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New Stage
חיפוש בבמה

שם משתמש או מספר
סיסמתך
[ אני רוצה משתמש! ]
[ איבדתי סיסמה ): ]


מדורי במה








This is the second saga of the three. If you have not read
the Dwarven Saga first, you should start there...






Lord Cracker

Dark Angel Saga

Author's note for Dark Angel Saga
Yes. Again we meet. The second saga, encasing parts 5-8 is
where 1998/9 ''First Edition'' has separated from the
original story never to meet again. Greatly enhancing the
Main Character's role (You'll find who it is soon enough),
''Second Edition'' forces a simple plot to thicken, twist,
turn and sometimes crack. With a greater thought put into
Siana and Cherrie, the introduction of exotic creatures such
as The Blooddrinker, Hailia the Mountain Dragon and Joshua
Half-Orc, The insertion of Characters such as Lord Condor
Cracker and Ser Mollin the Maelstrom, the Dark Angel Saga
would also prove to be the place where ''Second Edition''
says farewell to ''First Edition''.


Prologue: That Jewel you hid
''Queara was first to speak. 'This will bring an end to us'
she said, 'elves and humans aided by our brothers from the
Savannahs and Mountains! Too many they are, I say! We can
not prevail! Something must be done, Rancor'. The First of
the Volcano Dragons pondered that statement for a short
moment. 'You are right,' he agreed at last, 'and something
will be done. We must hide! We must refresh our powers!'
'Our brothers will never let us the time,' I observed, 'they
will hunt us down! They will destroy us!' Rancor considered
my words. I may have not been the wisest of our race but my
words were true enough for all to know. 'I have means' he
said finally, 'if we seem to weaken too much to be of
threat, they would not genocide us, would they? Look my
brothers and sisters at this'. From Shadow he drew a
precious red stone. 'many a stone I have gathered,' said
Rancor, 'most of us would be enslaved in soul cages for
sometime - until we are no longer considered a threat - and
then we would break them free and take our enemies by
surprise. Here, Danier, why don't you be the first?' I
agreed and was the first to hide in the Cagestone. It had
saved me from the fate that took the others - a combined
elven-human attack aided by the other dragons took hold of
the other Cagestones. But not me. Rancor carried my cage
with him, asking my advice every now and then. But then
Rancor was killed in that foolish, nearly desperate attack
on the elven capital. My cage had wandered for a long time
until I took hold of the dwarves. Later, I was the first of
my brothers to be released from the prison. Now my revenge
awaits'' - Danier, First of the Volcano Dragons, telling
Ronar about the hard years.


The wagon creaked and its noise broke the silence of the
forest. ''Kara,'' the man in the back whispered, ''Is it
going to take any longer?''
The Rogue shrugged. ''I don't know,'' she said, ''I've been
hoping to find an inn but this area seems desolated. How's
your fever?''
''Not any better,'' the baron muttered.
Kara reached back and touched his forehead. ''Not any
better, you say?'' she exclaimed, ''By the moon you are
boiling. Where are them damn healers when you need them?''
The baron shook his head weakly. ''Are you sure you can't
transport us to Castle Greybow with your magic?'' he asked
faintly, ''Not that I'm in any rush to meet my parents
but... well...''
''I told you,'' she answered desperately, ''Shadows are hard
to pull through. To transport myself - that's not much of a
deal. Poof and I'm gone. But with other humans it's harder.
Other humans don't poof that easily. I can try it but it's
greatly dangerous. Let's carry on and hope we find someone
soon''.

But by the fall of darkness, Kara knew they would not find
anyone. The area was scarce of population and the Rogue
started to worry. The baron's fever was getting worse - he
was only dimly conscious when she stopped to make camp.
Towering over his lying body, the Rogue knew she had little
choice left. The Shadow transportation might kill Ehud and
her too but the way she saw it, the baron might die anyways
and as for her own life - she swore to give them for the
baron if necessary and with the truth about the order
gnawing at her very heart she didn't see much prospect to
living anyways. Still weak from his wound, Ehud could do
nothing to fight off the fever and Kara, while quite
resourceful in many other trades, knew nothing about healing
fever. Reckoning that his condition is getting worse, Kara
knew she had to act. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
The camp fire threw big shadows around it and Kara knew it
was her best, or at least the lesser evil, of choices.
Concentrating in her magical meditation, she did not hear
the sound of big fat feet hasting through the forest.
Putting her hand on the baron's shoulder, she opened her
eyes and whispered a prayer. Then she muttered the spell.
Something blazed in the shadows and she knew the spell was
becoming unstable. ''By the moon,'' she swore as she
concentrated, trying to hold her spell intact. Something
blazed and she noted a thin string of Illumination magic
touching her Shadow spell. She would never have believed
such thing could be done - the combination of Shadow and
Illumination is volatile and unstable and could rip apart
the whole fabric of existence! A voice that could only be
described as 'painstakingly annoying' called, ''Transporter
room!'' and with a flash, she and the wounded baron
disappeared.

''Now look what you've done,'' called a human voice, ''Where
have you sent them?''
''Me?'' the annoying voice replied, ''It wasn't me! Scottie
beamed them up!''
The human sighed. ''I'm sure Chief Engineer Scott had
nothing to do with that. Where in the world are they now,
Adraftza?''
''With Carmen Sandiego!'' answered the other voice.
''You are aware of the fact that now we must find them, you
knucklehead?''
''Yes,'' agreed the creature called Adraftza, ''But could we
stop for an ice cream first?'' Another flash lit the camp
area and the two figures were gone.

A mere second later, a third flash, nearly blinding, scared
away half the forest animals. Baron Gat, healthy and in
shape and wearing the clothing of a peasant was crouched
over the wounded body of the Rogue. ''Kara,'' he called,
''You can't die!'' Blood streamed from a wound below the
Rogue's left breast. Her blue eyes sought his own.
''It's a Rogue's honor to die for the master,'' she
whispered, blood foaming on her lips.
''Oh no you don't, Kara,'' said the baron, ''You're not
going to die on me, you hear? I need you still, Kara! Don't
fade away Moonshadow!''
''There are no healers around, remember?'' she whispered.
''I know,'' the baron sent his hand into her clothing,
''Now, where is it?''
''Baron,'' she smiled weakly, ''Are you taking advantage of
my weakness?''
He shook his head. ''Kara,'' he said, ''I know of a way to
save you! Where's the trinket?''
She shook her head weakly. ''You don't fool me,
Moonshadow,'' he told her, ''Where's the jewel? I told you
to throw that thing but I bet you didn't. You were waiting
for your chance on Arathel and not my command would have
stopped you. Where's that jewel you hid, Kara? Ah, there. A
hidden pocket in an unlikely place, eh?'' he pulled a small
Sapphire from inside her trousers. ''Come on Kara. How do I
put you in this?''
The Rogue shook her head weakly. ''I don't want to be
trapped in a Soul Cage,'' she said.
''You don't have a choice, Rogue,'' the baron answered, ''I
give you an order. Tell me how to use it?''
''But I would-'' the Rogue gasped.
''You're weakening, Kara,'' the baron shook her shoulders
gently, ''Look, we know how to open one of them damn
Cagestones now, don't we? I'll make the journey and free you
or I'll die trying and free myself from marrying some
ladyling I haven't even met and bringing children to this
world. Poor Jay. Mithrill drives him crazy with the way she
speaks, you know? Come on Rogue, how do I use this?''
Kara shut her eyes, breathed deeply and then took the
Sapphire from him. ''Don't touch it until it stops
glowing,'' she warned, ''Imadae Tourilis Trianus Elenia
Kara Kedina Dolak Terian
''. The Sapphire seemed to blast in
a flashing starburst. It took several seconds before the
glow subdued but when it did, Baron Ehud Gat was alone in
the woods and his hand clutched a blue Cagestone.





Part One: Find a Brothel and Wench a Little

''Wenching is an ancient costume,
Even older than War and Sail.
A sailor on shore leave and a soldier at his rest
To us they come and hail

After weeks upon the sea
Or in the fields of war
The sailor and soldier must find
The warm breast and hug of a whore''

Taken out of a human brothel song


Lonely. Suddenly Jay felt lonely. For the time being, Jay
had to manage the city. Oh yes, reinforcements were but a
few days away and afterwards, Duke Brewer's heir, Phoenix,
would be there to take over the city management for the time
being. But until then, the city was in Jay's hands and Jay
was at loss of wits. Being a second son, Jay was never
raised for ruling and governing. Oh no! That was bound to be
Condor's job, not his. He was raised to lead his men into
battle. And he was good at it. He knew nothing about
counting coppers and all the rest of these things. For the
first time he realized how he depended on Ehud in the past
weeks. Ehud was the only male heir to his barony. He knew
how to do these things. Oh yes, he kept moaning about him
being unfit and how his sisters do most of the job for him
but in fact he graciously maneuvered through the day-by-day
ruling and his short governing was not unpleasant. Jay on
the other hand knew nothing about ruling. Now, after three
days of trying to keep his head above the water, Jay felt he
had enough. ''I tell you,'' he told Piros and Pyrael, ''I
have to get out of this city soon. The only reason a
rebellion has not yet awoke here is that I chose not to
change anything''.
Pyrael chuckled. ''You're doing a good job, Jay'', she told
him.
''Mocking me?'' Jay's eyebrows rose.
''She's not,'' answered Piros, ''Look Jay, ruling a city or
a county or even a whole nation is just like captaining a
ship. You set the course and the wind and water do the rest
without you. Pray tell, what is the heart of the city?''
Jay pondered that question for a short moment and then said,
''The people?'' Piros nodded.
''And the people would do what they do no matter what,'' he
said, ''It doesn't matter to the peasant farmer or the petty
trader or the innkeeper whether the governor is skilled or
not. As long as the farmer can sell his cow and with the
silver he gets buy a dress for his wife and a mug of ale in
the tavern. Do you see? Your job is just to keep the ship in
the same direction, not more. Of course, if you meet a whale
or if you hit an iceberg or a storm then you must take
actions but other than that... it goes on its own. That's
why you're doing fine, Jay. You listen to complaints and
petitions and decide as your heart tells you. Your heart is
just, Jay, and so are your decisions''.
Jay shook his head. ''Everyone complains,'' he said, ''today
I had to listen to an innkeeper that says the siege
prevented him from selling his drinks. He says half his life
savings are gone because of that. He wanted some
compensation''. Pyrael grunted.
''And what did you tell him?'' she asked. ''I told him I'll
send my soldiers to his inn to have a mug or two'', said
Jay, ''That should compensate for the losses, no?''
Piros nodded. ''See what I tell you?'' he said, ''You act as
you heart tells you and that's good''.
Jay nodded and sighed. ''I just wish there was someone to
share the stress with me,'' he said.
''Who'd you like to share it with?'' asked Piros, ''Who'd
you punish with that burden? Siana?''
Jay shook his head and stared at the dragon for some time.
''You know,'' he finally said, ''I find myself missing her.
I really miss Siana''.
Pyrael's fiery eyes focused on him. ''I thought you don't
love her too much,'' she said.
''Well,'' Jay shrugged, ''I like her but... She's... I don't
really think I should marry her. If it wasn't for her
brother Swan and all that... She's simply...''
The dragoness leaned forward and clasped his shoulder.
''She's not your type, eh?'' she said.
Jay nodded silently.
''But now you miss her, eh?'' added the dragoness with a
smile.
Jay nodded again.
Pyrael leaned back and elbowed Piros. ''Don't you see the
problem?'' she said, ''the lad's lonely. Jay, let me give
you an advice from a very experienced dragoness. Find
yourself a brothel and wench a little''.
Jay's eyes widened with amazement. ''You're suggesting that
I find a whore and...'' he couldn't finish the sentence.
Pyrael nodded but it was Piros who talked. ''Why not?'' he
asked, ''Don't tell me you've never did that, Jay''. Jay
nodded. ''Twice,'' he said, ''But that was during the
Eastwatch campaign. Before I was betrothed to Siana. I can't
simply go wenching now. I'm a lord and I'm betrothed.''
Pyrael waved her hand in disregard. ''It's a costume as old
as war itself, Jay,'' she told him, ''A soldier needs some
warm breasts to put his head on after he fights and beneath
all these titles and nobility nonsense, you are just flesh
and blood. Even dragons get lonely sometimes, you know''.
Jay shook his head. ''But I'm betrothed!'' he said.
''Who'd know?'' asked Piros, ''What Siana doesn't know,
wouldn't hurt her''.
To Jay's amazement, the idea did sound tempting. Yes, he was
just flesh and blood and yes he was lonely. But still...
''What if I get the girl pregnant?'' he said, ''I wouldn't
need any bastards coming to haunt me when I'm married. That
would be disastrous''.
''Jay,'' Piros shook his head, ''The whores today... They
have potions and weeds to prevent such cases. A pregnant
whore is jobless, you know''. Jay's last resentments fell
down and he decided that that night he would go and find a
brothel and wench a little.

The sign above the door said ''The Golden Crescent''. Jay
could have asked for a whore to be fetched and brought to
the mansion but he preferred to keep this business as
discreet as possible. The door was opened and warm light
called Jay in through it. The Golden Crescent was a large
building, four stories tall. Jay heard his soldiers talking
about it in hushed voices. It had a wide range of women,
elven and human alike. Like most of his soldiers, Jay
preferred a human. Elven females that were forced to step
into prostitution were usually the luckless, the poor and
weak. Elves were never good at feigning love and Jay
preferred that the whore would at least pretend to enjoy the
act. Human females - ah, now that was a wholly different
story. Humans were less shameful about prostitution and were
always warm and welcoming. Upon entrance Jay noted three
girls that were apparently waiting for clients. An elven
female stood alone, garbed in a silken dress that left
little for imagination. The other two were humans. The right
one wore a red satin gown that - well - was greatly tempting
as it hung tightly to her body. The other one was the one
who caught Jay's eyes immediately. She was 165 centimeters
of delightful cinnamon-tan. Her hair was the color of fire,
smooth and woven into one long braid that touched her waist
gently.  Her almond eyes and slightly pointed ears hinted of
a trace of elven blood in her veins. Her smile was wide,
baring evenly matched teeth of shining white. She wore
nearly nothing above the waist - only a wide piece of grey
wolf-fur that covered her full breasts. Her breeches were of
wolf-fur too, tied with dark-red laces a few centimeters
below her bellybutton. Her eyes were enchanting blue that
reminded Jay of Kara's eyes. Jay noted that just like the
Rogue, this one had a feline fineness in her movements.
''Looking for a good night's company, sweet one?'' asked the
other human.
Jay fought back an urge to back away and nodded. ''You,'' he
pointed at the fur-wearing human, ''What say we... eh...''
The blue eyes fixed on him, widening. ''Are you sure,
pointy-ears?'' she said, her tone crude and unfriendly ''I
think not. You asked for the wrong gal. Why don't you make
like a tree and leave?''
''I beg your pardon?'' Jay fought to concentrate. Has this
girl just told him to leave? Why? Has he done anything
wrong? The fur-wearing girl greeted her fine teeth.
''Go now, pointy-ears,'' she gestured towards the door,
''before I make your ears round like a human!''
The insult and amazement were the last nails hammered to the
coffin of Jay's desire. He stepped out and decided to walk
back. He tried to find it in him to be angered at the human
girl but couldn't. He fell to his bed silently and lay
there, waiting for the sleep to come. But his sleep didn't
come and till quite late that night, Jay pondered the
enchanting blue eyes.





Part Two: Damsel in Distress?
''The bear was huge, black furred. It stood on its hind
legs and its front legs were full of girl. Eagle always
thought that he's supposed to challenge the scum who attacks
a damsel. But how the hell do you challenge a bear? ''Hey
you!'' he cried. Well, it worked. The bear left the girl,
letting her fall a meter into the muddy ground. Then it
swung about and looked at Eagle. If the magically enhanced
sword impressed it, the bear didn't show any of it. It
charged at Eagle. Eagle jumped to the left, dodging the
charging bear. He swung his sword and hit the head
powerfully'' - The legend of Eagle and the skin of the
bear.


An elf with a problem goes to consult any of three types of
godlike creatures. The gods - through their priests - were
the favorite. Parents were the second - mummy and daddy
always know better. And the third and perhaps the awkward of
them all - the trees of the forest. Jay believed in the
gods. He trusted them always to know better - even when they
sent whirlwinds to strike him from the back of his griffin.
However, the priesthood he trusted less. A priest of Drampon
told him once that the Messenger god really used his
snake-tailed sandals. Jay found it too awkward to ask how
did the Messenger god crawled anywhere and was willing to
bet that a god would probably prefer the better
transportation of a horse. His parents couldn't help him
either. His mother was far away and his father long dead. So
he was forced to turn to the forest. Elves had awareness to
the life that pulsated in the flora. Jay needed but to touch
a tree to feel its strong life and its years and experience.
Trees calmed him. In every living being there is the
potentiality to become evil - even elves. If the correct
strings are pulled and the exact wounds salted even the best
of men could turn into a monster. Not so were the trees.
Trees couldn't become evil because they didn't hold the
capacity. Their evil potentiality was equal to Jay's
potential of growing wings and a muzzle - magic was the only
way to create any of both. Trees weren't good either. There
can be no good without the contrary of evil. Trees were
simply... there, consent and untroubled by the way the world
acted around them. Trees could be persuaded to do things
though. The elves had no woodcutters. It was a crime to cut
down wood. Instead they had woodmagi, spellcasters that
could persuade the tree into shedding off some of its
branches. But Jay wasn't thinking about any of it right now.
His back leaning against a wide oak, Jay mused about Siana
and the blue eyed girl. To his annoyance, he could not stop
thinking about these blue eyes. Oh yes, the girl had other
things worth mentioning but it was the cunning and the
wildness in the eyes that attracted Jay from the first
second. Jay knew there's no point falling for them. Even if
he wasn't already betrothed, Jay could hardly avoid
imagining the mocking laughs and stares that he'd receive if
he fell in love for a whore. And yet Jay couldn't deny he
was greatly attracted to the human female. She was like a
half-wild panther, waiting for the right man to take her and
turn her to a loving house kitten. Oh yes. Such man would be
very lucky. Such man could- The scream tore Jay away from
his reflections. It was, unmistakably, a wail of fear and
terror. Jay stood up, drawing Keith-Kanan from its sheath.
He turned left and right and waited until he heard the
scream again. To his left, he decided, close. He lunged
forward and ran. It took him less than a minute to reach the
source of the cries. In a small bare spot, an axe wielding
Orc threatened the girl in the wolf furs. She held an onyx
wand in her right hand and a small dagger in the left. The
two stood, staring at each other. Calling a challenge Jay
jumped forward, Keith-Kanan blazing in his hand. The Orc
turned barely in time to block Jay's strike with his axe. It
took a step backwards and Jay struck forward, pressing him
even further back. Keith-Kanan met the axe again and
splinters of wood spread from the shaft of the axe. It was
woodcutting axe, Jay noted, its head rusty and its shaft
made of wood. He struck again, a quick and ferocious slash.
Keith-Kanan met the shaft again, cutting it in half. Jay
waved the silvery blade over his head and struck one last
time, taking the Orc just above the green bellybutton.
Entrails and blood spilled as the Orc collapsed. The Orc
looked at him with dimming eyes and wailed. Jay stepped back
as he realized that the wailing he heard didn't came from
the girl - but from the Orc. Amazed he watched as the Orc
gasped its final breaths. Then he turned to the girl. She
was upon him immediately, kicking and punching him.
Surprised, Jay dropped Keith-Kanan as a shower of punches
and kicks sent him sprawling on the ground. The girl was
strong beyond his imagination. He turned on his back and
froze as something cold and pointy touched his throat. ''You
have the nerve, elf!'' said the woman, her blue eyes narrow
in anger, ''The morning was just fine for me. A nice
breakfast, a small quarrel with a shopkeeper and finally
summoning a weakling to have some fun. But oh no! Mister
pointy ears had to come here and act all heroic and stuff
and save the damsel in distress? You're one hell of a type,
pointy ears. It'd almost be a shame that I spill your blood
now''.
Jay, calm under pressure, concentrated. In the back of his
mind he could feel Rumpus concentrating back.
''Trouble?'' asked the griffin.
''Yes,'' replied Jay. The griffin screamed in anger and rose
to its lion feet. Jay let his concentration go and looked at
the human. ''What did you just do?'' she asked.
''I called my griffin,'' he replied, pushing his
bewilderment as to her spotting this transmission.
Her eyes widened. ''I am Lord Jay Cracker,'' he told her,
''I'm in charge of this city and I'm the lord commander of
the army that holds it. My griffin would soon be on its way
here and probably half my men will follow just to see where
it goes. Kill me and you won't get far. Don't kill me and I
may just give up my notion of having your beautiful head on
a tray!''
The human backed away.





Jay couldn't possibly know that she was the daughter of a
peasant farmer that lived near Balad-Naran. When she was
seven she joined her father as he came to the market of the
Korien capital to sell his products. She had the unpleasant
honor of seeing two of the city guards hacking off a
pickpocket's hand. Jay would never learn how it frightened
her when her father told her that this is the ''power of the
law''. For years she had nightmares of the sprouting blood
as the newly dissected hand still spasms on the anvil. She
never forgot the lesson and thus spent her life evading any
clashes with the law. Ironically, she found herself vying
the power of the law too, but she never had a chance to
seize any of it. She was a commoner after all. But now,
being threatened by the law - the elf was in charge, just as
her friend Mia thought he was - Vengie cowered. She knew she
had taken a wrong step. Attacking the law... Now, that was a
good way to get yourself thrown into a damp prison or to
lose a vital organ. She had to make up for this. Quickly.
She didn't think groveling and begging would do the trick.
But wait. The elf was attracted to her, wasn't he? He
thought she was... hmm... She did have worse bedmates before
and she could see how calculating her steps cautiously may
even bring her what she always wanted - the power of being
the law.





''Look, lord,'' she said, ''I'm sorry about that. I'm not
quite used to heroes out of legend coming to my aid. But
maybe I can, eh, make it up to you?'' she let her tongue
slide slowly over her top lip.
''Make it up to me?'' the elf asked, suspicious.
She reached back towards the small star-shaped clasp that
held her... well... let's call it a bra. ''Make it up to
you,'' she nodded as the bra fell and she drew closer.
The elf's hand touched the warmness of her breasts softly
and her lips found his lips. Tongues were quickly
misplaced.

''Lord Jay?'' asked a telepathic voice.
''No worries, Rumpus,'' murmured Jay as she pushed him
towards the ground, her hands touching his body lustfully.
The griffin murmured something about weird elven mating
costumes and turned back. The girl's hands reached Jay's
crouch and she smiled softly.
''Hard already, lord?'' she said, ''So hard and tough. You
are a true warrior, eh?''
She mounted him and said, ''Now let me see if I can undo the
mistakes I did to you...''





Later - much much later - he leaned his back on a tree.
''Come to think about it,'' he said, ''I don't even know
your name''.
She smiled, warming his heart. ''Vengie,'' she said,
''Vengie Lee. And your name is Jay, right? Pointy ears don't
fit you, I think. Though there are other pointy edges to
you, Lord Jay''.
Jay pondered that tease for a moment. ''You know,'' he said,
''your accent reminds me of someone I met. She had the same
eye color too''.
She hesitated for a second. ''You mean Kara?'' she finally
said, ''The little Moonshadow that guarded the baron Gat?''
Jay's eyes widened. ''You know her?'' he asked, ''How?''
Vengie shrugged. ''We're old friends,'' she said, ''Grew up
in the same village''.
Jay scratched his head. ''Kara's a commoner?'' he asked, ''I
could swear she's a noblewoman''.
Vengie snorted. ''All Moonshadows act like nobles,'' she
said, ''Damnable figures, most of them. Not Kara though.
Even the training as a Moonshadow couldn't spoil her''.
Jay nodded. Kara was charming, that's for sure.
''So,'' he said, reckoning, ''you are the friend she called
for?''
Vengie nodded. ''I'm still not certain how could we be
friends,'' she admitted, ''Pure little Kara, daddy's girl
and me. Damn it, I bedded more men than Kara ever saw. Bet
you a golden that she's still a virgin''.
Jay moved uneasily. He was not used to discuss such matters
- certainly not with women.
''Sorry if I'm crossing lines, lord,'' Vengie gave him an
apologetic smile, ''Not used to speaking with nobles''.
Jay nodded. He didn't really mind. Not when it was her who
was speaking. ''So what were you doing in that brothel?'' he
asked.
Vengie shrugged. ''I came here two days ago,'' she said,
''went to that mansion of yours and asked to see little
'Lady Kara'. Said I was her friend and stuff. They told me
Lady Kara is extremely busy''. She snorted again. ''I
started wondering so I went to meet another friend. Mia, the
human from the brothel? Anyways, she said there was some
sort of duel and that the baron that Kara follows was
severely injured. So I... err... met a human officer and...
err... persuaded him to tell me what happened. Some guys are
really talkative after the right... err... oiling. So he
said that the baron was gone and that the lady went with
him. Bugger. Here I am, first time in the damnable city,
alone and bored. So I went to have dinner with Mia and
afterwards I walked her to the 'Golden Crescent'. And there
you found me and quite insulted me''.
Jay touched her cheek with a faint smile. ''I thought you
were one of the... workers... in the brothel,'' he
apologized, ''after all with that small garb around your
breasts one could easily make the mistake''.
Vengie touched the wolf-fur. ''This?'' she asked, ''This is
just 'cause this area is so warm. You should see Kor. Before
that you'll never understand the meaning of freezing cold.
But enough of that. Are you the direct commander of them
griffin riders?''
Jay nodded. He suddenly scratched his head. ''You heard me
talking to Rumpus!'' he said.
''Heard?'' Vengie shrugged, ''no. But I felt the faint echo
of the telepathic connection. You get used to it if you're
in my business''.
Jay pondered that statement. Suddenly recalling some things
he heard from Kara he said, ''You feel the magical cord or
whatever it is called and you mock the Rogues. You must be
an Angel''.
Vengie shook her head, a disdainful look touching her face.
''A Dark Angel,'' she answered, ''they banished me''.
Jay's eyebrows rose. A banished Angel? He knew well enough
that banished Angels were a double-edged sword. They could
exercise whatever magic they knew without limitations or
rules. However, they did not posses the full skills of
Angels - magic training never ends and new skills are always
there to be learned. In addition, Dark Angels may stumble
upon a hazard that they didn't learn about - Jay once heard
about an elven petty magic user that tried to fire a bolt of
lightning. While the lightning did erupt from the elf's hand
and scorched his enemy, it also electrocuted the magic user
himself - because he didn't know that a lightning should be
fired from a rod or its likes.
''So you're a Dark Angel,'' he said, ''How long?''
Vengie snorted. ''Nearly a year,'' she said, ''They kicked
my hinds through the door after I got... err... too
involved with a married teacher. But that's ok. I spent this
year selling my powers. You know how everyone needs
magicians nowadays?''
Jay nodded. Magic was indeed as common as people could get.
Most nobles held at least one magic user in their court.
''I heard it's dangerous,'' he told her, reciting the story
of the elf and the lightning bolt.
Vengie snorted. ''You won't be seeing me getting scorched,''
she said, ''You know how banished Angels are not allowed to
take anything with them as they leave? Well... I cheated. I
snatched some books and an artifact or two. That for
example,'' she pointed at the onyx wand that lay near. She
muttered a quick spell and the wand floated gracefully
towards her. ''It's a summoning wand,'' she told him,
''Summons all kinds of beings''.
Jay nodded. ''Orcish woodcutters for example?'' he asked.
She nodded. ''I figured an Orc is a nice practice for this
morning but... I asked for a weapon wielding Orc and for
some reason the damnable stick brings me a woodcutting axe
and a cowardly woodcutter. Say, care if I brought you back
to that mansion now?''
Jay nodded. He had things to do. ''Above all,'' he thought
aloud, ''I still need to find out what the dwarves were up
to''.
Vengie nodded and helped him stand up. She muttered a few
magic words, waved the summoning wand back and forth and
with a wink, they disappeared.
As they disappeared, a shadow moved and the cowl dwarf moved
out from between the bushes. ''Yes elf,'' he muttered, ''You
are about to find out what the dwarves are up to. I was a
fool to trust emissaries and armies. Everything I want done,
I must do myself''. He closed his eyes, concentrating. His
right hand touched the glowing red stone on his chest as he
muttered magical words and disappeared in a blaze of bright
light that incinerated two trees.

Jay looked at the door of the mansion, impressed. ''Neat
trick,'' he said, ''but what's it got to do with a summoning
wand?''
Vengie snorted. ''Nothing,'' she said, ''Nothing at all. But
I look impressive when I wave it, no?''
Jay nodded. ''Come,'' he told her, ''let's see what
headaches expect me today''. Vengie nodded, thinking that
her plan is going out well. Jay was indeed attracted to her
and if this goes well she may wield the power of the law
soon enough. Good. She followed Jay in and nodded politely
as he introduced her to the servants.
''There was a griffin rider arriving earlier,'' said the
steward, ''Said that Duke Phoenix Brewer would be upon us
with his forces tomorrow''.
Jay sighed in relief. ''One day,'' he murmured, ''and I'm
out of here at last!'' Vengie was about to inquire what he
meant. She had the impression that he was the governor of
this city. Wasn't he? If not, that may hamper her plans, no?
But she never had the time to inquire. The ground heaved
suddenly and the door behind them shattered. Vengie turned
to face what would seem to be a giant fiery creature. Well,
giant fiery creature lacks to describe what it was. Towering
to nearly two meters and half, made of pure flames, the
creature would make the words, ''gigantic'', ''colossus'',
and ''RUN YOU FOOLS!'' instantly come to mind.
''Elemental,'' Vengie noted calmly, ''Well, you fight fire
with water, don't you?''
She waved the summoning wand, creating an intricate pattern
and whispering words of magic. The black onyx flashed and
suddenly a stream of water appeared in front of her.
''Charge,'' she commanded the Water Elemental.
The Water Elemental took the form of a tidal wave and
crashed itself onto the Fire Elemental. In front of Jay's
amazed stare the Fire Elemental shrunk and dimmed, leaving
nothing but scorch marks on the floor. Vengie muttered a few
more words and the onyx blazed again. The tidal wave turned
into a small helix that stood still. ''And a summoning wand
could come in handy,'' she mentioned, ''Now I wonder who
sent this little campfire against us''.
The water helix froze into ice as a new voice said, ''I
did!'' Through the blasted entrance, the stone on his chest
glowing fiercely, walked the cowl dwarf. ''I made the
mistake of trusting others to do my job for me,'' he said,
''But now I intend to correct that mistake!'' He called a
short incantation and the frozen helix broke into eight
splinters that flew rapidly towards Vengie. Reacting
quickly, Vengie created a wall of enchanted flames that
melted the sharp splinters before they could hit her.
''Nice,'' said the cowl dwarf, ''but let's see how you
manage to save him from suffocating in a cage of ice''. A
cube of ice suddenly surrounded Jay. Through his waist he
felt Keith-Kanan's hilt growing cold and the cube retracted
a bit. It was still there, though, only a few centimeters
from his body. Jay sucked hard on the little air it gave him
and struck at the ice. Alas, the ice was tough and thick and
he didn't have the width to draw his sword. Through the ice
he saw Vengie battling the cowl dwarf. The Dark Angel was at
a clear disadvantage. She ducked and dodged the cowl dwarf's
spells whereas her best offensive spells did nothing to her
enemy. Jay sucked air again and realized that he has no more
air left. He tried to hold on to his breath as Vengie evaded
another spell. Red dots burned in front of his eyes as he
clenched his teeth and held on to the last breath. His sight
began to dim. He leaned forward and- suddenly he fell to the
floor as the ice vanished. Panting hard, he looked up. The
walls around were seared and burnt and the tapestry would
need to be replaced. Vengie stood, panting, over the
writhing body of the cowl dwarf. Jay stared with amazement
at the dagger that protruded from the dwarf's throat,
creating a small pool of blood beneath him.
''Throwing daggers are quite useful,'' Vengie noted, ''he
didn't expect that. When I saw that my best spells couldn't
pierce that defense of his, I dispelled it when he was
concentrated on attacking me and... Well... thanked the gods
for the traveling blacksmith in that inn near Stormhall''.
She offered Jay her hand and pulled him to his feet.
''This ought to do the trick,'' he said, ''The reports said
that this guy is behind the war plans. Hmmm now let's see
about this stone''. Jay leaned forward, sending his hand to
the glowing ruby.
''Ah, Lord Jay,'' Vengie grabbed his shoulder and pulled him
back, ''I wouldn't. There's some sort of spell lying on that
Cagestone''.
Jay's eyes widened and he stepped away. He had no mood for
losing his eyebrows right now. No, thank you.  ''So it is a
Cagestone,'' he observed, ''just as Kara suspected''.
Vengie nodded. ''A very powerful one,'' she replied, ''I can
feel its powers even without touching it. Fearsome. Full of
anger and hate. Oh wait! The spell's going active!''
Jay backed away as the chain that held the Cagestone
disintegrated. The ruby levitated and suddenly flashed. A
magical hole appeared in front of it and Jay caught a
glimpse of a jungle and green-winged Lizardmen. Then the
stone levitated through the hole and with a flash the magic
channel disappeared.
''The Cagestone was transported,'' Vengie said. Jay nodded.
''Straight to draconian hands,'' he said, ''Wonder what the
lizards would do with it?''
Vengie spat. ''Nothing good, that's for certain,'' she said,
''I bet the green-blooded critters would be creating an
altar for the vileness of this stone. I tell you, I never
met anything viler than the Drakemen''.
Jay nodded. He had personal reasons to loathe the
draconians. But surely it was nothing Vengie needed to worry
about. ''So,'' he said, ''you are indeed powerful for a Dark
Angel. What other neat things can you do?''
Vengie smiled. ''Do you want to see?'' she asked, a teasing
look in her eyes. Jay nodded. Vengie pulled him into the
council hall and started unfastening the lace that held her
breeches.





Part Three: The Unlikely Warmaid

''Elvalie's defensive forces are divided to three different
units. Elvalie's streets are patrolled by the City Guards,
which combine military purposes with law-enforcement duties.
As could be expected the City Guard is well trained but only
lightly armed. Elvalie's Outskirts are guarded by the Forest
Guard - a large band of seasoned Rangers that are
excellently trained and heavily armed. Third and last is the
Wall Guard. Since Elvalie had many centuries of peaceful
prosperity, the Wall Guard has reverted to a semi-military
force. While excellently armed, the Wall Guard enjoys only
basic training and is commonly used as an honorary guard in
royal ceremonies and the likes. Due to its nature, the Wall
Guard attracts many a young noble that cares to taste the
military life but does not wish to take the full
responsibilities of a soldier. While soldiers of the Wall
Guard are not well trained, an experienced squad-leader is
not an uncommon sight as many commanders closing the age of
retirement tend to join the Wall Guard in order to maintain
some of the military in their lives. It is an interesting
point that these are the only three forces in the whole
realm that have soldiers that are not elves. History records
that during the last desperate offensive of the Volcano
Dragons, human mercenaries and even a dwarf crossbowman were
hastily recruited to swell the ranks of the defenders. It is
apparent that King Mockingbird Lighter has decided to keep
the mercenaries in his ranks afterwards and thus decreed the
Guardsman Incentive. According to the Guardsman Incentive,
not only that each and every guard will enjoy the same
rights as any of the citizens but will also be given a small
house in Elvalie and a reduction in Tax payments. Even
mercenaries would fight fiercer in defense of their own
homes and are unlikely to betray for money'' - interlude
from Lord Raven Crusher's ''Warlord's Encyclopedia''.


The wheat grew tall below them. Though the descending sun
did not give enough light to make out any certain detail,
Jay knew the land well enough to know where he was. He
turned back and smiled at Vengie. ''In one day,'' he told
her, ''we'll be home''.
Vengie nodded reluctantly. ''Your home, Jay,'' she
answered.
''What's with you?'' he asked, ''You seemed eager before we
left Carmel''.
Vengie nodded. ''But I've been thinking,'' she told him.
''Jay, I'm a human. You're an elven lord. What would people
say?''
Jay shrugged off the question. He had other problems in
mind. ''Human and elf marriages are not that uncommon,'' he
noted, ''even among the nobles. Hell, Lord Krishor, who was
my guardian after my dad died, was married to a human''.
Vengie nodded again. It wasn't what she meant. ''Was she a
commoner?'' she asked.
Jay shook his head. ''No,'' he told her, ''she was a
baroness from Seleny. Sonia Gavin, that was her name. I
think she was King Cheyle's aunt''.
Vengie pushed him gently. ''Now you see?'' she asked.
''See what?'' Asked Jay.
''Jay,'' Vengie pointed, ''you're a noble and I'm the
daughter of a peasant. Is it that 'not uncommon' that a lord
marries a commoner?''
Jay shook his head. ''Not really, but... they can't tell me
who to marry, right? I'm the second son. My brother Condor
is the heir and stuff. He's the important character in
marriages and stuff''. It was not all that true, and Jay
knew it. After all he was betrothed to Lady Siana Snatcher
because both houses desired to fortify their good relations.
Jay's best friend was Swan Snatcher even before the
arrangement was settled. But Swan died nearly sixteen years
ago, merely a month before Jay's mother betrothed him to
Swan's sister. Jay's feelings toward Siana weren't as warm
as he would have liked them to be but at that time Jay had
no mind to causing trouble and additional grief. But now, of
course, things would have to change. Jay counted on his
mother to understand. Lady Mina Cracker was a very liberal
woman and she always told Jay that he is the one who should
make the choices. She would probably back him up. Condor
would probably back him up too - Condor was arranged to
marry Duchess Suiren Searcher next summer and not much love
was lost between them. Yes. Condor would understand. House
Snatcher on the other hand - old Lord Robin may take offense
by this breaking of the betrothal and Siana may be greatly
disappointed. Jay had no desire to hurt any of them. Lord
Robin taught both him and Swan many an important knowledge
and Siana, well, Jay had nothing against her to say the
least. Jay gathered he would find a way to do it, using the
counsel of his mother, Condor and Lepress. As Rumpus
descended murmuring a silent curse about carrying TWO
persons on its back, Jay tried to assure Vengie that
everything would be alright. He knew not that something else
was bothering the Dark Angel. Watching silently as the army
started making camp, Vengie had a lot to think about it. She
told Jay she wants to be alone and wandered into the forest
of crops.

She lay on her back between the giant wheat and gazed at the
rising moon. She began to feel that she made a mistake.
First was that thing about Jay being replaced as governor of
Carmel. He swore that Phoenix Brewer is a successful copy of
his father that would do a lot better running the city. She
joined him as he gathered his own host and readied to march
back home. But only after a day on the road she discovered
that Jay wasn't the heir to any power. She started feeling
that somehow she has been cheated. She never thought she
would find herself riding a griffin on the way to the heart
of the elven realm, nor did she ever dream about making a
lord fall for her. And what's worse, she never imagined she
would fall in love with an elf. ''There,'' she suddenly said
aloud, ''I said it. I love the guy. Damn it!'' This she
never expected. Oh yes, going with the elf was just as good.
Marrying him should have brought her some power. And maybe
in the end she would truly learn to love the guy. But now?
And when he offers her nothing of the power she desired? ''I
must be going crazy,'' she said aloud. Oh yes, Jay was
handsome and gallant and brave but still... love? ''I never
thought I had the capacity of acting like a love struck
child,'' she murmured. She had to leave. Yes. She made up
her mind. She would leave, take what few things she had and
disappear in the midst of night. She'll find an inn and
someone to warm her bed until her head cleansed itself from
all these goofy love struck thoughts. She stood up and
walked back to camp. Jay was already in bed, exhausted.
Vengie studied his features for a short moment. His sleep
was deep, his breaths constant and rhythmic. Well, is it
time or no? She must leave now or... or... or get in bed and
sleep. Suddenly, the urge to hug him was overwhelming.
Muttering a muffled chain of curses about herself and her
stupidity and how could she get herself into this, she
undressed. She lay down on the bed and pulled the blanket
over her. She put her hand on Jay's shoulder. His eyes
opened and he looked at her. ''I love you,'' she whispered.
Jay smiled and she couldn't fight the urge to kiss him. His
hands pressed her to him. ''Everything will be ok, Vengie,''
he told her softly. She kissed him again. ''I know,'' she
said, ''I trust you''.





Jay woke up to the smell of cooking. Vengie was not in the
bed. He dressed up quickly and caught his sword belt. He
would be home today and he didn't care to wait any longer
than necessary. He walked out of the tent and found Vengie
near one of the cooking fires, along with Sergeant Latcher
and another bladesman. ''Good morning,'' he told them.
''Morning, lord,'' smiled Sergeant Latcher, ''we were just
in the middle of telling Miss Vengie about the Eastwatch
campaign. Do you remember how that human knight was wounded
by a number of arrows and still kept on fighting?''
''Ser Mollin the Maelstrom,'' Jay nodded and smiled, ''the
Orcs filled him with their arrows but that giant simply
kept on swinging his sword like some sort of an automated
dwarf machine. When the battle was over the healers plucked,
what was it, hmmm six or seven arrows out of his body and
couldn't explain how he survived. Ah, and that night he
bought every griffin rider a mug of ale to show his
gratitude for our efforts. But we couldn't drink so he swore
he'd drink it for us. He passed out after the 21st if my
memory serves correct. But say, what's cooking? Is that
rabbit stew?''
Vengie nodded. ''You'll never guess,'' She said, ''Scouts
found them. There are dead animals all around this wheat
forest. Some were dismembered. Others were beheaded''.
The younger bladesman nodded. ''I wonder who could have done
that,'' he said.
Jay listened with amazement. ''I too wonder,'' he said,
''I've never heard of anything like that save for once...''
his voice grew faint as he recalled.'' Once when-'' His face
suddenly turned into a mask of deep terror. ''They're still
fresh!'' he said, ''then there's still time! Come! Leave
this and get ready to march! Sergeant Latcher! You go to my
home and warn them! The ground forces will follow you!
Griffin riders! Hurry! After me! Elvalie may be in grave
danger''.
Sergeant Latcher started arranging things and Jay, in a
panicked-frenzy, was shouting all over camp.
Vengie shrugged towards the younger bladesman. ''I told you
we should have offered him some'' she said and went to fetch
her things.





Siana sat on the porch of her house. The villa wasn't the
Snatcher's seat of power but Siana preferred Elvalie over
the southern estates. Whenever she could, she'd stay here.
Plus, her best friend lived here too. Duchess Cherrie Shaker
was the representative of her house in Elvalie. While young,
Cherrie was both wise and a brilliant diplomat. Her father
was a bannerman to Siana's father and Siana and Cherrie
practically grew up together. To say the truth, it was
Cherrie who brought up the plan that kept Siana in the
capital. Knowing how Siana preferred the city over the
southern estates and reckoning her love towards Lord Jay
Cracker, Cherrie offered that she'd kill two goblins in one
slash. With her father's support, Siana joined the Wall
Guard. It seemed the perfect choice. She could train weapons
to be more attractive for Jay, she had to perfect excuse to
stay in Elvalie and she didn't really need to venture into
military life. After all, the Wall Guards usually just stood
'at attention' in ceremonies and did fancy things with their
swords. Of course the truth was a bit harsher. The
recruiting officer has added her to a bowmen squad that was
under the command of a human female. Lieutenant Bethany
Ormuz was a mercenary from Seleny that spent nearly ten
years in the Wall Guard, enjoying the benefits of it. She
was a big bear of a woman, it seemed to Siana; over 190
centimeters of height, wide and muscular as a blacksmith.
Bethany met her and Cherrie as they joined the unit together
with a bellowing welcome. ''My name is Bethany,'' she told
them, her face red and quite hostile, ''but you will never
use it! For you, my name is Lieutenant and I'm second only
to the gods!'' That was the starting point and it didn't get
any better afterwards. Lieutenant Bethany was harsh and
drove them through mad practice drills, as if she was
preparing them to war the whole Orcish nation. It was hard
for Siana and Cherrie - none of them was used for such
mistreating. But Siana did it for Jay and Cherrie did it for
Siana so they somehow managed to survive the first month.
Afterwards they realized the Lieutenant Bethany wasn't all
that bad - Cherrie's brother heard some good things about
her abilities and once you got past the crude behavior you
quickly met with a skilled commander that cared for her
soldiers. Siana and Cherrie met at Siana's house this
morning, to have a cup of steaming tea before they go for
another day of drilling and practicing. ''You know,'' said
Cherrie, ''I've heard that they are drilling us because your
love's supposed to be arriving tomorrow. There'll be some
sort of ceremony to honor him and his army''.
Siana smiled. Cherrie had a way of discovering such things.
''Tomorrow?'' she asked, ''Jay's coming tomorrow?''
Cherrie nodded. ''I've heard that they could have been here
earlier but the ground troops don't advance as fast as his
griffins and they say he decided not to push them and march
at ease''.
Siana nodded. ''I've heard they deserve it,'' she said,
''there were hard battles at Carmel''.
Cherrie nodded. Then, something odd happened. A bell rang.
Both ladies looked up. It was not one of the regular bells.
It was the great bell in the center bell tower.
''Alarm!'' Said Cherrie.
''But...'' Siana tried to find words. The Alarm Bell didn't
ring for 400 years, since the battle against the last
remnants of the Volcano Dragons. It was a legend! A myth!
Cherrie reacted quickly. ''Come, Siana,'' she told her,
''remember what they taught us?'' Siana remembered what they
taught her alright. Lieutenant Bethany forced them to run up
the wall stairs at least twice a week, screaming, ''If that
damned bell rings, you have to do it a hell lot quicker!''
Suddenly decisive, she stood up.
''Come on,'' rushed Cherrie, ''you'll have some battle
experience to brag when Lord Jay sees you next time! Come
now!'' Siana grabbed the boiled leather mail and quickly
wore it. Her bow and quiver were near at hand and so was the
short sword. Cherrie was already prepared - after all, they
were on their way to another day of drilling and practicing.
They ran through the streets, noting how the sky had grown a
strange color. They rushed up the stairs, climbing to the
wall. Lieutenant Bethany was already there. ''You're here?''
she said, ''Take your positions! Now!''
''What's going on, Lieutenant?'' Asked Cherrie.
The human pointed towards the north-east horizon. A horde of
green creatures was flying towards the city. ''Drakemen!''
she said, ''I don't suppose they come to visit the Avenue of
Light, eh?''
Siana glanced at the mass of draconians that was closing.
They were perhaps two kilometers away from the city. Fear
cramped her stomach.
''Take your positions,'' hissed Lieutenant Bethany, ''now,
between Pigeon and Hummingbird!''. Siana took her position.
Pigeon and Hummingbird were both lancers. Since the
draconians could use their flying ability to 'vertically
envelop' armies, defending the archer units was harder than
against ground forces. The elven doctrine for such cases
deemed that every two archers must have two lancers with
them to defend them against melee attacks. Siana readied her
bow and drew an arrow with fingers numb by fear. The arrow
fell and Siana dropped to one knee and picked it. She
fumbled the bowstring trying to remember the correct way of
readying an arrow. She was all engulfed by fear and as an
old saying says: ''Fear cuts deeper than swords''. By now
she could make out the figures of the draconians. Averaging
170 centimeters height, the draconians were bipedal with
green scales and lizard-like muzzles. Two green bat-like
wings could propel the Drakemen in the air. Most of them
carried either long cutlasses or halberds to take advantage
of their aerial attacks. She clenched her teeth, trying not
to tremble. She didn't want to fight! She couldn't possibly
fight! She was not fighter!
Suddenly Cherrie smiled and said, ''Remember, everyone, the
pointy end goes first!''
Siana couldn't help chuckling. On their first bow training
Cherrie stumbled with an arrow and it flipped and went off
awkwardly, it's back first. Lieutenant Bethany berated her
in front of everyone and ever since then, whenever they drew
the bows for practice, Lieutenant Bethany would always say,
''Remember, Cherrie, the pointy end goes first''. Now this
little joke has brought back all the memories of training.
Siana pushed her fear away. She was a soldier and she was
trained and she wouldn't fail. She readied the arrow and
watched as the draconians drew closer. ''Archers, pull!''
cried Lieutenant Bethany. Siana pulled the bowstring and
aimed at a halberdier. The draconian was only three hundred
meters away. ''Steady,'' cried Lieutenant Bethany, ''Aim!
Release!'' Siana let the arrow loose. The arrow took the
halberdier in the left wing, sending it crashing down. Siana
drew another arrow and picked a second target. All around
her, bowstrings thwacked and draconians fell. She released
the arrow, killing a spearman. She drew a third arrow and
noted that the draconians were getting awfully close. She
drew the bowstring back and took a draconian right in the
face from thirty meters. A draconian with a curved
short-sword charged towards her but Lancer Pigeon to her
right stopped him with a nasty stab from his lance. Her next
arrow took a draconian full in chest. The draconian fell,
his cutlass slicing the arm of another drakeman. Then two
draconians charged at Pigeon. The lancer managed to strike
down one of them but the other one slashed Pigeon's chest
with his cutlass, cutting through the boiled leather shirt.
Pigeon stumbled back, blood sprouting from his wound. The
draconian knocked him down and landed atop the catwalk.
Siana dropped her bow and drew the short sword. It was an
archer's last defense and truth is, Siana's skill with it
was lacking. The drakeman slashed towards her and she
parried clumsily. The drakeman snarled and struck towards
her with his wings. The attack came in such surprise that
Siana fell back, losing her sword. The draconian raised the
cutlass at her. Cherrie charged him, coming to her aid. The
drakeman parried Cherrie's strike and forced his cutlass
through Cherrie's boiled-leather shirt. Cherrie stumbled
back, bleeding and crying in pain. The draconian shifted his
attention back to Siana. He raised the cutlass again and
suddenly his eyes rolled. The beat of wings grew louder as
Lord Jay Cracker pulled Keith-Kanan out of the drakeman's
back. The silver blade's tip was wet with green blood.
Behind Jay, holding an onyx wand, sat a human female. Siana
saw Jay's lips move but the wing beat swallowed the words.
The human screamed something in crude Elvish and Siana
managed to make out ''...disadvantaged from the back of a
griffin anyway''. With a feline-like agility the human stood
on the back of the griffin and then jumped to the
crenellations. She raised her thumb towards Jay. Jay nodded
and turned to face the draconian attackers. He waved
Keith-Kanan ferociously, beheading a hasty halberdier.
Rumpus sent its eagle beak to tear at another one. On the
wall, the human smiled at Siana. ''Get up gal,'' she said,
''you're still alive. Take that bow and keep piercing them
drakemen!''
Siana stood up and grabbed her bow. ''Cherrie!'' she
suddenly said.
''The other gal?'' The human pointed, ''The healers took
her''.
Siana sighed in relief. If the healers have Cherrie than
she'll probably survive. The human focused on the incoming
draconians. Siana noted that between the draconians and the
wall, about 75 griffin riders made a live and very hostile
barrier.
The human nodded as Siana drew another arrow. ''I'm
Vengie,'' she said in a small-talk tone.
Was she mad or anything? There was a battle going on!
Nevertheless, she was a lady and her education was not for
naught. ''Lady Siana Snatcher,'' she said, ''pleased to make
the acquaintance''. She hoped Lieutenant Bethany won't note
the human there. Mrs. ''I'm second only to the gods'' might
end up hurling the unarmed human off the wall. Speaking of
the which, Lieutenant Bethany was close by, waving a
draconian cutlass left and right. All around her, draconian
body parts lay in pools of green blood. Yes, this was the
kind of woman that would hurl someone off the wall for being
unarmed. But then Siana noted how Vengie's hands started
creating intricate patterns and how words of magic flowed
from the human's mouth. A magician then? A sudden rift
opened in the middle of a draconian squad and the
halberdiers were struck by terrible tongues of magical fire.
That was a fine answer for Siana. She picked a target and
focused. The arrow went flying high and Siana knew it was
about to miss. A sudden inexplicable gush of wind changed
the arrow's course and another draconian went falling.
Vengie winked at her. Siana smiled. It was a nice trick. As
she readied another arrow, she noticed a group of cloaked
elves stumbling up the stairs. ''The Magi!'' she said, ''the
draconians had it now!'' Nor was she incorrect. Elvalie's
Magi spread and miracles started occurring. The younger ones
threw balls of fire and unleashed lightning and ice bolts.
The more experienced ones did even greater things. On
certain sections, rains of fire and showers of small meteors
slaughtered draconians by their dozens. Siana saw a Healer
concentrating and suddenly a group of draconians went
berserk and attacked their friends. Vengie kept on muttering
spells. Siana saw the onyx wand blasting in a shower of
light and suddenly a group of angered sprites armed with
horn bows appeared, shooting arrows made of pure light at
the draconians. An elder mage noticed them and suddenly a
giant hell-spawn bat breathed fire among the draconians. A
sudden movement caught Siana's eye and she switched her
attention to Jay. Jay took a hit at one draconian and
beheaded him. Then he attacked another one, dismembering him
in two. Then he charged onto a group of four massive
draconians, killing them in mere seconds, shouting unclear
aggravations. Keith-Kanan blazed in his hand, cutting left
and right. Rumpus screamed, slashing and tearing at the
drakemen with the bloodlust of its predatory nature. Jay
left his comrades behind, driving Rumpus straight into a
draconian squad, slashing ferociously. Even the draconians,
a race of predatory beasts, fell back before his anger.
Jay's one-man onslaught had the shock value usually attached
to lopers or dragons. ''What's with him?'' asked Vengie,
''He's totally berserked!''
Siana shrugged. The answer was clear. ''When he was young,
drakemen killed his father,'' she answered. It was not
something she could miss. After all, she was his betrothed,
no? Apparently, not everyone agreed with that claim.
''You'd think,'' noted Vengie, ''that he would tell such
things to his fiancé, eh?''
Siana shrugged. Jay wasn't the one who told her that. It was
her father who told her. ''I suppose so,'' she said, ''but
my father was the one who told me''.
Vengie's eyebrows rose. She completed another spell, turning
a small group of rapier wielding draconians into an
interesting case of grouped-spontaneous-combustion. ''Huh?''
she then said, ''what's your father got to do with it? Was
he supposed to tell me such things? I thought I'd hear
such things from Jay himself, no?''
Siana unleashed another arrow, saving a griffin rider from a
flanking maneuver. ''Tell you?'' she asked, ''Why should he
tell you?''
A lone draconian wielding a sword made of pure fire charged
at Jay, spitting fire towards Rumpus. Vengie cursed and
called a quick incantation. An invisible wall of air
repelled the fire breath and Keith-Kanan met the fiery
sword. The silver blade cut through the firesword, leaving
nothing but ashes in the hand of the drakeman. The Firemage
evaded a thrust and sent a bolt of fire towards Jay.
Keith-Kanan flashed as it met the Firebolt but the fire
had all but died. The Firemage was calling another
incantation. Vengie shrieked and yelled a short and powerful
spell. The onyx wand flashed and suddenly Rumpus was
surrounded by a group of wild griffins with murder on their
minds. Together, the draconian Firemage was no threat for
the griffins. ''What do you mean gal?'' she asked, ''of
course he should tell me. That's my point! He should tell
his fiancéי such things, no?''
Siana emptied her quiver and was reaching for Cherrie's
abandoned quiver when the question made her freeze. ''His
fiancé?'' she said, ''you?''
Vengie nodded. ''His fiancé'', she repeated, ''we're
supposed to marry''.
Siana couldn't possibly believe that. Jay? Affianced to
someone else? But he was already betrothed! To her! It can't
possibly be! Her amazement and surprise overwhelmed her so
she didn't notice that the draconian lines were broken and
the drakemen attempting to flee. ''He can't marry you!'' she
said, ''It can't possibly be!''
Vengie would have asked why not but her attention focused on
other things. Tired after the hasty flight towards Elvalie
and the intense battle, the griffin riders didn't bother to
pursue the routing draconians. One after the other they
circled over the gates and landed in the Gate Square.
Answering the calls of his mates, Rumpus ignored Jay's mad
cries and withdrew, landing in a small open near the city
gates. Fearful for Jay's safety, Vengie immediately banished
the wild griffins and angered sprites and then ran down the
stairs. Two of the griffin riders were holding Jay. He was
unharmed but he fought them, trying to get free.
''Jay,'' Vengie's voice was softer than velvet, ''Jay, do
you hear me?''
Jay didn't answer and didn't seem to recognize her at all.
Remembering what she learned in her life, Vengie called for
water. Someone handed her a bucket. She took it and splashed
the water at Jay.
Jay shook his head and the mad light left his eyes. He
leaned heavily on the bladesmen that held him and said,
''What happened? Where am I?''
''You went berserk,'' said Vengie, ''fought them like some
damn war-god. For a moment, I thought I'm about to marry
Quan-Chi himself''.
Jay nodded and smiled faintly. ''You'd think I'm crazy,'' he
said, ''but when I saw the draconians, I just felt anger, a
terrible one. And then, the only thing I could think of is
how to wave my sword faster and stronger, and-''. He stopped
and examined his body.
''What's wrong?'' Asked Vengie.
Jay paled suddenly. ''Am I dying?'' he asked.
Vengie shook her head. ''Dying?'' she replied, surprised,
''there's not a scratch on you and I could eat my lunch off
your shirt''.
Jay panted. ''Then why do I feel so...'' his eyes rolled.
Without any sort of delicacy, Lord Jay Cracker fainted of
exhaustion, his hand still clutching to the hilt of
Keith-Kanan that drank the blood of dozens of draconians
that day.





Part Four: Walking the slim way
''The stone warriors closed after me. The only thing I
could do for Eldros was to hope that he'd manage to outrun
them. I saw an opening between the rocks and rushed into
what seemed to be a natural corridor. The stone warriors
couldn't follow into that slim way. It was then that I
noticed a weird glow of light in front of me. ''Come in,''
called a voice, ''Welcome to the mystic garden!'' -
Interlude from Baron Ehud Gat's ''To the great wilderness
and Back?!''


Led by Lord Vulture Crusher, the 2nd Griffin riders of
Elgadara arrived too late to enter the battle. Though once
their mage had received the magical alarm they set out
nearly immediately it took them near half a day to reach
Elvalie. By the time they arrived in sight of the walls, the
draconians were already routing, scattering. Quickly
assessing the situation, Lord Vulture, the fourth son of
Lord Crow Crusher, ordered his men to chase the fleeing
drakemen. The draconians tried desperately to regroup but
they could scarcely muster small groups before the fresh
griffin riders fell upon them. One group, nearly a hundred
halberdiers, dove as one, attempting to escape. They hasted
west, taking advantage of the fact the griffin riders
preferred dealing with the closer small groups than with a
large group that was already getting away. A young Bladesman
took notice of them and to his cry the griffin riders turned
as one and pursued. The draconians, already far to the west,
started looking for shelter. One of them reckoned the castle
that watched over Nag-Aranth. ''They would not be ready,''
thought a draconian squad leader that, lacking any superior
officer, was in command, ''they didn't receive warning or
that yard would be full of warriors''. He quickly screamed
his orders and the draconian halberdiers charged down.

The castle that housed the Crackers for many generations was
called Hornskeep. Using a gnomish invention, the masons have
built a small rail on the top of the wall crenellations. In
times of attack, with the small push of a lever, a great
rock was dropped from above the portcullis. While the rock
itself could roll among the ground forces of any army trying
to march uphill, it also pulled a small and pretty fragile
chain behind it. The chain was attached to the rail on top
of the crenellations. As the rock rolled, the rail filled
with immense number of steel spikes, each nearly a meter
long. The so called horns made it nearly impossible to use
siege towers or ladders and turned aerial landings into
suicide drops. Receiving an early warning from Sergeant
Latcher, Lord Condor Cracker has devised a trap, in case the
drakemen fall upon the castle. While most of their bannermen
were still on their way back from Carmel and Jay's griffin
riders in Elvalie, Hornskeep still kept about fifty
men-at-arms with spears and lances and nearly fifty more
swordsmen. Fifteen knights that failed to join Jay's army as
it moved to rescue Carmel were now in the castle. Along with
them many of the peasants from Nag-Aranth were called to the
castle. There were citizens bearing rusty swords and ancient
mail shirts, farmers that wielded hayforks and sickles,
blacksmiths with large hammers. Even some of the servants
grabbed whatever they could find as weapons. Old Lepress
stood near with a large pan, and Condor was sure that had he
tried to hint that she should stay out, he would suffer from
that pan. While less experienced and with only scarce
military knowledge comparing to Jay, Condor was gifted with
the cunning and courage of the Crackers, and could wield his
falchion skillfully. Also, his inexperience was of no
importance since he had Sergeant Latcher - practically a
walking edition of The Complete Encyclopedia of Warfare -
with him and knew well enough to listen to the experienced
warrior.

As one of the few sentries noted the draconian group,
Condor's trap was already ready. As the draconians dove,
wings folded in order to fall on the castle in haste, Condor
gave the order. One of the knights touched a certain stone,
pushing it. The stone yielded and moved, revealing a small
lever. The knight pulled the lever. The great rock rolled
from above the portcullis and the draconians suddenly found
themselves diving straight towards a forest of shining
spikes. Nearly twenty weren't fast enough and were impaled
upon the horns of Hornskeep. The others maneuvered and
landed in the yard. They immediately noticed Sergeant
Latcher standing at an opened door. Around 70 draconians
leaped towards him. Sergeant Latcher feigned a cry of terror
and ran through the door. The draconians followed, bellowing
and taunting. They followed Sergeant Latcher into narrow
corridor. They could see him running and turning left around
the far corner. As Sergeant Latcher disappeared, the large
brass door behind the draconians moved silently on
well-oiled hinges and slammed shut. The narrow corridor had
no usage on a daily basis. It led to the back of the castle,
where the stables stood. However, in times of war, the
corridor was the most important part of the main building.
It was long, about twenty five meters and so narrow that
scarcely two men could walk it abreast. In the far end,
fifty holes were hidden by a tapestry of a unicorn wearing a
polar bear. With the pull of a lever, the tapestry fell
down, revealing the fifty holes. Sharp crescent-like bolts
were shot out of the holes, propelled by an Air enchantment
as old as the castle itself. Once inside the corridor, the
draconians had no alcoves or statues cover themselves and
the crescent-like bolts didn't cut - they slashed through
armor and flesh with ease. The toll was terrible - at least
thirty draconians were lying on the floor, dead or dying, in
various stages of dismemberment. The remaining drakemen
decided they've had enough. They tried to retreat towards
the brass door. From hidden trapdoors, Condor led half of
his men to battle while from the far corner, Sergeant
Latcher and Lepress led the other half. The draconians,
wielding long and clumsy halberds, were trapped between two
groups of warriors that used short swords and falchions. The
Slim Way, as the corridor was called, has been designed
especially to take any advantage from large weapons and big
numbers. In this narrow corridor, short weapons were rather
an advantage. Number had no importance. A group of ten
skilled masters of the sword could easily defend it against
a whole army. It had happened once, many centuries ago.
Sergeant Latcher and Condor and the knights slashed
efficiently, but later they would swear that the 'real job'
was done by Lepress. The old woman, who was Condor and Jay's
father's wet-nurse, and later the teacher and nanny of the
two brothers, stood there in the middle of the fight,
striking left and right with her large pan, bellowing at the
draconians like some ancient war-goddess suffering of ear
aches and entertaining a truly berserked frenzy. At some
stage the pan broke and the old nanny seemed to be in
danger. But Lepress was experienced in bringing both
servants and lordlings to their knees. She sent her hand
back and snatched a sword from one of the swordsmen. Not
used to slashing and hacking, she waved the sword like a
club, breaking draconian muzzles with the broad side. Soon
enough it was over. As the last draconians were being
downed, one of them started screaming ''yield, yield''. His
companions were quickly slaughtered but no one raised a
weapon against him.
''Throw the spear away,'' ordered Lepress.
As the draconian obeyed, Condor looked at the old nanny.
''It's a damn halberd, Lepress,'' he told her.
''You watch your tongue, boy,'' the old nanny pointed a
finger wet with green blood, ''Don't forget your manners''.
Condor backed one step away. ''Sorry,'' he said, knowing the
lord or no lord, Lepress would not think twice before she'd
smack him for the curse. ''But it's still a halberd,'' he
said.
''It's long and it has a pointy end,'' said the old woman,
''it's a spear. Now what do we do with this dirty
critter?''
The 'dirty critter' was on its knees. ''Mercy,'' the
draconian begged.
Condor glared at him and his face reddened. Everyone but
Lepress backed away as the head of house Cracker stepped
forward, rage clear on his face. ''I'll give you mercy,'' he
snarled, tears in his eyes, ''I'll give you the same mercy
you'd have given the people here in this castle! I'll give
you the same mercy you'd have given to the people of
Elvalie. I now give you the same mercy you gave my father''.
Clifford's falchion slashed the air, making a thwack as it
hit the Draconian's neck. For a split second the drakeman's
eyes stared at Clifford and then the head rolled on the
floor towards Sergeant Latcher's legs. No one, not even
Lepress, could fault Condor for what he did. They knew that
had the drakeman been in the opposite side, he would have
killed, or raped and killed each and everyone of them. And
in the old nanny's eyes, Condor's dead father was still that
young pink suckling that she held to her breasts so many
years ago. A cry shook them but it was just one of the
maids, rushing to tell them that griffin riders are hovering
overhead. Condor led the tired warriors outside exactly when
Lord Vulture Crusher's griffin landed in the yard. Condor
quickly updated the young lordling about the battle.
''Dead,'' Vulture said, ''all of them, eh? Good thing you
had an early warning. Any casualties on our side?''
Condor pointed at one of the knights, whose hand was being
bandaged.
''Only one wounded?'' Said Lord Vulture, ''impressive, lord
Condor''.
''How did the battle in Elvalie fare?'' Asked Sergeant
Latcher.
''We pushed them back,'' answered Lord Crusher, ''They were
squashed like bugs. I don't suppose they'll have any
thoughts about raiding Elvalie again soon''.
Sergeant Latcher nodded.
Condor patted the warrior's shoulder. ''I loathe sending you
on your way without any rest, Sergeant,'' he said, ''but I
suppose Jay'd want to hear about what happened here. Do you
mind taking a flight to Elvalie? You're not ought to if you
want to rest''.
Sergeant Latcher shook his head. ''I'll be on my way,'' he
told Condor.





Part Five: The Drinker of blood
''I hasted across the large hall, ignoring the large round
pillars supported the Temple's roof. I knew that my time was
short. The Gladius lay on an altar before me. I saw a large
brass sign. It demanded that before I took hold of the
Gladius, I should carry on some tests. I had not the time or
the inclination to take the tests but the sign promised
''bloody death'' to any who ignore it. ''What bloody
death?'' I wondered aloud, ''What happens if I don't take
the tests?'' I was only a bit surprised an inhuman voice
replied, ''Then I will kill you and drink your blood''. I
turned back and there she was. Her body resembled a human
female but she was tall, perhaps two and a half meters of
height. Her whole body was covered by thick black and white
fur that resembled nothing I've ever seen. Two white-
feathered wings, streaked by scattered groups of black
feathers shadowed her back. She had two vampiric-fangs and
her eyes were the midway between black and gray. She was
crouched on all four limbs like a beast but intelligence
shone in those black-on-black eyes. ''To touch the
Gladius,'' she said in plain and fluent Human language,
''you must pass the tests! If you started to tests, you must
finish them or I will destroy you. If you fail the tests and
try to take the Gladius, I will kill you. If you fail, you
may try again in one year. If you pass the tests but try to
take the Gladius out of the temple, you die. Understand?'' I
nodded and said, ''I understand that but I need the Gladius
now. My time is short. I have pursuers on my back. They will
be here soon''. The creature laughed. It was a high-pitched,
wail-like laugh that made my hair rise. ''You seek refuge,''
she said, ''but do not know. Any who brings violence into
this temple will answer to me! Any who try to come in the
way of someone undertaking the tests will face my wrath. You
have found refuge, young human''. I thanked her and decided
that I shouldn't waste anymore time. But Before I took on
the tests, I asked her one more question. ''What is your
name?'' I asked. She glanced at me awkwardly and finally
said, ''They call me Blooddrinker''. -  Interlude from Baron
Ehud Gat's ''To the Great Wilderness and Back?!''


She had a name. Ravanchee was her name. Sometime in the past
it had a meaning but she forgot it. She managed to forget
some things in her long years. And the meaning of her name
was one of them. Her name didn't matter anyway. In the past
millennium, her name wasn't used even once. She was known,
to the few who knew her, as the Drinker of Blood. She liked
that nickname. It was of no offense to her and indeed it
suited her well enough. Not that the Blooddrinker was evil.
Not at all! She was actually quite a charming personality,
seldom unpleasant and very intelligent. Yes, she did drink
the blood of those she'd been forced to kill but it had
nothing to do with evil. It was perhaps three millennia ago,
when she was transformed. She was a mortal being of a race
long extinct and forgotten. What illness caught her father,
she didn't know even after such long time. She did
everything she could to find a cure but her father's
condition kept on getting worse. She prayed and called the
gods. It was Letty, the Assassin goddess who answered her
prayers. Letty promised to save her father if she drank from
his blood - a terrible and lethal poison. She didn't
understand how could the goddess be so cruel so name such a
price but - to save her father - she was willing to do so.
She cut a small vein in her father's hand and let some drops
of dark-blue inky blood pour into a small tin cup. Then she
took the cup to her lips, braced herself against the taste
and drank. The fever attacked her near-instantly, blurring
her vision and making stars explode in front of her eyes.
She fainted shortly after. She didn't know how many days was
she possessed by the fever. When she finally came around,
she was lying on something soft in a darkened place. She was
too weak even to open her eyes. Voices around her filled her
head. ''It was a hoax!'' said a female voice, ''I didn't
know that she would really go so far as to drink the
blood''.
''Yet she did,'' answered a male voice, ''to save her
father, she was willing to drink poison! I think that such
sacrifice and unselfishness must not go uncommented''.
''I know, Quan-Chi!'' Answered the female, ''Her father has
been cured as I promised! What more do you want?''
The male hummed and then, turning towards her it said, ''You
will not die, child. You will be given second life but not
as you knew them. You'd be forced to leave your home and all
the people you love. You must travel north to the city of
Sneveah. There you must wait. You will be given guard duty.
And to remind you who gave you this - All those who would be
unmindful enough to cross you will shed their blood to your
mouth''.
She blacked out again and when she woke up she was yet again
in a dark and very narrow cave. It took her quite some time
to understand that she was in a coffin - she had been
buried. Suddenly stressed she tried to open the lid. No use.
It was nailed down and covered by two feet of dirt.
Panicking, she struck the lead with her paw. The effect was
impressive - sending an eruption of dirt into the air like
an unlikely gazer, the lid - well, what was left of the lid
- was thrown outside and her way out was open. She began her
second life with a powerful jump out of her grave. Her
second life was truly not as she knew them. She had been
morphed - her physical shape had changed considerably enough
that it took her years until she was willing to look at her
reflection in ponds or mirrors. She now had two powerful
wings, stretching from the top of her back like some sort of
angel wings. She was stronger and faster now. She had powers
- magical ones - of sorts she would never have dreamed
existed. Two vampire-like fangs grew from her mouth - which
lost its muzzle-like shape and became - more or less - that
of a human female. Blooddrinker's new wings carried her
north, into the abandoned city of Sneveah. There, at the
Great Temple, she took her post and guarded. She never
barred anyone's way into the temple - it was not her job.
Anyone may approach the temple. But those who came for the
Titan's Gladius were forced to go through certain tests of
purity and bravery before they could put their hand upon the
mystical artifact. And if anyone tried to lay hand on the
Gladius before passing the tests or after failing the tests
- she was to destroy the interloper mercilessly and then
drink a small portion of his blood. If anyone tried to take
the Titan's Gladius away from the temple - same thing. But
any who passed the tests and wished only to use the Gladius
for its true purpose was allowed to do so without
interference.

Blooddrinker saw the Dragonborn approaches at sunrise,
carried by the beat of strong bat-like wings. Her
never-blinking eyes watched as the Draconian- as some fools
called the Dragonborn - approach the temple. From a pedestal
upon the roof of the temple, where she looked like a simple
tower gremlin - if a very peculiar one - she could see the
red glow on the Dragonborn's chest - a Cagestone! She
followed him inside, hidden by an Invisibility spell. The
Dragonborn didn't approach the Gladius. No. He read the
large sign that told him what tests he must undertake before
he can approach. Silently, the Dragonborn began. She watched
him, all day and all night, as he methodically and dutifully
passed through each and every one of the tests. Passing
through the last, the Dragonborn swayed and rested for a few
seconds and then powered by what maybe considered as
religious zeal, he crawled towards the Gladius. He took it
and with his remaining forces he cut against the red glow of
the Cagestone. Completely exhausted, the Dragonborn slid to
the floor and it was clear to the Blooddrinker that he was
dying. As the Dragonborn exhaled his last breath, the temple
was suddenly filled by a flash of red light. A large scaly
body suddenly towered above the Gladius' altar. Blooddrinker
was not immortal. Yes, since the day she woke up to her
second life, she did not age. Her powers were immense enough
to destroy any fool who tried to dishonor the Gladius. In
the few times that someone was resourceful enough to cause
her physical damage, she did not feel pain and she healed so
quickly that she didn't even slow down her battle rhythm.
But she was mortal, though she never thought anyone would be
strong enough to prove it. And yet, looking at the monstrous
shadow that fell upon her, feeling its rage and hatred,
Blooddrinker cowered back, whining in terror. From the small
alcove she hid in, she saw the creature moving back and
forth, testing its body. ''I'm free at last,'' it said, in a
language that she long since heard yet she easily
understood, ''at last! I've wasted my time with the dwarves,
not knowing how easily I could use the Draconians for my
purpose! Though it may take years to fully regain all my
powers, I can at last anticipate the future to come! The
weak elves will fall at last! At last vengeance would be
mine!'' Saying that, the creature stepped out of the temple
and was soon gone. Still shivering in fear, Blooddrinker
crawled out of the niche she hid in. But only when the light
of day dimmed and the sun sunk to the west, she dared
exposing herself, and returned the Titan's Gladius to the
altar.





Part Six: Defender of Elvalie

''The sky grew green with wings
Rooted Stone shivered in distress
Bows and Arrows notched
Graceful flights of feathered pain and death
A Halberd and spear thrust to bring doom

A rain of blood green and red
A wail of pain crossed the sky
Wizards cast Magic spells
Danger reeked and doom approached the wall
But a different beat of wings to save us all

Riding on thunder and storm
Waving the Fire of Dragons
He led his men
Embodying the powers of Shalla and Quan-Chi
And striking eternal fear into the hearts of the vile

Vengeance and Justice leading
Drakemen flying and pleading
He forced them off
Defending the light and chasing the evil away
Relieving us all and heroically saving the day''

- Defender of Elvalie, poem by Hummingbird, Court Minstrel
to King Sparrow Lighter


Jay was tied to a stake. Dwarves surrounded him, hitting him
with heavy hammers all over his body. One of them was
monotonously pounding at each of his temples. From afar, he
heard the voice of Vengie. She was screaming. No. Wait. She
wasn't screaming. She was... she was... laughing? What was
funny about this? Was this supposed to be some kind of joke?
Well, it wasn't funny. He was truly suffering. He never
imagined something like that. Even in his worst dre-

He opened his eyes. ''One hell of a dream,'' he moaned.
''What sort of dream?'' Vengie's voice inquired.
He tried to turn his head towards her voice and shuddered.
His whole body ached. He groaned in pain. His head pounded
with painful beats.
''Don't move,'' said Vengie, ''you completely exhausted
yourself. Bet your whole body's feeling a wreck''.
Jay winced. ''You got that right,'' he replied weakly,
''what happened?''
Vengie snorted. ''Before or after you went wild a
slaughtered half the Lizardmen army by yourself?'' she asked
in amusement.
Jay groaned again. He did remember seeing the drakemen
attacking Elvalie. He remembered his father's face suddenly
floating inside his head and then the anger, that burning,
seething red rage. Afterwards everything was a blur of
frenzied slashes, screams and chopped body parts. ''After,''
he gasped.
''Well,'' Vengie snorted again, ''after you played the
frenzied war-god part, I had to drench you in water to get
you back to your senses. Then you fainted. Serves you right.
What were you thinking, bereserking yourself straight
towards a draconian horde?''
Jay shut his eyes. Of course. He never had the time to
explain about his father. ''Haven't told you,'' He moaned,
''My father''.
Vengie's voice grew soft. ''I know,'' she said, ''I'm sorry.
Guess I can't blame you for it''.
Jay managed to nod. ''Yeah,'' he said, ''I guess you- Wait a
second. How'd you know?''
Vengie's was silent for a second. Then she said, ''Well,
first there was that 'Can't possibly marry you' gal on the
wall and then Sergeant Latcher appeared out of the middle of
nowhere and when I told him what happened he explained in
detail''.
Jay wanted to inquire about the 'gal on the wall' but when
he tried to speak, his throat suddenly dried. He recalled
sending Sergeant Latcher back to Hornskeep. His voice
croaked. Vengie handed him a glass of water. He drank it and
sagged back on the bed. ''Is he around?'' he asked, ''the
Sergeant?''
He felt her rising. ''Sarge!'' she called.
After a short moment, a face hovered at the edge of his
sight. ''Sergeant,'' Jay gathered his forces, ''what
happened?''
Sergeant Latcher smiled a soft smile. ''A company of routing
drakemen tried to take down the keep'' he replied, ''the
horns stopped some of them''.
Jay furrowed his brows. ''And the rest?'' he asked.
Sergeant Latcher shrugged. ''We led them the slim way,'' he
replied, ''There were no survivors''.
''Casualties?'' Asked Jay.
''Ser Hawk Opener took a small cut to his hand and that's
it'' replied Sergeant Latcher.
''Good work man,'' Jay managed a smile. Tension he never
even noticed suddenly dissipated from his body, leaving him
weak and near trembling. He was so tired.
''Miss,'' he heard Sergeant Latcher saying, ''I think the
lord needs some more rest. What say we find someplace to
have a drink?''
Jay was about to protest but his eyelids were too heavy to
keep opened. The last thing he heard before his fell asleep
was Vengie's jubilant reply. ''Sure, Sarge,'' she said,
''I'll be buying and you'll be telling me about this 'slim
way'.''





Later, much later, Jay regained his senses. This time his
body wasn't aching too much. His eyes and ears were far more
focused. This time he made out the ceiling of what must have
been a room in the Healers' Guild. He tried to rise and
succeeded. He helped himself to a pitcher of water and a
glass that stood on the small cabinet near his bed. The room
was small and clean. As he rose, he heard a soft knock on
the door. ''Enter'' he called.
The door opened softly, revealing a healer in the blue and
white cloak of an acolyte. The healer bowed courteously and
said, ''Are you well, my lord?''
Jay nodded. ''I feel much better,'' he replied, ''thank
you''.
The healer nodded. ''May I examine you?'' she asked, ''to
see that all is well?''
Jay saw no reason to refuse. Of course, that would involve
some magic (Self magic, that's how Kara called it) but he
couldn't help thinking about the embarrassment of the
acolyte if he refused. He nodded. The healer approached him
and took his hands in hers. Warmness spread suddenly inside
him.
''All is well,'' the healer said, a soft smile on her face,
''Healer Maker would be most pleased to hear this report''.
Jay's eyebrows rose. He knew enough about the Healers' Guild
to know that Healer Duck Maker was head of the guild.
''Is he awaiting a report of my status?'' He asked.
The healer nodded and bowed again. ''Your heroism yesterday
is well-known,'' she replied, ''I've heard that King Sparrow
himself expressed his interest in your health''.
Jay's mouth fell open. ''My heroism?'' he asked, abashed.
The healer nodded again. ''Riding on thunder and storm,
waving the Fire of Dragons, he led his men, embodying the
powers of Shalla and Quan-Chi and striking eternal fear into
the hearts of the vile,'' she chanted, ''I'm sure that by
now, Hummingbird's poem is recited all over the realm''.
Jay's knees buckled in his surprised. He supported himself
on the cabinet and sat on the bed. ''Hummingbird?'' he said,
''the court minstrel wrote a poem about me?''
The healer nodded. She started saying something but the door
opened.
''Up and about already, eh?'' Said Vengie, ''certainly,
Lysan here was taking good care of you''.
The healer bowed deeply.
''Oh,'' Vengie elbowed Jay, ''shut your mouth. You look like
a fish outside water. While you were having your beauty
sleep, Lysan and I had the chance to get acquainted. Must
admit she changed my opinions about Self magic. You should
see what a nice Magic Fist could do even though-'' she
pointed towards a small blackened spot on the door, ''I'll
stick to the Firebolt if you don't mind''.
Lysan smiled and whispered a short incantation. To Jay's
surprise she shifted, turning into a reptilian creature. She
snorted and breathed flames towards Vengie. Vengie recoiled
back and Jay searched for Keith Kanan but suddenly Lysan was
an elf again. Vengie shook her head in amazement. There was
no mark of fire on her.
''How's that?'' asked Lysan, ''A little illusion to scare
away your Firebolting hands''.
Jay couldn't help chuckling at Vengie's surprised frown.
''Vengie,'' he teased, ''you certainly have the knack of
getting the best out of people''.
Vengie prodded him with her finger. ''Oh yeah?'' she
retorted, ''I guess so. Problem is that once it gets out, it
doesn't come back in''.

An hour later, Jay was already getting worried about his new
fame. Tales of glory were told all over Elvalie. Everyone
who saw him bowed or stared with open mouths. As he entered
the main hall of the Healers' Guild, people muttered phrases
such as ''Defender of Elvalie'' and ''Liberator of Carmel''
all over the hall.
''I wish they had more sense,'' he whispered on Vengie's
ear, ''Elvalie would have stood without us too - The
combination of warriors and magi would have stopped the
draconians as it always did''.
Vengie shrugged. ''I don't know,'' she replied, ''it didn't
look quite that way when you dropped me off near that 'can't
possibly marry you' gal''.
Jay frowned. The whole battle was hazy in his memory. He
couldn't remember where he dropped Vengie off.
''Vengie,'' the meaning of her words finally caught up with
him, ''what's that you're saying about can't possibly marry
me girl?''
Vengie snorted. ''That shapeless Sina gal told me I can't
possibly marry you'' she said.
''Sina?'' Jay's eyes widened in horror. His memory suddenly
gave in. Yes. He dropped Vengie 'cause Rumpus was
over-burdened to fight well. She said she can't throw spells
effectively off the back of a griffin anyways. So he
approached the walls and slain a draconian who threatened...
threatened... he was threatening-
''All the blazes,'' he exclaimed, ''of all the people in
Elvalie, the one you met was Siana! My betrothed!''
Vengie began nodding but then she lurched forward and caught
the collar of his shirt. ''Your what???'' she demanded, rage
blazing in her eyes.
''My EX-fiancé!'' He corrected, sensing immediate
fiery doom, ''I just didn't have time to talk to her and
explain, with the battle and all''.
Vengie shrugged and took a step backwards, easing her grip
on his collar. ''All this time we were together and you
never found the time to tell me you are betrothed?'' she
demanded, hurt replacing the rage in her eyes.
''You're right,'' he sighed, ''I hoped to undo the betrothal
quickly and silently and tell you about it when it was in
the past. A dashed lot of good it did me. I'm sorry''.
Vengie knew that by rights she should be packing and getting
the hell out of Elvalie, leaving him to his secrets. She
wondered what else he hid from her. She should leave. She
should... she should... But she knew she wouldn't. She told
herself that she still had too much to gain from him but
truth was that she couldn't bear the thought of leaving
Jay.
''Love is such a burden,'' she murmured as she put her hand
on his shoulder and smiled at him.
''A burden indeed,'' a new voice agreed, ''but also a sweet
fruit to taste''. They turned towards the voice and Vengie
nearly cowered back. Two elves were standing in front of
them. They were no normal elves, Vengie knew immediately.
The male wore clothing with silvery sheen to them and his
eyes burned in molten gold. The female on the other hand was
clad in white. Her eyes had blue icy fire in them.
Jay smiled. ''Piros!'' he exclaimed, ''I never thought to
find you here''.
Piros inclined his head curtly. ''This is Hailia,'' he
introduced, ''First among the Mountain Dragons''.
Hailia bowed her head. ''And you are the famous Lord Jay
Cracker,'' she said, her voice was a soft whisper that
suggested a cool manner.
Jay bowed. ''First among equals,'' he said courteously, ''I
am honored. This is Vengie Li, my betrothed''.
Hailia nodded towards Vengie. ''An angel of the night,'' she
observed, ''and yet powerful without a doubt. A woman who
carves her own destiny''.
Vengie blushed.
''Hailia,'' Piros smiled, ''you are perceptive as ever''.
The mountain dragon bowed her head.
''So,'' Jay couldn't hold his curiosity, ''what brings you
two here?''
''The council, of course'' replied Hailia, ''certainly you
know that King Sparrow, May a thousand blesses rain on his
throne, had requested that we join in and hand our advice.
After all...'' she made a painful frown, ''we are known to
have ties with the draconians''.
Piros gave a sideways glance and nodded ruefully. ''We do,''
he admitted in a low voice, ''the council is to be held
tomorrow, Jay. I am sure you'd be summoned as well, you
being able to cut a draconian to five pieces with one slash
and all''.
Jay's mouth fell open. ''Able to do what?'' he said. He
couldn't even figure how to begin slashing someone to five
with one strike.
''Last I've heard,'' said Hailia, ''the commoners were
saying that divine intervention shines upon your sword, that
your griffin is actually a hellspawn demon swayed into
service by your gallantry, that draconians fall before your
mighty battlecry, that you can turn even the greenest man
into a fearsome warrior, that you have single-handedly
defeated the entire dwarven army and the list goes on and
on''.
Jay frowned. ''They're being illogical,'' he said, ''no one
can do these things. Surely my men would correct people and
this will die out soon enough''.
Vengie cleared her throat. ''Eh,'' she said, ''I'm not sure
about that, Jay. Last time I saw Bladesmen Hawk and Swallow,
they were telling people how the gods themselves broke the
sword of the Korien Baron when he fought you. Bladesman
Budgie says you killed sixty- no, by now it would already be
eighty drakemen yourself''.
Jay scowled. That was too much to bear.
''Jay,'' Piros put a calming hand on his shoulder, ''Forget
it. People need heroes. They need to believe that when
troubles descend on them, some god-chosen lord would be
there with his hellspawned griffin and his divine sword to
save them. It gives them hope. Hope is what people need.
When they break their backs to bring food home and worry
about taxes and dresses for their little daughters, people
need hope. You can't take it away from them. It's what keeps
them going. I say, savor the moment. It costs you nothing to
be a hero''.
Jay raised an eyebrow. ''That so?'' he said, ''I digress.
When some sort of famine, flood, earthquake or a bloody rain
of two-headed frogs comes down on them, they'd look up to me
and think I can conjure a rain or the rainbow at the merest
whim. They'd expect me to make roses grow in their gardens.
Hah... I'd have roses growing on my head before I'd be able
to make this happen''.
For a short moment, Piros had to fight the near-overwhelming
urge to magically grow a bank of roses through Jay's hair.
He subdued the urge, reckoning that his friend won't
appreciate the joke.
Jay took Piros aside, leaving Vengie and Hailia to exchange
details about his overly-exaggerated fame. ''I have a
problem, Piros'', he said.
''You know, it would be nice for a change to talk to you
without hearing you say that'', Piros complained, ''So what
is it this time?''
''Well, Siana and Vengie- this is going badly'', explained
Jay, ''I was hoping to absolve the betrothal quickly and
quietly while finding some way to make it up to the
Snatchers but during the heat of battle I left Vengie on the
wall right next to Siana and - well - they had a talk. The
way Vengie put it, I guess Siana heard only the bad news and
with no inkling of something that may soften them. This
could be the start of a feud if you know what I mean.
Besides, having taken it like that, I don't think Siana's
going to give up so easily''.
''May that be the greatest of your troubles!'' Roared Piros,
sniggering at him, ''Two females fighting over you. I wish
that was my biggest problem''.
Jay smiled. The concept of anyone trying to steal Piros from
Pyrael was as absurd as it could possibly get. However,
despite lacking some dragonish capacities, Siana could boast
some - metaphoric - claws and fangs. ''No, seriously,
Piros,'' he said, ''we're talking about marriage and the
elven royal houses here- this could get serious''.
Jay indeed had a point, Piros knew. When two elven houses
don't get along, there will always be the people who would
love to see this house or the other in ruins, or at least
demoted. Some dukes would probably scheme and try to
manipulate a feud between Cracker and Snatcher to their own
ends, making a relatively small annoyance into one serious
problem. Piros gave it some serious thought. ''I could cast
a spell on her'', he said.
''Piros!'' called Jay, aghast.
''It was just a thought. Sorry'', said the dragon. In fact
he met Siana but once but that time, despite her courteous
manner, Piros could feel that she was slightly troubled by
the presence of a dragon in her vicinity. It was nearly
tempting to make her fall in love with something she'd
consider disgusting - Preferably an Orc, a Dwarf of a
Peasant.  He went on thinking, when suddenly it came up to
him- ''You could give them a joined friend!'' he suggested.
''You know, match Vengie with one or more of Siana's
friends. That way, you'll have other forces working on your
side'', he explained.
''Piros, you may have saved me again'', said Jay, ''but  how
do I do that?''. As far as his knowledge got, whatever
friends Siana had, he had no influence on them whatsoever.
Piros had already thought of that, as wise dragons usually
do. ''You can get help from your family. I understand that
Siana's best friend, a certain duchess named Cherrie, has
been wounded in the battle. Since your mother is in town you
could get her to start paying visits to the young heroine,
you know, get friendly with her''.
Jay frowned. ''Piros, that's dirty,'' he said.
''Well then, you're in trouble,'' said Piros just as Vengie
signaled them to join her.

Jay had half a mind to give up the whole idea and run
somewhere and never return. But duty and honor were more
than words to the Crackers. They were, one could say, the
fulcrums of being a Cracker. ''It's going to be all right,
really'', he told Vengie, for the fifth time in the last
couple of minutes.
Vengie had a feeling he was trying to reassure himself more
than her. ''Will you stop saying that, Jay?'' she asked. She
was nervous before about meeting Jay's mother. With Jay
becoming more nervous by the minute she felt her own doubts
growing. With Jay betrothed to a true elven Lady, who
probably was all the more noble when not being attacked by
Draconians, Lady Mina was like to have the household guards
remove her head for coming between her son and that pretty
little lady of his. One last time she cursed herself for
falling in love and then straightened her face and took a
deep breath as a servant with the Crown and Twin Swords on
his doublet admitted them into the capacious villa the
Crackers owned in Elvalie. ''Her Ladyship expects you in the
dinning hall'' he told Jay before departing to his tasks.
Vengie braced herself for the worst. Usually, Her Ladyship
was not the way servants addressed a kind and friendly
mistress.
Jay stopped at the doorstep of the dinning hall. Lady Mina
stood by the hearth, dressed in fine white silk. Her hair
still had some strands of black in it but if anything they
only served to emphasize the silvery color that dominated
it. As her eyes turned to them, Vengie was taken aback by
this seemingly wreck of a woman. Apparently age has not been
kind to Lady Mina. Her face was slumped, creases of grief
shadowing the sides of her deep green eyes. Her entire body
was thin - no, thin lacked to describe the tall, gaunt lady.
The weight of the years had slumped her thin shoulders and
the hand that rested upon the mantle was so thin Vengie
thought she could see the bones through the skin. How was it
that the mother of such a strong and healthy elf as Jay has
been this hollow ghost?
''Mother,'' Jay said carefully.
Light blazed in those green eyes and Vengie suddenly knew
that this woman was far from being as fragile as she seemed.
''Defender of Elvalie,'' Mina said, her voice had the clear
and strong tone of a well-tuned harpsichord, defying the
mere existence of frailty and age.
''Oh, mom,'' Jay's tone had something of exasperation to it,
''of all people, I'd expect you to know that despite
whatever anyone says I am only flesh and blood''.
''Oh I know that,'' a smile danced on her lips, ''I gave
birth to you after all. Will you introduce me?''
Jay's back straightened as if something his mother said
reassured him that all was well. ''Mom,'' he said, ''this
Vengie Lee from the Barony of Kor. Vengie, my mother, Lady
Mina of house Cracker''.
''M'lady'' Vengie curtsied as best as she could, which meant
she fumbled her legs and nearly fell.
''Come come,'' Mina snorted, ''No daughter of mine ever
needs to 'my lady' me''.
''Beg pardon?'' Vengie had run every scenario she could
think about this meeting in mind but none ever included
this.
''Well, being betrothed to my son, you are to become my
daughter in law, yes?'' Mina smiled. Of course, when Jay
stormed the draconian raiders, news of the wild and
beautiful battle-mage that followed him got to Mina very,
very fast. While it worried her at first - the possible
consequences of this were a true catastrophe - she was not
the kind of mother who'd turn back anything that made her
son happy. She was, to say the least, a mother whose notion
of costume came poor second place when it came to the
happiness of her son. ''Are you well, Vengie?'' she asked,
seeing how the Dark Angel seemed at a lack of words.
''M'lady,'' said Vengie ''I mean no offense but I feared you
shall condemn me for-'' she couldn't bring herself to say
it, fearing it would break the magic and Mina would indeed
turn on her.
''Sit,'' Mina gestured at the chairs, ''you feared I would
be against you because that meant possible inconvenience
with the Snatchers and because of your low-birth, isn't
it?''
Vengie nodded. The ante got as high as it could and the dice
was already in the air. The only thing she could do now was
to wait and see what side the dice rolled on.
Mina shrugged off the importance of the whole affair. ''When
Jay was young I told him the story about a farmer that grew
apple trees,'' she said, ''his son was raised with an apple
handy whenever hungry. But he was not happy with it and grew
tired of eating apples. However, one day the son journeyed
beyond his father's land and into the neighboring farmer's
plantation - where that farmer grew orange trees. The farmer
happily admitted his guest and feasted him with oranges. The
taste of the juicy oranges quenched the hunger within the
son and as he returned to his home he told his father about
the wonderful juicy taste of oranges. His father thought
only a moment before sending his son to work for the orange
farmer, telling him he had hoped for an apple grower but all
the more wanted his son to be happy. Whatever the
consequences, if Jay'd be happier with you, I see no reason
not to condone it. And as for your low-birth...'' she leaned
forward towards Vengie. ''I never found any difference
between nobles and peasants. Both have the same blood. I
wouldn't have it any other way, my dear child''.
Vengie sighed in relief. The dice fell on the right side for
once.
''Besides,'' Mina whispered conspiratorially, ''don't
believe the stories you hear. Jay here wasn't born with a
choir of angels to sing his way into the world. The only
choir he had was the midwife's directions and mine own
screams. But I suppose you know how stories go. I've already
heard that you are a maiden Jay saved from the dwarves, no,
a Hellmaiden coerced into service by Jay's ultimate purity
or actually a spellbinder that has command over a legion of
demons. It is said that you are Jay's slave, no, his friend
and trusted advisor, his black-magic woman or his mistress.
Not that I'd really mind if you were truly all these things.
It would probably mean that I indeed gave birth to the
embodiment of Quan-Chi. You don't happen to command a legion
of demons, do you?''
Vengie sniggered even as she shook her head. She half-heard
these rumors too and had a mind to bind a fire elemental to
her will and have it follow her as a representative of her
legion of demons. After all, as they walked the streets of
Elvalie, people stared at Jay and her in awe, reciting how
Jay cut a Drakeman to five with a single slash and how at
her command the wind itself turned against that draconian
raiders, bashing them against the walls and sending them to
the ground. ''I can't really do that,'' she conceded to
Mina.
''But she does have some valuable skills,'' Jay observed,
''She single-handedly ended the war when she dueled the cowl
dwarf. She sent a tidal wave against his creature of fire
and proceeded to strike him with lightning and fire''.
Vengie shrugged. ''In the end,'' she admitted, ''it all came
down to my throwing skill''.
''She saved my life twice already, mom'' said Jay, ''once
with that dwarf and then when that draconian Firemage
attacked me''.
''You said you hardly recalled the battle,'' complained
Vengie.
''There's a difference between hardly recalling and not
recalling a fire-breathing draconian trying to kill you,''
Jay observed.
''And so,'' Mina noted, ''you will absolve your betrothal to
Siana, yes?''
''Mother,'' Jay said cautiously, ''I have to follow my
heart''.
''Just as well,'' Mina nodded, ''I was not unaware of this
possible course''.
''What are you saying?'' Jay asked, ''I treated Siana with
every courtesy''.
''Exactly,'' said Mina, ''you were courteous and polite. You
had never taken to truly loving the girl. That's ok Jay, no
need to apologize. I had hoped love would flower eventually
between you two but I'm afraid it's too late for that''.
''What do we do, mom?'' Asked Jay, ''This is a potential
disaster''.
''First of all, we must find means with which to keep the
peace and good relations with House Snatcher. It would
probably mean finding a way to bridge between Vengie and
Siana as well as making some sort of amends for the
slight''.
''Whoa!'' Said Vengie, ''What's this bridging you're talking
about?''
''Never you mind,'' said Mina, ''If you're not in for it we
will find other ways. Jay, tell me about Carmel. How was it?
Stories can't be all that true''.
Jay started talking then telling his mother about his recent
adventures and as the story rolled Vengie forgot all about
bridging matter. She was not aware that Jay, being his
mother's son, had been harboring his own thoughts on the
matter. In fact, he recalled another one of his mother's
stories - the one about a trader whose mule wouldn't move
when he loaded it with his goods. Seeing that the mule would
not move despite all the screaming and beating he gave it,
the trader used a carrot to entice the mule into following
him as he walked all the way to the market. Jay had a
feeling that if he wanted to bridge between Vengie and
Siana, it may include using such ruse as well.

Siana was upset. It seemed that everywhere she went, her
shame followed. Everyone told stories about Jay and his
Hellmaiden and how she summoned three Archangels to strike
down the Draconian raiders with flaming swords. Siana wanted
to laugh at these foolish exaggerations. She was there after
all. She saw it. True, the Sprites with their bows that shot
pure light were indeed a neat trick but they were nothing as
fancy as an Archangel and the only flaming sword she saw was
wielded by someone on the wrong side of the battle - the
draconian Firemage. But trying to tell these people that it
was not true was a wild goose chase. People could be rather
foolish in these matters. Her heart ached every time she
heard these stories - When Jay rushed into battle he was
indeed the very embodiment of chivalry. Mounted atop his
noble steed - well, stinking griffin but if you can't get a
unicorn, a donkey is better than walking by foot, yes? - His
first move was to save her - the damsel in distress - from
the claws of a monster. He was so much a knight of legends
it was all she could do not to burst in tears. She had never
loved him more than right there as he pushed the draconian
raiders back by the sheer power of his gallantry. ''You
really have to help me!'' she said desperately to the elven
female lying on the bed.
''Don't worry'', the Cherrie replied. ''She'll leave him,
eventually. Humans are short-tempered and they get bored
quickly''.
''I'm not going to wait that long, Cherrie'', said Siana.
Besides, she was not as confident as Cherrie about Vengie.
She feared the Hellmaiden wouldn't get bored that quickly.
After all, how could one, even a Hellmaiden such as that
petty thieving human, possibly get bored of living with
Prince Charming? Did this Vengie use magic to bind Jay to
her? She would have liked to believe that but she couldn't
truly believe that Jay would fall under a spell that easily.
She was quite certain that whatever means Vengie used to
steal Jay away from her, it probably had nothing to do with
magic. She had a vague notion of sexual wiles but could not
bear to ponder this too deeply.
Cherrie smiled. ''Siana, how long do we know each other?''
she asked her.
''Since we were babies'', said Siana. What did that have to
do with anything?
Cherrie nodded. ''That's right. So you know I want to see
you marrying your Prince Charming, right? You know I won't
just stand aside as some human commoner steals him away from
you, yes?''
Siana nodded. She could always count on Cherrie. ''Cherrie,
you have another one of those plans of yours, don't you?''
she asked. Well, the last one did end with her standing on
the wall fighting draconians but then if it hadn't been for
Vengie, this would have been perfect to warm Jay's feelings
towards her.
''As always, my dear'', said Cherrie, ''I have just the
perfect plan''.
''What is it? It won't hurt her, right?'' asked Siana. She
did feel combatant- of course, no Hellmaiden was going to
steal her Prince Charming but she just didn't feel like
hurting someone. Ladies do not spill blood. Well, some green
draconian blood was all too well but human blood - it was
too red for the gentle hands of a lady.
Cherrie frowned for a second.  ''What do you think I am? No
one would get hurt- It's just a basic diplomatic trick.
Listen- you will do this...''





The next morning, after they ate breakfast, Jay was called
to join the king's council. Vengie arranged to meet him in
the Great Hall afterwards. Mina was not at home, going on
some errand to visit a wounded noblewoman, she told Vengie.
The villa was hers for the moment. However, she quickly got
bored with doing nothing. That's why she was first to the
door when someone rapped softly on it. It was a messenger,
she saw, his uniform boasting a crowned cardinal. The
messenger bowed deeply. ''M'lady Vengie,'' he said.
''Yeah, that's me,'' she said. News really got around fast
in this city, she thought.
''I bear this scroll for you,'' said the messenger and
handed her a scroll sealed by wax bearing her name on it.
''Who would send me a letter?'' Thought Vengie as she took
the scroll. But before she could ask anything the messenger
bowed and again and hastened away. She broke the seal -
again the Crowned Cardinal.
The scroll was from Siana, she saw immediately. It said that
Vengie had to withstand trial since she intended to marry
Lord Jay Cracker, who was already engaged to Lady Siana of
the Snatcher noble house. By elven law making her approach
to a betrothed man had been a serious offense to costume and
trial was to be held. Until the City Guards came to escort
her to the halls of justice, she was ordered to remain in
the Cracker villa.
Of course, Vengie thought, Mina said there would be
consequences but she never mentioned the possibility of
Vengie losing a head or another vital organ. If Jay omitted
this part of the possible consequences - well Vengie had no
intent of losing a vital organ for an elf full of secrets.
She was not going to risk her neck for someone who's lied to
her. Love or no, the scroll certainly pointed out that for
the first time since she was seven Vengie may just have
drawn the unwanted attention of the Power of the Law.





The council room was already filling up when Jay arrived.
The king has not yet arrived and people stood talking in
small groups. Jay spied Lord Raven Crusher, the second son
of Lord Crow speaking to a familiar human in a battered
steel chest plate and clothing made mainly of fur. Jay
approached them, smiling. It was only fitting to find Raven,
an anointed knight, speaking with The Maelstrom. They turned
to greet him and Jay noticed that Ser Mollin Caster, the
Maelstrom, hadn't change much in the years that passed since
the Eastwatch campaign. Everyone who met with Ser Mollin
agreed that the Maelstrom was a most fitting description. He
was a giant mountain of a man, towering far above 2 meters
and with a body as wide as two men. His arms were more than
twice the diameter of a normal human. His face was made for
roaring, blustering and laughing and the furry mustache that
covered his upper lip was only outmatched by the mane of
thick black hair on his head. In controversy to most
knights, Ser Mollin didn't believe in heavy plate mails.
During Eastwatch, Jay saw him more than once, charging on
the back of his giant destrier, with nothing but that
battered chest plate and a giant half-helm to armor him. The
Maelstrom didn't believe in armor. Neither has he wielded a
shield. Instead, Ser Mollin favored the longest Longsword
Jay has ever seen. Nearly as long as him, Ser Mollin's
monstrous ''Harbinger'' was a gigantic bearer of death. Most
men could hardly pick it up two-handedly. The Maelstrom
could fling the colossal sword with one hand. Wielding the
Harbinger, the Maelstrom would charge right into the thick
of battle like an unstoppable storm of steel death. Being so
large, the Maelstrom was often considered slow or
dim-witted. It was the last mistake many a foe did to
consider him such. The Maelstrom's intelligence was only
shadowed by his fighting skills and when he moved, this
mountain has moved with the agility and grace of a panther.
Most people feared the Maelstrom when they first meet him.
Jay felt that way to at the start. But he knew that once you
got past that scary part where you felt you were talking to
an ogre disguised as a man, you met with a truly amiable
man. Jay could not remember the name of that village where
they met up with seven orcs that took some hostages into the
village smithy. Ser Mollin himself entered the smithy under
the gray banner of diplomacy. Jay tried to dissuade him,
reminding him that one can never negotiate with orcs. Ser
Mollin cared to hear none of it. Leaving Harbinger behind,
he entered the smithy and Jay could hear him talking to the
orcs and the orcs responding in crude Human. Words soon
turned to the sounds of steel clashing. Jay nearly rushed
into the smithy but one of Ser Mollin's companions caught
him by the wrist and forced him back. It didn't take long
before the hostages came running out, one by one. Bringing
up the rear was the Maelstrom, cradling a little girl of
four in his arms, letting her play with his moustache. His
hands were green with Orcish blood and in his belt an Orcish
axe was dripping green. ''Now that's what I call aggressive
negotiations,'' he told Jay, laughing as the little girl
called him ''Ser Furry Bear''. That was the Maelstrom. Jay's
heart swelled at the sight of Ser Mollin. If he was around,
things were ought to get better.
''Jay Cracker,'' the Maelstrom inclined his head with a
smile, ''how fare you?''
''Ser Mollin,'' Jay smiled, ''I am well. Seeing you again
warms my heart. How about you?''
The Maelstrom shrugged. ''I'm as usual, Jay,'' he said,
''though I care not for this current affair''.
Lord Raven Crusher nodded. ''Lord Cracker,'' he said, as
formally respectable as only a Crusher could possibly be,
''I hear Ser Mollin came as an envoy from Queen Irulain the
Second herself''.
''Let me guess,'' Jay sniggered, ''he crept into the city
like a thief in the night rather than coming in with
trumpets and all''.
''Nor are you incorrect,'' replied Raven, rather annoyed,
''Ser Mollin had an Angel transport him straight here
instead of a mile out of the gates''. Raven's tone implied
that he was aghast by this action. As most Crushers, Raven
believed in Formality and Respectability and doing things
''By the Book''. In fact, despite sticking to formality, Jay
liked Raven pretty much. Not only was Raven a formidable
warrior who could unhorse near every other knight in the
realm in the jousting ranks but also Raven had the making
for an excellent field commander. Few years back, Raven
spent a few weeks in Hornskeep as the Crackers' honored
guest and needed no more than a day to take affection to
Sergeant Latcher. Raven had spent hours with the Sergeant,
learning anything he could from the aging warrior. One had
to respect that. He later deemed Sergeant Latcher as the
''Warlord's Encyclopedia''. Jay had a feeling that if Raven
ever got to write this book he always wanted to write about
warfare, there would be an acknowledgement for Sergeant
Latcher on the back cover as was fit and due.
''Don't bother yourself, Raven,'' Jay chuckled, ''Ser Mollin
is no the man for ceremonies''. Jay remembered that too
well. When his men joined the human forces in Eastwatch, Ser
Mollin actually berated him for ''being late'' and told him,
''And don't you elf be expecting me to go m'lording you
every bloody sentence''.
Raven shrugged. He didn't approve of this but he was too
polite to comment.
The Maelstrom smiled and clapped Jay on the shoulder, nearly
making Jay fall off his feet by the sheer power of the clap.
His hand clutched Jay, steadying him. ''Apology, Jay,'' he
said and Jay shook his head with a smile. The mountain's
friendly claps were infamous for dropping grown men. Of
course, it was nothing comparing to that time when he
slapped an Orc on the face, breaking its neck with sheer
power of the slap.
''So what brings the Maelstrom around here?'' Jay asked.
''Oh, I don't know,'' Ser Mollin's moustache danced as he
chuckled, ''I felt like seeing the fabled Elvalie for myself
so I went to her Royal Grace and asked to take a
vacation''.
Raven's face nearly cramped in disgust at the jape.
The Maelstrom noted and winked at Jay. ''You'll get used to
it, M'lord Crusher,'' he told Raven, ''I have a bad sense of
humor and no manners at all. Jay, as to your question, once
good Queen Irulain heard about the Lizardmen raid, she sent
for Stormheim, telling the Baron and his Counts to marshal
their troops and be ready for a march. You remember what
your king said when them Orcs broke into the highlands? He
said 'Humans won't stand alone in their fight'. So now her
Royal Grace sent me to tell him just the same. Elves won't
stand alone in their fight. I am told that the Young
Thunder, Count Hester, Ser Harwin and Ser Harren will lead
the forces from Stormheim through Seleny and towards The
Green Keep. I was told to bring forth this message on behalf
of her Royal Grace''.
Jay nodded and would have answered but that was the moment
when King Sparrow appeared at the door and the meeting
adjourned.
After a short briefing about the raid and its outcome, the
king himself took to speak. ''We know that the Draconians
were up to something for quite some time,'' he said, ''there
were things happening there in Azirgoth for quite some time.
Scouts reported Draconians amassing hosts for over a year
but by all means it appeared that they weren't truly ready
when this raid came. Ser Pusher from Green Keep told me in a
magic-channel talk we had this morning that the Draconian
attack appeared to have been an unplanned act that came out
of the blue and that it may actually have hampered their
hosting efforts. He said that something was steering in the
north for quite some time but as far as two weeks ago
something changed and the Draconians went into some
berserked frenzy''.
''The Cagestone!'' Jay said. He repeated the occurrences of
the Cowl Dwarf and everyone went quiet as they contemplated
that information. ''It seemed unimportant at first,'' he
concluded, ''but when you say that they suddenly went into a
berserked frenzy...''
''We need to know what the draconians are up to with that
Cagestone of theirs,'' said Raven, ''what do they intend to
do with it''.
Ser Mollin, raised his hand slightly.
King Sparrow inclined his head. ''Yes, Ser Mollin?'' he
said.
''We have a spy,'' said The Maelstrom, ''it was the queen's
will that I inform you about him. He lives in northern
Seleny, very close to the draconian borders. He's been said
to deal with them for some years and I understand that the
queen's agents were able to turn him into a spy on our
behalf. He may know more about the situation''.
Jay shook his head. ''A big help,'' he said sarcastically,
''him being so far away. Even on the back of a griffin, it'd
take two weeks to get there. We need immediate info.
Whatever we get from him would be old news and there's
nothing staler than old news''.
King Sparrow nodded.
Ser Mollin seemed about to protest but Sparrow's hand rose
to silence him.
''However, Jay,'' said the king, ''I understand that the
magi are able to help us on that account. Ser Mollin, any
further information about this spy?''
The Maelstrom nodded. ''I am told that the best method of
approaching him would be acting as young warrior with great
hopes who wishes to claim the bounties on his head''.
Jay's mouth flung open. ''There are bounties on his head?
Who is this crook?''
Ser Mollin smiled cynically and told him the name.
''Joshua Half-fork?'' Jay's eyebrows rose, ''can't say I've
heard of him''.
The Maelstrom shrugged his huge shoulders. ''Can't say you
missed much,'' he replied, ''Ain't much to know 'bout that
creep. However, if I may add, Jay, you look like the perfect
candidate for the job''.
Jay glared at him, dismayed by the possible encounter with
low characters and... Well... magical transportation. ''Why
me?'' he asked.
Ser Mollin shrugged again. ''I was with you in the Eastwatch
campaign, remember?'' he said.
''Could I forget those six arrows?'' Replied Jay with a
slight smile, ''And that you tried to buy us all a round and
then drank most of it yourself?''
Ser Mollin nodded with a devilish smile. ''Aye,'' he said,
''those were the days. Anyways, I know just how skilled and
cunning you are, Jay. However, if I may talk bluntly...''
''When are you not talking bluntly?'' asked Jay, aiming his
ponderous question to the world in general rather than to
the Maelstrom.
''Why, I am as polite as one could be, m'lord of Cracker. As
I was saying, people who know you not might easily be fooled
to think of you as a young elf with more guts than brains
and a shiny sword that never saw anything more dangerous
than a toy dragon. You have the looks of a brave-but-foolish
adventurer who's looking for fame, bounty and a bit of
blood. Understand?''
Jay nodded sullenly. He understood all too well.
Unfortunately, he couldn't deny that his age concealed his
abilities quite successfully.
''Well,'' King Sparrow leaned forward, ''I agree with Lord
Crusher here. Intelligence is the key to victory''.
That was it. If the king asked, a Cracker would not refuse.
The Crackers never refused the Lighters. Jay sagged back,
conceding his defeat. ''As you wish, your grace,'' he nodded
his approval, ''but let the protocol record that the key to
victory is having an army ten times the number of enemy
soldiers''.





Vengie had all her belongings gathered into a single pack
and was making final arrangements for a hasty flight when
she heard the door opening on the first floor and the
servants admitting someone in. She listened for a short
moment but whoever owned the high female voice was certainly
not Mina and the commanding tone suggested that perhaps,
just perhaps, the female down there was a representative of
the Power of the Law. Vengie tensed and crept down the
stairs. She took a sneaky peek behind the wall and relaxed.
Whoever the elven female was, she was not here for Vengie.
She stood near the hearth, seeping a goblet of some juicy
equivalent of wine Jay introduced her to. The rich clothing
suggested a noblewoman and whatever the sigil on her rich
embroidered riding dress, it was not the Crowned Cardinal of
the Snatchers. She noted the woman was reading something and
the broken seal told exactly what. In her haste to flee she
tossed the scroll on the table before racing up the stairs
to pack her things. The servants wouldn't have read it
without permission, she thought, but like as not, as soon as
she tried to run, this noblewoman would raise an alarm.
Unfortunately, Vengie's only viable option, the way she saw
it, was to knock the woman unconscious and disappear before
the guards came for her. Her spells offering nothing to help
her in that, she decided to creep towards the noblewoman and
catch her unawares. But after she took three steps, the
woman raised her head and laughed out loud. Vengie froze as
the noblewoman suddenly turned her head towards her. ''Oh
my,'' she said, ''you startled me there for a second. You
must be Vengie, the Hellmaiden the city seems to be
entranced with. Pleased to make your acquaintance''.
Vengie, expecting something more to the tune of ''Guards!
Seize that woman'' was taken aback. ''What?'' she asked.
''Pleased to meet you,'' repeated the woman, ''Duchess
Suiren of house Searcher at your service''.
''Ah,'' said Vengie, not sure all was well with this
unexpected guest, ''isn't this the part where you call the
guards?''
''The guards?'' This seemed to take Suiren by surprise,
''Why so? You mean this?'' she waved the scroll and laughed
again.
Vengie nodded sullenly. Somehow she felt she just dug her
own grave.
''But this is a joke, Miss Vengie'' Suiren chuckled, ''it's
not true. No truer than the claim you are a Hellmaiden. I
mean, you are quite tanned for a Hellmaiden''.
''A joke?'' Vengie felt perplexed. Some surreal aura has
enveloped the entire world.
''A bad one, I see,'' nodded Suiren, ''Let's start from the
beginning. I understand that you are from a village near
Balad-Naran, yes? Right. Me, I'm Duchess of Oakenmoat,
southern bannermen to Hornskeep''.
Vengie nodded politely. As far as cared, Suiren may well be
Queen Paramount of the Dwarven Halls - though it made sense
to think that Queen Paramount of the Dwarven Halls would be
a bit more hairy around the cheeks.
''I see that doesn't ring much of a bell, eh?'' Asked
Suiren.
''Nope,'' Vengie shook her head, ''am I missing
something?''
''Only bits of unimportant information,'' Suiren shrugged,
''I'm set to marry Condor next summer''.
''Oh yes!'' Vengie eyed the sigil on Suiren's dress again.
On a green field a hawk soared high, its beak pointing down
as if searching for prey. ''Jay said that Condor is going to
marry a Hawkeye from Oakenmoat. I thought Hawkeye was the
name of your house. I beg your pardon''.
''No harm done,'' said Suiren, ''Calling us Hawkeyes is the
same as calling a knight gallant. I thank you for the
compliment''.
''With pleasure, m'lady,'' said Vengie.
''Oh stop that, Vengie'' said Suiren, ''my mother is M'lady,
not me''.
''You said the scroll is a bad joke,'' said Vengie. Some
things were just more important at the moment than deciding
how to address the next Lady of Hornskeep.
''Yes,'' Suiren nodded, ''As I said, you're from a village
near Balad-Naran. Should figure that you wouldn't know this
isn't true. Guess Siana figured that just as well. There's
no law saying a woman's not allowed to approach a betrothed
man here. That would be ridiculous, see. We'd have trials
every time a jealous lady would mistake an innocent gesture
or a friendly wink''.
Vengie wasn't sure about that. In fact, she never heard of
an innocent gesture and definitely could not attach the word
'friendly' to any woman winking at a man. But this did clear
out one matter.
''I'm not in trouble,'' she thought. After a short moment,
she added to herself, ''but Siana is!''

By then she had to go, remembering that she promised to meet
Jay in the Great Hall. She took her leave of the villa and
made for the central plaza beneath the palace. Behind her,
Suiren shook her head at the scroll again. Siana was playing
dirty, she thought, and this just would not do. The future
Lady of Hornskeep had no intent on seeing anyone bringing
troubles on the head of house Cracker. The Cracker sigil was
the Crown and a sword at each of its sides. The Soaring Hawk
of Searcher was there, metaphorically to watch over the
crown and the twin swords from up high. Soon after, she
heard the rattle of wheels as Lady Mina's coach stopped by
the house. Suiren hastened to help her future mother-in-law
out of the coach and into the house. She proceeded to tell
Mina of Siana's dirty game. ''Good thing I arrived here in
time,'' she finished, ''but something needs be done to make
sure no more dirty moves are made''.
''I agree,'' Mina nodded, ''dirty games may only serve to
muddy the water. You've acted promptly, Suiren, quick and
perceptive as a hawk. Luckily, we already have a plan in
motion. As I recall you have taken the part in the
ceremonial repeat of the Quest of Seven Maidens some years
past, have you not?''
Suiren nodded. These were three months hard to forget -
seven maidens of nobility hiked all the way to Stormhall
with a minimal honor guard as part of the celebrations for a
century of steadfast alliance with the humans, alliance that
was forged when seven outcast noblewomen strode to Stormheim
to plead the human king for assistance against an
ever-growing threat of war with the Dwarves. Used to coaches
and horses, warm meals and soft beds, servants and all the
comforts nobility offered, Suiren and her six companions
suffered most of this repeat - Sleeping in the woods,
bathing in cold streams, eating whatever they managed to
collect and all this has come as a vicious slap of reality.
Knowing that most traveling peasants did not enjoy better
conditions, this journey stripped all seven maidens of their
haughtiness and taught them humility - a very important
lesson to woman who would one day be in position of power
over the commonfolk. Despite not seeing it this way back
then, the seven maidens later agreed that the journey forged
them, strengthened them and granted them much knowledge and
wisdom.
''As I recall,'' continued Mina, ''one of the seven maidens
was Duchess Lyanna of house Shaker, yes?''
''Barefoot Lyanna,'' Suiren smiled. Lyanna started the
journey with laced dancing shoes which proved a poor choice
for a long walk. one shoe gave in on the second day and
Lyanna walked half a kilometer on bare feet before trading a
silver bracelet for a pair of good, if simple, walking
shoes. Suiren guessed the peasant woman who took the
bracelet quickly traded it for food and other commodities.
Afterwards, the seven maidens took to calling Duchess Shaker
''Barefoot Lyanna''. Well, it may have disgruntled Lyanna at
first but it sure as hell was better than being ''Suiren
Blacknose'' - The result of an ungraceful stumbling into a
puddle of mud.
''Are you still in good terms with Duchess Lyanna?'' asked
Mina.
Suiren nodded absent-mindedly. The journey forged a bond of
strong friendship between the seven maidens.
''Good,'' Mina nodded, ''I know Cherrie has a puts great
weight in her sister's words. Lyanna could help us in this.
She does not harbor any bad sentiments towards us, does
she?''
''Lyanna? No!'' Suiren shook her head, ''as far as I know
Lyanna harbors no special feelings of any kind towards house
Cracker''.
''Good,''  Mina nodded, ''so you wouldn't mind seeing to it
that she helped us turn her younger sister to our aid
then?''
''I am proud to be of assistance,'' Suiren bowed her head,
''but what has young Cherrie got to do with this
business?''
''Let me fill you in,'' said Mina, ''besides certain amends
I've had in mind for house Snatcher, Jay and I also figured
that Siana could be swayed into peace with Vengie if the
right strings are pulled. We have no wish to fester any
feuds with her house and she is Lord Robin's sole heir...''





Part Seven: Jealousy

''There's no terrible wrath than that of a jealous woman''
- Common Saying


With Cherrie confined to her bed in the Healer's guild and
having the practice cut early by Lieutenant Bethany, Siana
walked aimlessly around the city. She did not know if the
scroll trick had worked - she was sure she'll know as soon
as something actually happened but until then she was forced
to wait patiently. Unlike her usual manner, reinforced by
her tutoring, patience did not come easy this time. Vengie,
that Hellmaiden, had been grating on her nerves. She
wandered aimlessly when she saw Jay in the other end of the
street, walking towards the Great Hall. She saw a possible
chance to catch him alone - there was no sign of the
Hellmaiden anywhere - she hurried after him. She entered the
Great Hall no more than a minute after him. Usually, the
hall would have been filled with people- Heroes came from
far lands, and were welcomed with feasts and celebrations.
But now the hall was silent, and few people were in it,
several nobles dining a late breakfast. There was a stand
next to the door that harbored many kinds of drinks and
bowls of fruits. Servants attended to it constantly, making
sure it lacked nothing. She went on and poured some Elven
Wine into a goblet. Elven Wine wasn't alcoholic. Elves
thought they could call it wine - it was yellowish, aromatic
and made of grapes after all. Humans didn't agree about
that- they would call it ''that yellow drink'', or ''what
the hell is this'', or perhaps, ''Phooze!'' along with
spitting on the floor. She scouted the hall and much to her
dismay she saw Jay giving Vengie a tour, walking among
portraits and pedestals holding her hand. Despite her better
judgment she felt compelled to approach them. As she
approached, she heard Jay telling Vengie about the council.
''So,'' he was saying, ''Raven suggested that intelligence
is the key to victory. I'm going to go on a mission for the
crown- oh, hello Siana'' Jay eyed her cautiously as he spied
her.
''Hello'', said Vengie. The Hellmaiden smiled at her. It
made Siana feel uncomfortable.
''How fare you, Jay?'' asked Siana. A lady had to maintain
her courtesy.
''I suppose I am well,'' he said cautiously, ''listen, I owe
you an apology. I didn't mean it to come out like that. I
was hoping to have this handled with utmost delicacy and
make amends for this. It was not my intention to hurt
you''.
Inside, Siana raged. Here he is, trying to apologize not for
turning his back on her but for not doing it with 'utmost
delicacy'. What amends did he think could make up for this?
She wanted him, her Prince Charming. Not some stupid amends!
And all this while, Vengie's standing there, sneering
quietly at her.
''I'm sure you will arrange whatever is necessary to make
your 'amends', Jay'' she said coldly, clutching desperately
to her manners as if they were the branch that would save
her from drowning in her rage and insult and shame herself
further.
''I was thinking,'' Jay fumbled, ''I'm going away for a
couple days on a mission for his highness''.
Vengie smiled. ''I'm going with him'', she told Siana.
It was suddenly all Siana could do not to slap the
sniggering whore.
Jay sighed. ''Actually, you're not'', he said quietly.
Now it was Siana's turn to smirk. Someone has been
overconfident, have they? She covered it by drinking some
wine.
''What?'' shouted Vengie, amazed. Of course Jay was going to
take her with him. An Angel, even a Dark one, could always
come in handy. Leaving her behind was - unthinkable to say
the least. Even if it was only for a couple of days...
Jay looked around, troubled. Vengie was attracting
attention. ''The king demanded that I go on this mission
under cover'' he said ''I can't possibly take you''.
Vengie was angry, but she was neither stupid nor childish.
She understood perfectly. Jay came a step shy of saying he
was not all that happy about going on this mission. ''That's
terrible, Jay'', she said.
Jay touched Siana's shoulder. ''Listen- While I'm gone, I
want you two to talk to each other. Try to get along. I
don't want to lose either of you'', he said softly. It is
quite obvious that whatever qualities he possessed, Jay had
no idea how he just stationed a lioness and a she-wolf on
two sides of the same deer and told them to share it.
Both Vengie and Siana remained silent.
''Well?'' he asked, a little annoyed. He could not see why
they won't see the logical solution to this situation. After
all, if it went the other way around he would congratulate
the lucky chap Siana fell for and be the first to toast for
their good luck.
''Whatever... I guess'', murmured Vengie. After all, it may
present her with the opportunity to get back at Siana.
''Surely'', said Siana coldly.
Jay smiled innocently. ''That's great. Now,'' he said, ''I
really have to be going. I'll see you again in two days,''
he told Vengie. She pulled him towards her and they kissed
freverently. Siana looked the other way. As turned to leave
Vengie and Siana stared at each other. A serving boy passed
by them and nearly has been foolish enough to call
''Cat-fight'' but to the relief of the universe in general
he thought better and carried on.
Siana still had two hopes. ''Did you get my letter?'' she
asked.
Vengie smiled diabolically. ''What a neat attempt to drive
me away'', she said. ''That is really so...'' The pause may
have been overly dramatic but nevertheless took Siana
off-balance. ''...Pathetic'', Vengie completed her
sentence.
Siana's temper flared, but she kept her manners. Her revenge
will come but not now and not here. She was a lady, after
all.
''I'm sorry about that'', she lied, and continued kindly:
''Jay can marry any Hellmaiden he wants, as far as I'm
concerned''.
''What is your problem, girl?'' asked Vengie angrily. She
forced her temper back. After all, revenge is a dish better
served cold. ''We can get along, no?'' she tried.
Siana stared at her. ''Sure'', she said. Her voice could
have frozen Lake Nelmar (which was a famous large lake) in
the midst of the summer.
''You better stay away from me'', threatened Vengie, ''I
don't want any war with you but I won't sit quietly if you
keep playing your games. Step aside!''
Siana snorted. ''Or what? You'll cry?''
Vengie decided to get away before someone gets hurt. ''I
have nothing to say to you''; she said and started to
leave.
''Yeah, see you at the ball!'', Siana called, gambling her
other winning card.
Vengie turned back. ''What ball?'' she asked.
''The one tonight. Everyone important will be here'',
replied Siana.
Vengie went away. Siana smiled. She knew just how to make a
complete fool out of Vengie at that ball.
Siana had a plan.
Vengie had a plan, too.
Both had no idea that other plans were already in motion.

''She's lying, right?'' asked Vengie.
''No, my dear'', said Lady Mina, ''There is indeed an
important ball tonight. Celebrating the victory over the
draconian raid. There will be bards and singers, jugglers
and actors. I heard that a certain human knight - the
Maelstrom they call him - will be the guest of honor. But
you don't have to go''.
''Oh, I have to go'', said Vengie. ''She challenged me. Sort
of''.
Mina smiled. She sometimes regretted that gods never saw fit
to bless her with a daughter. Especially when Suiren and of
late Vengie too, showed their spirit. It was not in
concordance with her plans but despite herself, she felt she
owed Vengie this chance to 'get even' as humans liked to put
it. Siana's trick was a foul one and Mina was not one to
condone foul plays. ''Darling,'' she said, ''If you want my
help, you have it. I don't think I have dresses to your size
but Suiren's dresses may fit''.
Vengie was excited. Suiren was quick to lay out several
dresses for her choosing.
''Thank you, Mina and Suiren'', she sighed. She never
considered herself one for silk dresses but she had to admit
Suiren's dresses were tempting. She settled for a deep-blue
evening dress that was laced at the back. There was a
problem with the upper areas of course. Like most elves,
Suiren boasted breasts that could be politely described as
''of modest size''. Vengie, on the other hand, was blessed
with a capacious buxom, which tended to aid her in getting
impressive reports from male teachers in the magic academy
in Balad-Naran. Fortunately one of the servants was blessed
with near-magical knitting capacity and helped broaden the
buxom. There was yet a problem with fitting shoes to the
dress - elven feet tended to be slim and short and none of
Suiren's could possibly fit Vengie without cutting off her
fingers. Suiren took Vengie to the market and encouraged her
to choose three different pairs of dancing slippers - aided
with a bag of gold coins from Mina and with the universal
feminine feat some people refer to as a ''Shopping Spree''.
It was about an hour before the ball that Vengie finally was
ready. She looked wonderful in the dress. Mina told her that
then added: ''There's just the make-up now...''
Vengie stopped her. ''There are just a few things I have to
take care of, all right?''
Mina had a feeling that Vengie was brewing some nasty
riposte for Siana but didn't ask anything. ''All right,''
she conceded. While it played on her sense of fair play, she
wanted no foreknowledge of whatever troubles the Dark Angel
was conjuring for Siana. This way she would be able to say
honestly that she did not know that Vengie was planning to
do this or do that.
However, as Vengie went about her business, Mina took Suiren
aside. ''Siana plans something publicly humiliating if I
know the girl,'' she told her.
''I was thinking along the same lines,'' Suiren nodded,
''however, my friends have expressed great interest in
meeting Vengie. I believe they are intrigued by the
possibility of conversing with a flesh-and-blood
cinnamon-tanned Hellmaiden,'' she winked, ''I have a feeling
we would scarce do anything other than hover around her
exciting presence all evening''.
''What a droll prospect,'' Mina clasped her future
daughter-in-law's shoulder warmly, ''you are what I've
always dreamt of in a daughter, Suiren''.





The evening breeze rattled the sign saying ''Kashmir Beer'',
its rusty hinges squeaking with every move.  Jay walked in,
his hand haughtily resting on Keith-Kanan's hilt. He donned
a complete new suit for this. He had to look young and brash
and inexperienced. Heads turned towards him as he entered,
walking with the rigid stride of a proud youth. The bar was
quite empty. A few farmers sat along the bar, apparently
conversing. Near the only occupied table a group of
travelers shared dinner. Three of them wore black and it was
all Jay could do to keep his mouth from flinging open.
Normally, he would have dismissed the three as simple
travelers. They blended in with the rest, jesting and making
fun. However, Jay spent time enough with Kara to realize
what his eyes saw. The three were Rogues. Definitely Rogues.
They were subtly alert, seeing everything while pretending
not to see anything. Well, there's no rule against Rogues
having supper and a mug of ale in a tavern. He wrinkled his
nose, glanced dismissingly over the bar and then turned to
the bartender. ''They say around here that you know how to
find Joshua Half-fork'' he said.
The bartender's eyebrows rose and he said, ''They say many
things ab'ut me. I don't remember hearin' ab'ut the guy. Ye
another o' them bounty hunters?''
Jay nodded. ''I have a head to claim, a bounty to earn and
fame to achieve'' he said, smiling haughtily.
''Ye mean ye got a head to lose, a taste for death and a
shallow grave waitin' for ye,'' snorted the bartender, ''but
as I said, I don't remember hearin' ab'ut the guy. Well, I
must be gettin' ol'. Me memory ain't what it used to be''.
Jay dug his pocket and fished a silver. ''I think I got a
magical cure for bad memory,'' he said, slipping the coin on
the bar. ''Aye,'' the bartender scooped the silver coin and
nodded, ''a magic cure indeed. I can feel me memory gots
better already. Yes yes, now I remember. A big guy. Kinda
rude. Yes, of course. Stays in here actually. Ye want me to
fetch him?''
Jay nodded. ''I'll be near the stables,'' he said,
''wouldn't want to spray blood on your floor''.
''You don't know what you gots yourself into, kid,'' said
the bartender, ''but I'll go fetch him. Your funeral''.

Jay leaned on the stables' wall and waited. The tavern's
door opened and a big shadow appeared in it. Jay
straightened as the man strode towards him. Before he could
do anything, the man caught him by the collar and raised him
off the ground.
''I've no time for you stupid bounty hunters'', he grunted,
his breath stinking of ale and cheap wine. He dragged Jay
into the stables and forced him against the wall. ''Wha'dya
wants? Dagger in the belly? Should I simply snap that skinny
neck of yours?''
''I am an envoy,'' Jay gasped, ''I need info''.
The man dropped him to the floor and grunted again. Finally
able to invest the time and attention in looking at him, Jay
realized he heard the Maelstrom wrong. It was not Joshua
Half-Fork. It was Joshua Half-Orc. The man's smelly and
sweaty skin was greenish and his eyes were tiny pig-like red
eyes. His snout was broad and his black hair scarce. Finally
Jay solved the mystery about a human that could actually
deal with the Drakemen. In retrospective it seemed quite
obvious that you'd have to have some Orcish blood or
something of the sorts to be even given the chance to talk
with the Drakemen.
''What do you want, elf?'' Half-Orc snorted at him, ''be
quick about it. I don't like your kind any more than your
kind likes me''.
''I need to know what's going on in Azirgoth. Why did they
attack Elvalie and what are they planning''.
''Anything else, elf?'' Half-Orc sneered, ''Maybe you'd like
to know why the sky is blue or how to magic fire
underwater?''
''Come on,'' Jay said, ''you ought to know something,
Joshua. A raid as big as they sent is not something they can
truly hide''.
''Fine, elf,'' said Half-Orc, ''they been up to something
for years. They believe that the time of prophecy is coming
at last. They believe that their Neh-Zhul is soon to
come''.
''Neh-Zhul?'' Jay asked, ''What's that?''
''Their prophecies go about some great warrior that will
unite all their clans into one mighty clan that would
control the world. They call that warrior the Neh-Zhul. It
means 'Chieftain of Chiefs'. They believe he is about to
come forth at last. Not long ago they came by some sort of
artifact - I don't what it was but they call it Khnar-fah -
the Voice of God. Once that Khnar-fah got there, it was like
kicking a bee hive. You fought the warriors of one clan over
there in your capital. This time, things would be different.
They are uniting behind this Khnar-fah as they haven't ever
been united. They are hosting in the jungles of Azirgoth
even as we speak. I know they have some rally point in... Do
you have a map? Good, that'll do. You see, this is the place
where they are hosting. They will be on the move soon
enough. Pr'o'lly this Neh-Zhul is nothing more than a legend
though''.
''I've heard enough,'' Jay fished a bag full of silvers and
gave it to the Half-Orc. He was told to do that.
Joshua fished a few Silvers and observed them. ''Now you
listen, elf,'' he said, ''I'm going to be throwing you out
the door after I beaten you bloody and you run away like a
kid who took his first whacking, understand?''
Jay nodded. Sir Mollin warned him that it was part of the
deal in order to protect the Half-Orc's identity as a spy.
Jay drew Keith-Kanan and handed her, hilt first, to the spy.
The Half-Orc threw the blade down and grabbed Jay by the
collar again. He opened the stables' door and flung Jay out,
throwing him three meters in the air. As Jay came crashing
down, the Half-Orc threw Keith-Kanan towards him. The blade
landed no more than 15 centimeters from Jay's leg. Jay
grabbed the sword and struggled to his feet.
''Ya don't come back, boy,'' cried the Half-Orc, ''I been
merciful for ya boy! Next time I put your guts out with that
toy sword of yours''.
Jay, playing his part in the act, bellowed a curse.
The Half-Orc took a step forward.
Jay turned and ran away, heading for the woods, where a mage
was awaiting him.
Behind him, the Half-Orc turned back into the stable. He
leaned on the door for a moment and then drew a silver out
of the bag Jay gave him.
''It's sparkling nicely,'' said a voice.
''Yes it does, Fnord,'' replied Half-Orc.
The reptilian muzzle of the Draconian was the only thing not
hidden by the heavy cloak it wore.
''You take that to the Neh-Zhul,'' he told to the Drakeman,
''you tell him, them elves would be coming for him''.
''Your help is appreciated, Half-Orc,'' said the Draconian
as he took the silver, ''we will not forget''.
With not one more word, Fnord slipped into the night,
disappearing quickly.
Half-Orc turned back to the tavern, pleased with himself.
Behind him, in the stables, the shadows came alive. The
three rogues looked at each other, contemplating. After a
few seconds they reached a silent agreement and melded back
into the shadows.





Siana stopped to see Cherrie on her way to the ball. She had
to reassure herself that her plan would work and who was
better than Cherrie to play the Devil's Advocate part for
her? She was surprised to find Cherrie absorbed in deep
thoughts. She didn't know that Cherrie had a visit from Lady
Mina earlier. Mina was straightforward in her approach. Just
the prospect of what she suggested as amends for annulling
the betrothal was enough to spin Cherrie's head. Mina
certainly planned to make it up for Siana. But if further
swaying was necessary, the visit was followed by a visit
from Lyanna. Her older sister knew about the scroll trick
and had a pretty good idea about the perpetrator of this
little plan. However, she spoke openly about the benefits of
aiding in calming down this storm and Cherrie had been
swayed. She wanted only well for her friend and future
liege-lady - and if better meant not being with Lord Jay,
then Cherrie would be the first to talk Siana out of this
mess. Of course, she still had to see if Mina could actually
come through with her 'amends' but Cherrie was not fooled by
the old woman's frail looks. Once Mina comes through,
Cherrie would play her part in calming down this storm.
She reluctantly played her part and listened to Siana's
plan. But despite one obvious flaw, all she said was that
the plan was a good one and then pleaded exhaustion and said
her goodbyes.
She lay in the darkness of her room and mused over Siana's
plan. It was a good one, all in all. But Siana had not
grasped to full extent of what Vengie was acclaimed for. The
Dark Angel, as Cherrie had learned, was viewed as a heroine
of sorts around Elvalie. Even discarding all the
exaggerations about he deeds, here was a human, absolutely
lacking any reason to risk herself who still took the risks
and stood on the walls to defend a city that was nothing to
her against wild and dangerous foes. Heroes are hard to
humiliate, Cherrie mused, and Siana's bubbling cauldron was
about to explode in her face. Cherrie did not envy her
friend for this but she had learned from Lyanna that a
lesson in humility was an important one.

The lights of nearly thirty chandeliers lighted the great
hall. Two musician orchestras played in two different parts
of the hall, too far from each other to be heard by one
another. Many couples danced to the music. None of them knew
about the dramatic turn this evening was about to take.
Siana scouted the hall for Vengie as she entered. Not too
far, the guest of honor - A terrible bear of a man that
Siana feared the second she saw was talking to Lord Raven
Crusher and one of Jay's trusted men - that Sergeant Siana
found to be wizened and old. ''See here,'' the Maelstrom's
voice blustered above the music, ''you there, give this good
man another goblet of your finest yellowish grape juice! If
I can't buy him ale, I may as well drink this yellow drink
for his health''. To Siana's amazement nobody seemed
disturbed by this rude behavior and a serving boy was quick
to fetch three goblets of Elven Wine for the Maelstrom and
his companions. Siana went looking for Vengie. She knew that
she had to find Vengie quickly, before she gets social.
''Vengie is going to have the embarrassment of her life'',
decided Siana.
And then, things got crazy.

Siana knew for sure that she did not spill wine on herself.
The wine - human wine, alcohol included - actually leaped
out
from the jug- by itself- and splashed on her. This was
madness. ''All right - I'll postpone the Vengie vengeance
plan'', she thought. Dripping red alcoholic wine could open
a door for many a wild rumor. She tried to move to a less
central position and stumbled, nearly falling down. She felt
as if she had been tripped.
People around were staring at her. ''What's wrong with
her?'' someone whispered.
''Drunk'', whispered another.
Siana got up, and saw Vengie's smiling face, several feet
from her. Siana was enraged. That mage... Some angel,
really. That Hellmaiden! Casting spells in here! She was
going to be sorry. Siana walked as quickly as she could
towards Vengie. While she was doing it, another thing went
wrong. Some fruit juice from a near table did the same
trick, and splashed into her expansive gloves, ruining them
completely. If Siana was enraged before, now she was like a
volcano, about to erupt.
Those who saw her stared. Vengie, however, didn't seem to
notice anything. ''Hi there, Siana! How are you enjoying
yourself?'' she called, to the laughter of several elven
noblewomen.
Siana came as close as she could, and whispered angrily:
''You're going to get into trouble for this!'' She was
trying to remove her left glove all this time. ''Spells,''
she continued, ''are forbidden in here, Hellmaiden!''
Suddenly she stopped and stared at her glove. ''Why doesn't
the damn thing come off?'' she nearly shouted. She then
noticed a pair of scissors, lying suspiciously on a near
table. Well, Jay would have noticed that they are lying
suspiciously between a bowl of fruits and a cheese
appetizers tray. Siana didn't have the clarity of mind to
develop such suspicion. She picked them up so that she could
cut the gloves.

This was what Vengie waited for. She pleaded tiredness and
quickly took her leave before Siana would attempt to murder
her. Behind her, Suiren and her companions had stared at
Siana with their mouths flung open. Even Suiren, who knew
that Vengie had something in store for Siana didn't expect
this. Whatever Vengie did, it seemed as if Siana took the
wrong goblet and drank alcohol! Young Lady Snatcher was
about to become the talk of the court by morning.
Meanwhile, in Siana's hand, the scissors took control. They
cut her lower part of the dress, leaving her with, with,
well, with something that was too short. Siana's
humiliation was so complete that she started crying. She
couldn't see Vengie anywhere. With this terrible night
seeming to get worse by the moment, she ran into the night,
sobbing. Out there, Vengie's summoned pigeons plunged
droppings on her.
This was the worst day of her life.





The next morning, Siana and Cherrie were talking about the
last night. It had gone around town that Lady Siana Snatcher
got drunk at the ball and made a complete disgrace of
herself.
''You have enough to take her into trial'', said Cherrie
despite herself. Ok, talking about a lesson in humility was
all too well but this was more in the lines of whipping
Siana into humility.
Siana shook her head. ''Well, after the little scroll trick,
I could get into trouble myself'', she said, ''all they need
to do is say that everyone saw I was simply drunk and they
had proof already I was trying to do harm unto that
Hellmaiden''.
Lady Cherrie mused things over silently. ''Maybe you should
give it up, Siana'', she suggested, ''It's quite obvious you
won't get Jay out of her snare and well... This is getting
out of proportion''.
Siana looked angry. ''After yesterday? Never!'' she swore.
Cherrie sighed. She was Siana's friend but she had no idea
about how to swerve Siana from this self-destroying path she
was about to take. But something was already forming in her
head. ''I have a second plan, if you want to hear it....''
she said.
But just a short moment after Siana left, Cherrie had sent a
messenger to find Lady Mina.

Siana came to see Vengie by midday. Jay has not yet returned
and Vengie was somewhat bored with being stuck in the house
all day. When she opened the door and saw Siana standing
there she started closing the door but Siana said, ''Listen,
I just want to talk''.
''Okay'', said Vengie, ''let's talk''. Seeing how she got
even with Siana last night, Vengie was open for negotiating
peace. She was skeptic about Siana seeing things the same
way but then maybe the gal understood she messed with
someone all so much her better that she decided that peace
was better than utter defeat.
''I wanted to say I am sorry about the little
misunderstanding we had two days ago'' said Siana, ''truly.
All these years I have been expecting the day I married Jay
and then it all came down on me so fast that I lost my
senses. But really, I only want him to be happy and if he's
happier with you than I'll give you my blessing''.
''And?'' asked Vengie, sharpening her fingernails with her
dagger. She did not expect Siana to truly have a change of
heart this fast. And besides, Vengie didn't think she'll
truly forgive and forget last night. After all, was it
Vengie who'd been humiliated so deeply, she'd like as not be
readying her nastiest spells as a riposte.
''Look,'' Siana said, almost desperately, ''I've been stupid
but I'm not like this usually. It's not the way a Snatcher
is taught. And last night you gave me what I guess I was
due,'' the words tasted like bile but despite being dictated
by Cherrie, doubt gnawed at Siana's heart. It was indeed not
the way a Snatcher acts and something deep within her soul
did say ''you had it coming'' about last night's farce.
''Well,'' Vengie shrugged, ''I'm not looking for war''.
''Would you like to take a stroll around the city?'' asked
Siana, ''We could talk about this as adults and on neutral
grounds too''.
Vengie suspected there was more to it. She was not, as
people like Ser Mollin the Maelstrom would put it, born
yesterday. But despite her suspicions, boredom was taking
its toll of her and she succumbed to the suggestion.
''Well?'' asked Siana. She looked and sounded sincere.
Vengie nodded. ''Okay. Let's go''.
They went to the center of the city. Siana showed Vengie the
marketplace, the stables, and the mages' guild (where Vengie
took the liberty of enhancing the flame magic of some young
novice. The poor novice couldn't explain what happened but
his master's scorched forelock meant a low grade - much to
Siana's dismay she giggled heartily at the show). They also
paid visit to the Hall of heroes, where memorials of all the
great elven heroes lay (''What a stupid idea'', thought
Vengie. ''We humans easily remember our fallen heroes''. She
did admire the large scale it had, though). And then, they
came into a hall filled with mirrors. ''What the hell is
this?'' asked Vengie.
Siana smiled sweetly, her second thoughts subsiding as she
finally made her move. ''Have you ever heard of the mirror
maze?'' she asked.
''This is the mirror maze?'' asked Vengie. Back in the
academy she did hear about this wonder - countless mirrors
each showing a slightly distorted reflection of the visitor.
She was perplexed by the immensity and power of this
wonder.
Siana said, ''It's sacred to us''. She took Vengie to the
center, where a single diamond stood and the many mirrors
reflected its sparkling features, enhancing the center of
the maze into a mystical piece of pure light. Vengie stood
there, admiring the beauty of the place when suddenly she
noticed Siana was nowhere to be found. ''Siana?'' she
called.
There was no reply.
''She gulled me,'' Vengie thought, ''this is a maze, getting
out of here will be no walk in the park''. She walked,
looking for the exit but didn't find any. All she got was
bruises on her nose. She wished she had her summoning wand
with her. If she had it, she would have summoned an air
elemental to fly her out. But she left it in the villa. She
resisted the urge to burn a way through the mirrors with a
Firebolt. That was probably exactly what Siana expected her
to do. If she did that, she'd have the entire elven nation
turn oh her. Well, all she could do was to wait. Someone
would probably come here sooner or later.
''Vengie?'' The call raised hope in her heart.
''Suiren,'' she called, ''in here. Eh, that is, somewhere
within this maze''.
Suiren found her very quickly. There was probably some means
of navigating the maze that Vengie was unaware of.
''I came as fast as I could,'' she told Vengie, ''hope you
weren't waiting for too long''.
''How'd you know I was here?'' Vengie asked, ''I don't
suppose Siana told you''.
Suiren shook her head. ''Cherrie had informed Mina. We
didn't know when you'll be here exactly but I see I came at
the right time''.
''Cherrie?'' Vengie thought aloud, ''where was it that I've
heard that name?''
''Duchess Cherrie Shaker is bannerwoman to house Snatcher
and Siana's closest friend,'' Suiren enlightened her.
''Oh, yes,'' Vengie nodded, ''that dumb blond girl up on the
wall?''
''Beg pardon?'' said Suiren, ''I was under the impression
that she heroically saved Siana's life''.
''Damn straight,'' said Vengie, ''for all the good it did
us. But let me give you an advice about battles - when a
sword impales - try to be the one who's holding the sword
and not the one who's being impaled''.
''It's an honor to die for your liege-lady,'' said Suiren,
''it's what being a bannerman is ultimately all about''.
''Tell you what, Suiren,'' Vengie sniggered, ''it may be an
honor to die for your liege-lady but if you want to win the
battle, it's generally better to make the poor bugger in
front of you die honorably for his own liege''.
Suiren nodded. It has indeed been one of the paramount
fulcrums of being a bannerman but one could not disregard
the common sense behind Vengie's statement. ''Come,'' she
said, ''we don't want to be late''.
''Late?'' Vengie stopped, ''where are we going?''
''To see Cherrie, of course,'' Suiren gestured with her
hands, ''this conflict is going too far. Mina has devised a
way out of this''.
''Well, I never wanted to cause no troubles,'' said Vengie.
''Then you have no reason not to go along with our plan,''
said Suiren, knowing that Vengie had just cornered herself
into helping them, ''this way''.

''... But truly I don't know, Cherrie,'' Siana sobbed, ''it
seemed so right at the start but now...''
''You're having second thoughts,'' Cherrie observed, ''the
righteousness of your cause may be faltering''.
''Well-'' Siana tried to attach words to her mixed feeling,
''I really want Jay to be happy and it seems that he is
happier with her and suddenly I'm not so sure he'll be happy
with me even if I did manage to drive her away''.
Cherrie nodded. From all she heard, Vengie offered Jay
something Siana never could match - she was lively and
active, a daring adventurer like Jay himself. On the other
hand, Siana may have been able to ride a horse - dismally at
best - but her idea of an adventure was taking a coach to go
shopping in the marketplaces of Carmel and that, as far as
Cherrie could judge, was not something Jay would ever be
content to do. Besides, elven noblewomen were usually polite
and quiet, dutiful and courteous whereas this Vengie was a
passionate woman, rudely straightforward. Some men had been
attracted to such women like flies to honey. No amount of
education could truly take that out of a man. Marrying Siana
could have given Jay a quiet and dismal life. The more she
thought about it, the more she felt that Siana was not doing
Jay a favor by fighting over him.
''Maybe if I could dress as slutty as she does,'' Siana
mused, ''and act as a whore he'd be willing to-'' but the
thought was no more than a desperate attempt to keep herself
in the race and both knew it.
Cherrie leaned forward and sent her hand to touch Siana's
left breast. ''Even if you could bring yourself to act that
way,'' she said and squeezed Siana's petite breast, ''you'll
never be able to counter her generous buxom with these. I
say, give it up. There are better prospects for your future
than fighting for this lost cause''.
''But,'' Siana mumbled, ''He is my Prince Charming...''
''There are better matches,'' said Cherrie.
''Truly?'' Siana snorted, ''such as? What match could
possibly be better than marrying a Prince Charming?''
Cherrie may have answered but the door opened and as both
ladies turned, Suiren Searcher helped Mina inside with
Vengie at their heels.
''I'll be on my way!'' Siana said sharply. It was obvious
that Cherrie expected this visit. How could her best friend
turn against her?
Siana strode towards the door when Mina said, ''Stay, if it
pleases you''.
''It does not!'' said Siana and made for the doorstep. It
was like trying to walk through a very strong - if also very
soft - wall. Something invisible blocked her way out. ''Now
see here-'' she turned towards Vengie.
''No, Siana,'' Mina cut her, ''you see here. This conflict
between you and Vengie is going down-hill fast. I fear that
whoever takes the most harm from this will be both of you.
And Jay! Now you listen here. You don't have to like Vengie
and you owe her nothing. But you owe yourself and your
family to keep out of trouble. And this is trouble! Now I
have come to offer you amends we have come up with to make
up for your hurt and inconvenience. So you may either leave
the room - Vengie won't stop you - and this will escalate
into a really bad feud or you can settle down and listen to
what we have to offer''.
Siana cared for none of this. What amends, after all will
make up for losing her Prince Charming? But on the other
hand she had no mind to cause a feud between the Snatchers
and the Crackers. For the love of gods, her late brother
Swan had been Jay's best friend. She took a chair and eyed
Mina with challenge in her eyes. ''Let's hear what you
offer'' she said coldly.
Mina ignored the challenge and made her offer heard.
Siana was taken aback by the mere suggestion. Mina had
indeed meant to make serious amends for this. She inclined
her head gently, conceding her defeat. After all, some
things could even amend for losing Prince Charming.





Part Eight: A Green Fort and a Dying Man in Black

''A dozen kilometers north of Hal-Arak, on the edge of our
civilized nation, we shall construct this citadel to make
sure the green menace never takes us by surprise again. It
shall be manned forever by capable men and shall ever have
the Egg as the last means of defense should the green menace
manage to overrun it. The citadel will be constructed over
the hatch of ancients, to ensure safe passage of
reinforcements and a quick retreat if necessary. From this
day forth, it shall be known as the Green Fort'' - King
Peregrine the Builder, first king of Elvalie, also known as
Peregrine the Redeemer, commands the construction of the
Green Fort.


''So, they believe their artifact is an omen, foretelling
the coming of this Neh-Zhul?'' King Sparrow inquired.
''Yes sire,'' Jay nodded, ''we already know this Cagestone
has been able to achieve great influence over at least one
dwarf...''
''Make that two dwarves, Jay,'' Said Raven, ''I've been
thinking about things lately. As you recall, six years ago,
there was that incidence with the dwarves''.
''I recall all too well, Raven,'' said Jay, ''they kidnapped
a number of acolytes from the mage guild. If it wasn't for
Swan and Krijahn, they would have... What exactly are you
saying?''
''Yes,'' Raven nodded, ''Lord Swan Snatcher died in battle
and Krijahn Sounder would later turn traitor- All is well
with you, Jay?''
Jay's sudden feat of coughing subdued. He had his own
misgivings about Krijahn and Krij-ahh. ''I'm fine,'' he
said, ''but you were saying?''
''Lord Swan was struck down by lightning, as I recall,''
Raven continued, ''and even then there were rumors that the
perpetrator of this kidnapping had somehow acquired magical
powers''.
''Are you saying they had that Cagestone even then?'' King
Sparrow.
''It stands to reason,'' said Raven, ''if I wanted to find
out what magic gave life to the flora in the Avenue of
Light, the magi would be the first one I'd ask. Not that
they know, I hear, but nevertheless''.
''Is it truly possible that there is a cache of Cagestones
underneath the rim of the avenue?'' asked Jay.
Piros, in his elf form, opened his mouth but jumped suddenly
as if someone kicked him under the table. His eyes turned
towards Hailia, but the First among the Mountain Dragons
showed no sign of movement.
''You were saying, Piros?'' asked Jay.
''Nothing of importance,'' grumbled Piros.
''Your grace,'' Hailia bowed her head towards Sparrow, ''May
a thousand angels guide your reign, I suggest that we turn
to more practical matters. What are you going to do about
the Draconian threat?''
''No,'' said Ser Mollin. The Maelstrom was quiet until then
but he was not one to leave matters behind unless he was
sure they were indeed settled.
''Yes, Ser Mollin,'' King Sparrow gestured, ''do speak your
mind''.
''I'm thinking, we have to define our objectives here. We
can't go about trying to finish the draconians off to the
last man or this would end the same way the Orcslay war
ended. I have no mind for another Morbid End of Lady Lleyn.
Correct me if I'm wrong but our objective is firstly to
remove the Draconian threat from our collective neck and do
this by breaking their fighting spirit. Am I correct here?
Yes? Thank you, your grace. Now, as I see it, their will to
fight is based on this legendary Nes-ghoul who's supposed to
be on his way and that bloody stone, excuse my Dwarvish. Am
I correct? Good. Then probably, if we find that stone and
destroy it, well, it may just symbolize the Nes-ghoul
getting stuck in traffic around the celestial areas and do
the trick. If so, we need to know anything we can about that
bloody stone, excuse my Dwarvish''.
''I believe I would excuse it,'' murmured Piros, ''seeing
how this Cagestone may certainly be described as bloody.
Jay, do you recall your quest for the Scepter of Galtor?''
''Hard to forget,'' said Jay, ''you know I don't care to
discuss this in public, Piros. What's it got to do with
anything anyways?''
''You stole a ruby from the Lich,'' Piros said.
''And you took it,'' Jay said, ''You said it's too
dangerous. It was a Cagestone as you suspected?''
''It was indeed,'' Piros nodded, ''it was an intensely
powerful one''.
''I thought you wanted to destroy it,'' said Jay. The entire
council leaned forward, listening to their conversation.
This made Jay uneasy. He had good reasons not to tell anyone
about that damp cave, the ghouls, the skeletons and
especially the Lich. He could recall all too well how the
Lich moved in slowly, red red eyes glowing within the
sockets of his dead body, a golden coronet upon the decaying
hair and in one hand the ruby, pulsating with angry, unholy
light. The Lich's first move was to melt Jay's falchion with
no more than a gaze - and getting stuck with four ghouls
around you and no sword in your hand could be disastrous. If
it wasn't for Piros bursting in there, spitting fire and
clutching to Keith-Kanan - Jay recalled how the sword shone
as he held it for the first time - the Lich would have had
Jay and Ehud bound to him as mindless undead, courtesy of
his ghouls. ''One day,'' Ehud swore later, ''I would go in
there and finish that Lich for good''. But even he admitted
that it was probably nothing more than an empty boast.
''I could not bring myself to do that,'' said Piros,
''within the cage, lay one of the last of a dying race.
Destroying it was beyond me. Of course, I could neither set
it free so all I could do was bury it in a remote location
where no one-''
''But for tunneling dwarves would ever find it,'' said Jay.
Piros nodded silently.
''But you wouldn't mind having us destroy it now?'' said
Sparrow.
''No,'' Piros shook his head, ''it is past time someone did
that''.
''Good,'' Sparrow nodded, ''It's settled then. I understand
the Mountain Dragons wish to stay out of this?'' the
question was turned towards Hailia.
The First of Mountain Dragons nodded. ''Your grace, may a
thousand years your blessed reign be praised, us dragons
have... reasons... not to take up arms against the
Draconians. I do not wish to journey further into the
matter''.
''That's ok,'' Sparrow nodded, ''we knew that. So, our plan
is as follows: The Storm Giants of Stormheim already have
changed their route towards the Hatch of Ancients beneath
the ruins of Stormy Peak. Whatever troops are sent from over
here will muster in Elgadara where another Hatch of Ancients
is located. They will rendezvous with the Storm Giants there
and together pass through to the Hatch of Ancients beneath
the Green Fort. Jay-''
''Sire,'' Jay inclined his head softly, ''my bannermen will
charge into the battle if you order them but they have just
returned from Carmel and are tired and homesick. If it
pleases you, my grace, find other men to fight this
battle''.
''In fact,'' King Sparrow shrugged, ''I had no intention of
asking them to go there. I wanted you to lead the Royal Men
and have supreme command over this army''.
''Why me, Sire?'' Jay asked, ''You have better commanders at
your service''.
''You are modest, Jay,'' said Sparrow, ''but your commanding
abilities were proven in Eastwatch and Carmel and certainly
the troops will take heart from being lead to war by the
Liberator of Carmel and the Defender of Elvalie''.
''I will be honored, Sire'', Jay nodded. Well, to say the
least, this should get him away from Siana for the time
being.
''Lord Raven,'' Sparrow nodded towards Lord Crusher, ''it is
my will that Bannermen of Crusher will supplement the Royal
Men I'm sending. Do you require anything in order to gather
them and ready for this war?''
''A fast griffin, my liege,'' answered Raven, ''I must make
haste to Elgadara to oversee the preparations. Of course the
Warhammers of Elgadara will be proud to serve''.
''You'll have your griffin,'' promised King Sparrow, ''to
make it in time for the rendezvous, Jay, you will be forced
to lead the Royal Men at a quick march. I regret this but I
see no better option''.
''May a thousand rays of light shine upon your wisdom, your
grace,'' said Hailia.
''Your tone suggests that may a thousand oily torches scorch
my stupidity, First of Dragons,'' said King Sparrow, ''do
you have an alternative?''
''We dragons cannot take up arms against the draconians but
we will be willing to help transport the bulk of your army
from here to Elgadara''.
''This could help,'' said Jay.
''It'd take a week to prepare,'' said Hailia, ''but you will
still arrive in time for the rendezvous''.
''It's settled then,'' said Sparrow, ''this meeting is
closed''.





The week was passing to fast for Jay. Him, who for months
didn't stay more than several days in Elvalie at one time,
started taking Vengie on tours through the city. Every
little thing he knew, he shared with her. Elvalie, at first
sight, was a city with a lot to do in. But looking deeper,
into the numberless niches of wonder, you would see that a
lifetime would not be enough to reveal Elvalie's secrets.
Some people say that this is the only reason why elves
outlive men.
And so it came to be that at a certain Tuesday noon, Jay and
Vengie walked along the Avenue of Light. A multitude of
colorful plants and flowers was planted along the sides of
the Avenue, although on one side they seemed wilder,
disorganized. ''Elvalie is a lot more exciting than I
thought it would be'', admitted Vengie with a smile. Ever
since he returned from that council, Jay had seemed haler,
as if something incomplete within him had finally finished a
full circle. Jay, however, was not aware of any changes,
despite the fact that everyone, including his own mother,
remarking on that. In fact Mina claimed that she had not
seen him this well since the day he went on the quest for
the Scepter of Galtor.
Jay smiled. He smiled a lot lately. ''Vengie'', he told her,
''You have seen nothing yet''.
He was right. When Vengie approached the bank of blossoms, a
small green branch launched forward and fixed itself on her
arm. Vengie released a shriek of surprise.
''It's all right, it's harmless'', Jay assured her before
she'd release her arm by burning the entire bank to ashes.
Jay explained that, according to legend, a powerful artifact
was buried beneath the soil of the avenue rim. As the years
went by, the power of the artifact had drifted to the plants
that grew there. The flora in the avenue was ever blossoming
and despite many disbelievers had indeed come into
sentience. It was also said that none of them ever withers
and never dies, unless cut by force.
Vengie was amazed. She had seen many things in her years
upon the earth but nothing that could compare to this.
''I think it likes your arm'', said Jay and gently
convinced the plant to leave Vengie's arm. Vengie would
swear under the sight of gods and men that the plant pouted
as they left it behind.  ''This is so lovely, Jay'', she
said, ''Do you come here often?''
''I used to'', said Jay, ''but now I hardly get the chance
to. But I always visit one plant when I come here. It's an
old friend of mine''.
''You're the only one I know who has a plant for a friend'',
said Vengie.
They went on a little further and Jay stopped and pointed at
a red rose. ''There it is'', said Jay. He sent his hand and
petted the flower for a little while. The rose rubbed its
leaves on Jay's hand, as if it were a cat. Vengie took a
step closer, and the rose actually sniffed her. Then it
purred gently and its red corona of petals opened for a
second, revealing what may have been a drop of dew in the
middle.
''It likes you,'' said Jay, ''if it showed you its pearl''.
''Pearl?'' Vengie was astonished. In this city, miracles
were happening.
Jay nodded. ''Rose,'' he said, ''may she touch your
pearl?''
The red corona opened once more and this time remained open.
Vengie sent a finger and gently touched the small pearl in
the middle. The pearl was warm to the touch and sent waves
of pleasant warmth through her body. ''Thank you'' she said
as she withdrew her hand. She leaned and gave gentle kiss to
the red petals. The rose purred again.
''Good thing you are red, Rose,'' said Jay, ''or you'll be
blushing''.
Both Jay and Vengie didn't notice the two persons on the
other side of the avenue. One had eyes that burned in a
golden flame. The second one had burning eyes too, but the
fire in them was pale and colorless and his eyes weren't as
piercing as his companion's. ''I said that I would guide
you, Ronar, and I intend to'', said Piros.
Ronar looked at Piros. ''What more have I got to learn?'' he
asked.
''Perception'', answered Piros. The youth always thought
they knew better and Ronar was one troubled youth. ''Look at
the couple over there. What do you see?''
Ronar took one glance at them. ''These are Lord Jay Cracker
and-'' he tried to say, but Piros stopped him.
''Look deeper'', said the dragon.
Ronar looked at them longer. ''A couple in love'', he said.
Piros nodded. ''That is true. But what else?''
Ronar tried to see more, but failed. ''I do not know,
First'', he finally replied.
Piros looked sad. ''Look at their movements. Their tone of
speech. I have seen those signs dozens of times. They are
covering everything they can in a very short time'', he
said.
Ronar observed. ''Yes, but what does it mean?'' he asked.
Piros answered: ''When they go from Elvalie, there can only
be two things. Subconsciously they know that. Either the two
of them will never be back... Or one of them will never be
back. It always happens this way''.

Jay and Vengie got out of the house they have been in.
Foxbat, the owner, was a famous painter. He took great
efforts to paint Vengie's portrait. He has done it
perfectly, Jay thought. Not even a single detail had been
missed. Her long hair, her amazing figure, the devilish
smile.... And... Some... Other interesting parts that would
have been worth mentioning. The painter wasn't pleased,
though. He asked for an additional week to work on the
painting. Afterwards, he assured them, it would look alive.
Vengie was tired by now. There was so much to do. They saw
Lord Raven Crusher coming toward them.
''Hello, Raven'', said Jay, ''I didn't think I'll see you
before going to Elgadara''.
''Good day'', replied Raven, ''I came to personally notify
his majesty that all is ready in Elgadara. News is, the
Storm Giants would be soon with us. But enough of that. I'm
sure we'd have time to discuss this campaign later. Touring
the city?'' he asked.
''Well, yes'', answered Jay, ''I wanted to show Vengie
everything we can see during this week. A pity we already
have to leave tomorrow''.
''I understand you will join us on the expedition, Miss
Vengie,'' Raven inclined his head politely.
''Don't be expecting a legion of demons though,'' she
warned.
''Ah, certainly. Fame tends to get blown out of
proportions'' Raven nodded, ''speaking of the which, have
you already been to the Hall of Heroes?'' asked Raven.
''I've been there already'', said Vengie, ''A rather silly
idea, if you ask me. I wouldn't want to have all my personal
stuff lying on a pedestal after I died''.
Lord Raven looked aghast. ''That is an important monument to
our heroes long gone,'' he protested, ''We honor them this
way''.
''Calm down, Raven'', said Jay.
Raven wouldn't calm down. ''You may think you humans are so
much better, but in hundreds of years, it is my name that
will be remembered there!'' he said and took his leave,
trembling with rage as he walked away.
Vengie looked at him as he went. When he was far enough, she
said: ''Jay, you really need to get this guy a date''.





The Mountain Dragons devised huge cages to carry Jay and the
king's Royal Men to Elgadara. Each cage could take
twenty-five men with their equipment and Hailia raised
twenty of her finest, strongest dragons to the task.
Everyone took a step back when the Maelstrom blustered at
Hailia herself. ''Turn your head, you big oaf'' he ordered
the Dragoness, ''Your eyes strike fear in the horses!''
For a reason Jay couldn't quite make out, Hailia didn't
devour Ser Mollin for that - rather than that, she took him
in her paw and put him on her back. ''Ride on me, human,''
she told him, ''may a thousand foes fall before your
sword''.
''Just as well,'' the Maelstrom replied, ''now turn your
head or may a thousand rotten fish rain on it''.
The First of the Mountain Dragons turned he head obediently,
chuckling to herself.
It took every dragon four times to have all men and
equipment transferred to Elgadara, the horses being a
particular problem, but by sunset, Jay and his army of Royal
Men stood in the Plaza of the Ancients, where one of the few
known Hatches still stood. Jay wasn't sure how the Hatches
of the Ancients worked - They predated any record as all
artifacts from the dawn of time. It was certain however that
the Hatch could transport a man to a similar Hatch with one
small step. As he watched, something blazed in the darkness
of the Hatch and a human holding the yellow banner of
Stormhall stumbled into the plaza. The Storm Giants started
to arrive.





The next morning, Jay watched over the orderly columns of
the humans with a little dismay. As orderly as they were,
the Storm Giants of Stormheim were far from friendly. The
lancers and spearmen stood solemnly or talking in hushed
voices. Archers made a hustle as each ensured his arrows
were all in good order. Last night, Baron Edwin Darlin, The
Young Thunder, told him that the Storm Giants would fight
but explained that it was not as it was in Carmel.
''Carmel's no less human than it is Elven,'' the heir to
Stormhall and the Lightning Chair had said, ''the people
from Baaka felt they were fighting for their own. Here,
though - my men don't see this as their own problem. It's an
elven-draconian problem, they feel, why is it we should die
for it? These are veterans, seasoned by blood and fire. They
know war is ugly and unlike the young ones who never saw
battle, they are not as mirthed by the idea of striding into
battle. They will fight, Lord Jay, make no mistake. But they
will fight for me, their Young Thunder. They will fight to
defend me, not to keep the Lizardmen off your backs''.
''That's hardly the motivation we need,'' Jay replied.
''Oh,'' the Young Thunder nodded, ''but I wouldn't worry
about that now, Lord Jay. You'll have to wait and see for
yourself''.
The Maelstrom himself hinted that the Young Thunder had a
surprise under his Cloud and Lightning cloak but he knew no
more than Jay what it was.
Yet Jay was even more worried. The time would soon come to
walk through that Hatch and the Storm Giants were looking
less and less motivated by the moment. 'The Young Thunder is
right,' he thought, 'they don't feel they go to war to
defend their own. They feel they're going to die on behalf
of somebody else's war'. He couldn't blame them for not
being motivated.
It was then that the trumpets blew behind him. Jay turned
and caught a glimpse of shimmering stones and suddenly there
was a hole in the air. Through it, on top of a white noble
filly, rode a human woman, leading a tail of people behind
her. She was dressed all in white and green. Her green
riding dress was striped with white crosses all over and
over her legs; soft white riding boots towered to her knees.
Next to her, a knight in gilded armor carried the banner of
the Clovers over White Castle. Jay needn't see the coronet
over her head to recognize Lady Paramount, Uniter of
Baronies, Grand Stewardess of Balforge, Queen of Clovers, By
Grace of the Gods, Her Highness, Queen Irulain, the Second
of her name, of house Raelur. She saw Jay and turned her
filly towards him. Her retinue followed as the filly stopped
before Jay. Jay has heard many things about Queen Irulain,
mostly good ones, but he never heard how old she was.
''By the gods,'' he thought, ''she can't be older than
30''.
Being a queen may have aged Irulain beyond her years. Long
creases of grief or sadness shadowed her blue haunted eyes.
A herald on a thin garron rode after her. She stopped and
nodded towards him. ''Lord Cracker,'' she said, ''I've heard
great things about you''.
Jay kneeled, as was fit when one stood before a queen.
''Your grace,'' he said, ''it is an honor and a pleasure to
gaze upon you''.
Irulain inclined her head. ''Perhaps some day you may
journey to Balforge and tell me more about yourself,'' she
said slowly, ''I don't presume the cinnamon-tanned Korien
over there would be the Hellmaid you swayed into your
service''.
''Vengie's no Hellmaiden, your grace,'' Jay protested.
''I know,'' Irulain said, ''I was just thinking out loud.
Good luck to you on your campaign, Lord Cracker. Go with my
blessing''.
Jay's heart lightened as Irulain sent her hand and touched
his head gently. Each and every Storm Giant has just
witnessed the supreme commander receive her royal blessing.
But Irulain had more in store for them. ''People of
Elgadara!'' he voice rose clearly above the plaza, ''Elven
warriors! Storm Giants of Stormheim! I've come to you today
to give you all my blessing before you go to wage war upon
the menacing draconians. Today, you go out not to avenge the
warriors of Elvalie. Today, you go out to defend your homes,
your farms, your women and children! Yesterday, the
draconians scaled the walls of Elvalie. Tomorrow they may
decide strike at the Moon Tower of Seleny, at the markets of
Cragmorton in Ka-Tarak or at the walls of Stormheim. Their
thirst for blood knows no quenching and the blood of elves
is just as red as the blood of humans. Their vile wings may
propel them to raid our homes, pillage our holds, rape our
women and murder our children! As you go today, I shall send
with you two of Golden Guards, to remind you that this is
our war and it is about our safety! Go now and take heart!
By going to this war, you ensure the safety of your
homes!''
There was a moment of shocked silence as everyone took in
the queen's words. Then one Storm Giant raised his spear and
called ''For the Barony!''
The plaza filled with war cries suddenly. Storm Giants
called out ''For the Barony'' and ''For Stormheim'' and even
''Defend the Lightning Chair''. Elves on the other hand
mixed ''The Warhammer'' for the Crusher sigil and ''For the
king'' and some went as far as calling ''For the Clover
Queen''.
''I could never thank you enough,'' Jay told Irulain.
She shook her head and gazed at him with her sad eyes.
''To the Hatch,'' called the Young Thunder and both elves
and humans turned towards the Hatch, to make the journey to
the Green Fort.
The queen looked absorbed as Jay rose to his feet. ''Ser
Baldwin,'' she suddenly called, ''Ser Chi, join them''.
''By your command, Lady Paramount,'' both knights turned in
their gilded armor and followed Jay as he joined Baron
Edwin. The Young Thunder winked at him and said, ''I told
you to wait and see. Her grace, the Clover Queen, she has
one real piece of thinking machine in her head''.
Jay may have answered but Ser Mollin took his place at the
head of the column. A faded image appeared in the Hatch and
Jay could barely make out some wooden furniture around and
the shades of warriors in green uniforms.
The Maelstrom cleared his throat, approached the Hatch and
declared in a voice that rumbled across the plaza, ''this is
one small step for man, one giant leap for-'' he was cut out
as he stepped through the Hatch and Jay couldn't shake an
odd feeling that he heard this sentence before.
It was time.
''Troops!'' he called, ''forward march!''





The Green Fort could not truly be described as a fort. Its
greenish walls of solid stone rose twenty meters high, its
turrets twice that. The sheer size of the Fort could rival
the greatest castles in the land, overshadowing even the
huge Rookery of Ka-Tarak and dwarfing smaller castles such
as Stormhall and Hornskeep. Two by two, the soldiers
stumbled through the Hatch and four of the Green Defenders
stood ready to help them as they passed through and guide
them out of the of the room - The Hatch had occupied a
fitting place in the Fort - the vault. When Jay emerged to
the main yard, it was already swarming with soldiers. Not
that it was by any means over packed - The yard could
comfortably host armies twice the size of this one. The
commander of the Fort, Ser Buzzard Pusher, met Jay and
Vengie in the yard. ''All is well,'' he assured Jay, ''we
have been prepared for your arrival. Extra rations have been
packed and the three blacksmiths of the Fort are at your
service, should any of your soldiers require repairs for
weapons and armor. Ah, there comes Baron Tarlin. I
understand he is one mean warrior''.
The Young Thunder was flanked by his commanders - hotheaded
Count-General Edward Hester and his two bastard sons, Ser
Harwin and Ser Harren - the Twins of Lightning Spire. Jay
had heard many things about the Twins of Lightning Spire -
mainly that the two were formidable warriors and that
Count-General Hester - His title was mainly honorary as his
estates came down to the ancient tower everyone called the
Spire and naught more - lacking any trueborn heirs was like
to formally adopt them on his deathbed. The twins were small
of stature but Jay had met several men like them before -
what they lacked in might and reach, they made up for with
speed and agility and usually stamina too.
''Ser Pusher, I believe?'' asked the Young Thunder.
''Indeed, my Baron,'' said Ser Pusher.
''How many men do you have at your command, Ser?'' asked
Count Hester.
''Three hundred and fifty,'' said Ser Pusher, ''that's the
number of fighting men. I also have at least fifty others -
cooks, masons and blacksmiths. And of course, there are the
Hundred First Defenders but I don't suppose they count''.
''The who?'' asked Ser Harren or Ser Harwin - Jay still
couldn't tell them apart.
Ser Pusher eyed the position of the setting sun and pointed
at the walls.
Everyone turned and Jay's breath caught in his throat. Atop
the crenellations, the Hundred First Defenders had been busy
doing a guard shift - as they did for many centuries. Jay
knew the legend of course. When the first men manned the
garrison of the Green Fort, memories of the draconian raid
that destroyed the old capital of Elara were still fresh in
the wounded nation's mind. The first defenders of the Green
Fort, freverent in their new and highly important task, took
an oath to defend the elven realm from the draconians unto
death - and beyond it. What they probably meant was that
after death their immortal souls would hover around,
watching over the fort. However, after death, the Hundred
First Defenders still walked the walls of the Green Fort.
With no souls in them, the First Defenders have lost
everything they were when they lived - the only thing they
kept was their oath, their true devotion to the defense of
these walls. Their flesh has rotted away completely many
years ago. Jay could see that whatever parts of their armor
they still had were broken and rusted. Sigils could still be
seen upon some battered breastplates - most of them too old
to be recognized. Each Defender had a rusted iron scabbard
strapped to his back with the hilt of a sword coming out of
it. They still held spears but Jay could see that some were
broken, pointless and he even spied one or two that held no
spear at all - their bony fingers were curled around
invisible shafts of spears long rotted away. It could
certainly be said that the Green Fort was manned by a
skeleton crew.
''What in the name of Quan-Chi are these?'' asked the Young
Thunder. As one the humans seemed aghast by the skeletons
prowling the walls.
''Oh, don't mind them,'' Ser Pusher recited the story of the
first defenders, ''...nothing remains in them today, though.
They just keep on taking their shifts and are generally
simply there. Why, we had a fire here a few years back -
some fool dropped a canister of siege powder and the torches
ignited it. Through the fire they kept their patrol routes,
completely oblivious to the fire - you see that one up
there? We call him Spearless Swallow - what remained of his
spear caught fire that day. He still holds on as if it was
still there though''.
''Would they be worth anything if the Draconians attacked?''
asked Jay.
''Probably not,'' said Ser Pusher, ''but we never had a
chance to check. The Green Fort has never come under attack,
you know - The Drakemen have little interest in this place,
they prefer to go past the walls and raid a village or a
town that have less armed men and more loot to pillage and
women to rape. We generally treat the First Defenders as
part of the furniture''.
Jay wasn't so sure. Condor once joked that Sergeant Latcher
was part of the furniture for his griffin riders brigade but
Sergeant Latcher was one mean piece of furniture that could
spring all kinds of nasty surprises at the unwary foe. In
fact, Sergeant Latcher could spring all kinds of nasty
surprises even if the foe was alert and wary. ''I should
have asked him to join us,'' Jay thought suddenly. At the
time it seemed the logical thing to do send Sergeant Latcher
home to his wife - Jay thought that since he'd have Raven,
the Young Thunder, Count-General Hester and the Maelstrom he
could do without the Sergeant's advice but now though - they
were all good men, he knew, but there was only one Sergeant
Latcher.





It would take two days marching to get to the hosting point
Joshua Half-Orc pointed on the map and Jay had no intention
of waiting. At sunrise, the army took to march, with three
of Ser Pusher's finest rangers as guides. The hosting point
was a large bare spot in the jungles of Azirgoth and Jay
intended that a group of lancers would wait outside the
battle that would probably take place. When the main body of
the army managed to breach the draconian lines - Jay had no
doubt they would form lines to defend their precious
Cagestone - Ser Harwin and Ser Harren would lead the light
cavalry into the breach and make for the stone. Once in
possession of the stone, they would turn about and head
away. Each lancer has been equipped with a small Adamantium
ax. Their orders where crystal clear - no matter what
happens, they were to break the stone at all costs and as
fast as possible. Piros assured him that breaking the stone
would shatter the soul within and would not risk freeing it.
Piros grumbled something about needing the right kind of
weapon to breach a Soulcage but Jay didn't have the time to
press him on the matter.

However, as they camped that evening within the Jungle, Jay
was beginning to doubt the whole thing. The jungles were
nearly empty of draconians. They expected to meet groups of
drakemen on their way but aside for one luckless pack of
hunters they had met no one. It was, as the Young Thunder
put it, too quiet.
''Tomorrow,'' Jay told the war council, ''I intend to go out
ahead with a chosen group of warriors to scout. This is all
too worrying''.
''Who will you take?'' asked Count Hester. The jungles of
Azirgoth were not a place one should walk alone.
''Well, firstly, Vengie,'' Jay nodded towards the Dark
Angel, ''A magic user can always come in handy in these
parts. I thought of asking Ser Mollin to join and perhaps
another man - I don't want to draw attention''.
''Say no more,'' the Maelstrom, ''of course I'm in for
it''.
''If it pleases, my lord,'' said Ser Chi, ''I would like to
join you on this mission''.
Jay considered that for a short moment. The Golden Guards
may not be Rogues but when it came to bodyguarding, they
were the next best thing. According to what Jay knew, the
Golden Guard dated back to the fall of the previous human
ruling dynasty. In the days of King Bertram the Benign, a
scheming nobleman had invited the king to his estates and
then, at dinner, fell upon him and his men, earning the
gullible good king the name King Bertram the Backstabbed. Of
the guests at dinner, only the prince and heir were taken
alive and were held as a hostage while the nobleman schemed
to turn him into his pawn. However, King Bertram's wife,
Queen Reina the Resentful, was not at that dinner. Stories
had it she was inspecting the camp of King Bertram's men
when word of the betrayal barely preceded an attack on the
camp. The stories were vague about the reasons Raspberry
Reina was at the camp and not at dinner though Jay had a
notion that she was not playing cards with the troops there.
Three archers covered Reina's escape and ensured her safe
arrival back to Balforge. The rules those days were cautious
against rebellious queens - The queen's men may not wear
steel, nor wield steel, nor ride to battle atop a horse.
Reina, however, had no intention to give up on her son. She
gathered fighting men and had them equipped with bronze
swords and copper armors and led them, atop mules the
stories claimed, to rescue her son from the clutches of his
captors. The stories were vague about how exactly they did
that but the prince was indeed rescued. In years to come he
had become a terrible king and a rebellion led by the
Raelurs had finally overthrown him and his lineage. However,
one of the few favorable resolves this mad king had made was
to absolve the rules against arming the queen's men. Since
the peasantry mistook Queen Reina's copper armors for golden
ones, the first Raelur king had instituted the Golden Guard
with its gilded armor pieces - the finest knights in the
kingdom were chosen for life as bodyguards of the royal
family. Jay had no doubt Ser Baldwin and Ser Chi would prove
formidable warriors to say the least.
''I'd be honored if you joined us, Master Chi,'' he said,
''we will take one of Ser Pusher's rangers with us on this
mission - I care not to go astray in these woods''.





There is that to be said of jungles - they tend to repeat
themselves over and over, each acre resembling the former.
Jungles, however, tend to be temperate and rarely boast
anything other than warm and humid climate. That is, of
course, unless you find yourself walking in a jungle that
suffers from an extremely hostile, winter. ''That's not
right,'' Jay told his companions, ''the further we go, the
worse this is getting. For all I knew, this area's supposed
to be intolerably hot and humid''.
''You're right there, m'lord,'' said their guide,
Sergeant-at-Arms Parrot Painter, ''this change in the
weather is something very recent - about a week, not much
more''.
''Magic?'' Jay asked.
''Not that I can tell,'' Vengie shook her head, ''I don't
sense any spells. Besides, do you have any idea how powerful
a spellcaster you need to be to magic winter across one
field? And this is an entire jungle we're talking about!''
''Beg pardon, my lady,'' Ser Chi gestured, ''but in Fort
Savin, the entire city basks in eternal spring''.
''That's easy to say,'' Vengie shook her head, ''but Fort
Savin has six phoenix feathers as the magical base for that
spell and it took a dozen magi to enchant each feather using
a seventh feather as their base of power. It's the same as
tapping into an underground ocean and declaring you found
way to magic water out of sheer rock. 'Sides, it takes six
feathers to keep one city under this enchantment. One city.
This jungle could host ten Fort Savins and still have vast
space''.
''Speaking of the which,'' Ser Mollin said, ''is it true
that the Green Fort has a phoenix egg as a last means of
defense?''
Parrot shook his head. ''I don't think there are truly eggs
of a phoenix. They don't truly die, you know. What we have
is a phoenix's funeral pyre''.
''A what?'' Jay blinked twice. He knew phoenixes rise again
out of their own self-ignited funeral pyres but as far as he
knew, the whole process took mere seconds. The phoenix went
'poof' in a blaze of fire and before you could possibly call
for a bucket of water they reemerged, strong and hale as
ever.
''The pyre is in some kind of suspended situation,''
explained Parrot, ''there's a spell that prevents the
phoenix from being reborn. If worst came to worst, we have
two magi - a master and his apprentice - both capable of
breaking this spell. The phoenix will then emerge, probably
hating the world in general for being stuck under a spell
for so many centuries, and destroy anything it sees - the
Fort, the attackers and anyone who's not been fortunate
enough to run away in time''.
''It would leave the Hatch as a possible weakness in our
defense,'' said Jay, ''the draconians can march straight
into the heart of Elgadara like that''.
''We thought about that m'lord,'' said Parrot, ''there's a
burnt phoenix feather hanging on the Hatch. It would be like
waving a freshly-killed lamb in front of a starved wolf. The
phoenix will destroy it immediately''.
''Good thinking, that part,'' said Ser Chi, ''such as it is,
I can assume that- Oh hell! Look out! It's an ambush!''
Against blue sky or yellow fields the draconians tend to be
outstanding, clearly visible at great lengths. But in the
green of the jungle, after painting brown stripes on some of
their greenish scales the drakemen were nearly invisible.
The draconians literally fell upon them - they concealed
themselves within treetops and landed right atop the group.
Jay had Keith-Kanan unsheathed barely in time to block a
fierce slash by a draconian cutlass. He ducked a second blow
and then struck forward with a wounded-loper, taking the
unwary drakeman in the shoulder. At his right side, the
Maelstrom didn't bother with his huge Harbinger. Instead he
evaded a thrust, caught the hand of the attacker and snapped
it like a twig. He took the cutlass out of the limp hand but
before he could swing it he had to jump backwards to avoid a
nasty looking axe. With the sword being in his off hand, Ser
Mollin grabbed the draconian by the throat and with a ''Back
to where you came from'' shout he propelled the drakeman
upwards into a mess of thick branches. Ser Chi, his shield
still strapped to his back, had already managed to corner
two draconians and was pushing them backwards with quick,
streaming attacks. Parrot held his ground against three
draconians and Vengie - everywhere around Vengie drakemen
were burning and screaming. But more were still coming.
''Vengie,'' Jay called, removing a draconian arm below the
elbow in the process, ''can you push them away with an air
spell?''
''Sorry,'' she sent a bolt of fire through a drakeman's hip
and shook her head, ''I never learned that one''.
The Maelstrom was holding his own pretty easily - bellowing
at the draconians with a dripping cutlass at each hand the
drakemen fell before his onslaught. Ser Chi stood his ground
and effortlessly dueled three opponents at the same time,
his curved saber seemingly being everywhere in the same
time. But Parrot was being pushed back, the draconians
overpowering him slowly but surely. Jay plowed through two
draconians in his attempt to reach the ranger. A third
drakemen leaped at him but Jay sidestepped and tripped him,
Keith-Kanan following his leg and impaling the draconian to
the ground like some huge butterfly. Jay turned barely in
time to see Parrot falling beneath two draconians. Their
cutlasses hack savagely at the ranger. That's what they
wanted to do to all of them, he thought, like they did to
his father and his companions near Hal-Arak so many years
ago. Jay still remembered how his mother, a hale and strong
woman in her prime, hugged him there at Hornskeep's main
hall, as the messenger relayed the terrible news that would
shatter her soul for good. These green monstrosities had
done it, he raged, his father and his mother! They attacked
Elvalie, injured Duchess Cherrie Shaker, tried to kill
Siana, tried to kill Vengie, sent a Firemage against him,
attacked Hornskeep, his own home! They killed and raped and
pillaged! His father... oh... His father! Suddenly, Jay was
everywhere, Keith-Kanan blazing right and left, green scaly
bodies flying all over. ''Die!'' he screamed, ''Die!''
It was over in just a short moment. Vengie's spells, Ser
Chi's skill and Ser Mollin simply being the Maelstrom were
already much to fight against, but Keith-Kanan being the
emissary of Jay's furious assault was much too much. The
draconians left their dead behind and fled, taking to the
air as fast as they could. Vengie's last explosive Fireball
took three more of them but it was all over. The draconian
raiding party left twenty-seven dead behind and managed to
kill just one - Sergeant-at-Arms Parrot Painter.
It was, they were about to find out, very hard to find your
way through the jungle without an experienced guide. Jay
took the lead as they continued on what Ser Chi and the
Maelstrom agreed to have been the direction they faced
before the draconian attack.
''Jay,'' Vengie said, ''what are you going to do about this
going berserk thing?''
''What do you mean?'' Jay asked. So far, each time he went
berserk, the draconians fled his wrath.
''Well,'' Vengie shrugged, ''you're exposing yourself too
much when you do that. One of them would penetrate your
defense sooner or later if you keep losing your head. I
can't always be on my guard to make sure you don't get
yourself killed. First there was this crazy one-man assault
on a Firemage - they may not be a match for Angels or Rogues
but one of them is usually more than a match for a single
swordsman. And now this-'' she showed him her dagger, its
tip still wet with green blood. ''That one was right behind
you and if I wasn't ready there he'd skewer you like a
pig''.
Jay thought back at the battle. He did recall that when he
was regaining his senses, Vengie made a show of pulling her
throwing dagger out of a drakeman's back but he couldn't
quite recall what she told him there.
''When I see them,'' he told her, ''it's like- the world's
going red and all I can think of is green blood''.
''I know what you mean,'' she said, ''It's called
Bloodfrenzy. But you can control it. Just before you lose
it, Jay, you can turn back, let cool logic guide you
instead. Promise me, Jay. Promise me that you'd try to
control yourself there, ok?''
Jay nodded. He didn't like going berserk anyways - it left
him weak and with a strange hollow feeling within him. ''I
promise,'' he told her, ''I do''.
It was then that a scream of pain rose ahead of them,
followed by a curse bellowed by a human voice. ''We must
have took the wrong direction!'' Ser Chi said, ''and is
heading towards the army instead of the hosting point''.
Jay listened in - the sounds of swords clashing rose ahead
of them. ''There seems to be a fight there,'' he told them,
''let's join in!''
But as they rushed forward Jay knew that they may have taken
the wrong direction but it was not their army they were
heading for. Only a few swords clanged ahead.
They burst into a small clearing just in time to see a man
dressed in black falling down, red blood mixing with stains
of green blood atop his black ring-mail. Ser Chi called a
muffled curse as the draconians - there were ten of them
still standing - rushed them but this time there was no
fighting to be had. Vengie took a step forward and a wall of
fire erupted just ahead of the charging drakemen. They
stumbled through the flames, the stench of burning flesh
filling the clearing. None survived, Jay saw, the magical
flames taking hold of the scaled bodies as if the drakemen
were drenched in siege powder. As the flames died, Jay
surveyed the clearing again. There were two bodies in black
amidst two dozens of draconian bodies. As they approached
the first Jay was taken aback - the hand still held a black
rapier and the face, despite a nasty gash above the right
eye was familiar.
''I've seen this one before,'' he said.
''The other one's still alive, Jay,'' called the Maelstrom,
''here here, boy, lie down. All will be alright''.
''No,'' the other Rogue croaked, ''Elf. Elf''.
''I think he wants you, Jay,'' said the Maelstrom.
Jay approached the doomed human - a deadly puncture bled
terribly from his chest and his arm - what remained after a
draconian cutlass severed it half-way between the wrist and
the elbow - was sending sprouts of his lifeblood to smear
the clearing.
''I know you,'' Jay told the dying Rogue.
''Aye,'' the Rogue croaked, ''Kashmir. Half-Orc''.
''Yeah,'' Jay nodded, ''you were three there. I remember''.
''Reinald. Lost,'' the Rogue mumbled, gasping for air, ''but
you must know. Neh-Zhul. Already exists. Half-Orc said.
Fnord. Trap army''.
''That Nes-ghoul chap already exists?'' Ser Mollin asked,
''What's Fnord? What trap? Answer me boy!''
''It's too late, Ser Mollin,'' said Ser Chi, ''he's fainted.
Don't expect him to wake up again. He'll be dead within
minutes. Nothing we can do to save him''.
''What's a Fnord?'' the Maelstrom cradled the dying Rogue's
head, ''it seemed important''.
''I believe it's a name,'' said Jay, ''a draconian name. He
probably meant that your damnable spy sold us to the
drakemen and that... that... Oh my! If the draconians
already united behind this Neh-Zhul of theirs then the army
is marching into an ambush! We must get back there and warn
them''.
''We'll never make it in time!'' said Ser Chi, ''it's almost
midday and that means the army is very close''.
''No worries there, Master Chi,'' Vengie drew her summoning
wand, ''one wild tornado to blow us all in the right
direction coming right up''. She made a complex set of
gestures, calling an incantation. Leaves rustled as air took
life and what could be described as an invisible cage of air
closed around them. To Vengie's command the cage of air took
flight and after taking sun-sight decided on the right
direction sped on above the treetops. They found themselves
above the huge clearing just as Ser Baldwin led and the
scouting screen led the army into the area. ''Master
Baldwin!'' Jay screamed, ''Turn back! Turn back! It's an
ambush!''
But it was too late.
As the cage of air put them down gently on the ground,
draconians started pouring from the woods, filling the
clearing, from both flanks of the army. Elvalie had been
attacked by one tribe of drakemen. Here though, no less than
a dozen tribes swarmed at the army, in what would later be
considered as the largest ambush in history. Thousands of
draconian warriors took the army by surprise. That does not,
as might be expected, promised a massacre. King Sparrow's
Royal Men, led to battle by Lord Commander Wild-Hawk Lighter
- the king's cousin - were finely trained warriors that held
their ground bravely and skillfully, defending the right
flank freverently, meeting the draconians with fanatic
resistance. At the middle, the Warhammers of Elgadara, led
by Lord Raven's elite group of knights plowed forward with
extreme power, attempting to breach the lines of the
storming draconians. At the left flank the Storm Giants
struck fear in the hearts of the attacking drakemen, each
man being a skillful veteran trying to be a real giant.
''Find the lancers!'' Jay ordered Vengie, ''Tell Ser Harren
and Ser Harwin that the Drakemen had us fooled. Somewhere
around here is their Neh-Zhul. Tell them to find him and
kill him!''
He proceeded to join Lord Commander Wild-Hawk at the head of
the Royal Men, catching hold of a riderless horse and waving
Keith-Kanan over his head, screaming ''For the King!'' at
the top of his voice.
At the middle Lord Raven's knights were close to being
overpowered by the sheer might of the draconian numbers when
Ser Mollin, atop his huge destrier, couching Harbinger as if
the Giantslayer was a lance, charged into the draconian
lines. Hacking left and right with his huge sword, his
destrier kicking and biting, the Maelstrom plowed through
drakemen lines, leaving an opening for a number of mounted
Warhammers to attack the draconian flank. At the left, a
wedge of heavy lancers led by the Young Thunder and
Count-General Hester cut the draconian lines in two,
dividing and shattering the draconian formation. Jay had a
second's pause in the fighting to look around and see one
drakeman wearing a golden chain to his chest and a silver
belt to his waist leading an assault on the Warhammers when
the Twins of Lightning Spire joined in, plowing towards the
draconian Chieftain of Chieftains. For a second, it appeared
that despite being heavily outnumbered, their army might
win.
And then, three dozens of draconian Firemagi joined in the
fight. Between hacking two draconians, Jay saw two thin
lines of fire moving in the rear of the Twins and their
lancers. With a deafening clang the lines exploded like kegs
of siege powder, sending men and horses flying in the air.
Few lancers remained behind Ser Harren or Ser Harwin - one
of them anyways - but as they desperately battled to reach
the Neh-Zhul of Azirgoth, three huge balls of fire blasted
between their ranks, sending the last of them to his death.
At the left, a dozen balls of fire hit Baron Tarlin's heavy
lancers, shattering their wedge at the cost of nearly fifty
draconian lives. The Young Thunder was still on top of his
horse, hacking savagely at the draconians that surrounded
him. Jay saw his horse stumble and suddenly the Young
Thunder disappeared beneath the mass of green bodies, never
to rise again. Battered and now leaderless, the Storm Giants
morale shattered and the left flank began its inevitable
collapse. Jay saw Ser Baldwin unhorsed as the draconians
stormed at the Warhammers' exposed flank. ''This is going
downhill fast!'' Jay cried above the thundering of battle,
''Order a retreat!''
The trumpeters blew their desperate notes, sounding clearly
above the clangor. Jay saw Lord Raven, Ser Chi and what
remained of the Knights of Elgadara trying to wheel about
and burst free of the draconian horde. There was nothing he
could do for them. He never saw where it came from but
suddenly a draconian was flying at him, whirling at immense
speed. The impact threw Jay off his horse. The drakeman fell
atop him, his claws slashing at Jay's shoulder. The
assailant screeched suddenly as one of the Royal Men speared
him. Jay quickly got to his feet, only to find himself
surrounded by draconians with no escape available. ''I'll
take down as many as I can,'' he thought, clutching to
Keith-Kanan's hilt desperately. But out of the mass of
draconians, what may have been a herd of crazed buffalos on
a stampede plowed a route straight towards him. It was no
herd of stampeding buffalos, though, Jay saw, but one man
atop a huge destrier - the Maelstrom. With Harbinger couched
again like a lance, Ser Mollin cut his way through a horde
of draconians. He sent his hand and Jay caught it. He felt
as if he was being thrown and for a second he thought he
lost it but the Maelstrom pulled and suddenly Jay was behind
him, atop the terrible war-beast many a foe had mistaken for
a loper. The Maelstrom's destrier has been fearsome to
behold at battle - the beast trampled draconians as if they
were naught more than straw dolls. ''Vengie!'' Jay called at
the Maelstrom - He hadn't seen her since he sent her to warn
the Twins about the Neh-Zhul. Ser Mollin pointed with his
huge fist. Lord Raven and Ser Chi led the remnants of the
knights out of the fray with an advancing wall of fire
plowing the way for them. Atop a garron that still carried
the sigil of Cloud and Thunder, Vengie showered death upon
the draconians as she secured Lord Raven's escape. Draconian
Firemagi sent Firebolts and Fireballs at her but an
invisible shield of air hurled the spells back at the
draconians. Raven and his men joined Vengie and they
continued their fallback, soon joining Jay, the Maelstrom
and the battered remnants of the army.





Near 5000 man and elf marched into the clearing. However, as
the army retreated, the Warhammers were cut down to four
hundred men; the Royal Men boasted another five hundred and
surly no more than 300 Storm Giants remained where nearly
1500 once were. Jay estimated at least 5000 draconian
casualties - just a bit short of one-third the draconian
might that day. But the battle was far from over. As they
fled towards the Green Fort, the drakemen kept on coming,
harrying them as they ran, counting another five hundred
lives before the day and a half's hasty flight ended in
front of the Green Fort's massive gates. Ser Pusher's
archers covered their last 500 meters of retreat but Jay
knew that those drakemen that fell were only the appetizers.
''They will be here soon,'' he gasped at Ser Pusher, ''it
was a trap. They are at least five-thousand strong. We need
to evacuate!''
Atop the main keep a watcher called something and suddenly a
huge bell rang in around the Fort.
''Here they come!'' Jay told Ser Pusher, ''Order the people
to evacuate. It's our only hope of survival''.
''They never attacked the Fort before!'' said Ser Pusher.
''They will now!'' Lord Raven said, ''Even those beasts know
that once you have an enemy on the route, you don't let him
the breathing length he needs to regroup!''
''By the gods!'' Ser Pusher turned left and right - but all
there was to see were wounded soldiers, battered, fatigued
and broken, ''trumpeters! Sound the retreat!''
Trumpets blew across the yard. Men bustled towards the vault
and their only hope of escape - the Hatch of the Ancients.
Jay saw both magi of the Fort studying a spellbook hurriedly
- probably making sure their spell for breaking the phoenix
loose is all they remembered. A ball of fire suddenly
exploded next to them, sending one flying and burning the
spellbook to ashes. A single draconian Firemage appeared
above the walls but before he could do more harm half a
dozen arrows took him in the body, the wings and the left
leg. Jay eyed the archers with appreciation. There was this
to be said about the defenders of the Green Fort - even
through retreat they kept their wits about them and were not
going to fall apart. The bell clanged again and this time
the tone had a terrible, urgent note. ''The drakemen are
upon us!'' said Ser Pusher, ''Master-mage Folder has the
spell ready but we need to get everyone through the hatch
first. The archers will cover us as far as they can. Come
now!''
''No,'' Jay shook his head, ''Only after all my men are out
of here''.
''That's a leader for you,'' said the Maelstrom, ''first in,
last out! I'm with you, Jay, to the bitter end!''
To his left, Vengie took the flank of Master-mage Folder.
''The Master and I will aid,'' she said, ''and meantime,
Master Folder can tell me about this spell and the funeral
pyre''.
Ser Pusher reached for his sword. ''Suit yourself,'' he
said, ''Not that you can actually do anything other than die
if they overwhelm the Fort too quickly but- I'll be
damned''.
Their bare feet clacking on the bare stone, the Hundred
First Defenders took their positions atop the catwalk. A
hundred skeletons, Jay saw, forming a line to meet the green
menace as they vowed to do so many centuries ago. One had to
admire the courage behind them.
''This is one bad joke,'' said Ser Pusher sadly as the
skeletons formed, ''What will they do? Throw rusted armor
parts at the drakemen?''
He was right, Jay knew. Few spears were still intact and Jay
suddenly realized that Spearless Swallow was far from being
the only one holding but a memory of a spear.
''They may buy us a few seconds,'' he said.
A thin stream of arrows landed suddenly on the yard,
wounding two men. ''I never knew they used bows!'' said the
Maelstrom.
''They don't!'' replied Ser Pusher, ''it was one of the only
advantages we had over them''.
''Things change!'' Jay said.
The sky had once again taken the dull green color they took
as a horde of draconians approached. A sudden clatter of
wood drew their eyes towards the wall. As one, the Hundred
First Defenders dropped what spears they still had. A
hundred bony hands reached backwards to the rusted scabbards
on their backs. There came the wail of a hundred swords
being unsheathed and the sun sparkled on the shining blades
of a hundred excellently crafted broadswords.
''I'll be damned!'' said Ser Pusher.
With their shining broadswords in hand, the Hundred First
Defenders met the first draconian waves with ferocious
skill, stopping the drakemen in place.
''They may buy us the few minutes we need!'' said Ser
Pusher, ''everyone, down into the vault!''
They turned down but another stream of arrows landed on the
yard, one of them taking Master-mage Folder between the
ribs.
''Oh hell!'' said Ser Pusher, ''there goes the Egg''.
''Not yet,'' said Vengie, ''I can break it free, I think.
Where is it?''
''Underneath the stables,'' said Ser Pusher, ''can't you
break it from the vault like our magi?''
''Your magi are dead,'' Vengie said, ''and no, I can't. You
need to know the spell very very well to dispel it from
afar. I don't have the time to get acquainted nor the book
to learn it from!''
''Vengie!'' Jay shook his head, ''It's certain death! I
can't let you do it''.
''I don't think I asked your opinion, Jay,'' she said,
coldly.
''Vengie, I can't live without you!'' Jay grabbed her.
''If I don't do it, Jay, they will be coming at Elgadara
within the day. You won't live at all if I don't,'' she
glanced behind him and said, ''Ser Mollin, if you please''.
The Maelstrom's huge hands took Jay by the shoulders,
pulling him away from the Dark Angel.
''No,'' Jay fought, trying in vain to struggle free of the
Maelstrom's grasp, ''you let me go now, Maelstrom, or I!''
''You'll live, Jay,'' Vengie leaned forward and kissed him,
''you'll live. I'm doing this for you, Jay. I love you''.
''NO! Vengie! NO!'' Jay cried as she turned towards the
stables.
Atop the crenellations, the Hundred First Defenders were
still fighting but their numbers already dwindled to seventy
five. Time was running short.
''What do you know, Jay,'' she smiled over her shoulder,
''maybe they'll declare me a heroine for this and put all my
stuff on a pedestal in that Hall of Heroes. Ser Mollin, get
him out of here before I'll scorch your beard!''
Ser Mollin gave her a short bow and nodded. ''Good luck,
gal,'' he told her and then carried Jay away from her, down
into the vault. With time already running very short, the
Maelstrom abandoned all dignity as he hurled Jay through the
hatch, into the Plaza of the Ancients in Elgadara.





Atop the crenellations, back in the Green Fort, the
fifty-odd First Defenders still held their ground, a rain of
green blood showering around them. Suddenly, as one, they
turned and made for the stairs. The draconians, surprised by
this sudden turn of events paused for one brief moment,
wondering what trap the elves were springing at them. With a
shriek of burning anger, spraying burning pieces of hay
around her, the phoenix blasted free of her centuries-long
imprisonment. Hatred burning in her red eyes - the only part
of her body not made of pure fire - the phoenix beat her
wings and started delivering fiery doom to the Green Fort
and everything in its whereabouts.





Epilogue: The Woods

''...with the humans battered and the elven armies so
demoralized, it is a wonder we were not crushed utterly and
quickly by the draconian hordes. Two years into the war,
after the near destruction of Elvalie, the drakemen tribes
stopped for reasons unknown and turned against each other,
practically ending the war, returning to their frozen
jungles in Azirgoth and leaving the decimated elven race to
collect the pieces and start rebuilding from the wreckage''
-. Interlude from Lord Raven Crusher and Duchess Cherrie
Shaker's unfinished book ''The Last Years of Elvalie.''


With Ser Mollin and the few survivors of the Royal Men, Jay
made it for Elvalie. Jay's last, desperate, aim was the
palace and King Sparrow. Lord Raven had preceded them on a
griffin, to give full account of the catastrophe but Jay had
the duty, as supreme commander of the army and as a Cracker
of Hornskeep, to report to the king himself. After giving
this report, well... there wasn't anything after that.
Without Vengie, Jay could only expect a desolate, empty
shell of a life. He wanted nothing. He had nothing to aim
for. He was alone. He was a dead man walking. ''We have a
fine stew for dinner,'' Ser Mollin offered him a bowl,
''here, Jay''.
''I'm not hungry,'' Jay shook his head.
''That's what you said this morning, Jay'' said the
Maelstrom, ''and last night too. And yesterday morning
you-''
''Ser Mollin,'' Jay pushed the bowl away, ''I don't wish to
eat. In fact, I wish to be left alone''. He stood up and
turned towards the woods.
''There there, lad,'' the Maelstrom said cautiously, ''where
are you going? I hope you have nothing bad in mind''.
''Ser Mollin,'' Jay flared, using haughtiness as his shield
and his sword, ''unlike barbarian humans, we elves are above
suicide if that's what on your mind. Now you may take your
leave of me. I wish to be away from the company of unwashed
primitives''.
As he walked away, the camp collectively held its breath.
The Maelstrom was not a man to ignore such insults.
To their surprise, the Maelstrom's shoulders sagged. He
turned away from Jay and returned to bowl of stew. The Royal
Men moved carefully around him as he stared at his stew. He
looked at them for a moment and finally said, ''I must be
going deaf. I didn't hear anything he said after 'I wish to
be left alone'.''
To the last man, the camp released a collective sigh of
relief.

Jay wandered aimlessly in the woods, thinking of Vengie. An
annoying voice stopped him at his place. He looked up and
saw a creature. It was green and yellow. It looked like a
frog - well, not quite. The creature was unlike anything,
but a frog was the closest thing. The creature was quite
bigger than a frog.
''Hello'' it said in an annoying voice.
''What on earth are you?'' asked Jay, forgetting his
manners. The sight of the creature was so bizarre, that this
was the one question that came into mind.
''I think Mrs. Frostberry asked me the same question,'' it
said.
''And what did you answer?'' asked Jay.
''Kentucky fried chicken in kharshof sauce and basil'' the
creature's voice filled with unmistakable pride.
''What??'' Jay's mouth flung open in surprise.
''Exactly,'' The creature sounded like a complete fool.
''What's your name?'' asked Jay. Fool the creature may be
but he might still get some logic out of him if he asked the
right questions.
''Adraftza is my name, stupid phrases are my game,'' the
creature did a little dance.
Jay considered taking the creature prisoner, only it looked
quite insane and Jay couldn't quite figure what it could
possibly tell them.
The creature tried to look at its nose. ''Chocolate eyes are
tomorrow's merchandise!'' he declared decisively. He
suddenly looked back and said ''Oh no! It's him!'', and he
ran in panic, dropping various items, such as miniature
cruise missiles and a Spanish-speaking squirrel.
Jay suspected he was losing his mind. Nevertheless, he drew
Keith Kanan, and waited for a monster. But what came out of
the bushes was just an ordinary human. He was a bizarre
human though - he wore blue trousers of some sort of tough
leather and was dressed in a sleeveless shirt depicting,
''My sister went to London and all I got was this fucking
shirt''.
''Strange'', thought Jay. ''What is this queer human doing
here?''
''Did you see him?'' asked the man.
''He went that way'' Jay pointed.
''Look out when dealing with him,'' warned the man.
''Why?'' asked Jay.
''Because he is a complete idiot, and that is his power,''
said the man.
''What power?'' asked Jay.
''The power to do THIS'' said the man and pointed. Jay saw
Adraftza running towards them, being chased by what may have
been a miniature tornado. But it wasn't a regular storm. It
was dark blue, and sparks were launched from it, some as big
as a shield, others as tiny as atoms. Jay could see that. He
also noticed they were all the same size. Something was
obviously not right.
''Do you need help?'' asked Jay. He could feel his old
enthusiasm to solve every problem in the universe coming
back to him. ''Who are you?'' he asked.
The man shrugged. ''Forget me'', he said. ''I'm a minor
time-space continuum perplexity. Run away. You can do
nothing''.
Adraftza came back and said ''I'm truly sorry for opening
this inter-dimensional storm, but I felt kinda blue''. The
storm suddenly started to advance towards them.
''Run now!'' shouted the man.
Jay didn't run though. With nothing much to lose, he saw no
reason to run. He grabbed Adraftza by his shoulder, ignoring
his protests (''Watch were you aim those flowers, Lassie''),
and shook him. ''Close that thing right now!'' shouted Jay
over the noise. The storm made an ever-growing roar as it
came closer.
The stupid creature stared at Jay. ''Why tomorrow?'' he
asked. ''It can be closed right now!''
Jay got furious. The storm pulled trees from the ground, and
they vanished into the blue chaos. This was a sacred forest
once, and Jay had no time for nonsense. ''Close it!'' he
commanded.
''All right, all right!'' said Adraftza. Jay let him loose,
and the creature advanced several steps towards the storm,
which was very near now.
The man whispered in Jay's ear: ''You have no idea what you
are getting into''.
Jay looked at him fearlessly. The spooky challenge gave him
a faint taste of life once more. ''So be it'', he declared
steadily. ''I am not afraid''.
Adraftza stopped. He sent his hand forward... Then pulled
it.
The storm was still coming.
Adraftza held the doorknob of a door. There was, for some
reason, a door - which wasn't there before - In the middle
of the forest. ''There, I closed it. Happy?'' said Adraftza,
exactly when the storm got to them.
Jay felt he was being pulled inside it. He managed to think
''Vengie, here I come'', and darkness fell all over him.





Finishing the last test, Baron Ehud Gat swayed and sat down,
his back against one of the pillars. ''You may use the
Gladius now,'' said the Blooddrinker.
''Wait,'' he said, ''let me catch my breath back again. I'm
in no hurry, am I?''
''You are not,'' she nodded, her eyes studying him, ''until
you step outside, you may use the Gladius. After you will
step out, you must once again take the tests''.
''Time changes the person, eh?'' the Baron chuckled.
Blooddrinker nodded.
''I don't suppose there's anything to drink around here?''
the Baron asked.
Blooddrinker clapped her paws together and handed him an
uncorked bottle of wine. ''Drink,'' she said, ''it's on the
house''.
''Thank you,'' he gulped some wine and then said, ''what
happened to the Draconians that were pursuing me?''
Blooddrinker's tongue touched her vampiric fangs. ''I
convinced the Dragonborn to return home empty handed,'' she
said, chuckling.
''Thank you, Blooddrinker,'' the Baron offered his hand,
''I'm in your debt. I'm Baron Ehud, of the Gat
noblehouse''.
Blooddrinker examined his hand for a moment, unsure and then
sent her paw and clasped it gently.
''One hell of a clasp you have,'' the Baron squeezed his
hand shut and opened it.
''I'm sorry if I hurt you,'' Blooddrinker shrugged, ''I'm
not used to clasping hands. You know, there is something
familiar about you''.
''Familiar?'' Ehud's eyebrows rose, ''I don't think I've met
you before. No offense but I'd surely remember meeting
someone as... unique... as you are''.
''No,'' Blooddrinker shook her head, ''that's not what I
meant. There's a presence. I sense... I... I... THE SWORD!
You carry the sword!
No, you don't. I'd sense it from
miles. But no. But you were in the vicinity of the sword
lately and for a long time''.
''What sword?'' Ehud's eyebrows rose again.
''Did you meet someone who seemed to be a
Master-of-the-sword with a very unique, silvery blade?''
''Keith-Kanan,'' Ehud scratched his head, ''it has a carved
hilt and it has a very unconventional length?''
''Unconventional? For the races today,'' Blooddrinker
nodded, ''she is a sister to me. Like the bow and the staff.
I can sense her even half way across the world. But...
where? For the first time in my life I cannot sense the
sword. Do you know what happened? Where is the sword?''
''You won't sense it for a very long time,'' Ehud chuckled,
''but maybe in about half a millennium it would return. I
don't know for sure what happened to it''.
''Half a millennium?'' Blooddrinker's eyes narrowed, ''what
do you mean? Last time I sensed it, it was close. It was
carried into the Dragonborn's lands but...''
''It's some sort of magic,'' said Ehud, ''but I don't know
what kind. Say, what's this Dragonborn you're talking about.
Do you mean Draconians?''
Blooddrinker snorted. ''A puny man's word if I've ever
heard,'' she said, ''They are Dragonborn. But you wouldn't
know. What magic was used to take the sword away in time?''
''I don't know,'' the Baron repeated, ''but this Cagestone
holds someone who may know. I think I'll use the Gladius
now. But say, that was a good wine. Do you have any more?''

''So,'' Kara examined Blooddrinker from where she sat, ''if
you don't mind me asking, what are you?''
Blooddrinker shrugged. ''You wouldn't know my original race.
I grew up in the edges of this realm, the Wilderness as you
call it. My race was primitive. We didn't build anything
fancier than mud huts. But we were happy in our ignorant
lives. But some sort of illness has caught my race and
people started dying. My father was touched by it and I
prayed to the gods. For his life, I was demanded to pay a
great price - I was to drink his blood. Our race's blood was
highly poisonous to repel predators. But I loved my father
much and was willing to give my life for him. So I drank his
blood. Next thing I knew, I was in the presence of the gods
and was given this mission - to guard the Titan's Gladius. I
was morphed into what I am today - I hardly resemble the way
I looked before. And to remind me of my sacrifice, I have to
drink some blood from each creature I kill. At first it was
disgusting but you get used to it, given that you have three
thousand years to do so. Speaking of which, you two are most
peculiar. In my three millennia here, no one ever asked me
such personal questions. I must admit I've missed the
ability to converse with people''.
Ehud whistled in amazement. ''You're here for three
millennia?'' he asked.
''Well,'' Blooddrinker shrugged, ''I had two weeks off about
a millennium ago. I went to visit my father's grave and tour
the world a bit. But except for it...''
Kara nodded. While seemingly threatening at first, the
Blooddrinker occurred to her as quite a lonely personality.
''Do people come here often?'' she asked.
Blooddrinker shook her head. ''They used to,'' she said,
''there were times when I stood witness to tests every few
months. But not lately. Except for a Dragonborn that came
here few months back, there was no one here for six
decades''.
Ehud's eyebrows rose. ''There was a draconi- I'm sorry!
There was a Dragonborn here?''
The Blooddrinker nodded.
''And what did he come for?'' asked Kara, intrigued.
''To free a soul from a Cagestone'' Blooddrinker shrugged,
''what else would bring someone into the Great Temple?''
Ehud whistled again. ''And what happened?'' he asked.
Blooddrinker shivered and said, ''He passed the tests and
breached the Cagestone''.
Ehud jumped to his feet. ''I thought that the tests are
supposed to prove purity and courage. I've never met a
single creature that was viler than a draconian!''
Blooddrinker laughed her special high pitched laugh.
''You've never met a Wretched Defiler before, young human,''
she chuckled, ''and you don't understand. Purity doesn't
come from the color of blood but from the strength of the
heart. A Dragonborn may have a heart pure enough to pass the
tests. Understand?''
Ehud nodded sullenly. Whatever this 'Wretched Defiler' may
be, he was not eager to admit the Drakemen were anything
other than the essence of evil. He sat down again, putting
his against a pillar.
Kara gulped some wine and said, ''I'm intrigued by this
Dragonborn. What sort of soul did it free?''
For a short moment, Blooddrinker appeared to hesitate. ''It
was a Dragon,'' she finally said, ''a Volcano Dragon. It
cursed and spat and swore vengeance upon the elves''.
Kara looked at Ehud, horrified. ''The cowl dwarf!'' she
said, ''it is true then! We must warn the elves!''
Blooddrinker shook her head and suddenly tears filled her
unblinking eyes. ''You cannot stop the dragon,'' she said,
''It has The Staff under its hands. The Bow is hidden and is
not yet ready to be picked up. With The Sword gone through
this time spell, you have nothing to match The Staff. Hide
if the future means anything to you. You were both touched
by The Sword. The Staff would kill you when it senses you.
There's no hope now. Maybe, when The Sword returns there
will be hope to recover but not now. Not now!''





Dromph caught his toy by the hand. ''Sit!'' he ordered her
in crude, unearthly Elvish. The toy shook her head
defiantly. ''Fonrd!'' Dromph gestured. Dromph's trusted
advisor moved forward and with a mighty whip of his hand
sent the toy sprawling on the floor. Dromph rose from his
sit and leaned towards the toy. ''When Neh-Zhul commands,''
Fnord told the toy as Dromph raised her by the throat,
''puny creatures such as you obey!''
A sudden commotion at the far end of the hall made both
advisor and his liege pause. ''Neh-Zhul,'' a draconian voice
called, ''we have caught the Black Ghost!''
''Aargh,'' Dromph cursed, ''I was playing with my new toy.
Never mind,'' with a twist of his hand, the elven female's
neck snapped and the Neh-Zhul of Azirgoth retook his sit,
sending the body flying to the side of the hall where a
guard hastened to throw the corpse away. ''Bring him in!''
Dromph commanded.
What the hunting party brought him was no Black Ghost. It
was the shade of a man, the blacks he wore now faded and
stained. However, there was more to this one than might
seem. Nearly two years, Dromph has received unfavorable
reports of a black ghost haunting his villages, stealing
food, killing a one or two and disappearing like a shadow.
''You are the ghost that haunts my men?'' Dromph asked.
The man spat at him. Fnord raised his clawed hand but Dromph
gestured and he moved back. Dromph rose and approached the
human.
''Not much a ghost, that one'' he told his men. He caught
the human by the throat, raising him the air.
His legs dangling helplessly in the air, hopelessly fighting
for air, Reinald couldn't conceal his smile. Two years of
lurching in these frozen jungles, two years of thieving,
fighting and hiding had finally come to an end. Since he
lost both his friends in the jungle - he found their bodies
later amidst a heap of dead drakemen - He was controlled by
a single goal - to kill this Neh-Zhul or die in the attempt.
An objective observer, had there been any around, would have
noted that two years without company, in the freezing
jungles of Azirgoth, fighting a fever at least twice every
year, had taken a toll on Reinald's mental state - he was
quite, if not completely - insane. But as the draconian
Chieftain of Chieftains raised him in the air, Reinald's
smile was a real smile, warm and sane.
''Why do you smile, human?'' Dromph didn't fear the human -
he was weak, unarmed and choking to death, ''You're about to
die, human. You are weaponless and helpless. Victory is
beyond you. Why do you smile then?''
The deep brown eyes looked down to meet Dromph's own
gold-within-green eyes. Reinald lost his dark rapier a long
time ago but he was far from being as unarmed as the
drakemen thought him to be. He gasped one word that would
echo forever in the hearts of the draconians as a symbol of
their failure.
Reinald's body was torn as a chain of lightnings erupted
from his limp hands as if Soum-Bra, the draconian god of
storms himself has sent his wrath upon the hall. Lightnings
danced around the hall, burning and destroying. Long
centuries later, draconians will fear stepping on the
remains of Dromph's wooden palace and their legends will
tell that the Drakemen disappointed Soum-Bra somehow. The
god of storms, their legends would tell, sent his emissary
to strike down the Neh-Zhul, and within the abandoned
remains the wind forever repeated Soum-Bra's one-word
message to the draconians.
''Rogue.''





The weeks following the fall of the Green Keep harbored many
occurrences. Scouts went out to attempt and determine what
happened after the last living man fled the keep. Most
disappeared and the few who managed to return reported that
they could not come close enough to look at the Green Fort
because the entire area was full of draconians. However, odd
rumors about a strange procession of strange men began to
spread around Hal-Arak and the neighboring settlements. At
first, the rumors were ignored but those rumors of strange
men started to be whispered to south-east of Hal-Arak, in
the stony plains of Ragmar and later in the whereabouts of
Lake Nelmar. In a little more than a month, the rumors
buzzed in Nag-Aranth, worrying lord Condor into sending two
dozens of rangers and dozen griffin riders to search for the
procession of strange men. But only as this procession
closed with Elvalie itself did Elvalie's Forest Guards track
the strange procession. Both horrified and fascinated, the
rangers watched as no more than a dozen carried a veiled
palanquin on their shoulders. Occasionally, one of the
carriers would drop and remain were he fell, dead. As the
procession left the woods and took the main road for the
last three kilometers of the journey to Elvalie, only three
remained. One of them dropped half a kilometer away from the
city gates. Travelers, guards and citizen watched with
awe-struck silence as the remaining two approached the
gates. There, under the shadow of the mountain of Hope,
where the rooted stone took place and King Peregrine the
Redeemer begun building his new capital, Elvalie, they
lowered the veiled palanquin. They stood motionless as no
other than King Sparrow himself approached the palanquin.
Within, the king saw, were singed piece of grey wolf fur, a
throwing dagger, the ashen remains of a spell book and a
black onyx wand. After bringing the remains of the heroine
who completed their quest to be forever cherished in the
Hall of Heroes and with their vow to defend to walls no
longer valid, the last two of the Hundred First Defenders
collapsed into two piles of bones.





And of course, one could hardly release the reader without
keeping him on the edge about the third and final Saga which
is currently underway. Here's a little teaser for what the
''Future'' Saga holds:


Prologue: The Last Grand Council

''As the Clover road turns south after Ka-Tarak's capital
of Cragmorton, it rides south all the way to the frozen
ridge of the Cold Cliffs. There, at the intersection, take
the crawling road that steeps up between the snowy peaks of
Derja and Dgomaric and descend with it towards Frozen Shore.
There, in the no man's land, bereft of any baronial liege,
lies the city-state of Carpasha, only vaguely under the
ruling of Balforge and the King of Clovers. Carpasha bustles
with activity, my son, but waste not any time in the
marketplaces and do not be drawn to the docks. The
Black-Masted fleet may lure you but you must not give in to
this temptation. As you enter the city, turn north, towards
the shadow of the Cold Cliffs. There, rising above the city
like a palace lays your aim - The Black Temple. Do not be
fooled by this name and the rumors surrounding the Order of
the Rogues, my son. You know better. There is nothing dark
about the Rogues. Fools and ignorants may mistakenly call it
a temple but despite the facade of pillars and the
triangular front roof, the Black Temple is no place of
worship. Magic runs in your blood, my son, as it runs in
mine own and ran in grandmother and grandfather. It is a
debt we all must pay to the temple to send you there. One of
ours always pays his debts. Go, my son, I pray you. Go as a
child and return to us a man, a Rogue of Castle Greybow''. -
Baron Tempest addresses his third son, Brian ''The Black
Eagle'' Gat as the latter began his journey south to become
a Rogue
.

Black Sally's oars carried her on the water like some huge
many-legged insect. Captain Gormalin eyed the faint outlines
of Carpasha as Black Sally strove forward. Through the
speculum, Captain Gormalin counted at least sixteen black
masts with black sails hanging tightly to them. There would
be eighteen there, he knew. Black Sally was the last galley
to arrive at Carpasha, and one day after the Grand Council
convened. The entire Black-Masted fleet has been recalled to
this momentous event - the Black Council called for the
first Grand Council in six-hundred years. A few more minutes
and the captain knew for sure that all eighteen sisters of
Black Sally had already anchored at the port. Inside he was
furious. After the Grand Council ends, the captains of Black
Marry and Black Kendra will make him the laughing stock of
all the black captains. It wasn't his fault, he knew. The
raven reached him at the port of Sheer-rock, commanding him
to go north, pick up two Rogues from the dangerous
Vagabond Cove and then head south past the jagged Bay of
Silence, around the grand Rock-Fort and home for the port of
Carpasha. He still would have made in time if the wind
wouldn't have abandoned Black Sally just as she neared
Rock-Fort and left the galley with only her oarsmen to
propel her all the way to Carpasha. Still, Captain Gormalin
raged. The first Grand Council in six hundred years convenes
and he arrives last and late. His two passengers grew more
restless as Black Sally neared the docks, maneuvering
swiftly between Black Vera and Black Louise. The streets,
Captain Gormalin saw, were silent, passerbys talking in
hushed voices. Everyone knew the Black Temple has called for
a Grand Council though no one knew why. Gormalin glanced
at his passengers - useless Black Laces, both of them, not
capable of summoning the much needed wind he desired since
they were becalmed near that damnable jagged excuse of a
castle some ancient Korien baron built atop the isle
everyone called the Rock. He watched silently as the
helmsman and navigator coordinated the docking and nodded to
himself, pleased that his crew acted so punctually without
any direction from his side. Two men were already prepared
to drop the gangplank when the shriek of something huge
flying at outrageous speed made every head within five
kilometer turn. A huge ball of ice hurtled directly from the
clear blue sky, the sheer friction of its speed making the
icy death screech as it descended on Carpasha. Captain
Gormalin's heart froze in his chest as the giant ball of ice
struck straight at the Black Temple above the city,
shattering the huge pillars as if they were made of crystal.
The iceball shattered as it stopped and hundreds of
creatures streamed from within it. Captain Gormalin looked
through his speculum at the ruins of the Black Temple with
horror and disbelief. He could clearly make out the figures
of lopers and gnashers, creatures usually found only in the
great wastelands of the Wilderness, beginning to rampage the
temple. He knew that once they finished off the temple those
horrors, considered legends by many an ignorant fool, would
turn on the city. Carpasha was about to be destroyed. He
could barely make out the misty forms of the
semi-substantial Pylons taking form but despite their usual
good nature, there was nothing amiable about these Pylons.
''Oars!'' Captain Gormalin roared, ''Full back! Full back!
Come on, you lousy goat-sons! Row! Row for your lives!''
The oarsmen took to the oars and Black Sally started
reversing its course. Half a dozen smaller balls of ice hit
the city and Gormalin saw more horrors emerging from the
wreckage. The oarsmen rowed furiously, Black Sally turning
about, trying to flee the sudden cataclysm. Gormalin saw
more balls of ice hitting the docks, cutting the wooden
platforms as if they were papers. An iceball hit the custom
office, another shattered the harbormaster's office, one
plunged through the wooden hull of Black Marry... A
horrifying disaster was about and all Black Sally could do
was flee.
''Captain!'' the navigator pointed. Gormalin followed his
finger, tracing the ball of ice that seemed bound straight
at them. For a short second he thought he saw a huge
silhouette high above it but it may have been just a trick
of the clouds. There was nothing he could do but watch. The
iceball passed above the Black Sally, breaking her black
mast as it came and plunging into the water not a hundred
meters away. For a brief moment, Gormalin thought they had
escaped but then small wave rose as a small mass of
creatures paddled towards the Black Sally. ''Their going to
board us!'' he called, ''All hands, prepare for battle!''
But there was nothing they could really do, Captain Gormalin
knew, as five lopers climbed the outer hall and took to the
decks.
As the lopers massacred all hands onboard the Black Sally,
smaller balls of ice kept raining on the city while the
monsters of the Great Wilderness rampaged the streets.

Doom had fallen upon the fair city of Carpasha.

There is that to be said about the Doom of Carpasha - It did
not require any true infectious capacities to spread all
around the Cold Cliffs and the Frozen Shore. Within days
after the Doom, villages were abandoned and rumors spread
about monstrosities and nightmares dominating the area. His
grace King Paulus Raelur sent had heard the rumors within a
week and dispatched ten of his Golden Guards to the Cold
Cliffs to check. Last seen climbing the narrow path between
Derja and Dgomaric, the ten knights disappeared and were
never heard from again. A week later, Whalebelly, a trading
cog, has washed ashore near Rock-Fort. Korien soldiers found
the Whalebelly's crew still alive but mad to the last man.
The sailors told horrid stories about legendary creatures
dominating the streets of Carpasha, of black-masted ghost
ships that attacked their cog, about the spirits of the dead
prowling the ruins. Within a month of being washed ashore,
each and every sailor from the Whalebelly died, most under
what would be described as 'mysterious circumstances'.  It
was clear that whatever happened to Carpasha had not been a
natural disaster.  The barony of Ka-Tarak issued a call to
banners, hastily recruiting able-bodied men to bolster the
ranks but the commander of the army dared not ascend the
path between Derja and Dgomaric after losing two scouting
parties. Instead he settled for camping below the Cold
Cliffs and making sure no monstrosity tried to pass
northwards, towards Ka-Tarak. After half a year of eventless
camping, the army disbanded and returned home.

Merely three days after the ten Golden Guards disappeared,
the Drinker of Blood approached Carpasha. Something
extraordinary has happened, she knew, and the staff was
involved. But that was not her aim. No. Walking slowly
through the ruined streets, Blooddrinker summoned the
Dragonborn to follow her. There were many kinds here, she
knew. Gnashers, who'd not stop to think before attacking a
dragon, followed her obediently. Crazed Pylons, somehow
turned hostile by the power of strong Rune-spell, flowed
after her. Even lopers shied before her and fell after
behind. But to her, these names meant nothing. They were all
simply Dragonborn - like the Draconians, the Nagas and any
other creature that originated in the cursed lands of the
Great Wilderness. She marched them all to the ruins of the
Black Temple. The ghosts of the dead bowed before her as she
passed. There, within the desecrated Rogue Academy she would
do what must be done. As she stepped into the temples the
Drhal Lipphar met her. With two long hind legs, reptilian
muscular body, short forelimbs that ended in four viscously
long claws, the Drhal Lipphar could have been mistaken for a
simple loper. In essence it was a loper. In fact, she knew
that ''loper'' was just a twisted version of the original
name. The Pantherfolk, long extinct Dragonborn, had called
the creature Lipphar - Wretch. Over millennia, as nations
rose and fall, the Pantherfolk were forgotten and their
language crumbled to dust. But the word, twisted as it had
become, remained. But this one was no Lipphar. A loper was
motivated by predatorily instincts only, with no
intelligence or even sentience to speak about. Beyond the
red eyes of this snouty head however, intelligence flared.
Here was a creature of intelligence that lacked any shade of
anything one may consider as morality. This was evil in its
essence, a terror that would balk at no atrocity that would
defile a temple simply because temples were there to be
defiled. The Pantherfolk named it justly: Drhal Lipphar -
Wretched Defiler or Defiling Wretch - the name carried both
meanings equally. Blooddrinker eyed the Drhal Lipphar
alertly - This was no simple Dragonborn to be lured simply
by her supernatural presence. It charged forward at her,
claws flashing as it moved in speeds usually associated with
nuclear-powered cruise missiles. The Drinker lunged forward
with equal speed, her vampiric fangs flashing as she hissed
like a huge feline. She met the Drhal Lipphar midway across
the hall, knocking it back. She held her ground as the
Wretched Defiler quickly regained its footing. Once again it
leaped at her but this time she did not bother to move. As
the Drhal Lipphar closed, claws spread to slash, her front
paw, huge in comparison to the normal human hand, met the
evil Dragonborn across its long snout. There was a terrible
snapping sound and as the Drhal Lipphar was thrown ten
meters to the right to crash against the wall, its head was
bent in a complex and unreasonable way. She closed with the
dead Dragonborn, lowered her head and bit it hard across the
broken neck. Her two fangs tore easily through the thick
muscular layer and into the arteries. A rush of warm
bluish-green blood streamed out and she drank, filling
herself. It has not been something she liked to do but she
was the Blooddrinker and when she killed, she was compelled
to do so. After drinking her fill she turned to the amassed
Dragonborn and ordered them in lost language all Dragonborn
understood though few could actually speak. She raised her
hands and with a flash they were all gone, returned to their
homeland of the Great Wilderness.
''Some remain,'' the female voice did not startle her.
''Some remain,'' she agreed, ''as ordered. Why, goddess?
These Dragonborn do not belong here. They are defiling and
are being defiled by leaving their homeland''.
''One such as yourself should know,'' the voice rang around
the ruined halls of the Black Temple, ''I have little mind
for rules''.
''Indeed, goddess,'' Blooddrinker's tongue trailed her
fangs. Even three millennia after, she could still recall
the vile taste of the death-dealing blood that pulsed in her
father's veins vividly.
''Still cranky at that, Drinker?'' the voice edged on
laughter, ''after all this time?''
''It had been a bad joke,'' the Drinker replied evenly.
''I guess you are right there,'' the voice of the assassin
goddess conceded, ''I did keep my part of the deal,
though''.
''My father lived on healthily to age of a hundred and fifty
years,'' the Drinker agreed sourly, ''just long enough to
see the grave of the last member of his race being covered
with dirt''.
''That wasn't my doing!'' Letty's voice took a sharp tone,
''we all agreed there were too many kinds of Dragonborn
around and three races were needed to be deducted! I for one
voted to remove those bloody Pylons. They are no fun, you
know. But Fate had his bloody dice thrown and your race was
chosen by mere chance. Be thankful it was an ailment that
took your kind away, Drinker! Do you have any idea at all
what Shalla and Drampon had to go through to get the elves
and humans together in time to stop the great raid the
Pantherfolk had? Do you know what lengths of complaints
we've had from Kof on behalf of the Flowerites? Do you know
he actually invented a new classification: Endangered
Species? 'What next', I asked him, 'started sinking galleys
because they hunted whales for food?' Ugh. You have no idea,
Drinker''.
''I do not presume,'' the Drinker didn't balk before the
wrath of the Assassin goddess. Letty may be wroth but the
Drinker was one of her favorite creatures - there was much
entertainment in her activities.
''Do not,'' Letty subsided.
''But still,'' the Drinker insisted, ''why let these
Dragonborn remain here?''
''You're becoming all chivalric like Quan-Chi lately,''
Letty murmured, ''You have no sense of entertainment. This
doing is far too entertaining to be dismissed. In years to
come brave adventurers will dare to challenge to the curse
of Carpasha and try to make their way here and back again.
It would be most interesting to watch''.
''Quan-Chi would not approve,'' the Drinker observed.
''Shalla backed me up here,'' Letty retorted, ''and since
Fate had no interest in deciding, that was enough to
convince Quan-Chi. Know this, Drinker. A fine curse such as
this should never be put to waste''.
''It is not my place to question the gods,'' Blooddrinker
bowed, ''I shall return to the city in the clouds and resume
my watch''. With no further commotion she stepped outside
and her strong wings propelled her upwards and away from the
Frozen Shore and Carpasha.
In the ruined Black Temple, the broken body of the Drhal
Lipphar rose. Its head turned back to the right position and
broken bones regenerated. The heart started pumping within
the muscular chest and the double set of lungs began pumping
air.
''Live,'' Letty's voice caressed the Wretched Defiler, ''you
are to remain here. As I told the Drinker, a fine curse
should never be put to waste''.

And in the next century and a half, countless brave
adventurers journeyed forth up the path between Derja and
Dgomaric. Few ever came back and those few who did were the
ones who recalled that discretion is the better part of
valor before descending past the Cliffs and towards the
ghost city. Carpasha remained in ruins and legends spread
about it.

A fine curse should never be put to waste.







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חוות דעת על היצירה באופן פומבי ויתכן שגם ישירות ליוצר

לשלוח את היצירה למישהו להדפיס את היצירה
היצירה לעיל הנה בדיונית וכל קשר בינה ובין
המציאות הנו מקרי בהחלט. אין צוות האתר ו/או
הנהלת האתר אחראים לנזק, אבדן, אי נוחות, עגמת
נפש וכיו''ב תוצאות, ישירות או עקיפות, שייגרמו
לך או לכל צד שלישי בשל מסרים שיפורסמו
ביצירות, שהנם באחריות היוצר בלבד.
גם למלך יש
תחתונים בצבע
חרדל.


תרומה לבמה




בבמה מאז 11/1/06 1:51
האתר מכיל תכנים שיתכנו כבלתי הולמים או בלתי חינוכיים לאנשים מסויימים.
אין הנהלת האתר אחראית לכל נזק העלול להגרם כתוצאה מחשיפה לתכנים אלו.
אחריות זו מוטלת על יוצרי התכנים. הגיל המומלץ לגלישה באתר הינו מעל ל-18.
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