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As Mollen Pizrak brings news from the Ochre Fallow, as well as a summons, the Exiles become aware of a malevolent interloper in their midst...

~oOo~

"And what of the quest?" asks Mollen Pizrak, doffing his immense hat to Rika as the healer steps into the clearing accompanied by Vurth and their, rather large for their limited age, twinned offspring.

Oshana, sitting comfortably on the ground while she tugs at the fragments of food entangled in the moustache of a dozing, post-prandial Vizz, shifts to make room for the new arrivals and takes it upon herself to inform her uncle of recent events. "As you might see," she says, nodding towards the wilted husks of the giant flower heads which litter the hill, "Rika's mission was a success. Even now, the Uroxi are clearing the remnants of the Predark from the forest. They have been warned, though, to keep clear of the Ash Maidens, to allow them to recover and to avoid a reoccurrence of Hahlgrim's unfortunate incident." She looks brightly up at her large uncle, "We hope yet to have a reasonable harvest."

Noting his quizzical raise of an eyebrow, her face turns a light shade of red but she continues boldly, "Yes uncle, with your permission, and, ummm, that of the Ochre Fallow Ring, I am betrothed to Vizz Lightning of the Danlarni Exiles. As with some of the others," she gestures at Vurth with a sideways look, "he seems to have been transformed by the experience."

Oshana cannot help but smile broadly at this, but mindful that not all is well, tells her uncle of the others. "Wilma and Faren seem diminished. Wilma did not go on the quest, no," she says, answering a querie from her inquisitor, "but she always had a soft spot for Entislar and the alynx Yizar had been growing on her and it seems that neither will return. Faren has spent some time away at the meadows beside the river but has spent most time just sitting and talking with the priestess. I hope that Wilma has some wise words for him, and perhaps vice versa, for neither seems well."

Pausing to look down at her hands, she struggles with something all together more difficult. "And Irstilor." She looks up and sees the surprise registered on her uncle's face, looking over at Rika to check that it is okay to talk of her long absent brother. Oshana's friend is only displying a determinedly blank look, so Oshana continues. "Yes, he is... or was... still alive. He appeared at the last minute as they were crossing over, and went with them, but he has yet to return. I suspect that he feels he has some unfinished business in these parts, but I beg you not to tell Umathkar, in case he doesn't remember."

"Oh, he does remember, Oshana," Mollen interrupts, "He was taken into this quest and remembers much. He is not, I believe, best pleased..." Mollen looks sternly at his niece, but wary of Rika's increasing agitation, brings the conversation back to news of the Exiles. "But that is perhaps something to think of later. Pray continue."

"Yes, well," Oshana resumes. "You will find that we have been joined by Big Lig and Alfons. Big Lig is the same as ever, but Alfons is, ummm, rather different from before. We had cause to, er, rescue them from Alda Chur. Aren and Gyffun," she continues quickly, avoiding her uncle's eyes. "They both seem well, but each seems to be very careworn and neither is talking much."

"Aren has returned with a new companion, an alynx which he has named 'Friend'. He has few words for any but his new Friend and his wife. I fear this is connected with Yizar not returning and that Aren may be feeling a little guilty. It is a strange creature, uncle, it is not of this world - it is constantly on fire! Meanwhile, Gyffun has returned with a trollkin statue made entirely of ice. You can see it on the top of the hill where he left it. It weeps water, but it doesn't seems to be melting properly. He said he was gifted it by some Darkmen. For myself, I think it is somehow connected with my sister."

Here she must pause as tears spring into her eyes, but she wipes these away and continues, "Gyffun is not really talking to anyone but his harp. He spoke briefly with Wilma and then uprooted a sapling from within the palisade. I suspect he is thinking of where to replant it, I'm not sure. He also spoke of returning to the Danlarni tula. That I think got her a bit worried."

Lowering her tone now in the vain hope that Vurth will not hear her, she brings her tale to the durulz sage as she wonders how far back into his head her uncle is capable of rolling his eyes, "Silverquill hasn't been too communicative either, I must say. He is surrounded all the time by the children. Not unusual really, but I can't help but feel that his is avoiding pretty much everyone else. Our friend here," she gestures at Vurth, "Especially. Skullcleaver has been looking menacingly at everyone else as if Silverquill is in danger from the rest of us. Considering he was full of plans to travel to Alda Chur for the holy day at the end of the season, it is odd, he seems quite happy just playing with the children."

It takes a few breaths for the normally vocal Mollen Pizrak to absorb his niece's words and think of something to say. Meanwhile, most of the other Exiles have gathered to greet the visitor. Although pleased as ever to have something approaching an audience, the merchant does not seem best pleased with the tidings he in turn must give.

"I have what might not be good news for you," he says, rather uncomfortably. "I was coming this way anyway, to see how my niece is doing, but the Champion of the Ochre Fallow, that would be Hahlgrim Thane, wished me to bring a message. It is, in fact, a summons. He has, shall we say, requested your assistance. I am to set off in the morning with the news that you will be sending the biggest party you can muster to set off from the Ochre Fallow tula within three days for raids upon the Priderni. It is, he says, essential to preseve 'our' - that would be the Ochre Fallow and yourselves - honour following a slight."

Fidgeting with the brim of his hat, he surveys the now silent audience. "I believe it is some form of test. It has, I fear, come about as a result of a certain dream which Chief Umathkar experienced a few nights ago."

~oOo~

Vurth has seldom been seen about the main dwellings, only coming through on occasional sniffing sweeps. Having satisfied himself that chaos has been cleansed from the village and its inhabitants he has turned his attention further afield. When he does think of Silverquill it is mostly to wonder what sort of odd quest would make a person... well duck .. speak proper... or funny if you're a duck. But then, look at what happened to Gyffun... or himself for that matter.

The more observant of the exiles have also noticed that Vurth seems to spending far more time than normal looking at and tending the cattle that the exiles own. Some times he's down with them during odd times of the night as well and some very odd things appear to be going on but since Rika seems to accept this none of the villagers feel it their place to say anything.

Hearing Mollen's news, the irascible warrior seems more his old self.

"What?!" exclaims Vurth. "That pretty boy wants us to do something for him?! I'll do for him just what I did last time, by Urox's smelly breechcloth."

Then struck by a thought (something that happens a bit more often these days to the alarm of all) he turns to look for Wilma but finds her absent, so addresses those present, "Umm, but do we owe Umathkar something for hauling him into our quest? Then again, it was his clan's foolishness that started all this. Maybe he owes us for cleaning it all up, by Urox's hairy thighs!"

Turning back to Mollen, he quizzes the merchant, "Not that I have any objection to a good scrap. Who are these Priderni and what is it they have done? As if that actually matters."

"The feasting must have addled your brains, friend Vurth," says Mollen with a smile, "You will but recently have been on their tula if you visited Alda Chur. Whatever your fellow tribesfolk may say of the Priderni, they currently have the favour of Conla Brightshield. I believe, indeed, that it was he or his who reinstated the clan after its destruction in the 1580's. A ragamuffin bunch of refugees and brigands they may be, but they do have the protection of the Cordali."

"I believe that the incident was related to Gordangara and her, ummm... her proclivities. The Priderni claim that she had agreed to be yearwife to one of their thanes before she killed him; she of course denies this and says that he tried to take her so she was forced to dissuade him forcefully. Things seem to have got a little out of hand and Hahlgrim has decided to teach them a lesson for dishonouring his sister. So, with one thing and another, he has the Ochre Fallow's blood boiling. There is little doubt that the Priderni have been among those moving against the upland clans, so I understand that Hahlgrim is seeking to get the Orlanii and the, well, what remains of the Danlarni involved."

"So, with the harvest well underway in the lowlands already, I think he's looking to, ah, slow that down some and hit them where it hurts. Shouldn't interfere much with the harvests up here, there's still a week or so to go. Unless the Priderni retaliate of course."

Mollen Pizrak smiles once again at Vurth. "I offered, of course, to try and smooth things over, being, as it were, detached from all this. But, well... you know Hahlgrim and Umathkar."

"So, what message shall I take?"

Vurth smiles in anticipation. "Just let me get my klanth and I'll help smooth things over as well."

And with that promise Vurth hurries off back to his cot hoping that things would get interesting. Being married was fine and all but some times he yearned for the peace of the battlefield.

~oOo~

Gyffun is painfully aware that he has been too much apart from his fellow Exiles. Since his return, almost all of his attention has been focussed upon his harp-bound twin sister and the numerous tasks and responsibilities that were lain upon his shoulders in the Otherworld. There are more reasons for his reclusive behaviour than this, however, and more than he cares to admit, even to himself.

The newfound domestic happiness of Vizz and Vurth is one of these reasons, an unwelcome reminder of the advice he was given with regard to his own need to put down roots. Wilma's fears about his planned visit to their erstwhile home are another source of discomfort. Her concern echoes his own disquiet, but in truth he is more concerned by the normally irrepressible matriarch's withdrawal than her anxiety. The most potent reason for his own withdrawal, however, is enlo ice statue and the conflicted emotions that he experiences whenever he lays eyes upon it. Unable to bear this effect for long, the skald has abandoned the Uz-gifted sculpture on a hill above the stead, but he is nevertheless drawn back to it time and time again.

Like Oshana, he is certain of the statue's connection to her sister, Yamanja, but he feels also its implacable pull upon his own fate. This influence, he knows, must sooner or later lead him away on a new quest for the elusive Snow Queen and her mortal counterpart. He has not yet told anyone of his abortive attempt to pursue this end on the Hero Plane, but the statue is an unwelcome reminder both of this abject failure and the fate that still awaits him. He has done his best to avoid its insistent message by concentrating upon his other tasks.

Choosing a place to plant the new Tree of Consequence has been more difficult than he expected. He had hoped to enlist Faren's aid in this, but the affable farmer has been uncharacteristically difficult to approach. Lismelda's plant lore has been of great assistance, however, and his hearth-mother was glad to help him to establish the sapling in a clay pot until he could find it a permanent home. Mindful of his ancestor's advice regarding the existing Tree on their old tula, he has resolved to keep the sapling in this fashion until that task can be accomplished. Caring for the tiny tree has been surprisingly rewarding, however, and he grows increasingly impatient to give the parent tree its necessary quietus.

Another task drives him in the direction of the Danlarni tula, however, a mission far less appealing, but one that his sister will not let him forget. The prospect of seeking out his father is a hard road to contemplate, made all the more difficult by the fear of what he may discover on this journey. This alone has kept the skald at the stead, wavering between the anxiety and confusion that keeps him amongst but apart from his fellow Exiles, and the duty and desire that drive him back to the land from which they were banished.

He is not best pleased by the news that Mollen brings.

"Curse that hotheaded Hahlgrim!" he declares, with vehemence. "Hasn't his stupidity done enough harm already? He has a lot of nerve demanding our for aid in this petty vendetta, and if Umathkar supports him in this then he is an even greater fool than I took him for. What right has this chief of fools to be angry with us, anyway? Did we not undo the curse that his idiot son brought down upon this land? He should have been glad to aid us!"

"What say you, Vizz? Will we bow to this ungracious request or treat it with the contempt that it deserves?"

Vizz, awoken from his post prandial slumber, considers the question:

"It's funny isn't it, how one can go through life, as I have, disliking blood and being indifferent to viscera, but still be able to enjoy a traditional Heortling raid and counter raid like this. I hear Umathkar's request for assistance in slaughtering the Priderni - a ragamuffin bunch indeed - so unlike ourselves in so many ways. I hear his request and wonder if there is not yet a profit to be made for our own peoples."

"I suggest we send a war party, as large as we can muster despite our shortage of hands for the coming harvest, a mighty band of warriors consisting of maybe three or four stout-hearted fellows. Who would doubt that three of us would turn the tide in a battle? Who would say that we dared not send forth warriors? And if the worst comes then Umathkar can be heartily ashamed for getting us killed instead of going home rich like we deserve, on account of him being so bleedin' high and bloody mighty. But if fortune triumphs and victory is ours, and history applauds us, and the skalds sing of us, and a foe is vanquished, honour restored, loot plundered, glory gained, and all manner of assorted advantages come our way because of it, then I say we should seize the chance!"

~oOo~

"Indeed!"

The voice comes from the edge of the crowd, who quickly moves aside to let a small figure through. It is Silverquill the sage.

The small duck easily jumps on to a nearby rock and perches there. He draws his shortsword and raises it high in the air, the honed edge reflecting the light from the bonfire.

"These Priderni are an affront to all noble Orlanthi. I have read about their evil deeds in my studies. Not only are they lunar-lovers and troll-kissers, but they are rumoured to keep dogs instead of cats! Their poetry is of poor quality, their pottery is ugly and they have been known to be disrespectful to passing ducks!"

With each sentence, the duck sage grows more and more agitated. You notice now that a large crowd of the elder children have gathered at the outskirts of the meeting and are nodding agreement. Some of the are sporting primitive spears or flint daggers.

"Yes! Their poetry is really rather bad! They deserve nothing less!" shouts a literary critic from somewhere in the crowd.

"I say we show these Priderni the sharp edge of our swords! They should be wiped out to the last dog! I stand ready - who is with me?"

With this last statement, all the children erupt in cheers and bang their weapons together.

"War! War! War!", they chant...

"What madness is this?" Gyffun cries. "What, will you send our children to war now? What terrible affront have these Priderni done to us that we should contemplate this insanity? It is one thing to speak of glory and honour, but what sense is there in needless slaughter? I repeat: this is not our quarrel and we should own no part of it. I am no coward, but this talk of 'wiping out' the Priderni turns my stomach." He looks at Silverquill in disgust. "Where is your much-needed wisdom now, sage?"

The skald turns to Mollen. "But you spoke of the other upland tribes, friend. What answer will they make, do you think? I should like to hear of the Danlarni, in particular. Would they welcome our warriors as comrades, I wonder? Would any of the clans deign to fight side-by-side with us? We are all exiles here, remember. Well, nearly all," he adds with a pointed glance at Silverquill. "Are we really ready to open the ill-healed wounds that brought us here in the first place?"

Mollen Pizrak, he of the mightiest hat in the Far Place, seems to be wish he could hide utterly behind said device, but his bulk wins that contest, while the silence, the children temporarily hushed by some fierce glares from their parents, is pregnant. "Umm", he says tentatively, "I would say that it is not unusual for even the fiercest blood feud to be forgotten when one cause unites two peoples against a common enemy. The enemy may be so despicable, or their poetry so, umm, jarring, that old differences are forgotten, at least for a while."

"And", he throws Silverquill a smile before turning back to Gyffun. "You have to admit he has a point, no?"

The children keep up their chanting and banging as one of them steps forward. It is young Rostalos, a well-liked and normally easygoing youth. As the crowd looks on, he cuts his forearm with a flint dagger and then smears a death rune on his face.

He moves to stand protectively besides Silverquill. "Do not question his wisdom, you fool! He has taught us so many things. The only way we can make our place in this wilderness is with sword and fire! If another tribe is in our way, they should be cut down and cast aside. Our allies have called for our help. Will we stand back like this cowardly skald or will we answer the call?!

Rostalos stares at the assembled crowd with a fevered expression on his face as the children behind him redouble their chant...

"WAR! WAR! WAR!"

"Oh aye!" the skald sneers, his practised voice cutting easily through the racket. "Fierce words from a brave warrior. Our allies will surely be impressed if we send a band of children and a durulz general to their aid! And as for these so-called enemies, well, I can hear their cries of fear now: 'Run, run away! The brat army is coming, come to bite our ankles! Oh, mummy, save us from the Wavaging Wee Wawwiors and their mighty general Featherbum!"

His expression serious now, Gyffun turns to address the folk of the stead. As he speaks, he does his best to gauge their mood, trying to pitch his words to win their hearts and minds.

"If we are to consider this demand from our so-called allies," he says. "Then let us give it the careful consideration that is its due. This clamouring for bloodshed is not our way, nor has it ever been. 'Violence is always an option', true enough, but only as a means to an end, never as an end in itself. And need I remind you that 'there is always another way'? I have made my opinion known, that to send aid to this undertaking would be folly, but other voices have yet to be heard and I would hear them before any decision is made. But first let us send these foolish children to their beds. And send this hotheaded waterfowl to cool his anger in the river!"

"Pretty words, bard..." Silverquill speaks with a soft whisper now, so that people have to strain to hear him.

"You may choose to mock my small stature - you are good at mocking. But look at what words have gotten us so far. Your once-proud clan is now grubbing around in the dirt, looking for scraps of food to feed their hungry children. Wolves are baying at the stead. Other clans laugh at us and call us stickpickers and worse! Do you think that words alone will impress them?"

Silverquill looks at Rostalos with a strange smile. "This youth is only saying what we all think. We must reclaim our rightful inheritance! If the elders of this clan are too fat and cowardly to take up arms, then let ones that are strong and able and willing do so. What enemy can resist a warrior with fire in his heart? Who can stand against our determined fighters? Nobody! Victory will be ours!"

"To battle!"

With this last manic shout, the children again erupt in cheers. Cutting their arms in imitation of Rostalos, they all paint death runes on their faces...

"Silverquill! Silverquill!"

Little Odi steps forward. He has not been able to cut his arm like the others, but has used charcoal to paint his Death Rune on his face.

He opens his mouth and those nearest can feel the heat from his open maw. Flames are dancing amongst his pointed teeth and he lets out a groaning, spine chilling sound...

"Waaaaarrrrr....."

~oOo~

"Enough!"

Gyffun's voice is filled with emotion now and he is trembling with suppressed rage as he turns his back on the diminutive sage and addresses the rest of the clan.

"Our sage speaks of pride and tell us that the other clans are laughing at us. But how does he know this? He tells us that words alone will not impress them, but we have not relied upon words alone to carve out a new home for ourselves. Have we not built a stead for ourselves here? Have we not defended it against the Tusk Riders and sought friendship - however misguided - with our neighbours? Have we not cleansed this fair land of the curse that blighted it? Have we not countless reasons to feel proud?"

"He speaks of us grubbing in the dirt for scraps, of wolves baying at the stead. But are our crops not stronger now, freed from the curse that haunted them? Even as we speak our good friend Faren labours to make them even stronger, bringing his wisdom, his unique gifts and his chattel to bear to enrich our stead. This is our land and we know how to live on its bounty. If our crops are poor this year, then we will hunt for game and gather the fruits of the forest. But shall we go hungry? I think not..."

He turns back to face the sage now, his voice calmer and his expression determined.

"I know not what has sown this seed of hate in the heart of our sage," he continues. "But I have heard enough to mistrust his words and doubt his intentions. He tells us that the Priderni are an affront to all noble Orlanthi, but what right-thinking Orlanthi would try to undermine the pride of his own adoptive clan with these lies? Or glory in death and destruction, sending children to fight his battles? These are not the words of wisdom that we seek from our friend Silverquill - if indeed he is still our friend."

A cool wind blows in whipping round the children and stealing their thunder. Aren limps through the door way, leaning on his spear with his strange Friend at his side. Unconcerned he tosses Odi's flaming hair.

"Now children: this talk is for the adults. If any of you feel like taking your adult initiation alone, and before your training is finished, come and see me in the morning. But for now, BE OFF WITH YOU!" he bellows, herding the children out.

"So my one time companion," he says, turning to Silverquill. "Your quest scars seem to have been deeper than we though. What is it that is really ruffling your feathers?"

Silverquill starts to laugh, a deep guttural sound which should not originate from such a small frame.

"I shall tell you what is upsetting me! You! This pathetic lot of farmers and thieves! Scurrying around like the ants you are, trusting in your so-called 'betters' to protect you. You think you are safe here? You think that you can build a future here?"

Silverquill's eyes seem to dance with fire. "I shall teach you the realities of life! I shall show you such pain that......"

"Quack!"

The small sage stops in his tracks. His face starts to contort. Gripping Rostalos' arm for support, he seems to be fighting an internal struggle.

"Leave my fwiends alone, you wotten bastard!"

The voice is different this time - Silverquill's familiar mangling of the Tarshite speech...

Vizz, like his brother, had been a godtalker, who could sense the spirits and know when the gods moved among men. What did he sense about the peculiar duck - something in his extravagant facial hair was tingling, his godi-sense was going bazoonies!

Rostalos shies away in terror as the small duck begins to shake uncontrollably. Silverquill opens his bill and a thick black smoke begins to pour out. Soon the smoke starts to take the shape of a tall, winged figure. Details can be made out in the smoky form; fangs, scales and terrible scars. The features seem to contort and change constantly. The only thing that is really clear is the eyes. Full of hate, they stare down at the small duck sage.

"So, you managed to regain control of your puny body... Enjoy your victory, duck. Enjoy it while I feast on your friends!"

The colossal figure looks around and leans down to pick somebody up. It is Morith! He struggles and screams as he is lifted towards the demon's hungry mouth...

Aren finds him self closest to the demon and to poor Morith. First things first, he thinks, he must protect his clan. The pleasure of dispatching this fiend can come later. He holds up Blazer his spear towards its hate-filled eyes and unleashes a Blinding Flash to dazzle the creature with...

~oOo~

Vurth rubs his ear as he finished explaining what is happening back in the village and what he planned to do about it. Rika had not proven to be enthusiastic about this opportunity for organised mayhem as he had hoped.

"Isn't it just like a man to run off raiding when there is a bit of work to be done." Rika reared her palm back for a second round of persuading Vurth that maybe this wasn't the wisest course of action when

Back at the village the tone of the dull roar of normal village discussion suddenly changed its tenor and volume distracting both Vurth and Rika from their discussion (and incidentally causing Rika's last rejoinder to glance almost harmlessly off a bony part of Vurth's skull.)

Both turn to face the village to see if they could discern what the hubhub was all about when suddenly Vurth grunts in pain from an all too familiar sensation, immediately to be followed by a blinding flash.

Vurth turns to Rika but it was apparent she also has felt something. The twins meanwhile mysteriously appeared holding Vurth's Klanth which Rika grabbed and thrust into his arms with this endearing caution "Well just don't stand there like an oaf... get over there and sort things out."

As Vurth runs back to the village he hears[1] Rika shouting at the twins to 'get mine as well and not dill dally all day about it'.

~oOo~

As those present reel from the pain which has just lanced through their eyes, blinking to try and recover their vision, Morith's cries recede and the onlookers are left with nothing before them, for the monstrous demon has vanished, taking its prey with it.

In truth, the nothing before them could more correctly be described as a gaping hole in the ground. Silverquill, lying stunned beside it, leans over to look down then turns back with a groan and passes out. Some of the children flee in panic while some of the braver souls among them, for they were closest to the demon, step forward to peer into the hole. Morith's cries grow faint, but the adults in the clearing, their vision almost fully recovered, are just beginning to accommodate one shock when another crowds in on their consciousness: the clumsy weapons, the sticks and the stones, of the children, are plastered, all of them, with blood!

Just then, a scream breaks through the crisp morning air from atop the hill, from Sabriel's hut.

"Murder!"

Vizz blinks a few times, stares into the hole, trying to see in the unnatural blackness. He grabs a handy weapon, a blood splattered club looslely held by a pale faced child.

"Does this hole go directly to the bowels of hell, or is there a more leisurely incline for those of us who still live and breathe" he says, trying to find some way of climbing down into the tunnel.

"Volle - fetch some rope, and start praying for Morith," he pauses to consider. "And for for me, for all of us. Oshana - use that spell I taught you from Durulz Book to appease that duck"

"I may be the best Godi, but I know that this is not a good omen."

As ever, the famed bristling mustachioes reassure Vizz, for their twitching is no greater than would normally be expected under such circumstances. Indeed, the unnatural blackness is not so much unnatural or blackness as, comfortingly, natural and darkness. After a brief scare at one of his clumsy feet pushing away a load of dried earth, he finds that the descent is easy.

Easy, that is, as the roots of the nearby oak which have been exposed can make it considering that there appears to be a sharp drop below the level where a man might support his weight by clinging desperately to the roots. Indeed, it is with desperation (once again) that Vizz is clinging to the roots when, cursing himself for giving in to his sense of adventure rather than heeding Oshana's constant nagging that he should do nothing without asking her permission, his brother lands the coils of a fifty-foot rope squarely upon his head.

"Careful of the 'tache!" shouts Vizz as he takes hold of the coils.

"Pole?" comes the deep rumble from Volle, the depth of the voice diminished only ever-so-slightly by the rise in pitch at the end of the word.

Now, Volle, Vizz's fine brother, would never be accused of being verbose. It is to Vizz's credit, therefore, and to his good fortune, that he has learnt to read much, not so much between the lines as over, below, to the left and to the right of the lonely words that constitute his brother's occasional vocalizations. And so it is that, with a deft movement, Vizz avoids, by a whisker of said mustachios, the ten foot pole which flies past his ear, as his brother hurls it into the hole to assist his brother in his latest adventure.

Rather than recover his breath, a difficult task given that he finds his face buried in some cool earth, Vizz swiftly shimmies down the rope, only a little way, but a way which have dealt with his legs for good but for the rope, and finds himself purchase on a floor made of rock and, seemingly, constituting part of a cavern.

Whether Vizz is, indeed once again stood upon the subterra firma of a cavern, though, or upon the back of a gigantic tortoise from another age buried deep within the earth awaiting some stimulus, say the warmth of a human being, to reawaken it, remains in doubt, for now the darkness, though not unnatural, is almost absolute. In fact, to a person accustomed to the lights of a frivolous life on what he would perceive as the correct side of the ground, it is as near to unnatural and black as he would, under normal circumstances, wish anything to be.

And so we briefly leave our heroic Vizz wondering to himself whether he has been entirely wise, what he will do for light, whether it is safe to raise his voice and why, oh why, thoughts of gigantic reptilian creatures have impinged upon his, already - let's be honest - uncomfortable thoughts.

We leave him, only briefly, to see his love, Oshana of the stogies, attempting to resuscitate, with little success, the durulz sage with words, slaps and with the sweet scent of Caladra....

~oOo~

Gyffun hesitates for only a moment, then turns away from the hole and runs as fast as he can towards the hill and Sabriel's hut where, to his shock, he finds Sabriel - or is it Riantha? - hunched over a bloody mass of a corpse, peering into the eyes of the newly departed priestess, Wilma.

Sinking to his knees beside his great-aunt's body, the skald feels numb with shock. Memories of the Exiles' unassuming matriarch clamour for attention in his mind, bringing tears to his eyes.

"Who did this?" he asks the silent woman beside him, already dreading the answer. "Did you see what happened?"

Riantha looks through Sabriel's good eye at Gyffun as the woman lifts her head. "You?" she spits accusingly, "I've been hammering away at your thick skull for an age! Couldn't you feel it? Ach!"

Standing up, the woman smears her bloody hands on her filthy cloak, a large rock falling from her grasp. "Who was it? I've no idea, it might well have been me... well, Sabriel. I've only just got here. That thing, whatever it was, wasn't helping matters much. It's gone now, though. It's gone down, and..." Riantha looks at the ground, "I can still sense it, it's got someone with it, but not Wilma. She's still here," she says, looking back at the priestess' corpse with a flicker of a smile and then back at Gyffun.

"She's a bit surprised though."

Staring first at the corpse, then at Sabriel/Riantha's hands, then at the rock she just dropped and finally at the woman's face, Gyffun tries in vain to take in the evidence of his eyes dispassionately. He shakes his head in angry disbelief.

"'It might well have been me'?" he echoes, with acid sarcasm. "'I've only just got here'? What kind of answer is that? Are you not our guardian? Are you not supposed to warn and protect us?"

The skald's eyes are flashing with anger now, his hand reaching instinctively for the sword at his belt. "And just what am I supposed to conclude from the blood on your hands and the rock at you feet? 'Oh it wasn't me, it was that Sabriel, honest!', is that your story? Give me one good reason why I should believe you!"

Riantha casts Sabriel's scarred face impassively up at Gyffun. "Why should you believe me?" she asks calmly, "Well, that's easy, I'm telling the truth. And am I supposed to warn you? Well, yes, that is what I said I would do, but if you are too stupid to hear me, well, what can I do? I tried, but that thing was rather smothering and none of you were really listening. And besides," she says, grabbing at her robes to show Gyffun how filthy they are. "It's not as if any of you have been paying much attention to this poor girl while I've been away, is it?"

"Murder is not a good thing," Riantha states helpfully. "But death isn't as bad as all that, so long as the living are about to provide entertainment. You'll learn that, one day."

The smile which Riantha offers Gyffun can only be seen as concilliatory from one who, inevitably, sees death from a different perspective.

"Shush now," she says, holding out a hand to keep Gyffun quiet as she turns to the corpse as if something has been said. "Aha... yes... don't worry," she says soothingly. "I'm here and I'll show you how things are."

Turning back to Gyffun, Riantha begins brightly: "She says, about the Tree... well..." Then, interrupting herself: "Before that, whoever did this deed, whether me or another, you can be sure that that spirit had something to do with it. It may have been me, I simply don't know. But don't worry, she'll be all right, we'll look after her. Now..." She steps back cheerfully to survey Wilma's bulky frame and casts her eyes about the hill. "She says that, once she's underground, she'll be happy to look after my grandmother's Tree. Isn't that good?"

Riantha smiles at Gyffun, as broadly as she can through Sabriel's marred face.

"Now, it's been a while," she says. "Wouldn't you like to sing me a song or go and check up on the dulu trees?"

~oOo~

Aren curses that he has failed to protect the clan again, but wastes no time in following Vizz into the gloom. Having stroked his cloak to its full brightness, he finds that the light from Friend's flaming coat is a better source of illumination, as the alynx follows on behind him, choosing his own way.

And so it is that Vizz finds the ten foot pole generously provided by his brother, as the cavern into which he and Aren have descended flickers into view. Stretching away in the direction of the hill which marks the centre of their new stead, the roof rises as if to render the hill hollow. Where they have entered the floor is formed from smooth flat rock, if covered with the dust of an age, while not far away, just where the light begins to fade, an orderly row of some fifteen bulky objects hangs like a rack of hams from the cavern wall.

Although the cavern appears to be entirely natural, the evidence is that it has, at some point in the past, served a human purpose. Just as our heroes are wondering what this purpose might have been, a now familiar cackle echoes off distant walls.

Meanwhile, above ground, the little boy Lodi, sharpened stick in hand, rushes gleefully over to the prone form of Silverquill and, to Oshana's horror, lands a mighty (for a little one) kick in the duck's side before running headlong into the hole.

"Oooof!"

The kick in his side did more to wake Silverquill than all of Oshana's gentle words. Sitting up with a confused (and somewhat Appeased) look on his face, the small duck looks all around him.

"Where did that demon go?"

Oshana points to the hole in the ground and says matter-of-factly "He went that-away."

Silverquill nods. "Wight! I'm going after him. Tell Skullcleaver to follow me. Oh, and I'm vewy sowwy for what happened... that wasn't me, you know?" With that, the duck sage grabs the rope and quickly shimmies down the hole...

~oOo~

The skald bows courteously. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure, dear lady. And please extend my gratitude to Wilma - it will be a great comfort to know that she is caring for the Tree. However," he adds carefully. "Would you mind very much if I attended to these other small matters first? I refer, in the first instance, to the malign presence that is presumably wreaking subterranean havoc even as we speak, and in the second, to the murder of our beloved Wilma. I promise that I shall return as quickly as I can - and I have many new songs and stories to share with you."

Gyffun is convinced now that Riantha is telling the truth, his certainty informed by both the guileless tenor of her response and the testimony of his subtler senses. He is still wary of her, however, and disturbed by the implications of Sabriel's blood-stained attire. For this reason, amongst others, he hesitates before asking the next question.

"Can you ask Wilma who attacked her?"

"I'd rather not. Death can be unsettling, you know," says the ancestral spirit, using Sabriel's half-paralysed mouth to convey an irritated tone. "Now, if you living are too busy to tend to us dead, please leave us in peace to look after one another." With a dismissive wave, she bends to whisper in Wilma's ear.

The skald is not so easily dismisssed, however. "If you feel that we have been neglecting you, dear lady," he observes cautiously. "Then you have my apologies. You already have my vow to return with the entertainment that you desire. But I must press you, respectfully, on this important matter. Protecting the sensibilities of the newly dead is a worthy cause, but I must care for the fate of the living too. If we have a murderer - or murderers - in our midst, then that is an immediate threat to us all and I am sure that Wilma would want to protect us from such a threat if it lies within her power."

"I would also remind you that we solicited your aid and protection in return for the taste of life that you are granted through the body that you now inhabit. Who amongst the living shall care for the dead if you will not help to protect us from a peril such as this?"

~oOo~

Below, Lodi seems totally unfazed by having landed on solid rock and bounced and, to the alynx's surprise, gets up and gives the fiery creature a great big hug before looking up at the grown-ups, shaking his spear towards the open cavern and saying, as if speaking to some particularly dense older playmates:

"Dat way!"

Aren shakes his head at the boys appearance and antics, but still stops to ask "Can you sense the demon Lodi?"

Silverquill quickly scrambles down the rope. He can see light down below. In a moment, he is dangling from the rope a few feet from the cavern floor. The rope is a bit too short, but the duck sage trust his feathered rump and lets go of the rope. He lands with a very undignified 'Squawk!"

So it is that Aren, Vizz and Lodi find themselves joined by Silverquill.

"Awen. Vizz. Good to see you again. I followed that wevolting demon down here but didn't expect to meet you! You can't imagine how howwible it was, being twapped behind that fiend's will. It took quite some effowt to bweak fwee, I can tell you. Now, where is he? I'm gonna muwdalize him!"

The duck sage looks around the cave. "Oh, but will you lookit that! I think this could be old stead. What awe those things hanging down fwom the wall over there?"

Silverquill mutters under his breath as he waddles towards the hanging objects. "Don't know why they twusted that wetched demon for a second. Could they not even wecognize that he had a tewwible speech pwoblem?"

Meanwhile, Aren shakes his head at the boy Lodi's appearance and antics but still stops to ask "Can you sense the demon, Lodi?"

The little boy looks baffled by these new words but, happy that Featherbum has made his appearance, follows his favourite duck with his eyes until, crestfallen, he realises that there is no food, for the ancient hams have long ago been consumed by beetles, the barrels which might once have held sustenance long ago split, their contents lost to time.

Looking brightly at Aren, he asks, "You want Bad Man?" At Aren's patient nod, he stamps his tiny foot and proclaims, again, "Dat way," pointing at the darkness of the cavern.

Checking all the while to see if Aren, and especially his friendly alynx, are following, he guides the intrepid party to the centre of the cavern, where they pause momentarily to examine some blankets and straw pillows which indicate that this might, as Silverquill guessed, once have been a refuge for the people of the stead who once upon a time lived above.

Passing the length of the naturally formed cavern, which seems to occupy, quite neatly, the underside of the hill above, the exit they find has plainly been broken more recently, judging by the dust still in the air, the rocks still sliding slowly down the face of the cavern. "Dere", says Lodi, scratching at the feathers on his leg. "Bad man dere, took stupid man. He hungy like Lodi", he says with a giggle.

"Thank you, Lodi. Vewy helpful. Wemind me to have a long talk with you and the other childwen when we get out of here. There are a few stowies you've been told that were not cowwect. I could never allow that."

Silverquill eyes up the exit. It looks harmless enough, but you never know...

He looks at Lodi and Vizz. "Can either of you tell if the demon is close by? He might have pwepared an ambush."

Listening to the replies, the small duck also concentrates on the opening, calling on Lhankhor Mhy to warn him of danger.

Vizz peers into the darkness, cocks his head at an angle to better hear any demonic howling, flares his nostrils to better smell the stench of devilry.

"I sense nothing despite - my preternatural talent for sensing the super-natural." he whispers to the duck

Listening to the reply, the small duck also concentrates on the opening, calling on Lhankhor Mhy to warn him of danger, but there is no sound apart from a trickle of water to be heard through the tunnel.

"Deities and demigods are not within the tingle range of my 'tache. I do not think demons normally practice ambush, although I wonder which ancient prepared these hams."

So saying, Vizz turns back to prod one of the hams with his pole, finding them dessicated from an age long gone.

"Wait! what's that?!" he hisses, the hairs on the back of his neck erect and ready for action. "I've got goosebumps down to the soles of my feet" A gentle breeze coming out of the tunnel has set Vizz on edge and it is only the splintered bones, crushed beneath his feet, which he can feel through his soles.

~oOo~

Riantha seems not only uninterested in Gyffun's plight but offended at his persistence when she has a dead person to look after.

"Fine," says Gyffun, rather sharply. "You do what you have to do. Who am I to question the wisdom of the dead? I'm sure that Wilma will forgive me if I leave her in your capable hands while I tend to the welfare of the living."

Without another word, he turns on his heel and heads back down to the gaping hole, his thoughts now turning to the well-being of Morith and his friends.

"Where's that blasted duck?" he asks angrily, then follows the glances of the onlookers to the hole. The expression of incredulity on his face speaks volumes. "He followed them? Oh, for pity's sake! "

He takes a deep breath. "It seems that there is no end to our woes this day. Our dear Wilma lies dead upon the hill, slain by an unknown hand - or hands." Ignoring the gasps and cries of alarm, he continues. "Riantha looks to her spirit, but we must look to her mortal remains. I fear that I have not endeared myself to our ancestress by asking for her aid, so it seems that we must also identify the agency of Wilma's death ourselves."

He glances now at the children and their pale faces and crude, blood-stained weapons. "I fear that we have a hint of an answer already. Whatever madness possessed our little ones, it has now departed, I think. We must not hold them responsible for this tragedy."

"I go now to seek the one that is," he concludes.

And with that he takes hold of the rope and leaps into the hole.

~oOo~

Vurth arrives to a scene of total bedlam. People running about with weapons screaming, many pointing them at a large... hole. Even Vurth didn't attack holes .. what in Orlanth's name was going on? Demonic ducks? A man-eating hole? Vurth decided he better take charge.

"Right!" he bellows in his medium-loud field command voice. "You lot quit mucking about and tell me whats happened here."

Those nearest reel back holding their ears and most others are stunned into silence. Vurth takes advantage of this lull to drop his voice a few decibels and fire questions at those who appeared to be the most in command of themselves. The answers he gets don't really help that much but it does seem that a demon appeared in a puff of smoke, stole their guest and disappeared down that hole with various friends in hot pursuit. That was enough for Vurth. The rest was details and everyone knew that those were a waste of time (though Vurth was passing curious as to why they were all covered in blood).

"Right!" he bellows again (in his medium-loud field command voice). "You lot form a circle around this hole and when my wife gets here you tell her what happened. " Without bothering to see if his orders are followed he grabs the rope and heads down.

Where it turns out to be rather dark. This stops Vurth for a moment but when he takes a good sniff of the air he finds that there are hints of the pre-dark to follow.

He passes by the extinct hams and comes to a smallish hole that appears to have been blasted through the wall. Through the hole he can see alight and hear the familiar sounds of his bickering friends. With a great deal of effort he manages to wiggle though the hole where he sincerely hopes that he will not find a 10 foot by 10 foot room containing a tribe of orcs which unfortunately appears to be almost exactly what he finds.

~oOo~

"Wight!", says Silverquill. "He might get away while we stand here a-quacking. He has not had that much time to pwepare an ambush."

With that, the small duck pokes his head thru the opening and starts to wriggle through.

"I agree," says a voice.

Aren and Vizz turn to see that Gyffun has joined them. The skald's expression is grim and determined. "Let's go," he says, shortly. "I have a bone to pick with this demon."

The going is tough: the hole into the tunnel is barely large enough to have fitted Morith if he was taken this way. But once through, Silverquill is easily able to stand, for he has emerged into a passage at least as tall as one of the larger folk. Once Aren's feline companion has joined him and he can see properly, he is surprised to see the floor, walls and ceiling of the tunnel lined with a thick layer of fungi, creating an environment at once comfortably soft and uncomfortably dusty with dank spores in the air. This tunnel has definitely been hewn out of the rock and dirt rather than beig natural, and despite heading away into the distance to the duck's left, to the right leads only a short way to an underground stream, the edge of which can be seen beneath an overhanging rock.

Silverquill sneezes to clear the spores from his bill and blows noisily into his handkerchief. Grabbing a few fungi from the walls for later study (and nibbling on one for taste), the duck sage waits for the rest of the group to catch up.

Aren follows his Friend through the hole. His cloak adding to the light in the tunnel. Aren looks to the right "Well, with all these Fungi it should be easy enough to track - unless he flew." Then glances to the left. "Though the stream would provide fewer problems for him on that front." Aren looks around for foot prints or marks where the daemon or his captive touched the walls or roof. He easily finds the squashed down area of mould where Morith's body was probably put down, and the drag marks where he was likely led into the stream.

As the others arrive, Silverquill asks Lhankhor Mhy for guidance in determining which way to go. Plucking a feather from his left arm, he lets it float towards the floor. If his Lord has heard him, then the tip of the feather will point in the direction that the demon went.

The feather slowly spirals down and finally lands, the tip pointing towards... the way they came. Whether his God has abandoned him or is telling him not to embark on this quest he cannot tell. Silverquill rolls his eyes and moves a bit to his right, arriving at the edge of the underground stream. Bending down, he takes a sip of water, tasting it for any foulness, finding the water very sweet, if a touch tangy.

Silverquill quickly takes off his grey robe and dumps it at the edge of the stream. "I'll just take a quick dip!", he announces.

The small duck waddles into the cold water and then disappears beneath the surface, quickly establishing that the stream is more of a river but with no opposite bank, only an upstream and a downstream, apparently with little available air to breathe in either direction for quite some way and even less light.

Silverquill pops back up to the surface of the river like a cork, bobbing gently up and down.

"Clearly, our duck is the master of stream lore - what do you think my ducky chum?" asks Vizz.

"Well," says the paddling sage. "It's weally more of a wiver, master Vizz. I could not find the opposite bank, only a wall of wock. There were also vewy few places you could suwface to bweathe and it's quite dawk down there. I did not see any sign of Mowith."

Silverquill scratches his colourful head feathers. "I do not know which woute the demon took. Lodi, can you tell me where the Bad Man is?"

"Da' way," says the little boy, unhelpfully pointing at the water as Aren takes charge.

"Right," says Aren "Lets deal with the light first. If you could pass me your Lightning Globe I will charge it up for you to see by".

Taking the Globe from his feathered fr... err companion he gestures and calls the lightning to dance inside the globe so it lights up the area.

"Now if you are willing I am sure we can get a little more air in your lungs."

Gyffun is intrigued by this latest obstacle, but he cannot immediately see how he can assist his aquatic companion. Musing upon the many tales that he had been related to him by the Animal Tribes during his recent quest, the skald remembers Otter's thrilling tales of hunting for eyeless Hell Salmon in subterranean rivers. Perhaps this will offer some helpful insight?

Silverquill listens to Gyffun's exciting tale, taking in the details of how a Hell Salmon hid behind Otter and tried to ambush him. He then takes the now blinding globe back and holds it in one hand. In the other, he holds his short sword, useful for stabbing underwater.

"Thank you for your aid, my fwiends. I have much to do to wepair the damage I caused to your twibe. If I can find this demon and we can defeat him, then that will be a small step in the wight diwection. I will give a signal as soon as I find anything."

The duck then inhales the swirling wind that Aren called up, his chest expanding noticeably. With a cheerful wave Silverquill once again glides down under the surface of the river. The light dims somewhat but the rest of the group can still see it, as the duck heads further south.

~oOo~

Meanwhile, Aren notices that his new friend, Friend, is not at all amused. The fiery alynx has padded off a few paces back towards the exit but Lodi has persuaded the beast to halt, talking soothingly to the beast in a fastly flickering language which Aren recognizes as Firespeech.

"Well Friend what has raised your hackles?", Aren addresses the uppity creature, "I accepted to be friends only with you. But if you want that to extend to me not helping my fellow clansmen then you presume to much. I do wish you to stay with us. But amongst us humans that means that you too, in some small way, must become part of our clan. See Lodi already has taken a good liking to you so we are not all that bad. What do you say ?"

As grudgingly as only a cat can, Friend reduces the speed at which its tail is swishing, licking one of its flaming haunches as if nothing had happened.

~oOo~

This is easy!

It has been a while since the sage has swum in a proper river but he takes to it like a duck...once he has worked out exactly the points at which he would allow a human companion to breathe, he descends the river a little further to the place where it opens. Careful to still his Orb a little, he surfaces. The dark figure of the demon, utterly unawares, is bent low over what must be Morith, slumped on a sandy bank within a great cavern which holds an underground lake.

With barely a ripple on the surface of the water, Silverquill's head emerges. Taking a quiet breath of stale cavern air, the small duck quickly assesses the situation. There is that blasted demon! >From this angle, it is not possible to make out what is happening, but it is crouching near a body which can only be Morith.

Silverquill feels a brief urge to charge out of the water and take on the demon head-to-head, but quickly realises that he'd be somewhat outclassed. Instead, the duck sage takes a look around the cavern.

Aha! Up there, directly above the demon. Several wicked looking stalactites. They might be able to knock the fiend out, or even impale him until reinforcement can be brought here.

Silverquill carefully lifts the Lightning Globe and aims it at the stalactites. With the force of all his will, the deadly lightning in the globe strikes the cavern ceiling and the sharp, heavy stalactites plummet towards the surprised demon!

~oOo~

[1] Italics (e.g. hears, observes) indicates communication through the mindlink between Vurth and his family.

~oOo~