Tavis sat out on the steps of the apartment watching the younger children tossing bits of wood and glass into a Tenkers circle, remembering when he first learned to play.
"Oje! Oje, Du!"
The boy snapped his head around to see who was shouting.
"Gho du bissen?"
Tavis smiled as he saw the familiar form of Kenja striding down the street toward him.
"Oh…" Tavis replied dumbly, somewhat taken aback. Then, stumbling over words, replied with "Gi…um, esterden mit…ah, Tau Wiljes."
"Yeah?" Kenja replied, seamlessly switching to Roke. "What have you been studying?"
"Oh, a lot of things. I've been learning about history… I've learned some math… I've learned how to read and write…"
"Really? Write something for me."
"Okay." Tavis picked up a stick and made some etchings in the dirt. Kenja studied it intently.
"What's it say?"
"That's your name. That bigger letter there is Khiel. That's the sound your name begins with."
"That's not Delian, is it." She made it into a statement.
"No… I've just been studying Roke."
"I can tell," Kenja replied with a smirk. "You didn't know who was talking to you when I called you from down the street."
Tavis clutched his hands together and shuffled his feet a bit. "I guess it's been a little while since I talked with you."
Giggling deliciously, Kenja replied: "Tells a story all its own."
"It's a saying. I heard my dad use it the other night when an old friend of his came over. They were playing Archimidis and dad said he hadn't seen anybody play like that in years. Then his friend said: 'It tells a story all its own'."
"Huh," Tavis said again.
Kenja looked at the boy a moment more and then poked him. "Hey, you want to go down by the pits. I hear it's pretty exiting."
A smile quickly spread across Tavis' face. "Yeah, all right. Let's go."
Hands clasped, thick huffs of breath pushing out between clenched teeth, Tavis and Gin raced down the knoll to their friends below. The sound of melee had them cringing and shivering before they had fully entered the action. Zeyn and Brogan were standing side by side -that in and of itself took Tavis aback, to see that pair fighting together- and they were protecting Rhoden, who was sitting on his little patch of carpet again in the same position Tavis had seen him earlier, eyes closed and brow furrowed. Stars… Tavis thought, What is he doing just sitting there? But he and Gin kept running down the knoll, hands locked for support. Half a dozen men were visible, some in open combat, others storming through the trees and scrub.
Brogan had managed to disarm one of his attackers and was now using the erstwhile assailant's weapon to chop away at his cohorts. It came at a price though, both he and Gin could see the long scar the BeHemoth had taken along his chest and shoulder. Pitch-like fluid leaked out of that scar and began congealing in clumps.
While Brogan handled the brawny points of battle, Zeyn was discharging fluorescent, leering orbs of light from his shadowy "head" into the attackers that came from his side. The globes were larger, fiercer, and more deadly, Tavis noted, than the one he had shot at the Elven police woman back at the inn so many nights ago.
As Tavis neared, he saw an Orc wearing thick, rune-enscribed armor heading towards the Yyyzyzyrn. Zeyn pounded the Troglodyte with thumping, buzzing orbs of energy, but they seemed to impact with little effect on the armor. The Orc held a steely pair of short swords in each hand and was nearly on top of Zeyn.
"Go, Gin." Tavis said in an even-measured voice that even he was surprised he could muster. He let go her hand and charged for the armor-clad Orc.
Not in time to prevent damage to the wraith, however. The Orc was on top of Zeyn now and taking swipes. Some of the strikes seemed to pass harmlessly through the fabric of his cloak, but a few struck home, and Tavis saw the piercing red eyes fade and the shadowy form twitch with every one.
Tavis drew the lance high as he did before, tip pointing skyward. He bound, measuring steps, and in his mind recalled the Words of Power his master had once taught him. Feet planted, the staff descended, and the spearhead struck the unprotected flesh that peeped out between leather jerkin and leather breeches.
Howling, flailing, dark fluid emerging from punctured kidney, the Orc lurched, attempting at once to clutch at and be free of the sicker in his back. The shake came again, resonating up the whole of the lance, into Tavis' arms and down his otherwise solidly-planted legs. That, combined with the Orc's writhings took Tavis down to his knees, He fielded his catch though, riding the Orc carefully forward and onto his stomach, putting Tavis -even on his knees- on the high ground once more. Tavis thrust downward, twisting, then in and out until he had brought out enough of the ichor that passed for blood in the Orc's system, leaving him prone on the ground. Not dead yet, Tavis knew, but it was only a short matter of time.
Tavis looked up at Zeyn, into the orbs that had faded and saw nothing he recognized there in terms of gratitude or respect or fear or apathy. Only red, piercing orbs. And then, as if sensing the youth's anticipation, Zeyn lowered his head slowly and bowed to Tavis.
Tavis gave a small nod in return. The moment seemed to last forever. It could have been hours before he turned around, as long as the moment felt.
His eyes quickly darted to Gin, who stood behind him, watching his performance again with terror and amazement. Then his eyes shot past her to the dark form lumbering up behind her, and bringing up a spike-ridden club.
"Ginny!" Tavis screamed through the noise of the melee, and then raising his own lance high above his head with both hands, "Block!"
Gin stiffened, inhaled, and then raised her little staff above her head to catch the club that came crashing down.
"Lean!" Tavis yelled, hoping the few practices would be enough.
She leaned, caving in on her left side and bringing her right higher. The club slid down the length of the staff and thudded on the ground. It rasped her little, white knuckles as it went though, and sent her cringing and shrieking with the pain.
"Turn, Ginny! Turn!" Tavis screamed, oblivious to her raw, bleeding knuckles.
Gin turned, in time to see the club come off the ground and the accompanying swing coming from the side now. There was no time to instruct, he couldn't coach her fast enough at this point; it was up to her.
She stepped back, letting the swing pass. He was open now, all along one side. Wood hit meat as she found the holes in his armor under his arm. Her assailant grunted, although it sounded more like irritation than pain. She learned quickly that a staff is much quicker than a club, as she was able to bring the backswing down again behind his knee. It hit unprotected flesh again, the knee gave, the foot swung out and the hulking man went down on his back, bringing up a huge cloud of dust that stung nostrils and showed like haze in the moonlight.
What now, though? When it was with Tavis, they would always laugh at this point. She had no idea what to do to finish him.
"Gin! Here!" It was Tavis again. She turned and saw him beckoning to her. Hearing the groanings of the fallen man gave her all the motivation she needed, and she rushed to her mentor of several afternoons.
"Ginny!" Tavis said, bringing an open hand to the side of her head, holding her by blonde strands. Deep and endless, the eyes went on. It was getting harder to see the little girl in those eyes, Tavis noticed.
Eyes widening, the Elf girl looked at Tavis' lance. "Ho… Tavis look!"
Pale blue light came into Tavis' view. He turned and saw: The shaft was glowing. A sheen of light coated it from butt to blade. Tavis stared, feeling it still shake in his hand.
And noticed, after a moment, that none of the rest of the men were attacking. Holding back, all of them, and standing next to a wagon…? No, a cage… standing on wheels, the bars made of metal, and lots of it. Must have been heavy to pull all this way, Tavis thought.
Two men on each side pulled loose a bar and the face came down. A pitch horror of fang and muscle bolted from the chamber. Steely talons dug into soil, pulling up clumps as it bounded. And the noise it made, the grunts, the heaves, seemed to come straight out of Belza. No wonder the other men held back, Tavis thought.
Brogan was the closest, and the beast charged him straight on. The big red brought up his borrowed ax, but too late. The speed it moved, the beast had time to spare before the blade was in striking position. It leaped, pulling up clumps of soil and lunged, steel teeth and talons flared, and barreled into the BeHemoth.
Brogan took it full, and instantly the beast began to rend. Chunks of flesh came up as the beast began to dig and claw, at once seeming to want to get through and get inside the BeHemoth. Brogan wailed and the howl resounded through the hills and off the stalwart peaks of the Angus Yorl which stood like grim spectators, set to watch this anguished and undignified battle.
"No!" Tavis screamed, pushing away from Gin and onto his feet. Wetness crept into his eyes, and a surge of hot air filled his lungs. The lance came up, whipping through the night air, blade positioned high as legs were pumping. This time, the words formed no less in his mouth than in his mind, as he struck with one of the Power Words his master taught him.
"Lus-tröh!" He roared, and as he did, the lance came down, and although it seemed that nothing could mar the blacked hide of this demon, the spearhead bit, sunk and stung.
Head flinging back, strips of red flesh flying from teeth, the beast let out an ungodly wail that haunted the ears of everyone it touched. The men by the cage cringed and fell back, clasping their ears in a pain born not of volume, but of source.
Expecting it, wanting it this time, Tavis felt the lance begin to shake. Biting down, stiffening against it, Tavis pushed the shakes back down the lance and into the beast again. The bluish glow along the lance grew, crackled, flared up in spots, and as he youth held it solid, sparks danced across the haft, the boys arms, and finally the blade. It fired and sizzled down the lance and into the demon, burst, and then exploded, incinerating the beast immediately.
The air hung with the electrified scent of copper and ash, a high whistling-buzzing noise in everyone's ears. A stench of sulfur and brimstone joined it. All the players on both sides of the battle froze stiff, senses straining to take in the breadth and depth of what had just transpired.
At length, one figure rose up from behind the wounded body of the BeHemoth and the crumpled form of the Yyyzyzyrn. The blue-robed conjurer stood and extended his arms upwards. Already saturated with the freshly passed electrical discharge of the lance, the ground and sky rent and seemed to shriek again as a wound grew from a large circle on the ground and extended upwards, a huge dome rising which encircled and enshrouded the entire company. It swelled, flashed, boomed and died, leaving a blackened, cratered patch of soil, an empty cage, and a pack of wounded barbarians stranded and staring into the night.
It took a long time, but finally Tavis and Kenja arrived at the Coliseum, a huge, round, gray-stone and wooden bleachers construct designed to attract and hold an enormous crowd. Even from this distance they could hear the shouting and jeers of the audience inside. The streets were worn here, cracked and pocked in spots, evidence of hard winters gone by. Numerous wagons and some horses were locked up to posts standing in a huge, open dirt lot.
"Come on, Over here!" Kenja said impertinently, grabbing Tavis by a wrist and dragging him over to a hodgepodge wall of wood, cement, and wire. "There's a slat here where we can get through." She led him along the fence to a spot where a few planks had been broken and others were loose. On the way, Tavis noted the letters "FTN" scrawled in large, broad strokes with red paint on a section of the wall.
"Hey, I haven't seen that before," Tavis said. "Do you know what that means?"
"Beats me." Kenja replied. "Come on, let's go in!"
With practiced movements, she stepped in, one leg at a time, and then squished her torso in, the broken planks scratching on her sleeveless shirt. Tavis studied her moves intently, and then followed her in.
The roar of the crowd increased dramatically once they were on the other side of the fence. Tavis could hear the attendants stamping their feet on the bleachers and calling out cheers and insults to the contestants. Kenja caught his wrist again and took him over to a large, broken hole in the wall of the Coliseum. Whether it was time, weather, or brute force that had put it there, Tavis couldn't tell.
Kenja put her face up to the hole and peeked in. She stared a moment, giggled mischievously, and then backed away. "Here, you have a look," she said, turning and beckoning Tavis forward.
Carefully stepping over rubble, Tavis approached the hole and looked in. The sound of the crowd outside was noisy, but here it was deafening. He could see the backs of people's heads a little ways down and off in the distance, a huge arena. Strutting about in the center was a figure that appeared to be a huge, bipedal lizard, all tail and scales and claws. Then a huge, brawny, red-skinned figure emerged from a doorway on the far side of the arena and the crowd erupted with cheers.
"Here, let me see too," Kenja said, coming to stand right beside Tavis and putting her face up next to his. She touched him at hip, shoulder and cheek, little tendrils of hair tickling the side of Tavis' face. She smelled good too, Tavis noted.
"Ooh, that's the champion," Kenja went on. "He's amazing. He'll win for sure."
"Oh yeah?" Tavis replied, still distracted by her close proximity, "You've seen him before?"
"Of course I have! He's the best!"
Tavis stared out at the rink again, intrigued and a little disquieted by the ruddy skin and the huge, knotted muscles that clung to his frame like clumps of fungus on a log. "I've never seen anything like him before."
"He's a BeHemoth," Kenja replied. "The other one's a Ggíla."
"Wow… He's all covered with scales."
"If things go like usual, he'll be covered with blood in a minute, too."
Tavis made a yucky face that he hoped Kenja wouldn't see.
The two watched intently for long moments, and then a gruff looking guard walked in front of them.
"Tredge," Tavis muttered under his breath. "Get out of the way!"
The guard turned, stooped down and pressed an unshaven face up next to the hole.
"Hey! You kids there!" the guard hollered.
"Run!" Kenja screamed, grabbing Tavis' arm roughly and turning him about so quickly that he nearly lost his footing on the pile of rubble.
"Here now! Stop you!" called the guard.
But Kenja and Tavis quickly squeezed through the fence and shot off like arrows across the lot.
The glowing dome rose up and encircled the team, leaving them all staring at each other with hesitant looks of surprise. They remained inside the dome uncomfortably long. Tavis looked on at Rhoden who still stood erect, arms raised and fingers spread wide, eyes closed, a piercing look of concentration on his face. Gin darted her glance from face to face, the terror of combat now augmented with the terror of not knowing what was happening to them. Brogan had stopped screaming, clenching his jaw and fists tightly against the pain of the wounds the huge, ebony beast had rent. Only Zeyn seemed unfazed by their situation, his red eyes leering out from under his cowl.
After what seemed like an eternity, Rhoden lowered his hands and the walls of the dome fell to the ground. No member of the team was prepared for the sweltering heat which came upon them. The burning air seemed to at once descend upon them and at the same time pervade the space they occupied and all the clothing they wore. Instantly, droplets of sweat sprung up on their faces and anyplace where their skin touched their clothes became damp and sticky.
At the onslaught of the heat, Brogan began to wail again, this time a mix of grunts and cries as he strained against rent flesh and broken bone, rolling about on a slab of maroon-colored rock. Dark fluids seeped out of him everywhere, forming a huge pool beneath him. Tavis looked on helplessly as the BeHemoth's life spilled out of him.
But then Rhoden raised his hands again, and a smile such as one a madman might wear crossed his face. "So much, here… So much!" the conjurer babbled, his hands quivering.
Tavis and Gin exchanged worried looks, thinking now that they were losing not one, but two members of their group. Then Rhoden's hands began to glow and almost seemed to crackle with energy. He knelt down by Brogan and leaned close to his head.
"Brace yourself." And then the conjurer sunk his hands into the big red's wounds.
Tavis was sure that the previous cries he had heard from the BeHemoth, when the beast was tearing at him, were the fiercest he had heard. This time, however, the wails were brutal, ferocious, and told an agony that none of the rest had ever known.
The result, however, was astonishing. The steady flow of dark blood tapered off. The rent flesh began to knit into place. Rhoden felt around inside the wounds and with a sharp jerk and a hollow snap, brought what must've been a bone back into place. The grisly process went on at great length, and no one could take their eyes from the dreadful and fascinating scene.
Finally, Rhoden pulled his hands back, and Brogan's wailing ceased. His whole body heaved and twitched as breaths came out spasmodically, wheezes and intakes breaking up gasps and pants like a child recovering from a fit of bawling. This was a new experience for Tavis, and it disturbed him to see Brogan this way, reduced to the fitful state of a colicy baby.
"What is this place?" Gin said, looking up and taking in their new surroundings. Where the sky had been black and full of stars, it was now red around the horizon, fading gradually into purples directly overhead and filled with smoke. The ground they stood on was rocky and sandy, and all of it a deep maroon color. In the distance, great plumes of fire lanced up from the ground, shooting, curling, and then dissipating into the air.
"Where are we?" Gin repeated.
"Hell, Ginny," Brogan responded through forced breaths. "We're in hell."
"Nashan… Highness… Do wake up Corin is hailing you."
The Enteroh grumbled and rolled in his sheets. "Stars, Trondal, do you know what time is?"
The Devict shifted uncomfortably back and forth, waving the lamp in his hand slightly, and fumbled over his next words. "I… Highness, I realize… Well, it's Corin, you see, and she says that it's a rather urgent matter."
The Enteroh peeked a glaring eye out from underneath his sheets, watching Trondal shift uncomfortably in his slippers. "All right," the Enteroh said at length, throwing off the sheets and squinting into the lamplight. Quickly he slid his feet into a pair of slippers and threw a robe over his shoulders. "Let's go then," he said resolutely, marching down the hallway. Trondal in tow.
"What did Mjorda make of our wayfaring friends?" The Enteroh threw the question over his shoulder as he strode down the hall.
"Well, sire, he… uh… we lost them, sire."
Nashan stopped dead and turned on his heel to face the now sheepish Devict. "Lost them? Surely you were backing them up, tracking their location astrally?"
"Well, sire… um… That's the problem, you see, they… uh… left Rone, and we weren't able to track them."
"Left Rone?" the Enteroh responded incredulously.
"Yes, sire, I'm afraid so."
"But they didn't have any Hazard-class mages with them. Not that I knew of."
The question hung in the air, Trondal not answering, and Nashan staring him down. At length the Devict responded. "Corin is waiting for you sire."
Gradually the Enteroh turned, muttered a curse, and paced along the floor, measuring his steps to the room at the end of the hall.
The room was simply adorned, finished with the dark cherrywood common to the rest of the Hall, and a few chairs by the door. Hanging on the far wall was the obvious focus of the room; an enormous, finished slat of dark obsidian, surrounded by a buffed, brass frame. Nashan and Trondal entered and walked directly up to it. Trondal spoke a few words and touched the obsidian slab. The stone shimmered and rippled, like pebbles thrown in a lake. Soon the dark glassy surface was replaced by the image of a woman in an eggshell-white robe, seated in an equally white chair. The woman steepled her fingers and leveled a cool stare at Nashan.
"I have been waiting," the woman said.
"And I," the Enteroh responded, matching her tone, "have been peacefully sleeping. Let's not dawdle with pleasantries, Corin."
The robed woman's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "As you wish, Nashan, I'll get to the point. As you know, we have been preparing to raise Nurihem. The frontier between our own world and the next has been… softening, in parts as we knew it would, enabling us to draw from its power. It has also, however, enabled some of the more… reckless creatures from the other side to emerge as well -ungoverned. This could spell trouble for us, both for our grand plans as well as our view in the eye of the public."
"All very well, and information I have learned from my own Devicts, although I still have not heard a good reason for waking me at this hour."
Corin leaned forward in her chair, staring icily at Nashan. "My question of great import, Nashan, is: Can you keep a handle on your kingdom?"
Nashan bristled ever so slightly, working not to let it show. "If you are referring to the rebels, you'll be pleased to know that the situation is well in hand. We captured one of their leaders and are negotiating with him right now-"
"Negotiating?" Corin replied, almost coughing out the word. "Good heavens, Nashan, if you need our help, you need only ask."
"-As I was about to say, Priestess," the king's temper was showing now. "We are negotiating with him, and if there is no amicable resolution, then we will resort to threats, rumors, ultimatums, and finally public execution. All in good order. -Never more force than necessary, and remembering that the threat of force is far more motivating than force itself. If you'd like to learn how to deal properly with terrorists, I'll be pleased to teach you."
"Don't be childish, Nashan. Here, we are all on the same side you know." She paused, letting an icy silence sink in for a moment.
Nashan looked on at her, letting out a deliberate exhale and rocking on his heels.
Corin looked on reprovingly. "There is one other thing, Nashan, and it is the reason why I awoke you. Last night, around this same time, one of my outriders detected a massive surge of astral energy. He investigated and found that a creature from the next -from another world was summoned. There were some other beings there as well -mundanes, conversing with him. Their interview lasted the whole of the night."
The kings eyes widened noticeably and the muscles in his neck went stiff.
Corin saw the Enteroh become tense, and cinched down her eyelids traceably. "I trust you are not… conducting any… experiments… on your own Nashan?"
"Priestess," the Enteroh replied formally, all trace of sarcasm gone, "You may have the utmost confidence that I am not attempting to compromise our plans."
Corin raised her chin, staring down her nose at the Enteroh. "As I have said before, we need to be united, and we will require your aid when the time comes to raise Nurihem. I trust you won't become… over-zealous…? Or attempt to pursue any agenda of your own?"
"We are united, Corin. Just as you say, all of us united."
The image of the woman shimmered. She leaned back in her chair, placing her arms up on the rests. "Good health, Nashan."
"And to you, Corin."
The image wavered then, taking on a pattern of ovoid ripples as the transmission ended, and finally restoring the framed slab to its original dark, glassy appearance.
"Miserable old cow." Nashan spat, then turned and headed back to his room.
Trondal followed hastily. "But, sire," he began, an edge of nervousness in his voice, "If the frontier is weakening… Well, don't you foresee trouble?"
"No," Nashan replied deliberately, still pacing off to bed, a sly smile crossing his face, "Opportunity."
They ran like a pair of foxes, eventually clattering to a stop on the corner before their apartment. Like a pair of dogs, they panted for long moments, and then their heaving breaths evolved into bursts of laughter. The sun was descending now, and dying rays of light filtering through the overcast sky filled the air with a cool, gray incandescence.
"Did you see… the look… on that guard's face?" Tavis said through gasps of breath.
"I think… he probably… always looks like that." Kenja replied, and then the two burst into laughter again.
"Tavis!" came a shrill voice from a window from the second floor of the apartment building which could only belong to Tavis' mother. "Come inside, son!"
"Venk, Kenja!" came another voice from another window, Kenja's mother this time.
Giggling, the two ambled toward the door and climbed the stairs lethargically, Kenja holding onto Tavis' arm playfully.
The two mothers were standing at the top of the stairs, their stern faces a harsh contrast to the giddy disposition of the two youths. "Where have you been?" Mother asked accusingly.
"Kenja and I were just out playing, mom. You know, wandering around, seeing things together."
Mother stared on, still wearing an irritated look of consternation.
"I don't want you getting lost on the streets after dark."
"Aw, mom, we were just down Felder's street. We couldn't get lost."
"Good heavens, son! The pits are down there! I don't want you going anywhere near that place!"
"I cannot believe that the Enteroh would open that place up again." It was Kenja's mom speaking this time. Her accent was thick, but she had picked up Roke rather well in the time she'd lived in Temacus. Tavis' mother refused to learn Delian.
"Oh, I know," Tavis' mother replied, matching the other woman's tone of disapproval.
"It's a terrible sport."
"And think of what it teaches children."
The two mothers went on at some length, nattering away like a pair of magpies. Tavis and Kenja looked at each other and giggled again.
"Boy, it's been awhile since I heard our moms go on like this." Tavis said.
Kenja smiled at him. "Tells a story all its own."
Ginny looked around nervously, brows furrowed, clenching and unclenching her fingers into little tight fists. "We're not really in Belza, are we?" she asked to no one in particular.
"Of course we're not, Ginny," Rhoden replied sharply. "I couldn't possibly take you to Belza if I tried. No one can get there alive, it's part of the rules." Rhoden looked around at the smoke-filled sky and the wafting spirals of fire on the horizon. "We're on the plane of fire."
"Well it sure does look like Hell," Brogan added. He had caught his breath now and had propped himself up on his elbows. "It stinks, too. If you had to get us out, why didn't you take us someplace nice like the Tson-Tsie isles or something?"
Rhoden looked on at Brogan for a moment before answering. That always bothered Tavis: Rhoden couldn't just answer a question. No, he had to look at you first and then answer. "Because, Brogan. I just barely learned how to get here. It was one of the things the Lamya taught me while I was in contact with him."
"You mean you've never come here before?" Tavis queried incredibly.
"Quite the contrary," Rhoden replied, "I came here earlier this afternoon. You observed me practicing, I believe."
"Oh." Tavis replied, recognition dawning on his face.
"And besides," Rhoden continued, turning to the prone form of Brogan, "I needed to get here so I could draw enough mana to heal whoever might need it."
"You're welcome." Rhoden answered.
Tavis looked down at a worried Gin. "How you feeling?"
"Scared," she replied shortly. "Like I was when I had that bad dream awhile back about the farm with all those dead people." Tavis looked at her with hesitant uneasiness. "Did I ever tell you about it? It was really scary. See there was me and then you were there too -So was Rhoden- Some of the dead people even looked like my friends-"
"Gin, I want to talk with you about it, but I don't think that now's the time."
The little Elf girl nodded, looking cowed. Languidly she cast her eyes about, focusing on the staff in her hands. Abruptly she dropped it, letting it clatter on the red stones beneath her feet.
"So," Brogan interjected, "What now? We wait till Mjorda's thugs have moved on, then find a way to hop out of here and continue on down the General's Highway?"
"No need," Rhoden responded, looking up with a smile. Honestly, Tavis thought, he'd never seen the conjurer look so cheerful. "In fact I can get us all to Rhanjiir much faster staying right here."
"Tredge, Rhoden," Brogan said, sitting up with a groan and running a great hand over his head. "You gotta quit hanging out with Zeyn -You're beginning to talk like him now."
Rhoden looked down at the big red with a practiced look of patience. "What I mean, Brogan, is that I can move us much more quickly along our course in this plane."
"Whatever you say, pal." Brogan groaned again as he worked at sitting upright. "I haven't really got the strength to argue."
"Here now, I'll show you. -Look, you see that one over there?" Rhoden pointed at the sky over Gin's head. She arched her neck and then turned around to see where he was pointing. The rest of the company followed her gaze. They caught a glimpse of a long streaking flame searing across the sky. It looked at first as though it were simply a emission from one of the great plumes of fire on the horizon. They followed it a moment and discovered that the arcing flame had a life of it's own, curling and then swooping down to the surface.
"Let's see if I can call it from this far." Rhoden then closed his eyes, tilted his head up, and began making a faint humming noise, at least it sounded that way at first. As Rhoden sustained the noise, it almost seemed to be coming from deeper down inside him, and then lingered like the buzz of an insect in the back of everyone's head. Tavis was slightly annoyed by it, but he saw that the soaring flame off in the distance was having a terrible time with it. It jerked and swooned, almost seeming to chase it's own tail for a moment in frustration, and then picking out the source of the noise, came charging for Rhoden. As it drew closer, the company made out that it was not just a chaotic thread of fire, the long strand of flame folded back now, and doubled in two, taking the shape of great spreading wings.
"It's a bird," Tavis voiced. "It's a massive bird."
"Not quite," Rhoden replied, breaking off his humming. The great winged flaming beast did not break off its descent however. "It can be called like one though."
The flaming creature's wings tore and frothed now in its onrushing charge. The entire company could plainly hear the strips of flame snapping and ripping like the tail of a kite caught in a gale.
Gin began to whimper. Brogan snorted and came to his feet, apprehensive. "Pal, I hope you've got some plan before that thing cooks us."
"Oh don't worry," Rhoden replied, chiding Brogan as though he were a child. The conjurer took a few meaningful strides forward, walking through the midst of the group and out between them and the onrushing flame creature. "You're a pretty boy, aren't you?"
Tavis and Gin exchanged worried looks again.
The beast was scarcely on top of him before Rhoden flung his hands into the air as he'd done before. Impossibly quickly, the winged creature halted its charge, wings spread wide, and what looked like a head flung up let out an numinous screech. Brogan, Gin and Tavis clutched the sides of their heads, their ears aching.
And then the beast was tame. Subdued and totally under control, it hung in the air as though it were awaiting whatever command Rhoden might give.
"Beautiful creature…" Rhoden sang out to no one in particular. "Beautiful…"
The company all exchanged anxious glances. Brogan looked perturbed. "Okay, Professor," the BeHemoth said, "we all think your new pet is real cute. Now can we work on getting out of this freaky place?"
Rhoden let a moment pass before answering. "He's taking us out, my friend."
Brogan put his face in his hands. "One of 'em was bad enough. Just one of 'em. I shoulda' counted my blessings. Never knew how good I had it."
Zeyn stared at Brogan, almost looking perturbed.
"Come," Rhoden called to them. "Come over here and stand on that large rock. The one there jutting out of the ledge."
Brogan removed his hands from his face. "What the hey, I got nothin' going on." He sauntered through the rest of the company as they looked on. They watched him march off a ways and then followed him.
The group all gathered quickly on the rock that Rhoden had specified. The conjurer leveled his gaze at the great fiery beast and then, as if in answer, it dove under the rock beneath them.
The large slab of maroon stone began to heave, and then noisily scraped free of the ledge. The whole team lurched, crouched, and generally tried to maintain their balance. "Hold on," Rhoden warned, and then they were flying.
The hot wind and acrid smoke flew past them pulling at their clothes and hair. Zeyn's robe flapped like a flag in the wind, seeming to pull around his impossibly thin body to an almost pole-shape. Gin clutched fiercely onto one of Brogan's great thighs, pressing her face against his blood-stained breeches.
"Hey!" Tavis yelled into Rhoden's ear, straining to be heard over the roaring wind. "That looks like the General's Highway beneath us!"
"Very good!" Rhoden replied, screaming back. Then, pointing, "What do those mountains look like over there?"
Tavis looked off in the direction the conjurer gestured. "Hey, that looks like the Angus Yorl!"
"You've got it!" Rhoden congratulated him. "Tell me when you see Rhanjiir!"
Tavis smiled to himself, thinking about what a ponderous way this was to see Rone.
Time passed. The team was getting accustomed to the constant rush of wind. All except Gin who was shivering, clinging to Brogan now not so much for stability, but for warmth.
"That's it!" Tavis yelled, pointing at a plateau coming up before them.
"Good!" Rhoden yelled back. "Hang on then!"
The stone and the beast that carried it began to slow, everyone lurched in unison, but maintained their stance. Carefully, Rhoden guided the fiery beast and the team on board atop the plateau and set the stone gently down. While the team members stepped off the slab of stone, testing the ground beneath them, the beast presented itself before Rhoden, waiting again as if to receive orders from him.
"Go," Rhoden said, faintly yet firmly. Without hesitation, the beast spread its wings and went tearing off into the sky, racing away faster even than he had charged at them before. After a few moments, the sound if its snapping wings faded and the team stood silent together. It was Brogan who finally spoke.
"Buddy, if it weren't so freaky, I'd do all my traveling with you."
Rhoden gave a small chuckle. "It's not just that. I can't stay here too long myself."
"Oh yeah?" Tavis queried, eager to learn about the strange and powerful magic the conjurer possessed. "Why's that?"
"I'm afraid I'd like it so much here that I'd never come back."
No one answered him on that.
Rhoden took advantage of the silence to begin drawing energy. Again, his arms began to quake and seemed to glow with a queer supernatural light. Tavis looked down and saw the circle of light begin growing on the ground all around them and braced himself for what was to come. It didn't seem as bad this time. The dome rose, sealed, encompassed them, and held them inside for a moment. It didn't seem like it lasted as long this time. When the bright walls fell back down, the entire team gave a collective sight and looked gratefully up into the blue sky above, and the pale orange sun rising in the distance.
"Ghat's geh!?" A frantic and frightened voice called from behind them. The company turned about and saw a trembling figure upon the ridge before them, the sun directly behind him, marking out his dark silhouette on the oncoming morning light. He appeared to be holding a weapon or pole of some kind. "Ghat's geh sal!?" he repeated, more nervous still.
Several other figures came up behind him, joining him with apprehensive babblings of their own. A second later another figure joined the throng, this one distinctly feminine, and decidedly calmer. She walked assuredly over to the anxious throng, the rising sun outlining the curves of her legs and hips and the firm set of her shoulders.
"Par mall," she said confidently, laying a reassuring hand on the arm of the figure at the forefront. She then walked forward a few steps, but the backlight still masked her features. "Ger gint sal?"
Tavis smiled broadly, delighted with the voice he heard. "Ger gint Tavis ut Kompan. Gho'ts du, Kenja?"
Kenja laughed a delicious laugh, striding forward as she did. She came close and Tavis looked into familiar green eyes. "It's been a long time since I heard Delian butchered that badly, Tavis."
Tavis smiled broadly. "Tells a story all its own."