Tancred and Crystal Cove - LetterPile - Writing and Literature
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Tancred and Crystal Cove

Tancred comes back in a twist of fate... They are written to entertain and tingle the imagination brain synapses.

Ch. 1 The siege of Crystal Cove

Ocean waves slapped up against against the jagged rocky shore; quietly, the ships hoisted sail. Slowing the advance to a meer float,

"Signal for all ships to get into firing position and do it quietly," came a harsh scared-throat voice at barely above a whisper.

The messenger dashed away, silent as the night. A pair of torches waved the indicator cross, then a sweeping motion signaling for the armada to get into position silently, and to fire upon the sleeping port-city.


The ShipWright inn was packed and filled with excitement. The whistles and applause filled the dining-common room as the Storyteller finished another epic performance—a telling of the conquests of the TanCred Empire. He had needed a break, to "lubricate his old bones," but as with any entertainer, a break is required.

Before leaving the stage, he had given them a taste of his next telling, which was to be the fall of the TanCred Empire.

This hooked the masses and contented; a buzzing filled the air. Storyteller shuffled over to the barman and slurped down a beverage.

A loud boom echoed throughout the cove. Lightning streaked across the darkened night. Tree root impressions painted the clouded sky. "You've got them again, like fishing out of a barrel," said the barman, "are you going to tell them about King Jhojan?"

Storyteller smiled and winked," I think that story would be better served during one of the harvest night festivals. Besides, I want them to leave in happier spirits. "

Every minute the thunder would intensify, innsfolk began to jump as the crash of thunder struck the port city. "A big storm must be blowing in," the barman exclaimed almost to himself," get those doors closed if you know what's good for you," he said in a louder voice.

Then suddenly, before a pair of guys could get the doors even closed, a woman's scream pierced the stillness of the night and sliced through the humming of the crowd. The sounds of falling stone stunned the room, including the Storyteller.

Without warning, a section of the roof was ripped off over the commons, and rain began to pour in. A boulder smash landed on the corner of the inn, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling.

Accompanying explosions echoed throughout the night, cannon and catapult projectiles tore massive chunks out of the surrounding buildings.

Storyteller got to his feet amongst the chaos; the mob pushed and shoved its way out onto the docks knocking him off his feet.

Peering through the falling rain, he brushed loose grey and white hair from his face. A look of shocked realization adored it; the masts of those ships carried a familiar banner.


tancred-and-the-crystal-caves

Ch.2 Revenge of the Satjons

Satjon banners flew from the masts of the massive ships, as the cannon fire continued with vigor. Columns busted into pieces, rooftops collapsed and fell onto lower buildings bursting into flames, as the city fell into chaos and ruin.

One of the ships docked heavily armored units poured and marched in a snaking pattern. Spearpoints jutted out from the flanks, while the vanguard held massive shields. Short bows fired from the 'eyes of the snake.' As a soldier fell, another would collect the fallen soldier's shield and fill the hole at the nose of the column.

The Satjons poured out of the docking ships, seemingly without end. A flood of black-yellow-red mailed soldiers filled the docks. They slew all townsfolk as they went about clearing the city, no initial quarter was given.

Storyteller felt a grab at his shoulder, observing the coral snake familiarity to their movements, and as he turned, the barman's voice said quietly, "There's a way out the back, come on."

The barman then pulled his friend into the kitchen and out the backdoor, just as the last remnants of the city guard fell to the Satjon serpents. The technology of the invaders far outstripped those of the defenders. The Satjons welded weapons the townsfolk had never seen before.

The sidestreet was empty, bits of rock and building lay strewn about the walkways. Lights began to illuminate undamaged buildings as waking townsfolk lit candles. Storyteller and the barman sprinted up the cobblestone street, calling to the townspeople, "Wake up, the port is under siege!"

Getting to the top of ShipWright hill, the pair stopped to watch the largest ship dock, and a golden serpent spilled out, flanked by a couple of massive six-legged creatures. A towering figure exited the Galleon, clad in gold with a black-red-trimmed patterning; his helm was fashioned into the head of a dragon. A gruff scarred voice ripped through the night air, "Welcome, Ha Ha Haaa," he laughed maliciously, drunk on the euphoria of victory, " Welcome Satjons to your new home!"

The two friends turned to one another, thinking quickly, " we have to get out of here. To the outpost? The Stables? What about..." Storyteller thought out loud; the barman cut him off.

"We need to seek passage to the stones; we could go back to Scotland and live in the highland areas." Storyteller held his chin, leaning on the railings, looking out on the flawless siege.

They had lived in remote peace for a few centuries, living in balance with the seas, which gave the four hundred or so inhabitants all they would ever need.

Jagged, impassable mountains crowned the eastern half of the island. They created unique weather patterns, similar to the Caribbean within the cove, even as the peaks adorned thick blankets of glacial ice and fresh snow. "No, it was a one-way trip."

A slice of flat land swept to the west and gradually sloped to the sea, where a small village with stables, rice farms, and fishing docks could be found.

Halfway between the town and port-city was an outpost, which was the beginning of a mining effort to capitalize off the mountains for housing, opening-up flat land for farming and agricultural efforts.

The Outpost consisted of a watchtower like structure that butted up to the mountainside; makeshift tools could be found there.

"We should arm ourselves," the barman stated, still watching the scene below unfold.

The serpents struck at the city, hitting clusters of resisting townspeople with lethal precision, slithering in unison, in silent, deadly perfection. Other townsfolk were being gathered down at the docks, a voice rang out, echoing the will of their new king.

Orders to surrender or be killed were given as the dragon helmed man looked out from his custom perch upon the King's Galleon. The massive helm effortlessly looked about taking in the movements of his forces. Then he turned to communicate with a trio of light blue mailed figures—apparently advisors of some sort.

"We stored our old things in the barns, over by the stables." Storyteller reminded the barman, he too watched in horrid awe as the Satjons quickly wiped away ShipWright's defenses. Or, no, the city formerly known as ShipWright, thought Storyteller.

"You go to the stables; I think it will be better if I stay at the inn. Some people will be looking for me to know what to do; I can't just leave them," he put his hand on Storytellers' shoulder, " besides, this new army has to eat somewhere, might as well be at my inn, and can you imagine what chef will say about this? I wouldn't want to miss that."

Storyteller stifled a laugh, preferring to remain silent. The lightning continued to slash through the sky, yet the rain had stopped. The night grew cold; a chilling breeze crept through ShipWright, which sunk into the bone. Barman shivered, set on his course. He would gather Chef and the rest of his staff and meet the new rulers, hopefully to workout feeding their army in exchange for their lives and the lives of their future generations.

"I could come back with you," Storyteller said after a pause, most of the serpents had returned to their ships. Tents and a Pavillion had been set up at the mouth of the docks, only a pair coral and the royal gold companies remained ashore. The Satjon king and his trio of advisors entered the Captain's quarters and through the windows could be seen ascending to the royal apartments.

"No, you can't," responded the barman, "your beard and hairpiece, well, caught fire at some point." He pointed over to the Bilbo tree and down at the reflective pool below it. Storyteller walked briskly over to the tree to reveal his disguise had become patchy and scorched in places. His natural hair color poked through the mask, and with knowing resignation, he took off his storyteller disguise.

"I guess my decision has been made for me," Tancred said, "there is no way I can show my face down there. Your lucky; shaving your beard hides your identity." He gestured with his hand below his chin as if stroking a long beard.

Jhojan laughed a silent laugh; they had played Storyteller and Barman for nearly half a millennia. Tancred had been immortalized after his heroic victories for the Kingdom of Fraunki at SaxenMark and the Western-Trinity Alliance at Vladimark, at Chinhun. During the Romiton rebellion, Tancred had established an immortal legacy by accident.

He had given Jhojan, his friend Shofu, and many of his other Generals a code to noble victory through discipline and perfect execution. All achieved through extensive training and practice of martial arts, weapon play, formation drilling—all to cultivate a sense of togetherness and to work together as one.

The first Satjon encounter came in the third millennia, near the end. During this time, the Satjons had been uprooted by the Huncheni and forced west onto Fraunki lands. Thereupon moving around the fort at Riverbridge and south of the capital city, then later besieging the town. Then, King, Jholjito fell, despite winning the battle. His forward direction held off the incursion long enough for TanCred forces to mobilize. His death left the kingdom with no heir, his concubines numbered high, but he'd not yet married.

After a long debate, Jhojan was crowned King of Fraunki. Immediately, Jhojan, having experienced what he believed to be the deaths of two close friends, changed the name to the TanCred Kingdom—triggering a new age that lasted until the start of the 4th millennia. In contrast, Jhojan expanded his kingdom around the solid continent. The TanCred empire lasted through the continental drifting, maintained through a series of pyramids.

After that, the empire began falling into discord as communication became impossible, and various humans evolved and rebelled against their immortal royals. They forgot the truth of the code, which few now still remember, and fewer remain.

Jhojan was stranded at a place that today is known as Scotland—hunkered down in underground holdings, with sophisticated agricultural and farming societies that survived thousands of years—eventually becoming a knight of Arthurs court.

Shofu was stranded in the frozen northern American tundra and moved across the ice bridge to Mongolia, traveled about ancient china, eventually joining up with the Great Khan.

Other "gods," or "pharaohs," as some were identified in Eygpt, dotted the planet.

Tancred traveled up through Africa, moving up through Mesopotamia, got caught up in the Macedonian conquests, and eventually got holdings in Rome during the height of the empire.

Tancred became Storyteller, after the splitting of the Roman Empire and ended up in a captured roman town in the northern germanic territories. He was found in the town tavern, in full disguise, entertaining the children, elders, and women who had gathered there for protection.

He moved up through northern Europe and ended up in Viking Sweden/Norway to which he took up storytelling in the great halls entertaining the Norse with Tales of TanCred and reciting Norse lore bequest the Kings he treated.

Jhojan got recruited into the French army and fought in the heavy calvary. Tancred was in Paris at the time of the siege in 1429, Shofu saw through the disguise and confronted Tancred to which he revealed himself. Shofu dropped his allegiance and became Storyteller's horse handler, and they traveled to the French camp in order to help Shofu assume his new identity.

This is where Shofu spotted Jhojan brushing his warhorse Thor, named after Jholjito's mount all those ages ago. Asking whether his horse would like a blanket, Jhojan turned to brush away beggar, saying, "go away; I am not accepting any gifts from well-wishers or purchasing goods or seeking long lost relatives" and found himself staring at an ancient friend.

"And what about an ancient friend?" Shofu asked quietly, smiling. The shock only doubled when Jhojan saw a ghost, and the three companions traveled north to meet with Celtic druids in the heart of Scotland.

"I'll update Shofu, shall I?" Tancred said after adjusting to the situation. The town had stilled as patrols began to leave the tents and go about the city. "We better hurry, don't want those patrols to catch us."

The pair split up, Tancred sped into the night's dark, towards the forested slopes of the mountains and out of sight.

Jhojan slipped down past a patrol and into the back door of his inn. Pulling it closed, he pulled up a chair next to the ordering window and the coffee pot. Where he could easily see and not be seen, then closed his eyes as fatigue to him.

Chapter 3: Streaks in the Night

The storm began to lessen; lightning had calmed to a streak every twenty minutes or so.

The clouds started to thin, and yet, it remained difficult moving about at night. After waking in the night, Tancred plodded along carefully as not to make noise, patrols now covered ShipWright hill and in the night, before he could get there, patrols discovered the outpost. A second company was marching to join the first. In effect, they had doubled the guard at the mining camp.

The swift progress of the patrols left Tancred with little choice; he wisely chose to take cover in the thick, untamed forests at the base of the mountains. The trees trunks were as dense as those tropical forests found on earth in Africa, Asia, Europe, along with North and South America on Earth.

Through wildlife got no more significant than rodent mammals, mountain sheep, small deer, and birds, with bountiful numbers of beetles and insects.

It was, however, made all the easier by the moonlight of a full orb that had broken away from cloud cover. Bars of light pierced the treetop canopy; I must get to those stables and warn shofu thought Tancred.

Most of the sky remained shrouded in mist, some of it being snows that drifted off the towering peaks. Tancred moved swiftly despite the awkward step he took off his right leg. The shafts of light made traversing the forest territory relatively easy. Another figure stalked the night, then like a shadow vanished towards the mountains. He had only caught the momentary glint of light off the whites of their eyes; that stare felt eerily similar to a black panther from the jungles of earth.

He froze, lowering himself to a crouch. He was unarmed, all those years as the famed storyteller had seen him relinquish, much of his weaponry, for coin and paid armed guards.

"Tancred?" a voice whispered from the direction of the outpost. The unmistakable outline of Shofu slipped from out of the shadow, moved into the open. A bar of light illuminated his bamboo coolie hat.

"Shofu, the port..." Tancred began.

"I know," Shofu cut him off, " it was as if the cannons were firing upon the north village, it was so loud. We went unnoticed, as of now, " he continued. "A few stray catapult stones smashed against the mountains, took a few trees with them," he gestured to a clearing.

A blunt swath had been roughly cut into the forest, only visible from a few paces inside the treeline. A boulder had split in two after colliding with the steep mountain cliffside. Yet, there appeared to be a crack in the cliffs. A crawlspace had opened up into... something, a cave of some sort. Big enough for a man to fit into.

Shofu pointed at the boulder, "there appear to be more secrets to this island than we had perceived." He smiled, barely visible with the available light. It was nearly impossible to see if it weren't for a momentary flicker of what seemed to be torchlight. He reached behind him then.

Shofu removed a bundle from his back, steel, and mail rattling about as he set the package upon the ground, within Tancred's reach. Ancient leather cords pulled loose from their knots, as the bundle unrolled, revealing the contents. Years of dust drifted up into the night's light.

It carried a pair of longswords and spears, leather armor, an ancient greek helm, and custom gauntlets created for disarming an opponent. Tancred gathered up the items, taking inventory of the pair of samurai forged blades that had been added, the pieces of armor perfected after millennia of battle, and proceeded to adorn his mail over his tunic and small clothes.

No words were needed to express his thanks, Shofu bowed ever so slightly in namaste. He also placed a second bundle by the boulder, out of sight. This carried a satchel of throwing knives, mailed-leather armor, and Jhojan's broadsword. It, too, had old cloth wrappings which were held together by similar leather cords.

"I suggest you stay here and work on camouflaging this cleft; I must return to the stables." Shofu said after dropping all his inventory for Tancred; He stored his longbow beside the boulder next to the bundle for Jhojan. He decided to keep his duel crossbows and small-shield shortsword combo for defense.

"Meet back here tomorrow night, Jhojan is going to update us on the Satjon movements and any other relevant information. And, yeah, I'll stay put I don't see anywhere else I can safely hide."

Shofu nodded, thoughtful, and vanished into the shadows of the night. Not a sound could be heard of his movements, though a keen ear may try.

Tancred pulled out the Katanas from their sheaths, the mastery of their forging glinted off the naked blades in the light of the moon.

Shofu had visited the legendary Samurai blade master Masamune; He was sent as part of an emissary group as part of Kublai Khan's plan for world domination. This plan included Japan; he sent the emissaries bearing letters with the "cherished mandate of heaven."

Shofu and Masamune had held many audiences together and "produced fascinating conversations." After months of diplomacy, a friendship was forged, and the legendary Samurai the swordsmith gifted Shofu a bundle of four blades on their parting. A short sword, "Winter's Sting," a two-handed blade, "the Edge of Dawn," and a pair of dual katanas, "Wings of the Heron." Months later, the Mongol hordes descended upon Japan.

The air molecules split at the edge of the Winter's Sting; they whistled through the air as Tancred rhythmically slashed at imagined practice foes. Moonlight glinted off the blade.

His muscles could remember the centuries of disciplined practice; the integrity is completing each pattern with precision; the countless times those slashes saved his life in battle had edged themselves in the muscle neuro network of his arms.

Sheathing the blades to the scabbards secured at his waist, Tancred began to move foliage in such a way that only a person deliberately looking for the cleft could find it. He peered into the opening; strange crystals caught the moonlight, they cast a calming soft light; it was pleasant to behold.

There was enough space for a person to squeeze through into what seemed to be a large cavern of some sort. A faint sound of crashing water came from inside; curiosity overwhelmed Tancred, and against instinct, he entered the crawlspace.

Chapter Four; An Unexpected Discovery

The cavern, upon entering the open space, had solid rockface on the left, but there was a passage to the right. It looked as if it opened up into a good-sized underground cave, yet grass was growing on the soil below. Tancred reached down and grasped a hand full of crop growing soil.

Tancred cautiously peered around the jutting stone to get a better look at the cave meadow. There was very little movement, which was matched by silence and a faint waterfall echo. The plant life was mostly tropical in look; a faint blue glowed from some of the broadleafs, short grasses covered the cavern floor, Tancred noticed small hoof prints and what look like rabbit tracks.

A similar neon blue glow came from a slow-moving stream; pond lilies grew on the slow-moving waterway also emanated a light blue shine. The source of the water seemed to be feed by what sounded like a distant waterfall.

Deciding to build a fortification structure inside the cavern, Tancred carefully made a single "gatehouse doorway," that closed off the passage to the right. Small slits were placed so that he could learn about this alien world, keep an eye out for any strange animal life. Predators, of course, would not be welcome.

He created a storage sized room out of the available lumber using the thick growing cave vines to lash logs together. The construction took most of the day and lasted into the late evening. Shofu had brought a few pickaxes the night before, and from inside the cavern, Tancred carved out a doorway from the split in the stone.

He stored a Macedonian helm, a legionaries shield with hastae spears, Viking throwing axes, his newly acquired katanas, and his broadsword, along with Jhojan's broadsword, longbow, and other equipment.

Better in here and out of sight thought Tancred, placing the last of the armor and weaponry in the new room and proceeded to strap foliage camouflage on the outside of the new door to match the surrounding forest, which was a dense pine forest.

"Oye!?" Called Jhojan from out in the night, must have managed to slip out and around the Satjon patrols without being seen. In the span of two nights, the famed barman had been convinced to leave his coffee pot for an evening, twice—an improbable feat.

Otherwise, like clockwork, every turn of the moons, the common-dining area was closed for a deep clean. This time was for the cooks, table maids, and Jhojan to perform the little maintenance needs to keep the place going.

The moons hadn't yet turned halfway through the sky when he called for closure due to repair needs. The staff went home, grateful at the end of the night. Jhojan moved quickly up the hidden cobblestone way and to the top of ShipWright hill.

A set of four patrols held the high ground, two stationed at the outpost looking north at Shofu's settlement. Unwavering in watching for any movement from the unknown village. Another patrol looked south, watching the street below as it bent north. The path then ran along the seafront, the road ended at the docks below and connected to the inn's front door.

The other slept at the camp; a single occupant tended the low burning campfire. The Satjon patrols had hastily set up the came, in the daytime. It happened to be near the bilbo tree, Jhojan worked his way to the tree without making a sound. Snoring came from the thin bare tents, which covered his footsteps.

He tiptoed through the sleeping camp when a 5-foot white-based shield with a red cross painted upon the front caught his eye. It reminded him of a call to arms some centuries ago; it was a synapsis in the brain that caused him to snatch up his crusader's shield and disappear into the dark of the forest.

Jhojan had been keeping it on the wall of his inn; the soldier felt audacious enough to take the shield. Tancred placed the last of his camouflage on the door and turned to see a red cross on a white crusaders shield floating at him. "I haven't seen one of those in ages," Tancred said, a small pang of seeing a ghost had spiked his adrenaline.

Jhojan filled him in on the details of his night's movements when the two entered "Fort Cavern, is what we'll call it," Tancred said, chuckling. Tancred handed Jhojan a cup of campfire coffee and poured himself a cup.

" Where'd you get the water?" Jhojan asked, taking a sip. The liquid was warm; a sweet rush gave a jolt. Coffee was a treat for the barman.

"Got it from the stream over there," Tancred replied, pointing with an hasta at the strange blue, glowing slow-moving water, "caught a glimpse of a green neon frog of some sort," he said with an edge of wonder. He gazed out the opened camo-door and saw a familiar landscape of dense tree growth and varying bars of moonlight illuminating the forest floor.

A crack of a broken twig snapped the night's stillness. The two got to their feet, both grasping their broadswords. For a brief moment, nothing moved. "Nice door, you got there," Shofu said from atop the foreign bolder, his signature coolie cap catching the light similar to the ferns that grew about the landscape, a second coolie cap bobbed just behind Shofu.

"Shinshu," the two men said as a pair of uncles would. The youth smiled at them, cheeks flushed. He wore the family sword, "the edge of dawn," was edged into the metal in traditional Japanese. It was longer than most katana making it comparable to the Scottish claymore Jhojan preferred.

"Come on in," Tancred said, pointing with his nose. Shinshu, like his father, and evolved to look closely like the indigenous peoples found about the high plains and great lakes of the Americas.

They only managed to get across a landbridge during a particularly fogging day and remarkably frigid winter, following an abnormally warm melting season. Shinshu jumped down light as a feather and looked about the fort with a hint of childish wonder.

Shofu beamed, and a smile passed between friends.

"So what news? Asked Shofu, an edge of urgency entered his voice.

Face suddenly stern, Jhojan began to talk about the arrangement he made with the 2nd in command. " He didn't speak; he just wrote down his thoughts, and an interpreter relayed the message from there." Jhojan made a writing motion and continued,

"Well, they wanted to lodge the King, who got the top floor rooms. All four of them. Then, all of the twenty second-floor rooms would be lodging for the officers and the royal guard. The first floor rooms were to be converted to an armory, house a complement of soldiers, the inn was to become the Satjon military headquarters, and I was to turn over the keys."

He took a sip of coffee, Shinshu had returned, offering coffee to the men and topped off half-emptied mugs. Jhojan then continued,

"In exchange, my staff would be allowed to live and work as usual. The homes next door just so happened to have vacancies. This included my 'Two cooks, upwards of 10 table maids, and yourself,' they told me. 'And I have some executive say on my inn,' it could have turned out worse."

A slip of the tongue betrayed his Celtic accent; the stories he had told when living in the newly formed Scotland were nothing short of magical. He'd jest that he came from the same lineage as Merlin, but his listeners would only laugh.

"Anyway, off the record. There seems to be a delay in unloading troops; the laughable winds have made movement impossible for the large ships. They only just managed to open a dock for the smaller vessels. So far, the Satjon infantry numbers at 1,500 men on foot, a company of elite of 500 bows, there is nothing left on the west of the tavern. " he paused, took another sip of coffee. " Everything lay in ruins, "

Shofu interrupted, "about 20 folks showed up at my house; it is how we learned of the incident. They started running when they heard shouting about the city being attacked," he looked over his son with gratitude in his eyes. Tancred stirred and swished his cup in a swirling motion.

"We should be thankful for who is left."

Chapter Five: Temple of the Marble Skull

The four sat about the small campfire. They all had become visibly relaxed, choosing to smoke a pouch of aged Shireman's finest. They laughed quietly, but often regaling in tales of glory, or retched defeat, and the historical figures that shaped the world of men.

The small campfire flickered softly off the cave walls; a light show danced upon the rocky surface. The smoke reminded Tancred of a dream he had had about a fictional place that had half-people, a ring, and musical creation.

Everything became normal for a while as Tancred became Storyteller and told the story of fabled jewels and desperate conflicts upon eloquent stages. They were taken away to a place as if they had opened a book and stepped into its pages.

The evening wore on, and it came to the time where the company had to part ways. They all stood, gathering their things, grasping each other by the shoulder as if it were a hug. Shinshu had just stepped out into the night, buckling his sword to his waist when Shofu stopped him, "wait, do you hear that?"

A strange "Lili Lili," came from inside the cave, starling the company. All four got to their feet. Shinshu drew his sword, alongside his father, who took out a buffalo-hide buckler on his left-hand side and a Roman Gladius in his right.

Tancred slid to his shield and slipped on his helm. Taking a pair of hasta in his right, he lifted the roman shield at testudo height. Jhojan held his sword aloft, vertical in front of his person ready to parry any strike. Another Lili, drew them into the cave, cautiously the moved with weapons ready and senses keen.

They peered into the dense vegetation, nothing moved. The blue glow didn't provide much light to aide the human retina. They lightly stepped, not allowing anything to separate from the defensive structure keeping a secure space between their backs and the fort.

The trilling continued, an eerie communication was going on—something utterly unknown to the four men. The sound bounced off all the cavern walls, making it difficult to pinpoint the source.

A look of concern began to crease the brow of Shinshu when, suddenly, from all around them, women armed with short bows or spears and bucklers pounced from the shadows.

The swiftness, not to mention the shock of having maidens with spears, come on them from behind, caught the four by surprise, and they were forced to relinquish their weapons. Slowly the four men disarmed, nearly had to disrobe behest the pressure the maiden pressed upon them.

"Who are you? " came an older woman's voice; it was confident with years of experience and strengthened with spiritual purpose. The elder knowingly showed herself in a brighter part of the opening, just visible to the men," we have been studying your strange Earthian behavior ever since you landed all those years ago."

She moved rather gracefully for a rapidly greying person. She was human in appearance, yet her skin seemed to be closer in strength to an oak tree. Her eyes peered into men's eyes, each in turn, calculating, knowing them somehow.

She flicked her head to the disarmed weapons, and younger maidens sprung to gather them up.

Shinshu gritted his teeth but reluctantly relinquished his blade, watching a maiden gather his things. The three older men masked themselves well, smoothing their facial features to polished stone.

The elder watched them intensity, noticing Shofu putting his hand on Shinshu's shoulder, how Tancred watched his step with an eye on the others, and the slight edge of aggravation on Jhojan's face.

"However, ever since those so-called Satjons began ripping up the place, we feel that you are no threat, as of now. We will hold onto your weapons for a short time. A gesture of good faith on your part, in the name of peace. For now, you," pointing with what appeared to be a wooden staff or elongated pipe, right at Tancred, "you can stay in the guest homes. You'll find pillows, blankets, and other necessities in the kitchen-common room. There isn't anyone in those rooms, make yourself at home. You three may also maintain a room, but dare I say you cannot risk staying here."

It was true, Jhojan had to be back at the inn before sunrise to serve breakfast for the soldiers, a part of the agreement was to feed the troops. The trick was bountiful amounts of fish and chickens' eggs—bread for toast and milk from the highland dairy cows for breakfast—sushi, fillets, and a variety of rice platters for dinner.

Shofu and Shinshu represented a hundred and now twenty village-folk and, like Jhojan, had until sunrise. At any moment, the Satjons could march on the farms, and without representation, disaster could strike.

"Thank you," replied Tancred cautiously, "I accept. My companions agree," he looked them in the eyes seeing the agreement in them.

The elder backed away, joining a circle of fellow older women. A younger maiden slunk forward and greeted Tancred, following the goodbyes exchanged with Jhojan, Shofu, and Shinshu.

She smiled, "My name is Bengali."

"Tancred," he replied, blushing slightly. She was beautiful. She took his hand and brought him to the first room, "It's the only one with a private entrance." She had a mischievous smile flicker across her face, but only briefly.

The structure was carved into the face of the rock; rooms appeared from out of nowhere. A cooking-pit centered in a large room caught his attention taking in his new abode.

He sleepily swept the private entrance door aside, which consisted of a deer-skin cloth, enough for privacy sake and turning he smiled and was about to say more to Bengali when she just bounded off.

The momentary shock was replaced with mild amusement as he entered a good size room. A bed had been made; a few chairs straddled a small table. Another door opened up into the cooking-dining area.

He moved a bookcase near the private entrance, coincidently, and felt more comfortable with the room. To complete the transformation, he moved the table and two chairs to the corner where the former private entrance was. Yawning, he sluffed off his travel clothes to his under linens and gratefully climbed into bed and, quite by accident, fell asleep immediately.

Chapter Six: Settling into a New Reality.

Time passes differently in the darkness of the cavern. The rock faces had a faint fluorescent neon-blue cast; stripes rippled across Tancred's new lodgings. Strange leafy lilypads grew at the base of the waterfall; they were hard to see for the plant equates to the size of a clover. The light they produced was unmistakably alien to Tancred. It gave him an oddly comforting feeling.

Waking through his new environment, and having his eyes adjusted to the light available, revealed a bridge across a chasm, eroded and produced by the waterfall. The light emanating from below was brighter than could be found anywhere in the other caverns. Marble lined the columns holding up the bridge, which had a distinct ancient roman-Greco look to it; the top of the arch had strange blue stones for the material. The keystones reflected the plant and water light, which illuminated the surrounding area with a soft blue hue.

More than a few dozen warrior-clad women were strolling about the bridge and corresponding living quarters across the way. Each had distinct leather tunics that corresponded with the sacred big cats of Earth. Half a dozen septs existed:

The Lions and Tigers were bigger women that thrived off the adrenaline of battle; the Cheetahs focused on their natural speed, and the Black panthers focused on stealth and espionage; the Snow Leopards used their natural ability to climb the rocks and roosted up high in the cavern walls, their torch lights could be seen high above everything; and a Desert Lynx sept existed as holy-people, shamans of the barren places.

It took Tancred no time to learn this, the striping of tigers and spots of snow leopards made the distinctions easy, along with the different ways each sept carried themselves. The panthers were hard to spot, seeing as they wore all black covering all exposed skin with clothing.

He spent most of his time with Bengali, a Tiger maiden.

She had ample hips and a sultry sway about her. She smiled mischievously at him sometimes, to which his heart fluttered. The orange-black added to an attractive waist, and she had... he tried not to look... a voluptuous bosom. Most of the time, he focused on those tiger's eyes she had and to what she was teaching him.

On this particular occasion, only the Lions sat upon the bridge. Leopards watched from above. A panther stood just outside the firelight of the community hearth, which lay between the stone lodging and the sheer cliffs leading down to the rushing water below. It occupied most of the available space there with multiple benches and an appropriate size firepit.

Tancred sat upon the lodging side of the fire, a lynx tended the guest fire. She poked the coals and made room for more wood. There was a pair of archways across the bridge; one leading left had constant movement as maidens went about their daily lives.

Maybe that is where the tigers are? thought, Tancred. He looked forward to his lessons with Bengali. The other archway was shrouded, and a faint fog-like mist wafted under the door. No one was allowed down this passage unless on special ceremonial occasions.

'Oye,' came a familiar cry from the meadow passage. Tancred saw Jhojan before he saw him, same with Shofu though their eyes adjusted quickly. He waved them down; the lynx scowled at them and jabbed the fire allowing oxygen to reach the now buried coals. A lion placed a dozen logs on the blaze, as the two TanCred companions sat next to him.

Jhojan had retained his identity as Barman, stating his father was not that creative and named him for the job he would grow into.

"The Dragon-helm King had an eerily familiar laugh, earthy human though. That must be it," Jhojan said, shaking his head.

The Satjons had taken lodging at the inn and converted it to a base of command. The toll of their stay had etched stress-lines in the ancient man's face. The main base of the troops now held the port-city, with more ships needing to be unloaded out in the harbor.

There was a separate force of a thousand or so alien humanoids; they had similar gold on black armor with red trim, but an additional underlayer of sky blue shown through making the count of a thousand all the easier. The blue-clads rode the two massive beasts, now pinned in with the bilbo-tree, the cobble side-street remained relatively hidden from plain sight, which led right up to the newly constructed pen.

Shofu delivered the news of his villagers. They had all moved, say for a few essential personnel, to the new stone-carved apartments. Under the condition, they submit to the elder's authority while staying with them.

The villagers stubbornly resisted but convinced by Shofu to relinquish their executive decision-making to him and democratically agreed, which turned out for the best.

A stable man, three volunteer farmers, Shinshu, and Shofu all decided to stay. The old stableman owed Shofu a life debt from the time the trio traveled through medieval Celtic Scotland. A rogue band of Vikings struck his small farm, killing all of his relatives, but the trio intervened, saving his livestock. Shofu deflected the headsman's ax and slew the headsman.

Refusing to name himself, "Old Stableman," was adopted as his title, and he donated his life and livestock to Shofu for saving his life. The Tancred band grew to capacity before reaching the stones.

The three enjoyed each other's company for a short while longer after updating Tancred on events. Slowly the northern villagers filtered in, Shinshu darted in and out, guiding them along the darkened paths.

Shofu slid off into the night; he was going to watch the Satjon night patrols. They had made the outpost a guard post, using the tower to keep watch of movements between the village and city. His stealth rivaled that of the panthers. Tancred was forced to stay put, having no persona like Jhojan. His stealth was limited to short slow movements; he wasn't all that light on his feet. Going with Shofu was out, and so he spent his time learning about the different clans along with sharpening and polishing his armors and blades.

The discipline of the women was impressive; they utilized every calorie to maintain a high level of fitness.

Each cat had unique skill sets that fit together to create a balanced and harmonious society. They believed in a living planet and gave offerings to the Areth ocean-gods to appease her at the core.

This was the limit of information he was allowed; they were willing to scoff at the idea of blood sacrifice when he asked. A lynx shot him a look of disgust upon overhearing the question. A huge relief and Tancred slept all the easier as the villagers settled in for the night.

Chapter Seven: Cliff-dwellings and Glowing Lilypads.

The dwellings in which Tancred woke to seemed to grow each time he opened his eyes. Villagers have begun to light torches, to which the maidens graciously supplied along with an abundance of all other comforts. Pillows helped with the stone furniture, as the maiden were well aware of.

The architects hollowed deep into the rock, creating a wealth of unique living spaces, cooking hearths, and bathing quarters on a set of four floors.

The stoneworkers had artists' hands; ornate details were chiseled into the columns and room dividers. You could look for a lifetime and never see all the beautiful stonework.

Doors were limited to blankets and deer hides. Tancred identified his room by the strange cat and dog hominids that played with a hoop carved above his doorway. The meaning was beyond any of the maidens, who laughed at the peculiar looking dog creature.

The maidens knew very little about the builders. Universal knowing was that it was them that charged the first women to protect the source.

Another blockage of information followed when he asked about "the source." They protected their ways aggressively.

Tancred would practice swordplay after waking and eating breakfast. As of late, Shofu was able to join him.

This ritual became in-sync with the maiden's practice sessions across the bridge. The men were forbidden to watch and so unable to sleep through the clashing of metal, Tancred would eat and drink a cup of coffee followed by a session of meditative practice.

This session includes Shofu. They started with 'culling the lilypad,' into 'crossing the X.' 'Parry the fools thrust' became 'shaves the hedge' to finish with 'thorn of a rose.' The pair moved in in rhythm, finishing with the same final step, leading into a freeform dance, an expression of parry and strike.

Tancred focused on disarming moves with tendon-severing emergency-counters. His flow was close to the body, quicky smooth slashes and gauntleted jabs. Turning, he ended facing Shofu.

Shofu worked on stealth patterns. Quick, silent movements meant to decapitate a nightguard, followed by surrounded emergency practice. He dropped his crossbows and drew out his gladius and buckler. His actions were fast and ferocious, then steady parry, by precise fatal counters. He bowed, completing his practice, and faced Tancred.

They cast aside their sharp weapons, no need to kill each other, and moved into more combative practice. Tancred made two wooden hastae, a wooden broadsword, and a pair wooden katana equivalent to the specifications of the 'Wings of the heron.' Shofu made a dozen wooden bolts, a 'Winter's fang' replica, and a wooden gladius.

It was Shofu who struck first, and just moments earlier, He had been looking into the distance, firing bolts at Tancred's chest.

Tancred swept them aside with his shield and hurled an hasta to which Shofu rolled still charging and pulled up his small-shield. He smashed into Tancred's massive shield, knocking him to the stone floor.

This pinned Tancred's sword hand and Shofu tapped his friend's inner thigh with the short sword gladius, "potentially fatal wound," Shofu stated.

"True, that move is too perfect. You get inside because of those darn crossbows, and nothing can be done," Tancred pushed Shofu off him and got to his feet, 'the only reason you have a gladius is so you can best me.'

Shofu chuckled to himself. It was the truth.

'Oye,' Jhojan traditionally entered the cavern, he looked a bit pale. Almost sickly.

"What news?" Tancred beckoned his friend to a seat, dropping his practice blades, and pouring three cups of coffee. Jhojan quickly took a place and happily took a sip, color returning to his face. He looked tired, drawn-out if you will.

"Aaaah, thankfully, the Satjons have no liking for coffee, about the only thing I enjoy these days," Jhojan said, taking another sip.

"The Satjons are done unloading troops; units are totaling around 50,000 infantry. The sheer number of them is maxing out the city's housing capacity. They will populate the whole island before you know it. Like that," He snapped his fingers.

He paused and gestured, asking for his coffee to be topped off.

Just then, Bengali entered the firelight, Tancred had gotten used to her silent cat-like movements which epitomized the sacred Earthian tiger.

Jhojan jumped, spilling his cup. Of the three, he visited the least. The only chance to meet with his companions was during scheduled maintenance days every full turn of the moons.

Shofu chuckled to himself, relatively quietly compared to the roaring from the lion and tiger maidens. Soon Jhojan joined in.

The strong smell of sage wafted across the bridge, smoke billowing from hand-carried sea turtle shells. An elder appeared from out of the smokescreen, along with a pair of torch-wielding maidens. The elder held a massive shell, sage smoldering and producing vast amounts of smoke. Bengali elegantly turned and pulled the smoke about her.

Tancred mimicked her behavior and pulled the sage smoke about him.

Jhojan and Shofu respectfully declined, "pray for me," said Jhojan waving them on.

Shofu held to his ancient beliefs and graciously bowed out. The elder dipped her knees in spiritual acknowledgment and returned to Bengali's side.

The old oak of a woman took in the villagers and said aloud, "This land has a heart, a magic..." She paused thoughtfully, choosing her words, "sicknesses don't last long here."

With that, the second pair of lynx maidens draped the elderly woman in a blanket, covering her face and taking the soup-bowl-sized shell.

A drumbeat started up accompanied by vigorous trilling. Then another large drum joined in; the sage smoke grew thicker; this fact didn't hinder the maidens breathing as they turned to face the opposite cliffside.

The trio retreated, instincts knowing they'd suffocate if they tried to breathe in the smoke-filled air like the maidens. They watched, from a distance, in awe as the torch fire slowly faded to balls of orange-yellow-flickering light.

Smoke continually cascaded down the opposite cliffside, gliding off the waters below and filling the chasm.

It took a matter of moments, but the smoked poured down obscuring the blue glow of the water below. The darkness then became absolute, only pierced by the pair of orbs bobbing and flickering as the lynx maidens took short choppy steps.

The eyes couldn't help but track the path of those torches.

Similar to Earth's ocean, deep predatory creatures that used fluorescent balls of light to attract and trap their prey. The three watched eyes following the fireballs, hypnotized and stunned in place.

The group stepped onto the opposite bank, and just like that, the torches extinguished, Bengali vanished into the smokey pitch black.

Chapter Eight: Winds of Change

Jhojan woke the next day to a rainbow curving overhead. The harbor glittered below in the sunrises glow; seagulls chimed their notes to the morning song. And the winds of change blew threw the open window.

The wooden chair creaked as he stretched and wiped the sleepiness out of his eyes. He stood up from his perch next to the coffee machine, started up the hotplate for bubbling some water.

He looked out onto the common room area. The staff had done another exceptional job; he lucked out with the fact they loved their jobs. Smiling to himself, he walked to the front doors and took in the splendid morning painting. Then returned to the fresh coffee pot brewing in the kitchen.

---

Shofu had risen before the sun and reached the farms. They were neatly tilled fields upon the far northern peninsula of the island. The land there had perfect conditions for the growth of rice and sugar cane, among other things.

He proudly looked out onto the functioning farm-system; the harvest had been completed in the night. The design was one of the ancients, a traditional setup that made harvesting quick and easy.

Harvest day usually was an all-day event; the village had woke early to begin the harvest at dawn. This was followed by feasting, drums, singing, flutes, and dancing. The whole community came together in celebration. Then in the evening, they planted the next crop. Lanterns were lit to light the way, a touch Shofu added himself, as the night grew darker.

Gazing out on the clean, unplanted fields he sipped at his tea, grown from plants he had been given during his campaigns in Asia for the Khans.

The taste required honey or something that would sweeten the bitterness—the immuno-benefits and natural energy benefit outway the extra steps needed to enjoy the tea. After centuries of attempts, he'd perfected the drink the day upon which they arrived the island.

---

Tancred stood frozen to the spot, an archer from the city wall was aiming at his friend, malace in their eyes. The King of Fraunki did not see.

"Nooooooo!" He cried, a look of confusion quickly crossed the king's face. He continued to the higher ground, slashing Satjons on either side of him. Reaching a high point, he cried, "We shall be victorious," as the first arrow struck.

With a start, Bengali's face above him, Tancred woke. Eyes flying open and instinctively, he moved, but she had prepared for a waking slash, and Tancred found his sword hand pinned underneath him.

"You were thrashing about; I thought I might ease your suffering by waking you." She said, looking at him with a curious look, her eyes sharpened, trying to read his face, pierce his soul through his eyes.

She got up off him, relieving the pressure on his hand. He took a deep breath as her knee lifted off him, then sat up, the bedsheets slid to his waist. She paused for just a moment of hesitation, then smiled, stepping to the door. She beckoned him to join her and the others for breakfast.

----

Jhojan watched as the Satjon forces continued to file out of the city, serpentine formations slithered through the streets. The sheer number of them was enough to cause the inn to rattle slightly. He finished his mug with a final gulp and headed back to the kitchen.

Chef was at his station, He would be planted like a statue if it weren't for his son and daughter at home.

They had escaped the carnage by taking shelter in the cellars of the inn.

Chef, he liked to be called, was a haggard old man, with a white handlebar mustache. He wore a pair of half spectacles and clipped on a pair of jean suspenders atop a white T-shirt. This is what he wore every day, with his one apron. All you need is one apron, he'd say when provoked about it. The smell of blueberry wafted from the pancake pan.

"Did you get that order of eggs and pancakes?" Jhojan asked, engaging the chef in conversation. He reread the order sheet from one of the table maids; the handwriting was new.

"No, toast!?" griped chef, "Weird *bleep*." He finished in a spectacular fashion.

Jhojan shook his head, no matter how many times he told the chef to watch his language. The old cook would say, "Ruddy crap of an idea, don't you make that a rule, ya hear? You have enough of those already, besides my language is due to a mental editing illness." His usual response.

Looking out at the tables, Jhojan noticed the Dragon Helm sitting on one of the tables. This had been the king's first appearance since the landing. The man lacked top hair and wore a bandana about his face. Moments later, the helm was back atop his head. He was an ancient human from the earth; there was no doubt.

----

Shofu finished his cup of tea and proceeded to pack up his teapot dishes. The sunlight filtered through the bamboo rooftop casting a yellow hue upon the beaches and sloping dunes. The village had built a community retreat by the shores that sloped away to the west of the northern peninsula.

He gathered the last of his things and met the farming villagers, handing them the final bundle from the resort-like community center.

They hunkered down in the Governor's villa, Shofu had been elected unanimously by the 500 or so island inhabitants in a vote. 499 - 1, it was said. Shofu wouldn't say, but it is rumored (and secretly confirmed) that he voted for his son. Shofu currently lived there with his family, as acting Governor, for now.

His feet took him to check on the stables; the stableman was there gathering tack and loading said horse tack into a mule-drawn wagon.

"May the light's blessing find you," greeted the stableman.

He knew everything there was to know about horses and talked about little else. He wouldn't tell stories of his past and would only call himself a stableman. His past life died along with his youth, he would say.

Shofu smiled, thanking him for his kind words; they walked together down the rows of well-kept stables. All the horse munched contentedly, having just been fed that morning's feed—all except the massive stallion in the final stall.

The horse nodded his head up and down, trying to get his friend's attention. Finally, he lowered his head and snored loudly, followed by a whinny.

"Looks like McThor is feeling 100," stableman stated, the massive horse was the offspring of the famous warhorse Thor.

The giant of a horse pawed the ground, kicking up dust until the pair of men arrived at the final stall. Calming instantly, the two got to grooming and tending to his feet.

He was a large gray, nearly 18 hands in height, muscle solid as a stone. As a foal, he would run everywhere, popping off little farts when he'd jump around. He would also be found galloping everywhere in his adolescence, he earned his muscle through hard training and hauling farming equipment along with any needs during harvest for the villagers—all which shaped him into a dignified and proud horse.

Shofu ran his hand over the 'T' shaped irregular-star facial-marking on McThor's face-then offered a carrot, to which his four-legged companion crunched at happily.

Then, the loud clattering of a horse's hooves pierced the moment of peace. Shinshu came riding hard into view; he had been observing the outpost for movements. A stern determined look on his face.

He clopped into the stables and called out, "Father, the Satjons are marching this way."

Chapter Ten: The Crystal Cove

Jhojan watched as the Satjon king, the self-titled Dragonhelm king, paced back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back. He was visibly agitated, and as so, Larissa had thought similar to Jhojan that he looked thirsty.

She and Toria brought a few jugs each of wine for the distraught King, which he accepted gratefully and proceeded to empty the first of four pitchers.

The King had declared the land be called "Dragonhelm" after a few moments, the wine clearly taking effect. The pair entertained the King, during his proclamation, and for a while longer until, as Jhojan observed, a couple of officers made a buzzing sound. The wooden benches they sat upon made a whizzing sound, an effect of the pair of officers vibration.

The King's number one wrote down something, and in response, he bellowed at the table maids to scram. Throwing an empty pitcher at them as the fled, Jhojan restrained, with a considerable effort, the urge to slice this dragon into sushi.

Dragonhelm's new king drank greedily from the second pitcher, wine splashing down his front. Then, he tossed the second pitcher to break next to the first and leaned in to read what was written.

"Where are they now?" He asked the pair, who vibrated again. Jhojan rubbed his eyes and gulped the rest of his coffee. A trick of the eye, perhaps he thought. He sat down in his perch, where he could observe without being seen.

"The army is approaching the settlement. There appear to be multiple families under this one house. House Shofu, has a beautiful place at the Governor's villa. There are modest homes and dirt-filled huts, of some sort."

The general said almost hollowly as if speaking to maintain a role in a play, his voice manipulated in order for the intended listener to be able to comprehend the communique.

Jhojan had to pour another cup and, upon taking the first sip, then jumped. "Boo," whispered Tancred with a childish glee on his face. Coffee had flown everywhere and, most of it on Jhojan's person.

----

Bengali was able to make it through the first three rounds but retreated before the start of the forth. The heat and humidity became too much for her after that.

The ceremonies lasted for an eternity; heated rocks were placed in the center of sweat tents, and the heated vapor was intense. The tents were airtight to capture the steam and create a sauna type effect.

She was required to enter and could only leave after the third round, which lasts three or more series, depending on the ceremony.

She used her towel to sit on as she stripped the thin sweat-gown and replaced it with her dry leather tiger tunic. She gathered a pair of tigers' eye beaded bracelets and an amethyst necklace from the bench beside her sopped towel.

Having successfully changed, she strode out to find the elders had finished the final rounds of the sweat and were walking in her direction.

All the queens of each sept had made it to the sweat, a first in some moons, even the Snow Leopard queen was moved enough to attend. The buzz around the strange people and the sacred four-legged animals that accompanied them.

A panther had been instructed to show Shinshu the hidden passage at the crystalline caves; the horses would need to swim a short distance to the east of the northern peninsula. There was a rock shelf the hid the cove from the outside, similar to a geode; the horses handled going underwater and coming out into the shallows; it was said the animals were grazing at ocean's meadow.

A dozen stern looks met her.

She smiled, thinking frantically, and remembered she was still responsible for setting the tables at feast time. She dipped her knees slightly and quickly walked to the cooking hearths and then turned to the cabinets on the right.

Quickly she grabbed placemats and long plates, hurriedly placing them on the cart. Then rushed out and set all hundred-plus spots, each member had a simple placemat and received it upon their birth. She finished before most everyone arrived; the elders took their time when changing.

Two younger lions chortled to themselves until she got near, when then one of them said aloud, "so glad the dishes choir is no longer our problem."

The two watched Bengali waiting for a reaction, and when placing the last plate, she turned facing the tiger rivals and made a quick gesture.

"Bengali!?" Came the shocked yet stern voice of her mother. The twins rolled off the benches in fits of laughter at the sight of Bengali's face. She flushed, and with her shoulder slumped, she turned to meet the disappointed look of the Tiger queen.

----

Jhojan and Tancred sipped coffee together in silent jubilation; best friends could not help but feel good when seeing one another.

They soon distilled their feelings and focused on the King, who just finished the third of four wine pitchers. This one, he too, cast onto the pottery graveyard upon the common-room floor. It shattered along with the ruins of its relatives.

The Satjon means of communication were unearthly, instantaneous from the villa to the tavern. Then either written or painfully spoken aloud by the Right-hand, to which writing played a large part in communicating with the King.

"Odd, that," said Tancred after a few moments of watching the Right-hand scribble something down and then King reading it and reacting. "Tell the guv'na," the king was visibly drunk at this point, "tell them, to piss off. Or I ride him down with heavy cavalry, like the dog he is!"

He laughed and knocked over the last pitcher shattering it. Wine sprayed all over the pottery carnage as if blood stains from a potters massacre.

Jhojan flinched a fourth time and was resigned to crafting four more when he had the time.

Tancred noticed the strange accent that slurred from the king's mouth. It sounded like an echo of a battlefield from ages past, but the medieval English-like terminology was off-putting.

"They have agreed to submit to your rule and provide steeds at your immediate call," the scratchy voice of the Right-hand stated.

Chapter Eleven: Movements in the Night

Shofu and Shinshu watched the Satjon forces withdraw. The massive Rhinlorks gazed out over to the stables and the happy horses looking back. They both hesitated, a longing in their eyes as they took another look at the pens. Then, after pausing, reluctantly turned and thudded back to the outpost pen.

Shinshu stepped up to the railings beside his father, the last of the Satjon infantry slithered away. Shofu had noticed the pale blue of the Rhinlork captains, connecting them to the officers lodged at Jhojan's inn. The two of them buzzed, no audible words spoken, when communicating from Shofu's point of view.

"They aren't human, are they?" Asked Shinshu, breaking the silence.

Shofu nodded, it had become apparent the Satjons had picked up allies from somewhere off the Earth.

The pair sat down on the porch and took in the dusk skies, the horse whinnied as the stableman saddled them. A panther had joined the group; she was instructed to show them a path for the horses to enter the caverns. All that was going to be needed was the will to take a little swim.

-----

Tancred and Jhojan bid each other goodbye; the armies were returning, and there was little time for reaching the crack in the mountain undetected. Tancred quickly traversed into the forests without a problem, though patrols had started to penetrate the trees, which made it more difficult getting to the camouflaged crevice.

He knelt and took a cautionary look before crawling, entering the hollow.

The maidens had mentioned a secret cove just east of the rice fields, a short swim and you could duck inside. Once inside, a swim across the long shallows revealed a series of wooden bridge walkways that took you up to the cavern meadows above.

As Tancred got back to his quarters, he tossed a new hat upon his bed, and put down a box full of coffee. He had begun to run low on grinds, thankfully Jhojan had a stockpile and was willing to share.

The primary guest hearth burnt warmly, a lynx jabbed at it with glee, providing oxygen to the core of the flame. This one was younger than the other, grumpier, lynx maiden.

There was nobody about, besides the lynx at the hearth and the bridge guard Lions and Tigers.

How had the Satjons gotten on this planet? Who are these buzzing officers, what are they?

Thought Tancred gazing pensively into the crackling flames. Dancing stripes of firelight moved about the creases of his face.

"Suprise," Tancred jumped; Bengali bounced back a few steps giggling.

His face must have been priceless because, in an instant, those quiet giggles turned into a full-bellied laugh. He turned composed, though still flushed, to look upon her.

"What were you thinking about?" She asked curiously.

"Nothing," he responded, taking in her incredible beauty, "just had to visit the inn one last time."

He smiled, taking her face gently in his hand; he felt the softness of her cheeks and ran his hand through her long hair. There appeared to be more life in her face, a faint twinkle shown in her eyes, the firelight danced within the depths, producing a tingling effect. As one's heartstring being played in tune.

She looked down at his feet; his boots were muddy and smelled like manure. She wrinkled her nose, involuntarily. His rough hand felt oddly reassuring; it provided a sense of comfort. The years of his life were etched into those hands; his storyline caressed her cheek and found her hair.

She looked into it his eyes; they looked back with soft wonder. He kissed her then, pulling her up from the back. She responded by wrapping her arms around his neck.

----

Jhojan had gotten his full staff back together as soon as the Satjon soldiers returned from the venture up north. The night was drawing in, Larissa and Toria went around lighting the lanterns.

"I'll be damned if these Satjons don't make a racket," chef exclaimed, firing up the stovetops and griddle.

The table maids had brought their friends, who were living with them, bringing the lady's number to ten. They came to celebrate with the soldiers; the night was for drinking as the Dragonhelm King decreed.

He bellowed aloud, drunk on wine and victory, "Let me tell you about my uprising and the many conquests of Jovinus the Dragonhelm King." He threw both fists in the air, splashing wine everywhere.

Jhojan paused upon his perch, taking in what had been said. Then sat back down to take in the Tales of TanCred: The Satjon Invasion. Yet, this telling had Jovinus leading the Satjons to a dominating victory and routing the Fraunki and TanCred forces.

He had gotten into the city, and using a crossbow took down the Fraunki King with two bolts. The foolish king had exposed himself to bellow a vane cry of victory and overcoming the satjons.

"The man wouldn't stand still; he rode back a forth hacking at heavily armored satjon infantry. I missed my first shot; I was pissed. So I waited, fighting erupted all over, and then pow. Without thinking, I pulled the trigger reloaded, and shot again; I didn't miss the fool king. Slain by my hands!" Jovinus bellowed, slamming his fist upon the table.

He then started leaning awkwardly, nearly falling over a couple of times, and this triggered the Right-hand officer to gather the king and bring him to his rooms. "We won, finally," the drunken voice of Jovinus said, " finally, victory is sweet. Oh, so, sweet."

----

Shofu had spent that evening watching the Satjon camp from his balcony. They had started campfires and lit torches but had kept their distance. Shinshu rushed down to the stables to help the stableman; it took little time for them to be ready, and the horse caravan made their way up the rice fields to a short cliff leading out to sea.

Shofu grabbed his bag and final things, dashing into the night. He wasn't fond of swimming, stories about the ice bridge brought on nightmares when Shinshu would ask.

The horses turned their heads back and forth, looking at the edge of the cliff. McThor, being led by the stableman leaped without fear and kicked rhythmically behind the lead of the swimming old man.

The other horses soon plunged in after; some were not to be outdone, and others, now knowing the path to be taken, followed the lead of McThor.

The waves soon proved an issue for some of the heavier laden horses, as they kicked frantically to keep their heads above water. Shinshu followed behind the panther maiden, who helped guide a few horses as well, Shofu's legendary ponies.

McThor's head disappeared under the water; the company looked as if they were swimming straight at a large boulder.

The Arabian jerked her head free from Shinshu's grasp, the lead rope wiped around, smacking the water loudly. The mare's eyes were rolling as her head went under, taking those tied with her down also.

The waves slapped Shinshu, making it hard to see; he had three other horses to think about, struggling to keep their heads above water.

The Panther dunked under, the two horses with her were hardy ponies from the Americas. Swimming for them was not an issue, as the paint mares ducked into the water.

Shinshu had to act, swimming forward and leading the remaining horses to safety.

Chapter Twelve: Emptied Stables

Bengali and Tancred sat at the guest fire, sharing a laugh when Shofu entered the cavern. He paused shortly, looking at the two together, and took a seat on the bench next to them. He looked at the two, took a moment, then cleared his throat.

"The Satjons have made their move on the Governor's villa, in effect taking control of the island outside of the caverns. The horses had to take a swim; they should be here soon."

Shofu told them, but his eyes reflected the dancing flames in which he was gazing into. He placed his bundle on his lap and continued to watch the firelight dance.

Tancred told him about the strange buzzing the blue-clad officers down at the inn; he thought they were sending messages but had no idea who they communicated with.

Shofu snapped out of his haze and grabbed onto the alien mode of speech conversation.

The buzzes lined up, after exchanging details at closer inspection and thus confirming the officers at the tavern were communicating with the Rhinlork Captains out at the Governor's villa.

Bengali couldn't bear it any longer and busted out laughing. Her arms hugged her stomach as she just laughed, finding the buzzing human-alien to be ridiculous. The two men paused and could sense what was funny and shared in a laugh.

She pointed at the meadow passage, the immediate field next to the guest's lodging area, was flat, and green grass covered the majority of the expanse.

"You could stable them here," she got up and walked to the opening. Tancred and Shofu soon followed her.

They turned the corner to the left (north) instead of right (south) to a semi-hidden crevice opening. Through the small opening, large enough for a horse, which opened into a space with stables—Wooden, solid stables with room for 8 - 10 animals. Shofu smiled with wonder and thankful beamed to Bengali.

Tancred smiled, walking forward, and ran his hands along the wood of the hitching posts. He couldn't believe the maidens could have such a thing built; the question was almost asked when Bengali spoke.

"We had them rebuilt; we had no use for the first one's stables. It was said there might be need of them from the Lynx Sept. Then we Tigers with some help from the Lions completed the project after you crawled through that crack in the rock," Bengali said, taking in Shofu's expression and smiled politely back.

He smiled then, he remembered telling her about his love of horses, but then he frowned, "I have 12 horses."

----

Jhojan took a second to drink a cup of coffee, taking in the full inn, and the patron-soldiers spilled out onto the docks. They built tables and chairs out of crates and scrap.

Chef had his son and daughter join him, the number of those eating reaching such high levels. The table maids were at full force and entertaining the men.

The soldiers sang songs like, "The Stolen Mount," and "Victory, so Sweet."

Loudly, groups swayed back and forth, mugs of ale clinking together upon the chorus from the latter song. "I clink to the victory, oh the victory, so sweet."

The pounds of food, wine, and ale consumed broke single evening records, even reaching the level equal to twice of the all-time sales. The soldiers began to speak openly; the alcohol started to take effect.

A soldier walked through the crowds too steadily to have partaken in the festivities and handed the blue-clad captains what looked liked reports. A drawing of a horse's leg stuck out from the stack of parchment, Jhojan saw from his perch and watched as the last of the officers left upstairs to their apartments.

Those celebrating turned the volume up, and the place went crazy.

----

The next day, Jovinus snored loudly as the dawn's first light filtered through the closed shutters. A scared young boy stepped up and tried to wake the king by shaking him.

"Your grace?" a voice drifted into his thoughts; someone was shaking his arm. Damn Peasant, Jovinus thought.

He opened one eye and stared at the frail coward of a boy. "Who the fuck, are you?"

The boy looked as if struck by a blow and began to quiver under that stare. Shaking, the messenger said, "Ya-ya- your g-g-grace th-the meh-meh-men are t-ta-too d-drunk to m-ma-march," furious rage-filled Jovinus, bellowing curses he rose from his sleep and pulled his sword, severing the boys head from his body.

He continued to bellow for his servants. They rushed in, removing yesterday's clothing, cleaning up the severed head, replacing the garment with freshly laundered attire, dragging the headless corpse outside, and brought his armor. All in one swoop, all in a day's work when serving the King of Dragonhelm.

The reports from the day before sat neatly on his desk. A servant hurried up and brought a pitcher of wine.

Finally, stinking slave, he thought, drinking deeply from the pitcher.

He perused the pages taking in the detailed sketch of the creatures at the stables; he had to see them for himself.

They look like horses from the late Earthian ages, he thought, remembering the medieval steeds of Europe when he served the English kings. He had followed this Storyteller to Scotland, thinking him his ancient foe, Tancred.

I will find and kill you, Tancred! Your blood will satisfy my blade's thirst.

He smashed another pitcher against the reports and about to bellow for his servants to finish dressing him, found them rushing towards him with the final touches to his royal garb.

Dressed, he headed down to the common room, servants cleaning the floor and removing bloodstained carpets, drapes and bedsheets. The splatter had gotten all over the place.

Jovinus strode arrogantly, thudding loudly upon each step he took down the stairs. Though, as long as it took him to reach the main level of the inn, the infantry had mobilized and was standing outside in marching formation.

The tables were covered in spilled beverages, empty cups, and a soldier that had passed out. Jovinus grabbed him by his belt, took three steps to the door, and tossed, the now awake, soldier into the harbor. "Aaaaaaah," splash, the man entered the water, cutting off the tossed soldiers confused scream. Laughter ripped through the ranks, quickly cut off.

"You," Jovinus bellowed, pointing at the closest infantryman, " station ten sober men, including yourself to guard headquarters, while I see about these four-legged creatures the reports detailed," he finished in a lesser tone looking to the north, the soldier splashing and gasping in the harbor.

Chapter Thirteen: The Beringia Bridge

Shofu woke up in the dark; it gave him an intrinsic jump. He took a moment to take in his new surroundings, sitting up and looking around.

Torchlight revealed the confines of the sleeping quarters; his family and villagers had taken rooms relatively next to each other. He got up and checked on Shinshu, who rolled around in his sleep, dreaming something.

Shofu heard about the tough decision that his son had to make during the swimming portion of the move. Saladin, his prized Arabian, had given in to fear after jumping into the water, and unfortunately, Saladin's struggle with swimming took his prized Shire horse stallion, Conrad, down with her.

Shofu sighed, thinking about those beautiful horses, his friends. His eyes watered, making the guest hearth fire blurry; the grumpier older lynx women jabbed at the coals watching him walk by.

He remained positive and decided to visit his four-legged friends that were still alive. He turned the meadow passage corner and into the stables area.

McThor flicked his head quietly as Shofu entered, the Belgian stallion was easily the biggest of the herd. He stood at 18 hands and could easily see over his penned neighbor; Sabotai, who was smaller but as sturdy as they come for a Mongolian Steppe horse.

The two stallions ate quietly, a space-separated them and the body of mares. Skadi was an Icelandic mare with a coat of snow. Bella, an Akhal-Teke; she was a bit taller than Skadi at 15 hands, and her coat glistened in the blue light with a metallic sheen.

Gesha was in the next stall, she was the second tallest at 16 hands with piebald coloring and those sharp ears Marwari horses are known for. Next to her was an Andalusian beauty, a grey at 16 hands named Sargentia, and she was his oldest mare of this herd. The boss, besides McThor.

Shofu gave them all a quick brushing, in turn, checked their feet up to their teeth and finished by touching and scratching their ears. Rewarding them all with treats, He came to the final pairing, the American ponies.

They were an older breed, possibly ancestors to his younger horses. He rode these two over the Beringia crossing; they were some of the last horses in northern America during the ice age.

He had a few others with him, who took the last of horses through a gap in the glacial ice and into the Eurasian corridor. They had decided to risk the move due to cultural clashing and differences within the ancient peoples of the Americas.

Not all decided to go north; other groups decided they preferred warmer climates and chose to immigrate south. Some stayed in central America others continued further into southern America, building civilizations and pyramids to rival those of their Pharoh counterparts. There is South America, the Incans and Mayans built there empires, while the Aztec ruled most of Central America.

Shofu was one of the last groups to travel north to explore the unexplored, rumors from distant travelers spoke of a land bridge they crossed and spoke of high plateaus, mountains that pierced the sky itself, jungles, and widespread deserts.

Shofu was to lead a band of explorers and cross the bridge into this new world. He was forced to part with his wife, "Immortal Beauty," her people had called her. She was also the mother of Shinshu, but the immortal young man wanted to go with his father.

Some had decided to stay, to continue the peaceful, earth abiding, and coexistent practices taught by the original peoples, and she wouldn't abandon them to the changing climate and environment.

The old horse couple nickered quietly together, looking at Shofu. He cleaned them up with soap and water, cleaning them in his traditional way. It had become a practice of meditation for the horse master.

Only the Khans knew of his horse's and the ancient magic his wife had blessed them with. Immortality is not universal on earth, and he used the stone-magic wisely. This gave him a sage prestige for the wizard Shofu had bestowed immortality on living beings, in the eyes of the Khans, and rode upon undying steeds.

In later years, Shofu spent more of this magic on his other steeds, for He, and his friends were going to spend eternity in peace and celebration. He had never dreamed something like this would ever happen to their heaven in the sky.

----

Jovinus strode up to the Governor's palace, placing a fist on the post and knocking on wood. It reminded him of 1300, by the Roman calendar, earth Chinese architecture. The place had been abandoned in the night, yet no trace of animal movement could be seen.

He could smell the unique perfume of those blasted horses.

So I have found the one and only, Shofu. Horse master, rider of immortal steeds, emissary to the great khans and friend of Tancred. He must be here, thought Jovinus.

"Sir," came the voice of a human captain, "it appears the stables have been emptied."

Jovinus stared out at the stables, once again, the smell of those North American horses filled his nostrils. He hated that smell.

He put his arm around the shoulder of the captain and steered him back to the stables. He walked with a brisk step, practically dragging the captain along. They reached the center of one of the round pens and found a pile of road apples. He stopped next to it and pointed it out.

Jovinus turned to face the young man, pulled a knife, and stuck it under the chin of the captain, point protruding from the top of the man's skull. Jovinus dropped the captain on the dung heap and ordered the entire place to be torched. He turned and spat on the pathetic excuse of a captain.

----

Tancred sat in his customary seat by the hearth fire, grumpy lynx stood there quietly, allowing the flames to descend. He used a small heated cooking stone to cook up some rabbits for breakfast. Shofu poked out from the meadow passage, having just visited the horses.

Tancred frowned, thinking about the loss of Conrad and Saladin. Both horses were very special to Shofu, for he had gotten the Shire horse from a castle in Wales and the Arabian from the Sultans stables of Damascus.

Shofu looked at the boiling conies, "Lucky, I made enough for two." Tancred said, smiling. Then Bengali came from across the bridge, all while Shinshu and a dozen villagers exited the holdings.

"Everyone is now safe," He said aloud, "come, I will make enough for us all."

All the while, he watched Bengali move; he loved how she swayed with those powerful hips. The leather tunic gave hints to her naked beauty. Still, it was mainly designed to aid in the freedom of movement, allowing the most complicated and limber movements needed to perform the tiger patterns. He flushed, thinking about taking her to bed when she sat next to him, smiling.

Shinshu returned with a stew kettle, with water, veggies, and cubed rabbits added to compliment his already boiling stew.

The young man had taken the loss of the two horses quite well, thinking fast he saved the other three thought Tancred as Shinshu handed him the kettle, then returned to his seat, to gaze into the shadows by the waterfall.

Chapter Fourteen: Familiar Territory

Jhojan watched as a black plume of smoke became thicker and thicker as it billowed overhead from the north, covering the sky in a blanket of smokey grey. Flames from the Governor's villa were visible across the plains between.

The Rhinlorks stomped in distress, well aware of the dangers of fire. Jhojan saw as the couple moved about their pen, They'd synchronize a rearing kick with the first pair of trunk-feet, then slam them to the ground with a rumble that could be felt where he sat.

The coffee pot water rippled, little bubbles just beginning to boil up. He added it to the press and made a few more cups for the remainder of the day.

Looking back out to the bilbo-tree and the Rhinlork pens, the faint outline of the returning Satjons came into view.

Their return signaled for him to finish filling the new wine pitchers and take the inventory to the cellar.

----

The village ate gratefully, a bit of normalcy was welcomed and expressed by the smiling mothers. The first breakfast was small, but with Shinshu's additions, the other giant kettle stew was enough to fill even the children pleasantly.

Bengali and Tancred had planned a hunt for that later part of the day, Shofu and Shinshu joined them. Noting the exceptional circumstances, Bengali took them to the open sky meadow.

The place had a split in the stone to where a person could climb out and see daylight. As they set out, each cavern had a unique habitat.

Florescent blue frogs were spotted swimming to a lilypad to take a crack at the pollinating bees; one such frog jumped with droplets of water trailing behind. Wham, its tongue whipped out and caught one, wham, two of the bees before they moved off.

A near-silent splash signaled the movement of a crocodilian, as it slipped into the still stream.

"Beware of the waters," Bengali reminded them, "those," pointing with her spear at the aftershock ripples of where the predator entered the water, blue luminescence shown in rippling waves, "They are the only carnivores besides us, they grab hold of their prey and drown them before eating them. " She said as a matter of factly.

A bright neon green treefrog jumped into her path. She carefully avoided making physical contact with it. These frogs had poison glands on their backs, handy for making extremely useful blowgun darts. It sought the comfort of one of the many blue-light emitting lilypads; small flowers glowed brightly above the flat leaves.

This was the primary light source in the underground wildlands. Until they reached the open sky meadow, the days light caused the company to squint. The trees here grew taller than anywhere else; their trunks took all four companions holding hands to wrap around them.

Tancred looked out onto the eastern skies, and the towering cliffs below that plunged into the ocean depths. His exploration team saw these trees when the island first came into view. The daunting climb dismayed the sailors, and they turned to head south, eventually reaching the now port-city of Dragonhelm.

He had paid the towering trees no second thought; the jolt of ecstasy upon landing on soil wiped all trouble and thought from his mind.

Hundreds of years ago, the jungles reached from the outpost down and throughout the cove, in which the port was built. Over the years, the community built important buildings initially, leading to more extravagant projects like Shofu's Governor's house, the tavern, and the port city itself.

"How do the deer populations stay so consistently high," asked shofu; the group climbed down and hunted on their way back to the hearth fire; they were providing dinner.

Out of the bush sprang three small deer, quickly Bengali speared the largest with ease. Tancred fired next, split seconds before Shofu took down the third with an arrow from his longbow. Shinshu had no time to react, still somewhat a novice at the art of the hunt.

They clean up their kills, Bengali's spear had stuck through the deer skull and into the cavern floor as a result of her throw.

The two men had executed perfect double lung shots. Shinshu helped tie the feet to a pole; he was responsible for carrying the substantial portion of the load while his father, having shot last, would help.

"They reproduce like rabbits on earth, " Tancred answered Shofu after tying the last pair of hooved feet to the pole, "There could be over a thousand of them scampering around in here, there is a rarer larger sized curved-horn sheep, but they tend to roam in the upper reaches of the mountains."

Bengali had hinted at the Snow Leopards used the hunting of those sheep as a right of passage test.

Shinshu lifted the pole to fit himself between the lighter two carcasses to leave the third at his back for Shofu to steady for him. They returned triumphantly to a village full of smiles.

----

Jovinus looked out as his Galleon; the ship towered above the inn and held over 100 cannons of various range capabilities. His personal King's deck carried a particularly nasty swivel cannon.

"Continue to evening drilling," He ordered his men, then turned for the inn.

I must begin to search the ocean, map the planet, find where Shofu snuck off to in the night. Damn those TanCred scum.

He had been holding a soldier by the neck, unknowingly. Letting go, the soldier gasped, filling his lungs with air. He knew he needed to speak to Dolowon; he hated these conversations.

Ever since the first flooding, he had been forced to abandon a complete campaign and forge a desperate alliance.

After marching through the gates in Eygpt, the Satjons laid siege to all in their path, burning peaceful village after peaceful village and cutting down the elderly, the women, and children, without mercy or restraint.

After years of suffering defeats at the hands of the hunni, Fraunki, and centuries of TanCred strife, the Satjon nation moved south and into a desert patch at the center of the massive continent, where mysterious underground vaults were buried. Tombs that had a secret and this is where they found Jovinus, who had just acquired the Dragon-helm relic from one of those tombs.

They established a short-lived empire as the TanCred Kingdom spread across the landmass. Jovinus had one more trick up his sleeve; he had unearthed an alien transportation gate; even better, the helm was the key. Before the TanCred could establish control over the region, the Satjons vanished.

During their invasion campaigns, the Satjons unleashed a massive wave of destruction.

As they went, the killed without mercy, and then the relentless burning of villages produced thick smoke and atmosphere changing gases, which led to a global ice shelf melting, which led to global flooding.

The Lochruids had lived in the highland regions; they live in silence and developed telepathic communication skills. They developed exceptional shipbuilding skills between the first and second flooding.

It was by the third major flooding event that the Satjons were forced into the mountainous regions and lead to the eventual clash with the Lochruids.

It was at the mountain fortress of Arnbet that Jovinus captured Chief Dolowon and forced a hasty alliance. An alliance that allowed the thousand of Lochruids, who survived the fighting, to live as part of the Satjon army. In exchange for aid in the operation of the ships they have built, they would station a set of captains for the fleet of vessels.

The King's Galleon became the lodging place of chief Dolowon and the remaining Lochruids, where Jovinus could keep an eye on them.

The inn was filled with the smell of cooking venison and fish.

Jovinus grabbed a pitcher of wine and walked straight over to the king's table; chief Dolowon awaited him there.

Their eyes locked in combat as soon as Jovinus entered the room, Dolowon never took an eye off the Dragonhelm king, if he could help it.

Jovinus sat with Dolowon on his right, to keep the nasty stinking Lochruid on his right-hand side.

Chapter Fifteen: Similar Knowledge

Jhojan, beyond enjoying coffee, used the brewing of it as an excuse to perch and watch the common-room.

Jovinus came charging into the room to which his right hand looked up from the maps and locked eyes with the invader king. There was no backing down in that stare.

Soldiers looked at each other in apprehension, frozen in place, deciding whether to draw blades or not. The king sat, and the tension went out of the room.

Interesting. Thought Jhojan, he turned and headed down the stair to the kitchens.

"Finally, some humans to feed," came the voice of Chef, "My bones have been solidifying as I stand here rooting like a tree."

"Go home," Jhojan said, "full days pay."

Chef smiled and folded his apron as he traditionally did. Ffffft.

An arrow stuck through the chest of the chef; he dropped his apron. Wide-eyed shock crossed his face as arrow points hit and jutted out his eye sockets.

"No-aahh-huh?" Jhojan woke in a cold sweat. A similar feeling to traveling through the stones, he quickly checked his pulse.

The coffee stand clicked; the hot plate was on. He shook off the dream, stood up, and poured himself a fresh cup. He took a pot down with him to the kitchens.

Chieftain Dolowon, as he liked to be addressed, had become a fan of coffee and especially sugar. After his first cup, he had made sure to put copious amounts of sugar in his coffee.

This made it easy to strike a friendship while the tyrant was at the stables. Just in case, entering the kitchen, he sent Chef home. "Full days," he said, waving the old man off. He needed to be shooed out of the building, literally.

Finally, getting the stubborn older man to go home, Jhojan had noticed that Jovinus had returned in reality and was engaged in conversation with Dolowon, who had fixed his translater device.

----

Bengali watched as the earth human villagers partook in the preparation of the evening's meal. Some meat cuts were salted and stripped into jerky, other cubed and placed in a kettle of soup.

There was a curious trust of one another to do the right thing. They didn't order each other around, they didn't fight or dispair, but laughed and made the best of the situation. They were asking each other questions so the task could be done right.

She had noticed some of the older little girls became curious about the maidens, looking out from behind their mother's skirts.

The only little boy hung out with "the guys," as his mother put it, meaning Tancred, Shofu, Shinshu, the stableman, and Jhojan when he could attend.

Shofu had brought them to his settlement; they held beliefs similar to his wife. They prayed with scared pipes, for health and strength in the changing times.

The men shared in a peace pipe, teaching the young guy about the integrity, honor, and love of these ways. The boy shook his head vigorously, listening, watching as the guys passed the pipe around. Tancred looked over at her and waved, then sat up, gesturing at an open spot next to him.

She sat next to him, accepting an arm over her shoulder and snuggled close. When the pipe came around, Tancred offered for her to pray. She took a hesitant puff and quickly blew out, easily thinking of a health prayer.

She handed it back to him, in the tradition she observed from the others. Some of the maidens began to make trilling calls, quickly followed by the human village women, after a moment all the present maidens joined in.

-------

Chieftain Dolowon stopped his conversation about the mountainous regions of the island to engage the Dragonhelm king, Jovinus had that crazed bloodlust look in his eye.

Out of the corner of his vision, Dolowon saw the Barman gesture with a fresh pot of coffee. He nodded, thankful for the energy-producing liquid. And that beautifully sweet sugar the Barman had.

Jovinus began to rant, "I want exploration fleets to search for land and these damn stones. You will provide a captain and a man at the wheel of each vessel, and my men will fill in the gaps. And ready my ship for defensive action, it's trapped behind the rest of the fleet. I want it freed and prepared to engage any intruders. And," slamming his hand in front of Dolowon, " I want those beasts of yours, put to work getting that mine going. Don't sacred creature bull shit me."

The Barman poured Dolowon a cup after allowing the chieftain to add sugar to his taste. Then he retreated to the buzzing alarm, the smell of fresh bread wafted into the room.

Rhinlorks were sacred, intelligent beings. Labor was done only if they chose to or were swayed to help. They thought on a similar wavelength as the Lochruids having evolved together, becoming symbiotic in relationship with one another. Rhinlorks spoke with images and feelings to the Lochruids, who could merely listen and use touch to communicate back.

The Chief took a sip, and his translater expressed an "Aaaah."

Dolowon then looked at the planted fist and renewed his lock with Jovinus' stare. Rage stained the king's face.

----

Jhojan, after filling the chieftains cup, dashed to the oven to let the bread breathe. He was preparing a simple evening meal, roast chicken with fresh bread.

On a typical day, he'd be hunting. Either stalking a plains antelope, or calling in a forest deer, or as he had planned for this time last year, finding a mountain sheep. These weren't typical days.

The voices of the high ranked officials began to rise in volume, Jhojan could hear snippets.

"Or hiding underground," bellowed Jovinus, furious that Shofu slipped from his grasp.

Dolowon spoke, translater producing a calm, smooth, and experienced voice, "The village could have been utilized, burning it has wasted the housing, agricultural opportunities there and now there is a plume of smoke miles high signaling our position to who knows what dangers. We have bigger problems than these human brigands from your past."

Rage still reddened the king's face; he drank from a pitcher. Wine spilling down his face. He banged the pitcher upon the table, Jhojan flinched slightly, having just pulled the jug from the kiln earlier that day.

Their voices softened to inaudible tones, as Jhojan headed down to get more chickens from the icebox. He wanted to be prepared for a hungry army, who had just completed marching training and begun filing into the inn.

A pair of chickens under each arm and a chicken in each hand, Jhojan walked back up the stairs to Larissa and table maids, who gave him a hand. He was happy to see them, less so that Chef had come back to the kitchens.

That dream gave Jhojan the chills.


Chapter Sixteen: A Natural Proposal

Breakfast included stripes of rabbit-loin, toast, and eggs. The stableman had been given ingredients to whip up something for breakfast. Shinshu sat next to his father, back to the bridge, across from Bengali and Tancred.

Shinshu glanced behind him again, watching a lioness patrol the bridge, she noticed him watching her and winked. He answered with a wink, his father nudged him, and Shinshu turned back to the cooking fire.

Shofu leaned in, "Satjon scouts were unable to pick up any trace of our movements."

Taking a plate and handing it to his son, then received his plate. The rabbit bacon was incredible; the village women could season anything.

Using his nose, Shinshu, pointed to Tancred, "What is going on there?"

"Love, I think," Shofu answered, continuing to eat his eggs and bacon. Between bites, finishing his chewing, he continued, "I've only seen that look and genuine smile combo one other time. In all the time, I have known him."

Shofu smiled at his son, a movement at the other end of the bridge caught his attention, the maidens had huddled together with a few occasionally looking over at his son, unaware Shofu was watching.

Tancred had fathered no children; he loved a woman with connections to the Saxenmark crown. Her beauty was the faith behind Tancred's decision to join with the northern kingdoms, agreeing to a truce and trade alliances.

Oliander, her brother, decided to work with the Fraunki kingdom to develop the TanCred militant band to defend and bring mutual prosperity to both realms, only after she agreed to endorse his rule.

Jholjito had been named king, Jhojan defender of the crown in the new reality of Fraunki twins.

Oliander was named King of the newly formed Saxenmark kingdom in the northern arctic reaches with the TanCred aiding in the defense at Fort Riverbridge, the only vulnerable spot for the Saxenmark realm.

Shinshu jumped up and helped deliver plates to the kids.

Bengali took a plate to the forests, Tancred hesitated, but Shofu waved him on.

She smiled when he caught up with her. The two entered the cave meadow and disappeared around the corner.

Shofu drew the attention to the stableman and his bunny bacon. The little girls giggled, and the little boy got up to jump around like a rabbit and then sat back down, after noticing mom was looking.

Upon finishing, the mothers shepherded the kids to the washing quarters to clean up and begin the day.

The men cleaned up the hearth. Shinshu finished one of the little girl's bacon; she had left.

Shofu saw the patrols return to normal, the exception being a panther that now stood in the shadows on the guest side of the bridge, across from the passage opening.

Having cleaned the pit and rebuilt the hearth fire to the desired size, the men shared a shot of aged spirits from Jhojan's cabinets. A gift of scotch from the isles of Scotland on earth, bestowed upon Shofu for times such as these. A few laughs and stories were exchanged before everyone broke off.

Stableman went to join his wife, Shinshu wanted to get a nap in before going hunting later in the day, Shofu decided to visit with his horses.

-----

Jhojan watched the pair of top officials engage in a second intense conversation. This time from the safety of his perch, he poured himself another cup of coffee.

He had retreated, arguing with Chef was to argue in vain. "Larissa came and got me, seeing the waves of hungry men rushing into the tavern," he said, placing his apron around his neck.

"I thought business as usual, I saw him on his porch. Then mentioned the soldiers had returned. He hopped up and followed me," Larissa said when Jhojan inquired.

It was true the overwhelming number of soldiers on land strained resources, but it was sustainable. Jhojan had enough of a sample size to calculate the stress on the tavern's resources.

Jovinus allowed his men to fill their bellies and drink to contentment. He ate a whole roast chicken himself before sucking his fingers to stand and address his men.

"We will be engaging in exploration missions to find the traveling stones, allowing us to go home!" He said aloud; the men celebrated the idea with cheers.

" Upon returning, we will conquer the earth and rule as the superior immortal race!" To this, the soldiers lost it, drunk on the idea of world domination and living in slave-run luxury.

Jovinus had loaded them up with dreams of glory, thoughts of endless riches, and unchecked power.

The sight was unsettling; the table maids came upstairs to hide on the couches and remove themselves from the ruckus. Chef had closed the kitchen with Jhojan earlier, deciding enough food had been cooked. Jhojan thanked him, and the older man gratefully went home.

----

Bengali took Tancred's hand and pulled him to a secluded cave of intimate size. A single thread of light pierced the darkness; the beam lit the canopy of a single deciduous tree.

The sound of the ocean echoed in the cave, waves slapping upon the cliffsides, playing a rhythmic tune. Vines grew everywhere, thick as ropes.

She left him to take it all in, to spin and dance her way to the tree.

The sight was awe-inspiring, a cathedral to the island creator. Nature had outdone herself with this place.

Bengali wrapped around the tree and looked out at an open-mouthed Tancred, a steamy expression of 'get over here,' plain on her face.

He obliged, jogging the distance to the tree and stepping up close. Feeling her warmth had become a new habit, he enjoyed more and more as time went by.

She peered into those ageless eyes, taking in the depths of his pupils.

Those eyes steadily looked back into hers, happy to look upon her beauty. She retook his hand and placed it on her chest, resting it on the softness beneath her tunic.

He continued to look into her eyes, asking permission. She looked down and back up, eyes pleading for him to move forward.

He pulled her close, kissing her and untying the cords to her tunic, slipping it off her hips and unto the ground. Her beauty was precisely placed in the Eden he found himself in. Her naked body responded to his touch, to which she reached out to take off his shirt.

Then paused, sudden worry crossing her face.

He gently lifted her chin; she had looked away to the passage leading home.

"What is it?" He asked, barely above a whisper. She nervously put her arms around his neck, pressing her body against his.

"This is the marriage tree, " he pulled her closer, "we bring potential life partners here if we are lucky enough to find you, to offer ourselves to ..." She moved her chin flat upon his chest, looking up; he loosened his grip to look at her. "Will you accept being married to me?"

He didn't hesitate and kissed her, hand resting on her hips. She attempted to undo his lower clothing until he pulled it apart with years of experience.

She pulled him close and down to the soft tree moss, disregarding his garments, and he accepted her marriage proposal.

Chapter Seventeen: An Old Human Foe

The next dawn came like any other, Jovinus could be heard bellowing as was his usual morning practice. A thud signaled another servant was beheaded, and pattering signaled the cleanup and dressing crew.

Jhojan had woke early, the stomping of the Rhinlorks concerned him.

The chair creaked under his weight, the hot plate clicked. He rose, folding the blanket and placing it back on the chair. Then he poured himself a cup.

Dolowon and his men, all one thousand of them, were moved to the King's Galleon, along with all of the king's servants.

The move was to prepare for Jovinus and his ambition to find the traveling stones. He wanted to set out first thing in the morning.

Thud, thud, thud, thud... The king's footsteps came from the stairwell, and he appeared with scurrying maids as they hurried to his ship.

Jovinus dawned the Dragonhelm, then as quick as he appeared, he disappeared into the King's Quarters, surely to engage Dolowon on the ship's navigation during the mission. He was to give a speech to inspire his men.

Taking a sip seemed to kick start the brain; he headed downstairs to start the ovens and get some danishes baking. A commotion slightly caught his eye, moments after the king boarded his ship, but he paid no attention. The soldiers fought in the mornings more often than not, and this was more than likely just another scrum.

Chef stepped in the kitchen, grabbing a day-old cookie, placed his apron on, and began cracking eggs. "I know your there," he said, beginning to prepare omelets.

"My horrid drink and all," Jhojan replied in jest, smiling and stepping up next to the ole chef and began preparing breakfast.

----

Shinshu had trouble adjusting to the night and had spent more time by the hearth fire than sleeping. His dreams were filled with the fearful eyes of horses, a flashback to the strange tugging he felt as Saladin went under, as if pulled by something.

Upon waking before dawn, he couldn't remember what was bizarre about that situation; there was something fishy, something out of place. He stared into the fire, yellow flickering in his eyes, trying to remember and solve the dreams puzzle.

The young desert lynx smiled at him, waved, and returned to tending the fire. She was earning her way to becoming a medicine woman, this fire was life, and keeping it alive was a sacred duty. She had fun with her commitment but indeed took it seriously, remeaning silent.

A panther slunk into view, a rarity as they prided themselves in not being seen. She sat next to Shinshu and smiled; it was her that directed them to the cove. She had started visiting with him on nights he struggled to sleep. She knew about the dreams.

"Are there any sharks or sea monsters in these oceans?" He asked, sincerely, "big enough, I mean, to..." He choked, tears streaming down his face. The loss of his closest friends had hurt more than he let show, to anyone but Sheera.

"Could be," she said, rubbing his back and eventually putting an arm around his shoulder. She wiped some tears from his face, to which he slowly lifted his gaze to meet a pair of consoling eyes. Sheera confidently looked back into his, sending reassuring vibes. She liked this one.

"Still hurts, you know?" He said softly, the last droplets falling from his face. He wiped his face, regaining some composure.

She smiled at him, which always felt right to Shinshu, and he smiled back despite the sadness he felt.

"You saved the other horses," the foreign word came out funky, he laughed at the strange pronunciation of horses. She giggled, a rare thing for strict, stoic panthers.

"This is true, this is true," he took her hand in his and squeezed his thanks. Looking back to the fire, the dawn's light had suddenly crested and began to brighten the hearth area.

"I have to get back to the shadows; panther tradition is to remain tuned to the dark of night," she told him, slipping her mask and sleeves back into place vanishing from view.

Shinshu had gotten used to this and got up to visit the horses. He slowly walked, winking at the lioness who smiled back. She promised not to tell Shofu of his relationship with Sheera.

He turned the corner when he heard a call for help.

-----

Tancred and Bengali woke to the dawn's early light; seagulls called out to the morning's new air currents, and the ocean continued its consistent song.

He looked down at her snuggled close to his chest, kissed her on the top of the head, and pulled a stick out from underneath him to chuck it aside. He gazed up at the marriage tree, lightly bathed every leaf in gold, and he smiled, realizing the commitment he had made. He readjusted, waking Bengali.

She steering, moaning something inaudible. Then lifted herself to look at him, hair all disheveled, yawning. Her body glistened with sweat, and goose pimples formed at the chilly early day's air.

He stood handing her the clothing he had pinned under him. She smiled, gratefully taking her garments and tying them back onto place. She looked around, almost panicked, and began searching the ground around the tree.

He had put on his clothing, turned to step down to the trail back to breakfast, to help look for whatever was misplaced and felt the strength go out of his legs.

He fell face-first into the dirt, tried to lift himself, and felt dizzy.

"Noooo, nooooo," wavered Bengali's voice holding a pointed stick with a strange green substance on the tip. She put the poison dart back into her hidden pouch and ran to get Tancred on his feet. "We must hurry, the poison will kill you."

She lifted him, helping him to his feet, he tried to help, but Bengali had to almost drag him back through the caverns.

As they went, his body began to give out, muscles losing the strength to stay upright. She saw Shinshu coming around the corner and called out to him, "Help! Oh, please, Shinshu! Help," this caught his attention, he called for help back towards the bridge, then began to run over to them.

Tancred's body went completely limp; all power to move had been taken from him by the poison. His vision blurred, Shinshu faded from view then went black. Bengali's voice wobbled into his hearing, something about, don't you die on me.

Chapter Eighteen: Dreams of Day's Past

Chief Dolowon watched as Jovinus entered the King's apartments upon his ship, blood stains under his right hand's fingernails gave away the fact he killed another alarm boy. The Dragon helm stared back at him, unblinking, staring holes. Then Jovinus removed it, placing it on the shelf made for custom for it.

"Any updates before I address the men?" The King said, looking into the eyes of his helm, searching for something. He turned to look at Dolowon, "well?"

"We have another problem," Dolowon pointed out to the docks.

A soldier lay there, gangrene forming on his hands, bruising throughout his exposed arms, his throat was puffed, and his face purple from being unable to breathe. A few others were vomiting, hints of blood in the entrails.

Jovinus took a closer look, most of his 50,000 men were upon or near the docks standing side by side in formation, the soldier that was dead was kicked without remorse into the waters. Satjon men crowded in, waiting with bated breath for their leader's speech.

He noticed some of the men had similar bruising on their arms and legs. "Is that what I think it is?"

-----

"Who is this new King anyway?" A cavalryman asked, he had a strangely familiar plumed helmet with olive branch engraved on either side leaves pointing to the front of the helm, "I mean, sure his father was Phillip II, hmph." he spat.

Turning his head back and forth, the line of men and horses were camped there numbered in the thousands. Noticing where his companion was looking, he turned to look out on the Thessaly grasslands, apparently awaiting the army from Macedonia riding from down south.

The sun went down on the men who stretched from the slopes of Mount Olympus to Mount Ossa. This was meant to impress the newly accended young king with the might of Thessaly. Campfires started to light all around; the smell of burning wood filled the air soon followed by the smell of cooking.

"20-year-old boy, hmpf," the soldier continued, spitting out into the closing evening. He rolled over, grabbing a canteen, then pulling the cork with his teeth, spat it out on the ground. He took a long drink and handed it to a younger Tancred. He had been moving north, then got gathered up by Thessaly generals and conscripted into his calvary.

All that led up to this moment, to him sitting on the slopes of the home of the Olympians. He looked up to the peak; I wonder if they are watching or if they would meet with me. I wonder if they were taught about the old days.

He had traveled the African deserts for centuries, but things changed after staying with the pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties, especially after Tutankhamun's death. Tancred began to think about going north to see more of this new world of mortal men.

His wish was granted during the reign of Ramses II, 19th Dynasty, and forger of the New Kingdom. It was at the battle of Kadesh, where an Egyptian army led by the Pharoah attempted to invade the Hittite Empire.

Ironically, a peace treaty was struck between the two leaders, Ramses II and Muwatalli. The first of it's kind it has been said. It was here where Tancred broke off from the Egyptians. He changed his clothing and traveled west through Anatolia. Then hearing about the Olympian gods that lived upon Mount Olympus, he set off to meet them.

He reached the Phrygia Kingdom by the time of King Midas' reign, where he served as a bodyguard under various identities. He did this for years, playing multiple characters to stay at the palace. This lifestyle lasted until the Persian invasion, which established the Achaemenid Empire in 550 bc.

Xerxes, then swept up militants from every corner of his empire to crush the rebelling Sparta greeks. Militant, including those from the conquered Anatolia-Greek kingdoms.

The Spartans under King Leonidas fought defiantly with the strength of heroes and repelled the initial waves of Persian infantry.

Tancred survived only after a goat pass had been discovered that flanked the spartan position. Being a part of the scout team, he slipped away without notice, then headed north to see about those Olympians.

"Quiet, now" came the commanding voice of one of the generals. Quieting the men for the night, scouts hadn't reported any movement by mount Olympus. Tancred got into his bedroll, preferring the open skies to tent canvas, and closed his eyes.

----

Bengali took a cloth and wiped Tancred's face; he had finally settled down, she finished by placing the dampened cloth on his forehead.

Sweat beaded from the fever, the lynx elders had given him the antidote, but the healing process would take time. He had been placed in his sleeping quarters, covered in blankets with pillows to prop his head up.

Bengali rarely left his side, tending her responsibilities to her clan was the only time she left. She couldn't believe her luck, Find the man I've been waiting for, marry him, and then kill him the day after.

Shofu checked in on this occasion, "There is someone else to see him." She looked up to see Jhojan, a strange-looking older man, amongst other people.

"How is he doing?" Jhojan asked, looking concerned.

"The shortness of breath has subsided. The elders were fast enough to keep his windpipe open, and he is taking full breaths now." She stood up and closed the room, "He could use some rest."

There were new faces since Tancred fell sick to the poison. Jhojan had acted quickly after learning about the infected soldiers, moving everyone to the safety of the caverns.

Fifty thousand soldiers had been reduced to 20,000 within the first two of the outbreak.

Jovinus, Dolowon, a troop of 1,500 satjon infantrymen, and the thousand Lochruids had quarantined themselves in the King's Galleon and were floating just outside of the harbor. They had set fire to the remaining ships, the inn, and proceeded to firebomb the entire city.

Jhojan's staff looked genuinely concerned; the table maids looked strange to Bengali. They were sweet and kind enough, that was true, but they worked with a different set of tools.

Jhojan looked in at his friend, Get well Tancred, then turned to herd everyone out to the communal fire.

Chapter Nineteen: Life Goes On

Tancred woke to the sound of scrambling men; he got up quickly, joining his fellow cavalrymen. There was a mess of movement, men running into each other in haste to get saddled and mounted.

Tancred quickly rolled up his pad and tied it to his saddle. Then he went to lift his saddle, just when a kid of a soldier ran full blast into him, taking them both to the ground.

"Watch," but before another word could come out, the young man had scampered away. Shaking his head and brushing the dirt from his tunic, he sat up.

"Damn 20-year-old king, snuck up right behind us in the night," came the voice of his campfire companion, "we've surrendered, can you believe that? Just like that, we are to march south to the Peloponnese as part of the Great Alexander's army."

His spat as Tancred got to his feet, looking thoughtful, and hurriedly they saddled their horses.

Looking out onto the field, one could see Alexander boldly rode in front of everyone. He slowed his pace and called for the march to Thermopylae to begin. From there, they were to head for Corinth to visit with Diogenes the Cynic.

He cinched up his palomino and collected his things. The sunlight began to crest to mountains, the sun's rays directly striking the plains; Tancred took one last look at Mount Olympus but wasn't able to catch a glimpse of the Olympians atop it. He kicked his horse into a canter following the Macedonian King.

A strange but beautiful voice on the mountains winds whispered an almost inaudible, "I love you, dammit, come back to me."

-----

Bengali woke to Tancred moving in his sleep, legs twitching, and mumbled inaudibly. Then he said, "watch," then went silent.

She placed a cold rag on his forehead, letting the freshwater run down his face. His movement stopped, "I love you, dammit, come back to me," she said, holding back from pounding a fist on his chest.

She got up, then headed to the hearth fire and found Shinshu with "Sheera?" Bengali asked without thinking, the panther quick as that vanished into the shadows, but not before the blunt tiger caught reddening cheeks.

Loreta, the lioness, walked over as Shinshu stood and turned facing Bengali.

"I can explain," he began.

"Please do," she answered, striding up and grabbing him in a mighty hug. Loreta laughed a hearty laugh and clapped the young man on the back, smiling at Bengali. He flushed, realizing he had committed to a telling.

Loretta pulled out a particular agave drink, one of her blends, and shared a shot with Bengali and Shinshu. The tigress handled the glass with a pinched face and whoo'd. Shinshu drank smoothly and snacked his lips, taking in the notes off each ingredient.

He looked at the two women, eagerly awaiting his story. To which he detailed meeting her after she was told to show him a secret passage. "We arrived at Crystal Cove; the light reflecting from the crystals was incredible; they glowed various colors of violet, blue, and red. I couldn't help but look at the immense beauty; then, I realized she was giggling."

-----

Chieftain Dolowon sat at his accustomed place to the right of the throne; the bubonic plague had appeared on Drangonhelm's shores and infected seventy-plus percent of the troops; the rest were killed by the barrage ordered by Jovinus to cleanse the island, who 'woo'd' at the exploding ships in the harbor, is if they were fireworks when the gunpowder caught.

Dolowon reflected on the earthman from the land of China, then boasted about a Tang Dynasty. The man showed him the secrets of gunpowder and writing, which is how they primarily communicated, only for the man to vanish in the night.

He felt a tickling at the base of his neck and closed his eyes. A burst of color reached his eye as he entered the mind of Vifaru, the male Rhinlork.

Why have you destroyed the town? Asked an emotional Obhejane, she was distraught at all the carnage. She then digressed after a look from her mate.

We have escaped our holdings and taken to the mountainsides, there are strange horned sheep up here, but they know where juicy fruits grow within the mountains. They warn of hunters that live inside the caves, but now we are inside a shelf in the cliffs. You should see it here, it is incredible.

Vifaru stopped sending to eat a fruit the sheep had shown him; it had a thin fuzzy peach skin and a succulent sweet juicy taste.

Dolowon opened his eyes; the pair of Rhinlorks were safe and eating. Not to mention they had discovered a secret that Jovinus was blind to, Who are these hunters? Do they know about this Shofu and Tancred?

Thud, thud, thud, thud. The massive boot steps of Jovinus walked across the King's deck overhead. He stopped by the swivel gun, Dolowon knew by the number of paces.

Bang, the cannon blasted accompanied by the sound of crushed rocks falling, a building had given in and toppled over.

Loud splashing indicated the building was close to the harbor, bang, Jovinus shot again. This had become a new morning ritual, which in turn has spared the lives of many alarm boys.

Dolowon shook his head, then felt a tugging sensation on his mind, more pronounced than a tingling, and so he closed his eyes.

------

Shofu had decided to begin riding his horses to the cleft cavern. He didn't want them to become lame, and along with Jhojan and Shinshu, they kept the horses active. Jhojan and McThor had gelled, becoming a friendship. This tickled Shofu and gave the mighty steed to his friend.

"Shofu, no way," was how Jhojan reacted, " now isn't that a treat."

They were inseparable from the start, Jhojan had needed something since the first infected soldiers began dying. He had seen the bruising around a satjon soldier's throat along with the gangrene at the fingertips and knew it was the black death plague they had left behind them, or so Jhojan and company had thought.

He had acted quickly, getting a chef and the morning ladies out of the inn and up to the Bilbo-tree. "That is the black death from the earth, run!" He commanded, getting everyone out of their apartments and racing to the top of ShipWright hill.

Ten young women, Chef, and his son, and they set out to the forest. Chef's son had decided to free the magnificent beasts from their pens, having seen the despair in their eyes. The six-legged creatures ran for the hills.

The group dashed across a short plain, deep into the forest, and to the crevice where they discovered the caves at the beginning of this tale. Each, in turn, got down and crawled into the caves, to safety. Jhojan went last, eyes aware of all movement, which caught the pair of Rhinlorks scaling the mountains.

The staff were nervous in meeting the maidens but were encouraged to be safely distanced from the viral danger. They arrived to find everyone in a somber mood, Bengali crying.

"What happened?" Jhojan asked.

"I - I, we," she hiccupped, trying to compose herself in between sobs, "Tancred," he sobs renewed, and she took out a blowdart, poison tip was missing the neon green. A Lynx elder walked up and snatched the dart, gave Bengali a stern look, and entered Tancred's room.

------

Chapter Twenty: Game Changers

Something grabbed, no took a bite hold of his foot, then let go. The seawater was slapping him in the face, making it hard to see where he was at. He had jumped in to escape with his life, or else face death, and found himself in a perilous struggle to stay afloat. He had indeed faced death, either way and now he kicked frantically to get moving forward. The thing came back, but this time didn't let go. His vision clouded as the surface of the water faded from view.

Shinshu, unable to sleep, sat bolt upright, then only after calming his mind did he settle, placing his forehead in his hands.

Tancred was moving around next door, he could hear the faint rustling, and the quiet shushing noises meant Bengali was tending to him.

A moment's empathy passed as Shinshu made his way to the hearth fire. Hopefully, Sheera is free tonight. He thought.

Sure enough out of the shadows, she emerged, a big smile on her face. He couldn't help but return the smile and went in for a hug. She obliged and planted a big kiss on him.

"I had an idea," she said, pulling away, but before she could say anything, she was washed out by the sound of cannon fire. The couple instinctively flinched at the sound of explosives.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Pow. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

The fighting sounded intense. Shinshu and Sheera quickly looked at one another and, without thinking, dashed for the forest crevice. They raced through the meadow to the small opening.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

The King's Galleon was unloading some severe firepower from its 100 cannons, Pow, came Jovinus from his swivel cannon. Sheera helped Shinshu through the crevice; cannon fire lit up the dark skies, various ships could be glimpsed through the trees as they dashed for Shipwright Hill, Shinshu, in the lead.

Burning ships lay wasted about the harbor, burning bright out in the water. The sheer number of sunk ships was evidence of the dominance of Jovinus' vessel.

The King's Galleon lined up on a fleet of three ships.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Went twenty or so heavy cannon, pow, another swivel cannonball hit the gunpowder kegs of the smaller ship. The resulting explosion was spectacular in size, blowing the small moving vessel to pieces while tearing large holes in the ships to either side. The larger ships began to spiral about with one another, locked in a death dance. Slowly, they sunk, and as if perfectly synchronized, they dipped below the surface of the water.

Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. A swift runner with 12 cannon fired clean shots at the King's Galleon, Shinshu could see the Swivel gundeck explode with a precise blast from the smaller ship.

A skull and crossbones splashed across the black sails was something unfamiliar to Shinshu, and Sheera.

As it swung around; pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. The swift runner lit up the large ship the disappeared out to sea heading north; this appeared to be the only surviving ship besides a barely scratched King's Galleon, which floated ideally after achieving victory.

------

Shofu came to the last stall with a smile as if seeing an old friend.

His America ponies were his longest-standing companions. Ghenghis Khan had come to him about his immortal horses, and Shofu allowed him to breed from his famous sire. The resulting Mongolian High-Steppe horse was one of incredible durability, stamina, and endurance.

The couple nickered pleasantly, happy to see him. He gave the red-paint a carrot, patting her on the shoulder, and began by examining her left front hoof. She had white socks that reached to her knees, to contrast with a sorrel-red.

Her face had a bright white splash, smaller than the width of her nose, all shaped by a pair of big beautiful eyes. She had a yellow-strawberry mane and tail, short legs but could streak like a rocket at full speed.

Something caught the attention of the horses. McThor pawed the ground, ready for action, ears pointing to the cave entrance.

Shofu had to leave the shelter of the stables a few steps before a faint echo of cannon fire caught his ear. Looking right, he saw Jhojan looking back at him from the hearth fire.

"Cannon fire," Jhojan said, his claymore strapped to his back. He brought Shofu his crossbow and bolts, "I assume you have everything else?"

Shofu nodded, and the pair moved towards the crevice.

-----

Bengali watched the two men go, the affairs outside the sacred caverns were not of the maidens concern. Tancred kicked his feet, riding a horse again, she thought, watching as his heels clicked a dreamt horse into motion. His fevers had subsided, all that needed to happen was for Tancred to snap out of the induced coma the poison produced.

"It is an excellent sign to see he is dreaming," a Tigress elder told her one night.

She had been granted the rights of Marriage and therefore had become her own woman, to which the elders adopted the change immediately.

All except for Bengali's Mother, who had taken to holding daily sweats to pray for Tancred's recovery and altogether avoiding her daughter.

Bengali could hear the gunpowder going off, though the echos arrived at a level barely above a whisper. She closed the door flap and watched as Tancred settled down and began to snore lightly.

She slipped into her delicate night garments and snuggled in next to her husband. She put her head on his chest, looking at his face, tracing the now-familiar scars.

He had one that looked as if a helm shattered, leaving a 'c-shaped' scar around his left eye. It was the most prominent of them and felt raw and jagged.

She yawned, sleepy tears forming in her eyes. She loved the smell of him, his warmth, and reaching over him; she pulled the blankets to cover them cozily. It was mere moments after that when she fell asleep and began breathing steadily.

----

Chapter Twenty-One: Cannons and Corinth.

Chieftain Dolowon brought the secret council to order; they had quietly gathered to discuss the situation.

Jovinus had gone upstairs to rest for the night, the absence of his thudding footfalls signaled the meeting was secure.

His ten captains sat around the circular table looking to him; he gestured for all to remain calm, We are immune to this bubonic plague of earth, I was directly exposed myself, even had a puss-filled bulging burst on me.

He paused, gathering his thoughts.

We must begin the stages of the revolt, now that the King's forces have been cut to those aboard, a mere 10% of the 50,000 he had before.

The captains nodded their agreement; the effect was positive for moral some looked even hopeful. Pop.

A leaden cannonball came crashing through the captain's quarters, smashing glasses and furniture as it went. The captains acted, moving into position to the lower gun decks, other Lochruids poured out of their rooms. They scrambled, pulling on caps and slipping on shoes, all while getting into position to fire back.

Moments later thudding upstairs signaled Jovinus hadn't fully unarmored, he ran to the swivel deck and from what Dolowon could see, dawned his Dragon helm.

"Men, to your posts! We have a glorious sea battle to attended to." Bellowed the king of the Satjons, banging doors meant the men began slithering to the cannons and immediately began loading them.

Pow, came a shot from Jovinus. It hit something in the dark, which then caught fire. Revealing the attacker's position, unfortunately for the aggressors, who were directly in the line of fire for the heavy cannon.

"Blast them!" bellowed Jovinus into the night, to which the silence exploded into cannon fire.

Ba-Boom. Ba-Boom. Ba-Boom. Ba-Boom.

The crew responded, all fifty cannon firing simultaneously. The volley results were devastating, tearing a large swath into the attacking fleet, sinking multiple ships in one go. Jovinus cackled, his mad laughter could be heard above all else, as Dolowon decided it was now or never.

After the second volley, begin revolutionary action and let us free ourselves of these Satjons.

The Captains relayed the message, and the Lochruids readied themselves. "Fire at will!" Came the bellowing Jovinus, Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Now! The ship's lower 30 cannon positions exploded into the sounds of clashing blades. The Lochruid attack surprised most of the Satjons, which led to a retreat.

Lochruids ended up driving the Satjon forces from the lower decks of the ship.

The top two cannon decks were barricaded by the time the unscathed Lochruids reached the access point.

Satjon archers launched arrows at any movement leading down. This slowed the revolting advance and, in turn, pinned the shield and melee-only Lochruid warriors down in the lower decks.

Dolowon strode slowly to the stairs leading up to the king's apartments; he had purchased a broadsword from the barman before the place was blown to smithereens and now wielding it moved forward, silent as the night.

He silently slipped through the door and up the spiral stair leading up to the swivel cannon. Pow, "Hahahahaha!" Cackled Jovinus, madness plain in his eyes, which soon caught sight of the armed Dolowon.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

A volley of twenty heavy cannon caused the two to hesitate. Jovinus turned and fired a final shot, pow.

A small ship exploded with a considerable force; the shockwave knocked the two leaders to the ship's deck.

Regaining their feet, Dolowon held the long blade in front of him, ready to use it.

Jovinus walked with insufferable arrogance about the deck taking in Dolowon's hand placement upon the hilt.

"Have you ever used one of those?" He sneered at Dolowon, then smiled all smug-like. Dolowon charged, Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop; and all the chieftain saw while flying through the air was black sails with a skull and crossbones.

----

The ride to Thermopylae was rather uneventful and even more so upon leaving Athens for Corinth. The horses didn't struggle much with the terrain, and Alexander the Great's cavalry made good time on their way to Corinth.

This day started like any other; Tancred rose to find his camp companion awake and informed as usual. He spat, readjusting his seat.

"We have the honor of being in the king's entourage today. Athens has 'sued' for peace, and our Great Alexander pardoned them.

Now Corinthians wish to dote upon him and offer congratulations to the Greek conqueror. A bunch of shit, if you ask me," he spat on the fire, sparks danced away from the moisture.

Tancred grunted, acknowledging the passing of knowledge.

He took out his bronze helm, short swords, and packed everything else into his saddlebags. He slipped on his armor, helm, and followed the company tailing Alexander, who had just begun to leave camp.

The company left the main path to Corinth, and instead veered to the smaller suburb of Craneion.

Tancred, after much winding about, found himself near to the front of the column within earshot of Alexander, who had stopped in front of an older man laying out in the afternoon sun.

"Diogenes of Sinope, why have you been avoiding me? I come with tidings of peace and treaty, if you wish a gift of me, I will certainly like to hear of it," Alexander said aloud, addressing the aged philosopher.

To which the wisen and wiley older man said, "Yes," then propped himself on his elbows, looking at Alexander, "now at least, stand a little out of my sun."

Alexander smirked, but there was a hint of admiration. He endured the scorn and arrogance of the old philosopher, but instead of lashing out, the legendary man turned leading his entourage away.

Not before saying, "But truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes." and Diogenes replied, Alexander's group trailing away. "If I wasn't Diogenes, I would be wishing to be Diogenes too."

Tancred laughed and was later relieved of duty, to which he returned to his campsite. He hoped to get an extra meal before he was ordered to do something else, or the day ended.

He tore off a piece of jerky and took a swallow from his water. It wasn't long before his campsite neighbor returned with bread and cheese.

"Gifts from Alexander, himself," he said, ripping the loaf in half and cutting the cheese into equal slabs handing Tancred a piece.

Tancred accepted both gratefully and bit a good chunk cheese off, and with a mouth full watched the last light of the sunset over the Acropolis.

Chapter Twenty-Two: A Stinky Situation

Jhojan and Shofu clambered out of the small opening; the cannons had seized firing, and the results were rather clear.

The King's Galleon floated in the harbor, a small fire was being doused by, "are those Satjons, bearded?" Jhojan asked, reacting to the strange clothing of those putting out the fire.

"Those are not Satjons," replied Shofu, indeed pirates from the sunken ships swam for the monster vessel and boarded.

Lochruids and Satjon archers remained at a stalemate between the third and fourth decks, while the newcomers had capped any Satjon movement by trapping them within the second deck, creating essentially another stalemate.

Jhojan moved in closer, noticing Shinshu down by the bilbo tree. Shofu hesitated, then said, "I am going to inform the people of what is going on. They deserve to know, and we will work on an appropriate response." With that, he re-entered the cavern leaving Jhojan.

The night was cold, but the breeze was of a warmer wind meaning daylight wasn't far behind. Small ribbons of dark blue and purple began pushing back the black of night. Movement down by the ruins of the inn caught his attention; it looked as if a pair of survivors had made it through the barrage.

He looked and saw Shinshu moving north, towards what looked like campfires. Jhojan crossed to ShipWright hill in time to see Dolowon and Jovinus rolling around engaged in a fistfight. Muck now stained both person's armor; blood ran red down Dolowon's face from a split in his forehead.

Jovinus kicked him squared on the bleeding wound and scrambled for his Dragon helm, blood running from his lip. Dolowon grabbed at his foot again, receiving another precise kick to which he crumpled.

Victorious, muck covering his black-gold-red armor, and blood running down his chin, Jovinus cackled aloud.

Cha-poof, a musket shot rang out, striking the mad king in the face, killing the man. The Dragon helm bounced, rolled, and before dropping into the water, caught on the foot of the unconscious Dolowon, just staying onshore.

Jhojan froze; this was new magic and needed to be treated with respect. He kept his head down as if a longbow troop was trained on him. He peaked out towards the King's Galleon and saw the bearded pirates were laughing and clapping a man with a strange smoking-spear on the back.

He crawled down the cobblestone path to the inn and saw Dolowon, with the helm hooked to his foot. The Lochruid chieftain started to moan, coming to.

Jhojan leaped from his place of hiding behind the counter, running over grabbing hold of the helm and Dolowon dragging him to safety.

Cha-poof, cha-poof, cha-poof, lead balls flew everywhere, tearing little chunks out of the already ruined inn. Just missing both persons, the projectiles whizzed off the stone, as Jhojan pulled Dolowon to the back door. It was there when the chieftain opened his eyes and instinctively pushed the hands, dragging him off his person.

"Jovinus is dead," Jhojan said, hearing the pirates laughter carrying over the harbor. The shooting had stopped, "it appears as if these new incomers have some sort of handheld cannon, they put a lead ball through the dead king's eye." He pointed at the lifeless body of Jovinus.

Dolowon seemed to relax, letting his back and head settle upon the remnants of the kitchen wall. He dabbed at the blood running from his head, as soon as it hit the oxygen-rich air it turned a deep red.

"I know some people who can take care of that," Jhojan smiled, lifting the beat-up Lochruid chieftain to his feet, "and the name is Jhojan."

-----

Sheera moved like a shadow, making it hard for Shinshu to focus on her movements. He made little noise; she made less.

They got to within sight of the outpost and the day's light began to brighten the sky, deep blues and violets became lighter blues, oranges, and yellows. Clouds turned from black to grey to white.

Sheera looked up and then to Shinshu, "I must return before the night runs out," she dashed for the cavern crevice.

He understood the strict order the elders kept and watched her go, then focused on the newly landed people. They wore thick coats with lacey frilled shirts, strange almost triangular hats, and carried unknown hand cannons.

Shinshu studied the strange blueish metal, the gold and silver engravings, and the pouch of black powder and tiny fuses.

The guns hung loosely from the belts of most of the bearded men; a few even had spear cannons also.

Swords hung next to the barrel, hinting at the similar slow reload speeds of the bigger guns and the need for defense in close combat. Not a glimpse of shields, spears, bows, anywhere. The men believed in only needing these cannons and a sword.

He moved out from the outpost along the base of the mountains, keeping his eyes on the wandering men. There was no order, no formations, no official patrols, and on closer look, alcohol consumption was abundant.

The smell hit you before the sight of any bottle.

They were not cleanly folk; a woman came stomping out from a tent, and up to a black-bearded man, she was cleanly and wore an elegant dress with ... Wow! Shinshu thought the woman had a generously low cut blouse and caught himself admiring.

"My father is a Governor of the southern colonies; you will return me to him at once!" She almost screamed at him; the taller man looked down at her, his hat plum swayed as he turned.

"Yarrr, I would be doing so if yerrr fa-hatherr, " he gestured, drawing in the attention of the drunken crew, " if yarr fatherr had paid us the barr-gaining price, ha-har."

Drunken catcalls, whistles, and lude come-ons followed the Captain's address, flying from everywhere at the Governor's daughter, who then fled back to the tents. Taunts followed her every footstep until she was out of sight, a straggler stammered a mumbled shout before passing out, bottle rolling from his hand.

The captain resumed his conversation with the more sober-minded crew members, they pointed at the outpost and over to where the harbor would be positioned behind the rise. They seemed to be devising plans of some sort, Shinshu moved closer to get within earshot.

"It be thar Bermuda mystery, sir. Sailors av spoke of disappearing ships within dem waters," suggested one bloke.

"Aye, Captain it be tha triangle tha ott-r pirates be speak'n ov," chimed in another. They're pirates, thought Shinshu, and he began to crawl away when a heavy leather boot met his face.

Chapter Twenty-Three: Twisted Magic

Bengali sturred, hearing the distinct sound of a person's heels being dragged across the stone floor. She began to get up, but She didn't get far before something else caught her attention.

"Am I dreaming, surely I am, for to be laying with such beauty could only be possible in my sleep?"

She paused, looking back into the open, coherent eyes of Tancred.

----

Jhojan set up a cot for the injured Dolowon, the blast had broken his legs, and dragging him took maximum effort. With Jovinus out of the picture, Jhojan had tossed the helm at him, saying, "Here is your precious trinket."

It had bounced awkwardly and ended up by the fallen king's face. Jhojan then noticed Dolowon had succumbed to fatigue and had fallen asleep. Jhojan was forced to hook an arm under each shoulder of Dolowon and drag him the whole way to the caverns.

This took the remainder of the morning, and it wasn't until Shofu showed up at the crevice entrance to help pull Dolowon through, that the struggle became easier.

"Have you seen Shinshu?" Shofu looked concerned.

"Haven't since he went to investigate those campfires popping up on the north bay."

Jhojan recalled watching him going off towards the outpost as he was moving towards ShipWright Hill. He had a fuzzy recollection. Someone was with him, but with mornings shadows, it could have been a trick of the light.

The two companions then took an arm each and lifted the fallen Lochruid to a spot by the hearth fire. The grumpy lynx gaped, then dropped her poker and knelt beside Dolowon.

She took out a pouch of healing supplies and began dressing the various wounds. Shofu grabbed extra pillows and blankets and placed them on Jhojan's newly erected cot. Together with the chef, they lifted Dolowon onto it and allowed the medicine woman to do her thing.

The two men then stepped away from a few paces, the village gathered to see what the commotion was about, and the two began in low tones.

"We should scout and find what happened to Shinshu," Shofu had gathered up his weaponry and feudal japan armor, " I have a terrible feeling that something happened to him."

Jhojan was in his Greco-Roman tunic, something he had borrowed from Storyteller. They were comfortable, his claymore strapped to his back. "Aye, let's go."

The two departed in stealth, now with daylight becoming a challenge, the two kept to the trees and stopped at the edge of the forest to get a better look at what was going on.

Pirates had taken the north bay. A ragtag camp had been thrown together, a camp all the same. The wielded the guns, giving them a ranged advantage, though reloading speeds required a secondary weapon.

Looking to the harbor, the pirates pressed this advantage and took the second deck and were progressing down to the third. Lochruids fortified their positions, forcing an attacker to use melee weaponry.

Slowly, the gun-wielding pirates defeated what was left of the Satjons. Then began firing on the fortifications of the Lochruids, to no avail. Thus another stalemate aboard the King's Galleon.

Shofu moved off to the right, "stay here and keep watch; I will be faster than a shadow."

Jhojan posted at the edge of the forest, watching for any movement aboard the ship. Gunners with the long guns were patrolling the shores, though Shofu went unnoticed and had reached the outpost.

He waved, pointed indicating Shinshu was there. He then put his hands behind his back and put a palm up, "he has been captured, stay put." Simple. Besides, many of the north bay pirates were sleeping in the sun.

Movement at the docks caught his eye; light glinted off the golden armor of Jovinus. Though he was now on his back, helm affixed upon his head. Jhojan stared in amazement, what was this new devilry?

The dead man then stood up.

He turned his large frame to take in his surroundings; the long gunners noticed firing at the standing figure of a dead man. Bullets ricocheted off his armor, the red now glowing hot.

"RRAAAAAAAAAAA!" Bellowed Jovinus hand raised towards the rising star in the sky.

He balled his fists, and with a pulling gesture, causing what looked like an explosion. Debris flew everywhere, and a thick cloud of dust covered the docks.

The pirates stopped firing and gazed on, dumbstruck by what they were seeing.

"RRRRRAAAAAAAAA!" Jovinus bellowed again, and a shockwave ushered out, clearing the air of dust and knocking the pirates from the top decks.

The movement to the north signaled the sleeping pirates were awake and well aware of the King's voice. A man with a plummed hat walked forward, pulling out a hand telescope.

Just then, Jovinus thrust both hands to the ground and, as if lifting an incredible weight, began raising his army from the dead. Satjons from the bottom of the harbor, upon the King's Galleon, and onshore stood and shouted in unison, "Ra, Ra, Ra, Ra, Ra,..."

Pirates began abandoning ship, Lochruids surrendered as Satjons rose from the lower decks and surrounded them.

"Ha Ha Haaaaa! For don't you see!? I am truly immortal, Ha Ha Haaaa!" The Dragonhelm king's voice reverberated about the harbor, the plummed pirate slammed his telescope shut and made for his ship.

The northern camp broke into a hive of movement; pirates grim-faced looked on ready for what was to come. The plummed pirate grabbed up a jug, ripped the cork out with his teeth, spat, and drank. "Yarrrr!" Could be faintly heard from the pirate crew.

Then suddenly three figures appear at the outpost, Jhojan knew two of them, but the third was a woman of elegance and grace.

"The fuck you looking at," was what she said as the three approached, Shofu and Shinshu just shook their heads.

"She blackmailed us into taking her with us; it was either that or..."

"I was going to scream that someone was in the camp, " she said briskly, her Queen's English returning.

"So there was no choice," Jhojan said, the politely took her hand and kissed it, "pleasure to make your acquaintance, madam."

"Oh," she blushed, "thank you, finally a proper gentleman."

Behind her back, Shofu and Shinshu were making gagging and vomiting gestures. Jhojan bit back a laugh.

-----

Jovinus ordered the execution of the Lochruids, to which his men obliged gratefully. His eye hurt, and his vision wasn't what it used to be. There was a strange break in his memory; he had defeated and crippled the telepath, but then everything went blank.

A roar echoed from somewhere in the mountainous valleys, Jovinus turned now privy to the Rhinlorks location and potentially that scum Dolowon.

Chapter Twenty-Four: TanCred Level Suprise

The atmosphere around the island became still and thick with tension. Not even the wind dare disturb anything, as the pirates stood pistols ready.

The Captain took a swig from a jug and looked out over the plain; he had seen thousands of seemingly dead men rise from the dead. Just stand up, walk from out of the ocean, and stand at attention. He had walked into some sort of Voodoo conflict; Arr damns these bayou witches.

"Arrrg, come on men to the ship," after a moment the captain knew better, as a pirate, than to make a stand on land. His men abandoned canvas and heavy barrels, fear took hold as they scrambled away from the undead.

The sound of marching began echoing across the plains, as the pirates returned to their vessel. The anchor took a moment, the infantry crested the hill, and the ship set sail—banking to the north and out to sea.

--------

Tancred dressed, took a few shaky steps, and joined his wife at the hearth fire. Bengali glowed, her radiance beamed with extra vigor it seemed.

He noticed the blue-clad man lying by the fire as well; the man didn't move and looked to have been on the worse end of a fight.

The stretcher showed something more, for it was of Jhojan's design and had blankets Shofu had been seen using.

His gaze returned to Bengali, who sat smiling up at him. She handed him a cup of coffee; as a surprise, she had learned how to make it from Jhojan. Gratefully he took a sip, taking a shaky seat, and warmed his feet by the fire. To his second surprise, she sipped at a cup and seemed to enjoy the taste. He laughed involuntarily, and she giggled in return.

Jhojan, Shofu, Shinshu, and a woman he hadn't met came into the firelight. Shofu and Shinshu dashed over upon seeing Tancred had risen to be back with the living, and talked excitedly about what happened to him. The events that led to an antidote, the weird green puss (joking), and how he moved in his sleep.

Bengali frowned, to which Tancred reached down fo her hand, then squeezed gently. He looked love into her eyes, not hatred.

Then, Jhojan came over and gave his friend an old fashion roman handclasp, something from the early days. Then introduced, "Selah, this is Bengali and my closest of friends, Tancred."

"Charmed," she replied with a slight curtsy. She pulled dirty gloves from her hands, to which Jhojan took them and tucked them away.

Gratefully, she kissed him on the cheek. Jhojan made a face to Shofu and Shinshu, who responded with quick gagging gestures, to straighten up before Selah could see.

"Dear Jhojan, I am tired and would like to rest." She said, winking where only he could see, she expressed faint and looked suddenly weary.

"Why, you may borrow mine. Here allow me to show you," he pointed open-handed, and she entered the apartment dwellings, soon followed by Jhojan.

Bengali, Tancred, Shofu, and Shinshu all shared a look and laughed happily for a gold while.

"Jhojan, you dog," laughed Tancred, tears of joy streaking his cheeks.

Then after a few more moments of laughter, Shofu became stern, and he looked into Tancred's eyes his own pensive, considering.

Then told about the events regarding Jovinus, or more appropriately, the DragonHelm King.

Then Shofu, gesturing to Dolowon, finished by going over what the Lochruid and Jhojan told him about Jovinus falling to a pirate, long-range gunner.

"It wasn't until the Helm affixed itself back onto the deadman's face, that what was Jovinus, and then the deadman stood up and so did 50,000 other dead Satjons."

"Sounds like something similar to what the Pharaohs found in the deserts of the Sharara. They built the Giza pyramids to reflect the belt of Orion, right on top of ours, resurrection and immortality. What else can this relic do? I don't like it," Jovinus added thoughtfully, uncertain of the level of danger they faced.

Snap, a loud crack bounced from within the caves, followed by the sounds of hooves. Horses tore out from around the corned and out into the caves, no chance of catching them.

-----

Jovinus ordered to new designs to be added to his ship; then, they were to set off and destroy those maggot pirates.

The headache from the launched projectile was tearing his mind apart. As if in response to his thought, the helm glowed, sending a sensory pulse through his body. He lost control and froze to the spot; his men continued to execute his orders, robotically.

A contingent of 20,000 satjons marched on the outpost; they were ordered to begin boring into the mountain. Jovinus knew the mountain held secrets within its peaks, and steady mining was the key. He needed to crack the shell of the mountain to understand what power source pulses from within. The helm urged him to find a way to it.

Movement returned to his limbs, and the Dragonhelm King boarded his ship to plan his next moves, Satjon minions marching to a new tune.

------

Vifaru looked out north from the mountains, watched as the black sails disappeared over the horizon and out of sight. The day's last light streaked behind.

Obhejane hadn't taken the loss as well; she laid down on all sixes tucked under a ledge and had cried herself to sleep. Tears of sorrow stained her cheeks as she snored lightly; thankfully, her dreams were peaceful.

The pain was unbearable, slashes of fear and guilt tore at Vifaru, and the now sleeping Obhejane. Then there was a quiet, empty sense of immense loss that washed over them. As if swimming in a vast emptiness.

He looked at the ancient carvings of Eagles, some with snakes within its clutches, others with arrows and olive branches, committing them to memory.

These mountains held signs from the first comers, but nothing on where they went or who they were.

He reached out with his mind for anyone, minutes passed with a total nothingness, reaching into darkness, then suddenly a faint mental picture formed within the mountain itself. Dolowon weakly sent a greeting, having learned a thing or two since transcending from the Earth all those years ago.

----

Chapter Twenty-Five: Reality Threatened

Shinshu had comforted the little girls who started wailing, the ground was shaking, and it scared them. Bengali, carrying the little boy, came over to free Shinshu, who went to fetch the loosed horses, strange vibrations reverberated through the cave walls.

Small stones bounced about, and then began a thunderous blast of sound followed by the quaking of the mountain, which groaned as each explosion shook the stone. Every so often, another burst would shake the foundations.

Shofu checked the stables, finding a broken hitching post, and yet, his North American ponies stood munching quietly. He also found Sheera brushing them; she was aware of him entering the area. She looked up as if expecting to meet him here.

"Hi, Shofu," she said, putting the brush away, she nervously turned to face him to find a smile.

"Sheera, you are beautiful in so many ways. May your love for my son burn imperishable, may beauty never fade," he walked closer and gave her a father's hug, "I think you two have something magical to share."

She had prepared an entire list of things she wanted to point out, why she was a good fit, to a child's freedom to choose, but never had this conversation played out like this in her head.

He stepped back, smiling, "Would you help Shinshu gather the other horses? They galloped off into the depths of the caverns."

She nodded and zipped off to find Shinshu, disappearing off to the left. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Shofu then untied the two ancient ponies and saddled them, he added their extra light chain mail and stretched his bow, checking the string.

Loose stones started to crash to the ground leaving destruction in their wake, one such boulder tore a chunk from the bridge, to which maidens were forced to dive out of the way to avoid being crushed.

----

"Ra, Ra, Ra, Ra," the Satjon soldiers gathered around, rhythmically slamming the butts of their spears to each Ra. They watched as their Dragonhelm King pulled energy from the nearby star with his right hand. Then with his left, he launched firebolts at the mountain with the force of TNT, blasting chunks out and forming a tunnel.

Jovinus could now sense the power within, it pulsed, repelling him draining him of his energy, resisting his every bolt. He lowered his hand, severing the connection with the star.

He stepped into the newly carved out tunnel and looked in at what looked like an underground world. Small cracks in this part of the rock allowed the sound of splashing water to filter through, and firelight beams flickered about.

Fatigue had taken hold of his limbs, and he retreated to his ship; his infantry remained in formation, awaiting a siege.

He strode back to his ship, now fitted with covered swivel gun deck, equipped with four new cannons, and a refurbished King's floor.

Entering the King's apartments, Jovinus took off the helm, then stepped over to the mirror above a washstand. His left eye had become a hole, Jovinus could see all the way through to the window behind. The wound on the inside was cauterized, but the sight was horrid. He reached in and pulled a piece of jagged bone sticking out and tossed it away to clatter on the wood paneling.

Tomorrow at Dawn, he would root out those TanCred rebels once and for all. He walked up to his cannon and began polishing the end of the one he would be shooting in the morning. A ragged smile stretched the scars on his face. I know you in there, Tancred, and tomorrow I get to kill you. "Hahahahahaha!" He cackled into the fading light; dusk had fallen.

Screaming followed the collapse of the guest houses; the blasts had weakened the surrounding rock, which then caused a rock slide and the integrity of the structure to give way.

Tancred pulled Jhojan from the debris; he was covered in dust but was breathing. Bengali was talking with the village mothers and comforting the little girls and little boy who was crying.

Dolowon had been carried to a safer position within the stables area by a mounted Shofu. Tancred knew they had lost several villagers, taking count of those remaining. The falling stones had trapped Chef, his Son, and the table maids, along with a few villagers and the Governor's daughter. Only a few rooms still held through the slide, echoing footsteps could be heard leaving from the newly formed hole in the mountain. The barrage had ended, for now.

Tancred looked to Bengali, who looked back resolute. Her gaze turned to the bridge where the seven queens stood; Tancred turned and strode up to them. He looked closely and saw a sisterly familiarity with their facial structures as if related. They all looked back at him, a serious note to the way they studied him.

Bengali's mother stepped forward, "We are now living in a new reality, as this attack threatens the very livelihood we have fought so long to keep secret and safe, " She paused, looking to her daughter, then back to the Earthling Man before her, "If doubt, so stains my judgment of you, yet her love proves otherwise, then I must choose you to come with me. There is someone you must meet. "

The sisters turned to look behind them; the blue light shone bright and stable from the entryway. Bengali moved to Tancred's side, taking his hand. He squeezed and looked determinedly, across the bridge and followed the Tiger queen. Each step felt heavier and heavier as if the gravity itself had intensified; this was not the case for the maidens who walked lightly across.

He stopped to gather his balance, the weight of the mountain crashing down onto him, the planet pulled at him, then Bengali squeezed his hand. He hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes, and once again, he woke to the beautiful sight of love in those eyes. She smiled, urging him forward; something surged from inside, a source of forgotten strength, it filled his every cell, his very being seemed to become lit.

He took another step, this time with a renewed strength, and crossed through the threshold.

-------

Chapter Twenty-Six: Silent Stillness before the Storm

Bengali waited outside the archway, along with the seven elder-queens, who stood quietly with heads bowed. They prayed silently, a few using prayer beads while others simply put their hands together.

Bengali could not stand there any longer and looked to her fellow maidens for a task.

She found Leona, a Lioness friend, working on an archer's blind. There was enough coverage to crouch comfortably hidden from sight; then, clever cut-outs allowed for quick and direct movements to pop out and fire from. Leona took a moment to test out the blind.

"Looks like it could work," Bengali said with a slight jest to her tone. Leona glanced back over her shoulder and smiled, seeing her friend smiling also. She set her bow down and wiped her hands with a cloth.

"I think it will do, at least our first volleys will come as a surprise." The two women then hoisted the blind on their shoulders and carried it out of the tunnel opening.

Some of the maidens had gone ahead and opened the tunnel, hoping to avoid an explosion that could potentially bring the entire mountain down.

Panther maidens had thinned the front lines of the satjon infantry during the night, moving them back far enough to build temporary defenses.

The maidens and TanCred were outnumbered a thousand to one; any edge would be needed.

Bengali saw Desert Lynx rolling giant balls of flammable materials and setting up at the edge of the forest. The grumpy fire keeper had a malicious grin, the closest thing to a smile that any of them had seen, ever.

Snow leopards could be seen preparing boulder atop the mountain heights, Obhejane had decided to help in this regard. Vifaru had a healthy fear of heights, as he put it, and decided to help cheetahs move north through Crystal Cove and around to where the village once stood.

He was positioned to draw Jovinus north away from the tunnel entrance, Tancred rode upon his back to aide in this tactic.

He wore his Corinthian helm, which glowed yellow from a blessing bestowed by Apollo. His shield was strapped to his back, protecting his back, but more importantly, it held the two crucial hastati spears.

------

Dolowon had watched as two more divine bodies appeared, Gaia and Ra had come forth.

Ra was displeased with how his tools of divinity were being abused and placed an extraordinary power upon Tancred's hastati, strong enough to disable the helm. Then Tancred was sent off.

To Dolowon, Gaia then opened a chamber, and with the extreme effort, Dolowon stood and walked into the hidden chamber along with Earth, Gaia, and Ra.

----

Tancred had met with one Olympian, Apollo, only by chance. He was serving as part of the Molossian kingdom, under the rule of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles part of Epirus.

He had helped the legendary king to establish a city-state with the prowess equal to that of Rome and Macedonia, at the time. He was seen leading armies within the Italy campaign Pyrrhus of Epirus.

It wasn't until his death that Tancred received the armor of Achilles, given by the aged king, and then was instructed to go north. Go north and seek Apollo upon the slopes of Mount Olympus. And so, with new armor and a Corinthian helm given to him by Alexander, he rode for the mountain.

He never got there, for as Tancred camped that first night, Apollo appeared.

Pyrrhus sought the god's forgiveness for his father and, hopefully, of other Olympians who had gotten involved at Troy.

Apollo, instead, spoke about the tales of the hero Tancred and his centuries of feats, the two immortals regaled in stories of pre-ancient histories.

Upon parting, Apollo granted two blessings.

One upon the Corinthian helm, to grant speed and agility in the direst of times.

Tancred, upon Vifaru, looked out over the plains, light beginning to brighten the sky. A steeled resolve came over him as he slid on his helm.

-----

Jhojan inspected the defenses, how many times had he prepared similar fortifications in the past.

He took out his pipe and smoked a cannabinoid strain given to him by a druid during an adventure to the isle of Skye. It calmed his mind and helped him think more creatively, he saw the light begin to paint the sky a brighter color and patiently puffed his pipe, knowing the wait would be over soon.

-----

Shofu sat, legs crossed beneath a large tree. He was looking out at the bilbo-tree, stilling his mind and preparing himself for the next move. His ponies stood quietly to either side; they had been on the edge of battle many times over in their time. The immortal steads, they had been called during the time of the great Khan's campaigns.

He pulled both wings from their sheaths, the Japanese letters for a heron were engraved on both short blades, resheathed them for they never went dull, then began sharpening his gladius.

------

Shinshu and Sheera stood just inside the tunnel and watched as Bengali and Leona carried a heavy-duty barricade by and out the new tunnel passage. The panthers were to stay inside the cavern and protect the bridge at all costs; their stealth was of no use in the daylight.

Shinshu had picketed the mares and had Audubi and McThor saddled. They were ready for him and Jhojan. They were going to help hold the left flank with Shofu and his fighting steeds.

Sheera drew in his gaze, filling herself with his eyes. Knowing this may be the last time she gets to look into them.

He smiled, taking in the deep pools her eyes had become as they looked into his. Knowing he would see her again.

Dawn broke outside the tunnel, a faint hint of morning drifted outside. Shinshu held Sheera for a moment, hugging her close, feeling the beat of her heart. She felt his.

Breaking apart, he nodded, turning to go, leading the stallions out to the edge of the forest where he found Jhojan smoking and Shofu sharpening his gladius.

He walked over to Jhojan, handing him the reigns to McThor, who snorted his assent.

No words needed to be spoken, tuffs of smoke billowed from the Shireman pipe as he watched the King's Galleon for any movement.

Shinshu readjusted his blade, still sharp after being forged all those years ago in Japan.

-----

Jovinus felt the light before his eyes took in the dawn's light. He got up out of his chair, to which he had watched the fortifications being placed and the defenses being prepared during the night.

He had wanted to use his cannons to open the tunnel, but no matter this was going to be enjoyable either way.

He walked over, placing the helm back upon his head, "ahhh," the power felt so good. It surged through him, and without a pause, he strode out of his ship and onto the harbor. Upon the wood decks, heavy-booted footfalls were the only sound to break the morning silence; thud, thud, thud, thud...

Chapter 27; The Edge of Dawn

Bengali waited outside the archway, along with the seven elder-queens, who stood quietly with heads bowed. They prayed silently, a few using prayer beads while others simply put their hands together.

Bengali could not stand there any longer and looked to her fellow maidens for a task.

She found Leona, a Lioness friend, working on an archer's blind. There was enough coverage to crouch comfortably hidden from sight; then, clever cut-outs allowed for quick and direct movements to pop out and fire from. Leona took a moment to test out the blind.

"Looks like it could work," Bengali said with a slight jest to her tone. Leona glanced back over her shoulder and smiled, seeing her friend smiling also. She set her bow down and wiped her hands with a cloth.

"I think it will do, at least our first volleys will come as a surprise." The two women then hoisted the blind on their shoulders and carried it out of the tunnel opening.

Some of the maidens had gone ahead and opened the tunnel, hoping to avoid an explosion that could potentially bring the entire mountain down.

Panther maidens had thinned the front lines of the satjon infantry during the night, moving them back far enough to build temporary defenses.

The maidens and TanCred were outnumbered a thousand to one; any edge would be needed.

Bengali saw Desert Lynx rolling giant balls of flammable materials and setting up at the edge of the forest. The grumpy fire keeper had a malicious grin, the closest thing to a smile that any of them had seen, ever.

Snow leopards could be seen preparing boulder atop the mountain heights, Obhejane had decided to help in this regard. Vifaru had a healthy fear of heights, as he put it, and decided to help cheetahs move north through Crystal Cove and around to where the village once stood.

He was positioned to draw Jovinus north away from the tunnel entrance, Tancred rode upon his back to aide in this tactic.

He wore his Corinthian helm, which glowed yellow from a blessing bestowed by Apollo. His shield was strapped to his back, protecting his back, but more importantly, it held the two crucial hastati spears.

------

Dolowon had watched as two more divine bodies appeared, Gaia and Ra had come forth.

Ra was displeased with how his tools of divinity were being abused and placed an extraordinary power upon Tancred's hastati, strong enough to disable the helm. Then Tancred was sent off.

To Dolowon, Gaia then opened a chamber, and with the extreme effort, Dolowon stood and walked into the hidden chamber along with Earth, Gaia, and Ra.

----

Tancred had met with one Olympian, Apollo, only by chance. He was serving as part of the Molossian kingdom, under the rule of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles part of Epirus.

He had helped the legendary king to establish a city-state with the prowess equal to that of Rome and Macedonia, at the time. He was seen leading armies within the Italy campaign Pyrrhus of Epirus.

It wasn't until his death that Tancred received the armor of Achilles, given by the aged king, and then was instructed to go north. Go north and seek Apollo upon the slopes of Mount Olympus. And so, with new armor and a Corinthian helm given to him by Alexander, he rode for the mountain.

He never got there, for as Tancred camped that first night, Apollo appeared.

Pyrrhus sought the god's forgiveness for his father and, hopefully, of other Olympians who had gotten involved at Troy.

Apollo, instead, spoke about the tales of the hero Tancred and his centuries of feats, the two immortals regaled in stories of pre-ancient histories.

Upon parting, Apollo granted two blessings.

One upon the Corinthian helm, to grant speed and agility in the direst of times.

Tancred, upon Vifaru, looked out over the plains, light beginning to brighten the sky. A steeled resolve came over him as he slid on his helm.

-----

Jhojan inspected the defenses, how many times had he prepared similar fortifications in the past.

He took out his pipe and smoked a cannabinoid strain given to him by a druid during an adventure to the isle of Skye. It calmed his mind and helped him think more creatively, he saw the light begin to paint the sky a brighter color and patiently puffed his pipe, knowing the wait would be over soon.

-----

Shofu sat, legs crossed beneath a large tree. He was looking out at the bilbo-tree, stilling his mind and preparing himself for the next move. His ponies stood quietly to either side; they had been on the edge of battle many times over in their time. The immortal steads, they had been called during the time of the great Khan's campaigns.

He pulled both wings from their sheaths, the Japanese letters for a heron were engraved on both short blades, resheathed them for they never went dull, then began sharpening his gladius.

------

Shinshu and Sheera stood just inside the tunnel and watched as Bengali and Leona carried a heavy-duty barricade by and out the new tunnel passage. The panthers were to stay inside the cavern and protect the bridge at all costs; their stealth was of no use in the daylight.

Shinshu had picketed the mares and had Audubi and McThor saddled. They were ready for him and Jhojan. They were going to help hold the left flank with Shofu and his fighting steeds.

Sheera drew in his gaze, filling herself with his eyes. Knowing this may be the last time she gets to look into them.

He smiled, taking in the deep pools her eyes had become as they looked into his. Knowing he would see her again.

Dawn broke outside the tunnel, a faint hint of morning drifted outside. Shinshu held Sheera for a moment, hugging her close, feeling the beat of her heart. She felt his.

Breaking apart, he nodded, turning to go, leading the stallions out to the edge of the forest where he found Jhojan smoking and Shofu sharpening his gladius.

He walked over to Jhojan, handing him the reigns to McThor, who snorted his assent.

No words needed to be spoken, tuffs of smoke billowed from the Shireman pipe as he watched the King's Galleon for any movement.

Shinshu readjusted his blade, still sharp after being forged all those years ago in Japan.

-----

Jovinus felt the light before his eyes took in the dawn's light. He got up out of his chair, to which he had watched the fortifications being placed and the defenses being prepared during the night.

He had wanted to use his cannons to open the tunnel, but no matter this was going to be enjoyable either way.

He walked over, placing the helm back upon his head, "ahhh," the power felt so good. It surged through him, and without a pause, he strode out of his ship and onto the harbor. Upon the wood decks, heavy-booted footfalls were the only sound to break the morning silence; thud, thud, thud, thud...

Chapter Twenty-Eight: A Clash of Forces

Obhejane had taken position atop a mountain; a few snow leopard maidens flanked her. They had gathered three good-sized boulders and awaited a signal from the Lynx.

She could see the glint from the speck that was Jovinus. She felt an urge to smash that little bug and focused her rage on aiming those boulders true.

Suddenly, the Satjon infantry sprang into motion. Half of the total remaining clambered onto the King's Galleon. The snow leopards sprung from the perch and hurried to inform the defenders.

Jovinus continued to stand, dawning the King's Helm, though daylight had yet to crest the mountain ridges. The rest of his army lined up, facing the forest in standard formation.

Checking behind her, Obhejane saw an orange globe just rising above the sea's horizon to form a sphere. Turning back to the plains, the mountains cast a long shadow that slowly began to shink.

She saw Vifaru moving forward slowly, ready to charge. Tancred had dismounted, the right choice for a charging Rhinlork was a bouncy ride. His bronze helm and red shield were all that she could see; her visibility hadn't evolved to be tuned to such heights, but she made do.

Cheetah maidens slowly stalked through the grasses, eyes trained on the hilltop muscles tense.

----

Jhojan mounted McThor, Shinshu rode Audubi, and Shofu untethered the mare riding his immortal stallion. The maidens to up position behind the fortifications.

"Now," called Jhojan, and the Lynx lit and unleashed their fireballs. They bounced bursting into flame, then rolled onto the Satjon lines. The infantry stood there burning to dust; an eerie sensation ran down Jhojan's spine.

The King's Galleon turned 50 guns, bobbing slightly upon the tide, the ship took aim at the forest line.

"Charge," called Shofu in response, as cannon fire began splintering the trees about them. Maidens leaped from cover and charged the lines of Satjons, large boulders crashing to their right, opening a broad swathe through the enemy lines.

He met the lines first, accompanied by his fighting ponies. The mare reared and kicked, planting hooves square on the chest of Satjon infantry, sending them feet into the air. She bit and used her hooves with lethal force.

Shofu rode on the outside, firing from his mounted position into the horde, emptying his quiver of arrows. He then dismounted, leaving the stallion free to battle alongside his mate.

He unleashed a flurry of crossbow bolts mowing down a line of infantry. A cannonball bounced feet behind him, he disregarded the crossbows after emptying all of his bolts and pulled his shield, and gladius to engage in melee.

Shinshu was flung from Audubi, a cannonball striking the horse dead on the chest. He flew feet, planting face first and tumbling to stop face up at the sky.

Jhojan lept from McThor and helped Shinshu to his feet, "We need you," He said quickly, then remounted and charged the right flank.

Shinshu composed himself in time to perform plucking-of-the-fruit severing a head, then crouched to spin and slash performing the complex whirling-winds. Clearing a small wave, he charged a glint of daylight upon the edge of his blade.

----

Bengali had not hesitated when she heard the charge. Fellow Tigers and the Lions tore from their hiding places as cannonballs whirled overhead. Trees exploded into splinters and toppled over; one such large tree came down merely feet from the charging maidens cutting the battlefield in half.

The charging warriors slammed into the enemy with incredible force. Bengali met her first Satjon with a spear tip, driving the soldier to the ground and pinning him there. Other maidens leaped performing similar pinning attacks learned from years of dedicated training.

Bengali saw Leona pull the blade she had given her. She bore the other on her hip, Earth-made blades from the forges of Japan gifted through Shofu from Tancred.

Leona then proceeded to use the short sword to ripe through satjon armor and wreak havoc on the enemy lines.

"Lili-lili-lili," came the charging calls from the cheetah maidens, as they came running up on the battle lines. Not a single maiden had fallen during the charge.

-----

As the third boulder came crashing down, Vifaru and the Cheetahs charged. Tancred in hot pursuit.

The cheetahs speed off with unreal speed, and within seconds, they were upon the enemy lines. They sang out a battle cry and sprang, flying up and pinning infantry to the ground.

Vifaru then came pounding up, the ground rumbling under every step as he heaved tens of satjons about with his massive armored head.

Tancred had just gotten to the crest of ShipWright hill when an exploding bolt upended him.

"Tancred! At last!" Bellowed Jovinus, who had moved to atop the bilbo tree, a slice of daylight shone off his helm. He launched another bolt, sending Tancred crashing to the ground. Dirt filled the sky as Jovinus unleashed bolt, after bolt, tearing large chunks of turf from the ground.

Tancred pulled his shield, weathering the raining bolts by crouching behind the SPQR he had earned serving for the Julii family of Rome.

Then suddenly, the barrage stopped. His head was ringing, and his vision took a moment to unblur. He could hear the cannons firing off, as if far off in the distance. No, wait, that had halted also.

------

Dolowon found himself descending a moss-covered spiraling stairwell. The fog began to cover them halfway down as he glided down the steps effortlessly with a trio of globes trailing him.

They entered into a large earthen chamber, which was mostly empty except for a levitating tree at the far end. A figure sat at the foot of it, legs crossed and head bowed in silent meditation.

As Dolowon closed in, the figure looked up, smiled, then vanished, closing their eyes.

"Please, sit," Gaia had reformed into a human being and gestured at the tree. He stepped forward into the light of the tree, the upon sitting felt his mind open to an awareness beyond anything he believed possible.

He then crossed his legs, feeling for the Rhinlorks but found them focused on the battle. Then he felt a tug, and his mind found an immense planetary neural network, then a slight tingle brush against his mind.

"Now, here is how we can help. Through you, our will shall be known."

Ra and Earth nodded, then dissipated. Gaia smiled, then too dissipated.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Of Battles Won and Lost

"Tancred, at last!"

Bengali turned to see Jovinus from atop the bilbo tree launching exploding bolts of light at Tancred, wrenching up chunks of turf and dirt into the air. She couldn't see him.

She slew a charging Satjon and swiftly moved through the battle, avoiding an engagement. Jovinus cackled maliciously as he launched bolt after bolt. Pure hatred stained his eyes; she pulled a spear from a fallen infantryman and planted it squarely in the chest of Jovinus, knocking him from the tree.

As Jovinus fell, a stray bolt struck the tree causing a massive explosion sending him crashing to the burnt ruins of the former tavern kitchen. A cloud of dust formed above the spot in which he landed.

She took a moment to look about the battlefield; she noticed the cannons began firing upon their own as well as on the maidens. She saw dozens of cannonballs land near and then dismember soldiers on both sides.

Jhojan fought near the wreckage of the bilbo tree, long sword flashing. McThor could be found face down by the pool, Shinshu and Shofu moved to the safety of the hill and fought to stay within the cone of protection it provided.

She found Leona sprawled on the ground, boots stepping on her with no regard for the dead. A large hole in her chest gave evidence to a cannonball striking her there. Cheetah maidens were skirmishers by nature and fell as fighting intensified.

Bengali felt the ground rumble and looking for Vifaru; she found Obhejane and the snow leopards charging from out of the tunnel at full speed. She roared, rallying the remaining maidens and especially Vifaru.

------

Jhojan slipped down the cobblestone path, avoiding detection along the way. He held Winter's Fang aloft waiting for an attack at any moment, he had accepted the gift from Shofu as a token toward good faith and, hopefully, some luck. The blade was light for a double-handed weapon, but he had seen it being used and knew the value of a Katana. Still, though, his trusted claymore went with him strapped to his back.

He crept forward slowly, echoes of cannon fire rang through the ruined streets. This was the premier time to strike the downed King. He moved into the dark and dusty room, a blade struck from just out of sit, but a quick parry caught the stroke before it fell.

Jhojan rolled and repositioned, facing his would-be attacker. Jovinus stepped forward, heavy boots thudding upon the ruined common-room floor.

"Did you want an apology for your inn, Barman? Or should I address you by your real name?" He slashed at Jhojan's thigh, missing do to a well-placed parry.

"Your TanCred filth," Jovinus spat, then in a more mocking tone, continued, "The legendary Keeper of Truths, former King of Fraunki and TanCred kingdoms," he lunged going for the heart, Jhojan parried spun performing slicing-the-blossom and hit on Jovinus' thigh. He pulled biting through armor and down to the flesh.

Jovinus bellowed with rage, but just them a beam of light touched his helm, and he quieted, the exhaled an ahh. The red of his armor pulsed menacingly, and Jhojan decided to withdraw up the hill to rejoin the maidens.

From there, he saw the King's Galleon firing without end, just unloading on the battlefield. Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, the cannons blasted off.

"RAAAAA!" came the bellowing cry of Jovinus, and to Jhojan's horror, the Satjon King's soldiers stood up once again, and without a moment of hesitation, attacked the remaining defenders. "No," Jhojan said, allowed to no-one, in particular, watching a Tigress fall to a wave of resurrected Satjons.

Something burst from out of the depths of the water, a pair of columns towered above the ship. As the water fell away from them, revealing a set of long-nosed jaws belonging to a crocodilian. In a quick snap, the cannon fire seized, and the gigantic creature, with a fantastic splash, returned to the depths of the sea.

----

Dolowon opened his eyes, smiled to himself, and closed them again. Fading into the mist.

----

Tancred's vision steadied; he saw Bengali running to him, then sound began to filter back in.

"Rally to the plain, rally to the north, regroup."

The voice echoed as he saw Shofu and Shinshu on the immortal steads, Jhojan running with a handful of maidens, and the Rhinlorks keeping rearguard as they regrouped near the tunnel mouth. He stood as Bengali got there, she picked up a spear, and he the other.

"Quickly," came Shofu, "to the caverns." He and Shinshu swung around and into the caverns. The Satjons had slowed reforming their replenished lines, Jovinus took his time soaking in the daylight.

Tancred stopped at the tunned entrance and ushered everyone in. Last came Vifaru and Obhejane, they were in bad shape but lumbered on defiant. He looked back to see Jovinus slowly advancing.

"Well, well, Tancred. You have not disappointed, killing you will be all the sweeter." He shot a bolt at the tunnel entrance, mere feet short of the target, dirt erupting into the air.

He pointed with his sword horde charged swarming the plain, Tancred quickly withdrew into the caves. He was steeling his mind for the coming attack, and may his sword-hand be true. He entered the cavern to find the village women had prepared defenses.

The queens held bows ready, along with the other women. Panthers stood off in the shadows, ready to pounce. The Rhinlorks and Shinshu covered the meadow passage.

Tancred joined Jhojan, Shofu, and Bengali at the front. Shofu had his gladius and round shield. Jhojan wielded his samurai blade, Tancred his shield and hasta.

The clattering of armor filled the tunnel with noise as the satjons began flooding into the caverns. Arrows rained down ferociously, taking down wave after wave of infantry. Then came the slow thud, thud, thud, thud.

Instinct caused Tancred to charge through a gap in the Satjon line, meeting Jovinus in the shadow of the tunnel. "Yes," He cackled, squaring to his opponent.

Tancred took off at a sprint, leaped jabbing his spear at the helm. Jovinus barely had time to bob his head away from the spear tip, which grazed the helm. Tancred then spun, sweeping the spear low catching Jovinus behind the knee.

Bellowing in rage, the Satjon King dropped to one knee. "Raa," a bolt struck Tancred's shield shattering it and sending him tumbling to come to rest in the middle of the plains.

The brightness of day briefly blinded him; his ears were ringing again, disorienting Tancred. Another bolt exploded nearby, showering him with dirt. Another sent him flying to land in the pool water beneath the ruined bilbo tree. The water shocked him back into focus and looking to the tunnel entrance; he saw Jovinus filling it with mass.

"It is only you and me now, Tancred," the Dragonhelm king shouted, "Just as it should be, I want the pleasure of your death all to myself."

Tancred refitted his helm, which glowed gold for a bronze helm when he dawned it, then checked his hasta. Jovinus lifted his fist, sending another bolt but Tancred was ready he rolled and coming to his feet, he closed the gap quickly and threw.

The spear was on target, yet Jovinus moved just enough, and the point lodged itself in his shoulder. Once again, the Satjon king found himself on his knee. Wildly he launched a double-fisted blast; it caught the crest of Tancred's helm, which resulted in Tancred sprawled upon the ground, face down in the dirt.

Jovinus shakily rose to his feet. He shuffled over to the unconscious Tancred and pulled the hasta from his shoulder. He stood there, the words of "Victory, So Sweet," sang in his head. He stood there, rejoicing in his moment of triumph.

"I will now free the universe of your filthy soul," he raised the spear to the sky and drew in as much power as he could. His armor trimmings burned hot red as he drew in more and more power. He peers down, Tancred began to stir, and he plunged the spear down but was caught with an hasta spear coming up.

Bengali then drove the spear into the dead man's face and pinned his ass to the ground.

Chapter Thirty: The End is the Beginning, In the End

Bengali dropped the spear and let the body collapse to the ground.

She quickly moved to where Tancred was and rolled him over.

His eyes were open but unseeing, "Is that you, Bengali?" He laughed, relieved to hear her breathing.

-----

The Satjon infantry fell in unison; a massive clattering signaled the death of their master. The seven queens lowered their bows, having successfully held off the charge, preserving the archway. Bodies littered the bridge.

Sheera was the only other maiden to make it out alive. She sobbed into Obhejane's shoulder, the massive mother humming soothingly. Large tears of her own streaked down her cheeks.

Shinshu had gotten injured protecting the mares, successfully and was being tended to by the lynx queen. He had taken a hacking blow to his right shoulder but twisted a finished his opponent before the rest clattered to the floor.

Shofu and Jhojan helped Vifaru remove the Satjon dead from the caves. The queens had begun preparing honorary pyres so that they may provide the fallen maidens with the proper death ritual to aide them in their journey to the spirit realm. This took most of the afternoon; thousands had fallen piling into the cavern.

Bengali got Tancred to sit up and then dragged Jovinus to the Satjon funeral pyre, tossing his trinket helm upon the pile of fallen infantry. It clinked like any other piece of metal found amongst the mound of dead.

Tancred watched as a thousand or so dead Satjons piled up; the sight was sickening. The loss of life caused him to sick up, his stomach contents splash upon the ground.

"Let's get you cleaned up," from above where he sat came the voice of the Tiger queen, Bengali's mother had strode out and took him by the arm, helping him up.

The other queens then circled him, helping him to a bathing room. The maidens had a few tub-like basins on their side of the bridge. He was guided to one already filled with hot water.

Then, leaving his lower tunic on, he lowered himself into a warm bath to wash. The queens then left him to his privacy as he dunked his head under cleansing the battle from his face.

He popped up, feeling refreshed, when moments later, Bengali joined him. She hadn't left her lower tunic on.

-----

Vifaru sat with a grunt, a reasonable distance from the pyre. He had earned a few tasty fruits and was delighted when Obhejane brought some with her. She plopped next to him, Sheera then left the fruit she carried with them and left to find Shinshu.

Jhojan tossed a torch, lighting the pile. The smell immediately turned the atmosphere to a putrid rank smell, ashes pieces of fallen soldiers drifted into the air. He said a quick Celtic prayer for their souls to part and rest in peace.

He then made his way down to the cellar and found the rare treats he had been saving. A box of the druids finest pipeweed and a bottle of 500-year-old Scotch bought the day he left earth. He cheerfully gathered them up and made his way back up ShipWright hill.

He came back to find a bandaged Shinshu with Sheera by his side, Shofu, in between them and the Rhinlorks. His ponies grazed peacefully to the rear. Obhejane and Vifaru were nose to nose sitting on their haunches, rumbling sweet Rhinlork melodies to one another.

Jhojan walked up and offered the humans a drink, though the Rhinlorks seemed curious about the beautiful smelling pipeweed.

The group sat together, sharing in the spoils of the battle, bringing them out of the lower realm of feelings and lifting their spirits. Shofu joked about Sheera marrying her son, to which she reddened and grabbed Shinshu's uninjured arm, holding him close.

"Indeed, I intend to." She looked up into his eyes and kissed him. Bengali cat called, coming out of the cave entrance with a refreshed Tancred. They sat on the other side of Jhojan and shared in the goods.

Laughter and pipeweed filled the air as the enemy had finally been vanquished, the Rhinlorks gazed into the fire cuddled side by side.

The fire burned well into the night; tiny sparks flew into the darkened sky. Until only Jhojan and Shofu were left, the two aged men felt the realization of a new beginning. Jhojan emptied his Shireman and loaded a final bowl. He struck a match, pulling the flame into the tinder, he puffed it alight and looked up at the night sky. Stars speckled the evening dark, twinkling some light-years away.

"Have you ever thought of going home to earth, just to see what mortal man has done in the years since we left?" Jhojan mused aloud to Shofu, who thought for a moment. Smoke drifted from his pipe as well, though not as thickly as what wafted from the Shireman.

"Yes, but only now, as we speak about it," he paused and played with the scruff on his chin, "the stones are still in your cellar, aren't they?"

Jhojan smiled, "Why yes, yes they are."