The Dark Wizards

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The Return to Bryntha

Groad cursed the tonality of his newly acquired voice. It was overly nasal. It reminded him too much of the one being he hated most in the entire universe. Every time he spoke he would hear that exact same whining pitch that had emanated from between Kronos’ large fleshy lips.

Maggoth had felt this last item of Groad’s disguise quite necessary to make the deception complete. The operation had been fairly simple and relatively painless. The Dark Wizard had pointed a spindly finger at Groad’s neck. A bolt of the familiar blue flame had struck the vertebrae just beneath the flapping jaw. There had been a little coughing and discomfort as the vocal chords contracted and rearranged themselves. Maggoth had smiled, being most pleased with the end result. Turpane, on the other hand, was more than pleased. She found it to be hilarious. Groad’s curses and threats, which he had then spewed in vast quantity at the young Valacian whelp, helped only to further her uncontrollable fits of laughter.

The Son of Zemth, despondent and realizing that his new voice lacked the aggressive timbre needed to add that much needed tone of severity and seriousness to his verbal warnings, had resolved not to utter another sound unless absolutely necessary.

The rest of his disguise had been almost as easy to accomplish and had required no more special services from the master of the dark arts. Groad had felt it best to strap the new blade around his waste. Strapped on his back it was a sure giveaway as not many Kithians chose to wear their swords in that particular fashion. Fortunately, being of Artanian design, it was much shorter than his old weapon.

The rain pelted against the bandages covering Groad’s eternal grinning visage. He pushed a gloved finger into the thin slit across his eyes trying to improve his handicapped peripheral vision. Although low, the sun was shining brightly in the western sky. The storm clouds above were unleashing a bombardment of unusually large raindrops that glistened like precious jewels as they refracted the sun’s rays. The combination of light and moisture had created another magnificent spectacle; a fully formed double-rainbow shimmered against the dark purple clouds producing a colourful halo some distance behind and above the two horses and their three riders.

The Son of Zemth was anything but impressed by these dazzling scenes.

“By the elder gods!” hissed Groad at Maggoth. “Is this really necessary?”

“But of course, Kithian! What sort of a welcome do you think we could expect from your home village if they witnessed a reanimated corpse riding down their main road?”

“Dakur’s eyes, sorcerer! I am not talking about these irritating coverings! I was referring to this infernal rain of yours! It is causing the bandages to cling to my face, making the hideous features below more prominent.”

“Here,” said the Dark Wizard handing over his wide rimmed hat to Groad. “This should give you enough protection until my herald has accomplished its desired effect.”

“Which is?”

“To intimidate and terrify.”

“If that is the effect you wish to acquire,” said Turpane who was seated on the saddle in front of Groad, “Then maybe Groad should ride in without the bandages.”

The ancient immortal smiled.

“This is where I was born and bred!” growled Groad using both hands to pull the ebony leather hat down onto his head. “No other village in the empire has managed to provide as many fine warriors for the Kithian militia as Bryntha. You will not find the inhabitants here as easily intimidated as the whining rabble of Frybur.”

Groad was right. The Kithian inhabitants went about their daily chores not even noticing that the storm, which had accompanied the small party of three into the midst of Bryntha, was of unnatural origin.

Stranger company than a bandaged figure, a Valacian whelp and a white-bearded old man had passed along this road before.

The Dark Wizard seemed despondent.

Groad chuckled to himself as he scanned the many familiar faces scurrying about trying to avoid the unexpected rainfall. He wished he could stop some of them and talk. He had so many questions to ask.

An incredible melancholy descended upon him as he reminded himself once more that it was mere circumstance that had brought him back to the place he had once called home. He could never and must never reveal to anyone the horrendous remains that lay concealed beneath the bandages, let alone the fact that they belong to what was once the vibrant Son of Zemth.

Groad knew it would be best if he never saw any of his family members again, but he needed to know that, at least, it was well with them all. He felt the anger rising inside him as he thought of Kronos. It was Kronos who had been the cause of his untimely, useless death. It was Kronos who had destroyed his hopes for the Golden Sleep. It was Kronos that had prevented him from entering Dakur’s hallowed gates. And it was Kronos that had stolen his hard-earned gold that had been collected over the past four cyclans; the gold that was intended to be brought to his family as a triumphant homecoming gift. Now he had nothing. With a snap of his neck, Kronos had taken it all away. Gone forever were his life, dreams, hopes, happiness, body, gold and family.

Immortal or not; Dark Wizard or not; Groad was going to do everything in his limited power to have his vengeance on the small bald man. After all, he had absolutely nothing else to lose.

Groad made a silent vow to himself and the elder gods, that once the necessary task here had been completed, he would never again return to Bryntha.

The Son of Zemth brought his mount to a halt outside the local grog-house. He lowered Turpane to the ground before dismounting himself.

“Have you forgotten something?” asked Maggoth.

“Such as?” queried Groad handing the reins to Turpane. She tethered the horse to a rail next to the steps leading up to the grog-house door.

“Neither you nor I have any need of libation.”

“I am fully aware of that, wizard, but there is one of us who does. I was more concerned about the whelp’s well-being. It has been a while since she last partook of some sustenance. Beside alcoholic beverages, this place serves the best Kithian fare in the empire. This will also be the most ideal place to obtain the information we need concerning the screechas.”

“Hmm, I think it is more of an instinctive trait of Kithian barbarians to be drawn to such establishments of ill repute.” The Dark Wizard made a swirling gesture. The rain immediately ceased to fall. “I believe we should use this indifferent attitude of your villagers to our advantage.”

“How so?” asked Groad watching the rapidly dissipating storm clouds.

Maggoth dismounted. “Perhaps they will be more receptive to us if they remain ignorant to the fact that I am a master of the so-called dark arts.”

“I agree,” said Groad ascending the smoothly worn wooden steps.

Turpane followed quickly behind Groad. “I am starving,” she blurted. “What sort of food do they serve in this place?”

“Only the best bumba stew this side of the Chaxer-Ran.”

“What?” she exclaimed halting in her tracks.

“Just joking girl,” smiled Groad walking into the grog-house. “Just joking!”

They found a large empty table in a corner where the lighting was subdued. The less attention they attracted, the better.

Groad examined the large interior, studying the gregarious congregation. The grog-house was about a quarter full, and only half of these were Kithian.

To the right was a large group of Valacian merchants haggling over the prices of their fine linen with some of the local female traders. In the centre of the room sat a large party of Artanian mercenaries. They were playing some form of Artanian gambling game that required the use of several carved, engraved and polished grohara vertebrae.

The group that interested Groad the most was a rowdy bunch of Tsaltians in the far corner. They were easily recognizable by their grey skins and circular patterned facial tattoos. They were obviously all inebriated and in a very cheerful mood. In the centre of their table lay the severed head of a screecha. The group was passing around two other screecha heads. Some pretended affection towards the hideous creatures by kissing them or pouring ale into the lifeless gaping maws, whilst others would use them as a ventriloquist’s doll, moving the bottom jaw whilst making some hilarious comment.

“Ha!” laughed Groad slapping the table. “Tsaltians! They are always great sport to have around.”

“Yes,” said Turpane sarcastically. “I can see why you would say that. You certainly seem to have a lot in common with them, especially your obsession with dead things.”

“Welcome to Bryntha!” The grog-house waitress stepped in front of Groad, blocking his view. “What will you weary travelers be wanting?”

“Sustenance and information,” said Groad leering out from beneath the dark rimmed hat.

Kithians, male or female, were not renowned for using tact.

“What happened to you?” asked the waitress grimacing at the sight of Groad’s bandaged head. “Stick your nose where you should not have?” She smiled with only the right side of her face.

Groad felt adrenaline coursing through nonexisting veins.

“My unfortunate companion,” said Maggoth placing his hand on Groad’s shoulder, “was a victim of the magg frata mu dakur.”

Groad’s muscles made uncontrollable spasms. The waitress took a step backwards. She had a look of utter horror and disgust on her face.

“It is quite all right now,” said the Dark Wizard reassuringly. “I am his personal healer. He is completely cured. There is absolutely no possibility of you or anyone else becoming infected.”

“I have never heard of anyone surviving the magg frata mu dakur,” said the waitress sounding unconvinced.

“A cure has been found. A rare herb that is only found in the driest areas of Gu Irahal Ak. It is able to save the life but unfortunately leaves the victim hideously disfigured.”

Groad choked as his throat turned very dry. Turpane’s face was turning red as she pressed her lips hard together in an attempt not to laugh.

“Oh!” exclaimed the waitress stepping forward. “Really?” she said bending down. “Does he look very bad?” she asked trying to peer into the dark slit over Groad’s eyes. “The left hand side of my second husband’s face was badly mutilated during the Ten Cyclan War, but I thought it made him look even more handsome than before.”

Turpane stuck her head under the table, squashing her face into her lap to muffle her uncontrollable laughter.

“Let me repeat myself!” said Groad angrily. He sat back and lowered his head so that the hat’s brim blocked the waitress’ view of his bandaged face. “We are here for sustenance and information! Not idle conversation!”

The waitress stepped back again. This time she seemed hurt. Scrunching her face and pouting as though she had just tasted something violently sour. She narrowed her eyes and hissed acerbically, “Well, what sort of information is it that you would be wanting then?”

“Information about that,” said the reanimated Kithian pointing a gloved finger towards the Tsaltian’s table.

“I should have guessed!” she exclaimed folding her arms and glaring at the three patrons. “So you lot also want to try and earn a quick easy piece of gold or two?”

“Correct,” said Maggoth. “What is the latest price on a screecha head?”

“Ever since the Bryntharian council placed a reward on those vile creatures’ heads we have started to have all sorts of scum passing through our village. Sometimes they are even more of a problem than the bloodsucking beasts themselves.”

“And where do we find these bloodsucking beasts?” asked Groad.

“It is not as easy as you may think. Quite a few fortune seekers have been killed or come very close to it. We have had to burn or bury the remains of many that were a lot tougher than the likes of you. Do you know what their main problem was?”

“Yes, I do!” said the Son of Zemth irritably.

“You do, hey? And what would that be?”

“A dumb, unpredictable creature is far more dangerous than an intelligent one of predetermined behaviour. Your so called fortune seekers made the mistake of being over confident and therefore underestimated their quarry.”

Groad’s answer left the waitress momentarily speechless. She seemed highly impressed with his answer. Perhaps the important lessons that he had learned from his two unforgettable encounters with zin-zas had at last borne some fruit.

“You have not been listening to a single word,” said the waitress planting her hands firmly against the sides of her large waist and shaking her head. “Look at yourselves. An invalid, an old man and a female Valacian gruntling. What makes you think you will have any more success than some of the mercenaries, pirates or cutthroats that have failed? You have to be tough, even savage to overcome a screecha.”

“Do you have any idea who I am?” said Groad standing up. The anger and irritability gnawing at his loins was starting to get the better of him, causing him to act irrationally. “I am one of Kith’s greatest warriors. I am Gr…”

“Grell!” interrupted the Dark Wizard rescuing the situation. “Grell, the untamed!”

Although Groad was standing upright, he still found himself looking up at the waitress.

“Grell, the untamed? What sort of a name is that?” she sneered. “Never heard of you. You have no necklace of savden, your sword is Artanian and you are far too small to be Kithian.”

“Will you give us the information we seek or not?” hissed Groad through the bandages.

The waitress took a deep breath. “Very well then. The screecha nests are apparently situated in the ancient burial caves to the north of Bryntha, just beyond the small forest that divides us from Ana Rust Mountain. The Bryntharian Council has agreed to pay a bounty of one gold piece for every fresh screecha head brought in. The payments are made on a daily basis, right here in this very grog-house just shortly before sundown. Now maybe you can understand why the Tsaltians are in such a cheerful mood. Our village elder will be arriving with a pouch of gold at any moment now. So, what can I get you three to eat?” she said all this before taking another breath.

“Thank you!” exclaimed the Son of Zemth sitting down. “We will have bread, cheese, spiced vegetables, some pickled bresk and a flagon of milk.”

“And two large ales,” added the Dark Wizard winking at Groad. He leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Remember that we need to create a semblance of normalcy. We can always empty them out between the cracks in the floorboards.”

“Oh, yes. And two large ales,” repeated the Son of Zemth.

The waitress left, giggling and muttering to herself something about Grell, the untamed.

Groad turned viciously towards Maggoth. “The magg frata mu dakur?” he growled. “Are you out of your…”

“I apologize most profusely,” said the Dark Wizard sincerely. “I thought it would be the most effective way to guarantee our privacy. It was merely my intention to repel all curious company by the fear of not only the possibility of being infected by a dreaded deadly disease, but also by the fact that your features are somewhat repulsive to gaze upon.”

“That is right,” said Turpane. “How was Maggoth to know that Kithian women find abnormality attractive?”

“Abnormality? If she had to see what lies beneath these bandages she would probably…”

“She would probably fall madly in love with you,” interrupted the small Valacian smiling. “At least now we know that the possibility of anyone recognizing you is very unlikely.”

A large elderly Kithian entered the grog-house. He was wearing the chain and medallion of the village elder.

Groad immediately recognized him. It was Ublar Tar.

“Well, well, well,” muttered Groad folding his arms and sitting back. “It would appear that my father-in-law finally attained the coveted and honoured position of village elder.”

Maggoth and Turpane turned to look at the elderly Kithian. They watched as he momentarily delayed the waitress who was returning from behind the large wooden counter with the two ales. They had a short conversation wherein the waitress first directed Ublar Tar’s attention towards the Tsaltians and then towards Groad’s table. The village elder then lumbered off towards the Tsaltians who became even more rowdy when they noticed him approaching. They raised all three screecha heads, brandishing them proudly.

“I suppose that only makes you more determined to go ahead with your foolish plans?” said the waitress banging the tankards down in front of Groad and Maggoth. She walked off again. “But do not say that I did not try to warn you.”

Groad pulled the tankard closer and sniffed. Even for nonexistent olfactory organs the ale smelled incredibly inviting. The Son of Zemth could feel the excess wetness produced by his now overactive salivary glands building up beneath his tongue. He lifted the tankard.

“Do not even think about it,” instructed Maggoth. “You will only end up soiling your bandages.”

“Damn you!” growled Groad slamming the tankard down. Ale splashed all over the table. “Why have you done this to me? Surely you must have the power to make me complete? Is this your sick way of guaranteeing my assistance in your quest? By Dakur’s eyes, you are a Dark Wizard. Make me whole again!”

“Shush,” said Turpane looking about nervously. “Keep your voice down. You are going to draw attention to us.”

“Give me an answer, sorcerer,” hissed Groad through his teeth.

“I am afraid what you ask of me is impossible. To reanimate all of you, I need to have all of you. The rest of you has unfortunately passed through Daleth’s intestines. That which did not pass through is now a part of Daleth. And that which did pass through…well, the less said about that, the better.”

“I am warning you, girl,” growled Groad waving a finger at Turpane. “You make even so much as one small offensive insulting remark about that, and Maggoth will have a much more difficult task of putting you back together.”

“Besides the megornexes,” continued Maggoth, “We are unable to bring to life any inanimate objects. Although we are able to give articles such as stone or metal the semblance of life by making them levitate, we cannot endow them with any will of their own. Only that which was once alive is capable of being reanimated. This is done by forcing the original life force back into the dead organism. Then also, manipulating certain elements of these life forces makes it possible to control the organism. In that way it is possible to make it do my bidding.”

“So, that is how it was possible for Zarkas to attack me?”

“Exactly.”

“Then why have you not chosen to reanimate me in the same way as which you did Zarkas?”

“Because I learned an important lesson watching you destroy my undead generals. Without their entire freewill, they were unable to operate at the best of their fighting ability. Zarkas’ will was still too strong even after being denied the full use of his life force.

“I want you to understand something very important, Groad,” said the Dark Wizard solemnly. Your unfortunate condition is insignificant compared to the chaos that will reign if the Eldritch Blade and Rava Zool are once more reunited. You…we must all refrain from our petty quibbling. Kronos must be stopped at all costs. I fear many lives will be lost or changed forever in this unavoidable conflict. All life, not only on the face of Baltrath, but also across the entire spectrum of creation will be adversely affected. I have no desire to cause you concern, but there is only a minimal chance that any of us will survive the ordeal to come. Yes, even a Dark Wizard’s life force could be terminated by the vast amount of energies that will most assuredly be released in the battle to come. This is why it is so important that I obtain as much gold as possible before facing Kronos or, even worse, Rava Zool himself.

“Groad, although foolish at times, you have shown admirable qualities. Perhaps you should feel honoured that Kronos chose you to do his dirty work for him. It was not by mere chance that you were selected. He obviously and painstakingly must have studied not only your brave feats in your military career but also your questionable deeds as thief and pirate. Believe me, you were no random selection. Kronos chose well in sending the Son of Zemth to acquire the Eldritch Blade. Your intellect and cunning under times of trial and stress are unsurpassed. And now it is I who must use your services. But I am afraid that the battle to come dictates that bravery is an amenity that none of us can afford to possess. Bravery is a quality that can only be present in a situation where a choice can be made. You, unfortunately, do not have the luxury to make any choice. If you do nothing, Rava Zool will be victorious, yet if you decide to help there is still no guarantee of our victory. But at least this time you will have the opportunity to die a meaningful death.

“You may not have the choice to be brave, but you do have the choice to be a hero; the champion of all creation.”

“Your words are very dramatic, Maggoth. Very moving, but unfortunately unconvincing,” said Groad sneering. “I can not help but consider that your speech is not too uncommon from the one Kronos used back in the Fryburian ale-house to persuade me that it was also in my best interest to obtain the Eldritch Blade. Do not think my accompanying you to Bryntha is an indication that you should consider me an associate in your quest to regain your precious sword. Just because we have a common enemy, does not necessarily make us allies. I am still not convinced that this is not just another deceptive ploy; a conniving ruse fabricated in your black soul in some foolishly sick gruntling game played by you and these other alleged Dark Wizards. You must still earn my trust. And believe me, the trust of Groad, son of Zemth, is not easily earned.”

“Greetings travelers, and welcome to Bryntha,” said Ublar Tar stepping forward. “I am Ublar Tar, the village elder. I was wondering if I may partake of your company, if only for a short while?”

“We…uh..,” stuttered Groad.

“We would be honoured,” said Maggoth gesturing to Ublar Tar to be seated. “I am Makkud, a healer from the northern territories. These are my two traveling companions, Turpane from Frybur and…”

“Grell, the untamed or so the waitress tells me,” interrupted Ublar Tar sitting down. He stared intently at the dark slit in Groad’s bandages. “Forgive me, but I could not help overhearing you talking of the Son of Zemth. Do any of you happen to know the latest whereabouts of my son-in-law?”

“Um…well…uh…your son-in-law, hey? Perhaps you should first tell us what was the last information you received concerning that most formidable of warriors?” asked Groad sounding somewhat apprehensive.

“Well, the last account that I personally received was rather absurd and obviously totally false. A lone traveling merchant who passed through Bryntha quite some time ago said that he had heard that the Son of Zemth was…dead.”

Groad literally felt the already present tension in the air thicken like cream turning to butter.

“Dead? Ha! What utter nonsense!” scoffed Groad. Who would be capable of killing him?”

“Those are my very own thoughts, but according to the report, it was not a who but a what,” said Ublar Tar turning to look at Turpane. “You said this Valacian whelp is a Fryburian?”

“Correct,” said Maggoth.

“When were you last in Frybur?”

“Recently,” replied the wizard. “Just a few days ago. Why do you ask?”

“Because this traveler had also come from Frybur. He claimed that the Son of Zemth had met his demise in a cave on the village’s outskirts. He alleged that for many moons a zin-za had occupied the cave, terrorizing the local inhabitants. Groad had died trying to claim the reward for killing this zin-za.”

Groad and Maggoth turned to look at each other.

“Kronos!” they both exclaimed at the same time.

Maggoth nodded. “The only other being besides us who possesses that particular knowledge is Kronos.”

“By the elder gods!” shouted Groad angrily slamming down a gloved fist. More ale splashed onto the table. He stood up. “What did I ever do to that slark-slime to deserve his incessant annoyances?”

“What ails you stranger?” asked Ublar Tar looking rather perturbed.

“It is one of the reasons they call him, Grell, the untamed,” said Turpane smiling gingerly up at the village elder.

Groad had been so very wrong. There was still one more precious thing that Kronos may have taken from him.

“You surely do not believe that the Son of Zemth could meet his end at the hands of such a simpleminded beast?”

Groad had asked this question hoping that the answer would be more than just a simple yes or no. He needed desperately to know if Kronos had succeeded in this final subterfuge to destroy the pride and honour of not only himself but his family’s name as well.

His expectations were fulfilled.

“Of course not. A warrior of his distinction would have no trouble at all in slaying such a beast. Besides, the Son of Zemth would in no way ever allow such a thing to happen. Not only would he never be permitted entrance to Dakur’s glorious presence, but can you also imagine the humiliation that would be heaped upon his remaining family members? I have told no one of this obviously erroneous report. My daughter must never hear of it. This is why I am hoping that you have more reliable information.”

If Groad had ever doubted Ublar Tar’s respect and love not only for his daughter, but also for Groad himself, these doubts were now totally shattered. For once, Kronos had failed, and for the very first time in his life, Groad felt proud to be known as, the Son of Zemth.

Ublar Tar was a good man. No, a great man. Perhaps even greater than Groad’s father. Yes, perhaps he was even greater than Zemth, the last of the Golden Sleepers.

Groad was amazed at his contemplations. It dawned on him that the trial he had undergone in the zin-za’s cave had not only changed him physically in a drastic manner, but had radically affected him mentally as well. He had always considered himself a rather rational thinker, yet here he was entertaining perceptions that bordered on blasphemy.

It was only now that Groad began to recall those final thoughts that had passed through his brain before the cold darkness had breathed on him, extinguishing the flame that had once burnt so brightly. He remembered how he had wished he could have taken more time to enjoy those things in life that seemed so insignificant and were yet so vital to one’s existence. Those things that remind one to enjoy the gift of being!

Groad thought of love. He considered it not to be a feeling or an emotion that instilled a sense of warmth, security and happiness in one’s bosom. No, true love was a deed. A deed that was done at the right time and place. And above all, it was something that was totally unconditional.

Ublar Tar had never been a truly great warrior in the Kithian sense of the word, yet as a loving parent and father-in-law, Groad considered him matchless and unrivaled. But then of course this was now a very subjective view.

His inner calm returning, Groad sat down.

“You must try to restrain yourself,” said Maggoth leaning over and whispering in Groad’s ear, “I have reason to believe that Kronos’ journey to Bryntha would have entailed more than just a malicious act against the house of Zemth’s offspring.”

“I do not understand,” said Groad.

“Just be patient whilst I try to extract this information.” The wizard turned again to face Ublar Tar. “This traveling merchant of which you speak. A small bald man?”

Groad immediately added, “He may have called himself, Beetor of Yarsi?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Ublar Tar sitting upright, his gaze jumping continuously back and forth between Groad and Maggoth. “So you do know of him then?”

“Only too well,” said Maggoth shaking his head slowly. “A liar and a troublemaker who gets endless pleasure from spreading false rumours across the empire and beyond.”

“Ha! I knew it,” said the village elder slapping the top of the table. He sat forward. “Do you know that I would have had him thrown out of the village if not for the fact that I did not want to draw too much attention to his fabrications.”

“Besides libel, slander and defamation, can you recall what other business he had in Bryntha?” asked Maggoth lifting his tankard and pretending to drink.

“I recall quite clearly,” said Ublar Tar, “Ceramics. Vases mostly”

“Vases?” frowned Maggoth wiping some white froth from his white moustache.

“Yes, a whole wagon load. All carefully and neatly packed into a bed of soft straw.”

“Tell me,” said the Dark Wizard sitting forward, “Did anybody in Bryntha buy or barter any of these vases?”

“A strange thing about that little man,” said the village elder pouting his lips, “I do not recall him selling a single item here in Bryntha. In fact, not only was he reluctant to sell any of his wares, but he even refused to let us have a decent look at them.”

A wave of comprehension swept across the wizard’s countenance. “These vases, did they by any chance happen to be light blue in colour with fine black speckles?”

“Why yes!”

“Did he happen to say where he was going with his wagon of fragile merchandise?”

“No, but he left Bryntha traveling on the west road.”

“I see,” said the wizard narrowing his eyes. “This west road, it would not by any chance pass near to the ancient burial caves of Ana Rust Mountain?”

“Yes, it does. It turns south cutting parallel across the east face of the mountain before turning east towards Gratoar through the pass.”

The waitress suddenly appeared carrying an enormous deep wooden tray. She thumped it down in the middle of the table. “Right, there is the rest of your fare. I hope you find it to your satisfaction. It is probably going to be the last decent meal of your lives.” She turned to Ublar Tar and smiled. “Will our handsome village elder be requiring any refreshment this evening?”

Only a Kithian would have noticed the subtlety of that smile. Groad had seen the waitress showing just enough of her fangs to be alluringly seductive yet still managing to appear deceptively innocent.

The Son of Zemth had already come to the conclusion that Ublar Tar was a great man. The village elder would not be susceptible to the superficial advances of some simple ale-house waitress.

“Maddi, my dear,” said Ublar Tar putting an arm around her waist, “It depends on whether or not these kind travelers are prepared to have my company for just a little while longer.”

“It would be a pleasure and an honour,” said Maggoth and once more lifted his tankard.

“Then I believe I shall have my usual,” said the village elder winking.

As the waitress walked off to get Ublar Tar’s order, he reached out a large hairy hand and gave her enormous backside a firm squeeze.

The waitress squealed in delight.

“Oh well,” thought Groad to himself, “Ublar Tar is certainly a great man, but definitely not perfect. But then again, who is?”

“I was hoping you would have more reliable and recent news about my son-in-law’s whereabouts?” queried Ublar Tar restarting the conversation.

“There was some talk amongst the Valacians that the Son of Zemth had briefly sojourned in Frybur,” said Maggoth, “But he had then apparently traveled towards the Artanian border on some unspecified business.”

“I see,” said the village elder. “And what of this cave and this zin-za?”

“That part of the report was quite true,” replied the sorcerer. “As a result, Frybur has suffered a tremendous loss in trade and commerce, but I expect that it will undergo a hasty recovery as soon as word of the beast’s demise is spread around.”

“So Groad did destroy it then?”

“I am afraid not. The beast was evidently destroyed by one of the Dark Wizards,” said the Dark Wizard without batting an eyelid.

Ublar Tar spat on the floor.

Spitting is customary on Baltrath when two parties wish to seal an agreement or a pact, but Kithians also use this practice when showing disgust or disapproval. It is a common superstitious act for warding off misfortune and evil curses.

Kithians are inclined to spew a large amount of spittle in a lifetime.

“I have a feeling of great dread,” said the village elder in a hushed voice. “I have heard similar tales of these Masters of the dark arts from many other travelers. It would seem that they have some sort of an affinity for large amounts of gold. Tell me, what did the Fryburians pay for the beast’s destruction?”

“One hundred gold pieces,” said Maggoth caressing the heavy leather pouch attached to his belt.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Ublar Tar. Then once again in a hushed voice, “A bounty like that for a single kill would even attract the dead from their burial tombs.”

“What is it that you fear?” asked Groad shifting about uneasily.

“I fear not only for myself, but also for the entire village of Bryntha. The screecha problem has gotten progressively worse. They breed too prolifically. They are becoming like an epidemic, a plague. Many lives have been lost and much livestock as well.”

Groad felt the blood in his veins and arteries turn to ice. His thoughts were of Lorra and their offspring. “Have any of your family members been harmed by the creatures?”

“Luckily not, but I have to find a means to end this problem once and for all, especially now that my daughter has started bresk farming. It is fortunate for us that the screecha attacks have been predominantly upon the Bryntharian livestock and not the Bryntharians themselves, but unfortunately these bloodthirsty creatures’ palates are very partial to bresk blood.

“You must think very ill of me, being a man of some wealth and yet allowing my daughter to slave amongst the filth and mire of bresk pens. If you knew my daughter, you would understand. She has an enormous amount of self-pride and an extremely determined will.

“When the finances that her husband left her started to wane, she realized that she would have to make some sort of plan to produce a steady income to support herself and her offspring. Refusing to accept any charity from me, except that of being able to utilize a piece of unused land to the far west on my property, she used the remainder of her resources to start what has now become a rather lucrative business. At first it was hard work, but now she even has enough income to support a work force of over twenty helpers.”

“It would seem she has her father’s head for doing business,” said Groad feeling great pride towards his wife and yet a sense of shame that he was the main cause that had forced her to begin the successful enterprise. He had traveled to the far corners of the Empire and beyond in search of fame, fortune and adventure. His wife had managed to do most of this without ever leaving her home village.

More than ever Groad’s hatred for Kronos seethed. He could have returned to Bryntha with enough gold and precious stones to make his family one of the wealthiest on the face of Baltrath.

“She may have my head for business,” said the village elder sounding despondent, “But it seems that she also has my curse for attracting ill fortune. Two of her employees were seriously injured in two separate screecha encounters. The rest of the workers are threatening to leave unless she agrees to compensate them for the dangers involved in repelling the frequent screecha attacks.

“She could lose the whole business. Me…well I could lose more than just my position as village elder. The residents trust me and look to me for solutions concerning difficult matters. My main concern is that if the screecha problem gets any worse, we will have no choice but to increase the bounty to two or even three gold pieces per head. And you can guess what that means?”

“What?” asked Groad.

“The Dark Wizards will most certainly come to Bryntha as well.”

“You have a problem with this?” asked the Dark Wizard sounding genuinely concerned.

“Of course!” exclaimed Ublar Tar looking around nervously. He folded his arms and once more sat forward placing his elbows on the table. With a subtle gesticulation of his head he indicated for Groad and Maggoth to move closer towards him.

The Dark Wizard was the only one to move. The Son of Zemth remained stationary. Groad was afraid that if he sat too close, Ublar Tar may be able to discern a little too much detail through the dark slit that allowed him a view of the outside world.

Ublar Tar placed the back of his left hand against the right side of his face. It was a puny attempt to create a shield between himself and Turpane. The village elder seemed as though he was about to disclose some sort of terrible secret. A secret that should not be heard by the large ears of small Valacian whelps.

“It is said that just merely breathing in the same air that a Dark Wizard has exhaled will cause instant death.”

“That sounds to me like nonsense,” said Maggoth sitting even closer to Ublar Tar. “Besides I heard that the only time a Dark Wizard exhales is when he needs to use the power of speech. Otherwise they do not breathe at all.”

“I have never heard of that, but nevertheless, it would seem that the Dark Wizards may be the only means of ending the screecha problem once and for all. Yet, it is strictly forbidden for any Kithian to practice or employ the services of one familiar in any form of the dark arts.”

“What are the consequences for breaking this law? Death?”

“Worse. The humiliation of a public scourging. The dishonour would be more than any Kithian could suffer.”

“Did not the villagers of Matmar and Gratoar employ the services of the dark arts in ridding a similar problem as experienced by the Fryburians?” asked Groad sitting slightly forward.

“Apparently the other villages had had no choice. The Dark Wizards had come of their own accord, drawn by the large sums of gold. So, although not specifically commissioned to slay the beasts, were obviously paid once the deed was done. But even so, when the council at Tar Ta Rus got word of these events they felt some form of discipline should be meted out to discourage any similar action from other villages. It was a disgrace to the Kithian Empire that Kithians could not solve their own problems. Especially when the problem was as simple as the destruction of a few rogue zin-zas.

“The council could not punish everyone so they chose to discipline those in authority. The village elders were stripped of their posts and then subsequently beaten.

“I have only recently acquired the office of village elder. It has taken me a long time and much wealth to convince the Bryntharians that I was the best choice for the position. But now when they need me most, I have no solution to their problem.”

Groad shifted about uneasily. His thoughts were of his selfish attempts to attain the Golden Sleep. He realized now, more than ever, that his futile quest to rid the face of Baltrath of every last zin-za would never have secured him that coveted prize. Firstly because zin-zas, when compared to ratchamongas would never be considered fair game by the Kithians. Secondly and most importantly, by using the Eldritch Blade he would have been utilizing the forbidden dark arts to reach his goal. Even if the rest of Kith were ignorant to the fact, the all-knowing Dakur would certainly have been aware of his deceitfulness.

Groad wondered too about the probability that if he had confronted the beast with a normal metallic blade, would he not have stood a better chance. It was, after all, the power of the Eldritch Blade that had made him overconfident.

“I believe we may be able to help you,” said Maggoth.

You? How?”

“There is a way to destroy these bloodsucking pests. A way that does not require the physical strength of a good sword arm or the knowledge of the forbidden dark arts. A way that is extremely efficient and will be particularly beneficial to your daughter.”

“You have my undivided attention, Makkud from the northern territories. Do continue.”

“My companions and I first need to purchase ten live bresk,” said the Dark Wizard once more lifting the large ale tankard to his smiling bewhiskered mouth.

There was almost half a moon in the sky. It was unusually bright and helped to light the way for the four weary travelers.

“Do you know what it means when the moon lays on its back?” asked Ublar Tar pointing at the bright inverted arch. He did not wait for an answer. “No rain. It means there will be no further rain this evening.”

“Not unless Maggoth chooses to make it otherwise,” thought Groad, who knew only too well the Kithian belief in dry evenings when the moon seemed to lie upon its back.

He now began to ponder upon the truth of the Dark Wizard’s account of a great and terrible dragon trapped deep within the molten core of that innocent-looking luminescent celestial smile.

It must have taken tremendous powers and energies to accomplish the feat. It would surely take even more to set the beast free.

Kronos no longer possesses the amulet that focuses his time-controlling powers and, unlike Selestia, is unable to travel the enormous distance to the moon. He would surely need a phenomenal amount of gold. Just exactly how much does he need to accomplish his depraved task? A mental note was made to question Maggoth on this matter at the first opportune moment.

Groad’s thoughts now drifted back to the grog-house in Bryntha’s main road. Perhaps he had been hasty in misjudging this Dark Wizard. It was Maggoth, after all, who had lied to Ublar Tar about the extremely unfavorable events that had transpired on the outskirts of Frybur. It was also now because of Maggoth that he might have the opportunity of seeing his family one last time before leaving Bryntha. Although he knew the meeting was going to be painful and difficult, he needed to see them in order to experience a sense of closure.

“Something in the air tells me we must be very close now,” said Turpane scrunching her face into a look of displeasure. The warm evening breeze carried the familiar stench of bresk pens.

“Correct,” said Ublar Tar. “Only a short way to go now.”

“I hope your daughter will not mind us intruding upon her at such an inconvenient time,” asked the Dark Wizard sincerely.

“Not at all. In fact she will probably welcome the extra company. Especially now with the probability that another attack could happen at any time. I hope your companion, Grell, is competent enough with that sword of his?”

“My honoured village elder,” said Maggoth smiling, “I believe he may just surprise you.”

“Look!” shouted Groad pointing at the moon. “Do you see it?”

Something black and leathery fluttered in the sky. For the briefest of moments a dark shape had been partly silhouetted against the large bright crescent of the moon before sweeping downward out of view behind a group of tall trees.

“Screechas!” cried Ublar Tar digging his heels into the large warhorse. “Yah!” His horse took off at a gallop.

“Take care of the whelp, Maggoth!” shouted Groad lifting Turpane from their smaller horse and placing her on the ground. An instant later Groad’s horse was charging down the narrow road after Ublar Tar.

“It would seem the village elder is about to get that surprise sooner than I expected,” said Maggoth holding out a hand towards Turpane.

Maggoth was right. By the time Ublar Tar reached the bresk pens it was all over.

The scattered fires which Lorra and her helpers had set at strategic points around the bresk pens had had no influence whatsoever in discouraging the screechas from their nocturnal foraging. Three of the bloodthirsty beasts had swooped out of the night sky. No one saw them at first, but the frightful squeals of the hapless bresk had alerted the entire night work force that consisted of three male Kithians.

The screechas, as usual, had targeted one of the smaller animals, as it would not only be weaker against their combined attack but would also be easier to carry off using their hook-like talons.

Lorra had recently moved into one of the worker huts as she felt that her presence might boost the dwindling morale of her helpers. She arrived on the scene to find that fortunately the screechas had underestimated the size of the bresk and were having some difficulty in lifting it into the air.

One of the helpers was advancing on the creatures with a wooden lance.

“Wait!” she shouted. “Use the long torches!”

They had prepared a number of long poles that had been covered with strips of cloth at one end and then dipped in pitch.

It was too late. With lightning fast reflexes the screecha effortlessly dodged the sharpened point of the lance before sinking its yellow fangs into the unfortunate helper’s shoulder.

The helper recoiled clasping a hand over the wound. He tried to hold onto the lance but found it impossible. The paralyzing effect of the quick acting venom numbed his arm and hand. The lance fell clumsily to the ground. A short while later his legs started to tingle. Unable to support himself, he collapsed first onto his knees and then onto his face.

The other two helpers each grabbed a long torch. After igniting them in the fires, they clambered over the stockade and advanced on the flapping monstrosities. Unlike most creatures, the screechas showed absolutely no fear towards the oncoming flames. It was almost as if they were ignorant to the harmful effect that fire could present them. They screeched and hissed whenever the flames touched their cold scaly skin, but the agony of their hunger was greater than the pain on their reptilian hides. These creatures were incredibly aggressive. They were going to leave with their quarry or they would not leave at all. Instinctively they knew that in order to complete their nocturnal task, they would first have to neutralize these annoying antagonists. Dropping the bresk they now made a banded attack on their attackers. The two helpers turned, standing back to back. Lorra too ignited a long torch and joined the duo.

Fluttering, crawling and dodging the firebrands, unrelentingly the screechas circled the small group looking for an opening in their defenses.

Lorra and her helpers were doing a fine job of keeping the screechas at bay when an unexpectedly well-aimed stone caught one of the vermin against the side the head. Stunned, the beast recoiled.

Lorra turned to see the origin of the attack. Her blood turned to ice. The missile had come from the hand of her six cyclan old daughter.

“Lorralel! What are you doing here?” shouted Lorra. Her cry was more of fear and concern than anger. “I told you to stay in the hut! Get away from here now!”

It was too late. The screechas seeing a more convenient target than the cumbersome bresk flapped away from the pens and circled above Lorralel. She fell into a hunched position beneath their clawing talons, her hands covering her head.

Lorra knew from past experiences the uncanny swiftness of these vile creatures. She would never make it in time to prevent the screechas from carrying her only daughter away to a certain horrible death. She flung the burning torch, but the flapping monstrosities easily dodged the flaming firebrand. Screaming loudly she sprinted towards her daughter.

The rider suddenly appeared out of the blackness.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Lorra.

The bandaged figure with the dark hat was a more terrifying sight than the screechas had ever been. His horse rearing up directly in front of Lorralel.

Groad, being much lighter and on a swifter mount, had easily overtaken Ublar Tar.

In one swift motion he unsheathed his sword and vaulted over the horse’s head to land with both feet astride of the small Kithian whelp.

Moments later the screechas lay in pieces; some parts still in the spasms of their final death throes.

Lorra and the helpers stood dumbfounded yet relieved.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Ublar Tar as he arrived to find Groad wiping the blood from his blade. Lorra was clutching her daughter tightly to her breast. “Only my son-in-law could ever be more skilled with a sword than that! Now I understand why they call you Grell, the untamed!”

“I believe you owe me three gold pieces,” said Groad trying to sound very nonchalant, although the urge to rush to his wife and gruntling were near overpowering.

“I owe you more than that!” said Ublar Tar dismounting. “I owe you my eternal gratitude for protecting my family.”

“How can we ever repay your brave deed?” asked Lorra stepping forward.

In the glow of the flickering flames Groad could see a hint of blood in her eyes. Her skin glistened with perspiration. The loose strands of her long blonde hair cleaved to her moist sun-darkened skin. Groad could not remember a time when she had appeared more beautiful or more alluring. The sight was almost more than he could endure. He swallowed the lump in his throat and croaked, “I think your helpers need assistance.”

“What?” she frowned. Groad pointed at the other two workers who were lifting their fallen companion. “Oh, yes! Of course! Luckily the paralyzing effect of the venom is only temporary.” She put Lorralel down and rushed to help the stricken worker. There was mud on the workers face and blood trickling from his eyes, ears and nose. “Fetch me some water!” she ordered.

“I am afraid that I was not swift enough,” commented Groad. “It appears that the help has been severely injured.”

“He will be fine by morning,” said Ublar Tar. “The excessive bleeding is merely a consequence of the screecha’s venom. It somehow causes the blood to thin, making it easier for the creatures to consume. They feed only on the blood, having no interest in the flesh at all. We have found many drained carcasses in the vicinity of the burial caves.

Lorralel seemed totally unruffled by the whole incident. “Did the screechas do that to you?” she asked staring at Groad’s bandaged visage.

Groad stared back proudly at his daughter. He could see that both his and Lorra’s blood pumped fiercely through this feisty little frame. He was about to give an answer when Ublar Tar spoke.

“Have you not been told on countless occasions that you must not venture outside the safety of the huts after the sun has set?”

“I think she has learned her lesson very well this night,” said Groad. “I do not think she will be disobedient again.” He gazed down at Lorralel. “Or will you?” Lorralel shook her head, doing her best to create an appearance of humility and repentance. “Hmm?” muttered Groad not quite believing her.

“I think I like you,” she said smiling and batting her enormous eyelashes.

Groad’s lips stretched into a smile. “Only six cyclans old and you already know how to soften the male heart.”

“How do you know my age?” frowned Lorralel.

“Well, I just took a lucky guess,” said Groad quickly, covering up his blunder. “Do you have any sisters or brothers?”

“I had two brothers. They were both born on the same day.”

“Twins!” exclaimed Ublar Tar

Groad’s blood froze. “You say you had two brothers? What happened to them?”

“Everyone used to say they look exactly the same but I could easily tell them apart,” bragged the Kithian gruntling. “They were a lot older than I was. They used to tease me a lot too.”

“What happened to them?” asked Groad desperately trying to conceal his concern and uneasiness.

“The emperor came and took them away.”

“What?”

“They are serving in the Shammar*,” said Ublar Tar.

“The Royal Guard?” queried Groad. “But that is not possible! They were only...uh …only …uh …how old were they?” Groad spun round to face Ublar Tar.

“Only sixteen,” said Ublar Tar proudly. “They will be turning seventeen shortly. They are the youngest warriors ever to serve in the Shammar. Their father will be very proud when he receives the news.”

Groad was flabbergasted. “But only Kithians that have passed the Ana Iram may serve in the Shammar?”

“Correct! When their father left them some four cyclans ago, they were forced into an early adulthood. Being the males of the family unit, they were required to provide and protect. An occupation they not only did willingly, but sufficiently as well. So, it is no wonder that they had little if any difficulty completing the trials successfully. Besides being the youngest Shammar ever, they were also of the youngest Kithians to have ever passed the trials. Only their father has managed to do it at a younger age.

“Groad completed the Ana Iram when he was only a tender fourteen. The only reason my son-in-law never had the honour of serving at the Royal Palace was because of his stature.”

Groad remembered only too well the shame of being rejected by the emperor’s emissary those many cyclans ago. All Shammar recruits had to conform to a certain build and height so that there would be uniformity in the ranks.

“What of the final ceremony?” asked Groad. “The ceremony that completes the Ana Iram?”

“I had the honour to stand in for Groad. If the father is absent during the final ceremonies of the Ana Iram, then the grandfathers normally vie for the honour to take the father’s place. I would not have even thought of contending with my son-in-law’s father for that honour, but that great Kithian lies in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. I am sure that in your many travels you have obviously heard mention of the great Zemth of Bryntha?”

“Yes, of course! But what of the Ana Iram necklaces and the ana desh-gla pelts?”

“The pelts are in my possession. They await their rightful owner’s return. I am sure that if Groad was seen in Valacia, then his return to Bryntha should not be long in coming. As for the necklaces, I had no choice but to place my own thoughts upon the rolled metal. I can only hope that my son-in-law approves of what I wrote.”

“And exactly what was it that you wrote?”

“You claim to be Kithian?” said Ublar Tar sternly. “Yet you should know better than to ask me such questions!”

“Forgive me!” said Groad once more trying to cover his foolish mistake. “I merely meant to ask whether you had placed the exact same message onto both the necklaces.”

“The youths are so much alike. It is uncanny really. Not only physically, but their personalities as well. And so yes, I decided it would be best if they both received the exact same blessing.”

“Blessing?”

“Blessing!”

Groad’s lips smiled again. Very widely. “You are the most unselfish Kithian that I have ever met. I am certain that your son-in-law will approve greatly of the many kindnesses that you have shown towards his family.”

“I truly hope so. I would never wish to incur upon myself the wrath of the Son of Zemth.”

“Tell me more about these amazing twins.”

“Besides the fact that the youths had managed to complete the Ana Iram at such an early age, the emissary from the emperor had absolutely no doubt that the fact that the youths being identical twins was an omen of good fortune in itself. It was just after they had left for Tar Ta Rus that Lorra knew she had to make swift and sure plans to attend the rest of her family’s needs. It was then that she approached me for the right to utilize this piece of land as a bresk farm.”

“And now it would seem that I have made the wrong choice of enterprise,” said Lorra joining the conversation.

“Do not give up too easily,” said Groad. “I have a very learned acquaintance who claims that he is able to rid you of your problem.”

“And who would that be?”

“Ah, here he comes now.” Maggoth and Turpane appeared out of the darkness. “What kept you so long, old one? Scared your bones might fall apart if you make the horse gallop too fast?”

Maggoth ignored Groad’s sarcastic remark. “Greetings! You must be Lorra, the village elder’s daughter. I believe we have some business to discuss. Business that will be beneficial to both of us.”

“Lorralel!” shouted Lorra. “Stop that at once!”

Lorralel dropped the stick she was using to poke at the pieces of screecha.

Lorra had chosen one of the larger huts for herself and her daughter. After throwing a few more logs onto the hearth she rejoined the small group that sat around the table. “Are you quite sure you do not need any sustenance. Not even some warm beverage?”

“No. I thank you, but we have only recently taken our fill at your local grog-house,” said Maggoth raising one hand whilst placing the other upon his stomach. “I fear I have eaten enough for three Kithian warriors.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed Ublar Tar. “You hardly touched the victuals that were placed before you.” He pointed towards Turpane who was sitting on a rough wooden bed next to Lorralel. They were both sipping some hot broth. “The Valacian whelp seemed to consume more than the both of you together.”

“She needs to!” exclaimed Groad. “She has a stunted growth problem. Look! Although much older than the Kithian whelp, they are of the same size.”

Everyone except Turpane laughed.

“Of course she is as big as me! She is Kithian!”

Everyone laughed even louder.

Groad could not believe that he of all Kithians had made a joke about retarded growth. He felt ashamed and yet pleased that he had managed to break the uneasy atmosphere regarding the consumption of nourishment.

“So, Makkud the healer,” said Ublar Tar sitting forward. “You claim that you can remove our problem without any violence or even the assistance of the dark arts?”

“Correct,” said Maggoth.

“Now let me understand this clearly,” said Lorra. “You wish to purchase ten of my largest bresk?”

“Correct.”

Lorra lifted a large leather pouch from the centre of the table. “And you wish me to keep them away from all forms of sustenance except this salt with which you have supplied me.”

“Correct.”

“Water?”

“Especially no water! By midday tomorrow they will be more than ready to fill themselves on the bitter poison that I must add to their drinking water.”

Lorra lifted the smaller leather pouch next to the larger one. “Do not expect me to return this gold once the bresk have expired from your poison.” She looked at Groad. “I thought you said that your companion was learned? Only a fool would buy ten bresk and then kill them in such a fashion so that their carcasses will not be fit for consump….” She hesitated, a gleam of comprehension in her eyes. “But of course! It is so ingenious!” she exclaimed smiling. “Absolutely ingenious, yet logical! Why did not someone else think of it before?”

“It is not as simple as you may think,” said the Dark Wizard smiling. “It is important that the poison be slow-acting. The bresk’s blood must be absolutely tainted, and the screechas need to feed whilst the bresk yet live. The bloodsucking creatures will rarely feed on the dead. They need a living heart to supply them with their crimson sustenance.

“The poison I have chosen comes from the large bulbous roots of the maharra* plant. In the morning I will show you how to identify the plant as well as prepare its juice for maximum effect. Should a similar problem ever arise, you shall have the means to deal with it.”

“You are very sure of yourself, Makkud,” said Ublar Tar sounding slightly sceptical. “I do not wish to sound ungrateful, but perhaps we had first better see if this ambitious plan of yours is able to achieve the desired results. Many others with schemes that sounded just as feasible as yours have tried and failed.”

Groad awoke from the disturbing dream. It had started out just fine. The citizens had lined the main road of his home village. They cheered his triumphant return from Frybur where he had only recently slain the mighty and vicious zin-za. He had found it strange that the Bryntharians were all wearing flowing white garments that had been fashioned from the finest linen. Stranger still was the fact that they were all tossing white flower petals into the path of his fine white warhorse. At the end of the road, on a specially erected podium stood Ublar Tar and his family.

He halted the horse at the base of the podium and dismounted. Ublar Tar beckoned for Groad to join him. Groad slung the heavy saddlebag over his shoulder and ascended the steps. His family greeted him with open arms, embracing the great hero. Although Lorralel appeared to be six cyclans old, the twins had not aged a single day in the four cyclans that he had been away. The twins were just as he had remembered them the day before he had left on his quest for fame and fortune.

He had taken the saddlebag from his shoulder. Pulling back the flap he had started to empty the contents out in front of his family. They had recoiled in shock as, instead of the expected gold and precious jewels, a torrent of thick dark red blood gushed out. It spattered on their white garments and horrified faces.

Groad had dropped the satchel in disgust. It was only now that he noticed that he too wore the very same garments as everyone else. Ublar Tar who was totally unaffected by the incident was once more beckoning to Groad. This time he was requesting Groad to face his adoring public. They wished to hear of all his amazing adventures that he had undertaken. He walked to the front of the podium and drew his jewel-encrusted sword. He held it high in a symbol of victory. When the crowd had quieted, he spoke loudly. “Bryntha’s finest warrior greets you all!” Groad slapped his hand across his mouth. It was not his voice that had uttered those words. It was too high pitched. He attempted once more to address the masses. “I thank you for this glorious welcome that you have prepared in my honour!” Still the same nasal tonality issued forth from his mouth.

The crowd had been stunned at first, but now they started to laugh. They laughed and laughed. The angrier Groad became, the louder they would laugh. Just when Groad felt that he could no longer stand their jeers and taunts, their smiles were replaced by expressions of sheer horror. They stared in terror above his head. He looked up and was bewildered to find that he no longer clutched his Kithian sword. It had somehow miraculously transformed into the Eldritch Blade. But there was something different about the Eldritch Blade, something hideous. It seethed and pulsated with an unnatural life force. From its handle dripped scalding ichor that singed the flesh of his arm where it fell. He tried to fling the repulsive object away, but found that it had somehow become grafted to his hand. He and the Eldritch Blade were one. He screamed, trying to rip the vile object from his arm, but the pain was too intense. Despondent and exhausted, he collapsed to his knees.

Now the sword started to glow with that all too familiar blue hue. Dim at first, but growing rapidly in intensity. The crowd sensing danger started to scatter. It was too late. The bolts of energy flew from the blade in all directions. Whoever and whatever they struck was instantly transformed into a petrified mass of charred grey ash. Groad got up and spun around. He screamed in dismay as he found that none of his family members had escaped the wrath of the Eldritch Blade. He tried to embrace his wife but she crumbled into a heap of dust. He recoiled, letting her remains trickle slowly through his open fingers. One by one the ossified figures started to break and crumble into heaps of fine ashen dust.

A strong wind started to blow. It lifted the dust into the air and carried it and the flower petals down the road out of Bryntha. As quickly as it had come, the wind had gone, leaving Groad alone in a barren and deserted Bryntha. Even his horse had been spirited away by these unnatural forces.

But Groad was mistaken. That was not the road out of Bryntha and this was not the wooden podium he had ascended. He was on a draw-bridge looking across a wide moat at an opening that had been carved into the solid rock of a mountain. He was in Tar Ta Rus gazing at the entrance to the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. A small bald figure, dressed in the same white robes as Groad, appeared at the entrance to the tomb. On seeing Groad, the figure started to laugh. The laugh had an irritatingly high pitched nasal sound.

It was at this point that Groad had awakened.

Groad always believed that dreams, especially the more vivid ones, have certain significance. A meaning or message that the dreamer should heed. He understood only too clearly the metaphoric imagery with which his subconscious brain had bombarded him. Yet there had been something else. A truth. A warning. And this warning had not pertained to his recent faults. This was a connection between the distant past and the near future. He knew if he thought too hard about it, then it would fail to reveal itself. He decided instead to clear his head in the cool air outside the hut.

He was not surprised to find Lorra placing wood on one of the small fires that were arranged around the bresk pens.

She watched him approach. “Are you also having trouble sleeping?” she asked.

“Bad dreams!”

“Are not all dreams bad? They simply get your hopes up high enough so that they may be completely dashed to pieces. Unfortunately some just take longer to reveal their true nature.”

“Why do you say that?”

“We all spend our lives labouring in the hope of attaining something better. Whether it is fame, fortune or just simply a sense of security. We are never satisfied with what we already have. When is enough enough? And then, more often than not, we find that those things we have pursued relentlessly for such a long time are worthless or meaningless. They do not live up to their bright and glorious promises. They fool us, or should I say that we have fooled ourselves with our own wondrous lies.”

“You can not blame yourself for what has been happening here. What would life be if we never indulged in reveries? Then we would simply be living one long slow meaningless death? What is the purpose of our existence if not to attempt to make those fantasies real? Only a fortunate few attain their goals by doing nothing. As for the rest of us, if we simply sit back and wait; if we do not search for that elusive fame or that evasive fortune, it will surely never be found. You have to continue with the struggle. Never give up. You have too much to lose if you simply submit to defeat. Never lose faith in your dreams.”

Lorra squinted at Groad. “It is incredible.”

“What is?”

“I hope you will not find what I am about to say next, degrading or humiliating in any way?”

“Continue.”

“There is an uncanny resemblance between you and my husband.”

“Your statement could never be debasing,” Groad made a conscious effort to force the nervousness from his voice. “In fact, I find it quite an honour, although embarrassing and undeserving. Strangely enough, you are not the first to make such a comparison. In my many travels across Kith, I have often been likened to the great Groad of Bryntha. I expect that it is probably a combination of my stature and sword skills.”

“No! You are also similar to my husband in ways that only someone close would notice.”

Groad moved slightly backwards. “Someone close?”

“Someone close like his wife,” she said placing the palm of her hand on her chest. “It is not only your physique and physical prowess, but also your mannerisms and the way you think.”

“I wish I could meet this husband of yours.” Groad forced a laugh into his nervous voice. He hoped that it would add a smile to the expressionless visage on the bandages. “I am sure that we would get on splendidly. But tell me what it is like to be the wife of such a great warrior?”

“Many of the Bryntharian females believe that I married Groad because of the good name of his family. You see, his father was…”

Groad raised his hand. “I know very well the account of Groad’s father.”

“The truth is that I truly loved Groad and still do. And although my husband has been gone for almost four cyclans, I know without a doubt that he loves me too. You claim to be Kithian. You should understand. He was forged in the furnaces of the true Kithian way. He must first be a warrior before he is able to be a husband and father. My only regret is that he pursues that which will part us forever.”

“A glorious death.”

“Exactly! I know of no other Kithian that seeks entrance to Dakur’s magnificent kingdom as fervently as Groad.”

“Why would you regret this?”

“Because if he should accomplish his quest, then we shall be parted for all eternity. If only the bravest warriors are allowed entrance through those hallowed gates, then I shall never be reunited with my only one true love. What good is a kingdom of warriors if there is no place for love to exist? And what will these warriors be doing for the rest of eternity? Fighting each other to relieve their boredom; trying to prove who is the greatest of them all?”

In the past, Groad would have been shocked at such words coming from his wife. He would have even considered them blasphemous. Now he was overwhelmed by the pride he felt for the only female on all the face of Baltrath whom he knew, without a doubt, truly loved him with all her heart and soul. The emotions welling up inside of him were almost more than he could suffer. It was necessary to change the subject.

“How is it that although the Bryntharian’s know where the screechas’ lair is to be found, they have not made some sort of combined effort to eradicate the vile creatures?”

“We did try it once, but it is very difficult. Although the creatures are predominantly nocturnal hunters, they fear neither sunlight nor fire. The tunnels of the burial caves are long and narrow, making it difficult to hunt and destroy the creatures without them first attacking us. We once tried to seal the entrances to the burial caves. We hoped it would be possible to starve them to death, but there are too many entrances and the creatures are capable of attacking with extreme swiftness and ferocity. You yourself have witnessed the rapid disabling effect of their venom.”

“How is your helper doing?”

“Physically much better, but if the attacks continue, I fear that he and the others will not remain here much longer. I surely hope that Makkud’s plan will succeed. I have already placed ten of my largest bresk into a separate pen. This could be an expensive venture if it should fail.”

“But extremely rewarding if it should succeed!”

“If the latest reports are true regarding the number of screechas thought to inhabit the burial caves, and if you are able to destroy most of them, then you and your companions should gain a fair amount of gold.”

“I am certain that the plan will succeed. Makkud is very wise,” said Groad reassuringly.

Lorra frowned, tilting her head to one side. “Just how is it that you keep company with an elderly healer and a Valacian whelp?”

“I know that it would appear peculiar to most, but it is a long story. Unforeseen circumstances and factors beyond our control have thrown us together. I cannot reveal the true nature of our travels, suffice to say that we are on a quest of vital importance and urgency.”

“Then I shall not press you to reveal more, except to tell me if you will go your separate ways once your goal has been attained?”

The question was innocent enough, but for the first time it brought to Groad the cold realization that even if they should win the battle against Kronos, there would be no future for him in a world amongst the natural creatures of flesh and blood. He wondered whether he was alive at all. Perhaps he was just some sort of pathetic creature living on borrowed time; the time that Maggoth’s sorcery would allow his reanimated bones to walk about on Baltrath. When his services were no longer required, Maggoth would surely return him to a useless pile of stinking bones. And perhaps that would be for the best. He would have no desire to serve as one of the sorcerer’s undead generals every time the Dark Wizard required his services.

A great wave of despair swept over Groad. Unable to answer Lorra’s question, he lowered his head and turned away.

“By the great goddess!” she exclaimed placing a hand on Groad’s shoulder. “Whatever this quest, you do not expect to survive? Do you?”

“Good lady,” said Groad gently removing her hand from his shoulder. “Your powers of summation are admirable, but I fear that I am already dead. I seek only the opportunity to expire appropriately.”

Lorra seemed shocked and annoyed. “It is as I said before, you and my husband are so much alike. So impatient to meet with the great Dakur.”

“I have offended you?”

“No, I am not offended.”

“Disappointed?”

“Slightly perhaps, and yet, one of the many good qualities that attracted me to Groad was his strong will and determination to carry a task through to its completion.”

“And so too must I. Not by choice but by circumstance.”

Lorra smiled. “I am glad that we had this opportunity to talk. Perhaps in your travels you shall yet have the fortune to meet with Groad. I am sure that by now, the exploits of Grell, the untamed, have reached his ears. He would be only too…curious to meet with you as well.”

“Perhaps. If such a meeting should come to pass, would you have any messages that I could convey to him?”

“Yes! I shall be most grateful if you tell him that not a day has passed, since he left, that I have not thought of him. Tell him that his family loves and misses him greatly. And tell him that if he has not yet acquired that elusive fame or that evasive fortune, it matters not. Here in Bryntha he will always be welcomed as my hero.

“Will you remember all of this?”

“Word for word,” said Groad swallowing an enormous lump in his throat. “Word for word, good lady.”

“I thank you, said Lorra trying hard to conceal the emotion in her own voice. She glared at Groad and pointed a long finger at his bandaged nose. “You tell him this as well!” she blurted angrily, blood welling in her eyes. “You tell him that when he eventually manages to attain his ultimate goal, he should remember that his wife is just as strong willed and determined as him to get what she wants! And if need be, She will break down those hallowed gates to Dakur’s kingdom to be with him again!” Lorra paused. “I am terribly sorry,” she said regaining her composure. “Please disregard what I said. It is not your fault, and Groad just would not understand.”

There was a short silence as Groad summed up the severity and substance of Lorra’s remark. Life had dealt him a hard blow and given him a new perception on what he regarded as rational. He knew that the old Groad would never have understood. But, here and now, he grasped very well her anguish with complete clarity. A wave of guilt swept over him as he realized that most of his major objectives in life were out of pure selfishness. Lorra and her father had attained a greatness, in Groad’s eyes, beyond that which could ever be attained on any battlefield. And they had done it with the mightiest weapon of all – love.

“There is no need for you to apologize,” said Groad. “It is most obvious that the love you have for your husband is very strong. Many would die fighting to gain such adoration and devotion.”

“Really? Would you say that it is easier to love than to be loved?”

“I regret to say that both exact a certain amount of pain,” he said sincerely and watched as Lorra’s mouth stretched into a long smile. “You find my statement amusing?”

“Only because it is the very first time that the words coming from your mouth do not sound similar to those of my husband’s.” Lorra could not see that Groad was also smiling, but she somehow sensed it. “You must excuse me now, friend Grell,” she said walking past him. “I suddenly feel very tired. I hope that the remainder of this night will bring you dreams of a more pleasant nature.”

“I thank you,” he said knowing full well that he would not be able to sleep at all.

Groad returned to the hut that had been allocated to him and his traveling companions.

By the light of a small lamp’s flame he could see that Maggoth and Turpane were still sleeping.

He wondered if Maggoth was merely feigning slumber. Did the Dark Wizard not need the aid of his megornex in order to sleep?

The sorcerer lay prostrate like a corpse in state. The eyes closed and the hands folded across the upper chest; a chest that did not rise and fall with the common rhythmic intake and exhaling of air.

Groad stared for a long time at the recumbent figure. He shivered as he realized that Maggoth had spoken the truth in the grog-house. A Dark Wizard need only breathe in order to speak. He found the concept eerie and disturbing. The thought had sent a chill down his spine.

It was only when Groad had been lying for a long time on his own bed that he realized that he too could probably continue to function without the necessity of life-giving air. To help himself feel more at ease, he lay in the half darkness sucking vast amounts of air into his lungs. He lay for a long time watching his chest rise and fall. A myriad of thoughts filled his brain, and he wrestled with them until the sunlight crept through the narrow slit beneath the door.

The Bresk farm and surrounding countryside had looked less foreboding in the bright sunlight.

Groad spent most of the morning and early afternoon visiting some of the spots he used to frequent as a youth. He had not seen some of these places since he was a gruntling. He had always despised the weakness and diminutiveness of gruntlinghood. Since passing into savden, he had had no desire to revisit and reminisce about his gruntling days. Not till now.

These places seemed to have a sort of special significance. They were somehow sacred, seeming to retain the spirit or essence of his innocence.

He gazed around the clearing in the forest where he and his friends had spent many hours playing. He closed his eyes and could almost hear the sincere laughter that had once echoed upward into the speckled green canopy.

Of course, he had bloodied a few noses, but there had never been any true hatred in his actions. The frolics were mostly mock battles. Sticks were magnificent swords; and large pieces of bark made proud shields.

He smiled to remember that, although his stature was shorter than the rest of his companions, he would never fail to dominate the contests. Not only was he the one who decided the games to be played, but he would also invariably be the victor, even when it was his turn to play the evil Artanian invader.

Ublar Tar had accompanied Maggoth into the forest where the wizard had shown the village elder how to locate the large bulbous roots of the maharra plant.

Returning to the bresk farm, the sorcerer had then demonstrated the process of extracting and preparing the plants deadly juice for its appropriate application.

“The most important part of the lesson,” he joked, “Is never to lick your fingers. The juice does not have an offensive odour, but it does have a rather bitter flavour. This is why it is important that the bresk be more than willing to quench their thirst no matter how vile the taste.”

“How would you know that it has a bitter taste without having caused yourself any harm?” asked Ublar Tar.

“Oh, taken in moderation, it actually has certain medicinal properties. It is a wonderful remedy for congested bowels. Perhaps you would like to try a little?”

“My bowels are working just fine thank you, but I shall be sure to remember it if the need ever arise.”

Turpane and Lorralel had spent the day playing together.

Lorra was upset to hear that they had been swimming naked in the brook beyond the forest.

Groad, on the other hand, was just too pleased to know that Turpane had had some clean water pass over her body. She had not bathed for a few days and he remembered only too clearly the stench that had emanated from the grimy little whelp back in the Fryburian stables.

Lorra had made sure that the ten large specially chosen bresk were more than eager to drink their fill by the time Maggoth was ready to administer the poison into their drinking water.

It was important that the poison have enough time to taint the blood of the bresk, but too much time would see their demise before their usefulness had been served. It was necessary for the bresk to remain active and to be inviting targets for the bloodthirsty screechas.

A short time before sundown the bresk were allowed to drink their fill of the toxic mixture.

Lorra also supplied a large old, yet powerful, Kithian warhorse to pull the wooden cart onto which the bresk were loaded for transport.

The cart groaned and creaked under the enormous weight.

“This is the only means I have of transporting the bresk,” she said. “I have never hauled more than five bresk at one time. I hope it is sturdy enough to complete the task?”

“So do I!” exclaimed Groad as he watched one of the wheels bite a little too deep into the soft earth. After hanging his sword over one of the protrusions on the side of the cart he climbed up next to Maggoth who sat beside one of Lorra’s helpers who held firmly onto the horse’s reins.

“We dare not waste time,” said the Dark Wizard to the helper. “Let us be off.”

The going was slower than anticipated. Ublar Tar rode abreast of the cart upon his own steed.

It was necessary to pass once more along the main road that ran through Bryntha in order to meet with the road that would take them to Ana Rust Mountain that lay to the west, beyond the forest.

As they neared the grog-house, the village elder waved the group on. “Continue! I must briefly tarry here. I may have to pay some screecha bounties. I shall attempt to rejoin you at the burial caves before sunset.”

“If the gods smile favourably on us this evening!” shouted Groad, “Then this will be the penultimate payment that you shall make for such services.”

“I truly hope so. The last payment will cost a tremendous amount of gold!” shouted Ublar Tar pulling his horse to the side. “But the price will be worth it to know that the vile creatures have been totally eradicated from the Bryntharian territory! One of the lessons that life teaches us, is that peace of mind is an amenity that does not come cheaply!”

As the group neared the point in the road where the south road swung sharply to the east in order to cut through the mountain pass, the burial caves came into view. They were situated at the top of a gently sloping ridge. It was also at this time that the old Kithian warhorse became skittish, its eyes staring wildly as it snorted.

“He senses the danger that lies within those foreboding entrances,” said the helper pulling hard to restrain the jittery animal. The horse came to a halt, pawing the ground impatiently. “We shall have to unload the cart with haste before his nervousness causes any serious damage.”

The words had no sooner left the helpers mouth when the horse reared up and attempted to swivel the cart back in the direction from which they had come. The stress on the arbor at the point where it joined the left metal-rimmed wheel was too great. The axel shattered and the left side of the cart collapsed to the ground.

Groad found himself catapulted into the long grass on the side of the road. Maggoth and the helper had managed to remain on the cart, but the helper had lost his hold on the reins.

Groad cursed. His lightning fast reflexes had saved him from a similar incident outside the cave in Frybur, but now he still had to familiarize himself with the dynamics of his lighter fleshless frame.

The horse, still determined to accomplish its goal, continued to strain against its bonds. If the side of the cart collapsed, they would have to waste precious time rounding up a herd of anxious bresk.

Groad rushed forward and groped between the unsettled bresk. When he retracted his arm he was clutching a large lump of their manure in his gloved hand.

Placing a foot on one of the shafts that ran parallel to the side of the horse, he managed to get enough leverage to vault onto the horse. As he landed on the animal’s back it turned its head towards him. It was just what Groad had hoped would happen. With a swift motion he covered the horse’s nostrils with the contents of his glove. The horse reared, but Groad had now managed to grab hold of the reins. He pulled tightly and the horse miraculously calmed.

“Dakur’s blood!” exclaimed the helper. “How did you know…?”

“Just an old trick I learned from a horse breeder I once met in Matmar,” said Groad dismounting, but still holding tightly to the reins. “I was not sure that he had told me the truth until just a few moments ago. He said that if a horse can not see or smell any danger, then its feeble brain will innately convince it that there is no danger.”

“Amazing!”

“I have no idea as to how long the steed will remain deceived. I suggest we untie him as quickly as possible.”

Neither the steed nor the helper needed any subtle persuasion to convince them to leave the area. Groad and Maggoth watched as the horse and rider left at full gallop back down the road to Bryntha.

“We must make haste,” said the Dark Wizard.” It will be dark soon.

As they were fettering the last bresk, Groad noticed Ublar Tar approaching down the road on foot.

“The help explained to me the problem of bringing a steed into the vicinity of the burial caves,” said the village elder. “He has taken my horse back to the bresk farm. I have asked him to return at first light. It would not be wise to have any healthy animals in the vicinity once the feeding frenzy begins.”

“I agree,” said Maggoth. “But are you sure that it will be sensible for you to remain here with us tonight? The situation could become rather precarious. It is important for us to witness if all or at least most of the screechas feed upon this fine fare with which we have provided them.”

“I would not dare miss such a spectacle,” said Ublar Tar looking at the neat row of tethered bresk. Each was tied to a separate stake that had been driven deeply into a thin fissure that formed part of the solid ridge running up towards the burial caves. Blood trickled slowly from superficial wounds that Groad had inflicted across each bresk’s rump with a sharp short-bladed dagger. “Where do you plan to conceal yourselves?” asked the village elder looking about.

“We had originally thought to hide within the dense brush on the far side of the road, but Groad has suggested a more viable option.”

“The axel on the cart is broken,” said Groad. “It will be a simple task to remove the wheels and turn it over. It will provide an ideal place of safety and concealment.”

There was a high pitched squeal as the three turned the cart over.

Lorralel, who had concealed herself inside the hinged compartment behind the driver seat, landed rudely and painfully on her rear end.

“Lorralel!” exclaimed Groad. “What are you doing here?”

“My backside hurts,” she said sitting in the dirt and folding her bottom lip down onto her chin.

“That will be nothing compared to the pain you are going to feel once your mother finds out what you have been up to,” said Ublar Tar.

“I also want to see all the ugly screechas die!”

“Where is Turpane?” exclaimed Groad. “I thought I told her to keep an eye on you!”

“Your actions have been most inconsiderate young one,” said the Dark Wizard sternly. “Your mother, who loves and cares very much for you, will be extremely distressed. You shall have caused her great pain by what you have done.”

“I am sorry,” she said looking up at Maggoth with her large green eyes. “I really am.”

This time Lorralel’s apology appeared to be genuine and sincere.

“We shall have to get her out of here as soon as possible,” said Groad.

“It is too late for that,” said Ublar Tar looking at the quickly darkening sky. “The screechas will be emerging from their lairs at any moment now.”

“She can not stay here with us! It would be too dangerous!”

“We do not have any other choice. It would be far more perilous attempting to flee the area. The cart will hopefully provide the satisfactory refuge we need.”

Groad was about to renew his objections when Maggoth placed a hand on his shoulder. “No physical harm shall come to the whelp. You have my word.” There was a long silence as Groad and Maggoth stared at each other. “You have my word,” repeated the Dark Wizard in a near whisper.

The village elder was right. They did not have long to wait. They had barely made themselves comfortable when a screecha appeared at one of the many entrances that dotted the east face of Ana Rust Mountain.

The four stared through the wide gaps between the long boards of the wooden cart.

The scent of the blood must have been overpowering. The screecha’s head bobbed up and down as it sniffed the early evening air.

Groad could not help thinking that the creatures appeared ridiculous, even comical, whenever they used their legs for walking.

The screecha hobbled cautiously down the ridge. It became even more careful, looking in all directions, as it spied the fettered row of bleeding bresk. To its rear appeared more of the vile creatures that watched inquisitively as their brave sibling approached the unusual sight.

“Come on, come on, come on,” whispered Groad trying to will the creature to attack. “That is it. Just keep on coming. It is feeding time and there is enough fresh bresk blood for you and all your demon-spawned brothers.”

“Quiet!” hissed Maggoth

The bresk closest to the screecha had instinctively sensed the impending danger. His eyes were wide and staring as he pulled desperately against his bonds.

The sight of the helpless frightened bresk was persuasion enough to convince the screecha to disregard all the caution it had previously displayed. In one fluid action, it leapt through the air, landed squarely on the bresk’s broad back and sunk its fangs into the pink quivering flesh.

The bresk’s squeal seemed to act as a signal to the rest of the bloodsucking fiends. They descended as one great hungry mass upon the remaining bresk. Those that were still inside the caves exiting like some dark living liquid gushing from the wounds of a gigantic beast.

The sight was frightening yet amazing. The sound was even more terrifying.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Ublar Tar cupping his hands over his ears to dampen the awful blending of piercing screecha shrieks and bresk squeals.

The village elder was grateful when, after some time, only the shrieks of the screechas could be heard.

Groad was watching the feeding frenzy with great interest and fascination. It reminded him of a sight he had once witnessed as a gruntling. A multitude of small insects had attacked a harmless bumba that had wandered too close to their nest. They had completely covered the unfortunate creature with their smaller bodies. When the insects had finally withdrawn, all that remained was the bumba’s white clean-picked bones. He had found the experience to be so fascinating that he had spent the next few days catching bumbas and giving demonstrations to his gruntling friends of the power that comes from unity in numbers.

Groad wondered if his friends had ever truly understood the purpose of his lesson or if they just simply enjoyed seeing some hapless creature being eaten alive.

He was still entertaining this thought when he realized that the stench of bresk was all around him.

“Makkud, the healer,” said Groad turning nervously towards Maggoth. “I think we may have made a serious mistake to conceal ourselves beneath a cart that reeks of bresk.”

“Grell, the untamed,” said Maggoth staring at the approaching screecha. “I believe your concern is a valid one.”

The screecha glared towards the cart with its yellow reptilian eyes. It sniffed the air, moving its head from side to side. A high pitched shriek brought two more to its side.

“Groad,” said the Dark Wizard whispering into the nonexistent ear beneath the bandages, “These creatures are not capable of doing you any harm. Their venom will be useless on your reanimated bones. If you refuse to take the fight to them, they will ultimately breach our protection and force me to use my power. You surely realize the consequences of such an action.”

“Slark slime! I just knew this little adventure of yours was never going to be as simple as you claimed,” said Groad sarcastically. “Hand me that piece of rope.”

Groad started to tie the end of the rope around his sword’s handle.

“Make haste!” said Maggoth. “The creatures approach and their numbers grow rapidly with every passing moment.”

Groad crawled to the back end of the cart where Ublar Tar lay. “I want you to do me a favour,” he said gripping the village elder’s shoulder.

“Of course! What is it?”

“I need you to use that big frame of yours to lift the back of the cart for the briefest of moments.”

“Why?”

“Do not ask questions! Just do it!”

“What do you intend to do?”

“Live up to my name of course! Now do it!”

Ublar Tar heaved and Groad rolled clear of the cart.

“By the elder gods!” exclaimed the village elder dropping the cart. “He does not stand a chance!”

The screechas recoiled, not quite sure about the nature of the strange creature that had emerged from the contraption that smelled invitingly of fresh hot-blooded bresk.

Groad used the opportunity to put his plan to work. Holding onto the end of the rope, he began to swirl the sword about his head.

The screechas moved closer, remaining just at the perimeter of the blades deadly arc.

Groad took a step forward and the sword cut through three fragile frames. There was no mutual respect amongst these creatures. The uninjured took the opportunity to attack their fallen and bleeding siblings.

A few of them now displayed traits of intellect. They hissed and crawled along the ground beneath the spinning death towards Groad. This was something that he had anticipated. He leapt nimbly onto the overturned cart. Here he would have a better vantage point from where he could defend himself.

He realized his error too late. Groad’s new position had made him highly visible to every hungry screecha in the vicinity.

In the split second before the dark clawing wave had descended upon him, he had heard a scream. Looking down he had seen the horror in Lorralel’s staring eyes as she peered up from between the points of his black leather boots. The mass attack first knocked him down before lifting him up. He managed to writhe free and fell back onto the cart. He landed face down and almost instinctively pushed the gloved fingers of one bony hand between the boards and gripped tightly. He cursed the fact that these monstrosities were able to lift his lighter fleshless form with such ease.

Maggoth had lied to Groad. Perhaps the screechas’ venom would have no effect on his reanimated bones, but that did not prevent his nerve endings from experiencing the pain caused by a myriad of fangs and claws. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyelids. In the blackness an image formed. It was an image of a hapless bumba rolling about in agony as it was slowly consumed by an innumerable amount of razor sharp mandibles.

The screaming in his ears was somehow different from the shrieks of the screechas. He opened his eyes and forced himself to see through and beyond the haze of pain. Merely inches from his own face was the face of his daughter. The blood was streaming from her eyes and down her cheeks as she screamed at the creatures to leave him alone. He could feel her hot breath against the flesh of his naked cheek.

Groad had wanted to shout back. He had wanted to reassure her that it was going to be all right. But before the words could be uttered, she had recoiled into the far corner. She huddled behind her knees, covering her lower face with her tiny fingers. Her horrified facial cast had changed into one of sheer and absolute terror. By the time Groad realized the truth, it was too late. Lorralel had not retreated from the screechas. She had fled from the awful sight of Groad himself. The screechas had managed to shred the bandages away from his head, revealing the awful truth that had been concealed.

Groad turned his face away. It was less painful to have the screechas tear at his countenance than to look upon the fear and disgust in his daughter’s eyes. He could only hope that Ublar Tar had not seen his grinning death’s mask as well.

Groad felt the tug in his other hand and knew that he still clutched the end of the rope. By pulling on the rope and twisting his fist in a circular motion he was able to wind the rope around his wrist. He continued this action until he felt the solid handle of the sword in his hand. Then he released his grip on the cart. This time he was thankful as the creatures lifted him into the air. Only when they had carried him into the darkness, a good distance from the cart, did he begin the process of hacking the vile creatures to shreds. Once more he was dropped, but this time he managed to land on his feet.

“Come on!” he shouted beckoning to the flapping mass. “I am not some poor helpless bumba!”

By now he had become accustomed to the pain they inflicted upon him. Standing his ground and placing both hands around the swords handle, he slowly and surely started to thin the disorganized ranks of his attackers. By the time the remaining screechas decided that it was best to flee back to the safety of the caves, Groad’s arm muscles were near to cramping. Either Zarkas had lied to him or the sorcery that Maggoth had used to reanimate Gu Shora’s bones was of a different nature. The reanimated weapons-master had claimed that he could never tire.

Groad collapsed to the ground exhausted. He lay thinking that at least the wizard was correct in his assertion that the screechas’ venom would have no disabling effect on his reanimated bones. If he were lucky, the trio would not be daring enough to leave their place of concealment for some time. This would give him the opportunity to rest for awhile before finding a means to conceal his exposed fleshless head and limbs.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Ublar Tar staring down at the debilitated figure. “I was wrong! It would seem that the creatures do have a palate for flesh after all! They have picked your ill-fated companion to the very bone!”

The Son of Zemth had chosen to rest a little too long. Ublar Tar, being a true Kithian warrior, had chosen to leave the safety of the cart as soon as the screecha numbers had diminished to a safe amount. He had easily hacked his way through three of the vile beasts before reaching the fallen Grell. The rest of the screechas were now quickly losing their bravado as their numbers decreased. They chose to retreat to the safety of the caves.

Fortunately for the startled Groad, the village elder did not witness the slight involuntary spasm that jerked through the prostrated skeletal frame.

Maggoth appeared in Groad’s vision. The Dark Wizard gave an extremely excellent performance of shock and remorse. He removed his long black cape and used it to cover Groad’s remains. “Grell! Oh, Grell! My dearest friend! You were the bravest of all warriors! May Dakur welcome you with open arms!”

“I do not understand it!” exclaimed Ublar Tar. “I realize that your friend would never have been able to survive the combined attack of such a large number of the creatures, but this is the first time that I have witnessed an attack of such savage proportions.” The village elder gazed awe-struck at the circular mound of slaughtered screechas that surrounded the fallen Groad. “By the elder gods! How was he able to do so much harm before the venom took effect? Your companion was no ordinary Kithian.”

“What do you mean?” asked Maggoth forcing a tone of consternation into his voice.

“What I mean is that he was a hero beyond comparison. He sacrificed himself so that others may endure. Although many Kithians may not consider this to have been a glorious battle, I have no doubt that what you say is true, Dakur will surely welcome him with open arms.”

“Please leave us alone,” said Maggoth sounding even more grief stricken.

“Of course,” said Ublar Tar. “I understand. I shall be with Lorralel at the cart if you should need me.”

Groad listened as the village elder’s footsteps receded into the distance.

“I am truly sorry for this unforeseen inconvenience,” said Maggoth kneeling down next to Groad.

“Maggoth!” hissed Groad from under the black covering. “You are a Dark Wizard. You have existed for aeons. I would have thought that by know you would have gained matchless wisdom; the power to destroy worlds. Yet, all you seem capable of doing is apologizing for making my life miserable.”

“Not now Kithian! Do not attempt to rile me now! Are you forgetting that one of the main reasons we have chosen to hide our true identities is because of your desire to protect not only your own honour, but also that of your family and home village. Now do us all a service and expire with that very same dignity and honour.”

“What?”

“I know it will be difficult, but you shall have to feign death…or at least immobility until we have received our payment and are a good distance from your home village.”

“I will never be able to do it.”

“Nonsense! How difficult can it be to simply remain motionless?”

“You are going to have to use your powers to help me. Take back my life force for awhile.”

“Impossible! The amount of energy needed to do that, as well as reanimating you a second time, will be too great. I need to preserve as much of my power as possible for the purpose of thwarting Kronos. If you love and honour your family enough, now is the perfect opportunity to prove it. It will be a simple task to endure through this. Use the opportunity to rest your weary frame.”

“No! What if I should inadvertently fall asleep? And what if that sleep should bring disturbing dreams. Dreams that could cause my reanimated form to unwittingly lash out at phantoms.”

“Hmm! Then you shall have to remain not only immobile but also awake. If you should feel drowsy think upon Kronos and our quest. That should exasperate you from your slumberous condition.”

“Maggoth.”

“What?”

“My nose.”

“What about your nose?”

“I desperately need to scratch it!”

Lorra, Turpane and the helper arrived just after dawn with the necessary tools for repairing the cart. They had tethered the horses a short distance away.

After she had hugged and kissed and was totally satisfied that Lorralel had not suffered any serious physical damage, Lorra had blasted her daughter with a volley of reprimands and warnings.

“I have terrible news, young one,” said Ublar Tar to Turpane. “I fear that we did not all fare as well through this past night. Your traveling companion was not as fortunate as the rest of us.”

“What?” she asked looking towards Maggoth who was shaking his head and making incomprehensible facial expressions. “Where is he now?”

“We placed what was left of him in the cart.”

What was left of him?” frowned the Valacian whelp moving swiftly to the cart.

“I would suggest that you gaze not upon your fallen companion!” shouted Ublar Tar. “It is a most disturbing sight!”

Turpane pulled back the black cape.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Lorra peering over Turpane’s shoulder. “The screechas did that?”

“I am afraid so,” said the village elder.

“But it is not possible! The screechas do not attack their victims in such a manner!”

“Makkud has a theory which makes sense.”

Maggoth stepped forward. “I believe that the ferociousness of their assailant caused them to intensify their own attack. It was an instinctive means of securing that the danger was thoroughly removed.”

Ferociousness of their assailant?” asked Lorra looking puzzled.

“Yes,” said Ublar Tar. “Grell managed to slay a vast number of the vermin with his sword before eventually succumbing to their venom.

“But you were supposed to poison the creatures, not attack them?”

“I am afraid it became a necessary commitment. I do truly believe that if it were not for the swift and unselfish sacrifice of Grell, we would not have survived this past night.” Ublar Tar pointed to a large heap of screecha heads that lay behind the cart. “He may even have accomplished more than half the expected effect of the poisonous blood. Makkud and I have spent the night removing the heads of the screechas massacred by this brave warrior.”

“It is uncanny,” said Lorra gazing at the bloody mound.

“I know!” exclaimed Ublar Tar. “He killed more than eighty of the creatures before succumbing to their attack.

“No! What I meant is that he knew!”

“Knew what?”

“He somehow knew that he was going to die. Even with his strong character and impressive sword skills he instinctively knew that death was close and unavoidable. And if what you say is true, then Grell will have no trouble entering Dakur’s hallowed gates. I regret that he and my husband never had the opportunity to cross paths in this life, but they will most assuredly meet in the next. I am also sure that he is a warrior of his word and will convey to Groad my message…the words that I could never dare to speak myself.”

“Hush Lorra!” said Ublar Tar holding his daughter firmly on her upper arms. “You speak as though you never expect to see your husband again.”

“I am sorry father. I am exhausted. I was not able to sleep last night. I was too concerned about Lorralel’s whereabouts as well as your own safety.”

“Not only your family, but the whole of Bryntha is safe once more thanks to these travelers.” The village elder waved a hand towards Groad and Maggoth. “As village elder I shall make certain that the name of Grell, the untamed will never be forgotten in Bryntha. I offered Makkud the opportunity to place his fallen comrade within the Cave of Heroes, but he wishes to return the remains to Grell’s family as soon as possible.”

“But of course, Father,” said Lorra. “We Bryntharians can not be selfish in wanting to keep the hero for ourselves. It is much more important for him to be returned to his loved ones. And more important still, as it is Kithian custom to bury the slain hero along with the skulls of his vanquished foes, Makkud shall have to take along the screecha heads as well.”

Maggoth was about to make some sort of verbal protest when Ublar Tar spoke.

“Yes, of course. And to prove my personal gratitude I insist on paying from my own purse the amount needed to secure a means of transporting the heads. I must also insist that Makkud and his young companion attend a celebratory feast at my lodgings this evening.”

Maggoth realized that there would be no way to leave Bryntha sans the screecha heads without offense, not only to every Bryntharian, but also to every Kithian on the face of Baltrath. It had been naïve of them all to think it possible to rid this village of an extremely troublesome scourge and then simply leave once more in an almost unconcerned manner. They had arrived relatively unnoticed in Bryntha, but there was no way they would be able to leave in the same fashion. Ublar Tar would definitely see to it.

“My honoured village elder,” said Maggoth holding out his hands, palms up towards Ublar Tar. “I know without a doubt that your intentions are unselfish and honourable, but I, without the least intention of attempting to offend you and the rest of Bryntha must unfortunately decline your generous offer. You see, time is pressing us to much more urgent matters.”

“What matters can be so important that you can not tarry one more night in Bryntha?” asked Lorra narrowing her eyes at Maggoth.

“I believe part of the answer to your question will be found within the burial caves,” said the Dark Wizard picking up Groad’s sword. “We still have much to do. By now the poison will have done its work.”

They lit torches and spent the rest of the day searching through every last nook and cranny inside the burial caves. They dragged the poisoned screecha carcasses outside before removing the heads. It had only been necessary to slaughter a number of hatchlings that had not been strong enough to leave the caves. Just to be certain that they had not overlooked any strays that may have managed to allude them, they also sealed the entrances with massive rocks. An enormous pyre was built to cremate the torsos. By the end of the day there was a heap of over two hundred screecha heads piled up in the repaired cart next to Groad.

“Two hundred and twenty two,” said Ublar Tar throwing the last head onto the mound of glazed eyes and yellow teeth. “Is that not a beautiful sight? I just would have sworn that there should have been much more.”

“That is only the impression one gets because of their incessant flapping about,” said Maggoth using a piece of cloth to wipe the blood from his hands and the sword. “Furthermore, I would expect that you should be delighted that the amount is less than anticipated.”

“Ah, yes!” laughed the village elder. “You refer of course to the price of your services. Two hundred and twenty two heads means two hundred and twenty two gold pieces.”

“Be joyful that your dilemma is over. Mine, which is far greater, has only just begun.”

“What problem could you possibly have?

“This!” exclaimed the Dark Wizard holding out an object towards the village elder. It was smooth, light blue in colour with fine black speckles. “There were many of these in the caves. Does it look familiar to you?”

“Why yes! I did not notice them before because the torchlight disguised their true appearance, but here in the sunlight it would seem to be a fragment of the vases that the merchant from Yarsi was so reluctant to sell. Why do you suppose it was in the caves? Do you think he was attacked by the screechas on his way to the northern territories?” Ublar Tar frowned and shook his head. “But that is strange, because at the time when the merchant passed through Bryntha, there was no screecha problem yet.”

“That is a fact. Because the truth is that he brought the screecha problem with him.”

“I do not understand?”

“This is no shard from a broken vase. It is the remains of a hatched screecha egg. It was the bald merchant who started your problem. He obviously filled the burial caves with the unhatched screecha eggs from his cart. No sooner had the hatchlings reached adulthood than they would start to breed.”

“But why would he do such a thing? What in Dakur’s name did he hope to accomplish?”

“Because he knew that I would be attracted here by the quest for gold. I have been misled by my insatiable need and desire for the precious metal.”

“You? What makes you so important? And why would he want to bring you to Bryntha?”

“I am not sure yet, but I believe that the answer will be most disturbing.”

“Lorralel!” shouted Ublar Tar.

“Stop that!” added Lorra.

Lorralel dropped the stick that she was using to poke at Groad’s remains.

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