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Dog Story

An elf strolled alone, with grim determination masking his normally delicate features through the halls of the High House Adolessa. There was a quiet rhythmic tapping as the lightly soled wooden heels of his soft leather boots struck the smooth green marble floor leading to the inner chamber of the Council’s Meeting Hall. The corridor, buried this deeply in the mountainside, was dimly lit with the glow of a few scattered chime crystals. Even the softest sounds would reverberate through the crystals and be magnified into a calming melody of gentle song. Theirs’ was not the only sound, however. As he came to the place he sought, Mangan heard the muffled voices of the Elders on the other side of a snug-fitting oaken door - a door that presumably stood before he and his destiny.

Looking over his shoulder, Mangan's eyes drifted across the rough-cut stone that generations of Dwarves had cut to build his father's high keep.  Dwarves and men had seemingly lived in harmony with their immortal masters.  It had always been so.  His eyes scanned the gold leafed beams that had been so meticulously placed  to support the immense weight of a mountain and to please the most rigid asthetic.  And his eyes traced their pattern back to where the sun was still fighting to enter the keep.  As hard as the sun fought to reach him, it would never touch the depths here.  The cold stone was a comfort.  He had come so far and everything was proceeding as planned. It was three years since this risky business had begun. Risky, but necessary. He had to make these ancients understand, or everything would be lost. If only he could remember to stay the course.

"This business of reviving the Dark Arts must not be taken lightly. I don’t care if the war spreads to this very room. Standing-by while the natural order is violated is worse than......."

"Malichias, we risk losing everything if we wait here idly discussing matters while the slaves continue their advance. I say if Mangan can turn them aside, let him do this thing and then we’ll deal with him."

"And violate our own laws? I begin to think you’re already infected with his madness...."

Mangan heard a scraping of chairs and a hollow thud. If they were already this animated, then there was a chance that his very presence might swing the balance. He just wanted to make certain that the scales swung the right way. Again he thought that perhaps he’d made a mistake in leaking his discovery.

"The way things are proceeding we stand to lose only that which can be rebuilt. I can accept this before I can accept something that will damage the very fabric of our existence. Once that door is opened there is no turning back. If he is allowed to continue it will be our un-being!"

That steady baritone could only be Mangan’s father.  His voice reveberated through the chime crystals, but there was nothing soothing in that song.   What a cruel jape it had been – to discover that his own father wanted his head most of all.  Mangan loosened the sheathed blade belted to his back.

"Jonas, are you asking us to trust in the ‘mercy’ of the slaves?"

"What I’m asking is that we continue to follow our own laws and end this business now! And as far as the humans are concerned, I say we negotiate a truce. Once we concede defeat, acknowledge their claims to freedom and abandon our ancient strongholds they have pledged that we will be allowed to live in exile, unmolested."

It was hard for Mangan to control himself. The Elders were so blind to the possibilities. Listening to their bickering did not dissuade him from his present course. It hardened his resolve. Soon, he would announce his intentions, and he would do so in such a way that these fools would be forced to listen. It was so close he could taste it. He could feel the power pulsing between his heart and the blade. One beat, one rythm.

"There are some who believe we will be hunted to extinction no matter what agreements the humans make," chimed-in another voice.

"That may be Klavis, but what alternatives do we have?"

"The Dark Arts...."

"Are no alternative. This knowledge was buried in our histories as a warning, not as a recipe for destruction."

"Fletching?"

"Jonas speaks true. I know of the manuscript Mangan has discovered. It is a record of the events surrounding the last days of the Drow."

He had once thought of the kindly old Archivist as a mentor, now that deep sonorous voice made the bile rise in Mangan’s throat. Were they all blind?  He crossed his hands at his waist and bowed his head in an effort to calm himself.

Fletching went on, "As you know the Drow employed the arts of Necromancy and Transmutation in hopes of averting the efforts of our ancestors to drive them from this place. And while their magics were great and terrible so too was the wrath the wyrm Barnipandibul. Her black fires decimated the Drow armies and sent them reeling. Then our Elders formed the Binding that would hold their vile magic deep inside the earth, for all time."

Mangan could see it all in his mind’s eye as though it had happened yesterday. Strange that it was so clear even though he wasn’t born until long after. The manuscript must have been a more vivid account then he could recall. Looking down at his hands he was surprised to see his fists clinched tight and his body trembling. His heart was racing to the rythm of the blade.

"We all know this tale....."

"But what is not commonly known is the making of that bond. This is the secret Mangan believes he has discovered."

"What of it... The Drow have been extinct for generations, if any of their kind had survived don’t you think we would have seen them by now?"

As if Klavis had not spoke, Fletching droned on, "They would not have re-surfaced, since this would have been impossible."

"Yes, yes, the Bond...."

Mangan began the exercises he used to steel himself for battle. With deep relaxing breaths he concentrated on sending his energy from his center to his fingers and toes, and beyond. With this trick he gained an "awareness" similar to what you gained in channeling, but more keen and far reaching. With it he gained a connection that could never be achieved by attempting to manipulate nature. He became one with nature.

"No, Klavis, you don’t understand. The Bond is not a physical barrier, it is something affixed to the Drow. In fact, it defines the Drow. For thousands of years their House lived in harmony with ours. But, when they seized the hatchlings and performed the rites that gave them this accursed ability to draw the life force from nature, our ancestors were compelled to fight. And we fought the Drow by changing them so that they could not disrupt order. They were cursed, unable to harm the natural world because they were not a part of it. We bound them to the shadows and sent their bodies to the Etheral Plane. And condemned to live in darkness, unable to assume a physical form, the Drow tunneled deep into the earth to continue their existence as vengeful spirits and wraiths. If that curse is somehow lifted and the Drow regain their physical forms, then I would assume that none could oppose them. It was a real stroke of luck that we defeated them the first time. As magical creatures, of nature, but somehow unnatural, Dragons are immune to their machinations. Had we not been allied with the black wrym, we might very well have been destroyed."

The fires of that damnable beast still haunted Mangan’s dreams. Or were those dreams another’s? It did not matter. Soon....

"Are you saying that Mangan believes he can re-unite these wraiths with their bodies?"

Mangan had heard enough. For some reason he could not achieve that perfect state of harmony. Consequently, he was not calm or poised rather he was tense, anxious, and ready for anything. Impulsively he jerked the latch handle back and slammed his palm into the seasoned oak. The well-hung door flew open and re-bounded violently with a tremendous crash.

"It appears you have decided to judge my fate while I was away, tending to the defenses of your families. How fitting...."

"You! This is not permitted!"

Staring down his father, Mangan found a new confidence with the knowledge that their loathing could not even begin to compare to their fear. "What is not permitted, you old fool, has been tolerated in the past. And I believe it is time to bend the rules again. Or would you rather sit aside while the heads of your kin are dipped in tar and fitted to the postern gates of our own House?"

"Mangan.."

"Father for all of my life I have listened while you spoke of freeing the slaves. And for the longest time I shared this noble idea. But none of us were prepared for this. You, wise Counselors, sat here in idle speculation when the humans first threw off the yoke. A few warriors sent to do the job of hundreds allowed them to gain momentum and hand us a decisive defeat. The spark of freedom then spread like wildfire, uniting thousands in the time you spent contemplating a resolution. How many families were slain before we met them with arms? By the time Alvia fell the Dawves had thrown in their lot with the humans and we were too late. Like a pestilent cloud they swept across our homeland gaining strength and numbers until they arrived here. And now you say you want to negotiate?

"They will not negotiate. Once the banner of freedom was raised there was only one possible outcome from all of this – the humans would win or would die trying. It saddens me that we have come to this juncture, but, as you said father, there are no alternatives.

"I will turn the humans back..."

In his mind’s eye…………… The filthy mortals had accomplished more than anyone had suspected, but they had not yet broken the Armies of the Dawn.

"At the expense of releasing this evil on the world? No! What you speak of is an abomination and strictly forbidden."

Mangan quirked a smile. "I will use this strength and then I will deposit it safely back in the shadows."

"Impossible!"

"No father... It has already been done – behold!"

With that, Mangan unsheathed a pitch-black sword and set it on the broad table in the center of the room. It was like any other sword that the Army of the Dawn carried, but something about it radiated danger. It was darker than pitch and seemed to drink in the light.

"This blade was forged in the bowels of the eastern ranges with the aid of those you would call the Drow. I chanced upon one of their kind near the roads to our mines in that district. He seemed shocked that I was able to speak with him, but he was also excited for an opportunity to prove that they had repented for past transgressions. In testament to his wishes he allowed me to ‘connect’ with his spirit and draw upon the magic that would form this blade."

The Council stared at Mangan now with horror etched on their faces. This was high treason, punishable by death. But Mangan thought, and hoped, that this brave act would not be seen as a crime, but as a desperate measure that would bring about peace and the dawn of a new era. His only course now was to press on and make the Council believe... The blade’s song was so sweet and in his mind he was floating.

"In spiritual form I traveled with him to the home of the Drow where I was greeted as an honored guest. And in the short time I was there they shared with me the knowledge they had gained since their imprisonment. In doing so, they imparted with me an affinity for metals and helped me to forge my blade anew.

"This blade can slice through stone as if it were clotted cream. And with each stoke it sings to me. It tells me how to strike, where, and when."

"A terrible blade, my son, but do you understand what you have done....."

The excitement was boiling inside him now. So much had been promised. He could almost taste that sweet ecstacy.

"Terrible is not the word father. If we had a few more of these blades no army could stand before us. Only the light of the sun can destroy her."

"Mangan, listen to me. This thing you carry," Jonas’ hand hovered a few inches from the blade as if he feared to touch it, "it is not natural. Surely you can see this? It is an abomination created by those who would steal your soul if given half a chance."

"Father, don’t you see, they already could have. I went with them blindly and returned to you unharmed and enlightened – whole in body and spirit, and bearing their gifts of good faith."

Silently, Jonas eased hand down to grasp the pommel of that black blade. "A gift of good faith, you say?" Jonas asked as his fingers closed around the hilt.

"Yes father."

He seemed to concentrate momentarily, as if he were testing the air, before speaking. "Then I shall return their gift in kind..."

For a moment Mangan’s excitement welled up inside. He knew his father would listen. They would save his people and their homes together. Waves of euphoria passed through him and he smiled while he glanced around the room. Giddy as he was it was hard to think about why the others weren’t smiling.

Jonas stared at the blade a moment longer and then gestured behind Mangan with his other hand. "Guards, seize him!"

Mangan hadn’t heard the guards, but realized that they must have come to investigate the earlier crash that had surely resonated throughout the keep. Stunned by his father’s commands, Mangan had difficulty registering what was going on. When the realization came, he had no time to react before he was lying face down with his wrists held securely behind him.

Why was it so hard to think... to concentrate?

His father looked down on him with what must have been disgust or pity. "Since you have had dealings with the Drow you are surely as dangerous as one of them. The only acceptable penalty for that is death." He paused. "But, I cannot condemn my own son, so from this day forward I have no son. Your name will be stricken form the records and there will be no history that you ever lived. You are birched and condemned. Should you deign to do so you may ask for poisoned wine in your cell tonight. Otherwise you, and your damned sword will be destroyed at sunrise. The High Council has spoken."

"Here, here..." the voices rang out in agreement around the table.

Tears came to Mangan’s eyes as his father spoke. Where had he erred? Why wouldn’t they listen? The Drow had promised....

"They promised me! Damn you! I am the Bane of Humanity. I can not die! Father!!"

Jonas turned to walk away as the guards gagged their prisoner. Then he paused and glanced over his shoulder whispering, "death comes to us all, may you find peace in the hereafter." It was a catechism for dying soldiers on the field of battle, but Mangan did not hear for the rage of thousands of years of imprisonment drowned-out the one voice that was pleading to his father for forgiveness.

It was strange to realize that Mangan was dead. A part of him had died that day on the road. Then slowly but surely the rest of him had also withered. The last spark that had been Mangan had dwindled when his father looked upon him with…pity? What was left was a Drow.

The mind that was once Mangan faded into the shadows of his own being. He had to save his strength if he was going to drink the poison that night. A last fleeting thought was that he had failed.

 

I couldn’t move. Rivulets of sweat were streaming down my back and my legs were leaden. If my pursuers had known what kind of shape I was in they may not have been so quick to give up the chase, but my retreat had been fast and furious and thankfully there was easier blood to be had.

Standing before that first charge had felt glorious. I had stepped forward to face that shield wall with every ounce of strength and quickness I could muster. For a moment it had been enough. I had felt like a giant on the line. My strokes were sure and strong as I swept shields aside and shattered ribs, crushed knees and hands, and tore out throats. It felt more like clearing brush than fighting for my survival. Everything had slowed dramatically. In my mind’s eye I was looking into the soul of each foe before they fell before me.

Then it grew quite as the archers began to single out my men and the reserve turned to flood into our flanks. As well as my men had battled, I suppose that they all had known it wouldn’t be enough. We came into this field hoping to make a good account of ourselves so that we might buy time for the cavalry to rally around milord and win him free. And we had been told that there was nothing greater than dying gloriously on the field of battle.

But that was before this bloody carnage. If the "battle fever" hadn’t left me shaking after that first charge I may have found the courage to stay, but the enemy was all around and to stay was death. So I gathered in my brothers and sisters that were still standing and we made for the streambed - our only chance for escape.

The remnants of the shield wall were reforming to our rear and for a moment I thought we could grind them all to sausage on the way out, but then the reserve was on us. Some of my brothers turned to unleash their rage flat in the face of the advancing line and some of us stayed to finish what we’d started. There was no honor in cleaving the wounded and crushing smaller men but it was better than standing against insurmountable odds and giving my life away.

So when the last of the dregs had fallen and I had witnessed many of my brothers spit themselves on advancing pikes, I made for the trees. The few who gave chase must have known they could have run me down, but by the Creator’s grace my legs carried me into the thick undergrowth which veteran soldiers gave pause to enter.

By the time I reached the banks I was lathered, bloodied, and out of options. I gave my breakfast to the river, howled like a raving lunatic and plunged into the freezing water. When we’d forded the river two days ago it didn’t seem much more than a trickle compared to the vastness of the sea, but swimming the current after all that I’d been through nearly finished me.

A mile or so downstream found me crawling and staggering up the bank.

For three years we had been staving off the inevitable. These bloody bastards had decimated every army that had stood before them. It was vain to think that one lord or another might stand before the weight of such a vast but surprisingly well disciplined horde. But one by one we’d done just that.

Years of petty squabbles had hardened borders and crushed any chance of an alliance when the invaders first arrived. Our civilized tribes had known nothing but war for five generations. But our idea of war was parlay, strike arms, ransom, and negotiate. High Lords never came down from their colorful pavilions. It was sell-swords, dogs, and a spattering of young knights who settled these regional disputes. And if the battle should happen to go sour a border might shift or a tribute might be paid. The kind of slaughter we saw this morning was new to us. And as evidenced from the war so far, we were slow learners.

My company had been in the service of the Lord of the Lakes, ser Daniel Wheat, when the first news of invasion reached milord’s great dreadfort. I remember that day so clearly. We’d nearly finished a border patrol, when a rider in Lord Andrew’s livery chanced upon us on his way to seek an audience with ser Daniel.

Our patrol probed him for questions, but apparently what he said made no sense. As far as we could gather, he told the guard captain that the advancing army had come west, over the mountains, and was sweeping aside any whom stood in their way. The numbers he spoke of seemed inconceivable. And crossing the mountains? Everyone knew that only barbaric tribes and uncivilized wildlings lived beyond the eastern ranges. The few who’d cared to venture beyond those peaks said that the mountains went on past the horizon and whoever dared the crossing would surely freeze inside of a thousand leagues.

But here they were, and here I was freezing my tail off. The only sense I could make of the whole darn thing was that we were beaten. All of the lands and titles promised by Lord Andrew were not to be claimed by the likes of us. House Wheat’s reign over these lands for the past 500 years was at a close. It took a lot of willpower not to swim back across and make one last gallant strike at the enemy. But I had the sinking suspicion that I’d drown before I made it back across. Besides I had to find the others.

So, most likely it was going to be hunt, run, and hide for the next couple of months – until we could figure out where to go next. And that meant striking out to the south. There were thousands of leagues between this war and prosperity in the south. And if all else failed there were always ships to take us home.

Home. As I trotted to the south I couldn’t help but think of home. Growing up I’d always dreamed of warring besides men in armor brandishing shiny swords. It was a dream of the Summer Isles, far from the fighting and far from death. We knew fishing and farming. Stories of war came with the trading cogs and became the fantasies of youth. But when the slavers first came we knew no greater terror than our first sight of swords.

Our men were shackled to the oars on the longships (those who were not struck down or fled), mothers and sisters were raped and taken as "spoils of war," and children were stuffed into cargo holds for sale as slaves here in the civilized realm of men. We too were stuffed in cages and neglected for those weeks at sea, but at least we had the sea and the salt in our faces. Many of our people died down in the unrelenting darkness. Mastiffs are a hardier lot though, bred to serve with the Guardians to protect our people. So, most of my brothers and sisters had managed to survive, ready for whatever terrors the slavers were bringing us to face.

For the first few weeks in this new world, these so called "civilized people" would come just to stare at us. They had never seen a Mastiff before. There were legends of the massive dogs that served in the Guardians of the Summer Isles, but our stock was prized beyond even the royal treasury. So it was known that our people would die before they would let outsiders take us away. But now that had all changed and these fools couldn’t even recognize what a rare prize they had captured. We were beasts and curiosities – monsters from across the sea.

Even though their dogs were stocky, quick, and bloodthirsty things, these men had the audacity to call us "devils" and "hellspawn" just because we were so huge. And apparently to confirm the proclamations of our ferocity (that were shouted out on street corners by our captors) we were forced to kill sickly livestock as entertainment for the aristocrats. And when that wasn’t enough they fed us criminals in the mockery they called a trial by combat. When we killed the crowd threw stones at us and called us demons, and we weren’t quick enough to kill we were beaten senseless or starved by our captors. I began to think we were in a hell on earth. But, like most false hells, the hand of civilized man had made ours’.

Our reputation eventually led us to be drawn to the "games." These were crude displays of violence that took place in fighting pits carved out of earth and bounded by wooden fences. None of us really understood the reason this was mistaken as entertainment, but we understood the rules well enough – there were none. And it made no difference whether it was man versus dog, or dog versus dog, when they pitted us against a foe with no alternative but to kill or be killed we did what it took to survive. Before I was even eight months old I’d killed men by dashing their heads against wood posts, by tearing out throats, and by spilling their entrails onto the dusty earth. I was disgusted by my own nature and was terrified at the same time. Their dogs had not such compunctions – these pit dogs seemed to kill indiscriminantly, as if programmed to do so by birth. It made little difference in the end, however, because at three to one odds the bigger dog was still only two bites from evening-up the field. And before long we became very good at what we did - so good, in fact, that many of the yearlings and new pups were saved from the games and sold to some rich northern trader as valuable commodities.

That is where my story begins. Barely old enough to remember the Summer Isles and too large and "fierce-looking" to be kept as a curiosity in the menageries or as a cart-puller in the port districts, I was to become a dog of war.

We were paraded throughout the northern realms as fearless fighters, ruthless killers, and utterly devoted to whoever paid the trader enough gold. We hunted deer, pulled rock-laden carts, battled packs of hounds, and were heralded for our prowess in things I’d never even heard of or thought to do. And one-by-one we were given away for future considerations or sold as novelties until the rich lord of the dreadfort was keen enough to recognize our value. In exchange for sparing the trader the cost of feeding fifty-four Mastiffs through the long winter our new master accepted his fealty and granted him a prime piece of farmland with a contract for sixty bushels of grain. To milord it was adequate recompense for months of our mistreatment and an offer the trader could not resist. And to add insult to injury, milord decreed that the trader’s eldest son would be considered for the position of kennel-master until such time that an adequate replacement could be found, or until he was executed for not being up to the job. This was to be the precedent for our treatment.

Lord Daniel treated us fairly if not kindly. We were property, purchased to augment an army, and groomed to be obedient, lethal fighting machines. We were treated accordingly – feared, heralded, and not completely trusted. But, in a little over two years our company had grown from fifty-four to over one hundred and seventy under the close eye of Daniel’s master-at-arms.

As our brood grew so did our purpose. Most officers had become attached to one or more of the larger males and now a dog handler was assigned to each battalion. We were trained to hunt, track, send and retrieve messages, guard encampments, and fight alongside our masters. On campaigns we hauled supplies in light carts and scouted ahead for the war parties. We were even elevated in status when a Mastiff paw was inscribed over the crossed-hatchings in the house coat of arms.

I believed we had found a new home and the dreams of my youth were coming true.

But after today those dreams all ended. My lord was most likely dead and I was free. Free to make my own choices, free to live or die as I pleased and free to make my way home, if my destiny saw fit to make it so.

But what would I be to my people even if I found a way home? A long lost son? A traitor who’d taken up the ways of our enemies? Or would they even recognize me as one of their own? Such thoughts made this cold trek even colder. So I tamped them down and pushed them to the back of my head as I set about finding my way out of this mess.

Those of my brothers and sisters who’d managed to survive would be somewhere across the river by now. The stream had been less than a mile from the fighting. I’d traveled about a mile downstream with the current. Then I’d half run, half staggered another three miles through the woods heading roughly to the south. So I might be around five miles from where I’d last seen a friendly face. Well out of range of any stragglers of the melee, but a short jaunt for any outriders who might be scouting ahead for the next day’s march. That meant that if I wanted to come out of this alive it was another eight to ten miles with my head low and my tail tucked between my legs if I wanted to win my freedom. So there was nothing for it but to cut loose another mournful wail and hope that only the keen of hearing could track me down.

The place I’d come to seemed like as good a place to rest as any. A stand of evergreens grew at the edge of the shadows cast by a large stone outcropping and formed a barrier to cut some of the wind. Under my paws and clinging around the wiry shrubbery was an ample blanket of soft brown pine needles. And hard against the rocks was the remnants of some recent tree-fall. Though her branches were all twisted and shattered the hollow formed between the smooth granite and the splintered trunk was an inviting shelter that would keep out all but the heaviest rains. Of all of the would-be shelters in a forest this size this one looked to be a pretty solid choice. So I decided that here was as good a place to wait as any.

I’d done a fair job of marking my trail in between licking my wounds and scanning the trees. So it was only a matter of time before the others began to trickle in. Giant Lokey, a silver brindle almost 4 feet at the shoulders and half as thick, was the first scent I caught. Head low and eyes wary he entered the clearing almost in my very tracks. He still wore the belted harness and spiked collar that was fashioned for him the day he pulled 10 men in a cart at a tourney last spring. There was no fiercer warrior among us and so I was almost surprised to see that he’d followed me. He acknowledged me with a low whimper and then eased himself to the forest floor to catch his breath.

"Have you seen any of the others, Indy?"

"No, I just got here myself. I think I called out for everyone to head to the river, but I’m not sure if they heard me, and I didn’t stick around to find out. I’m half surprised to see you here," I exclaimed.

"After that mess I’m surprised I’m alive. Hera was on my heels and a few of the others were close behind. But a lot of them are dead. We need to move on if we don’t want to join them."

"Rest easy big fellow. If we don’t see them soon, I’ll go have a look. Right now I want you to tend to your wounds and get your strength back. We’re gonna need all we’ve got to get out of here alive."

Hera came bounding in next. More of a chocolate than a fawn and not nearly the size of Lokey, Hera was a warrior bitch with deceptive quickness and cunning. As a rule Mastiffs aren’t known to fly through the air or to make a great show of dodging thrusts like native dogs, but Hera more than made up for a lack of brute strength with moves like a great cat. She would fox you into attacking low then brush aside your efforts (often using your strength to her advantage) and explode at your throat or other vulnerable areas. I’d seen her claim at least three throats in the fighting this morning. Right at her heels was Bouncer. Not huge and not quick, but tireless, is the probably best way to describe Bouncer. As a pup he was just shifty enough to never get tangled up and pinned down and he was easily the most patient and tenacious of all of us. Having his energy added to the group was a real blessing.

"Indy... " Hera said once she caught her breath, "after the river I thought you were a goner. You’re out of shape big guy."

Bouncer jumped in, "Hera, knock it off." Looking around he asked, "Where’s Max? When you guys bolted for the river the old fool turned towards the reserve and sent everyone still standing after you. He said he’d pick us up once we were all clear."

If Maximillian was still alive.... "He’s got until sunrise tomorrow and then we’re heading into the mountains. We should be able to stay clear until then." Turning to the big brindle I barked out, "Lokey, if you’re able we need a scout out there on the riverside." And for the pups, "You two stay close and keep quiet."

After Bouncer and Hera, hours went by without so much as a bird venturing into the clearing. Then there was a low coughing bark followed by some telltale rustling through the leaves and underbrush. As announced, Phallus straggled in, followed by Sasha and Chezavok, and eventually Tannis with a seriously wounded Orion. Phallus, the tall, lanky silver, that loved to stir-up trouble was carrying his right front leg with a pretty good limp and it looked like something was wrong with one of his eyes. Sasha and Chezavok, bright red and dark black, looked weary, but well enough and ready to fight or flee. And Tannis, nearly identical to Sasha, but leaner and much quicker was carefully tending to a huge wound in stocky little Orion’s left hindquarter while he whimpered and stumbled along. It was more than I had hoped for but sickening at the same time to think of what must have become of the others.

Everyone took their turns tending to Orion and Phallus. They had stayed behind to try and fight back the reserve. Though it seemed an admirable deed, I couldn’t really decide if it was courage or folly. Of the twenty-odd who’d thrown themselves against the advancing line only these four came out alive, and they were all wounded. And to what end? Maybe half-again their number in casualties among the human foes and a crushing defeat to our side.

The thing that I couldn’t understand was that humans were merciful once defeat was acknowledged – to other humans. But, the dogs are always just put-down. There is no suing for peace or swearing of fealty for dogs. Horses, men, and even the meaner things like weapons and armor are consumed by the victorious and brought into the fold. We were just slaughtered. I’m not sure the others understood this, and I’m not sure they understood that our human "masters" probably wouldn’t even raise a finger in our defense

Max and I had seen this on the trade routes. When we were pitted against insurmountable odds in consequence to the vanity of our masters or a subdued hatred from the aristocracy, those humans who had befriended us would bless us for the upcoming fight but would turn their back when the killing began. Clearly on this side of the narrow sea we were "just dogs" – less than human, incapable of rational thought, and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Yes, as much as I wanted to wait for all of my brothers and sisters, I knew that time was running short. If we wanted to get clear of the fighting we had to move soon, and we had to deliberately put as much distance between ourselves and any man if we wanted to make it out of here alive.

Before I could set in motion any plans, however, Max came bursting into the clearing followed by Lokey and Patton. The two grizzled old veterans and the humungous brindle padded into the clearing with a grim silence that had me looking around for danger. Max was a well-proportioned fawn with traces of white on his muzzle and more than a few scars adorning his coat. He was a veteran of numerous campaigns, the eldest among the wardogs, and our leader, with enough guile, swagger, and temper that anyone thinking to oppose him was quickly dissuaded. As his eyes swept across each of us I could see tails dropping, heads lowering, gazes breaking, and mouths quickly closing as their owners came to attention. With the rest of the survivors there had been a great deal of tail wagging and affection. With Max it was all servility and submission. He commanded that kind of respect even more than our human masters. They didn’t have that way of knowing like Max. The others said he could look into your soul. I knew that he could read any nuance or any gesture, and that he could scent anxiety, contentment, and aggression better than ten dogs half his age. If there was a monarch among Mastiffs it was Max... paws down.

Max eased himself down on his haunches as Lokey joined Hera and Patton took up position to the leader’s right. With one last glance around him Max began, "I fear I have grim news..."

 

 

"As you know the battle did not go well, at all. Of the four battalions who took the field today, three were enveloped and crushed. We managed to hold the flanks, thanks to Indy and a number of you, and in doing so we spared at least half of the fourth."

You could see the spirits of everyone rise with each word out of the old warriors mouth. If anything, I felt a little better about my actions, but far from vindicated for my cowardice. Calling attention to the flanking move and holding my ground was instinctive more than anything, and it had taken no great act to strike down unarmored archers before they could take position.

"But I fear that is the extent of the good news. From what I could tell Lord Daniel was taken when a cavalry charge plowed right into their line of retreat. So even though word of this battle will get back to the castle, it’s doubtful that there will be much of a defense. Furthermore, from the best of my knowledge this was just an advance party we met today. The main body is a day or so to the north.

"The bottom line is that the Lakes will fall inside of ten days no matter what we do. So in that regard our options are somewhat limited. We can fight and die – to little end. Or we can flee and live to fight another day."

"In truth, our brethren are all but lost, but, we have a pretty good opportunity here if we have the sense to take it. With all of the opposition looking south and pursuing the remnants of our forces we stand a pretty solid chance of skirting the river and chasing it upstream into the mountains. From there we can cross over and make our way south.

"I would not presume that any of you would follow me blindly. But in reality that is all I have to offer. I don’t know where we are going or what destiny we may face I only know that to stay here means death as surely as the sun will rise on the morrow. If we wish to see that sunrise my instinct says that we must move quickly.

"For those who wish to stay.... I will mark the trail for two days. After that I cannot promise anything. You can stay and search for any others and then try to catch up before we strike out into the mountains or you can stay here and die for all I care. It is up to you. I leave at sunset. Welcome to your first day of freedom."

At that Max rose and sauntered over to a large pile of leaves and gingerly eased onto his side. Old age and countless wounds seemed to have finally taken their tally on the old fellow.

Patton inclined his head to Max and then padded over to me. "Indy, it’s good to see you made it out of there. When that first charge fell on us I wasn’t sure you’d have the sense to make it out alive. Humph... for some reason Max was pretty sure about it though."

Patton was another black, like Chezavock. He wasn’t as ancient as old Max, but a veteran of numerous campaigns, all the same. And like Max and I, Patton was raised in the gaming pits. As a result, his eyes drained yellow puss and his fur was splotchy from scars and never-quite-healed wounds.

"What do you mean?"

"Hmmm.... When the van caved I tried to rally everyone and drive through the advance. Then Max grabbed my attention and showed me that you were holding the left flank. Ha! You’d think I was some crazy pup. First I wanted to run forward then I wanted to run over and help you. I wanted to go anywhere except where I was.

"That was when Max settled us down and directed the retreat. He said to make for the river and that he’d see to the dogs on the flank. We thought he was giving his life away to get us out of there and when I said as much he gave me the most curious look and said ‘Indy has got a good head, we’ll see him later, I’m not sure about the others though.’

"So six dog set out to cross the river and I followed Max over to get your group out of trouble. By the time we got there you owned the flank and some of the pups were turning to take on the reserve. We turned the ones we could catch and found out that you’d already told them to re-group across the river. Max nudged them along, smiled and nodded at me, and then went after the others.

"We couldn’t get to the fighting quick enough and so we saw our brothers and sisters dead and dying. With that we stopped short, surveyed the field briefly and saw that you were clear, then headed out after that first group."

"Where are they?"

"When we got back to the river we couldn’t find any trace of the others. I crossed the water to look and Max stayed as long as he could. The only tracks we could find were those that led us here. It seemed to be asking a lot of the Creator to find all of you here. But, it was enough of a blessing to find your group. I guess the others must have ran into trouble before they made it to the river."

"Who was....?"

"It’s probably best to forget about them and think of what lies ahead. They’re probably still on the wrong side of the river and if that’s the case there’s nothing we can do."

"Patton, of course you’re right, but shouldn’t..?"

"If you don’t want to listen to me then do what you think is best. I’m only telling you what Max wanted me too."

With that Patton walked over to check on Orion and when I glanced Max’s way his head raised to make eye-contact before settling back to the forest floor. If I wasn’t mistaken there was a look of ‘what are you waiting for’ in his eyes. Max knew me too well

My choices were to go back into the pit and see if my friends were still alive or to wait here and trust that some yearlings had the wherewithal to track our retreat and re-group with us in the mountains. Some choice!

 

I wasn’t resigned in my decision, but it seemed pretty hopeless. If Max hadn’t used Patton to single me out I’d have suggested that all of us go back and look for the others and then all of us would head into the mountains together. But Max clearly had his reasons and they were probably good ones, seeing as the old rascal had more experience than all of us put together. Besides, little Orion probably wasn’t up to any more walking than was strictly necessary.

Three hours to sunset meant that there was just enough time to get well and truly separated before the others headed-out. So if I was going to be across the river when everyone else was tracking it upstream into the mountains I wasn’t going alone and that meant I had to talk to Hera. Orion and Phallus were out of the question with their injuries. Max and Patton were too valuable to the group. Lokey was the only healthy muscle we had left. And Sasha, Chezavok, and Tannis weren’t nearly as adept at hunting as Hera was.

As I wandered over to Hera she rose to her haunches and cocked her head to one side. Apparently I had the look of a dog on a mission and she was ready for it. I just doubt she was ready for what I was going to purpose. So when I got over there I just came out with it.

"Hera, as much as I hate to do it I need you to join me on a little mission."

"Did Patton tell you where they were headed?"

"What?...... Am I that transparent?"

"No, but you’re not the kind to leave your friends behind either."

"Oh really....."

"Indy, despite what you might think, nothing you did today was even close to cowardice. You showed better judgement than anyone and managed to keep your wits about you when the heat of battle had the rest of us running around like a pack of rabid lunatics.

"And no one blames you or calls you coward for recognizing the obvious and directing a retreat when some crazy fools charged to their deaths. I’m just sad I was one of those fools. If you hadn’t spoke-up when you did we’d all be dead.

"So, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Heck I saw you kill at least ten men! If that’s not making a good ‘account of yourself’ then I don’t know what is."

"Alright, alright. I get your point. Now do you want to go or what?" She was very good at getting under my skin, and it took all of the will power I could muster not to let the irritation show

"If you don’t know already know the answer to that than I’ll spare you from embarrassing yourself with the next question. Yes I’ll go. And yes I know that means we might not be able to re-group with the others, for quite a while. Now, you answer my question - did Patton tell you where they were headed?" She managed to say all of that with the same innocent half-cocked stare of hers.

"Umm... no. I mean, he just said that they were headed to the river when the fighting was breaking up in the van. That’s when they came over and got you guys."

"Ok, so we cross the river and dry off while the sun is setting, and then make our way into that mess to see if we can figure out where they went?"

"My thoughts exactly."

"Indy, I don’t know what you’d do without me."

Me neither, Hera, I thought, me neither. So I better just make sure nothing happens to you.

After a few quick licks at Orion and Phallus and some parting words to the rest of our friends, Hera and I set off to see if anyone else had managed to survive.

 

If Indy managed to find the others it would give him that much more leverage with this bunch. Besides, this was the kind of test he needed to unknowingly legitimize his claim as my successor. My time was running out, and these kids needed someone to look up to, especially after....

"Max, I followed them as far as the river. Are you sure this is wise?"

"I’m not sure about anything my old friend. But, if anyone can find the others it’s Indy and that little wilddog Hera."

"Finding the others is not what I’m worried about..."

"I know Patton, but, the boy has got a good head on his shoulders, and if he has the sense to use it he should be able to evade any trouble. We had best be going ourselves. Alert the others."

As Patton bowed his head and set about assigning tasks, I couldn’t help but wonder if Indy would have the same reception from the crusty old veteran. Patton was very set in his ways. Fortunately his ways included listening to what I had to say. It was difficult to foresee if Patton would listen to Indy. Perhaps I could arrange for a little demonstration of Indy’s leadership. Later, later.

For now it was rally the troops and prepare them for the long night ahead. And I had to figure out how I was going to make it through the day. Before we were free of that last charge I took a good shot in the ribs and it felt like a few were broken. Broken ribs weren’t anything new, but coughing up blood was. My limbs were tingling and my vision was fading in and out, but this wasn’t the time to show any weakness, I had to get these pups into the mountains.

 

"Hera, quiet now....."

After crossing the river it didn’t take long to find the remnants of the human army. There were bodies and implements strewn everywhere. The camp followers were already making their way through the field, stripping the horses and men and praising their mangy curs as they tore apart corpses. I knew it was only a matter of time before they set about making camp. If we stayed low for a couple of more hours we could cover the field in the night and hopefully pick-up a scent of our brothers and sisters. Their scents would fade in time, but with so much fear, sweat, and blood it should be possible to track them for at least another day.

Hera and I had taken up a position just inside of the underbrush. It was far enough away to avoid notice but close enough to watch for any sign of survivors. After a careful circuit of the area we’d seen several of our brothers and sisters bodies riddled with arrows and barely distinguishable. We even saw one of our bloodied males tethered to a stake where passing soldiers could hurl stones and spit curses at him.

"So much for the glories of war," Hera hissed as she looked out across the carnage.

"Yes, but we are finished with this business now. Whether we find the others or not I am done with the meddling of men." Serving men was all we had known, but as I said the words I knew it was true. "Come on, it’s time."

We ghosted silently out of the bushes as the last rays of sunlight vanished from the field. At night men retreated to their fires and cloth houses so there would be little trouble if we kept to the darkness. That meant finding a trail before dawn. Given the lay of the land we would be hard pressed to search everywhere, but we came into this knowing it would take some degree of luck if we were to find them.

As the moon tracked across the sky we were getting more and more frustrated with false trails and dead ends. The smells of blood, fear, and death were everywhere. Our fruitless efforts became more frantic as dawn approached. Several times we spirited away just before the barking camp dogs alerted their men to our presence. It was after the third such escape that a familiar scent floated across our track on the wind. It was the scent of Mastiffs. The strong scent of fear and anger was clinging hard to the grass and leaves. And more importantly there were lots of tracks. The ground was pretty chewed-up so it was hard to discern how many dogs were in the pack, but it looked like at least four or five dogs had managed to stick together and make a bid for freedom. These had to be Max’s dogs.

I directed Hera to scout ahead along the trail as I did my best to break up any trace of our passing and mask the trail to any others that might give chase. It was doubtful we would be followed but who knew the heart of a man?

About five hundred paces into the trees it looked like the pack had stopped for a minute before breaking to the north, paralleling the river. That’s where I found Hera.

"It’s pretty clear why we haven’t been able to re-group with these dogs. They were on the right flank of our line this morning and when the battle broke Max sent them to the river before he turned south to gather us in. To avoid the battle and cross the stream they had to push north – the opposite direction we headed – and if they still had their wits about them, they probably looked for a more reasonable place to cross, instead of plunging headfirst into the water like some of us."

"Yeah..."

"So waddah ya think... Do we double back for Max and the rest or track this group and try to find the others further on?"

"Max said they were going to trace the river up-stream, so I say we keep on the way we’re headed. Then once we find this group I’m willing to bet that if we miss Max it won’t be by far. Orion was pretty messed up, so they’ve gotta be going pretty slow."

 

 

Hera and I followed the tracks for another mile or so until we were certain of the course. But when it was evident that we were too tired go on we climbed to a secure position on a nearby ridge to get some rest. We chose not to keep a watch so that both of us would be rested enough to continue our pursuit in a few hours. My sleep was not at all restful.

As I surveyed the field I noticed that my breath was billowing out in a rolling cloud of white mist that dissipated a few feet from my muzzle. The cold morning air suited my mood well. It was a good day to die.

The first sign of the enemy was the wailing of horns spread out before us. Then several black-mailed horsemen came out of the trees and began gesturing as if they were directing the placement of their troops. Footmen soon flooded the field and lined-up to begin their advance. At five to one odds it was pretty clear where this battle was headed.

The faces of the lost passed before me as I watched the advancing line draw ever closer. For some reason I felt as though this had all happened before. The battle leader called-out and with the creak of saddle leather and the clamor of chain and metal we set forth to meet our foes.

Then the battle was all around us. Friend and foe alike were gutted and torn all around. Heat, smoke, and death were all that I was aware of. But stepping away from my own body I saw something that seemed most peculiar. These men weren’t advancing with the conquerors’ rage or the defenders’ grim determination, for the first time I saw that they looked fearful. But their fear was not from facing Mastiffs, it was directed behind them, radiating from the black riders. In a moment of clarity I saw the face of one of the Riders and those red-eyes pierced my soul and fire seared my body. They were nightmares walking.

With a start I awoke. Hera must have sensed danger, for she too was up and alert, her eyes and ears searching for trouble.

"What is it Indy?"

"Nothing.... a nightmare."

She gave one last look around and then caught my eye. "It is time we move on. There’s something about this place..."

"Death..."

"Yes, I’m cold. Let’s get on with it. Were not going to find the others by lying around all day."

"Right."

A breakfast of cold river-water was hardly enough to get us ready for the long days ahead, but at least it subdued the hunger for the time being. My hope as we set off was that maybe we could scare up a rabbit or a nice fat pheasant on the trail today. But, my thoughts of food soon faded as we set about our task. Within an hour of waking we found evidence that the ones we were following had stopped to make water and empty their bowels. And from the look of it they were about a half-day ahead of us, at most. In their haste, these dogs were leaving a pretty clear trail. It would be easier to catch them running atop the bank where the ground was packed hard, but if we missed them crossing the river we might lose the trail for good. Besides we were making good time and hopefully we would find that they had stopped to rest before too long.

My thoughts were occupied by my dreams, so it was Hera who first noticed what we had stumbled across. The six dogs we were following (it was clear that there were six from the tracks) had abruptly broke apart and from the look of the tracks they were digging deep into the soft ground, tearing at the earth as if they were running at full speed. Hera and I separated to follow the tracks until her whistle brought me over to where she was inspecting the ground. With a smile she motioned to the bare earth, and there set deep in the mud was in unmistakable prints of several large deer.

We looked at each other then took off, tracking more vigorously than we had all morning. And in a couple of hundred yards there were some heavy gouges in the earth and some blood. And another fifty feet on was the remnants of a fresh deer carcass.

Our brothers and sisters had rested here last night and from the look of it they had done pretty well for themselves. There was even some meat left for us to pick off as we inspected the campsite.

 

I pushed the pups as much as I could that first night, yet in truth I had hoped we could have covered more ground. Orion and Phallus were slowing our progress to a crawl despite irrascable old Patton relentlessly pushing them for more speed. It was going to be a race between getting clear and the army sweeping us up. But as far as I could tell there were no alternatives. Leaving the wounded behind was out of the question and resting to heal-up would surely damn us.

Two more days I kept telling myself. Two more days and we’d be clear. Then we could rest up, find food and shelter, and wait for Indy and the others.

"Patton!"

The ragged veteran plodded across the clearing intent on my face. Experience had taught me to remain expressionless but Patton could probably read my scent clear enough that saying what I wanted was being redundant. Nevertheless I went through with the formalities, "ready the troops, we’re moving out."

His furrowed brow wasn’t a protest, just his way of letting me know that I was probably going to hear more than my share of complaining with this order. So, it was time to make sure these pups knew who was in charge.... again.

Rounding on Lokey, I gestured for him to scout ahead. Then I stared down Sasha and Chezavok, where everything seemed to be in order. If that bitch Tannis was going to raise a cry she was on her own.... which was important if I was going to assert myself like I needed to and not give-away the fact I too was hurting inside.

As Patton roused Phallus and Orion I could see Tannis step between my old friend and her brother. "Orion can’t go on and you know it," she exclaimed.

On que Patton let out a low rumbling. But before he could berate Tannis I called-up the deepest growl I could muster and shouldered Patton aside. "Did someone usurp me in the night? Are you now our pack-leader?" I growled and swept a paw across her face. It was just a glancing blow but enough for her to recoil and look to the others for support. There was none.

I swept my gaze past the others then drew myself up to bear down on the little red bitch. "Tannis your brother will die if you remain here. And I will not let you endanger the others anymore than I will let you endanger yourself. This is the way it has to be, and until we are safely in the mountains we press on."

"But he’s so weak... and what about Indy and Hera?"

So it wasn’t a challenge... "We’re all cold, tired, and hungry. If I thought our danger was any less than it is or that we could to afford to stop I’d have directed us to do so long ago. But right now we press on. You must see that there are no alternatives. There is no room for discussion in these matters. Hera and Indy are as much my children as are you and Orion. If we want to survive and if we want to see them again," I glanced at each of them, "then we must work together. This ends here and now. Understood?"

Abashed looks all around were enough of an answer. Pain lanced through my side as I turned away and started the days march. In the past I never would have had to explain myself. I was getting careless. Two more days....

 

 

Reagan bounded through the brush with an aura of excitement for something she’d found while scouting ahead.

"There’s Mastiff scent all around the river bed. I wouldn’t have believed my nose except I also found droppings. There are two of them, a larger male and a female. And it looks like they were just here."

"Where?" Exclaimed Winston, the stocky apricot. "And how did these Mastiffs just suddenly appear?"

"The tracks are down by the water. It looks like they came down from higher ground to get a drink and then headed upstream in quite a rush. My guess is that they passed right by us in the night!"

"Hold on you two," Hooch barked. "Before we go trapsing off hunting for the Creator knows what, I’d like to see these tracks for myself. Besides if they were tracking us, then good sense tells me that when they can’t find the trail going further upstream, they’ll double back to find it again. And they’ve gotta be tracking us."

"I stand with Hooch on this," barked Chief, another large brindle. "If they’ve come this far they were probably tracking us. And it goes to reason that they’d double back before pressing on. Let’s pick-up this trail and then settle down to see if we can scare-up some game. We’re going to need all of our strength if we’re going through with this crazy plan of yours."

"Stand down Chief!" I growled. "I also agree with Hooch on this, but you go too far with those remarks about the plan. We’ve discussed this matter too much already. And I’m sorry that you don’t agree, but the only chance we have to get clear of the fighting is to head into the mountains. Had we fled south to begin with, then there may have been other options, but right now, if we turn back you know as well as I do, that we’d be caught-up inside the enemy’s lines. And don’t think they’ve forgotten the toll we collected in blood,"

"Ho Mitchell! Right you are! And I don’t know about the rest of you louts, but I think it’s a solid plan."

"Thank you Winston." I smiled. "Now let’s get moving."

Winston, Hooch, Reagan, and Chezzie turned towards the river and after a flash of eye-contact at Chief, he too turned to follow the others. I still had my doubts about what we would find, but we were all worn down from the flight of the past two days that a good rest was well deserved. Besides we had to be clear of the fighting by now.

 

"We have to be clear of the fighting by now," I remarked to Hera. "So it should be safe to double back and see if we can pick-up that trail."

"Yeah, but I feel like we’re so close. That, I don’t know, maybe another mile or so and we’d find them. It’s just a feeling..."

"It’s your call. I’m all out of suggestions. We’ve been searching for the trail all morning and there hasn’t been so much as a broken limb to mark their passing, yet alone any tracks. Unless they crossed the river it’s like they just vanished."

It was so frustrating. After three days of tracking we hadn’t gained more than a few hours on the others. So, in a fit of anger I suggested we take the high road - away from the damn trees and thick undergrowth - and press hard until we caught up. In the seven or eight hours we strayed from the river we covered twice as much distance and at the same time we had managed to lose the trail. And from the looks of it we had lost it for good. All morning we weaved back and forth for any sign of a trail and had come up empty. The others had either crossed over, or somehow we had passed them in the night.

"Then I say we rest-up, find a bite to eat, and then set-out down-stream for a while. Like you said, there are no tracks.... so the only way we missed them is that we passed them last night or that they crossed over. If we passed them then we should run into each other soon enough. If they crossed over, then there should be some sign of it, and then we could cross ourselves and follow. Either way it’s better than just pressing on."

"Yeah..."

"Yeah?"

"Alright, alright. It’s just so damn frustrating, you know?"

"So are you big guy, so are you."

 

For three days I had been tethered to the ground. My body was a mess of bruises and cuts brought on by stones and kicks. And though being targeted by rocks and curses wasn’t enough to mask the greater shame of my capture, they cut to the bone nevertheless. Soon each new stone had been enough to drive me into a boiling rage.

But the stones had stopped for nearly a half-day now. The army of men had moved on and in its wake came the dark ones. These beings rode great hairy beasts with large white tusks, and enormous jet-black steeds, with bushy fetlocks and hooves as round as a man’s head. They wore dark gray, almost black, mail and deep hooded cloaks that were chased with silver and there was this rank smell of something unnatural about them. A menacing sight to be sure, but more menacing was the eerie silence. There were only a couple hundred of the dark ones, but their train was teeming with thousands of servants. And everyone went about their business in utter silence.

So it wasn’t surprising that it was in silence that they approached me. One dark hooded creature and a handful of his servants approached from the head of one of their columns. I growled and barked and tried to make the best show of my fierceness in an effort to sell my life for all it was worth. But the dark one came forward, unwavering, with feline grace. At 20 paces it stopped and doffed that deep-set cowl to gaze at me with its dark eyes peering from a sharp, feminine, man-like face. Then, as if some silent judgement had been made, it quickly closed the distance and a clawed gauntlet shot out to strike me full in the muzzle.

My face aflame and my head ringing I reeled back and tried to regain my balance. Too late I realized that the thing had me pinned down with its knee on my neck. Blood was pooling in my eye and I sought desperately to blink it away so that I might stare death down as it called my name.

The dark one removed the cruel gauntlet and placed its icy hand on my head while it began a whispering chant. I could just barely discern that those dark eyes were beginning to glow red before pain shot through my body - searing me to the marrow - and I felt my mind slipping into nothingness. The voice was still there but pain and other sensations were distant and fading. Soon the hollowness of my soul was replaced by a voice commanding me to obey my new masters. I saw now that their cause was just and good and that I should do everything in my power to obey them, completely. It began as a command but as I heard it over and over reverberating in my skull I knew it was true. I came to realize that I had always known it was true. I believed this more than anything and wanted only to serve.

Soon I felt myself rushing back into the world of the living. My new masters had saved me and I had been born again. Their powers were so great. Surely nothing could stand before them.

As I came to I felt my master caressing my head and heard him speaking to a man that his followers were holding. "You see, human, even your beasts are now mine."

"My men will die before they will serve the likes of you, demon," the man spat.

I rose to my feet ready to tear the infidel’s throat out if my master commanded it.

"Oh, you will die, human, all of you. But not today, I think. No, we have a need from you, pathetic though you are. And though you could serve that need dead, it is better served alive. You will command this rabble to serve me and if you do so to my satisfaction I may let you keep that mortal soul, for now. Go and do as I command."

With that my master touched my flank and I growled and tore at my bonds. I wanted to drink this man’s blood and bring his still beating heart to lay at my master’s feet.

The man backed away in horror and his captors roughly dragged him back toward the column.

"Huaad I believe ‘ser Daniel’ thought I was a ‘demon’. Ha! A demon! These creatures are so pathetic, I can’t believe they ever managed to wrest this land from us. Oh well, the reckoning is finally upon them. It’s just too bad they don’t remember why."

"Yes master," replied one of the servants.

"I think it is time for a demonstration of what we demons can do, yes?" His mailed fist grasped another of the servants roughly and the master commanded him, "fill a cart with the dead and bring it too me. And one of you fools release this beast, I have a fondness for his kind of ferocity." The turning to me he asked, "what is your name my pet?"

"My name is Herschel."

 

 

Like Lokey and Hera, Mitchell’s group had thought that Max sacrificed himself to buy their freedom. If our walking out of the trees didn’t surprise them as much as we’d hoped, telling them about Max and the others created quite a stir. Hooch even went as far as to say that they never expected to see any of us alive again. Their world had just expanded from six to eight to seventeen!

It was hard reining in everyone’s desires to go and search for our wounded brothers and sisters, but Hera and I were wiped-out. The only concession I was willing to make was that we needed to cross the river before nightfall. After that I was looking forward to a good day’s rest. Hera couldn’t agree more.

So, just after the sun reached it’s midday height eight Mastiffs plunged into the freezing water and plodded across the river, again. I was sick of being cold and wet. And I was sick of doing what "had to be done." After this crossing I was sleeping, period!

As it turned out I got my wish, all afternoon Hera and I rested while the others divided-up and began ranging north and south in hopes of finding some trace of Max and his dogs. I had protested that there was no way the wounded could have covered this much ground so quickly, but no one wanted to listen. I suppose this boded well in terms of group morale, but it also proved to me that not everyone here was ready to cope with reality. And we were right smack in the middle of reality – where only clear-headed judgements and careful contemplation was likely to get us through. Had I been less fatigued I would have tried to assert myself more, but for now it was probably for the best that I just kept quiet while they felt like they were accomplishing something. For three days they had been burning to do anything other than run for their lives. If searching for the others would give them the satisfaction of "getting something done," then so be it. Working dogs are working dogs, I suppose.

The leaves were thick on this side of the river, and with the sun reflecting off the water and its warmth soaking into my coat I thought for certain that I would finally be able to rest without dreams. So, naturally as I settled-in the only things I could think of were the dreams...

Once again I was on the field of battle, surrounded by my comrades, blowing puffy white mist in the cool morning air and thinking that today was a good day to die. Again we were caught-up in the tide of battle. But this time instead of fighting-off the thousands of men egged on by fear, I was fighting my way through them to something dark and unnatural. And when I finally broke through the carnage there they were. The dark Riders with their glowing eyes and rank scent rode before a legion of dead soldiers and horribly fantastical creatures. As I trotted forth and prepared myself to strike, a clawed hand stretched-out like a great snake and closed around my throat. As I was gasping for breath I felt a terrible cold close in around me. My last thought was that it was strange for this thing to be whispering my name over and over again before it killed me.

"Indy, Indy, wake up."

"Wha...?"

"You were having another nightmare big fellow. I tried to wake you when it started raining but you wouldn’t move, so I decided to go help the others. That was two hours ago and here you are, still asleep. I suppose I’d be whimpering in my dreams too if I was catching-up on all of my lost sleep while my friends were doing all of the work. By the way, did you want me to let you sleep until Max and the rest get here?"

"Huh?"

"We’ve found the others silly. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Get your big butt up. Mitchell found an outcropping on a ridge about a mile from here and Hooch is going to help Max get his dogs up there where it’s warm and safe. You, Lokey, Reagan, Winston, Sasha, and I are supposed to go and scare up some game – as if anything will be out in this crap! Come on!"

"Hang on a sec."

She cocked her head sideways at me and then gave me a nip on the ear.

"Hang on I said!" My muscles burned as a stood up and stretched. Whether it was from the fighting, all of the walking, or just from sleeping outside in the cold and the rain, on thing was for certain: I was not used to this kind of living. I was cold to the bone. Water had soaked through my coat and the leaves I had lain in had turned into an icy bowl filled to the top with rainwater. And now I had to tolerate this little bitch berating me....

"Come on lazy."

"Grrrrrr...." With a couple of good shakes, splattering water everywhere I stepped towards Hera and gave her more than a good nip on her ear.

At that she took a step back and then barreled into me, knocking me sideways. Then before I knew it she was circling behind me and lunging at my neck. I had just enough time to step back and lower my head when I realized my mistake. As I took my eyes off the little vixen she jumped over my back and kicked-out hard with her back feet - planting me firmly on my face, in the mud.

When I got up we were both laughing so hard we could barely talk. I couldn’t believe we were all together again! There was no way a little rain was going to keep my spirits low when seventeen of us were going to camp out under the stars, finally free from the troubles of men.

 

 

Indy and Hera didn’t disappoint, thank the Maker. As the sun set on this third day’s march, despair was slowly creeping into all of us – or at least the despair we carried was finally beginning to manifest itself – to the point that we were beginning to doubt the sanity of our actions. Patton and I had tried every trick in the book to keep the others’ spirits up, but as the hours went by it was getting harder to keep everyone going.

I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered too much, since tomorrow was to be a day of rest, but it was a relief that we found more of our kin – or rather they found us – when we did. The threat of the advancing army was surely less than it had been, but they weren’t the only threat to a bloodied band of dogs in the wilderness. Cold and hunger were as much a threat as anything, not to mention the fact that I’d seen sign of bears and wolves along the trail.

No, there couldn’t have been a better time to be re-united with our friends. When Chief came bounding through the thicket we abruptly came to attention and braced for the worst. Seeing that marvelous black muzzle and hearing the familiar rumbling of a Mastiff was a wonderful feeling. The gasps of relief broke the silence almost at once (we hadn’t realized that everyone was holding their breath until Chief pointed it out later) and we followed that up with yipping and licking no one had ever seen the likes of. It was a celebration of freedom, reunion, and weathering the storm all at once, and a day that was sure to be remembered for quite a while.

As Chief gathered in the rest of his search party I settled the pups down and tried to make certain that they understood that we weren’t out of the woods yet. I had no intention of trying to dampen their spirits I just wanted to make sure we weren’t building our expectations too high. There was a long road ahead, to be sure.

Fortunately things were better than I could have hoped for. The five Mastiffs accompanying Chief were solid, clear-headed Mitchell, salty, good-hearted old Winston, Chezzie, who had whelped several litters, Hooch, a veteran and leader with some hard-earned experience, and Reagan, who always had energy to spare. Chief was a good dog in his own right, though there was talk of his being somewhat of a loner. Then with the news that Hera and Indy were alive and well (albeit a little tired) even I was starting to feel pretty good about how things were turning out.

Phallus and Orion had struggled over the past two days, but all things considered they were none the worse for their wounds. Sasha and Chezavok had proven themselves as resourceful hunters. Lokey and Tannis had pretty much split the scouting details. And Patton was ever vigilant in guarding us. I suppose I was managing all right. Coughing up blood had only lasted through the first night and my ribs were truly starting to feel a little less broken. My vision and concentration were still wavering, but three nights without proper food and rest for a dog my age might have accounted for some of that.

Yes, in more ways than one we were happy to see the others. I just hoped I was still going to be happy after I had heard what Indy had to report and what we were likely to face in the days ahead. But there was time for that later....

When Chief returned with Chezzie he told us that Hooch had found a pretty secure spot for us to rest up and that the others would meet us there. Apparently Reagan, Indy, and Hera were out trying to scare up some game while Winston, Mitchell, and Hooch were clearing the campsite and making things ready for our arrival.

I was pleasantly surprised with the initiative that someone was showing out there, then again, these dogs were scarcely puppies. Half of them had been born while we languished in the gaming pits and some of them – Indy, Hooch, Mitchell, and Chezzie – had even tasted the salt in our homeland. Now, it was easier to imagine how they’d made it out of the carnage on the battlefield in one piece. And if these dogs could make it, perhaps there were others....

 

As the sun faded into evening seventeen Mastiffs made camp within eyeshot of the eastern ranges, just south of the river on a ridge sheltered with pine and leather-leaf. She supposed it was as good a spot as any for their first night in the foothills. Looking out across the canopy of trees below them, Hera could just make out the brightest stars. Even a green pup could tell when bad weather was rolling in. She was getting sick of cold, rain, and hunger.

The past month had been a blur for the youngest pup in the Army of the Lakes. At seven months she had barely begun her training with the soldiers when the call to arms brought her north. Fighting at five or six months was well and good if you were a monster like Indy or Lokey, but Hera barely weighed half as much as the average Mastiff.

She thought she had enough guile and wit to fight and survive on the line that day, but when the fighting began she knew her folly. There was savagery in war, the likes of which she had never seen. Companions that she had often gotten the better of in the practice yards stood like giants on the field. They had been magnificant. She saw Indy battering shields and spears aside before rearing on hind legs to tear a face half-off with a stroke of his paw or to crush an arm or leg with his powerful jaws. Phallus dodged more than he battered and preferred the throat to the face, but he slew with equal fervor. And once she had even seen Lokey throw himself bodily into an advancing group of swordsmen to break them apart before he danced in to finish them off one at a time.

These dogs, more family now then they ever had been, were the only reason that their human companions were not swept aside in the first hour, the first minute, for that matter. She often wondered about that. Why, if they were so great and powerful, did they heed the words of the humans? Surely Indy and the others knew they could have struck out on their own long ago. Why would they have chosen to stay and serve? What had men ever done to deserve their loyalty?

Questions for another day and time perhaps, but she never planned on getting tangled up with them again. Men fought for reasons that were incomprehensible. Instinctively she had tried to assert herself on the other pups for food and dominance, but once the hierarchy was established she had seen no reason to continue fighting. Dogs knew their place in the pack. She was not so sure about men. They seemed to always be at war. In their eyes there was never enough land, or food, or gold. They seemed to live quite comfortably, but whenever there was an opportunity to fight for more they seemed to do so at the drop of a hat.

No, Hera was happy where she was and who she was here with. Far from man and far from senseless fighting, the cold, the rain, and the hunger didn’t seem all that bad. She would make a place for herself in this new pack as she had in her old one.

The sudden absence of noise brought her mind back to the task at hand. In the four days she had spent out under the stars she had gradually become more relaxed to the point that she had learned to take comfort in the harmony of the forest sounds – the crickets chirping, the faint cries of lonesome birds, and even the chittering of mice and other forest rodents. But this silence bespoke of something wrong. There was trouble afoot.

Silently Hera circled the side of the camp she was responsible for. This business of keeping a watch was one trick the humans had taught them that Max intended to keep. And to maintain a solid guard in this foreign place two dogs had drawn the duty this evening. Hera hadn’t known much about Tannis before today, but Indy had assured her that this red vixen could fight, and at two and one-half years she had more than twice Hera’s experience.

As she picked her way carefully through the trees she noticed that the wind was picking-up considerably. If there was something out in the woods tonight it was going to be difficult to pick-up a scent in time to do anything about it. Instinct told her to go and wake the others. An upbraiding for lost sleep was much better than being caught unawares. And if she lost face with the pack then so be it. Failing to keep a good watch could get them killed or worse.

Just as she had made up her mind to go and rouse the others Tannis ghosted out of the shadows.

"There’s something out there. About a half-mile towards the stream, as near as I could tell"

"But how??"

"An owl. She tore out of the trees all frustrated like she had just been about ready to eat a fat mouse when something spooked it."

"Should we wake the others?"

"No, Max knew something was up even before the owl..."

"Max is awake?"

"You don’t get to be as old as Max by sleeping with both eyes closed. And he wasn’t the only one up and about. Your boyfriend and the big black one were arguing over who should go out there. Ha! It took one growl from Max to set them straight then he looked at me and said it was the watch’s job."

Tannis raised her muzzle for one last sniff then looked at me and asked, "are you ready to go hunting sister?"

 

Now Baaky Jandig Gyyki wasn’t your run-of-the-mill gnome. He’d been raised by goblins for the most part and didn’t care much for cities or machines, or other gnomes. And this business of scouting on the busy-bodies wasn’t much to his liking either. But he owed some folks a favor or two, and it didn’t get much better than sleeping out under the stars.

Skinny as a rail and four feet tall made it pretty easy for Baaky to go masquerading as a human child when the mood struck him. Except for the times he forgot to shave his whiskers that is, and except for the times he got too close. No, there was no mistaking a gnome for a little boy unless the streets were dark and his cloak was wrapped tight in preparation for a little debauchery.

But often enough he roamed the human cities and strolled through their camps - mostly because humans always had loose coin lying about. The nimble of thought and finger just had to seek out the right opportunities if they wanted to line their pockets with a little silver and gold.

The latest bounty wasn’t gold, unfortunately. It was news. Baaky thought that it was time for another beating when that Dwarven jailer had pulled him out of his cell a month gone by. But when he was marched right up to their uppity-up, short, fat, smelly, hairy, bearded, lord this or that Baaky had been pleasantly surprised to hear that they were letting him go. After that little trouble with the Dwarven lady in the bathhouse he thought surely his goose was cooked.

Now he was some royal, official, something or other on the personal business of lord this or that to find out what the mopey, dopey slow-wits were up to. "How I’ve risen in the world!" Baaky chuckled to himself.

Yes, it seemed the mopey dopies had crossed swords with some new army that came across the mountains, and instead of risking their precious hides the Dwarves had sent good old Baaky into the fire. He supposed a pardon wasn’t something you should take too lightly, so he had agreed. But when the uppity-ups heard what Baaky had to tell them he wasn’t so sure they’d believe...

With a great deal of rustling and screaming a big brown owl disrupted Baaky’s thoughts as it broke into the night sky. More than once he wished he’d been born with wings. He loved to imagine himself as the great winged gnome that swooped in to steal jewels, pies, and the virtues of many a maid. Not that he wanted to be legendary, mind you. Legends had a way of being dead well before they became bitter old men. It was just a fancy he had. He’d love to soar the skies and poop on the well-to-do after he robbed them blind.

Coming back to reality, the cold, wet, gnome paused for a moment to study the tracks that seemed thicker than they had for days. He didn’t know why he was following the ghastly beasts. They surely had no news of the Black Rabbit, being Dwarven dogs like they were. But Baaky didn’t have anything better to do, and if these dogs knew a quicker way back to the stone heads, then he was going to follow them to it. He just had trouble understanding why the boulder butts had sent their cart dogs instead of coming their ownselves. Heck if Baaky knew their damnable dogs were going to be at this battle he’d have asked the gravel guts for a ride! Oh, they probably would have refused, but at least they could have warned him about what was out there.

"Never trust a Stone Head I always say. And if you have to lay with one of their hairy women make sure you’re never drunk enough to let them be on top!"

As best as he could tell there had been eight dogs on the other side of the river. Now, if he was counting things rightly there looked to be some seventeen of them. Seventeen Mastiffs to guard him and guide him back to Swerfeblen sounded just about right. A bear or a wolf would think twice about having him some gnome-stew with those big suckers around.

He could see it now... Baaky Jandig Gyyki the royal, official what’s his nuts riding on the back of a big slathering Mastiff to deliver his important news to lord this or that while the maids and the dirt grubbers showered him with praise and adoration.... "A legend in my own time is what I’d be! And let the mole men choke on those apples! Ha!"

Slinging his bow on his back and checking all of the knives he had stowed about his person, Baaky adjusted his rawhide buckler and set to tracking himself some Mastiffs. He figured that the sooner he caught up to them the sooner he was gonna get some sleep.

 

If finding a man cub this deep in the forest seemed strange, that strangeness was pale in comparison to the truth.

As Tannis and I burst into a clearing to catch him unawares, the funny little man laughed out loud while patting his belly. Then of all things he sat down on the forest floor and began rummaging through his pack for a bit of dried meat that he seemed to be offering to us.

And then he began to talk.....

When humans made sounds and gestures we had been trained to respond. And in a sense we were able to communicate with them. But that communication never amounted to anything like this. He sounded just like our brothers and sisters. The sounds and gestures weren’t precisely different than those the humans made, but, for some reason this man was able to put his thoughts in my head. And from what he was saying, or thinking, he understood us as well.

I have heard other dogs talk of being poleaxed on the practice field – where they were hit in the head so hard that they couldn’t think clearly. And though I couldn’t recall being hit in the head, I definitely was having trouble thinking clearly.

"What kind of being are you?" I thought or said, or some combination therein.

"You great slobbering thing, haven’t you ever seen a gnome before?"

"A gnome?"

"Yeah, you know, a gnome - the smarter, handsomer, cleverer, cousin to the Stone Heads. And I’ll have you know that I’m the smartest, cleverest, and handsomest of them all, which is more than I can say about you."

"How is it that you can understand me?"

"How is it that you are so dumb? Can’t you see that I’m cold, wet, and hungry? There are fifteen of your brothers and sisters nearby and I’m ready to get some sleep. So if you want to take me to one of them that has half a brain please do so, otherwise you can step aside and I’ll find them myself. Either way I strongly suggest you dig through these leaves and find where you hid your wits."

Poleaxed again.

The little man was true to his word. One minute we were standing there conversing and the next he was strolling uphill towards the camp. With nothing else to do but stand there and look foolish Tannis and I fell in behind this gnome. And I still wasn’t sure what to make of it all....

Though a Mastiff is bigger and stronger than your average wolf, a wolf has the experience and instinct to put any "domesticated" animal to shame. Just like your average bipedal didn’t stand a chance against a certain gnome who shall remain nameless. But if Baaky were to say one thing good about these buggers, it would be that they did a pretty good job of taking care of themselves out here in the woods.

You see, Baaky wasn’t all that familiar with Dwarven cities, but the few mines he’d pilfered were packed with these damn things. And the ones he’d come up against were more like great snoring beasts rather than implacable watchdogs. Sure they were huge powerful things, but it was rare to find one with half of it’s wits intact. Most of them knew how to pull a cart, where to take a dump, and who belonged in a particular tunnel – and it Baaky’s case, who didn’t. But talking your way past one of the great lumbering things was usually as easy as cutting a purse in a drunken bar fight.

These notions were quickly disabused as Baaky crested the rise.

At first it seemed like he was going to slide right past those sentries and make quick work of letting the others know who was in charge. The sentries seemed eager to let him get on with his plan, but then he came toe to toe with the biggest freaking dog he’d ever seen. He wasn’t really taken aback by the thing’s size (he saved that for later when two more came lumbering out of the shadows that were even bigger!), what really got his attention was the fact that this thing refused him passage.

The old coot, who called himself Max or something, told him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to live to see the light of day he’d best start singing a song about where he’d come from and what he was up to. It gave him the look that brooked no nonsense.

So instead of aggravating the situation Baaky did something he wasn’t particularly accustomed to doing. He told the truth.

If the big slobbering giant had any idea of what Baaky was talking about it seemed that it was taking a long time to sink in. If it hadn’t seemed like this one knew he could talk to gnomes Baaky may have begun to believe the impossible – that these Mastiffs weren’t Dwarven cronies, but were somehow attached to the humans. That is to say he would have believed it if the damnable rock jaws weren’t so particularly protective of their precious Mastiff stock.

Eventually, though, the scraggly old fellow proved that he wasn’t as dim as a guttered-out candle as he motioned the sentries to return to their posts and turned to escort me into his encampment. If they seemed a bit too "military" for your common Mastiff, well, the marble brains were known to surprise you from time to time. So Baaky decided that he wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the granite gizzards had legions of these suckers scattered about the woods. The dwarves were known to be a little bloodthirsty - especially when you stole more of their gems than they could mine, heh, heh, heh.

For days I’d half expected a bear or wolf or even some refugee from the battle to eventually cross our paths. Expecting trouble of that sort seemed the most prudent course of action, but this fellow Max had found was something else...

From his conversation with Max I was able to discern that the little fellow was pretty confused about a great many things. He claimed to be working for our "masters" and thought it unusual that we didn’t recognize what he was about. He also seemed pretty annoyed that we were out here to begin with. Apparently our mutual employers should have thought to send us out together if they were going to send him at all.

Instead of interjecting truth in the conversation or trying to correct him, however, Max just silently agreed and attempted to act hospitable. I’d never seen anyone run roughshod over Max, but this was coming pretty close. But when I thought to comment he gave me a look that reminded me he had things well in hand.

It was pretty amusing really. At first the little fellow seemed to be upbraiding us for all of his troubles, but as he talked his way around to other places and times it seemed like "Stone Heads" and "Dim Wits" were far worse than plain-old Mastiffs. By the time his throat was dry and the sun was peeking over the trees he had eventually convinced himself that all of his troubles came from dealings with women.

Throughout the entire conversation Max had nodded at the right times but said very little. He once told me that sometimes silence was the best weapon. In the right situations it made you seem more knowledgeable than you were. In the right situations it had a way of intimidating others into giving away more than they intended.

I doubt that our guest was intimidated, nevertheless he spoke freely. From what I could piece together there was a group of miners that was concerned about the tide of war spreading to the southwest. Somehow these miners, these Dwarves, had coerced our little fellow into operating as their scout. Why these miners were scouting an army was nearly as puzzling as the fact that they had Mastiffs, and the fact that all of them could communicate with us, after a fashion. I was still having a hard time coming to grips with that.

As the dawn pressed on into morning our guest gave over to conversing and requested asylum within our camp to "get a little shut-eye." Max nodded his ascent offering protection and whatever food we could bring in. The little fellow was surprisingly gracious, offering a low bow and a flourish of his cape, before curling up on the pine needles.

Dimly Mangan remembered trying to convince his guards of their folly. Dimly. Most of what he remembered was a haughtiness akin to a king commanding the lowest horsehandler knee deep in refuse. As spell of silent mirth washed over him he remembered that he had condemned himself a couple hours ago. Why should he care about a few guards - even if they were his friends, had been his friends...

He cackled in silence.

Maybe he was mad. There was comfort in that. The other possibility was too frightening.

Yes, it was just a bit of bad wine. The fighting had driven him to drink more frequently than he had been accustomed. Or was it after that day in the woods? And there had been other things happening. Things that may have once appalled him had become his fancy.

There was something else too. Something just out of reach, but important. Something he should have remembered, something he had to remember.

Not the poison. Never that. There had been a fleeting thought that something was not right and that the only way out was a little poison in his wine. Why that thought had ever occurred to him was beyond reason.

More mad laughter filled the darkness as another thought came to him.

"Father won’t be happy when he finds out what else I’ve been up to. No. I’d say he won’t be very happy at all."

He had spoke true when he told the elders how the blade had sung to him. Those reverberations in his head and the heat coursing through his veins had been rapturous. What deed was soul foul as to taint something so wonderful. What was a little murder in the face of such glory?

His mother and sisters had pleaded with him to stop while he washed his blade in their blood. The song had been so sweet. Hot blood to cool his bloodlust. Cool death to wash away a thousand years of confinement. To sate it. Some things would never be forgiven until the reckoning had been paid. Some things would never be forgiven.

His work was far from complete, but it had begun. He was the seed, but not the only one. There were others who understood. Young, old, male or female, it didn’t matter. The more soles that came to follow the stronger he became. The more souls he had given over to his new masters the more they had become attuned to the living world.

The new masters’ voices were so strong. His voice was not always his own. Whose voice was it? Whose mind?

Soon it would be time to awaken his people. For his people to reign once again. The mortals could not possibly know how they had been carefully manipulated to this end. Mangan had eluded to being set on this course for months. He had been set on this course for decades.

The gifts of his youth drew the attentions of the Drow. The first contact had been the most difficult, but after that it became easier each time.

At first he had listened and played their games. They taught him how to use his gifts and how he could become great like his father. That was how it had begun. The Drow fed on his ambitions and he grew strong.

Soon he brought others into his cause. If they balked or if they threatened to give him away it was a simple matter to deal with. A little sacrifice on their part was a small thing compared to his shame. Besides the Drow had certain demands of the others. Rites that would seal them to the cause oft required the blood of the unbelievers. Blood that would otherwise be wasted on their pathetic existence.

None of that mattered now. He had to remember....

"Oh, yes! Of course."

He laughed so hard it was difficult to breathe.

With careful precision his fingers traced runes in the dusty floor of his cell. Iron bars and marble floors were no barrier to the Drow. It was these damnable spells that held his power at bay. They were supposed to hold his power at bay. With enough patience he could unlock the seals that held him here. Mortal death meant little if his body were but a shell. A part of him still felt comfortable on the other side. Besides if he could free himself once he could manage it again. And there were others that maintained contact with the etheral plane.

Yes, a body was just a vessel for obtaining power. If the next body displeased him he could always find another. Blending another soul into his own was a challenge he rather enjoyed anyway. Mangan had been strong. He still mostly thought of himself as Mangan. That spirit was so strong here in this body. But the core of him was Drow.

 

A mountain is a beautiful thing to view from afar. Those snow-covered, majestic peaks spoke of calm serenity and peaceful solitude. They were a beacon of safety – a paradise that we would reach once we waded through the dark tangled forests of the foothills. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

In the foothills, where snow clung to the shadows, game was easy to scare-up, warmth was huddling next to a litter-mate in the soft pine needles, and water was everywhere. The more we ascended the harder we had to struggle to survive. We woke every morning with a fresh blanket of snow covering the mixed gravel-and-dirt ground. In the days the sun was merciless without the cover of trees – virtually blinding the group. The small comfort of its warmth was overshadowed by the fact that melting snow was much more trecherous than the fresh powdery morning snow. In the nights we were blasted with cold mountain breezes. The top layers of snow froze into a thick icey shell that cut paws and legs with each grudging step. Game went from scarce to non-existant. We quenched our thirst with snow. We prayed to the maker as we labored through the days march. with thinning air.

 

The sweet memory of that day was still as vibrant today as it had been those three hundred years ago.

Everyone had feared the dreaded Drow so much that he had been condemned to one last night solitude before his execution. To imagine that his solitude would be broken by such a tender morsel as her was too much. Those soft doe eyes drank his soul as surely as the dark silky skin and ample bosom had stirred his lusty cravings for the pleasures of the flesh. In one sense he wanted nothing more but to consume her being, in another he wanted to rent that tender skin from her bones. Tearing her apart, plaiting the skin and sucking her marrow was as easily as attractive as possessing her soul. But there was so much more at stake.

Even thinking of placing his carnal desires before those of the clan was nearly enough to drive out what little of his sanity that had remained. Ten thousand years of confinement had done little to perserve that part of him. But a failure here was certainly final. His soul was no longer a part of this place. A tenative hold on that body was the only thing that saved him from oblivian. His soul was like a waif in a tornado. Fragile and fleeting when forced out of its environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grim tally (the butchers bill).

Where we’re headed and what to expect

Max’s group struggles into the mountains.

Indy’s father, the Guardians, and you smelled magic son

Max’s history and his wounds.

Patton talks to me.

We move.

Hunting woes, hunger, cold, the first signs of ancient habitation.

Howling of wolves.

Encountering a bear that smells blood.

Max’s sacrifice, Orion lives.

More cold nights without food.

Tempers in the group.

Establishing a hierarchy.

Bears and salmon at the river.

Fat dumb and happy for days.

Wolves challenge us.

Flight up the mountain.

Dream sequence with wolves.

Finding an old man-cave.

Mangan is trapped forever by his father – sealed with the wardstone.

The old bear dying from his wounds.

Our new home.

Baaky leaves the group.

Scouting around, evidence of an ancient history.

Hunting for deer.

Wolves challenge us..... all or nothing.

The old leader is gone.... foreshadowing a new challenge – a new opportunity.

More scouting.

Dwarven rangers ready to roust the old bear and establish an outpost, more Mastiffs.

Athena and Maguire.

Ho! Mastiffs! How curious it is to find you here...

Its elves that we are here to fight young Mastiff, the immortal creatures who once governed this land and all that you see. A thousand, thousand years ago elven-kind were masters of the land and all whom lived here. Our forefathers, yours and mine, may very well have toiled here together as slaves to the empire. You don’t believe me eh? They were masters of all, and a cruel dominion it was. All lesser beings, gnomes, dwarves, man, and beast lived to serve the immortals. And for thousands of years that was the way it had always been. And the elves wrought a most magnificant kingdom with their magics and on the backs of slaves. But as is true with all things, if you exploit something long enough sooner or later what goes around comes around. You see young Mastiff there was a great revolt. One day my people stood up and said they had had enough. And with the help of our human brothers and sisters.....hmm.... and let’s not forget our gnomish kin, we threw off the yoke’s of our oppressors and drove them from this place. Not a step we took was not soaked in blood, but eventually freedom was ours. In the years that followed we divided this land among our people. The Dwarves were more than happy to take to the mountains. Men claimed the fields and valleys – those who did not travel the seas so that they would never have to see this place again. And the gnomes went wherever adventure or curiosity took them. It is even rumored that some of the gnomes followed their former masters to see what would become of them. But among all of us there was the Covenant. Humans, dwarves, gnomes, and senitent beasts swore an oath in blood and on the blood of our prodigeny that should the elves ever return we would stand together once more to keep them at bay and to drive them back into their frozen wasteland. Yes we know who you are. But do you remember? Do you remember the Covenant? Among our people there is still a great population of your kind. You see, it is a gift the elves gave us to be able to communicate with the dogs whom once pulled our carts and guarded our precious stones and ores. The humans who took your descendants across the narrow sea could not communicate as we are now, so it was decided that some of my descendants would travel with the human Guardians and see to your proper care. Are there not dwarves where you come from? Have you not been taught the words of the Covenant?

Unexpected opportunities.

An interesting proposition.

The dark horde unveiled.

Cut to the battle for the Dreadfort. The defenses looked sound until the horde took the field. Rank on rank of savages. Familiar standards mixed-in. Weeks of warding spells on the walls. The archivist tries to detail the armies of the night. It looks like all hope is lost.

Gnomish engineers and Baaky arrive with the more rangers.

The wardstone is given over to the Covenant.

A resistance is rising to hold back the tidal wave of the dark horde.

A chance to free ser Daniel and the others

Returning to the Lakes

The elves overconfidence open the doors to retake the Dreadfort.

After so many weeks had passed I expected our return to the Dreadfort to spark some joy in myself and the others. But it was with grim determination that we tread on our once-familiar grounds. I suppose that knowing the Riders had passed made it hard to imagine a warm homecoming. But I was determined not to give up all hope until we saw things with our own eyes.

The forest seemed the same as it always had. Old familiar deer runs, cart paths, and farmers crofts littered the country side etc, etc.

Streams of black smoke rose into the sky - sign that the battle had reached the castle. But when the field came into view it looked as if the gates were still intact and that there was still activity on the walls and battlements. And more importantly the standards of Lord Manderly and House Wheat still flew proud over the keep. The bodies of the dead littered the field, but somehow, miraculously, the human forces had managed to keep the elven invaders at bay.

As we approached, the gates slammed shut. Before we could react or even think to consider what was happening we noticed movement all around. The bodies of dead soldiers were rising. "Necromancer...."

Legions of the dead rise to take the field

We played our hand and now the elves know whom they are facing. This makes things more difficult - we no longer have the element of surprise. Our presence should give the creatures pause, however. We have held to the Covenant

Elves on Gryphons meet us with a proposition, not all elves are evil

A great army is marching to meet us. Hundreds of thousands of wildlings, the elven elite forces are gathering to sweep aside the human forces.

The guardians are coming but not in time

The elves seek to free the unnamed – the legend of the wardstone.

The Riders descend on Indy’s group.

Maguire and Athena take the pups and run, the wardstone is on the neck of Indy’s son.

Indy and Hera fight to the end.

A day of mourning and a new ray of hope – the Guardians arrive with the second Covenant.