Mysterious Worshipers

 Bollofaro strode into the sitting room. A stone fireplace dominated the west wall, the rest of the room was plastered and whitewashed. The deep green of the upholstery blended with the dark wood flooring. Light came in through the north facing window, bathing the entire room in the soft orange morning light.

He moved across the room with purpose, and dropped onto the unused end of the sofa facing the only other occupants. “You two spend more time with them than I do. What are they up to now?”

Shooter gave a questioning glance to Jaffar who simply shrugged with that don’t ask me look. “All right, I’ll ask. Who are them and they?”

“Them would be Julie and Donna, and they would be the ones who follow them around.”

“Now I know who you’re talking about. Would you care to explain what your talking about?”

The cowled head spun, a hand came up and bared the round face. He was clean shaven from crown to chin, the green eyes flashing a fiery intensity. They bore directly into Jaffar.

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t ask.” His held back laughter barely concealed.

The wizard threw his hands up. “Are either of you aware that both groups have been exercising horses?”

“I take it you mean more than required for equestrian training.” Shooter seemed genuinely unsure.

“Just wait, I’ll get Cori in here.” His eyes closed, the intensity drained from his face, leaving an almost blank expression. The wizard mumbled a few inaudible words, then sat calmly for a few moments. The others clearly heard him whisper, “Come to the sitting room.” With a sudden jolt he snapped back to normal. “He will be here soon.”

Shooter got up to leave, receiving a scowl from Bollofaro. He felt the need to explain, “I’ll be right back.” When the look didn’t change he raised his hands. “Honest, I’ll be right back.”

Jaffar chuckled, drawing the scowl away from the master archer.

Minutes later Shooter returned with three mugs and a pitcher of wine. Pouring one for the wizard he asked. “Should I get more or will the little guy get here in time.

“He’ll be here, but I’m not sure where he was.”

Nearly an hour later, whistling a tune none of them recognized, in walked Cori wearing dark tights and tunic, a black coif filled his left hand and the orange-red covering on his head that passed for hair. “All right, I’m here.”

“Good. “Tell them about what is going on now.”

“Sure, one of us is about to go fill this pitcher. I’ve only got half a mug.”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I’m sure, but then again, I’m not sure.”

Before Jaffar laughed uncontrollably he grabbed the pitcher and walked out.

As the irate wizard glared at Cori, he re-worded his comment. “What is it you want to know?”

“Tell them what Julie and Donna are planning.”

They waited less than patiently for Jaffar’s return. “I brought two,” He hefted them up to head level, “I know this is going to be a long story.”

Once the mugs had been refilled, and everyone seated, Cori began. “Now that I know what I’m talking about the first thing I should say is, I don’t know what their plans are.”

“But …”

“I didn’t say I was unaware of what they are doing.” He stared back at Bollofaro who relaxed a little. “They have been doing things since about a month after their punishment began, that makes me think they are working toward a common goal. Lately that goal seems to be outside the confines of the ranch.”

“We were just told that they have been working horses. Is there anything else to say they might travel?”

“Yes.” Turning to Shooter, “They are keeping pieces of canvas well oiled and have gathered poles, also it has come to my attention that someone is stocking up on jerky.”

Shooter fingered the rim of his mug, “You think it’s them?”

“I think it could be.”

A frustrated Jaffar gave up, his I’m sorry look in the wizard’s direction. “So what is going on out there that would lead Julie to recruit Donna?”

“It might be the other way around. Donna was over in the barge area several times with Sara, sometimes with Theo. They were asking about the needs of the town being planned upriver.”

Shooter shook his head looking right at Jaffar. “I find it hard to believe they would go that way without taking the whole ranch along. What about you?”

Julie and Victor know we are planning to go back. No, you’re right, they would not go that way without more force. They are thinking something else.”

“Not unless they plan to go with the caravan.” Cori winked at Shooter, who smiled and looked at the ceiling.

“They would not work for the competition! Neither Suzanne or Jennifer would betray me like that.” Bollofaro was still upset.

“Relax, none of them would but …” Looking past the wizard at the priest, Cori realized something had occurred to Jaffar. “What?”

“We don’t need to worry. They are going, but it won’t be up river.”

“They can’t get horses to the island, so what are you thinking?” The archer raised a single eyebrow.

“South. Something caught their attention, and you know how persuasive Julie can be.” Shooter nodded. “All right, she finds out what Donna is planning and talks her out of it.” Cori didn’t object, “Then persuades her to go with them to do whatever they have in mind.”

Bollofaro got back into the conversation. “So you want to let them go?”

“I want to wait. Cori can keep up with their preparations and let us know when everything is ready. Then if nothing has been said to us, we can interfere.”

“You want to test their integrity?” Cori jumped the question in.

“No, I want to see if they ask advice this time.”

“That’s the same as letting them go.”

“Only if we determine that it is not more than they can handle. If it is, we can adjust the plan, or one of us can go with them.”

With a course of action decided upon, they went back to their own doings. When they had all left the room, Essira stood and gathered her mending. As she left she was smiling, enjoying her moment of invisibility. This occurred more and more often now, she was a part of the ranch so they talked freely with her about, as if she was not there. It gave her the insights that let her run the ranch more effectively. The Magus even asked her once if she had ever practiced the seers art. This time she could warn Suzanne, maybe when she stopped by tomorrow. They were planning to have sweet breads and tea with Talmae, like they had the day she arrived.

Nine days later the advice given to Suzanne, and passed on to Jen, became reality. Crystal went into the sacristy to see Jaffar, Philip climbed up to Shooter’s loft, Sara and Theo walked into Gormi’s forge, Donna climbed through a window at Cori’s mill house, and Jennifer strode to the desk, interrupting the reading Bollofaro was doing. They all had one objective, to ask for their mentors advice.

Hours later they gathered in the team house. Crystal filled mugs, while everyone settled in. Jennifer came from her room with plates of sweet breads to go with the ales. As they settled into eating, their eyes fell onto Donna, one by one, until everyone was quiet.

“Well, since we all seem to be in a good mood, I will assume that none of you was refused.” There was nothing but satisfied grins as she scanned the room. “IN FIVE DAYS WE RIDE!”

“WE RIDE!” the shouts could be heard around most of the ranch.

Donna, by nature, was curious, “So what advice did everyone get?”

Philip answered first. “Don’t miss and don’t lose the bow.”

Sara giggled and added, “From Gormi, it was kill well.”

“… and return.” Theo added the thought when Sara seemed to be finished.

Crystal shook her head. “Jaffar talked a lot, but what he meant was, don’t let anyone die.”

“I was told to be sure of my timing.” Jennifer sounded unsure.

Donna would have to talk with Jen later, for now, she quickly finished the list. “I am not to stick my head in any dark holes.”

* * *

As was the norm, Cori was the last of the mentors to come strolling in. Jaffar had taken his usual chair, while Gormi and Shooter chatted on one of the sofas. Tromacillis sat on the window sill looking out, to Cori, her mind seemed to be somewhere else. The wizard leaned on the unlit fireplace watching, or at least he seemed to be, you never could tell with that magically darkened cowl hiding his face.

Cori chose a seat on the other sofa, with his back to the elf in the window.

Jaffar began the group discussion. “Are there any objections to letting them go?”

“Of course there are!” Bollofaro nearly popped to full height.

“I knew you would have one. Why?”

“It is too far away, we could not get there to help them if they got into trouble and…”

“Gettin into trouble is why they are goin, let the young uns kill a few things.”

“And how many will not come back?” Bollofaro turned on Gormi.

“As many as failed to learn what we taught them.”

“And what if that is one of your students?”

“They will fight well.”

Jaffar looked to Shooter when Bollofaro threw his hands up in frustration. “What about you?”

“No reservations. I find his bow to be true.”

Cori just tossed his opinion out, unprompted. “They will be fine, after all it is not populated by anyone. Is that not why we call them ruins?”

“Well, Crystal has the ability to keep them whole, so I see no reason to deny them.”

Tromacillis rose from her perch. A look was exchanged between elf and dwarf, its meaning lost on the others in the room. Gormi nodded, and their demeanor changed from one of pleasant company, to that of the bearer of serious news. Tromacillis walked to the fireplace and faced the group. “All who are younger than I, sit and listen.”

All save Bollofaro were sitting. “What is this?”

“A telling of lore, wizard. By the customs of such tellings, the eldest gives the lore that it may be remembered by younger generations as it happened. It is then by this custom, that unless you have seen more than six hundred turns of the seasons, listening would be wise.”

Bollofaro sat.

“Now that all are paying attention, the dwarf and I have compared our lore, finding that it differs little. You shall hear it, as I heard it.

For many generations, Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and others, coexisted through these lands in peace and even friendship.

There were humans who worshiped an animalistic goddess, Uytha. As the worship grew, and more became involved, those who were its leaders were granted special powers by the deity.

It took another two generations, but the religion spread to the Elves. In less than a generation, the special powers were among the Elvin communities as well as the Dwarves, and others that were native to the land.

When it was discovered how the powers were spreading, not only among the faithful but beyond, it began to be known more as a curse.

The practice was banned from all native lands. The humans had become so involved that they refused to ban its practice. The response to this was severe. Contact with the humans was banned and punishable by banishment, according to my …. the kings decree.

All races purged their own kind of the accursed members of society. During this purge, it was discovered that six different types of the religion existed. Each of these were destroyed; temples, churches, chapels and shrines were dismantled, with the pieces and lands reconsecrated and returned to nature.

During the following generation, the cursed forms of the humans began to enter our lands and inflict the curse upon the people. At first, we purged the infection, then as the invasion continued … our response was to repel it.

Elves spoke to Dwarves, between our two peoples, the other races were contacted. The infected humans were invading every land of every race.

The leaders came together. Each king came to the meeting with seven guards, one for each king. The meeting lasted for weeks, with only arguments resulting. Four kings; the Elf, Dwarf, Gnome and the Maia, wanted to keep any further incursions from happening. Two kings, the Cath Balug and the Cetus, respected the new animal nature of the changeling humans, and wanted nothing to do with any campaign against them. The last ruler, the king of the Alicanto, chose not to participate because the humans were not threatening his people, and it was believed among his people, that they could not.

One night the winged folk left for their cliffs, few have seen them since.

It was the following day that the wars really began. The kings who respected the new religion, told each of the others that they would support the humans in any war.

The Dwarves,” she nodded toward Gormi, “the Maia,” she indicated Cori, the Gnomish and the Elves, were all that remained. It was agreed amongst them, that regardless of the other races, all infectious invasions had to stop.

After agreeing that the Maia would assemble in the Elvin kingdom and the Gnomes with the Dwarves, they left to assemble their armies.

The following spring, the combined armies set out for the infected lands and the killing began. At first the attacks on them went quickly, settlement after settlement was purged of life and destroyed. The Elves have not the taste for war that exists among the Dwarves. The Maia were also less enthusiastic. The war was carried on by the Dwarves and their cousins in earnest.

Over the next hundred years the fighting continued till the infected tribes were destroyed. They had begun fighting between themselves by then, so they were weakened. The feline fought with the canine and the rodent, the boarish peoples tried to survive wars with both canine and feline. We found that settlements of those who resembled the bears were nearly deserted when we arrived. The one that worshiped a great lizard was completely empty. The people were gone, though all of their belongings had been left behind.

No peace has existed since between Elves and the animal races.” Tromacillis looked around the room, all faces were focused on her with rapt attention. “That is the lore of how the Elves came to the eternal war with the animal races. It also explains why the humans were gone when you arrived.”

The room became silent. They just stared at her, it seemed to last forever.

“Why are you telling us this now?” Jaffar used his stoic face and tone.

It was Shooter who responded. “Because that is where this group is going.” He turned back to the elf. “Am I right?”

“Aye, tis.” The gruff dwarvin voice answered for her. There was a flurry of motion as all heads turned to its source, Gormi.

“What do you think they will find?”

“Not much.” Gormi glanced across the room and got a nod. “It was the site of the final battle between the Dwarves and the animal clans. The lore masters say it lasted for two days.”

“Is it safe for them?”

Gormi faced Shooter, “All I can say, is that none were alive when the Dwarves left.”

“Is it possible that recent events are connected to those wars?” The Magus was beginning his logical search.

Tromacillis and Gormi stared across the room, each hoping the other would answer.

Bollofaro’s head moved back and forth, as if he were watching a ball bounce between them. “Do either of you have an opinion? I’m not asking you to cut one down and count the rings in its bones, a good guess will do.”

The musical intonations of Elvin speech either didn’t carry her emotions, or Tromacillis herself just wasn’t displaying them. “The nests that you uncovered in the local town are most certainly recent, however, the creature killed by the young souls those few moons ago, may have been a direct descendant of the old clans.” She locked stares with Jaffar without flinching. “We have none such as you who can spot them in their other forms. There may have been survivors who were hidden among the animal races.”

“How many clans did you say there were?”

“Six, and they found it hard to get along.”

“What were the clans?”

“The Elves and Maia fought the jaguar and boar clans almost exclusively, we shared the burden of the wolves and crocodile with the Dwarves, who shouldered the bear and rat clans.”

Before Jaffar could say anything, Gormi held up a hand. “The wolf and bear clans tolerated the rats, maybe because they cleaned up the scraps, or just because the jaguars didn’t. Like the lady said, they lost the ability to work together. Twas a good thing too, it made them easier to beat. That war could have lasted another hundred years if they had stayed together.”

Bollofaro took a deep breath blowing it out slowly. “This does change the situation.” After he had their attention, he continued. “We have to bring them in and explain to them why they cannot go.”

“No, I think not.” When Jaffar spoke the wizard spun to face him.

“Why not?” It was more of a demand than a question. The room became silent as the two powerful friends faced off.

“I am surprised you do not see it. All we have are a few isolated incidents here in town, and a single creature on an island. These may have no connection at all. The …”

“You want to let students wonder into what may be a den full of those things?”

The face on Jaffar became a granite bust. “You are Magus, and I accept your advice most of the time, but I always hear you out. Now, I will finish, and talk over any interruption you decide to make. The only way for us to know if there is a larger problem is to investigate the ruins. The best way for us to do that, is to send what amounts to scouts with orders to return without engaging the enemy, should it be there.”

“I am not so sure, but if everyone agrees, I will allow Jennifer to go with the rest of them.”

Two days had passed since the gathering of the mentors, and yet nothing had been said to those who were going.

The morning air was fresh and clear as the six gathered outside the stables. The excitement was contagious; horses stomped, nosing each other and snorting, all of them anxious to be going.

Riding south along the coast, they let the horses run to relieve the built up energy, later they began changing their pace at various intervals to keep their mounts interested. The group continued like this till about midday.

Crystal a took Philip aside during the rest. “We need to start watching for game.”

“Didn’t we bring food?”

“Yes, but it will last longer, and fresh meat is better than jerky.” She shook a piece at him.

“You’re right,and it will make the ride more interesting.”

Theo enjoyed exploring. This whole area is great! The little stream makes just enough noise to be relaxing and there are signs all over that say the game is plentiful.

Philip is sitting against a tree carving something and everyone else was still sleeping.

Plenty of moon light filtered down. The overhanging branches did not seem to be as thick here. The tinkling of the stream was background music for what sounded like thousands of insects singing their songs. I can hear three or four kinds along with the tree frogs.

One of them in particular stared back at me. Its color almost matched the tree bark, with light greenish-yellow spots on its back. I might not have seen it until it moved.

Crystal warned me to be careful tonight. Why would she worry about such things? I have been bitten by several insects, but nothing serious has happened.

By morning, I am sure that Philips carving will have a shape that is known to us all.

Guess I’ll walk around again, since he is focused on his wood.

* * *

Morning came as they all do. Philip was dozing against his tree. Jen was the first to wake as usual and thanked me for banking a fire. She set about brewing her usual klaa. That would wake everyone else, it always did.

Donna and Sara woke heading toward the fire for Jen’s brew. I met them there.

“Oh no! What does it mean? How can it be?” Crystal’s clear voice, a near soprano, created silence. It quieted the birds and the monkeys, being suspicious, I followed suit listening for the imagined danger.

The surrounding sounds slowly began again as Donna went to her. “What is it Crys?”

She held Philip’s carving in an open palm. “Explain this.”

The trinket, about three inches in length, was obviously a crocodile, and from tail to neck it was flawless. Nobody would expect less from one of Philip’s whittles, he just seemed to bring a new life to the wood he used. However, popping out of the shoulder area was clearly a hairless human head!

“I have no explanation for this.” With a quick glance over her shoulder, “Jen, look at this would you.”

We all walked over. I took klaa for Philip who had been wakened by Crystal’s screech. From what I could see, the mouth was pulled back into a toothy sneer with crocodile teeth rather than human. The detail of his carvings was always beyond compare. I wondered why he took up the bow instead of following his father as a carver. “So why are we discussing his carving?”

“His last carving was of a man being peeled off of a rat, like he was just skin covering a fruit.” Crystal watched Philip as she described it. “The next day the rat creatures were found in town. You should remember how that worked out.” She walked away her head hanging.

I took a step to follow.

“Leave her to think.” Donna knew her better than I, so I did as she asked.

“So do you think we are going to be attacked by crocodiles?”

“No, but she does.”

We continued our southward journey, reaching a wide river at just about the time to set camp. There was a delta that looked solid enough from shore. A few trees and lots of brush covered it.

Philip, who was also our archer, had been lucky today. There would be four rabbits and a large bird for meat this evening. Jen used some sort of magic to clean the kills while I set the fire.

Crystal paced the river bank feverishly pointing things out to Donna. I was not close enough to hear them, but crocodiles was my guess.

I hoped that Crystal was not as superstitious about healing as she was with carvings. If she was something was going to kill me.

Philip was relaxed whittling a new arrow, Jennifer was roasting dinner and Sara, the only other true sword in the group, was honing the edge of her blade. Donna and Crystal were the guard tonight. I pitied Donna. I ate and went to sleep. If I dreamed of crocodiles, I would not tell Crystal in the morning.

The sun arrived with a cup of Jen’s brew. I always suspected that magic had something to do with the flavor, but was not going to insult her by asking. It was Philip who handed it to me. “I am going up this hill to find out if I can see the island from here.”

“Does it matter?” I asked as I took a sip.

“Yes. If I can see it, then this is the area we are looking for, if not, we move up river. You want to come along?”

“Sure.”

The hill didn’t seem to be much. The slope was fairly steep in places but was easily manageable for the horses.

We made the top and found a somewhat clear place to look from. Philip almost immediately proclaimed, “This is the spot.”

I looked out in the same direction. I only saw ocean and told him so.

“Look right there.” He reached across my mount so I could sight down his finger. “See the patch of trees, or at least green there?”

“I think so.” It was just a dot on the horizon, but, if he said it was trees, I was willing to go along with him.

Back at camp that is exactly what he told the others. They all believed this was the spot where we would find the ruins. I didn’t see anything that resembled a building.

A few of the taller hills seemed to be of interest while the smaller ones were being dismissed. I left the discussion to the brains of the group, I was here for my sword.

Donna chose what seemed to be the largest hill and we rode up. At the top, there it was, a small stone structure about fifteen feet square. It rose only about eight feet or so out of the hill top, and though it was nearly buried in old leaves and other debris, you could glimpse something on top of it. The sides were made of a dark stone, and each appeared to be of a single piece that seemed to be perfectly fitted together. No door or window was visible.

“There has to be a way in. Nobody builds something that they can’t get into.” Donna sounded sure of herself.

Sara pulled two shovels from her pack horse and tossed one to me. “Guess we are looking for the door.” She didn’t say much, but she was good with that sword of hers.

Jen came to me about an hour later. “Instead of digging a long ditch along the wall, try going down to find the street, or whatever is at the bottom and I can help from there.”

Magic is not something I understand, so I didn’t argue. I just dug into the ground looking for a street and wondering why Sara had brought shovels. Sara reached it first.

Donna called to us from atop the structure. “Come up, Jen can take it from here.” We found a rope on the west side and climbed up. Sara went first.

On top, I saw what could only be glimpsed from below. It was a dark gray stone, somewhat darker than those that the structure had been built from, and unlike the fitted slabs that formed the building, it looked to be a single solid piece. About eight feet in length and four wide, it had an oblong indentation in the top, which was about two feet wide and six in length and was centered. The sides were decorated with what looked to me like dancing skeletons. Crystal’s interest was apparent, since she wasn’t paying attention to much else.

Jen had already started her magic, and it did not take long before I could see dirt flying. It started where she stood, and traveled around the building as if directed by her. I was impressed, she cleared all four sides faster than we had dug our holes.

From the edge, I could see that hers was about five feet wide and went nearly to the bottom that Sara had found. Only loose dirt remained, and as of yet, no point of entry could be seen.

“Best I can do till you find another starting point.”

Sara and I went back down and cleared the loose soil. It went to a solid stone surface, not the cobbled road we expected. Jen took over and widened it to about ten feet.

While clearing the loose debris, I found the back of a statue, butted up against the outer edge of the stone walkway. Sara had also found one about ten feet away from me. Statues mean this was a building of some importance, and that Donna is right, there has to be a way in. The space between them was centered on the small building we were camping on top of. We found two more statues on each side, which we could wait till tomorrow to uncover.

Gathering up top again, we found Philip cleaning another rabbit on the center stone. With that and the meat left from last night, we would eat well again.

The statues seemed to make Crystal even more nervous. Wish we hadn’t found them. With Jen’s help we found a set of steps between them, and discovered that they were both of a tall thin woman.

We took a break for dinner, the steps could wait till morning. I guessed that there were also steps between the other statues, which meant a lot of digging tomorrow.

Sara and Jen had guard tonight, so after the meal I found a spot by the big stone and laid down. Donna was on the other side, with Crystal and Philip at the ends.

The night was full on when Jen woke us with, “There might be a problem.”

There was indeed a commotion. I could hear a type of chant – “chaaar-da”- from many voices which were not very far away. When I stood, I could see where the noise was coming from. There were torches near the bottom of the hill, with figures dancing in and out of the light. Others were gathered around, and it seemed that they were doing the chanting.

Crystal pointed out that they were on the north side, same as the two uncovered statues. She and Jen began conversing about if that had any significance or not. I went to join Philip and Donna.

“I will not have enough arrows if they come up.”

“I do not think they intend to scale the hill.”

“Hey, Theo, hope your up for some sword work.” Philip knew how to greet people well.

“Sure, Sara and I can handle it if they stick to the step area, but if they spread out, we are in trouble.” Sara checked her sword to be sure it was in the right place for an easy draw.

Then Philip asked the wrong question. “Do they look completely human to you?”

I could not see them well, but there was only one answer with their hunched over postures and what looked like ivory protruding from beneath their jaws. “No.”

“You guys stay with Jen, I’m going to take a closer look.” Donna headed for the rope.

Sara suggested, “Philip go to the statue and make sure she does not get into trouble.” I decided that it was better than being up top so Sara and I went with him. Jen was now paying attention to the new arrivals, while Crystal was watching us.

“She is almost there. Should be able to see them from where she is.” I have no idea how Philip could see her, all I saw was darkness, and the dancers.

Crystal joined us just as Philip announced, “She is on the way back.”

Her arrival surprised all except Philip. “They are not human.” Her announcement caught them a bit off guard.

“Then what are they?” I felt the need to know.

“They look like boars on two feet. Well, sort of boar-ish at least. They have fur, it is thin bristly and looks brown, and their tusks look dangerous, if they get close to you.”

“Are they armed?” Sara, it seemed, was also in need of knowing.

“None were that I saw.”

Jen called down from her perch. “You might as well come up and go back to sleep. If they are unarmed ,I don’t think they will bother us.”

We did just that, though getting to sleep was hard with all the noise. The boar like beings were gone when I woke.

The day was spent with Jen extending our digs down the sets of steps, as Sara and I dug down beside them to look for some sort of door. What we found was another landing, like the one we had just come from, only broken into four parts by the steps. The wall I dug out was covered in glyph-like writing, so was the one on Sara’s side.

After Sara, Jen and I cleared the tier, we went up to find Philip plucking two large game birds on the center stone. Jen stayed behind to try and read the walls. Donna had gathered wood and was tending to a small fire on the other end of the stone. She had found holes on the corners and used the two at that end for a spit. Crystal had also been busy; she collected four long branches and narrowed an end to fit into the holes she found at each corner of the large platform that we were camping on. The tops were wrapped in dry grass to create torches.

“I soaked the grass in oil, so they should burn through the night. Theo, you and Philip are up tonight right?”

“Yes.”

“Let me know in the morning how long they last, so if we need more, I can make them tomorrow so we are not in the dark all night when on guard.”

“I will. I guess that means we are going to keep looking for a door.”

Donna chimed in. “Unless someone has another idea.”

Nobody answered.

“Then wee keep looking for a way in.”

“I think we should uncover one whole set of steps tomorrow. Something about these first couple of levels, makes me think the hill is the building.” Leave it to Crystal to make the idea seem mountainous.

“I am not sure if moving the entire hill is within my abilities, but I agree we should uncover one full set.” Jen had joined us. “I think the walls on the side tell a story, but I only have a piece of it, so it does not make sense yet.”

“That is a lot of digging!” Sara must be as sore as I am.

“Should we try to find one that is not buried?”

“I have moved around looking for game and have not seen any buildings. So either they are all buried, or this area has a lot of small hills and this was built in the middle of them.”

“So, do we go back and tell the mentors about the boar people and let them decide what to do next?” I guess Donna had to ask.

“No!” Everyone turned to Philip shocked that he would be so definite. “A group that large should have left signs of passage. I could not find any. I do not know where they came from, or where they went to.”

“Are you saying they are ghosts?” Crystal was suddenly interested.

“Whatever they are, they leave no marks on the soft ground, no bent grass or snapped twigs in the brush. There is not even a trampled fern where they danced!”

“Donna will you let me go down with you tonight?”

“If they are real and you make noise, we will be in a lot of trouble down there.”

“But, if they are ghosts, it is my responsibility to lay them to rest.”

“So we are going to fight a hoard of ghosts?”

“No Theo, I hope to find another way.”

While we wondered what other way Crystal would, or even could find, she finished cooking the birds.

After we ate, Donna took her down so they could be there before sunset. Crystal seemed sure the dancers would return and Donna wanted to avoid her making noise on at least half the trip. The rest of us hoped the creatures would not be back tonight.

As darkness began, the dancers began to emerge. From the forest, the vague shapes began to close in on the same area. Jen and Sara were trying to sleep as the chanting began again, chaaar-da. I was thinking that it sounded louder than before ,when Philip tapped me on the shoulder.

“You should see this.” He went to the east side of the platform, I followed.

“Where did they come from?”

“Same as the others, I think.”

These looked to be taller than the boar-ish ones, and did not produce the white flashes from tusks. We decided they were different, but would leave the investigative work to Donna.

The girls returned, and Donna quickly left to look at our new visitors. Crystal sat with her back against the center stone looking perplexed.

“So are they ghosts?” I just wanted to know what I would be fighting when the time came, and I knew it would come.

“I don’t know for sure, they are undead but … I am just not sure what kind.”

“Not solid though are they?”

She turned her head toward Philip. “No, they are not.”

Crystal obviously wanted to be alone with her thoughts. We left her alone and watched for Donna’s return. She was asleep when Donna did return.

“These look like the bear creature that Julie and the others told us about from the island.”

“How many do you think?”

“About the same as the boars. Why?”

“Nothing special, just keeping track of how many things we will have to fight to get out of here.”

“I think Crystal has it under control.”

I was glad Donna went to sleep after that. This new group made me nervous. That thing on the island had dropped Gretta with one swing, and she is better with her sword than I am, there are a lot more than one of them. Did we trap ourselves on this hill, or building, or whatever it is? I am tired, maybe a bit of sleep will help. “Hey Philip”

“What Theo.”

“If you let me sleep the first half of the night, I’ll let you sleep the second half.”

“Agreed. It is going to be quiet anyway, except for that chant of theirs. Wonder what it means.”

“Ask Jen, she can translate remember.”

“I remember ,but I get nervous talking to her.”

“I’ll ask, come with me.”

“Thank you.”

I took my nap and let Philip get his. He was right, nothing except the chaaar-da chant all night.

Jen was brewing klaa when I motioned for Philip to follow me over.

“Jen, do you know what that chant means?”

“Sure do, why?

“Just curious after listening to it all night.”

“Let me change, is the way I understand it.”

“Change?”

“I think they are spirits of changelings. This area must have been some kind of focal point for their town, that is the only reason I can think of for them to gather here.”

“That makes sense. I was thinking last night that a door is most likely to be near the steps, right?”

“So you want to do the steps, and then just go down both sides without digging out the whole landing?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll talk to Donna and see if I can get her to agree. It would save a lot of work.”

“Yes, and Sara and I could do with less shoveling, especially if we have to fight our way out.”

“Good point. You know Crystal will not leave until we do something about them. She would stay behind if she had to.”

“Jaffar told us not to leave people alone, if we do, the masters would have our uniforms, if not our heads.” Philip had finally found the courage to speak.

“We will not leave her, don’t worry.” Jen smiled a bit.

It might have been the light from the flames, but, I think Philip blushed. Now I knew why she made him nervous.,

Jen was true to her word and we cleared about a hundred feet of each stair without going to the sides. She told us the sides could wait till tomorrow.

Philip was skinning a boar when we got up top. I have seen him miss, just not often.

Crystal was worried about the boar insulting the boar-ish spirit dancers. I don’t know much about such things, but her argument made sense.

We were all hungry so we ate it anyway, even Crystal.

That night the south side of the hill gained its own dancers. We were now surrounded on three sides!

Donna did her normal recon. “These are half human-half rat, like the ones in town were. They are not trampling the grass either.”

“Oh no, more spirits.” Crystal sounded concerned. I hope it was not because they were semisolid and hostile.

“Can you deal with all of them?” It was Donna’s turn to get worried.

“I don’t know. If we can find out why they are here, maybe I can. If not then … well, I just don’t know.”

“Then we will find a way inside to get the information.” Now Donna sounded certain. How did she do that? Go from nervous to sure in a few breaths.

“We will not leave you, anything you need, just let us know.” Jen tried to reassure her, though Crystal didn’t seem any more sure of the situation than she had been.

“Thank you.” The priestess’ head was hanging but we would stay.

The chant seemed much louder with three groups involved, even the horses were getting skittish. Then, I began to wonder; how would we get the horses out of here? With the wall of dirt we had created, there was no sure or easy way. I decided to talk to Jen about it in the morning. Maybe I could involve Philip again, since the horses needed a good run to work off their nervous energy.

When morning came, Philip helped with the digging and clearing to get the horses out. We had enough meat left from the boar so he didn’t need to hunt today.

Sara was helping Donna look for an entrance, as Jen strode back and forth between both places. Philip and I were on the west side where no ghostly dancers had appeared. Our theory was, that it would spook the horses less. Jen smiled at that, she knew our real reason: we just wanted to be able to get out without having to fight our way through a horde of creatures.

Crystal was going from step to step, and then from one set to another, looking at the carvings on the low wall that was on either side of the stairs.

We were eating what remained of the boar that night, when Jen asked Crystal about her satisfied look. “Did you learn anything today?”

“I think I understand why they are where they are, and who will be next.” With a grin larger than her face, and a glance at Philip, she proclaimed her triumph. “I do still need to figure out why they have not gone to Malphas though.”

“All right, so why are they where they are?” Donna wanted the information from the obvious omission.

“I want to know what is next.” Philip’s tone was flat, this usually only happened when he got nervous.

“Well first, the boar men are on the north side and all the carvings over there are of boars. It is the same with the bears to the east, and the rats to the south. The parts that you uncovered even show the dance they do.” Turning toward Philip she continued, “The next group will come from the wetlands over to the west. They will be the crocodile men that you carved.”

“When?”

“Relax Theo, I think they will be spirits just like the others. But to answer you, I think tonight. They all came one night after the other, so it makes sense.”

They sat on the edge of the structure to watch the new group arrive. All except Sara who motioned me toward the rope. We went down and to the top of the steps on the opposite side.

“Theo we need a plan.”

“For what?”

“The fight.”

“Crystal said …”

“Do you think we are getting out of here, after being surrounded, without a fight?”

“During the day we could.”

“If we survive the night.”

I looked at the wide steps and the landing that we stood on. It would take eight to defend it, and this was just one side. “I see what you mean.”

Sara told me her idea. “If we stay up on the platform, you and I can each take one side. We put Donna and Philip each on a side, with Crystal running around for healing and whatever else she can do. Jen will support with her magic.” She looked at me, and when I didn’t respond, the frustrated sounding question came. “So! What do you think?”

“Well I have questions.”

“What?”

“First, do you realize that we would be sacrificing the horses? Second, if they are spirits, will our swords stop them?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t think of that.” Pulling her sword she looked down at the gathering bears. “I had never thought that I would not be able to trust my sword.” When she turned back to me she looked nothing short of worried. The idea disturbed her more than I had thought it would. “Gormi said nothing of creatures that could not be hurt by our weapons.”

“Perhaps we should talk this over with Crystal. Jaffar would have taught her how to defeat them.” It was the best suggestion I could come up with to restore her confidence.

We watched, in silence, as the bear people began their dance, and chanting I noticed her glancing at her sword several times. All I could do was hope that her trust in the blade would return. It felt good to fight beside her, and she is better with a sword than I am. In the midst of my reverie, I heard her.

“Theo.”

“Yes.”

“You’re right. Her eyes brightened even in the dim light from our fire. “There is no reason not to trust my sword. Let’s go ask Crystal what she thinks.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Good.”

When we had made it back to the others, Donna and Philip had laid down, while Jen and Crystal were deeply engaged in discussion about why the new guests had failed to show up as expected.

Laying a hand on Sara’s shoulder I gave my next suggestion. “We should wait till morning when she is not so distracted with trying to figure this out.”

“Yes, I think you are right. Thank you, Theo.”

“For what?”

“Giving me my faith back.” She patted her sword.

“That is what friends do.” My smile was surely noticeable, because she returned it. I watched as she went to lay down. Once she had, it was my turn and I quickly discovered that my thoughts were not of fighting or safety, but of her. Maybe she would like to get away from the ranch for a meal when we got back, Soldier’s Pub would be good. I thought about that until I fell asleep.

We spoke to Crystal in the morning while we were digging a new place for Jen.

“Oh yes, it will have some effect but not nearly as much as something without an edge.”

It was Sara who asked, “Why?”

“A sword will disturb less of the material that makes them. It slices through instead of pushing through. That is what makes it good for living enemies, but not as good for those who are already dead.”

“So if we turn the sword sideways it would be better?”

“I think so. Can you do that?”

Sara grinned, I could hear it in her voice as I tossed another shovel of the loose dirt. “Yes, we use it to knock someone out so that we can talk to them later.”

“Good, then I would do that if we have to. It is good to know that there will be effective help, however, I don’t think we will need it once we find the way in.”

Crystal went back to studying the engravings on the outside of the walls while we kept digging.

Jen helped as needed, so by the time Philip had returned with a small doe, the trench beside each set of steps was finished. These went from the top, down to where they had been cleared on both sides of the steps. It was just a guess, but I figured that there were two more step-like layers that we had not dug down to, or cleared the steps for.

Sara thought we were not going to the bottom to keep the creatures from using the steps. I did not tell her that I didn’t think a spirit needed steps, and besides we had gotten to the top without them.

After eating, Donna, the daughter of a leatherer, was cleaning and preparing the hide for tanning, as she did with all the hides Philip brought back. The raw meat and fat that stuck to the hide was scraped off and tossed into the fire, then it was stretched tight over it to dry as much as possible. This night the rabbit hides were to one side vertically, the boar hide to the other, while the doe was made taut above.

Jen was sitting, leaning back against a tall torch with a far off look in her eyes. She was talking as if responding to a voice none of us could hear. Either it was magic, or she had gone soft from all the sun. Philip was carving a new arrow, while Crystal watched the east ,waiting for the expected spirits.

Sara and I watched the original boar spirits while sitting on the top step, discussing our plan for defense and escape, should it become necessary. We were talking over the usefulness of the parapet wall on either side of the steps, when Crystal yelled.

“They are here! I knew it, they came.”

We went to look. Donna was on her way down for a closer look with Jen, while Crystal watched them begin the dance we were all familiar with.

Philip looked down from his perch on the raised campsite. “They look different.”

“Of course, they are not the same sort of creature.”

“No Crystal, I mean not only them but the others as well. I think I should go down to Donna.”

I had to ask, “What do you mean by different?”

“The only way I can describe it is, um … thicker.”

“Thicker?” Sara seldom spoke during these conversations, so when she did, we listened.

“Yes, thicker. More whole maybe?” Philip’s eyes went to Crystal as he climbed down.

“Are you saying they are becoming solid?”

“I am going down to look.”

As the archer followed the path Donna had taken, I turned to Crystal. “Is it possible for a spirit to become solid?”

“Not that Jaffar has said, but we have not gone into some of the more powerful undead or happenings yet.”

“If they are solid, will they still leave in the morning?”

“I don’t know.” The priestess locked eyes with Sara.

“So you may have just trapped us up here in the middle of an army of whatever they are.”

“I … I … I just don’t know. I hope not.”

Sara drew her sword, I followed her lead. We left Crystal on the platform and went to the stairs below near where Donna and Philip had gone. All we could do is wait for a yell, or someone returning. Neither of us could follow their trail reliably.

The moon had risen when we first saw the three of them moving our way. Donna with sword in hand, Philip with arrow notched and ready. Both were nervously glancing back over their shoulders, as Jen stepped a bit faster when she saw us waiting.

The wizardess went straight to the priestess. Philip and Donna stopped by us and faced the new dancers.

“They are crocodiles.” Donna was a little short of breath. I guessed they had done some running.

Philip took over for her. “Yes, and now they are disturbing the plants, but not leaving impressions on the ground.” With a glance at Donna he continued. “All the others are, too. I ran around to look. Boars, rats and bears are all moving the grass, no tracks though. The grass is not permanently creased either, it just moves a bit as they go through it. I am not totally sure, but I think they are becoming solid.”

Sara and I traded looks of concern.

Philip noticed and just said “Yes.”

“Jen said she knows how to talk to Bollofaro.” We all turned to her. “She wants Crystal there so that maybe Jaffar and she can trade information.”

“What about us?”

“She thinks any of the masters could pass instructions through Bollofaro, but she is not sure.”

Sara gave the order provoking a questioning look at her back. “Lets go.” As she moved to join the wizardess.

* * *

Debbi was on her way out when the cowled instructor called to her. “Hold on!”

Looking back, he seemed to be staring at her. She turned and waited.

“ I’m sorry, please go get Jaffar and as many others that you can find, using your team if necessary, and tell them I need them now.”

“Yes sir.” She nearly ran from the room.

“Now Jennifer, tell me about these spirits.” Pushing his cowl back to reveal the bald head and face so Jaffar could recognize what was happening.

“They sound like trapped souls; easy enough to destroy with magic, weapons will be less effective, if at all.”

Debbi returned with Spencer and Jaffar. “Sir the others are …”

With a hand on her shoulder, Jaffar stopped her.” He is listening to someone right now. Might not even know we are here. Wait for him to finish. I would allow you to stay, but it will be his decision. Understand?”

“Yes, Eminence.”

Bollofaro’s voice sounded hollow.” The idea of them becoming solid disturbs me. Others have arrived. Let me tell them what you have said, and I will relay messages as needed until you are tired.” After a short pause, “Who is here?”

“I am, with both of our apprentices.”

“Sir, the others have been sent for, I used the the team so it would be faster.”

“Good. Thank you Debbi. We will be speaking to Jennifer and Crystal from Donna’s team.”

Jaffar blurted it. “Lycanthropes.”

“It would seem they are some variety of trapped souls of that type.” He continued with the story provided by Jen.

Jaffar commented when he finished. “I agree, they are most likely trapped or tortured souls. There is a way of bringing them back, but, it would require burning flesh or an active altar. That is the only way I know of to give them substance.”

“Jennifer have you found an altar in the area?” Bollofaro shook his head in the negative.

Shooter and Gormi came in with two more apprentices, Anita and Nicholas. While Jaffar asked a question. “Is there a building in the area that might be a temple or have an altar?”

Bollofaro repeated this for Jen. “She says that the buildings are buried, they have only found the one they are camped on top of.”

Gormi grunted his question. “Is it the huge one with the steps going to the top?”

“Yes.”

“That is the temple if I understood my father’s description correctly. He said the building was one huge alter with a sacrifice area near the top.”

“Jennifer have you burnt any flesh on the stone you told me about?” He repeated her reply. “Donna threw remnants from hides into the fire and Philip did the same with shavings from his carving.”

“Stop that now!” Jaffar was both worried and excited going by the sound of his voice.

Gormi’s grip on his ax tightened, while Shooter just commented. “That boy can carve.”

Cori came bouncing in with Tamma, they were followed by Aadam, who was alone.

At Jaffar’s questioning look ,the boy answered the unspoken question. “I cannot find the Lady Tromocillis anywhere.” The mysterious elf had once again vanished.

All were now here, save the elf. Bollofaro began to probe deeper into the problem. “How solid are they?” Jaffar paced as the answer was repeated. “Do you think assistance is necessary?”

That had everyone still and listening.

“Jennifer, I am going to use two more spells. You may feel a tingling or something similar. Remember the feeling so you will know when someone is spying on you. Will it disturb your concentration on this?” A moments pause and a grin appeared. “Good, you are doing very well. When I do this, everyone will be able to see you and a small area around you. After that, I will choose another of your group, so that I will be able to see through their eyes. Who do you think would be best?”

Debbi ran from the room dragging Tamma with her.

“Excellent, then Donna shall be the recipient.”

Gormi and Shooter sent their three students on an errand. The only apprentice remaining was John, and he stayed close to Jaffar.

There was a long pause during which Jaffar assumed that Jennifer was explaining to Donna what was about to happen.

Debbi rushed into the room with Tamma, going directly to the table beside Bollofaro’s chair. Tamma place a large silver bowl on it, while Debbi laid a vial of dark liquid, and a leather pouch that made a clicking sound, instantly drawing Cori’s attention. Tamma held a pitcher, while the table was drug in front of the Magus. Jaffar did not complain about the scuffs it made in the floor. After sliding the bowl near her master, Debbi instructed her friend to fill it from the pitcher. Once filled, she poured the contents of the vial into it, making the water tar black in color. Taking her instructors wrists, she moved them to either side of the bowl.

Standing upright, she issued instructions to everyone else in the room. “Those of you who would see into the area, gather close so you can see the surface of the liquid.”

“Thank you Debbi, I can see you have been paying attention.”

The pleasure of his praise could be heard in her reply. “Yes, Magus. The pouch is here as well, I did not know the recipient, so I brought the whole collection. Which do you need?”

“It will be Donna, so I should think the opal would be best.”

“I will have it ready for you.”

Jaffar, for some reason, looked pleased.

Essira came into the room with a tray of crispy roots and cheese. Talmae and Suzanne followed with two trays of cups, having enough for the entire group. Finally, Sylvia carried a tray with four pitchers of wine, and served the impromptu assembly.

When the Magus completed his mumblings the liquid misted over, and as it cleared, the scene carried the depth and life of looking down from a roof top, onto Jennifer, leaning against a torch pole. Donna and Crystal stood between her and the center stone. The two warriors were one to each side with swords drawn, and the archer near Sara was watchful. Upon the center stone could be seen the stretched hides with smoke billowing from inside them.

Jaffar instantly issued an order. “Remove those hides from the fire.”

Bollofaro relayed the command and both Donna and the priestess moved to obey.

Debbi idly commented on the scene. “It seems strange to see them move and not hear them.”

“You will get used to it in time.” Her mentor then further informed her. “When they are done, we will do the other casting.”

“Yes sir, I will place the opal in your hand when you are ready.”

She performed as promised, and just as the opal crumbled to dust, the others students returned, armed and armored. They brought with them similar equipment for their friends.

Bollofaro’s voice broke into the clatter of the armor. “Have her look at each of the creatures.”

We could see Donna move slowly toward the edge to Jennifer’s left. Crystal guided her by holding her arm. They moved out of sight to the right, and eventually back in, as they completed the circuit.

“Jennifer we can end this now, and I will contact you with what we figure out. I do not want you to become tired, if there is a problem.” He sat forward, his eyes cleared and the voice returned to normal. With a blinking glance around the room he asked. “Thoughts?”

“If they become solid, that group is in trouble. We fought for two days to rid that city of everything living, and they do not number the five thousand that we did.” Gormi finally released his grip on the ax.

“I agree.” Shooter added through a mouth full of cheese. When he swallowed, he added, “Gormi and myself would like to send this group to reinforce them.”

“It took them days to reach that area, so neither this anxious band, nor us, could get there in time to be of any use.” Cori was not thinking like a wizard.

Bollofaro smiled. “Do you remember the last time you said that?”

Jaffar laughed, as Cori groaned.

“There is an area, I saw it through Donna. They can be sent.”

Tamma squeaked, “Sent?”

“Magic.”Cori made it clear that he did not like the idea.

“You mean the way you disappeared before?”

“Yes Tamma, like that. This time you would go with your friends though.” Bollofaro tried to ease her fears.

Debbi helped. “Tamma, I will go along, so will the rest of us. Remember, they came back and were alright, we will be too.”

“Ok.” Not enthusiastic, but at least agreeable.

“So, do we send them?” Bollofaro looked to each mentor in turn getting a nod of agreement, that is, until he got to Jaffar.

“In the morning, if the creatures do not disappear.”

Everyone agreed.

Debbi voiced her enthusiasm. “We will be at the morning meal, ready to leave.”

* * *

Nervous anxiety kept most of us awake well into the night. The only exception was Sara, who slept with the hilt of her sword in hand as it laid on top of her, shield propped beside with the straps out, so it would be easy to grab. I think the idea of a coming fight relaxed her.

I woke early. The glow of the sun was just edging over the trees, giving the horizon an eerie green tint just below the orange. The dancing continued around us. I told Donna to take a nap, I would stay up. She agreed.

Taking my shield along, I went down to feed the horses, figuring we might need them in a hurry.

Sara came down as I was finishing. “The others are up too, should we saddle them?”

“After they eat. Are we leaving?”

“I’m not sure ,but if we do, going through them might be work.”

“Yes, I thought they would go away as the sun came up. They didn’t”

“I see that.” She smiled at me. “Ready for the war?”

“As ready as Gormi made us.”I couldn’t help but to smile. “Shall we go see what Donna has decided?”

“I think Jen is making the decision. She was getting ready for a talk with the Magus again.”

“So he is telling her, and we are following instructions of someone who is not here?”

“He saw through Donna remember? He could be looking now for all we know.” She was looking down at the dancing boars. The smile faded and her brow began to crease. “I sometimes wonder if these things would have happened if they had not come to Portsend.”

“If they did, would we have been ready for them?”

The answer to both questions came from above.

“Yes.” Jen’s voice.

“No.” Crystal’s answer.

Both of them sounded certain. Sara and I looked up. It was she who asked, “How can you be so sure?”

Jen answered with a question. “Were you there the day their boat came?”

“No.” Sara spoke, I just nodded my yes.

Crystal took over the explanation. “They were traveling at the whim of Malphas, that means he sent them to defeat his enemies. Those enemies were here, we just did not know about them. The reason I came to the ranch and agreed to train with him, was because he spoke with such passion about the god, not about things that were of only human concern.” I again nodded my agreement.

“So are we just game pieces for gods?”

“No! We are tools that they use, sometimes unwillingly, but we are in the process of choosing to be his tools. We began that when we agreed to train with, and serve those, who had already become his servants.” It seemed Crystal too had some passion for the god.

“Gormi did not choose to be a tool of Malphas. He is a master of combat, not of death.” I think Sara argues well, and she is pretty when angry.

“Combat and war are tools of death. He serves it in his earnest for the fight, as well as his alliance with the masters of the ranch.”

I looked to Sara for a response. It appeared that she either agreed with Crystal’s logic, or was saving her anger for the things down below.

We were about to turn the corner for the climb up, when the sound of horses on stone sounded, they were close and coming from the wrong direction. Ours were behind us, these were in the area we were headed toward. Our reactions were both instant, and identical, with swords in hand, we turned.

A mounted person appeared. “Look out! Don’t go that way, more are coming.” The voice was female and familiar, though I did not remember the name she wore a uniform like ours. “Where can we keep our horses?”

“Anywhere along here. Ours are on the next two sides.”

“Thank you. Where is Jennifer?”

“Up top …”

“I’m up here Debbi, so is Donna.”

“The girl turned in the saddle to see Jen. “I will be right up.”

She was right, the area was crowded. With the chanting, and more than a dozen horses clomping about on the stone, not to mention the chatter from the new people about the things all around us, it was hard to hear anything.

Philip phrased it differently. “Those things could march up and start killing horses before we knew they were coming.”

The girl beside him just started talking. “Shooter had me bring an extra dozen full quivers. We should be able to hold them for a while.”

Sara corrected her. “I was not aware we were going to wait for them to attack. Not only that, but with just the two of you on one side, Jen and your wizard on another, and a sword at the top of each stair, it leaves the two healers running around trying to keep us alive, and only Donna and her partner from your team to help wherever they can.”

“I’m sorry, who are you?”

“I am Sara, this is Theo. Perhaps you should count the things down there, because unless you have five score in each quiver and never miss, you will run out of arrows before you run out of enemies.”

Nicholas and Aadam came over interrupting Sara’s description of our situation. “Theo! Glad to see you and Sara in one piece.”

“Aadam good to see the two of you, as well. We haven’t had to fight yet.” I gave the new girl a quick look. “Until now I did not think we were going to, if we are, I am glad to have you and Nick here.”

“I thought we came to help you get out of here. If they are not fighting, then this should be easy.”

Sara had calmed a bit and joined the new conversation. “We are not sure if they will fight yet, this is the first time they have stayed past sunrise.” She stared at the new girl.

“I guess we have to wait and see what Debbi and … um …”

“Donna.” I refreshed his memory.

“Yes Donna. What they decide we will do, until then, we just fight or wait for a fight.”

“Maybe you missed it, but here we dig too.” It seemed that Sara had a sense of humor to match her rosy cheeks when irked.

“Dig?”

I placed my hand on Sara’s forearm hoping they would not notice. “Yes, we dug out the portions of this building from the dirt line,” I pointed at the line on the raised platform, “down to where you see the dirt palisade.” I gave them a sweeping motion with my arm to show them the magnitude of the work.

“You mean you dug all that! That is a lot of dirt.”

I decided to let him wonder for a bit, so I pointed to the shovels. “With those.” Sara grinned and hit me in the ribs with her elbow.

Philip came to the edge calling down to us. “We are having a meeting on the rope side steps.”

“Rope side?” Aadam had a bewildered stare and Nick just sort of peeked around the corner.

“Do you see the holes near the top of the wall?”

“Yes, what do they have to do with a rope?”

“Sara double knotted the rope so it would fit tight in a hole. I wedged stones in around it so that it would keep from pulling loose. There are knots along the length of it too, big ones, thanks to Sara. We use it to climb up.”

Nick chuckled, “How do you keep the horses from chewing on it?”

We hurried to see a horse gnawing on one of Sara’s knots. After tossing the rope up onto the landing above, we continued to the meeting.

Both groups were gathered on the steps, like at one of the amphitheaters my grandfather told me about from the old country. We were sitting in small groups according to our training. It seemed as if we all drew comfort from being with those of a like mind. The exception were the three standing on the lower step facing up at us. Donna, the girl I now knew as Debbi, and Crystal were all there with Jen, and a guy from the other group was off to the side by the short parapet wall on the step above.

Donna and Crystal told the story of what had happened up till now. Crystal put emphasis on Philips carving, and the ultimate arrival of the crocodile people.

Debbi took over at this point and Crystal sort of sat on the wall. “We are here to help. What Donna and I would like to hear from you is your thoughts on what kind of help it should be. Are we packing up and getting away, or do we stay until we have to leave or fight this entire army?”

“Digging.” I thought Jen chuckled a bit at Sara’s suggestion.

Nick asked what Sara and I had started to get into the other day. “Can we kill these things before they get solid?”

Crystal answered from her seat on the wall. “Yes, but if we start a fight with one, neither the Magus, or his Eminence is sure that the others will not join in. That would leave us outnumbered about four or five score to one.”

Debbi responded quickly. “We came to help get them out IF there is a problem, not to create the problem, or make it worse.”

Aadam nodded and sighed.

Donna took charge. “The Magus relayed what Sir Gormi said about this building being a giant alter, he was not sure if there was a way in, though Jaffar seems to think there is. It would be for storage of their sacrifices, and possibly their tools. We have talked a bit, and I am in favor of finding that door.” She glanced at everyone meeting their eyes as she spoke. “Any ideas?”

Anita, the archer with Debbi’s group, spoke up. “Are there any other options? And what good is finding their storage going to do?”

“Good question. The other options are to go back, or start to find out what is in the other buildings. The explanation for the storage I’ll leave to Crystal or Spencer.”

Spencer stood and faced everyone. “If their tools are inside, we would learn a lot about how this place was used, and have useful information about their religion, when we have to fight their kind in the future. More importantly, we could deconsecrate them, and perhaps the building as well, if it truly is a gigantic alter. Crystal, anything to add?”

“Yes. Deconsecrating their tools and then the alter as a whole, might release these spirits. It is, or at least I think it is, safer than trying to fight all of them.”

“We have most of the day left, shall we dig?”

It seemed both leaders agreed. I groaned as I stood.

The four of us went to get the two shovels. “Hey Sara.”

“What Theo.”

“Why did we bring shovels if nobody knew what was here?”

“Ummm … I don’t know. It was Jen who put them on the pack horse. Ask her.”

“Ask me what?” Jen had come up behind us.

“Oh ah … sorry I did not know you had come over.”

“It is all right, Sara. Theo, what did you want to know?”

I repeated my question. Jen explained that our teacher for reading and writing, Ingratiid, had been an architect. “It was he who suggested it, with some kind of explanation about leaves piling up and having to move them to open doors or get into places.”

“Oh, thank you.”

“I’m glad it was an easy question.” She smiled. “Now, it has been suggested by Cori that the door is hidden by the carvings on the stone, or so Tamma has told us. That means we are going down the sides of the steps today without uncovering the steps unless we have to. Do you four want to work as two teams one on either side, or have each team do two sets of steps?”

“Both sides sounds faster.” we all nodded our agreement with Nick, he and Aadam took one side while Sara and I took the other.

Philip and Anita passed us on their way to hunt. “Glad I took up the bow.” He jested on his way past.

I threw a shovel full of dirt at him. It missed and he laughed.

A while later I yelled “Ready.”

Aadam looked across. “Ready for what?”

I grinned. “This is the part where someone else does all the work.”

“What?”

Jen and Debbi stood just above us on the landing. “Good enough Jen?”

“You know it is, just get out of the hole.”

As I climbed out with a hand up from Sara, Debbi glanced across to see what Aadam and Nick had done.

“Come out you two and go look at theirs, and I will try to make this work.” She glanced at me and Sara. We knew, that Debbi knew, we had not told them how to do it.

Both of the wizardess’ seemed to compete, not in the speed of their casting, but rather in the quality of the results. Before they walked away, Debbi asked if they knew what she needed for next time.

At the end of the day, we had cleared the outside of all four sets of steps down three tiers. Anita and Philip were cleaning their prizes, or our dinner, depending on how you looked at it.

Crystal and Spencer had a fire going on a step two tiers below the horses. They would be roasting the birds.

We had left both Debbi and Jen by the north set of steps so they could read the walls. Jen still believed that the pictures were writing and was going to show Debbi.

Donna and Tamma were nowhere to be found, or at least seen. There was a semi-rhythmic tapping on the stone from the south side, we believed it to be them.

Philip nodded his agreement when Sara mentioned it, so they must be safe.

That night the chant was louder than before. I rose to see why. Both of the wizardess’ and the priests were already up. The only people still asleep, that I saw, were Sara, Aadam, Nicholas and Anita. So when I was close enough, I guessed. “Donna and Tamma went down with Philip.”

Jen jumped. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I’m sorry, but with all that noise I am surprised you heard me speak.”

“It is loud tonight. Yes, they all went down. Philip would not let them go alone.”

“Smart man.” I gave a nod towards the dancing crocodiles. “They look thicker too.”

“That is what Philip said.”

It seemed like hours had passed when Sara joined us, and hours more until the three of them came back. Even before we could ask how things had gone, Donna turned on Philip.

“Are you going soft! Why did you shoot it?”

“It heard her, turned toward her and I thought it was going to attack. So I shot it.”

“What happened?” Crystal jumped in.

“He shot …”

“I know that.” She waved Donna off facing Philip. “I mean when you shot it, what happened?”

“The arrow went straight through. It turned and looked at me, and I could swear the thing grinned.”

“I was close. I think the arrow slowed down when it went through him.”

Indeed, if what Philip just said was right, then Tamma was the closest one to it.

“What do you mean it slowed down?” Crystal turned on Tamma.

“I mean … well just for an instant I didn’t think it would go all the way through.” She was looking to Philip for an explanation. “I don’t know if it means anything, but until it came out, I didn’t see it.”

“Tamma.” Crystal waited for the girl to face her. “I need you to be clear. Are you telling us that these things are so solid that you can’t see through them anymore?”

“Yes.” Donna and Philip nodded their agreement.

Jen grabbed Debbi and pulled her toward the horses, probably to talk about things I wouldn’t understand anyway.

Crystal was in a hushed conversation with Spencer.

It was Tamma who voiced what we had all noticed and wondered. “Why are they nervous about this? They expected it, right? Are we in trouble?”

“We will know all those answers soon. Right now it is best for you to try and relax.”

I just watched as Debbi’s expression changed to one of concerned resolve, and Spencer looked more like he was ready to run. Sara must have noticed it too, she called while down with the horses. “Theo, here take these!” She passed up shields for Nicholas, Aadam and me.

It was good to know she expected it. Now everyone did. If the creatures worked together, this was going to hurt us. I had hoped that we could divide this into four individual combats, but somehow I knew it was impossible. I could only hope, right?

Spencer watched Crystal head for the rope as I followed her. Sara saw us heading for the two wizardess’ and joined us there.

Sara and I looked like body guards when the conversation began. One of us was on either side of the trio with shields ready, hands on our weapons, while we watched the enemy dance.

“Jen we have an idea.”

“Is it going to get us out of here.”

“I think so.”

“Then lets hear it.”

“We bring them back to their solid form. Crocodiles feed on creatures near the water, like rats and boars. They just might fight each other.”

“You left out the bears and what happens if you are wrong.” Debbi was not convinced.

“The bears we may have to fight if they do not leave on their own. If I am wrong, maybe they will all leave.”

“Do you really believe they will just wonder away?” It seemed Debbi knew sarcasm.

“Well … no… not wander away, but go about whatever task that kept them here.”

Jen interrupted. “I think there is something that you are not mentioning.”

“Yes there is. They could also all attack us.”

She had my attention now.

“What makes you think they would just go off and do something else?” Jen kept at the priestess.

“The task they left unfinished is important enough to them, that they chose to remain here all these years as specters until something changed. We began that change. When it is complete, I think they will follow the drive that caused them to evade death.”

“What did Donna say?”

“I haven’t told her yet. I wanted to see what you two thought first.”

What she didn’t say was that if both wizardess’ supported her idea, then Donna was more likely to agree. I glanced over at Sara. She just shook her head. We both expected bloodshed.

Debbi gave her a chance to back away from this plan. “Go ask Donna to bring everyone together for a meeting like we had last night. It is the best way for you to bring the idea up to everyone.”

Crystal went back, we stayed with Jen.

Once the others were awake, it was near dawn anyway, they all gathered on the steps near us. Debbi, with a quick glance in Crystal’s direction to be sure she wanted to continue, got things started. “I know some of you are just getting up. There is an idea on how we should proceed. You all need to hear it before Donna and I decide our course of action. Crystal will explain.”

Crystal stepped up and went through the details of the new plan

Tamma raised the first question. “Didn’t his Eminence say not to do that?”

It was Jen who answered. “Yes he did, but, we are here, and he is not. We should decide how it is best to continue.”

“Are you saying that the Masters teachings are not to be followed?” Spencer evidently did not agree with Crystal.

“No she is not.” Debbi added her voice to the discussion. “What we are saying is: they taught us and gave us advice. We are the ones who need to decide how to use it.”

The conversation was heated at points, but in the end, their course of action was agreed upon.

Horses were being saddled and it seemed they were anxious for the exercise. We were not expecting it to be a quiet peaceful ride.

Philip and Anita went first to get a good scout of our route out. We would not move until they returned, or called for help.

Thankfully, they both came back looking pleased with themselves. “We found a good path.”

Since there were two pack horses, Donna and Tamma each took one. Philip suggested that those who were trained swords have a hand free and their shield in the other. This did not sound like a “good” path to me.

The last of that deer was kicked over into the fire, with most of us chewing on a generous piece while we mounted. The order for riding was quickly determined. Sara and I would be at the front behind Philip, followed by Donna and her pack horse, and Crystal with Jennifer. Then would be Debbi’s team in a somewhat reversed order; John and Debbi, followed by Tamma with the other pack horse, then Aadam and Nick and Anita at the end. In my opinion, this was a long line where something could go wrong anywhere along it. Sara and I hoped for the best.

Philip started in the lead. We stayed as close as we could. They chose a path going between the crocodiles and the boars. It would get us to the edge of the wetlands, then to the beach where the two archers thought we might be safe.

We wound our way around trees and thick brush, sometimes getting closer to these creatures than I was comfortable with. They saw us. A couple of times they even turned to watch us pass. Not once did either type of creature move toward us. Several of the crocodiles looked like they were smiling.

Both Sara and I were relieved when the beach came into view. I stopped and waited for the others at the edge of the tree line. Sara went on with Philip partway down the beach.

* * *

Twelve humans walked up the steps heading for the platform, three from each side. Each group had one thing in common, a silver circlet about the head of one member, a copper circlet and bone circlet graced their heads. The person with the silver upon their head was always in the center, the copper to their right and the bone on the left.

When they reached the apex, the member of each party with the bone circlet, raised the trio up so they could step forward onto the center area where the indented stone still had sticks protruding from its holes.

“We have been given the chance for our long awaited revenge.” The man wearing silver spoke. He and his companions had come up from the side where the bears had danced.

“When do we leave?” The woman on the boars side asked.

“We should all hunt first. I know that I hunger, and am sure that each of you do as well.” Nods of agreement came from all sides of the stone.

The man who had ascended the side from which the rats had gathered added his opinion. “There are others who would join us I am sure. We should look for them.”

Again there was agreement from each party. The man who was as big as a bear gave up an idea. “We fatten ourselves, then look for others. In one cycle of the moon we go. The short bearded ones will pay for what they did to us.”

“Prepare yourselves and your clans. We will leave when all of us are ready.”

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Posted on December 15, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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