previous index next

As the heroes prepare to embark upon their quest, they are unexpectedly joined by two strangers...


Several days have passed since the Emergency General Moot. The upcoming union between Vizz and Oshana has created a real buzz of optimism and already the Ochre Fallow have been told of the date. A few souls grumble about all this, in particular Morith who had been fixing to leave, but with Faren's arrival he has no-one to go with him.

Five days of solid rain are greeted as a good omen, signifying the weeping of Queen Ernalda, and casting a gloom about the stead which should ease the passage of the heroquesters into the twilight Silver Age. On the appointed day, Wilma summons the Exiles to the top of the hill. At the very least, she has pointed out, if the quest should go awry, the Ancestors may yet call their descendants home.

Rika is stood atop the hill, garlanded in a wild array of flowers and for the first time cutting a sympathetic figure. Although no-one would dare say it, she has been quiet since Vurth departed, whether because of his absence or in fear of what she is about to undertake no-one knows. The heavy rain seems to have softened some of her prickles and she welcomes with what seems a genuine smile, those who will accompany her to the other side. As Entislar climbs atop the wagon, she raises the giant garland she has woven and beckons Vizz, Yizar, Gyffun, Silverquill, Faren and Aren into the ring where they all hold hands in a touching scene.

Wilma calls the Exiles to give their blessing and Rika begins to recount the story of Belveren's Deflowering, that they may arrive at the correct time and in the correct place to perform their task. As she is nearing the end of her tale, she looks with horror past the Exiles, at the dark figure approaching...


Aren had greeted the morning with Determination, glad that after all their preparations the quest is finally starting. After many days of lending his wisdom to sorting out the relevant myths of Orlanth and Ernalda and the storm Pantheon he could only feel pride in how the stead and their band of heroes have all banded together in this task.

His role as a Devotee and Godi of Yavor is to lead the men in their parts of the ritual performance. Yesterday had been taken up with helping with Prayers and Sacrifices with Rika but today is the main event.

Now resplendent in his ritual clothing, with his tin spear Blazer clutched firmly in his hand, Aren strides up the hill to greet Elmal's arrival through the early morning mists and rain. He watches Rika's procession with the women from the loom-house to the hill. Soon they are joined by the rest of the men and women of their community, led by Wilma, and they begin the final ritual for the entry into the quest.

Yizar, looking much the same as always, though somewhat scruffier since his battles with the chaos squirrels and batbroos, seems outwardly bored by the proceedings. Periodic twitchings of his ears and stubby tail may signify something different, of course. He's left Mittens and Buttons (Caterwaul's replacement) behind after a farewell full of much sniffing and licking (and a bit of mating) and is steeling himself for his second heroquest. Hopefully this one won't be as transformative as the last one. His hackles raise as he spots the dark stranger approaching and a flicker of lightnings spring into life on his claws.

Faren is praying methodically when he finally notices Rika's look. Too much had been happening too fast, so, as he had done during the preparatory rituals the previous night, he is focussing on the task at hand and trying to ignore everything else. Which is why all he can think as the figure looms out of the gloom is: "Are we missing anyone in this ritual?"

Vizz has been feeling under the weather - drinking with Uroxi had not helped even though he had avoided the Praxian bull-piss drink. The morning of the quest had seen him eating cold and greasy lamb stew, washed down with more ale. But it had not calmed his stomach and he was slightly tired and a bit emotional, not to say bleary eyed. The mist and rain did not seem to be helping.

He took a last swig from a leather cup and tossed it aside.

"Just the dregs."

As the stranger approached from out of the rain Vizz squinted, trying to recognise him or her.

"Yes, just the dregs..."


Irstilor squints, his deep-set eyes trying to peer beyond the mist. A brightness ahead urges him to quicken his step. He smells the damp forest and hills before he sees them, and with a deep sigh steps from the strange cloud path into a dry spot beneath the garland. His senses reel with the sudden clarity of his surroundings, he had travelled through the mist for so long...

Rika wipes her eyes and stammers, dumbfounded "B.. Brother? Wh.. "

Irstilor doesn't let her finish. "Continue sister, we are ready now."

As he says this, he tries his best to look stoic and sound confident. Can't even remember why I'm here, he thinks to himself. It's less than a whisper on Tarena's breath. I've been drenched to my skin for as long as I can remember, and I want little else then to throw myself down before the hearth and sleep, but now is not the time to falter.

"Another..?" one of the onlookers gasps, and folk turn to see a thin, simply dressed stranger takes his place on the very periphery of the proceedings. He nods to the gape-jawed folk, trying his best to be polite and inconspicuous.

Conquering his doubt, his resolve set, Irstilor lifts his chin a bit higher and waits for Rika to continue.


Unconsciously shaking the droplets of rain from his hair and beard, Gyffun opens his pack and checks the wrappings around his precious harp. Finding an obvious damp patch where the unrelenting precipitation has penetrated the water-repelling charms, he sighs and contemplates how difficult it would be to keep an ordinary harp in working order in this Place. The sentient instrument shifts restlessly beneath his hand and emits a murmur of mild complaint, but soon settles again.

As he and the other Exiles wait for the ritual to begin, the skald considers his previous, mostly inadvertent experiences of heroquesting. Thoughts of the most recent inspire a heady mixture of excitement and dread. No-one here knows the nature of that singularly transformative experience, with the possible exception of Gordangorl, and even that worthy can only have the vaguest inkling of its true import. The changes that have been worked upon him are by no means limited to the most immediate consequence, which by now is apparent to all: his mute and breathless debility.

At first, this handicap had filled him with terror and despair, but he has gradually come to regard it with a kind of detached curiosity. It has grown and changed in his awareness, becoming a delicious conundrum, a riddle waiting to be solved. His renewed connection with the transcendent deity at the heart of this enigma is now a source of unwavering strength; trusting that his fate is in good hands, Gyffun awaits the unfolding of the mystery with uncharacteristic patience. He is certain that the endeavour he is about to join will offer him the opportunity to explore it.

Absorbed in contemplation, the skald barely notices when the first stranger arrives, and is only disturbed from his reverie by the gasps of the crowd, as a second figure emerges from the mists to join them.


"Oh Rantana!"

The women seem a little too excited by the proceedings to wail the name with spirit, and falter briefly when the dark stranger steps in under the garland. But the memory of the last time they faltered during a ritual is too fresh and Lismelda's enthusiastic grieving (for she seems the only one to be throwing everything into it) sets the tone as the corporeal forms of our heroes seize up, their souls departing...

Bedecked with flowers, Faren's wagon creaks and groans as the wheels begin to turn. Entislar, atop the wagon, sets his eyes to the distance and the wagon rumbles forwards, growing shorter as it does so, casting off the rear wheels, glowing with a silvery light. The cracks between the boards disappear, the rough nails become rivets, the yoke a harness. Freed from the mud, the chariot slides gracefully down the slope, picking up speed as it passes clean through the Exiles and flies towards the trees, disappearing into the forest, the briefest glimpse of a pair of foaming steeds at its front the last image to remain.


Two days before the exiles plan to hold their ceremony to travel to the other side, Vurth, Karli, Skullcleaver and the rest of the Bulls engage in a last evening of debauchery and mayhem with the exiles. Boasts are boasted, drinks drunk, songs sung and memories remembered. But with the morning light the other face of the bull appeared. Frippery (gorp ears for example) is cast aside as they garb themselves in armour and shield, daub themselves with mud and fierce looks. Today marks the beginning of the last battle for some of them but this is nothing new.

Karli and the other senior members of the war gang descend the stead hill at one point and conduct the ceremony which allows the most dedicated to join Storm Bull at his Wapentake. Swirling dusty air soon conceals them from sight and for a short time bizarre noises and violent gusts of wind resound throughout the area. After some time of this the Bulls return, weary but apparently satisfied.

Without further ado, the Bulls salute the exiles and march off to face chaos as they have so many times before. Vurth seems unusually quiet and appears to have a few new scars. From the wapentake perhaps? He looks back at the exiles as he leaves. Is it all the exiles that earn his departing stare or one figure in particular?

Down the Stonehead Trail they go, strangely quiet to those who might have seen them the night before. The trail itself seems strangely quiet as well. Good fortune or an ominous foretelling of things to come? Whatever, the first day and next pass quickly as the bulls march to the clearing. No 'elves' show themselves this time and as they get closer to the clearing and night begins to fall, the stench of the predark begins to rise. Weapons are clenched more tightly, nostrils flare and bodies tighten as glances flicker to the left and right.

At last the clearing! Very still. Not a sound or a breadth of air move. Karli looks about and growls instructions to his followers, who quickly scout out the area but find no immediate threat. The Ash Maidens are inspected and rewarded with admiring glances and some new oaths are sworn that the Bulls remember when the Ash Maidens aided the Bull that lonely day long ago and that now it was the Bulls' turn to dance for them.

Night begins to fall and Karli shows Vurth where he is to stand, in the clearing, close to the Ash Maidens but not amongst them. The Bulls arrange themselves in a rough circle centred on Vurth and the Ash Maidens and begin to dance. And a strange dance it is and marked by stamping boots, stabbing, chopping and smashing the ground, faces lifted and howling to the skies. An eerie mist begins to rise from the ground, ominous rustles rise from the surrounding trees.


Not without reason is this called the Silver Age.

Before the Exiles stands a monstrously large construction, visible only as a series of dark rounded forms piled atop one another in the twilight, as if cast from daub. Kero Fin rises sheer behind Ernalda's Earth Palace, crested white, high high above, by Inora's House. Nestled within this is the slightest pinprick of fire, burning bright as a star, where Elmal sits. The grit in the mortals' teeth, the ground glowing a series of vivid colours, ferrous earth upon ochre sand upon dull brown humus overgrown with a brightly verdant moss, tells them they have entered the Earth realm, the domain of their Queen, Ernalda. The dim silvery light, casting long deep shadows all about, tells them the Age.

The drizzle from the dull and lifeless sky is unrelenting, soaking them through anew, sparing none, the water creeping through their clothing and chilling their flesh. Shivering in the gloom, each is gripped by a crushing despair and sinks to the ground as if beneath a terrible weight. The wailing, still audible, strikes each one to the marrow and each is filled with the twinned sensations of inconsolable grief at all those they have known and lost and the piercing memories of those who, had they somehow acted rather than merely observed, they could have saved.

Casting their eyes about, the Exiles grow aware of the dark stranger among them. They each have at once three forms. Their bodies remain, seeing the scene of the gathered Exiles about them, seated chanting, wailing and drenched to the core. They perceive one another's souls, in the forms of their bodies but free to act, to look about and adjust their eyes to the gloom. And they each are as one together, hair up as a maiden, young legs wrapped in a skirt garlanded with flowers, but shoulders bowed with the greatest grief of all. This last is that which they find hardest to inhabit. Not only is the form foreign to all of them, and not only is Rika, who would have played this role before, vanished, but it bears too the crushed spirit of a Goddess who has lost too many she counted as friend.


Silverquill's eyes slowly adjust to the strange new light. He has never felt this weird before. He can dimly see his own body and can feel it breathing, but at the same time, he is somehow floating 'outside' the body, light as one of his own feathers. Strangest of all, he also feels much taller and his proportions are all wrong. Where is his bill? His beloved and beautiful feathers?

He can feel the rain as it pounds down on him and the constant wailing pierces his ears. Struggling to fight the depression, the small duck looks all around him, taking in the details of the Silver Age. For some reason, he is suddenly reminded of a shameful time in his youth - a patrol of Lunar soldiers chasing a young woman through the streets of Alda-Chur - her desperate knocking on his door - and his hesitation to let her in. Her anguished screams as they took her away haunted him for a long time, and the sudden recollection of the event brings tears to his eyes.

As he hangs his head in shame, his other self is becoming aware of the dark stranger amongst them. His innate curiosity pushes all other emotions aside and steps to the front. What's this all about then? Who is this stranger?


Yizar feels like he's being torn apart by the transition. No, not torn apart but taken apart or stretched on a tanners rack and remade into a totally alien form. He feels dizzy and confused and terrified. His sharp animal senses seem dulled and yet more sharp at the same time. Alien feelings rack his mind and alien sensations pour through his body. Does he have two legs or four? Where are his claws and tail? He reaches between his legs and feels much less and much, much more there than ever before. He would howl his terror and flee mindlessly into the wilderness that beckons if he were not part of a greater whole. The worst part though are the memories...

He remembers being a kitten, gambolling at his mother's side as she hunts. Why couldn't he remember this before? He remembers earlier than that, a rough tongue licking him clean and an oh so familiar scent. How could he ever have forgotten her scent? He remembers the taste of her milk and the joy of playing in her comforting shadow. The pleasure of rough play with his sibs.

He remembers loss too.

The day the wolf came, Yizar and his sibs had wandered too far from the shelter of the forest. It had all been his fault and the pain burned worse than any fire. It had been he who had persuaded his sibs to wander away and explore. They had left the cover of the forest and gone out into a meadow to hunt mice.

The wolf, their ancient enemy had found them there. He declared war once again on the alynx. It had hunted them through the brush and sib after sib had fallen to its sharp teeth. Finally he was the last one left. Yizar howled his terror but then suddenly his mother was there. She threw herself in all her fury on the wolf but he was old and experienced and she was too young and too lacking in martial skills. The wolf quickly slew her and then turned his attentions to Yizar. He had huddled shivering in a pool of urine waiting for the end as the smirking wolf advanced on him. But then a miracle occurred and a spear thudded into the surprised wolf's chest, quickly followed by another one.

And then he was there: the hunter. He had picked Yizar up and cuddled him to his chest. He had said all sorts of things but of course Yizar never understood him until it was too late. He buried Yizar's mother and sibs and took him away from his old life. Yizar grew to young adulthood working as the hunter's partner. He taught the young orphan much and Yizar grew to love him. He remembered his scent now, sweat, tanned hides, fur and kindness.

They had had a wonderful life together until the quest. Yizar knew not what the hunter had been seeking in the Other World but he had not found it. All he had found was death. And again it was all Yizar's fault. He was supposed to help the hunter avoid his enemies but he betrayed him. He had smelled the heady scent of a female in heat and had stupidly followed his instincts rather than his heart. He had wandered off and found the female waiting for him. She wasn't a alynx but a puma instead. One of the hated hsunchen. But Yizar was young and the heat he felt in his loins was unfamiliar to him and overpowering.

He serviced the female and after he was done he started to return to the hunter's side. But he was too late. When he returned he found the hunter lying dying with his throat ripped out and puma tracks all around. With his dying breath he said the only words Yizar ever understood from his mouth. "I forgive you." And then the light left his eyes. Yizar howled his pain to the stars and went mad with grief.

When he returned to himself things were different. He had changed somehow. He had gained self-awareness, perhaps through his grief perhaps through other means, and he had contested with a bright dashing figure and won his lightning claws. And now he was here with his new friends and he had betrayed too many people in his life, his siblings, his mother, the hunter and even poor Caterwaul. Now it was time for an end to the betrayal and the self-pity. Now it is time for action.


This is not the first time that Gyffun has been confronted with the burdens of his own memories; indeed, the experience of the last such confrontation is still fresh in his mind. On that occasion, though, the memories had rushed through him in a torrent, rarely lingering long enough to register upon his emotions. This time he is immersed in the deep well of a single memory, slowly drowning in a moment of exquisite regret.

Erryni's sweet young face swims before his tear-filled eyes, her wounded expression an all-too-eloquent indictment of the pain that he has just inflicted upon her. His words were meant to ease their parting, to somehow temper her all-consuming sorrow with anger, to sully the all-too-perfect image that he saw reflected in her adoring eyes. But his cursed, too-sharp tongue had twisted his intentions, and the cruel barbs of his clever words had torn instead at her innocent heart.

What worthless, cowardly impulse had held him in its sway that day? What prideful notion of abstract duty had possessed him, and convinced him not to act? Every nerve in his body had screamed at him to gather her up in his arms and salve away the hurt, but to no avail. How could he have turned away without a word, leaving poor Erynni to her miserable fate? And how can he bear to stand here now, witnessing once again the anguish that his action, and inaction, had wrought?

Sick at heart, Gyffun is all but engulfed by his remorse. Only the slender threads that bind him to his purpose can keep the skald from drowning in sorrow: the enduring bonds of friendship and the intangible tendrils of his renewed allegiance. Emerging at last from his remembered pain, he looks about himself with keen interest and tries to focus his thoughts upon the task at hand.


Aren adds a few tears to the downpour that drenches them.

Images flash through his mind of when, as a youngster and only on his second raid, he saw his father run through by a Yelmalion spear; given no mercy, just Humakt's cold kiss. If only he had not been so wrapped up in what he was doing, he might have reached him in time. From that day on the sun seemed cold to him; this led indirectly to him leaving Elmal and devoting him self entirely to the storm.

Still, with several quests under his belt, he is the first amongst the questers to cast off the triple image confusion and do as he has been trained to do: focus on the here and now, ignoring his physical self and accepting the overarching Goddess as his core identity and link to back home. Having said that, he knows that it is still him acting in this guise and he retains the free will to guide himself.

At least this is not as bad as when he supported Shelara on a Tarena quest. That time he was not sure of his sex or shape half the time, as it kept changing. Brr..

Looking round at the others struggling to adjust, Aren encourages them to refocus themselves as they had been taught since their first initiation. This helps them to refocus on the here-and-now, to avoid getting lost in the past or future, and to fix upon the path ahead.


The rain hits with a rhythm, that to Faren seems to say Ka-gra-da Ka- gra-da Ka-gra-da. Kagrada, his wife, lost to disease, lost to Malia, lost to the blight of chaos. Kagrada, who he didn't mourn during her life, and so mourns all the more after her death. Kagrada, who he knows he failed as a husband.

The rain of tears cannot quite, however, put out a small inner fire. Life is short, Time is long Vizz reminded them recently, and while all of time may not be enough to mourn, life cannot be wasted in mourning: there is work to be done and joy to be taken in that work. And now, as elusive as lightning, comes a feeling he can't quite put into words; that somehow the past has to be turned into fuel for the future. That perhaps Kagrada's death and his failings in it can help fuel a great deed, a strike against the chaos that underlay her death.

Eventually through this inner turmoil he realizes that Rika's presence is no longer with them, while an unfamiliar presence is. The strange three-level vision reminds him that there is a job to do. There is a cure of sorts for sorrow, he recalls, and that is work harder so that future sorrow is averted. It isn't that sorrow is unimportant, but should he let it divert him from what he's put his shoulder to? Never! He's taken a task and will see it through.

The fire seems to roar within him now. There is no quick solution, but he is patient and can take the time to deal with it properly. There is no easy solution, but he is canny, long-thinking, and wise, able to see alternative approaches, think them through, and see what the best way forward is. It may be dangerous, but he is brave, willing to risk himself for what is right.

He has failed Kagrada, and mourning her and his failure has its place. But he still has people depending on him, people who he promised a new beginning. The animals know nothing of human grief, but expect humans to fulfil the ancient pacts to care for them in return for their bounty. He has pledged himself to a new stead too, and bears part of the responsibility for the success of that stead.

The rains still hits his face, mingling with his own tears. But his inner fire is strong now and will not be washed away. He realizes that this is his role in Belveren, and as he pushes this fire outward he feels her/them/him straighten her shoulders, lift her head, and look towards the loom house.


Irstilor closes his eyes and with a deep breath he focuses on trying to centre himself. Even with his eyes closed he can sense himself chanting under the garland, linked in a community of strangers. He can feel himself in the Otherworld, every pore and hair hyper- sensitive to the immediate surroundings. At the same time he tries to grasp the consciousness of the greater-goddess about him. "Too much at once" he gasps, and a sullen mist settles about his feet and amidst his mind.

"Will I ever free myself of this cloud? Or am I forever cursed to wander amongst this dreadful fog lost and confused. What I would give to take just one step with the clarity of normal folk." He nervously fondles his twelve-knot braid that hangs over his shoulder. "Alas, it's not to be."

He opens his eyes and looks about trying to absorb the new surroundings. Then, like the honed edge of a sword, Ernalda's wailing hits him. The sorrow knocks him from his feet and a despair comes crushing down upon him as if all the weight of his life were perched o'er head ready to pin him beneath its bulk. He is left gripping a brightly coloured mound of dirt like a scared baby its mother's neck.


Only a few of those about the chanting circle notice Irstilor collapse, the first being Dastonis who is immediately by his master's side a warm comforting hand upon the warrior's shoulder.


Tremendous waves of despair come crashing violently upon Irstilor. He reaches up to touch a source of warmth and pulls his arms tightly about himself to shut himself off from the storm. Clenched angry faces assault his memory. The faces of all those who hated and harmed him. Those he loved, and those who loved him for naught. The faces of every man and child who died screaming beneath his spear. All those and more, stare at him now, taunting and belittling him, even some he doesn't recognize - faces from another's life.


Irstilor trembles with incessant sobs, and his servant scoops him up in his long arms and holds him tightly, rocking him gently to the rhythmic chanting.


The tide threatens to sweep him away with ceaseless despair. The faces mock him for his choices and the life he has led. He walked away in shame, honour-less, instead of challenging the men who disgraced him. He selfishly forsook Furhorl's reputation and estranged that which he loved most. He has killed the innocent and ravaged the weak, all for his wanting of acceptance. The faces remind him of these again and again until Irstilor believes their embellishments.

"Why must they hate me! I should have killed the lot to the last man! They whispered to Furhorl, they turned him against me! How could they! How could he just walk away!"

Against the pounding waves he rages. Swinging with fury, might and desperation he tries to fight off the surging tide resorting to the safety of violence to quell his despair.


Dastonis clenches his eyes tight and endures the pounding fists from the warrior still wrapped in his embrace. He knows the rage will pass.


Irstilor howls in rage and pounds the umber mound with white-knuckled fists endlessly until he is splattered with mud and at last collapses once more against the mound his cheek and beard in the mud. The mist has completely enveloped him now and even with eyes open he can't see past his own troubles.

"I am helpless against my foes. Worthy of little more than their pity, and none of their respect."

Defeated, the tide easily carries him away and he lies in the mud drifting to eternity. He can no longer hear the wailing. The faces come again, but now more slowly and linger longer. The sweetly perfumed hill girls look at him now from beneath warm furs. Now comes the gentle smile of Furhorl. The sorrowful eyes of his beloved Tarena drift from the beyond. Lastly, the thin face of Dastonis peers up into Irstilor's eyes.


The tightness in Irstilor's body has relaxed now and Dastonis knows the bruises will go away in time. He pulls Irstilor closer and kisses him warmly on the cheek. A woman nearby glances at them sideways, nearly interrupting her chant.


The waves are gentle now, rolling and mystical. He is but a vessel conforming to the tide's every suggestions, tug and pull. He thoughtlessly smiles at the faces as they drift by lazily. At last a spark burns in his mind. The mountain women yearned to understand his darkness. Furhorl wanted nothing more than to love him. Tarena gave direction when he was lost, and Dastonis leant support. These weren't faces of pity, they were of compassion, and his misunderstanding was a disservice. It was his debt to show compassion to those who would cast him off.

"They do what they know and chase away that which they don't understand. It is not their fault I am different."

The mist begins to thin and Irstilor finds her feet, pushing himself out of the mud.


Dastonis beams as Irstilor pulls himself from his grip and with a groan stands to his feet. With a great deal of effort Irstilor reaches out to re-join hands with the chanting circle. Dastonis backs away silently allowing the ceremony to continue. But he retreats with the thought that something was different about Irstilor when he stood up... He can't place his finger on it though.


Irstilor rubs her eyes, blinking and looking around. The wailing pours from Ernalda's palace, but instead of crippling Irstilor it fills her with a sense of purpose. "All creatures deserve a chance to be understood, even those who don't offer to understand. Rantana will not be forgotten to the pre-dark!" Her voice is powerful now. Irstilor says the words, and that he barely knows who Rantana is doesn't seem to matter. She/he/we tosses her twelve-knot braid behind her shoulder, lifts her once sunken head and shoulders, and with certainty takes the irreversible stride beneath Ernalda's threshold.


Vurth can feel the Otherworld beginning to tug at him, but he knows he must wait for the right sort of twilight to enter the Silver Age, so he resists the pull, concentrating instead on working up a sweat with his stomping and his howling. He begins to feel too the presence of ancient, ancient spirits within the trees, ones which seem to know him and which he seems to know. These are his target, and he must somehow persuade them to travel to the Otherworld, and another Otherworld from theirs, one alien to them.

As he traces his circle, entering some sort of trance yet still very much aware of the normal world about him, two of his fellows are suddenly felled, one with an arrow in his thigh, tripping him as much as hurting him, the other's life taken in an instant by an arrow to his eye.

Karli, canny in the ways of fighting chaos and their all too numerous minions, calls upon his followers to raise Umbroli and dust storms between them and the woods. Soon a wall of howling winds and dust stands between the circle of Bulls (and Vurth and the Ash Maidens). A few more arrows fly out but are swept aside by the raging umbroli. The visitors' pause as they consider this situation.

Vurth meanwhile continues to dance and howl. He will .. he will get his hands on that tainted mud maid. And .. he will cleanse her with great finality. These mud maids... Ash Maidens... whatever... rotten with the taint... must be dealt with... and Vurth charges them in his dance... threatens them with his club... with his great strength... howling... but all the while .. at another level... help me help you... you danced for me... I dance for you... you showed me... another way... help me... find that way!

With a mighty roar Vurth charges into the midst of the Ash Maidens and lashes about with mighty blows. Might forces surge and... he finds he has somehow gathered up in his hands a pair of swords - his obsidian klanth and Gyffun's bronze broadsword. As he stands before one of the trees, he can see it oozing with a sodden central rot, he can almost see it swaying and bending in the wild winds, he can practically hear the chunky sound of the twin blades slicing through it, he can hear within a scream of anguish and of hatred. A leathery form flies chittering past him, swept up by the winds and hurled bodily into a tree, while Vurth feels a surge of strength at being reunited with his blade, exhilaration at the doom being wreaked on the surviving batbroo. As he looks deep into the black blade, however, he sees, for the briefest moment, a winged form skating across the surface, and then, once again, his reflection. He pauses for one final moment to consider the myth he is to follow, at which point he is to enter, and the tools which are to hand: the dull, but now smoothed, deadwood club; the fiery red bronze sword; the black klanth, cast of rock yet dancing with life...


The entrance to Ernalda's Palace has no door to bar visitors and the Exiles take the lead of this stranger who has joined them, crossing the threshold as one. A cloud seems to follow Irstilor who, though affected by the continuing gloom, walks with purpose. Faren's steady determination is unshaken while Gyffun and Yizar have found new resolve from the memories which haunt them and a determination to do better this time. Vizz is inured to the gloom, last night's debauchery and the joy of his betrothal preserving him from sadness. Aren is unsettled by this stranger's shifting, so it seems, from man to woman to man and walks with some trepidation, while Silverquill, soaked to the core for the first time in his life, hears the rain as the hammering of a desperate woman on a door, and finds it nigh impossible to concentrate, the harsh knowledge that he allowed an innocent to die striking at his marrow.

As one, they stride through rounded earthen tunnels, the more determined making life difficult for the preoccupied, short-legged and overhung. Though braziers line the walls, their light is weak - it is as if light itself is but a youngster. The wailing grows quieter now and the noise is soon lost, only one pair of footsteps echoing in the tunnels as they all shuffle forwards. The passageway opens into a broad, domed chamber lined with simple benches and a few modest wall-hangings. In the centre of the chamber is a bundle of threads, of all colours, a dozen women seated in the dirt sorting through them. Above them, on a simple throne of wood, sits the Queen, draped in a glorious cloak which hangs off the arms and merges into the bundles of threads below. Ernalda does not sew but sits rather, a bronze needle held lifelessly in her hand, staring at the new arrivals with a look of immense frustration.

It is Rika who is sat atop the throne, her brow furrowed. Glowering furiously, she has words only for Irstilor.

"Well, brother, I must congratulate you."


Yizar leads(?), urges(?), herds(?) the collective forward to a station at the Queen's feet. S/he/they kneels and stretches forth a paw/hand to rest it beseechingly on the Queen's ankle in the position of a supplicant. S/he/they wait for a grudgingly given permission before speaking. The ensuing conversation is occasionally interrupted by a furious honking as a soaking wet and sobbing Silverquill blows into his silk hankie (which is looking a bit ragged at this stage).

"My Queen we feel for your pain. We feel the hurt too. We know the loss too. We have followed loyally. But..." Here Yizar looks up fiercely at the Queen's face. "But, we have gone beyond pain. Pain is passive. Mourning is passive. Now is the time for action. Besides all those who are lost the innocent still suffer. We beg your aid to succour the innocent and remind you of your duty!"

Yizar stands proudly before the Queen, but she launches a tirade at the alynx.

"I'm supposed to be where you are!" she rages. "Remind me of my duty? Why don't you remind my blasted brother of his duty while you're at it?"

Standing up, her fists clenched in white balls, blood dripping from one of them, she shouts at those before her, "You were all supposed to be helping me!" She sits again, ripping at the cloak on her lap in fury and glaring at the supplicants.

Irstilor hangs her head, grappling with layers of meaning, and simply becoming tangled. She and her cloud continue to shed slow tears. Shaking her head he mutters

"I don't know my duty, sweet sister. I only know that these tears upon my cheek are shed for all the World, and I can do nothing now but lend it my heart and help."


Faren looks around, puzzled.

"Your brother? Well, I admit this isn't quite how I expected things to go, but... you know, my father used to say the oxen and the farmer are ALL the plough team, all equally needed to cut a furrow. All the same, I was always kind of glad to be the one directing the plow, not the one pulling it."

"The way I see it, I'd be all the happier if you were here pulling alongside us. But I don't see how it so upsetting for you to get pumped off the yoke and given the position of steering. That is, it must be important for someone to take on Ernalda's role or it wouldn't have happened. So we are all part of the team, but you aren't the one who has to dig through the mud quite so directly. Seems not a bad thing from your end of it."

Then Faren falls silent, finally realizing that there may be depths here that he doesn't understand, and that maybe it would have been better to have let the godi Aren, or the clever Vizz, or the eloquent Gyffun talk first. "Aye, have to remember we're all pulling on the same team, let the others take the lead where they are strongest," he mutters to himself, looking abashed.


"Calm yourself, my queen," says Gyffun-Belveren, surprising everyone. He speaks with the voice of the goddess, as Yizar did, but the difference in intonation and expression is clear. Earlier, when the alynx spoke, the faint echo of his normal voice was audible to all of the questers; they hear no such echo accompanying the skald's words.

"Your evident discomfiture and the inconvenient ramifications of this unanticipated confusion of forms is unfortunate," he continues, and his companions can feel him smiling as he does so. "But I am firmly of the opinion that we must proceed with our enterprise regardless, lest the consequences of our actions assume a more overtly negative aspect."

Rika-Ernalda opens her mouth to protest, but before she can speak the skald addresses her again.

"Peace now, my lady. Your participation in the proceedings has merely been transformed, not undone altogether. We must endeavour to make the most of this reconfiguration, and avoid any further deviation from the path that we have chosen. None here doubt your wisdom and leadership, my queen, but it is your unparalleled capacity for grief that I wished to discuss with you."

"You bathe us in your tears, o mighty queen," the younger goddess continues, holding her queen's eyes until Ernalda lowers her gaze in contrition. "You effortlessly transmute our bitter anguish into cleansing sorrow. And yet, dearest Ernalda, I feel compelled to wonder aloud: why it is that you save your boundless grief for the Bull's return? Why not grieve when fierce Urox sets out upon his savage mission of necessity? For it is then, humble as I am, that I feel the burden of grief most keenly, contemplating the terrible fate that shall soon befall his tainted quarry."


Kneeling before Rika-Ernalda, Yizar's eyes are drawn to the designs on the cloak. In particular, he sees a human form he recognizes, a hunter whose name he never knew. Silverquill sees a woman banging on a door and looking around. Gyffun sees a pair of beautiful children, and suddenly realises that he was to have been their father. And so it goes, each seeing the designs of what never was and was never named.

Rika-Ernalda has now calmed down some and seems to have absorbed the words of those before her. Or so the slight nod would suggest. She seems, however, to be very far from becoming overcome with grief or with remorse. She seems, if anything, agitated.

Silverquill blows his bill with a final drawn-out 'hoooooooonk' and then consults his notebook. He looks up at Rika-Ernalda and says:

"Sweet Ewnalda. What we mean is, by the time Uwox wetuwns, we no longer even know the name of the god he has slain. Suwely each of these gods, however humble, desewves that you gwieve for them pwoperly, wailing their names and stitching their names into your cloak?"

"I know the words, thank you very much", says Rika. "Now let's stop this faffing about and go see to Orlanth." With that, she gets up off the throne, casts off the cloak and strides towards the tunnel.

Silverquill scurries after Rika-Belveren as fast as his little legs will carry him. His eyes are still wet with tears and the normally irrepressible duck is quite downcast. Checking his notebook again, he notes that the next bit involves waiting around outside Orlanth's Great Hall for a while. This suits him fine - it will give him a chance to find out who the new arrival is.

Before Rika can complete her abrupt exit, however, another voice stops her in her tracks.

"Your knowledge is not in question, mighty queen," Gyffun observes, drawing a venomous glance from Rika. As he continues, the skald lays heavy emphasis on certain words and the voice of the goddess takes on an overtly sarcastic tone. "But we are not speaking of knowledge. Your tears and your grief are the matter at hand. Please, Ernalda, don once more your cloak and resume your rightful place on the throne, and let us resume our conversation."

There is an awkward silence. "Every moment spent here, another child is forgotten and lost," says Irstilor.

Faren stands pat, arms crossed. "I'm all for us moving along, but no point herding the cattle until you know which ones are going to which pasture."

He looks around the group, and continues "Now I'm just a simple farmer, but I'm in this as much as anyone else. I'm not thinking of going anywhere until I'm chased off by a flood of tears, or else someone explains why it doesn't matter. An a'fore that, a'fore we go anywhere, I want to know who YOU are!"

His stare is now resting heavily on Irstilor.

Irstilor turns to Faren, "I am...." she begins but then stops herself.

He was about to say "I am Belveren." She grits her teeth and rubs his forehead in frustration, trying to stamp out the clouds of confusion, the countless identities that have all become muddled once again. He draws a deep breath.

"I am Irstilor of the Ochre Fallow, brother to Rika. I was sent here... to help.... i think." Her features crinkle in frustration once again. "I remember now, err, I remember something. You're right, thank you Faren."

With the faces of those wronged still fresh in her mind, Irstilor turns now to Rika.

"Sister, my Queen,"she says. "Take up again your embroidery, for our sister Rantana is in need, and without your infinite compassion and wisdom to stitch her name and songs she will be all but forgotten to us. Settle thy nerves, sweet Queen, and remember now all the deeds and words of Rantana, each of her sweetest virtues. Remember these things, stitch, and grieve for her, lest her very name fall from the memory of our hall's songs. I, Heler, taught you to take sorrow and turn it into tears, and this now is your debt to dearest Rantana."

Irstilor tugs on the cloud behind her, wrestling with it for a bit before gaining a hand. She drops on one knee and holds the cloud up as a gift to Ernalda.

"Take these tears and shed them as you stitch, as I've taught you before." He waits patiently hoping his sister will accept the cloud.

She does as he wishes and even seems to take up the burden of sorrow which those before her are thrusting upon her, breathing the cloud in whole, tears welling up in her eyes. But Rika seems so entirely herself, so little wearing the mantle of Ernalda, that the tears are her own at seeing her brother after so long, and not the flood of tears of Queen Ernalda.

Silverquill looks up at Rika-Ernalda with his big, sad brown eyes. As she starts to cry over seeing her brother, the small duck starts to sniffle and cry again.

"It's so sad... all those dead people... so much sowwow... waaah!"

The duck's tears and wails of distress are affecting those around him, especially Rika-Ernalda, who finally starts to cry in copious amounts. The ground is immediately soaked with warm salty water. In an instant, the hall fills with water and the Belveren heroes must flee or risk drowning.


Vurth/Storm Bull roars in glee. Tainted and now you are mine!

He charges across the muddy ground towards his target/s... but strangely... as he charges the target/s gets smaller. Is it/they shrinking? But no - it/they seems to be disappearing into the ground even as he approaches.

Rarrrrrgh! Think you can flee?! You merely delay the inevitable. Vurth/Storm Bull smashes the ground with his club and mud flies but all he has is a hole which rapidly fills with slurry. There! There they/she goes!! Swords flash and chop and an enormous divot goes flying into the air but all Vurth/Storm Bull finds is another hole... rapidly filled from the surrounding mud.

Rarrrgh! The surrounding forest has long since faded into mist and muddy ground. Vurth/Storm Bull crashes about. Stomp stomp stomp. Where is she/they?! There!! Charge crash smash slice. Rarrgh! Just another rapidly filling hole.

As time passes the formerly smooth muddy plain assumes a decidedly acned appearance. Vurth/Storm Bull is nothing if not persistent but this is getting a bit frustrating.

Stand and fight why don't you!!!!!!!

But there is almost nothing to fight. Pausing for breath, Vurth perceives that he has crossed over to the Otherworld. A dim, drizzly place, he feels a gloom descend upon him, but it is not in his nature to give in to such weakness. He knows that he managed to bring the Ash Maidens or... something... over with him. He had hewn through the soft trunks of the trees and, as they had crashed to the ground, spurting vile sap all about, Karli's gang had rushed in, swords and axes flying, chopping them up into a mess of branches, woodchips and slime. But as his companions had receeded, the trees had turned to slush, the slush to mud, until then there was nothing left to strike.

As the aching in his joints recedes, Vurth is aware that the Predark has quit. The stench is still rank in the air, the vile sulfurous smell of a damp latrine. And Vurth is at once himself and a massive bull, hooves covered in mud, breath steaming in the air. Clawing back his recent memories, his rage cooling a little, he recalls the howling of the beings he had dragged across with him by his magics. They had held on to their world, grim woody claws all he had seen as he pulled as an oxen yoked to a plough. Some force had been pushing him along as well, and he had heard a quiet whisper, soft rustling words, "Yes, Danlarni". And finally, he had turned and struck at the claws, hewn through the woody rhizomes, their last resistance.

Now, standing on a grassy plain, the aching had almost gone but a sharp pain remains in his thigh. Looking down, he sees five large splinters planted in his flesh, soaked in his blood, the wooden slivers twitching as if alive. His leg growing cold, his eye is drawn to a purple ichor seeping from his leg.

Vurth glances at the wooden splinters in disdain. This is the best that they could do? With a sneer and the edge of his weapon he gouges out the splinters and casts them on the ground were he stamps on them. Mud flies. Which reminded him, somewhere about here was a certain mud maid that need lessoning and nothing like a good bit of stamping to work out some stiffness.

After digging the needles out, though, he has a thought. Where had these darn splinters come from in the first place? Hadn't he hewn those claws off properly in the first place? Might there not be something still in the area hiding about?

Vurth then did something rather surprising. He had a non-fatal (not immediately anyway) idea. Let's just pretend to be affected by those poisonous pinpricks and then see what came out of the mud to claim their 'prize'. Let them come and then...


Feeling very pleased with himself, Silverquill-Belveren runs out of the Loom House ahead of a flood of tears. Next stop, an audience with Orlanth!

The group of heroquesters set out towards Orlanth's Great Hall. As they approach, they can hear the sounds of feasting, singing and fighting from within the walls. Orlanth had heard his Queen wailing, knew she was busy, so had called a feast. Silverquill-Belveren sits down outside and starts to wait politely, listening to the din inside. Time passes...


Silverquill, finally stopping his sniffling, looks over at Irstilor and asks: "So, who are you then? Wika's bwother? How come you ended up here with us?"

"Yer, what SilverQuill said," Faren adds. "That flood of tears made us shift, but I still want to know who you are and what you are doing here before we go too much further."


Irstilor can hear his companions talking, they speak to him directly asking questions to his individual persona. But, that person, Irstilor, is left so far back in the fog, she can barely remember his name and surely cannot hope to turn around and rediscover him.

No, she can't hear them now, they speak to someone else. The companions query but the words fall on deaf ears. Its not that she simply chooses not to hear, its as if the words don't exist. We/Belveren waited patiently and then shrugged our/her shoulders and stood up on our/her tiptoes to peer through a crack in the wall.


Silverquill-Belveren waits patiently for an answer from Irstilor. After a while, it becomes clear that the new arrival is too caught up with his own inner turmoil to answer the nosy duck. Shrugging his narrow shoulders, Silverquill doodles in his notebook for a good while until he finally gets fed up. What a noise as well! Wailing from one side, raucous merrymaking from the other.

The duck sage gets up on on tiptoes to peer through a crack in the wall. What he sees is Eurmal making ready to pee in his corner! Well that is it!


It was prodigious culinary gratification within the Great Hall - food, glorious food, gallons of ale quaffed with abandon, wine from the stars, dark elixirs from the Third Hell. Roast demibird marrow, whole Kaldamal boiled in their shells, giant river crayfish on platters of silver, Ox-wing soup, mammoth ribs smothered in spiced stroopleberry sauce, a dish of cow fingers and tilntae pie, wax feathered sandwiches and other assorted delicacies. Vizzorlanth gorged himself on Splendour bread soaked in Auroch dripping, finest Aramite crackling, smoke cured Bison rump and deep fried gangan gonads.

There was some mighty good eating!

Storming through the doors to the Hall, crashing them to one side, Silverquill- Belveren gets silence. Orlanth looks up from his plate of deep fried gangan gonads. "Yes?" his voice booms from behind his greasy beard, almost sending the heroquesters flying back out the way they came.

As they pick themselves up off the floor, dismayed at the laughter which has exploded from the drunkards before them, the storm-laden visage of Orlanth indicates that they have somehow dragged Umathkar Blackbrow, chieftain of the Ochre Fallow, into their quest. When the laughter has died down a little, he looks at them quizzically as if to ask what they are doing in his dream which, it seems, had been quite enjoyable up to this point.

Silverquill-Belveren looks up at the frowning visage of the Ochre Fallow chieftain, suddenly unsure of himself.


Yizar addresses the composite. "Stand back boys I'll get Orlanth's attention."

The sopping wet composite goddess straightens herself, adjusts her bodice for maximum effect and runs her fingers through her wet hair draping it with care on her shoulders. She advances proudly to Orlanth's feet and then gracefully kneels at his feet bowing low to show the proper obeisance (and cleavage). She speaks in a low husky voice with perhaps just a touch of distaste? She looks up at Orlanth proudly with what can only be described as bedroom eyes.

"Great lord I come to you as a supplicant. There is a matter that I would discuss with you if I may."


An answering rumble of thunder speaks clearly of the chieftain's displeasure at this interruption to his magnificent feast. The tiny figure of Belveren quails momentarily before him, then abruptly straightens and takes on a new and more confident aspect. Regarding the chieftan demurely, she speaks to him in a breathy half-whisper.

"I am truly sorry to have disturbed you at your meat, mighty Orlanth," she begins, glancing up at him shyly from beneath long lashes. "But I am sorely in need of your wisdom. The lamentations of your Queen cannot have escaped your attention, and I must confess that I am in some small way responsible for her present round of inundations."

A powerful scent of ozone becomes apparent, and the chief's beard begins to spark alarmingly. Glowering fiercely, he is about to open his mouth to speak, but Gyffun-Belveren hastens to continue. Now, though, judging that words alone will never be enough to engage the Stormbrow's sympathies, the skald continues his plea for aid in the manner he knows best:

"The grieving Queen's counsel I sought on a matter of woe
And her sorrowful tears soon in abundance did flow.
For the terrible doom of our ill-tainted kin is my pain
My distress at the raging Bull's methods I seek to explain.
Destruction is one way this evil to purge it is true,
But I firmly believe that there is another way too.

So I begged dear Ernalda, whose mourning inspires us all,
To remember Rantana, while there is still aught to recall.
For when Urox begins, he'll not cease his slaughter until
All that was good is destroyed with all that was ill.
And thus Queen Ernalda is weeping, her tears like the sea,
And thus you are feasting, and I bring before you my plea

We cannot ignore this foulness that o'ertakes our kin,
Nor let it continue to fester, lest evil should win,
But nor should we turn from its victims, blind to their plight
Merely condemning the horrors with unthinking spite.
I came here to tell you, lord Orlanth, in your great hall
That together we can fight this evil without losing all."

The sweet and musical voice of the goddess falls silent, and she bows her head to await the chieftain's response.


Umathkar-Orlanth seems very taken aback by the sight before him, his eyes seemingly fixed on the Goddess before him, his ears attuned to the sweet verse. Opening his greasy maw to speak, he mutters some irrelevancies as if to play for time, "A fine verse", he says, and "Ernalda grieving indeed". He pauses to peer out of the small window over the head of his companions, seeking to place himself in the correct Age, then turns back to those before him. His eyes settle on the composite goddess, then narrow when he spies Irstilor among them. His brow creases and he mouths a curse or two, but then he collects himself, for he is as aware as the others now that he is involved in a myth and must play his part, even if he does not know the script.

His attention drawn to the figure beside him, he seems relieved to see Vizzorlanth with the cup in his hand. Fishing about for suitable words, he nudges Vizzorlanth and, to keep things moving and to orient himself, questions the composite goddess before him, "Belveren, you must tell me one thing. You say that Urox is on a bloody quest, but you must tell me more of Rantana", here his eyes narrow suspiciously as if he knows what the answer will be, "for I find her name is already escaping to the Underworld, and I must know how to act in each of the worlds, lest I open one of them to the Darkness." Staring at Irstilor now, he concludes by adding, "And I must know your true motive." As he finishes, Umathkar-Orlanth seems unsatisfied with his effort to speak on different levels. He nudges Vizzorlanth once again and leans over to him to give him his ear.

Vizz whispers a sacred and ancient verse that he just made up:

"Umathkar Chief,
I will be brief.

In this tale,
You get to drink ale

It is your weird,
To have grease in your beard

We have lots of grief,
Umathkar Chief

Sadness'd be soothed,
If you give us your Move

Tears you will dry,
With your thunder cry

Give some relief,
Umathkar Chief.

For we must travel far,
Umathkar Dar.

Without your Change Magic,
It will be tragic.

The Power in the dregs:
The god with three legs.

If your Movement powers fade
I would do you a trade?"


Belveren sits gape-jawed as the quickly forgotten identity of Irstilor comes screeching back into her memory. She remembers now how Umathkar-Orlanth wronged him in the past with his indifference, his inaction. Anger wells in Irstilor as his escapism of old draws close. The veins in her forehead stand taught and his right hand twitches for the comfort of his spear. "Not like this, there is another way." Belveren thinks to himself. Finally he stops biting his lip and the composite goddess speaks. His words are chosen carefully and spoken so as to not let on the shaking in his throat.

"My motives are not my own, instead some higher power guides me now. I seek only to understand those who would not understand, and care for those who would not care themselves. Compassion and understanding for one's own - you would understand such things, as great kings need have these virtues in plenty."

So much awareness of self-identity in the forefront of his mind, that Silverquill and Faren's earlier queries come to notice. He glances sideways at his two companions after he speaks. Farmer and Durulz both notice the brief flash of dark eyes and both think to themselves that it is the first time Irstilor looked at them as if they were people.


Umathkar stares at his cup, overflowing with all sorts of toothsome liquid as it now is. His eyes grow wide as it starts to flow on to the table before him and he seems fearful that if he does not act right, he will bring down a terrible doom. He lifts the cup to his lips and takes a mighty draught, gulping furiously as if fighting a demon within the cup. His eyes start top bulge, his face to grow red as his cheeks swell and each gulp seems to fill him more. Eventually he lowers the cup and stares into the bottom. With a look of disgust and barely able to still his heaving chest, he hands the cup over to Vizzorlanth beside him, slumping back and closing his eyes as if defeated.

At the bottom of this cup, there is just a touch of liquid remaining - enough to sustain the dancing, swirling patterns which spin out from the centre to the sides of the cup and then somehow back in. As Vizzorlanth stands, he feels himself moving with even more lethargy than the usual he expects from a hangover. Within this cup is a part of him, or a part of his affinity with his God at least, and somehow this dark stranger has helped him to place it within the cup. Moving as if through treacle, Vizzorlanth rejoins his companions, and forms part of Belveren once more. But he feels something missing and knows he must replace it before long.

Quitting Orlanth's Longhall, bearing Vizz slumped within her, Belveren steps back out into the twilight. Spurred on by the gift of Movement, she quickly passes the houses of the other gods and enters a vast plain of all sorts of grasses. Barley, wheat, eichorn, rye, oats, all are here, growing together yet all seemingly halted in the half light, waiting for some sign to flower, set seed and feed the world. This is Esrola's Great Garden, stretching as far as the eye can see, each blade of grass seeming to hold its own, unique colour, reflecting the many shades of Earth beneath and drawing them all up into the air as if gift the world Ernalda's bounty. Far on the horizon a gigantic tree rises from the plain. Overdruva's Tree marks the border of Aldrya's Forest and above and beyond it, the airs are alive with swirling thunderclouds and rushing winds.

And on a distant horizon, a plume of dust rises behind something travelling faster than the wind.


Determinedly hitching up her skirts, Gyffun-Belveren takes a deep breath and then sets off towards the dust-cloud at a terrific pace. As she runs, she sings a childhood ditty, chanting the words rapidly in time with her pounding feet:

"Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run
Don't let Odayla have his fun, fun, fun!"
He'll get by with out his rabbit pie
So run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run"!

Suddenly the form takes shape - Mastakos' chariot is bearing down upon the composite goddess, fixing to crash into her. At the last minute, though, a sharp tug on the reins pulls the steeds to one side, the chariot slewing to one side, the wheels ploughing through the tall grasses, and it looks as if the composite goddess will not be struck.

But Gyffun's song has inspired the composite goddess to act as one and, despite Silverquill and Vizz tarrying behind, she still has the energy to jump in the way of the hurtling chariot, a final vision of rune-emblazoned shields passing over her head as a wheel crashes into her, sending coloured earth flying in all directions and hurling the component parts of the goddess in all directions. Lifting their heads from among the grasses, the Exiles and their new companion see the chariot righting itself as it carries on its journey, the driver concentrating all his efforts on keeping the horses under control.

Sore and slightly dazed from the impact, Gyffun picks himself up and stares vacantly at the departing chariot for a moment before he recalls their purpose. Holding out his hands to his companions and beckoning them to rejoin the circle, he starts to draw a deep breath and then realises what he is doing and stops, panting slightly. No, he thinks, not from breath, not from breath, not from breath...

As part of the goddess, he had found speaking and even singing as simple and natural as it had been before his transformative experience in the clouds. Now, a singleton once more, it seems to be a great challenge again. Something has changed, however, and analysing the import of his experiences so far, the skald perceives what it is: as a part of Belveren, he was too absorbed in their purpose to think about his breathlessness.

He had not been not breathless at all, he realises, as he had raced towards the chariot, singing as he went. If anything, singing made it easier, not more difficult... because he didn't need to breath as well! Shaken and wondering, Gyffun realises that precious moments have ticked by while he contemplated his peculiar condition, and realises that he must do something quickly. Well, if singing can substitute for breathing, then...

Without waiting for the others to join him, he opens his mouth and produces a raw note of such mournful intensity that it is barely possible to distinguish it from a scream. Fuelled by all of the anguish and self-doubt that he has experienced since falling from the sky, and by the new spark of hope that has now ignited in his heart, Gyffun immerses himself in this performance. Soon he hears the voices of his companions joining his, and contributing their own weight of pain and emotion to the goddess' scream.

Gyffun immerses himself in this performance. Soon he hears the voices of his companions joining his, and contributing their own weight of pain and emotion to the goddess' scream.

Well, that is enough, and so the chariot takes a long arc and circles back to her, Entislar-Mastakos bending down to lift her up on to his chariot. "Whither to, oh vociferous one?" he asks, once she has explained her business.

Before she can catch her breath, if that is what she is using, she is racing across the grassland, ducking out of the wind but peeking up to direct the charioteer toward the black storm clouds where she knows Urox must be. As they draw up beside the warrior, they see that it is Vurth, standing, unusually for him, stock still, his eyes, framed by his livid bright red scars, roving about fanatically, his body soaked in mud.


Mastokos carried them so fast that Faren's head was whirling, but when they came close enough to the stock still form of Vurth/Storm Bull, Faren realized something was wrong. "Stop here!" he yelled out, and found himself spilling out of the skewing chariot even as he finished speaking the words.

He lifted his head out of the mud and signalled the others to stay still while he observed the storm bull.

He knew there were a number of reasons why a bull could be still like this. With a farmers trained eye, he realized that this one was poised for action, its nostrils flared, eyes showing the white... could he tell by the subtle shift in its eyes, the tensing of muscles, what it was sensing, where it was focussing its senses?

Regretting the tumble that had thrown them out of Belveren and out of mental contact, Faren whispers "He's trying to locate something, I think, something hidden. Rather than give it disorder to hide in, let me see if I can tell when he has determined it isn't in one area, then we can mark it with a flower."

A little louder he calls gently to Vurth, in a tone similar to what he'd use when training oxen, "Easy does it, don't move if you don't have to. We are here and there is another way to find what is bedevilling you. Just do exaaaactly as we say...."

Gyffun, frowns slightly as he casts his mind back to Rika's tale, and squeezes Faren's hand to interrupt him.

"Of course, you don't have to follow my advice," the skald interjects, speaking to the motionless Bull in the voice of the goddess. "I'm sure that a big strong fellow like you can't possibly need the help of a tiny little thing like me. But you certainly won't find what you're looking for by churning up all of this mud. And just standing there like a big lummox, while preferable to all of that stomping about, isn't going to help you much either. But don't mind me - you just keep on doing whatever it is that you're doing, and I'll stand over here and watch."


Urox-Vurth curses at the intrusion. He had been sure that whoever was lurking was just about to show! He jumps at what he thinks the most probable hiding spot and with a mighty bash sends mud flying. There is little other effect though. Certainly no jellied bodies which had been the goal.

He glared at the cause of the disturbance and then groaned. If that windbag Mastakos wasn't bad enough he's also brought along that ratty little girl who was always pestering him about chaos. He really regretted the day he'd first given into her. Maybe if he just ignored them they'd go away?

So Urox-Vurth focused on his chaos smiting and charged about the field looking for his elusive foe but they appeared to be exactly that. Covered in mud, progressively getting more frustrated .. and still with a audience! He was starting to getting peeved and considered taking a moment or two off from chaos smiting.

And what was that silly chit shouting about anyway?

But then he picks up the trail, the trick which Karli taught him yet to fail, and soon finds some reassuring gobbets of slime marking where his prey has fled.

Vuth-Urox roars in triumph! Got them at last he does!! His initial triumphant shout is quickly swallowed back to a 'but this isn't what supposed to happen' moment ... 'I'm not not supposed to find them at all .. and then ... (grits teeth) .. the flowers bit ...'

A struggle ensues. To the outsider it must appear quite peculiar. One moment SB goes straight for an arrow to an isolated clump of mud and then next thing you know V is haring off in some other direction ... back and forth .. great hooves churning up the muck.


When Vurth started flailing at the mud Faren had mixed feelings, happy that they were back in line with the myth, but worried that this was going just a bit too easily.

Then he saw Vurth freeze momentarily, then clearly start following a trail clear to him, like a bull tracking a cow in rut.

Faren muttered to himself "I hope I live to regret this...." then pulls off his cloak and starts flapping it dramatically, while calling out "Hey, you dumb bull! What are you doing, following your own foot steps? Looks like broo droppings over here!" Then he dashes to a different spot and growls "This mud here looks like it has been dedicated to Malia, I'm not surprised you haven't noticed it though." Then he heads off in the opposite direction from where Vurth had been going, then screams "Ahh, it burns, that must have been a gorp! Why haven't you gotten rid of it? A poor excuse for a chaos fighter you are!"


The occasional cry from Belveren keeps him moving, sometimes pushing him off from his trail, sometimes bringing him back, the composite goddess all the while trying to keep to the myth. She's yet to spot any flowers, though, and this niggles at the back of her mind.

Indeed, the steaming bull's sudden dance of triumph, stomping in the mud and bellowing his rage, indicates that he has found his prey in the slime. When Belveren arrives breathless beside Vurth, she can just about perceive through the gloom the bloody and broken form beneath his hooves. A naked woman, with smooth skin broken in many places, and long flowing sandy-coloured hair, now mud-soaked. A young form, but one close to death.

Realising that his taunting is doing no good at all, and that Faren's strategy is buying them a little time but nothing more, Gyffun decides to change tack. Following the story as Rika told it seems to be helping them little, and the skald wonders if perhaps her telling of this portion reflected her penchant for teasing Vurth more than the essential aspects of the myth. The Bull has succeeded where he should have failed, and now the composite goddess must fight to stay his hand where she might more profitably have bargained.

"Good sir Bull," calls the goddess in a small voice. Intent upon his task Urox-Vurth ignores her, and Gyffun sighs to himself, muttering "A little assistance, please, master Aren?"

"Mighty Urox," she calls again, and now her voice is like thunder. "A word in your ear, if you please?" This time the Bull cannot fail to pay her heed, and stares angrily at her as she approaches him. Moving slowly and calmly, and making soothing noises deep in her throat, she reaches out one sure and steady hand to his forehead, and starts to scratch gently behind his ear with the other.

When she sees the fury starting to abate, Gyffun-Belveren continues with a verse that ripples with strange and persuasive music.


Vurth gazes down at the recumbent figure before him. Shame about the girl. She had done her share in the war against the pre-dark but had just got a bit too close. He raises one iron shod hoof and prepares to finish the job when he is distracted by some singing. Startled he turns and notices that Belveren is singing at him. What is the chit up to?

"Your prey is at hand, your task nearly done,
It seems naught but destruction awaits for this one,
But give me a moment, and heed what I say,
And I promise you'll see there's another way

For there's always another way, my dear, there's always another way.

Huh? Well , yes job nearly done and neatly done it was if he didn't say so. But what call is there for another way? Old way seems just fine just now.

The mud maid is tainted, I cannot deny,
Your senses are sharp and they tell you no lie
But does nothing remain that is worthy of praise
That your grim solution shall also erase?

For there's always another way, my dear, there's always another way.

Well, yes bit of a pity really but what's a chaos cleanser to do? This is the pre-dark so it has to go.

So I pray, stay your hand and grant me a boon,
Give me this chance, and I promise that soon
You'll see we can still save what is worthy and pure,
Without killing all with your terrible cure.

For there's always another way, my dear, there's always another way..."

Huh? What's she going on about? And why should he grant any boon to her?

A quick glance to the form below shows that there is nothing to worry about there so he turns his attention over to Belveren and says:

"What are you blathering about? And why should I be granting any boons to you?"

"Because I'm trying to save the herd as much as you are," insists Belveren- Faren. "But your way will destroy it to save it, while mine might just save it. When one is tainted it must not be left in the herd to taint others, in this we agree. But if each time one is tainted you destroy it, well soon how much of the herd will be left?"

"But what if the tainted one is taken aside, to prevent the taint from spreading, and then we try to heal it? Perhaps it works and the herd doesn't lose anyone. Perhaps it doesn't and then it can be safely destroyed. Either way, you lose nothing by trying, and maybe you save a piece of the herd."

Urox sniffs. "Shows what you know. You get hoof and mouth in a herd you separate out the sick ones and kill them. After all, there's no way to cure hoof and mouth is there?! The longer you wait or mess about the more likely the infection spreads after all."

Urox nudges the recumbent figure beneath him with one hoof.

"And this here is one infection that ain't going to spread nowhere. Why should I listen to you?"


Belveren-Irstilor speaks now, after letting herself be carried along for quite awhile by other components of herself.

"Compassion?" she says. "Pity? The love of creatures? No, not those reasons, wild bull. No those reasons are not the concern of a great warrior such as yourself."

Her eyes narrow and she subtly arches her spine and turns slightly to accentuate her delicate curves against the contrasted stormy sky.

"But why does a champion command the battlefield then come home and listen to his wife? Or a stud to the spring dance of his mare? There are many reasons to listen, fearless bull."

While Belveren-Irstilor offers her inducements to Urox-Vurth, Gyffun momentarily separates his consciousness from the goddess to focus on the battered form lying at the Bull's feet. Is this one of the Ash Maidens, he wonders? Or some poor mortal drawn into their myth-working as he himself had been drawn into that of the trolls?

Returning his attention to the most pressing concern of the moment, the skald commences a low and melodious humming, which resonates throughout his being and extends outwards into the twin worlds around him. Recalling his transforming experiences in the Web of Fate, Gyffun patiently shapes this musical expression into another form. To the onlookers, both mortal and divine, this synaesthetic contribution appears as a shimmering aura of numinous beauty, which dances around the various forms of the composite goddess and softens the hearts of all who behold it.

Well they certainly have Urox-Vurth's attention now! The battered mud maid, while not exactly forgotten has definitely been given competition for thought and action. Nostrils flare as Vurth inspects the 'wares'. A low rumbling begins from deep within.

"So what exactly is it you want to do with this bit of mud?"

He prods the mud maid with a hoof, eliciting a groan which, to Belveren's ears, are a wave of olive green pain tinged with sickness. The soft Aldryan sound leaves no doubt as to the nature of the prone woman, but the violet irises of the eyes which flicker open are hard as diamonds, not softened at all by Gyffun-Belveren's synaesthetic waves of sympathy. Even the foul slime which coats her skin is affected by the composite goddess' proximity, rising as a volatile cloud of putrescence which assails the Bull's nose.

From beneath the hooves, the woman begins to push herself up...


Silverquill-Belveren consults his notebook. As far as the small duck sage can tell, they are now supposed to transfer the muddy entity to the chariot and then travel to the icy wastes of the Uz. He looks nervously at the rising woman. "Er..." he stammers to Storm Bull-Vurth. "We need to twansfer her into the chawiot..." but his suggestion seems to take an age to filter through Vurth's brain.

Meanwhile, Aren addresses the muddy woman with none of the duck's hesitation "Well, do we allow the bull to finish his dance or will you come with us and do as we say? Then we will purify your spirit so you can stand straight and proud again in your forest."

The woman, panting with the effort of lifting her battered body from the ground, looks at Aren with the briefest smile before wincing, and Faren adds his near-namesake's words, "What you once were might seem lost, perhaps even of little interest now. But think back to your pure days, of your happiness then. It is surely a scary thought to cease being what you are now--but it is only to become something better, purer, and happier, to become what you once were, but strengthened and purified by your experiences."

These words encourage a genuine smile from the woman, striking the Belveren composite with a warm glow despite the drizzle. Aren feels the slightest touch of the ecstasy he felt back in the Hag's Haunt, while Faren is filled with the same satisfying feeling he gets from ploughing the land or from a bountiful harvest. "I bear here the Heart Shield", continues Faren, "formed of copper, the metal of the earth and of love. It helps the heart focus on love and protection of family, and to resist bitterness, temptation, and those things that would turn you away from love and family. Would you sit upon it and call upon its blessing, it might ease your agony?"

Gyffun, though, is more wary of the elf-woman, bitterly recalling the last time that the Exiles encountered corrupted Aldyrami. The visible evidence of the despicable taint that has afflicted her evokes feelings of anger to accompany his sympathy and caution. These new emotions add hints of colour to the skald's ongoing wordless song, but with a deft and confident touch he weaves them into the improvised musical tapestry. Although the warp and weft of his own emotions hold together in harmonious patterns, though, he cannot help but feel the discordant note of Aldrya's song unravelling each phrase he composes, or each counterpoint of colour against colour.

Vurth, oblivious to the colours, emotions and soft sounds floating back and forth between Belveren and the Ash Maiden, turns his attention back to the muddy figure now that it has begun to move. "Why ask her? If we're going to do it then we do it says I!" Vurth resolves the matter by picking up the battered figure none too gently and hopping aboard the chariot. "Right you", he says to Mastakos, "get us to wherever it is she wants us to go!"

Entislar-Mastakos jumps back to avoid being crushed, holding the reins tightly to calm the horses. From Vurth's arms, the Ash Maiden wraps her lithe arms about his neck to prevent any further battering, tendrils sprouting from her fingertips and suckers clutching on to his neck and shoulders. Casting alien eyes over his shoulder, her appeal to Aren and Faren is pitiful, "Save me from this monster, I beg you." This effort saps her energy and she slumps, her mouth resting close to Vurth's ear. Her hissed whisper is audible, "You cannot perform this task, Bull, you are as those who betrayed us before. You profess devotion but you are false. I know your secret, and so do my sisters."

Faren is not moved by this entreaty. It is time for her to be "burned" by all of the elements, and re-built into a purer form, and burn-and-build philosophy tells him that this is required. He's fed an orphaned calf by hand, raised it to be an ox, trained it and worked with it as partners, then killed it when the time was right. No more will he hesitate now.

As the maiden's head slumps Faren urges the 'they' that is Belveren onto the back of the chariot, and calls upon Heart's Shield to enfold the maiden in its blessing. But even as he does so the synaesthetic cloud of her words fades and the boundary between worlds begins to crumble, the scant twilight to dissolve. A howl of Otherworld winds rises quickly, the ring of axe blows joined with shouted imprecations to Urox, and the Exiles feel themselves being pulled... back into their own world or into the God's war they do not know.


Silverquill starts a low quacking which gradually increases in volume. Gripping the rail of the chariot tightly, he directs his squawks against the Otherworldly winds which surrounds the heroes. Aren, meanwhile, draws upon his great knowledge of mythology to and seeks ways to reinforce their mythic role as Belveren and maintain their position in the otherworld.

Reaching blindly for his harp, the skald draws much-needed sustenance from its familiar touch. Its unadulterated connection to the true Song floods though him like the taste of fresh spring-water, washing away the metallic tang of its distorted counterpart. Inspired by this wholesome image, he abandons himself to the life-giving currents of the music, dissolving himself wilfully into the purity of the Song. As the world about him begins its own process of dissolution, Gyffun entrusts his very idea of self to the unwavering sense of purpose that directs him and to the numinous strands that bind him to his fate.

Vurth shouts out: "No! This is not what is meant to be! I am no more the same as those who came before than you!! No Betrayal!! No Retreat!!!"

"Make haste!" Faren shouts to his companions. "We have the ones we seek, now we must be away to the Dozaki Uz! Quickly to the chariot Vizz, Gyffun, Aren! Mostakos, we must ride the strands of the world and resist the pits that chaos throws in front of us"

Faren extends his soul sight, and sees the tendrils of Aren and Vurth's wills making the warp of this world, and Gyffun's music and SilverQuill's quacking providing the weft, but the result is still a ragged fabric of reality, dark in places to his sight. He calls upon Yavor's lightning to flash across the strongest threads of Vurth's will, and holds that lightning path with all his stubbornness and canniness.

"There," he yells to Mastakos "follow the lightning path, as you did at Thrinbarri of the clouds."

Sensing the combined efforts of his companions, Gyffun's renews his efforts to counteract the mud maid's corrupted Song. Gratified by Vurth's furious determination and Faren's stubborn persistence, he prays that his curious musical contribution to the struggle can provide some assistance to their more strenuous efforts. As they wrestle the protesting elf-woman into the chariot and move to depart, the skald leaps to catch a hold of departing vehicle.


The chariot draws off with the elf woman, still clasped to Vurth, bundled into it, but the warrior's limbs and mouth are sufficiently free, his companions bolster his efforts with sufficient determination, to cast back the ungodly winds which howl about the Exiles. The woman seeks to whisper in Vurth's ear, but the din of quacking, not comical now to the humans but happily familiar, drowns her out.

A primaeval darkness envelops everyone, arising from the ground as the brightly multicoloured earth of Ernalda's realm fades. The twilight becomes altogether more sinister and of the few sensations available to the Exiles are the odd flash of lightning which illuminate the chariot as it seems to turn once more into its constituent parts, each glimpse of its structure reminding them that it was once living wood, as it seems once more to be. As they learn the true nature of Darkness, not just a lack of sight but a lack of senses, it is only the struggle to maintain the bond of the goddess Belveren which remains constant and ties them to this Otherworld.

It is only the song which gives this bond form and conducts the electric flickers into Vurth's arms and keep him resolute. Soon, the Exiles feel themselves born upon a calmer wind, the song gathers the strength of a hundred voices, so it seems, from whence they came, and the colours of the Earth regain their ethereal state, glowing and lighting up the gloom.

They have avoided the Gods War, for it was thence that they were bound, by stubbornness and determination. And now they find themselves on an icy plateau, perceiving that the light comes from below a sheet of ice where the earth lies imprisoned. Entislar-Mastakos smiles at his companions, crowded into the chariot as only a single being could be, for he has brought them to the lands of a kinder darkness, however hostile it may be to mortals.

Strewn about the chariot are five figures, clothed in leaves, two face down but the other three possessing a beauty which none of the Exiles has before seen, smiling radiantly at the Exiles from their prone positions. One of these is the same elf-woman that they ungracefully bundled into the chariot, but they can see now that the beauty which they had before seen in her was as nothing to how she, and her sisters, are now. It is not the beauty of mortal women, but the beauty of Life, which only Aldrya could possess. None of the travellers is unmoved, all now feel the same elation which Aren felt when he leant against one of the Ash Maidens back in their grove.

Sitting up, the three Maidens introduce themselves, "Alea" says the first, followed by "Hurea" and "Hant". "And you are the Goddess Belveren?" they ask in unison.

Silverquill-Belveren happily lights up a cigar and nods at the three women. "That's wight, sweetheawt. We are looking for the Dozaki Uz. They 'wound here?"

"But you must forgive my rudeness," Gyffun-Belveren interjects, with a sharp glance at Silverquill. "For I am sure that you are strangers in this realm, as are we. I am indeed Belveren, and my companions are Mastakos and Urox. We have brought you here with a purpose, a purpose that should soon become clear..."

Vurth looks somewhat astonished at what he is now holding but steels himself to enjoying it. Then he looks at 'Belveren' and says: "Yeah .. what's next? You were the one going on about other ways."

"Just what is it we are supposed to do now?"

"Are there Uz here?" The maiden looks around fearfully, detaching herself from Vurth's embrace, a single sucker remaining carefully draped around his shoulder. "And what is your purpose?" She bends low now, crouching as if ready to spring away in flight...

"Uz? Certainly not right here, or we'd be shouldering weapons instead of jawing with you. But these are Uz lands I'd say. As for our purpose, why to make sure that you are purely yourselves again. Now, we know what we are doing and we aim to do it most properly. Unfortunately that means dealing with some Uz as one step along the way. But there are other steps after that too, so you can be sure that we'll be protecting you from destruction at the hands of the Uz."

Internally, Faren is thinking "At least, unlike taking scythe to a field, or a cow to the slaughter, in this case it really is for their own good."

And with that, the uncomfortable itching sensation which has been creeping up ignored upon them all increases in intensity to sharp pains all about their bodies, and a look of betrayal upon the Maidens' faces. The ground is alive with ants!


Silverquill lets out a panicked squawk and leaps up on the siderail of the chariot. Taking a deep puff of his cigar, he blows a fouls-smelling plume of smoke towards the angry ants on his legs, curious to see what effect it has. His curiosity is rewarded by a series of painful bites and the realisation that a score of these beasts have taken refuge from the smoke within his down, making him almost wish he could shed his entire plumage as a human might his clothing. The chariot is free of the ants apart from those he has managed to drive off him on to the railing.

The small duck throws his still-smoking cigar down on the ground near the largest concentration of ants and quickly proceeds to 'preen' himself, nibbling away at the ants hidden in his down and biting them in half before swallowing them. Yum!

Compared to other wounds Vurth has suffered (at this own hands as well as those from others) the ant bites are .. well mere ant bites.

Still best not to let them upset the others. Calling forth the power of the wild wind he scours the company in a swirling dust cloud. As the dry dusty wild wind blows up Aren charges it with his lightning. This raise the hair of everyone and nasty little sparks fly when ever anyone touches anything. Faren runs his sparking hands over his body, a steady 'pop-pop-pop' revealing the fate of the ants that he finds.

The flurry of snow and fragments of ice scour many of the ants away. Indeed, the sheer number of ants is revealed as they are caught up in a small whirlwind, providing respite from the worst of the bites. The two slumped Maidens now lift their faces into the wind, revealing faces of such hideous ugliness that it is difficult, even in the half light, to look at them. One of the others, who had introduced herself as Hurea, rushes over crying "Sister!" but is frozen to the spot as one of the prone forms waves a hand at her.

Gyffun, plagued by fear and indecision, now sees their path more clearly. The appearance of the ants had been the stuff of nightmare for him, recalling his previous encounter with the insects, and momentarily paralysing him with fear. Now, however, he sees the inexorable logic of this development and its connection with the Uz of Rika's story.

Addressing Alea, Hurea and Hant he says: "Maidens! Fear not! Though it may seem that their doom is upon them, this devouring foe is but the first stage in your sister's purification. Remember that the unquenchable life within you cannot be so easily extinguished, but the canker that has overtaken them shall not endure."

To his companions, he says: "Mastakos! Vurth! Swiftly now! We must save the pure ones from the ants, and leave the others to be devoured."

Even as he says this, however, he sees the welts on the Ash Maiden's bodies turning foul and pustulent. "Stay!" he cries immediately to his companions. "Perhaps the three who seem fair are yet corrupted. It pains me to abandon them to this devouring horde, but it seems that we have no choice. Let us repair to a safe distance, to avoid being consumed ourselves!"

Silverquill remains perched on the siderail of the chariot, peering distrustfully at Ash Maidens both beautiful and foul. He surreptitiously readies his Globe of Lightning in case of further treachery.


After a moment of excitement from the ant infestation, Faren settles down, and realizes that he doesn't know what to do next. Still, surely with the right information they can figure it out.

"SilverQuill," he calls out. "You are the most leaned of us about all things Uz I think. Could these ants represent the Uz here?"

Silverquill scratches his head thoughtfully, catches a stray ant and pops it into his beak.

"Mmmmmm.... Cwunchy! What was that, master Fawen? Oh yes, Uz are closely connected with insects. Especially their smaller bwethren, the twollkin, are often alluded to as a wavenous horde of all-eating pests. I wemember a lesson fwom the academy; Gowakiki is the most pwolific of Kwopa's spawn. She was born duwing the Endless Eating Time, when the Uz lived in blissful Uzhome. Like evewything else in that time she thwived, and her children spwead thwoughout cweation. So many mowtal spawn did she have that her spiwit pawt was used up completely. She is now only a name, wowshipped thwough her descendants. Gowakiki's first spawn wemained undergwound with her, and still shelter in the dark; we call them bwistletails, swringtails, and eawigs. Her second spawn swam in the waters, and are dwagonflies, mayflies, and water beetles. Her most numewous spawn cwawled in and upon the eawth; these are bugs, beetles, cockwoaches, flies, and hundweds of other insects. When the wicked suwface gods made animals of their own, some of Gowakiki's spawn fed upon them; these are the fleas, lice, and bloodgnats...."

Silverquill recalls an item of trivia he had stored in his memory but had never thought he would use, that, although ostensibly nomadic, ants of this sort will take their foodstuffs to a bivouac, made by many ants clinging together, for further delights. After sharing this tidbit of information with his companions, the durulz takes a deep breath and looks hopefully at Faren.

Despite realizing that the Maidens are dryads, Faren still has a hard time working out if they are as hale and hearty as their beautiful form would suggest or if they retain the taint of the Chaos-afflicted. As he gazes at the pustulent welts on Hant before him, he slaps his forhead when he figures out that he's most certainly never seen pus on a plant before. Foul-smelling sap for sure, in wheat felled by eyespot, say, but pus - that's just too animal a thing. These dryads, even if they are on the road to recovery, still have something alien about them.

"It seems we have no choice, then," Gyffun comments when Faren relates this revelation to his companions. "Even if they are no longer overwhelmed by the taint, our fair maidens still need to be purged. We must suffer them all to be devoured by these ravenous insects, and then follow the horde to recover their purified essences."

"Now," he conmtinues, wincing in pain as more of the ants scurry to attack them. "Let us quickly retire to a safer distance, lest they devour us too!"

"I agwee", says Silverquill. "Let's be away fwom these wavenous (but wather tasty) insects."

The small duck sage licks his bill and hunts around in the chariot for any stray ants. "Heeeere, anty anty anty..."

Silverquill begins to wonder how you go for a night-time bivouac in a land which appears to be permanent twilight? He also wonders how the ants can survive and be active in this cold temperature - being cold-blooded beings themselves? Maybe these are anti-ants? Capable of surviving freezing cold and eternal twilight?

He holds up a struggling ant between his fingers and examines it in detail. He decides that these ants might prove to be an interesting subject of research and with a wistful sigh pops the struggling ant into his cigar box for later study.

Vizz, barely noticed before, is bereft of some of his powers, and finding the mantle of feminine goddessness, the essence of woman, has impaired his thinking and his naturally manly actions. Gradually his senses are clearing.

Echoing the sage's own thoughts, he asks: "Does the wise durulz consider that the bivouacing might be triggered by light or temperature? I reckon temperature to be the trigger myself, reasoning that ants are reasonable beings and would huddle together for warmth as any sensible being, and therefore a freezing blast of cold Storm winds might trigger the bivouacing, especially when it is considered that they will have had a fine meal?"

"Enough of this speculation," says Gyffun sharply. "We can discuss this tactic when we have removed ourselves from this immediate peril!"

He is feeling impatient now, and is growing increasingly anxious about the ants that are swarming over and around the chariot. Still suffering from the double vision that has plagued them throughout their quest, the skald simultaneously sees the five 'fair and foul' Maidens arrayed around the chariot, and the single maiden glaring up at Vurth-Urox. Closing one eye to focus on the latter, composite form, he takes her by the arms and unceremoniously ejects her from the vehicle.

"Drive, charioteer!" he instructs Mastakos. "Dally here no more!"

As the chariot moves away from the maidens and ants, he lifts his murmuring harp once more. The mournful Song of the dryads and the bitter accompaniment of their tainted sisters immediately pours out of the instrument and rushes over him like cold water. Reaching through it, fighting against the weight of the onrushing torrent, Gyffun searches for the faint but persistent rhythm that stirs beneath it. It is almost impossible to distinguish at first, but the staggering multiplicity of its syncopated beats eventually resolves itself into something that he can grasp.

He draws his hand swiftly over the strings of the harp, creating a cascading ripple of sound that throws both the discordant plant Songs and the nearly-impenetrable insect rhythms into momentary disarray. Then, holding the instrument awkwardly against his body and playing with both hands simultaneously, the skald begins to weave a new and potent music.

Communicating with his audience through this wild and uncompromising volley of sound, the musician's principle message become clear: he seeks to send the ants into a feeding frenzy, and to unequivocally direct their voracity at the five-in-one figure who stands in their midst. Its secondary meaning, woven through the first like a delicate strand of new grass in bale of straw, carries a faint message of hope for those who are about to be consumed: Life endures, it promises. Though your forms may dissolve, and your very selves seem lost, your essence will yet remain, and shall be restored.

Well, Vurth-Urox has promised to go along with whatever Belveren suggests, but he can't help think how women always try and makes things so complicated.

With a hearty "Right off you go then", he helps pitch the remaining sister off the chariot.

He waves and shouts "Apparently this is for your own good."

Turning to the others he remarks "Sounds like something my Da always used to say just before something painful happened to me."

Barreling away, the cries of the Maidens and the Hags turning to screams, it is all that they can do to keep Mastakos from turning the chariot back. As the screams die down, a final word rings loud across the plain, an unsettling word, "Betrayers". And then there is silence. As the chariot slows down a little, Entislar-Mastakos is forced to bring it to a sudden halt. Before the assembled God-amalgams stand seven trolls, grinning up at the chariot and licking their chops.


"What's up? Why are we stopping?"

Silverquill jumps up and down in an attempt to peer over the side of the chariot. Finally losing patience, he touches his Grasshoppers Leg and leaps up on the railing.


Silverquill-Belveren looks at the seven Uz, seeking to identify the leader (most likely a female near the back?). He greets the trolls, introduces himself/the party as the goddess Belveren and asks them if they are Dozaki trolls.

"Vel mødt, ædle twolde," he says. "Jeg er gudinden Belvewen. Skulle I muligvis væwe af klanen Dozaki?"

Aren is unsure just what the duck just said but adds. "We bring Aldryami and ask if you and your allies could consume them as part of their cleansing".

Vurth looks at the seven trolls with some anticipation. Definitely more promising than watching maidens being eaten by ants.

He peers at the group. Any Zorani?

Then looks about and says to the the Belveren composite: "So... this part of the quest or do they count as an obstacle to be overcome?"

He fingers his klanth/sword/club-weapon expectantly.

"Errrr... it might be a bad time to mention this, Aren," Gyffun puts in quietly. "But I don't think there was anything in the myth about politely asking the Uz to eat Rantana and not us. And I don't like to disappoint you, Vurth, but it also fails to mention anything about Urox scrapping with them."

"In fact," he continues. "Rika was quite emphatic on this point: she said that it was 'only the charioteer's skilful driving which ensured the hordes of trolls set upon Rantana and not the three of them', if I recall correctly."

"In summary: drive like the wind, Mastakos!"

It is, indeed, the wind behind the chariot that is sending it gliding ever so slowly on the ice towards the trolls. The hungry rumble of their stomachs resonates with the chariot's railings, sending a disappointing answer back to them and nearly dislodging the duck with the vibrations. The answer to Silverquill's question seems to satisfy and reassure him.

Entislar-Mastakos is about to whip his steeds back into action, having had to haul one of them back up to its feet by brute force on the reins, when an almighty crunch beneath the wheels indicates that the chariot has run into and over something. Beneath the vehicle, as the Belveren amalgam and Vurth-Urox look over the railing, are several delicately formed ice sculptures of enlo which have brought the chariot to a halt. Looking up, they see looks of horror upon the faces of the watching Uz and one or two palms held up urgently.

Two of the foremost trolls rush forward, crouching low as they do so, and Mastakos raises his whip to strike the horses.

Silverquill urgently looks up at Entislar/Mastakos and quacks:

"Please stop for now and let me talk to them."

This is enough to give the charioteer pause. The two beefy Uz fly, as Mastakos' whip is held aloft, into the chariot and upend it, spilling its passengers across the ice. One of the trolls leaps on to an entangled horse and in a moment has ripped the panicked animal's throat out, spilling blood across the ice as she buries her face in and sets to chewing desperately. The other troll hunkers, mewling, over the ice enlo as the remaining five rush forward.

Silverquill holds up his hands to the onrushing trolls.

"Hvis I er sultne, så æd vowes hest og så kan vi tale. Jeg er en uzven.", he says, which translates as "If you are hungry, please eat our horse and then let us talk. I am an Uzfriend."

Meanwhile, Gyffun, cursing loudly, leaps nimbly from the chariot and draws his borrowed sword. As he does so, he recognises the troll nearest to him, crouching beside the broken ice sculpture. It is the hunter that he encountered previously, whom he had bested in combat and left with an offer of peace between their peoples.

"Hold!" he cries out to the Uz, in Darktongue. "Hold and parley! We fought before, you and I, remember? I did not kill you then, and I would rather speak than kill you now. Tell your comrades to back off!"

Obviously, Irstilor's companions know curses and insults in Darktongue which he doesn't understand. But he knows the language of taunting and follows suit in his own language. He tosses his braid to his back and grips his spear and shield in a ready stance as the troll hunter before Gyffun looks up fearfully.

"You filthy trash-garblers," he declares. "Step closer and feel my spear! If that oversized belly and its 6 nippled top isn't yellow! My grandfather in his 80th winter murdered your kin with this spear. They were twice as big and not nearly so stinky as you. Come in and taste it!"

Irstilor sneers and brandishes his spear menacingly while taking up the suicide position at the right side of the line of questers in an attempt to keep them in some sort of fighting formation.

Watching the troll closely to gauge his reaction, Gyffun holds himself at the ready - for combat if it comes to that, although he fervently hopes that it will not. Fortunately, Vurth backs Gyffun up by exerting his usual diplomatic presence.

Faren quickly gets to his feet, making sure that his spear and shield are pointed in the right direction. Things are happening far too quickly for him. He has about enough Darktongue to realize that Gyffun is trying to get the trolls to use their mouths for talking before eating, but he is still trying to understand what stopped the chariot in the first place.

In quick glances he checks the condition of the chariot, and of the sculptures that it had become stuck on, all the while making sure to keep keeping his spear and shield pointed in the right direction. He searches through his knowledge of Uz ways hoping to recall something about this sort of thing. Drawn to the delicate working of a sculpture which has been lifted by a wheel, he is amazed to see some form of life glowing within the structure, matching that of the ground.

Distracted by the work of art for a goodly while, Faren finally remembers the perilous situation and lifts his head to see what has befallen. Relieved to see no further bloodshed, he is still alarmed at the steaming corpse of the horse, entrails strewn across the stained ice and marking the track where the Uz have dragged it into their midst.

Irstilor's hastily assembled shield wall holds firm. The Uz hunter sits vulnerable before it as he tends to the sculptures, but he is heedless of the blades and spearshafts levelled at him as, twenty feet away, his companions feed on the meat they have unexpectedly been given. Taking advantage of the defused situation, Mastakos pulls the chariot away from the frozen trollkin, righting it and tending to his remaining steed.

The humans and the durulz, stood in defensive formation upon the ice, begin to feel faintly ridiculous. In part this is due to the discomfort of a total stranger, Irstilor, having quickly organized them, but mostly it is because the trolls seem, if anything, to be ignoring them, more intent on feeding or on checking the enlo sculptures. Gyffun's hunter, having pulled out a crude lead knife, blows on it occasionally, thence to apply the blade to the ends of limbs and, piece by piece, reassemble the sculptures.

Finding themselves absorbed by this process, the erstwhile defenders are startled when the hunter suddenly lifts one of the living statues towards them. The slow speech he produces is either that of one who spends much time alone or is adjusting his speech to accommodate Silverquill and Gyffun who find they are more or less able to translate, "Still alive Uz quest. Fourleg wrong right, so good. Back to forest, yes, you have Norag enlo food present. Orlanth quest luck."

Leaving the enlo before the questers, the Uz steps back and waits for them to depart, only breaking his toothy grin to scowl back at his companions when they seem to be about to devour the entire horse, and briefly to point out the many many other Uz which seem to be about to encircle the questers several hundred yards off.


Irstilor relaxes a bit seeing that the band before him are more interested in pursuing hobbies and hunger pains then battle. The adrenaline in his veins begins to subside... for the moment. He looks on at the hunter Uz and his sculpture, slack-jawed and completely baffled. He leans to Faren, "Whatever is happening lets settle it quickly and move to safer ground, we seem to have attracted new company and the hairs on my neck tell me they arn't just interested in horse-meat."

The Uz circling around them leave little room for relaxation, but Irstilor feels a sense of relief that a situation is developing with which he is intimately comfortable. He allows a guilty smile of pleasure in anticipation of the cleansing red rage that possesses him in battle.

The murderous expression does not go unnoticed by Faren, who may be long thinking, but fortunately needs not think at all to realize that a circle of trolls trumps one battle-mad black ram.

Faren bellows "We must be away from here and back to the ants!"

If one thing is clear to him it is that the next step in the quest is to recover the remains from the ants--the trolls are just a distraction. Really no different from trying to do the spring lambing while Zorak Zorani death-lords detour past the the stead on their way to the Hollow, the important thing is to focus on the real objective.

Faren knows that Mastakos can get them past the trolls if anyone can. But doing it short one horse will be hard. There are all sorts of brave, and while Faren may be no mighty warrior he has the sort of bravery that lets a man do what he must despite the risks.

In two long strides he's at the front of the chariot, and leaps onto the pole. He wraps one large hand in the mane of the remaining horse, and the other around the empty harness. Calling upon Kamil's feather he breathes forth a Wind Ram into the empty harness, yanking the harness tight around it with a farmer's practices touch and Orlanth's Making blessing. As Mastakos starts whipping up his odd team, Faren stubbornly clings to his precarious perch, all the while imbuing the team with some of his preturnatural warmth and vigor. As they approach the closing ring of Uz he tries to heighten the sparks from his hands to add some intimidation to the charging chariot, knowing that it could be the last thing that he does.


Irstilor can't argue with reason and readies for a quick departure. He notices with only casual interest Faren's fascination over a gawdy feather. But soon after is compelled to stand in front of the chariot mindlessly. Faren quickly fastens a harness about Irstilor's neck with the speed and precision of an artisan. "Hey now not so tight, there. Indeed! The damned buckle is pulling my fur." Irstilor comments to alert Faren to the halter's discomfort. However, Faren is particularly determined and pays Irstilor's whinings no mind.

In fact, Irstilor's companions didn't understand a single word of his complaints, but rather paid no heed to the wind ram's baritone "baaaaaah" as most animals are prone to complaining when put to draft.

At the beck of the insistant Mastakos, Irstilor is compelled to run with all his might. And run he does. Irstilor runs as fast as he can towards the line of Uz, he runs with a singular determination reminiscent of "throw the ball; throw the ball; throw the ball". He pays no mind to the tight halter rubbing away the pillowed wool about his neck.

Straight towards the Uz he runs and as they draw near, he bays and spits at the dark men. Then Mastakos gives a quick jerk on the reins and with all his might he leaps over levelled spear and ugly heads.


As they approach the Troll-wall, Faren remembers Raneva's speaking of Kamil's Feather "The wind ram is not a farm animal for you the farmer to sacrifice at your convenience, for your fate and it will be twined together now that you have taken it up. You must cherish it like your own flesh and blood." Then with a sharp look, she'd added "or maybe with somewhat more care than that." At the time Kagrada had not yet died without him there, at the time he hadn't left his birth stead, at the time he hadn't realized how close to the truth she had seen.

Faren knows suddenly that he cannot let the wind ram be grabbed by the trolls, as seems likely. It seems too late to do anything, but his soul yells out to Orlanth to help him save this ram as Orlanth would have saved Barntar the Ox, with a promise deep beyond words to change his ways.

Perhaps Orlanth heard, or maybe it was pure luck, or maybe Mastakos used some trick of his own. At first it seemed like disaster, a blast of wind in their faces! But the trolls braced for impact from the front stumbled at the sudden push from behind. It seemed as if the Wind Ram and the remaining horse were unaffected. And the was already launching into the air, and teh wind hit its flat bottom and caught it like a kite, suddenly pushing it farther into the air. As Faren and the steeds pass over the trolls startled heads, he glances back to see SilverQuill, wings outstretched in some instinctive pose of flight, with what is surely a look of wonder somehow showing on his beak as he sails through the air with the leaping chariot.

Irstilor lands solidly on the ground on the far side of the Uz in a flurry of splintered ice chips. He digs his hooves in and lurches at the halter pulling the chariot at break neck speed away from the dark men.

Once far enough away he has time to notice that all the excitement has brought a broad smile across his black lips and an erection to match any rutting bull elk.

"You're slow and clumsy, Ram! Your tubby stature nearly got us gored back there," comments the stallion at his right. Irstilor looks over at the hideous beast taking in with his eyes the pathetic short straight coat, the pretentious long mane, ridiculously skinny legs, and teeth like a mule. Horses are always so full of themselves, they don't even have horns like all other self-respecting ungulates. However, in this particular moment, the hideous appearance of his partner doesn't deter him and instead he finds his ram-hood throbbing painfully.

"You're as ugly a bitch as Redalda could fathom, but by the winds there's still time yet for goring!" Irstilor butts at the stallion with his curled horns and nips and snarls at the stallion's neck. The stallion recoils in horror, jarring the chariot and nearly toppling the duck who was busy reliving in memory his first "flight".

"Easy there straw-leg! If you topple our bucket, you'll be stuck and I'll have little trouble mounting you like Urox did the Sky Bull." The stallion spits in disgust, but understands the point and keeps running forward, enduring as best he can Irstilor's foreplay.

Faren watches gape-jawed as the two draft animals neigh and baaa at each other with much insistance, and the wind ram initiates what looks to be like.... "no it can't be" Faren thinks to himself. Even more astounding is that this is happening at god's speed.


Even though they seem to have been travelling roughly in a straight line all this time, the five wooden skulls they fly past are almost certainly those of the Ash Maidens. With much enjoyment, Mastakos' remaining stallion takes the chariot in a great leftward arc so as to double back and make the Ram's legs, for he is in the righthand position, work almost twice as hard.

The skulls are indeed wooden, reports Mastakos as he jumps off the chariot, still a bit damp but without any flesh of any description left on them. As once before in a forest back in the real world, the ants' trail is easy to spot, though this time it is not cut plants, for there are no plants here, but a corridor of smoothened, skiddy ice.

Silverquill nimbly jumps down from the rail of the chariot. Still with a dreamy look on his face, he shakes his feathers and adjusts his false beard. "Wow!", those nearby can hear him mutter. "I must look into leawning the secwets of the Vanganthi."

With a final shake of his head, he brings himself back to the present. "Let's have a look at those skulls, master Entislar." Entislar tosses a skull to the small duck and Silverquill quickly examines it. "Yes, that seems to be the wemains of the Ash Maidens alwight. And the Eciton buwchelli seem to have wetweated to their anty lair. Good. We should twack them and then fweeze them as Vizz suggests."

"Oh yes, speaking of fweezing. I must examine that twollkin statue we got!"

Silverquill clambers back into the chariot and starts to poke and prod at the icy statue.

Silverquill thinks back to what he saw when they met the Dozaki Uz.

The look of horror upon the faces of the Uz as the statues were hit by the chariot. The life glowing within the statue, matching that of the ground. Gyffun's hunter, applying a hot knife to the ends of limbs and, piece by piece, reassembling the sculptures. The words of the hunter; "Still alive Uz quest. Fourleg wrong right, so good. Back to forest, yes, you have Norag enlo food present. Orlanth quest luck."

He wonders what would be the reason for frozen trollkin. Were they expelled from the tribe for being enlo? But in that case, why did the trolls react with such horror? Are the statues kept as an emergency food supply? Possibly. But why weren't they eaten then since the other trolls were so hungry?

The duck sage scratches his head feathers. This was a mystery to him. He decides to let it be for now and take the statue along on their quest as it might prove useful. Maybe later he would have a chance to analyse the problem in more detail.

Silverquill gathers up the chewed skulls and casually tosses them into the chariot. Then he leaps nimbly back on to his perch on the rail and peers down at the rest of the group, giving an impatient squawk.

"Should we get going then? We have ants to fweeze!"

"Err, right-O," says Faren. "Ummm, how were we going to do that again? But I was thinking, as a back up, that we might be able to stun them with lightning. Or maybe use both--never like to depend on just one crop and all that."

"Freezing the ants should not prove too troublesome in these conditions," Gyffun observes, gesturing at the frozen path left by the insects. "If we are to adopt the scheme proposed by Vizz, and attempt to induce this expected 'bivouacing' response, then I am sure that Master Aren can whistle up a wind to do the trick."

"I would strongly advise against using the ice enlo in this endeavour, however. From what little I understood of the troll's words, I believe that it relates, not to our immediate quest, but to the wider context of the mysterious Laska, and their connection to the story that we know as the Hill of Gold. I says this because of the word the troll used to describe it: 'Norag enlo food present', Norag being the Uz name for Inora, the Snow Queen. I do not pretend to understand the significance of this but I certainly do not think we should feed it to the ants."

"I must admit, however," he continues. "That I am still unsure about the freezing plan. I do not doubt the accuracy of Master Silverquill's information about ant behaviour, but I am not yet entirely convinced of its utility in this case. Nevertheless, having arranged for the Maidens to be devoured by the ants, we must somehow recover them from the bellies of the beasts, and I do not believe that we shall achieve that end by standing here and debating the matter further."

"Perhaps we need to find the ants before resolving how to proceed."

"No problem", offers Mastakos, who is looking less and less like Entislar. "All aboard, and mind the skulls."

Whipping his stallion with more vigour than might normally be expected, Mastakos sends the chariot hurtling along the trail left by the ants. It is all that Irstilor can do to keep up, harnessed alongside the fleetfooted and unaccommodating mythical horse, and by the time they have reached the mass of ants, now sending its branched paths in new directions, the Helering no longer feels a connection with the others under the skirts of the Goddess Belveren but feels rather suffused with the grim vitality of his or her God.


Gyffun eagerly drinks in the scene unfolding before them, anxious to recapture their quest's lost momentum after the interruption by the Uz. He begins by submerging himself once more into the all-pervading synaesthetic music that he has learnt to perceive at the heart of his reality.

While Gyffun plays his harp, Silverquill busies himself with hunting down a few snacks. The terrified ants scatter before the giant duck towering above them and those nearby can hear the duck sage cackling to himself.

Vurth ponders the situation.

Ants eat maidens, need to get maidens back from ants. Vurth considers eating all the ants and then collecting the resultant 'residue', but wonders if that would confuse too many sets of remains. Somehow they need to get those remains back.

Vurth realizes that his education has been sorely lacking in the realms of ant poo lore, but he thinks that at some point what goes in must come out. There, Vurth's third law of ingestion.

He looks over at the ice enlo. Is it an ice statue or actually an enlo frozen in ice?

Reaching out towards the ant community, Gyffun's questing consciousness is the faintest of counterpoints to the ant colony's ceaseless and overpowering rhythm. He seeks amidst the tumultuous insect orchestration for another faint and alien harmony, drawing upon his own growing appreciation of the Maidens' nature and the harp's more fundamental affinity for the unsullied version of their Song.

At first he is confused by the testimony of his strange musical senses, for he can initially detect no trace of their essence amongst the ants, but he can taste the fresh vegetable savour of their Song in the chariot with him. Abruptly he realises that the wooden skulls have retained some of the Maidens' essence, and that their proximity is interfering with his ability to discern the rest. Concentrating hard, he attempts to block out this local source in order to catch some glimmer of the greater part, wherever it may be.

He is rewarded by a barely discernable hint of mournful harmony, overlain by a bitter tang of rage from the direction of the colony. Following this slender thread to its source is immensely difficult, but he does gain a strong impression: the ants that consumed the Maidens have not yet entered the central mass, but they are about to do so. If he and his companions are to gather all of the purified essence then they must act quickly, before the myriad components into which it has been separated leave the bivouac once more to forage.

He relates this urgently to his companions.

"We must act now," he concludes. "And strike at the central mass before the ants disperse. I fear that immoderate use of wind magic might scatter them, but perhaps a more subtle application could contain them - or a ball of lightning could frazzle them without blasting them?"

Silverquill looks up from his hunt when he hears Gyffun's exhortation, his bill full of nice crunchy ants. Swallowing the lot, the duck sage waddles over to Gyffun and looks at the bivouac.

"I can be of assistance in the fwazzling department", he volunteers, fishing up his Globe of Lightning from a deep pocket. Gyffun can feel his hair stand on end as Silverquill holds up the crackling globe to him for inspection.

"Or maybe this would be better?", he asks, producing a particularly evil-looking cigar from his cigar box. "Ants do not like smoke. It confuses them and slows them down."

"Yes," Aren butts in "A good plan surround them with smoke to stop them running off then hold a Lightning ball on their nest till they are cooked and we can sweep up the remains. I like your thinking."

Silverquill nods. "Indeed, Awen's Lightning bolts are still more powewful than mine. It would be better for him to do the fwazzling. I can do the smoke if nobody objects?"

The small duck looks around for a 'No Smoking Ducks' sign but quickly realises that it would only be in Alda-Chur and other big cities that this would be found.

Silverquill lights up the cigar with a flick of his thumb and with a happy sigh puffs away. Soon a massive cloud of greenish smoke has enveloped him.

"Maybe somebody with Wind magics could waft the smoke towawds the ants?", the duck asks from deep within the cloud of cigar smoke.


By smoke, lightning and shield-as-shovel, the intrepid heroquesters frazzle the ants and gather the remains into the chariot. A quick sniff and a nod from Vurth assure Mastakos that all is well and off they fly, frantically overturning the shield on to the floor of the chariot so that the winds don't take away the prize.

It becomes almost desperate as all hands turn to keeping the frazzled antmaiden remains within the chariot, so when it finally, after what feels like a good hour of upward struggle, comes to rest, the passengers find themselves in relative calm, if a little short of breath, and, as they hop out of the chariot to work out where they are, pleasantly surprised to find that they are basking in the warm glow of the Sun, with the world below them.

Although diminished by the Twilight of the Age, Elmal, seated upon his throne, burns brightly, bringing relief to those who had grown gloomy in the dark. Now more comfortable than they have felt for a considerable while, the heroes are quickly unsettled by the realisation that, rather than allow Urox to summon the winds to purify their cargo, they were so busy holding on to the massed frazzled fragments of ant and Ashmaiden that they sped right up KeroFin to the top of the world. Worse still, the fragments they have are dry as dust, so what benefit will accrue by drying them before Elmal?

Silverquill, perched as usual on the rail of the chariot, shields his eyes with his hand and peers in the direction of Elmal's burning heat.

"Dwat!" he exclaims. "Seems we missed a stage somehow. This isn't the slopes of Kewo Fin. We must have been going too fast."

Jumping down on to the brittle and cracked surface of the sunburned mountaintop, the small duck waddles around in small circles, consulting his notebook.

"Let's see. We wewe supposed to twavel to the slopes where Uwox would summon the winds to suck the foul stench out of Wantana and to beaw us to the top of the mountain. Once we got that sowted, we should go to the top of Kewo Fin, in the bwightest pawt of the wowld, and scoop Wantana into a mound and set her before Elmal's fiwe to dwy out the seeping ooze which wemains."

Silverquill glances at the dusty remains of the ants and strokes his false beard. "Hmmm.... These awe alweady dwy. But I think it would be best to follow the stowy as best we can and make a mound out of the this dust to dwy it out totally."

"We must certainly endeavour to follow the story," Gyffun observes. "Which means that our next step should be to return to the slopes of the mountain, where Vurth can summon the storm winds to do their work of purification. Only then should we enlist Elmal's aid."

Vurth concurs with Belveren's/Gyffun's suggestion, but reflects that killing chaos is a whole lot easier than cleansing it.

He also wonders who's going to be the one to tell Elmal 'Hang on a moment... we'll be right back.'

Silverquill peers over the edge of the mountain to the stomach-churning drop below. He can see all of Dragon Pass stretched out before him and the small duck swallows nervously.

"Maybe the west of you can go down again and I'll stay here? This is a fascinating chance to make a weally detailed map of the pass."

Aren joins Silverquill at the edge "Yes the view is wonderful so much open sky. It makes you feel like a king! Still the lower slopes are far far below us perhaps we will have to make do where we are".

Gyffun nods. "That may be the wisest course of action. I do think, however, that we should descend a short way and remove ourselves from the topmost pinnacle, lest the storm-winds send us plummeting to our doom."

"First, however, I believe that we must ascertain how we are to keep these dessicated remnants together in the face of the summoned winds. We struggled enough to keep them within the chariot on our journey here. My instincts tell me that we need to alter their present state in some way, so as to undo the inadvertant harm we may have done by prematurely applying Fire in the form of Lightning. Water seems the obvious antidote, but bringing another element into play at this point might be a further deviation from the story. I think we must find some way to restore the balance, however."

"It occurs to me that the nature of the Ash Maidens is, in essence, vegetable. At present their life essence is distributed amongst the seared remains of the ants, but we still retain part of their original form: the five wooden skulls. We have all seen new life return after a forest fire, or a storm-blasted oak sprouting new leaves. If we can restore the purified essence of the Maidens to their abandoned husks, then perhaps with them in that form we can continue the cleansing."

Silverquill has ignored the discussion but has kicked a small stone over the edge. As he follows the stone's descent with his eyes, the mesmerized duck leans further and further over the edge....

Aren gently grabs the back of the ducks jacket. "Now my little friend now's not the time for flying lessons". "Yes perhaps we should find some where a bit safer".

Vurth grumbles to himself. How could they have missed beseeching the Bull’s aid? If he didn’t know better he would blame himself for this error, but fortunately he knew better so he didn’t blame himself.

He turns to face the assembled disassembled Belveren.

"We have to go back. Too far yes .. but not too far to correct. We cannot be successful without the aid of the Bull. We must return to the slopes, beseech his aid (but not his forgiveness, this is the Bull and we are Orlanthi after all) and then return to Elmal."

He gestures towards the chariot.

"Let us board and return to the slopes where I shall call upon my liege to assist us."

Vurth hops back aboard the chariot and glares at the others.

Silverquill reluctantly clambers on board the chariot and huddles in a corner. His hand is shaking as he lights up a calming cigar.

"Okay," he finally says. "I'm weady to go. Does anyone have anything to dwink?"


Almost as soon as the last soul has boarded the chariot, Mastakos drives it down an impossible precipice. Crunching into a scree slope after a fall of a good fifty feet, the wheels spin into action, the steeds' hooves fly.

Speed is obligatory and it is only by the occasional jink or shift of weight that the massive boulders which litter the slope can be avoided. No-one can tell if the wind which screams past is still air or a howling, supernatural gale...

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!" says Silverquill.

After his initial panic attack, Silverquill peers over the rail and, calling upon his affinity with his god's exploratory nature, shouts out directions to Mastakos. "Left! Left! Wight! Wocks dead ahead! Wight!"

Vizz, meanwhile, has been huddled away in a nook of the chariot, thinking it safe. "I should've warned you about this mountain; 'tis a pretty tricky climb, most of it is up until you reach the very very top and then it tends to slope away rather shaaaaaaaaaaaaarply" After his initial panic attack, Vizz follows it up with a second, then a thrid, until panic attacks are arrayed up in some some of battle formation whose aim is the invasion of Vizz's normally calm exterior and whose strategy is one of relentless battery.

Vurth/Storm Bull, perceiving his role in this downward plunge, screams into the howling winds. "Faster!" he shouts at Mastakos, "as fast as you can go if you want to do this right!" The chariot careers down the mountain side as Mastakos picks the steepest slopes to build up speed.

And with that Vurth or Storm Bull begins to summon the Umbroli of the mountain.

"Come join us children of the bull! Come taste of what I offer to you!" He gathers up the skulls and waves them aloft, his companions clutching at those which he cannot hold, that is the majority. "Come eat of the dark essence that putrifies these objects! Suck it dry and spit it out and throw it to the cleansing winds!

"Come my children! Come to my call!!"

Each of the companions seems to have grabbed a skull from Vurth's fingers as they hurtle downwards. Aren has little hesitation in facing the wind and has at least some experience at keeping his balance while travelling at extreme speeds. So enduring the gritty blast of the wind he thrusts his skull into the air, sensing the Umbroli howling past him, whatever the speed of the chariot, and sensing the force of the Uroxi who support them on this quest.

Faren grabs a skull off Vurth and hoists it in one large hand. Then he does everything he knows one should normally not do around a bull, everything that is apt to draw a bull's attention. Hopefully the wind bulls will focus that attention on the skull, and not him... As the chariot goes faster and faster the wind seems to strip all heat and moisture from him, and he is grateful that he is a burly man not easily tossed about by mere wind, but he has to admit that without his preturnatural warmth and vigor he is not sure he could hold onto the chariot and keep the skull aloft.

Silverquill holds his skull aloft and quacks the words of his song to crush Skull Guardians: "In the name of Full Knowledge, I wip this tool from Thanatar. To confound his pwesence, In the scheme of being. And to hasten the end of Chaos. Go, spiwit, to the fate of your will."

At first, caught up in the exhilaration of their descent, Gyffun simply enjoys the ride, but when the winds start to gather he remembers their purpose. Picking up one of the wooden skulls, he nudges his companions and gestures at them to follow his lead. Grasping the chariot tightly with one hand, the skald crouches low and holds the skull above his head with his free hand to let the scouring winds rush over it.

Terrified at first that he will be pulled from the speeding vehicle or lose his grasp on the precious object, he tightens his grip and summons up all of his courage. Then, faintly over the din of the rushing gale, he hears the strains of music and realises that his harp is attempting to lend what aid it can. He recognises the nature of its contribution immediately, and lends his own voice to its stirring song of fearlessness. Singing into the wind, he feels his heart swell with hope.


None of the companions can hear the others. Despite this, they can all feel the purifying effects of the holy winds and feel invigorated as never before. The chariot finally comes to rest with a slewing scraping slide as Mastakos applies his beefy hand to one of the wheels and they return to the grey light and the incessant drizzle. But gone are all the doubts which some of them have been feeling, replaced by the greatest sense of elation and triumph as they catch their breath on the slopes of Kero Fin before Maran Gor's Underworld Palace. The five skulls fall from shaken fingers on to the floor of the chariot and crumble into five piles of dust. The chariot shifts, a pool of meltwater from the shattered ice statue seeping into each dust pile and holding each in place.

Before the heroes' eyes, each pile of dust moves slightly, picking up colours from the earth a foot or two below and glowing as the earth. Tendrils sprout from this one, roots from that, and in an instant each is a live sapling growing from the floor of the chariot, as perfect as the song which emanates from Gyffun's harp.

It is only now that Vurth and the others note that Vurth himself has turned an odd shade of pink. Was Vurth blushing or something? But no, all then notice that Vurth's skin has been scoured clean of scars and no one is more surprised at this than Vurth. His beautiful (bizarre) scar collection gone! In a way, Vurth thinks he should be more upset at this loss than he is but somehow as the Bull breath scoured the maidens clean a bit of breath was later over to cleanse Vurth. Vurth wondered how deep the cleansing touch had gone but introspection was never his strong point so he shrugged these thoughts off and turned to the task at hand.

The rest of their time in this twilight age are as a dream to the heroes. Each one, feeling a great sense of ease, drifts off, following his own quest. First is Yizar, who scurries back up the slopes of Kero Fin, saying he must find out about the fire before he returns to the mortal plane.

Then Faren, the first to sense that the multiple identity as the goddess Belveren has been stripped from them, to reside in another being. The farmer, who loves the soil and can feel its very life through Ash-not-Plow, bends to the ground, driven to understand how it can be as it is in this place and time. Following a vein indicated by his companion spear, he finds himself before the gates of the Underworld Palace. With only a quick glance to his companions, he raps at the door and is allowed in, to learn who knows what secret from the Goddess...

Irstilor, his hooves bloodied but not broken by his service as steed to Mastakos, leads the party away from the slopes of Kero Fin, towards Ernalda's Loomhouse. Passing through a place where ground meets sky, he unhitches himself, with a nod from Mastakos, from the chariot and ascends steadily the path to the heavens, eventually vanishing into a cloud. Heler is all about, but in this age is a constant and sure presence. Perhaps this mysterious stranger Irstilor seeks some surety from his god, an answer to some questions...

So Mastakos, now no more Entislar, who seems to have been subsumed by his god, goads the remaining steed over their final travels towards the centre of the Age. The journey is slow, for his remaining steed is exhausted, but steady. The gloom begins to do its work on our heroes, but when Mastakos points out the play of lightning on the horizons, their spirits are lifted. Hours pass and eventually it is only Aren who still peers over the edge of the chariot from his seat. Growing increasingly agitated, despite words of warning from Vizz and Vurth, he eventually speaks his mind. Convinced that he has worked out where the centre of the storm is, he persuades his companions that he knows the lie of the land and that he can find Yavor's Stead with but one day's travel. Mastakos will not turn from his path, but accompanies Aren a little way as he sets out across the plain. Vurth is held back from accompanying his cousin by reminders that he still must meet with Belveren, to complete the task. And so, only Silverquill, Vizz, Gyffun and Vurth remain with Mastakos.

"Back to Dozaki Uz?" asks Mastakos of Gyffun, once they have arrived. Vizz wanders off into Orlanth's Great Hall, whether to talk with Orlanth himself or Umathkar, so it is up to Silverquill and Vurth to leave Gyffun to wander where he will with the ice statue. The Ash Maidens are gently removed from the chariot, Silverquill promising he will bring them back safely, and then Gyffun departs, limping at first, in Mastakos' chariot. Soon, though, they are picking up pace, the horse seemingly recovered from its ordeal, and then with a flash they are gone.

No tears are required of Ernalda, for the clouds have revived the Ash Maidens to their former state, albeit diminished in stature. It is just as well, too. Silverquill quickly excuses himself to study the cloak woven by the goddess, the recent stitches, cast by Rika, an angry mess, but the earlier work a fascinating tapestry of interwoven themes. Vurth is left to feel the full force of Rika's anger and frustration. Although cast in the role of Ernalda or else of the humble goddess Belveren, the Ochre Fallow woman seems little inclined towards compassion. Vurth bears the storm on bowed shoulders for a while, the melancholy mood having thrown him off kilter for the time being, but then Rika requests of the Bull her price...