you think these people have so much food and magic to spare that they can tend to miserable deserters? How many Riverfolk died pulling us out of the water? How many more - Riverfolk, Pavisites, Heortling and Nomad - will die after the Red Men plunder the Cradle's magic and extend their tyranny? Will you turn tail and hide while this happens, so the Lunars can hunt and kill you like a running dog? Or will you grasp your fate and die like a warrior?"

"Who is with me? Who is with Hereward's Legion and the Cradle Riders?"

Enfrew stands up and speaks. "You speak Truth, my brother in arms. We must fight for the Cradle and regain our lost honour or die trying."

But elsewhere Hrolf's rousing speech falls on silence. The healing-women slip through the smoke-filled boothie like wraiths. The warriors look to the ground, unwilling to meet Hrolf's gaze, and huddle deeper into their blankets.

Only Karrath Sing-and-Die is willing to look Hrolf in the eye. He says, quietly, "Let it go Hrolf. This battle is lost, the storm clouds roll on elsewhere. Many brave men are dead, Garrath amongst them, and there is none left the survivors might follow. Let the Lunars hoard their Giant-trinkets, whilst we husband our strength for a wiser fight."

Some of the warriors mumble their assent, telling Hrolf to leave it be, for Garrath the Sharpsword is dead. If he has failed, who might prevail?

Hrolf' pupils dilate dangerously on Karrath's words, but he catches himself and with great difficulty regains his composure. His eyes narrow; an icy coldness creeps into his voice:

"Oh, yes: 'They are too strong for us now; let us fight another time.' How many times have we all heard these words? And the words that come after: 'Let us not fight them, for they will win anyway.' 'Let us give them our cattle, for they will take it anyway.' 'Let us pray to their gods, for they are stronger anyway.'

Until finally we hear: 'Let us fight for them. Let us turn on our former friends, for they are weak and we are strong. Let us go DUCKHUNTING!! LET US FEED OUR NEIGHBORS TO THE BAT!!!' Hrolf's voice cracks, and ends in a fit of coughing. He angrily waves away the Riverfolk as they seek to comfort him.

He continues - quietly this time. "Where did we learn to be so afraid of death? Is it not a warrior's fate to die in battle, hopeless or not? Let the Ernaldans and the White Ones care for life: our duty is elsewhere. Do you not realise that there are worse things than dying? A warrior who abandons his duty has no right to life, for what worth is life without honour? Do you not remember the fate of those who bargained with the Predark? Would you join Ikadz and V- The Empty One in cowardice and treachery?"

"Yes, Garrath Sharpsword is dead. And yes, he was a great leader. But what was his message to us? How did he lead?" Hrolf pauses meaningfully, looking the Cradle Riders in the eye one by one. "He died. He died to show us the way."

3 - Aelfwyrd Seeks Comfort Among the Far Walkers

Spotting Urgi, Aelfwyrd he begins to limp over to his former kin as Hrolf completes his speech. The Tarshite smiles, Hrolf has faith and already yearns for bloody vengeance. This is good, for vengeance they will have, yet Aelfwyrd has seen a lifetime's slaughter already and staggers off into the gloom seeking out Urgi. He will listen to some Far Walker truth for a while.

Aelfwyrd continues to hobble painfully until he reaches Urgi and Far Walkers who he greets warmly. Dropping down hard beside Urgi he continues "It is good to see you alive cousin, and your men." and with a grimace "Tell me that the Far Walkers fared better than I?"

Urgi is sombre and downhearted. "No cousin, I cannot. Fritjorf, Eric and Willandring fell to Lunar swords on the deck. Kurash leapt into the river with us, but we did not see him again." He spits into the fire.

"They were brave and good brothers. I shall miss their comradeship, laughter and songs. I must bear their deeds to their kin in lieu of a body for proper rites." Overcome with the burden of this task the proud warrior begins to weep freely.

As Urgi talks of the dead, the faces of Fritjorf, Eric, Willandring, and Kurash appear in his minds eye. Aelfwyrd recalls with a smile how they jeered him boarding the cradle and how they boasted with pride at their stalwart defence of prow. They laughed and joked then talked late into the night of the gors and gallts of home. Overcome with great sadness Aelfwyrd hangs his head staring into the middle distance. After a moment he looks up at Urgi.

"Cousin, a man could have no greater brothers. Always ready to do and die. They are Far Walkers and we all shall sing their names with pride. Great will be the stories of how they stood bold and fearless against the moon." Embracing Urgi as a fyrd brother Aelfwyrd chokes, "Let us grieve while we may, then send their souls upon the winds".

Releasing his cousin he stands up, looking at the faces of the remaining Far Walkers. Sensing this is not the time to talk of vengeance he suppresses the anger welling up from within.

Tired to the core Aelfwyrd sits once more around the campfire and mourns the dead. Speaking of each fallen warriors Aelfwyrd describes with pride the times since they boarded the cradle. Finally, his energy spent and nothing more to say he is silent. Sensing they have more grieving to be done he makes to leave. Still in some pain Aelfwyrd stands and embraces Urgi once more.

"That they traded their lives to strike down the moon shall not be forgotten. They lived and died as men, with pride and honour. There can be no greater ending."

Releasing Urgi he picks up his strange eastern weapon and eyes one of its many curved blades. Running a finger over an intricate carving of a great wyrm he turns back to Urgi.

"We will talk again Cousin, but not with sadness nor to grieve. We have been wronged, an eye for an eye we will have our vengeance."

Aelfwyrd holds Urgi's gaze for a moment before walking away in silence.

4 - Yrsga Goes Scouting

Yrsga, ever the headstrong opportunist checks that Aelfwyrd is busy talking to his 'barbarian friends' before slipping away. Sensing that she may finally be back to civilisation, Yrsga smoothes her hair and dusts down her battered leathers before concealing fighting knives and throwing daggers on her person.

Eyeing a great wall of Old Pavis she wrinkles her nose catching the hint of Praxian beast on the wind. With a final look back she heads out, scouting around the perimeter of the camp taking in what she can, talking to those who don't look too dangerous

Yrsga sees that the boothie lies amidst a scattering of huts, ragged and torn, that lie between the walls of two conjoined towns. One wall is low and sturdy, the other is of heroic scale - the height of fifteen men. The river lies between the hovels and the lower wall, and a bridge is there. Few people are to be seen in the camp, and those there appear to be watching events upstream anxiously. To the north the Cradle can be seen being dragged ashore by teams of Lunar soldiers and draught beasts.

Whilst scanning her surroundings Yrsga is approached by a young man, who firmly suggests it would be better if she waited inside. "Spies are everywhere," he says.

Looking around once more before continuing she says "Perhaps we are watching over the same people, maybe we can help each other?

The man cocks his head to one side at Yrsga's boldness. "For sure I am guarding your folk, and so are many others - see?" He indicates several people apparently engaging in normal tasks - mending nets, fixing a roof. All keep by one eye on their job - the other scans the lands around. Carefully concealed weapons can be seen nearby.

"You are safe for the moment," he says. "The Lunars will come and search, and by then you must be long gone. So wait inside and rest while you can, and have faith in us."

Whilst he is speaking, four men begin walking uphill towards the camp. Three wear the gear of warriors and look carefully around and behind them. They are led on by a cottar, who makes a welcoming gesture towards the man Yrsga speaks with. These three warriors are shown into the boothie.

5 - He Died to Show Us the Way

Hrolf's desperate rallying cry has only left the Cradle Riders perplexed, and Dori looks up from where she is tending one of the injured warriors. "Dead? Is he?" she says thoughtfully. "I saw him fall, yes. Then I saw a flash of lightning, such as his god can call, and heard thunder. And his body vanished. I do not think he is dead." In contrast to Hrolf, she speaks quietly and unemotionally, but with conviction.

Awoken from his lethargy by the altercation with the healer woman, Jamal turns and listens to Hrolf impassioned outburst, then Dorinda's more measured tones then adds his own voice.

"So we despair then, Garrath is gone, the fight is over, the Empire wins and butchers the child. Oaths of allegiance and friendship are broken, the souls of our dead comrades are left unavenged. The lives of our stricken comrades are left at the mercy of the accursed followers of the deceiving whore. The imperial fops again have bragging rites over the rebellions finest."

He looks at the dishevelled bunch.

"So all we have is despair, but let despair be our impenetrable armour, let us go on without hope, but with determination and vengeance in our hearts. For those who have fallen deserve at least this from us who survived...."

Dori nods. "We go on. What else is there: to sit here until the sands cover us? We have comrades left behind on that Cradle, quite apart from our oaths to defend it. Whether we despair or not is our choice, but we have no choice at all about carrying on.

"And in any case, the situation is far from hopeless. That was an organised withdrawal, not total defeat. Our organisation is still intact, or we would not be here, being fed and healed. Garrath had it all planned in advance, that much is obvious. What else did he have planned? Jarang would know, and we all saw him escape the Cradle. Where is he now?

"Levru? Do you know of any meeting point Garrath had planned, other than this one? Or any orders he left to be followed in his absence? Would the Zola Fel temple perhaps know more?"

Levru shakes her head, "I know not. There are other places Cradle Riders may have come ashore, for we are not the only ones to help."

6 - Nervous Healers

Dorinda becomes aware that one of Levru's assistants keeps eyeing her curiously, but snaps her gaze elsewhere when the stern warrior woman returns her look. The healing-woman fumbles with her dressings and herbs, and bustles from patient to patient, yet cannot help herself but steal quick glances. At length the woman approaches Levru and whispers something to the Jera-woman, but Levru with a quiet sharp word sends her scuttling back to work. After that the woman's looks are fewer, more secretive and fearful.

As Dorinda is tiredly wondering what this means, Minara and Nalda stumble back into the boothie.

Later in the evening, Dorinda corners Levru and asks her what the woman had said.

"Cora remembered you, Dorinda," Levru says, "and I told her to mind her own business as I assumed that's what you'd want. What's in the past, eh? Mind you, I didn't recognise you meself at first, but then it's been what - twelve, thirteen years? You'll find much changed, I fancy."

Dori is silent for a moment, as the memories start to trickle back. Not many, but some. Some bright as sunlight: flashes of gold, bright disconnected images in the darkness: warm barley bannocks on the hearth, her little sister's laugh, the embroidery on her grandmother's veil. Others.... no. She pushes them back into the blackness they came from.

Dorinda has no memory of Levru from her previous life in Pavis. And why would she? Her parents were upright people who had no truck with the flotsam river-folk or the Sartarite parasites, to use their terms. Dori turns the phrases over in her mind: now, they seem as alien as the moon.

"You're right" she says at last. "It was a very long time ago. And I was a different person then. No doubt the city has changed, and so have I."

With a look of compassion, Levru embraces her "and changed you have for the better, I'd say. You'll not find many healing-women say that to a Death-wielder, but I know where you came from and what you had to overcome. Humakt is a good path for those who must escape their kin, for not all kin are worthy of the name. You were the saddest little girl I ever saw, Dorinda, full of fear, dragged in here by your mother as though you were a dog that had strayed..."

Levru trails off, catching the blank look in Dorinda's eye. "Gods... you don't remember, do you?" Quickly recovering herself the herbalist pulls back and makes to bustle off to her patients.

Dori stares at the woman blankly, completely confused. Fear? She didn't remember fear as a child. But then, there were so many things she'd avoided remembering for years. Did she want to know this one? But if she didn't... how many more people would recognise her, when she didn't know them? And recognise her for, and as something she didn't know about, and act on their knowledge? That... could threaten the Legion. Her Legion.

She has to know this. Has to face... no. That might open that box. If she looks in there, all sorts of things might get out. She can't't.... but she has to. The next test. She hadn't wanted to be forced to it this soon, but... all right. She takes a deep breath. If this is the next test: what would Humakt do? Easy. Face the truth. No matter how sharp it is. Always face the truth. And how do you make yourself face the edge? That's easy, too. Just like going into battle. Don't think about what you're about to do until it's too late to go back.

"Levru". The woman turns back, "You're right, I don't remember. But perhaps I should. We should talk about it: maybe not right now, but if we can find a few minutes together, outside... it sounds as if I owe you a debt."

Levru nods, hesitantly. Dorinda gets the feeling that the burly gyda is rarely uncertain, but she is clearly questioning the wisdom of opening her mouth. "When you have the time, warrior," she says, "then I will tell you the truth, or the truth as I know it."

Levru leads Dorinda to a quiet corner and begins to relate her story in a low voice. "It were about fourteen years ago, I suppose you can't have been more than fourteen summers yourself, then ... too young to get in to that kind of trouble. Not that I'd ever met your mother before, for them Sun Town types keep 'emselves to 'emselves, but she'd obviously heard of Nanny Levru, for it were to me that she brought you. Even then I were do all the midwifing in the old city, and I suppose she thought it'd be less conspicuous that way, out of Sun Town and away from scandal and gossip. She said not much, and you less, so that's all I know, truly."

Dori stares at her, confused. ""That" kind of trouble? You can't mean...? But I don't remember any of this! I know its been a long time, but surely I'd have remembered something like... that?" She shakes her head, bewildered. She can't think of any reason for the woman to be lying, but this is unbelievable. "So.... what happened?"

Levru shuffles, visibly uncomfortable. "We could do nothing. The child was stillborn, perhaps that is why you remember nothing... the trauma..."

She lies, and under Dorinda's gaze Levru knows the warrior knows she lies. Defeated the Jera-woman lets out a sigh and mutters, "what will be, Gods guide us." She coughs awkwardly, "the child was healthy, sure enough. We took him to a woman in the Real City who was nursing a babe of her own. He's grown into a fine young one - they say he is god-gifted. They named him Opili."

"It's all right, I'm not going to try to find the boy. Not now. I'd be a danger to him. I won't even ask you where he is: yet. Though in the future, if some gold should come your way, no doubt you'd know what to do with it." She pauses (while Jane thinks that the plot will no doubt mean we meet the kid in the first hour of being in the Rubble!) and then continues in a much less confident voice.

"But how could I possibly have forgotten all this? Some spell, to ease the fears of a child? Or something more sinister? And... who could the father have been? You say you were told nothing, but you also said things about my kin that were... not entirely favourable. You must have had some idea?" She looks lost, confused, and her tone is almost pleading.

Levru frowns and sighs. "Many questions, child, and I have few answers that will satisfy you. What I said about your kin, well... what kind of mother would put her 'reputation' above the needs of her grandchild and daughter? To my eyes that's just plain wickedness, and you're better off without them. I saw no magic worked on you that would make your memory fail, but I did see a frightened young woman, in pain and confusion and fear of her mother, and the birth was difficult. You may have been blessed with forgetting by the Gods, to soothe your pain.

"I know no more than I have said, and can offer only these guesses. But should you ever want to send messages or tokens, or meet with the child, come to me. I know his mother ... I mean, his foster mother ... and will prepare the ground for you as well as I am able."

The midwife is about say more, but there is a sudden commotion at the boothie's door.

7 - Vastyr

Yrsga eyes the four men walking uphill towards the camp warily. Three wear the gear of warriors and look carefully around and behind them. They are led on by a cottar, who makes a welcoming gesture towards the man Yrsga speaks with. These three warriors are shown into the boothie.

The guardian greets the cottar warmly by the hand, they are obviously friends. Yrsga's attention is on the three warriors. Even though they are in supposedly friendly territory they assume a triangular formation each watching intently to a different direction. Watching down the hill is a burly man with obviously Praxian features. Next to him is a tall, handsome man with two swords strapped to his back. As if a counterpoint to the handsome man the third is badly scarred, three deep slashes cut across his face.

Yrsga can hear the cottar mentioning something about reinforcements and Humakti. Then the guardsman turns to Yrsga, "You are with the Legion? These men are heading to your camp. Could you show them there?"

The scarred one turns his attention from the surroundings to Yrsga, and says in surprisingly pleasant voice, "My name is Vastyr Scarface and was sent here by the Grim One. I seek the Hereward's Legionaries."

Yrsga regards Vastyr with obvious distrust but listens closely to what is said. With unconcealed interested she eyes the slashes across his face before turning to give his companions the once over. After brief consideration her mind is made up and with a nod Yrsga beckons the warriors to follow.

"I am Yrsga, but it is Dorinda you need to speak with" and with a wink at the tall handsome man she says to Vastyr "Follow me."

Leading the warriors through the boothie she makes a beeline for Dorinda. Nodding to the other Herewardi along the way Yrsga makes a brief introduction. Addressing Dorinda with as much formality as she can muster

"Ten Thane, Humakti seeking the Legion. Vastyr Scarface"

As Vastyr enters the boothie, Jamals head whips round to track the new arrival.

"Keep your voice down man," he hisses in an insistent whisper, "do you want to let the whole Empire that we're here!!"

As Yrsga leads the new comers to the Ten Thane, Jamal moves to track him. His hand resting on Bull-Spike. As the group reaches Dorinda, Jamal joins them, still in a wary stance...

"Identify yourself" he says without pre-amble, his face grim "who sent you and why are you here? More importantly, why should we believe you?"

Vastyr regards Jamal for a moment, apparently at ease despite the mounting tension. Then he turns back to Dorinda as if nothing has happened.

"My name is Vastyr Goranson, whom they call Scarface, formerly of the Cinsina, and formerly a free mercenary in the lands of Sartar, Prax and Heortland. Now I serve as a trooper in the Legion of Hereward Truewind. I was sent to Prax in preparation of the arrival of Warleader Illig Stargazer and to make contact with Hundred Thane Yodi Leg-Breaker." He stops and draws his sword very slowly, raises it in the traditional Sartarite salute and says, "This I swear on my Honour and on my god Humakt the Deathbringer." The sword does not shatter.

Then back to Jamal, "If you have more questions on my honour or trustworthiness, I will be available to answer them for you in the Ring of Duels at a later hour." Vastyr doesn't make any threatening moves or anything else that should be interpreted as threats. "But now I much desire to speak with the Hundred Thane for I have news for him from the Warleader."

Dorinda speaks: "You are welcome here, Vastyr, but we have not seen Yodi since he left us at Tourney Altar. He headed north with five blades, leaving us orders to muster with the legion in Pavis by the Day of Standards. I am Ten-thane here, now that Brenna has... been lost to us. Is your news something that I should know of, or is it truly for the Hundred Thane's ears only?"

For the first time Vastyr looks surprised, "He went north? With only five?" His eyes turn briefly to east and then back to Dorinda.

"Ten Thane, this is indeed alarming for Illig has had no news of him. I was sent to Pavis ahead of the others because, although I'm new to the Legion, I have been here many times. My orders were to make preparations for the reunion of the Legion. I am unsure if I am at liberty to discuss these with you, please do not ask me more."

He looks silently to east as if making up his mind. Then he kneels in front of Dorinda, "You have taken a pledge to the Cradle, that much is certain. Your commitment is the Legion's commitment and therefore mine as well. I offer my sword to the wall in this endeavour. If you accept it."

"I do indeed accept it, and gladly. More swords are always welcome, but a fellow Herewardi doubly so." Dorinda raises him to his feet with the right arm to right arm grip that shows complete trust between Humakti.

Jamal looks the new comer up and down as he talks to Dorinda, still looking somewhat suspiciously. And his expression changes little as Vastyr offers the Ten thane his sword. Again a mite ostentatious for Jamal's taste. Jamal looks again at Dori, she looks convinced. So be it then...

"Welcome sword brother, there is much to do here, and the sooner we get to it the better". Those who know Jamal, that despite his obvious tiredness, and his usual grim attitude, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm to his words.

Yrsga idly looks Vastyr up and down as he talks with Jamal and Dorinda. Slightly bored by this formality her gaze briefly falls on his Praxian companion before a more lengthy examination of the handsome one. Catching his eye she smiles slightly before turning to her Ten Thane. Excusing herself with a nod Yrsga retires to the campfire and proceeds to pour some broth and find a seat near the fire. Ensuring she is within earshot of the Herewardi the 'reformed' urchin strikes up an easy conversation with those huddled around the glowing embers.

8 - Ducks and Trolls Stalk the Night

After his impassioned speech about Garrath, Hrolf is first annoyed by Dorinda's interruption, then incensed that her entire point is lost on the other Cradle Riders. "We must retake the Cradle soon or die trying - why can't they see this?!" As the discussion peters out and the Herewardi mill around to pursue their own interests, Hrolf sits in stunned disbelief. He blankly registers the Humakti newcomers, but makes no move to greet them. Finally, he grabs his swords and leaves the boothie, pursuing the healer who appears to be in charge.

Once outside, he hails her, "Levru, are your scouts nearby? I cannot sleep this night and I scout for the Legion - or I did once." He mutters darkly under his breath. "If they can take me near the Cradle, I can help them identify and count the different Lunar units."

Levru shakes her head. "All those I'd call scouts are sent to look for Jamal's errant child." She thinks for a moment. "There is a man called Kurl who guards the door to this boothie - take him with you as a guide"

With his orders done, Geran looks at Hrolf. "Ready?"

Hrolf starts when he notices the giant shadow loom up from behind him. "Oh. Geran." he says more to himself than anyone else. "Sure; let's go. ... ... And thanks."

"Ducks and trolls stalk the night," Hrolf muses to himself. "Ducks and trolls."

The small band slip out of the camp, loping quietly along below rise that runs parallel to the Cradle River. Kurl follows rather than leads, but nods or shakes his head in response to Hrolf's pointed fingers.

They see small knots of people ducking in and out of huts and ruins, and Lunar soldiers stopping and questioning those unable to reach their bolt holes. From afar they can see teams of men and beasts drawing the Cradle up the river bank, whilst many soldiers appear to be standing around preparing to board it. A mighty procession is in place leading back to the city, and it appears there are many important personages in that train for banners and polished bronze, silver and gold can be seen dancing in the torchlight. Kurl hawks and spits. "Sor-Eel," he says with disgust.

Geran crouches unmoving and turns to Orkeg. Something seems to pass between them and Orkeg starts to move off, but Geran suddenly stops him with a low hiss. "Hrolf, what do you think?

Hrolf has been watching the pair of Darkmen as they follow him along the riverbank, and it is obvious to him that they are practised. Nevertheless, he believes he is quieter, and when Geran signals him he holds up his hand and moves ahead of Orkeg. He points in the direction of the Cradle and looks questioningly at Geran. "If only Blackbeak were here, we could use our sign language," he grouses silently to himself.

Geran nods in the gathering darkness, feeling better by the minute. This is the way to live, sneaking up on an enemy without them being aware of you in cover of darkness. He gestures for Hrolf to take the lead and for Orkeg to flank him.

Hrolf motions to Geran's mace, then draws his own sword and says a brief prayer over it. As the Deathlight spreads its glow around him, he makes he looks expectantly at Geran. The great Uz notices Hrolf's gesture and pulls up his mace and says a few words over it. He then picks up two rocks, and with a quick motion brings them together three times. "Toc. Toc. Toc." It is hard to tell, but did the shadows surrounding the heroes just grow deeper, a little colder?

The warriors skirt cautiously towards the giant cradle, now dragged high onto the exposed mudflats along the river bank. Kurl whispers, "because of the drought they can do this. Usually that area is all flooded, especially during Sea season."

Several hundred Lunar soldiers are milling about, gazing in wonder at the huge structure. Officers are striding about shouting orders, and it seems that some of the men are upset for their commanders appear to be preventing them from boarding the cradle. Other soldiers are herding the last civilians back into the city, where they are searched and questioned by more soldiers and priests at the gates.

Wary of getting too close, the heroes use the hills and trees as cover to edge around the cradle. At one point a Lunar patrol appears suddenly, and they flatten themselves into the darkness. Angus is anxious for the hunt, but even he realises they are outnumbered by the Lunar fighters. Squashed into the shadow of several large boulders, the heroes wait breathlessly for the patrol to pass.

The heroes wait silently for the Lunar patrol to pass before continuing with their mission. The encounter has made them more cautious, and progress is
slower after that. Twice more they spot patrols and scatter noiselessly into the darkness.

The Lunars have thrown a net over a large area around the Cradle. Some several hundred men guard the cradle itself, whilst patrols - presumably searching for Cradle Riders - prowl the nearby hills and river banks. So far they seem to have no luck in finding prisoners.

It seems dangerous to get closer or press on.

Remembering his tutelage in under Grimbeak, Hrolf prepares himself once more for a war of stealthy attacks and scurrying, well-prepared retreats. He has his comrades count the number of Lunars and Lunar allies present, and identify the different units and their level of fatigue. It is soon all too clear that the forces of the Moon have come in overwhelming strength. He finally sighs in frustration and fatigue, and hisses, "Alright, I reckon we've learned what there is to learn. Let's go back - and keep a sharp eye out for unwanted tails!"

Cursing mentally Geran wishes he had his band of enlo here but many never left the Cradle. The thought is unwelcome, how to find more slaves among the hoomans? In the shrouding darkness the Uz wait patiently, as they always do, for the moment to strike and kill the red men. Soundlessly to human ears he prepares to sing the songs war and killing, smashing, eating.

But to his shame and chagrin he sees Hrolf shake his head and motion for a return to the camp. The troll warrior looks at Hrolf with a decidely disappointed look on his face, as far as any human can read uz facial features. Without a word he turns his back on the Herewardi and silently start to head back to the camp.

9 - Kogad

Kogad the Uz healer walks over to the Herewardi and pauses for a moment when she sees the newcomers, seemingly indecisive. She then locates Dori, ignoring the other humans as best she can and in atrocious Tradetalk says. "Me help" When she can't get across what she means she uses sign language, miming wrapping something around someone's arm.

Dori looks at the troll with her expression under careful control, and then at her perfectly well-tended Legion. And then round at the rest of the... rabble. She smiles tightly. "Thank you, Kogad. I think we're all done here, but the others may need help. Let's ask."

The Uz female looks at Dori uncomprehendingly and sighs heavily, but follows the ten thane meekly. She mutters something but seems subdued somehow.

She leads the way to Levru. "Levru, may I introduce Kogad? She's a healer, and has helped us before. Can she be of assistance?" Dori watches Levru's reaction with interest. In particular, her judgement of Kogad's healing skills.

Kogad simply stands there, passively.

Levru doesn't set Kogad to work on the hurt and wounded, but rather asks her to prepare bandages. She thinks the large troll may unnerve her patients, and knows that the famous Uz spider-web dressings are good for sword cuts. Kogad does her job patiently, and when done Levru sniffs with approval.

10 - Aelfwyrd's Doubts

A great sadness is clear on Aelfwyrd's face as he strides away from Urgi and the Far Walkers. Shaking his head the Kargani mutters a foul curse under his breath and heads for a dim corner of the boothie. Lost in his own world marching across the camp he barely manages to avoid bumping into Jamal. Looking first at the Carmanian, then at Dorinda his expression is sour and looks to be going downhill fast. With a furious look Aelfwyrd turns to eye the three newcomers before yelling across the boothie.

"Fritjorf, Eric, Willandring and Kurash all dead!" He kicks out at a cooking pot, sending it crashing into glowing embers of a nearby fire. Instantly Yrsga rises from her seat with a look of concern and moves quickly to Aelfwyrd side. His expression cools slightly as the young urchin puts her hand on his shoulder. Driving the head of his strange 'sword cum trident' into the dirt the Kargani rubs his temple as if in considerable pain. Turning back to Dorinda his tone is serious.

"Ten Thane, tell me the Legion means to retake the Cradle. Good men have died, the Far Walkers must have their vengeance”

Dori nods firmly. "I intend to, yes. Although not alone, I think! We need to make contact with the other Cradle Riders and work together. Finding Garrath, and Jarang would be good. But yes: we swore to defend the Cradle, and we have comrades left on board. There is no question of giving up now."

Jamal nods, "Too many good men have fallen for this to be left here. We have three fresh swords, which is a start. If all of this group will not come with us, then we should hunt out those who will. My vassal Maniskus has fallen, I would avenge him. Abul is missing, him I would find again. Else we have left others from our Legion on the Cradle who will be retrieved. I agree with the Waleesha, we should find Jarang or other from Garrath's command. We must regroup and attack again. Perhaps we can recruit some of these men to help us."

Anger plain on his face Aelfwyrd shakes his head "Garrath is lost, I saw his severed head hit the deck. The two warriors of the moon cut him down like child, their weapon mastery beyond anything I have seen" then scanning the boothie "As for Jarang, the last I saw of him was on the cradle, he is not here with the other survivors....." Pulling his blade from the dirt Aelfwyrd shakes his head and curses. Making to leave he says to Dorinda "As you say Ten Thane, an oath is an oath....and eye for an eye" and stalks off into the smoky gloom.

Vastyr set his pack in an available corner. He was not tired, like the others looked, and he was not hurt. He motioned to Joran and Morg, "They need rest. We take the guard." He eyed Jamal for a moment, "though some may not appreciate that."

Then they all turned quickly to the sound of the cooking pot flying. Vastyr didn't know what the whole story was, but he had seen it many times along the years. Young men distraught over the loss of fighting brothers, maybe even kin. He had been in the same situation. Ordering Joran and Morg to go guard the boothie, he walked to the fire place and picked some bread with cheese.

Offering them with one hand and placing the other on the shoulder of Aelfwyrd, he said, "Here. Eat and rest now. Time for vengeance will come when the Grim One says. We must make ready for Him."

Relaxing slightly at the warrior's friendly gesture Aelfwyrd's anger begins to recede, tiredness swiftly returning in its place. Taking a bite of cheese he eyes the newcomer with interest "You are not one of the Pavis Humakti. I would have noticed." Then matter-of-factly, "you are a hard man to miss, my friend." Chewing a chunk of bread in the silence he continues to examine Vastyr thoughtfully. Swallowing the last mouthful Aelfwyrd wipes his hand clean before holding it out.


Vastyr takes the offered hand and shakes firmly, "Vastyr." He pauses and runs a hand over his scars, "No, I'm not Pavisite... I'm with the Legion. And as for these beauties," referring to his face, "I'll tell you of them sometime."

Aelfwyrd listens to the mercenary while trying to imagine a beast that could inflict such wicked wounds. Then looking over Vastyr’s shoulder he spots Korol eyeing the mercenary warily from the gloom of the campfire. Nodding meaningfully at the fierce warrior Aelfwyrd turns back: "The Grazelander is Korol." Adding with a slight smile, "Friend to everyone - particularly Trolls and Praxians". Gesturing at the young women speaking with Dorinda "and that is Yrsga. She is like a sister to me," the tone leaving no doubt of his meaning.

Then catching sight of the injured sitting around the campfire the young warrior stares into the middle distance for a brief moment before continuing "The defence of the Cradle was grim, the Marble Phalanx grievous opponents. They fought in iron formation, armed with blasphemous sorcery, and the Dragonnewts. We had no choice, it was an all out retreat..."

Returning from his thoughts Aelfwyrd gazes at Vastyr "We are oathed to retake the Cradle and it gladdens me that you have joined our company of swords." Picking up his strange oriental weapon the Kargani turns it over in his grip before making to leave "Victory or not my friend, we will make this river run crimson before it is ended."

Without a further word Aelfwyrd stalks from the boothie and into the night

Yrsga looks visibly relieved as Aelfwyrd wanders away. Then clicking a finger she recall the events from her visit outside. Ensuring Aelfwyrd is out of earshot Yrsga reports to Dorinda and the other Herewardi

"Before bringing Vastyr I saw the Cradle. It's not far upstream from here, to the north. Lunar soldiers using strange draught beasts to drag it ashore."

Jamal also appeals to the dispirited men. He tells of Maniskus's bravery and his loyalty, his steadfastness and an embodiment of his liege Makla Mann. He speaks of the need of such men to fight the Lunars and to free the cradle.

As he speaks, one man stands and addresses Jamal. He is dressed in the raiment of the bull, and speaks with a heavy Sartarite accent.

"Uh, you speak well bull man. Your ways seem foreign but you show fight, unlike most of those here. I am Boltar Baraksson, I will follow you."

11 - Aelfwyrd's Oath

Finding himself outside Aelfwyrd breathes deeply, rubbing his temple as if trying to rid some tightness. Vastyr’s wise words had momentarily calmed him but suddenly emotions begin to overflow once more; injustice, sorrow, rage and despair in equal measure. Trying hard to focus Aelfwyrd feels his sanity slipping ever so slightly. Finding no control from within he falls back on the seasons spent as a student with his diminutive Kralorelan sensai.

For many minutes Aelfwyrd examines each of the great wyrms etched along the length of his Dragon Blade. Closing his eyes the Kargani softly recites their purpose and meaning all the while turning the weapon over in his grip. Then almost oblivious to the outside world Aelfwyrd begins a complex practice routine; a whole array of spins, thrusts, flurries and feints against a number of imaginary foes. Feeling control and focus return once again his spirit begins to soar, knowing a kind of salvation for a split second.

Then, as always of late, rage rises from his gut. Soon the practice strokes become exaggerated and violent; his blade furiously thrashing this way and that. With each combination Aelfwyrd questions his god, anger plain in his voice.

"I hear your command and I follow" (Left neck chop to reverse leg sweep to rear gut thrust)
"I see your hidden signs and I take heed" (Front trip to front full impale to rear parry)
"I walk your path yet I know not where it leads" (Feint left to gut thrust right to rear decapitation)
"I master your weapons but I am none the wiser" (Rear parry, spin left, rear neck cleave)
"I fight your battles yet I feel no victory" (Rear parry, spin left, front neck cleave)
"I slay your enemy but I see no purpose" (Front throat slash to front neck cleave to front head thrust)

The final thrust plunges his blade into the side of a nearby hut splintering the wooden panels asunder. Leaning heavily against what remains of the hut wall his breath is ragged. Aelfwyrd’s rage cools but it is quickly replaced by desperation. Heaving the blade free he yells wretchedly to the heavens.

"I know you hear, for it was you that spoke to me."

The echo of his voice fades, all is still. Silence the only reply. Daring to wait for a response but getting none the Kargani shakes his head. Walking despondently back into the boothie Aelfwyrd is unaware of the figure in the darkness who was watching all along.

Yet as he turns to walk back to the boothie the Far Walker feels a terrible presence surround him. In the darkness his visions play tricks, for the flickering campfires behind him throw shadows on the huts of fighting armies and burning cities. All is still and terrible quiet, yet there is a voice like the clash of sword on shield that calls his name.


The shadows flicker, the war-din fades and the presence is gone as soon it came.

Stunned into silence Aelfwyrd stares wide eyed at the apocalyptic scene before him. Then a look of terror sweeps across the young warriors face as He speaks. Listening intently to every word Aelfwyrd is dumbstruck and stands rooted to the spot until the shadows finally flicker and fade.

Taking a huge gasp of air he suddenly remembers to breathe. Falling to his knees the Kargani desperately tries to commit every word to memory.

"The testing time." Then taking another gasp of air, "The Darkman, the Hag and the Dancer," and gaining some control over himself: "The Truth."

As if returning from a dream Aelfwyrd is suddenly aware of himself and his surroundings. Quickly scanning the boothie he checks that nobody had seen what came to pass. Picking up the Dragon Blade his look of fear and disbelief is replaced by a grim determination. Staring out into the night for a moment he solemnly breaking the silence "I have been weak" turning the oriental weapon over in his grip "I will not fail you again"

With purpose Aelfwyrd stalks back into the boothie.

Vastyr looks a bit concerned after Aelfwyrd, the boy seemed a little... distracted might be the polite word. But that would be between him and the Grim One. Vastyr wouldn't butt in unless it endangered the mission.

He walks back to his pack and picks up some jerky and a flask and takes them to the little corner he earlier picked for his guard post. Wrapping his cloak around his shoulders he settles comfortably on some sacks.

Chewing on jerky he begins to wonder. What in the Underworld made him leave Cinsina lands all those years ago, why is he standing guard, again, in the night; why didn't he find a agreeable wife and retire...? On and on. Mostly he wonders the wisdom of joining the Legion.

This Ten isn't what he'd expected. For starters where is Yodi? Illig told to meet him in Pavis. But he has been gone a long time and something happened to the previous Ten Thane. Not death; Dorinda would have said so. Something made her evade the issue. As if she was ashamed of it. But Vastyr learned long time ago not to worry of things he has no control over or part in.

He leans more into the sacks trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. Like he could. Everybody that walks by takes one look at him and picks up speed. Only the little kids are curious but mothers quickly pull them away. Beware of the angry Death.

Something is bothering him about the foreign guy, Jamal, and Dorinda. They look for familiar some reason. Vastyr can't quite place them. Something made Jamal to take instant dislike to him, as if he remembered something. Vastyr moves his sword to a better position and eyeing the healer's apprentices settles for a night of guarding.

Seemingly oblivious to Vastyr's presence by the entrance the boothie Aelfwyrd strides towards the mercenary. With a slightly strained but thoughtful look on his face the Kargani is again lost in his own world murmuring to himself.

"Darkman, darkman, darkman" then rubbing his chin absently "A troll maybe? But that cannot be my Lord, such beasts would not know truth, even if they could eat it."

Then spotting the hidden Vastyr he pauses and looks each way before speaking earnestly in a low whisper "If someone where to ask you to seek a darkman, where would you look?" Acting as if this question is quite normal the young warrior looks at Vastyr expectantly.

What the... Vastyr almost swallows his jerky unchewed. After a few gagging sounds, he gets his voice back. "Darkman? That's a word mostly used to refer to Uz... So I'd guess I'd talk to some trolls." He pauses for a moment, "Why? Has someone been asking?"

Oblivious to the question Aelfwyrd nods thoughtfully then whispers "Just as I thought my friend" then looking around once again before continuing with a shrug of his shoulders "and what of Hags?"

Aelfwyrd wanders back into the gloom of the boothie with a thoughtful look on his face. As discussions on entering Pavis begin in earnest he takes scant interest and instead eyes the injured Cradle Riders. His thoughts return to the battle for the Cradle and the advance of the Marble Phalanx. Catching Urgi’s mournful gaze Aelfwyrd curses, angry at his own inaction. Striding over to the Herewardi he waits for a pause in the conversation before beginning solemnly.

"There will be blood vengeance for what has come to pass. The murder of Far Walkers by the red sky-wound moon will be avenged." Gazing at each Legionnaire in turn "I would swear an oath on Humakt himself and have those I call brother and sister be my witness." Gesturing at Karrath and the other Cradle Riders the Kargani continues without pause "I offer each Cradle rider the chance to honour their fallen. If their answer be no then vengeance I shall swear alone."

Dori rubs her forehead tiredly. "Aelf, there was no murder. The Far Walkers were slain in battle. They're warriors, not children: that's not murder. If Kargan truly calls you to swear this oath, I'll stand by you, but don't let your grief for your friends blind you to the facts. This wasn't a murder, it was just a battle that we lost."

"You are right Ten Thane, Kargan reveals the path and I follow. It is by his will that I am Legion; it is here the Truth will out." Looking at his swords brothers and sisters for a moment he continues "Severed from my kin and far from the gallts of home I march with the Legion. Yet my ancestor's blood flows wild and fierce through my heart. I will not stand aside while the blasphemous moon strikes down those I would call brethren; Legion, Cradle Rider or Far Walkers." Turning back to his Ten Thane "If the Legion commands against such oathing then I must contemplate it further."

Aelfwyrd watches the Herewardi in silence. Sensing their doubt he breathes deeply before turning to face Dorinda. "Ten Thane, this oathing troubles the Legion yet vengeance runs fierce with me. I would ask my Lord if he will listen and we shall bide by his command."

With a nod to his sword brethren Aelfwyrd begins preparations. Silently Aelfwyrd walks to the middle of the boothie and begins to unbuckle his battered leather armour. As he strips the torso sections away a golden colored tattoo is seen to run the length of his shoulders. Clearly some ancient inscription it is a strange an undecipherable mix of Elven and Solar runes. Reverently kissing a small metal charm attached to the chain around his neck the young warrior drops to one knee. Pulling a boot dagger he begins to carve strange sigils upon the palms of one hand. As the blood begins to flow freely he painstakingly draws his Lords symbols across forehead and chest. Taking hold of the Dragon Blade with his bloodied hand the Kargani slowly closes his eyes and is lost in silent prayer.

Those watching Aelfwyrd's prayer see a thin breeze stir dust on the floor, their swords become cool to the touch, a baby suddenly begins to wail from a nearby hut. They feel the presence of the God, weak in this unsanctified place, but yet present. Only Aelfwyrd hears a voice like the roar and grunt of battle, the grate of spear on helm, a wolf's snarl.


Deep in prayer Aelfwyrd postures suddenly stiffens, his muscles visibly flex as sweat begins to bead on his forehead. Dori stands by him, ready to help if she can, but knowing that this is a decision Aelfwyrd must make for himself: a battle he must win alone or not at all. Lost in his own world he is assaulted by visions from his youth; the gors, the gallts, his parents, their stead, the Clan, the Tribe, the endless kin strife, the vengeance. Then of death; his initiation, the betrayal, the endless slaughter, the rejection, mindless wanderings and short fall to the gutter amongst the turds. Then of redemption; the return of his Lord, his path revealed, the Aldryami, the Death Lord, a blade of many dragons, the Legion, its defence of the Cradle. For long moments the young warrior is motionless yet his face reveals strained indecision. Then suddenly without warning Aelfwyrd speaks aloud from his prayer.

"You are my path, my truth and my honour. I serve you alone my Lord."

And Dori relaxes, catching his shoulders as he slumps out of the trance. "Well done. That's never an easy test for any of us, but you passed, and some never do. Good work, Aelf." The boy's icy beneath the sweat, and she slips a cloak around his shoulders.

Shivering in the fire light of the boothie Aelfwyrd rises to his feet, blood still flowing freely over his Dragon Blade. Yet there is a powerful look of serenity on the young Kargani's face. Taking final lingering look at Urgi and the Far Walker he turns to regard the Herewardi. With prophetic zeal Aelfwyrd announces to all those within the boothie. "The path is chosen, and its testing is upon me. The past is cleaved asunder, I will talk no more of vengeance. My wyrd is forged in iron from this day forth, let its truth be know to all: I serve my Lord unto the end. No other shall take his place."

Aelfwyrd looks thoughtful, the quiet broken by the soft dripping of his blood upon the dirt floor. Looking down at his bloodied hand the Kargani murmurs quietly to himself. Lost in his own thoughts once more he wanders over to the campfire and sits amongst the injured. Transfixed by the embers he continues: "There is a bloody-handed warrior, he piles the skulls of his enemies. He builds a mound of the fallen as his foes weep rivers of blood. Those that shed blood with him shall be battle brothers eternal."

Korol looks on impassively as Yrsga quickly makes to the campfire and sits beside the young warrior. Pulling Dori's cloak tight around his shoulders she eyes him with concern.

12 - Jamal Distraught

Minara and Nalda, the healer assistants Levru had sent out to find Abul, stumble back into the boothie. They look exhausted and grim, and tell their tale quickly as they gather warmth from the hearth fire. They found Abul, but could not save him. He was in the company of Lunar soldiers, a large number, on the riverbanks near the cradle. These soldiers were handing him over to an important-looking man dressed as a Lunar chief, with many followers and fine swords. In this company Abul was taken into the city.

"Poor child," Levru comments sadly. She turns to Jamal, "this is why the war-ground is no place for the young. Remember this lesson with your other children, for you will not see poor Abul again. These Lunars are ogres, and they find the flesh of their enemies' young fine feasting."

Minara looks doubtful, and risking Levru's ire tries to comfort Jamal by saying, "It did not seem to me they were not mistreating him. We saw the child the laugh and smile with the soldiers, and although at first he seemed a little frightened by the Lunar chief, at length he smiled and was given an apple. I hope and believe he will be well treated by them."

Jamal seems distraught at this news, looking first to Levru, then Minara.

"The accursed deceivers, may seem fair to the unprepared, but their motives are always foul. They may feed and look after your body, but introduce the cancerous worm of deceit which gnaws the soul until it is full of the vile putrescence of their corruption. They would turn my charge to their vile ways and damn him forever."

"What worries me too is that I suspect that the finely dressed Dara Happan fop you saw was probably Anthippus. He knows the legion of old from our time at he Tourney Altar. Myself and the legion humiliated him at that time, and he may recognise the boy as being in my charge. With this he may identify the Legion and put our mission at risk."

Jamal hefts his shield, places his enchanted helm on his head and draws Bull Spike from its scabbard. He beckon to his followers "Come. We go."

With that he calls to Minara "Where did you see the boy last and where did they take him ?"

"Wait a minute, Jamal, let's make sure we do this right." Dori comes over, grabbing her helmet as she stands. "I think you're right to be concerned about Anthippus, but let's not put Abul into more danger than he's in already. I doubt if Anthippus will have recognised him, but he'll certainly recognise you if you go in there. And as soon as he knows the boy's of value to you, he becomes a target. He's not in any immediate danger: let's keep it that way."

"When Hrolf and the rest get back, we'll know what the Lunars are doing: they may be moving the rest of the prisoners off the Cradle. Then we can act."

She looks around. "Who here knows the city? I haven't been there for years, and I expect it's changed. Vastyr? You were there recently, you said? Who else?"

Vastyr, hearing his name mentioned, gets up and enters the boothie. "Yeah, I just came from there."

Jamal continues. "Every second the insidious whore turns the minds of the vulnerable. She has rotted the heart of my homeland, and so she will the boy if we leave him long. Yet we should prepare and know the layout of the land. We will wait for he Darkman and the duckman. Then I will take whoever will walk besides me to rescue the boy."

"Have you ever kicked open an anthill?" Vastyr speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear. "Because that's what Pavis is right now. Lunars are milling around and I'd hazard a guess that they are even now hunting for those that defended the Cradle and escaped."

He turns to Jamal and Dorinda, "It may be extremely hard to gain entrance to the town. I can see if I can ferret out a few 'old friends' and get us in." Vastyr turns to go out, but hesitates and turns back, "Unless of course you were going to go charging in. I which case you'll put all of us in jeopardy." He turns again and goes out...

13 - Vastyr Scouts Pavis

Vastyr known that it is likely to be risky even to try and enter the city. The Lunars appear to be in uproar, people are being rounded up, and he hasn't been in Pavis long enough to be trusted by the right kind of people. However, the state of confusion might be a boon, and in his years Vastyr has entered many cities furtively. The warrior heads towards Badside, where he talks to the lowlife, scum and unfortunates that inhabit that place.

It takes him some time, but eventually Vastyr concludes that it just isn't possible. The city is completely enclosed by walls, and all gates are garrisoned by Lunar soldiers. He is momentarily excited to hear of a secret tunnel under the walls from the Big Rubble, but these hopes are dashed as he learns the Lunars also guard the tunnel.

Vastyr is leaving Badside when a shadowy form slips from a darkened, ruined alleyway. The figure quietly slopes up to him and whispers, "Lord, you were with the Cradle Riders? I am sent to guide you to the others who survived." It is a young man of mixed blood, and he speaks Sartarite with an accent of Pavis. He appears very nervous.

Vastyr eyes the young man for a few seconds in silence. Invoking his God's power he delves into the Truth of the man's words.

14 - Contacting the Cradle Riders

Vastyr has brought the man Carryn to the boothie. He claims that the other Cradle Riders are holed up in the New City, and that he can guide others there where they will be safe. The Lunars are planning to raid the river settlements this night, so there is no time to lose.

The heroes do not recognise Carryn as one of the Cradle Riders - indeed, he does not have the look of a warrior about him. He claims to be one of Vostok Bluebear's men, and Levru grudgingy acknowledges that name, although she says Carryn is unknown to her. However, the man has passed Vastyr's test, and although he appears extremely nervous, he does seem to be telling the truth. According to him Jarang is gathering the Cradle Riders, and sends word that all is not lost - all those willing should send brave swords ready to storm the Cradle and drive off the Lunars by force!

These words quicken many of the despairing warriors in the boothie, and they wait for the Humakti to judge the truth of the man's words. "If this is the truth," says Urgi, "our swords are ready."

Jamal seems somewhat mollifed by the prospect of being to enter the city. "Tis good, we should regroup with Jarang and plan strategy. of how we can recover our comrades and revenge ourselves on the deceiving scum"

Aelfwyrd slowly looks up from the embers and regards the new arrival, listening to the conversation as it unfolds. A moment later he shrugs off Dori's cloak and begins to buckle his battered leather armour. The glittering Dragon Blade catches the firelight revealing god runes, daubed in blood, on the Kargani's face and chest. Gesturing for Yrsga and Korol to follow he silently walks over to join the conversation. Nodding at the returned Herewardi his gaze lingers thoughtfully on Geran, the darkman for a moment. Then turning to Carryn he eye's the newcommer without a word.

Touched by his recent contact with the God, Aelfwyrd sees deeply into the man's soul. Beyond the flesh, beyond the words, he sees the man. Carryn fears; he fears the doom-laden warriors he talks to, he fears capture by the Lunars, he fears that the rebellion will never come, he fears the rebellion will come and he must fight, he fears he is a coward, he fears others know he is a coward. Carryn is a young man, almost a child, who has never wielded a sword in anger, and this is the first night Jarang Bladesong has called him to aid the rebellion. He fears he will fail. "I will lead you by a secret way to the New City," he says, "We should go quickly."

As Hrolf and the other scouts sulk into the boothie, a dark expression on his face, he notes the agitation of his Ten Thane and the blood on Aelfwyrd's hand as well as the shaky young newcomer. "Tell us, then, how you will lead us into the city," he growls, "And tell us how we know you won't lead us into a trap.”

"There is a secret way beyond the walls... do not ask me more, Lord, for I may not tell you. Outsiders may not know it. You are wise to doubt me, but I think your god-gifts will tell you I speak truth. Jarang said to tell you that the War Ring is not yet broken."

“We saw many Lunars, and they are patrolling the area carefully," Hrolf looks to Geran for confirmation, "but we saw no signs of a force massing for attack."

Carryn shrugs. "We are not so far from the city that they cannot march in haste and surprise us. They often conduct such raids amongst the river folk. It is better that we leave soon, in any case, for many of their soldiers are still by the Cradle and have not yet re-entered the city. The longer we leave it, the more danger there is." Hrolf's magics tell him the lad speaks the truth

Aelfwyrd clasps the shoulder of Carryn "Jarang chose well, return us swiftly to the New City and you will have served the rebellion more than you know." Then speaking loudly enough to address all within the boothie "There is only truth in his words; Jarang still lives and means to take the cradle."

As the Cradle Riders prepare Aelfwyrd takes the newcomer to one side and continues quietly. "I will tell you a truth, for I sense you are stricken; Fear will be your companion until the grave" and gesturing at the grim Humakti "even those who serve death himself know fear. Let it be your boon companion, it gives strength where there is none, and courage from within. Come, lead us to Jarang"

15 - Following Carryn

The other Cradle Riders express their confidence in Aelfwyrd's acceptance of Carryn by gathering their things and preparing to move on. Levru sends her helpers to dole out small rations of bread and pain-killing herbs to the departing warriors, but all the while she keeps one eye on Dorinda and has a thoughtful, precoccupied air.

There is consternation when Carryn announces that he will guide the company into the Rubble. "There is no choice," he says, "for that is where the secret path lies." Old Pavis hands in the company look at each other and grumble a little, but Carryn has made it clear that they lie between a rock and a hard-place.

The slight figure guides them out from the river camp towards Badside. He insists that everyone walk silently, and appears particularly anxious about the jangling of armor and weapons. Keeping to the shadow of the great Old City wall, the company skirts Badside walking away from the river.

"The Lunars are patrolling the New Bridge and river in force tonight – we cannot cross there," says Carryn. Instead, after about half an hour, the company reaches a small band of warriors who guard ropes and ladders that reach up into the darkness. "Climb," they urge. "Silently."

The climb is precipitous, the walls high, and climbing quietly a difficult task that takes long. One by one the warriors make the crossing, finally coming to ground beyond the walls of the Old City. The ground here is rugged and torn, footing treacherous. By the dim moon's glow, tumbled ruins litter the world.

More warriors await the heroes, and their leader introduces herself as Sukar. She is a compact, dark-skinned woman with a razor-slit mouth and a way of ending every statement with a question. "This is North Quarry, the Huntlands - very dangerous, right? Maybe gangs of desperate men, maybe trolls, maybe something worse, OK? We're going to be very quiet, and very hidey-hidey, think you can do this? We have a long way to go - maybe two, maybe three key-miles; any questions?"

Enfrew raises his left eyebrow, looking at the woman in wonder. "I think we've had enough questions to last us a lifetime. Let's turn words into action."

Hrolf scans the faces of his fellow Cradle Riders and sees many that are too proud to skulk quietly in the darkness, his Ten Thane foremost among them. "Comrades," he pleads in a low voice, "I know many of you chafe to face the enemy bravely, without hiding or skulking around them. Remember, though, that we have a duty to the Cradle: a duty to save it. We fail if we are caught here; we must be silent now in order to fight later." He pauses, gauging the effect of his words. "If you doubt me, then look to Humakt, who you all know is brave and honorable. Even he used the ways of stealth when travelling in the lands of his enemies."

Dori nods. "You're right, of course. Silence is Humakt's way in any case. And we are not trying to ambush anyone, just to avoid being ambushed ourselves. I think the problem is not that this sneaking is dishonourable, more that we just aren't any good at it. We'll have to do the best we can."

Still obviously dazed from the day events Aelfwyrd is pale and wide eyed. Leaning up again a large piece of rocky rubble he stares into the middle distance. As Hrolf talks of honour and stealth he turns around to listen. Catching his bloodied hand on a sharp jagged edge he looks down, as if noticing this for the first time. Removing the bandaging slowly he examines the cuts on his palm in the near dark. With a slightly reverent tone Aelfwyrd’s murmur breaks the silence. "The disciples journeyed forth on the path yet they did not know him until the ending. That he would appear in their midst, and rend the veil from their eyes; they shall know him; he says, 'Here are the grievous cuts in my flesh, here are hands that master, here is the place where deceit is pierced; look my brethren and sisters, for I am he.' Every eye will be upon him, and every heart will know his truth. His will be the resurrection, the ascendance that will commence. He will battle eternal amidst a land locked sea of crimson"

Aelfwyrd smiles to himself and speaks out loud "It is by his deeds we shall know him"

The company, its ranks now swollen by Sukar's warriors, makes slow and steady progress through the ruined masonry of North Quarry. Sukar appears terse, and grimaces at the noise made by the Cradle Riders. "This is a bad area," she whispers. "Quiet, understand?"

However, it seems that the massed ranks of the company are more than enough for any bandits laying ambush in the rubble. At one point Geran and Hrolf are aware of shadows slipping into the darkness, away from the approaching warriors. The band begins to relax a little, and even Sukar seems less edgy. Still, occasional gasps, grunts and howls float in the air, and many of the company still grip their weapons tight and stare wildly into the night. It is not good for humans to be in the Rubble in the dark.

Sukar leads the warriors in a long loop around the edge of the quarry, and then strikes out into the centre of the Huntlands. Ahead the silhouette of a low hill stands out, perhaps a key-mile ahead.

"That is Blind King's Hill, there we will turn to the river and cross at Central Bridge, right?" say Sukar. "It will be guarded, and we may need to fight our way across... but this is easier than the Zebra Bridge where Lunar spies will be watching, you agree?"

About half-way across the grounds to the hill the company is crossing the path of an old road, ragged, torn and worn but still serviceable, when Vastyr freezes. The hair on the back of his neck is standing on end.

Something is not right.

Vastyr hisses coldly, "Ambush. Heads up everyone!" Hand on his sword he takes quick steps towards the ruins on the right hand side of the road. And begins to summon his killing powers. Hearing his new companion's warning, Enfrew holds up his black sword and uses his ability to detect the Undead. Yet even with his magic, Enfrew can sense no Unlife... the company faces a living foe.

As Vastyr signals ambush Aelfwyrd gestures to Yrsga and Korol to follow him to cover and keep watch on the rubble. Driving the Dragon Blade into the dirt beside him the young warrior takes up a javelin and does the same. With a look of eager anticipation the Kargani kisses the charm hanging about his neck and whispers a silent prayer calling forth the god’s power into both weapons.

From his post flanking of the main force, Hrolf hears Vastyr and knows what is expected of him. He signals Angus to follow him quietly into the rocks alongside the road: they will loop around and come upon their ambushers from behind. As he does so, he notices Geran some way behind him, and their eyes lock. A grin spreads across Hrolf's face, and he mouths the words, "Ducks and trolls stalk the night" as he motions for the looming darkman to join him.

The huge troll nods and grins at Hrolf and begins to follow the Humakti. As they move silently through the Rubble his head bobs back and forth as he sweeps the area with his darksense, alert for enemies.

As the other warriors reach for cover and prepare for combat, Hrolf and Geran slip silently into the night. As the hunting party scatters between the rocks, their senses alert for enemy sounds or smells on the breeze, Hrolf calls on Humakt and the wyter to guide him to the enemy. As he does so, a terrible thought occurs to him. "How did our experienced guides lead us into such a convenient spot for an ambush?"

Whoever it is they stalk, that foe is a worthy hunter for it is well hidden. Both warriors can feel the enemy's nearness yet there is no sign, just an intuitive threat of danger. The pair cast their search wide, slithering between the fallen masonry that lines the roadside, and prowling away into the ruins.

Some twenty metres from the road the pair come across with those they seek. There are many of them.

Hrolf almost trips into the back of an enlo that is cowering behind a rock. In the space ahead perhaps seventy or eighty Uz are scattered – enlo skirmishers, uzko warriors, uzdo berserks, and even a posse mounted upon monstrous spiders. On of these mahouts appears to be the leader, for he is ordering a small groups of enlo forward.

All this Hrolf and Geran see in an instant. In the next, the closest enlo sniffs curiously and turns to face them. Its little face wrinkles in horror and fright as it prepares to holler...

Geran takes a quick step forward and tries to grab the little wretch before it sounds the alarm. He glances quickly at Hrolf and whispers - "No sense in hiding, be bold."

As Geran lunges forward the enlo tries to dodge his outstretched claws and begins a gibbering howl. One stunning blow from the mighty Uzko sends him reeling to the ground, but the damage has already been done. Alerted by the enlo's fearful cry the Uz turn to see Geran caught in the open. There seems to be some surprise in the ranks, as warriors turn and stare and then look at each other and shrug, but their leader knows exactly what is to be done.

"Hahkeg!! Broddah kom sgellik mahn thurrad-dah!" he orders. Several of the mounted warriors begin moving rapidly towards Geran on their large, beautiful spiders.

Hrolf spots the troll mahouts and reflexively whispers the Sword Help feat to strengthen his blade. They are a familiar enemy, as worthy of death as any. The Cradle Riders will not be stopped! But Humakt’s cold sharp reason quickly re-asserts itself; the enemy is strong and a battle could draw unwanted attention. Perhaps Geran can negotiate something? Hrolf turns to his comrade just as the trollkin scout appears before them. He freezes in confusion.

"Hoo, war leader!" The cradle rider Uz steps forward in a confident posture. He holds the enlo by one leg, dragging it behind him like a human child would a doll. "Your food" he says in an attempt at uz humour and flings the pitiful creature to its master. "I am Geran of the Zhanz clan from the Indigo Mountains. I stole Sun Shatter, wrestled the Terror Spirits and am Giant-friend. My mother Zeesha sent me, my elders stand behind me, I give them much loot. My slaves are too afraid to run."

He carefully eyes the reactions of the war leader at this boasting and is very impressed by the wonderful creatures, he's never eaten a spider and can't help wondering what it would be like. Those long hairy legs, the beady eyes all wrapped up in it's own silk. His stomach rumbles.

Several of the uz chortle at Geran's entrance and brave display of humour, and the warleader grins too. He has very large teeth, prominently displayed.

"Little Geran, you are far from home - these are not Zhanz lands for you to be stalking. These are Mazor lands! We hunt here!" Around him the Uz warriors chirp and hoot at this proclamation. "I am General Kozzag, son of Great Mother Mazor. Chaktochak guides me in war-guile, hoomans, stumpies and walking-plants flee before my mahouts. When just a yearling I caught the Third Foot Ghost and proved myself to Karrg, I have not spoken to enlo since my third year* . I have won mighty battles against all the Pavis clans, and soon will have conquered all the Rubble for my mum!

"So, little Geran - tell me why we should not munch up you and your 'ooman friends for our tea?"

"Mum sends her greetings then, great Kozzak, to the Mazor Clan and her sister Mazor." After the impressive boasting by the general, Geran is a bit more impressed and slouches in a respectful way, some habits die hard. "My hunting I do where I will," he can't help bragging just a bit more, it's all part of the fun, "and I kill where Elkozi tells me. But don't eat us, that one (he points to Hrolf) thinks he is Durulz but lacks the feathers to tickle your tummy, and my mum and aunts would be sad to see me go." He grins a bit and adds "I think." Realizing he has almost assumed a subservient position he quickly straightens again (not too much) and continues. "Besides, there's more food by the river, all those crunchy moon men in their fancy armour. I travel with the hoomans because Elkozi told me to" he grimaces. "

Hrolf has no idea what Geran is saying to the gathered spider-riders, but it seems from his slouching shoulders that his comrade is faltering. How to aid him when he doesn’t know what has been spoken so far? After some desperate strategizing, Hrolf sheathes his right-handed blade and drawing Angus up with him stands proudly next to Geran. “Geran is my brother in Death.” He shouts, apropos of nothing. Maybe these Uz will respond to courage and pride.

Geran turns suddenly as Hrolf speaks up, and feels his confidence growing. Maybe he can do something for the Herewardi after all and prove himself to them.

"General," he begins in a less bantering tone of voice as he realizes that the humans' wellfare may depend on how he negotiates here."Take me if you like, but let the hoomans pass. They serve the Sword God and are on His business defending our ancient friends. You see the cradle, the moon men have it now and will kill the baby unless we get onboard again. Help us or let us go, but do not hinder us." He speaks calmly, prepared to fight to the death defending Dori and her wargang.

At this speech General Kozzak looks more closely at Geran, and his grin broadens. "Hoom! We have heard of you, little morsel, you and your friends." He stops and thinks for a while, and then waves a hand at three of his uzko warriors. They walk menacingly over to Geran.

"We didn't come huntin' 'oomanz tonight, did we boyz?" asks the General. "No! We came a-huntin' stumpies, and it's stumpies mum wants for tea!" The uz warriors murmer their assent, clicking and hooting happily. Turning once more to Geran, General Kozzak says "Bostok and his boyz" (the three uzko near Geran glower) "will guard you across my domain, as far as the central bridge." (Their shoulders slump with disappointment.)

With that decided, General Kozzak orders his gang to move out. As they sidle off into the darkness the General reins in his spider and turns for the last time to Geran. "If you live, come to Mazor territory - bring me drink and food."

Geran swallows and lets out a sigh of relief, hoping no one notices and raises his hand to salute Kazzok. "I'll bring good eating, and enough drink to swim in." He grins and winks at Hrolf before he turns to Bozzok, very pleased with himself. "Let's go, boyz" he says as if they were his to command. "Little Dori will like you." Saying so he quickly heads towards the rest of the legion and let's out terrific howl to announce his approach, and if it startles some of them, so much the better. He swaggers up to Dorinda. "Good Uz, follow us to bridge."

Dori nods. "That'll help. Good work, Geran: if they fight like you do, I'd far rather have them as allies than enemies."

Aelfwyrd’s expression sours as the huge lead plated Uz returns with yet more of his kin. Biting his tongue the Kargani glares at the newcomers in silence. Dori glances across at Aelfwyrd with some sympathy, but he does seem to have himself under control. And then she looks for Sukar, to tell her that they have an escort.

16 - Into New Pavis

The uzko escort the company as far as the central bridge. There they dismiss the gang of uz guards with a few short words, and the Cradle Riders are free to cross. There are no fond farewells as the company presses on into Manside.

Before long Sukar leads them away from the road and through a series of ruined streets. She doubles back and forth for a while until confident that everyone is fairly disoriented, and then bids the heroes enter the shell of a building. Sukar stamps on the floor three times and is rewarded by a section of the floor swinging down to reveal a tunnel. She drops down and conducts a short ritual, placating guardian beings.

The tunnel is long - for half an hour the company walks in torch-lit darkness. They pass several junctions before finally reaching a small chamber. Sukar says that they are now in New Pavis and warns them to beware of the Lunar Patrols they may well expect on the streets. She also warns them against speaking of the tunnel or trying to use it on their own, for the guardians will punish them even for telling others of its existence.

In threes and fours the company is led from the house to a nearby tavern. Outside the city is in uproar. The Lunars appear to be commandering all the carts and mules in the city in readiness to loot the Cradle, whilst city merchants are protesting, and several gangs of roughs are taking full advantage of the fact that the Lunar soldiery are too busy to keep the peace.

The tavern is named Gimpy's, and it is packed with adventurer-types who crowd excitedly around Jarang Bladesong and eleven of his weaponthanes. Several other Cradle Riders can be seen in the crowd proudly holding drinks, and the booze certainly seems to be flowing freely.

Glad to away from the rubble and it denizens the young warrior is glad to be within a warm hospitable tavern for once. It seems like many seasons since Aelfwyrd had heard such sounds of merriment; time before the Legion seems but a distant memory. Yet his spirits soar looking about at the Herewardi and the gathered Cradle Riders; no more indecision, his path now clear. Taking the offered flagon of ale, then another and another, the young Kargani quickly drinks his fill. Amidst the drunken revelry of Gimpy's tavern he tells his friends of the god’s revelations and the cleaving of his kin. Bidding his kin a final goodbye Aelfwyrd drinks himself into a stupor with all those that will join him.

Jarang is working the crowd, exhorting them to follow him in storming the Cradle, and he is receiving a warm reception. When he spies the Herewardi he roars his approval and drinks are quickly pressed into their hands. It appears that their part in the story has been told, and they are made very welcome by the crowd. Jarang embraces each of them in turn and whispers in their ears, "Garrath lives".

Dori simply nods. "I thought so".

Hrolf is aghast at the wild goings on in at Gimpy's, and sticks close to his Ten Thane. "This is no time for drinking and celebration." he says darkly to the other Herewardi. His obvious desire to enjoy the beer does not improve his temper. "When do we strike?" he keeps asking.

Dori is happy to relax for a little while, but as usual, is sticking to water. Does Jarang give any indication of what the plan is, or when we should move?

Looking round, she wonders how many of these group will be fit to fight, when the time comes. Spotting Jamal in the crowd (no doubt he's been mingling, asking after Abul), she edges across towards him. "You don't have the making of that "coffee" drink of yours to hand, do you? I have anidea some of these people are going to need it before we leave".

Jamal has been asking about the fate of those warriors left aboard the cradle. No one saw any durulz being taken from the cradle. There is some speculation that they have taken refuge deep in the cradle, although most think the Lunars have already killed everyone on board. However, Ulf, a Cradle Rider from Pavis, says he saw Abul being escorted back into the city in the entourage of Duke Raus of Rone. Jamal has heard of Duke Raus, of course, exiled from his ancestral lands in Carmania six or seven years ago after some sort of political scandal. He is surprised to find that the Duke not only holds large landholdings along the southern banks of the Zola Fel, but also maintains a large house in Pavis. Jamal appear somewhat mollified by the fact the Abul has not fallen into the clutches of the accursed Anthippus, but seems concerned that he didn't know that such an important countryman is so far from home. Jamal is a little hazy on the details - its been a long time, after all - and he was serving away in Tarsh at the time it happened, but Duke Raus of Rone was banished by the emperor from his holdings in Worion (not to be confused with the Rone in Kostaddi) as a result of a political intrigue. Jamal knows the House of Rone was obedient to the Empire, but infused with a righteous morality and great sense of tradition. All this gives him plenty to be thinking about…

In response to Dorinda’s request, Jamal replies "Yes Waleesha, I have some of the makings for a fine brew." He calls to the local barkeep. "I need a pan, some water to heat, and what else.... sugar of you have it, and what spices do you get in this area, cinnamon, nutmeg or cardomoms would be excellent."

Behind the bar Thorig stares at the foreigner. "We got nothing like that, just good honest beer and hooch - none of your diabolical meldek potions."

Jamal calls for another flagon of ale and sets to work brewing whilst Thorig watches with evident suspicion. Before long Jamal has a good brew going that will refresh a good number of the drunkards present, and fire them up for the fight.

After Aelf has sunk the first five pints or so, Dorinda is perhaps a touch annoyed. All right, so the kid's had a hard time lately, but... So, as he goes for the next refill, she catches his arm. "Aelf, we're likely to be going to avenge your friends in the next few hours. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to be sober, or at least conscious, when that happens? If you're not fit to fight, we won't be waiting for you."

Already the worse for ware Aelfwyrd focuses on his Ten Thane trying (slowly) to explain "Cleaved from my blood I would mourn their passing, celebrate with drink and great story." With a sniff he looks about "Yet, if the Legion means to strike down the sky cancer then I will heed your call; the true path lies with this company of swords." Draining his last tankard he finishes "I will mourn no more once this river runs a crimson tide"

At this Jarang approaches the heroes, having freed himself of the attentions of the crowd. "Those are brave words Aelfwyrd, and I am glad to see you all fit and ready for the fight. Too many have died and too much is at stake for us not to take every advantage of the situation we can. The Lunars are flushed with the complacency of success and eager for their looting. They think the storm vanquished and are not expecting an attack tonight. You can see we have many swords here ready to brave the Moon's spears, and your valour is proved such that we would be honoured by your company."

He moves closer, and his voice drops. The heroes have to struggle to hear him.

"Garrath asked me to pass word should I see you. He goes on a secret path to restore the cradle's magics and would ask for your assistance. I know that your hearts are set on the glory of battle, but Garrath told me to say that this will be just one battle amongst many the Cradle will face. Stripped of its magics it will not survive. Garrath knows that you are skilled walkers of the god-paths and would welcome your support."

Equaly quietly, Dori replies "If that is how Garrath feels we can best aid the Cradle, then that is what we will do. But I know there are many here who wished to find friends left behind when we abandoned ship. If we give you the names of those we seek, will other warriors be able to rescue them on our behalf?"

"Rest assured," says Jarang. "We shall take the Cradle and those who survive inside shall be protected. We know your friends aboard, and we are looking for sword-brethren of our own. They shall be under my protection."

Jamal nods to Jarangs request. "Sometimes what seems the most direct path to glory is but the twisted road of the Deceiver, and the light of divine Idovanus is hidden and less obvious." Jamal genuflects. "The path with Garrath may have less glory, but it seems the truer. I vote this is the path we take"

Vastyr has been sitting quietly smoking his pipe. But now he gets up and heads for the counter for the first time. he talks to the barkeep for a moment and hands over a few silvers. When he returns to the table he's holding a flask in each hand.

Dori eyes him disapprovingly. Will no one stay sober for the fight... "What are those for?"

Vastyr grins, which is not a pretty sight on his face, "What else... This," he says holding up the flasks, " is the Holy Drink of my people. After all, journey to the Otherside is not worthwhile without mead." He starts packing them into his pack.

Jarang nods grimly at Jamal and Dorinda's responses. "Garrath will be glad of your company. When you are ready let me know - a guide is prepared to lead you to him, but it is not a short journey."

Already worse for the ale Aelfwyrd takes a sip of Jamal's foul smelling brew. Pleasantly surprised by its flavour he drinks deeply while listening to the whispered conversation. Nodding his approval he adds "This deed serves the War Ring and our oath well, we shall be victorious, I sense it." Holding his cup out to the Carmanian with a wry smile "Another cup of this foul brew and I'll stand against the Devil himself"

Jamal hands him another cup. "To many of these and you'd be able to fly there." He turns again to Jarang, "Will we need mounts for this trip, or will it be on foot?

Aelfwyrd and Korol, his Grazelander companion look rather sceptical at this talk of mounts. The Kargani says with a look of distaste "Horses are one thing my friend, but have you seen the un-natural beasts these nomads ride?"

Jarang nods. "There are zebras waiting to carry you to Garrath. They should be enough like horses to satisfy you, Korol."

Geran hasn't been paying much attention to what the others have been talking about or done. He has been busy sampling everything edible on offer at Gimpy's, and while the drink was generally pathetically weak, Aelf's strange brew held his interest for a while. However, when the mention of riding comes he looks up with a frown. "Phew, Geran won't ride - horses - nomads - zebras only good for eating."

Stopping his packing Vastyr scans around quickly. And of course Morg has heard Aelfwyrd's remark! "Oh shit," Vastyr mutters as he moves to block his friend, "Morg, go get an ale."

"Boss, you heard what he said! Nobody mocks..." The young man's face is turning red.

"Now, Morg! I'll handle this." With obvious effort Morg turns to the bar, with one last withering glance at Aelfwyrd.

Vastyr on the other hand turns to the Legion's table, "Swordkin, I understand that customs are different but still mocking one another's Customs should not be a part of our way. My friend there," points to Morg, "was a bison rider before he took up the Sword. He doesn't stand for people making fun of his nation." He pauses to look at Aelfwyrd and Korol, "Like he has said nothing about horses, I'd appreciate you not to let YOUR prejudices show."

Sensing trouble Korol looks warily at Morg and then to Vastyr. Aelfwyrd raises his eyebrows and looks searchingly across at Korol. Shrugging his shoulders Aelfwyrd shouts across to the Praxian "Take no heed Morg, we meant nothing by it, come join us for a ale"

Then turning back to Vastyr "All this talk of horses and zebra’s, all told I'd rather march, this beast riding is..." then catching himself with a forced smile "not for me"

"He's right, Aelf,” says Dorinda. ” Those beasts may look strange, but you've been in Pavis before, you know how useful they can be. Different weapons for different jobs: you're the Kargani, you should be the one telling us that!" She smiles at him, taking any sting out of the words. "The zebras are just like horses to ride, they won't be a problem. Some people say they're just horses in bondage."

She turns back to make sure her people are ready: Valens, sipping the last of his wine, raises an ironic eyebrow. And Oddus, quiet as always, is already packing their gear. They exchange glances: the comment "Children!" goes unspoken.

“You speak a truth, for a warrior to draw death from a sword is a powerful gift from Humakt, no other.” Then turning the strange oriental weapon over in his grip the Kargani continues reverently “But walk Kargan’s path and a warrior will sense the terrible death that waits, ever watchful, ever patient in all weapons”

Then looking thoughtfully at the Herewardi “Kargan teaches little about beast of burden, yet trained for battle they become weapons themselves. There is a truth here but I cannot grasp it”

Jamal looks on rather non-plussed at the disagreement, then shrugs. "We should prepare" he states bluntly. With that, he starts gathering together his belongings, and calling Elnor and Boltar about the coming quest. Elnor, used to the legions antics quietly sets about preparing herself.

Meanwhile, Boltar seems more confused "Well Bull Brother, I join you for a fight, and we end up chasing after Garrath to wipe his behind for him. If you lead I will follow, but let me finish my ale first."

17 - A Dangerous Venture

[transition text needed here]
“... After Humakt had got Death back from Styx there were only two more pieces left. Orlanth had one and the Bright Emperor had the other. Humakt thought it too soon to face Orlanth, for he had lost impatience on his journey, so he decided to face the Emperor first.

However, he did not know where Yelm could be found. People told him the Emperor had fled to the Underworld, but that was a large realm largely unknown to Humakt. However, during his time in the Deeper Darks of Hell, he met and journeyed for a time with a cunning warrior named Elkozi, and while the two had many differences, an unlikely friendship formed. This is all told in the story of How Humakt Beat Zorak Zoran. Humakt thought it likely that Elkozi might know where the Emperor was.

When Humakt found Elkozi the warrior gnashed his teeth. "This Bad King came here and caused much hurt," he said, and showed Humakt the scars from his battles. "If you will banish him, then I will tell you how to find him." Humakt said that he did not see how he would banish Yelm but promised to try. Elkozi said that was good enough for him, and showed Humakt the secret of finding Yelm. Humakt thanked him and went on alone to face the Emperor.

This was an easier road that he might have expected, yet when he confronted Yelm the Emperor refused to yield Death to him. The Bright Emperor was no longer bright, but stared at the Death God with angry blind eyes.

"I suffer through the mis-deeds of another," said Yelm. "I will cling to my suffering and curse his people until he crawls to me begging forgiveness."

Humakt heard the Emperor's words and understood the demand for justice. He vowed to bring Orlanth before Yelm himself, and offered the Emperor the luxury of his own halls whilst he waited. The Emperor recognised Humakt's honour and accepted this oath. He removed himself to the Halls of the Dead where he sat as Lord in Humakt's absence.

Humakt found Orlanth and said, "Your betrayal brought anguish, darkness and chaos in to the world, and you must make reparations for your actions as I have done." With one blow of his sword he sent Orlanth to the Western Gates.

Orlanth then underwent his terrible Lightbringer quest. Several times Humakt tested his worthiness, such as when he challenged Orlanth's right to enter Hell. When he faced Yelm in the Halls of the Dead, Humakt was his judge. Finally Yelm accepted Orlanth's atonement, and Humakt accepted Orlanth's honour and worthiness to rule, so long as he never allowed Death to be mis-used again.”

The Unteachings

Sukar guides the heroes back through the tunnel into the Rubble, yet they emerge from a different exit, closer to the city walls. Here zebras are waiting to carry them to Garrath. A hard ride in the moon-lit night leads them through Manside, slipping between the Real City and Oldtown and heading for the Twin Hills. She leads them towards the western hill, which rises one hundred metres sheer into the air and is topped by smooth stone walls that glow a dull red in the moon-light.

A narrow path circles up to the summit, where the rough and ruined gates are guarded by a handfull of tough-looking fighters. Within, perhaps one hundred people are gathered about, working hard. They are building, cleaning, painting, crafting masks, tuning drums, building bonfires. Several godi walk the perimeter of the fort chanting, burning herbs and spilling mead. The ruined fort is a hive of activity, and it is clear that a major effort is underway, but to what purpose?

At the centre of it all is Garrath, happily sawing a piece of lumber, whilst an imposing godi dressed in ceremonial furs shouts bad-tempered instructions at those working. Garrath looks up and smiles at the heroes' arrival, spilling nails across the ground. "I knew you'd come!" he says excitedly. "See, Kulthar? I said they'd come!"

The godi peers at him with disdain. "One can still be right for the wrong reasons, idiot. All this shows is that they're as mutton-headed as you are." He looks disapprovingly at the assembled heroes for a moment. They see he is an old man, but of bright eye and clear purpose. "Come Sukar," he says eventually. "If I am to conduct a ritual I'll need a back-rub first." The scout slips from her zebra, links her arm through his, and they leave for somewhere more private.

Garrath is putting down his tools and gesturing about him. "What do you think? From here we shall launch the strike that will send the empire reeling!"

A distant "Hah!" can be heard from the departing Kulthar.

"Impressive," Enfrew nods, "except for one thing. Why do you allow this godi to call you idiot?" He asks, looking at the departing Kulthar.

Garrath looks at Enfrew mildly. "Well, sometimes it is a good thing to show respect to those of great wisdom and age by not killing them, which I would surely have to do to shut Kulthar up. Then again, don't think I haven't been tempted. Kulthar is like a father to me - don't make the mistake of thinking this is a freedom I would grant to many others."

Aelfwyrd looks around for a moment, wide eyed at the mass of activity. "You must plan to walk powerful god-paths Garrath for I have not seen preparations such as this since Sacred Time as a boy." Continuing matter-of-factly "The War Ring is forged in blood and iron, we stand together still. Tell us this plan."

Garrath scratches his head. "Plan. Yes." He turns to watch Kulthar and Sukar walking away. "Well, soon Kulthar will conduct a rite bringing the Heler winds - much rain will fall. The river will rise, and with it the Cradle. Jarang will lead an assault and take the Cradle downriver to Corflu and the Open Ocean. By then we will have ventured onto the Heropaths and returned with Pinchining, who was driven from this world by Lunar magics. Pinchining will awaken the Cradle's defences, and our adventure will be over."

He scratches his head again. "How does this plan strike you?"

Geran bursts out laughing, his deep voice rolling like thunder echoing off the walls of the hideout. "Good plan, easy. Bring rain..." He gasps for breath and between guffaws continues, "Get Ping..." The poor Uz doubles up unable to go on, then slaps Garrath with a hamfist on his back as tears stream down his face. Kogad looks on with a disaproving look in her eyes, while his other followers grin without understanding much.

Boltar looks distinctly unimpressed at the work being done around him, "I came here to fight lunars, not saw wood and put up huts..." But Jamal raises his hand to silence him as Garrath speaks. When Boltar has finished he replies, "Getting the cradle moving is a good start. It will at least prevent those looting hyenas from stripping it bare. But this weather working is beyond me, and I suspect most of the legion, what role are we to play in the coming event, and what hero path are we to take to rediscover Pinchining ? From our previous meeting, be seems to transcend most myths, either theistic or draconic."

Vastyr looks around at the milling herd of men. He recognises some features of Orlanthi rituals from his boyhood, but that was long ago and they have no meaning for him anymore. He sets his pack down on the dirt and moves Slithering Bane to a better position on his hip. He figures Garrath is expecting a fair amount of fighting on this well defined Quest of his. Not much sense having this many Humakti present otherwise. But Garrath doesn't particularly impress him, perhaps his deeds have been exaggerated... Being a man not taken to commiting himself lightly, Vastyr decides to give him a benefit of the doubt and wait until the first battle to measure Garrath's hero light. Vastyr looks around to find a less busy corner and prepare for the fight by the time honoured tradition of a sip or two of mead and taking a nap.

"When do we leave?" replies Hrolf, confused and somewhat the worse for wear after so much travel, "And what do you need Humakti for? Didn't Pinchining say someting about the Green Age?"

"And there's the rub," says Garrath. "Pinchining is a creature beyond our knowledge. The heropaths to the Green Age are tangled and inaccessible, nor do we know where the Lunars have banished him."

He scratches his nose and frowns. "A Lightbringer Quest is the obvious way to bring our lost ally back. What a Golden Wheel Dancer is the stories do not say, but, as Kulthar has pointed out, Pinchining is a spinning golden disc and that sounds much like Yelm the Bright Emperor. It could be the Golden Wheel Dancers were Golden Age Solar beings, perhaps. A Lightbringer Quest is a dangerous undertaking, but if it were to retrieve an ally that could be identified with Yelm it may have a greater chance of success."

"A Lightbringer Quest may seem no business of Humakt's, yet I know different. You see me now as one devoted to Orlanth Adventurous, yet you should know that I too have kissed the Sword and tasted the Blood." Garrath is refering to the lesser mysteries of Humakt known to lay worshippers. "I have heard some of the stories not meant for everyone, and I know that it was Humakt who told Orlanth how to find Yelm in Hell. How he knew this I do not know, but I think that you might. If you can find where Pinchining is, then I can lead my companions to bring him back to the world."

Dori considers this. "You're right, there are myths that tell how Humakt did this. And under these circumstances... hmm, maybe the fates are with us on this one. I think we'll have to do a sub-quest first, though: maybe more than one. Let me check with my companions: some may know myths that will aid us."

And she turns back to the rest of the group, taking Geran firmly by the elbow and leading him away from the comedian before he does himself an injury.

Once it's only "us": the Legion and friends: "All right, who knows any stories about how Humakt showed Orlanth where Yelm was? In particular, Geran, do you remember the story of how Elkozi showed Humakt the way?"

The reference to Pinchining as a Golden Wheel Dancer makes Aelfwyrd pause. With a thoughtful look on his face he take a seat nearby as the others talk with Garrath. "a darkman, a hag and a dancer..."

The merry Uz eventually calms down enough to consider Dori's question. He listens for awhile to the others discussing what to do, before he turns to Kogad. They have a short exchange before Geran gestures to his other kin. They stand beside him with drums.He gives a bark to get everyone's attention and speaks.

"Listen to the story of how Elkozi helped the Sword God. Listen to the story of how Elkozi showed Death the way through Darkness. Listen to the story of how Elkozi led Honour to the Hag." Geran tells the old myth in something between singing and recitation, his voice accompanied by the drums, hand claps and some singing from the other uz. He struggles a little with the language, it is apparent he doesn't usually tell this tale in anything except Darktounge and he frowns occasionally as he hesitates over a word or concept.

One night Humakt found Elkozi and said "I hear the Hurt King has done bad things to your kin. Let's go and raid him, for he has something of mine I want back." Elkozi had seen Humakt fight Zorak Zoran, and thought that this was a fine idea. If Humakt could drive off the Hurt King, then everything in Wonderhome would be wonderful again! Elkozi did not know where the Hurt King was hidden, for he had made everything in Wonderhome wrong and Elkozi did not know his way around anymore, but the brave warrior knew someone who would. The Dark Hell Hag knew all secrets, and although she was very scary Elkozi thought she would be the best person to ask.

But Humakt looked doubtful. "The Dark Hell Hag is no friend of mine, and I don't think she will help me." Still, there was nothing for it but to ask, so the two companions set off. As they got close to the Dark Hell Hag's lair, Humakt could not go on, for the puny God was blind in the Dark. Elkozi played some tricks on him that were very amusing, such as creeping up and shouting loudly, and making rude gestures he couldn't see. After a few days of this Elkozi got bored though, and then led Humakt towards the Dark Hell Hag's place. It was difficult to find, and the way was long and arduous for the Hurt King twisted Wonderhome so that it didn't feel right anymore. Many things that had been darso or engoso had become orso, klo'oso or even neso the way was wrong, and difficult to sense, and frightening enemies harried them on their way.

Finally, clever Elkozi found the Dark Hell Hag's place in the nameless depths. It was dark, forbidding and cold in the dark cavern of the Hell Hag, swirling spirits screamed voicelessly and shouted at them from the pits of oblivion, soft shapes moved through them chilling even their hearts to ice. Every muscle in the companions' bodies screamed at them to flee, yet they pressed on into the Dark until they came upon the innermost lair of the Dark Hell Hag.

She said, "You are foolish to come here Humakt for I have a grudge with you, Stealer of Secrets." As she spoke, Elkozi and Humakt could sense the malignant spirits of Fear and Darkness that flowed out to surround them, and they shuddered.

Elkozi explained that Humakt and he needed to know where the Hurt King had hidden, so they could drive him out of Wonderhome and make it wonderful again.

The Dark Hell Hag said, "I have a quarrel with you, Humakt, yet you come into my cave seeking gifts where you once stole. Why should I help you now, why should I not keep you here as my toy?"

Humakt said, "Your grudge against me is over an old thing. I am here to fight the Hurt King and drive him far from your realm."

She thought for a while and then said, "Play the Sticks and Stones game with me, and if you lose then you must return the Stolen Power. If I lose I will tell you where the Hurt King is and you may leave here unmolested."

This was done and Humakt won, and although the Dark Hell Hag gnashed her teeth in frustration she gave them a Theli to guide them to the Hurt King. How the two companions raided the Hurt King is another story that is not for outsiders.

After the final drum beat Geran turns back to Dori "This is dangerous -the Hag is very very angry and terrible. Do not go near her."

Jamal listens intently to Gerans story, rather concerned. "Ah" he says "dark men, or worse women again". He does not seem to relish the prospect. Boltar seems rather happier and slaps his leader on the shoulder "Ha, strength man, we shall drive back all before us. Then maybe we can get back to some real combat!"

On hearing Geran bark Aelfwyrd turns and begins to scowl, how could such a beast know truth let alone a hidden myth to walk the god-paths? As soon as the Uz begins his halting story the young Kargani regards Geran with obvious disbelief. Quickly his scowl fades and is replaced with wide eyed concentration as the tale of the Hag is told. When it has ended Aelfwyrd walks over to Geran with a distant look in his eye. Leaning back to catch the gaze of the towering Uz he murmurs reverently.

"The darkman, the hag and the dancer...." and regarding the towering Uz thoughtfully for a long few seconds before driving his strange oriental blade into the dirty. Extending his sword arm in friendship he continues, "Kargan has joined our fates; we shall walk this path together"

The huge Uz looks at Aelf and his proffered hand, face unreadable. Then with great respect he accepts the offer and carefully clasps the other's arm in a warrior's grasp. "We will hunt together, we will kill together, we will eat together, little Kargani", he says in a tone of voice that seems full of ritual. Then he bares his great fangs in a wide grin and whoops loudly as he embraces the warrior in a bear hug almost lifting him off his feet. The other trolls join in the shouting and stamp their feet on the hard ground.

"Kargan has spoken to us both" Geran nods as he releases his new-found friend." His mood changes quickly again as he turns back to Dori, an arm still around Aelf. "Perhaps this is what I came here for, to lead you into the dark and twisting ways to the Hag." He looks less than happy about that prospect, though.

Aelfwyrd is obviously over awed by Geran response but tries hard, and fails, to take it all in his stride. Appearing positive about this sudden change of heart he eyes Geran and then his followers thoughtfully. As the darkman talks of ritual friendship he murmurs his own solemn reply as if repeating a well know verse for the hundredth time. "And those that shed blood with him shall be battle brothers eternal"

This is all going too fast for Hrolf, who has been stunned with awe for their overwhelmingly difficult task since Garrath explained it to him. And now Aelfwyrd in a hug with Geran?! He turns to Dori, "Ten Thane, I don't understand. Pinchining is round and yellow like Yelm, but he is not like the Evil Emperor in other ways. How can we be sure a myth about Yelm will apply here?"

"Normally, we wouldn't, you're right. I know Orlanthi believe their Lightbringers Quest can bring back any dead person, but the link here is pretty tenuous. But this time: oh, this time, it's going to work!" She grins back at him, back in that mood of total confidence, despite the apparently impossible task they've been set.

"Remember I said to Garrath that I thought the fates were with us on this one? Looks like I was more right than I knew. Look, Aelf's been given actual specific orders by Kargan to seek out a darkman, a Hag, and a Dancer. Even the order's right. We have a darkman who knows exactly the right myths arriving to join us: and I don't believe there was any chance in that, either. No, Humakt has this planned. And with him on our side, and even directing our tactics, how can we lose?"

"So we are to face Subere's horrors again," says Hrolf, gloomily recalling the terrible resolve that sustained him in his Humakti initiation. Only this time, there would be no large supporting community or master, and Subere would be closer to her true stature. The portly warrior seems to shrivel as he as the name leaves his lips, but finally he draws himself back up. "It is the path that our Lord walked, and we must follow him. And he has sent us his word as our beacon, and Geran as our guide," Hrolf says, regarding the Uz with new appreciation.

18 - Preparations and Meditations

Aelfwyrd listens to his Ten Thane's orders and turns to mountainous Uz "We must prepare Elkozi" then smiling to himself he turns to leave. Beginning to walk away he murmurs loud enough to be heard by those close by "Every eye will be upon him, and every heart will know his truth. His will be the resurrection, the ascendance that will commence."

Hrolf confers with Dorinda and the other Herewardi, then sets out to meet with representatives of the Riverfolk. He asks Jones to accompany him, acknowledging the Durulz warrior's experience in the Pavis region.

Convincing the river folk is hard, for a heroquest is a dangerous thing even for its supporters. Many who listen to him say that they have done enough to help the cradle and Garrath, and that this venture is too much to ask. But Jones lambasts their cowardice and eventually thirty of the riverfolk agree to support the quest.

However, they don't know the myth that Hrolf and Jones talk of and express their doubts about this. They do understand that outside Subere's cave the questers will face terrible fear, and so they offer to perform the Clarrin Lovers ritual granting them courage at that point in the quest. This remembers the act of the godling Clarrin, a daughter of Zola Fel, who hid away in the drinking vessel of her love. When hard-pressed this mighty warrior drank of her and was invigorated by her devotion.

Hrolf thanks the Riverfolk for their support, “It is true you have already done much to help the Cradle, and your rescue of the warriors during our retreat was most courageous. Your hands are generous and your hearts are firm.”

Hrolf turns to the other denizens of the Rubble, and continues: “Now it is time to use your heads. Think of what will happen if the Lunars hold the Cradle and its infant. In the wooden heart of that cradle lies a seedling of the Green Age, a sprig of hope for us all: would you see it raped by those who consort with chaos? Their foul Lunar magic will grow greater in power; their hold on this land will grow tighter and harder, and their vengeance against old foes will be terrible. Do not think that half-measures will protect you here: the future of your communities is at stake. This I say to you in the name of Humakt the Separator, who holds the truth in his heart, and knows the fate of things that once lost can never be brought back.”

Hrolf lets the weight of his words sink in, then responds to the grumblings of a heckler. “Why fight them at all, you say? Why fight only to suffer and die? Well, let me ask you: Do you think that dying is the worst thing that can happen? Have you not heard of the Bat? Have you not heard the tales of those who lost their souls in slavery to chaos? Do the tales of your gods not tell you how they too suffered, but in suffering became great in who they were? We may die or we may live, but our duty is to see that what comes after us is good and whole, not broken and corrupt. Look into your hearts, and seek the truth of your gods!”

The crowd has grown silent, and Hrolf’s voice falls lower as well. _My comrades and I will soon go to a terrible place _ to the heart of terror itself - to find where the Cradle_s magic has gone. If we fail, we may lose more than our lives. We do not ask you to go with us; we do not ask you to hold a sword, or to spill your own blood. We ask only that you help us however you can, with whatever blessings you have.”

“What say you now - do you choose today for slavery, or for freedom?”

The Rubble folk consider Hrolf's speech carefully, and there is a short discussion amongst their leaders. "It is no small thing you ask, stranger, to give you our lives whilst you walk the hidden paths. Gorful says that not only will he not do it, neither should any other. However, what you have said is right and we shall support you if we can. We do not know your stories, stranger, and this makes it harder for us to help you, but there is a story of our people we can tell you.

"I am Undir, and I am a storyteller of my people," he chants ritually. "Long ago, so long ago years and time have no meaning, a great warrior came to the people. He wore fearsome armor carved from a single plate of bronze, a dead raven spread its wings to adorn his left shoulder, and wolf's head was his helm. His hair flashed red as though drenched in blood, his voice was heavy and sombre like stone, and he bore a single, terrible weapon that caused those who saw it to tremble in fear. The Lord Threic saw these things and was ill at ease, and his warriors stood ready to defend the people, but invited in the stranger to feast and rest after his journey.

"At that time there was a great evil, for although many had died their souls did not go to their appointed place. Angrily the dead walked the night and made trouble for their kin. The fearsome warrior said to King Threic, 'I will remove this curse that troubles you, but I will then ask a favour in return. Worry not about about your dead kin's souls, for through me they shall find their proper place.' When night came he gathered his arms and ventured out, summoning the dead to him. As each came he touched it with his weapon, and the dead souls became one with the stranger's sword. In this way he removed the curse of Threic's people, who were grateful.

"Then the warrior said, 'I am looking for the path to the lands of Darkness, and I have been told you know the beginning of this trail.' He said this for our people were known for having good relations with all their neighbours, including those under the world. King Threic was happy at this request, but when he heard of the warriors mission feared for his safety. The people led him to the cave that led to the Underworld and the warrior was not seen again."

Hrolf has not heard this story in so much detail before, but in Humakt's Great Story it is said that the Bat people led him to the underworld after he sent their deads’ souls from the world. Perhaps these are descendents of the Bat people?

Undir says, "We have thought about this story for a long time, and nowadays we think the stranger was the one you call Humakt. Our people first showed him the way to the underworld, so although Gorful is worried I think he is wrong. If we can lend you this help we should, because in that way we fulfil the deeds of our ancestors and Good King Threic, and we become stronger by doing so. We have talked about this, and we will bring people to guide you to the hidden path that leads to the underworld."

Upon his return, Hrolf seeks out his Uz comrade. "Geran, if you think I can help you get Uz support for our quest, I am happy to do so. But I fear my words would do more harm than good ..."

"Hoom. You good hooman Hrolf, but this time I must speak alone. Speak Uz things." Geran pounds Hrolf on the back in a friendly manner with a large slab of a hand and proceeds to gather his troops. He looks over at Aelf for a moment, but comes to his senses and leaves to look for Kozzak of the Mazar clan. He'll explain the situation and the need to stop the Lunars.

Jamal prepares himself for the comming quest. Most of the myths of his sword brothers are beyond his Carmanian understanding, so he makes sacrifice to his Lord Bisos to seek guidance from bright Idovanus in this matter. As a result of his prayers Jamal feels the blessing of Idovanus' Truth radiate through him, and knows he carries his God's favour in this venture. He understands what it is his companions wish to achieve, and knows how to assist them enter the heroplane.

Meanwhile General Kozzag has received Geran's message and replied by sending a troop of Uz warriors, all followers of Karrg. These thirty warriors will aid Geram tell the sacred stories, and will drum and dance during the ritual.

During a break in the preparations, Hrolf ruminated on the prospect of facing Subere. His face was pale and sickly, and he had not been eating the food provided by Garrath's people. Subere had only been a background figure during his initiation tests as a young warrior, but even so the trials were known to turn back many initiates, and to drive others mad. For every warrior carried with him the demons born in his own heart, and in the Darkness That Had Never Known Light these horrors were free to play. It was no accident that Eurmal had chosen Humakt to accompany and protect him instead of his more blustery brothers. None of the others had had the courage and perseverance to overcome Kargan Tor. For it had been the implacable drive that had enabled him to best the until-then undefeated master that had sustained Humakt during his journey through Subere's realm, Hrolf pondered. A strange, unyielding will unknown to the other Sons of Storm: the will to see Truth as it was even when its name was gouged in the warrior's own flesh.

Fighting back the urge to vomit, Hrolf tore his eyes away form the cooking fire, where they fell upon the little clearing where Aelfwyrd and his students were yet again practicing their sword-dances. Incoherent images flashed before his eyes. Subere. The horrible Lunar Bat. Kargan Tor. Aelfwyrd. The raw ambition and bloodlust of the Far Point warrior made Hrolf uncomfortable; he dared not give himself fully to fiery rage Humakt could bestow, and clung to the grim but reassuring precepts of truth and honour. Had he not left his clan and become an outlaw to defend this honour? Had he not given up the love of his parents and siblings ... maybe forever? Surely he had not acted out of pride when he chose to follow Grimbeak against his clan's wishes. The Herani had been weak in agreeing to the Lunar taxes, and had failed the test of courage that the Durulz had passed. This must be so, for Humakt had seen his actions and judged them, and his swords were still whole. And yet ... why had his Lord sent him before the Bat People? Why this reminder of terror before a journey into the heart of terror itself?

Hrolf looked around the campfire again and saw that most of his comrades had wandered off; only Jamal remained, rummaging through his bags for remnants of his bracing Carmanian potion. A strange one, this Carmanian noble, and not Humakti. But as a follower of Hereward, he was a brother in truth and his actions had proven his righteousness time and again. Hrolf gathered his courage and spoke: "Jamal - brother in Truth. Humakt tests me; he has sent the sign of terror before me, and I fear the shadows in my heart. Will you hear my tale and cast the light of truth upon it?"

Jamal looks up at Hrolf’s request, since receiving his revelation about the coming Quest, he seems much more at ease. It least this undertaking is not tainted with the lie, and his place in Solace seems secure.

"Of course friend Hrolf, tell me you tale, for are not such tales a window on to the mind of the divine. I will shed what light I can upon your shadow...."

Hrolf smiled inwardly at the Carmanian's strange reply, then began his tale. The main outlines were already well known to Jamal: Hrolf had been initiated to Humakt under a mentor from the neighbouring Thunder Ducks, Grimbeak Deathblade. When the Lunars came, his native Herani buckled under the pressure and agreed to pay their taxes, while the Durulz resisted. Eventually a few craven Herani led by Angtyr, the chieftain’s son, tried to capture Grimbeak and deliver him to the Lunars for a reward. In this telling, however, Hrolf expands on the details.

"I have always said that I cut my kin ties because of the Herani's dishonourable behaviour, but now I wonder ... When I was a child among the Herani I was known as Hrolf the Gulper, for I was a slave to my appetite." Involuntarily he looks down at his still-ample belly. "It is true they were dishonourable; while barely fulfilling the letter of Heort's laws, they were infamous for their cunning. The clan had long since lost its Humakti. But I wonder if the real reason I severed my ties was because I was treated as the runt. I failed all the early initiations, and in shame my family sent me to the Thunder Ducks, thinking that maybe one of their god talkers could guide me. Some of my clan-mates predicted that I would be called to Eurmal; Angtyr even sang a poem about it which circulated among the steads for weeks!

Finally Grimbeak announced I had been called to Humakt. This brought my kin and clan into uproar, for they always claimed Humakti were crazy and dangerous - and of course they secretly feared them. This was too great a fate for them to accept for the clan's fattest, clumsiest, least-loved son. As the date of my initiation approached, my family tried to persuade me to come back, but I had found a place where I could win respect and even glory. This is what they claimed made Angtyr try to capture Grimbeak; they said the Thunder Ducks had kidnapped me, so they needed their own hostage. That's what they said. Of course it also helped that the Red Men had put a 30-cow reward on Grimbeak's head.

"Angtyr," Hrolf sighs, his voice laced with bitterness. "He was always the clan's fair-haired son. And since he was my age-mate, they were always comparing us." With a sidelong glance he looks at Jamal. "If the Lunars hadn't outlawed Orlanth by then I'm sure he would have been a Finovani glory hound."

Hrolf stares into the fire now, his voice suddenly cold and matter-of-fact. "Of course I wanted him dead. As I saw it, he had driven me out of the clan and *forced* me to sever my kin-ties. Because I blamed my failed initiations on him. And he had actually sabotaged at least one of my tests. ... ... ... Anyway when he went after Grimbeak I had the perfect excuse. All it took was preparation ... and long, patient training under the greatest swordsman in the Duck fens." Once again Hrolf looks at Jamal, and his eyes burn like coals with the memory.

"I stalked him for weeks, waiting for a chance to get him away from his clan, for by then I was already an outlaw and they surely would have killed me on sight. I finally caught him during a hunt. We had a proper duel, with his friends and my band of Durulz as witnesses." Hrolf swallows and pauses, the fury caught in his throat.

"I don't remember a thing. Afterwards, there was no body. Just ... blood. Everywhere. And pieces of armour and clothing. Only Blackbeak would look me in the eye after that." Hrolf looks up from the ground, where he had been stabbing a stick into the dirt. There is terror in his eyes. "Tell me, Jamal, was it Humakt in me that day, or some vile god of vengeance: Urain, ... or Ikadz? And if it was Humakt," Hrolf's voice breaks, "tell me how I can face that again. Because to meet Subere and survive, we will have to know ... and be ... Humakt in all his terrible ... glory."

Jamal ponders Hrolf’s revelations. "From what I understand of the myths of Sir Humakt, to be motivated solely by vengeance is not to be considered holy, but I can only really comment as I am taught by my culture."

He settles back on the ground as he continues. "A man is not wholly light or wholly dark, within each mans soul is the possibility for great acts of altruism, and great atrocities. To follow only the path of light or of dark is to unbalance the soul and fall from the true path. The Lunars say that through the cyclical nature of the read whore, that light and dark are kept in balance. Thus they have bewitched my countrymen. I say that this is heresy of the worst kind, and it is the duty of the righteous constantly and rigidly maintain this balance.

“However, there is noting intrinsically wrong with following the path of dark act as long as they are balanced within your soul with light. Also you must ask yourself whether these dark act where perverted and tainted by the lie. For vengeance taken cleanly and with righteousness will only strengthen the soul, but if it is perverted by deceit, then that way lies the path of damnation"

He shrugs. "You may not find these words comforting, they are not intended to be, but examine your heart friend Hrolf, and look to see if there is the rotten worm of deceit in you earlier actions. If they is none, they you may walk with your head held high amongst the righteous. If you find the worm, then it would be best you atone now before we begin."

Hrolf listens to carefully to Jamal’s words. He has heard the Carmanian speak of light and darkness, Idovanus, and lying and deception many times before, but for the first time he seems to be taking the concepts to heart. He is silent for a few moments after Jamal finishes, gazing into the fire.

“I thank you for your advice, Jamal. I do not understand what you mean by light and darkness, but hear that you speak for balance and truth. Perhaps your teachings of light and darkness are like the Sword of Life, as Humakt does not seek to deny life a place in the world, only to put a limit on it.

“I am not sure how these teachings can help me learn whether I left my clan to pursue the path of honour, or simply out of spite. Maybe it was both. Certainly I have sought to act honourably since then. I must admit that I did kill Angtyr out of revenge, although I am certain it was an honourable killing. The power of death in me that day was obliterating. It is a horrible responsibility to wield such a merciless blade: I am in terror for my soul should I have to wield such power again. But with the sign of the bat, Humakt has warned that mortal terror is my fate. As I am his Sword, I must obey._ Hrolf bows his head, then stands. I thank you again for your words of truth. I will go now and see that my edge is keen and straight.”

Hrolf walks to a quiet spot in the camp to perform his purification and prayer rituals, beginning with a sword dance. When he is almost finished, he intones a final prayer: “Oh great Humakt, terrible swift sword, cut away my defects and purify me so that I my be your loyal servant. I still fear the hard steel of your blade, but as a sign of devotion I sever my beard and hair, and paint the death rune on my face in my own blood.”

19 - The Rite Begins

Finally the heroes' preparations are complete. The Riverfolk are conducting their ritual in the waters of the Zola Fel. Kozzag's thirty Karrgish warriors drum complex beats on their drum skins, and tell the story of how Elkozi defeated Zorak Zoran, and how Elkozi and Humakt ventured to Subere's cave. They daub Geran with warrior marks and sing his praises. Sixty of the Bat Folk begin to tell the stories of their people, their god-talkers mark out the six directions by urinating, and they chirp in the secret language of their ancestors. Aelfwyrd is ritually prepapred and armed as Humakt himself.

Around all of this activity in the hill fort fires burn, and people assist Garrath to prepare for his own quest. Kulthar appears dressed in awe-inspiring splendour as a priest of Orlanth, and from behind his terrible mask orders and curses fly around the camp.

The Bat People begin their ritual.

Aelfwyrd exposes the tattoo of a dead raven adorning his left shoulder and has found a wolf's head to put on his helm, borrowed from one of Garrath's weaponthanes. His dyed hair flashes red as though drenched in blood, his voice is heavy and sombre like stone, and he bears a single, terrible Sword that causes those who see it to tremble in fear. The warriors of the Bat People see his approach and stand ready to defend their people, yet their chief invites Aelfwyrd to share their feast.

The Bat People bring meat, cheese and ale, and whilst they eat Aelfwyrd to the chief, 'I will remove this curse that troubles you, but I will then ask a favour in return. Worry not about about your dead kin's souls, for through me they shall find their proper place.'

Then he gathers his arms and ventures beyond the circle made by the Bat People, and he challenges the Dead.

A chill settles on those supporting the ceremony, and they see several thin, ethereal figures waft through the twilight. They wear the clothes of a long vanished people, and their visages are torn and ravaged by unknown horrors. They are terrible to see. The first has the form of a young woman, horribly mutilated. She reaches out to Aelfwyrd and pleads with him to show her mercy. Her words have a soothing efect on him, the warrior wishes to comfort and caress her.

"You shall have Humakt's peace, and his halls shall be your home," Hrolf solemnly intones.

Jamal prays to his Lord Bisos to clear Aelfs mind of temptation and to see through the ghostly spirits enchantments.

Geran looks at the pitiful whisp of a ghost - human ghosts are weak he thinks and shudders when he thinks what they will meet soon. He pauses for a cold heartbeat wondering what to do, then in his low voice, barely audible he sings. He shows Humakt how to stand between the foe and the living, how to defend the family.

Malan intones the rites of the Lay Ghost feat.

Fortified by the support of his comrades, Aelfwyrd decisively strikes the mutilated woman with his sword. The ghost wails forlornly as her essence is absorbed by the holy weapon. More of the dead press forward, and Aelfwyrd releases each from their torment. The Bat People rejoice, and lead the warriors in a spiral down the side of the hill to a cave. "Here," they say, "is the path to the one you seek."

The Bat People say, "from here you must go on alone." The heroes enter the cave, and they see that it seems to have no end, but stretches away before them like a tunnel. The cave is dark beyond blackness, and although Geran and the Humakti have their own ways of seeing, Jamal is left blind, guided along by them.

A blood-red death rune painted on his face, Hrolf stares into the darkness of the tunnel. He has accepted his lord's challenge, and his expression is determined. "Grim Humakt, hear our prayers now, and show us the way", he intones hoarsely.

The tunnel reaches far, far down into the earth. How long they walk for is unclear, but it seems to take days. At last, where it widens into a larger cavern, the heroes sense signs of life ahead. There is the noise of feasting and preparation for war.

At the entrance to the cavern the heroes are challenged by a guard. Beyond him a feast-hall ranges - mighty Uz warriors feast and sing, whilst a great Lord watches over them with pride, polishing his maces with a minor godling of darkness. "This is Karrg's Guardpost," says the guard Uz, "and it is not a place for everyone. Who are these people who come before him? Are they friends or food?"

Elkozi shoulders brusquely to the front and looks at the guard, an amused smile reveals his lead-tipped fangs. "Hoom, I am Elkozi, my mother is Kyger Litor's favoured daughter Nantala, my sister whispers advice to Ezkankekko in his sleep. I come to seek the deep caverns." He turns and pulls Humakt to his side. "This is the Sword God, the Death, The End that hoomans call Humakt. He is not food."

The guard acknowledges the right of Elkozi and Humakt to seek an audience with the Lord Karrg. They are noble, not food, and he bows low as the heroes are admitted into Karrg's Guardpost. There is time spent in feasting and friendly boasting whilst waiting for an audience - this is a great company of warriors who honour the heroes as the worthies they are. Finally they are ushered before the great Defender Lord. He grins toothily at Humakt - Aelfwyrd feels an odd sensation, prickles on his neck as though he were judged by Night itself. Elkozi asks to be shown the way to the Gods War, the time when the Hurt King came to Wonderhome. Karrg snarls his displeasure at the memory, but then nods sombrely and points to a tunnel-mouth covered by furs and rags. The brave adventurers take their leave of the feasting warriors, and advance into the terrible darkness beyond.

20 - Wonderhome

Everything is wrong. Humakt cannot see for the absolute darkness blinds him. Elkozi cannot sense the world, for there is pain in wonderhome. To Elkozi the darkness is not absolute, but tainted. There is fear, horror, and the remnants of disgusting brightness. Bewildered and helpless the heroes stumble, hands reached out before them, trying to feel their way. There is a low howl, a sense of enemies flocking, but how near is hard to tell - even sound is warped in this place.

As the Herewardi enter the darkness, Hrolf reminds himself of his lord's myths. Humakt had to brave the darkness to find Death. If the darkness was full of dread, it was because it held something even more terrible; something that Humakt would make his own, and which would in turn take him as well. Hrolf concentrates on the runes of Truth and Death, letting his lord's fell purpose fill him, knowing that he is as dangerous to the denizens of darkness as they are to him, and relying on his sense of death to warn him of any attacks. Now to find Subere's cave…

Elkozi growls angrily. To see Wonderhome tainted by the Hurt King this way, the comforting darkness poisoned by painful brightness - it is almost more than can be endured. But untainted Darkness waits and Uz endures for the night when the Pain King is eaten. The Troll hero reaches out with his senses, letting the sound caress the walls of the tunnels and caverns, searching for the way to the Night Hag.

Dori grips her sword tightly, trying to keep her fear under control. This is so like that other time, deep under the Plateau all those years ago. Then, they had driven back the darkness with the Light of their swords: and this sword, in particular. And they had died, one by one... No. This time, she had to do it the hard way, in the Darkness. She starts concentrating on what the wind is telling her, trying to sense any enemies nearby and any attacks coming their way.

Jamal barks to the others. "Draw to a circle, then we will face only enemies" as he back to his comrades and draws Bull Spike. As he doe this he mutters his name over and over in a low but audible voice. While doing this he tries to aid Gerans vision by calling on Hereward to send him the Truth on the Wind.

Reaching out with his senses, Elkozi feels tormented Wonderhome around him. It is hard, hard to feel his way, but the brave warrior presses on with determination, ignoring the weird and frightening noises of the Darkness. By his side Humakt aids as he can by listening, and talking to the minor spirits of air that are but lost wisps and drafts in this place.

After a long, long time Elkozi is beginning to feel that perhaps he has misled and lost himself. Things are not as they should be. It is darker than ever, and fearsome sounds snap at the heroes' heels like angry dogs. Suddenly there is silence, and the warriors are all alone.

Bewildered by the tormented landscape, Elkozi reaches inside himself. "This is the Heroquest Moment," he says, "the Testing Time." Ignoring the world around him, Elkozi instead remembers things as they should be. With this knowledge he finds that he knows the way to the Hell Hag's cave. Yet before he can share this knowledge, Humakt speaks suddenly sudden of danger, of movement. There are enemies here, and close! A frenzy of hate and teeth is upon the companions, so savage they stagger.

"CIRCLE, NOW!" The Uz hero shouts into the dark as he swings his heavy mace in frenzied defence of his his friends. He counters the terrors of the dark with his own and his deep voice calls on hidden demons and spirits bound to his will. In an almost manic screeching he leaps back to the other defenders to take his place in a defenders' ring and attempts to crush the faint shadows-in-shadows. "For Humakt!" cries Hrolf, and his voice rings in the darkness.

Blinded in the darkness, and knowing Humakt's Deathlight cannot help them here, Dori falls into line with her companions, sending Hereward's Winds out against the unseen foe. Her sword and those of her followers weave a web of death before them through which no enemy, seen or unseen, can pass.

Softly murmuring his battle prayers, Aelfwyrd steps back to take his part in the defensive circle. Closing his eyes the Kargani reaches out to the essence of the dragon blade as he turns it in his grip. As they close his final prayer is over, the fury takes him… Aelfwyrd is silent and motionless in the inky darkness. Turning the strange draconic blade over and over in his grip he contemplates this hellish journey and the *truth* to be found in walking such as path.

The darkman, the hag and the dancer...

Then with an unearthly scream they tear out of the darkness, Elkozi warns us but they are too fast and too many. Wicked blades cuts and slice, twisting through every parry, biting deep into flesh. We are almost overrun, but we are Humakt and death cannot be beaten so easily. The creatures’ surprise is spent as they crash against his honourable discipline. Great prayers of battle are carried on the wind as his strength of purpose holds them at bay. As the conflict continues death is granted to each hellspawn in turn until none remain.

As the conflict continues the hellspawn are buffeted by Humakt's cold fury; some fall, some die, some flee. It is not too long until none remain. With a final bellow and swipe at the retreating forms Elkozi bends down to inspect a fallen assailant and tears off flesh to eat.

"Haa! Cowards - your mothers are maggots of the Hurt King!" He turns to his companions with a wicked grin "You fight shadows well, friends" he says and winks at Aelf, not realizing they may not be able to see much. With a contended sigh he sits down with his back against a tunnel wall and thinks for a while, trying to remember the way forward. "Down, always down. Down to the Hag, but there is no down here" He mutters in his own tongue to the Darkness, "But if not down, then deeper, and the darkness is deeper that way, I think"

After a while of this he suddenly stands up again and heads off again, without waiting for the others. "This way."

With some satisfaction Aelfwyrd wipes the filthy gore from the blades of his weapon before peering through the darkness at the great lead plated Uz. Rarely does the storm walk with the dark; rather they fight, kill and destroy each other, for they have foes since the beginning. Yet this Elkozi was strange, different from the hateful dark that stalked and raided the Tula. Never had he seen the great virtues in one from the dark tribe.

Snorting out loud Aelfwyrd cleans the remaining blades before jogging off in the direction of the plated Elkozi. Having lost the Uz he whispers into the darkness. "Must this hidden path be *so* difficult to walk, Elkozi?”

The deep voice of the Uz warlord rumbled from the dark ahead, tinged with amusement. "Want me to hold your hand, little one?" Strange snorting noises came from the other Uz that followed him. "I think we must go deeper into the blessed dark, for in the untouched shadows waits the Hag" The amusement from the other trolls quickly abated at this reminder of what lay further in.

Aelfwyrd bristles in the darkness at the derisive snorts from the Uz and reaches for his blade purposefully. Then looking into the inky blackness for Elkozi he smiles and finally laughs out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation. So perhaps Elkozi did not possess all the great virtues but he was the guide and his boon companion, had not the god revealed this? Without the Uz they could not journey to the Hell Hags cave and it was she who knew Aelfwyrd’s truth.

"The North Wind will be sure to ask if it becomes too frightening for him!" Aelfwyrd shouts out to Elkozi jovially before continuing to stumble through the blackness.

Jamal grins into the darkness, at the unlikely double acts bantering. "We should contine talking, just to keep track of the troop. Elkozi, tell us a tale or hum us a tune so we can keep track of you. I think being the strong silent servant of Lord Humakt here will get you lost and separated" With that, he continue trudging forward humming a jaunting Carmanian ditty, about al'Rashoud and the Green Woman of Bindle.

21 - The Hell Hag’s Lair

Elkozi leads on through the impenetrable dark. Distant echoes speak of ancient depths, lost places only the mad know. The stink of light has burned this place, twisted and malformed it, yet the dark has since swept back like an ocean reclaiming its antique floor. Time passes, strange sensations underfoot indicate changes in geography. Sometimes a low chittering betrays another presence, flittering. (Hrolf flinches, an image of swarming bats threatens his calm.)

Darkness is not the absence of light, but also the absence of the possibility of light, the absence of the medium for light. It is not merely the absence of light - darkness is its own thing.

Elkozi feels the chill dark surround him. Less sure of his way now, for this is not a path he has trod before. The Elders and Mothers speak of it, but it lies on treacherous ways lost long ago, and only the desperate or mad attempt it. A false step means doom, and wrong turn disaster, and yet even the right path leads into the heart of fear and darkness. He does not know if he can do this. He is lost again. All around is confusing sameness and distraction. Nearby he can hear a chant begin, of Great Old Mothers who say "this is forbidden young one, to show strangers here. Much him up! Munch him!" Their voices are low and silky, he can feel the sharpness of their teeth. The brave Elkozi cannot help but tremble.

Humakt is not used to such dependence on others, blind and helpless like a newborn child. Yet despite the useless sight of his eyes, Humakt can sense a lurking evil. Malignant, slow and creeping, this is the evil of disease or poison, a dagger in the night or a spear in the back, the pain of a broken shield-wall and disembowelled warriors, slow and dishonourable dying.

Evil is everywhere! It surrounds, cloying and viscous, pulling at shirt and hair. "Feed Me! Feed Me! Hungry and empty, nice precious warm things for food, yes."

Sensing the creeping evil in the blackness Aelfwyrd feels fear rise up from within. Drawing his strange oriental blade the Kargani scans from side to side trying to make out *anything* in the darkness. As his stomach turns he recalls the words that the god spoke to him only days ago...


With a determined look Aelfwyrd strides on trying to locate Elkozi in the blackness. Softly at first the Kargani begins to murmur liturgy dedicated to death, majestic and terrifying. Slowly the murmur becomes a chant, his many bladed sword moving in time with the ritual prayer.

Dori grips her sword tightly, struggling against the insidious fear. Panic would *not* do. She reminds herself firmly: swords are not afraid. They do not have emotions. If there is a problem, you do not fear it, you analyse it, then deal with it. Yeah, right...

Problem: lack of light. In fact, excessive darkness. Lighting it isn't an option, obviously: she can't even see her sword. So... if you can't use your eyes, close them. And listen. To those voices... well, it least it tells her where the enemy is. And where her allies are.

Problem: enemies close by. But not yet hitting her or her band. Fine. Not a problem until they come within range: and then, hit them. We did it just now, we can do it again. Keep it simple.

Any other problems? Nope. All dealt with. We can handle this. We... now, there's a thought. She forces her voice to steady confidence.

"All right, everyone, keep together. Whispers can't hurt us, and we're all in this together. If they had the strength to attack us, they'd have done it by now. Stay close, shield hand on a comrade's shoulder, and there's no way anything can get through our guard. If they attack us, we kill them: if they don't, there's nothing to worry about."

Hrolf hears the voices and feels the malice of the dark, and suspects they are only the milder of Subere's many terrors. He musters his will to give himself fully to Humakt; sightless and almost helpless, he knows the fell purpose of his lord is his only hope once the horror of utter blackness is reached. Like his comrade Aelfwyrd, he begins to recite a holy chant.

Jamal grits his teeth and continues to hum the Ballad of al'Rashoud and the Green Woman of Bindle (it reaching a particularly saucy section). It will take more than a little darkness and some cackling to distract him. He calls on Bisos to clear his mind of these distractions.

Enfrew holds on to his faith and courage, trying desperately not to fall against this ultimate evil. His god is called evil and grim by many, but no, this is the true evil, not stern and disciplined, but always hungry, wrapping it's tentacles of fear around everyone brave or mad enough to approach it. This is the enemy of Humakt and he must do his best to face and defeat it.

Jamal calls of his Lord Bisos to give Humakt the clarity of mind to accept his fate without fear. He also call to Hrolf to resist the deception he feels around him

Elkozi growls unhappily as he cannot shut out the silken whispers of the Mothers. He knows gut wrenching terror awaits at the Maw of the Hag, the place forbidden to all. Yet, he presses on, leading his companions towards eternal torment in Deepest Dark, so different from the comforting dark of Wonderhome. This is the dark of screaming demons, tooth-gnashing horrors, mind-eating oblivion.

"We are here." He says, his usually boastful voice is little more than a squeak as he senses Her presence. Desperately, he seeks something in himself to stand against this. He remembers how he defeated D'Wargon's minion, how he learned at the feet of Kargan Tor and standing against the Zombie King. There was some comfort there for him and he stood straighter prepared to face annihilation. "Begone little spirits, I shall enter here" He began to sing the Song of Comfort, the song against terror.

The fears and Night Terrors that gnaw at the edges of the heroes' awareness flicker and flutter into focus. This is no ordinary place, this den of Horror in the Night Underworld. Even for a brave Uz like Elkozi this place is Dread. For a fearless soul like Humakt, this place holds Doubt. The heroes bolster their confidence, resolving not to appear weak in the others' eyes, and press on, yet their hearts are chill as though with ice, and foreboding fills their veins. In the face of such resolve the circling daemons withdraw, moaning softly, denied their treat. Yet they do not disperse. Rather they shadow the advancing heroes like wolves, perhaps hoping to draw off and devour the weak.

At last Elkozi recognises the path they follow, bone-wrought and paved with dread. It leads into the side of a mountain, a cave darker and blacker than the pitch black underworld night that surrounds them. Before the cave door lie piles of corpses, human, uz and stranger bodies yet, strewn hither and thither.

Yet suddenly not all is dark, for as the heroes near the cave a monstrous figure leaps down from some craggy hiding place above. His visage is terrible to behold, savaged and broken, sword-torn, spear-rent, and weeping with pus and blood. Maggots perforate his skin, and his eyes are but empty sockets, glowing a dull red. Stagnant corpse-breath violates the heroes' nostrils as he roars, revealing bloodied teeth of enchanted lead. Above all, his hair burns with corpse-fire that throws an erie light on all about him, allowing the heroes to see his true horror, the rape and desecration of Life that he is. As this monster, surely a hero of Zorak Zoran, stretches to his full height, his weapon, gory and foul can be seen; the live body of a human child, pierced with shards of lead, that he wields as a club.

The monster grins, and as he raises his free hand, the corpses of the dead that litter Subere's Dread Path are brought, restlessly, complaining, to their feet. With this horde of the dead behind him, the monster opens his mouth and releases a roar that would strike down a mountain in fear. The sound is Undeath, Madness and Despair combined, and it strikes the heroes full force.

Jamal again prays to his Lord Bisos to clear his mind of these distractions. Then in a brazen attempt to bolster the group, and belittle their enemy he calls out. "Impressive tricks, sir, they may scare children, but they are tricks none them less. Begone with you and let the adults pass..."

Hrolf/Humakt looks at the undead troll-thing and recognizes it for the perversion it is. There crouches the other side of the razor's edge that Humakt walks as wielder of Death, the very embodiment of failure, the complete abandonment of honor. For every cut must be bound with oaths; every separation sanctified with purpose. Hrolf/Humakt shivers, then gags and doubles over with apprehension at the fate that awaits him should his honor fail and his will collapse under the weight of the Sword.

But then he remembers his promise to the Bat People and their gift to him. He drinks from their flask, and feels again the Purpose of Death, the holy duty to separate the living from those who have Passed On. The corpse-beast's roar scalds his face, but he grits his teeth in determination. Scorn and righteous anger fortify Hrolf/Humakt's courage: he will persevere to protect the world from the atrocities of False Death. He will not yield to this corruption, though it means he must carry the Great Burden forever and alone.

"Away with you, clutcher of the Little Death! Wither away with the maggot-ridden corpses you defile!"

As they drew near to the end of the path, Dori withdraws into her connection: no, her identity with Humakt. The sword. The cold, hard, unbreakable sword. No emotions. No flaws. Just hard, sharp perfection. To separate light from dark, death from undeath, herself from her emotions. She has left her body behind her, in that petty little world, with all its, she is a sword. Detached, in the most ultimate sense.

Anyone looking at her now would see her sword first, then perhaps notice the woman wielding it. And even then, perhaps not notice that it was a woman.

And then there was light, and a monster, and a sound. Ah, yes. Another thing to be cleansed. And it was trying to use... fear? The sword called Dorinda vaguely remembers that as something that humans felt. Emotions. They had no effect on swords. She/it looks at the monster: the next foe, to be assessed and dealt with.

"Undead and insane: already damaged, reduced to making irrelevant noises. It needs cleansing, and fully separating from Life." Her voice is analytical, detached, cold. For once the phrases "full of iron" and "steely" seem to make literal sense. Just the tone reminds others that they, too, are swords, not weak and fallible humans.

The roar echoes off the walls temporarily fouling Elkozi's Darksense and sending the fear and unnaturalness of undeath like slivers of broken bone into the uz hero's soul. He senses as the floor seems to grow limbs, like a perverted version of life and reach up with gnarled and claw-like hands. Piece by piece they form whole skeletons that join the host behind the slave of the corpse god.

Elkozi stands silently, letting the terror wash over him and taking strength in his devotion to his father. He is the loyal son, the defender of kin and companions and will not allow this enemy deny him entrance here. With a roar of his own he wields his mace to counter the evil magic.

Enfrew sees and recognizes the ugly thing in front of them, and he feels fear, a lot of fear. But he is Humakti, not some coward. He fight to replace the fear with anger. Thoughts of previous meeting with the old enemy flash in his mind. He remembers how proudly they fought and defeated the foe, and how the coward fled through the earth, leaving his companion almost dead. "Go away, coward! We are not here to fight you today, but be sure that we will come back to destroy you forever!"

A nightmarish malevolence crashes upon the young Kargani like some great black ocean. Yet Aelfwyrd is motionless, only a thin smile of recognition as the dark hater roars his challenge.

Despite the hideous appearance of the Hell Hag's Guardian, the heroes are not disturbed. Strong in their souls, the fiend's roars and screams cannot penetrate their courage and resolve. It remonstrates for sometime, defying them, but soon slinks away, defeated. The undead it has raised relax and fall back to the ground, and the path is clear to its mistresses' cave.

The grotesque form of the undead demon slinks away in the shadows and the bones of his minions fall clattering to the cave floor. Unbelieving, Elkozi follows the cowardly retreat of Zorak Zoran, and bursts out laughing, shouting taunts after the shambling creature, further shaming it.

"Hooo, haa! Too dark for you, coward? Go back to your little fire-slave for some comfort." His companions pick up pieces of undead and hurl after him (after taking a bite or two) and bang on the walls with bones to further confuse the demon. "Go back to the hot spear of your slave" They continue on in this way for some time until there is no more sign of the enemy.

Aelfwyrd erupts with laughter at Elzoki's mockery. Leaning against the lead plated Uz he watches the fearsome dark hater retreat into the distance. Eyeing the darkman and his companions Aelfwyrd is suddenly reminded of the importance of this journey. Swiftly regaining his composure the young Kargani takes up his draconic blade once more and gestures ahead, in the direction of the cave. "Come, our truth lies ahead..."

The heroes shrug off the oppressive darkness emanating from the cave's mouth, buoyed by their defeat of the Hell Hag's Guardian. They press bravely forth, through damp traces of slain winds. All around can be heard the moans and cries of those lost whilst trying to delve into secrets and hidden places, yet their sobs affect the heroes not at all.

The cave mouth, rank and ragged with rocks and foul bones, the ground thick with the soft churning bodies of worms and beetles, soon opens into a large, cluttered space. Here, amongst sacks, cobwebs, broken furniture, the hanging remains of strange corpses, locked chests, and a cauldron bubbling over a darkfire, is an ancient figure, stooped and swathed in filthy rags. She stirs the foul brew in the cauldron steadily, her back to the heroes. Nevertheless, she is aware of them.

Pushing down a small, flayed creature struggling to escape the cauldron, she speaks: "If you want to get what you seek you will have to play me for it, yes you will! I don't see why I should help you at all, but some nights I just can't make my mind up. So if you win I'll help you, and if you lose then you have to give me back what you stole. The first secret - naughty Humakt! To punish you I'm not going to tell you what the rules are - they're a secret too! Hee hee!"

Aelfwyrd looks thoughtful as he eyes the ancient hag intently. This was a strange journey; unlike any he had under taken before, surrounded by companions yet strangely alone. There was a simple truth here but it eluded him still; the darkman, the hag and the dancer. Absently turning his strange draconic blade over in his grip Aelfwyrd watches the game unfold. Soon he drifts away, staring into the middle distance he searches for an answer, or maybe the question, he's not so sure now.

Aelfwyrd eyes the ancient crone unconcealed disgust before stepping forward. Driving his strange draconic blade into the dirt the Kargani acknowledges the challenge. Aelfwyrd face is devoid of emotion, his gaze focused critically on the hag and her babbling. "I'll play your game old woman, if that's your price. Yet this will be a honourable dealing; cheat me at your peril" Stoney faced Aelfwyrd looks on.

Dori the Sword observes the challenge, detached, aware that a human subject to emotions might feel disgust or fear here. A interesting puzzle, to win a game where the rules are unknown. It is vaguely familiar... ah, yes. Back when she had been human, she had found such challenges... "exciting"? She tastes the concept: no, it is no longer meaningful. There is only what had to be done. To win, because the consequensces of losing are not acceptable. Judge the odds. Know the truth of the game. And judge your opponent. An old woman, muttering under her breath: she might be giving Truth away without even knowing it. The winds here had been slain: but she is Death, and that would not her stop listening to them. No doubt the game planned will be familiar to her. There is nothing new in the world, after all.

Jamal's refined Carmanian nose wrinkles at the state of the cave as Aelfwyrd steps forward to accept the Hags challenge. He stands close to the Ten Thane, to offer what advice he can. As he clears to ground he clears his mind, of all considerations except the coming game. He trusts he gaming instincts to guide him, His Lord Bisos to clear his mind, and his Lord Hereward to guide him in the rules of the game. Also, not above a little gamesmanship, he fixes the Hag with his most disconcerting gaze, to put his opponent off her stride. After all, there is much to win, but also much to loose.

The words full of deceit and treachery assaulted Enfrew/Humakt when he entered the cave. Playing the game without knowing the rules? How can that be done? But yes, Truth is Humakt's weapon, Enfrew remembers, and he forces himself to focus on the game, to know Truth from lie.

Hrolf/Humakt gazes about him into the blackness, where he can sense if not quite see Subere, deepest darkness, mother of uncounted mysteries. Although ultimately unknowable, when she speaks and interacts with him she is forced to give shape to truth or falsehood. All Hrolf/Humakt's senses reach out to sense the Truth in this cave, and to cleave it from deceit so that it may be purified.

Chuckling to herself the old crone delves into a rusty old chest at the back of the cave. With painstaking care she recovers a large collection of strange wafer thin tablets, each the size of a man’s hand. Making a great scene of sitting down the hag gestures for Humakt to join her, sitting on the dirt floor. With a wry smile she eyes Humakt, slowly heaping the tablets into a number of small piles. On closer inspection they are made of bleached bone, inscribed with long forgotten images and ornate runes. Hunching down close to the dirt the old crone passes the first pile to Humakt with an experienced flourish. Shielding her tablets from prying eyes she cackles with obvious glee, the game had begun…

At first the game appears nebulous - the Hell Hag takes some counters and moves them around the floor. Humakt draws a sign next to one of the piles and removes half the tablets, then places some of his own in another place. The Hell Hag stands on one leg and hops around making secret signs with her left hand, and then places several of her pieces in an antagonistic position to Humakt's. The turns continue apace, and as the game develops the Hell Hag obviously appears to think she has the advantage - she gibbers and grins to herself, and mutters imprecations and warnings to Humakt, "nooo - don't want to be moving there, do you deary? Oh no, not there... hah! See? Then I does this! Hee hee!" Humakt is steadily losing counters, and although the Hell Hag also suffers some losses, her pile steadily accumulates.

Humakt sees the story played out, impassively watching the lives of his tablets, the little warriors in this contest, snuffed out and eaten by the Hell Hag's minions. Her tablets surround his, attack and overwhelm his forces and suddenly defeat seems unavoidable. She turns, grinning, and says, "Your move, dearie." The expectation of victory is a shining light in her eyes.

Humakt lays one last tablet, and inscribes a rune on the floor beside it: t (Death)

And then it appears all has changed. All is light, the Hell Hag's stack of tablets is reduced and Humakt's pieces are swarming all over the enemy. There is yet, Humakt sees, a chance for the Hell Hag to recover, one weakness in his desperate, all-out attack. Yet she fails to spot this move, and instead throws her rags over her face and begins throwing the counters around her cave in a terrible temper. "Not fair!" she says. "That was my secret and you took it from me!" Spiders run in fear from beneath her stamping feet, dust clatters from the ceiling, mushrooms groan - yet Humakt regards her emotionlessly.

Standing slowly Humakt watches the furious hag without a word. Taking up his blade he waits impassivley until her rage begins to cool. "My part of this wager is honoured, old crone" he begins evenly "I grow tired of these games, speak of secret that I seek..."

The Hell Hag stops with chilling calm, and glinting eyes are turned on the heroes. "I'll be giving you what you need, oh yes, though you are sly and artful and don't deserve it. No, you don't! I'll remember you, next time you're asking for my help and coming here, I will." She rummages in the shadows and boxes, broken barrels and sacks are flung around as she searches beneath them. Finally a mushroom is produced in one bony, liverous hand, and this she gives to Humakt. "Eating this will guide you to Him that you seek. Now go!"

With these words the Hell Hag's cave begins to shrink and darken, pulsating with a drumming too deep to be heard, only felt. As the enclosure contracts and heaves the heroes, nauseated and panicked, are squeezed on all sides, crushed together against the walls which push them, relentlessly through the tunnel and out of the cave. There is a moment where all that can be heard is the manic cackle of the Hell Hag, and then the heroes are standing outside in the Underworld.

22 - Back Through the Underworld

With nary a word, the heroes prepare to depart the weird, shifting landscape where the Hell Hag makes her home. Despite the danger that still lurks about them, their spirits are lifted by the huge victory they have won. The talisman they bear will guide the Light-Seeker to the proper place.

But the Emperor's presence in Hell has warped and changed the world – things are not as they were, and Elkozi begins to suspect that he cannot find his way true. How he wishes that he had a talisman to guide him! As the Uz warrior stops once more to find his bearings, Humakt is aware of a watchfulness to one side. A malignant watchfulness. One he has somehow felt before.

As he holds Subere's talisman in his hand, the familiarity of recent events washes over Hrolf/Humakt and almost overwhelms him. The lesson of Humakt's Oath had repeated itself again: by taking on the duty to wield Death in all its purity and wholeness, he had cleansed himself of pride proved his honour. His honour unimpeachable, Humakt had won the right to wield Death, and his unbreakable bond with Death became Truth.

In the underworld, too, the lesson was the same. For the Bat People Humakt performed the duty of the Separator of Souls and cut those who no longer lived from the living. As proof of his strength and courage, he braved Subere's guardian. And so, his honour proved, Death had become his in the crucial moment of the test with Subere - in the moment of Truth. For a moment, the vertiginous identity of Truth, Honour, and Death blazes in his soul, and Hrolf/Humakt reels in epiphany.

The moment subsides, and he remembers his duty. It is time now to return to Orlanth and bring him the talisman of Subere. The paths of the underworld are twisted; his friend Elkozi has trouble finding the way, but Hrolf/Humakt knows he is master here for he is Lord of the Dead. Subere has lost, and Darkness can no longer impede him in Hell. A fell light now gleams from his sword: the Deathlight, which only he has earned the right to see.

Elkozi stands quietly where one tunnel becomes two, trying to sense which one is the true path. He sends his darksense into each, hoping to find any clues. He wished he had some token some sign to guide him, then unaware of the presence by Humakt he straightens and indicates the left tunnel. "That one, when in doubt trust your snout.”

Jamal feels the malaign prescence, his hackles rise. He spins around and prays to his Lords Bisos to highten his senses in this dark and unfamiliar place. He also calles on Hereward to bring him the sent and smell of his enemy. Then he reaches out, trying the sense the danger from this evil force.

Dorinda/Humakt/Hereward the Sword extends her/his/its senses towards the unseen watcher. Is it an immediate threat? Does it intend to follow for now and attack later? Or will it be content merely to watch?

Whilst Elkozi puzzles over the direction he should take, Humakt opens up his awareness, alert for any danger. He recognises the stench of Undeath, pungent and corrupt. Lurking under a nearby pile of rocks, Humakt senses Vivamort. This cowardly god, who once gave Humakt access to Death, now flees and hides from the Bright Emperor. Badly burned, he has taken refuge in this place. He seems much changed since Humakt last saw him, and his flinty, staring eyes are pinned on Humakt's throat. He gibbers and murmurs to himself, clutching his burned throat.

Could Vivamort be the reason that the Bat People were plagued with ghosts and other restless dead? Hrolf/Humakt wonders. It was a strong possibility, and while Orlanth must receive his help Humakt could not allow the vampire lord to wander free and unhindered. Quickly, Hrolf/Humakt passes Subere’s talisman to Elkozi, and slaps the towering Uz on his broad shoulders. “Go; do not wait for me!”

Although Vivamort appeared weakened and afraid, Hrolf/Humakt knew better than to underestimate the creature. It was cunning and powerful, but Vivamort had one crucial weakness: it was afraid of death.

Hrolf/Humakt opens his mouth and issues the Howl of the Void. His lips stretch and a deep, swirling blackness appears between them: a blackness dark as Subere’s cave. It grows, spreads, expands until somehow Hrolf/Humakt’s jaws are larger than his head and suddenly a grating, searing, echoing roar pours forth shattering and searing the rocks in its path. Death fills Hrolf/Humakt: the will to inflict mayhem, but also the willingness to accept the End. Knowing his mission is safe in the hands of his friend Elkozi, Humakt is free to fight now, heedless of harm to himself, single-minded in his drive to cut, cleave, crush, disembowel, eviscerate and end the existence of this undead blight. His sword glows with holy light, the light of Truth and finality. Hereward’s Doomwinds swirl past his blade and envelop Vivamort’s head. Though reduced to little vortices in the land of Darkness, the winds have seen the Void and know it hungers yet for the Treacherous One who escaped it so long ago, and they whisper its promises of vengeance and fulfillment into Vivamort’s cadaverous ears.

Hereward/Humakt/Dori/the Sword registers the presence of the ultimate Deciever and accepts the inevitable conflict: accepts it, and becomes it. This being was so based in Deception that just a touch of Truth would destroy it. She/it starts to glow with the Light of Truth and of Daylight, illuminating the falseness concealed in Darkness and destroying it by doing so.

Aelfwyrd eyes Undeath closely, appearances can be deceptive he tells himself, especially with this one. Cunning and deceitful Undeath always proved a dangerous yet challenging opponent. But such filth could not be left unchecked, least of not here in the dark where it could prey on the unsuspecting. Whatever the cost Undeath would have no quarter. Ritual chants and whirling blade Aelfwyrd advances purposefully. Catching the hungry gaze of the Wounded One upon his throat Aelfwyrd smiles thinly; no honest fight this but combat none the less, a chance of test his mastery of arms. His prayers at an end a strange sense of calm descends; the silence before the storm he muses. Glancing down at his sword he traces the curve of a front blade then the oriental wyrm inscribed along its length. Masking a smile he murmurs knowingly to himself "Dazzling Fire Dragon." With a burst of speed Aelfwyrd leaps towards Undeath spinning his many bladed sword in a breathtaking combination of feints and flurries.

Jamal readies Bull Spike and grins, this is a battle he is familiar with. He knows the Wounded God, and he knows about his sword brothers prejudices, and he knows some may "over react" some what. He resolves to keep a clear head in this attack. He Roars the attack and moves to engage the foe...

Without mistake, Enfrew senses the foul stench of undeath, stronger than he ever sensed before. His Humakt self knows that the stench cannot be worse, for this is Vivamort, not a vampire, but The Vampire. Humakt hands the talisman to Elkozi and turns to face the evil beast that stalks the underworld. Enfrew becomes one with Humakt even more than before, merging his own power with that of his companions.

Hereward/Humakt/Dori/the Sword registers the presence of the ultimate Deciever and accepts the inevitable conflict: accepts it, and becomes it. This being was so based in Deception that just a touch of Truth would destroy it. She/it starts to glow with the Light of Truth and of Daylight, illuminating the falseness concealed in Darkness and destroying it by doing so.

Unleashing the Weapon of Light, Dori/Humakt strides forth in blazoning flurry of Dazzling Daylight. Other parts of her squint and wince at the shining, and there is a stunned silence for a short moment. Vivamort, though, leaps and twists away from the painful radiance, which though Dazzling did not hurt him. The heroes' eyes, unused to such abundance of light, fail to follow his movements, which seem to be merely a blur so fast does he move.

Then the Undying God falls from the sky upon Hrolf/Humakt's neck. In his hands he bears arms, a scimitar and shield, yet he uses not these things. Instead he reaches out with his hand and tries to grasps Hrolf/Humakt's neck. The hero attempts to ward him off with a flurry of his swords, but the monster is incredibly fast. His claws fasten around Hrolf/Humakt's throat, and regards him with a look of intense hunger and curiosity.

Jamal shouts with the Bull's Roar, lower's his head and charges with all his strength, Elnor/Humakt at his side, his sword Bull's Spike a frenzied blur. Yet Vivamort leaps into the air and spins around Hrolf/Humakt, still holding his throat, so that Jamal's assault passes him by harmlessly and the Bullman is left confused and breathless away from him.

Hrolf/Humakt takes advantage of Vivamort's distraction to try and drive his sword up through the Undying God's chest, yet with stunning speed the monster's free hand grasps his wrist, preventing the blow from being drivenhome. The two adversaries struggle and strain against each other, and Hrolf/Humakt realises that Vivamort is overpoweringly strong!

With a burst of speed Aelfwyrd leaps towards Undeath spinning his many bladed sword in a breathtaking combination of feints and flurries, yet Vivamort completely ignores him. Indifferent to the rain of Aelfwyrd's blade upon his back, Vivamort kicks out at the hero's chest and with a terrible blow sends him flying backwards. Aelfwyrd/Humakt sprawls heavily against a rock, and it seems he is dazed.

Skilled in the ways of combatting Vivamort, Enfrew/Humakt leaps to the attack, his sword a blur. The ensorcelled Iron, aimed with Li Phanquan's knowledge, bites Vivamort deeply, and he howls his displeasure. No blood flows, but a deadly black ichor begins to seep from Vivamort's undying flesh. Vivamort snarls, "You shall pay for that, but first this one here shall suffer". And with that his grasp on Hrolf/Humakt tightens, and the hero can feel an ice-cold sensation as the Hungry One attempts to draw life from him.

Springing to his feat Aelfwyrd takes up his blade and launches himself back into combat, face wracked with anger, mostly at his own ineffectivness. Catching sight of Enfrew's blade biting deep into the Fiend he only now recalls the Sartarites devotion to Li Phanquan and bellows out across the melee. "Enfrew, Li Phanquan must guide our blades this day, mastery alone will not best this filth" then laughing rather inappropriately he continues "But it is a lesson that must be learnt quickly my friend..." Arriving besides Hrolf he tries his best to break Vivamort's grip and knock him back.

Jamal spins from his first attack with surprising grace to face his foe. "Attack Together" he calls to his comrades as he approaches the undead with slightly more respect, whirling Bull Spike as a blur of deadly metal.

The Sword sees the Deciever's reaction with analytical clarity. Not as it should have been. The creature had deceived even itself, denying what should have been its weaknesses. A new plan of attack is needed.

(Somewhere at the back of the Swordmind, a human feels fear, exhilaration, rage, a need to protect her comrades from the vile draining of their strength: but the Sword does not allow itself such petty distractions from the true business of Death. The energy of such emotions can be used to power the Cleansing, but it must not deflect the aim.)

Analyse: the enemy is strong, and fast. But there is only one of it, and many of us. (Many? We/I am one...? No matter. I/we have many sword-arms.) It can only defend itself from so many attacks at once. Coordination will be required. A blow there, while the arms are occupied, and the dagger placed there, and the winds to cut elsewhere... yes, that would maximise the chances of success.

While the vampire snarls at Enfrew, Hrolf twists his sword into its flesh. "Wrong; YOU will suffer first!" Vivamort screams as the iron blade pierces his dead flesh, and tightens his grip on Hrolf/Humakt's throat. The hero feels the vampyric touch embrace his soul, reach in and wrench out something from deep within him. Shocked, Hrolf/Humakt staggers to his knees and drops his swords to clutch his chest in pain.

Dorinda/Humakt closes on the Undying God, Light and Winds billowing around her sword. The Undying God rises from Hrolf/Humakt's slumped form to meet her with a mocking grin, his shield raised and sword ready. As Dorinda/Humakt moves to strike her lead foot catches on a piece of uneven ground, and she tumbles to the ground. At that moment Vivamort leaps far over her head, again showing his shocking speed, and lashes out downwards with a stunning blow that sends her reeling.

She staggers and almost falls, her sword dropping from her hand. Desperately she catches it: left-handed, and by the blade, but no matter. Anything rather than lose her weapon in a fight. Lose.... her sword..? But I am the... hang on. I am not the sword. I am... confused. She looks up at where the enemy had been, through the glowing mists, past the cross of her hilt: the cross-guard. The Rune. Of course. I am... Death. The weapon does not matter. Death is what matters, not how it comes to pass. The insight clears her mind and gives her new hope. This creature is immune to all forms of bringing death she knows: but that does not matter. Use Death itself, directly. There is no need for the intermediary of a weapon. For a moment a purely human lust for vengeance fuels her: yes, let's get close up and personal here. Never mind sword to sword, or even hand to hand, I want soul to soul...

She rises to her feet, holding the glowing Death Rune in front of her, ignoring the blood trickling down the blade from her hand, and advances on the enemy. It was dead, and yet not, not even certain of its form. There is only one way to correct that uncertainty. Nothing is certain but Death and... Death. She calls the winds and light once more, forcing the creature to huddle in on itself and face Death without fleeing. Let it at least have the semblance of honour as it ends. Ending.... to end a vampire requires.... ah, yes. No stakes to hand, but decapitation will do it. "Vastyr! End this creature."

Jamal and Malan/Humakt attack almost simultaneously, battering Vivamort with their great strength and mighty blows. Vivamort shocks Jamal by performing the Bull's Shield feat, turning the Carmanian's blade and forcing him back with the shield's rim. Meanwhile Malan finds himself frustrated by Vivamort's scimitar, which he uses with exquisite skill to defend himself. Dealing massive blows one after the other, Malan tries to bear down through the Horror's defence. Jamal, shocked by the use of his own power against him, takes a second to gather himself. He recollects the screams of the Vampire of Tourney Altar.

Springing back into the fray Aelfwyrd/Humakt advances once more, yet again Vivamort ignores him. Again the hero brings down a hailstorm of blows, and again they merely bounce off the Undying God's skin. Aelfwyrd strikes until his arms are in pain from the impact of his blade against such an unyielding surface.

Enfrew/Humakt attacks from the front, striking towards Vivamort's heart with Death. Vivamort twists this way and that as he fights on three fronts; again and again Enfrew's blow misses his mark. Finally, by the narrowest of margins, Enfrew's sword enters Vivamort's side. The Undying God curses and spits, and steam rushes forth from the rent in his side. The steam thickens to form a mist, which rapidly expands and begins to envelope the heroes, whilst Vivamort himself appears to becoming less solid.

The suddeness with which the Undying God effects his escape is startling. Again here is the sensation that he is moving faster than the eye can see - the mist swirls as though caught in a storm until Vivamort is almost completely obscured. Struggling through the mist disorients the heroes, most of all Enfrew and Jamal who cough and splutter with frustration. A mocking laugh drifts over the heroes: "Thank you, my friends, for I now have what I came for and must be away."

Seeing the Cowardly God's escape, Hrolf calls out, and as he speaks the swirling winds of the underworld echo the truth of his words: "Leaving us so soon, Shrivelled One? Running from us like you ran from the Sun? Craven fool! If you want to hold Death you must face it! Death does not give itself to skulking back-alley ambushers! Any secrets you think you hold are nothing to the mysteries of the Sword!"

Yet the mocking laugh only continues, if anything increasing in its tone of black humour. "Your little Magics have no strength over me, weakling. If a sheep called you coward, would you give a fair fight at the slaughter yard?"

Stumbling in the mist Aelfwyrd suddenly comes face to face with the grinning face of Vivamort. In the surprise he fails to remember his magic and simply stands gawping as the Undying God swirls fluidly around him, giggling.

Enfrew, racked with coughing, straightens up to see Vivamort floating towards him. The mist is so thick he begins to choke, dropping his sword and falling to his knees, and yet still mouthing words of prayer to Humakt. Vivamort strokes him and murmurs evil thoughts into his ears.

Dorinda roars her prayers with determination, advancing into the mist wielding her Death Rune. The Blood God laughs at her, misdirects her with his mists. There is a voice at her right shoulder, then a face appears for a few moments in the smoke before her - now it is behind her again. On the verge of panic, Dorinda fights to control herself but can feel fear welling up inside.

To the defence of his Ten-Thane, Jamal screams and lunges to the attack, "No, a Carmanian does not flee, spawn of the Deceiver. Let Iron scourge you!" Bullspike scours the clouds, iron cutting wraith-form, and Vivamort howls with pain. The mists falter a little, enough for Vastyr to sight the neck of his prey. Humakt-Vastyr grips his Sharp Death and stalks through the battle. The other Humakts are punishing the Undeath hard, but it is using its Deception to escape. It is unacceptable. Humakt-Vastyr brings his Death, gleaming with slaying magic, for an overhead cut and aims it at the steaming neck: "Die Vileness! Recieve the Peace that you deserve!". Vivamort turns, snarling, but too late, for Vastyr's blade descends fast and sharp to his throat; a savage rending wound that does not bleed.

He's too fast, too elusive... but Dorinda remembers his mocking words "I have what I came for..." Hrolf. Part of his soul has been taken. One of her people, hurt in that way: no, this could not be allowed. She might die trying, but.... no. She recovers herself, as she remembers. She cannot die trying, because she is already dead. Is already Death. She gathers to herself all of Death that is in her: the friends she had killed, those she had lost. She gathers the memories and beliefs her followers gave her: Valen's admiration for Kristen's death-purity: Oddus' memories of Herric's end. Her soul is Death. There is nothing else. No hatred. No revulsion. She reaches out, soul to soul, and embraces Vivamort with Death, gathering the mists and compressing them to one, small, solid flesh. Either he will submit to Death, or she will.... no longer be.

The mists solidify. Become vulnerable. Perhaps not for long, but Time is irrelevant here. Death existed before Time began.

The sword bites home: but already Vivamort is fading into mist again, and it does not quite sever his neck. He's fleeing, getting away: no! She cannot let this happen! The prey is escaping... no, that's Vastyr's thought, not hers. And as she recognises the difference, a doubt creeps into her mind. Does she really want this vampire to stand and fight? Perhaps not... but she cannot let it escape unharmed, either! She steps towards the mist, striking it: stirring it? it with the cross of her blood-covered sword. "This is Death, coward! Know it, and fear it: fear us, should we meet again! You have no power that compares with this."

The wraith-mist pours around Humakt-Dorinda's Death rune, wincing at its bane touch. It seems some great harm is done to the monster by Humakt's goodness, but yet as it spins and writhes around an awful cackling laughter can be heard. Empty, smoke-filled eyes, darkness-edged, appear in the mist before Humakt-Dorinda's face, brimming with malignant cheer.

"Foolish one, evil power, destroyer of children - you have been manipulated. Vivamort is not the power you seek to root out, to name and destroy. No! That power is within yourself, even in your own belly, and is named Life."

With this ill curse, Vivamort's energy is spent. The mist once more begins to disperse and flows across the Underworld, thinning rapidly until there is nothing but a thread of smoke to mark its passing.

The path to Karrg's Guardpost is easy for Elkozi-Geran to find, and it is not long before the heroes find themselves admitted once more to that place. There the great Warlord sits in court over Uz champions, receiving bounty of food and admiration.

The way back to Karrg may have proven uneventful, but Geran-Elkozi had worried about his friend Humakt. The grim god seemed lesser somehow, wounded in places that were beyond the understanding of the Uz Hero. Geran-Elkozi had led them to the enemy, unwittingly true, but he had proven an unreliable guide in this. The god had sent him away and he had gone obediently with their treasure, but he couldn't help feeling he had not done all he should. Entering the presence of the great Uz warrior god dispelled some of his thoughts and troubles, but they kept worrying him at the back of his mind, like an enlo that won't give up a treat, even in the face of an Uz.

"Hoom!" roars Karrg at the heroes' approach. "I remember you. Did you find what you were looking for?"

Geran-Elkozi hesitates briefly with his boast, to put things as best he could when someone else replies for him.

Jamal winces slightly, what is it with the Hero Plane and teeth? He replies "Aye, we found that which we sought, and more besides. It seems the Wounded God was lying in wait for us. He was dealt with," he says flatly.

The Uz hero looks at his companion with an irritated expression and can't help a faint growl before he turns back to his god.

"Yes, Great One", he says proudly "The Deepest Dark held no terror for us. I led my friends through the twistings and turnings, through the shadows and tunnels, past the pitifull moanings of flittings and flutterings. We laughed at the Zombie God and shamed him to retreat. The Dark Hag shrieked at us, and howled at us and tried to trick us, but she played our game and lost. We took the prize that is ours." Elkozi stands tall, towering above his friends in his dull lead armour and mace heavy at his side as his uz companions cheer, hoot and shout at his words.

"Brave Ones!" The War God's voice is like deep bass drum that sounds in the chest of each hero. "It is good to show the Dark Hater the emptiness of his anger and rage. Each time we do this he gets smaller. Geran, you are a faithful follower of Karrg, when you offer me food I hear you. You others have shown yourselves worthy of his company - even you Bright Woman."

Karrg's gaze sweeps over the assembled company of heroes until it comes to rest on the figure of Aelfwyrd. "All of you have been welcome in this place, have proved you did not sully my hospitality. Now it is time for you to return to your right place in the worlds - there are words of a large mob-gathering, and a place for those who would fight. Humakt can be a friend of ours, you will remember this in the coming times, for I will give you something now to remember it by."

With these words the heroes find themselves moving towards the back of the Guardpost, towards the door leading to the Bat People's cave. Karrg looms over them, dark and mighty powerful. As they pass through the door, Karrg comes closer to Aelfwyrd, and closer still, until there is no space at all between them. Aelfwyrd experiences a bizzare, exhilarating thrill as the War God enters his own body - there is an increased awareness, depths of mysteries upon mysteries in which he swims only on the surface, unable to see the bottom. For a wild moment Aelfwyrd feels the presence of Kargan rush within himself, and then there is only the sensation of falling, darkness turning to white as the Hero Plane is left behind...

23 – Return to the hill-fort

The heroes come to their senses, slightly disoriented, in the centre of Garrath's hillfort. Fires burn, there is drumming and godar chanting. From someplace distant can be heard the sounds of battle. Overhead thunder rumbles and lightning stirs. The first few, heavy drops of a rainstorm are falling, splashing in the dust of a parched earth.

Opposite from the heroes, across the balefire surrounded central circle, stands Garrath, splendidly armed as Orlanth, with his six ring-members. "Brother you have found me!" he shouts ritually:

"The world is ending
Darkness is come
Storm struggles against Chaos.

"Your power has released evil
But my hand wielded it
Now I must set the world to rights.

"What aid can you give me
For the One I seek is lost
in your Dark Domain."

When Dorinda indicates it is time for Geran to hand over the mushroom, he reaches into a pouch at his belt with a big meaty hand. The tiny morsel almost seems to gleam a pale yellow as he draws it forth to give it to the Humakti leader. His face, usually very expressive, is still, almost devoid of expression as he glances as it. He appears almost relieved to be rid of the tiny burden and his hand is quickly withdrawn after Dorinda has accepted it.

He steps back, not sure of his role in the ritual and watches as Vastyr and Hrolf step confidently forward to be at the ten-thane's side. Suddenly his stomach growls loudly and with an embarrassed and lop-sided grin he steps further back to join those defending the site. That is something he knows how to do at least, he thinks. A last look behind him as he leaves his companions falls on Aelf, and now his brows furrow in thought. He turns again and walks away on heavy feet.

Dori holds the Mushroom she has taken from Geran. "You are not my brother" she states coldly. "I have not been your kin since you brought such dishonour on our family that I could no longer remain a part of it. Nevertheless, if you wish to redeem yourself, I can give you aid." She passes the Mushroom over. "Eating this will guide to you the one you seek. Once you are in my domain. But first you must go there. Are you truly ready to do so?"

There is a stir among the orlanthi thanes and warriors surrounding Garrath. Many move their hands to their weapons as the grim leader of the Humakti points her sword right at Garrath's throat. Suddenly the bitterly cold North Wind makes their cloaks flutter and bones shiver. Another Humakti steps forward with a grating sound of Iron leaving its sheath.

"There is no kin in Death. Only Truth and Honour. Are you ready to make right, Once-Called-Brother?"

Stepping to stand by Dori, Vastyr touches her sword with the tip of Slithering Bane. The blades ring with a clear sound as he adds his Death to hers.

The North Wind gathers in strength. On Dorinda's command, Hrolf silently takes his position on the East side of Garrath, and readies his sword.

Jamal watches Hrolf and Vastyr take positions, and feels the gathering winds. Ahh this he thinks he understands, it seems that Garrath needs to be "dispatched" in his quest from many sides. He grins, this will be fun. He steps to take the Western station (where else), and calls on his Lords Bisos and Hereward to aid his strike. On his ten-thanes command he ushers Garrath onto his quest calling in Carmanian. "Onwards, Sir Orlanth, may your sword arm be strong, your feet swift and your journey successful"

Oblivious to the activity around him Aelfwyrd stands motionless; wide-eyed he stares into the middle distance, face rapt in concentration. Breathing erratically he turns the events at the Guard Post over and over in his mind, questions, always questions, but he had no answers. Yet the sweet song of sword drawn from sheath calls him back to the present.

Taking a moment to acknowledge the assembled warriors Aelfwyrd looks up at the storm clad sky, and feeling the first drops of rainstorm upon his face he smiles knowingly. Walking over to the Herewardi he purposefully takes up his position in the ritual, demeanour now wrought in iron; cold and controlled. Aelfwyrd acknowledges his sword brethren before taking up his position in the ritual, facing Orlanth his face is bereft of emotion. His strange sword come trident flashes with brilliance as the first drops of rainstorm catch the polished blades. Raising the blade above his hear the Kargani begins to mouth a silent prayer....

Dori pauses, her sword-point poised at Garrath's throat, as the others take their places. Or rather, Humakt pauses with his point at the throat of his ex-brother, as the other parts of himself align. They had been One, on their quest, and they are still so close to the Other Side that she can feel its pull. Separated, they were fragments of Humakt: but they had been brought together, as Humakt had gathered the fragments of Death, to form a solid, complete, whole. North, south, east, west, above and below: she can feel their winds come together, their swords move as one Sword. From all directions, and none.

If Orlanth agreed to make reparation, the One Sword would move in that final, tiny, necessary fraction of an inch. No distance at all, and an infinity. Thus was the Separation betwen Life and Death.

Garrath nods at the Humakti gathered around, swords raised, and raises his own. "Show me the path to the lands where the Sun hides," he says. "I would honour him and make amends."

Swords fall, blood flows, Garrath gasps and a soul passes. At the same moment six of his thanes fall silent from their chanting and lie prone. There is a moment of concern, and then Kulthar the godi places his hands on the fallen warrior's body. "He has passed to the proper place," he says to everyone's relief. "Now take up your places and await the return of our lord."

The night passes, a worried vigil for the Humakti who have taken the offered place of honour guard to Garrath's body. As they wait their wounds are tended by healers, and Kulthar tells of recent events. Helerings and Orlanthi have brought rains, massive rains. The Cradle has been floated from its bankside grave and retaken by a band of determined warriors. It is sailing even now for Sun County and the open sea beyond.

The young Kargani plays his role in the night watch that protects the fallen Garrath yet he is a distant and lonely figure, pacing the perimeter of the hill fort Aelfwyrd is clearly lost in his own thoughts once again. Deep into the night he catches the now familiar sight of Geran and makes his way over to the darkman and his mob. Gesturing to one side Aelfwyrd questions the events just past, the time they walked the hero paths together, Elkozi and Humakt. "What of your dark war god at guard post? Karrg and his gift of remembrance? and of our joining? There are many truths here yet I cannot grasp a single one...."

The huge shadow that is Geran barely moves when Aelf speaks, and at first only responds with a short grunt. His sense of fun and boisterousness seem gone, lost somewhere, sometime during the events over the last few hours. He has rejected even the company of his companions and sister, those who came with him on his mission to the south, and walks alone on patrol this night.

"Why?" he asks silently and gives the Kargani a squinty-eyed look, but continues before his friend can reply. "You have never wondered, little brother, have you? Some say all war comes from Kargan Tor, who lived on the big mountain before it was split asunder. Some say the first gods were also split asunder, and those we now serve are their bits and pieces. Some say, all are one."

His voice is harsh, gravelly, not friendly. "These are deep secrets of my God and ... of yours it seems."

Tilting his head upwards Aelfwyrd listens carefully to the words of his Uz companion. Slowly he repeats the darkmans revelation over and over, trying to make some sense of it "Kargan Tor, split asunder, the source of all conflict... There is an iron truth in your words but I sense more, much more. I see a long journey ahead my friend" and with a forced smile "yet as ever, the first step eludes me." Lost in his thoughts the young Kargani is quiet once more.

Geran seems to relent somewhat as he senses the honest confusion of his friend and in a gruff voice tries to explain what he doesn't understand himself. "My God touched you, that is all I know" The hurt in him is suddenly clear, the sense of being passed by, of being set aside. His god touched someone else, not him. I said words I barely understand myself, but I have heard that Kargan Tor was the first god of war and that everyone else were taught by him. Karrg Elkozi went with Humakt to the field of conflict and learned secrets from Kargan Tor. Few know this, but Elkozi does."

Rubbing his stubble free chin Aelfwyrd eyes the hulking mountain of lead; how strange this past season had been. Back on the Cradle he would have gladly struck down this darkman and boasted of his killing to all right thinking men. Yet here he was, with Geran, in the rubble, all alone, in the middle of the night, seeking direction on godly matters..! With a snort Aelfwyrd laughs out loud and slaps the breast plate of Geran’s lead armour.

"So it will be my friend, Elkozi and Humakt will journey to the fields of conflict together once more, what do you say?"

The uz warrior turns to face his companion and bobs his face back and forth slightly before he replies. "Yes, little brother. My gut tells me we will travel long paths together, perhaps even to the Fields." He grins suddenly, teeth glinting faintly in the light from the distant camp and slaps Aelf gently on the back. "I'd like that." The mood of the moment seems to have changed. Geran less preocupied with his worries chats amiably enough with his friend.

"I came seeking you, the Herewardi, did I tell you that? The Stone that Speaks spoke again, after being silent for generations and Mother sent me here." He sounds confused as he says this, but the pride in his voice is obvious. "I took my band and they sent my sister Kogad, to keep me on a short leash. Or so they hope." He grins again and sighs. "She's very bossy, but outside the caves, I rule. Not she" This last is emphasized with a sharp slap on his chest. "And I have Sunshatter, the mace of leaders according to the stories."

The young Kargani listens carefully to Geran speak, it was the first time he had heard talk of his journey, the life left behind. Nodding his understanding the young warrior is serious for moment as if trying to explain something important. "It is a wyrd path that leads to the Legion, yet it is through Hereward's teachings that the veil of deceit will be lifted, the truth will out, of this I am sure.”

"A wyrd path." Geran hesitates a little at the word then remembers meeting Heortlings speaking of this, though the concept seems strange to him. "Yes, gossamer strands of meaning and possibility join us now." He grimaces faintly, human language is so limited.

“I am gladdened that we walk this path together," and with a conspiritial grin Aelfwyrd says: "even if we must journey with your sister biting at our heels!”

The huge uz splutters, scandalized and delighted at the irreverent words, but he can't help throwing a nervous glance back to where his sister is tending to one of the enlo. Piglet always got into fights with the others.

“Come, tell me of this Sunshatter" says Aelfwyrd, eyeing the mace with professional interest "the mace and shield is a good combination, dangerous when used by one of great size and strength, yet I have never seen such a fell weapon as this."

"Hoomm." Geran gives Aelf an embarrassed look, but replies proudly. "It is an old weapon of my clan, the Zhanz. My ancestor, Kergrag had it during the wars against D'Wargon", here the uz spits and mutters a curse. "It slew many of the evil light god's slaves but was stolen. A few years ago prophesy helped me find it north of the mountains among the wild men, guarded by sunwielders. We attacked their camp and slew the filthy sun worshippers to return the mace home." Geran pauses for a while before he confesses his disappointment. "It's powers are lost to us though, it seems just a mace like others. But what of you, how did you come here?"

There is silence, Aelfwyrd is lost, reminiscing for a moment. Ingard Mannison, the Blue Foot Orlanthi, a small boy running wild and free, the simple life, among the gors and gallts of home...

The dark night and quiet talk with Aelf make the Uz warrior relax somewhat. Definitely not like home in the mountains, but there is a little of the same sense of companionship with this human. A patrol is much the same everywhere. It is amazing however, in so short a time they have done so much. The Cradle, two quests onto the Hero Plane, fighting the moon men, the ancient city, more marvels than he expected in a life time. And the mystery of Karrg, Kargan, Humakt - he needs time to digest all this. Time to adjust.

"How did I come here my friend? I would tell you of the journey but it is a long and dull tale; the gladiator, the zorani hunter, the kralorean student, the pitiful drunk, the friend of aldryami.."

"Boring?" Geran looks dubiously at his companion, "Boring. No tale is boring if told well, we honour the gods and our ancestors with good tales, but this night is not the right time." He nods as if to strengthen this comment. "Another night, I will serve you beetle juice and aldr - hm - alderbark bread and you will tell me how you came here hunting drunk Zorani gladiators in Kralorea."

Aelfwyrd scratches at his mop of blonde hair, raising an eyebrow he makes to laugh but seeing the darkman’s serious face, stops short. With a slightly bewildered smile he nods once by way of accepting Gerans offer, all the while wondering quite what he was getting himself into.

There is an awkward silence as Aelfwyrd eyes the darkman closely, weighing up some decision. Then with an intense gleam in his eye the young Kargani speaks out, zeal clear in his words. "I heard the voice of wyrd, the command of god. It is *he* that reveals my path, by *his* will I am Legion."

The true passion in his friend's voice puts a damper on Geran's humour, and he becomes more thoughtful again. He doesn't quite understand all this talk of wyrd, but sees that Aelf is driven by strong demands. A tool of his god. While Karrg is a war god, he is very different in manner to Humakt. Kargan, Geran knows little of. Karrg defends, protects his mother, serves his people. That is all, all that is needed. Elkozi learned other ways too, to take the fight to your enemy, but he still serves, obeys. The concept of a god singling someone out in this way, is foreign to most uz, except perhaps among the zorani. 'Maybe there is something I don't understand of hoomans and their gods' he thinks as he nods, accepting Aelf's explanation.

Silence descends again and Geran returns his attention on his patrolling duties, scanning the area for intruders as the two walk between their designated points.

The fire crackled and spat, a cinder leaping out. Dori kicked it back, cherishing the small, prosaic action for its very normality. She had never been so deeply into the Other Side before, never been so intensely... Humakt. Coming back had been both a wrench and a relief. That terrible, cold, cleansing perfection, immune to all emotions, drew at her, and she knew she could call it up again at need. But she was human, and as a human, had duties that a Sword could not perform. Cold iron had many uses, but healing her people, helping them come to terms with what had happened, was not one of them.

They had the honour guard: but she had sent two thirds of the group to rest and recover, injured first, while she and hers took the first watch. It didn't take all of them at once to do a job as simple as this, and after the last few days, they needed the break. Three watches: that gave them all a chance to relax. Not that many seemed inclined to sleep... Aelf and Geran were walking around the borders: together? Come to think of it, Aelf had been more dazed than usual since the guardpost. And Geran had been ... a bit down. Odd, considering the praise he'd got from Karrg. And that they should turn to each other for comfort: well, it saved her a job. But it did seem strange...

Still, she preferred not to sleep herself. Standing here, holding vigil over Garrath's body, she could bring the horrors of the last few hours into perspective, and think through her next tasks. Hrolf: that creature had hurt him, somehow, and not physically. He would need help: more than she could give. The temple, perhaps, when they got the chance. Jamal? He seemed well enough, but Abdul was still missing, and that would bother him. Malan was with the healers. Enfrew, too, had been badly injured, and being unable to harm his sworn foe would hurt him more than the wound. Yes, they had achieved a victory beyond what anyone might expect of them, but morale would be low for most of the group. That needed handling. And to cope with it all, to find a solution, she would have to... feel. To feel for them. Swords, clean cold swords, did not do this. She could, now. Somehow, the time they had spent together, one with Humakt and with each other, had made it easier. She knew their minds, knew their fears as her own. Because together they had been the unfeeling Sword. It was strange... another of those contradictions. She had dreamt of rising within the ranks of the Legion, of becoming closer to Humakt, more perfect in every way. But now, when she came to try real leadership, it seemed that her two goals were in opposition. She could not care for her troops, keep her weapons in good order, without using human feeling, the same feeling that she had tried to get rid of. It was a weakness: it seemed that it was also a strength. A weakness used as a strength? That concept seemed to be becoming a theme these days …

After the ritual with Garrath is completed, Hrolf seeks out Enfrew, Jamal and Dorinda. The blood-drawn Deathrune on his hairless head is now flaking, and his face beneath it is drawn and haggard. “Tenthane, the attack by Vivamort troubles me. It reminded me of the Carmanian vampire we faced in the desert.” Hrolf glances at Jamal for confirmation. “If it was, how did it follow us? And how did it know to find us on the hero plane?”

Jamal nods to Hrolf. He has been rather sullen since dispatching Garrath to the Hero Plane. He greeted Boltar warmly on his return, and got an update of the situation on the mundane, and made sure that Elnor had survived the quest intact. But with resting himself for the next episode he has become quiet and introspective. The worry over the boy Abul, pushed aside during the stress of the Quest has resurfaced in his thought. More that ever, he wants to conclude this affair, beat the empire, and look to taking care of this business....

But there is another concern that worries him..

Hrolf pauses, embarrassed. “Also, it did something to me .. I don’t know what.”

Jamal turns to Hrolf. "You speak my concerns for me, friend Hrolf. I am convinced that the Wounded God that stalked us was either from my homeland, or had had prior contact with those of my homeland, for he used such magics that I am familiar with. It may be a coincidence that the Undead of the Tourney Altar is also Carmanian, but I do not trust such things...." His voice trails away. "We will meet more such creatures I am sure, and we must be prepared. But tell me, how do you fare, for the beast assailed you mightily"

Hrolf grimaces. "Something is gone, and after it gripped me I felt powerless to fight the creature. But I'm not sure exactly what is gone.. . I feel the need to be cleansed, and to seek new guidance from Humakt." His brow furrows; Hrolf is troubled to be defeated twice by the same monstrosity. "At the very least we should warn our allies here, but I also wish to warn the Pavis Humakti. We may have brought a great danger to this city" he mumbles unhappily.

"Aye, I think it best we talk to Garrath or Jarang, we do not want to sap the strength of lesser warriors with is additional concern" Jamal looks to Dorinda, "Would this be best Waleesha ?" He turns back to Hrolf, "I there is a temple of Sir Humakt in Pavis, perhaps this may help calm your soul, or perhaps Thane Yodi could help."

Dori is, for the moment, more concerned about the injury to one of her people than any potential threat to a town that is no longer her kin. "Hrolf.." She takes him by the shoulders, turns him to face her. "There can't be anything too badly wrong, nothing really insidious. Enfrew can smell that sort of thing, remember? That creature may have weakened you, but it can't have corrupted you. He'd have known, and said something. Once the healers have finished with him and he's feeling more himself, we'll ask him to take a look at you again to be sure. He's the nearest to an expert we've got, after all."

She hesitates, wanting to reassure him, but unwilling: indeed, unable: to lie to him. "We'll do what we can, Hrolf: we'll get you to a temple as soon as possible. But the state the city's in, and with the oaths we've taken to defend the Cradle, it may not be as soon as we'd like."

She releases him, turns to Jamal. "You're right, warning others of this creature is something I've been thinking of. But it can't wait for Garrath to return: or rather, warning him may already be too late. We need to tell Kulthar what we know. If that thing could find us, and ambush us, could it do the same to Garrath? He's a good fighter and a brave man, but he isn't Humakti. Against that monster, even weakened as it is, I think he would have problems. Kulthar may know how to get a warning to him even now."

Hrolf bows his head in acknowledgement of Dorinda's assessment. "Yes, Tenthane." He smiles, somewhat relieved "I too am eager to retake the Cradle - and to see Blackbeak and Hughie again." With that, the heroes seek out Kulthar and relate what they know of the vampire.

Kulthar listen to the heroes' story with light concern. "It is not easy to assume that Vivamort was in fact the vampire you met in Caravan Alley - there are other explanations. But i expect you think yourself great heroes for seeing off such a threat twice - that's the way with people who bear swords for a living," he sighs. "Garrath is no different. Rest easy for now, you great warriors. For sure you banished Vivamort and he will probably not trouble Garrath. And if he does, or there are Imperial Heroquesters who try to disrupt Garrath's quest, there is little that can be done about it by us." The great priest sniffs, squints and looks towards New Pavis.

"I tell you what, though. When all this is over go and see Ingeran Blackstaff at the Knowledge temple in Pavis - he's interested in the cult of Vivamort & its history in these parts. He may have some useful advice for you."

"'Great Heroes' is not quite how I would put it", Dorinda says dryly. "More like ignorant incompetents who let the thing get away. Twice. Thanks for the suggestion: we'll see what Ingeran can tell us. Maybe next time we could actually get it right."

Jamal grins at the wise mans response, and turns to Dorinda "I know a little of the Orators methods, and me thinks he was employing a device that is called 'irony'"

As the discussion with Dorinda and Jamal reaches its conclusion, Hrolf turns to Enfrew. "Can you examine me, comrade? Can you see what wounds that foul beast left on my soul?"

"Of course, Hrolf friend," Enfrew replies. "I should have thought of it myself. Let me see..." He picks up a stick and uses it to draw a Death Rune in the ground. Then he asks Hrolf to step on it. When Hrolf does so, he murmurs a prayer to Humakt to reveal the corruption and watches for Hrolf's reaction. A moment passes, and Enfrew steps back disconcerted. There is no Truth here. Perhaps the God Gift has failed him, or perhaps there is a more sinister explanation, but either way there is no sign to indicate Hrolf's corruption or integrity.

After their conversation with Kulthar, Dori goes back to the group's encampment with a thoughtful look.

"Of course, we did learn something about vampires to remember for next time", she comments to whoever happens to be in earshot. "We learnt that keeping a death rune handy is a very good idea. Using a reversed sword works, but it does have disadvantages. And keeping it somewhere where it can't be lost... hmm. I wish Kristen was here, but I'll just have to manage."

Puzzled, Hrolf looks at Dorinda, but doesn't say anything.

"For girly chat about hairdos and make up, of course" she says a trifle sardonically.

Hrolf frowns. "Is this another example of what passes for humour in Sun County?" he ponders. "Dorinda is a good leader, but she could certainly use some good Heortland mead now and then. Speaking of which, I wonder if Kulthar ..."

Rummaging through her healing kit, she extracts a very sharp knife, some herbs, and a small mirror, and starts cutting runes into each cheek, carefully rubbing a rather smelly paste into the cuts. "I know how to stop things from scarring, so if I just do the opposite...."

When it looks like Dorinda is going to start cutting herself, Hrolf stays her hand. "Tenthane, stop! If you plan to make tattoos, I can find someone to help you, or draw them myself. It is a custom among my former people. Please, wait until we find an artist to draw tattoos worthy of our Lord, and worthy of your own station."

She pauses, knife in hand. "That's an idea. And it'd be more effective, too: scars will no doubt heal up eventually. Think you'd have time to get something done by dawn? I'd hate to put this off and then find it was too late."

"Well, if you need something now I can show you how I painted my face. But for a real tattoo we should wait a few days."

She examines what's left of his attempts critically. "It's already wearing off, isn't it? And with the rain coming, paint isn't going to last. I want something that's going to work, it doesn't have to be pretty."

"Hmmm. We could use a paint that doesn't dissolve in water ... or maybe there is someone in Kulthar's camp more qualified to draw tattoos."

Dori shifts restlessly. "It's all more delay... I want this over and done with. If that thing comes again... the gods know I screwed it up badly enough last time, but at least I can learn from my mistakes." She sounds tense and bitter, with a definite edge of self-disgust in her voice.

"Humakt himself made ten thousand mistakes. We, too, will find truth this way. Hold off on the markings; your body is Humakt's sword. Would you deface your master's tool with hasty scratchings?"

"I can't afford mistakes that get my people hurt!" Then she's back in control again. "You may well have a point there, though. The way things are going, I'd give myself the wrong rune, or let the cuts go septic, or something. Better to do it properly."

"I don't think our Carmanian friend will be back quite this soon. He did seem quite upset as he ran away... or am I being overly optimistic?" She grins ruefully. "Garrath's attitude must be infectious. He seems to just hope everything'll work out right, and for him, it does. So far.... assuming he gets through this, I wonder what he's going to be like when he grows up?"

In the darkness of the night... though not as Dark as the place they were only moments ago. Or was it a life time... Vastyr isn't entirely sure. Something happened in the God World. Something... strange. He is not entirely sure, but for a moment he had thought the Legion a pack of... wolves?

Shaking his head Vastyr squats by the dead body of Garrath. In the Deathlight he studies the Orlanthi’s features. Garrath's face is twisted in sudden pain but hasn't taken on the paleness of the dead. He is gone to the Otherside. With the help of the Pac... Legion.

Vastyr draws glances from the others as he stands up in surprise. Obviously it wasn't just the effect of the God World. He feels someone approaching. His brother.

Vastyr looks on the faces of the six other thanes lying on the hill top. All dressed in their best, Iron and bright bronze. Perhaps Gastar is among them, perhaps he has died with honour, or perhaps his bones lie in disgrace somewhere. It doesn't matter. Vastyr has no kin. Living anyway.

Cradling Bane with his shield arm Vastyr runs his fingers on the scars on his face. Even after years they feel fresh and sore. Maybe they will never fully heal. The healing women said that they were fully healed, but... Brother is coming!

Then Vastyr hears commotion on the outer line of defence. In the dawning day he sees orlanthi spearmen move in alarm. Their alynxes making hissing sounds ready to pounce. And then there is a shape of something beyond them...

"Halt!" His sudden shout and dash down the hill startles the spearmen that first turn and then scatter as they see a Humakti running towards them. The cats do not, but with a kick or two Vastyr goes through them.

In a corner of some ruined building there is a big ball of fur. It is making deep growling sound. Lips drawn all the way back the wolf is snarling with a mouthful of teeth.

Vastyr halts with in easy reach of the beast and sheaths his sword. The wolf stops snarling and regards him for a moment. Its eyes gleam with sharp intelligence. Then it relaxes and comes tentatively closer making questioning growls. Vastyr kneels and holds out his hands, "Brother?" With a yelp there is a happy wolf lying on top of him licking his face with a long, wet tongue.

"Hey! What's goin..." An Orlanthi thane approaching with his kitty cat take a step back as suddenly there are two snarls facing them. For a moment the thane cannot separate the man from the beast. Then Vastyr pushes Runner off him and gets on his feet.

"Let's go, brother, we have work to do." With a contemptuous twist of his head the wolf follows the man up hill...

Dori walked away from the others around the fire, her guilt at their injuries and losses still a lump in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t face them any more, not knowing what she’d done to them. She was off watch, she'd done all she could to help repair the damage, time for a break. All she could, but perhaps not all she should have done? It was no good trying to do any more now, though. She was so tired... She had to stay calm and confident for the others, and she couldn't do it any longer, her conversation with Hrolf had shown her that. He kept trusting her, obeying her, looking up to her, they all did, even though she kept letting them down. How had Brenna coped with it? Of course, she hadn't made mistakes, so the question didn't arise. Surely she must have had the same problem when she was first starting as ten-thane, though?

For a moment her usual love and respect for Brenna was replaced by anger and resentment at having been abandoned with a job she had no idea how to do, with no training, no help, no nothing. It wasn't fair on her, it wasn't fair on the people whose lives she was messing up as a result. Then reason reasserted itself. Brenna hadn't exactly chosen to be half-killed by Broo. Nor to be forced into another calling. And life wasn't fair, she already knew that. Humakt was, though. Always.

There was something Brenna had told her, way back when she was trying to persuade Dori to take the plunge and become a Devotee. What was it? oh, yes. "Humakt only ever asks you for as much as you can give. No more, and no less." So... she could do this. She must be able to, or it wouldn't be being asked.

Brenna had said lots of useful things, back then, if only she could remember them. Of course, that had been another time when she had been drowning in grief, and guilt, and pain, and.... yes, all right, and wine. Which was no way to handle things, and no longer an option. The restriction was worth it, though. No hangovers and no shakes, quite apart from all the rest. She could almost hear Brenna's voice, exasperated and angry, on one of those horrible mornings when she was trying to dry Dori out. "If you need help, girl, ask! We give enough to our legion and to our God, we can always ask for support in return without coming near writing off the debt." Come to think of it, Brenna had probably been feeling roughly the way she did now... And she'd love to ask for help, but there wasn't anyone around from the Legion to supply it. That was the whole problem. "And our God..."? well, on some subjects, yes, but there wasn't a lot of point in asking Humakt how to cope with being inadequate and incompetent. He wouldn't know. Gods didn't. She needed a human. Or at least, someone who knew how to be human, and how to fail. Preferably one of her senior officers in Hereward’s Legion. Hereward’s…. yes. That was her answer. He’d know, and he’d help. This was his Legion she was hurting. And from what she knew of his own history.. yes, he'd understand.

She was alone here: within the safety of the now quiet camp, but alone. She turned to face the north, the black shapes of the mountains against the dark sky, and the North Wind. Truth on the Wind... but not forcing it, this time, as she’d had to so often recently. There was no stress or urgency this time, just a need for understanding. No need to be on guard. She sat, cross-legged on the ground, her sword drawn across her lap. Listen to the wind… breath the wind. Not even the usual cold, punishing edge of Occam’s Wind tonight: a gentle breeze came from the north. It was whispering something, but she couldn’t quite make out what. She closed her eyes, slowed and deepened her breathing. Listen… it was telling her something. Not in words. Even afterwards, she could never put it into words. Calmness, acceptance, the clarity of perspective.... she relaxed, floating in that support. She saw her own actions from the outside, and reviewed them with dispassionate judgement. Given the limited knowledge she had had, no mistakes had been made. She might not have been perfect, but she had never done less than the best she could with the resources at her disposal. Considering the odds they had faced, casualties were to be expected, and had been remarkably light. Accept. Put it in the past. Continue.

She wasn't sure how much later it was when she came back to her body, that quiet calmness still with her, and sank into a peaceful, dreamless sleep; her first since Brenna had left them.

24 – A hard landing

Below, all is havoc. The Zola Fel, now broadening and branching as it nears the sea, is awash with the bodies and blood of the fallen. The Cradle, motionless, is held in place by the two forelegs of a monstrous stone dog that stands square in the centre of the river. Lunar soldiers stand atop this fiendish machine, and are a running down these same legs to embark on the cradle's foredeck. Amidships, the defenders fight valiantly, but there is no longer any coherent resistance - warriors fight back to back, increasingly isolated from their comrades. Aft of the central section it is fairly clear, although every so often missiles, magic & the occasional lunar soldier breaks through. On the banks stand Lunar archers and magicians. The cradle has obviously suffered a heavy assault before being boarded, and now these support troops are holding their fire for clearer targets, like the heroes that are now descending from above.

As Garrath and the heroes approach the cradle they are spotted, and come under a withering hail of arrows and magical beams. One of these smashes into the sylph carrying Fulfold, sending him hurtling to the ground. The damaged daimon skews through the air, screaming, and careers into Hrolf, sending him spinning towards the side of his own daimon. With his legs desperately flailing in the air, Hrolf accidentally kicks a Lunar soldier clear off the watchdog's arms and sends him crashing into the massed ranks below, flattening several comrades. Somehow Hrolf manages to scrabble a handhold, and with the assistance of Angus regains the sylph's back, wide-eyed and breathless.

Dodging blasts and magics Vastyr and his men swoop down on the Lunar magicians, swords raised and howling for the kill. Their prey steps back, haplessly trying to conjure a defence against the savage physicality of the warriors' attack. As Vastyr's attack begins to wreak havoc amongst the meldek sorcerers a body of elite guards breaks through the ranks of fleeing mages, and the Humakti are engaged sword-to-sword. Very quickly the tide of that struggle turns, and Vastyr is forced to withdraw against these skilled soldiers.

The magicians release another volley of magics that hurtle through the air. Enfrew's sylph is caught by the blast and sent fizzing away from the others, out of control and directly towards a large group of Lunar soldiers. Standing firmly upon its back, Enfrew musters all the leverage he can and hauls in the beast, coming to a skidding stop not a dagger throw from them. Scowling defiantly at the Lunars, he spurs his steed back to the sides of his comrades.

Another bolt of magical light stabs at Vastyr, but knowing how his ancient blade was the dread and death of magicians in the Imperial Age, Vastyr for the first time invokes its powers to destroy the bolt. He swings Slithering Bane in a tight arc and reflects the bolt back straight at its makers, who scatter to avoid it.

All the lights and flashes are especially unwelcome to Geran. The huge troll shouts in pain as his eyes are stabbed by the hated light, then instinctively summons up the Darkshield, which absorbs all the white-hurty stuff that people are firing at him. Being carried by a sylph and then attacked by light wielding hoomans is not Geran's opinion of fun, and he roars his anger as he scans below for the source of his pain. Then out of the corner of his eyes he sees Aelf trying to reach the Cradle and with a shouted curse at the Lunars below follows his brother. Landing solidly atop the Cradle decks, Geran and his followers begin smiting all those who dare face them.

Urging the sylph ever faster Aelfwyrd sweeps down towards the Zola Fel, chants the prayers of his god. Diving directly at The Cradle he launches himself free at the very last, tumbling through the air he lands hard on the bloodied deck to stand beside Geran amongst the last pockets of defenders. With an almost serene expression the battle is taken to the advancing Lunars, his strange trident come sword flashing brilliantly in the midday sun. But here the Lunar soldiers are confident and strong in battle. Aelfwyrd is quickly pushed backwards, hard pressed to parry all the blows aimed towards him. Korol slips and goes down, and is lost amongst the tumult of battle. Despite all of this tumult, Aelfwyrd's almost supranatural sensitivities are alerted to a Lunar officer mocking his ill-fortune from the safety of the river bank. The devotee takes the man in one look, and decides it is not worth getting upset over, or even gutting the man like a fish - he wears too much gold to be a worthy adversary. The officer sees that look and likes it not one bit, for he turns crimson around the collar and begins blustering loudly to his fellows.

Above, Dori is acutely aware that aerial combat is not something in which she has any training, and also that ranged weapons would seem to have a distinct advantage. Still, the experience of actually flying into battle on the North Wind is exhilarating, to say the least, and one that any Hereward devotee would relish. She's starting to understand why Orlanthi always seem so happy, if they get to do this sort of thing often. She is one with the wind... definitely a moment to treasure. She soars higher, trying to judge the field of battle and discern where to apply her forces to best advantage. Ah-hah! Now that, she thinks, that is a definite opportunity - and one she wouldn't have seen from the ground. A flight of arrows arcs up from below, and she attempts to scatter them with the wind, but her control is less than perfect. Her sylph becomes a pin-cushion and begins to spiral towards the ground far below.

Jamal pivots his sylph in a high loop, eyeing the collected ranks of the College of Magicians. Ha, the Lunars and their pet Visirs, how Jamal aches for some payback. With that he directs the Sylph to loop round to catch the Collegeians on their blind side, Bull Spike a blur, he aims to scythe the heads from some lunar shoulders. But just as Vastyr has found, the magicians' guards are swift and skilful in defence, and Jamal finds himself swooping on to a forest of upraised spear-tips. Managing to pull out and beat a hasty retreat, he skids across the sky fighting to control his sylph. High above the sylph is shot from underneath yet another of Garrath's weapon-thanes, and the hapless hero plummets towards the ground. Gritting his teeth Jamal urges his own steed forward and just manages to catch the man by his belt, swinging him up to stand behind him. "For that, my friend," says the man, laconically "you have my sincere thanks." He looks down and swallows. "Very sincere."

Having regained control of his sylph, Enfrew bears down with a savage frenzy on the Lunars aboard the cradle. Plunging straight into the heart of the enemy he takes absurd risks in sowing death amongst them. His sword rises and falls like black sun that radiates blood instead of light, and the initiate strides across the deck with impunity, striking down those who dare face him, until he has cleared a path to rejoin his sword-brothers.

25 – Defend the lines

Hrolf too has finally reached the decks, but this old warrior is wise and cautious in war and does not seek the hero’s death Enfrew apparently does. He jumps down next to Geran and begins to work in neat combination with Angus Redfeather, drawing out Lunars and then striking under or around their shields. The two warriors work with steadily, unrelenting determination, and blood flows from their swords.

The sylph plunges downwards: fine, that's where Dori wants to go, now. Though perhaps not quite this fast. She points out two groups just forward of the aft hatch to Valens and Oddus. "You see? If we can unite those two, join in between them, the Lunars won't be able to out-flank them the way they are now. Then we form them into a half-circle shield wall around the trapdoor, and we should be able to hold it until Garrath gets there. Valens, you get that bit of tarpaulin out of the way when we land, then join in where you can. Oddus, join the far end of the shield wall, anchor the left flank, it looks like it's about to fold. I'll try to land us between the two groups if I can."

Dori crash-lands her dying sylph into the gap in the Orlanthi defences just as they were about to break. And run, in the case of one lad, it seems. She grabs him by the scruff of the neck and pushes him back into line. "Where do you think you're going? Cradle riders, form shield wall!" (Surely, she thinks, even Orlanthi must be able to do that much?) "Come on, join up: we can hold them together! The War Ring still stands."

She's facing three opponents at once here... fine, there isn't room for three at once. She dispatches one while the others trip over each other, then glances from side to side. "Tighten that line: back one stride. Shield to shield, just like in drill... steady. That's better! Now hold!" The Humaktis' sudden appearance brings new confidence to the defenders, who push together, halting the Lunar advance, at least for a time.

In a sudden lull in the fighting, Geran can hear the excited shouts from his followers. Turning he can see one of them already breaking formation, with his two fellows preparing to pursue as they point happily to a section of the deck a little way off. A group of Aldryami are fighting a hard battle against some of the moon men, and Dask sees a quick snack being prepared. Geran can't stop his own stomach growling encouragement, but in rising anger shouts his uz to heel. "Halt, fools! What are you, enlo slaves that cannot control your lusts. Eat later, now we fight or I'll eat you next High Holy day." Cowed, the Uz turn reluctantly away from the tempting elf-flesh and glance anxiously at their lord and leader. Turning away from his hungry followers in angry disgust, Geran assesses the situation. He briefly entertains the idea of aiding the Aldryami but quickly decides against it. Better not tempt fate! His senses reach out over the milling deck of the cradle. In his own area they seem outnumbered by experienced troopers and the Lunars are slowly advancing. Aelf and his followers are being pressed, and his female is close on panicking as far as Geran can determine. He makes his mind up quickly and summons the powers of darkness to surround him, and the hellfury of those protecting friends and kin. Jumping high with Sunshatter raised at the sky, black drops of shadow fall silently from its head as he brings it down in a tremendous crash of splintered wood and blood. His voice keens eerily, then shouts in a deep raging song promising the opposing forces eternal torment in the cold bitter hells, where their puny souls will be as playthings to the demons of Darkness.

Nearby a draconic blade cleaves limbs from bodies as Aelfwyrd retreats before the lunar ranks, yet for split second his thoughts are suddenly elsewhere. Something deep inside was different, he knew that; he had changed. Since returning from the god paths it had been stalking his consciousness, but ever elusive it was just beyond his grasp. Yet it draws so close now, in the heat of battle he could almost speak its truth; it was as if each feint, parry and strike where just pieces of a grand puzzle...?

His reverie is broken as a scimitar bites deep into his thigh, concentration lost Aelfwyrd looks ahead as the lunar assault races towards him like some great tidal wave. The battle has gone badly: Korol, his ever-present guardian caught and skewered on flaming spear; now Yrsga is lost to the world, hysterical, terrified by his side. Yrsga is lost to him now, unhearing of Aelfwyrd's honour call or orders she collapses on the ground, foetal and moaning. Aelfwyrd adjusts his stance to hold position, spinning the draconic blade about like some glittering web of death. Taking in the advancing lunar soldiers he sees their formation, their strengths, and their strategy. But it is their weakness Aelfwyrd is analysing; as they move closer he is upon them like some insane whirlwind. His sword falls like a hail storm, but the battlefield is moving too quickly - what was a weakness just a few moments ago is now a stronghold, with Lunar soldiers pouring through a breach in the line. Desperately Aelfwyrd falls back still further.

High above a wyvern rider bears down on Jamal, his lance aimed for the Carmanian's throat. Ahah, an opponent worthy of honourable combat. Jamal curses that he does not have his lance with him, but he has practiced the technique of Sword against Lance many painful times on the hard tourney fields of Worian. He calls to his passenger, "We will take on this one, I will take the man, you take the steed if you can..." Jamal pivots his sylph to attack the lunar from the side, there is a brief rush, a clash of arms, and the moment is over. Jamal turns to see his attacker sitting brokenly in the saddle. Other riders swarm in and Jamal takes the battle to them boldly, his sylph a blur of motion against the air, the swords of his followers like lightning. But there are too many of the enemy, and they have played this aerial game before. As the wyverns pass in quick succession Jamal is left foundering, his men bloody, sylph badly damaged.

Nearby, Malan, struggling to bring his sylph towards the cradle, becomes aware that an arbalest crew below is taking aim at him. Unable to manoeuvre confidently, and with few options available, Malan conjures an image of horror to his face, hoping to distract the Lunars and misplace their aim. But either they are too far to see his visage clearly, or they are made of sterner stuff, for their shot flies true. As the giant bolt sails through the air towards Malan, he realizes his one chance; he simply has the sylph stop flying and plummets towards the cradle! The bolt misses, but Malan cannot completely slow down before hitting the cradle. He lands with a painful thud, but is still standing. He then prepares to help his comrades in the battle.

Below, Enfrew's bloody stalking is interrupted by the sight of a Chalana Arroy healer, trapped underneath fallen rigging that pins her to the deck. "Help," she pleads the gore-splattered warrior, "there are wounded to help." Enfrew gazes at her dispassionately for a moment, and then regards a tempting line of Lunar soldiers that approach, swords-raised. For a moment he considers leaving her, the glory-slaughter calling him, but then abruptly reaches down and pulls her free. Defending bravely, Enfrew protects the healer as they fall back towards the Cradleriders. Lunars fall under his sword.

Hrolf hears a single cry of hate and pain rise above the noise of battle - Blackbeak! Resolutely the warrior narrows his eyes, and holds to his purpose - a good warrior of Humakt. Hrolf has sized up his opponents and the defence, and knows what is needed. His voice blasts out of his bulging belly and is carried over the Cradle by the howling North Wind: "Take heart, Cradleriders! Hereward's Legion is back: Defenders of Tourney Altar, Cleansers of Desert Chaos, Banes of Mostali Meldeks, Slayers of the Longspears and Axe Brothers! We are back from Hell, where Zorak Zoran and the Lunar vampire flee our will of iron! From Hell we come, bearing Death and hope, for today we defend the Cradle, and Death fights for Life. To Garrath now, Cradleriders! Let him lead us!" Hrolf's voice is carried over the death roar of battle like a high, clear horn, putting iron and renewed hope into the defenders' sword-arms. "We are saved," they shout. "For freedom! For Humakt! For Orlanth! For Garrath!" The Lunar line wavers under this new determination.

Garrath and his weapon-thanes reach the cradle at last, releasing their sylphs to engage the wyverns that circle above. The warriors leap down to the deck. Brandishing their swords they call to the defenders, "Hold them for just few moments more, friends. Humakt hold you!" Garrath, holding a shining disc of gold in his arms hurries towards the rear hatch and heads down in the cradle itself.

Dorinda watches them go. The decks of the Cradle are already sticky with blood from days of fighting, and as the morning warms up it starts to smell even more than the background aroma of fish and weeds. After years of warfare, some reactions are built-in. Dori doesn't need to think about what the smell means to be careful of her footing.

A new sound from below: the baby? Not something you heard in battle that often... but nonetheless, something about that combination, the crying and the smell, she has met it before, it meant something bad...? The question pushes itself to the forefront of her thoughts, and she lets her combat instincts take over the actual cut and thrust of battle while she concentrates on trying to resolve the nebulous threat. There was something she should remember, it had happened before..?

And then the tidal-wave of memory hits her. Darkness. Overwhelming pain, and weakness, and fear at being utterly in the power of someone who terrified her. And worse than any of it, the deep knowledge that she was guilty, that she deserved all the pain, that it was all her fault because she had done.... something bad. She wanted to die, but she couldn't reach the knife. And her baby crying, accusing her....

She shakes herself, trying to come back to the present, as her body continues to defend itself automatically. It isn’t true... but it is. Humakti instincts tell her that, now. The memory is accurate: the box is open, and terrible hidden things are coming out. Make it go away! I want it not to have happened, I want to have not done it, I want to die... But she already had. She clings to that lifeline. I already died. This is in the past. I already cut it off. It is nothing to do with me. I killed my fear and guilt back then, when I became a weapon in Humakt's hand. She stares at her own hands, knuckles white in a death-grip on her sword. She loosens one, finger by finger, moves her grip to the blade just above the guard, tightens. Blood trickles down. There, see? The sword is real. The past is not. And swords do not feel. Swords do not feel. Her vision blurs as tears begin to fall like rain, and shudders shake her body like thunder.

Looking up Dorinda sees the Lunars advancing. Her sword glows, her tears become bloody, she roars her defiance and calls the Doom-wind and her followers to her side, defying any warrior to flee. Six of the enemy approach her. Wary of her Humakti magics they tease and prod and poke at her defences. Dorinda takes a head. Valens goes down. Dorinda takes another head, but this is her undoing for the cascading spray of blood drenches her eyes blindingly. There is a sharp tear in her shoulder, and stunned by the blow's force, Dorinda slips to one knee ready for the death blow. Ready for Humakt. And then the Lunars are gone, driven back for a while. Inspired by Dorinda's performance, the Cradle-riders have broken through to her. They pull her to her feet, and wipe her eyes. The Lunars are coming again.

On the far side of the deck black ichor bleeds in slow thick drops from Geran's large mace and mixes with the blood of the fallen at his feet, forming small pools on the deck. After his terrifying display there is a short break before the Lunar troops resume their assault on the defenders and Geran quickly shouts to his small unit to tighten up the formation. As though the baby's crying were a signal, the enemy rushes the uz position, obviously trying to break the unexpectedly determined defence.

"HOOOLD!" Geran's voice booms over the twang of arrows and sharp clash of metal weapons like slow thunder over water. As one they lift their dull shields that seem to swallow any glints of light and raise their maces to meet the onslaught. The upraised shields smash into the onrushing Lunars, scattering them across the decks and breaking their line. Warrior engages warrior, yet for every Lunar that falls another is ready to take his place.

Surrounded, out numbered and fighting a furious retreat, a thin smile plays on across Aelfwyrd's face; the wyrd calling is upon him; this is not how it will end. Korol and Yrsga lost to battle, the young Kargani falls back to fight side by side with huge darkness clad Uz. Bloodied and cleaved he reverently kisses the charm that hangs from his neck, and with manic smile watches the lunar soldiers advance. But on hearing the call for defence Aelfwyrd makes a final stand with the lead plated darkman, his glittering trident come sword meeting the lunar assault head on; impaling, slicing and gouging like some insane butchers blade. Yet as the fury takes hold strange words form in his throat, preaching some long forgotten scripture his voice is thick with dread prophecy.

"He will make arrows drunk with blood, and his swords shall devour flesh, Lands shall be without living; and great cities will be made waste. By the blood of the slain they shall know truth, He is in the ascendance, and his name is the wrath of god." The Lunars are not impressed by his words, but stand respectful of his swordplay. And as the sides press close, Aelfwyrd is cut off from his comrades by the enemy's advance.

The orderly fight threatens to become a brawl, the Lunars are many, possibly too many to hold and Geran sees Aelf a little to his side struggling a defensive battle in the midst of many enemies. The huge uz makes a quick decision and shouts new orders. "Tight Formation, support Aelf!" In a brutal move he slams his shield towards a young red-headed lunar boy and charges straight through the Lunars encircling his brother. With the arrival of Geran, Aelfwyrd redoubles his efforts. Leaping heroically into the Lunar shieldwall he strikes down all who stand before him. In the face of this renewed onslaught from the Darkman and his furious Bluefoot ally the Lunars retreat momentarily, despite their Lochargos screaming at them to stand firm.

Elsewhere, Enfrew and charge are faced by three Lunar soldiers who attempt to cut off their retreat back to their comrades. "Stay behind!" Enfrew shouts to the healer, and gets ready to defend her from the attackers. He grips his Death tightly and waits for the first opponent to challenge it, or all of them at the same time, it doesn't matter, they will all die in the end. Their attack is coordinated and skilful, engaging him on two sides before the third man make the telling strike. Blood runs from Enfrew's side and he staggers from the blow. Realising that the situation is hopeless, Enfrew shouts a warning to the healer and turns to run. He swings his sword desperately, throwing the defenders back in surprise. Using the opportunity, he grabs the stunned woman, deals a parting strike at the closest Lunar and carries the healer to safety of defenders' ranks. Slipping past the Lunar's swords the warrior lifts her bodily from the ground and half carries, half drags her back to the rear deck. Crashing through the defenders' shields, Enfrew and the healer find safety amongst a crowd of Orlanthi warriors who, emboldened by Hrolf's leadership, cheer and yell Enfrew's battle-prowess.

There is a danger in the Lunar advance, for the officers appear desperate to breach the defenders' lines now that Garrath is aboard. Hrolf barks orders, straightening the line before order is lost, but the Orlanthi are now too filled with the battle rage to pay him heed. They crash their swords on their shields and howl derisively at their enemy who stare grimly. A sudden movement like a herd of rams charging crashes through the Orlanthi line, shattering it. Orlanthi warriors begin to fall beneath the steady storm of Lunar scimitars and spears. Hrolf throws himself into the fight, calling on the Heortlings to stand firm. Leading by example Hrolf reaps blood, and draws those nearest to him back into a defensive line until the Orlanthi are no longer fighting as individuals, but as a unit. Still, Hrolf sees them buckle and die, before the greater discipline of the Lunar shield wall, and although they take several heads, the defenders' line is forced back.

Malan, too, is surrounded by his foes. Using his war-skill to size up the situation, he spies a gap between his opponents that he may be able to get through if he is fast enough. As he charges through it he draws on the aura of the God of the True Death, knowing that this will cause weaker men to hesitate before attacking. His Power is so great that those Lunars who try to strike are unnerved and miss, and one even strikes one of his own comrades.

The aerial fight has not gone well; perhaps if Jamal was meant to fly, he would have been born Rinliddi. Jamal struggles manfully with the expiring Sylph, trying both to effect both a reasonable landing, and also to touch down when may be of most use. As the Sylph descends he notices that the Elf-friend seems to be in the thick of the combat. So be it, that is where he will land. Jamal calls to his remaining followers and Fulfold, "Prepare your weapons, for we will be amongst the enemy." With that he tries to bring the Sylph near to Aelfwyrd. A fast descending sylph is like no steed he has ridden before, yet if Jamal misjusdges the landing he does so with great luck, bringing down the daimon upon the heads of a squad of unaware lunar soldiers, scattering them. Jamal rolls across the deck and, staggering to his feet, the burly Carmanian draws Bull Spike. With a mighty scream of "By the Might of Idovanus", Jamal, Elnor and Boltar charge as a wedge to aid Aelf and Geran, breaking through the Lunars that confront them.

Aelfwyrd is surprised and slightly relieved as the great armoured bulk of Geran and his fell mace crash into the soldiers that encircle his position. Wiping the gore and spittle from his face the Far Walker is amused and laughs out loud; feigning surprise he yells above at the darkman. "I thought you settling old scores and meant to hurl Aelfwyrd over the bulwark and into the Zola Fel!" But on hearing the Carmanian’s rallying call his demeanour is deathly serious, chanting to Kargan for aid once more nods for the darkman to join him cutting a path to the Herewardi.

Fighting by Aelf's side felt good, the little human was fearsome in battle. The large darkman laughs at the Kargani's joke about hurling him overboard. "No, that comes later. Let's begins with these..." And with that he matches his pace to his friend's and advances towards the other Herewardi, through a host of enemies. His mace rises and falls in an endless arrhythmic motion. He uses his plate clad shoulder and large shield to push through the enemy ranks. The intense fighting has taken on a will of it's own, and Geran only follows it's inevitability. Seeing that the distance to Aelf has increased he quickly moves to close the widening gap. "Hold formation!... PUSH" His followers tighten up their positions behind him and to the side and in a coordinated move surge forward to clash into the Lunar shields. The Moon Men refuse to budge, plant their feet firmly, and push back. Scimitars strike over and under shields, red spears strike over the front rank, the line around Geran begins to waver. His mace descends in a crushing blow on a lunar shield, trapping the soldier's sword arm between shield and body. He raises his mace for the final blow when he falters. Something feels wrong. With a strong shove he disengages momentarily, not noticing the look of relief on the Lunar's face, and reaches out with his senses. There! A shadowy figure slips through the mass of defenders, heading for the rear. This human female is cloaked in magic, and if not for his keen Dark-sense Geran would have missed her; clearly the humans cannot see her. Grasping a scimitar radiating Death and Power in each hand, she walks towards the rear hatch.

Hrolf shouts and runs this way and that desperate to hold the line of Cradleriders together. Geran has held off the Lunars like the Rock of Maran herself, and Hrolf is heartened to see that the deadly Aelfwyrd is back in action. Enfrew's agile swordsmanship has kept his sector together, and Malan and Jamal are now ready to join the shield-wall as well. But where is the Tenthane?? No time to worry about this: "Rally round the Troll!!" he bellows. "Hold them now, Cradleriders: it's now or never!" Several of the Cradleriders turn to look at Hrolf in disgust as he says this, and they mutter under their breath, "we hold this line for our honour, not for a dirty troll!" But the Humakti's voice is filled with the iron of command, and his appearance is so terrifying that none will say this to his face. The Cradleriders rush to bolster Geran's line, and together they halt the Lunars’ advance.

A Lunar sorcerer, realising that Hrolf is playing an important role in the defence, tries to glue his mouth shut. Hrolf notices the Meldek waving his arms; he quickly sidesteps so that the sorcerer’s line of sight is blocked by the Lunar shield-wall, and tries slices the magics with his sword as Hereward's Truewind blows it astray. However, he mistimes his cut and the spell whistles past him to glue Angus to the deck!

On the other side of the deck another Meldek has prepared a bolt of Moon Magic for the embattled Dorinda, and he hurls it at her with glee. "Feel this moonbeam in your heart, Death-woman," he cries. Dorinda sees his magic's arc and cuts with such finality that the moonbeam falls as red-silver dust on the deck, her sword a blur. The sorcerer frowns, for it has been a long time since he faced anyone powerful enough to dismiss his magics so easily. Encouraged, the Cradleriders surge forwards with Dorinda at their lead, her sword a glittering arc of sunlight that dazzles her foes. Yet the Cradleriders are perhaps too elated, and they fail to heed Dorinda's warnings. A quick counterattack by the Lunars punishes them, and Dorinda finds herself almost cut off once more.

Aelfwyrd is confronted by a Lunar champion who wields a silver scimitar and bears down on his defence repeatedly. A mighty warrior, he leaves no space for Aelfwyrd to counter-attack. The weapons of the Far Walker and the Lunar champion whirl and clang; each cleave and strike of the curved moon scimitar blocked by the glittering teeth of the dragon blade. "Your Sairdite Straight-arm style is strong and well learnt.”

Eyeing the warrior’s blade closely the young Kargani mouths a silent prayer, and with knowing smile reaches out to the edge of his senses to call aid from the Wyter. Instantly the glittering brilliance of his Kralorean weapon dims, it brightness seemingly swallowed whole by a black sheen that washes like blood across each blade.

"Yet you are already blowing hard old timer, does the moon wane so quickly?" Spurred on by his insolence the moon solider seeks to land a telling strike yet this time there is no deft parry but a great sundering blow directed at the weapon itself. The two blades in a clash that showers sparks all over those who surround them, and which drives Aelfwyrd to his knees. Aelfwyrd spins the seven-dragon blade like a whirlwind and cuts towards the champion's legs, but the Lunar moves forward too quickly for him, dodging to one side and leaving Aelfwyrd dangerously off-balance. Only honed reflexes manage to save Aelfwyrd from the Lunar's follow-up, a cut that takes some of the Far Walker's hair with it. Breathing hard, Aelfwyrd realises he has met a worthy match at last.

Nearby, unable to see Aelfwyrd's plight, Jamal calls to his followers and any of the Cradle riders that will follow. "Legion Together" he bellows as he tries to force his way through to Enfrew and Hrolf to form an island of resistance against the foe. But despite his bull-like strength and desire for victory, Jamal cannot lead his followers to victory, for the Lunar shield-wall is too strong for their desperate charge.

Here, where the fighting is at its thickest, Jamal faces a horde of soldiers from the Heartlands. They recognise him for a Carmanian breakaway, and their insults know no brook or boundary. In turn, Jamal pours scorn and ice-cold vitriol on the taunts of the "heartlands finest".

"So these are the men the empire send to murder children. So many of the heartland finest falling to a bunch of rebels. You bring great honour to your legions and your families!" he calls with heavily emphasised sarcasm, although at that moment his helmet chooses to tip forward and cover his face, obscuring his menacing glare. Still, the tone of his voice sore offends his insulters, and several of them begin to lose their tempers in a variety of fatal ways.

Nearby Malan too is being insulted, this time as a coward by the soldiers he has run from. Malan feels anger rise within him at these insults but answers "I am no fool to be tempted from my friends' side so easily. If you truly want to test me, come forth yourselves and fight!" But his words do not sound very convincing, and a couple of those around him do look at him with a little contempt.

On the shore Vastyr spies several Cradleriders waving frantically at him now that Garrath is aboard and about to raise the defences. Hoisting the unconscious Morg on the sylph Vastyr and Joran take stock of their surroundings. The magicians they attacked are now heavily protected by fresh guards in heavy armour. And there are too many lesser troops for him to fight alone. The thought freezes him to the spot.

He is not alone! He has brothers and sisters on the Cradle behind him. Fighting the fight he should be fighting with them! "This was stupid."

"Yeah, boss," sweat is running down Joran's face, mixing with blood. Even Runner seems to smile mockingly.

"Only one thing to do with a fight that we can't win... advance towards the rear!" They climb and jump on the sylph. Vastyr grabs a hold of it and points to the Cradle, "Take us there fast!" The sylph leaps away from the ground and closes rapidly down on the cradle, with arrows filling the air around it...

The momentum of the early fighting seems to have left Geran and his companions. Hard-pressed and breathing heavily they form a tight defender's circle just as everything happens at once. In the corner of his eye, Geran can see Aelf struggling with a Lunar Champion, and a little way off he can sense the invisible woman sneaking with deadly intent on Dori's position. A new group of Lunars advance on his position, clearly powerful warriors filled with magics. Too many things at once! Snarling curses he falls back a little and orders a dispersed formation. They try to draw the Lunars apart, feigning weakness, then they each attack one of their assailants. However, these Lunars are powerful warriors, and they are willing to stand and fight alone. Geran's followers are bloodied by their assault and fall back under the onslaught, but Geran manages to prevent their retreat from becoming a route by fighting with titanic courage.

"Hold them!" shouts Geran in his own tongue. With a mighty heave he presses to the rear, focussed on finding the assassin. He watches in frustration as she weaves smoothly between groups of fighters and prepares to pass Dorinda's line of defenders. The hatch! She must be heading for the hatch - where an ally of Uz waits. "Defend my back!" With a mighty roar unlike any he has made before, Geran takes a giant step. In one enormous leap he passes over the struggling line of defenders and soars towards the rear of the deck. The Lunar agent looks up to see him pass overhead, and with one smooth movement leaps forward to drive her wicked blade upwards into his groin. The huge Uz collapses to the deck in pain and shock, and the assassin nimbly rolls down through the hatch.

A jet of lunar magics sweeps across the cradle, blasting the rigging and sending large sections of timber flying. Hrolf looks up to see a large chunk of mast pin-wheeling towards him and dives out of the way, the timber crashing to the deck where he had been standing only moments before. It shatters and a large fragment embeds in Hrolf's leg like a spear.

Another meldek points at Enfrew and screams, "feel the love of Rufelza!" Enfrew stands proudly and shouts at the sorcerer "You will get no love from Humakt!" In his mind, he calls on his god to protect him from the magic of the Lunar bitch, but even Humakt cannot stop the chaotic Lunar magic. The blast hits Enfrew in the chest, knocking him sideways to the deck. He lies stunned for a few moments, feeling overwhelmingly nauseous and fighting down the urge to vomit. His head hurts.

To the starboard bow, Vastyr urges his sylph onwards. Lunar archers have spotted his desperate flight and are leasing flight after flight of arrows. Slapping Joran to warn him, Vastyr swings his shield to catch the arrows with it. The plain, ordinary shield ripples and a dull gleam spreads from the centre. Like the Grim One in the Battle of Dartland, Vastyr smashes the arrows to toothpicks with the Shield-That-Kills-Arrows Feat. Those that aren't blasted into fragments by Vastyr's magics are sent hurtling back to the Lunar soldiers on the ground making them scurry for cover. Vastyr digs his feet to the sides of the sylph, and yells to it, "Faster, windwisp, faster!! Or we'll all be pincushions soon! Faster!" The sylph speeds out of control and slides to one side, careering into the side of the Cradle and catapulting Vastyr and his followers on to the deck, where they land in a bruised heap not far behind their own lines.

The moon champion fights as if possessed, forcing Aelfwyrd back further and further still, the onslaught relentless. But Aelfwyrd calls on his God and feels his presence closer now, ever watchful like some ethereal battle brother; as the Lunar warrior’s curved blade makes to finish the prone Kargani he spots the opening and deftly rolls to one side, bringing his blade high to block the deathblow. Sparks ring out again, and the Lunar champion grunts as the strength of Aelfwyrd's parry forces him backwards. Like a whirling dervish the Kargani spins from his prone position, his fell Kralorean blade smashing a thundering blow into the champion’s defences, shattering his shield and forcing him back still further.

The Orlanthi line moves forwards, loosening as it expands to fill the wider part of the deck. The Lunars facing Dori, however, do not: hoplites, from the look of them, more used to long spears to go with their huge shields than the swords they now wield. No doubt they think of their position as holding a disciplined line: Dori sees it as cowering together with no room to move. It means all three of them are facing her, either way. And they like precise formations, keeping their enemies at long range. Time to disappoint them, then. The shields are held forwards, ready to push, as if they think this is some sort of game, and they only give themselves room to thrust with their swords. Treating a sword as a short spear: idiots! Let’s pick a different set of rules! Sword and shield fighting is not the same as a shield wall, and the opposite tactics work.

She side-steps fast and moves in close. Very close. Far closer than the left flanker expects, with her shield side to his: he’s forgotten, a shield is also a weapon. It may not carry Death, but Kargan is right at times. Her own smaller shield hooks into his from behind, twisting it away and slamming into his elbow, numbing the arm. No armour behind his shield. No-one ever attacks behind the shield, after all. He’s been spun half-round, blocking his companions from her and with no means of bringing his own sword into play. Dori slashes low: she can’t risk getting her own sword fouled with a thrust, but hamstringing him is all that’s needed here, bringing the shield edge up sharply into his throat as she does so. He collapses into the middle man with an interesting gurgling noise.

Have to get this over with fast, she can’t afford to stay ahead of the line for long. Half a second, and one is down. The second man turns to face her, out of his comforting formation, disconcerted by the unconventional attack, and trying to back off, to give himself the space he's used to, but with no room to do so. This time her shield edge smashes into the wrist of his sword arm. She laughs, enjoying the sensation of Death let loose, white teeth flashing in a face covered in Lunar blood. He whimpers in fear and staggers back. That’ll do, on to the third... but he’s seen two of his companions cut down in seconds, and he's running, the winds howling doom around him.

Dori steps back into line, keeping her place and holding a defensive cover while she checks what else is going on. Looks like Hrolf has almost got the scattered clumps of defenders ahead of her into some sort of line: that'll make life easier if it keeps up. The only question now is how long it'll take Garrath to get the defences back up, and if they can hold that long. Time to take a look... She pushes the winds out behind her, probing. There's the hatch... and through that the winds pour, scouring the Cradle's passage-ways. There is a shadow moving into the Cradle's bowels, and beyond that a group of men struggle with an unfamiliar ritual. They are nearly done, only the final words remain to be uttered. Dori relays this to the Cradleriders around her, and they cheer and fight with renewed vigour, knowing that soon it will be all over, one way or the other.

Steadily Hrolf encourages those around him to shape up, telling them that only a few moments more are needed for Garrath to bring them all victory. They too respond with good heart, and press forward eagerly.

Jamal yells to his followers and Fulfold, "To the side!" He leads them to outflank the lunar line by Enfrew, and they crash into the back of the Lunar line aft, causing havoc and mayhem. Jamal is fighting hard, his bravery noteworthy even on this day of great heroism, and it catches the eye of one Carmanian Lunar officer. "You fight with courage and manliness, but amongst the wrong people. Step forward, and I will prove to you the error of your judgement."

Jamal returns the man's call. "I will fight you, if you will fight with honour, under the light of Idovanus’ truth". The officer nods his consent and warriors on both sides make room for them. The two join in a flash Of blades, their strength and skill almost evenly matched until the Lunar makes one move Jamal is unprepared for. The Cradlerider is thrown backwards through his own lines by the blow, and his followers quickly step in to cover him, forcing the officer to withdraw.

Lunar wyverns fly overhead, showering arrows and javelins down upon the defenders. Malan gesticulates at them, and shouts out "Cowards! Come and face me blade to blade!" One of these riders, stung by the Sartarite's words, angrily wheels his steed around and heads like an arrow for the deck, intending to take the man at his word. So furious is he that he ignores the shouted orders of his officer to pull back and lands awkwardly, offering Malan a momentary advantage.

Enfrew staggers to his feet, intent on revenging himself upon the enemy magician. He nocks another arrow in his bow and aims at the sorcerer. "It's my turn now," he shouts, and intones the name Death. But the ringing in his head makes concentration difficult, and the arrow shoots wide of the mark. Frustrated, Enfrew grabs his head in his hands... but what is this? Fur? Horns? Aghast, the warrior tries to understand what has happened to him, but confirmation only comes from the look of fear and hatred in the eyes of those Cradleriders near to him... He has been infected by Chaos!

26 – Last Moments

Hearing someone spouting filth about Rufelza, Aelfwyrd turns to find a sorcerer gesturing in his direction. The Far Walker has seen the remains of those struck by sky wound magic and he was having none of it. Throwing himself to one side Aelfwyrd lands hard on the deck, attempting to hide from the magician's sight amongst the melee. But the meldek magic is powerful, and the sorcerous blast homes in on Aelfwyrd even as he ducks behind a line of Lunar soldiers, striking him squarely in the chest. Almost immediately Aelfwyrd can feel his skin rupturing in wave that passes over his body, as thousands of tiny blisters form and burst to release a foul smelling pus. The Orlanthi nearby recoil in horror and fright at the stench of chaos.

Shocked, Aelfwyrd still manages to rise to his feet. Catching sight of the crimson mage once more he quickly gauges the distance before spitting a curse; the meldek is too far for melee. In a moment of madness Aelfwyrd roars a prayer to the god for aid and taking a close aim hurls the huge glittering blade end over end towards the sorcerers head. The lunar gulps as the mighty sword arcs towards him and hurriedly mumbles some arcane words. A bolt of red light shoots forth from his fingers, smashing the Dragon Blade in mid-flight and sending it tumbling towards the deck.

Enfrew clutches his horns and drops to his knees. A desperate cry rings above the battle shouts and clanking of weapons against shields. His first thought is to jump straight into the river and end his pitiful existence before his comrades in arms notice his shame. But no, he doesn't deserve such end. With a final terrible effort, Enfrew gathers his strength and courage to die a warrior's death. Another howl of rage rips the air as what is still human in Enfrew asserts itself. He rises to his feet and charges the enemy line, his only thought is fighting his way through to the sorcerer who made him what he is. "Death, dance with me one last time!!!" Berserk fury takes hold of the doomed warrior as he cleaves a bloody path through the Lunar ranks. Only the foolish try to face this god-taken warrior, mutated by chaos into a thing of horror: his large, bulbous eyes bulge manically, veins stand up on his hairy neck like rope, froth spouts from his cavernous mouth and blood runs from his floppy ears and snout as Enfrew's sword brings Humakt's gift to those around him. The gore-steeped warrior, one with the sword-storm, closes in on his meldek prey. until he stands before the sorcerer in triumph. Another small group of Lunar soldiers charges him, and he swings his sword with ease, scattering the frightened men. The last one that stands before him is impaled on his newly grown horns and falls dead. Enfrew turns to face the sorcerer again as he cleans his horns of blood and gore. The Lunar trembles in front of his creation.

Something's wrong... Dori has a vague idea that she had missed a point in those last few hectic minutes. While she was dealing with those three, out in front.... something had gone overhead? She replays the memory: Geran? Hurtling towards the hatch, and yelling something. And something had stopped him: but there weren't any enemies there! What had the winds told her? Garrath, yes, but before that... a shadow? A unseen enemy?

"Something's wrong below." She steps back, motioning Oddus to take her place in the line. "Hold them for just a minute more: I'd better check this out."

An invisible assassin? Heading down towards.... and then that sound starts up again. Crying. A helpless child, like the one she'd betrayed all those years ago. Oh, no..... she dives towards the hatch. The intruder might just be after Garrath, who could defend himself, but if it got further.... she sends out the winds ahead of her again. Where was it? Hiding, waiting to attack... who?

Trying to block out the deafening sounds of the giant child's lusty screams, Dorinda hurries through the cradle's passages. She passes though rooms she has explored before - long before, it seems. There is the room where Herric died, there is the room where Jamal almost met an ignominious end in porridge. There are bodies there, some wounded gathered here, but they respond to Dorinda's frantic questions with blank incomprehension. There are choices between passages, a shadow of movement in one, the ghost whisper of subtle movement up another. In this dark and mysterious place, a last preserve of a greener age, Dorinda finds it hard to see Humakt's Truth.

The baby's cries grow louder with each moment, the cries of a child in pain or fear, until Dorinda can stand it no longer. Giving up her search, the warrior descends to the Cradle's bowels as quickly as she can, hurrying towards where the frightened child summons her. Frightened piglings scurry past her as Dorinda plunges deeper into the Cradle, tears blurring her eyes. The sound of a child crying is one that she has heard many times before, but never with such intensity - with it comes a sensation of loneliness, horror and love that leaves Dorinda quite defenceless. Thankfully she reaches at last the child's hall, surprising Blorn and several piglings in the process of cleaning between the baby's legs. The sweet stench of faeces fills the air, the sounds of battle far away. The child was not in pain, merely discomforted, and Dorinda breathes heavily with relief. She carefully scans the hold for any sign of a malign Lunar presence, but there is no sign of any at all.

Above, Jamal is regaining his feet and wiping the blood from his face. Incensed that Jamal has been protected by his followers, the Carmanian officer jeers that he is a coward, calling all those present to witness Jamal's lack of honour. But Jamal refuses to be taunted in such a manner. Angrily he barks at he followers, "Stand back, by my honour I will take this man, or fall in the attempt...."

He steps forward again, narrows his eyes and regards the Lunar official evenly. "If the House of al'Kathoum falls here, it falls with glory on its name." This is stated with such simple honour that all those who stand nearby know the Lunar officer has disgraced himself by besmirching Jamal's reputation. The Lunar draws back, abashed and angry, ready for Jamal's onslaught when it comes.

Jamal calls after him, "Look to your goddess, how barren she must be to resent the fecundity of others..." With a roar he charges, Bullspike a mere blur. The two men meet with a clash, and their swords ring on shield. They hammer at each other, blow after blow, the air thick with the curses of their homeland, until Jamal confuses the man with a feint followed by a furious blow that sends the Lunar spinning away.

Nearby the wyvern rider attempts to wheel his steed around, forcing it to fight Malan with tooth and claw. Warriors duck and flee to avoid confronting this nightmare beast, but Malan merely smiles grimly and raises his axe for a blow that smashes through the wyvern's skin, releasing a fountain of blood that sprays across the deck.

Hrolf faces a tattooed woman with bats tied into her hair that jerk and spasm horribly. Her curved knife is wicked, and she mutters magical imprecation against the portly warrior. Hrolf sees the bats on the Lunar magician and for a moment his thoughts spiral off in a narcoleptic frenzy. Those leathery, fleshy wings; the tick-laden, mangy fur ... the fangs dripping saliva with Urox-knows-what chaotic properties ... But Geran's cry of pain interrupts his thoughts and reminds him of his duty. He has faced such horrors before, and must do so again to follow in Humakt's path and bring the cleansing power of death to the world.

Redoubled in determination, Hrolf shouts out to the Lunars, his voice amplified by the Legion's battle winds: "You are doomed: your assault is as butter to our blades, for Death itself defends the Cradle. Leave here now - while you can - for we will grant no quarter. The Cleansing Time approaches, and we will cut your goddess from the sky like the chaos wound she is!" The witch shrinks before him, recoiling from the righteous anger that fills his words. Those around him feel the Truth of Hrolf's words, and their cheer as they surge forward is deafening.

Groaning with pain and clutching at his sliced groin with one hand the Uz warrior uses his mace to slowly and laboriously pull himself to his feet. Panting with the effort, he can sense his enemy dancing her way towards the hatch. His rage boils up - he will not be defeated this easily - and he roars his defiance at the enemy. Yet his wounds are obviously too great, for Geran slumps with pain and lies still.

There is a humming noise like the drone of bees, which slowly increases.

As the sickening wave of chaos washes over Aelfwyrd, the Kargani's sanity suddenly snaps. Oblivious to the ongoing melee the Far Walker thunders towards the lunar sorcerer, his expression a terrifying mix of horror and rage. Wrenching his lost blade from the deck Aelfwyrd roars his final battle prayer, offering his tainted soul to Humakt;

"Call the Thunder be my heart,
Call the Earth be my anchor,
Call Humakt, make me the Sword-Storm,
This is where I shall stand, sing, kill and die."

The Seven Dragon Blade is a storm of its own as Aelfwyrd leaps into the fray. In the frenzy of the Death Song all direction is lost; the Kargani merely dances Humakt's Dance and sings his Death Song. Before him some brave Lunars try to fight, the sensible flee. All are cut down.

Jamal readies himself for another assault on his Carmanian foe, but as he does this lights flash around him, the Cradle judders, and there is general screaming and commotion. Praise be to Idovanus, Garrath has succeeded, Pinchining has returned. Jamal steps back and puts up his sword. "Ho" he calls to his fellow combatant "The Cradle riders have the day. Valiant foe, you have fought with honour. I commend both you and your house. I release you from the burden of the duel, and allow you to quit the field with your honour intact..... But remember this day, and scour your heart for the light of Idovanus' truth, so you may reflect on your path..." With that Jamal salutes his foe, but is wary lest he may show himself to lack in honour and continue his attack.

At that moment a circling wyvern rider attempts to dive to the deck and assist his colleague fighting Malan, but as he passes through the Cradle glow there is a terrible flash. The rider and his mount hit the deck as a single charred lump.

The Carmanian takes a quick look around him and a longer one at the fallen wyvern rider, and acknowledges the truth of his position with a wry nod. "My name is Abyad bin Taher, of the House Saad. My wife would not be impressed by my return in that condition," he says indicating the fallen man, "so I yield my sword to you and your honour."

Jamal nods gravely, and takes the mans sword. "By my honour this man is under my protection" Then to Abyad he says, "I will endeavour to see to you saftey until you can be released on neutral land, as long as you will not act against to interest of the our legion. Do I have your word to this ?"

Abyad nods. "You have my sword, Righteousness, which has been in my family since it was forged for the Battle of Dolebury more than four hundred years ago. I swear on her blade not to trouble you whilst under your protection."

By now the Watchdog, which has been holding the Cradle static in the water, is suffering the effects of Pinchining's return. Smoke is pouring from its mouth, and blisters have appeared on its face. The carved dragon head on the bow begins biting at the Watchdog's ears, breaking pieces off smashing at the eyes. Along the railings, the Cradle's charred heads begin keening. Several emit strange magics that pulverise Lunar attackers on the shore, others release weird vapours that incapacitate soldiers on the deck.

As the bat-priestess falls back, Hrolf senses that for him the time for words has passed. Amid the wounded bellows of Geran, the rage of Aelf and Enfrew, the arrows and magic whizzing across the gore-splattered deck, a Hu-moment takes hold of him and he feels the silent stillness at the heart of battle. Destiny awaits beyond the edge of his blade; he must now seek it in melee.

Without thinking, Hrolf steps forward as the priestess recoils. His right-hand sword pierces her throat as he wards off a high blow from one of her guards on his left. He steps past and behind the guard, his left sword slashing the tendons behind the hoplite's knee. Other hoplites converge on him, but the rest of the battle is lost to his conscious mind as he submerges himself into the swirling blur of clashing destinies. Humakt was here today. Humakt - and victory.

Berserk, Enfrew confronts his tormentor, his sword a grim and bloody promise of doom. Revenge! Death! The Lunar sorcerer can feel a grim aura of the end around the enraged warrior. He turned his enemy into something else, and now it is coming to end his life in the name of Humakt. The Lunar raises his hands in a defiant gesture of repudiation, but Enfrew's sword merely cleaves them from their arms as his their owner is beheaded. The head rolls across the deck and comes to rest before a squad of Lunar infantry, and there it prophesises to them: "Doom this day! The Moon will not wane full in Prax, this day has ended that. Run to your mothers and tell them to prepare for the Hero Wars! Brother will fight brother! Slave take up axe and strike down lord! Gods will die and races of men perish! Better to die now than live and see tomorrow!"

Backing away from the dead prophet in panic, the soldiers turn and flee only to be cut down by Enfrew's sword, and the swords of those who have followed his desperate charge. The carnage is absolute as the berserker and his followers fall like wolves into the Lunar rabble and devour their lives. Desperate to escape the massacre, Lunars throw themselves overboard only to perish in the Cradle's barrier.

Seeing his enemy wounded heartens Malan and he raises his axe for another blow that sends the wyvern rider tumbling from his mount to sprawl on the deck motionless. The wyvern howls and turns to rake Malan with his claws, but is quickly overwhelmed by nearby Cradleriders. Everywhere Lunars are being subdued, and though some try to surrender few are given the opportunity.

Below, Dorinda leaves the child's side, searching for the assassin once more. Winds billow around her, carrying echoes of soft footfall and the scent of lurking danger. The Lunar warrior is obviously heading towards Garrath, so Dorinda turns that way, climbing up through the Cradle until she finds the Orlanthi celebrating Pinchining's return on the second deck. The golden wheel rushes past them as they cheer and boast of the success of their magics. Still unable to see the assassin, Dorinda can do little more than shout a warning - but that is enough for even as the Orlanthi turn in the direction of her shout, the assassin strikes. Dorinda's cry has prepared them for something - even if they don't know what - and the moment the Lunar steps forward from the protection of her cloaking magic, she is cut down by Garrath's thanes. Garrath turns to face Dorinda and salutes her with his sword. "It appears I am once more in your debt, Daughter of Humakt," he says with a smile.

"You're welcome", she says, smiling back. "We can't have just any rabble being allowed to kill you, after all. That's a very exclusive privilege!" She kicks at the body thoughtfully, turning serious. "I think this was the only one to get past us, but it's a good job you got the defences back up as fast as you did. We couldn't have held them much longer, the magic up there was getting nasty."

27 - Aftermath

The remaining defenders cheer as Garrath and his thanes, accompanied by Dorinda, come top-side. They arrive just in time to see the Watchdog of Corflu topple backwards into the river with a dull roar and sink from sight.The Cradle slowly begins to waddle down-stream past the island, and comes to a halt where the River of Cradles meets the sea.

Garrath explains to the other defenders that he has returned with Pinchining, the Cradle's wyter, and how the Herewardi helped him. He shows them the golden disc spinning on the second deck below, where piglings and Blorn can be seen capering with joy. The Nemolayope also appears on the top deck, and although she weeps at the death and destruction, she tends the wounded of both sides lovingly. With the merest motion she lulls Aelfwyrd and Enfrew from the berserkergang furies to swift, childlike sleep that fells them both like axes.

The cradleriders left standing clutch each other in relief and disbelief at having survived. They turn over bodies and weep when they discover their kin and comrades. Miraculously, nearly all those sought by the Herewardi are found: Korol staggers to his feet and blinks. Here is Kristen, badly wounded but at the van of the fight.

She's asleep. Dori looks down at her, as firmly expressionless as always under these circumstances. It makes sense. She must have gone berserk to have kept fighting with those injuries. And given a female child to defend from male attackers, she would.

The cuts are closing even as she watches, and she fights against the wave of relief and joy. Axe Sisters are not permitted any affection outside their cult. Dori has always seen attachments as un-Humakti weaknesses, and tried to avoid them. And they have kept this - no, not pretence, more a refusal to accept failure - going for far too many years to drop it now. So any impression any onlooker might have that days of tension, fear, and guilt at having left an injured and much-loved friend behind have just been relieved must, of course, be entirely erroneous.

Kristen looks very peaceful, and very young, lying there. Which she is, if you do the sums. Too young to be in a fight like this, or any of the others they had shared in the past. Dori shakes her head. Enough. She nudges the girl gently with her foot. "You going to lounge around there all day?"

Kristen's eyes flick open, and she tenses, scanning for danger, then relaxes, looking down at where her injuries had been, puzzled. "You didn't...?"

"No, not this time. Our hostess is better at that sort of thing. You're all right?"

"Yeah. 'Course." She sits up, seemingly surprised at how easy it is. "But you're..." She sniffs the air again. "That's not your blood. Not hurt, not angry, not... but something's wrong?"

Dori smiles wryly. "You know me far too well. Something, yes. I'm not sure what, yet. Nothing urgent, anyway, not now."

There is a feral glint in Kristen's eyes, the killer instinct that is never far away starting to rise. "If those men..."

"No! Nothing like that. It's all right, or it will be. We can talk about it later. But now... they're men, they'll need organising. You coming?" She reaches down, pulls the girl to her feet. And then she thinks back to the things she had found out during that last long night, waiting for the dawn. Maybe it wasn't a weakness.

"Welcome back", she says softly. "I've missed you."

Blackbeak sidles up to Hrolf and mutters, "good of you to dwop by again, Bothth."

Hrolf turns in response to Blackbeak's greeting, begins to clap him on the shoulder but then picks up the diminutive durulz instead. "Blackbeak! It has been too long since I've heard the crash of your sword and heard the prick of your words! Well fought, friend!" Turning to Hughie, Hrolf exclaims with equal enthusiasm "You are indeed as tough as your reputation claims. It shamed me to leave the Cradle without you but I did keep promise to come back. Have we redeemed ourselves?"

"Bothth," says Hughie with a feral glint in his eye, "it'th been a blatht." The powerfully built Durulz kisses his bloody sword for emphasis. "When the Lunars came aboard we fell back to the underdeckth and played cat and mouth with them. We knew you'd be back, and in twuth there wath no lotht honour to wedeem. My thword ith thtill yourth if you want it."

And here is Yrsga, fallen and sorely wounded in the middle of the deck. The three lunar bodies around her tell their own story of how Yrsga won Humakt's favour again. The heroes congregate together, and it begins to dawn on them that rather than a lucky escape, this has been a famous victory. The Cradleriders toast Garrath for restoring Pinchining, but that was magic under the decks. What the Cradleriders saw was the Herewardi win the day, and their recognition of Enfrew's slaughter, Hrolf's oratory, Dorinda's leadership, and the many deeds of heroism performed by this band, will obviously grow in the telling.

As the Cradle edges gently towards the ocean a number of small reed craft glide from the marshes to see it off. "From here," says Garrath," we will enter the Homeward Ocean and from there sail Magasta's Pool to the Underworld, where this child can grow. I, and some others, have chosen to stay here and guard the Cradle's final voyage. The rest of you must depart."

"Pinchining says he is sorry for the death and sorrow which were made here. He says that you who have lost so many companions may not feel that the exchange of so many lives for one baby is a fair one, and he wishes to make amends. He would like each who has defended this cradle to take an armload of gold for their sacrifice. It lies all about, down below, take as much as you can. But take nothing but the gold! Any other thing taken will bring a terrible curse worse than death upon you."

Dori steps back as the Nemolayope approaches, half-revolted at the outpouring of Life magic so close. Not that she had any need of healing herself in any case, this time. She might be covered in blood, but very little of it seemed to be hers. She had been lucky. She glances around, checking. Her own people are all happy to accept the Nemolayope's help: happier in some cases than in others, of course. Jamal.... ah, well, no doubt the nymph would be too busy for any more of that.

But there were others on the Cradle who might not have been as lucky. It's easier to spot people now there aren't so many Lunars in the way. Over at the far side, a knot of black. The Pavis Humakti. She makes her way over and finds, as she half-expects, an injured man lying on the deck, and ... what was her name? Elendala, that was it, bending over him, trying and failing to stem the bleeding from a huge gash in his arm.

"Want a hand with that?"

Elendala looks up, her face haggard with exhaustion. "What's the point? My clan charms won't touch something as bad as this, bandages won't stop the blood, his sword-arm's smashed - Hu's blessing is going to kill him, and that's all there is to it."

"Let me see." Dori kneels down beside them. "Oh, that's not so bad. Look, put your fingers there - no, up a bit, that's right. Now press. Fine... hold it there a minute." The blood slows to a trickle, and she pulls out needle and thread. "It's easier with four hands on the job. Let's get those tendons back together, then a tight bandage on that pressure point...". She works busily for a few minutes, Elendala assisting. "Right. That should heal, given time. Though of course... Hu's blessing, you said, not Inginew's? Use your clan charm on it now, he'll be wielding a sword again that bit sooner and there's less danger of it all pulling apart again before it gets a chance to mend."

Elandala sits back and looks up incredulously. "You really think he'll be able to use that arm again, properly? Without a real healer's blessing, just stitches and bandages? I was sure he'd be maimed even if he lived."

"Why not?" Dori stretches out her own sword arm, twists it experimentally, old scars on the back pulling slightly. "Looks to me like that works, more or less. And that was done with one hand, not four. He'll heal, it'll just take time." She stands, pulls her shirt sleeves back down.

"Elendala..." she hesitates slightly. "You said you had a healing touch, from your old clan. Would you like to learn how to do the bits that don't need charms, too? It seems a shame to have a gift like that wasted just because no-one's taught you the rest of it."

The shorter woman eyes her quizzically. "You're offering to teach healing?"

Dori shrugs. "Sword-play as well, of course, if you like. But there's plenty who'll do that. Finding anyone willing to teach Arroin's secrets to a death-wielder is a bit harder, and those healers who'll try generally don't know much. It's a long way back to Pavis. Come with us, and I'll see what I can show you on the way, if you like."

Elendala considers the offer for a moment, then nods decisively ans says formally. “I will kiss your sword, not just because you offer me secrets, but because I have witnessed your courage and cunning in the sword-storm.”

Walking gingerly Geran breathes a sigh of relief. The knife had made a mess of his groin but the strange creature guarding the baby had healed him. Still marvelling at his luck he quickly gathers his followers and sees that they are all well, luckily no one has been too badly hurt, though Hakteg will sport a fine scar across his left cheek. Geran found him rubbing some black powder into the slash to make the scar even more mpressive and nodded approvingly grinning widely. The Uz gather up as many choice items they can find, though Geran has to assert his leadership to make them leave the dead alone, and make an impromptu feast. Bloody clothing, armour, broken bits from both cradle and watchdog, as well as a few items dropped by Lunar magicians are quickly consumed, and the uz are temorarily sated.

He listens passively to Garrath's rousing speech and the promise of gold. He makes a face. Gold, why this human obession with gold? Filthy shiny stuff. Still, he knows the humans value the stuff, so he gathers up as much as he can and puts it into a barrel that escaped the Uz hunger by an oversight of Domag's.

Geran looks back towards land and can see the dragonflies swooping in the air. There must be a Gorakikki shrine nearby, he realises in surprise. He stands in silence for a while observing the beautiful creatures before he goes in search of Aelf. His friend will help him change the worthless gold into bolgs, he knows the ways of humans.

"Brother!" He says happily then looks at him and sniffs a bit. "You are different"

Face down on the deck it appears to the casual observer that Aelfwyrd is amongst the fallen this day, yet another corpse littering the deck of the giant cradle. Yet as the darkman speaks the young Kargani's sudden wakes, his head snapping violently to one side to meets the gaze of the towering Uz. Reaching out to grasp his Kralorean blade the Far Walker rises slowly to his feet; gore, war gear and other indiscernible waste clinging to what is left of his battle kit. Absently wiping blood and spittle from his face Aelfwyrd stares at Geran in wide-eyed silence.

After what seems like many moments the Kargani blinks, and for the first time acknowledges the darkman’s presence. Slowly scanning the scenes of carnage on deck Aelfwyrd pushes a bloodied hand through his matted hair and begins to mutter a string of foul curses under his breath.

With a sudden explosive rage he drives his blade deep into the wooden decking "I've danced Humakt's Dance and sung His Death Song" and turning to where the corpses are being piled he yells accusingly "it is I who shall stand, sing, kill and die."

As the Cradle Riders turn to locate the source of this outburst he turns away in shame. Slowly the Far Walker touches his blighted face, then holding out his arm examines the bloody blisters that have eaten his once pale and smooth skin.

"Yet Aelfwyrd lives! Reject by his Lord...Rejected by Humakt himself!"

Ripping the small charm that hangs from his neck Aelfwyrd hurls it high into the air, and watching it disappear into the waters of the Zola Fel he yells aloud

"Tainted and cursed am I. A life without honour is no life at all!"

Grabbing hold of a nearby bulwark he shakes with anger; his gaze fixed on the northern horizon Aelfwyrd is wide-eyed once more, mouthing silent curses at his fate.

The huge Uz takes a step back, consternation on his face as he sees his friend's condition. Then he throws his weapon down onto the deck where it lands with a dull thud and grabs Aelf in a huge embrace. In a voice rough with emotion he slobbers affectionately in the Kargani's ear. "You look funny now, we'll fix you. Mother Dori'll fix you, brother."

Dori comes over, giving Geran a slightly exasperated look. "I should be so lucky. It looks more like a job for the White Ladies to me. Next stop Horn Gate, unless any of the healers here think they can handle it. There's a salve that might take some of the sting out of those blisters, though: let me have a look."

She peels Geran off him for a closer inspection, and realises that the boy's still shaking. And the white around the eyes and general frothing at the mouth probably isn't due to his new skin complaint. She replays the last bit of hysterical ranting in her mind, and sighs.

"Don't be daft, Aelf. There's nothing dishonourable in being injured in battle and that's all that happened to you. You think if Humakt had abandoned you, you'd have been fighting like that? Come off it. You're alive because he's with you, and because you're a damn good warrior. And you're going to stay that way, if I have anything to do with it. We'll get this mess sorted, then it's business as usual, right?"

Her words don't seem to be going in: the kid still looks as if he's going to be sick. She can't really blame him, and it isn't all that fair to take out her irritation with Geran on the wrong target. He's only a kid, after all. Her expression softens a little. "It's all right, Aelf. Think of it as being an illness, like when you had the shakes that time. It's external, it doesn't affect who you are. No-one's rejecting you, not Humakt and not us."

The Far Walkers anger visibly cools, his expression becoming silent, almost haunted. His voice thick with emotion. "A man would think himself King with such iron companions, for I know your words are well meant. Yet there is a simple truth here; only those whom The Lord rejects survive his Death Song." Absently touching his blistered face Aelfwyrd recoils in disgust, and wrenching his blade from the wooden deck he makes to walk away. Stopping suddenly he turns to regard his companions once more.

"Some wounds are beyond even the powers of the White Women of Horn Gate." Gesturing to where the dead are being piled he continues, "I would honour the fallen, for they are deserving of the victory song." and turning away he begins to assist those preparing the corpses for funeral.

Not far off, Enfrew’s head still aching. He puts his hands to his face, hoping to find it as it was before, hoping that Chaos transformation was just a bad dream, but his fingers still feel the short fur, and moving his hands upwards reveals that the horns are still there. But this discover causes no rage. Where there was rage and anger, there's now only emptiness, a dull void of something that comes after desperations, when you already get used to it.

He slowly stands up, looking at his comrades. Did they forget to kill him while he was asleep? But he sees Aelfwyrd, still alive despite his Chaos transformation. It seems they decided not to kill them. But how will they react now that battle is over? There's only one way to find out.

Enfrew's stroll to his comrades is interrupted by the healer he rescued while he was still himself. She approaches him and looks at him with sadness in her eyes. What kind of monster must he be in her mind? Lacking other words to say, he simply whispers, "I'm sorry.", not even sure if he's sorry for himself or something else. She puts her hands on his shoulder soothingly and says "Don't worry. What's your name?"

He looks up and responds: "Enfrew."

"I'm Janerra," she says. "Don't worry. I'm sure there is something we can do for you and you friend. I believe I have finished my journeys with Garrath's band. Would you legion mind if I came along? Brave warriors like you and your companions must need healing from time to time."

Enfrew looks at her, his thoughts far away. He isn't even sure if the Legion will allow him to accompany them. But he replies nevertheless. "I don't know. I'll have to ask our ten-thane. But are you sure you want to travel with us? Most people shun at thought of having anything to do with Humakti. With Aelf and me in this state, we're even less desirable band than before."

She smiles in response. "Don't worry, I know what I want. My duty is to help the ill and wounded, and you and your Aelf seem to need my help the most."

"Good, then," Enfrew says, "let's go and see what they think."

Enfrew leeds Janerra to the others, still ashamed of his looks. He simply stands there for a while, unable to find words. Finally, he manages to forget his sorry state, and addresses the group. "This is Janerra, a Chalana Arroy healer. She might be able to help Aelf and me." He makes a small pause and sighs bestially. "That is, if you still want us in the legion."

There is a general disgust at this comment – there is no doubt that Enfrew’s place in the band is unchanged.

“Horn Gate,” says Janerra. “We must go to Horn Gate, for there Korlmar the White Healer resides. My own powers are not enough to treat these Chaos Wounds, for should I fail a great ill might become those I attempted to save. We must go to Horn Gate.”

Enfrew doesn't even notice the disgust in his comrades' eyes, for Janerra's voice rings through his mind with great force. "Horn Gate," she said. Horn Gate it will be. With his trusted companions at his side, he will cure his horrible transformation and restore himself in Humakt's favour. That, or he will die trying. Either way, he shall be free in the end.

He looks at Aelfwyrd who has suffered similar, although less mocking, fate, and then at Ten-Thane Dorinda. "When do we start?"

As the Legion packs to leave the Cradle, and make its onward move to the Healers and Horn Gate. Jamal circulates round the Cradles Riders, wishing those who were to ride with Garreth well, and bidding fare well to the others.

As he does this he comes upon Garreth's thane, Fufold, in a mood blacker than the midwinter nights in Spol.

Jamal greetings him in his cheeriest fashion, yet the man's temper does not improve.

"I am a fighter not a nurse maid, I would feel flow of lunar blood on my sword rather venture on this unknown voyage"

Jamal is somewhat taken aback by the warrior’s words, but he replies...

"I know little of what Sharpsword plans, but I do know of where my destiny lies. Our legion heads for muster in Pavis, where we shall assess our strength for the battles that are yet to come.

We have fought together, I have seen your prowess, and you have accepted my orders. The legions will need good swords, and I assess you an honourable and worthy man. Will you ride with me as my respected vassal into the wars that are surely ahead of us?"

Fufold looks rather strangely at the Carmanian, as if the way he expresses himself seems rather confusing. Then he replies "You know, I think I will".

The men embrace a comradely embrace, and Jamal walks with Fufold to join his other vassals as they prepare to leave the Cradle.

Geran looks at his sack, heavy with bolgs and wonders silently how he is going to transport it. He shrugs, a solution will come. Of more immediate concern, is what to do with it all. Be generous, like a Sartarite Chief and give it away? Ha! No, but he is wealthy now, very wealthy and must decide soon.

A scarred and grim Humakti warrior sits on a barrel cleaning his blade with a soft cloth. Although the blue Iron is already spotless he wipes it over and over and over. Many Cradleriders approach to see if he needs assistance or if he is injured, but one growl of the massive wolf laying at his feet sends them quickly away, healer, waterboy and Orlanthi alike.

Vastyr, finally satisfied that Bane is clean, lifts his sword and looks at it in the sunlight. Even though he knows that it is older than many kingdoms, it does not look its age. The only marking is the rune that appeared after he attacked those magicians on the shore. Vastyr hasn't seen the like of it before, but somehow knows what it means. Slithering Bane was forged to kill magicians and magic. Vastyr is sure that it has more powers, but exploring them is for another day.

Now he must decide what to do.

There is a blemish on his honour as a Humakti and a Herewardi. In his recklessness he attacked the enemy on the shore, when the real fight was on the Cradle. He struck at the enemy that struck at him, when the Tenthane led elsewhere. He wasted his time going from fight to fight, when he should have been in the shield wall. In a word, he failed. He failed the mission, the Cradle, the Legion, himself, but most of all his god.

"Measure twice, cut once," says Runner.

Vastyr gapes open-mouthed at the Fell Wolf. "What?" he is finally able to ask.

"We were measured by Him. And found lacking," the wolf says, "Last Death Day you willingly joined the Temple of the Unbreakable Sword. But today you acted as if you were a free mercenary fighting on your own. That is not what we are. We are Troopers, and we fight with the others. As one. Not as many. As one." Runner lowers his head to his paws and sighs, "We will be measured again, boss..."

Vastyr looks at his blade, Runner and finally his hands. The Truth is in the words of the wolf. He must stand by the Legion. It is Duty and Honour.

Standing up Vastyr sheats his sword, picks up his kit and shield, and starts to where Dori and the others are preparing to disembark. There is marching to be done and enemies to kill. Enemies of the Legion.

The Cradle idles in the marshes, the same marshes which have yielded up reed boats crewed by numerous newtlings and human fisherfolk. They rejoice in the safe passage of the Giant Child, and the honour Zola Fel's people have won in her defence. They help bring down the wounded and the departing survivors to their boats, all the while promising them great feasting as their reward.

Many of the Cradleriders are surprisingly sad to leave the deck. Garrath and the Nemolayope have made sure each warrior had the opportunity to visit the lower decks and gaze upon the child they have saved. Grown men returned to the decks with tears streaming down their cheeks, for with Pinchining's return the Cradle is once more a place that smells enchantingly of flower blossoms and honey.

Led below-decks by the Nemolayope, Hrolf contemplates the giant baby in quiet awe. He places a hand on its massive shoulder, and wishes it well. "Farewell, child. I do not know your destiny, but some say you will travel to the grim realms indeed. Should you find yourself in need of a blade straight and true, remember the names Humakt and Hereward." Hrolf swallows, and pauses, recalling his own youth. "Children find much that is ... unexpected as they become adults, but know that the North Wind blows true. Some day you may find salvation in its bite."

A few warriors vow to remain on the vessel, no matter where it intends to sail, but Garrath is reluctant to accept more volunteers. When Fufold begs leave to remain behind, Garrath is more than willing to release him from his thane-oath and give his blessing.

At last none but Garrath's band and our heroes are left onboard, and it is time for them to depart. Vern, who has to be dragged up from exploring below decks where he has apparently been ensconced since the heroes' last sighting of him, is manhandled down to the reed boats below, all the time begging leave to remain onboard and study for just another hour.

Jamal calls to Vern. "Ahoy friend Vern, time to drag you back from your studies into real life. Come let us find you some new adventure to pique your interest"

Garrath observes the departing company and shakes his head. "It has been a pleasure to stand here beside you and face the enemy. When I return again to the world I hope stand once more with you in the shield wall. They say there is no friendship like that forged in battle, and today I know that to be true. You have gold and treasures of your own, you have your own battle lords, you have your own arms. There is nothing I can give you that you do not already have, save my friendship. Take these tokens of my friendship, and think of me fondly in the dark days ahead." With these words he hands each of the heroes an iron ring marked with storm rune. "These were forged from the blade of my father's sword. Usually I give them to my thanes, but from the wounded and those released from their oaths I have many to spare now. Wear them for me, not in fealty but as a token of friendship, and pray to Humakt for me when I am in the Underworld."

Jamal accepts the ring bowing with the appropriate Carmanian etiquette, and places it on his finger next to the signet ring of his house.

"I shall wear this by the insignia of my house. Indeed should I regain the position of my house I shall commission the order heralds to change the arms of al'Kathoum to feature the Cradle and the Storm in honour of this endeavour. Fare well Sir Garreth, my we fight side by side again..." Jamal then turns to Nemolayope and kissed her hand in a show of quite impeccable good manners. "Fare well also to you my lady, may your voyage be a smooth and safe one"

Enfrew takes the gift and fits it on his finger. After a couple of silent moments spend admiring the ring, he says: "A Storm Ring forged of Death. May Humakt and Orlanth watch over you and return you safely to us so that more Lunars may fall under our weapons."

Vastyr takes off his gauntlet and puts the ring on his sword hand. "Deeds done on this Cradle will not be forgotten. Together we will free our land and purify the predark from it." He shakes hands with the Orlanthi lord and returns to his place in the Ten.

The Kargani is robed in black in an attempt to conceal his blighted skin, and to soak the blood that seeps from the blisters. Pulling back his hood Aelfywrd smiles grimly and speaks out loud to Garrath and his companions, emotion clear in his voice.

"I prayed to Humakt that this river would run a crimson tide, and with great gladness I celebrate this victory over the moon" then embracing Garrath as he would a fyrd brother "Shieldwall or not we will stand together once more my friend"

Taking his iron ring the Far Walker is silent once more.

"You made a sword into rings?" Dori shakes her head in amazement as she accepts hers and examines it. "That sounds like a story in itself."

She slips the ring onto her finger. "Wear it in friendship I will indeed, and our prayers will be with you, in the Underworld or anywhere else. The Homeward Ocean and Magasta's Pool: that's going to be quite a voyage. And wherever you end up after the Underworld, of course. Somehow, I've got no doubt that you can cope with it, with or without our prayers. But... a journey like that can be... transforming, in many ways, or so I've heard." She looks him straight in the eyes, very serious. "Don't let it change you too much. I'd like to still be friends with the man who comes back."

Dorinda then pulls an object from her pouch and presses it into Garrath's hands. Pyramidal in shape, the symbol of Truth is inscribed on each of its four faces. "These are sacred to our cult," she says as he regards it curiously. "It holds a tiny fraction of the North Wind, Hereward's wind, and will always fall to point North. May it guide you on your journey."

Garrath smiles at the gifting. "I take this with thanks, and it is a useful gift to be sure. When I end up in Hell, I will be able to say that true warriors of Humakt showed me the path! I will keep this, and treasure it, and pray that once this quest is over it may lead me back to your sides in the shieldwall."

The huge Uz warrior looks at the ring held out before him in some confusion. His companions whisper between themselves behind him, and on an impulse he quickly reaches out and grabs the gift from Garrath's hand. His followers gasp.

As if he was handling a hot stone, he passes the object from hand to hand and back again in quick succession while he looks at it more closely, then equally swiftly he places it into a small pouch he wears around his neck.

"You are a great leader, Wind Lord, to give such gifts. I am honoured to be called friend and will wear this ring proudly." At the word 'wear' he holds up his pouch and grins. "If you have ever need of the Uz from the Indigo Mountain clans, call and we shall come."

He then bows in the human fashion and steps back to join his admiring friends.

Hrolf accepts an iron torc and nods his head to Garrath in gratitude. "I will wear this with pride, and in the hope that we will again defeat many enemies together."

"But before you go, can you tell us why you travel down the depths of Magasta's pool with this child? What is your quest?"

Garrath sighs at the question, purses his lips and looks off to the far ocean-ward horizon before replying. "A good question Hrolf, and one that perhaps I know only half the answer to. For one part, I have sworn to protect this child, and although we have seen off many dangers on our way downriver, there are also dangers at sea. But as to the rest... I can only tell you that my feet lead me this way." Garrath looks back at Hrolf.

"For many years I have fought without honour, and struggled without rest, and hated the Lunars in secret. I thought that should Orlanth choose to lay a Hero's path before me it would be a war path, that we would send the Black Arrow from stead to stead across Dragon Pass and Prax, and that at last we would rise up against the outlanders with honour and pride, and my sword would be among the foremost. But years of waiting for this path have yielded no fruit: I think my dream-visions had no truth. Instead Orlanth has laid a different Heropath before me, and as yet I can see no destination. That knowledge will come. When the Gods offer us water, we drink; when they offer us bread, we eat and give thanks. We do not ask the price, and we do not demand beer and beef. Whatever the Storm Lord needs of me, he has my service - these are my thoughts.

"A bad time is coming. Dark prophecies are on the tongues of the mad and the wise. Hone your swords and wits, Hrolf and all you Herewardi, for I think the Storm Tribe will need them soon enough."

But the time for talking is over, as the Cradle is moving once more. Anxious shouts from the reed boats below stir the heroes to action, and they hurry to make good their departure. Bundles are swung down, and newtlings steady the warriors' descent to the flimsy craft that nestle low in the water and slide effortlessly alongside the Cradle. For the first time since boarding the Cradle back at the Boathouse Ruins the heroes see the oppressive scale of the vessel and the strange, beautiful carvings that stare out at the world.

The Cradle gathers pace, hungry for the open ocean, and gradually becomes obscured by a light mist rolling in from the sea. The last sight the heroes have of the Giant Child's vessel is Garrath and his thanes leaning over the stern and shouting. The wind carries their faint words to them: "Orlanth and Humakt bring fortune to you. We shall see each other before long, in this life or the next."


Xenophon: "From the beginning the gods did not reveal all things to us, yet through searching we may learn and know things better. But as for certain Truth, no man has known it, nor shall he know it, neither of the Gods nor yet of all the things of which I speak. For even if by chance he were to utter the Final Truth he himself would not know it, for all is but a woven web of guesses."

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