Conan awakens in his bed the next
morning, quite refreshed. He gets out of bed and stretches his muscular arms
over his head. He takes a deep breath of the Cimmerian mountain air. By Crom it
felt good to be back home again. The raven haired young barbarian enters the
common room of his family's tiny cottage. His mother has a pot of soup over the
fire, and bread baking in the hearth.
"Feeling better, dear?" she asks.
"Aye, Mother," replies Conan, "I feel alive!"
"I hope you got your appetite back," she says.
"I'll eat later," says Conan, "I want to go for a walk and look around the village first. I feel like I haven't been home in months!"
"Alright then," says his mother, "Don't take too long! I wouldn't want your breakfast to get cold."
The young barbarian steps out into the morning air. Everything is bright and fresh. He walks through the village, and all of his neighbors stop what they're doing to greet him as he passes by. Out of the corner of his eye, Conan catches a glimpse of what appeared to be a blonde barbarian disappear around the corner.
"Thundarr?" says the Cimmerian.
He quickly runs over to where he saw the barbarian, but he is gone. Conan shakes his head in bewilderment. Must be from the fever, he tells himself. He goes to the village well to get a drink of water. As he's drinking, he catches a glimpse of Jezmine's reflection in the water. He quickly turns around to say something, but she's gone. Worried that he may still be ill, Conan hurries back home. In his haste, on the way he bumps into a very large barbarian wearing an extraordinary amount of fur.
"Excuse me," says Conan without paying the man much attention.
The other barbarian lets out a very familiar sounding, bestial roar. Conan stops in his tracks.
"Ookla?" he says, and he turns around. No one is there.
Conan quickly goes back into his family's cottage and sits down at the dinner table. His mother sees the panicked expression on his face.
"Conan?" she says, concern in her voice, "What's wrong?"
"Mother," says Conan, "I think I may still be ill."
Grey Wolf awakens in his own bed. He gets up and stretches his arms up over his head, relishing in the comforts of home. He takes up his magic staff and heads downstairs to meet Sasha and Meesha for breakfast. His siblings are already at the breakfast table, helping themselves to fruits, and bread rolls, and cups of nectar.
"Brother! Sister!" says Grey Wolf, "So wonderful to see you this fine morning!"
"And how did you sleep, little brother?" asks Meesha.
"If I were to sleep any more soundly, you would have to check to see if I am still breathing!"
"You don't know how good it is to hear you say that," says Sasha, "We were so worried about you!"
"Yes," adds Meesha, "That fever of yours had us most concerned."
"Do not fear, my family," says Grey Wolf, "For I am fully recovered from that terrible fever."
"Then pray, join us for a fine breakfast," offers Sasha.
"I think I will go for a walk through the city first," says Grey Wolf, "After that illness, I feel as though I haven't been in Xanthus for months."
"Are you sure that is wise?" asks his brother, "So soon after being ill?"
"You hardly ate while you were with fever," says his sister, "You should eat first."
"I have a pocket full of coins," says Grey Wolf, "If I get hungry while I'm out, I shall buy something in the marketplace."
"Very well, little brother," says Meesha, "Enjoy your walk!"
"I shall!" says Grey Wolf, and he steps out of the family's palace. As the air elemental wizard exits his family's palace, for what seems the first time in forever, he stretches his arms out in the morning light and breathes in the sweet smelling morning air. Rather than walk, Grey Wolf decides to fly through the city of Xanthus. He takes off his magic cape and enacts that enchantment which turns it into a flying carpet. Then he sits upon it cross legged and flies through the city streets. He moves at a leisurely pace, greeting his fellow wizards as he passes them on the street. He buys himself a pomegranate from a street vendor to eat for breakfast, then laughs to himself as he remembers the silly things Needle would do to get Conan to give him a pomegranate.
"But it was all a dream," he says to himself.
Then out of the corner of his eye, he spots a raven haired girl with olive skin wearing a blue leotard disappear around the corner just up the street.
"Ariel?" he says in confusion.
The young wizard hastens over to the area where he had seen his sorceress friend, above the heads of his fellow wizards. But by the time he gets there she is gone. Grey Wolf looks around in confusion.
"I saw her," he says to himself, "I know I did."
Figuring it to be his mind playing tricks on him, he decides to head back to the palace. On his way there, he catches a glimpse of another familiar sorceress out of the corner of his eye, The Queen of Stygia, Mesmira. He races over to where he saw her, to see if he can get some answers from her. But, like Ariel, she is nowhere to be found. When he gives up looking for her, he decides to head back to his family's palace to get some rest. On the way there, he catches a glimpse of a raven haired barbarian turning the corner out of the corner of his eye.
"Conan!" he cries, and flies over to where he saw the Cimmerian.
Once again, the person Grey Wolf thought he saw had vanished. The wizard quickly checks his forehead. He doesn't feel feverish, at least not that he could tell. Perhaps he had not recovered from his illness as thoroughly as he had believed. He flies the rest of the way home, not stopping for any more delays. He quickly enters the palace, where he meets up once again with Sasha and Meesha.
"How was your walk, little brother?" asks Meesha.
"Not very pleasant, brother," replies Grey Wolf.
"Why?" asks Sasha, "What's wrong?"
"I think I'm still very ill."
Thundarr is dressed in more finery than he had ever worn in his life. Thankfully, his Royal Attire seems to pay homage to his barbarian roots. His boots and vest are lined with fur, and it seems to be customary that he wear his fur loincloth over his silk breeches. The furs are made from the hides of very exotic beasts from all over the known world. And it seems the more formal an occasion the clothing is designed for, the more exotic the animal the pelt comes from. Understandable, as that has long since been a tradition amongst the barbarians. Still, he's not sure if he can ever get used to the addition of silks and satins to his wardrobe. And his crown, while simple and not overdone, sits uncomfortably upon his brow. Thundarr stands alone on his Royal Balcony, overlooking the kingdom which is now his to rule. Princess Ariel . . . wait, Queen Ariel . . . comes up to her husband from behind and gently slips her arms around his muscular waist.
"What troubles you, My Love?" she asks.
Thundarr twists about in her embrace and puts an arm around her shoulder. He looks down upon her beauty. She's wearing an elegant blue gown, which hugs the curves of her still remarkably athletic body. The gown goes all the way up to her neck in a high collar, which buttons closed at the nape of the neck. The dress is trimmed with gold, and has a dragon design twisting all about the legs and stopping at her ample bosom. And much like the blue leotard she wore when they were adventuring together, this gown was completely backless and sleeveless. Sexy and elegant, all at once. Thundarr looks back out over the kingdom he does not remember.
"Tell me about our kingdom," he says.
"I've told you a hundred times since we've been married," she says.
"So tell me again," replies Thundarr, "Please. I like hearing you tell it."
"Now who could resist the request of her king?" asks Ariel.
"Only a fool would try," says the barbarian with a smile. Ariel chuckles at that.
"All right," she begins, "Before the Great Cataclysm, our kingdom was a city called Vancouver, located in a country called Canada near the southern border between the nations of Canada and The United States. Actually, Vancouver was a collection of smaller communities which were collectively known as Vancouver, but still maintained their individual names and governments. Communities such as Burnaby, Richmond, and Surrey, for example."
"So it was like several barbarian tribes gathering together to form a single community, but maintaining fealty to their individual clans," says Thundarr.
"That's a very good analogy," says Ariel, "Yes, it was exactly like that."
"I understand," says the barbarian king, "Please continue.
"Vancouver had a very large population from across the Pacific Ocean to the west," says Ariel, "There were many Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino people living here. Much like in the village of Cisco where we battled the wizard Kublai and Zogarr the Barbarian."
"Ah yes," says Thundarr, "You had mentioned that those villagers may have been your distant kin."
"After The Cataclysm, much of the city's population were wiped out by the massive tidal wave that hit here. The areas least affected were those farthest away from the coast, like Richmond, which had a high population of Asian immigrants. Once survivors began emerging, everyone moved closer to the coast. Without any commerce, we had to become a society of hunter/gatherers again, skills most humans had lost. But with The Pacific Ocean right at their doorstep, Vancouver became a fishing town. As the town grew, their need of strong leadership did too. I don't know exactly when it changed from a democracy to a monarchy. Record keeping wasn't all that efficient back then. But I know that once there was a Royal Family of Vancouver, my family had ruled here ever since."
"Until Sabian," adds Thundarr.
"Yes," says Ariel as she sadly looks at her feet, "Until him."
"Tell me of his rise to power," says Thundarr.
"Must I?" she asks, "You already know all this."
"Humor me," says the barbarian, "Please."
"Sabian was my parents’ court magician," she says, "It was his job to keep the kingdom and my family safe from evil wizards who wished to invade. Instead, he murdered my father and used magic to charm my mother into marrying him. When his desires turned towards me, he murdered my mother so that he could marry me instead. It was then that I started the slave revolt and escaped with you and Ookla."
"And then we came back here and . . ."
"And you slew my stepfather. You drove your Sunsword through his black heart, and cut off his head for good measure. You then set his head on a pike as a warning to all evil wizards of the fate of those who dare attack the kingdom of Vancouver ever again. It sits there on the road into town even now, the first in a long line of skulls taken from evil wizards and warlords who were foolish enough not to heed that first warning."
"How many skulls have I taken?"
"None recently," says Ariel, "But shortly after our marriage? Wizards seemed to come out of the woodwork to try and take the kingdom from us. And if it wasn't wizards, it was warlords coming to rape, pillage, and plunder. The heads of Gemini, Argoth, Artemis, and Octagon all line the road into town, as do the heads of Juraag, Zogarr, and Captain Corden."
"A barbaric practice," says Thundarr.
"Well, you are a barbarian My Love," she replies with a laugh.
"Good point!" laughs Thundarr, "I thank you for the tale. It was as entertaining and informative as ever."
"Your wish is my command," says Ariel as she hugs her husband.
"In that case," says Thundarr, "I wish we would retire back to our bed, so that I may thank you properly."
"As much as I would love to have you ravish me again," says Ariel with a laugh, "And again. And again. And again. And . . ."
Thundarr cuts her off with a deep and passionate kiss. The sorceress pulls back out of his reach.
"As I was saying," she continues, "As pleasant as that may be we do have affairs of state to attend to."
"As king and queen, can we not have someone else handle the trivial matters?"
"That, my dear Thundarr, is how my parents lost their kingdom to an evil wizard. You promised me on our wedding day that you would never let that happen again. And if you ever wish to see me naked again, you will be sure that it doesn't!"
"Your wish," says Thundarr, as he dips into an exaggerated regal bow, "is my command!"
"Come on, Your Highness," says Ariel with a laugh, "The faster we tend to the trivial, day-to-day details of running a kingdom, the sooner we can return to our bedchamber and tend to producing an heir to the throne."
Thundarr and Ariel leave the balcony arm in arm, and head down to their throne room, quite content in each other's company.
At the crevasse, Zula and Jezmine are still examining the stone archway. Still, there are no markings or clues of any kind.
"Mitra! Where are Grey Wolf and Ariel?" says Jezmine in frustration, "We can't decipher this riddle without their help. Their spells will likely reveal whatever it is we're missing."
"Do not despair Jezmine," says Zula, "The trials we must endure to get to this point are very difficult. I'm sure they will be victorious. I just don't know how long it will take for them to be so."
"My trials were all physical," says Jezmine, "I had to overcome a gauntlet of deathtraps."
"You are most fortunate," says Zula, "I had to live through my worst nightmare come to life."
"Really?" says the acrobat, "What was it? What did you do? How did you defeat it?"
"I'd rather not say what it was I faced," replies Zula, "It was much too painful. But how I defeated it. I got angry. So angry I was able to confront my fears, face them head on, and conquer them."
"I . . . I don't know if I could have done that."
"No one does," says the Wasai prince, "Until they have no other choice."
"Could the others be being forced to face their own worst fears?"
"I don't know," admits Zula, "It is a possibility. Though it appears as though each passage to the arch is a different kind of test. Tests for mind, body, and spirit. Some may simply be dead ends or death traps. We won't know until the others get here."
"I do hope they're alright," says Jezmine.
"As do I," agrees Zula, "As do I."