The Dark Wizards

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The Gift

“Who?” bellowed the guard at the top of the rampart overlooking the entrance to Tar Ta Rus.

“Beetor! Beetor of Yarsi!” shouted the figure across the treacherous chasm. “I have come bearing a great and marvelous gift for your emperor, Karta Kithlid.” The figure made a gesture towards the horse and crude wagon that stood behind him. The wagon was covered with a large sheet of coarse material.

“Hah!” sneered the guard. “If we allowed passage to all those claiming to have brought the emperor a great and marvelous gift, Tar Ta Rus would be teeming with rabble like you.”

Rabble? Sir...I happen to be the Chief Ambassador of Thonatia.”

Thonatia? Never heard of it!” He looked enquiringly at the other guards that had now gathered next to him. They shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. He sneered down at the figure again. “What sort of gift?”

“An effigy of your great god Dakur.”

“We already have more than enough of those in the Temple of Dakur!”

“Ah, but this is a most wondrous likeness! This is something that no one has ever beheld! This is too magnificent for the temple! It belongs with the Golden Sleepers in the Royal Burial Chamber!”

“The Royal Burial Chamber, hey?” The guard winked across at his colleagues.

“Yes! The Royal Burial Chamber! I insist!”

“Well ambassador Beetor, perhaps you had better show it to us then!” There was more than just a hint of skepticism and sarcasm in his voice.

“As you wish!” said the figure walking to the side of the cart. “Behold!” The covering was whipped from the cart in a single dramatic gesture.

“Dakur’s eyes!” gasped the guard.

The other guards echoed his utterance of wonderment.

The one claiming to be the Chief Ambassador of Thonatia had spoken the truth. Never before had there been a more magnificent effigy reflecting the true glory of the great Dakur.

The ambassador smiled. “I see that I have certainly gotten your attention. It looks much more impressive in an upright position, but to transport it…well, you understand?”

The guard swallowed hard. “I think we had better report this to Mallaki as soon as possible.”

“Magnificent!” exclaimed Karta Kithlid walking slowly around the now upright megornex. “Superlative! An incredible likeness.” He gazed through the translucent surface at the metallic figure within. “Is it made of gold?” The colour of the gemstone made it difficult to discern the metal’s true property. “How did you get it inside the gemstone?”

The fraudulent ambassador stood to one side in the large throne room. His false display of humility was most convincing to the large party that had gathered to witness the presentation of the gift.

“We are unsure.”

The emperor frowned. “Unsure?”

The ambassador moved forward and rubbed a gloved hand across the megornex. “The gemstone itself is a total mystery. It is absolutely impervious and totally indestructible. We were unable to make the slightest of impressions upon its exterior.”

“Not even a scratch?” The emperor gazed closely at the smooth unmarked surface.

“Nothing.”

Karta Kithlid backed away uneasily from the megornex. “This smells of sorcery most foul. We must…”

The ambassador raised a hand. “No, we too thought that its origin lay in the dark arts, but once you have listened to my explanation, I am sure you will believe otherwise.”

The emperor’s eyes jumped nervously from the megornex to the ambassador. “Very well,” he said fluttering a hand towards the strange stranger. “Continue!”

“Listen carefully to what I have to say. As incredible as it may sound, it is the absolute truth. Although the material from which the gemstone is constructed is an absolute mystery, of the origin of its maker we are most certain.” The ambassador paused for dramatic effect. A hush fell across the throne room. “It is a creation by none other than the great god Dakur himself.”

“Sacrilege!” cried Leeja Fay stepping forward. “Do you try to mock us? We know that no other nation accepts the existence of our great Dakur.”

“Exactly,” said the ambassador calmly. “It is due to that very fact that he has chosen to humble those who dare question, not only his existence, but his immense power as well.”

“Explain yourself!” shouted Bel Shedor. “And pray that we find your clarification acceptable.”

The ambassador bowed humbly towards the aged member of the Kithian War Council. After another short pause he continued. “Six moons ago an earthquake of vast proportions shook the upper northwesterly territories of Thonatia. The village of Ursha suffered much damage. Many lives were lost. And at the bottom of the great fissure caused by the earthquake lay the object that now stands before you.” The ambassador quickly continued with his tale before he could be interrupted again. “The object, immediately being recognized as a representation of Kith’s Dakur, was duly transported to our king in Yarsi. After much study and discussion, it was decided that the object be placed in the temple, in a lowly position, at the feet of our great goddess, Teeaniah.”

“Sacrilege!” cried Leeja Fay again.

The ambassador ignored the remark. “That very night our king had a dream. In the dream he heard the voice of Dakur. The great god claimed that the Kithian’s were his chosen people, but that his favours could be experienced by all nations if they were to accept him as their god. He had a profound message, of not only warning, but also of enlightenment. It was foretold that the disaster in Ursha would be miniscule compared to the affliction that would be forthcoming if his wishes were not met. The king would be given a sign in the morning to prove that the message was indeed authentic.

“The next day the great statue of Teeaniah was discovered in ruins. It had been mysteriously destroyed and lay in pieces at the foot of this magnificent gemstone.”

A glow of great joy and approval radiated from Leeja Fay’s face. “All praise and glory to Dakur!”

“All praise and glory to Dakur!” echoed the entire party present.

“And now listen carefully,” continued the ambassador. “The message that was given to my king is meant specifically for your ears, the Kithian Council.

“Dakur has declared that the disturbance in the natural order of things that is presently being experienced across the Kithian Empire is as a result of his own doing. This will continue to worsen until his wishes have been fulfilled.”

“Disturbances?” frowned the emperor. “We know of no such disturbances. Could you be more specific?”

“Certainly,” said the ambassador pressing his gloved palms together. “Is it not a known fact that all wild creatures, no matter how fierce, have a natural tendency to shy away from populated settlements?”

“That is true,” agreed Bel Shedor. “Well?”

“Well, I have heard of more than one report of the zin-zas venturing forth from their natural habitat within Grimwald forest?”

The Emperor was unable to conceal his concern. He turned towards Bel Shedor. “He speaks the truth. What also of the reports from Bryntha about the screechas?”

“Exactly!” The humility in the ambassador’s voice was replaced with a slight tone of conceit. “And Dakur is determined to use even more extreme measures if his warnings are not heeded. He has sworn to sweep across your southern territories with an undefeatable foe. This enemy will be unbiased. It will destroy your warriors as well as your females and your gruntlings with the same ease and unselective passion. The devastation will be like none that has ever been witnessed before upon the face of Kith.”

“What foe could surely be so ruthless?” frowned Bel Shedor. “There is no force greater than the Kithian militia upon the face of Baltrath.”

“This enemy is invisible, but its symptoms are all too clear. I believe you call it the magg frata mu dakur.”

An unruly clamor filled the throne room. The ambassador smiled inwardly as the wave of anxiety caused by his words passed over the gathering.

“Silence!” cried the emperor raising his hand. His face was as white as a sheet. “What must be done to avoid this catastrophe?”

“Only once the effigy has been placed within Kith’s most holy of holies will order be restored to the Empire.”

“But why?” asked Leeja Fay. “Why has Dakur chosen to humiliate his very own?”

“He says you are gruntlings refusing to move from the safety of your mud hole. You dishonor his glory by refusing to expand your empire beyond the boundaries of your shores.

“If you obey his wishes, not only will he put an end to your dilemmas, but he will also bless the empire by making her richer and more powerful than ever before. He has promised to endow upon your wise men the knowledge necessary to increase your naval strength in order that you may explore and conquer, not only the unknown territories beyond the Kriti Dakur, but also the unknown world across the vast oceans. He will give you knowledge to build enormous seafaring vessels capable of transporting whole armies.”

The fraudulent ambassador knew that the recession by the Kithian Council to make their final decision was a mere formality. It had been far easier fooling them than had been expected.

It was such a simple task to manipulate their foolish pride and fear to his advantage.

He smiled wryly. It would be a pleasure taking the gold of such a gullible nation.

The sun had just set when the small inquisitive crowd gathered next to the Temple of Dakur. A low wall, running from the edge of the temple, spanned the entire length of the slark-infested moat. This was to prevent any careless citizens from tumbling to a certain horrible doom.

Access to the drawbridge could only be obtained through the temple itself. None, but a select few were allowed entrance to the temple whenever the drawbridge was lowered. A detachment of over thirty shammar had been deployed around the temple to check the path of any unwelcome company.

From a position behind the low wall it was possible for the citizens of Tar Ta Rus to have a safe clear view of the proceedings taking place upon the recently lowered drawbridge.

The temple eunuchs had placed large oil-filled lamps into the specially provided openings that dotted both edges of the immense wooden structure that spanned the treacherous gap between the temple and the tomb.

Some of the curious crowd had wondered as to the nature of the concealed contents of the large cart.

As no beast was allowed to desecrate the temple or tomb, the cart had been pulled by a small number of the muscular temple eunuchs.

Once the last of the select few had disappeared into the large opening in the mountainside, the curiosity as well as the crowd began to wane.

Eventually only two figures remained staring across the chasm. One was tall, slender and hooded; the other, a small Valacian whelp.

“How many did you count?” asked Turpane gazing concernedly up into the sorceress’ face.

“Including Kronos, thirteen.” Selestia spoke from beneath a grey cowl. It was agreed by all that it would be best if she were to conceal her exquisite appearance where it could not attract any unnecessary attention.

“Are you certain that it was Kronos? He was also hooded and wearing gloves.”

“I am too far away to sense his aura but it has to be him.”

“Will you be able to transport now?”

“Yes, now that the entrance is opened, it will be a simple task for me to reach the first burial chamber, but it might be better to wait until the second chamber has been unlocked.

“Right now it is time to announce our progression.” The sorceress turned sharply and walked off. “I believe that the Kithian’s plan could very well succeed.”

“Gu Kazor Dee is some distance,” said Turpane hurriedly following. “Are you quite certain that the signal will be clearly visible in the valley?”

Although indestructible, the eunuchs handled the megornex as though it was delicate and brittle, made of the finest crystal or porcelain. It would be sacrilege to do otherwise; and Leeja Fay had given them enough warnings as to the terrible consequences they would have to face if her orders were not carried out explicitly.

The cart, being too heavy, was left at the top of the steps leading down into the chamber of the Golden Sleepers. The six eunuchs carried the megornex containing the magnificent effigy of Dakur upon their shoulders. Three on a side they moved slowly and carefully towards the sealed entrance of the Royal Burial Chamber.

The ambassador’s eyes gleamed as he stared at the row of golden heroes. He moved across to get a closer look.

“Do not touch anything!” warned Bel Shedor.

It had been a great many hours since Selestia had transported the party from Maggoth’s keep to the thicket that was only a short distance to the south of Gu Kazor Dee. The brush, although thick, was not high enough to allow a zin-za the pleasure of being able to stand erect. Daleth had spent the time either crouching or laying down flat upon the prickly grass. He was stiff, itchy and extremely irritable by the time the brilliant blue flash exploded above Tar Ta Rus lighting up the sky.

“Ah, at last!” he exclaimed. “The call to action! The Kithian’s plan had better work. I do not want to have gone through all this discomfort in vain.”

Daleth stood up and moved briskly and determinedly towards the market place at Gu Kazor Dee. He was advancing from downwind which meant that none of the animals would be able to sense his approach.

He was quite amazed that he was actually able to reach the edge of the huge circular pavement before anyone noticed him.

The Valacian vegetable merchant was the first to see him. He had opened his mouth to scream but Daleth’s bloodcurdling roar drowned out all other sound.

Next, the zin-za lifted the merchant’s cart and began to empty the contents into his gaping jaw.

The wave of terror spread swiftly across the market place. Merchants, clients and their beasts all stampeded towards the hopeful safety of Tar Ta Rus.

The ambassador’s eyes grew wide as he watched the enormous slab of rock that blocked the entrance to the Royal Burial Chamber slide upwards.

The three key bearers were the first to enter. Each carried a torch and a container with oil.

“This is as far as you may go!” said Karta Kithlid to the ambassador. “Access to the Royal Burial Chamber is a privilege that you do not possess.”

“What?” said the ambassador sounding hurt. “You would deny me access, yet you allow that very same honour to your lowly assistants?” He pointed at the megornex. “Do you have any idea of the trouble it has taken to transport that to Tar Ta Rus. You insult not only me but my king as well.”

The emperor walked over to the ambassador. “The entire Kithian treasury lies within that chamber. I would be a fool to allow some foreigner to witness the extent of our repository. I care little for you or your king’s sensitivity towards the matter. You will remain here in the first chamber. It will be sufficient for you to report to your king that you beheld the great Dakur’s gift being carried into Kith’s most holy sanctuary.”

“Very well,” said the ambassador. “Then at least allow me the decency to bid it a proper farewell.”

The emperor nodded and stepped aside. “Be quick about it!”

The ambassador slowly removed his gloves as he walked towards the megornex. After placing the gloves on his belt he reached out and deliberately caressed the smooth surface of the giant gemstone. Beneath his smooth fingertips, unseen by the rest, blue energy hummed and permeated into the indestructible material. Then, just before placing his lips upon the cool surface he said, “Your time has come.” After the kiss he stepped back.

Karta Kithlid frowned. “Are you finished?”

“You may proceed.” The ambassador smiled and stepped further backwards.

Leeja Fay waved a hand and the eunuchs followed her through the opening.

The emperor narrowed his eyes at the ambassador. “You alone managed to transport this gift all the way from Thonatia?”

“Yes.”

“Unaided and without any form of military protection?”

“It was decided that it would be the best way to do it. It was important not to attract any unwelcome attention. Besides, I had the blessing and protection of the great Dakur himself.”

“Hmm,” said Karta Kithlid rubbing his smooth chin. He walked over to Bel Shedor and spoke softly into his ear. “I want you to remain here. Keep an eye on this Thonatian. There is something about him I do not trust.” Before Bel Shedor could answer, the emperor turned and disappeared into the opening, leaving the aged war council member and the ambassador alone in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers.

After a short while Bel Shedor turned uncomfortably towards the ambassador. “I am truly sorry, Beetor. Diplomacy is not one of our emperor’s strong points.”

“No need to apologize,” said the ambassador moving towards Bel Shedor. “Your emperor, although lacking greatly in refinement has rather excellent intuitive skills. Unfortunately they serve him far too late.”

“I do not understand?”

The ambassador raised his palm toward Bel Shedor. “He was quite correct in his assumption that I could not be trusted.” The blue bolt struck the aged War Council member in the face. He fell motionless to the cold stone floor.

Taking one last look behind him, the ambassador walked determinedly into the opening. “Now, let us have a look at the extent of the Kithian treasury. I hope that its gold content has been worth all the trouble and effort.”

Selestia and Turpane stood a safe distance from Tar Ta Rus’ main gate and smiled as they watched the ensuing chaos that had been caused by Daleth’s rampage.

The guards had had no choice but to lower the drawbridge to allow the fleeing masses entrance to the city.

After much confusion and shouting, the shammar had managed to mobilize the bulk of their force. They had ridden out in pairs across the wide drawbridge.”

“It is time,” said Selestia stooping down and placing her arm about Turpane. “The Royal Burial Chamber has been opened. I am able to sense its vastness. Stay close to me now. Everything is going as planned, yet I can not help but feel that your part in Groad’s scheme is somewhat unnecessary?”

“It is always good to have a second plan running in unison just in case the first one fails.”

“I suppose you are right, but are you quite certain that you wish to go through with this? It is very dangerous. It could very well mean both your deaths.”

“It is too late for me to change my mind now. Besides, it is the only means of preventing Daleth’s certain destruction. This is a very small sacrifice to make when the whole of creation is lying in the balance.”

“You are right, of course. It is just such an enormous responsibility to place on such young shoulders. You are still an infant and yet you speak with the wisdom of many cyclans.”

“It comes from keeping company with immortals.”

Selestia smiled as she lifted one of the cypherlettes that hung about her neck. There was a low humming sound as she began to concentrate.

The Royal Burial Chamber was almost thrice the size of the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers, and its design was circular.

In the centre of the chamber were twelve altars that formed the perimeter of a large circle.

In the centre of this circle lay an enormous collection of glittering objects.

Each of the inner perimeter altars was also the first in another row of twelve altars running outwards from the centre like the rays from a sun.

The many figures, Kith’s deceased royal descendants, emperors, queens, princes and princesses, were all placed with their feet towards the centre of the circle.

The mummified remains glistened brightly in the glow of the many torches that burned along the wall that curved upwards to become an enormous dome-shaped ceiling.

When viewed from above, the whole scene was like some enormous dew-covered spider web.

But now, a short figure moved between the altars. As his hands slid over each corpse, the golden gleams changed to a bluish incandescence which, after being absorbed into the figure’s palms, left the remains dull and grey.

The ambassador moved slowly down the aisle. He smiled as he watched the eunuchs trying to place the megornex upright in the centre of the gleaming pile, but their hands had become fastened to its surface. Leeja Fay and Karta Kithlid stared in horror as the giant gemstone liquefied, increasing in volume as it started to creep down the screaming eunuchs’ muscular arms.

The metallic effigy of Dakur oozed out of the undulating mass and clattered and clanged as it rolled to the base of the immense pile of treasure.

When the megornex had completed its task, instead of a magnificent homage to the great Dakur, stood a bizarre monument comprised of six terror-stricken eunuchs.

The emperor and the high priestess turned, fleeing back up the angular shaped aisle, but found that the ambassador had blocked their retreat.

You! This is all your doing!” exclaimed Karta Kithlid wide-eyed and pointing. “It is just as I feared. You are no ambassador from Thonatia! You are a dabbler in the dark arts.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that? I am a Dark Wizard. A master of the dark arts.”

“Who are you? What do you want from us?”
“Who I am is of little consequence. What I have come to do is of paramount importance.”

“You seek to destroy me, Kith’s only remaining descendant?”

“On the contrary. I have come to save not only you but also the whole of creation. I have come to proclaim the truth.”

“What truth are you talking about?”

“Be patient, for all will soon be revealed.” The Dark Wizard moved down the aisle towards the treasure pile. “Excuse me while I take a closer look at my hard-earned prize.”

The Dark Wizard was not surprised when one of the three key bearers stepped out in front of him. “What is this? Some sort of foolish bravado to impress your emperor?”

“I am afraid I can not allow you to reach this gold,” said the short hooded figure in a familiar nasal tone.

“Rolan!” shouted the emperor. “Get out of his way! That is a Dark Wizard! A simple wave of his hand could reduce you to a pile of smoldering ash.”

“You mean something like this?” The hooded figure raised his arms. Two bolts of blue energy flashed from his palms. A moment later, two heaps of smoldering ash lay in the place where the other key bearers had stood.

“Dakur’s eyes!” shouted Karta Kithlid. “Not you too, Rolan? I should have realized that it was folly to employ the services of non-Kithians.”

“Stop your continual whining, Karta!” hissed the small man removing his hood. His head was smooth. “I have spent almost twelve of your normal lifespans listening to the incessant complaints of the so-called Kithian Royalty.”

“Kronos!” exclaimed the fraudulent ambassador pretending to be bewildered.

The short bald figure raised his arms. “Yes, Maggoth, it is I, Kronos! But then of course you knew that already. Our auras betrayed us some time ago. Nevertheless, welcome to the place of my imprisonment. I am most impressed at your plan to gain access to the Royal Burial Chamber. Most ingenious.”

“The plan was not mine. It was conceived by the mind of the same one that stole the Eldritch Blade from my keep.”

“The Son of Zemth?” Kronos started to laugh. “I would never have thought it possible for any Kithian to be able to devise such a brilliant strategy. Where is the fool now?”

“Enough, Kronos! Where is the Eldritch Blade?”

“Ah, Maggoth, straight to the point as always. It has been such a long time. Could we not at least exchange a few light pleasantries before...”

“The Eldritch Blade, Kronos!” interrupted Maggoth hissing from between clenched teeth. “Where is it?”

Kronos flapped the side of his robe open. “Here it is Maggoth!” He removed the mystical blade from the scabbard fastened to his belt and pointed it towards Maggoth. “I am afraid you are too late! Thanks to you the sword will soon be fully energized. Your gold as well as that of the Kithian have been a great help towards fulfilling my goal. And now, once again you have been instrumental in helping me obtain my prize. During the time that it took you to incapacitate Bel Shedor, I took the liberty of relieving Kith’s deceased royalty of their precious coverings.” He waved his free hand towards the large gleaming pile behind him.” All that remains now is for me to convert the remaining gold of the Kithian treasury into dark energy.”

“Do you think that I shall stand idle whilst you attempt to complete your vile plan?”

“No, I expect you to lay idle upon the cold stone floor!”

Maggoth was caught unawares as the bolt shot from the blade’s point. It caught him square in the chest, sending him sliding backwards. He ended up sprawled on the cold stone floor. The clothing across his chest smoldered, emitting white smoke from where the blast had struck.

Kronos turned and walked briskly towards the enormous treasure pile. “There is nothing you can do to prevent me from reaching the gold now. Due to both you and the Kithian, it has become possible for me to reach this gold within the Royal Burial Chamber much sooner than I would have expected. The time that it will take you to recover is all the opportunity I shall be requiring to fully charge the Eldritch Blade.”

The blue bolt of energy that came from beyond the treasure pile was far more powerful than the one that had struck Maggoth. It knocked the Eldritch Blade from Kronos’ grip and sent him flying through the air.

He struck the wall, just missing one of the burning torches, and fell to the ground.

“You self-complacent little dolt!” said the sorceress stepping around the treasure pile. “Your evil schemes have run their course.”

“Selestia,” groaned Maggoth shakily raising himself. He supported himself against one of the altars. “I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to show.”

The sorceress smiled. “I was merely waiting for the most opportune moment to make my entrance.”

“Selestia!” exclaimed Kronos swiftly raising himself to his feet.

“I am impressed!” He casually slapped some dust from his sleeve. “Maggoth actually managed to convince you to come to his aid?”

“You are a fool if you believed that I would do nothing whilst you attempted to free Rava Zool.”

“No, you are the fools if you think it possible to stop me.”

Selestia narrowed her eyes. “I see that you were able to recover rather expeditiously from the affects of my unexpected energy bolt. You obviously possess great power?”

“Almost enough to complete my task.” Kronos raised both his palms towards Selestia. “Now step aside or be prepared to feel the extent of that power!”

“The Eldritch Blade!” shouted Maggoth almost hysterically. “Transport it and yourself out of here now!”

Selestia raised one of the cypherlettes that hung around her neck and began to concentrate.

Kronos turned quickly and sent two powerful blasts past Maggoth’s left shoulder. They struck the wall above the exit.

By the time anyone fathomed the reason for Kronos’ seemingly strange action, it was too late.

The giant slab of rock, which had been kept in place by the intricate gears, crashed down sealing the exit.

Selestia grabbed her head as a terrible pain shot through her brain. She collapsed motionless to the floor.

Kronos smiled wryly at Maggoth and then began to laugh loudly. “I have reason to believe she has acquired an unfortunate limitation to her power. Some sort of difficulty in being able to transport through solid matter?”

“You slark-slime sucking bog hound,” snarled Maggoth.

“My goodness! Where did you learn to reprove in such a colourful tone? You seem to have lost much of your grace and elegance since keeping company with the despicable Son of Zemth.”

“His name is Groad! I told you once before and I will say it again, ‘The Kithian has more honour in one of his miserable stinking bones than you will ever have in your entire immortal frame.’”

“And as I once said before, ‘What am I to do with honour. It is a weakness that I cannot afford.’”

“You are mistaken, for it is honour that will make sure that righteousness prevails.”

“Your words are wonderfully dramatic, Maggoth, but I fear they have a rather hollow echo to them. The meager sum of gold that you managed to obtain from your exploits in Frybur and Bryntha are no match for the vast amount of power that I now possess.”

“That may be true, Kronos, yet I will still deny you the right to charge the Eldritch Blade even though every last iota of dark energy has been discharged from my body.”

“Then so be it!”

Kronos’ feet left the ground as he began to levitate. He moved swiftly through the air towards the centre of the chamber.

Maggoth gazed down the aisle. Selestia remained a motionless heap. A short distance from her lay the Eldritch Blade. He raised his hand and released a small concentrated bolt of energy towards the mystical sword. The force of the blast sent the blade sliding along the floor into the base of the treasure pile where it disappeared from view.

“That should make it somewhat difficult for you to find,” said Maggoth as his own feet left the floor.

Kronos pursed his lips and shook his head slowly. “You only delay the inevitable. The sword will yet again be mine!”

This time Maggoth was ready for the blast. He met Kronos’ stream of concentrated energy with an attack of similar fashion. The two beams collided with a deafening hiss, throwing flickering flame and spark in all directions.

“You shall not catch me unawares again,” said Maggoth holding his palms open and towards each other. Between them a blue sphere began to form and grow. It increased in intensity as it expanded outwards. Then with a forward motion he sent it flying towards Kronos.

With lightning-fast reflexes Kronos created a shimmering convex-shaped barrier in front of himself. The ball of energy ricocheted off the shield and collided with the edge of one of the altars on the inner perimeter before finally crashing into the side of the treasure pile.

Precious items were flung into the air with great velocity. A heavy golden bracelet struck Selestia’s forehead.

The new external pain shocked her back into a state of awareness. Looking about the vast chamber, it took only a moment to sum up the situation. An instant later she too had elevated herself above the floor.

The three Dark Wizards floated upon the musty air. Each hovering equal distances from the other two. They began to circle slowly over the altars, also remaining at same lengths from the main prize in the centre.

Kronos started to laugh again. “Ah, the irony is so thick you can almost reach out and touch it.”

“What are you babbling about Kronos?” snarled Maggoth. “What irony?”

“Just like a cypherlette, perfectly round, we too have come full circle at last! Welcome back to the place of my unjust imprisonment. Ages ago it took your dual effort to trap me here, but this time I have more dark energy than both of you combined. You will be no match for me. First I will render you both incapable of any further retaliation and then I shall claim my prize!”

Maggoth frowned. “I still see no irony in the matter.”

“No? Even though the culmination of your questionable lust is to be the very cause of your defeat here today?”

Maggoth frowned even harder. “What are you...?”

Before Maggoth could finish his sentence Selestia sent a burst of energy towards Kronos. This blast was once again easily deflected with another shimmering convex-shaped barrier.

“I grow weary of this repetitiveness,” said the small bald figure dropping his head forward and glowering. “It is time for you to realize the full fury of my power!” He raised his hands above his head and sent a continual barrage of vibrant resonating energy at the dome-shaped ceiling above his opponents.

The ceiling first shuddered and cracked before collapsing. Maggoth and Selestia were too slow. Both were dashed to the floor by massive chunks of falling rock.

The dust cleared shortly to reveal that they had both been buried beneath a ponderous pile of rubble.

Kronos knew that Maggoth and Selestia would not remain trapped for long, but their inconvenience would hopefully be his opportunity to regain possession of the Eldritch Blade.

Wasting no time, he swiftly descended onto the top of the treasure pile. He dropped onto his knees and pushed his hands and arms deep into the glittering mass.

There was a humming sound and a blue glow that grew in intensity over the entire precious hoard as all the golden articles began to convert to shimmering dark energy.

Then, like some great insatiable sponge, he began to absorb the energy into his body.

When the process was completed, all that remained was a small pile of precious stones and metallic articles that had been constructed from lesser-noble materials.

Gazing downward, with eyes that now began to shimmer with a bluish glow, Kronos noticed that the Eldritch Blade was clearly visible amongst the few remaining scattered items.

He slowly placed his hand upon the handle. “At last,” he whispered standing up straight. “At last!” he shouted holding the Great Dragon’s tongue high in the air.

There was a flash and scattering of debris as Maggoth and Selestia blasted themselves free of the rubble.

The sorceress staggered up against the side of one of the now damaged altars. It was all too clear that neither of them had sufficient energy left to continue the conflict.

Maggoth took a very shaky step forward. “Kronos, I beg of you. Consider well the consequences of what you are about to do.”

“Be still you miserable fool! I have already spent ages considering the consequences! You both disgust me! We could have ruled worlds! We could have subjected all of this pathetic creation to our will! But you just did not want any of that! And you would never have been prepared to allow me that privilege either!”

“I see,” said Selestia. “It is all very clear to me now that it was never your jealousy towards our love that provoked you to join forces with Rava Zool, but a simple egotistical desire to become a god!”

“We are gods! We are omnipotent immortal beings with the power to manipulate space and time and dimensional rifts! We have the power to influence all things to our desire! But no, instead you chose rather to live a life of near-secrecy amongst these wretched creatures. Moving amongst them; studying them. Whatever did you think they would be able to teach us! If it were not for me constantly having to manipulate the Kithian way of thinking, they would still be stuck in the primeval slime of their own stupidity.”

Maggoth took another step forward. “Exactly what are you talking about?”

Kronos extended his arm and moved it in a dramatic arc. “You are greatly mistaken if you believe that all of this is the result of great Kithian minds. This has all been my very own design from the very beginning.

“After my release had been secured by the first emperor’s excavating into this mountainside, I took the liberty of using a portion of his gold medallion to replenish my power. I then gave the emperor a demonstration of the awesome capabilities of that very power.”

Maggoth’s face distorted into an expression of disgust. “By destroying all his tomb builders?”

“Yes! It was an act that was absolutely necessary. I needed to persuade the emperor into a pact of total secrecy. In return for his silence, I promised not only to spare his life, but also to secure that the Kithian’s would become and remain the greatest nation upon the face of Baltrath.

“He had no other choice but to agree. You see, it was to serve my plan best if I was to remain here where I could use my influence to secure the vast sum of gold needed to complete my quest. I knew that it would take time, but if I needed to succeed, then time and patience was something that I had in abundance. Shortly after the incident in the tomb, the only surviving tomb builder was promoted to the capacity of the emperor’s official advisor and confidant. The fact that a non-Kithian had been given this position was first frowned upon, but because of my excellent knowledge and guidance, was later approved with the greatest of praise.

“Then later, by manipulating my age, I was able to retain my position here indefinitely by pretending to be my own son. Each successive emperor was only too happy to employ the offspring of the advisor and confidant that had served his father so well.

“To further secure my position, I always made certain that my one and only dying wish was that my scion be allowed to fill my position. Of course, it was impossible for them to refuse. And so it was, that solely through my excellent advice, what should have been a simple single-chambered tomb became this monumental memorial to Kith’s ancestors.

“Next, I simply introduced the custom of the Golden Sleep, and my final, but best inspiration was to convince the Kithian council to store the empire’s main treasury reserves within the Royal Burial Chamber.

“When the amount of gold here was starting to reach the proportions that were near-sufficient to complete my purpose, I then sought out the services of Kith’s most gullible and egotistical warrior to help me procure the Eldritch Blade from your keep. That was probably the easiest and swiftest part of my plan to accomplish.”

Maggoth pointed a long slender condemning finger. “Kronos, you have broken the first and most fundamental law of the Dark Wizards. You know that it is forbidden to interfere with the natural progression of any and all life forms in not only this, but all dimensions.”

“Maggoth, you extravagant hypocrite! How dare you preach to me about ethics when it is a result of your very own lust that has brought us full circle to this place?”

“What are you raving on about?”

“Hold your tongue, Kronos!” shouted Selestia. “There is no need to repeat the lies and deceit that Rava Zool has forced into your twisted mind.”

“You know very well that neither my mind nor the facts of your questionable act are bent.”

“What is he talking about?” asked Maggoth turning to Selestia.

“Oh!” exclaimed Kronos as his eyes filled with a gleam of profound realization. He pointed back at Maggoth, but spoke to Selestia. “He does not know. You never told him.”

“What do I not know?” The irritability in Maggoth’s voice was very distinct. “What have I never been told?”

“I implore you!” exclaimed Selestia. “If you have one shred of decency in your immortal frame, you will not divulge that truth! Nobody has any reason to hear that truth!”

“Oh yes, they do!” exclaimed Kronos. Then softly he repeated, “Oh yes, they do. No, I shall not be quiet anymore. I have waited ages. I shall not be denied my moment of truth. Maggoth, himself, claimed that the truth would be proclaimed here today; and so it shall. Not all truth sets free. Some truths are so profound that they will bind you up so tight that you can feel your bones bend and crack.”

“If I am unable to silence you, then it will be best if he hears that truth from me,” said Selestia turning towards Maggoth.

“As you wish,” said Kronos waving a hand. “So be it!” he smiled.

“It is about the gruntling,” sighed the sorceress.

“The gruntling?” frowned Maggoth.

“Yes, I was hoping to spare you the same pain that I have been forced to endure all these cyclans. I am truly sorry for what I am about to tell you.”

“Are you trying to tell me that the gruntling you bore was not mine?”

“What?” said Selestia sounding both hurt and angry. “No, Maggoth! Of course it was your gruntling.”

“Then what of the gruntling?” A short moment later a profound gleam of realization filled Maggoth’s eyes. “You never destroyed him? You told me you were taking the gruntling away to kill him, but you never did?”

“Forgive me, Maggoth, but I just could not. It was our gruntling, the symbol of our love. I could never bring myself to destroy him.”

“Then what became of him?”

“Allow me to answer that question!” said Kronos. He turned his gaze towards the altar behind which the emperor and Leeja Fay had both chosen to conceal themselves when the fiery conflict between the wizards had commenced. “Karta!” he shouted. “Show yourself you sniveling coward! Show yourself or I shall be forced to administer the very same discipline upon you as what I applied to the key bearers.”

Very slowly and cautiously the emperor’s, as well as Leeja Fay’s, forehead and eyes appeared over the top edge of the altar.

Kronos pointed at Karta Kithlid. “So, you and your temple priestess believe that the origin of all Kithians lies embalmed in gold upon the first altar in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. You are wrong! Very wrong! For the progenitors of your nation yet live. They are standing before you right now in the Royal Burial Chamber.

“Karta Kithlid, meet the parents of your great Kith - the Dark Wizards, Maggoth and Selestia!”

“No!” exclaimed Dakur’s effigy raising itself from the floor. “You lie!”

Kronos was caught totally off guard. Before he could realize what was happening, the metallic figure had wrenched the Eldritch Blade from his grip.

“No!” cried Kronos recoiling. “What means of vile trickery is this!”

“All praise be to Dakur,” shouted Leeja Fay jumping up. “He has sent his spirit to help us!”

“This is impossible!” shouted Kronos. “There is no sorcery capable of animating lifeless metal.”

“It is not the metal that is animated, but the bones beneath!” said the effigy pointing the blade at Kronos.

Groad?” queried the small bald figure, his eyes widening. “Is it possible?”

“Yes, Kronos, you insignificant pile of bog hound droppings! It is I, Groad! It was by my own wishes that Maggoth use his power to cover me with a layer of the mystical metal, anakhenium. It was a painstaking task as it was necessary to insure that all my joints remained functional. But, as you can see, my movement is fluid as ever. In fact, the weight of the metal adds substance to my body and thereby improves control. It was also my idea to don the helmet and battle armour of my twice slain best friend, Gu Shora. The spikes help give me a somewhat imposing appearance, would you not agree?

“So, now, Dark Wizard, we face each other on even terms. We are both indestructible. I have waited a long time for this moment. Even though I may be unable to destroy you, I still intend to cause you great pain for the tribulations that you have caused me to suffer.”

“No!” shouted Kronos raising his palms. A surge of blue energy shot towards Groad.

The Son of Zemth’s reflexes were operating at their peak. He dove forward under the blast. Rolling over once, he landed back on his feet, and in the same movement thrust the Eldritch Blade up to its handle into the centre of Kronos’ chest.

The Dark Wizard fell to his knees squealing in agony like a stuck bresk.

Groad found the sound most pleasing and so proceeded to slowly twist the blade whilst moving it unhurriedly upwards and across towards where the wizard’s heart should be beating.

Karta Kithlid somehow managed to gain enough courage to stand up behind the altar.

“Yes! Yes! That is it! Kill the demonspawn, Groad! Kill them all!”

The sound of his name being uttered by the emperor momentarily distracted him from his gratifying labour.

It was all the time Kronos needed. He placed a flat hand against Groad’s upper breastplate.

There was a blue flash and Groad was propelled into the air. He crashed to the floor between the two altars nearest to the sealed exit.

He stood up quickly and inspected himself. He was more amazed than pleased to notice that he was totally unscathed. He was even more astonished when he realized that he was still clutching the Eldritch Blade. His words of bravado had been true. He was indestructible.

Groad watched as Maggoth and Selestia walked down the aisle towards Kronos. He was still on his knees clutching at his chest. Groad had certainly made sure of his promise to the short bald wizard with the nasal tone, but he could take no more chances. Kronos was a wily opponent and Groad was not going to underestimate any foe’s capabilities again.

He turned quickly towards the sealed exit. Moving to an area of the wall to the right of the sealed doorway he thrust the blade deep into the wall. There was a hissing sound like hot metal being cooled in water as he proceeded to move the sword in a wide circular arc.

When the sword reached the point of its initial cut, Groad withdrew the blade and gave the wall a hefty kick. The rough circular piece of stone fell backwards out of the wall and shattered upon the floor of the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers.

“The way is open once more!” shouted Groad towards Selestia. He held the sword up. “Transport the Eldritch Blade away from here now!”

Groad had been correct. Kronos was a most deceitful foe. Although badly hurt, the great power that he had recently absorbed had quickly healed the terrible wound across his chest. He had then chosen to remain on his knees in a feigned display of defeat.

The ruse had worked perfectly. It had brought Selestia to his very side. It was around her neck that his stolen cypherlette hung.

In a single action he stood up, grabbing at both the cypherlettes and pulled. The chains holding the arcane devices snapped.

“Yes!” exclaimed Kronos soaring upward. “Now I have both the power and the means to bring all this nonsense to its conclusion!” He looked across at Groad clutching tightly to the Eldritch Blade. “With the means to control time, I no longer have any further need of that! Once again I have thwarted you all. I knew very well that Selestia would have no choice but to join in this conflict. It had never been my true intention to charge the Eldritch Blade. That would only have left me in a weak and depleted state.” He pointed towards Maggoth and Selestia. “I would once more have been at the mercy of those two merciless fools.” Kronos held up the circular objects. “This has always been the true purpose of my quest! The regaining of my precious cypherlette! Now it will be a simple task to return to the past and prevent the Great Dragon’s imprisonment from ever taking place!

“What have I got to lose? Nothing! What do I have to gain? Everything! In a few moments I shall vanish from your sight as I begin my journey backward through time.” He raised the cypherlette level with his face. “I bid you all farewell.” He began to concentrate.

Groad, Maggoth and Selestia all began to laugh.

“No!” shouted Kronos. “Something is wrong! You have tricked me again! My cypherlette fails at its purpose! What have you done to it?”

“We have done nothing to your cypherlette!” said Maggoth smiling. “You may have managed to relieve Selestia temporarily of her precious cypherlette, but the other object that you now hold is useless, merely a replica constructed by my own powers. A rather splendid forgery if I may say?”

“No!” shouted Kronos again. “It is not possible. How could you have known?”

“It was I who knew!” shouted Groad. “I knew exactly where we would be able to find you. I managed to recollect that I had once been in your filthy presence long before our unfortunate meeting in the Fryburian ale-house. This took place a long time ago when I had accompanied my father’s mummified remains into the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. It took a long time for me to recall our initial meeting, but when I eventually did, it all made absolutely perfect sense to both Maggoth and myself. We realized that since being freed from your mountain prison you had obviously managed to contrive some sort of scheme to remain here in Tar Ta Rus.”

Maggoth stepped forward. “We also realized that you would obviously do everything in your power to regain possession of your cypherlette. Necessary procedures were done to make sure you never would. Now all creation may breathe a sigh of relief whilst your cypherlette and the Eldritch Blade remain forever in our safe care.”

“It is not over yet, Maggoth!” snarled Kronos. “Now that I have possession of Selestia’s cypherlette she will be unable to transport the Eldritch Blade away from here. “And have you so soon forgotten that I still have within myself the vast power of all the gold of the Kithian treasury?”

“Come!” shouted Groad beckoning towards Karta Kithlid and Leeja Fay. “It is time that we left this place!”

The emperor and Leeja Fay did not need a second invitation. They leaped through the hole in the wall.

“Son of Zemth!” shouted Kronos. Groad paused as he was about to exit through the hole in the wall. “You can run as fast and as far as you like but I shall yet pry the Eldritch Blade from your cold dead fingers.”

Kronos made a slight gesture with his hand and almost instantaneously an exclamation of amazement was heard from the other chamber. It had been the high pitched voice of Leeja Fay.

“What depraved maneuver have you implemented now?” growled Groad.

“I have merely taken the liberty to fulfill your great god Dakur’s curse.”

“What curse? What are you talking about?”

“Is it not said that if the Royal Burial Chamber is ever breached by unwelcome visitors, Dakur in a rage of fury will use his magnificent power to resurrect his finest warriors to amend the blasphemous desecration of his tomb?”

“What? No! You have not? Have you not a single iota of decency in your entire frame? This is sacrilege of the highest order!” Groad leaped through the hole in the wall.

Kronos started to laugh again. “Whatever, Kithian, whatever,” he chuckled to himself as he turned to face Maggoth and Selestia. “Now then, shall we finish this?”

Groad landed nimbly on his feet inside the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. Although expected, the sight that met him was still tremendously disturbing.

All ten of the golden mummified figures were clambering from the altars onto their feet.

Groad would have little time to act while the resurrected warriors were yet disoriented.

He was shocked at the expressions upon Karta Kithlid’s and Leeja Fay’s faces. They were smiling and overjoyed with excitement.

“Look, Groad!” shouted Leeja Fay raising her arms in front of one of the golden giants. “It is true! Dakur has sent his glorious power to save us!”

The ruby-eyed giant drew his sword and raised it above his head. Then he spoke.

“Death to the enemies of Kith! May their blood further temper the metal of our swords! Death to the enemies of the Empire! May Dakur grant us victory or suffer us to die with honour!”

Leeja Fay pointed to the hole in the wall. “There! Go do Dakur’s bidding my fine warrior! Deliver us from the evil of these Dark Wizards!”

“No!” shouted Groad rushing forward.

Just in time he managed to place himself between the priestess and the sword’s deadly arc. The blade crashed harmlessly against the back of Groad’s anakhenium coated armour.

The mummified giant raised his sword again and Groad reluctantly turned and swung the Eldritch Blade in a wide arc.

The mummified giant collapsed to the floor in two pieces.

“I do not understand!” said Leeja Fay in a state of utter confusion. “He tried to kill me. He tried to kill me, Dakur’s high priestess!”

Groad grabbed Leeja Fay’s right arm tightly. “Listen carefully to me! This is not Dakur’s doing! This is Kronos’ wretched sorcery!”

Leeja Fay nodded wide-eyed.

“You saved the priestess’ life!” exclaimed Karta Kithlid rushing to Groad’s side. “I am eternally grateful. How can I ever repay you?”

“By also remaining alive,” said Groad pushing the emperor aside as another gold encrusted figure advanced. “You and your priestess must stay behind me until an opportunity arises to make your escape up the stairs. I shall attempt to negate these resurrected champions.”

The nine remaining figures were becoming accustomed to their preserved limbs that had remained inoperative for such a lengthy period. Their movements were no longer unsteady and faltering, but becoming more fluid and natural. Swords drawn, they moved into a half circle formation in front of Groad.

“Not again!” chided Groad. “I have already been through a similar trial inside Maggoth’s keep, but this time the odds are all in my favour! Not only do I have the Eldritch Blade, but I am also indestructible.”

He did not wait for the golden warriors to make their move; instead he set upon attacking them. He waded into the centre of the group rotating the mystical sword above his head.

Bits and pieces of blade and golden armour fell to the ground next to bits and pieces of mummified heroes.

After a short time, when only two of the reanimated figures were left standing, Groad stopped, unable to continue his successful assault.

The eight warriors that had fallen beneath the terrible power of the Eldritch Blade had been unknown to Groad. It had been a simple task to destroy these nameless entities, but the remaining two were far from strangers.

Groad retreated slightly and was pleased to see that the remaining combatants had decided to keep their ground for the moment.

Even under Kronos’ powerful influence, it seemed as though Kith and Zemth were able to retain the qualities that had made them such fine warriors in life.

They gazed curiously through rosy lenses at the fragments of their fallen comrades and then at the short anakhenium coated skeleton in the spiky armour.

An idea came to Groad as he in turn studied their behaviour. The reactions reflected minds capable of analytical thought and deliberate planning. Perhaps somewhere in their befuddlement burned a small spark of reasoning, a quality that would make it possible for him to communicate with them.

Kith and Zemth moved away from each other. Groad recognized this simple strategy that would allow them to attack simultaneously from two different sides.

“Father,” said Groad raising his hand. “Please cease this foolishness. You cannot win and I have no desire to destroy you. If you wish to battle, you must rather fight to overcome the influence of the one who is now inhibiting your seduced and troubled mind.” A feeling of delight and accomplishment filled Groad as Zemth suddenly paused in his advance. “Yes! That is it! You can do it, father! You always were so…strong-willed.”

For an instant it seemed as though Zemth was about to say something, but then a scream came from behind Groad.

Leeja Fay had been startled by the figure that had risen to his feet behind her.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Bel Shedor holding his aching head as he looked about the chamber. “What is going on here?”

“What are you still doing here?” shouted Groad at the trio behind him. “Get out of here now while you yet may.”

The emperor and the priestess dashed towards the stairs.

“No!” shouted Bel Shedor drawing his sword. “I shall not take orders from any demonspawn. This all smells of vile sorcery to me! It would seem that the ambassador has been rather busy during my incapacitation.”

“You do not understand!” shouted Groad. “We need to get out of here now! Kronos wants the Eldritch Blade! It will not be long before he comes through that breach in the wall.”

Bel Shedor frowned. “Who is Kronos and what is the Eldritch Blade?”

Karta Kithlid paused at the top of the stairs and shouted at Bel Shedor, “He speaks the truth. We must make haste to leave this place.” He grabbed a torch from the wall at the top of the stairs. “Hurry!”

Bel Shedor watched as the emperor and Leeja Fay disappeared down the passage that led to the outer entrance. Then he also, although reluctantly, moved towards the steps.

“Coward,” said the enormous figure stepping in front of him. It was the first word that Kith had uttered in almost a millennium. The voice sounded deep, dusty and hollow like the inside of a large cave. “What sort of warrior would flee from a good fray?”

“My lord, Kith!” gasped Bel Shedor moving backwards. “I could never raise my sword against you in aggression! We are fellow Kithians!”

“I am neither your lord nor a Kithian. I am known only as Kith.” He raised his sword. “If you will not fight me, then you must prepare to die the death of a craven weakling!”

Bel Shedor managed to block the path of Kith’s sword with his own blade, but the sheer force of the blow sent him reeling to the floor.

“Ho, great Kith!” shouted Groad. The giant paused in his follow up attack and turned towards Groad. “What sort of warrior are you! Only a coward would choose to battle against the frail and aged.”

Kith’s ruby eyes reflected the light from the burning torches as he charged towards the short insolent armoured skeleton.

Groad nimbly stepped to the side and ducked beneath Kith’s swiping blade. In the same action he spun around and slammed the flat of his blade against the golden giant’s back.

The extra momentum had Kith off balance. He first crashed into and then careened over one of the altars. He fell rudely and clumsily to the floor.

Groad rushed over to the wall and removed two of the torches.

“Here!” he said throwing one of the firebrands towards Bel Shedor. “Let us be out of here now!”

The reluctance in Bel Shedor’s actions had totally disappeared. He quickly picked up the torch and followed Dakur’s effigy up the stairs.

Groad paused at the top and looked down upon the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers.

Kith was on his feet again and moving with unnatural swiftness towards him.

Zemth was still stationary. He had remained so ever since the strange metallic skeleton with a familiar voice had called him father.

“Fool, what is wrong with you! How can you do nothing while the desecrators of Dakur’s most holy escape?” This time, the familiar nasal tone chilled Groad’s blood. He watched as Kronos floated through the hole in the wall.

The Dark Wizard, still clutching tightly onto Selestia’s cypherlette, pointed it upward at Groad and Bel Shedor. “After them you imbecile!”

With the same uncanny speed as Kith, Zemth rushed towards the stairs.

Groad prayed that the aged war council member, who was moving far too slow in front of him, knew the shortest and safest route back through the myriad of passages that formed the labyrinth between the burial chambers and the entrance.

He cursed himself as they moved down the dark bending corridors. He had been foolish allowing himself to be delayed for too long in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. Yet somehow he was unable to abandon the heads of the Kithian council to the mercy of Kronos’ evil schemes. With the future of all creation hanging in the balance, he hoped that the effort had been worth the risk.

Was it his imagination? Groad could swear, every time he looked to the rear, that he could see the faint glow of a bluish light.

“We are almost there,” said Bel Shedor gasping for breath.

“Are you certain?” Although it had felt like an eternity, Groad’s tone still hinted of skepticism.

“Yes! Yes! Quite certain! Just around the next corner! Are they following?”

Groad stopped and gazed back into the blackness. He held a breath and listened for any sign of movement.

At the far end of the long passage a blue sphere rounded the corner. Two golden warriors running abreast were following the glowing orb. Just behind the resurrected giants, sitting with his legs folded upon the air, floated Kronos.

“The elder gods preserve us!” said Groad turning to dash around the final corner.

For a brief moment he paused again. The sight that now met him was equally unpleasant.

He could see by the many oil lamps that lined the drawbridge that Bel Shedor had managed to reach the entrance, but the old warrior was pulling at the lever on the inside of the doorway.

As the gigantic stone slab began to lower, Bel Shedor stepped out onto the drawbridge and shouted back down the passageway, “If you will not return to the foul black pit from where you were spawned, then remain trapped in there for all eternity!” Then he turned and ran across the drawbridge towards the temple shouting, “Make haste and raise the drawbridge! Raise it now before it is too late!”

Groad knew that he could slice through the enormous slab with ease, but his pursuers would be upon him before he could complete the task. His only hope was to reach the entrance before it sealed.

Straining his leg muscles to their limit he sprinted down the passage. At the last moment, he flung himself forward in such a way so that he struck the ground parallel to the doorway. Stretching his body out straight whilst keeping his hands folded across his chest he rolled under the descending mass.

There was a sickening grating sound as the massive block crashed down upon his head. The spikes that protruded from the helmet were too elongated. Groad’s momentum pivoted the rest of his body safely through the narrow slit and onto the drawbridge, but his head remained pinned between the floor and the slab.

He thanked the elder gods that he and the helmet were coated with an indestructible layer of anakhenium.

He knew that it would be possible to pry his head free from the helmet, but in such an awkward position and with only one free hand he would be unable to obtain the necessary leverage to complete the task.

Groad unwillingly placed the Eldritch Blade next to his side on the drawbridge. The spikes on either side of the helmet acted as fulcrums that allowed him a slight amount of twisting motion. He turned his head until he was able to look back down the corridor. The intensity of the blue glow was increasing swiftly.

Pushing against the base of the helmet with both hands he began to twist his head from side to side.

He almost cried out as a huge golden gloved hand reached underneath the slab and grabbed his breastplate. He knew by the sheer size of the fist that clenched tightly to his body armour that it could only belong to Kith.

The strength of the resurrected patriarch was most impressive. Groad just managed to bring his knee up against the side of the slab in time. If he had not done this, Kith would easily have dragged and twisted him back through onto the other side.

As Kith’s other hand took hold of Groad’s breastplate, he noticed two more large golden hands groping towards his legs.

Groad was pleased that the crimson-eyed warriors were too large to fit through the gap under the slab, but now he quickly realized that if Zemth also managed to gain a proper hold on him, they would have no problem dragging him back onto their side.

He stretched his arm out in an attempt to grab the Eldritch Blade, but before his fingers could find the sword the drawbridge began to lift.

At first he found the experience unsettling, but was quick to fathom that this was an unexpected blessing in disguise.

He hastily hooked his free leg over the rising platform and using its greater force as leverage, managed to pull free from the clutching hands. An instant later his head popped out of the helmet and he clambered onto the upper side of the ascending construction.

Another wave of anxiety passed over him as the Eldritch Blade started to slide down the incline.

“No! No! No!” he shouted moving at an uncontrolled pace down the slope in a desperate attempt to arrest the mystical sword’s passage.

Groad was far too busy watching the path of the sliding blade to notice that his frenzied and boisterous actions were about to cause a further dilemma.

The ten mighty muscular eunuchs that were each positioned on a spoke of the enormous wooden wheel that controlled the raising of the drawbridge turned towards the origin of the vociferation.

Their strength waned and their faces paled as they gazed in utter terror upon the strange horror that advanced towards them down the half-raised ramp. Then, as one, they abandoned their positions at the wheel and fled into the rear entrance of the temple.

Groad had almost managed to reach the sword when the swiftly collapsing drawbridge struck the narrow ledge in front of the mountainside entrance.

The force of the collision cracked the ledge and sent a shockwave back across the wooden structure.

Groad was thrown into the air, striking the bridge once before bouncing over the side.

Once again his renowned reflexes moved into action as his left arm shot out and his hand gripped tightly onto one of the metal lamp holders that lined the edge of the elongated construction.

He was trying to clamber back up onto the drawbridge when the massive stone blocking the entrance to the burial chambers disintegrated in a shower of stone and fiery blue flame.

Through the dust and onto the walkway strode Kronos, his hands outstretched. Behind him followed Kith and Zemth.

The Dark Wizard’s livid countenance changed to one of amazement as he spotted the Eldritch Blade lying unattended halfway across the drawbridge.

“No!” shouted Groad as he watched Kronos move swiftly towards the sword.

The short bald figure was even more surprised to find Groad dangling on the edge. He walked over and gazed down contemptuously.

“Well! Well! Look at the great Son of Zemth now!” Kronos raised an open palm towards Groad. “I might not be able to destroy you, but I can certainly make sure that you are no longer capable of hindering my plans.”

Groad turned his head away in expectation of the scorching burst of energy. He knew that the blast would pose no significant threat to his indestructible covering, but he would be pounded into the moat below where he would be trapped and unable to stop Kronos.

The Dark Wizard lowered his arm. “Unfortunately, I cannot afford to waist another iota of energy upon your annoying metallic frame.” He turned towards the resurrected giants. “Feed this bothersome fool to the slarks then join me at the shrine. I may have need of your golden skins!” He turned and walked towards the Eldritch Blade.

Zemth and Kith appeared above Groad.

Hanging by his left hand he watched as his assailants raised their swords high. He quickly drew his own blade from the anakhenium-coated sheath strapped around his waist.

He managed to deflect Kith’s sweeping blade away from his head so that it embedded itself deep into the edge of the wooden draw-bridge, but the force of the blow knocked his own blade from his hand. It disappeared into the darkness below just before the splash was heard.

He raised his open right hand as Zemth’s sword descended. The sword struck his palm and he closed his fist tightly over the double cutting-edged metal.

Kronos had retrieved the mystical sword from where it lay. He turned to see how his minions were managing with the miniscule task he had imposed upon them.

Zemth was struggling to free his blade from Groad’s grip and Kith was struggling to free his from the wooden drawbridge.

The Dark Wizard was still shaking his head despondently when the narrow ledge supporting the drawbridge gave way. The large metal hooks onto which the chains were fastened tore free from the softer wooden base.

The massive frame of the ramp, only being supported by the two huge metal rings that acted as hinges on the opposite end, swung downward and into the deep unnatural gorge.

The impact, as it struck the moat wall, sent a shower of flaming oil from the lamp holders into the air. It fell onto the water below and continued to blaze upon the murky surface.

Groad had managed to keep his grip on both the lamp holder as well as on the sharp end of his father’s sword. His father had managed to keep his grip upon the sword’s handle, and Kith had somehow managed to gain a grip on Zemth’s golden boot.

Kronos had remained standing in the exact same spot as he had before the drawbridge collapsed. As he levitated above the moat, he gazed down smiling at the three figures dangling on the suspended platform.

Far below, the slarks had become wary of the activity that was taking place on the collapsed drawbridge. They were clambering on top of each other in the hope of being the first to crush their slashing mandibles into one of the swinging figures above.

Kronos floated down closer to the trio. “What a pathetic breed you Kithian’s are! Just look at yourselves! Son, father and patriarch! You expend all your time and energy trying to attain the ultimate death, yet here you are trying so desperately to hang onto your imitation of life. Your ideals are so confusing that I even doubt that you truly understand them yourselves!

“But now you must forgive me. I can waste no further time discussing useless Kithian philosophy. I bid you all farewell! I leave you to your destiny while I must go to mine!” He floated up out of the moat and disappeared into the temple.

Why Groad had chosen not to release his hold on his father’s sword was no mystery.

These reanimated heroes were being forced against their will to attack him. But more importantly, the words that had been inscribed by Zemth in Groad’s Ana Iram necklace were still fresh in his mind.

Both Groad’s hands and arms were aching incredibly from the strain of supporting himself as well as Zemth and Kith. He knew that he would not be able to hold on for much longer.

If he released the lamp holder they would all plummet into the slark-infested water, but if he were to release his grip on the sword then he might still stand the slightest chance of stopping Kronos.

Looking down Groad spoke in a sorrowful yet sincere tone.

“Forgive me father for what I must do, but all of creation hangs in the balance.”

Zemth’s ruby eyes seemed to lose their condemning glare. They appeared to be more sympathetic. Then for the first time in almost twenty cyclans Zemth spoke. “Groad? Is that really you, my son?”

Groad felt his eyes filling with blood. “Yes, father, it is I. I am so sorry to disappoint you.”

“Fear not, Groad! I understand fully, but I could never allow you to bear such a heavy burden. Just remember that I have always loved you and am most proud of you! Farewell my son!”

Zemth released his grip on the sword’s handle.

“Father!” cried Groad as he watched Zemth and Kith falling towards the snapping mandibles.

As they struck the surface of the slime-caked water it began to froth and splash fiercely as the hungry slarks battled each other for the right to devour the strange gold-covered prey.

The last thing that Groad saw breaking the slime-caked surface of the water was Kith’s decapitated, but still helmeted head. It rotated slowly and released a large bubble of air before sinking again.

Groad hastily placed his father’s sword in his now vacant scabbard and pulled himself up onto the lamp holder. By pressing the spikes on his wristbands, knees and boots into the wood he found that he was able to climb up the suspended drawbridge with relative ease and swiftness.

As he leapt onto the solid stone ground he remembered that Kronos had spoken of going to the shrine.

The Dark Wizard placed the Eldritch Blade upon the altar. “At last,” he said looking up towards the temple ceiling and the large circular opening through which the moon shone down its cold brilliant light. “Ah! A full moon tonight! A good omen!”

“Perhaps, but not for you!”

Kronos spun around. “Groad?” The Dark Wizard exhaled in frustration. “Groad! Groad! Groad! I have never met anyone quite so persistent! What do I have to do to stop you?”

“No! Not Groad! That is what my friends call me! You may call me Son of Zemth!”

“And just what has become of your father and forefather. Where are the great Zemth and Kith now?”

“Dead! Truly dead! Dead as the cold black heart that lies in your chest!”

“What a pity. Just when I was about to complete your happy little family reunion.”

Groad found the Dark Wizard’s relaxed tone and air of confidence disturbing. He knew that the Dark Wizard was about to implement his final ploy.

Kronos forced a note of false despair into his irritating nasal tone. “Guards! Guards! Make haste! There is an evil demonspawn set upon destroying me!”

The shammar had been given specific orders not to leave their posts at the temple’s main entrance. Up to now they had managed to obey their orders rather commendably.

They had remained motionless as they stared in wonder as their emperor, the high priestess, the chief of the war council and ten mighty muscular eunuchs had rushed past them in the direction of the royal palace.

They had not moved even when their curiosity had been strained to the limit by the series of loud disturbing noises that had echoed across the great hall.

But now with the familiar voice of the emperor’s official advisor and key bearer calling for their aid, they turned to look at each other.

The decision was silent and unanimous.

Drawing their swords they rushed into the temple.

They swiftly crossed the great hall towards the shrine and stopped dead in their tracks as the figure in the spiked armour turned to face them.

All, but two of the shammar took a step backward as they gazed upon the strange horror with the grinning metallic skull.

The two, instead, moved forward past the rest towards the abomination.

“What manner of vile creature are you?” asked the first pointing his sword.

“Return from where you came or be prepared to feel the edge of our cold blades!” warned the second doing likewise.

Groad felt as though he was gazing upon the surface of a wondrous magical mirror; a mirror that was able to reveal a double image of his former likeness; a likeness that had been captured from the past; from a time long before his unfortunate and untimely demise.

Although a lot younger, he also appeared much taller.

“Groadlid? Zemth?” he exclaimed. “Yes! By the elder gods! It is you two! How you have both grown!”

The two shammar looked at each other and then back at the metallic skeleton.

“You insult and deride me by using my gruntling name!” said the first one.

“Only a demonspawn would know our names!” added the second.

“Only a demonspawn would use such base tactics to throw us off guard!” snarled the young Groad.

“Prepare to meet the awesome fury of the Sons of Groad!” hissed the young Zemth.

Groad’s nonexistent lips stretched taught in a very wide smile. Not only was he proud of this valiant display of bravado, but it was also very evident to Groad that his sons had absolutely no discomfiture existing in their father’s shadow.

“The Sons of Groad, hey?” asked the Son of Zemth forcing a tone of sarcasm into his voice. “Well it would seem that such a fine warrior has failed to teach you the most important lessons in life.”

“And what lessons would those be?” asked the young Zemth.

Never be overconfident or you may underestimate your foe’s capabilities. The second is just as important. Be certain that you are always able to distinguish friend from foe. In the heat of battle, if you should allow the red-eye to dominate your emotions and actions, it is easy to become confused.”

“Your advice has truth and soundness,” said the young Groad, “But I believe you are only trying to confuse us with more of your base tactics! You have tried to harm the chief advisor and key bearer. You will pay dearly for your insidious actions!”

Groad knew that it would be impossible to convince the shammar that the true evil stood behind him next to the altar. He also knew, that although he was indestructible, they would still be able to obstruct him from reaching Kronos and the Eldritch Blade. Their sheer weight of numbers would be sufficient to check his advance.

He gazed at the thirty faces in front of him. Despite there apprehensiveness, he could see that they were yet willing to fight to the death for the glory of their emperor and empire.

There was only one possible solution to his dilemma.

He reached for the anakhenium-coated wine sack that was strung over his shoulder. He removed its stopper. “Excuse me while I refresh myself. All this recent heated activity has left me bone dry.” He lifted the container high before pouring the contents over his head as well as upon the blade of his newly acquired sword. “Ah, now that feels so much better!”

The clear viscous substance ran down over the armour, dripping from the sharp spikes.

Groad raised his sword and beckoned them to advance. “Come now! Let us see how well you remember your father’s lessons in the art of swordsmanship! Are you quite prepared to do the beautiful Dance of Death?”

The Sons of Groad wasted no time in proceeding to attack the metallic horror.

The Son of Zemth bobbed and ducked as he blocked the swinging blades with his own sword.

He returned the attack and was delighted in the skillful maneuvers used to parry his assault.

Both sons’ proficiency in wielding a blade was found to be satisfactory and impressive. They were performing most adequately in what they positively believed to be their first true baptism of fire. They also assumed that this could well be their last, for surely only death or victory could be the final outcome of this battle.

Groad wished that he could prolong the fray in order to study the extent of their capabilities, but circumstance was not going to allow it to be so.

From the corner of his eye, he could see that Kronos had begun to perform, what could only be, the final act of charging the Eldritch Blade.

The Dark Wizard was standing at the head of the altar with his hands stretched out over the mystical sword. Streams of violent blue energy were flowing out of his palms and down onto the blade.

The blade, like some insatiable sponge, was absorbing the energy into itself.

Groad purposely dropped his guard, allowing the young Zemth to thrust forward unchecked. The lunge was perfect. The blade passed between the gap in his amour beneath the breastplate. At the same moment Groad rammed the back of his wrist into the unprotected area of his son’s armpit. The sharp spikes on the wristband penetrated into the soft flesh drawing blood.

The young Zemth retreated. He placed a hand over the wounded area and repressed the desire to cry out even though the lesion was stinging painfully with a strange inflamed sensation.

The young Groad gave his twin a quick concerned glance before continuing his attack.

His brother’s sword had done no discernible damage to the prancing demonspawn. Perhaps it was possible to destroy the vile creature by separating the grinning skull from the rest of its body.

The Son of Zemth knew that his other son’s assault would have to be high.

As the blade arced towards his neck he dropped swiftly down onto his knees and swung his sword against the young Groad’s heel with just sufficient force to slice through the leather boot and the flesh beneath.

But now he had placed himself in a vulnerable position. He just managed to raise his arm in time to check the powerful blow.

He was sent sprawling across the floor.

The rest of the shammar found their courage renewed at the sight of the downed abomination.

They wasted no time falling upon him. Their numbers were over-powering but prevented any further swordplay, as it was evident that they would possibly injure each other in the frantic flurry.

It had worked out better for Groad than he had planned. His assailants were having difficulty obtaining a decent grip on his barbed coverings. Some had even injured themselves in the process.

He let go of his sword and started to lash out with the spikes. He kicked, twisted and punched his way through the disorganized ranks of his assailants. By the time he managed to get to his feet again, not a single shammar had gone unscathed. They were all pierced and bleeding from superficial wounds caused by the sharp anakhenium-coated spikes.

“What have you done to me, demonspawn?” asked the young Zemth, his face turning ashen. “I am unable to move!”

The young Groad had also become immobile. “My arms!” he cried through bluish-purple lips. “I am unable to raise my arms.”

The entire party of thirty shammar, starting with the sons of Groad, first dropped their swords and then collapsed onto the temple floor.

Groad smiled. His plan had worked perfectly. He had known that sooner or later the venom milked from the large pile of screecha heads would come to be useful.

He had managed to incapacitate these Kithians without the need to maim or kill them. They would recover in time without any permanent damage, except maybe that of the harm done to their pride and confidence.

It was also apparent that his plan for Daleth to create a diversion in the valley had somewhat thinned the ranks of the shammar, otherwise he would have had to deal with far more than just these thirty warriors.

Groad quickly retrieved his fallen sword whilst glancing across towards Kronos.

Beneath the Dark Wizard’s hands the Eldritch Blade was starting to emit a reddish glow, as if it had just been pulled from a black-smith’s blast furnace.

As he rushed towards the altar, the blade began to rise point first into the air.

The luminescence changed from red to orange.

“Damn you, Kronos!” Groad dove across the altar. His left hand closed tightly around the mystical sword’s handle.

“You are too late, Kithian!” The Dark Wizard fell to his knees. “It took far more energy than I realized, but the deed is done!” Kronos collapsed forward onto his face.

“No!” shouted Groad as he felt himself lifted into the air. “I will stop you yet!”

The orange glow turned to a bright yellow.

The Son of Zemth knew that it would be futile using his own sword against the cutting edge of the Eldritch Blade, but perhaps striking the flat of the blade would provide some sort of positive result. Still rising into the air with the handle of the Eldritch Blade in one hand and his own sword in the other, he swung with all his might.

A fountain of sparks fell towards the floor as his sword connected.

The bright yellow turned to a brilliant white radiance.

Groad looked down in order to protect his eyes from the glare. Kronos and the altar had become somewhat diminished in size. It was only now that he became aware that he was being lifted towards the circular opening in the ceiling of Dakur’s Temple.

He swung his sword again.

There was another shower of sparks, brighter than the first, but at the same time the Eldritch Blade began to twist and coil as would some trapped living serpent. A moment later it separated from the anakhenium handle.

Groad fell hard and flat onto the altar. His unbreakable spikes sent fragments of the large rectangular-shaped stone scattering across the floor.

His skull had also slammed solidly against the surface, but although coated with an indestructible layer it could not prevent the brain within from being severely shaken.

He looked up, his mind dazed and confused from the impact. The last sight he saw before the blackness enveloped him was the sight of a bright blue-white shooting star moving across the night sky. He had seen many of them before, but this one appeared to be moving upwards and towards the moon.

“Groad! Groad!” The Son of Zemth heard Maggoth’s voice through the thick swirling blackness. “Can you hear me! Wake up! You must try to wake up!”

“But I am awake,” thought Groad. “I hear you, but I can not see you.” He forced his eyes to gaze beyond the murkiness.

The darkness itself took shape, metamorphosing into a black cape. At the top of the cape formed the pale ragged visage of Maggoth.

Selestia’s concerned countenance appeared next, and behind her were six more staring faces, all belonging to large muscular temple eunuchs.

“Open your eyes, Groad!” said Maggoth slapping the side of the grinning skull.

“Stop that!” shouted Groad holding onto his head. “My eyes are open!”

The six faces to the rear of Maggoth disappeared.

“Wait!” shouted the sorceress as the group fled towards the temple exit. “We may require your assistance!”

Her cries were in vain. The eunuchs had not yet fully recovered from the traumatic experience of being encased together in a large crimson megornex.

“Let them be,” said Maggoth waving an arm. “They have endured more than enough this night.”

“What of Kronos?” asked Groad.

Maggoth pointed to the area behind Groad’s head.

The Son of Zemth sat up and grimaced. He swung his legs over the edge of the altar.

On the stone floor lay a blue-coloured megornex.

Within the azure gemstone, beneath folded hands, rested Selestia’s cypherlette upon the bald figure’s chest.

“Slark slime!” exclaimed Groad. “Does he think to escape my wrath by hiding inside one of those mystical jewels?” Groad grabbed his skull. “Oh, my head hurts terribly!” He narrowed his eyes at Selestia. “It would seem that you too have suffered much pain.”

Selestia moved around to the other side of the altar in order to get a better look at Kronos. “Yes, we have taken much punishment, but we shall soon recover.”

“You have been wounded.” Groad pointed at the sorceress’ head. “You are bleeding.”

“What? Impossible!” exclaimed Selestia rubbing a hand across her forehead. She stared disbelieving at the glutinous sanguine fluid on her fingertips. She gazed up at Maggoth unblinking. “How very strange. This has never happened to any of us before.”

“It is most probably due to our depleted energies,” said Maggoth staring back. “In all our existence, we have never quite been in such an advanced state of weakness. We shall have to find gold soon in order to strengthen and heal ourselves.”

Selestia walked over to Kronos’ megornex and placed her hand upon the surface.

The area directly beneath her hand rippled as it liquefied. She slowly pushed her arm into the viscous material. It made a sucking noise as she retracted, pulling her cypherlette free.

As she turned away with her prize, the surface of the giant gemstone once more solidified.

Only now did Groad notice that she held both his spiked helmet and the handle of the Eldritch Blade in her other hand. He spoke softly. “I am afraid that we...I have failed to prevent all of creation’s destruction.”

Maggoth placed a hand on Groad’s arm. “I am sure that you did your best, but fear not for the battle is far from over. We still have one more opportunity to persevere.”

“What do you mean? Explain yourself!”

“Rava Zool will be weakened by the effort needed to return to Baltrath. If we are able to find him and confront him before he has had sufficient time to replenish his power we may yet be able to defeat him.”

Selestia stepped forward. “Have you forgotten the Dark Prophecy?” She held out the helmet towards Groad. “There are certain important events that must still come to pass.”

Groad took the helmet and pretended to disregard the sorceress’ statement. “What does the Great Dragon require to replenish his power?” he asked getting clumsily to his feet.

Maggoth frowned. “Why, the very same source as us, of course. Gold.”

“So, now not only do you need to find the Great Dragon before he has enough power to bring about the great destruction, but you will also need to find enough gold in order to prevail?”

“Correct.”

“And just how do you intend to accomplish this?”

“I have a plan.”

“What?” shouted Karta Kithlid jumping to his feet. He pointed a fleshy finger at the Dark Wizard. “Do you think me insane or a fool? It was through your deceptions and deceitfulness that our great burial tombs have been desecrated…destroyed!”

Maggoth shook his head slowly in despair. “Have you not listened to a single word that has been spoken? The whole of creation lies in the balance! Once Rava Zool is through, none of this will remain! No tomb! No Tar Ta Rus! No Kithian Empire! No Baltrath!”

“You lied before to get your way! How can I believe that this is not just another extension of your deceitfulness?”

“I would think that Kronos’ declaration inside the tomb would have been proof enough to convince you of our sincerity.”

Groad stepped forward. He had once more chosen to conceal his skeletal form. Selestia had been kind enough to entrust him with her cape and cowl. Although the Royal Kithian Council knew only too well what lay beneath the grey coverings, he had felt it would make them less nervous and hopefully more cooperative towards Maggoth’s request. His voice exited loud and clear from the obscuring shadow of the hood.

“My emperor, did you not declare that you would be eternally grateful to me for saving your lives within the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers?”

“In the heat of the confusion I may have made some incoherent or foolish utterances.”

“I believe them,” said Leeja Fay. “And an emperor’s word should be trustworthy. I say we should help them!”

“No!” shouted Bel Shedor. “We can never allow ourselves to assist any who ply the dark arts. What sort of example shall we be, the leaders of the great Kithian empire, if we help these sorcerers and their demonspawn?”

Maggoth pointed at the Son of Zemth. “It would please us greatly if you would refrain from calling Groad a demonspawn. None have fought more determinedly or bravely this night to protect not only your glory, but also your very existence. If any Kithian deserves the honour of the Golden Sleep it is he!”

Groad shifted his body about uneasily. “Please, Maggoth, there is no need for you to defend my reputation before these ungrateful fools.”

Maggoth now waved a condemning finger between Karta Kithlid and Bel Shedor. “Whatever your decision, I have great fear for Tar Ta Rus. If my assumptions are correct, then Rava Zool will be sure to come calling on your great city in the clouds.”

“What do you mean?” sputtered the emperor nervously. “Why would he do such a thing?”

“For the very same reason that we are standing here before you now. He needs the gold that you will be able to accumulate. The only difference is that he will not have the decency, like us, to request your assistance. You may be certain that if his demands are not met, the damage rendered to your precious tomb will be miniscule in comparison to the destruction he will cause to the rest of Tar Ta Rus.”

Selestia walked towards the throne room’s exit. She beckoned towards Maggoth and Groad. “Come, we waste valuable time. It is evident that we shall not be able to convince these imbeciles. We shall hopefully fare better across the border with the Royal Artanian Council.”

“Wait!” shouted Leeja Fay. “Please allow us to discuss the matter in private. I am sure that some sort of arrangement can be met that will satisfy all parties present.”

Maggoth was about to reply when the chief of the shammar made a hasty and unannounced entrance. “My lord,” he said in a flustered tone. “I bring grave news regarding the zin-za that attacked the market place at Gu Kazor Dee.”

“What is it, Mallaki?” asked the emperor irritated. “You have a small army of Kith’s elite warriors at your command. Surely you must have cut down the ignorant brute by now?”

“I fear not, my lord! I had to order them to refrain from attacking the beast!”

“What?”

“It would appear that it is not quite as ignorant as we have been taught to believe.”

“Explain yourself!” shouted Bel Shedor.

“Just as we were preparing to fire a volley of shafts at the creature it managed to grab hold of a small female gruntling. We were unable to attack the creature without the possibility of harming the Valacian whelp.”

“A Valacian gruntling?” queried the emperor.

“Yes, my lord! She was probably in the company of one of the many Valacian merchants in the marketplace.”

“Where is the beast now?”

“It fled into the darkness with its prize.”

“By the elder gods!” exclaimed Karta Kithlid, his face turning red from anger and frustration. “Do you have any idea of the damage this is going to do to morale as well as our foreign relations? When word gets around that Kith’s shammar have not only failed to slay a dumb zin-za, but have also allowed it to slaughter a small innocent Valacian whelp, we shall become the derision of all Baltrath.”

The chief of the shammar was about to say something, but Maggoth interrupted. “I am afraid that the Valacian whelp is not quite as innocent as you may be led to believe.”

There was a short puzzled silence before the emperor spoke again. “What are you talking about?”

“I think perhaps you should know the whole truth about this particular zin-za and its...prize.”

The members of the Royal Kithian Council frowned at each other before looking back at the Dark Wizard.

The emperor waved a hand at Maggoth. “Continue!”


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