The Threat of Valleor

A tale of Bethdish

By Dan L. Hollifield

Chapter 1
Year 6740
Shadow of the Monster
Entar forest, Kingdom of Kineth

    The Reever walked through the Forest of Entar and never in his life had he been so close to death. He had been feeling a presence in the trackless forest for some time now. The presence itself however, eluded him. The Reever was troubled by the suggestion that someone could hide so well from him. Indeed, he should be able to find anyone hiding in these woods. He slowed his pace while looking about at the forest. He studied the undergrowth around the small clearing in which he stood, noting the big, old trees that lined most of the edge of the clearing. He could see nothing on the path before himself that could be a threat. He turned and looked back along the way that he had just come and saw no danger. Still his nerves sang, his breath was quickened, and time seemed to slow to a crawl. He seemed conscious of each passing second as if it were an eternity. The Reever stood still, looking around for the watcher in the brush and the branches of trees. He looked again into each shadow for some subtler threat that could have escaped him before. He shivered, thinking of all the times that he'd had feelings like this. Each time the warning of his nerves had saved his life. He had become a man who was keen to listen to a gut feeling. Especially seeing as how many times those gut feelings had saved his life. He walked forward slowly, his hand on his sword hilt, around the trunk of a large tree and carefully examined the path ahead to the next village. He decided to see if he could bring the threat out in the open, so he waited. Ten minutes passed and he grew tired of this waiting game. If the threat wouldn't show itself then he'd continue on his journey. After taking a good long look around the clearing, the Reever quickened his pace and was shortly lost to view- well on his way to the nearby village.
    A squirrel, stooping for nuts underneath the tree the Reever had stopped beside, was frightened by the falling of a small, scorched tree branch. It hit the ground beside the squirrel with a spattering of burnt and withered leaves. The branch lay where the Reever had stood, giving off a foul stench and crackling with static. Sparks seemed to dance and weave along the leaves. The squirrel ran until it couldn't smell the terrible smoke any longer.
    High above in the tree, the darkness of the shadowed leaves grew less and they were limned in frightened sunlight. The watcher was gone, but the forest was still and frightened. It would be days before the birds dared to sing again.

Chapter 2
Year 6740
Beloq and the Trespassers
Castle of the Winds, Callar Jungle

    As the thief crept down the hallway he stopped to admire the paintings on the walls. Any one of them, he guessed, would buy the average city. He went onward, touching nothing. He could hear his companions following at a short distance. They seemed to be appraising the various paintings in their lighted niches along the seemingly endless hallway. The thief looked at two on the wall in front of him. Each painting was framed in some dark hardwood with gilt edging. One was of a dragon and an archer. It seemed to be the climax of a titanic battle. The other picture showed a sailing ship, threatened by a giant octopus. The ship seemed doomed to be dragged beneath the waves, it's crew abandoned ship onto to be hunted down by the tentacles of the giant.

The thief shrugged, who was he to judge art? He just knew what he liked. What he liked most was treasure, and the less well guarded the better. He turned and resumed his reconnoiter of the hallway. Soon he paused at an open doorway to allow his companions to catch up. When they did their leader spoke up:

"Well, let's see what go can do with this lot," Beloq said quietly. He shook back the hood of his dark blue robe and surveyed the small room that was open to them. After some of the things that he'd seen in this place he was prepared for just about anything. This was an L shaped room with an old cannon taking up a lot of space on the right and one nasty looking rifle hanging on the left wall, looking like a cross between a bazooka and some kind of energy weapon. The thing looked as if it could take out city blocks while set on stun. Next to it stood a funny-looking set of armor. What he could see inside of the armor looked to be filled with clockwork and lights. He wondered what it was even as he looked at the other two weapons in the room. One seemed to be a small motorized cannon and the other to be a sled of some sort. A sled with weapons if the ports and tubing on it's body were any indication. They spent half an hour trying to activate any of the mechanisms in the room. It was Gryphon that found the power cell that fit nothing else in the room. It figured, normally Gryphon wouldn't notice anything but how long that it's been since the last fight. That or how much he's looking forward to the next one. Nothing had been going right since they wandered into this nightmare.

Beloq thought Gryphon was mad when he began to search the armor for a slot that fit the small, heavy block of dull gray metal. Everything else had been tried, however, so Beloq allowed him to proceed. With Selene's help, Gryphon managed to fit the peculiar copper contacts on the box to similar contacts on the back of the armor. They were in a hand sized slot that exactly fit the power cell. When he shoved the small box home and the armor straightened up taller, Gryphon came the closest ever to soiling his own armor. As it so happened, he did fall down. Beloq had merely frowned and put his hands on his favorite magic wand. It was a long inlaid tube of some silvery metal with an ivory handle, stuck through his belt sash. He made a mental note to himself to the effect that he must seek out an apothecary sometime soon, for he was running low on the magic powder that propelled the wand's lead projectiles. When the armor made no other moves whatsoever, Beloq relaxed and recommended that his followers do the same.

"Chill!" he said to his companions."What are you?" Beloq said loudly, addressing the suit of armor.

"PXR5, PXR5, PXR5..." came the reply. As the thief looked into the room from a safe position out in the hallway, there were several grinding, thumping noises from the robot. It seemed to vibrate slightly. Then it shuddered and lurched forward. It stopped and spoke as the grinding got louder.

"I... await your... orders..."

"What...?" said Gryphon. Selene kicked him in the shin and told him to be quiet.

"Are you trying to get us all killed?"she hissed. "Shut up and let Beloq do the talking!"

Beloq stood his ground, staring at the PXR5 robot with an intensity that would burn holes in things, or so the thief thought as he noted Beloq's gaze.

"It's a mechanical man..." the thief began.

"Obviously!" Beloq interrupted.

"He'll get us caught with all that noise! Put it back, we don't need it," said the thief.

"Resthal," Beloq said menacingly, "thankfully you don't make the decisions for me. I do! And my decision is to find out more about this thing... and find a way to use it. What can you do, Oh Mechanical Man?"

"PXR5... PXR5. I can... can..." spoke the machine.

"Do nothing, it seems," muttered Resthal the thief under his breath. Beloq shot him a look which clearly meant that be would like to be shooting something more deadly at the little thief. The robot continued to speak.

"I can... Systems... check in... progress. PXR5 can serve... you soon. Preliminary scan... shows no major faults. Offensive Weaponry... ponry disabled. Defensive systems intact. It has been... some time since I was... last serviced. Extended deactivation has caused internal... damage to some circuitry. Repairs are in progress. PXR5 is now at 65.425% efficiency. Awaiting orders."

"Do you know where we are?" asked Beloq. "We seem to be lost."

"Sensor net operating," said PXR5, "Sweeping the area..."

"We want to get out of here!"

"Shut up, Resthal!"

"ALERT! ALERT!" blared the robot.

"What?" Beloq looked up sharply from his former thoughtful pose. "Explain, what are you talking about?"

"PXR5 sensor scan has been detected by a security device. It is rapidly approaching." The robot's flat voice seemed all the more menacing now that it had some bad news to report.

"How can we escape?" Beloq asked.

"PXR5 can render you invisible to the device."

"How? No, never mind, don't explain, just do it! Do it now!" Beloq ordered. Giving orders seemed to come easy to Beloq.

The PXR5 backed into it's former position. It moved much more easily now, Beloq noticed. "Do not move!" the PXR5 said. "It will detect any movement. If you move, it will detect you. PXR5 will be able to scramble the device's sensors to conceal you, if you do not move."

As the four of them stood still, they heard a shrill whine. A sonic boom sounded, like a cannon shot, out in the hallway that Resthal had just vacated. Something small zoomed past the doorway and could be heard decelerating in the hall. Suddenly it snapped into sight and hovered in the doorway.

Something the size of one of Gryphon's fists, or a small pail, floated lazily in front of them. It twisted and turned as it bobbed in the air. The gem-like glitter of lenses dotted the sphere's surface. A quiet hum filled the room as the device studied it. Then the device swooped into the center of the room and unexpectedly whirled in a small circle.

"It is not immobilized. Do not yet move." said the PXR5. "It will shortly withdraw. Do not move!"

As if waiting for a signal, the small gray sphere spun about in the center of the room. Suddenly it swooped toward the door and accelerated back the way that Beloq and the others had come. There was a crash like thunder from the security device breaking the sound barrier as it fled away.

"What was that thing?" Selene asked.

"A highly maneuverable, lightly armored remote sensor scanner. It is one unit of a versatile household security system. There is little time, the device has alerted a supervisor drone which is approaching."

"How much time do we have?" Beloq snapped.

"Yeah," added Resthal, "and where is the nearest getaway car?"


"The drone will arrive in 12.825 minutes. It will take 9.896 minutes to navigate to the nearest unguarded vehicle. The Drone will take approximately 4.7 minutes to calculate our most probable path and follow. There is a 78.425% chance that the Drone will choose the wrong destination."

"Too many numbers," said Gryphon sadly. "What do they all mean?"

"I thought that we were invisible!" complained Selene.

"The Drone does not know what it is looking for. The Remote only reported the detecting of PXR5's sensor sweep in this area. That is included in the probability calculation."

"What and where is this vehicle?" Resthal asked.

"Do you want to escape or debate?" Beloq snapped. "Let's move out!"

The Collector knew that something was amiss as soon as he received a garbled report from a Security Scanner. That meant that the system had been tampered with. That, in turn, meant visitors in the Museum. Powerful visitors, it appeared. Something must be done. They must be found.

"Security Control," the Collector spoke quietly into the air.

"Responding!" said a sharp voice.

"We seem to have visitors."

"Sir!" The sharp voice was shocked sounding. "I was unaware! There have been no reports..."

"Relax, they aren't in the central complex. They're way out on the rim of the Museum, on a different planet- out of your sensor range. Not your fault, but I want it under your control. My instruments may be better than yours, but security is your area."

"Your orders, sir?" said sharp-voice, sounding relieved.

"Sector 5, Museum level 47, quarantine that area to everyone except for myself. Call off the Drones and the mobile sensors. These people may be here accidentally and I don't see any reason to kill them outright. I want to take a look at them myself... from a reasonable distance."

"As you wish, Sir. However. I harbor reservations concerning your proposed course of action."

"So do I," said the Collector. "So do I..." He signed off quietly.

Chapter 3
Year 6740
Monster of Darkness
Tornay Village, Lake Kineth

It was a beautiful sunset, with long shadows reaching far in the reddened sunlight. A young girl was drawing water from the village well and shivering uncontrollably in the warm evening sun. She was not aware of the reason for her fears as the creature watched her from out of the shadows. The girl looked around herself as the bucket reached the top of the well. She felt eyes on her back, watching her every move. The creature came to her as she turned to go, bucket in hand. Two blazing red eyes 1ooked down upon her from the midst of a thick, oily cloud of smoke. The cloud of dense blackness soundlessly floated down to her side. He stretched out a tentacle of darkness to take the bucket from her hand and throw it down the well. With another tentacle, like a rope of smoke, the creature reached out and touched her on the back of the neck. She fell senseless at the monster's feet as it calmly gazed down at her small body. It gathered her into it's arms and rose to the height of the tree tops- where they vanished from sight. The night sounds of insects and frogs rushed in like a tidal wave as the monster's artificial silence ended.
Chapter 4
Year 6740
The Threat Revealed
Tornay Village, Lake Kineth

It had taken the better part of a week for the Reever to travel from the deep forest to the villages of Lake Kineth. Some hidden fear seemed to have gripped the region- for each village was quieter and gloomier than the last. By the time the Reever had reached Tornay Village he had heard rumors of women disappearing without a trace. The rumors were widespread and hard to dig out of the few people that the Reever had met. Fear had come to rule the people of the lake, fear of the unknown. The unknown was his personal quest. To find out, to explore, and to help those in need. The Reever stayed true to his usual habit of seeking information at the gathering places people tended to congregate He visited those places where news from far away came to first, the Smithies, Inns, and Taverns of the road for the most part. Monasteries were familiar with his tanned face, rough clothes, and gentle voice as well.

As he walked into Tornay Village his steps seemed automatically to take him to the village Blacksmith's place of business. Old men were gathered around the forge in the cool of the morning air. They were taking turns telling their favorite fishing or hunting lies as they chewed tobacco and passed away the hours like any people would in a small town. Strangers would often stop at the Smith's for news, directions, or just to rest along their trips, so the Reever attracted no special attention as he leaned against the walls of the rude wooden shack that housed the forge. He listened to the talk that he thought seemed universal at a smithy. After a while, the Smith took time out from the morning's chores of fire-stoking and hammer-wielding to take notice of the new stranger in town.

"What can I do for you this mornin', stranger?" the Smith asked in a voice made rough by years of breathing smoke and soot.

"I've come a long way and need a meal. Is there an Inn close by, somewhere I can clean the road from my throat and get a good breakfast?" said the Reever.

"I was fixin' to go over to Wider Keller's for some breakfast and a pint or two of mulled cider. I need to get my 'Prentice started shoein' the Baker's two selkies just now. I'd be honored to show ya the way if ya could wait a spell," the Smith said. "where are ya bound from, if ya don't mind my askin', Sir?"

"Well, two weeks ago I was in Nanor Fort City at the wedding of a friend of mine. He's a merchant who sells tapestries there. He asked me to go north to his brother who lives in the village of Ind at the tip of the lake. Seems that they haven't gotten on in years and my friend wants his brother to come to the Confirmation Ceremony next Trnmass Day. I hope that they can get back together."

"How wonderful that they might be able to settle their differences now," said the Smith. "Elias, fetch the Baker's team and start on them while I take the stranger to the Wider's. If ya get finished with them ya can start on the Kethy that Farmer Jern brought in this mornin'. Now get along with ya. Don't dally around wastin' time!"

"Shall we go?" asked the Reever.

"As ya like," said the Smith. "And if ya would, tell me more of yer journey. A far traveler such as yerself must have seen many strange places along the way," said the Smith as he and the Reever walked away from the clearing that framed the Smithy with fragrant leaves.

After a hearty breakfast at the Inn the Reever arranged to have a room for the night. Then he spent the day asking questions in the Tavern and the General Store. From the answers that he received, the Reever was able to piece together more of the same stories that he had been hearing all around the Kingdom of Kineth. Several women had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. None of them had ever been found and no trace of foul play was evident. He was about to retire early for the night since he wanted to get a fresh start in the morning. As he was going up the staircase to his room he was thinking only about the flask of Krupnick that he'd set out earlier to let it's spices settle. When he saw a one-armed man arguing with the barkeep over the price of a drink, he felt that he should delay his appointment with a glass or two of the 3000 year old liqueur. Some hunch made the Reever go over and join the debate. Perhaps he was a little closer to an answer than he had realized. Then again after all, what would he really loose if the one-armed man knew nothing?

"Barkeep, what seems to be the trouble?" the Reever asked.

"Beggin' your pardon, Sir- but it's just the old Smith here, no trouble at all," the bartender began to explain.

"He won't stretch m' limits fer another drink," said the one-armed man.

"Is that all? Put it on my tally and let him have his drink," said the Reever.

"As you wish, Sir. But he'll likely drink your money dry before too long. Just a word of warning."

"Just you get along back here with another pot of wine, like the gentleman told you," the one-armed man said drunkenly. "My friends call me Blackfur," he said. "but you can call me anything you want as long as you're buying!"

"Call me Reever," said the Reever with a smile. "It's an old family name that I am proud to bear."

"And just what do you reave, oh harvester? Grain? Fruits?"

The Reever chuckled at his new companion's mistake, then smiled and said "I guess you could be righter than you know. Sometimes I do have to sift through peoples stories and harvest the truth. The most meager gleaning of facts can sometimes produce the one thing that shows where the true guilt may lie. I understand that people don't always tell the truth, so I sift through stories and harvest the facts."

"That must make you very unpopular in some circles, I should think," said Blackfur.

"Sometimes it does at that, my friend but I don't let that get in the way of what has to be done. I haven't set out to win any popularity contests, just to help people," the Reever said, hoping to loosen the tongue of his new acquaintance.

"Help people ye say? Well, ye might have come to the right place after all. Just what would ye do if ye found someone who needs yer help? Are ye a hero?" Blackfur asked 'A Warrior maybe, or a hunter after big game? Or are ye just a sword-fer-hire lookin' for a new master?"

"I've been all of those things and many more besides," the Reever said. "But tell me about the trouble here." The Reever was fishing for information. If his feelings in the forest were any indication he was needed here and now.

"You know about the trouble? It must be worse than I thought."

'Well, I've heard a little... Just rumors along the road. Is it very bad trouble?"

"Oh yes, But if ye've already heard of our misfortune, what could I add?"

"Yes well, I know what the trouble is like in other places, what I want you to do is tell me what it's like here."

"Other Places? People are disappearing in other places as well?"

"Yes, or so the rumors say."

"Then it is such worse than I thought. You can help, you said?"

"I'd like to, very much. Tell me what is happening here."

"I don't rightly know where to start. But I do know a man who could tell it much better than me. I can take ye to him right now, if ye wish," said Blackfur, putting down his empty tankard.

"I'd like that indeed," said the Reever.

"Then come with me and meet a Holy man that knows more about what is happening to us here. He has traveled far like yerself, and is a man of some learning in the magic arts as well. The villagers have already sought him out to ask his opinion, perhaps he knows more than he told them. I know that he is more than he seems, for all of his quiet life."

"You may be more than you seem yourself, my friend. But you can tell me what you know on the way. Let's go see the priest."

"It's not far, Reever. I'm afraid that I am a poor storyteller, but I'll give it a try. Most of the villages around the Lake have had people, mostly young women, disappear without a trace. Ah here's the door, after you sir."

"Oh no, after you friend Blackfur. Continue, please."

As they stepped out into the afternoon sunlight Blackfur blinked and rubbed his eyes as if unused to the glare.

"I don't have time to waste entertaining every tinker and peddler that comes into town! Tell them to go away! I am a very busy man and I don't want to be disturbed!" came a voice from inside the small stone house. A young girl of about twelve summers stood in the partially open doorway. She looked embarrassed as the voice inside rose to new heights of volume and outrage.

"...and tell that half-witted hammer slinger not to bother me again until after he sobers up!"

"The quiet life?" asked the Reever.

"Oh, he's in fine form today," said Blackfur as if to imply that the priest's behavior were nothing out of the ordinary.

"Pearl," said Blackfur, addressing the girl at the door. "Tell him to come out here himself and that I'm not going to leave until he meets this man here. Then tell him that I said I was gonna go out back to the garden and stomp every one of his precious bok-melons flat if he's not out here double-quick!"

"That ought to stir him out of his book-room," said Blackfur quietly to the Reever as the girl went inside.

"Are you sure that We came to the right place?" asked the Reever.

"Of course I'm sure, Tinhill's a little short tempered at first but he eases off on ye a bit once he gets to know ye.' said Blackfur with a touch of drunken self-confidence. Just then the door burst open to crash against the outside wall with a boom that could be heard across the lake.

"Well?" roared the old man who stood in the doorway. "If you've got something to say, say it! I've got better things to do than..." the priest stopped in astonishment as he caught sight of the Reever. They studied each other for a moment. The priest saw a tall man with a rough face dressed in dusty, gray leather clothes. His boots were stained with green from much travel through the woods. The Reever saw a medium-sized man, bent with age and sorrow. The old man looked to be well past the prime of his life, but not weak with the infirmities one expects with great age.

"As I live and breathe..." the old Priest said quietly. "It is you, isn't it? Far Walker? Reever, of Fort Mountain?..."

For a moment no one spoke. The children could feel the mood Of their elders had shifted somehow. How could they know that the Reever had stepped out of their myths to stand among them?

"Yes it is I," said the Reever. "I am, as I always was, at your service."

"I met you once before," said the Priest, "in my youth. Long, long ago that was. I am Tinhill Nuatul. Once I was High Priest of Antuth in the Kingdom of Urth in the High Valley. Now I am a simple healer here in this village."

"The God of Sun and Stars does not easily give up His Priests," said the Reever. "I remember Tinhill of Cequat, a young man of much promise. I am glad to know that such promise has been fulfilled."

"You are most kind," said Tinhill. "Please allow me to apologize for my outburst. I am an old man and much worry has come to rest on my weak shoulders. Sometimes I tend to let my temper run away with me."

"Sometimes?" Blackfur hissed. "How about every time ye open yer yap these days?"

"Master," said Pearl. "Why do you speak of this man as someone you knew in your youth? He looks far younger than either you or Master Blackfur. How can this be?"

"Let me explain," said the Reever. "I am one of the Immortals. I have lived since the world was young. All that is, all that was, I have seen as I traveled across the globe. Something is wrong here and I must put it right as best I can."

"We welcome your aid," said Tinhill. "Come inside and I will tell you of our plight."

As they listened to Tinhill, one thing became clear to the Reever; he was indeed needed here. The scores of missing people had no one to champion their recovery. The local governments were unable to locate a single victim. No sign was ever seen of these people once they vanished. There was no sign of foul play, other than their absence.

Tinhill spun a tale that was enough to frighten the strongest of men. He had been having visions of a formless monster, like an inky, black cloud, that had been killing or kidnapping women from all around the lake region. He talked about possible traps and weapons and how to find the creature's lair. Hours passed, the sun began to sink low in the western sky, and the Reever needed to return to the Widow Keller's Inn to sleep.

"Until tomorrow," said Tinhill as the Reever and Blackfur left to make their way back to the village. As they walked, the knowledge gained at the Priest's hut ran over and over through the Reever's mind.

Then they heard thunder, faint and seemingly far off.

"A storm?" asked Blackfur. "But the sky is clear..."

"Something is wrong," answered the Reever. "I can feel it. Come on!"

They ran. As they crossed into a clearing, the lake was visible in the far distance. Before them stood a cloud of darkest black, and a young woman wrapped in coils of smoke and floating far off the ground.

"Aden!" cried Blackfur. "Pearl's sister! The thing has her!"

"Quickly!" shouted the Reever. "We must aid her!"

Thunder boomed as lightning split the air. A nearby tree is struck, splits asunder, and falls on Blackfur and the Reever. As they struggle free from the branches and foliage the monster disappears. They finally win free to find themselves alone. Aden is gone.

"What was that thing?" gasped Blackfur.

"I'm not sure, but it was familiar. Like I'd seen it- or something like it before."

"You should know if you've seen that before!" exclaimed Blackfur.

"After thirteen and a half million years of life?" said the Reever. "Its not that simple. I have a lot of memories to sort through."

Chapter 5
Year 6740
Hunters and Collectors
Castle of the Winds, Caalar Jungle, Museum Level 2220

They had been on the run for days as the result of their last caper and were hiding out in an abandoned barn. The place looked as if no one had been there for ages. On the second day they were preparing to leave when a sudden electrical storm broke out inside the barn! There were violent discharges of lightning and the thunder seemed as loud as cannon fire. A strong wind seemed to seize them in an unbreakable grip and they were pulled into a gaping hole in the center of the storm cloud. As suddenly as it began, the storm vanished with a final tremendous discharge of lightning. The thunder echoed in the empty barn like the last crash of doomsday. They were dumped out of the storm cloud and into a strange hallway, being the professionals that they were, they took it from there. Then things got weird. Now they were on the run, being lead around by a robot of some kind. Weird, it was all getting very weird.

The thief's thoughts must have echoed his companions pretty closely for they all stole secret looks at each other as if to guess who was ready to break.

"Touch nothing," the robot said. "Follow me and stay close."

"When do we get out of this hallway?" Selene asked. "We're sitting targets if anyone comes along!"

"Just get us there and don't waste time on explanations. Take us to that 'Vehicle' that you told us about," said Beloq.

"PXR5 has almost completed the journey to the unguarded vehicle requested by yourselves. Please remain calm, there is no need of panic. No pursuit has yet been mounted," said the robot. "Follow me closely."

"Easier said than done," said Gryphon. "He's leading us at a dead run with these wheels of his. I need time to catch my breath!"

"Then don't waste it complaining about the thing that is saving your miserable life for you! Concentrate on running and stop whining!" said Beloq.

Suddenly they rounded a sharp corner and found themselves in some sort of anteroom. Lights came on as they entered and the robot led them through sets of double doors that appeared in their path. They came out into a huge hallway that seemed to go on forever. It was somewhat like a subway platform, or a bank of elevators- naked without their protective shafts. The robot led them to the fifth box in the seemingly infinite line of identical tall blue-green boxes.

"PXR5 has fulfilled your last order and awaits further instructions," said the robot.

"Where's the getaway car?" said the thief.

"Here in front of us, obviously!" said Selene viciously. "Now how do we get in?" she hissed.

"PXR5 is working on that problem even as we stand here."

"Damned robot is getting poetic on us," Resthal muttered to himself. "We're in trouble, I knew it!"

"Robot, what is this place?" asked Beloq.

"Yeah, and what are these green wardrobe cabinets?" asked Gryphon.

"This is the landing area for these vehicles. These are transfer capsules. They travel to different places."

"What? Where do they all go?"

"Each has a different destination. They all go a single location, or have a different route of multiple destinations to follow."

"Why this one? Wouldn't any of them do?"

"This one has been recently been used, commandeered by visitors such as yourselves. It's internal security systems have not, as yet, been repaired. They were damaged and will not report the use of the vehicle until they are repaired. The rest of these vehicles would sound an alarm as soon as someone tried to open it's door. The Museum security systems would know as soon as it was entered."

"Couldn't you bypass the security systems?" Beloq asked.

"There is insufficient time."

"Hell, open the door and let's get out of here!"

From a vantage point at the corner of the entrance, the Collector watched the actions of the trespassing party. "Adaptable..." he thought. "They don't seem to be intimidated by either the Museum or the Robot. I wonder what they would make of suddenly being thrown into a completely alien environment? Of course, that's what they first faced when they found themselves here. Obviously they won't go suddenly mad if I sent them away. I must get them out of the Museum while I discover how they got here- and from where. Now where should I send them? Where can they survive? With, of course, a minimum chance of finding their way back here any time soon?"

After a few moments deliberation, he ducked back around the corner and backtracked along the corridor. Seven steps from the staging area entrance, the Collector opened a secret door and stepped into a control room. The place looked as if it could make Warp Factor six without being wired to a ship. He activated a set of view screens and watched the trespassers for a moment longer. Then he began to type a set of instructions to the vehicle being assaulted. It's doors opened and the trespassers entered, each thinking that they had at last escaped.

Nothing could be further from the truth.
Chapter 6
Year 6740
Trail of the Monster
Tornay Village, Lake Kineth

The next day Tinhill, Blackfur, and the Reever make plans to leave town, tracking the monster by means of the visions Tinhill has been having since the first of the victims had vanished from the lake region. Pearl also begins to have visions of her sister and the monster and wants to go after her with the men. She and her brother are told that they cannot come along on the journey.

"For the last time, NO! You cannot come with us!" said Blackfur and Tinhill as one. The Reever only frowned, as if to say that he didn't feel it his place to offer his opinion. Pearl was adamant, Eli was rebellious.

"I expressly forbid you to come with us!" said Tinhill.

After the three men leave Tornay village, Pearl and her brother Eli steal a sailboat and go north to the end of the lake.

"Well, he didn't tell us we couldn't follow behind them," Pearl said to Eli as they stole old Wan D'ken's sailboat. They had spent the last two evenings rifling the kitchens of Blackfur's and Tinhill's cottages for supplies to get them to the end of the lake. They had no further plan than that, to meet the men at the end of the lake and prove that they could keep up, that they wouldn't slow the men down.

They pass the men on the way. When the men get to the last lake village (Ind Village) they find the children waiting for them. The children threaten to set out on their own if they get left behind again. Pearl is still having visions of the monster, but Tinhill no longer has more than vague images and oppressive fears. He has one recurring dream of a strange mountain that he thinks is the location of the monster's lair. On the basis of Tinhill's visions and the Reever's memories of old stories, the men decide to travel to Tulag- the Hidden Kingdom, to ask Lutay the Wizard-King for help and advice.

"We need expert advice," said the Reever. "I don't know what we're up against, but it's dangerous beyond belief. We have no hope of success without some kind of guidance. I can get us into Tulag. There we can find answers to all of our questions, I'm sure of it!"

"Yes, but how can we cross the mountains?" asked Blackfur.

"Easily, dimwit!" said Tinhill. "We go through the passes near the beginnings of the rivers. The worst we have to face is few days hard ride and sleeping on the ground. I know which one that I dread most, I'll tell you!"

The children held silent and kept their own council.
Chapter 7
Year 6740
The Spreading Shadow
Ened Village on Lake Illyar, Kingdom of Utrthay

She stood unmoving by the shore of the lake. The calm of the evening was deepening as the girl stood, as if hypnotized, staring out over the darkening lake. The night birds stopped their singing all at once, as if at a signal from some hidden master. The cricket's chirping was stilled a moment later as the girl stood paralyzed by the lake shore. The darkness of the night seeped to swallow all sound as the gentle wind died to nothing. A presence saw fit to reveal itself to the girl. A tall darkness, blacker than night, stood before her. He seemed to coalesce into being from the night air itself. The cloud gazed down at the helpless girl, it's two blazing red eyes seeming to hang in the air supported only by thick fog. He seemed to examine her closely as the girl's terror grew. She tried to scream, but found she could not. When she tried to stoop down to pick up a stick or a stone to throw- she found that she couldn't move. She felt that she must surely faint from fear, but even that comfort was denied to her. She stood, afraid, knowing full well that she faced her death... or worse.

Having finished His examination of her and having found no flaws in the material He needed, He allowed her terror to end. Carefully, He reached a tentacle of darkness out to touch her lightly on the back of the neck. Her fear and her memories ceased as she crumpled in a heap to the ground. He gathered her in His arms of smoke, like a welcoming lover, while the two of them slowly faded from sight. As quickly as a thunderclap, the normal night sounds returned. Only the animals of the night knew that anyone had been there at all.
Chapter 8
Year 6740
Hungry Weeds
Thallistor Mountains

The men stop and buy more provisions for the long trip, as well as tent to house the now larger group. They are planing to cross to the north bank of the Ninar River and ride downstream until they reach Tulag.

Just as the party gets well into the mountains, a two day rainstorm starts. After having trouble setting up the tent in the downpour, they wait out the storm. When they restart their journey they find that they had become lost during the early part of the storm. In order to reach the proper trail, they must cross what is, to them, unexplored territory. It was a fogy, wet morning. The sun looked like a rosy, bright spot through the still, thick clouds. All around them the trees shed the last of the rain in the early morning chill. The tent flap opened and Blackfur emerged closely followed by Tinhill.

"Well maybe you should have stayed behind! If comfort is all that you can think about, while that child is in danger-! Oh, you make me so mad I can't think straight!" Blackfur said as he walked into the wet forest.

"All I said was that I was... Oh, what's the use? That hot-headed, fur-brain wouldn't listen 'till he's had a chance to cool off, " muttered Tinhill as he started in another direction into the woods.

"It's only to be expected," said the Reever as he came out of the tent. "After two days in a tent waiting out a thunderstorm. Besides they always argue anyway. "

"Yeah," said Eli. "But this time it was worse than usual.

"They'll get over it," said Pearl from within the tent. "It'll just take more time than usual."

Blackfur, having answered the morning call of nature that seems universal to all sentient life, sees to feeding his selky and saddling it up. He showed uncommon dexterity, using his remaining hand as if he had never had two. The saddle's cinches and laces were equipped with fasteners, designed and fashioned by Blackfur himself, which made help unnecessary.

Blackfur had ridden ahead of the others to be alone with his own thoughts. He was still disturbed by the long argument that he'd had with his friend Tinhill. Even though they seemed at each others throats most of the time, they really were close friends. It was Tinhill who had tended his arm after the robber had left him to bleed to death on the hearth of his own smithy. It was also Tinhill who talked him into devising ways to run the smithy with one hand. It had given him back his will to live, although the wine bottle claimed more and more of his attention lately. There weren't as many customers, for one thing. And there was that younger smith with his own place on the other side of the village, for another.

Blackfur could not see any danger in the small clearing ahead. Thin wisps of fog curled in the brightening sunlight. The clearing was carpeted with what looked to be moss. Small greenish-yellow leaves and fronds provided a fuzzy carpet broken only by a group of hardy-looking briers off to the sunnier side of the clearing. He heard the sounds of his friends approaching from back the way that he had come.

"Move it, selky. I don't want to face anybody just yet," he said. The selky began to cross the clearing. As if from a sudden small breeze, the briers quivered at Blackfur's approach. The carpet of moss was soft and gave under his selky's hooves. The selky was nervous because of the yielding ground. Blackfur blinked in the morning sunlight. The moss seemed to ripple and heave itself like some swampy island that he had ridden into.

"Hunh?" he said as the moss suddenly opened beneath his selky. The selky bucked in terror and Blackfur was thrown off. As the selky started to rise to it's feet, a fresh growth of briers seemed to sprout from underneath it. Rapidly, the vines grew and began to reach for the fallen animal. As the sawtooth vines touched the frightened selky, they squirmed and writhed into a corkscrew shape. Blackfur leapt to his feet, as the vines dug their way into the flesh of the doomed animal. New vines were sprouting all around the selky as Blackfur watched in mute horror. The vines had covered the selky in moments, though it still kicked and fought helplessly in their grasp. The pop and crackle of the quickly growing vines filled the air. Blackfur turned to run when he thought of the plant trapping himself as well. The soft carpet of moss opened a recently formed mouth-organ and the vines covering the selky shoved the kicking animal into it. The moss closed, leaving only briers above it's surface. Blackfur could see his friends coming up to the edge of the deadly clearing. He had covered only a few yards when the moss heaved under his feet, throwing him off balance. He jumped and luckily landed on his feet. Then the moss under him exploded into growth! Vines stabbed at him, reached to tangle him up, and one stabbed into his right shoulder and quickly grew thorns all along it's length. He kicked at the vine as it sprouted from the ground. His iron nailed boot-toe cut through the plant and freed him from that vine. Others reached for him as he dodged and spun, trying to avoid them all.

"Uncle Blackfur!" cried Pearl.

"Sawtooth Vine!" said the Reever. "We've got to get him out quickly!"

"T'lla ilumnel ilorean!" screamed Tinhill in a harsh voice. He gestured, with his arms spread before him and a ball of fire leapt from his hands to ignite the vines that Blackfur had just escaped. As Blackfur reached the party to pass out at their feet, Tinhill loses his temper. He shouts at the top of his lungs and throws fireball after fireball, until the whole clearing smoked and blazed. When he is finished, he slumps and seems to age, becoming a tired shadow of his former self. He looks over at his friend and at the Reever who has been tending Blackfur's wounds.

"Is he alive?" Tinhill asks.

"Barely," said the Reever, "But he may live. The wound itself is not serious, but it does penetrate the muscles. I have removed the vine and stopped the bleeding. But the poison from the vines may yet take him. I had few medicines in my pack..."

"I have more," said Tinhill. "Eli, go fetch my medicine bag from my pack. Reever, you bound the wound well, but it looks like..."

"Battlefield dressing, yes... I have been trained for many things, but never a doctor. I've seen too many battlefields, though. I've been a medic after all of them. Makes you hate war. Maybe doctors would make better leaders than kings. If everyone had to deal with the carnage first hand, no one would allow it to happen in the first place."

"Here sir," said Eli, returning with Tinhill's pack

"Thank you, boy. Now, we need to get him to drink this," Tinhill said as he held a flask to the light, as if gaging it's potency. "Help me sit him up."

"What's that?" asked Pearl. "Will it make him get better?"

"Exactly, child, and let him rest as well. We should be able to move him if we can carry him gently."

"I'll rig a sling," said the Reever. "That shoulder should heal in a few weeks, normally. Out here it's bound to take longer, plus he will have to fight off the effects of the vine's poison. No one behind us in the villages could do more for him than we can, though. Even so, when he wakes up he's going to want to go on. His niece was snatched right in front of his eyes. He wouldn't rest even if there was a place to leave him right here."

Chapter 9
Year 6740

Castle of the Winds, Caalar Jungle, Museum Level 1072


"Yes Sir."

"Do you have a course recorder handy?"

"Yes Sir."

"We have had visitors. I have sent them to these coordinates. I want you to take a vehicle and follow them. Are you ready to record?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Very well, XKT24R, WY7N31, E2R77Z, A48NL2, 02B94F, CDF929... Got that, Maxwell?"

"Yes Sir."

"They are in a restricted purpose capsule, locked onto a single set of coordinates. It shouldn't be possible for them to arrive anywhere else. Your coordinates put your arrival time five minutes ahead of their's. You should have ample time to assess the location, conceal yourself, and wait. There are four of the subjects. Human, humanoid at least, I would say. I only saw them from a distance. One spot of bad luck though, they somehow managed to reactivate the PXR5 robot."

"That is unfortunate, Sir."

"Well, it's not as bad as it sounds. When I first placed the PXR5 in the Museum, I took the precaution of taking several vital circuits out of it's offensive weaponry. Essentially all that it has left is defensive capabilities."

"That could still be considerable, Sir. I recall that this series of weapon was listed in the Dreadnought category.

"Capable of leveling whole civilized worlds, yes I see what you mean. I shall send you the proper codes to nullify the PXR5's sensors to your presence. That should render you effectively invisible to the robot. Do you have any questions, Maxwell?"

"No Sir, I understand. Follow, observe, evaluate, and report."

"Yes, that's it in a nutshell."

"I assume that standard operating procedures apply to any collectible artifacts that I or they should encounter."

"Quite so yes, if you are not jeopardized. Otherwise just record the object's position, likewise if the visitors could possibly elude you if you were delayed. I will be able to find the marked objects with the Long-range scanners. Proceed, Maxwell."

"Yes Sir."

Blue Desert, Unknown Planet

The Coordinates took me to a desert of hot, blue-white sand. There were very few shrubs or trees to conceal myself behind. I knew that I would have all of the promised five minutes head start on the trespassers, but not a second more. The Collector was very picky about time and promptness. I had no desire to upset him, so I obeyed his commands promptly. There had to be something nearby that the Collector had sent the trespassers to investigate. Just because they didn't know anything about the Collector, or have a choice about where they happened to be, didn't mean that the Collector couldn't profit by whatever they did. It could make ones head spin if one let it. I looked around for a possible target that they might have been sent to investigate and spied a series of pyramids close by. Within easy walking distance in fact, so easy that it was obvious that they must be the target set for the trespassers. I heard the sound of the trespasser's vehicle materializing and quickly dug my own vehicle into the sand. Before they had a chance to be aware of me, I was ten feet under the surface of the blue-white desert. My descent was masked by a dust devil generated by the movement of my vehicle. I raised a sensor pipeline to the surface and watched the arrival of the trespasser's vehicle.

It came to rest at a slight angle, it's door opening precariously onto a slick, sandy hillside. The first passenger out fell halfway down the hill before they became aware of the surroundings. That sort of reaction indicated that this was the subjects' first experience with inter-dimensional travel. The leader was next, pausing in the doorway and asking if the Dreadnought was capable of navigating down a slight incline! Ignorant humanoid, that one is... in my opinion, as far as androids are allowed to have opinions. The trespassers have spotted the pyramids and have all disembarked. I observe them traverse the distance from the vehicle to an opening in the wall of the largest pyramid. I raise an airlock tube to the surface and follow the adventurers into the pyramid.

Entering the darkness, I activate my infrared and light amplification circuitry. Their footsteps now glow like burning radium on the cold stone floor before me. I can follow them easily.

I am beginning to be impressed with this group. There was an ambush as soon as they got within the main chamber. They handled it with ease, without losing a single member of their group. I am finding it difficult to evade the sensors of the PXR5 Dreadnought even with the aid of the deactivation codes given to me by the Collector. It's defensive capability is still extensive, despite the half shutdown state of the PXR5's circuitry. I could still find some of my own circuits fried if I don't watch my step.

"Beloq, where are we?" said Gryphon.

"Somewhere damned hot!" said Resthal the thief, under his breath.

"Quite so, but it is better inside here isn't it?" Beloq asked jokingly "Still," he added, "if you can t open that door into the next chamber very quickly... "

"I'm working on it!" said Resthal irritably.

"We shall probably all find it getting a lot hotter!"

"Got it!"

"Good, I can hear someone in the room behind us. We need to vacate this vicinity, quickly!"

"What?" asked Gryphon, "And miss out on a perfectly good chance to shatter someone's skull?"

"Down, boy!" Selene teased, "We'll find someone for you to clobber again real soon. Until then, why don't you chill out!"

They sounded well able and battle hardened to my auditory sensors. I had recorded the exact position of this inner chamber in case the Collector decides to send an experienced Artifact Team in to evaluate the archeology and relics. I scanned ahead, once again barely escaping the Dreadnought's sensor sweep. I found a hidden passage leading to the next chamber that they would enter and easily managed to get ahead of them. I settled in to wait for their biological sensors to discover their escape route. I could hear the soldiers behind us gathering to avenge their comrades who had fallen when the trespassers first entered the pyramid. Unless they acted quickly they were about to be overwhelmed.

I wonder if the Collector would want me to save them?

"Did you open that door, Resthal?"

"You expecting miracles? What door? There has to be a door before I can open it! Wait a minute! Here it is! Mechanical lock, no alarms attached that I can see. Robot, are there any alarms or traps set on the door or door frame?" asked the thief.

"Intelligent question, I didn't know you had it in you, " said Beloq.

"I'm the best there is at what I do, " the Thief said contentedly.

"No traps or alarms, " said the PXR5. "The lock is the door's only defense."

"Not for long!" said the Thief.

"Go get 'em, Tiger!" said Selene as the thief began to pick the lock on the hidden door. Meanwhile, I have made my way through the secret passage I located to stand on the other side of that the same door. I am standing in a transverse hallway, listening to their attempt to open the door. Once through, they must choose one or the other passageways to penetrate even deeper into the pyramid. The Collector could want them to continue, I am sure. Therefore, I must insure that they proceed along the correct route.

"Got it!" said the thief.

"Only one choice- good. Passageway, to the right. OK, lets go!" said Beloq.

"Run! I hear them coming into the chamber! Soldiers!" hissed Selene as she covered their rear at the closing door. I scanned the weapon in her hand and found it to be an energy beamer of an inefficient design. It was, none the less, a deadly thing for any primitive to be waving about. As soon as the door closed and locked itself, they ran down the passageway. After I heard them turn the next corner, I pulled back on the section of wall that I had shoved into place to block off their escape route down what had been the passage's left hand turning. I had quickly cut a slice out of the wall paneling next to the door and then held it up to block the left-hand turning. They came through the door and thought that they had only one direction they could go. Just to be cruel, I wedged the segment of wall in place behind me as I crossed the passageway, thus blocking the soldiers that were chopping at the door. The soldiers would also have only one way to turn when they broke through, the wrong way. That should delay them long enough for the trespassers to work their way deeper into the passages of the pyramid. I quickly left to catch up with the trespassers as I heard the soldiers' axes splinter the thick wood of the door.

Chapter 10
Year 6740
Toluse Pass, Thallistor Mountains

In the cool morning hours between dawn and full daylight the monster stirred restlessly. Whatever fitful dreams disturbed this mountain of frightening flesh also disturbed me- If only for the reason that the beast was between myself and freedom! The thing had followed me into these rocks last night as I was trying to hide from it. I dropped my pack on the way in. Somehow at the time, the advantage that I gained in my climbing ability seemed to out-way the usefulness of the pack. The Lizard-from-Hell stepped on it as he was stomping himself out a nest for the night. I heard the crunch of my blaster and communicator as they were squashed by the weight of this sleepy carnivore. All I had left was the sword and shield on my back and the stuff hanging off of my belt. My selky, the closest thing to a horse on this planet, had been eaten by the wildlife ages ago, or so it seemed. I had been trying to make it to the nearest settlement ever since.

"Guiles Thornby," I whispered to myself. "You are never going to live long enough to retire. What did your dear old Dad tell you about taking shortcuts?" I don't know! I thought to myself, I never listened!

So what are my options now? Hide? That's useless, the thing already has my scent- He can trace me to any hole I try to hide in. Sneak away? It can still trace my scent wherever I run to- Plus, it can cover more ground with a single stride than I can in ten! It can catch me easily before I could get very far. Stand and fight? Emotionally satisfying, but not much of a survivability factor in that one. There's just something about joining in single combat with Godzilla Junior here that doesn't appeal to me. Especially when I'm armed with nothing more than a three foot broadsword and a small metal shield. Why didn't I have my gun on my belt? Part of the disguise to pass myself off as a native. Part of my job, to attract as little attention to myself as possible.

The iron wear is good, I picked it up for my Boss. He sends me out for stuff like it all the time. But so what if it is good? I don't have the nerve or the skill to stand up to twelve hundred and fifty pounds of the fiercest and most successful carnivore on this planet. After two days of playing hide and seek with this fellow's smaller cousins, I was more than a little tired. Having had to sleep in trees a couple of nights hadn't helped my disposition any. As I stood there and speculated my chances, the monster's stomach began to rumble. That was certainly something to reassure a body, don't you think? Right about then I began to suspect that today was just not going to be my day. How did I come to be trapped in this Dongeonmaster's nightmare?

I think that I need to find another job.

I'm supposed to find things that my boss wants for his Museum. It could be anything, anywhere, any time. I never know if the next job is going to be my last. It could be worse though, there is one guy who's only job is to test some type of failsafe circuit in the boss' medical equipment. The guy has to get killed over and over again to see if the boss can bring him back to life with some machine. I don't like the sound of that at all. Glad it's not me.

What I do is locate lost or interesting articles. What I do best is to survive in these awkward situations that the Collector manages to get me into. To give him his due, he does get out into the field a bit. He's an archaeologist. Which means that any alien ruin on any alien planet is like a magnet for him. He ships out for ten years at a time, or longer. Stays at dig sites in some places that would have been too rough to have built a prison on. He faces primitive natives and wildlife that would frighten Godzilla Junior out there, all without batting an eyelash. Better him than me, I always say. But I do seem to get more that my share of the dirty jobs. This wasn't the first time that I'd been put on the menu of something too ugly to put a name to. I fervently hoped, if you know what I mean, that it would not be the last time! I've found that thinking about home at a time like this seems to relieve a little of the stress of the situation. Home, my friends there, things like that filled my mind as I waited for my chance to get away. My friends, my boss, what I was gonna do when I got my hands around his neck... Thoughts like these tended to relax me rather well.

I can dream, can't I?

I'd had many jobs along the way, of course- Thief, Conman, Soldier when I had to, but nothing had quite prepared me to attack and subdue a twenty-four foot tall, meat-eating lizard. I mean, it's not the sort of thing that I run into around the towns and villages that I frequent. I wish that I were in any one of them right now, I'll tell you.

The monster lizard stirred in the thin mists of morning, which came late here in this deep mountain valley. Steam from off of the nearby river thickened the dewy fog twirling wrath-like around the trees surrounding the small clearing. The lizard rose to it's feet and sniffed the morning breeze, it's nostrils flaring like radar as it's tiny brain tried to recall what scent that had brought it to these rocks. I stiffened as the beast turned to stare in my direction. It was looking at a spot about four feet to my left and a bit further down the hill that I crouched upon, but it was still too close for comfort. I gripped the sword that I had pulled as I had sat daydreaming and clutched more firmly the ridiculously tiny shield that I was stuck with. I could see the remains of my pack underneath the shadow of the carnivore, it's jaws slathering as hunger fueled it's dim memories of last evening's chase. I shivered uncontrollably for a moment, then jerked to sudden stillness as the lizard took two tottering steps in my direction. It had covered almost half of the distance between us with those two strides. It's great head began questing from side to side for a trace of my scent. It's three-inch teeth were fairly awash as the creature's huge mouth watered in anticipation of it's expected meal. Meanwhile, the expected meal in question- me, cowered un cooperatively in a none too deep crag halfway up a not-tall-enough cliff.

I hoped that I'd give it indigestion.

The monster roared it's frustration at the sky, nearly deafening me in the process. I thought that I heard voices in the distance as the echoes bounced off of the rocks and trees around the clearing. Then it roared again and took another step. One more step and it's head would be beside me in the brush that clung to the cliffs. Reflexively, I flinched- and it zeroed in on me and readied itself for the last step, opening it's mouth to roar in triumph.

I was doomed.

Suddenly, from behind and above me, a gout of liquid fire splashed down and took the creature straight in the mouth! The burning fluid splashed down it's neck and chest, flaming brightly as it stuck to the lizard's skin. Loud concussions sounded on the ground at the monster's feet. Someone up there had a flame-thrower and some grenades, more in the line of what I had been wishing for in order to feel safer in challenging the reptile.

The giant lizard turned and ran, crashing into trees as it fled searching for something to stop the pain. Whoever they were, they had just saved my life. Now all I had to worry about was whether or not they were slave-traders or cannibals!

With a heartfelt sigh, I sheathed the sword, hung the shield on my back, and began to climb up to meet my saviors. I could only hope that the cure wouldn't turn out to be worse than the disease.

Chapter 11
Year 6740
Victim of Darkness
Lake Tua, Kingdom of Ellor

Her sharp parting words to him still hung low in the air, fluttering around her head like the turmoil of her own thoughts. Distractedly, she made her way home on a path that twisted and turned, oddly different from the same road during daylight. Dully, through a murmur of angry thoughts, she realized that she was much farther from home than she should have been. Through the thinning trees on her left she could see the blue-black lake which should have been on her other side. Furious with herself, she turned around to retrace her steps.

"How." she asked herself, "could I have taken the wrong fork? I've been walking back and forth on this road every day of my life and I've never gotten lost before."

 As she began to walk back the way she'd come, she felt eyes upon her back- although she could see no one. She paused to look around and noticed that the frogs and crickets that had earlier been making so much noise had gone suddenly silent. She stopped walking, as if against her will, and stood frozen with fear as an apparition floated toward her. From out of the unnatural silence came an unfamiliar, shapeless cloud of black smoke. It came from out of the shadows of the nearby trees, floating toward her. Two blazing red eyes looked down upon her as if from a great height. She tried to scream but no sound came. She felt as if she were in a dream, a nightmare from which she couldn't wake up. Chaotic thoughts, shocked beyond the concept of survival ripped through her mind. The eyes seemed to paralyze all thought of flight. They burned into her mind, blinding her will and leaving her defenseless as it came toward her. It came closer, covering the distance between them with steps that hardly seemed to touch the ground. It stood towering over her like a cliff of black glass, ready to shatter and cut her to ribbons. Instead of the avalanche that she expected, the cloud reached out and gently, almost lovingly, it struck. One blow to the back of her head and she crumpled like a rag doll -like an empty scarecrow- at it's feet. Silence surrounded them, muffling all movement. It knelt and touched her gently, lovingly, and they vanished like a soap bubble. When the grove of trees was empty, the normal sounds of the night returned and filled the grove. As suddenly as an explosion, the artificial silence caved in, vanished- While it seemed as if the frightened animals were trying to overcome their fear with the sheer volume of noise.

Chapter 12
Year 6740
Deamons and Wizards
Blue Desert, Unknown Planet
Location: Irrelevant- Time: Irrelevant

When they finally arrived at the center of the Pyramid they had caused enough carnage to glut the appetite of any primitive's God. They were attacked three times, each time they gave good account of themselves.

When Beloq and his party of thieves reach the central area of the pyramid, they find a giant, jeweled statue and several chests of what they hoped would turn out to be treasure.

The statue stood, looking suitably alien and demonic, against the far wall of the temple's inner sanctum. It grasped a weighted net in one hand and a wicked looking sword with serrated edges in the other. A menacing expression peered out at them from a face seemingly made up of fangs and tusks- it's ruby eyes gleamed evilly in the flickering torchlight coming from the half dozen or so sconces mounted on the room's walls.

"It looks like it's been carved from a single piece of jade," said Selene as they stared in amazement which bordered on stupification. The torches made the statue seem to move as the shadows flickered and danced around the room.

"Hostiles approaching!" said PXR5. 'Two, four, seven- ten of them coming from two different directions; there and there." The robot pointed to two of the room's side doors, one on each side of the room. "They are armed in a similar manner to the guards upstairs, except that their armor is of better quality and they are all much larger individuals."

"This is their temple, so they'll try not to damage anything in the room but us," Beloq predicted. "How much time do we have?"

"Four hundred seconds," replied the Robot.

"Gryphon, up against the wall next to that door- Resthal, behind him and cover his back. Selene, I want a curtain of smoke up the hallway behind this door. And douse those torches, if its dim enough we may get an extra moment."

"Ready," said Selene as she took two canisters out of a pouch on her belt. "Just give the word and they'll be blind and vomiting for hours!"

"Robot, move to the center of the room and create a diversion."

"What sort of diversion?" the Robot asked as it reached it's assigned position.

"Flashing lights! Loud noises! Hell! Sing and dance if that's what it takes! Just keep their attention off of us for as long as you can! How close are they now?"

"Ten yards, and closing," said the Robot.

"Now, Selene!" Beloq shouted as he threw the door open. Selene pulled the pins on the gas grenades in her hands and threw them down the short halfway toward the surprised guards. Beloq slammed the door as the grenades began to spew out a thick gray smoke which rapidly filled the narrow confines of the hallway. The smoke soon began to drift into other passageways of the alien temple. Beloq smiled to himself as he heard the approaching guards stop and concentrate upon making gagging, gasping noises. The grin on Selene's face could probably be picked up on radar and seemed to almost split her face in two.

"Those six will be unable to attack for some time," said the Robot.

Resthal tightened his grip on the scattergun that he had pulled from a scabbard fastened to his pack. The little thief was scared- he didn't like the way events tended to disintegrate into rough stuff whenever his companions were involved in some type of heist. He frequently and passionately wished he were back wherever it was that he had come from- If only he could remember where that really was. If he was to have time to dwell upon it, he could recall a ship of some sort. He also had vague memories of friends- or at least companions that he trusted. Beloq, Selene, and Gryphon were good people to have at your side in a fight, but they weren't the people from his fleeting memories. "Best not to get distracted," he thought, "or I could wind up dead!" He heard the other door crunch and splinter as he gripped his weapon in suddenly sweat-slicked hands.

As the other four troopers crashed through the remaining door, the robot clattered and lights on its frame blazed to life like a radioactive Christmas tree in an acid freak's nightmares. Lasers, strobes, and searchlights blared out- bathing the troopers in the combined glare. The Robot emitted a loud hum which quickly changed to a scratching whisper. Suddenly the noise became a thunderclap of sound, not unlike ponderous masses of metal being ripped and shredded by unseen hands. The troopers clapped their hands to their ears as the sound from the robot reached what Resthal prayed was a maximum volume. It was all that Beloq and the others could do to keep from collapsing as they gasped at the robot's antics. The troopers fell to the floor in a swoon as the Robot roared half articulate words to match the screeching sounds.

"Hey hey, Momma, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!"

The echo of the words seemed to go on forever as the robot spun around in the center of the room, his treads throwing sparks as they churned against the flagstone floor.

"Ah ah, child, the way you shake that thing, gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting!"

Gryphon looked disappointed as he saw the guards laying in a helpless swoon on the temple floor.

"Hostiles immobilized," said the robot in its normal voice as the last echoes died.

"Shit," said Gryphon in the sudden stillness, his voice seeming overloud after the aural onslaught. "I didn't even get to bash somebody. That sucks!"

"I can live with it," said Resthal "I don't think that I could live without it, really."

"What was that?" asked Selene.

"Classical Music," said Beloq. "Best taken in smaller quantities, or so it looks."

Gryphon and Selene grin at each other and Beloq tells them to start loading up treasure from the altar in front of the statue. Resthal starts grabbing up loose gemstones and coins and filling several drawstring bags taken from his pack as soon as he opens the chests near the altar.

I stand, undetectable to the party, in the third hallway that leads into the room. My sensors detect another lifeform, very powerful, detectable on wavebands that only register psionic activity at extremely high levels- it is entering the room with the others. I start forward to stop at the door and listen carefully to the room beyond. From the sounds within I can reconstruct the action as if I had seen it with my own sensors. As I listen intently, the statue comes to life and attacks the adventurers. Resthal runs like a scared rabbit and manages to knock over temple furnishings into the statue's path. Gryphon pulls out his favorite ax and proceeds to ruin it's edge by chopping futilely at the statue. After only a few strokes he is hurled bodily away from the demon-possessed statue. Selene tosses a fireball at the statue, while Beloq shoots at it with his "magic wand" as it throws Gryphon across the room. While the shooting is still good and his companions out of the line of fire, Resthal lets fly with the scattergun.

Nothing seems to hurt the statue. All seems lost. For picoseconds I debate the merits of bursting into the chamber to save them. Surely the Collector would understand.

Just as the statue closes in for the kill, the PXR5 tells them to cover their ears. Then he emits a shrill whine which quickly rises in pitch until the adventurers can no longer hear it. I can, however- sensors detect sonic pulses that register almost off of the scale my instruments are able to detect. I chance a quick visual scan through a hole I punch in the door with my finger. What I see can scarcely be believed.

Smoke and dust motes in the air swirl and move, seeming to outline a solid beam of sound reaching out to the statue from the robot. The statue stops, staggers, and explodes in a shower of rock chips. So much for the half-ton of priceless jade that the statue had been carved from. I sense the presence that had animated the statue retreat from the room as if in fear.

"I'm starting to like this classical music stuff after all," said Gryphon.

"PXR5, get us the hell out of here!" Beloq shouts.

I leap into an overhead ventilation shaft as the adventurers burst through the door at a dead run. I climb to the outside of the pyramid and hide when I hear the adventurers coming out and heading for their stolen ship. As they resume their journey, I contact the Collector to report and to request coordinates for the adventurer's next destination. I conclude that the Collector was correct in his decision to allow these people to prove themselves. They may yet find themselves useful to him.

Chapter 13
Year 6740
Off to see the Wizards
Toluse Pass, near the Ninar River, Thallistor Mountains

After I climbed up to meet my saviors I said to myself, "Thornby, you're one lucky bastard... but your timing is lousy." I knew I was in for something strange when I saw the motley collection of travelers that the Reever had collected. Of course I recognized the Reever when I first saw him. I mean, it had to either be the Reever, or someone had cloned Clint Eastwood and brought the clone here all the way from Earth. Good thing I'd spent some time watching classic videos from Earth that the Collector had in the Museum or I'd have never realized how strong the resemblance really was.

"Guiles Thornby isn't it?" the Reever asked me. "We met when I visited your... employer's home."

"Nice to see you again Reever," I said. "Thanks for saving my life, by the way. I thought I was going to be monster-chow there for a few minutes. Who's the one with the flame-thrower? I'd like to shake his hand."

"That would be Tinhill," said the Reever. "It seems that its his day to be a hero, yours is the second life he's saved this morning. Our friend Blackfur ran afoul of a patch of hungry sawtooth vine."

"How badly is he hurt?" I asked quickly. "Those things are poisonous as well as hungry! If my Medi-kit survived that lizard's foot-stomp I may be able to help."

"Let's go down and look for it," the Reever replied. Tinhill hasn't anything that will counteract all of the symptoms." The Reever took me aside as the two children looked at one another with frightened faces. As we climbed back down the hill that I'd just come up, the Reever continued- "Actually, I'm glad that it was you that we met- or, at least one of the Collector's people. Blackfur's only hope now is to get to some advanced medical help."

"I know. The Collector warned us about sawtooth vine- not only is the plant carnivorous, poisonous, and as motile as an octopus- it also leaves microscopic seeds behind in any wound that it makes. So that it can spread if the victim does manage to get away, I suppose. Great evolutionary tactic for a plant, but vicious."

"Yes, if we don't kill those seedlings in his wound- within six months he'll be dead and sprouting vines."

"They'll eat him for fertilizer..."


"Then let's pray that my Medi-kit wasn't damaged. Or you'll have to kill your friend and burn his body." There wasn't much left to say after that.

When we found my pack I did another round of cursing- aimed at the lizard, of course. Most of the contents of the pack were a total loss, but the medi-kit was all right- as were the crystals that held the patterns of the things that the Collector had sent me to search out. My communicator was flattened, so was my blaster. My clothing was pressed flat, but at least it wasn't the clothes I was wearing. I hoisted the remains of my pack and we lost no time getting back up the slope and seeing to Blackfur's wounds. My medi-kit buzzed and clicked to itself when I placed it over the wounds. Its little "treatment in progress" light stayed lit for nearly half an hour- while we held Blackfur still and hoped that the medicine reservoirs wouldn't run dry before the medi-kit was through.

I shouldn't have been worried- the Collector uses tiny teleport units in each medicine vial in the kit- those things would never run dry! Once I saw a wine bottle with one of those teleports used as a weapon. Someone threw it like a grenade. When the bottle burst, the wine kept flowing until the teleport's safety cut in. Ever seen a five acre pond of red wine?

Once the treatment was finished and Blackfur was sleeping, I finally got around to asking what the Reever and his friends was doing in the mountains. Something in the Reever's description of the black cloud clicked in my memory. It sounded just like something that had once attacked the Museum! If I was right, this same thing had caused the Collector to make one of his few mistakes- one that he still regretted bitterly. One that was still remembered by the natives of this planet as "the night that the stars changed." I shivered with fear at the memory.

"So, where to from here, Reever?" I asked.

"You will be joining us, young man?" asked Tinhill.

"Yes, I'm in. My boss would want me to help. I think that we have a common enemy. Of course, without my communicator I'm cut off from asking for his help and advise. Or from getting us any faster transport," I added.

"I thought you had an implanted communicator," said the Reever.

"Damaged in a fight a few months ago," I said. "I have to wait a few more months before the replacement can be fitted. I have a high rejection factor and those implants always cause me trouble. My body keeps reacting to the damned things, like an allergy or something."

"We were going to ride to Tulag," said the young boy. Ely, I think he'd said his name was- the girl was his sister Pearl. "To ask for the advice and help of King Lutay."

"Isn't that the land where everyone is a magician?" I asked. "Never been there. I thought that they didn't allow anyone to visit."

"I was a history teacher there," said the Reever, "In their college. I believe that my friends there will allow us entry to the kingdom. Lutay's son Alazar became one of my best friends, and was my best student. Besides, my position allows me free access to any realm on the planet, theoretically."

"Theoretically?" I asked.

"There are some places that would not be safe to visit," the Reever said. He declined to amplify that statement further.

"We were going to follow the river down to the gateway of Tulag," said Pearl. "But with Uncle Blackfur injured..." Her voice trailed off in sadness.

"I think I can help there," I said. "Are there any rapid or waterfalls on this river?"

"Not on the part we'd have to travel," said the Reever. "Why?"

"Well, parts of my tool kit are intact- I think we can build a boat of some kind and float downstream."

"Good," said Tinhill. "Lets get busy."

It was the ugliest boat I'd ever seen. But, it floated and held all of us- slekies included. It took us three days to build. Without the molecular "saw" and the ion bonder from my tool kit it would have taken us a month or better. The saw is a single-strand molecule, unbreakable, and able to slice through almost anything. The ion bonder we used like a welder- joining the wooden planks together, as if they were becoming a single boat- shaped piece of wood.

Blackfur slept fitfully for most of that time. Pearl stayed close to him and I showed her how to use the medi-kit. It wasn't giving him any more anti-venom injections, but it was monitoring his progress and keeping him sedated. We woke him long enough to get him aboard the boat, then let him sleep some more.

Once we had everything loaded, we untied and began drifting downstream. In a few days- a week at the most -we'd be at the gates of a land that I'd never even thought to be real, much less able to visit. The Collector would never forgive me if I'd passed up this opportunity. I hummed a tune from an old movie and wondered what Dorothy and Toto would have thought of an entire country full of Wizards.

Six days later we saw the tallest waterfall in the world. Just upstream of where it entered the river we were navigating was a dock, a large glassed-in building, and what looked like a set of rails stretching up to the top of the waterfall. In spite of everything I'd seen since I'd started working for the Collector, I was impressed with the engineering. Most areas of Bethdish were medieval in character. Some still had the remains of high-tech cultures scattered about, but a very few seemed to have escaped the various falls from civilization that were the norm. Tulag looked to be one of the few that kept their advances far longer than the rest of the world. I suppose that their isolation was the deciding factor.

"Port Verbad," said the Reever. "I haven't been this way in five centuries or more. Doesn't seem to have changed much."

As we floated closer I could see figures standing on the boat-dock.

"Looks like we have a reception committee," I said. "Will they be friendly?"

"Tulag has never attacked any other country," said Tinhill. The Reever nodded in agreement. "They have repulsed invaders from time to time, but conquest is not in their character."

"Emissaries from Tulag have helped many peoples across the world, often as teachers or healers. They also help preserve histories and technology- providing a link across the ages, helping cultures in the long climb back to advanced civilization," said the Reever. "They are the most advanced society in the world, except for my own people. They are isolationists, but not unkind or rabidly paranoid. They know that history has to advance at it's own pace. No doubt they have been aware of us for days, but if we were unwelcome they would have cast an illusion over this place that would have prevented us from seeing it."

One of the figures on the dock raised his arms and gestured toward our boat. We felt a gentle lurch as the boat changed course by itself and sped toward the dock. The boat stopped as we touched the dock. Ropes were cast to us and we tied up.

"Welcome to Port Verbad," said the man who had magically brought us to rest. "I am Anarday, Portmaster of Verbad. I welcome you in the name of Lutay, the Wizard-king of Tulag. Be assured that you will be well received and made guests of Tulag for as long as you wish. Reever, it has been far too long since you last graced our fair land. Tinhill of Cequat, High Priest of Antuth from the land of Urth in the High Valley- you honor us with your presence." Anarday bowed low to Tinhill. Evidently the Reever wasn't the only celebrity in our little party. "May the God of Sun and Stars bless this day and our meeting. Is your injured companion able yet to travel?"

"I can make it," said Blackfur weakly. He had been awake but quiet for several hours now. The medi-kit had finished it's cure and had pronounced him on the road to recovery two days ago. "Though I may need a strong shoulder to lean upon."

"Your need has been anticipated, honored blacksmith. Our strength is yours to call upon. Come, Lutay awaits in his Tower. You will have a pleasant journey to his home, and have time to rest from your wearying trip."

"Follow the yellow brick road..." I thought. "Toto, we definitely aren't in Kansas any more," I said to no one at all.

Chapter 14
Year 6740
Tulag, Land of Wonders
Tulag- The Hidden Realm, near the Sheenor River, Thallistor Mountains

Eventually we'd gotten through the building and reached a room that looked like a cable-car station. Our host bid us farewell as we were led into a chamber about fifteen feet square that had large windows on all sides. There were several of these things floating gently a couple of inches above the floor of the station. I couldn't see what the car was anchored to, but as soon as the door closed after us it began to float towards the rails that we'd seen from the river. Reaching the rails, but never touching them, the car began to rise. The view was impressive and the windows were so transparent that they didn't really seem to be there. I've never been that close to a waterfall without getting soaked before. Pearl and her brother gazed out of the windows the whole trip- I'd be willing to bet that they'd never been out of their village before they started this trip. I was impressed myself, even as used to advanced technology as I am. There was no sense of motion, no swaying in the breeze, as the hours passed and we rose ever higher. The Priest, Tinhill, was fussing over the blacksmith like a mother hen, The Reever spoke softly with the two guys that came with us from the port, and the kids just stared out of the windows. I did some staring too. I was also trying to remember something that was nagging me- way back in my memory there was something about that blacksmith that I'd known before, but just couldn't remember. When the trip was nearly over I remembered, though. He was famous too- or would be to someone like the Collector. If I was right, this blacksmith was a master weaponsmith... a swordsmith who had- or would- create some of the most famous blades ever to grace the battlefields of this world. In half a dozen kingdoms his weapons were heirlooms of the royal families. Tinhill varied between treating him like some drunken old sot and like his best friend in all the world, but this one-armed man had forged the steel that changed history across the globe. And from what I'd overheard as we came downriver he been reduced to shoeing cattle. Life is strange that way. I shook my head in silent amazement of how people's lives can unfold. I'm sure that in some other timeline, this man would be showered with riches and heaped with honors, but here he was struggling to put food on the table and sought solace in the wine bottles of his local taverns.

We reached the top of the waterfall and I thought that our transport would stop there to allow us to change vehicles, but I was wrong. Without a bobble the car floated over the edge of the cliff and kept going- following the ground. From the window that had been facing the mountainside I could now see that the rails extended into the far distance like a roadway or train track. We began to move faster, still without any sense of motion, as I saw the countryside begin to blur from our speed. I did a few rough calculations in my head, timing the landmarks as they passed, and started being even more impressed with our hosts. From what I could tell we were now reaching speeds in excess of three hundred miles an hour! I still couldn't feel any motion, but I was glad that none of the windows were open!

The countryside looked sculpted, as if generations of workers had labored to move hills and fill valleys in order to landscape the whole kingdom into a beautiful garden. I wondered if anyone had really broken a sweat carrying hods of earth from place to place or if the whole thing had been done by magic.

Magic. I'd seen the Collector use forces and equipment to work wonders in the Museum. Doing and making things that would have gotten him burned at the stake on some planets. This was different. The Collector used engineering, machinery- far in advance of anything I'd seen on my own world, but still devices all the same. But if what I'd been told were true, the people of Tulag used magic- the power of their minds, the power of words- to manipulate their environment, to mold it closer to their hearts desire. No machinery, no nuclear reactors, no bulldozers, just their minds and words. I knew that some savage would think that simple engineering was magic if he saw things far in advance of his spear-thrower or plow, but I was no savage. Would I find that the magic of Tulag was just high science? Or would I be like that savage and see things that I couldn't fit into my world-view? Better men than I had been driven mad pondering such questions. Actually, I didn't want to peer behind the curtain to see what the wizard was really doing. Dorothy and Toto lost a sense of wonder in Oz, but gained a different sense of wonder from that loss. I resolved to just let things happen here, and remember what I saw.

Our guides, Tandalo and Enture they said their names were, muttered something under their breath and gestured at the center of the car. A table loaded with food appeared. It just sort of faded into reality. Was it a teleport? Was it magic? Who cares? The food was excellent- I stuffed my face alongside my companions. Even Blackfur was able to eat. My medi-kit had accelerated his healing abilities, but that process ate calories like kids eat candy. I hoped that the kit had gotten all of the spores from the sawtooth vine out of his wound. Otherwise he'd soon be dead and be eaten by the plant.

I know I'm not repeating the conversations that took place on our trip, but they seemed so ordinary at the time. In fact, I hardly paid attention to anything but the trip itself. In any case, when we reached Tulag's capital city and the Tower of Lutay most of the trip seemed trivial. There were wonders there that would take a poet or bard to put into words that captured their essence. I'm no poet, all I can tell you is what I saw- and half of that I'm sure I didn't understand.

We passed by three cities on the way to the Wizard-King's tower. The buildings varied in form and shape. I saw slim spires, like mosques or minarets carved from single gemstones or alabaster. I saw squat cubes, pyramids, and domes. Buildings like columned temples, their columns made of smoke- or of fire. There were lights, colors, shapes I'd never even dreamed of existing. And everywhere traveled vehicles like giant soap-bubbles, floating as if on the wind. The people were fair, beautiful, even ethereal at times. I saw no squalor, no slums, no careworn peasant laborers. Everyone seemed like royalty- kind, gentle, and powerful. The children stood transfixed, staring out of our vehicle's windows. Tinhil seemed awed, on the verge of some sort of rapture. The Reever's face was calm and distant, as if he were lost in memories of his earlier visits here. Blackfur kept dozing off, the medicines and food making him somewhat groggy as his body fought to heal itself.

And so we came at last to the Tower of the Wizard-King.

Chapter 15
Year 6740
Runaway Train
Transfer Capsule- in flight
Location: Irrelevant- Time: Irrelevant

"Well, what did we get away with from that temple?" asked Beloq.

"Besides our lives?" quipped Seline, "Not a lot. We bagged up a few pounds of gemstones, some gold and silver bars, and half a dozen bags of loose coins."

"Not a big haul," said Resthal, "but at least we got away. That robot saved our butts, you know. I'm glad you decided to heist him from that museum, Beloq."

"I'm so very glad that my decisions meet with your approval," Beloq replied, frowning at the little thief. "You'll be sure to let me know when you've decided to assume the leadership of our little band, eh Resthal?"

"Well," the thief sighed, "that's gratitude for you. You never could take a compliment."

"What's that robo-thing doing?" asked Gryphon. "He's just been standing there by that panel of lights since we got back in here."

"PXR5 is attempting to determine the next landing point of the vehicle's course."


"The vehicle's control systems will not respond to PXR5's queries."

"In other words, you don't know where we're going, you don't know how long it'll take to get there, and you have no idea what we'll find when we arrive," said Beloq angrily.

"That is correct," replied the robot.

"Swell," sighed Resthal.

"Maybe we should look for something to eat?" asked Gryphon.

"You take the cake, big boy," laughed Seline.

"As long as we get to eat it too," Gryphon replied.

Beloq snorted with amusement. "PXR5? Is there a stock of food aboard? My philosophical man-mountain here needs sustenance- preferably before he gets hungry enough to begin snacking on one of us."

"Food is available in the other chamber," said the robot.

"Good," said Resthal, "Gryphon's been looking at me like I was a leg of lamb or something."

"Chicken, is more like it," Beloq replied with a frown.

Chapter 16
Year 6740
In the Tower of the Wizard-King
Kingdom of Tulag, Tower of Lutay

"So Reever, you have come at last." Lutay's voice boomed out before we reached his throne. I knew that he was supposed to be a couple of thousand years old, but he still sounded plenty spry. Thornby, I thought to myself, this has got to be the strangest place you've ever gotten yourself into. The shimmering walls of the huge room looked as if they'd been carved from a single gemstone, there were strange statues on beautifully wrought pedestals in the carved niches along the walls. Tapestries depicting what I recognized as historical scenes were hung wherever I looked. So this is what the second-oldest civilization on the planet thinks of as high art, I mused. Looks like something straight out of "Better Keeps and Castles".

"Yes Lutay- I have come," The Reever answered. "It seems that the ancient enemy has reawakened at last. But I think that this is not the first we have seen of him- not in this guise."

"You know then that this is Valleor that has arisen to plunder our lives?"

"Yes, I suspected as much when I saw Tinhil's niece being taken. The black cloud creature was like something that I remember from Valleor's execution five million years ago- a shape he wore as he vaporized."

"I remember reading the records of the time telling of the war of the Gods," said Lutay sadly. "Much died that day that was bright and beautiful... Lands were covered by the sea, mountains arose, the whole world shook as Antuth and Valleor fought in the city of the Gods."

"Hundreds of thousands died that day, Lutay," said the Reever grimly. "Millions died- two fifths of all the people on the planet... My wife and sons died as our city's buildings shook themselves to pieces. Valleor's final blow- before Antuth felled him -shook the whole world. Valleor reached out from Albion- where he fought Antuth in the streets of the city of the Gods -and wrenched the world from its axis, twisted it aside from its normal plane of rotation. It was a vain attempt to distract the Gods long enough for Valleor to escape. The Gods were not distracted. They rallied behind Antuth and added their strength to his. Together they dispersed Valleor, body and soul. He literally blew away on the wind."

"We were naive enough to think the he was dead," said Lutay. "We chose to forget that he is a God. Somehow, he has managed to regain enough power to afflict us once again. My Grandfather suspected Valleor's return after hearing travelers tales of a thunderstorm that seemed to follow battles. Valleor's old allies would be in battle- when a fierce storm would arise and lash at the troops. Proof of nothing, I know, but there's more. My Father also kept careful records of his time. The storm appeared time after time at battles where Valleor's old allies fought. As if lashing them to fiercer battles as well as adding its lightnings to their swords and spears."

"My Grandfather can tell similar tales," smiled the Reever, "and his time goes back fifty million years," then he frowned. "What power aided Valleor to draw his vaporized body back together? The black cloud of battles is an old tale, so we must assume that far back in history someone was so insane as to help Valleor attempt to recreate his body. Now that I have made the connection between the black cloud and Valleor, I would guess that an answer to their identity would be lost in the dim ages of the past. Perhaps it is a guise that he wore of old, something that he has returned to wear, at need."

"Perhaps,"mused Lutay. "Though it gives me cause to wonder if Eliasthor is still a prisoner in the tower at the center of the Great Blight."

"Yes, He'd had dealings with Valleor in the distant past. It is possible that he was seduced into weaving a spell to reunite Valleor's essence- however thinly spread it had been." The Reever looked worried.

"I don't see what it matters where this thing came from," shouted Blackfur. "What we need to do is find a way to stop it!"

"Who is Eliasthor?" asked Pearl.

"A great wizard who ruled the city of Nesastor and the surrounding countryside. He grew too power-hungry and began to extend his borders. Small brush wars, really. The Immortals were about to have to take official notice, though. He'd been going too far to suit us. We never had to act, however. Eliasthor made an enormous blunder- he attacked Urkiev, the city of the Priest-Kings," the Reever began.

"They are not of this world- a colony established back in the dim, dark past. They forbid all contact with outsiders except for some trading in foodstuffs and minerals. Eliasthor attacked them and they struck back," added Lutay.

"The city of Nesastor was once a place of beauty-" sighed the Reever. "Now it is a vast sea of gray dust. Slowly, over the course of a single year, the buildings of the city began to decay, to crumble into powder. The ground itself dissolved along with the once-gleaming walls of Nesastor. Only the central tower of Eliasthor's palace remained- still gleaming white, but standing alone in a bottomless pool of gray dust. All of the people of Nesastor had left when the horror began. Those that didn't leave were never seen again. It is thought by the wise that they were consumed by the same force that crumbled the city."

"Eliasthor never left," sighed Lutay. "He took refuge in his tower. For many long years there have been tales of lights and strange sounds inside the tower. But since the dust region is many miles across these can be thought to be reports of anything."

"It is not known whether the tower remained untouched at the will of the Priest-Kings of Urkiev or at the will of Eliasthor," said the Reever as he took up the tale again. "Was he able to exert his power sufficiently to save himself and his tower? Or did the Priest-Kings see fit to save it as an eternal prison for Eliasthor? Even the wise do not know. No one can reach the tower- and the Priest-Kings will never speak of the matter."

"If he yet lives," said Lutay gravely, "alone in his ruined glory, Valleor may have come to him. If only in Eliasthor's dreams, Valleor would have merely to promise to deliver Eliasthor from his prison to gain his ends. Eliasthor was a mighty wizard. He gained great power before he was consumed by the desire to rule. For a thousand years Nesastor was a jewel on the face of the world. Eliasthor's greed and hunger doomed it. It would take a skill like his to cast such a spell as to give Valleor back his powers."

"It took the Gods themselves to destroy Valleor before, what can we do to stop him now?" I asked.

"It may not even be possible for us to destroy him. Even a spell to bind him to one spot would strain the powers of every magician in the world," said Tinhil. "Assuming that they could all be induced to help."

Lutay called for his Chamberlain to have a meal prepared for us. The Chamberlain announced that rooms had been made ready and we followed as he led us to them. The Reever stayed behind with Lutay to talk further. Frankly, I was ready for some rest and already tired of all the talking. I wanted to do something, not discuss it. Over the next few days I was going to get a lot tireder of discussion.

Our rooms were sumptuous and the meal was more like a feast. I could almost get used to this sort of treatment. Even in the Museum- where it seemed like the Collector could do anything or make anything, I'd seldom seen such opulence. And the people! Real freedom must be all they'd ever had. They were polite, even deferential, and seemed to radiate calm self-assurance. I suppose that living with the miraculous, everyday use of magic had given them that. How long would it take for someone to become so matter-of- fact about simply waving their hands, muttering some words, and making something appear out of nothing?

Over the next few days we were constantly in and out of meetings with the wizards of Tulag. To tell the truth, I was getting bored with all the endless speeches, conferences, and arguments- and there's only so much luxury that I can stand. I was wanting to get back to the trail and get back to work, but I knew that our little party would have no chance against the evil that stalked us- not without the help of the wizards. And their help was going to take time. Oh well, at least the girls here are friendly, I thought as I sat in on one conference.

"I can teach Tinhil the basics of the spell..." said Lutay in a tired voice. "But we have not the time to create the thing before you leave. And leave you must. Valleor's eyes must have been upon you for some time, perhaps since your last meeting... Perhaps even longer. Coming here will have blinded him to you, but that will raise his suspicions. He will see that the Reever is following his trail. He will attack, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. He needs these people he has taken for some purpose of his own. And so many so quickly, he must be pressed for time in some way. If you go further afield than you really need to then perhaps you can misguide him into wasting more of his time than he can spare. I will give you transportation which will enable you to reach my son, Alazar. He will pass on to you more of the spell, as much as we will have been able to create by the time you arrive at his tower. You will travel slowly, down river from here to the sea, then sail west to reach Alazar's home."

"It has been a long time indeed since I have traveled down Ariastor's waters," said the Reever. "The river holds bitter memories for me."

"You must take care," replied Lutay. "I have sensed strange awakenings in the world. Valleor is not the only ancient power that stirs. The agents of the Black Snake have been spying in lands north and westward from Urth in the High Valley. They have also been seen in the Newcomer's lands to the east, in the City of Lights itself. Valleor's slaves in the land that the Black Snake rules for him have long been preparing for war."

"Grave news indeed," said the Reever sadly. "I have many a score to settle with the Black Snake. But yet, I dread facing that woman. She is insane. In her mind, she and I have been spiteful lovers throughout time. In reality we have been bitterest enemies. She has tried to kill me a hundred times, to capture me a thousand more... My wife and sons were killed in an uprising she instigated- While Antuth and Valleor fought in the streets of Albion, we Immortals fought in the streets of our own city. I was cut off from the forces that defended my home. While I fought for my life in the lower levels of the city, my home was destroyed. I've always spurned her advances, but in her madness she imagines differently. She serves only Valleor, she is his high priestess and his lover. She is violence, death, and disorder. Willful rage is her weapon, madness is her shield, and I am the unwilling object of her obsession!"

"And yet she is an Immortal," replied Lutay. "Born as you were- to live forever, to guard the world from harm, to offer a guide to the younger races."

"Yes," sighed the Reever. "We are both Immortals, but that is the only way in which we are alike. She has given up her will to guard the world- now she seeks only to enslave it. I have long wondered why the Council has not sought to bring her to justice."

"Perhaps," said Lutay, "they know that she still has some part to play as our world grows older. Or perhaps they find her to be an example of how absolute power can corrupt even the greatest of lives. The High Council of the Immortals is wise in ways far beyond my understanding."

Chapter 17
Year 6740
The Tools At Hand
Caalar Jungle, Castle of the Winds, Museum Level 1423


"Here Sir."

"About these interlopers I set you to trail..."

"Yes Sir? I have a full report ready for high speed transmission."

"Good, send it now. I will give it a fast read and go over it in detail after we sign off."

"Very good, Sir. Transmitting now..."


"Very good! I'm impressed with their abilities. And the robot is co-operating with them as well- interesting. Interesting use of it's PA system as well. All in all, a very likely group. Very well, something less dangerous next, I believe. But where? Ah! I know just the place. I've been there myself- at least, I've been on the other side of the planet. Digging ruined cities out of the dirt..."

"Your favorite hobby, Sir."

"Yes. While I was there I also discovered some clues to other archaeological sites- from writings on the walls of temples and such -legends of even greater cities, lost in the jungles on the far side of the planet. When I returned to the Museum, I had an orbital scan done and was able to pinpoint several promising sites, but I put off exploring on my own."

"Why, Sir?"

"The weather, Maxwell. The weather. Rain, volcanoes, soot, mud... Due to several active volcanoes in the area and the high concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere it has been raining steadily on that particular continent for over one hundred and fifty years- local time. What hasn't been washed away has been covered in ash, soot, and mud. Don't go outside the buildings- you will materialize inside the largest, most promising one in the area. You wouldn't like it outside. Here is the course-"


"Received and understood, Sir."

"Good. What are your personal thoughts about these trespassers, Maxwell?"

"What specifically do you wish to know, Sir?"

"How are they shaping up? Are they an enemy strike team or are they here by accident?"

"Accident, Sir. I overheard them talking among themselves. They have no more idea about what is happening to them than does the proverbial men in the moon."

"I see," said the Collector. "We may be needing them as agents later on. Something strange has been happening since you were assigned to them. The Museum is under some kind of attack. It is a very subtle attack- mostly resulting in some anomalies in the permeability of several levels of the Museum. Strange things and people are popping up all over. Security is in disarray from so many reports. All of my regular agents are busy assisting the security forces. I wish that I could recall Thornby and put him in charge of it, but his communicator is malfunctioning."

"His implant was damaged, as I recall."

"Yes, his allergies forced me to take longer than is normally so on the replacement implant. It wasn't ready before he left, so he was forced to carry a com-unit in his pack. Somehow, he's manage to lose it or damage it- neither of which is an easy task. In any case, I must deal with the matter myself, very tiresome. I haven't felt this way since... Since... Well, I can't remember when exactly, but it has been a long time."


"Yes, those trespassers may be of use in a retrieval party before too long."

"I don't follow you, Sir. What do you mean?"

"Something is stirring that bodes ill for us all, but there may be a connection with an artifact trace that has been puzzling me lately. If these trespassers aren't part of the problem, then perhaps they can become part of the solution."


"The artifact in question is a weapon of considerable power- for Bethdish anyway -and these people might be able to investigate it for us while our own people are busy coping with troubles here inside the Museum. Keep the trespassers under surveillance for a while longer. I have preparations to make- for later."

"Yes Sir. I will file another report after the next landing."

"Good hunting, Maxwell."

"Thank you, Sir."

Chapter 18
Year 6740
In the City of the Wizard-King
Kingdom of Tulag, Tower of Lutay

I'd been talking to Tinhil a lot since I joined the Reever's little band of heroes. For a retired High Priest he was pretty accessible, not stuffy like I imagined he would be. Besides, he had been the one to toss fireballs at that escapee from a dinosaur exhibit so I felt grateful to him for saving my life. I found myself treating him as if he were one of the parish priests I'd known as a boy, but far friendlier. Who knows? If there had been a priest like him in our village church, maybe I'd have spent less time getting into trouble... and in jail. I might have done something with my life besides become a third-rate burglar before the Collector rescued me from the fire that my last theft became. Tinhil even started speaking like the priests I remembered- after we'd had a few drinks together and some long talks about our respective faiths. I guess that's really my fault, but he just seemed to fall into the manner of speaking that I remembered from my youth. He was a tolerant old fellow, less concerned with whether or not I went to a church regularly than he was with whether or not I was trying to live up to my full potential. To him, it seemed that my soul was my own business but that wasted talents were a sin. He made it sound like his gods were more concerned with free will, honor, and fulfillment than with gathering more worshipers. From what he told me over the course of our many long talks, I gathered that there was a whole lot less corruption in the cathedrals of Bethdish than there had been on my home world.

"I wish my communicator hadn't been stomped on by that underfed lizard. I'm sure that the boss would be willing to help. As it is I've only got one sure way to get back to the Museum. I'd hate to have to use it though, I'm kind of squeamish."

"Oh? It does rather sound like a last resort."

"Indeed. I've always managed to avoid it."

"I'm curious, my son..."

"Not at all, Father. If we really need reinforcements, if it looks as if we're all about to die..."

"Yes, my son?"

"Well Father, you could always kill me."

"That seems rather extreme, my son."

"That's why its a last resort."

"I assume that simple cowardice is not the reason for this strange, um... request?"

"Oh no, Father. Its just that if I die, I'll wake up back at the Museum alive and well. Able to bring help almost instantly. Almost unlimited resources available on demand, at need. All problems solved and all the loose ends tied up in one neat bundle. There's just one catch."

"There always is, my son."

"Yeah, I have to die to use it."

Chapter 19
Year 6740
Of Frying Pans and Fires
Time Capsule in Flight
Location: Irrelevant- Time: Irrelevant

I noticed a shift in the co-ordinates of the trespasser's commandeered transfer capsule as the Collector altered their course. They were about to re- enter the universe. I set my controls to arrive shortly after them and to conceal myself from them. I also called up a short briefing about the destination. Too short to do me much good. Just a fragment of a report- from a retrieval team -already three hundred years old. Out of date information wouldn't help me now. I felt the vehicle arrive and began to prepare myself to venture outside.

Chapter 20
Year 6740
In the Hands of the Wizard-King
Kingdom of Tulag, Tower of Lutay

We finally made ready to leave Tulag and return to our quest. It had been fun, and interesting, to visit these odd wizards, but I was ready to get back to work. I said my goodbyes to the ladies I'd dallied with, stuffed my pack with the supplies that Lutay had provided for me, and joined my companions for the short trip back to Port Verbad.

"Nice boat," said Eli as we first saw our new transportation. "I like it."

"We're going to cross a sea in this little thing?" gasped Blackfur.

"Lutay said it would take us to Alazar," riposted Tinhil. He was always ready to argue with Blackfur. I was getting used to it by now. If they ever said a kind word to one another someone would have to pick Mama Thornby's little boy up off the floor in a dead faint.

"I'm not worried about the sea crossing," Tinhil added. "If this thing can take the river then we're home free on the ocean."

"Is the river so bad as that?" asked Pearl.

"It can be in the wrong season," the Reever replied. "Luckily for us there's been a lot of rain lately. The river will be higher- we'll go over all but the worst rocks. This boat will do nicely."

"I've never been out on an ocean before," began Eli.

"We've never been away from our own lake-country before either," said Pearl. "If it weren't for worrying about Aden I'd be enjoying this trip a lot more."

As we got aboard the small ship, Lutay said his farewells and sent us on our way. I marveled once again at the magic of the wizards of Tulag even as I was glad to be leaving. I hope that someday I'll be able to return and visit again, but that day looked to be long in the future.

"The ship is ready," said Lutay. "The course has been set. You will be unable to change it except at extreme need. There is no crew- the ship itself will do everything for you that a crew could have done. All you have to do is order the sails set in the way that you want them and they will set themselves so. I commend you into the hands of my son. He will be of great aid. Go with my blessings."

With that, the boat pulled away from the dock and our voyage began again.

Chapter 21
Year 6740
City in Ruins
River Ariastor

Our trip down the river Ariastor was uneventful- the boat proved itself more than worthy of the most dangerous stretches of rapids. Our passage was not unremarkable, however, as we sailed right past the ruins of the Reever's first home- the first city of the Immortals. Great heaps of broken glass and rubble, shattered towers and domes- that was what it seemed as I looked at it for the first time. Even so, the great age of the place was evident- spookily so.

"What is this place?" asked Pearl.

"Another history lesson," grunted Blackfur grumpily. "Just what I wasn't looking forward to."

"Quiet, fool!" hissed Tinhill angrily. "Your own ignorance may be blissful to you, but my own is a gnawing pain. Be silent and learn something from your betters."

The Reever looked very sad as he gazed out over the vista of shattered towers, and it was a long time before he answered.

"This," he said sadly, "Was our home. Our forefathers had built a marvelous city here in the days of their youth. Way back in the dim, dark days- in the early mists of time -the city's crystal towers gleamed and glittered in the sunlight. I was born here, lived here, and part of me will never leave here. You cannot see my home- or at least, its ruin -from here. It was built farther inland and high in a vast tower. From the ramparts of my home I could once see Albion- the home of the gods -forever shining in the light of the sun. How I loved to stand in my garden with my family about me, and laugh to see the children playing in the warm light. Dark was the day our city fell. The Lord of Night had grown mad with jealousy of the love that our people gave to the Lord of Light. Valleor became very evil over countless thousands of years, plotting and scheming in his temple of darkness. Slowly gathering unto him those who felt themselves slighted. He gathered followers and waited as his strength slowly grew. Evil always attracts evil, like a magnet draws iron. After ages passed, Valleor felt himself strong enough to challenge Antuth for the supremacy of Albion. The Immortals that Valleor had recruited spread panic among the innocent here in our city- while he himself rampaged and slaughtered in the golden streets of Albion, high above. Many died that night- god and Immortal alike - no family was left unscathed. I was called to the defense of the temple of Antuth, and unknowingly kissed my wife and children goodbye for the last time. Long I fought there on the steps of Antuth's temple, my friends and my brother beside me. I slew many of the rebels, and wept for the loss of so many of our people. Valleor laughed with delight at the chaos he had spawned. As he murdered many of his fellow gods in the city of Albion, he also looked down upon his followers in the Immortal city and gibbered his approval. I stood at the temple gates, and none of the defilers did we allow to pass. The awful warfare of Immortal against Immortal, friend against friend, and brother against brother seemed to last centuries. Truly, it took only one night- and slowly came the dawn that we Immortals shall always remember. As the sun rose over our now wretched city, Valleor struck his final blow. He had met his match and more in combat with Antuth. Their lightnings and thunderbolts had splintered many of the beautiful buildings of Albion. The homes of the gods were laid waste as the ravening energies used in their combat were deflected. Then, as the sun rose and Antuth's power grew with it, Valleor struck in desperation. As Antuth looked on in stunned horror- Valleor reached out with his last remaining strength and shook the world to it's very foundations.

"Antuth was finally able to capture and imprison Valleor as the evil god spent his last powers in senseless destruction- but the damage had been done. The whole world reeled from the shock of Valleor's final, desperate stroke. The land spun and dropped as the seas rose in tempests. In our city, the jeweled towers shattered and fell. Many who had survived the holocaust 'til then were killed in that instant. None who survived escaped uninjured. I have never seen anything like that day again- not ever in my long lifetime. I hope never to see it's like again. Old lands sunk beneath the crashing waves- and new lands rose from the sea bed. The world was changed forever and much that was fair passed out of it. The beauties of the present world are many, but they cannot compare with the world as the gods had fashioned it. As we were told in Tulag, Valleor was punished by the remaining gods- who hoped that his evil would never arise again. Alas, he has found a way to return at long last. I pray that we shall find a way to put paid to him, forever."

Then the Reever spoke no more for a great while. He simply stood by the boat's railings and gazed out over the ruins as long as they were in sight. We left him to his thoughts- his hands clenched into fists of rage as tears wet his cheeks. Finally, he went below for the night.

Chapter 22:
Year 6740
Fire and Rain
Castle of the Winds, Museum Level 1072

    "Collector? Are you receiving me?"
    "Yes, Maxwell?"
    "Ready for high-speed transmission burst."
    "Ready. Commence transmission."
    The momentary sound of highly condensed data being recorded squealed sharply. The Collector played parts of the recordings in a flash-forward mode for a brief time. "Very good," he finally said. "And the robot is co-operating with them as well. Interesting use of the PA system. All-in-all a very likely group. Very well, something less dangerous next... Ah! I know just the place. I've been there- at least, to the other side of the planet. Digging ruined cities out of the dirt. Writing on the walls of the ruins related legends of even greater cities lost in the jungles on another continent. I had an orbital scan done and pinpointed several likely sites, but put off exploring."
    "Why, Sir?"
    "The weather, Maxwell. The weather. Rain, volcanoes, soot, mud, ashes... Been raining there for close to two hundred years. What hasn't washed away is covered in ash and soot- and mud. Don't go outside the target buildings, Maxwell. You wouldn't like it outside. Hmmm... Right. Here is the course."
    A slightly different squeal of outgoing transmissions sounded.
    "Received and understood."
    "Very good, Maxwell. Good hunting."
    "Thank you, Sir."

Arrive on Tar-Zellap, after the fall of its civilization. Arrive inside the temple complex of their god Anaxor.

    The noise what what I noticed first. A rolling, hissing sound that crept through the walls as easily as it pounded my sensors. I hid my vehicle, set it for a quick departure, and stepped outside to wait. I did a close-range sensor scan of the nearby rooms and hallways. Almost before I finished determining that the complex was deserted, I heard the Trespasser's stolen vehicle arriving. As it materialized, I hid myself.

    "We're here!"
    "Robot, check it out. Is it safe?"
    I could feel the PXR 5's sensors sweep around me like cat-whiskers of electrons. A quick systems check revealed that the new circuitry designed to render me invisible to the stolen robot's senses was working perfectly. I had already determined that we were alone in the near vicinity, so I remained hidden- flattened out as a coat of paint on a wall -and waited for them to exit their vehicle.
    "No hostiles within range," the robot finally reported. "You may emerge."
    "What is this place?"
    "Yeah, and what's that noise?"
    "Data insufficient for positioning identification. Sound is rain outside of building we are now in. Rainfall is heavy and has been steady since our arrival."
    "Anybody catch that smell yet?"
    "Incense... and sulfur, and coal if I'm not mistaken."
    "No locks on these doors. Small rooms, single beds, doesn't look comfortable at all. It looks worse than a prison- or a boot camp. Must be a monastery or temple of some kind."
    "Detect no use of electricity within scanner range. Some static discharges from the storm, but nothing else within range."
    "Then we'll find torches for illumination. Or make some."
    "Which way? What are we looking for, anyway?"
    "Yeah, why are we running around? Maybe we should try to pilot that box back to... To home. We're just as trapped as we were when that storm sucked us into that museum. We're not getting anywhere!"
    "You're right. We are still trapped. The robot told us that the box has a pre-set route. Every time we get back into the box, we wind up somewhere else. I haven't liked either of our options so far, so I haven't thought about staying. Eventually we'll find a place that we can escape to. 'Til then, we hunt for what we've always hunted for. Whatever we can find. We haven't done too badly lately, have we?"

Chapter 23:
Year 6740
Predators and Prey
Southern Ocean, near Oktishnear
Shebeja Heliship, in flight

    "Predators and prey! That's what life is all about. Think of it, my sleepy friend. We are a predatory species. The only way we could peacefully function in the interstellar community was to change the definition of prey. Prey became whatever the need demand; wealth, business deals, property, status symbols... Whatever. We hunted new things, and did well. Sometimes too well, but we survived as a species. Wake up, my sleepy friend. You are in the sleep-freeze tanks no longer. Once again it is our duty to awaken and protect the home base. It is good to be on an Awake Team once again!"
    "My Captain seems to have dreamed of philosophy while he last was frozen," the Shebeja Co-Pilot said humorously, baring his teeth in a grin that turned into a yawn. "But pray continue with your dissertation."
    "Our people are 5000 years older than we were when we exiled ourselves to the Long Sleep. Much has changed. Yet much remains the same. See the target indicators? Here are the old enemy. They whom we were paid to hunt in the old days- The days before the Scourge came, like an assassin in the night. They do not know us, but they have seen our approach. Look at the image on the viewer. They begin to rig their wind-driven vehicles to flee from us. They will be slow to change course. We will drive them from their prey, as they in turn become ours. It is all relative. We may become the prey of something, eventually."
    "Sleep..." said the Shebeja Co-Pilot.
    "Yes," laughed the Shebeja commander. "Sleep is the great enemy. The one that preys on all life. Sleep and her brother Death, for they hunt through the eternal night of our dreams. They prey on us all. Gunnery Crew! Wake up! I have something for you to shoot. If you have not forgotten how to use your weapons while you slept."
    "No, sir," came the reply in the form of an eager voice on the craft's intercom. "We are all ready for the hunt. Lead us to prey, Commander. Let us taste the kill!"
    "What did I tell you, my friend? Predators and prey. That's all any of us are. To the Hunt!"
    "To the Hunt!" They all echoed.

Chapter 24:
Year 6740
Southern Ocean, near Oktishnear

As the four pirate ships bore down upon the helpless craft Guiles began to curse fluently in a language unfamiliar to his companions. If the truth be known, be was just venting his opinion of the T-Rex that stepped on his weapon and communicator. He was beginning what was to become a frequent activity, wishing that be had access to the Museum's weapons and technology.

There was a puff of smoke from the side of the closest pirate ship as they fired their first warning shot. The cannonball whistled as it crossed the space between them only to fall thirty yards short of the traveler's boat.

"They'll have our range soon enough." said the Reever to no one in particular.

"If any body's got any ideas, now'd be a good time to speak up!" said Blackfur

"Maybe my range is greater than theirs," said Tinhill "I think that I could set their sails afire before they can hit us."

"Did you hear something?" asked Eli.

"If only that lizard hadn't stomped my gun, I could have zapped them out of the water before they could get close enough to sink us."

"I wonder if Lutay's magic is strong enough to keep us safe?" said Blackfur. "Do you think he's put a spell on this boat to keep from getting holes blown in it?"

"Lutay isn't here, you over muscled moron," said Tinhill. "Why should he watch over us like some overprotective fairy godmother!"

"What is that noise?" Ely asked.

There was another puff of smoke from the side Of the Pirate ship as they fired again. The thud and whistle of the cannonball fallowed the shot quickly. There was another gout of water as the second cannonball fell only twelve yards short of the small ship.

"Give me that bow of yours, Thornby." said the Reever while rummaging around in his backpack. "I can pick off a some of them while they reload that cannon."

"At this distance?" Guiles asked unbelievingly. "You can't be serious!"

"I am," said the Reever. "Keep back, if anybody jogs my arm we'll all be sorry." As he spoke he pulled a small box from his pack. He took out three small round pellets of a dull greenish-gray color and attached them to arrows. He then drew back and fired at the pirate ship. At the same time the Pirates fired their cannon, their shot passing over the travelers small ship to splash a column of water into the sky.

No one noticed.

The arrow had done it's work by then and the results were rather distracting. The pellet had exploded on impact, blasting a large hole in the ship where the cannon had been.

"That ought to buy us some time." said the Reever. "They'll have to come about to bring another gun emplacement to bear on us. Too bad that the hole is up on deck. I'll have to put another one closer to the waterline."

"What's that noise?" Ely asked again.

Pieces of planking and dead pirates are floating around the ship as it starts to heel over, tacking into the wind to bring another cannon around to fire. A plume of smoke gas rising from the hole in the pirate's bow. The other three ships began to edge out in an attempt to encircle the small ship. None had been in position to use their cannon except the leader. The Reever notched another arrow and drew it back.

"Lets give then something else to worry about for a while." he said as he aimed.

"I said, What is that noise..?" Ely began, but he was interrupted. There was an enormous explosion. The pirate ship disappeared while fragments of the ship and it's crew rained down upon the sea. The small boat rocked and almost everyone was knocked off their feet.

"Nice shot." said Guiles reverently, as if he were in shock. "I take back everything I said about not being able to hit them that far away."

"It wasn't me," confessed the Reever, pointing to the arrow still held to the bow in his hands. The Reever was the only one who hadn't fallen down when the shock wave had tossed them about. "I think it was them," he said indicating a dark speck that seemed to be getting larger and louder each second. As it neared it grew into a shape that was unmistakably a mechanical vehicle of some kind.

"A sky boat!" said Tinhill.

"That must have been what I heard. No one ever listens." said Ely in an I-told-you-so voice. As the flying machine approached, the roar of it's passage sounded like a mighty waterfall. The wind was stirring the water underneath the machine, as if it had harnessed the very storms themselves to push it along. Tiny fingers of flame leapt from stubby winglets on each side of the machine as it circled the pirate ships. Pirates were struck down by invisible hands that tore great gapping holes in their bodies.

"Whoever they are I hope that they're on our side!" said Blackfur.

"Shebeja," said the Reever quietly. "A warrior people from another star. So, they are awake at long last. Ages ago they were trapped here, far from their true home. They chose to hibernate until rescue arrives. I have seen kingdoms rise and fall, and wars come and go while they slept waiting for their people to find them. It must have been that very machine that we heard yesterday when we passed Oktishnear. The Elders of my people will want to know about this."

"Perhaps it was the arrival of the new star travelers that woke them up." Pearl said.

"Yes. but whose side are they on?"

"Their own, dimwit!" growled Tinhill.

"Yes, but are they gonna turn on us when they don't have any more pirates to kill?" All eyes turned to the Reever expecting an answer.

"No." said Guiles, taking everyone by surprise. "I mean, these are the same people that built Nanor Fort City aren't they? Tail and thin with high narrow skulls? Extra joints in their arms and legs? Extra thumb on each hand? Dark skinned, prefer tropical temperatures, see more infrared and less ultraviolet than we do?"

"Yes, that's a good description of them." said the Reever. "Very good, I didn't know about their sight. You sound like you know them pretty Well. How...?"

"Our mutual friend has a very good library." Guiles said drolly.

"Several, I would imagine." said the Reever with a smile.

"Yes, but what does that have to do with whether or not they'll attack us later?"

"Well, they built and lived in Nanor, so they must've been familiar with pirate raids. After all, there've always been Pirates in these waters, even in ancient times." said Guiles.

"That's right," said Tinhill."Pirates are an ancient menace in all of the histories that I've ever read."

"So they must have fought pirates before." said Ely. "I guess we can tell who usually won."

The Reever nodded in agreement as Guiles continued to speak. "If they wanted to, they could've sunk us with far less effort than they're using against those pirates." Guiles pointed toward the slaughter continuing while they spoke. Another pirate ship had been sunk and the Shebeja were pursuing a third which smoked from from small fires scattered along it's length. The pirate ship was leaning to starboard as it's crew tried vainly to escape the metallic daemon that was flying circles around them. It's machine guns and rocket launchers spat and chopped at the helpless wooden ship wallowing slowly in the water. Two of the ships' masts had been shattered by fire from the Shebeja Heliship. While the party watched the belly of the third pirate ship splintered under the rain of invisible death poured from the avenging alien's flying machine. Then there came a series of explosions and the third pirate ship was no more. Almost lazily, the Shebeia Commander turned his ship and floated to circle the last remaining pirate ship. Only minutes before the pirates had been the Lords of the Sea, now they were raising all sail to try to flee the new master of the ocean's skys. The Shebeja circled, firing small missiles into the water all around the frightened pirate vessel.

"He's letting them get away!" said Blackfur.

"No he's not, you hammer slinging lack-wit! He's driving them off!" said Tinhill. "Obviously he wants the survivors to carry the message to other pirates. They can no longer terrorize the coast of Ethellor and Kinruth Kingdoms without risk of sudden death at the hands of these Shebeja people."

"I don't think that they are restricted to this coast alone," said the Reever. "those ships are very powerful. I'm sure they could range over the whole world if they chose to. I believe all the pirate clans are due for a rude surprise sometime soon."

"Why didn't they use those flying ships against the pirates in ancient times?" asked Pearl. "Then there wouldn't be any pirates today."

"Good question." said Guiles. "Why don't you ask them, whenever you get the chance?"

To be continued!

Copyright 1978-2005 by Dan L. Hollifield

Author's Note:

Bethdish is a world circling a star, called Antuth by the natives (who named the star after the chief deity in their pantheon), presently some 65 lightyears from Earth. Rumor has it that the entire solar system had earlier been located in the Andromeda Galaxy, but was moved by some mysterious force to its new location in our own Milky Way Galaxy. The surviving written history of Bethdish covers some 12,000 years, (with the afore-mentioned displacement to the Milky Way occurring in their year 6055 -- circa 3140 AD, Terran Calendar) but the records of the Immortals reportedly go back roughly a billion years and relate the rise and fall of several civilized eras of non-immortal natives before the present recorded history begins.

The Immortals claim to have been directly created by the Gods of Bethdish, while the diverse non-immortal species are said to have evolved naturally. The several alien colonies now present are, of course, immigrants. One Xenoarcheologist of note, Professor Eustas Gray of the Emperor Norton University of San Francisco, has published several monographs on the subject of excavations on Bethdish that purport to uphold the Immortal's beliefs. Other experts in the field dispute his findings, but all the evidence is not yet in.

Further records of the history of Bethdish are forthcoming from this Author, while previous excerpts are available in your local information network.

Dan Hollifield (Aphelion's Senior Editor, by the way) was born in 1957 at almost the same minute that Sputnik II was launched. This seems to have warped his point of view in the fact that he has always been rather a nut on the subject of spaceflight. He lives in Athens, Ga. USA. More biographical info can be found at My Bio & Bibliography webpage- if you need that sort of thing.

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