Horn Gate


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13 - Into the depths

The raging waters carry the heroes over the edge of the chasm, and they fall far into the Earth. The chasm seems to have no end, but in the river's embrace the warrior's initial terror quietened, soothed, calmed. They fall in darkness, comforted by Elmeh Saif's presence, warmth and love. The river god speaks to them, and his voice is heard deep in their bones. He talks of his joy, his longing for home, his pleasure at the heroes' freeing him.

In response Hrolf speaks. "Noble Elmeh Saif, we humbly ask for your patience and understanding. We have done everything in our power to break your bondage, for our honour is more precious to us than our lives. We have proved this to you, and you can judge for yourself.

"We have heard and understood the depth of the injustice inflicted against you. We heard you when you said you must leave this place, where the weak and treacherous have abused the generous. We wish to exorcise the sins of the false king Hassalar, and build anew on the truths of comradeship, respect, and trust. We humbly make the following proposal to you.

"The lands above your prison are parched for many miles in every direction, and many depend on the oasis that you have provided for the lives of their entire people. We understand your anger against them, but some of these people are good and acted in innocence. They will pay fair recompense for the gifts that only you and your kin can provide. Will you agree to meet with them, and hear their offers? If you can come to agreement, we offer to bind their promises through the power of the Humakti Oath. We offer also to use Humakt's gifts in detecting lies and deception. Know that we, the Herewardi, act always in the name of truth, and would die sooner than deceive you.

"Will you agree to hear their pleas? If the surface dwellers prove worthy, you could build a great new partnership that will strengthen your kin in this region in a way that has not been seen for centuries, if not longer. The old world is dying, Elmeh Saif; help us make the new world better!"

The godling does not answer immediately, and Dorinda repeats her earlier description of the benefits gained by the rivers of Sun County from theri partnership wth humans.

Elmeh Saif considers the words of Hrolf and Dorinda. "I hear what you say, but I will not help those who drank my waters without thanks. Nor will I entreat my kin to do so. But if you would seek one amongst them who would be willing, then I will not oppose you, and I will even help you find them. This is what I will do for you."

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14 – Waterworld

The water that is their womb is no longer falling. Instead it coils and turns, sinuously, sensually. It takes the heroes a while to realise that Elmeh Saif is rubbing himself against other streams of water who burble excitedly in return.

MY GRANDCHILDREN, comes the thought. That's nice, think the warriors.

Time appears to pass, but the heroes feel unconcerned by this. Floating gently, with lazy smiles, they ebb and flow with Elmeh Saif's current. From time to time one of them blows bubbles, the puzzled air dematerialising swiftly.

The god begins to move, plunging through the other waters at a dizzying speed, until he carries his cargo through blackness and surfaces in a torrent on a wide, flat plain of. New shoots are beginning to push their way through dusty clay. In the far distance mountains rise up to a barren sky.

"In a cave on the far side of those mountains," says Elmeh Saif, "is the lair of the Wyrm Konibuthezar. My grandchildren tell me he has seized their brother, the one called Ba Hariya. Free him, and Ba Hariya may help you."

The warriors stand now on the muddy banks of the river god, before them lies the barren plain.

Dori scans the area, checking for enemies and doing a swift head- count. All present and more or less intact: good.

"The far side of those mountains," she repeats thoughtfully. "That's going to be a long way. Where are we, Elmeh Saif?"
As she speaks she checks the position of the sun, though this tells her little, since they have lost all track of time, and calls gently on the North Wind to see from which direction it comes, learning that the sun is in the north, and the mountains Elmeh Saif pointed out lie to the east.

"Thank you, Elmeh Saif" Hrolf replies with a bemused and dreamy smile. The experience of being immersed in divine water on the god plane has left him bedazzled and overwhelmed. When he catches his breath, he asks "Before we leave you, could I ask you tell us your story? How were you imprisoned, and what did you do before?"

(insert answer later)

Geran who has remained passive through all this, he even resisted the temptation of smashing the strange devices earlier, glares at the barren plain and distant mountains. Then at the sky. The prospect of walking under the hated sun emperor's burning eye, with no hope of shade brings little joy to the darkman. Ignoring the others he checks his gear in silence with only an occasional growl at one of his followers as they scramble to be out of range.

Jamal stands rather disconsolately inspecting is sopping equipment, anyone standing quite close to him can hear him mutter under his breath.

"Wet again, I thought this place Prax was supposed to be arid. I've spent more time wet here than than dry. If I never go swimming again...." followed by a few indecypherable words which are obviously some very ripe Carmanian profanities.

Then he looks up, notices the rest of the group and forces his face into the grim sterotype of Carmanian-warriorhood and turns to regard Elmeh Saif.

"Well met Elmeh Saif, enjoy your freedom, and remember the good name of the Legion of Hereward to the others of your tribe, should we ever be in a situation to call on or provide assistance.

"Can I ask a few questions of you, where are we ? We started on on the Praxian Plains are we still in its environs. Or, inded are we still in the Mundane World? What have you grand children told you of the Wyrm Konibuthezar and how he has entrapped Ba Hariya? Also, if we are to succeed in freeing Ba Hariya, how should we identify ourselves to him as knowing you and being in your good standing."

"Finally, and more prosaically" he says reguarding the dry plain ahead of them and listening to Gerans's bitter complaints, "this looks like a mighty trek to the mountains, could you provide us with sustance, in the way of liquid or food ?"

Elmeh Saif is flowing on, but he remains long enough to reply to the Carmanian. "This is the Otherworld, foolish mortal. Your walk to the mountains will take as long or as short as it will. Fill your bottles, here are fish - this will sustain you if necessary." The god's waters rise and subside suddenly, leaving a litter of writhing silversides gasping on the bank.

"As for Ba Hariya and the wyrm, I know not. When I last flowed over the earth Ba Hariya was free, but in the Darkness many bad things happened. When I was no longer able to defend my kin, chained by the evil king, he disappeared, carried off by the wyrm. I know no more than this, but you have my favour in attempting to free him. Take this sword. Smite Konibuthezar with it and he will be destroyed. Ba Hariya will know its wielder as my ally."

Once more the waters rise and recede, this time to reveal a finely-wrought sword of pure lo-metal stuck point down in the sand.
Seeing that everything is in order Geran returns to the river and prepares to daub his exposed skin with fresh mud and fill all available waterskins and flasks with water, without permission from anyone.

"Bloody hell, least he could do is throw some fish on the bank" he comments sourly to the other Uz as their stomachs set up a united complaint for food. He turns to Dorinda and voice dripping with sarcasm asks, "What now, great leader?"

"Good question." She looks around at the group again and sighs. "We find out where we are, what we've got in the way of supplies, what we need, and how to get whatever we're missing. And why the Fates seem to have decided that we're not getting to Pavis any time soon. Maybe if we tried walking away from it we'd have more success?"

Geran blinks in surprise, is this hooman humour he wonders to himself. From Dorinda?

"Ah well, all we have to do is cross the plain, climb the mountains, kill a dragon and rescue another river, then we can be on our way again. No doubt for some this would be a problem, but we can do anything. Right?"

This is just met with a shrug as he meets her gaze with a squinty-eyed one of his own as he tries to read her face.

And then she drops the cynical tone, because she really does half- believe that last sentence. "Kill a dragon to rescue a river to prevent a drought... who knows the Orlanthi myths? There's one about just that, isn't there?"

"Ask the quill-scratcher, I don't know" He indicates the learned sword sage with an irritated gesture and stomps off just as Elmeh Saif again speaks to them and gifts them with food. Seeing the mass of glinting silvery bodies on the bank, all other concerns are momentarily driven from the minds of all the uz, and as one they rush towards the river to gather as much of this treat as possible.

Malan shouts "Wait! Save some for us!"

Jamal turns to Vern and asks "Well, do you think we are still on the Mundane plane, and if not, how do we get back ?"

Vern shrugs. "We are in that most perilous place, without support of your legion or the people of Horn Gate, and we do not have a map. To get back we must find a map, a myth, and pray that we may discover where on that map we are, such that we can use it to find our way home."

Jamal screws up his face, as he appreciates the true impact of the Sages words.

"So we don't know where we are, we only have only the vaguest idea where we are going, and we haven't the fainest notion how to get back..."

"It's just as well as I'm not a worrying man" he smiles "knowing our luck we'll run into yet another freebooting vampire while we're at it"

Jamal regards the unseemly scrum of the Uz as they decend on Elmeh Saif largess for a while, then he stoops to pick up the water sword and passes it to Dorinder.

"Well, Waleesha, shall we depart ? I pray that our trek will be a short one"

"Not just yet, I think," she responds. "We have yet to decide on a myth to follow, and the manner of our departure may be important. Do you know of any myths about slaying dragons? Preferably ones without vampires in?"

She takes the sword from him and examines it with interest. It's a pale silver, and incredibly light in her hand. She probes it, testing its other-worldly presence, and senses a link to... something. Something big, and scaley, and vulnerable.

"Come to think of it, the last time we met that vampire, he ran from us. Third time lucky, perhaps?"

As his comrades grouse about food and Dorinda calls them to order, Hrolf recovers his senses. The mention of myth sets him thinking. "... Orlanth and Aroka," Hrolf replies doubtfully, "but I don't remember much about it and we are not Orlanthi." His eyes suddenly light up. "But we have heard many times that the lands have been plagued by drought this year."

They discuss myths and tales of dragon killing for some time, recalling tales of Vadrus killing a dragon, and wishing that there was an Orlanthi in their midst who might know more of the tale of Aroka.

As the heroes stand by the banks of ES, pondering what to do, Blackbeak speaks up. "Quack! Listen up folks! I heard this story back in good old Sartar; maybe we can use it to find Elmeh Saif's family. I swear I didn't add or change a thing. Quack-quack-quack-quack!!"

Humakt and the Crystal Dragon

Or Humakt Hijacks a Vadrudi Heroquest
As told by Blackbeak the Deathdrake, with apologies to Trotsky

One day Humakt was wandering in a dry, hard land. The sun was hot and he was tired; he had been cleaning up another mess that his ex- brother Orlanth had made. Presently he came to a cool place where Chalana Arroy and Ernalda had made a camp. They healed his wounds and gave him food and drink. In return he offered to do them a favor.

Chalana Arroy and Ernalda look at each other and then look at the ground. Then Ernalda says, "Well… Orlanth is away … again … and Heler is tired." Humakt glances at where Heler should be but he is not there. Then Raven giggles, but Humakt doesn't get it.

Relieved, Ernalda winks at Chalana and continues, "Look Humakt, Heler can't help us right now and we need water. Can you help us?" Humakt looks doubtful, but Raven says yes and Humakt knows better than to doubt his scout, so he tells Ernalda he'll see what he can do.

The first thing Humakt does is to go talk to Heler. He finds him in the sleeping tent tied up in the sheets and looking sheepish. Humakt cuts him loose but Heler looks terrible; there are dark circles under his eyes and he looks all shriveled. His fur is patchy and there are tufts of wool scattered around the tent. "Ugh ... thanks Humakt," he says, rolling over to put his head under a pillow.

The Death God asks him for water, but Heler groans and says "Please, let me sleep now. I don't have the energy to play anymore." But Humakt is impatient: "Dammit Heler, Ernalda needs water! If you can't help me at least tell me who can!."

Heler looks at Humakt and sees he doesn't get it, and he grins, scratching his beard. "Well, my little cousin Tarena has been eaten by a dragon. Normally I protect him but he ran away and I was busy over here. Can you take care of this dragon and bring Tarena back?"

Humakt looks interested. "A dragon? Is it a big one?"

"Sure," says Heler. "It's over there in those mountains. It's really big and scary."

"Hrrmph!" Humakt says and strides away. But Heler stops him and says "Here take my sword; this dragon is a tricky bastard."

Humakt doesn't need it but he loves weapons of all kinds - especially swords - so he takes it and strides off across the plains.
Soon he meets a fat man with a mule, who introduces himself as Figyerredit Ollovit the merchant. "This is bandit country and they can see the dust of your trail from miles away, so you should only travel at night", Ollovit says. Humakt agrees to help him next time he comes this way, then continues walking towards the mountains.

After a little while Humakt sees a dust cloud in the distance. Raven warns him that it is Gagarth, looking for travelers to waylay. So Humakt takes off his pack, plants his javelins in the ground, and sits down to wait, sharpening his swords. Gagarth approaches warily, and when he sees that Humakt is waiting for him he stops. But he is a rude bastard, so he asks "What are you doing here, all alone, playing with your sword again? This is my father's tula and he'll crush you into dust just like he's crushed all his other enemies here." And Gagarth kicks at the sand.

Humakt just looks at Gagarth and the bandit flinches and starts to run away, but Raven flies over and apologizes (Raven and Gagarth used to be friendly before Raven met Humakt). "Hey sorry; my master's in a bad mood. He was looking for a dragon to fight over there in the mountains but it's too small for him."

"Oh yeah?" Gagarth says, eyes wide.

"Yeah but listen," Raven continues. "He thinks it's got some pretty good treasure so he was going to tell Orlanth about it but uh, ... I figured it's not my fault if you happened to come across it first ... by accident."

Gagarth gets it and laughs "Hunh!", snot coming from his nose. "Later!" the bandit shouts to Raven as he disappears into the distance.

But Humakt doesn't get it. Raven tells him that they need to buy some dragon-fighting equipment from the merchant, but the Death God looks at him and spits. Then he tells him the merchant is weak and needs help, but the warrior sneers at him. Finally the Raven says he thinks Gagarth might go attack the merchant and maybe the bandit will get close enough for Humakt to skewer him. The Death God grins and tracks down Ollovit's trail.

As the days go by, he sees that the weather in the mountains gets pretty bad. First there's a sandstorm and a tornado, but the tornado doesn't last very long. Then there's a big cold front from the north, and a great hailstorm that seems to crush everything turning the mountains from green to gray. Then things quiet down, and it rains.

Soon enough he catches the fat man with the mule again. "Surely a great warrior such as yourself cannot travel the desert without accompaniment?" Ollovit says and winks. But Humakt doesn't get it. Raven is about to open his mouth, but Ollovit beats him to it. "I see you have no mount. How about a nice horse?" But Humakt only spits. Not to be discouraged, the merchant shows the War God his tools. And Humakt sees many things which might be useful against dragons, and many things that might be useful at other times, and he buys all of them, trading his armor and his black clothing and weapons - but not his beloved swords.

Finally Humakt comes to the mountains, and finds the spoor of the wyrm. After cleaning his boots, he follows it to a cave, where he finds Vadrus moping next to the corpse of a big crystal dragon with violet eyes. "Hey you! Fat man! Merchant! Give me some of that beer!" Vadrus shouts.

"I'll give it to you for nothing if you tell me what happened here," Humakt replies with Raven's voice. Blowing and howling with pride, Vadrus tells him how he had smashed the dragon's brains out with his hammer, and how he had ripped the dragon open from crotch to throat with his axe when it came back to life. Then he describes how the goddess Tarena stepped out of the dragon's belly and made the rain - which quickly turned into snow - and his voice goes quiet and his eyes go dreamy. "But the damn girl ran into the cave to hide and it's too small for me to go in there!"

Now Humakt throws off his merchant's clothes, draws his swords, and grins. "Well, if you need to be hacked into tiny little pieces, I can help you with that!" Vadrus looks up in surprise and fear, bellowing, "You sneaky, filthy bastard! You look like a merchant and you smell like shit!" as he kicks Humakt's boots away. "Gagarth told me you were gone!"

"And I'll deal with him later," Humakt says while he cuts Vadrus into tiny little pieces.

Then Humakt calls into the cave. "You can come out now, Tarena! Heler sent me to fetch you. See? Here is his sword." Tarena steps out of the cave, lured by Heler's sword, and Humakt has to admit that Vadrus was right: she is beautiful and rain-blessed, susurrant of voice and soft as the morning mists. But Raven croaks in his ear: "OK boss, time to go; don't keep mother Ernalda waiting."

Humakt starts at this and sets to work, stripping the dragon's corpse and putting on his merchant's clothes. Soon it is time to go back. On the way out of the mountains Gagarth tries to ambush them just as Humakt had hoped. Unfortunately, Humakt only manages to cut off his ears before the bandit escapes and Raven urges him back to Ernalda's camp.

When he gets back to Ernalda and Chalana's camp he finds the merchant with the mule and trades some of the dragon parts for his old posessions, and with a big smile on his face Ollovit claps him on the back. "My friend, call on my any time! I am always ready to help men like you." But Humakt gets it and grits his teeth.

Ernalda and Chalana Arroy are happy and grateful that he has brought back Heler's cousin. Ernalda was doubtful at first, but Chalana nudged her and said, "I know you were expecting a boy but I'm sure ... Tarena ... can make herself useful. Can't you Tarena?" Again Humakt gets it, and grits his teeth, but this time Raven speaks up and says, "Last time you two treated Heler so badly he lost almost all his fur. This time I want you to promise me you'll treat Tarena right, as she expects to be." The two goddesses agree, and soon the land is green and in bloom again, while Humakt and Raven disappear into the sunset.

And when they are far away from Ernalda's camp - far enough that they can't be seen - Humakt winks at Raven and throws him a morsel taken from the Crystal Dragon.

Some of the heroes are a little doubtful of any myth that shows Humakt using trickery to achieve his ends. And Dori in particular is simply puzzled by much of the story. But they soon realise that this time they are already on the Hero Plane, and the time to decide which myth they wish to use is already past. Instead, they will have to find out which myth they have landed in, and hope it is one favourable to them.

They gather the proferred food, fill their waterskins, attend to the injuries recieved in the caves, and set off eastwards.

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15 - Crossing the plain

Having collected themselves and prepared for a long march, the heroes head toward the mountains that jaggedly rise in the east. Once away from the riverbanks the aura of safety and comfort is gone. They stand on the edge of a harsh land, rough and bad, torn by fissures and scoured by the wind. What little life exists hides in crevices, hunkered out of harm's way, or soars above on black wings, anxious for scavenge.

Time passes, the heroes march. In the far distance the mountains come no closer. From time to time the warriors pass the deserted ruins of a settlement; huts burned and fallen, fields soured, wells dry. Skeletons of strange creatures litter the wastes. Haunting sounds float on a limp wind, and purple storm clouds build up then die away on the horizon.

The first sign the warriors have of the storm is not these clouds, but a wisp of weed that tumbles towards them, rolling at speed. Then come flocks of birds, racing over their heads towards the river that lies behind them. Then come the first signs of stampeding beasts, bison, deer, and unknown things, racing in huge herds on the plain below the warriors.

Beyond the animals is a coiled wall of sand. It twists and howls, a thousand throats roar in frenzy as the storm rushes across the land. It descends and devours; the blood and carcasses of beasts mingle with the dirt and stones thrashing the air.

The threat has come so quickly, the heroes have little time to prepare.

"Into cover!" Dori calls, but there is little cover here, and little time in which to use it. All those here are used to travelling in Prax, they all know how to react to a sandstorm, but a whirlwind as great as this, and without much of their usual equipment or mounts to break the wind, may well be their undoing. "Shieldwall! Strongest to the front." The shields might provide a little shelter, if anyone was strong enough to hold them against the gale. If.

Quite apart from the danger, the unruly, undisciplined violence of the storm offends her. After the days underground, where the only wind was under her control, she resents this. This is not the North Wind. It may well be the most powerful storm she's ever experienced. But it will obey her, even if it is so strong that she has to deflect it, not block it. She stands up straight, stretching her hands into the wind, disdaining to crouch behind the shields, and reaches out with her mind to the approaching wall of air. It will clear, at least. Sand, dirt, blood, untidiness... She presses her fingers together, forming a wedge, and the winds part around her. Behind her, an oasis of stillness forms, and the healers, unarmoured, huddle into it. Can she make it wide enough to shelter any more? She dares not break her concentration enough to see how many of the group are still exposed to the screaming gale on either side.

Jamal's voice joins Dorinda's... "Lord Bisos hear my plea, strengthen this wall against the coming assault, and give this legion the fortitude to see through what may buffet and drive against us." Geran, too, is chanting, and Darkness forms around them.

More magic joins hers, the force of the storm is being pushed aside. But is it enough? Some of the Legion - her Ten! - are still bearing the full brunt of the howling sand. She cannot allow them to be broken; not by this, not by anything. And she has done this before, faced with a similar overwhelming but mindless threat. Part of her mind reaches back, to the wyter. She is surprised at how close it is: Illig, too, must be on the Heroplane. And no doubt doing something far more difficult and dangerous than they are, and in a far more competent and controlled manner. Briefly she wishes that someday she might aspire to, say, half her Warleader's talents. She calls the wyter's power: gently, smoothly, not wanting to distract Illig. Any of the Legion can call and be answered, but ten years of practice has given Dori an easy fluency in the task, at least with those powers she's used to using. Of course, this isn't quite the standard.... Her words to Vastyr come back to her: "Think of the essence of what makes it a sword. Then call it to you." Easy enough to say when what you were trying to protect was also a sword. But this is her Ten, her weapon, and she cannot permit it to fail. As she had done on the Cradle, she imagines the group as a sword in her outstretched hands. Black, ancient, Unbreakable. The wind eddying around them, sheltering the rest. A familiar nimbus of black light forms around the Hereward cultists.

The Herewardi magic is strong, but the dust-storm is greater. The gale scours the heroes' shields. It tears at their armour. Its teeth gnaw flesh. Skin is flayed from bone by sand and grit, eyes water from the dust, breathing grows ragged and choked as lungs are clogged with mucus and grime. Blood mingles with the whirlwind, and the baying hunt forges on in frenzy.

The wind whips under Fufold's shield and flips it up in a terrible gust that wrenches the warrior's arm with a terrible snap. "Lock arms!" Hrolf yells as Fufold's shield starts to bend upwards. The heroes draw tighter together, and with the help of his neighbours Fufold's shield is held in place. The storm rages at the weak point left by Fufold's fall, a raging column striking the shieldwall, scattering the defenders and hurling them to the ground. From that point on it is everyone for themselves, taking cover under shields, finding small crevices to take refuge in, but by that point the worst of the storm is past.

The heroes find themselves able to stagger upright and stand despite the winds howling around them. They cling to each other and shout above the gale, determining that all have survived. Cuts and bruises abound, and several followers are hurt, but none seriously. Quickly the storm dies away and rolls off along the plain, leaving the battered and dented - but miraculously alive - warriors behind it.

The heroes continue their march across the plain, the storm receding in the distance. The earth is more fertile here - flowers and small, brightly coloured shrubs grow here. Frequently they die, whither and rot, before quickly blooming again. This happens several times in a rapid, haphazard, disorienting rhythm, as though a drunken landscape were staggering through seasons too quickly.


Occasionally strong gusts of wind raise up and form small dust-devils, twisting around the heroes and blowing sand in their faces and eyes - but these are small annoyances by compare to the gale they have just survived. After a while Kristen points out that these whirlwinds always appear as the plants are dying. There seems little that can be done about this.

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16 - The Crones' Hut

Warning: adult content in this section!

During one of the longer and more extended whirlwinds, when sand is blowing so thick it is hard to see more than a few spear lengths, the heroes come upon a stead. Shielding their faces in the crooks of their elbows, they see a poor, crude affair, that nevertheless offers some respite from the sandstorm.

Trudging wearily through the sandstorm Aelfwyrd is for once a silent travelling companion to the armoured Darkman casually strolling by his side. But upon eyeing the ramshackle stead his demeanour visibly brightens, and with a swift sequence of hand signals gestures for Yrgsa to take a closer look.

Seeing Aelfwyrd's caution in this place, Enfrew carefully looks around trying to spot something unusual.

Quickly pulling the strange sword come trident from his back Aelfwyrd takes a second to unravel the protective black hide from its blades. Pausing to grin at the towering mountain of lead the Kargani bites his lip and so summons up the blood and the warning powers of the Legion's Wyter. Dori winces as she feels the crude, raw call across the planes drag at her nerves. Yes, it would work, and the blood-power would reach even back to the mundane, but there was no finesse, no style... still, that would come with practise.

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Dusk muster is done, prayers said. Warriors stand down, sharpen swords and replace links of mail. There is quiet, for this is the hour of reflection on the liturgy of arms and preparation of the spirit. In theory even Lord Illig himself spends this time attending to the care of his arms. In practice his servants attend to his armour and personal weapons, and Illig Stargazer, War Lord of Hereward, reserves this time for veneration and care of his Master's weapon.

Ashar, The Unbreakable Sword.
Black-bladed limb-hewer,
Gore-feasting man-killer,
Ravens fill Humakt's meadhall
Eager for meat, thirsty for blood.

Illig cradles and inspects the blade it is his honour to protect, wield and serve. He bathes him with rare shen oil, takes long smooth strokes to keen Ashar's edge, and polishes with the finest silk. It is an honour, every movement, every detail.

He stops. Ashar glows black and silence ripples through the company. Warriors lay down their utensils and ready themselves.
Illig Stargazer, War Lord of Hereward and Servant of the Unbreakable Sword, rises. "Some of our brethren walk the Hero-Paths alone, perilously. Let us attend them." And it is done.

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The small hut seems unpresuming, deserted of potential enemies and safe enough, and so the heroes knock and enter. Within lies a cavernous hall, dark and close with the smell of age. Near to the door, once the party have entered the hall, amongst the sacks and cobwebbed shelves, sits a cauldron on an open fire, stirred by three old crones. These women welcome the heroes with an unnerving eruption of cackles, eye-rolling and grimaces.

Dori raises an eyebrow in Hrolf's direction and splays three fingers. Three identical enemies? Her left hand curls in another silent signal: current location unknown, query scouts' report.

"So, faithful Humakti
sword-bearers walk their gore
glory-paths for honour
and dragon-death once more.”

Dori nods in recognition.

"Three-but-one will aid you,
despite our sister's wrath,
if you will now aid us
and fertilise our bath."

Dori glances back to Kristen, who can no doubt sense her puzzlement.

At this there is a shrill giggle and whilst two crones remain stirring, the third crudely pantomimes a man masturbating and ejaculating into the cauldron.

Dori pauses in momentary blank incomprehension, then recoils with revulsion and disgust. She fingers the Death rune on her cheek.
Hrolf looks at his companions and the Tenthane, and signals "Retreat."

Not a signal the Legion uses very often, but Dori knows Hrolf's Truth magic is stronger than hers, and isn't going to argue with her scout's judgement. She confirms the signal to the rest, leaving Hrolf to handle the talking as he sees fit.

Then he speaks: "You know who we are; who are you? ... And which two of you would aid us?"

"Foolish mortal," says the first, cackling.

"We are the one-in-three, the three-but-one that you see," says the second, ladling thick liquid from the cauldron.

"Aid flows from all of us - if you help us first," says the third, staring straight at Hrolf.

"Aye - if you help us, we shall help you," says the first - or is it the second?

Geran skulking near the entrance looks at the three crones with awe and incomprehension. Trying to understand he mimics the crone's gesture, with a bewildered glance at Dori's apparent revulsion. He moves over to Aelf, his friend, his brother and repeats the gesture again in his direction and whispers in his gravelly voice. "What does she mean with this?"

Taking a step backwards the Far Walker eyes the three crones with obvious suspicion. Turning to listen to Elkozi's question he finds the darkman gesticulating crudely at his side. Trying in vain to keep a straight face the Kargani finally bursts into a wild fit of laughter.

"We may make a Uleria worshipper of you yet my friend..!" and slapping the breastplate of the great Uz he continues to laugh hugely

"Geran, never for a moment did it think the Uz gifted with such comedy!"

Finally gaining control he turns to the hut once more, all humour drained from his face.

"In truth this is a serious matter my friend. For such crones are deceitful, eager to stain a mans honour, to drain his strength.

"Humakt is the bringer of Death and our part in this is clear. Other paths must surely lead to dishonour. "

Looking at Enfrew's outraged expression, Dori does wonder if he will have to be dragged into retreat, but they all gather at the hut entrance without incident as Aelf ends his explanation to Geran.

Jamal motions to Dori that he would like a word.

"If the Crones are looking for some symbol of fertility to enliven their embittered dryness, then perhaps my Lord Bisos could provide. For not only does he provide a manly martial aspect, he is also the symbols of manly virility amoungst my people, and the Pelandans also."

As he mentions the Pelandans he winks at Dori, as if sharing some salatious joke..

"If" she repeats. "It rather depends on which path we want to follow, doesn't it? That would take us down Orlanth's route, which may be a mistake." She grins ruefully. "I don't suppose you have any myths of Bisos killing dragons, do you? More options would be welcome."

Aelfwyrd looks sour at this stand off, his companions and the crones.

Silently and with simple hand gestures he signals to his Ten. All initiates learn the silent code, each movement and its meaning. This was one of the first and all Humakti knew it by heart.

Eyes on enemy. Permission to engage.

Slowly at first he spins the strange oriental weapon from side to side, its glittering blades moaning eerily as they catch wind blown sand. Smiling with anticipation Aelfwyrd waits for his Ten to respond, a thumb drawn across the throat was universally understood reply.

Malan grips his axe, eager to be able to actually do something after what seems like an eternity of inaction. How long have we been here, anyay he thinks. The Heroplane seems to distort his sense of time

Kristen might not have officially learnt any of the silent hand-signals, but Aelf's attitude needs no explanation. "No!" She draws her axe, throws herself between him and the door. Then looks around, counting the number of angry Humakti facing her, and ignoring the answer. "No, you can't!". She's trembling, though it's hard to tell whether it's with fear, anger, or the start of one of her berserk rages.

Dori's hand signal is not the one Aelf was hoping for, though it's probably a good thing Kristen doesn't know this one, either. "Wait". Not "permission denied".

Malan lets go of his axe. He thinks of ruefully of an old Humakti motto, "Hurry up and wait."

Her next signal isn't a Humakti one, and isn't directed at Aelf, though she's very glad she worked it out during the days marching from the Cradle to Horn Gate.

But her obvious attention is all on Kristen. "No, he can't," she says gently. "Not without orders. It's all right, just because we're angry doesn't mean we're going to attack a bunch of defenceless women without warning. It's all right."

And then Janeera arrives at her side, ready to calm any berserking that might occur, or to knock Kristen out more gently than Dori could manage, if that was needed.

Then she turns round to the rest: quietly, keeping her voice low enough that it won't be heard inside. "Yes, I know, it's tempting. But let's think it through before issuing any challenges on the base of the insult. What've we got here? How can we use it?"

"What myths have we got, what does it fit? They're asking for water, or something vaguely like that." Her nose wrinkles in disgust at the details. "But it doesn't look much like Blackbeak's Crystal Dragon myth to me: Hrolf?"

He shakes his head. "If this is a twisted version of Chalana Arroy, Ernalda, and Heler, I don't want to find out what the rest of the myth is like."

"Nor me. Doesn't look like Aroka, either. Which leaves.... how about Vadrus?"

The idea clearly catches her imagination.

"If this is the messenger informing him of the drought - who he ignores! then we're on track. We've already met Gargath and sent him away with a clip round the ear. And I think we could do the rest of the stations between us, then add the Humakti hijack on the end. It might take a team of us to "be" Vadrus, one to wave axes and another to do the North Wind, but we could manage it. All we have to do here is tell the crones we're too busy to listen to them, then go and do some random violence."

She looks round at the team. "Unless anyone has any better ideas?"

Waiting for the signal to attack the Far Walker remains silent. But the Ten has another ideas. It appears the hags will have a stay of execution. Only ill can come of this. He eyes the crones sourly. So be it.

Then there is talk of myths. Aelfwyrd looks sceptical.

"It will be dangerous to invoke the Ill Wind for he is violence and destruction incarnated. Conflict is strong with Vadrus and his kin."

Thoughtful for a moment he gestures to Korol and a few moments later the Grazelander returns with a heavy looking bundle of blackened bulls hide. The Kargani reverently unrolls the hide on the dirt like some exotic rug merchant. Once laid out it is obvious that this is The Far Walkers weapon collection. There are all manner of weird and wonderful weapons, all tied in place, all in pristine condition, all perfectly maintained.

It seems like an age as the weaponmaster carefully examines each weapon in turn until finally he picks out an ornate and wickedly barbed doubled axe.

"This is Vadrus. I will walk this myth."

Dori nods. "I was rather hoping you would, you're the best choice for the job. But you're right, it going to be dangerous. So be careful, all right? Stick to the myth as we know it, let's not try to be too creative."

She remembers pushing him into taking the lead role back on the Cradle, and what that had done to him. Is this fair? He's so young... but he's still the best tool for the job. Only a tool. She has to remember that.

"Does everyone agree on the myth at this point?"

After a little consultation a common version is agreed:

At that moment there came a knocking on the door on the door to Vadrus' hall, "Hail, Vadrus, chieftain of the North Clan!" called a voice, "I come bearing a message from your brother, Orlanth."

"Bugger off!" said Vadrus.

"But it's really important! It's about the drought…"

"I don't bloody care! Come back when I'm less busy!"

"The words don't have to be the same, since theirs won't be, just make sure the meaning's right. And don't accidentally get over-excited and kill them."

Galecutter in hand the Ill Wind surveys his domain, a malicious grin on his weather beaten face. Snarling at his gathered thanes he calls for them to attend him, to honour him. Swaggering over to the entrance of his mighty Longhall he swiftly kicks open the door with a booted foot.

Inside there are three wisened old crones. Standing around a bubbling cauldron they cackle hysterically to themselves.
Vadrus explodes with fury, outraged by the mere sight of them in his hall. Gesticulating wildly with his ferocious looking axe he bellows hugely, spittle spraying far and wide.

"What the hell are you doing in my hall you filthy old bags?"

The crones eye Aelfwyrd warily as he makes his entrance and summons. Surprised and agitated they clutch at each other for a moment. The heroes can sense their power shielding them from the Herewardis' determination to transform their Heropath. Their protection wavers, buckles slightly, yet stands firm.

"You'll have to do better than that, my lover," says the second - or is it the first?

"Quiet, Hags!," bellows Malan entering behind his lord. "Do you not recognise the Lord Vadrus? Tremble before him, beg for your lives!" As the full membership of Vadrus's retinue fill the hall, the crones cower with fear. The moment has changed - this is the hall of Vadrus.

"Mighty Lord, bronze-wielder, hail-bringer, icy-tempest," they wheedle. "Drought stalks the land, our lands lie dusty and barren whilst crops choke on bitter soil. No sweet rain comes to sake the people's thirst. Give us water, great Lord, return fertility to the land, we beg this of you."

Vadrus looks rather smug at this fawning display. Walking over to his throne he takes up Bonecrusher, a rather nasty looking hammer. With a weapon in each hand he grins malevolently, thoughts of previous carnage committed.

Returning from his reverie he eyes the hags sourly.

"Are you still here you disgusting old scrotes...."

Lobbing his hammer in their general direction he roars furiously.

"Sod Off!"

The old crones flee, gibbering, to the rear of the hall. There, safely out of immediate range of Galecutter, they moan and keen of doom stalking the land.

Vadrus minds them not one bit.

But his rest is soon disturbed yet again! This time it is an unruly dust storm that blows through the door, scattering tables and servants before it. Screeching, the little storm crashes around the hall until it threatens to give Vadrus a headache!

The Ill Wind slouches nonchalantly on his ornate throne. He is absorbed in chewing the last of the flesh off a well-cooked shoulder of meat. Suddenly his expression darkens; he has latched onto a large gobbet of gristle.

With great theatre he roars with anger and spits the offending mouthful across the room. It lands with a greasy splat on the stone floor as his son, Gagarth enters the hall.

Vadrus is proud for a moment as his little storm thrashes wildly about. Then in a heartbeat grows tired of his screeching. Taking up Galecutter he gestures violently at his thanes, calling for them to shut the little bastard up.

Geran grins wickedly and grabs a blanket from a cot in the corner and rushes over to the cowering hags and their cauldron. He quickly dips the blanket and faces Gagarth with a terrifying howl. Then he runs straight at the sniveling little windlet to teach him a lesson and snaps the wet blanket straight at the pair of eyes that glow dully in the midst of the swirling air. Howling gleefully, the uz circles Gagarth and connects several times with painful accuracy.

Inspired by his friends, Enfrew becomes part of Vadrus, too. As he closes down with Gagarth, Humakt's battle prowess still lurks in his mind and guides his fists as they help disperse the Bad Wind.

From the side comes the flanking manouvre, as the two wolves stalk little Gagarth. Their faces twisted in a cruel snarl, deep growl echoing from their chests, and red bloodlust glimmering in their eyes. The little godlet whimpers...

Dori has been watching Aelf's performance with admiration and some concern. For this to work, they will all have to get into roles as aspects of Vadrus, as they have done when emulating Humakt in the past. But the wild and unruly Ill Wind is alien to most of them: supporting roles will have to suffice. The semi-merging of their personalities that they achieved when fighting Vivamort will not happen here. Still, here is an opportunity. Vadrus commands the North Wind in this myth, much though she resents the idea. And while she could never imagine herself to "be" Vadrus in any way, she does know how to be the North Wind: and, now, how to use it to command other winds. She calls it up, and feels others move to support her.

Jamal watches Dorinda's actions, a-ha she seems to be calling the wind to her to quieten this disruptive gale. So-be-it, Jamal called to the blessed Herw'Ard to intervene with divine Idovanus to strengthen Dorinda's endeavour.
The North Wind streams in through the door: cold, clean, biting, driving out the fetid smell of the crones and their cauldron. The little dust storm is caught up in the raw power and submerged, cleaned, silenced. The howling gale circles the hut, then subsides, waiting for its master to need it again.

Geran steps back, a little confused at the cold wind and sudden silence. The fun seems to have stopped and a little hesitantly he glances at Vadrus.

The Ill Wind scowls as his thanes begin to placate Gagarth. Cursing loudly at his son he rises from his throne and marches into what is bordering on a melee. Landing a meaty backhand on his son Vadrus booms with parental authority.

"Sit down and shut up!"

As Vadrus and his warriors close down on Gagarth, the whirlwind shies away from them and desperately tries to flee from his grimly laughing persecutors. As his father beats him, wolves nips at his heels, others whip and shout at him, and an icy wind buffets and smothers his own wild-gale, Gagarth whimpers and cowers, trying to escape their blows.

Eventually, perhaps hoping to distract his father with a target more tempting than himself, he blurts out,"there was a dragon, a big fierce dragon as large as the world who said he could beat you, father, that is all I came to tell you!"

The Ill Wind is secretly pleased. Having given his son a thick ear the boy is still ducking and diving. He might come good yet! Reaching down into the melee Vadrus grabs him up by the scruff of the neck and begins to shake Gagarth violently.

A moment later he bellows for silence.

Vadrus smiles broadly at the thought of beating a dragon to death but just then his expression clouds over. His face quickly becomes dark and brooding. The first warning signs of rage appear. The whole hall is motionless, waiting for the inevitable.

"You useless gitt! Look at you, there ain't a bloody scratch on you! You wimp!"

"So saying, Vadrus girded himself for battle. He put on his horned helmet of frozen iron and his magical cloak of white fur. In his right hand he grasped his axe, Galecutter, and in his left, his Hammer of Mighty Fun. Then he stormed off to meet the dragon that threatened his clan."

This is quickly accomplished: Jamal provides a magical helmet with the "Gore of the Bull" feat, and impressively big horns. Vastyr has a fur cloak among his possessions. Aelfwyrd already has his axe and hammer from his weapon collection.

Gagarth stamps his foot and wails, "It's not fair! You're always picking on me!" and whirls off to hide.

Walking back to his throne the Ill Wind mutters to himself "Must have been switched at birth or sumut, no bloody son of mine...."
Just then a broad smile appears on his face, fight time!

Calling the thanes to attend he puts on his great horned helmet of frozen iron and his magical cloak of white fur. In his right hand he grasps his axe, Galecutter, and in his left, his Hammer of Mighty Fun.

"Sorted. Right lets 'ave it"

And with that the Ill Wind kicks open the doors and stalks out onto the Tula.

image
Text added retrospectively during the Shattered Mirror scenario, to justify reference to "Vak-Slurrrupshu, the Burning Avenger Blackbeak had freed for Elmeh Saif during their second heroquest": this probably didn't actually happen. But it's funny.

Blackbeak, however, has had an Idea: though, he suspects, not one that the rest of the group will approve of. He hangs back, until he is alone in the
hut, then flippers over to the Cauldron. A strange sticky liquid lies within, bubbling, with weird blobby things moving in it. "Hey! Water thpiwit!" he hisses. "They've gone: you want out?"

The bubbling in reply is affirmative and enthusiastic, but even less comprehensible than a duck with a bad lithp. Blackbeak of course has no
trouble understanding it.

"Tho watthit worth? Us mercenawies don't do thith thuff for fwee."

Much urgent bubbling and quacking ensues, and Blackbeak realises that fun though this is, the rest may be getting a long way ahead. "You gotta deal. I fwee you, you owe uth. Big time. Anytime we quack, you come running. Squidging. Whatever. Quick, quick. Quack. Got it? Me or da boss, we say "Vak-Thlurrrupthhu, get youse bubbles over here", you do dat. Wight?"

The bubbling is reluctant, but affirmative, and Blackbeak tips the cauldron over, letting the contents drain into the sand. And waddles off after the rest as fast as his flippers can carry him, not noticing the way the sand is being dissolved by the touch of the liquid he has been chatting to.

image

17 - The Riddling Wyrm

There, right at the edge of the Ill Wind's tula, stands the wyrm. It appears to be calmly meditating upon the sight of a songbird, dying helplessly of cold. The wyrm, immense and alien in appearance, turns cool yellow eyes towards the approaching furious storm.

"Ah, so you have a matter to discuss, Lord of the Icy Wind? Perhaps you would care to ponder on the purpose of this poor creature's death. It is said that when the sage Lurshing dreamt he was a watervole, he was a watervole, yet when he awoke he could no longer tell if he were a man who had dreamed he was a watervole, or a watervole now dreaming that he were a man."

Vadrus eyes the great wyrm with anticipation before turning to smirk at his thanes. Gesticulates wildly with his Hammer of Mighty Fun his voice takes on a mocking tone.

"Stop talking shite you big girls blouse!" Yet he sounds somewhat uncertain.

Jamal joins in with Aelf/Vadrus' diatribe, yelling a series of the sort of insults that would make Herric blush. But his voice is weak with doubt.

For a moment Vastyr actually considers the wyrm's words, but then the cold words of the Grim One shiver down his spine: "The bird is dying because it is dying. Anything else is predark."

For a moment, Hrolf is seduced and perplexed by the wyrm's words. Although he knows he must reject them, here on the hero plane they resonate with a clarity and sharpness that he finds difficult to ignore, and he cannot bring himself to emulate Vadrus's coarse brutality. What is the purpose of death? How is a dream of a watervole different from the "real" him? Wait a minute ... watervole?

Suddenly, Hrolf remembers his mentor Grimbeak's response whenever his young student became entangled in logic.

"HUUU!" Hrolf shouts, as his blade whistles from its sheath and sings through the air.

There is no dream, there is no real: where Humakt stands there is only Death, and that is Truth.

The hulking uz listens in confusion at the wyrm's cloven tongue as it weaves a tapestry of fine sounding conundrums. Watervoles, what do watervoles have to do with this? he wonders to himself. Why does the wyrm not defend itself instead of mouthing stupid riddles at them? Geran takes a step back in uncertainty, wondering if the dragon is trying to tell them something important. Perhaps the riddles aren't stupid after all. The thoughts pass quickly through the darkman's mind and he turns briefly to the others to see their reactions. Their confusion is evident, but when the cold sound as Hrolf slides his sword from its scabbard breaks the stillness, Geran snarls and shakes his mace in front of the dragon's snout. "Yeah! Kill it, it talks in riddles and puzzles, let's tie its tail in knots and see how it unriddles that!"

Enfrew is almost carried away by the wyrm's confusing words, but angry shouts of his companions shake him back to reality. Remembering his purpose in this place, he uses a trick he learned back in Sartar to augment Aelf's voice and make it sound truly like the voice of Vadrus.

Dori listens to the wyrm's words in fascination, aware that she should ignore them but intrigued none the less. The purpose of the death of a bird? Did Death have a purpose beyond itself? Surely it, like Honour, was the goal and not just the path? And, as always when baffled by words beyond her understanding, she calls on Hereward's Truewind, Occam's wind, and drives it against the words of the dragon, as Hereward had driven it against the words of Arkat. The North Wind rises to a howl, icy sleet cuts into exposed flesh, bringing back to reality any who had slipped into dreaming. The songbird dies instantly and cleanly: its death may have a purpose, but its suffering does not. Only that part of the dragon's speech that is True is left behind. And there is Silence.

Yet the wyrm has said enough - the warriors stand less certain, as though riddled with doubt. The wyrm smiles calmly with its malicious yellow eyes.

The Ill Wind looks confused and outraged at the same time, eyes bulging it looks for a moment as if he might burst. "....Eh....?"

Then suddenly the deadlock is broken.

"Bollocks to all that.....eat this!" And with that he takes a huge swipe at the wyrms head.

Geran, beside him, rumbles something that sounds like a curse, and darkness spreads from his fingers to engulf his friend. Aelf's attack is fuelled by new fury.

The tension of attempted thought is released by the call to violence, and Kristen leaps forward, screaming a wordless cry of hate and swinging her axe at the beast's underside. Behind her, Elendala, Oddus and Valens hang back, still paralysed by the gleaming yellow eyes and ancestral memories of teeth and fire.

And Dori watches the beast thoughtfully, but makes no immediate move to attack it. Mentally, she draws back from the raging violence of Vadrus. Soon Humakt will have to take over and prove the advantages of dispassionate analysis.

She watches the fight, sees how the foe moves. Tough scales. Getting through those will take some doing. She draws the Water Sword, and prepares to call across the planes to the Legion wyter to strengthen what now seems to be a small and fragile weapon. And stops, as the spiritual hand she reaches out is met and grasped by another. The Legion is there. Supporting them, ready to help. The link is faint, but it is there. She concentrates on it, trying to make it clearer, to call the strength and certainty of the Legion into her own mind, body, and swords. She is going to need all the help she can get, very soon.

Legends of dragons and how they ate a lot of people race through Enfrew's mind as he considers his next step, but Aelf/Vadrus has already attack, and other are following him into battle. Suppressing the fear, Enfrew grips his swords tightly and slashes at the dragon's wings, trying to distract it so Aelf could strike the final blow as Vadrus once did.

Vastyr lifts his shield high and moves forward to protect the flank of Aelf-Vadrus, turning aside the savage blows of the dragon's tail.

Jamal listens to the twisted words of the Wyrm, part of him was attracted to their convolutions, but another part of him, the High, Hard Austere part of his Carmanian Character rebelled. No wonder Haran the Great turned away from his siege of Alkoth to smite the falling Empire of the Wyrms Friends. These Dragons were just plain annoying!!! Yelling the name of the greatest ever Padishah, he butts the tricksy beast with all his might.

The wyrm elegantly levitates away from the furious attack, unruffled despite the heroes' mighty blows.

"The sage Yurg-En, he said: "'one cannot strike what is intangible like the morning mist,'" says the dragon with glittering eyes. "'Instead one must aim inwards, and thrust to one's own center. This is the way to higher understanding.'"

With that it vanishes in a puff of coiling smoke. Where it had been lie the labyrinthine outskirts of a fabulous palatial complex, intricately carved from ice.

[So the dragon is now attacking you with its Erect Meta-Logical Structures 10W2 ability.]

Vadrus looks really peeved and emits a foul and rancid curse. Hawking up a large gob of spit into his hand the Ill Wind eyes the nearby wall of ice.

"Dragons, I ing hate Dragons!" And with that he take a huge swing at the wall with his Hammer of Mighty Fun.

Jamal aids Aelf's great swing, with the strength of the bull.

The Ill Wind's hammer strikes chips and shards from the ice labyrinth, smashing through walls and aiming for the heart of the wyrm's lair. Yet dragonish trickery is everywhere in this hall of crystal mirrors, and what seems a straight path is merely tangential to the maze's circuituitous logic. The Ill Wind's hammer blows wend a weird road. But for the Sword of Death, all paths are straight like the cut of a fine weapon. The maze suddenly shudders as the Vastyr hacks into it with renewed vigour, until with a crash of ice splinters a break is forced and the warband find themselves at the heart of the labyrinth.

Here sits an old, hairless man dressed in simple robes before a table set with the shells of three nuts. "What you seek is beneath one of these husks," says the sage. "If one could perceive the inner reality beneath the shell, the form of the shell and its contents would fall away like dust in the wind. Then the wise man would be content."

The Ill Winds looks fit to burst, his face a mask of fury. Without a word he draws back Galecutter and aims a monstrous blow at the old man's noggin.

Despite herself, despite her attempts to draw back and prepare for the next stage in the myth, Dori is drawn in by the old man's words.

Dust in the wind... perceiving inner realities, truths... unlike Vadrus, they could do this. Well, she could. Truth on the wind... it's a challenge, and one she can win, and she never turns down a challenge. But they are supposed to be being ignorant, slobbish, violent Vadrus, they're supposed to do this the wrong way... and as she hesitates, Kristen brings down the flat of her axe on the nut shells, smashing them to pieces.

Yet as the blow falls the old man looks unconcerned. As Galecutter howls towards his neck, the sage merely looks at it, and the axe's handle suddenly bends and flows as though the wood has become water. Jamal, stubborn like a bull, tries to clear his mind so that the aim of hit blade is not sent awry by such distractions. Vadrus' mighty weapon, carried on by momentum and surprise, crashes past the old man barely disturbing a hair on his head. Then, all of a sudden, the axe is straight and rigid once more.

The old man looks unperturbed by either his close encounter with Galecutter, or his smashed nuts. "If one were to perceive the true reality of things," he says, "then one would know the secret of transcendent defence. There is no axe."

Outraged, Vadrus belows a challenge that echoes around the shattered walls of the crystal maze.

At last the Wyrm, realising perhaps that there is no longer any escape from the Ill Wind's anger, leaps forward and performs the Celestial Justice Power Strike. "You with your fury and power of the great! It is how you deal with the weak that reveals your true nature!"

The wyrm's words enter the heroes' ears and burrow deep inside their marrow. All at once they feel the consequences of their actions, those deeds that have hurt and shattered the lives of others, have killed and maimed, torn families asunder and seperated folk from life. Every measure of pain and fear they have ever inflicted is reflected back at them, in a pure, tormented current that fills their veins like fire.

Malan thinks "But aren't we proud of doing those things, at least sometimes?" Especially when they've been done to Lunars...

Jamal shakes his head, again trying to bat away the wyrms words as if they had the insignificance of a Darjiini gnat, but like that small pernicious beast it has a way of burrowing through the most complete protection, and stinging where it hurts most. Jamal's mind is dragged back to the eradication of his house, and the jolt of pain that heralded the death of his own family, but yet gave him sufficient warning to save his own skin. The old guilt surfaces again like a black wave, threatening to engulf him....

As Jamal often did during his blackest moods, he turned to his Lord Bisos for solace. What has happened has happened, it may cause pain, but that pain was meant to be. It cannot be changed, only accepted. The pure mind should see such things for the hollow vessels that they are.....

The Celestial Justice Hammer strikes Hrolf's soul with the violence of a winter rainstorm, each drop of water a chilling memory of an opponent downed, maimed, or killed. Grimbeak had taught him to dodge the rain, but Hrolf disdained the attack and embraced the memories. The Oasis People killed in the desert beyond Tourney Altar; the mercenaries and Lunars extinguished in their assault on the Cradle; the execution of the prisoners; countless others even before Hrolf and his comrades came to Tourney Altar. Still so young, and yet so many victims.

No. No, they were not victims. Everybody dies some day; Hrolf was only the instrument, the servant of Death. He did not raise himself above others by killing them. Was it right, then, to serve and support this terrible god that claimed the right to end each life? Did Death deserve a place in the world when it brought such anguish? Here Hrolf hesitated, for surely the agony of death was real to many, whatever its cause.

He thought back to the Sword of Life, to the reverence the nymph and the giant baby had inspired in him for living, growing things. How could death serve such life, and life in turn serve death? Growing means change, and change requires endings. Some lives must end for others to emerge. If there are no endings in the world, then the strong will always be strong, the weak always weak: this is oppression. Here Hrolf remembered the corrupt rulership of his former chieftain, and rage grew in his belly.

But the Hammer struck again: "If this is so, how do you choose which lives must end? Who are you to make that choice? You who say you are only an instrument!"

"Humakt says all things will be cut; it is my task to decide WHERE to cut. It is not only my right; it is my duty. I judge my opponents by their cause and their honor; if I judge rightly then my cut brings justice." Hrolf blinks, then continues. "I judge you now. It is time for you to move on. You must separate yourself from this water godling: she is needed so that the desert may be healed." But his words falter, and he hesitates; he came to the dragon under false pretenses, as a servant of Vadrus. He did not truly know the dragon's honor and could not claim to judge it truly. He had strayed from the Humakti way.

Dori buries her head in her hands as the old, familiar, pain and guilt fills her. It's true, she has hurt people, betrayed people, she deserves the punishment, she deserves to die: or worse, to live. That is justice, as she acknowledges it. The outer world fades away as she sinks into her own private hell. Then there are hands on her shoulders, dragging her back. "You leave her alone!" Kristen, of course. She always does know what Dori's feeling. And trying to intimidate a dragon in order to protect her: yes, that figures. Some things never change. She half-laughs through the tears, and the world comes back into place.

But something else is familiar. Something... she has been here before. Not that she's sure what she means by "here". The situation, rather than the place. The cold. The old man, asking impossible questions that had no answer but still reverberated within her soul. She has been here before. Or someone has: was it her? Desperately she focuses on the scrap of memory, trying to find a context for it. He had asked, then... no, he had not asked. She had told him, without being asked. Travelling, learning, killing, gathering strength, cutting off weakness, until at last she was... utterly helpless? That made no sense. But it was what she remembered. No use now, then, without more to go on.

She could pull the cold around herself, making herself immune to the pain. She has done it before. But... that was the wrong answer? Or the wrong question? She has only just learned how to do that trick, consciously, killing her own emotions, turning her death magic on herself. She thinks back: it had seemed obvious at the time, a memory rising from hidden depths. The same memory? She had never been able to consciously remember the full details of her Devotion quest. She had come back from it renewed, complete, confident in who she was and where she was. Something had happened, had sunk deeply into her soul if not her mind, but she had never understood what. But if she couldn't remember it, could she deduce enough to help her now?

She had been attempting a variation on the "oath" quest - the same story, just a change of emphasis. It dealt with how to handle emotions, because that was what she had desperately needed back then. And again now... She had gone through the early stations smoothly. Killing emotions. Yes, that must have been where she learnt that trick, though consciously she still had no memory of how she had done it. Then when she was meant to meet the entity who asked questions and gave answers, he had... asked the wrong questions? Given the wrong answers? Somehow, she had been swept backwards, into an earlier and deeper quest. "Remember your initiation," he had said: but not to her? Well, she had no hope of deducing what had happened there. Nor of remembering it, yet.
So what was the lesson she should have learned? She had cut off weaknesses, and been left with no strengths. Which could only mean that they weren't weaknesses? That they should be used as strengths? Back to that theme again, but how? What had the myth said, if she had followed it? That you had to separate from emotions, but not kill them. Because you needed them, to be worthy of wielding Death. Same as the Oath lesson, of course, but from a different angle.

So what did that mean, here? The wyrm was right. For Humakt. For Vadrus, he was wrong: but then Vadrus did not wield Death, did not deserve to. And Vadrus had other defences, that she did not have or want. She was Humakt, now. Not Vadrus. She: they! had altered the situation before, changing their role, now it was time to change it back again. Could she, as Humakt, do it, and do it properly? Not to kill the sorrow and pain she felt, but to separate herself from them, to remain in control? She concentrates, pushing them away. Seeing on the other plane... the colours fade out of the world, leaving it gray. Then black and white. Her, and the pain. Separate. Opposites, and therefore linked, but separate. Beside her, Kristen tenses. "What the..? what did you do?" "Later. It's all right." It had better be, because she has a dragon to fight.

She can do it, now. She can stand, she can face the wyrm. And answer it. "Yes", she says quietly. "Yes, I did all of that. I admit it: in fact, I'm proud of it. Because for all the pain and suffering I caused, I always prevented more by doing so. I was always defending the weak, taking the honourable side of any fight. Yes, there was suffering, but less than there would have been without my actions."

There are murmurs from behind her: support, agreement.

She tenses. This is going to hurt... "And yes, when I cause pain, I feel it. I accept it." And she does, she realises. It's been a part of her for so long, she would be incomplete without it. And that was right. "Because I should feel it, should know the pain I cause. If I did not, I would not be fit to wield Death." Yes, it's still there. It still hurts. But it does not, and will not, control her.

She draws the Water Sword. "This, for you, is Death. You can't pretend that this doesn't exist."

Despite the tumult of pain and emotion, the heroes' resolve is impressive. Gradually the assault fades, leaving the grimly determined heroes facing a lightly amused wyrm.

"Ah, so the mortals have trod the first steps on the path to transcendence, and borne the first of the Wounds of Wisdom - if you would be become one with your destiny, first you must let your destiny become one with you."

Enfrew steps forward, enraged by the incomprehensible words he just heard. The wyrm doesn't really believe in what it speaks, he realizes, it only speaks the words it thinks will help it achieve its goals. With the thunderous voice he roars "Silence, stupid lizard! Your words mean nothing to Humakt, the Master of Death, the one who knows the Truth! He sees the lies in your words and those lies will only make your judgement faster and your existance shorter!"

Enfrew's words inspire Hrolf to examine the wyrm's words more critically, and when he sees Dori press her attack he realizes he must support the Legion. The worst they do to the wyrm is killing it, and it will be a clean death worthy of Humakt.

Hrolf sends out his Death-sense to seek the wyrm's Fatal Flaw.

Still feeling flushed from the group's success, Jamal presses to the attack. Perhaps the rush of combat would allow him to push the naggng doubts the Dragon's words had raised to the back of his mind....

"Oh, blast it all!" thinks Malan, "All this mindbending is no kind of struggle for a simple soldier! Let's just whack it!"

They move in, together, attacking now not with the wild fury of Vadrus but the cold precision of Humakt. Timing. Teamwork. So many sword-arms, even a dragon can't keep track of all of them. They avoid the gaze of those hypnotic yellow eyes, but everywhere else on the huge beast is a target. A heavily armoured target, though, Dori realises, as even her enchanted blade skids off the scales. She has to find a weak point. Fighting something this huge was hard: but the ducks did it all the time. She thinks back: yes, remember that time Yodi was fighting a cave troll? Stabbed it in the eye, while hanging off its weapon arm. He'd suckered it into a low-level attack, then jumped. And that was the weak point she wanted. The eyes are the most dangerous attack, everyone knows not to look into its eyes: but they're not armoured. Strength is weakness.

Hrolf confirms her suspicion as he signs the hand-words for "eyes" and moves to distract the dragon.

As she moves to find an optimal spot to hit the dragon in it's beady eyes, she passes Vastyr and his pack scattering to avoid a slap of the dragon's tail.

"You okay?" she yells at them.

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it boss?" Vastyr yells back. Then swirls to her side taking her hand so that they are both touching the Water Sword. "A while ago you showed me the Unbreakable Sword. Now let me show you the True Sword."

He taps with Bane the Water Sword once... twice... With both taps she feels a tingle in her sword. But on the third tap... Something transfers from Bane. A dark power that courses through her sword, her hand, through her...

It's the power all Humakti know. They all held it when they were initiated. A memory of the original Death. Made more vivid by the Otherside.

She had been able to do this herself, once, used the same power, though never with this precision or strength. She does not regret giving it up. This is not her path. But there are still times when it can be very useful indeed. "Thank you," she says soberly, looking up at her huge opponent. "I think I'm going to need that."

Giving her a wolfish grin (not made any prettier by his scars) Vastyr takes his pack to take another crack at that tail, and leaves her to concentrate on the eye.

Now, how to get up there?

She watches as Kristen nearly gets trampled while aiming a blow at the creature's... let's hope that was its stomach. That would do, if she could make that first jump.

This sort of show-boating is more the sort of thing Kargani do. In fact, maybe... "Aelf?" She can't ask him to do the job for her, but...

"Give me a boost up?"

"Kristen, do that again. And keep dodging!"

"But it didn't..."

"Just do it!"

Now, if they can get the timing right...

Aelf invokes the name of The Great Weaponmaster and drops to one knee. Frowning slightly at this unorthodox form he clasps his hands together and gestures for Dori to begin running. As the ten-thane's booted foot lands on his hands Aelf roars ferociously and hurls her high up into the air.

As Dori soars through the air, Enfrew remembers his old talents and uses his non-Humakti powers to guide her safely through the air, as much as possible.

Kristen dives in, and the huge foot comes down to crush her as Dori is thrown up, far higher than she could have jumped alone, landing safely on its knee.

Kristen rolls aside, axe upwards, and the dragon jerks its leg back and away. Dori's flight is accelerated as she's thrown upwards by the force of the movement, airborne again for a moment, then slamming into the beast's shoulder. Sword first. Just as she'd wanted. The combined strength of Aelf and a dragon could hit a lot harder than she could, and this time her blade drives home. That should get its attention! And it gives her a hand-hold as well. Good job her sword was Unbreakable, she was asking a lot of it here.
Had the monster noticed the pin-prick? She calls the North Wind, howling doom enough to convince any dragon that it had an enemy to deal with.

The great head swings round - as she'd hoped, it can't reach her with its feet or tail, it'll have to bite. She swings, suspended by one hand from the hilt of her sword, and kicks her feet up, avoiding the teeth as they close and landing on its muzzle.

The mouth opens again, throwing her forwards. Towards those eyes... and at this range, she struggles to avoid being drawn into their spell. Concentrate! All it takes is a little will-power. But all she can see is the whirling yellow, sucking her in. She shakes her head, trying to find a solid point in a universe that's moving under her feet. And then it's there, behind her. The Legion. Solid as a rock, supporting her anywhere, even here. Mentally, she braces herself against it. And then, steadied, she lunges, plunging the Water Sword deep into the nearest eye. She feels Vastyr's magic joining her, guiding her blow to strike true.

That'll help, but this has to count, has to be fatal. She calls Death to her, concentrating all the power she can into her outstretched sword. The yellow eyes fade to gray as Finality takes over.

And then Malan's magic joins them. The thrust becomes a slash, and her sword-arm acquires power she would not have believed possible, cutting through scales and bone as if they were mist.

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18 - The Wyrm Defeated

Humakt's sword slices the wyrm from snout to tail, and as Konibuthezar's carcass writhes and dissolves a shimmering blue body is revealed. Handsome in form and finely featured, a water deity stands forth revealed, freed from the wyrm's belly.

"Thank you, friends, for you have freed me from a bondage foul and interminable in length. My name is Ba Hariya, and it has been long since I mingled with the currents of my kin. You have my friendship, and blessings."

Jamal's relief at seeing the demise of the Wyrm is almost palpable. For a while those nagging doubts that Vern first raised could be forced to the background. He seems almost jaunty (if a Carmanian can do jaunty) as he steps past his exhausted comrades to greet the newly freed water god-ling.

"Well met Ba Hariya, we are of the Legion of Hereward, defenders of the Giant Cradle and friends and releasers of your kin Elmeh Saif. We come with your kin-god's blessing, for he has gifted us this water sword both to aid us in our quest to effect your release, and as a token to recommend us to you, and to show our good faith."

Jamal indicates the Water Sword which Dori hold limply as she tries to regain her strength after her recent exertions.

"We have recently freed your kinsman from his vile bonds placed upon him by that accursed deciever, the King Hasalar, in repayment for a debt of honour, for this we have his gratitude. However, we are also bound in honour to the people of Horn Gate, for whom that waters of Elmeh Saif were their life's blood. With his freed to return to his original course, the good people of the Horm Gate are doomed to a dry parched death, and our debt laid forfeit. Hence we have come to you Ba Hariya, with the blessing of Elmeh; our quest to free you is so that you may take the place of your kinsman. This we request of you both as you liberator, and as your kins-friend"

"The Water Sword is a welcome token, and if you are the ones who have freed Elmeh Saif and then I, truly you are blessed by water and will never thirst. I will not take my kinsman's place in bondage," Ba Hariya responds, "for I have been captive long enough. However, I am lazy water and cannot be troubled to reclaim my former bed. So long as these people respect and thank me through sacrifice, and do not drink me dry, nor allow me to be fouled, nor take fish from me on Wildday, and sacrifice to Elmeh Saif to show penance for their poor treatment of him, then I will lay down and nourish them. The day they forget these terms I will leave them to their thirst."

So saying, Ba Hariya flows to the ground, his placid, blue-green waters lapping around the warriors' knees. Evidently despite his calm surface, Ba Hariya is capable of mighty work, for the ground beneath their feet quickly seems to erode and fade away, leaving the warriors rapidly sinking into the benevolent embrace of the pool. Waters rush over their heads, and as they fall slowly through what must surely be the earth the warriors see visions of a world of water, visions they can scarcely comprehend.

Moments flash past, the world is turned upside down, and the heroes are suddenly thrust upwards towards the light. They find themselves, gently bouyed despte their heavy gear, floating in the large pools that make up the main oasis of Horn Gate. Around them stand the amazed faces of many of the oasis folk, and the approving face of Korlmar the White Lady of Horn Gate. Several other figures also stand around, wild in appearance, who the heroes take to be riders and elders of the Bison people. All are smiling and laughing, relief at the heroes' success in saving the oasis binding them as community, for once.

The warriors are helped out of the oasis, dried, offered food and drink and fire. They are feted as heroes, their deeds overcoming the aversion of normal folk towards Humakti. A feast is held, and all elders of the oasis vow to honour Ba Hariya's conditions.
Sea Season is drawing to a close. It has been a time of danger and battle, but as the heroes recount their deeds they realise that Korlmar's words are Truth: in virile Sea Season, as in all seasons, Death serves Life.

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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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