adventure

Warning: This story contains graphic violence, graphic pre-marital sex, violation of college housing regulations, graphic geekery, multiple dismemberments, impalings, bad language, nudity, drug references, consumption of alcohol, destruction of private property, paganism, theft, arson, slavery, reptile-on-human violence, improper placement of hazardous materials, money laundering, illegal immigration, tax evasion, poor workplace standards, unwed cohabitating couples, kidnapping, assault under color of authority, bearers of false witness, human sacrifice, desecration of religious sites, unsafe work standards and repeated, uncredited film references and/or quotes.



Based on the works of Robert E. Howard and certain roleplaying games falsely accused of Satanic influence. There may be dungeons and/or dragons.




*



“Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of…”



Amanda read the first lines of Jason’s email with an intrigued grin. The thread had already gone on for a few exchanges before she’d gotten to it. She was fairly conscientious about reading personal email at work, even if there was frequently nothing to do at the reception desk.



“As promised,” the email went on, “I will be ready to run game on Thursday night. My summer class load is pretty light so I think this campaign can go the distance on my end. Because this campaign is set in Hyboria, there are several character creation restrictions…”



Hearing the office door open, Amanda fought the urge to close her email. This was her scheduled break, though. The one that she was supposed to be able to take away from her desk. She’d have been glad to leave the desk, if Mark would ever actually cover for her like he was supposed to.



It wasn’t Mark this time, though. It was Karen and Linda, both striding out in heels and flattering skirts. Amanda spared a fleeting moment to wish she could make business casual look that good on herself. She looked up at them and offered a friendly smile.



“Hey, Sarah,” Karen said, “you haven’t had any calls for me, have you?”



“No, not today. Um,” ventured the young receptionist, “it’s Amanda.”



“Oh. Sorry,” Karen frowned, rolling her eyes. “Amanda. I knew that. Anyway, did he call? Anyone call for me?”



“Nope” Amanda repeated, returning to her bright smile. “It’s been quiet today.”



“Do we have anyone using the main conference room before lunch?”



“No,” Amanda shook her head. “Not until one.”



“Okay, well I’m gonna need you to set up the main conference room for a meeting right away,” Karen said. “Mr. Nichols might be coming in, and we really need to make a good impression on him, okay? And try not to talk to him much when he comes in. Just smile and offer him a seat and let me know immediately, okay?”



“You’ve got it,” Amanda said. Being told not to talk to clients was galling (really, what was she going to say that would offend them?), but she ignored it. “Anything else I can do?”



“Oh, I doubt it,” Linda smirked.



“Anyway. We’re going downstairs for just a few minutes,” Karen went on. “But we’ll be right back.”



“I’m on it,” Amanda nodded again, already picking up the phone to summon her boss.



“Thanks, Sarah,” Karen finished as she and Linda turned to walk down the hallway to the elevators. Amanda winced but let it go. Sooner or later Karen–and a few of the other “wealth managers”–would doubtlessly remember her name.



She’d only been working there for five months.



Her break would have to wait. She closed up her email while she relayed the situation to her boss. “I’ll be out to cover in just a minute,” Mark told her gruffly. “Go ahead and get started.”



She was quick about her task. She ignored the beautiful view of Elliott Bay from the conference room window, focusing instead on straightening up the room; apparently the cleaning crew had taken the night off. The table had to be wiped down, and yet the spray cleaner was missing. Amanda quickly headed for the supply cabinet in the women’s restroom.



“…almost wish Mark would still be out there on reception when Nichols gets here,” she heard as she opened the door. “Seriously, couldn’t we hire a prettier receptionist?”



“Clients don’t come here to oggle the receptionist, Karen,” Linda replied dryly. Amanda froze. They were right around the corner, doubtlessly at the mirror. The last thing she wanted was to be caught eavesdropping, but she needed the stupid bottle of 409. “Anyway, it’s not like she’s ugly.”



“No, but don’t you think she could take care of herself better?” Karen frowned audibly. “I’d be in the gym six hours a day if I had a figure like that. And where’d she get her clothes? Penny’s? Does she understand who she’s working for?”



Amanda winced. She wanted to scream. Instead, she forced herself to open the closet–thankfully right next to the door–and retrieve what she needed as stealthily as she could.



“She’s a college student,” Linda said. “How much money do you think she’s going to spend on clothes for a part time job?”



“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we need a real professional. Someone should talk to Mark.”



“Why don’t you talk to Mark?”



“Mark stares at my tits every time I talk to him.”



“Maybe you shouldn’t put them on display like that all the time.”



“And maybe I’ll keep more of my clients if I do.”



Linda grunted something dismissive. If anything, the conversation was just idle banter for her. “Masters in Finance from Duke and it still comes down to wearing a bra one size smaller than you need, huh?”



“Oh, like you’re one to talk.”



Slipping back out again, Amanda hurried to the conference room. The table was soon shining once again, clear enough for Amanda to see her reflection.



She wasn’t fat. No supermodel, but certainly not fat. Nor was the face looking back at her from under very plain black hair an ugly face.



Nor could she remember the last time anyone had asked her out.



Amanda returned to the reception desk. Mark vacated her seat, saying only, “Let me know when it’s time for your lunch,” before he left.



Amanda thought less about lunch and more about hitting the UW gym again. She thought about rearranging her schedule so she could work out five days a week instead of three, and then thought about how much she hated herself for thinking about it. As Karen and Linda passed by the reception desk back to their offices, Amanda forced herself to return their fake smiles and hated herself even more for that, too.



With nothing to be done about it at the moment, she returned to Jason’s email.



“Humans only. No dwarves, no elves, no exceptions.” That was bound to raise arguments from Robbie, but what came next was an even bigger catch. “No Arcane, Divine or Psionic classes. Magic in Hyboria is typically for bad guys, and this is more or less a good guy campaign. Martial characters and Barbarians are fine, though. Bards are negotiable. In this world, ‘civilized’ and ‘sophisticated’ usually just means untrustworthy and evil.”



Glancing down the hallway to the offices beyond, Amanda sighed to herself. “Ain’t that the truth.”



***



“Does an 18 hit?”



“FAILURE!!” bellowed Eric. His tone was both triumphant and accusatory, as if the tower guard’s inability to strike Eric’s character somehow shamefully invalidated its entire existence. As if in agreement, Jason buried his face in his hands and then sank behind the dungeon master’s screen at the end of the dining room table.



“Guard misses the fighter. Alex,” Jason went on, rolling another twenty-sided die, “does a 22 hit your character’s Armor Class?”



“FAILURE!” Alex declared.



“You sound like a man now. I’m so proud, grasshopper,” Eric grinned smugly. Barely old enough to drink himself, Eric was the true veteran of the gaming group. He had been happy to hand off the Dungeon Master’s seat to Jason when he graduated high school, though, as he generally had more time to put interesting games together than Eric did anymore.



Alex rolled his eyes. “Gee, thanks, Dad.”



“How’d you get your AC so high, though?” Eric asked. “Seriously, mine sucks.”



“I got some help on an online forum,” Alex shrugged. “Besides, you get Unarmored Agility for free in this campaign.”



“That only helps if I don’t have any armor,” Eric said.



“You’re wearing armor?” blinked Robbie. “What the hell for? This is Hyboria. The less armor you wear, the safer you are.”



“That makes no sense,” Eric protested.



“We went over this already,” Jason sighed. “You don’t see Conan wearing armor, do you?”



“He does it all the time in the actual books,” Alex noted.



“I’m wearing armor,” Amanda piped up.



“Yeah,” said Carrie. “My rogue is wearing armor, too.”



“That’s different,” Robbie shook his head. “You’re chicks. Armor for you in Hyboria is like bikinis. Chain mail lingerie and whatever.”



Glancing at one another for only a moment, Amanda and Carrie pelted Robbie with dice. “Jason!” Robbie snickered, “tell ‘em I’m not wrong!”



“Yeah, Jason,” Carrie goaded him, “go right ahead. Say I’m wearing chain mail lingerie. Say it and I’ll cut you.”



“That’s it for the bad guys,” Jason moved on, not wanting to test Carrie’s threat. He looked up at the others in the dining room, knowing full well where the next round would lead. There were five miniature adventurers on the map of the sorcerer’s tower in front of the DM’s screen. The minis stood amid a half-dozen Skittles to represent “ordinary” guardsmen, two Hershey’s Kisses that marked the sorcerer’s remaining lieutenants and the mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup that stood in for the sorcerer Bel-Danab himself. “Amanda, you’re up,” Jason noted.



“Um,” Amanda stammered, looking from the map to her character sheet. “Sorry. Um. Okay, I move here,” she said, shifting her warrior maiden closer to the Skittles, “aaand I go for Sweeping Blow.” She rolled her dice and groaned. “Ugh. No way.”



“No hits?”



“That was my only multiple-target attack, too. We really can’t play wizards?” Amanda sighed. “I’m good with wizards!”



“Only if you want to be evil,” Jason shrugged. He leaned forward, grinning at her with a sinister glint in his eye. “Do you wish to journey to Zamora? Vendhya? To demon-haunted Stygia? To read the iron-bound books of Skelos, and talk with unseen creatures in deep wells? Be my guest. You may not like the changes that such experiences make in you.”



“Good paraphrasing Howard,” Alex mumbled. “But you’re totally glossing over things. Hyboria has white magic, too. The alien-elephant guy in ‘Tower of the Elephant’ said so.”



“Oh God, Alex, you read one friggin’ book and you think you know everything. And put away my Monster Manual! That’s not for you.”



Alex shrugged, handing back the book. “I was just checking out the pictures of the ridiculous demon chicks.”



“So you’re saying there are no good wizards in Hyboria at all? Isn’t that a little discriminatory?” Amanda frowned.



“Sounds racist to me,” Robbie said.



“Yeah, well, Jason’s got a history of racial insensitivity,” Alex noted.



“I do not!” Jason protested. “Wizards aren’t a race! They’re a class and you know it!”



“Oh, so it’s class warfare?” Eric pressed. “You’re a communist? Is that it?”



“Don’t you have a class or something tomorrow?” Jason frowned. “It’s your turn now.”



“Nag, nag, nag,” Eric sighed. He moved his mini into position. “Bait and Switch on Bel-Danab, and…crit,” he declared with a grin as the die came up with a natural 20. “Oooh, and I have combat advantage. So that’s max weapon damage plus max sneak attack…32 points.”



“Dead,” Jason said. “Feast upon your kill.” As Eric greedily scooped up the mini peanut butter cup, Jason narrated the action. “It’s as if everyone on the field knew when to look to their master to see his neck opened up right under his chin. He clutches at the mortal wound, falling backward onto the tiled floor. Yet his blood has only barely stained the dirty ground beneath him before the mystic masque falls from his face. This is not the evil sorcerer Bel-Danab at all! It must have been some minor apprentice!”



“That’s not Bel-Danab?” Eric blinked.



“Shh!” Alex hissed, smirking. “Don’t say his name! You’ll summon him!”



“Oh Jesus,” Robbie grumbled, “he’s not fucking Volde–”



Amanda cut him off. “Bel-Danab! Bel-Danab! Bel-Danab!” she called out, waving her hands in the air. “What?” she asked, looking at the others. “We’re here to kill him, anyway.”



“You were that girl in preschool who really did call for Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror with the lights turned out, weren’t you?” Jason asked.



“She totally did,” nodded Carrie. “Amanda, that trick only works if you’re trying to summon Hastur.”



“Anyway,” Jason said, trying to get things back on track, “The lieutenants look at one another, seeing that the dead man is not truly their master. They call out, almost as if they know we meant to wrap up an hour ago, ‘Retreat! Fall back!’”



“Wow,” Eric snorted. “Those are some accommodating guards.”



“Aren’t they?” Jason smirked. “The other guards are clearly going to obey; do you wish to pursue?” His gaze was met with shaking heads. “Okay,” Jason finished, “it’s already pretty late. We should wrap it there.”



“Seriously,” Robbie grinned. “You people need to get the hell out of our apartment. Carrie and I need to go to bed.”



Alex was already packing up. “I’m goin’, I’m goin’,” he said, scooping up his motorcycle helmet and leather jacket.



“Boo,” Amanda pouted. “I wanted to kill Bel-Danab.”



“Keep saying that name,” Alex smirked, “maybe he’ll show up in your bedroom tonight and you can have it out with him there.”



“Ooooh,” she giggled. “If he’s cute, maybe we’ll have something else out. Jason, is he cute?”



“Huh? What? Um, I guess so?” Jason shrugged as he put manuals and dice in his backpack.



“Bel-Danab! Bel-Danab! Oh, take me, Bel-Danab!” Amanda said, fanning herself while she swooned to one side. Strangely, she felt herself shiver.



“Don’t hold back,” Eric chuckled. “Let him know how you really feel.”



“Out, people,” Carrie said. “I need to get to bed. Shoo.”



***



“Thanks for giving me a ride, Eric,” Amanda said, looking out the window of his small, beat-up but entirely functional car. “I really appreciate it.”



“Not a big deal. It’s not like it’s out of my way or anything.” It was true enough; both lived in UW’s adult student housing. “I just need to get some sleep. I’ve still got a final in the morning.”



“Yeah. Sorry for that, too…I mean dragging things out earlier. I know people wanted to go. I just get having a good time with you all and I don’t want to go home. Work was crappy today and I’m not looking forward to going back. It’s nice to have an escape for a little while.”



“I know what you mean. I’ll be shocked if I can get any sleep tonight anyway. My roommates are all in party mode for the end of the semester already. All they want to do is get drunk.”



Amanda snorted. “Mine just get wasted, too. Kinda sucks. I was happy to get away from my crazy foster parents, and so instead now I get to live with stoners.”



“What happened at work?” Eric asked curiously as he parked outside her building.



“Oh, just…I got called sloppy and fat behind my back by women who are prettier and more successful than I’ll ever be. Got treated like I don’t know how to do my job, too.”



“Damn. Amanda, you know that’s not true, right?”



She shrugged. “Still. Sucks to hear people talk like that.”



“It does, and it’s bullshit. I think you’re awesome and I know you better than they do. Look, some people just never grow out of high school, you know?”



“Yeah. Well. Here we are still playing the same games, right?”



“No, here we are still hanging out with friends doing whatever we think is fun.”



“I guess. Anyway, I didn’t mean to dump on you. It’s nothing new. I’m not gonna let it get me down. Not long, anyway. Thanks for the ride,” she said, getting out.



Eric followed. “Hey, let me walk you to your room, okay?”



The offer stopped her. “Um. Pretty sure I’m safe.”



“I know, just…” he shrugged again. “Are you telling me to go away?”



“No,” Amanda smiled. The prospect of her roommates seeing a guy walk her to her room made her blush. That would be kind of funny. By now, they’d probably have beer goggles or the stoner equivalent. “Okay. Come on.”



Eric walked with her, wondering whether he should hold out his arm or not. He opted not to make it weird. Hearing about her treatment at work made him bristle, but there was nothing to be done about those people now. He could at least remind her that she had friends.



The foyer was littered with beer cans, discarded notebooks and the remnants of a piñata. The elevator was occupied by a couple sitting in one corner, lips locked and clothing disheveled. Amanda and Eric glanced at one another with slightly embarrassed grins, but said nothing until they left the pair once more.



“Two more years of the greatest time of my life,” Amanda chuckled ruefully.



“What?” Eric asked. “You don’t want to spend Friday night in a pile of foreplay in the elevator?”



“Actually, I wouldn’t mind,” she admitted. “Anyway. Thanks for giving me a lift. I’ll see you next week. We’ll get that dirty Bel-Danab yet.”



“I thought you wanted to be gotten?”



She laughed. “Oh. Right.” She threw her arms in front of her still-closed door. “Bel-Danab, Bel-Danab, take me, baby, Bel-Danab.”



Again, Amanda shivered, but other than that nothing much happened. She noticed, though, that there was a green light coming from under the door, along with a strange smell. “Ugh. Yup. Stonerville, WA, once again.”



“You could maybe crash at my place…?” Eric thought aloud.



“No, I’m good. Thanks,” Amanda said. She pulled out her key and opened her door.



Emerald light and thick smoke greeted her, swirling from a vortex in the center of the living room. Amanda and Eric both looked on in awe. They had but a moment to register that it couldn’t have been anything natural.



Then the tentacle, green and thick and covered in warts and boils, burst with lightning quickness from the center of the vortex. It wrapped itself around Amanda’s waist. Eric immediately grabbed at it, trying instinctively to wrestle it free even as Amanda herself tried to pry the thing off of her.



It jerked backward with Amanda still firmly in its grip. Eric refused to let go; he, too, was pulled into the vortex. The smoke quickly disappeared. The emerald light faded away. All was quiet.



Poking her head out from her room, one of Amanda’s roommates looked around with bleary, bloodshot eyes. She didn’t bother to put down the joint in her hand. Kimberly simply strode across the living room to shut the hallway door once more.



***



Flung roughly to a stone floor, Eric found himself instantly winded and disoriented. Some awful, smoking smell filled his breath. He heard shouting, chanting and bubbling, all from different directions. Flickering lights in red, green and orange fought with dark shadows for space throughout the chamber.



He had just pushed himself up to his hands and knees when someone grabbed his shoulders. Eric was heaved upright to his second horrifying sight of the night: a tall, broad-shouldered, muscular man whose very flesh was boiling and burning away even as he moved. Wide grey eyes that could not close stared at Eric in seeming desperation. A mouth that no longer had lips tried to tell him something in a language he couldn’t understand. An eerie green mist poured from his mouth, filling the air that Eric breathed.



Eric screamed in shock. The dying man shook him, trying to convey something but succeeding only in bleeding and melting all over him. Then a blade erupted from his chest, splattering blood all over the frightened young man.



The tentacles came into Eric’s view again. This time, they grabbed the charred man and his apparent killer, who was himself dressed in chain mail. Both were jerked high into the air, held aloft with the armored man screaming until the life was squeezed from him.

Eric fell onto his back, watching in horror. He and Amanda were at the foot of some sort of pool inside a broad, round chamber with a vaulted ceiling. They were both soaking wet, though now Eric was also covered in blood and gore. Standing before them was a robed man, turned away from them with his arms raised.



A strange chalk circle filled with runes stood out on the stone floor next to the robed man. The silhouette of a tall man’s body filled the circle, seeming to have been drawn in soot and burnt flesh. The robed man looked over his shoulder down at Eric with a cold sneer, then turned his attention back to the monstrosity before him.



There were six tentacles rising from within the pool, each of them reaching high above the robed man’s head. One held the armored man’s corpse; the other held the ruined body of the man who had grabbed Eric only a moment ago. Eric could make out the raised ceiling of the room largely by the green light given off by whatever was in that pool. It was the same light he’d seen in Amanda’s apartment. The tentacles writhed and lashed, yet seemed to shrink back into the waters, dragging the two bodies with them.



The man in front of him wasn’t alone. Several other figures were visible at the edges of the room, all of them standing up straight and still. Some held spears, while others had swords sheathed at their sides. All of them wore dark, flat masks and hardened leather armor.



Stairs rose up from either side of the pool to a raised platform opposite Eric and Amanda’s landing place. Braziers burned at the sides of the platform. At the center stood a blond, well-built man in silken pants and an open robe. He, too, held his arms up and opened wide, holding aloft in his right hand a thick, ornate staff with a large red gem set in its top. He chanted in some language Eric couldn’t possibly make out. As the tentacles receded into the pool, both robed men let their arms sink. Their chanting grew soft and finally ended.



“Twesh amet lor ness malek-Set?” asked the man on the platform as he descended the steps.



“Lo benit qal magrazz nandesh,” the one closer to Eric replied. His gaze was back on the pair now, devoid of benevolence or welcome. Amanda gripped Eric’s hand tightly. “Anandast?” he closer man asked. He was, they both noticed, closer to their age; the other one was old enough to be their father. “Cimmerian? Vanir?”



They recognized the words. The two wet, bewildered newcomers looked at one another in surprise. “Cimmeria?” the man with the staff asked them.



Eric shrugged. “No hablo, man,” he said.



The older one snapped his fingers. A moment later there were two guards at the sides of each of the newcomers, gripping them by the arms. “What’s going on?” Eric demanded. A guard punched him in the gut. Neither experienced in combat nor in the best of shape, Eric doubled over from the force of the blow.



“Leave him alone!” Amanda cried out, earning a sharp slap across her face.



“Ereng nast valamate garand,” said another voice. It was raspier, growly and deep. Amanda and Eric blinked to see a third robed man, this one considerably shorter and rounder than either of the others. His body language alone spoke of his being inferior to both of them, yet his receding hairline and the flecks of grey in his goatee gave him a much older appearance.



The younger one in robes barked out a laugh. The other, seeming through sheer confidence to be the one in charge, waved a dismissive hand at the older man. “Carlist vanda quen vist,” he said, seeming to come to a decision. He fixed Amanda with a severe gaze. “Olamto Bel-Danab?” he asked.



Amanda blinked. “I don’t understand.”



He nodded and gave another dismissive wave of his hand. “Demest,” he said.



Both Amanda and Eric felt suddenly very sleepy after that. The guards began dragging them away, hauling the pair toward a doorway, then through it and to the long, spiraling steps beyond. Amanda managed to stay awake long enough to see a window. Through it, she saw out over a city lit by small fires and torches that only teased at holding back the night. They were very high above the city’s nominal skyline; there were towers here and there, but most buildings looked to be no more than three stories high at the most.



Then it all went black.



***



She awoke with her head on Eric’s leg. He sat with her on the stone floor, looking glumly at the bars and trying not to think of–



“Ugh, that smell,” Amanda said, her nose wrinkling as her eyes fluttered open.



“Yeah,” he nodded. “Pretty bad. I’m trying not to think of what it is.”



Amanda opened her mouth to hazard a guess, but then closed it again. There wasn’t much point in offering her suggestion. It would just make everything that much more uncomfortable.



She sat up, glancing down at Eric’s legs as he bent and stretched them. “Thanks,” she said.



“No problem. Wish I could do more, though. Like get us out of here. Mostly I keep hoping to wake up in my own bed.”



“Yeah. No kidding.” Looking around at their cell, Amanda quickly found that there really wasn’t much to see. There were three walls of black stone blocks, a barred window too high up to see through, and iron bars separating them from the passageway beyond. She smelled smoke from a torch over the awful stench that polluted the air.



Soon, the two heard the sharp sound of metal grinding against metal, and then the squeal of hinges. Footsteps approached, shuffling closer and closer as the two felt their heartbeats pick up. They heard muttering, too–a growling, irritated mutter, once again in a language neither of them could understand.



The oldest-looking of the robed men soon stood in front of their cell, hunched over and clutching at something in his hands that glittered with yellow light. Up close, they could see now that the man wasn’t terribly old or decrepit. He was simply smaller and more haggard than the other two.



He grunted something at the pair, gesturing with his hands still closed around whatever glowed within for them to stand up. Then he squeezed, barked out a couple of words, and unfolded his hands. They saw gleaming flecks of some yellowish gemstone in his palms. The robed man blew across his hands at them, sending the cloud of sparkling dust into the cell.



“…tell me it will never work. Of course it will work. My ideas always work.” He looked up at the pair with one eye squinting and the other open wide. “You understand me now, neh?” he asked.



Amanda and Eric both blinked. “I can–yes, I can!” Amanda gasped.



“And you are not mad?”



“What?” Eric asked.



“They said such a spell would drive you both mad. But you’re not mad, are you?”



“I’m honestly starting to wonder,” Eric answered.



“No! We’re not crazy,” Amanda said. She reached for the bars. “Please, we don’t know what’s going on, can you help us?”



“Hhhhah!” the older man said. “You are in the coils of the serpent now. The only help I could offer you would be a quick death, and what would either of you give me in return? Eh?”



He reached into a pouch that hung from his belt, fumbling around for a moment while muttering too quietly to be understood. From the pouch he drew a crystal, and holding it up to his eye, he gazed for a long moment at Amanda, then at Eric. His frown didn’t lift, but he did nod with some small measure of satisfaction. Then he simply left, and they heard the sound of the door opening once more. This time, they heard the heavy footsteps of the guards.



***



“Across time and space, you called to me,” said Bel-Danab from his grand chair. It was adorned in lush purple silks, situated upon a small dais and one end of the broad chamber like a throne. His staff leaned against the throne within easy reach. A pair of voluptuous women adorned only in jewels lay across the carpeted floor at Bel-Danab’s feet. They looked on haughtily, as if their position was still far above that of the two prisoners standing before their master.



It was hard to determine his age. He certainly wore his years well. Bel-Danab was a handsome man. His short blond hair swept back from his head, revealing strong features and deep green eyes. It was an appealing face, except for its lack of warmth.



“We were in the middle of a deep ritual when your voice came to me. Ordinarily I would not have been diverted in such pursuits, but your voice called to me repeatedly. I would know why. Where are you from?”



“S-Seattle, sir,” Amanda answered, feeling more nervous than ever. This wasn’t just scary; it was embarrassing, too. She wondered if she was blushing. “We’re from Seattle. As for why I called to you, I…I didn’t think you were real. We were only playing a game. Joking.”



“A game,” Bel-Danab nodded. He pressed his hands together in front of his face, looking past them contemplatively. “You come from some far-off age. That much is clear from your dress and your manner. Your clothes seem made with elaborate skill, yet they somehow have the look of…commonality. You are neither lords nor priests of any god, are you?”



“No, sir,” Eric shook his head. “We, um…we come from a very wealthy country, but we ourselves aren’t rich or anything.”



Again, Bel-Danab nodded. “And your flesh reveals weakness. Sloth. Soft hands, unmarked skin. You don’t miss out on meals, either of you.” Amanda bit her lip as the women laughed. She was getting a little tired of people commenting on her weight. “It would appear that there is little to look forward to in mankind’s future but weakness and degeneration.”



He rose from his throne, striding forward to look more closely at the two. Standing just behind them were Bel-Danab’s two apprentices, Randast and Yaol. The latter was still gleeful over his success in bridging the language barrier; the former maintained a stoic expression, seeming indifferent to the whole situation.



“And what of Set?” asked the lord of the tower. “What of the gods? Whom do you worship in your Seattle? Mitra? Crom? What do you know of Set?”



Eric and Amanda glanced to one another nervously. He clearly wasn’t going to like the answer at all. Neither of them felt good about their chances in lying to him, though. “Set’s the god of death in a culture that isn’t really around anymore,” Eric answered. “He hasn’t been worshipped in, uh…gosh…around two thousand years, I guess? Maybe a little less than that, but I don’t think anyone really practices that religion anymore.”



“I’m sure you could find a few,” Amanda offered hopefully. “Seattle’s a very open-minded place, there’s gotta be, um…a couple…maybe,” she mumbled, her voice faltering under Bel-Danab’s gaze. She looked away from his cold green eyes.



“Neither lords nor wizards,” Bel-Danab frowned. “I reach across a world and untold millenia, costing me not only a prize captive but also a captain of my guards as sacrifices, only to retrieve weak, babbling peasants. Set teaches us humility.”



“Perhaps their ignorance of the god goes some way to explain their condition,” suggested Randast.



“Perhaps. Regardless. I had expected that a call such as hers would require some arcane feat, yet there is no magic within either of them. Given the wantonness of her tone, I had thought at the very least to enjoy a pleasant dalliance. Instead I find…this,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “Hardly worthy as a concubine.”



Embarrassment died and was quickly forgotten. If that was all he was going to say on the subject, Amanda was perfectly happy to let it go. The more this douchebag talked, the happier she was that he found her unattractive. The only worry was over what else might happen to her and Eric.



“She is a virgin, my lord,” piped up Yaol.



Bel-Danab’s eyebrows lifted slightly, yet no light came to his eyes. “Well. That will at least partly make up for the loss of our Cimmerian youth, hm? Not remotely the same value, but virgin adults can be hard to find in Stygia. Yaol, see what labor you can get from her until then. I leave her to you. Do not allow her to be harmed or defiled.”



“And of the other?” Randast asked as Yaol grinned and nodded.



Indifferent to the wide-eyed panic plain on the two young faces before him, Bel-Danab merely shrugged. “There are always the mines,” he suggested as he turned back to his throne.



“No!” Amanda shrieked. There were already guards at their sides once more. “No, don’t send him away! We’ll do whatever you–!”



“Shut up, girl,” grunted a guard, clamping his hand over her mouth.



Eric was already being hauled away. “Amanda, stay safe!” he yelled out. “I’ll try to–!” He, too, was cut off, but much more roughly than she was. The last Amanda saw of her friend was his head rocking back from the punches that came across his jaw.



Then there were only rough hands dragging her down dark hallways and the cackling laughter of Bel-Danab’s apprentice.



***



“What the hell is this? Some nobleman?”



“Hardly,” said the guard as he shoved Eric to the rocky ground. He had been roughly-handled on his way out of the tower. Eric’s t-shirt had already been torn to shreds. Scrapes and bruises adorned his flesh. His cellphone had been smashed in a fall, rendered nothing but junk.



Eric found himself in a broad pit dug into a hillside hundreds of yards across. Here and there were simple tents of burlap or leather, piles of rock and debris and crudely-built horse-drawn carts. Torches scattered throughout the mining camp held back the night. Everywhere, Eric saw men in little more than loincloths toiling with shovels, picks and broad pans.



There were guards, too. More men in piecemeal leather and plate, with halberds, spears and whips in plain view. Most wore cloth masks. Those who did not were ugly enough that masks would’ve been an improvement.



The same could be said for the barrel-chested overseer who stood beside him. “Get up, boy!” the man barked. His head was shaved and his skin deeply tanned from long days in the sun. He folded his arms across his chest skeptically as Eric rose.



“I am Tronus. You will work or you will die. That is all you need to know.



“Oh. And that the camp is surrounded by archers,” Tronus added. “Do not think of escape. You will be shot before you can even see the city. Have you handled a pick before? Or a shovel?”



“Not a pick,” Eric shrugged. “Only a little with a shovel.”



“Fah!” Tronus spat. He gestured to one of the other guards. He shifted to another language, in which he said, “Get him a pan and take him to the southwest shaft. He can haul rocks. Maybe he’ll shed some of that flab, eh?”



Another guard laughed. He grabbed Eric and hauled him along.



Eric frowned thoughtfully. He could understand two different tongues here. Yaol had done something magical to him and Amanda to allow them to speak his language. Yet clearly he understood this other one, too. Eric wondered how many languages he could understand. He also wondered if it was worth it to reveal that to his new masters.



“Take this,” grunted the guard. He shoved a large mining pan into Eric’s arms. It was so big that Eric wondered if it had been pried off of a wheelbarrow. The guard, not taking understanding for granted, pointed to a nearly-naked man emerging from a nearby tunnel in the side of the hill. The hapless man bore a similar pan, only his was full of rocks and sand. He staggered out, dumped his load into a horse-drawn cart, and then returned to the shaft.



The guard then kicked Eric in the side, pushing him toward the same shaft. Eric bowed his head and followed instructions.



They weren’t going to hurt Amanda. He had heard that much. The mine was only a few days away from the town by cart. Eric needed time to get oriented and to figure out who was who here.



He shuffled and stumbled down the mine shaft, resolving to watch and listen. There would be opportunities for escape. There had to be.



***



“They won’t kill him, unless he is stupid. If he is smart, he will work and he will be fine. Slaves cost money. No sense wasting them.” The strange, older man sat at a table covered in bound scrolls, small tools and crystal. His attention was on a particular green piece, into which he slowly drilled small holes with great care.



Amanda stood nearby, holding the handles of an iron kettle full of bubbling…well, she didn’t really know what it was. It was important that she not spill. It was also important that she not get her nose too close to it. After a week of more menial toil, Amanda had finally been brought into Yaol’s laboratory to help with manual labor.



“He could work in here with me,” Amanda tried. “He’s a good…good worker. We work well together.” She did her best to sound meek. It was obvious that Yaol was thrilled to have someone to boss around. Why not two?



“Bah!” Yaol frowned. “Little enough work in here for one illiterate peasant.”



Amanda bit back a retort over being called illiterate. His mistake for making assumptions.



“Here. Hold the kettle here. Steady, or I’ll pour the whole thing out over your head.” Holding the gem in a pair of large forceps, Yaol murmured sing-song words that Amanda strained to hear–something about snakes and renewal and shedding scales–before he placed it gently in the kettle.



“Now, take that out to the window where the sun will strike it,” he said. “You will see where. Go,” he waved before turning back to his table.



“Is this magic for you? Or for your master?” Amanda asked as she slowly moved away. Her eyes were on the kettle. The last thing she wanted was to spill any of this boiling hot concoction on herself.



“Being an apprentice does not mean I am not already a wizard myself!” Yaol barked. “Long have I studied. My power is great. Yet it is not so great as Set’s chosen. Great am I, yes, but Bel-Danab is greater still! Set reveals to his faithful many secrets that cannot be found in these scrolls and books. Bel-Danab has power beyond power. Thus even one as great as I am is left to toil away for him.”



His rant fell into mumbles as Amanda made it to the window. She strained to hear for a moment, but then decided to forget about it. It was hard to tell what to make of his claims; he clearly knew how to use magic, but it was difficult to believe he was as great as he said he was. Yaol sounded like he was trying to convince himself.



After setting the kettle where he had directed, Amanda stole her first good look out over the tower’s surroundings and the city in the blazing summer daylight. As she had surmised earlier, the city was made up mostly of low buildings. There were other, more substantial things in the skyline: a few other towers, some large buildings that she guessed might be temples, even a few of what looked like walled manors or estates. The city’s streets were narrow and full of market stalls, pedestrians, livestock, even statues. Beyond the city was nothing but desert, as far as the eye could see.



The tower itself was encircled by a high wall, with perhaps ten or twenty yards of garden space in between. A pair of small buildings jutted out from the base of the tower, both still well within the walls. One faced a gate with two armed guards posted on the inside. She wondered if there were more on the outside as well.



Turning from the window, Amanda kept her head hung low. She let her hair fall in front of her face. “One really learns wizardry from reading these books?” she asked. He nodded without looking up at her. “How common is that? The ability to read?”



Yaol barked out a haughty, cruel laugh. “I had to serve my first master for ten years just so he would teach me letters in Hyrkanian! It grew easier after that. But every language is different. You may be able to speak many tongues thanks to my spell, but reading? Hah!” He waved his hands at her as if brushing her away.



“Few know how to read. Fewer among them have the intelligence for magic. Yet for those of us who do…phaugh! You see that city out there? Insects! Dust! I laugh at them!”

Amanda just hung her head, hiding her face behind her hair while she bit her tongue.



Muttering to himself for a moment more, Yaol finally looked around his laboratory and came to a decision. “I go now to my chambers. You will clean this place up. Do not touch any of the materials! Just clean the dust off of the walls, the shelves and the floors. Do a good job of it, and don’t stop until the sun sets!” he demanded, shaking his finger at her.



“Yes, sir,” Amanda nodded.



“Sir. Hah! Yes. Sir.” Yaol chuckled to himself, grabbing a few of his scrolls before he finally shuffled off. “The guard will come when it is time for you to go back to your cell,” he called back just before he closed and locked the door.



Amanda couldn’t believe her luck. He actually locked her in his laboratory. She could read every book just as easily as she could understand Yaol’s speech. Amanda rushed through the room, looking over each of the books. Some were bound in leather, others protected in wooden boxes. There would doubtlessly be some false starts; it wasn’t like anything there was labeled “Magic for Beginners.”



Then she came upon a single, large tome, laid upon an ornate bookstand. It was bound in iron, with runes on the cover that spoke of Skelos. Fearing some sort of mystic trap, Amanda dared only open it with a stick. There was no explosion, nor did she turn into a frog or a rat. She stepped closer, reading the words on the first page with wide eyes. Then the next page. Then the next.



“Holy shit,” she breathed. “Hyboria really does run on 4th edition rules…”



***



Eric kept his legs pumping. He hustled up the steep slope of the mine shaft, carrying his pan of rocks and debris in his arms. A cave-in at the bottom of one of the shafts that morning had virtually every slave performing this same task. With the sun high in the sky, though, there was little hope of recovering survivors. Men in robes had arrived an hour ago, speaking excitedly of a “breakthrough.” Little thought was spared for the miners who were almost certainly lost.



After seven days of stumbles, falls and the bite of the whip, Eric had learned that he was capable of withstanding more physical hardship than he ever would have guessed. He endured the bite of whips, the blazing sun and numerous stumbles and falls in dark caverns, all while performing harsh labor with no end in sight.



Food and water were not hard to come by. Their overseers and guards apparently didn’t see much use in keeping their slaves weak when so much hard labor had to be done. They were only allowed to collapse on the hard ground after the summer sun had set, and were usually roused before the dawn.



Exhaustion should have killed him. He wasn’t built for this, nor had he ever been particularly athletic. Yet instead of falling apart, Eric grew steadily stronger. Instead of thinning out, he was actually starting to bulk up. He was outside enough that he had quickly developed a deep tan, and had quickly sweat off unwanted flab that he’d never been able to get rid of before. Seven days shouldn’t have been enough to make such a difference, but his thickening arms and legs and his flattening stomach didn’t lie.



Outside the mine shaft, the summer sun blazed down on the broad pit that served as their camp. Other slaves were around him, some ahead, some behind. Each in turn came to a cart, into which they had to deposit their load of rocks and dirt.



Eric shifted his grip to allow him to shoulder-press his pan up over his head and over the walls of the cart. He sighed as the rocks fell from his pan, but had no time to catch his breath. He had to trundle off back down his tunnel for more.



Something firm and wooden caught on his leg. Eric stumbled and fell, dropping his pan to one side and bumping into the man in front of him. Both went down, as did the slave following Eric in line as he tripped over them.



“Damn!” shouted one. “Watch where you’re going!” complained another.



“Sorry,” Eric grunted as he twisted around. “Someone tripped me.” Looking up, he saw one of the guards standing over them all. He caught Eric’s eye, grinning maliciously at him as he stepped back. He bore a tall spear, the shaft of which he slipped out from beneath the pile of fallen men.



“Bastard!” A huge, bearded slave kicked Eric across the face. Only halfway to his feet when it happened, Eric stumbled back onto the ground. Eric looked up at the bigger in shock, who returned the gaze with rage. “You tore my tunic!”



Eric wasn’t entirely surprised by the other man’s anger. Clothing was about all anyone here had, and even that wasn’t much. His own jeans had been reduced to shredded cutoffs. “I’m sorry,” Eric stammered as he sat up in the dirt. “I’ll try to make it up to you.”



“Give me those shoes,” the man said, pointing at Eric’s dusty Reebok’s.



“What? You’re way too big for these! Look, I didn’t mean to bump you. The guard tripped me.”



Someone else kicked Eric from behind. “Don’t lie. Give up the shoes or we’ll take them.”



“I think someone should teach him some manners,” grinned the guard with the spear.



Eric scrambled to his feet. Slaves were gathering around now, as were no small number of guards. All watched as Eric was surrounded by an inner ring of four–no, six–men with greedy, angry eyes.



“You’re in for a beating, boy,” the first angry slave said.



Eric didn’t want to make a first move. Not only was he probably screwed, the situation itself seemed insane. Letting the slaves brawl after a cave-in that had the bosses all excited? How did that make any sense? If he could stall, maybe the whole mess would be broken up…



“I’m not giving up what’s mine. Don’t you see they’re trying to turn us against one another?”



“Oh, shut up and fight!” another slave barked. He rushed forward, throwing out a wide right hook. Eric held up his broad miner’s pan to block it. There was a sharp “clang” followed by a howl of pain from the man as he went down clutching his hand.



Another grabbed the pan and jerked it out of Eric’s hands. A third came in with a punch to his gut. Eric shrugged it off, retaliating with the best uppercut, jab and snap kick combo that he could muster from a few short months of karate classes. It clobbered the man with surprising effectiveness.



Someone else grabbed him by the right arm, followed by another man grabbing his left. He struggled, finding within heartbeats that he was stronger than either man. Then there was another at his back, swiftly holding a shovel across his throat from behind. The big bearded one stepped in front of him with a raised shovel, ready to strike.



“Hold him steady,” the bearded one demanded.



Eric kept struggling. There was a sudden “thump” behind his head. The shovel at his neck and the man holding it fell away. It happened just in time for Eric to twist to his left, pulling the man on his right between himself and the bearded man’s shovel strike. The shovelhead fell against the slave’s head with a crack.



Eric and the man clutching his left arm stumbled and fell together. The bearded man cursed, swinging his shovel down at Eric again, but found it blocked by someone else’s shovel. Eric looked up to see a woman standing over him, wielding her shovel like a weapon. She was tall and dark-haired, with limbs whose muscles rippled like steel cables under tanned flesh. Like most of them, she was dressed only in a dirty tunic with a frayed rope for a belt.



“Cimmerian bitch,” the bearded one spat, “this is none of your business.”



“I find my business where I please,” she said. The shovel that had restrained Eric had been snatched up by another slave in the ensuing tangle. The woman shifted her stance, keeping both opponents view.



Eric slammed his fist into the man restraining him. He heard the clank of shovels and grunts of fighting men behind him and the roar of the crowd all around them, but there was nothing to be done until he’d freed himself. Two more blows seemed to settle the matter; his opponent’s abdominal muscles collapsed under Eric’s punches, and he let Eric’s arm go.



Scrambling around to track the fight, Eric saw a third, unarmed man fling himself at the woman as she held off the shovels of the other two. He landed face-first upon her elbow before stumbling to the ground, blood erupting from his nose. Both of the other two rushed her.



She advanced in a spin toward one while dodging the other. Her shovelhead smacked flatly against the side of the man’s head. Then she pivoted in the opposite direction, as if bouncing away from the first blow. As she moved, the shovel twisted in her hands. The shovel’s edge caught the bearded man right across the bridge of his nose in a sickening crunch.



Both men fell as Eric got to his feet. He was pretty sure the bearded one was dead. The woman remained in a fighting stance, her gaze sweeping the crowd. A hush fell across them all.



“That’s enough out of you,” spoke up one guard. It was the same one who had tripped Eric. He held his spear at the ready, its sharp edge pointed at the woman.



“Point that somewhere else,” the woman said in a thick accent Eric hadn’t heard before, “or I’ll ram it up your ass.”



The world seemed to freeze. Eric and all the other slaves watched the standoff. The guard glanced at his fellows scattered among the crowd before he looked back to the woman. “Get back to work,” he said–but he raised his spear as he spoke.



Other guards yelled out the same. Fists and shafts of spears prodded the crowd off in different directions. Orders were shouted to pick up the pans and get the line going again. Eric heard the crack of a whip.



The dark-haired woman looked at Eric for a moment, her chin dipping in a short, single nod. Eric was stunned. Her face was no more delicate than the rest of her body, yet she was beautiful just the same. There was a wild pride to her blue eyes that he’d never seen before, a confidence that made her seem somehow older than her years–which couldn’t be much more than Eric’s own age. The woman threw her shovel to the guard and then started walking toward the collapsed mine shaft.



Numbly, Eric walked after her. His gaze was fixed on the shapely, powerful legs and hips of his savior.



Work at the bottom of the tunnel had continued at a feverish pitch despite the fight up on the surface. Most of the last of the rubble from the cave-in had been cleared away. As Eric had heard the overseers say in the morning, the diggers in this shaft had broken through to walls of stone blocks, all of them adorned with carvings and etchings of snakes. They had begun clearing away the rocks and dirt that obscured the walls when the ceiling caved in on them.



The camp wasn’t digging for minerals. It was an excavation. All the shafts had been dug in search of whatever building included this wall. Rather than digging down to the thing from the surface, though, the robed men wanted the earth around it cleared away so that the structure would remain underground.



“Most of this fell away on its own,” Tronus said, waving to the space between the stonework wall and the natural walls of the cave. “We lost eleven miners in this.”



“Set demands sacrifice for these discoveries,” one robed man said.



“Up there,” another robed man in the tunnel said, waving to the top of the underground wall. “We need more of that cleared out up there. We may find an entrance up above. Get some of your people up there.”



“We’ll need ladders,” Tronus said.



“Then get them!”



“We’re working on it,” Tronus answered. “They have to be put together down here. We can’t get tall ladders down the tunnels. In the meantime we finish clearing away rubble.”



“In the meantime you waste time,” scowled the robed man. “You there! You! You! Get up there! Get up there and clear away the roof! Climb! Climb!”



The miners grimaced at one another, but set to climbing the wall before Tronus had his whip out. The dozen or so present tried to climb the wall, doing their best to find purchase among the carvings of runes and serpents. All found the wall much too steep. All except two.



Eric hardly even thought of the difficulty at first. He merely hoped to avoid Tronus’s wrath. Yet he found himself a foot up off the ground, and then another. The climb was murder on the sneakers he’d just fought so hard to defend, as he had to jam his toes into what few jagged footholds he could find. Still, he managed to work his way into tiny, minor grooves and bumps in the wall as he pushed and pulled himself further up.



“About time you were good for something, whelp!” Tronus shouted from below.



Eric didn’t stop to look. It wasn’t as if praise from Tronus made his work any more pleasant. Yet he thrilled to his achievement. He had never climbed anything more than a tree or a chain link fence, and not even that since middle school.



A hand gripped his wrist at the top of the wall. He took advantage of the offered aid, pushing himself up over to come to a rest at the top of the wall. He found, as he expected, that the stone blocks making up the wall were several feet thick. It was enough space to crouch down and catch his breath.



“Thanks,” he grunted.



“You climb almost as well as one of my people,” said the woman crouched down beside him.



Eric blinked as he raised his head. It was the same woman who’d just come to his rescue. She’d gotten to the top amazingly fast.



“Thanks for that, too, I guess,” Eric huffed. “I didn’t know I had it in me.”



“Maybe you’ve got some Cimmerian in you, then,” the woman said in a husky, thickly-accented voice. She clapped him on the shoulder with a strong hand. “I had thought you a weakling when you first turned up, but you seem to be getting along fine now.”



“Why did you help me? Up there, in the fight?”



“You didn’t back down to those men, even if they were more than you could handle on your own. Not many here stand up for themselves.” The woman shrugged. “You could stand to learn to handle yourself better, but at least you have some guts. I’d hate to be the only one around here who isn’t a coward.”



“Hey!” Tronus shouted. “I don’t hear any working up there! Just because you’re out of reach of my whip now doesn’t mean you’ll escape it later!”



“You sent us up here without any tools!” the woman called back. “Want us to throw rocks down to you?” At that, the woman hefted a rough stone the size of her head up in one hand and tossed it over the edge. She laughed as Tronus barked at her to stop, dropping two more over the side before she obeyed. “There isn’t enough room to swing a pick yet,” she said. “Toss us some chisels and hammers.”



Eric looked down as Tronus and the robed men barked orders at the other miners, trying to scrounge up the tools even as they got the other slaves back to work. “This should be good for a laugh,” muttered the woman.



“Who are you?” Eric asked.



“Fallon. You?”



“My name’s Eric. Are you…are you Cimmerian?” It was an easy enough guess. Cimmerians were supposed to be phenomenal climbers. There was also the thick accent and the wild look in her eyes.



“Yes,” she said, grinning with a bit of pride. “Don’t let the collar fool you. I can slip out of here whenever I please. These fools can’t hold a daughter of the hills who wishes to leave.” She watched a chisel fly up toward them, but didn’t bother to reach for it as it fell short.



“Then why are you here?”



“I’m watching for someone,” Fallon shrugged. “One of my tribe. I expect he may land here himself soon enough.”



Remembering the tall, dying man from Bel-Danab’s summoning room, Eric swallowed hard. “He’s not, um…he’s not named Conan, is he?”



“Conan? Who’s that?” Fallon caught a chisel that finally came up within reach.



“He’s a Cimmerian, too. I’ve heard stories about him.”



“Never heard of him,” the woman shrugged.



Relief washed over Eric. At least there was that.



“I don’t know your accent,” Fallon said. She handed him the chisel, along with the hammer that followed. “Where are you from?”



“A place called Seattle.”



“Never heard of that, either,” Fallon grunted. Once she had tools of her own, she turned away, keeping her head low as she crawled over to a crevasse between the cave and the wall. It gave Eric a rear view of her shapely hips and well-muscled legs, with her dirty tunic covering only enough of her ass to leave him dying to see more. “Best get to work. That overseer knows better than to try to whip me. If he suspects we’re dallying, he’ll doubtlessly take it out on you.”



Eric glanced around and looked for a decent place to start. He started to grin. He was happy to find someone friendly to talk to; most everyone else around here was either a brow-beaten slave or a callous guard. Fallon’s confidence was certainly infectious, too. From the moment he’d woken up in Bel-Danab’s dungeon, Eric had resolved to find a way out of this mess. As he worked beside Fallon, though, he found the difference between resolve and hope.



***



Warm summer rains swept through the city of Luxur that night, falling so thick that it was impossible to see much beyond the tower walls. Over the weeks since Amanda arrived, she had developed the impression that very little rain fell in Stygia, or at least this part of it. Yet here it was, pounding the tower so hard that it could be heard even through the stone walls.



Amanda climbed the long spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower as she had been instructed. She had spent the time since sunset shelving books–at least as far as Yaol needed to know. As far as she was concerned, “shelving” involved an awful lot of reading. But then came the guard, conveying orders to go to the roof.



By the time she reached the trap door at the top of the stairs, the rain had stopped. She knocked twice, then thrice, all as she had been instructed. She knew full well that this was the trigger to unlock the magical seal on the door. Yaol hadn’t told her that, but his books had.



As she emerged from the trap door onto the roof, she found Yaol, Randast and their master gathered around a wide bowl. It was at least ten feet across and as deep as a bathtub at its center, judging from its external shape. To look within the water, though, one would think that it was far deeper.



Amanda glanced around the roof, trying to take it all in. A short parapet, perhaps a yard tall, surrounded the rooftop, with glowing orbs embedded here and there to provide dim light. Bel-Danab and Randast stood on opposite sides of the bowl, wearing robes that were hardly damp despite the fact that everything around them was soaked. The gem in Bel-Danab’s staff glowed with a bright red light. Yaol was there, too; unlike his master, he was dripping with water…and blood.



Chained to posts next to Yaol was a naked man–Amanda recognized him as one of the cooks–whose throat was slashed from ear to ear. Yaol held a bloody, curved knife. He raised one finger of his other hand, also covered in blood, to his lips as he looked at Amanda. There was a wild look in his eyes.



“Is there any other time to enact the ritual?”



“No,” answered an unseen voice. Amanda saw ripples spread out from the center of the pool. “You must wait until the last days of summer. Only then will the stars be right.”



“Is the sacrifice appropriate?” he asked, gesturing to Amanda without even looking at her.



“Your sacrifice is appropriate now, yes,” answered the voice. Amanda’s heart began to pound with fear. “A less pure sacrifice will be unacceptable.”



Amanda swallowed. She didn’t like the sound of that at all.



“What opposition remains?”



“Powers in Shadizar and Aghrapur know of your intent,” answered the waters.



“Do they plot against me?”



“Yes.”



Bel-Danab nodded. His gaze lifted from the bowl, leveling now on Randast. “We shall have to settle that very soon.”



“Of course, master,” Randast nodded.



Bel-Danab raised his staff over the waters with a flourish. “I release you, ancient one,” he said, his voice taking on a smug note as he spoke. With that, Bel-Danab gestured to his favored apprentice to follow as he walked to the trap door. Both of them passed by Amanda without a word.



Shaken, Amanda looked to Yaol with genuinely fearful eyes. He was wiping off his dagger on the soaking wet hair of the dead man chained up beside him. “Clean this up,” Yaol said casually. He then put the dagger back in its sheath on his belt and walked across the rooftop, murmuring a spell as he went. His robes dried out within seconds as he walked.



“You mean him?” Amanda blinked. Her voice wavered.



“It’s just a body,” Yaol said, waving a dismissive hand. “Oh. Here. The keys to his manacles,” he said, placing a key ring in her hands. Then he grinned at her wickedly. “You may want to drain out the rest of his blood before you try to move him. Makes a body a little lighter. Anything else falls out of him as you haul him down, you’ll have to clean it up. Lean him over the side there; it will all fall into the gardens. It keeps the roses red.”



Laughing at his own joke, Yaol gave Amanda a hard slap across the shoulder before he left.



Trembling, Amanda stepped closer to the body. This man had been indifferent to her, but at least he hadn’t been cruel. Part of her wished she knew his name. Part of her was glad she didn’t. Even without being very familiar with him, though, this was a grisly, awful task. In principle, she knew how to deal with him through minor magic. In practice, her attempts at spellcasting were as likely to make a bigger mess as they were to clean one up. She had chanced it a few times, but she could only learn so much from books without anyone to coach her and with so few, brief opportunities to experiment. Every tiny attempt was a huge risk.



“Amanda,” said a voice.



She gasped and stepped back. It was the water.



“Come closer, Amanda,” said the voice, deep and ethereal. “You will not be harmed.”



“I thought…I thought you were released,” she stammered, gingerly moving closer.



“Released from the summons, yes. Yet I have reason to linger. I will go when I wish to go.”



“Wish I could say the same,” Amanda grimaced.



“Indeed. You belong here even less than I.” That was all Amanda needed to know about the voice; anything more of its identity was best left unanswered.



“I want to go home. I want to find my friend and go home.”



“I can show you your friend,” the waters said. “Look into me.”



Amanda paused. She had done more than a little reading when Yaol wasn’t looking. There were prices to be paid for this sort of thing. “What do you want from me in return?”



“You are wise to ask,” the waters said, sounding almost approving, “but for this, all I require of you is your silence. Speak not of me. Look. Look into the waters. Eric is here.”



Swallowing hard once more, Amanda looked into the bowl. The waters looked dark and deep. At first she saw only the dark clouds overhead. Then there were shadows, and then light. She saw Eric then, crawling over rocks in some tunnel, pounding away with a hammer and chisel. He bore the scars from a whip on his tanned, well-muscled back.



Amanda inhaled sharply. She’d never seen Eric with his shirt off, but even so, she never would’ve guessed that he had such muscles. In fact, she was sure he hadn’t had arms like that. He’d always had a bit of a gut, too, but he seemed to be well on his way to getting rid of it.



Eric was working hard, sweating like a pig…but also occasionally grinning. There was some woman next to him in that tunnel, performing the same task. They seemed to share the occasional jest or comment. He didn’t look entirely happy, but wherever he was, at least he wasn’t alone.



“How can he look so different?” Amanda asked. “We haven’t even been here two weeks.”



“On the night you were summoned, Bel-Danab had intended to claim the strength of a mortal mercenary for himself. You and Eric distracted him in his work. The mortal got loose, and Eric benefited from the vitality Bel-Danab had hoped to steal for himself.”



“Where is he? What is he doing?”



“Bel-Danab works to reclaim a great power buried ages ago,” the water answered. “It is not far from this city. Your friend may well have found an ally there.



“You, too, are in need of allies, Amanda.”



The image faded away. Amanda found herself looking at simple water again, though the clouds above were already parting. She could soon see stars reflected on the surface.



“Can you get me out of here? Can you tell me how Eric and I can get home?”



“No. To return to your home, you will need Bel-Danab’s staff, for it is keyed to the magic that brought you here. The staff is bound to him. For another to claim it, Bel-Danab must die.



“I cannot take physical action, but I can give you knowledge. You have already begun the path to your freedom. You have the intelligence and the strength you require. You have the courage. If you could act freely, you could learn what you need alone. You do not have that freedom, or that time. I can provide the guidance you need.”



Amanda swallowed. She glanced at the dead man hanging from chains. “At what price?”



The waters chuckled. “I have no use for blood sacrifices. I want no souls. I share your desires. I would deny Bel-Danab that which he seeks. I want freedom. I want revenge.”



Her eyes narrowed. She took another look at the body of the poor, harmless cook. Her gaze then fell upon the open trap door. She crossed the roof once more, closing the door and turning the latch before she returned to the bowl.



“Teach me.”



***



“It’s as if they fear a little bit of rainfall,” Fallon shrugged softly. “Look. How many men do you see with bows over there by the tents? Aren’t they supposed to patrol for escaping slaves?”



Eric took note of the cluster of guards near the larger tents. He and Fallon sat upon the back of a wagon, letting the rain pour down on top of them. The majority of the slaves slept that night in the mine shafts, doing what they could to avoid the water that ran in small streams down the tunnels and collected in pools at the bottoms. No one had stopped Eric or her Cimmerian companion as they strode out to find a spot to sit out in the open. No one cared.



Silence fell between them for a long moment. “I’m sorry about Hagan,” he said finally.



Fallon waved it off dismissively. “He was a dog and a bastard, and I owed him a beating for cheating me in a deal in Zamora. I thought the Stygians had captured him, but if he was in that tower as you say, it is more likely that he hired himself out to them. If he’s dead through Stygian sorcery, then more the fool was he.”



“Still. If he did not sell out, he should be avenged. And even if he did…Bel-Danab should learn that treachery against a Cimmerian does not go unanswered.”



After another long moment of silence, Eric finally couldn’t hold it back. “You seriously stayed here in this slave camp doing hard labor just for the chance to kick a guy’s ass?”



“I was going to do more than kick him in his ass,” Fallon shrugged. She realized he was looking at her like she was very strange. “What?”



“So you’ve never, like…had a job or anything, have you?”



“I have taken on jobs,” Fallon said with mild indignation. “I’ve served as a mercenary. An escort through wilderness. I’ve guarded caravans, recovered stolen goods, carried dispatches…I’ve worked from Aquilonia to Hyrkania and back again.”



“And you’re only twenty-two?”



“I left home when I was sixteen,” Fallon grunted. “If you ask me, that’s a late start. I should have left earlier. I was sick of snow and waking up cold every morning, anyway.”



“That why you left home?”



“No,” she shook her head. “I left home to avoid a blood feud. My sister’s husband beat her. No one else was willing to deal with it. I did.”



It was Eric’s turn to grunt. “They’d put a man in jail for that where I’m from,” he said. “If you can prove it, anyway.”



Fallon looked up at him thoughtfully. He was staring at the guards near their tents again, otherwise he might have been surprised at the look in her eyes. “Bel-Danab wanted Amanda for something,” Eric said. “Something about her being a virgin made her worth something at the end of summer.”



“Probably as some foul mystic sacrifice. Or to be sold off as a slave-wife to some other wizard. If you care about her, you should rescue her.”



“I mean to, but I just…I’ve never fought before. Not really. Life in my country is peaceful for most people. I took some karate in high school–er, I learned a little about fighting with my hands and feet, but not nearly enough. And nothing with weapons.” Again, Fallon grunted. She wasn’t looking his way. “Could you teach me?”



The barbarian woman’s head tilted. She looked at him strangely, almost with suspicion. “You want to learn how to fight from a woman?”



“What difference does that make?” Eric blinked.



Fallon’s blue eyes seemed to light up in the darkness as the rains parted. “You mean that?”



“I want–I need to learn from someone who knows what they’re doing. I don’t care if it’s a man or woman. I care if my teacher is good. I want you.”



Her face split into a fierce grin. “They don’t teach you to be careful what you ask for in this country of yours, do they, Eric?”



His heart started to pound as she looked at him. She seemed to put a lot of pride in her homeland; maybe that was a place to find common ground. “They teach you not to judge people on appearances,” he said. “Man. Woman. Any color. Any religion. Doesn’t matter how you were born. Not everyone really learns that, of course…but it’s what we teach.”



“I think I would like to see this place you call home,” Fallon grinned.



***



“Shem will not simply roll over for you,” said the dignified man in silken robes and jewels. He sat at Bel-Danab’s long dining table, flanked by a pair of clerks who sat at his sides. “Nor will Kush, nor Dafar…and those are just your neighbors.” He sipped wine from the fine silver goblet, smiling serenely before putting it back on the table.



“It will not even go that far, Jagol” said the balding fellow opposite him. “Your own king and the nobles fear you. There are already whispers at court that your days are numbered.” He had only a single companion, a blonde waif in a red sarong. She turned to claim a goblet from the platter Amanda held as she passed by, looking up at her with sad eyes sunken into a pretty face. The blonde sipped a little from the goblet, then after a moment placed it in front of her master.



Knowing there was nothing she could do for her, Amanda stayed silent. She simply gave the blonde a sympathetic look before she moved on to the next space.



All around the table were men in robes of various sorts, all of them sorcerers and priests. They had arrived from far-off places at Bel-Danab’s table to speak of matters that Amanda couldn’t entirely follow. There was something about unearthing an ancient temple to Set, of serpent warriors and some incarnation of Set that had slumbered for ages. Bel-Danab was making a power grab. That much was clear. He also had a number of people he didn’t want standing in his way.



He had gathered them here under a truce to discuss his plans. He wanted Stygia and its neighboring lands. He also wanted to assure the gathered men that he would go no further.



Part of Amanda wanted to tell these people that appeasement never worked, but then, none of them looked all that kind or benevolent themselves.



“How kind of you to share these rumors with us, Lord Oellah,” Randast said from his chair to the right of Bel-Danab at the end of the table.



“As if you didn’t already know,” put forth another guest.



“Indeed,” Bel-Danab nodded, “and as if we have not taken this into account. But again, Lord Oellah’s friendship has been noted.” As usual, his staff was in easy reach. His women were conspicuously absent.



Oellah paused. He glared at his pretty attendant and then gestured to the wine. She took another sip from his silver goblet, paused, and then nodded before handing it to him. Oellah drank down a deep gulp, betraying only a slight tremor in his hands as he moved.



“My plans are already set in motion,” Bel-Danab told them all. “Yet we with enlightenment beyond the ordinary nobility need not fight.”



“Sorcery is not enlightenment, Bel-Danab,” said Jagol. “Nor is it wisdom. What predator is forever sated by a single meal? There is the thrill of the hunt, the glorious feast and a time to bask in the sun with a full belly, but eventually there is always….always…ghk…”



Eyes went wide across the table. The guests looked to one another in alarm. “Jagol!” said one of the man’s attendants. “Jagol, are you…arghk…gggnnhhh”



He, too, froze. In mere moments, each froze in place. From her spot standing at the end of the table, Amanda watched in horror as Bel-Danab’s guests sat in mute, unmoving terror. Black bile seeped from their noses and mouths. Her platter of wine goblets clattered to the floor. Sorcerers and servants alike fell forward, collapsing in their seats. All except Jagol, who remained still and silent but bore no other sign of trouble.



Yaol appeared from thin air at the end of the table, having been concealed by a spell of invisibility the entire time. He plunged his curved dagger into Jagol’s flesh again and again, but then Yaol stopped. There was no blood. There was only a flesh-colored goo that slowly bubbled from the corpse.



“A simulacrum,” Yaol said, looking to his master at the end of the table.



“Puppetted from his sanctum, most likely,” Randast scowled. “The connection will have been broken by now. He will no longer be watching.”



“Nor will he think us capable of swift retaliation,” Bel-Danab said mildly. “It’s a long way to Shadizar, after all.” He rose from the table and nodded to Yaol. “Excellent work with the poisons, Yaol. Jagol would have escaped any other ploy in the same fashion, yet we have at least cleared out the rest of our opposition.”



Yaol bowed deeply, his voice crackling with excitement. “Thank you, master!”



Randast was already at the end of a curtain behind Bel-Danab’s seat. He pulled it quickly, revealing a mirror well over seven feet in height. Bel-Danab murmured words of power, reaching out with his staff to touch the gleaming jewel at the end to the mirror until the glass rippled.



“We go now to finish this while Jagol believes he is safe,” Bel-Danab said to Yaol. “We shall have to travel back here without the aid of such magic as the portal. Do try to keep things here under control.”



“Yes, master!” Yaol said, bowing again with greater excitement.



Trying to keep hold of herself, Amanda rubbed tears from her eyes as Bel-Danab and Randast passed through the mirror. With that, they were gone. There was no further sound in the dining hall other than her sniffles and Yaol’s gleeful chuckles.



“I knew it would work,” he said to himself in his native tongue. “My ideas always work. Always!” He walked over to where Amanda had sunk to her knees. “You! Girl! Get up!”



“Did you have to kill the servants, too?” she sobbed. “What did they do to you?”



“Bah! Stop your whining!” He kicked her hard on the shoulder, knocking her over. Then he waved his hands at her with a sour expression. “Get up! You have a lot to clean up here. Go down and get the acid vat open and start bringing these people down there, eh? Before they start to stink.” Yaol clinked a couple of rings together, invoking the magical spell that unlocked his laboratory.



Amanda got to her feet and backed away with revulsion plain on her face. Yaol laughed at her like it was funny. “Don’t worry. I will check the bodies of the wizards. No telling what treasures they may carry. You could blow yourself up, or turn yourself into a bug. Eh?” His laughter followed her as she fled to the staircase.



Amanda ran to the window in Yaol’s laboratory, collapsed by the windowsill and sobbed. She couldn’t get the slave-girl’s image out of her head. She looked so sad. So beaten down. What could she have done to deserve such a death? What of the other attendants? Amanda could presume that the guests themselves weren’t the most honorable people, but for all she knew even they weren’t all as awful as her captors.



Moments later, her sobbing stopped. Her anguish remained, but she had cried too many times already. Inevitably, she came to the conclusion that her tears changed nothing.



She’d only been in the laboratory for a minute, maybe more. Amanda looked around, taking the room in once again. She knew the laboratory well. She knew the enchantments, the artifacts, the curses. She was a fast learner–scholarship student, science major, voracious reader. Between the books, the scrolls and the guidance of the nameless spirit in the rooftop bowl, she had learned a great deal.



Perhaps it would be wise to continue to lay low, to study in secret, to filch more power and knowledge. She was rapidly catching up to Yaol, at least, though his masters were clearly more powerful still. She didn’t know how she could handle them But at the moment, Bel-Danab and Randast were both gone, and wouldn’t be back for days if not weeks.



Amanda made her decision. She rose from the windowsill and wiped the tears from her eyes.



***



Yaol cackled with glee as he shuffled down the stairs. Clutched tightly in his hands was an impromptu sack–really just a gathered-up cloak–containing the treasures looted from a half-dozen arcane masters, all now dead up in the dining hall. Enchanted jewelry, a couple of wands, a collection of rune stones and even a few ensorcelled coins were tucked away in the folds of the fabric. It was a pretty good haul.



Bel-Danab’s guests had traveled with their defenses up, certainly. They had borne wards against steel and flame, had shielded themselves against all manner of magic. Bel-Danab had sworn to their safe passage, of course, and naturally his guests guarded against treachery just the same. As Yaol had guessed, though, they hadn’t expected something as simple and subtle as slow-acting poisons.



It was how the mighty fell, after all. They always underestimated someone. It would be the same someday for Bel-Danab and Randast, too. They would both underestimate Yaol eventually, and he would strike. He would claim their power for himself. It was, ultimately, the way of things. Everyone underestimated the little guy.



Yaol came to his laboratory door, nudging it open with his foot, and shuffled inside, still grinning from ear to ear. Then his gaze lifted up from the floor in front of him and he stopped.



Books were missing from the shelves. Chests were open and empty. The book of Skelos–admittedly just a copy, but still invaluable–was missing from its space on the oaken bookstand. Practically every dangerous potion and alchemical agent was removed from its safe storage and arrayed on shelves along the walls, even near the window.



That stupid girl was wearing one of his old enchanted cloaks. She stood in front of a shelf that should have been full of books with a sack at her feet. There was a cold fury in her eyes. His mouth opened to roar out a demand, but she was already pointing a wand at him with one hand; with the other, she had pointed three fingers at him, but now curled them back like talons.



Green mist burst from Yaol’s chest, streaming toward her wand. The mist seemed to carry away all of his strength. His bundle of loot clattered to the floor. “What…what are you doing?!” he blinked.



She had the drop on him. Before Yaol could react, the girl launched another attack, this time throwing out shimmering bolts of force that drove him to his knees. Yaol gasped in pain.



“You’re a monster,” she said flatly. “I’m gonna kick your ass and take all your stuff.”

“Guards!” he shouted. “Guards!” Yaol raised his hands to cast a spell, but hesitated. Though his first instinct was to blast the girl to bits, he couldn’t risk setting off the potions around her.



Precision counted. Freezing blue light burst from his fingers, leaving a momentary trail of frost in their wake before striking the girl. He realized his mistake almost as soon as he’d made it. The girl’s first strike had left him weakened, and that old cloak was enchanted to protect from cold and heat. His magical rays hardly harmed her at all.



The sound of rushing footsteps from above and below filled the stairway behind him. He had to stall her. Just for a moment. “Wait! You don’t know what you’re tampering with, girl!” Yaol snarled. “These powers…they are more complicated than you realize!”



“I was reading at a college level when I was eleven, dickhead,” Amanda scowled. “If anyone’s got a learning disability here, it’s you.”



Yaol grimaced. A heartbeat more, then another, and then he wouldn’t be alone…



Amanda reached out with her fingers fanned out wide, the wand deftly twirled between a couple of them as her thumbs touched. Yaol’s heart jumped as the guards burst into the entrance behind him. He recognized the spell as she cast it. Yaol couldn’t risk throwing wide, blasting spells into his laboratory. Amanda, however, stood where she didn’t have the same problem.



Flames blew from between her fingers as if carried on fierce winds. Yaol and the guards alike screamed under the terrible heat. Men died around him as he flung himself to the floor, crawling away as best he could from the raging blast.



He scrambled out of the laboratory, onto the landing, and then flung himself down several steps. The awful smell of his own burning flesh filled his nostrils just as the pain coursed through his entire body.



Yaol did his best to focus past it. He had but a moment to choose between fight or flight against an opponent who seemed to have planned her ambush perfectly. Her tactics were fiendish. If escape were her plan, she could’ve done it before he came in. She clearly meant to kill him. He wanted to turn invisible again, but he couldn’t manage that feat twice in one night.



He heard more footsteps rushing up from below, along with the clatter of mail and steel. More guards were coming. His spirit lifted, his panic abated…if he could just get one solid shot in on her to turn the tide…. Yaol fumbled for the wand tucked in his belt. He would have to fight. The scorched, bloodied wizard lay in wait on the stairs for the girl, ready to hurl a devastating spell at her the moment he saw her emerge.



Instead of the girl, though, Yaol saw a small ceramic ball fly from the doorway. It struck against the opposite wall with a blinding flash of light. Yaol screamed, recognizing his own work too late to shield his eyes. Brilliant, colorful spots haunted his gaze even with his eyes closed. He squinted and winced, trying to focus. As soon as he saw her silhouette move through the doorway, he struck. A great snake of lightning flashed from his hands, leaping forward and striking at his foe.



All he caught with his spell was the cloak he’d carried from the dining room, which floated across the stairway landing under a simple cantrip. It suffered terribly under the wrath of Yaol’s electric snake, falling lifelessly to the floor as the lightning faded. Then more guards were at his side. One reached out to grab Yaol’s shoulder, helping him to his feet. Two others pressed forward, squeezing around him on the wide staircase.



Amanda stepped out from the doorway. Bright green liquid, conjured from thin air, shot from her hand like an arrow at Yaol, striking him dead in the chest. The protective enchantment of his robes was not enough to withstand the acid that had drenched him. It splattered all around when it struck, catching his saviors in turn. All in the stairway shrieked in pain under the liquid assault.



He fought to strip off the remains of his robes, to get to his feet, to flee. Yaol’s ruined body moved with such torturous pain that it was quickly growing numb. Dying on his feet as acid ate away at what flesh hadn’t been burned by flame, Yaol saw his would-be saviors lying dead around him. The girl he’d thought only a meek slave stepped through the bodies.



“You’re not an all-powerful wizard,” she said. “You’re not even a bully. You’re just a bunch of experience points.”



Yaol tried to ask her what that meant, but his ruined lips couldn’t manage it. The last thing he ever saw was her fist as it came straight at his nose. There was a flash of red, and then a falling sensation, and then his pain and his dreams of power ended.



***



The door to Bel-Danab’s throne room was blasted from its hinges by a thunderous shockwave that carried the last of the guards along with it. Amanda strode in after them, not waiting for the dust to clear. The only two occupants within the room cowered behind the throne itself, wanting no part of any battle with her.



Amanda hardly even looked at Bel-Danab’s concubines as she passed. She spared them two words while crossing the chamber toward the other door: “Bitches, leave.”



They hastened for the demolished exit, looking back in fear at the girl they had earlier discounted as a waste of space little more than a month ago. Amanda continued on her way, moving to the second staircase and then on up to the rooftop.



Warm summer winds blew all around the tower, whipping through her hair as she walked toward the great bowl. An ordinary-looking backpack was slung over one of her shoulders, while a hefty pouch hung from one hip on her belt. Both held far more treasures than any ordinary bag of similar volume could contain.



Amanda looked into the waters, seeing only the reflection of her own face and the stars above. “Are you there? Can you hear me?”



Silence was the only answer she received. Amanda took in a deep breath, looking out at the night sky and then back to the bowl. “I don’t have the power to call to you like Bel-Danab did,” she said. “You know that. I don’t even know who you are. But if you can hear me, I’m going to end this. At least for you. As best I can. I don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity.”



“You have struck back,” the voice came once more, rippling through the waters.



Amanda swallowed hard. She really didn’t know who or what she was talking to. From all she had read, though, chances were good that it wasn’t entirely benevolent. All along, she understood that it only really helped her for the chance to harm Bel-Danab. Yet help her it had, and she could certainly sympathize with its goals.



“I have,” she said. Her voice wavered. Facing Yaol had been frightening, but in the end, he was only a man. They were all only men. This was something else.



“You have a plan beyond this?”



“I do,” she said. “I need to ask you something. A couple of things. Will you tell me?”



“That depends on your questions.”



“If the tower is destroyed…will that free you from Bel-Danab?”



There was a long pause. “The collected treasure and power of Bel-Danab’s unnaturally long life is held in this tower. If it is destroyed, Bel-Danab will not be able to call upon me…until he rebuilds, or finds another way. It will free me for a time, yes. To truly free me, Bel-Danab must die.”



“Yeah. Well. I’m gonna work on that,” Amanda said. “He left, though. He went away. I don’t think I’ll have another chance to do this, so I’m gonna take what I can get.”



“You haven’t the power to destroy a building such as this yet.”



“I have a plan,” she shrugged. “Can you tell me who else is in the tower? Is it all still just guards? Are there slaves still in the tower?”



Again there was a silent pause. “The slaves and some of the guards have left the tower. They hide among the walls, near the gate. They have heard sounds of your battle and seek refuge.”



She nodded. “Can you tell me how to find Eric?”



“He remains in the mines. He is safe. Amanda,” the voice said deeply, “Eric has begun to find his strength. He has begun to adapt to this world. Worry not about him. Let him find you. You must look to yourself. If your plan succeeds, I will have no further need of payment. I will, in fact, owe you, yet if you succeed I will have no way to balance the scales. Will you accept my last guidance?”



She started to shake. Warm winds blew all around her, yet Amanda felt herself shiver. “If I’ve already paid,” she said, “then yes.”



Wind blew over the tower again, from behind Amanda and across the water. “You are not yet ready to face Bel-Danab, Amanda. Nor is Eric. You both need time. You must hide from our enemy. You must study and grow.”



“How long?”



“Bel-Danab’s plans must not be allowed to culminate. When he returns, he will likely rush to finish them. Until that time, you must hide. Without the resources of this tower, his ability to find you will be limited, yet he is still a powerful sorcerer and a chosen servant of a god.”



Amanda grimaced. She had hoped knocking out the tower would be enough. In hindsight, she realized that was foolish. “How do I hide from him, then?”



“The only thing that can shield you from the eyes of a god is another god,” the water explained. “Seek refuge in the temple of Derketo.”



“Won’t there be a price for that?”



“Nothing is ever free,” the water answered. “Yet you have already found one ally whose price was in your own interests. Even some of the gods of this age can be dealt with thusly.”



Amanda nodded. She looked out over the city, then over the tower, making sure she had her directions straight. “Thank you,” she said simply.



There was nothing further from the bowl. All she heard was the whistle of the wind.



For all the lightning and flame of her battle with Yaol, her next step was the truest test of her power. The spell was short and simple, yet precise, and the cost of failure was dire. Amanda breathed in deeply. Screwing up anything else along her way here would have cost her life just the same. Tracing a simple pattern in the air, Amanda let out her breath, inhaled again, and stepped over the parapet into the night air.



Her heart was in her throat for the first moment of her descent, but then her spirits soared. She fell, but only slowly, buoyed along by the wind. To be sure, she couldn’t fly, nor levitate, but she fell as light as a feather.



Laughing for the first time in weeks, Amanda decided to make an effort at steering herself. There was little control, but she managed to at least turn herself to let the wind blow her further away from the tower. She came to land well outside the walls, finding herself on the roof of a nearby building. In this new spot, she was merely a couple of stories from the ground.



She had a good view of the window to Yaol’s laboratory, high above her. It was less than halfway up the tower. Taking another deep breath, Amanda pulled the haversack down from her shoulder, drew from it a wand different from the one she’d used in her fight, and pointed it toward the window. She steadied her aim and recited the words to the spell over and over again. Unlike her fall, she had more than one shot at this, but it was a long shot just the same.



Amanda barked the key word of invocation. A silvery bolt of force streamed from the wand up to the tower, striking against the stone near the window. She cast again, coming closer. A third attempt struck a bit high.



She heard shouts from the street below. Her activity had caught the attention of the many people out late that night. Amanda put it out of her head. Wizardry required nothing if not concentration. Once more, she fired.



Her silvery missile struck home, smashing into the rack of alchemical solutions and concoctions she had arrayed near the window. Most were dangerous enough in and of themselves. Many of them were never meant to be mixed, let alone set off together.



The explosion pulverized great stone blocks from above and below the window and blasted loose still many more. Even from her spot many stories down, Amanda felt the shockwave as it passed with a thunderous boom that was heard for miles. She was forced to look away for a moment, closing her eyes, but when she looked back she saw that the damage was even more dire than she expected. Shouts and cries of terror erupted all around. Amanda saw the guards at the wall had wisely flung open the gate to save themselves. Everyone from Bel-Danab and Randast’s concubines to the lowliest slaves ran for their lives.



Amanda felt a sharp pang of relief at that. It was no less than she expected, but just the same she had worried. Looking back up as more and more debris fell from the tower, Amanda felt herself taking instinctive steps backward along her rooftop. The hole she had made was huge. Further explosions ripped through the tower as more of Yaol’s raw materials reacted. In a room near Yaol’s laboratory were his acid vats, now surely overturned and spilling everywhere.



There were loud, frightening cracking sounds. An awful grinding. The tower buckled around its giant, gaping hole. Amanda’s heart raced as the top of the structure began to collapse under its own weight. The impact of so much mass falling from above was too much for the floors and walls below. Like so many others in the city that night, Amanda watched in awe as the Tower of Bel-Danab came crashing down within the high walls around it.



The cloud of dust created by the destruction of the tower was predictably immense. Amanda turned away as it rose, pulling up the hood of her cloak as she fled. She needed to take advantage of the chaos and all the eyes turned toward the understandable distraction.



Beside this two story building was a shorter one. Amanda hopped down onto that roof, fled across it, then moved toward the next. Eventually she found a place to climb down and shadows in which to hide. While others ran to see what was going on, Amanda moved further away, putting as much distance between herself and the disaster she caused as she could.



Amanda crept through dark, empty streets, looking for any abandoned space she could find. She discovered a simple shop, its wares hauled away at the end of the day rather than being left behind for thieves. She slipped inside, closed the shutters behind her and reached into her haversack once more.



The green gem that Yaol had given to Amanda to place out on the balcony of his laboratory had doubled in size since she had first seen it. She hadn’t known its purpose then, but she had come to understand it once she’d had a chance to look over Yaol’s notes. The wretched man had gone to great trouble and expense to gather the components required in making it and even more in working its enchantments. The effect itself wasn’t more dramatic as other, similar spells and magical treasures…but its effects were permanent.



Amanda slipped out of her cloak and her tattered clothes. She had to be naked for this to work. She raised the gem above her head before squeezing it in her hands. It was crushed almost instantly, showering Amanda with tiny flecks of emerald that glittered in what little light was present in the mostly empty storefront. She breathed slowly, in and out, concentrating on the effect she desired.



Quiet moments passed. Amanda felt a tremor run through her body, then another. Her skin soon felt tight and dry, yet her muscles ached for movement. She found herself stretching this way and that in slow, flowing movements. The irritation of her skin was quickly overwhelmed by the pleasurable sensations running within her. Amanda continued to stretch, laying on the floor and pushing against the wall while reaching backward with her legs as far as she could.



She felt a light, almost distant tearing sensation at one shoulder, then the next. She glanced down to see her desiccated, almost scaly skin had parted like fabric tearing at a seam, yet with soft, healthy flesh underneath. She found herself grinning, feeling too good not to enjoy this. Amanda writhed on the ground, crawling away from herself, leaving behind the old, dried-out, discarded flesh of her former shell.



Minutes passed. The process was not instantaneous, nor was it remotely natural, but Amanda found herself enjoying it. Languidly running her hands across her body, Amanda freed herself from dried, dead flesh like a molting snake.



The Amanda that emerged was dramatically shapelier. Her legs and arms were toned and smooth. Her figure took on a shape she had only dreamed of having weeks before. She even pulled away excess flesh from her face, tearing it off as if she had been wearing a mask.



Satisfied that the process was done, Amanda stood and stretched once more. She ran her hands over her new body, finding the results excited her. Ultimately, she had needed a way to alter her appearance so that it would be difficult for Bel-Danab’s minions to recognize her. If she could become strikingly beautiful along the way, she decided, she certainly wouldn’t mind.



It was a simple enough trick of magic to vaporize the shed skin of her former self. Looking at her discarded clothing, she decided to get rid of it, too. She had snatched up enough other clothing to disguise herself as a local before leaving the tower. Amanda dressed, gathered her things, and slipped back out into the night.



She found the temple shortly before dawn. Torches mounted to either side illuminated the steps from the street to the tall pillars marking the temple entrance. Her head still enshrouded by the hood of her cloak, Amanda walked up the steps to the small shrine within the pillars and knelt. The shrine itself was a simple white lion statue under a white marble arch. Upon the lion sat a dusky-hued woman wearing little more than jewelry and beads who watched serenely until Amanda’s head was bowed.



“What brings you to Derketo, child?” the woman asked. She was herself hardly older than Amanda, but she spoke with self-assured elegance.



“I seek refuge,” Amanda said. “I was abducted from home and taken here against my will. I escaped, but they hunt for me. I need a place to hide.”



“Refuge we may grant,” the woman said, “for Derketo values freedom. Yet hiding is not the way of Derketo, or her daughters. We practice our faith openly. We abhor shame.”



“It isn’t shame that drives me to hide,” Amanda replied. “It’s danger.”



The woman sitting on the lion nodded. She turned to ring a small bell sitting beside her. A minute later, two more women emerged. They looked about Amanda’s age. They were almost as lovely as the woman sitting in the shrine, with similarly dark complexions and similarly scant clothing.



“Refuge is granted,” said the woman on the lion, “until the dawn. The high priestess will speak with you then. Hide nothing from her, nor from yourself. Leave behind both shame and fear upon these steps.”



Amanda bowed again, not really knowing the etiquette for this, and followed the other women inside.



***



“Left. Left. Up again. Faster. Remember your feet. Trust your instincts. Faster–no! Too slow,” Fallon snapped. She ducked in under the swing of Eric’s cloth-wrapped stick, sliding hers across his right thigh right at the hip and then his left right over the knee in a single slash.



“That would cripple a man,” Fallon said, rising again. Their only light in the cave was a small lantern, making it hard for Eric to make out the expression on her face. Her voice didn’t convey disdain, but there was no approval in it, either. He wished he could make out her eyes.



They slipped into the abandoned shaft a few hours before dawn every night to practice, ever since that first rainy night. They practiced with simple sticks and bare hands, sparring until the oil ran out in the lantern, as was happening just now. The flicker of the lantern’s light warned them that it was time to return to the surface, and then to another day’s toil in a different cavern.

Fallon cast her sparring stick aside. “Let’s go,” she grunted before walking out.



Eric dropped his stick and followed. They had only a short distance to cover, then out into the camp, creeping past guards and overseers as they went. Before he met Fallon, Eric had never thought himself particularly sneaky. It turned out that he only needed a little coaching from her. After that, stealth seemed to come naturally.



Already up before the dawn, Eric and Fallon were the first to grab at the bread and cold meat cast out to the slaves as they awoke all over the camp. They lingered briefly on the surface, watching the guards for any changes in their routines before inevitably returning to the underground dig.



“More guards now,” Fallon noted as they headed down the main tunnel. “And the priests of Set have looked troubled for the past few days. Something must have happened outside the camp to put them on edge. They speak of some disaster.”



“Must be outside,” Eric nodded in agreement. By now, the last of his original clothing had fallen apart. He, too, was in little more than a loincloth and crude sandals. “They were pretty pleased up until a couple days ago.”



“They’re almost inside the old temple,” Fallon shrugged. “Could be there any day now.”



“Fallon,” Eric said finally, having worked up the courage for his question over the last couple of nights. “Why are you still here?”



“Hm?”



“You could slip out of here whenever you want. You said so before, and by now I completely believe it. Why are you still here?”



Fallon said, looking at him like it was a silly question. “Because bringing you with me would slow me down,” she said. “I could get away on my own, yes. We could not escape all these guards and cover all this distance together. Not without a better opportunity than we have yet seen.”



“But that’s what I mean,” Eric pressed, stopping in his tracks. “Is it really worth all this bullshit just to stay here with me?”



The barbarian woman’s brow furrowed deeper. “Yes,” she said simply.



Eric blinked. “Why?”



“You asked me to help you.”



“I’m grateful. I’m really grateful. I just…I keep thinking of how much I owe you and how much happier you’d be to get out of here, and I can’t understand why you stay for just me.”



Her mouth turned into a frown. “I left Cimmeria alone, and have been mostly alone for all the years since. Hardly any man has looked at me without either disdain or fear until I met you. And you may be from some soft age, but you are neither cowardly nor weak. Perhaps I expect much of others, but I will not lower myself to expect less. Friends have always been the hardest of treasures to find.”



Eric was stunned. Guilt had been eating at him for the last few days. He had meant to encourage Fallon to move on, but now he was simply floored by her blunt statement.



“You there!” growled Tronus. He came stomping down the tunnel from the entrance, flanked by a pair of guards. “Get down there and get to work. This isn’t a tavern!”



Fallon didn’t bother to look at the overseer. Her gaze was still on Eric. “Although my patience with this place does wear thin,” she added.



Grinning with her, Eric turned and headed the rest of the way to the main dig site. They arrived to find the main bulk of the slave labor force already at work in what was now a huge, broad cavern. Space had been cleared out all around the ancient temple, as Set’s priests demanded full access to every rune on every wall before continuing. Further cave-ins had occurred, freeing space between the temple’s roof and the ceiling of the cave and removing the need for at least some of the harsher digging, though at the cost of other slave lives.



Light was now plentiful in the cavern. Holes had been bored from up above to provide bright shafts of daylight as well as ventilation. Ropes dangled from each hole to enable slaves up above to lower buckets of water without having to traverse the tunnels. There was much more supervision, too. Scattered around the cavern were priests of Set studying all of the ruins in detail, along with guards and overseers to keep the work force in line.



A scream split the cavern air as Eric and Fallon arrived, resounding clearly from within the temple’s outer walls despite the noise of the ongoing dig. There was another, and then a third, and then a rush of screams as slaves ran from the ruined gate through the temple’s outer walls. Panic and terror were evident in their cries, which quickly spread through the crowds of slaves beyond.



Fallon gripped Eric’s shoulder. “There is some foul magic at work here,” she growled. “I knew these fools would unleash something better left buried.”



Within heartbeats, Fallon was proven right. As guards rushed in to control the crowd and slaves fought to get out, the pair saw one last man emerge from the temple walls. Clinging to his back was another man, or something close to it–except for the green, scaly skin and the snakelike head atop its thick, long neck. It reared back with its fanged mouth open wide before clamping down on the slave’s skull with a fatal bite.



Even as the man staggered and fell, more snake men appeared. They bore spears and bows, with shields covered with black leather and swords fashioned from some ancient creature’s bones. There were dozens of them, then dozens more, all rushing out to fall upon their human prey without mercy.



A priest in the robes of Set stood forward, raising his arms high in praise. “Stop, ancient ones!” the man called out. “We seek only to serve the same–ngh!” The arrow that plunged into his throat silenced his plea, seeming to settle the issue of religious loyalties.



“Guards!” Tronus yelled out over the din, “hold the slaves in! The serpents are just hungry! Let them eat of the slaves!”



Fallon grabbed the arm of the guard nearest to her, planting a resounding punch across his face with her free hand. Then she jerked his sword from its sheath, leaving him to fall away from her clutching his broken jaw. “We leave now,” she growled.



Eric caught her meaning. He tripped up another guard who came rushing by, then jumped on him on the ground to slam the man’s head down on the stone floor. Before Eric had snatched the guard’s sword, Fallon had already dropped two other guards. By the time he was on his feet, she had slain two more.



Armed and ready now, Eric and Fallon stuck close as the wave of slaves rushed by. The mob clogged the entrance tunnel, tangling in a panicked crush that trampled some to death and threatened to suffocate others. Meanwhile even more serpent men appeared from within the temple, bringing down anyone who couldn’t get away.



“We’ll never get out through the tunnel,” Eric said.



“We needn’t outrun the wolves. Just the slowest prey. That way. The ropes,” Fallon said. She led the way, shoving through slaves fleeing from the serpent men. Eric followed, watchfully guarding her back. They ran perpendicular to the danger rather than directly away from it, which seemed counterintuitive to Eric until he realized there really was no place else to go.



Something struck him from the side. Eric fell to the ground, looking up to see Tronus there with his sword at the ready. “Drop the weapon, slave!” he growled.



“Are you nuts!?” Eric snapped. “They’ll kill us all!”



Tronus didn’t try to argue. He raised his sword high to bring it down across Eric’s fallen body. Eric spun away, swinging his blade out as he moved to catch the back of the overseer’s legs. No armor protected the back of his calves. Tronus cried out in pain and swung at Eric again, finding his blow parried as he fell to his knees.



On his feet now, Eric stepped back from Tronus just in time to see a serpent man tackle the overseer to the floor. Tronus cried out as his attacker’s fangs sunk into his neck.



Eric spun again, his guard up quick enough to block the sweeping blow of another serpent man’s spear. Eric parried again, sidestepped and caught the thing in the neck with a slash of his blade. Jerking his sword free, he saw the thing clutch at its throat in desperation as blood spurted from the wound. The thing fell with a hiss.



Another came on, leaping over dead bodies at Eric with hungry eyes. It bore a leather-covered shield and a sword of bone, which it stabbed viciously at Eric. He spun away, trading swipes and parries until its shield went up too high. Eric caught it across its weird, barely-discernible knees with a low swipe, then slammed his shoulder against the thing’s shield as it stumbled. With the serpent falling onto its back, Eric had the opening he needed to stab down directly into its chest.



There was no time to think. More were coming. “Eric!” Fallon shouted. She stood not far away, close to the ropes from one of the ventilation shafts. Dead serpent men and guards alike lay at her feet. She already had a guard’s sword and belt slung over her shoulder. “Come on!”



“Go!” he shouted as he ran. “Get going!”



Fallon cursed, but did as he said. She was the faster climber, anyway; he would only slow her down. The barbarian woman heaved herself up the rope with one hand, practically letting go of the rope before the next hand even caught hold.



An arrow flew by her as a serpent archer misjudged her speed. She kept going. There was a second missile, followed by a third, all of them narrowly missing Fallon in her erratic climb.



Though she didn’t slow in her ascent, Fallon spared a downward glance toward the archer. There would be only so much she could do before it had a sense of her speed and could land a fatal shot. As she spotted her assailant, though, she saw it impaled through the stomach by a sword flung through the air.



Then Eric was at the rope below her. He was no longer armed, but it was just as well; he needed both hands to climb, anyway. Fallon continued up the rope, reaching the cavern ceiling in mere moments.



Eric wasn’t long in catching up. Before he got to the shaft, he looked out across the cavern floor to see the chaos below. As he had guessed, the serpent men cared little for who was a guard and who was a slave. They struck down anyone in their path. Dozens waded into the press of slaves still trying to get out of the tunnels, while others were already devouring the fallen. The serpent men couldn’t swallow a whole man, but they could clearly cut one into small enough pieces on which to gorge themselves.



Fallon had paused in her climb mid-way through the shaft, bracing her legs against its walls. She waited until Eric was similarly ensconced by the rocks. “There will be panic above,” Fallon said.



“Yeah,” Eric huffed. Then, in spite of himself, he laughed. “Snakes,” he said. “Why did it have to be snakes?”



“Do you think they will continue up to the surface?”



“I do, yeah,” Eric nodded. “They look hungry.”



“Then we make a break for it. We slip through one of the supply tents. The guards will have their hands full. We take what we can carry and then slip out of here. If there are still archers patrolling the outskirts in all this, we’ll have to make short work of them.”



“Right,” Eric nodded. His voice was a bit shaken. He could hardly believe he’d pulled off the physical feats he’d just performed. “Was this the kind of opportunity you were waiting for?”



“Yes!” Fallon said with a triumphant note. “If we are lucky, Bel-Danab will think you dead!”



***



It was certainly easier to study in the temple than it had been in Bel-Danab’s tower. Not only was there no need to hide her activity, there was private space to practice and experiment. Food and drink were plentiful, and little was expected of Amanda. She could keep mostly to herself, letting her time be consumed with her studies. Though there was ever more to learn, Amanda found her power grew quickly here.



That said, distractions were plentiful as well. Derketo, as it turned out, was a fertility goddess–blessing humanity as well as the fields. What’s more, she and her disciples were quite uninhibited about it. Indeed, they were uninhibited about virtually everything.



Once granted sanctuary by the high priestess, Amanda was given a spare room of her own and even clothing that fit better than anything she had swiped from Bel-Danab’s tower. Amanda was now the proud owner of two rather abbreviated silken sarongs, if they could be called that. She was more inclined to call them scarves. Yet though they took care of the more vital concerns of modesty, Amanda soon found that few within the temple wore even so much as this.



The men of the temple, all of them healthy, young and deferential to the women, largely wore only loincloths. The women wore about the same; some kept their breasts covered with silken halters, while others left them bare. More than a few wore elaborate jewelry that served only to draw attention to their naked flesh rather than cover up their naughty bits. Amanda did her best not to stare, though she soon realized that her gaze never resulted in less than appreciative smiles in return–and, more often than not, invitation.



She wasn’t used to that, either. Men and women alike plainly admired her body and commented openly on her sensuous body and her lovely face. She was pleasantly surprised to find that for all the dramatic impact of her magic makeover, her face was still reminiscent of her old self to be recognizable. The gemstone had done its work very well. At first, she thought it had perhaps worked too well…but as time went on, the more comfortable she became.



Perhaps it was the wine. Perhaps it was the incense in the air. Maybe it was the warm, friendly smiles and soft touch of her hosts in passing conversation, or the constant music wafting through the air, or the frequent, barely-muffled sounds of passion…but the longer Amanda stayed, the more the nature of her distraction shifted from discomfort to interest.



Reclined on her bed of silk sheets and pillows, Amanda tried hard to synthesize the lore provided in a pair of scrolls unfurled before her. It was tough work; the languages were different, the authors were five hundred years removed…and not far down the hall, two women were having a very, very good time.



“More, Paulus!” one of them wailed. “You drive me mad! More!”



“Take her, my stallion!” the other urged Paulus, whoever he was. She let out a long, loud moan. “Her passion drives mine! Take her!”



Amanda let out a deep, amused breath. She had to laugh a little: weeks of toil and fear, only to escape to the Temple of the Forbidden Orgy. The dialogue made her cringe, and yet the tone of their voices left her in no doubt that it was all genuine. Alone in her small chamber, Amanda allowed her hand to slip down across her bared belly and then between her legs. Her fingernails traced up one thigh, which she spread for herself, fingertips gently slipping under her sarong to touch tender, moistening flesh…



“Amira?” came a low, feminine voice. It was the name Amanda had given everyone in the temple. Amanda’s hand jerked from her sex as she inhaled sharply. There wasn’t much privacy to be had here; she had only a thick curtain of beads to separate her room from the hallway. Amanda kept forgetting that.



“Yes?” Amanda replied, sitting up on her narrow yet comfortable bed.



“May I enter?” the voice of the high priestess wasn’t difficult to recognize. Salatis had shared only a few conversations with “Amira,” seeming to respect her privacy. The high priestess had seemed at once kind and hungry every time she spoke to Amanda; the former was a relief after all she had been through, while the later made Amanda feel more than a little excited.



Amanda had wondered for a long time if she might be attracted to other women. Salatis and the rest of the temple acolytes had settled that question for her quite firmly.



“Of course,” Amanda said. She brushed back her hair, reclined back onto some pillows to allow her sarong to fall from her legs, still slightly parted–and then caught herself. She sat upright. What the hell was she doing?



The beaded curtain was parted by a slender, elegant hand. Stepping into Amanda’s room was the most majestically beautiful woman she had ever seen, dark-haired, deeply tanned and endlessly confident. Her dark eyes seemed to see straight through Amanda. For all her newfound arcane power and inner strength, this woman left Amanda feeling small and vulnerable.



“How does the evening find you?” Salatis asked, her voice taking on a note of kindness once more.



“I’m fine, thank you,” Amanda answered quickly. She found herself mesmerized by those dark eyes. Breaking herself of the reverie, Amanda resolved to focus on something else, then found her gaze falling to the high priestess’s chest, and then forced herself to look in the other woman’s eyes again.



Salatis tilted her head somewhat. She reached out to touch Amanda’s dark hair, running her fingers through it gently. “More half-truths,” Salatis said.



Amanda swallowed hard. Despite her comment, though, the priestess showed no change in demeanor at all. “I’m sorry,” she explained nervously. “I just don’t know…I don’t really know what I should say.”



“Is that why you keep to yourself here? All alone?” Salatis glanced down at the scrolls on the bed, then gestured to the enchanted backpack and Amanda’s other tools stacked in the corner. “I know only a little of wizardry and the arcane arts, yet even I know that these things alone are not enough to fill anyone’s life. No one but madmen,” she added softly.



Looking up at Salatis with pleading eyes, Amanda found herself at a complete loss. “I’ve been alone for weeks,” Amanda said, “and even before I came here, I…” She swallowed, trying to figure out how to express herself without giving away too much. “I have friends far away from here, but even so, I’ve been lonely for a long time. Maybe I’m just used to it.”



“You are used to your fear,” Salatis said. “You have felt the sting of rejection. Mockery. Betrayal. I can see that as plainly as I see your eyes.” Her fingers continued to stroke through Amanda’s hair. “And you are only now finding your strength.”



Amanda just nodded. “Can you understand, then…why it’s hard for me to trust? I don’t want to insult you. You’ve all been so kind to me, and I–!” Her words came out in a rush, but were halted by a single finger laid upon her lips.



“Do you know the relation of Derketo to Set, Amira?” the priestess asked. Amanda shook her head. Given everything going on in the temple, she had been afraid to ask much. That was one particular question that she wouldn’t have even dared. “Set sees Derketo as his. As his wife, as his whore…ask any priest of Set of Derketo’s place and you will quickly come to understand his view of women.



“Yet as with any woman, Derketo is more complicated than a simple, meek, submissive wife. She has her own goals. Her own interests. Were there perfect harmony between Derketo and Set, there would be similar harmony between her priests and his…and yet the priests of Set would love nothing more than to drive us from this city.



“They cannot. They haven’t the power. They call us licentious whores and they deride our celebrations of mortal flesh and intimacy. They resent us. And yet we stand.



“Now, tell me, Amira…when a young, budding wizard appears at our doorstep, the very night that the tower of the most favored servant of Set himself has come crashing down, what are we to think?”



Amanda just stared into her eyes. The answer was obvious. She half-expected–more than half–that the priestesses would guess exactly what happened. She figured that they might have their own reasons for sheltering her, though. Reasons that didn’t involve waiting to turn her over to Bel-Danab. Yet now she felt stupid for even hoping for such a thing.



“I’m sorry,” Amanda whispered.



Salatis gently shook her head. “We think that Derketo belongs to Derketo,” she finished, “and that she will do as she chooses. We think that if the priests of Set wanted more cooperation from us, they would show it in their own actions.

“You are safe here, Amira. Whatever you have done, it has pleased Derketo. Bel-Danab and his minions are not allowed in here. Nor has anyone guessed as to your identity or your purpose but me. We do not see a wizard, or a foe of a mighty sorcerer. We see a guest.”



Her voice dropped as her face crept closer to Amanda’s. “A very honored guest…who should know our appreciation.”



Amanda’s resistance crumbled the moment Salatis’s lips brushed against hers. Her mind went virtually blank for a moment as the other woman’s kiss slowly widened and deepened. Tingling pleasure erupted from her tongue, rippling from there throughout her limbs and down to her core.



“You have a lovely body, Amira,” Salatis murmured when the kiss finally ended.



“I do?” A tremble ran through her. “I didn’t…I didn’t always.” A small part of her was relieved that was all she said. Her first thought had been to say, “Really? Thanks, I just got it.”



Cool, electrifying fingers traced across her shoulders, then along her collarbones. “You have never enjoyed it, have you?”



“No. No one has ever…ever wanted to be with me.”



“Then they were fools,” came the soft whisper against her ear. “Everyone in this temple would gladly lie with you.”



“I didn’t always look like this,” Amanda repeated.



“There is so much more than appearances. There is the mind. There is spirit.” A heavy, nervous but delicious feeling filled Amanda through her center. “So many with less gifts than yours find love. Pleasure. Have you never searched?”



“I’ve always felt…” The words trailed away. She wasn’t ugly. She knew she hadn’t been ugly, or fat. She knew that. There was something else. “Shy.”



She could feel Salatis grin against her neck. “You will learn to remedy that here.”



Amanda whimpered. “This place…you…” The grin turned to a kiss. Amanda leaned into it, wanting more, wanting to return it, but still afraid. “This place makes me more shy than ever inside.”



“There is no need to feel shy here. No one knows who you are. No one need ever know you were here.”



It was as if Salatis had spoken some sort of magic words. Her fears diminished, leaving only hunger and need. Amanda reached up to touch the other woman’s shoulder, then her neck. Salatis turned her face toward Amanda’s, letting her take a little bit of initiative to make her cooperation in this real. The priestess received her kiss, letting Amanda invade her mouth with her tongue. She came forward, sliding one knee up along Amanda’s thigh to rest on the bed.



Amanda tugged gently on Salatis. The whole world beyond this woman and this bed faded away. She felt the other woman’s hands deftly slip free the knot that tied Amanda’s sarong together. Every moment excited her more, yet robbed the strength from her limbs. Salatis seemed to know it; she guided Amanda back, letting her lay on the bed while she moved in over her.



Pleasure rushed through her as Salatis slipped her hands under the loose sarong to explore Amanda’s breasts. They’d always been sensitive, but never like this. Amanda moaned as Salatis gently squeezed and caressed. Her partner’s lips came down to hers again, kissing her while those hands continued to show Amanda just how arousing a woman’s hands upon her breasts could be.



Salatis then kissed her way down Amanda’s chin and neck, slipping her knees down further on the bed. Amanda wondered, excitedly, just how far down her partner would go. The sudden lick of that tongue across one nipple as the other was gently pinched destroyed any thought beyond her need for more and more.



Salatis twisted a bit, slipping her hip between Amanda’s legs, then twisting back to lay flat and make Amanda spread wider. The younger woman didn’t fight it. Breathing heavily, Amanda simply surrendered herself to the loving treatment received by her breasts, her neck and her belly. When Salatis slipped one hand away, Amanda simply sighed with pleasure at the feeling of her sliding it down Amanda’s side. Dimly, she realized that Salatis had caught the clasp of the jeweled belt that held her skirt together, unfastening it. The small bit of fabric covering her hip fell away.



Her heart pounded as Salatis pulled up away from her. The priestess slipped away the folds of Amanda’s skirt still covering the younger woman’s front. Naked and vulnerable now, Amanda trembled at the smile that spread across her partner’s face. “Very lovely,” Salatis grinned approvingly before her head and that wonderful mouth descended once more.



Kisses on her inner thigh set Amanda’s body on fire all over again. Salatis teased and explored all around Amanda’s sex, leaving her panting and ready to plead to be taken by the time that wonderful tongue finally brushed across Amanda’s warm, wet lips. She threw her head back against her pillow, crying out in ecstasy as she was touched for the first time by someone else.



“Hold nothing back, Amira,” Salatis told her with a sultry voice. “Enjoy your body.”



That tongue descended once more, licking the full length of Amanda’s lips. She moaned again, feeling like she could come at any second. Salatis took her time, though, licking up and down one side of Amanda’s flesh, then the other, pushing inside so slowly yet relentlessly as to drive Amanda mad.



Her pulse raced as her mind and body were flooded with pleasure. Salatis continued her tender work, invading Amanda’s body first with her kiss, then later with a gentle, skilled finger when it was time for that kiss to move up Amanda’s lips to tend to her clit.



When Amanda finally erupted with orgasm, feeling her body wracked with spasms of bliss, Salatis didn’t stop. The older woman merely softened her touch, extending Amanda’s climax and then gently bringing her down from the height of pleasure without ever fully letting her go. “Thank you,” Amanda whispered deliriously when she could speak again. “Thank you.”



The mouth pulled away, briefly, but Salatis’s fingers remained within her. The priestess looked on Amanda with a satisfied smile as she reached with her free hand for a small bell nearby. When Amanda opened her mouth to whimper out a protest, Salatis merely stroked her in just the right place to leave her young partner gasping with pleasure yet again.



She heard the beaded curtain part. “Yes, mistress?” a girl’s voice asked. Amanda glanced up to see two lovely young women, both her age, standing in her room. They smiled pleasantly but otherwise seemed utterly unbothered by the lusty scene before them.



“Adina. Nishan. You will tend to our guest’s comfort and pleasure for as long as she remains here,” Salatis said. Amanda breathed hard as the two women both nodded, smiling as if this was good news. “Nishan, please take her belongings to my chambers. She will sleep there with me until she wishes to leave us. Adina, her breasts are very sensitive. Aid me.”



Amanda gasped once more as the one called Adina turned and knelt beside the bed with a sweet smile. Nishan moved into the room, collecting Amanda’s belongings. Before she could object, though, that mouth was on her pussy once more. Nishan’s delicate hands swept across Amanda’s chest, heightening her pleasure. Soon there were two mouths on Amanda’s body, driving thoughts of anything but sensual joy from her mind.



The last coherent thought she had for a long time was the hope that the voice in the water was right about Eric, and that he was alright wherever he was.



***



The ambush went perfectly.



Eric had his doubts at first. His doubts grew as they lay in wait for two days for the riders who would bring the regular payment in gold to a camp full of guards now dead and eaten. Not wanting to irritate Fallon, though, he held his tongue and followed her plan. When their quarry arrived at the river’s edge, rearing up on their horses to call to the ferryman from where he sat on the shore fishing just off from the road, they had complete surprise.



Eric sprang from dry brush just off the road, slashing his sword wide across the side of the head rider, then continuing on to get in a surprise stab at the one behind him. Fallon came at the two columns of riders from behind, spear in one hand, sword in the other. A ten-against-two fight quickly became six against two, made even less threatening when the priest of Set at the center of the column lost control of his panicked horse and found himself crashing into his closest bodyguard.



Javelins thrown by two of the remaining riders flew past Eric, while another wheeled his horse around to charge. He faked left, then spun right just as the horse passed, and caught the rider across the spine with a high swing that bit through his hardened leather armor. He turned back to the others to see one turn to run while the other fell, clutching at a dagger that had appeared in his throat. Fallon was beside Eric then, snatching up a javelin and rushing in pursuit of the fleeing rider as his horse sped away. Her throw was spot on; the rider fell with the javelin impaling him through the center of his chest, dying even before he hit the ground.



Recovering quickly, the priest’s bodyguard loyally put up a stiff fight. He and Eric circled one another in several exchanges before Eric’s superior strength won out. A blow to the bodyguard’s skull ended the battle.



Jerking his blade free, Eric saw the priest cut down by a sword stroke through the belly. Fallon looked back at him, glancing at the horse of the rider he’d cut down with a frown. “Why didn’t you take down the horse?” she asked curtly.



“What?” Eric blinked. It still shocked him how casual she could be about all this. Men were still bleeding out and already she was critiquing his tactics.



“The horse,” Fallon said, pointing at the now wandering creature with her sword. “Leaping across the path of a charging horse is a risk. You could have swung low, chopped at its legs. The rider would’ve been thrown.”



Eric let out an exasperated breath. “What did the horse do to me?”



Fallon looked at him like he was insane, but finally laughed. “You are a strange one, Eric.”



He walked forward, plodding along with adrenaline still coursing through him. “Hey, I don’t feel good about any of this. You know that,” he scowled. He looked on as Fallon tore a scarf adorned with runes and snakes from the dying priest to wipe the blood from her sword. “Where I’m from, this is robbery and murder.”



“Aye,” Fallon nodded, grinning madly, “that’s what it is.”



Her casual attitude drove him mad. “You understand this isn’t okay where I’m from? You don’t just jump people on the road and kill them. This isn’t normal.”



“No? Not normal?” Fallon asked, still bearing something of a grin as she squinted at him in the sunlight. “Shall we talk about normalcy?”



The barbarian reached down to grab at the priest’s robe, forcing him into a sitting position. He clutched at his gaping stomach wound, whimpering in pain. “Tell us, priest,” Fallon hissed into the man’s ear, “how many times you’ve laid some frightened girl out on an altar to your god and cut her heart out more slowly than I opened up your gut?”



Half-mad with pain, the priest growled through gritted teeth. “Set demands sacrifice! Set will rise once more!”



“Sacrifice. Yes. Where I come from, you can only sacrifice something that belongs to you. Would you care to be sacrificed to your god? I could take care of that right now.”



The priest’s only reply was spat out across Fallon’s face. She half-smiled up at Eric again. “That is normal for these men,” she said. “Virgin sacrifices to dark gods are glorious deeds to these ‘civilized’ folk.” With that, she shoved the man’s face down into the dirt, standing straight once more. The barbarian clapped Eric on the shoulder as she walked past. “Save your compassion for those who understand such a thing,” she suggested.



The Cimmerian strode over to the man sitting on the shore. “Ferryman,” she said, “we’ll take our leave of you very shortly.” She reached down to pull up his cloak, allowing her to cut the ropes that had him tied in his seated position. “We will give you a small share of our loot for your troubles. If you’re smart, you’ll take that and a horse or two and take your family far from here immediately.”



The ferryman scowled at Fallon as he rubbed his hands, letting his empty fishing pole fall away. “You are too kind, Cimmerian,” he grumbled.



“Indeed,” she replied with a chipper grin. With that, she returned to Eric’s side, helping him gather the horses to search their packs.



“I’m sorry,” Eric said finally. “I didn’t mean to snap at you.”



Fallon simply shrugged. “You aren’t used to battle, or hard living. I think I can find it in me to forgive you.” She tossed him a serious look. “A warrior must be able to decide quickly when to fight and kill, and to do so without regret. But I would not think much of one who could kill lightly, regardless of how fast.”



Reaching into the saddlebag of the priest’s horse, Fallon was quickly put back into high spirits. She pulled out a large, heavy sack that tinkled with the sound of coins. “We’ll feel better after we’ve had a few drinks in a city of snakes.”



***



It was three full days before Amanda could seriously focus on magic again. In that time, she hadn’t worn a stitch of clothing, nor had she been alone. She had enjoyed Salatis many times, and Adina and Nishan, individually and together. There were others as well. Amanda was bathed, massaged and adored at every turn by the women of the temple.



She learned to give pleasure as well as receive. Salatis took sensual delight in teaching Amanda to bring a woman to arousal and ecstasy. Seduction became not only an experience, but an education.



As Salatis had promised, no one asked her who she was. Only the priestess and Amanda’s two “attendants” (to whom Amanda frequently attended in turn) had any clue of her arcane practices. To others within the temple, she was simply Amira, a beautiful young woman new to the ways of sexuality. She was to be educated and welcomed.



It was a thorough education.



Returning to her studies required no small amount of willpower. Salatis could not always be around; she had a temple to run and a faith to represent among the powers of the city. Adina and Nishan were constant presences, though, and further lovely company was only a spoken whim away. Yet as much as she wanted to throw away the world outside and remain in the temple forever, there was too much else at stake.



She spent a full day practicing, finding her power and control had grown despite her lengthy distraction. Salatis resided in wide, spacious chambers. As long as Amanda did nothing that left a lasting mess, her hostess had no concern about such work being performed there. That meant no flames or acid, of course, but not every spell in Amanda’s growing repretoire was so destructive to an environment.



Nishan reclined on Salatis’s bed while Adina sat nearby on a velvet couch, both of them watching in amazement and glee as their nude companion worked her wonders. Against an old, tattered tapestry brought in for just this purpose, Amanda hurled bolt after bolt of silvery magical force. A small goblet of water floated around Amanda in circles as she worked, under her control the whole time.



“Why the water, Amira?” Nishan asked. “What is the point to it?”



“Wizarding is thirsty work, I imagine,” Adina suggested wryly.



Amanda continued to throw her blasts of force. The goblet kept moving. “Concentration,” she answered calmly. “Endurance. I need to get used to doing several things at once with magic. Need to see how long I can sustain the effort.”



“You look like you could create those magic darts all night,” Adina said. “You practically have.”



“Sorry if I’m boring you both,” Amanda said, but she kept up her mystic workout.



“No, it’s not boring at all,” Nishan giggled. “Though it’s just not as fun as…other things.”



Amanda grumbled, but grinned at the same time. She literally had to command them both to keep their hands off of her so she could practice. She adored them for it, too.



“Can you show us something else?” Adina asked.



The constant barrage of magical blasts ceased. The goblet reversed direction, glowed brightly, and changed color.



“Bravo,” Adina said. Nishan clapped.



“I could put you both to sleep,” Amanda offered with a shrug.



“What fun would that be?” Adina asked.



“Do something else,” Nishan urged.



Accepting the challenge, Amanda turned back to face the tapestry. Swiftly, she clapped her hands together once and outstretched her fingers. A broad rainbow of light burst from her hands, engulfing the entire tapestry. Amanda turned and smiled. “You like?” she asked.



Her companions stared, dumbfounded by the swirling colors. Both were mesmerized by the bright patterns. They were slack-jawed and stunned, unable to speak even after the lights faded a second later. It was several heartbeats before either of the pair blinked, shaking their heads to clear the cobwebs away.



Amanda smiled. “Perfect.”



“I am glad to see you back at your studies,” came a sultry voice from the doorway. Salatis entered with a serene, approving smile, coming to kiss Amanda deeply in greeting. Their hands roamed as they touched. The priestess had Amanda swimming in arousal almost instantly. With Salatis, nothing was forbidden. Nothing was too familiar.



“I thought you wanted me to stay occupied with other things,” Amanda said, breathing more heavily now that those hands were caressing her breasts once more.



“I would be happy to see that, too,” Salatis smiled. They stayed together, enjoying their natural attraction and freedom to explore. “But I would see you grow in power. Confidence. As a wizard, yes, but also as a woman.”



“You’ve already helped me with that,” Amanda said. “You all have. So much.”



“Allow me to help you more,” Salatis suggested. Her hands continued to roam. “Pleasure can be instructive…but it can also be a challenging distraction.”



She kissed Amanda again, deeply, while her fingernails dug lightly into Amanda’s back. She then kissed along Amanda’s neck, slowly bending at the knees to sink down with her mostly naked body sliding all along Amanda’s. “Work your magic now,” Salatis beckoned.



Amanda’s breath shuddered. Those lips were on her breasts again, teasing and exciting her. “You want me to ignore that?” she whimpered.



“Ignore or enjoy,” Salatis murmured casually. She slipped one hand up Amanda’s inner thigh, coming maddeningly close to the warm wetness above but then slipping over her hip to pinch at her ass. “Pain and pleasure have much in common. They can overwhelm the senses and the mind, if we let them. Master one and you may build the willpower to overcome the other when you must.



“Surrender yourself to me, and I will give you what your body needs,” Salatis offered with a seductive grin. “Or learn to master your body, and enjoy its pleasures that much more.”



Tiny earthquakes shook the younger woman. Salatis said no more, turning instead to arousing her with those expert fingers and that talented mouth. Forcing herself to act in spite of her desires, Amanda took in a deep breath, lifted her hands, and concentrated on the words and motions of magic.



She lifted the corner of the tapestry with an invisible hand created by a simple spell. She turned the tapestry a bright shade of purple, then made it glow, then gave it a strong sent of lavender. Salatis pinched the nipple of Amanda’s breast between her lips, giving Amanda a jolt of excitement. Amanda’s hold on the tapestry wavered, but she maintained it. She summoned up a bolt of force and hurled it at the tapestry, causing it to billow and shake.



“We should have helped you practice like this all along,” Nishan grinned.



“What is your most difficult spell?” Salatis murmured. She sank down further against Amanda’s body, kneeling before her. The priestesses nose brushed against her belly, just above the soft patch of hair between Amanda’s legs.

“Uhm…” Amanda’s eyes fluttered with pleasure. Salatis guided Amanda silently to spread her legs a little more where she stood. Knowing what was coming, Amanda grew even more excited. “Ffffffireball,” she said.



“That sounds a touch too destructive for my chambers,” whispered the mouth that hovered just below Amanda’s sex. She could feel her partner’s breath upon her wet lips.



“Webs,” Amanda blinked. “I can conjure webs. They’ll go everywhere but fade in moments. Aahhh,” she sighed. The tongue that crossed over her labia left her shivering with delight. “It’s just as…just as…oh…just as hard to cast.”



“Then perhaps you should try it,” Salatis suggested before her mouth was fully occupied with her delicious work.



Amanda groaned. She had experienced a great deal of this over the past few days, but it certainly wasn’t getting old. If anything, she was learning to enjoy it more and more. She reminded herself that enjoyment wasn’t the point here, though. The point was to think past it.



Though her head swam with pleasure, Amanda recalled the words to the difficult spell. There weren’t many, but she had to get them just right, along with the motions of her hands. Amanda ran through the proper gestures, mouthed the words without voice, gently pressed herself more against that wonderful mouth that gave such rapture…



Amanda spoke the words aloud. She twisted and bent her fingers just right, feeling all along like she was going to explode, riding both the pleasures of her body and the power of her magic all at once as she threw the webs all over the room. Thick, sticky strands too strong to be cut by blades filled the chamber, covering everything around Amanda.



Adina and Nishan both let out yelps of surprise. The one was amused, the other a bit annoyed. “You could have told us to leave the room!” Nishan complained.



“Ohh, no,” Amanda moaned, placing her hands on the head between her legs. “No, I couldn’t.”



There was the briefest pause in Salatis’s work. “Practice, dear one,” she coached. “Practice.”



“Mmh,” Amanda grinned. “I like practicing.”



***



“I don’t know what happened to her when the tower fell!” gasped the beaten man. He sat slumped against the stone wall, his arm broken and his sword fallen away. Eric and Fallon had made short work of him and his compatriots, who lay strewn about the alleyway in various states of defeat. “Bel-Danab and his apprentices held a gathering of sorcerers from nearby lands and slew all but one, who escaped. The master and Randast left to pursue him. Then there was some terrible battle up above. Yaol was slain, but I saw not by whom.”



“You didn’t bother to look?” Eric snarled. He stood over Bel-Danab’s former guardsman with a bloody sword in his hands. Fallon was at the other end of the alley, watching the street for trouble.



That their battle had been heard by the neighborhood was not in question. It was a rough place, though; nobody seemed interested in summoning the town watch. Just the same, Fallon remained on guard for anyone who might feel compelled to investigate.



“I didn’t want to die,” the guard said. “When I reached the site of the battle, I saw what had been done to Yaol and the other guards. Some had been burned, others melted. How does any man fight such magic?” He gritted his teeth in pain. “Had I remained within, I would have died when the tower fell.”



“But you don’t know what caused it?”



“We saw blasts of magic from a rooftop hit the tower,” the man groaned. “They seemed harmless against the stones at first, but then a great fireball erupted in the middle of the tower. It started to collapse, and so we ran. No one saw who did it.”



“And you’ve been hiding out in taverns ever since?”



“Waiting for the master’s return. He will find me. He will, and then you will…you will pay.”



Fallon hissed sharply. She retreated from the edge of the alley, her sword at the ready. “Trouble,” she murmured.



“Hey!” came a shout from the street. The speaker was a tall man, scruffy and dangerous-looking in a dark cloak. He was flanked by several other rough-looking men. “You can’t rob people here! This is our alley!” It was plain from his manner and tone that his concern was less about injustice than it was about turf.



“Think we can handle these guys?” Eric asked in a low voice.



The leader of the thugs whipped out a dagger, hurling it straight at Eric. He lunged to one side, clearing the dagger’s path. It landed squarely in the throat of the man he’d been questioning.



“Is there any need?” Fallon asked with a shrug.



“Not really,” Eric frowned. The thugs came rushing down the alleyway with a roar.



“Then let’s not make any more noise than we already have,” Fallon said. Eric’s partner and mentor leapt up to catch the top of the wall of the dead-end alleyway. She swung herself up and over with hardly a pause.



Eric wasn’t far behind. He sheathed his sword, then stepped up onto the shoulder of the dying man sitting against the wall for a boost as he launched himself up after Fallon. They fled across the rooftop together, leaping to the next and then down into a wide, nearby alley less crowded than the one they had just vacated.



Less than half an hour later, they were on the other side of the city, slipping into the room they rented above a busy tavern. It was a decent enough place. With the gold they had taken from the priest of Set in their riverside ambush, Eric and Fallon were able to afford better blades, better gear and a comfortable place to stay. It was hot, of course, but then they were in the middle of a city in the middle of summer. The inn had been built with ventilation in mind, but even clever construction could make only so much of a difference.



Eric sat down on the bed, pulling his sword and sheath off and dropping it to the floor. His shoulders slumped almost as low as his spirit.



“You don’t know if she’s dead,” Fallon said simply as she wedged their door shut. She turned back to him, looking on as he stared at the floor.



“Sure looks that way,” Eric muttered. “I keep thinking…I keep thinking that I was too late.”



Fallon came over to him, sitting beside him on the bed. “You have done everything you possibly could,” she said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “There is no shame.”



He shook his head. “I’m not worried about that,” he muttered. “It’s not guilt. I mean yeah, there’s that, but…I’m worried about her. Not about me or how I should feel about it. God, she’s had such a rough life. I just wanted her to be okay.”



“You knew her well?”



Eric shrugged. “I guess. I don’t know.”



“Did you ever face danger together? Hardship?”



He let out a bit of a laugh. “Only in games,” he said. “Unless you could call high school a hardship. Amanda is… She never wanted to lean on anyone. Always wanted to take care of things herself. But I think she was always kind of lonely.” He sniffed. “But she’s smart, you know? Smarter than anyone I know. Tough, too. Inside. She hurts, but she doesn’t let it stop her.”



“Listen to yourself,” Fallon said. Eric looked up at her quizzically, finding Fallon’s confident grin once more. “You speak of her as if she is still alive. In your heart, you know she is. We’ll find her.” She gripped his shoulder encouragingly. “If she is all you say she is, have faith in her. Perhaps she brought down the tower herself.”



It drew from him another small chuckle. “What would I do without you?”



The woman beside him shrugged. “Probably been beaten to death by the other slaves,” she mused. “Or been eaten by serpent men.”



“Oh, as if you wouldn’t have been shot climbing out of that cave?” Eric grinned.



“I’d not have been there,” Fallon said, shoving him a bit. “I’d have left already.”



“No you wouldn’t have,” Eric retorted, nudging back. “You’d have still been waiting for your Cimmerian cousin or whatever to show up.”



“Not likely. I’d have given up waiting by then.” Her eyes seemed to dance as she looked at his. “I’m not a patient woman. I won’t wait long for what I want.”



Words failed him. Eric just stared at her for a moment, stopped cold by that beautiful, fearless face. Everything before now had been a matter of running, hiding, fighting or otherwise surviving. Only since getting to the city had they found a moment to catch their breath, and now here they were, together and alone and very much alive.



He knew it was the most dangerous thing he had ever done or likely ever do, but there was no way he could ever forgive himself for not trying. Eric leaned in to kiss her.



Fallon’s lips met his with instant hunger. Her hands were on his shoulders immediately, grabbing him fiercely as she devoured his kiss. A moment later, she was in his lap, still fiercely kissing him as she ran her clawing fingers over his arms and his back.



She had his blood up in no time. Fallon attacked him with all the same energy she showed in battle. It was as infectious as her laugh and her confidence. She made him crazy in all the best ways. Eric’s hand slipped up her back, holding her body against his before he grabbed her neck and firmly twisted around to pull her down onto her back on the bed. One moment she sat in his lap; the next, she was on her back. Their lips were locked together the entire time.



The only snag in Eric’s plan was the fact that it left his gut practically impaled on the hilt of the sword still in its sheath on her belt. He groaned, pulling off of her as she laughed at him.



“I think we can fight this one without blades,” Fallon said. She smoothly undid her belt from its rings, looking in his eyes with an expectant grin the entire time. Her sword and belt fell to the floor next to the bed with a thunk.



Eric held her gaze for a long moment. One hand ran through her black hair, the other still sliding up and down her back. He felt her undo his belt without breaking their shared stare. “You’re pretty good at that,” he noted.



“I’ve thought it through quite a bit,” Fallon admitted. She tugged at his tunic, slipping it free from his shoulders. Her grin only got wider as she looked him over, running her hand over his pecs and his flat, tight stomach. Below that was a hardness she liked even more than the rest. “And this,” she added.



Fallon pulled the dagger from the sheath strapped to her calf in a swift motion. Before Eric knew it, the blade was on his thigh, then up under his hip and finally slashing out to cut through the side of his loincloth. The fabric fell from his hips, leaving Fallon grinning triumphantly.



The blade fell from her hand. She wrapped her fingers around his cock then, stroking it slowly and shamelessly. She tugged at his hair with her other hand, pulling him down onto the bed beside her. Fallon straddled him, looking down at him invitingly without releasing her grip on his cock.



Eric’s hands caressed her tightly-muscled legs. His fingers slipped around the crude underwear beneath her tunic, then pulled in opposite directions to rip it apart. Fallon only laughed and kept stroking him. Her eyes danced as Eric pushed her tunic up from her sides. She released him only long enough to slip her arms under the simple outfit’s short sleeves. Her hand had found his sex again before Eric had it up over her shoulders and over her head.



He amazed at the sight of her naked body. She was more beautiful and far more feminine than he had imagined. “You like what you see?” she asked softly.



“I do,” Eric smiled. “I really do.”



“You have that look,” she accused playfully.



“What look?”



“You wish to say something you know will be stupid.”



He laughed. “How do you…” Eric shook his head, reaching out his hands to slip them up her sides and then touch her breasts. Fallon smiled approvingly, enjoying his touch, but waited for his silly question. “You don’t need to wear anything to support these?”



Fallon blinked. “Support?”



“Yeah, I mean…” She was certainly well-endowed. Eric had figured she wore some sort of primitive bra. Now he stared in wonder. “Shouldn’t these sag without support?”



“Do all women in your country have weak breasts?” Fallon asked.



It made him laugh. He wanted to crawl all over her, but he honestly wanted to stare for awhile, too. Fallon was hard-bodied and lean without bulk. He had seen enough of her arms and legs to have a good idea of how she would look, but even so, he was thrilled at just how feminine she really was. Even the outline of her abs, rather than turning Eric off, looked incredibly hot.



Fallon let go of his cock. She sat fully upright. “Take me,” she dared him.



He didn’t know whether to be stunned or thrilled. He opted for the latter. Eric surged up, trying to grab her arms. She fought him off with a grin that went from ear to ear, shoving him back a little without really trying. Eric wrapped an arm around her waist, caught hold of her wrist, and flung his companion back down onto the bed.



She wasn’t really fighting him. He knew it. She was, however, putting up more than enough resistance to drive him wild. Fallon allowed kisses, but retaliated with soft, playful bites. She clawed at his back, pulled at his hair, growled and laughed all at once. Eric had always figured his first time would involve a lot of gentle caresses, soft kisses and murmured affection. Instead, Fallon made him work for it, and along the way got him incredibly turned on.



The turning point came when he finally managed to get both his legs between hers. Rather than fighting harder, Fallon only looked at him with wild, excited eyes as he spread her open and brought his harder-than-ever cock up against her very wet opening. He had to keep her wrists pinned to the bed, which occupied both of his hands; he couldn’t spare either of them to help guide his cock into her.



Fallon let out a pleasured breath as his dick slipped up against her lips. “You’ll have to aim better than that,” she taunted him. Then she shuddered as he got the angle right. Much of the resistance went out of her wrists. “Oh yes,” she gasped. “There. More. Harder…take me, dammit!”



Eric thrust into her hard. Fallon cried out, half in pain and half in joy. He was surprised at how much resistance there was within her. She wrapped her legs around his hips, holding him in closely as she winced. “Hold,” she hissed, “just…just hold…” She lay there underneath him, breathing deeply.



“Did I hurt you?” Eric asked, suddenly concerned.



Fallon’s fierce grin returned. “Only as much as you had to,” she replied.



“This is your first time, too?”



“I’ve never wanted any man enough before you,” Fallon said. Seeing the surprise in his eyes, she shrugged her shoulders as best she could with her arms pinned over her head. “I wanted a man who saw me as an equal. Whom I could see as such, too. Someone strong. Decent. Sweet.”



Eric was floored. “I’ll never be as cool as you,” he breathed in amazement.



“Whatever that means,” Fallon grinned. She rocked her hips against his, shuddering at the pleasure of it. Eric loved it, too, and couldn’t help but thrust into her again. “Gods,” she moaned. “Don’t talk to me, lover. Fuck me.”



Having sex for the first time, let alone with a woman like this, was thrilling enough. But to hear her say those words, knowing her as he did, completely blew Eric away. He felt like his heart would burst from his chest. There was something he should say in return, but was it too soon? Did she really mean what she said? That was stupid; Fallon always meant what she said. But did she mean it the way–?



His hold on her wrists weakened. With her legs still wrapped around Eric’s waist, Fallon broke his grip, reaching up in a lightning quick move to snatch hold of his hair on both sides of his head. She yanked him down to her, forcing him into another wildly passionate kiss. Her legs pulled him in again, as deep and as close as she could get him.



The hell with sweet nothings, Eric thought. He thrust into her, eliciting an approving grunt, which he brought out of her again and again. She didn’t want soft and sweet. She didn’t want a candlelight dinner and a massage. She wanted this, as animalistic and passionate as they could get, and the more Eric pounded her the less he thought and the more he enjoyed.



For the first time, Eric heard a tone from Fallon that seemed almost pleading. He kept at her, holding her closely while he fucked her for all he was worth. When their kiss broke, he was in a relentless, irresistible drive. She felt too good to stop or even slow down. She felt better to him than anything ever had in his life.



When she bit into his shoulder, whimpering and clawing into his back, Eric hardly felt the pain. It was all just excitement. “Yes, Eric,” she moaned, “yes! Don’t stop…more! Oh! Oh!”



Fallon didn’t scream when her first climax hit. Her breathing grew heavy and came in bursts in time with her spasms. Her grip on him finally loosened, but she coaxed him with affectionate tones to continue. It was just as well; he was in such a state of ecstasy he couldn’t bear to slow down now. He could barely register words.



It was just as well. Had he been more coherent, it might’ve thrown him off when Fallon’s second climax had her calling out to Crom.



***



Ripples of pleasure coursed through Amanda’s body. Her breath became labored and her body glistened with sweat. She knelt on the bed, straddling Adina’s face as her attendant licked and penetrated Amanda with affection. The acolyte did all she could to distract and delight her partner.



It was Nishan, splayed out in a luxurious chair across the room, who had Amanda’s attention. The dusky-hued woman moaned in appreciation of the strokes and penetrations of the small marble phallus that worked her sex, floating in mid air under Amanda’s control.



“Yes!” Nishan called out, her chest falling and rising now with dramatic breaths. “Yes! Mnh! Yes!”



Amanda grinned, adoring the sight of her intimate friend in the grip of orgasm. They had played like this for days. Adina and Nishan were more than happy to aid Amanda in her “studies,” now that they had found a more active role to play.



“She’s good now,” Adina grinned beneath Amanda. “Your turn?”



The kneeling wizard groaned happily. “I suppose if you insist,” she sighed.



“You may want to stop for the moment,” Salatis said from the chamber door. Recognizing the serious look on the face of the priestess, Amanda slid off the bed and walked to her. Salatis offered her hands, taking Amanda’s with a gentle squeeze.



“He has returned to the city,” Salatis told her bluntly. “His men search for a girl named ‘Amanda.’ I suspect I know her,” the priestess said with a bit of a smirk, “but I have told his emissaries that no one of her name or her description has come here.”



“Thank you,” Amanda said gratefully.



“I never liked him,” Salatis shrugged. “He will continue to search for you, but I believe he has more urgent matters. Bel-Danab has called upon the priests of Set to demand troops and support. They will give him whatever he wishes. He intends to march in the morning.”



Amanda took a long, deep breath. “Then I have to go after him.”



***



There was little secrecy to the march of Bel-Danab’s men. There really couldn’t be for a force of such size. Even in a city as big as Luxur, one could not quietly gather hundreds of men with armor, weapons, packs and provisions without people knowing. It happened quickly, fast enough that spies within the city would have had to scramble to do anything to effectively warn their masters, but there was little need for secrecy. No force within three hundred miles would have been sufficient to pose a threat, anyway.



At least, no human force.



They moved out with the bulk of the army on foot. Officers and specialists had horses, while considerable food and water stores were carried on camel-drawn carts. A special unit walked with one cart, carrying a cage covered in a thin, white muslin shroud. The unit was comprised of soldiers and priests bearing the symbols of Set, for only the faithful could be trusted to guard the god’s intended virgin sacrifices.

Some livestock was brought along, mostly chickens in a cart, some pigs, a few goats. The important people in the column would want fresh food, after all, and not the bland rations carried by the common soldiery. There were also plenty of slaves, brought along to carry this or that and to provide a work force for whatever needs might arise.



There were scouts and outriders, messengers and a rear guard.



They weren’t exactly difficult to track.



Were it not for all the treasures she had looted from Bel-Danab’s tower, Amanda never could have kept up on foot. She had always worked out faithfully in college, and was if anything in even better shape after her metamorphosis. Yet a steady march in a scorching summer desert was well beyond her experience.



The magical cloak that had protected her from Yaol’s spell of frost provided her supernatural protection from the heat of the day and the chill of the night. It was perfect for this sort of thing. Her backpack carried far more than enough provisions while remaining lighter than any bookbag she’d carried in school. The long walk had her exhausted by the end of the first day just the same, but staying hidden was a much bigger challenge than keeping up.



Several times, she was nearly spotted by trailing elements of the rear guard. Amanda quickly learned to trail the army from off to one side, too, as she was almost caught by a rider from the city bearing late messages of one sort or another. Still, she was careful, quick-thinking and disciplined. Through her natural wits and magical aids, she avoided discovery.



Until the third night of the journey.



Sleep was a risk, but a necessary one. Her cloak kept her quite comfortable when it came to temperature, and in the end she could live with the hardness of the dry desert ground. Wisely, Amanda took the trouble to arrange for magical protection from discovery. She cast a warding spell, arranging it to produce the howl of a jackal to warn of the approach of any danger.



Just such a sound awakened her on the third night. Amanda promptly popped the lid off the flask that she slept with every night in the desert, downing its contents without hesitation. It was all of this particular potion she had found among Yaol’s many bottles, but if it saved her from discovery here, it was worth using. An instant later, she was invisible.



Amanda snatched up her backpack, bringing it both within the folds of her cloak. She rose and stepped away from where she’d slept, moving off to one side as the illusory howl of the jackals ended. Knowing she couldn’t be seen, Amanda held very still, waiting in the darkness of the desert night with a spell ready on her lips.



For long, tense seconds, she heard nothing and saw nothing. Amanda kept still. Had it been animals that had stumbled into the range of her mystic ward? Had it been some person, scared away by the howls? Her invisibility would last only minutes. All she could do then was trust in the darkness of the night.



Then she saw the woman slip into view, crouching low, prowling close without a sound. She had her black hair held back from her forehead by a leather headband, revealing a strong, beautiful face. The woman was dressed in hardened leather armor, bearing only a simple backpack and a long, slightly curved sword.



The woman looked right at and through Amanda. Her gaze swept the area, seeming deeply suspicious despite seeing nothing. Amanda waited, hoping she would go by before the potion wore off.



Staying right where she crouched, the woman pulled a dagger from a sheath tied to her calf and held it up in the air. Turning it to catch the moonlight, she waited a moment, then put it back in its sheath. Then she waited.



Amanda winced. Clearly, she was going to have to face this. Slowly, she reached into the folds of her cloak to pull her wand from her belt. Then she saw another form come into view. This one was a man, dressed in armor similar to the woman’s. He, too, carried a large blade, and moved almost as silently as his companion.



The woman touched her finger to her nose. She glanced to her companion, who merely nodded, gripped his sword, and turned Amanda’s way.



Her heart stopped. She couldn’t believe it. “Eric?”



Both prowling warriors turned to the voice, shifting their guarded stance. They looked ready to pounce. While the woman’s face was set in grim seriousness, though, the man’s eyes were wide with surprise.



“Eric Felton?” she asked again, her voice becoming desperate.



The man’s face turned from surprise to disbelief. “Amanda?” he replied quietly.



She let the invisibility fade. The woman warrior didn’t drop her guard. Eric didn’t, either, but he no longer looked ready to spring. “Ohmygod,” Amanda breathed, her eyes welling up with tears, “Eric, put down the sword, it’s me.”



He stood up straight. The sword turned away. He blinked in surprise, looking at this girl who, other than her cloak and sandals, was dressed only in a silk bikini top and a short, silken skirt slitted up both legs. It was dark, but even so, Eric found that this young woman barely resembled his friend. Yet he had changed, too. “Amanda?” he asked again.



Amanda rushed forward, throwing her arms around him. She buried her face in his shoulder, laughing and sobbing uncontrollably. “Oh god, I was so afraid I’d never see you again.”



Turning to glance at Fallon, Eric saw his lover and partner looking at him with a quizzical expression. He held his hands up to protest his own confusion. “Keep your voices down,” Fallon hissed. “Noise carries at night. We’re too close to their encampment as it is.”



Hesitant at first, Eric finally put one arm around Amanda, holding her close. “How do I know it’s really you?” he asked.



She sniffled, then let out a tearful laugh. “If I was a mind flayer in disguise, I’d already have my tentacles all over your brains by now.”



Eric snorted. Mind flayers had always been a running gag in their games, ever since high school…and with that thought, Eric put his other arm around her. “I was so worried about you,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you for weeks!”



“I’m fine now,” Amanda said, letting go only to hug him again.



“You look, um…” Eric faltered. Even in the moonlight, he could see how much she had changed. He’d never have called Amanda unattractive, but he could understand why she was frustrated with her figure and her weight. Now she had a body built for absolute sin and was dressed to show it. “You look good?” he managed.



“We should pull back,” Fallon noted, “unless you want to let others into this conversation.”



“She’s right,” Eric said quietly, “we’ve gotta move. Are you alone out here? Do you have all of whatever stuff you’ve got?”



“I’m good,” Amanda said. “All set. Just not so good at stumbling around in the dark.”



“Hang on to my hand,” Eric said. “It’s pretty flat out here, but I’ll help you. Fallon?” he asked. He was guiding Amanda away even as he spoke.



“I’ll be right behind,” his companion murmured.



“Who’s…who’s this?” Amanda asked.



“This is Fallon,” Eric said. “She’s, um…” He found himself at a loss for words. They hadn’t really discussed titles. Fallon was all about being direct and speaking plainly, and as a result he had no idea how to address this tactfully. Notably, she wasn’t offering any suggestions. “She’s kind of my girlfriend?” he ventured.



Amanda stumbled. Fallon snorted in protest. “I am no mere girl!” she hissed.



“I didn’t mean…oh God,” Eric groaned.



“You have a girlfriend?” Amanda asked in disbelief.



Fallon’s brow furrowed. “What does that word mean?” she demanded.



Eric looked back at her apologetically, quickly finding himself flustered. “It means I’m in love with you and we’re sleeping together but we’re not married,” he whispered quickly.



“Why don’t you just say that?” Fallon frowned. “Are you embarrassed?”



“What? No! I just–I just wasn’t sure how else to say it!”



Amanda had stopped in her tracks. She looked at the two of them in awe. Seeing her longtime nerd buddy with a woman like this, regardless of how physically fit he looked in the moonlight and all the other craziness that had happened, simply didn’t compute.



For her part, Fallon looked at Eric with a puzzled expression, too. Finally she turned to Amanda. “He is mine,” she said simply. “Do you need to know more about it?”



“No no,” Amanda said, shaking her head. “I’m good. It’s all good.”



“Keep moving,” Fallon grunted, waving them on.



Eric glanced at Amanda as he got walking again. “She’s kind of direct,” he mumbled.



***



“Once they’re down the tunnel, we could likely slip around the rest of these dogs easily enough,” Fallon said, gesturing to the assortment of soldiers and slaves who remained in and about the dig site below. The majority of the army had already headed down the main tunnel. From the looks of things, very few would be left behind to watch after the horses, carts and other baggage. The slaves were gathered in a large group, all left sitting down in the morning sun under the watchful eye of several archers. “The question is whether or not we want to.”



The three of them crouched low in a rocky outcropping just beyond the periphery of the campsite. There wasn’t even much invested in patrolling the perimeter. A few sentries had been sent out to walk the grounds, but Eric had spotted them right off, allowing for easy evasion.



“Whatever Bel-Danab wants is down there in that temple you saw,” Amanda whispered. “He’s invested too much into this for us to allow him to get it.”



“Yeah, but you didn’t see the snake-guys that came flooding out of it,” Eric frowned. “They killed and ate pretty much everyone in sight. I mean you can see the wreckage around here.”



“Hence marching in with an army,” Fallon shrugged. “I doubt that he expects a warmer welcome from them than his digging crew received. Watch…see how the tail end of the army moves? They’ve likely met with resistance already.”



Her observation was spot-on. There had been a decided shift in the attitude and movement of the columns of soldiers. Calls were relayed back and forth up the line. Men tensed and had weapons at the ready. The pace picked up.



“Well,” Amanda grimaced, “doesn’t really change what we’ve gotta do. Slip in there, kill the bad guys, take that asshole’s Magic MacGuffin Staff and get the hell out.”



“What’s in that cart covered in cloth?” Eric asked. It sat near the entrance, still ringed with soldiers and priests of Set.



“Virgins for sacrifice, most likely,” Fallon shrugged.



Eric and Amanda shared a short glance. “Right,” Amanda nodded. “Slip in there, free the virgin sacrifices, kill the bad guys, take the Magic MacGuffin Staff and get the hell out.”



Fallon frowned in confusion. “What does that mean? MacGuffin?”



“It means I’m lampshading,” Amanda muttered.



“What?”



Eric buried his face in his hand. “It means she’s talking about this like it’s ridiculous, because it is,” he explained.



“They’re about all in there now,” Amanda said. “How close do you think we could get without being spotted and causing a fight? Just walk right in?”



Thinking for a quiet moment, Eric finally cocked his head at a curious noise. He slipped over to the side of the outcropping, looking down the rise to spot a small patrol of soldiers armed with bows and spears passing close by.



He turned back to the other women with a grin. “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”



***



“To think I used to wish for these tits,” Amanda muttered as she walked alongside Eric and Fallon into the camp. About the only thing that didn’t feel silly about the stolen armor and accoutrements was the cloth mask over the lower half of her face and the black helmet on her head. At least they covered up her face. She looked only vaguely, remotely male in the uncomfortable ensemble. “This breastplate is killing me.”



“We don’t have to wear them long,” Fallon replied. “It’s just to get us close.” She walked beside Amanda, similarly dressed in the clothing and armor of the men they’d just slain outside the camp. The Cimmerian carried the bow she’d taken from one of the fallen in her left hand. A quiver of arrows was slung over her shoulder.



Eric walked in front, toting a spear in his right hand. He looked the least abnormal in the armor, though even his was ill-fitting. They strode through the camp, doing their best to look casual about it. No one seemed interested in stopping them, though out of the corner of her eye Amanda could see more than a few of the slaves looking at them oddly.



Nearer to the muslin-covered wagon, they could hear the thunder of battle echoing up from the tunnel beyond. They could also make out the silhouettes of three women within the cart, all of them sitting quietly and only occasionally moving. The soldiers and priests who ringed the cart watched warily as Eric and the others approached.



“Why do you break from your patrol?” asked one of the soldiers. He stepped forward, plainly displeased at this irregularity. The jewels on his helmet implied that he was an officer.



“News from beyond the camp,” Eric said, getting closer.



“What news?” the officer demanded. “Where is your salute?”



By way of answer, Eric leveled his spear with a snap movement before plunging it into the officer’s chest. The force of his thrust pushed the spear’s head straight through the man’s armor, his torso and out his back.



The rest of the guard detail was quick to leap to action, but Amanda was quicker. Every foe to Eric’s right was knocked from his feet by a thunderous blast. Several went flying back, while others fell where they stood.



Fallon spun around, nocking an arrow and looking for any target at all. She didn’t have to look long. The nearest soldier soon found himself clutching the shaft that flew into his gut, impaling him straight through his armor. The man next to him drew his sword as he rushed forward, hiding behind his shield, but took an arrow to the leg for his trouble. Fallon finished him with another shot as he fell. She didn’t pause to assess the damage; there were too many other targets for her bow.



With Amanda clearing the men on the right and Fallon watching their collective backs, Eric had only to deal with the few men on their left. One was a priest, who tried bravely to attack Eric with his curved dagger and was struck down by Eric’s sword for his trouble. The others were well-trained fighters; he turned to take a swinging blow from one on his shield, still slung over his left shoulder, while parrying desperately against the other.



A swift feint and sweeping leg from the first of Eric’s opponents had him on his back. He banged his helmeted head on a rock as he fell, then took a cut from another that slipped just deeply enough through his armor to draw blood across his chest. Two more men were coming up from behind them, too, having rounded the other side of the cart to join in the battle. It was all happening too fast.



Then there was a blinding flash of light and color over Eric’s head. The rainbow seemed to flash straight from Amanda’s fingers from where she stood beside him, washing over the men in a dazzling rush. The late-comers staggered and fell; Eric’s immediate foes blinked and shook their heads, but withstood the assault on their minds.



The confusion brought on by Amanda’s spell was all the distraction Eric needed to save himself. Eric swung his blade in a low arc that chopped straight through the leg of the man to his left. Eric forced himself to his feet as the soldier fell screaming, recovering in time to trade blows with the man who’d cut him. In the exchange that followed, Eric suffered a bruising blow to his shoulder that thankfully didn’t pierce his armor before he finally ran his foe through.



Turning to see what else was going on, Eric found that Amanda and Fallon were taking care of the remaining soldiers scattered among the camp quite handily with spells and arrows. Several slaves broke and ran; most flattened to the ground and covered their heads. Moments later, the only soldiers left alive were either clutching wounds or fleeing into the desert.



“Are you okay?” Amanda asked, seeing her friend bloodied and battered.



“It’s not true what Jason said,” Eric grunted, shaking his head. “Armor totally helps.”



“Maybe for you.” With the fight settled, Amanda finally had a chance to free herself from the restrictive bits of hardened leather tied tightly around her. She slipped free of it piece by piece as she moved over toward the gathered slaves. Removing her helmet and the mask around her face, Amanda cast her gaze over the frightened men and women to figure out whoever looked the least panicked.



She was oblivious to how majestically beautiful she looked to them in that moment. Eyes widened and jaws dropped as fear was quickly replaced by awe.



“You,” she said, pointing to the largest, most fit-looking man. “You,” she said, looking to the next. “Tell me your names. Now.”



Eric moved over to the cart as she spoke, lifting the muslin to ensure that the women in the cart were alright. The three young women, all in simple white dresses, reared back in fright at the sight of him. “Don’t worry,” Eric said, “we’re here to free you, not hurt you.”



“I am Valen,” answered the first slave. “Ajaga,” said the second.



“You are free,” Amanda declared. “All of you are free. You are to take the army’s provisions and head back to the city immediately.



“Valen, Ajaga, you have one special task. Take these girls back to their families,” she said, gesturing to the cart as Eric opened up the cage to let them out. “If that cannot be done, bring them to the temple of Derketo. Do you understand?”



The men both nodded. Amanda’s eyes narrowed. She waved her wand at both of them, speaking loudly enough to be heard by all. Both of the men briefly glowed with a soft blue shimmer that quickly faded. “You are my servants in this,” Amanda said. “Any here who hinder you in your task or touch the maidens will die screaming. You bear my mark. Abandon or betray your task and I will find you and turn you into newts!”



Both men quickly bowed. So did no few of the other slaves.



Shedding her appropriated enemy armor in favor of putting on her own, Fallon looked to Eric with a concerned frown. “Would she really turn them into newts?” she asked.



Eric shrugged. He suspected it was a bluff. “They’d get better. I think.”



***



Much as the three had expected, the cavern floor was littered with dead and dying men and serpent men alike by the time they reached the underground temple. The walls and many of the bodies bore the scorch marks and ozone smell of destructive magical forces, but clearly the greater weight of the fighting was handled with muscle and steel. Creeping into the periphery of the main cavern, the companions found that after incurring heavy losses, Bel-Danab and the remnants of his army had forced their way into the temple.



“Doesn’t look like there’s much chance of the snakes taking care of our problem for us,” Eric observed.



“No,” Fallon agreed, “but they’ll have worn him down.”



“I hope,” Amanda said grimly.



Fallon shrugged. “It is what must be done, yes?” She looked to her companions, seeing them both nod. “Then decide that you will see it done. It matters not how strong or powerful your foe is. It matters only that he will fall.” With that, she took the lead, creeping through the underground battlefield with her bow at the ready.



“Wow,” Amanda blinked.



“Yeah. I’m totally in love with her,” Eric said, following not far behind Fallon.



“Where can I get one?”



Coming around the temple’s great walls to its outer gate, the trio saw even more carnage and destruction. It was increasingly obvious that the serpent men had taken a great toll on the human army, only to be countered by greater sorcerous power from the army’s leaders. Serpent men had fallen here in broad groups, burned with magical fire or cast aside by supernatural force. Rising above the scene were the walls of the temple itself, dominated at the front by great, tall bronze doors now battered and thrown open.

Neither Fallon nor Eric had worked inside the temple complex’s outer walls once the excavation had broken through. They hadn’t gotten a look at the temple itself, until now. All were struck by what they discovered: the hinges and crossbars on the three-story-tall doors were on the outside. The temple had been constructed with an eye toward keeping something in, rather than keeping anyone out.



A tiny garrison of human soldiers remained at the walls, comprised mostly of the walking wounded remnants of the army. One had a horn; he raised it to his lips as soon as he spotted the unfamiliar warriors, only to die with an arrow in his lungs. Eric rushed forward to close the distance between himself and the rest, sword and shield at the ready, while silvery bolts of force sailed over his head to thin out his opposition. Fallon added her arrows to Amanda’s barrage. By the time Eric vaulted up the temple steps, only two wounded soldiers remained. Both immediately threw down their weapons, knelt and raised their hands in surrender.



“Start talking,” Eric demanded with a growl. “What’s going on in there?”



One of the men swallowed hard and looked away, refusing to take surrender to the point of betrayal. The other, battered and wide-eyed, was not so firm. “Bel-Danab and his apprentice work to open a great seal in the floor with their sorcery!”



“How many soldiers remain?”



“But a handful,” the man said. “We died in droves. Bel-Danab pushed us on until the serpent men came in fewer numbers. Men say he can devastate armies, and I have seen now that he can. Yet he hardly took part when he would have saved lives.”



“Quit whining, you fool,” snapped the other man. “It is our duty to die in Set’s service.”



Eric grabbed the defiant one by the shoulder plate of his armor. “Fine, I’ll kill you later.” He dragged the man to the edge of the steps as he spoke, then hurled him away roughly. Eric returned to the cooperative one as his companion tumbled down the stairs between Fallon and Amanda.



“You need a new boss,” he said to his remaining captive.



“I do,” the man nodded with a whimper. “I truly do.”



“What else can you tell me?”



“I only went a short distance inside,” the man said. “All I can tell you is that the statues inside depict a great reptile, but it is not the image of Set. It is not Set at all. The serpent within has legs and a great body, and…and wings. The priests who survived the battle called it blasphemy, said the temple is no home to the god at all. Bel-Danab destroyed them for their protests.”



“Alright,” Eric snarled. “Get the hell out of here. Find a new line of work and a new god.”



The demoralized soldier didn’t need to be told twice. He scrambled away from Eric, slowing as he ran only to half-bow before Amanda and Fallon and then never looked back.



“You hear all that?” he asked.



“We did,” Fallon nodded. “I’ll take the lead. You two follow, quietly as you can. Steel does not often count for much against sorcery, but surprise may make the difference.”



There was little else to say. Fallon crept inside the tunnel with Eric and Amanda following not far behind. Lanterns and discarded torches gave off enough light to see by, while providing plenty of shadows to aid in stealth. As the soldier had warned, the depictions of Set all over the outside of the tunnel were replaced inside by carvings and statues of dragons. Fallon spared hardly a glance at the foreboding artwork, but her companions shared a troubled look as they moved.



A second set of great bronze double doors awaited them, once barred but now opened in the same fashion as the first. Weird green lights flashed from within. Two deep voices carried from beyond the doors, chanting in an odd cadence and tone. Despite his fluency with Hyboria’s languages, Eric couldn’t understand any of it. Amanda was more familiar with the world’s ancient lore; they were not words so much as invocations of names of old, forgotten powers.



Fallon set her bow and arrows down in front of the entrance. She looked back to the others, holding up two fingers and then pointing to either side of the doors. She gestured for Eric to come up behind her. He put a hand on Amanda’s shoulder, then silently moved forward.



She watched the two slip in past the doors. For a moment that stretched all-too long, Amanda waited, wondering what she was supposed to do. Then she saw Eric reappear and wave to her with an arm covered in blood. Amanda rushed forward, finding Eric unharmed with two dead soldiers at his feet on a round walkway over a huge pit. To her right, Fallon was already moving off along the walkway in the other direction, leaving another two dead men behind.



The chamber was shaped in a huge, wide circle, with the raised walkway surrounding it. Several staircases were carved into the walkway, each leading down to the center of the room. The heart of the room was a flat stone floor, devoid of furnishings or statuary. Runes carved in spiral patterns covered the heart of the circle, with all of them pulsating in the same green light that Amanda and Eric had first seen in her doorway in Seattle.



The only structures in the pit were a pair of altars on opposite sides of the great circle. Atop one stood Bel-Danab, flanked by a pair of armed warriors, wielding his staff and chanting steadily. Atop the other was Randast, wearing green robes and a golden skullcap. He, too, was guarded by two men.



Amanda looked on with a pit in her stomach. She thought of the vast gap in knowledge and power between herself and these two sorcerers. Then she saw Fallon crawling low along the walkway, getting into position to strike somehow at Randast. It was too late to back off now.



“Your slumber ends, ancient one,” Bel-Danab rumbled. His words should have been alien, but once more Yaol’s linguistic enchantment made it easy for Amanda and Eric to understand. “We come to bring you out of your prison. We come to call upon your power. We bring gifts. We bring the blood price.”



At that, Bel-Danab’s gaze lifted from the glowing runes on the floor to Randast. The apprentice nodded, giving an order to his pair of guards. The men bowed in turn, then moved off to hustle up the stairs. Randast lifted his arms again, a glowing orb in one hand and a curved dagger in the other. He resumed the chant while Bel-Danab continued on with a mixture of flattery and vague, expectant declarations of sharing power.



Amanda and Eric stayed silent until the two soldiers were up the platform and on their way out of the chamber. “Focus on the wizards,” Amanda advised Eric with a whisper. She pulled out her wand, trying not to let her fingers shake. “Those guards are probably his best men, but if either one of the casters gets off a spell, we could be totally fucked.”



“Gotcha,” Eric nodded.



“Hey,” Amanda said, catching his glance. She gave him an apologetic look. “Thanks for walking me home.”



He took in a long, steadying breath. “What are friends for?”



“Right. Okay. So do we have some cue or a go sign?”



As soon as the words were out of her mouth, they saw Fallon leap off the platform behind Randast with her sword held above her head. Though the cut was deflected by his skullcap, the force of the blow left him twisting and sprawling against the altar. Fallon, too, tumbled to the floor, but forced herself upright in a leap that brought her sword down on him again in a furious chop. Her blade hacked into his shoulder with all her might, shearing the man’s right arm clean off.



“Guess that’s it,” Eric grunted.



Bel-Danab’s instincts were very good. As his apprentice fell from an attack from above and behind, he spun around, expecting the same. He was absolutely correct in his judgment, reacting just in time to dive forward in avoidance of the green blast of acid that streamed from Amanda’s empty hand. His bodyguards weren’t so lucky; both of them were caught by the resultant splash when the stream hit the altar. Neither fell, but both lurched away in pain.



Following his lover’s example, Eric dove off the ledge. Bel-Danab was already reaching out his hand with some sort of spell. Rather than trusting to his sword as Fallon did, though, Eric led with his shield. He struck against the sorcerer with brutal force, driving him to the ground and disrupting his spell. Though Eric rolled with the impact, he didn’t come away unhurt or unshaken. He forced himself to thin past the pain, rising as fast as he could.



Amanda threw another spell, trying this time with the first one she’d used against Yaol. She was more accurate with this one than with the acid. The same mist wafted from Bel-Danab that she had drawn from Yaol, sapping strength from the sorcerer’s limbs and his will.



It saved Eric’s life. Still on the floor himself, Bel-Danab reached out to Eric to seize him with a spell that slammed him to the floor, then pitched him into the air once more. Had Bel-Danab been able to muster more of his energies, it would likely have killed his target. Even so, Eric struck the floor on his back, winded, disoriented and thoroughly battered.



Across the chamber, Fallon had been blasted to her feet by an instinctive blast of magical force flung out by her wounded prey. She sprung to her feet again with her sword at the ready. Then she winced in pain; she’d come down hard on one ankle in her landing and found now that there was more to worry about with it than just severe discomfort. Her opponent certainly looked worse for wear, though. Randast was sprawled against the altar with his shoulder a bloody mess, gasping for breath with wild eyes.



He was quicker to react than she expected. With a wave of his hand, Randast conjured up a thin wall of raging flame between the two of them. It ran to the opposite edges of the circular pit and reached to the ceiling. The heat was terrible; burning her even as it did several feet away, Fallon realized there was no chance of surviving a charge through it to get to her target. She had no choice but to back off, limping as fast as she could to the closest stairs in hopes of getting around the wall.



Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Randast’s two bodyguards rushing around the walkway. Both had their blades drawn, eager to avenge their liege. Limping on one foot and fleeing from the wall of flame, Fallon had little choice but to take them head on.



Worried that the fight was coming undone already, Amanda hurled her most damaging spell at Bel-Danab. The ball of fire that came from her hands struck squarely at his feet, yet he spun away and covered up in time to take the worst of it on his back. The edges of the blast still caught the pair of warriors rushing at Eric, singeing them both before they could land blows against him.



Eric was only ready for one, not both. Hurting from head to toe, he was halfway to his feet in time to block the sword that came for his head with his shield. He couldn’t get entirely out of the way of the spear, though, which was only partly deflected by the hardened leather covering his thigh. The edge of the spear still tore into his leg; Eric was only fortunate that the spearman had too much momentum to stop before he had already stepped past.



The room shook as a great flash of green light swept up from the floor. Every stone tile now gave off the same light, which rippled and billowed like smoke until it seemed that the floor had become a thick layer of glass over some great green cloud.



In spite of his terrible wound, Randast was back on his feet. With his remaining hand, he had recovered the glowing orb that he’d held before Fallon’s ambush. It glowed with the same color as the floor, beaming rays of light down at the stonework. “Master!” Randast called out, half-delirious with pain. “It is finished!”



Bel-Danab turned back to face Amanda with a look of fierce hatred. “You,” he hissed, recognizing her now despite her changed appearance. Leaning on his staff, the sorcerer reached out to Amanda with the same motion he’d used to snatch at Eric. She was instantly caught in the spell’s invisible magic grip. Amanda hardly even had time to scream as she was flung from the walkway out over the glowing green floor.



Her landing was nothing if not rough. She barely braced herself at all; though her outstretched arms and legs broke the worst of the fall, she still collapsed face first onto the rough surface. Blood streamed from her nose and from her cut and scraped limbs. She was very fortunate not to have broken bones or died altogether.



She focused past the pain, forcing herself to act despite how her body felt. There was blood here and there all over the floor, much of it hers. She could see drops of blood slip through the blocks to drip down into the light and clouds below. Then a rumble that shook the room came from the floor. Blocks at the very center began to fall away into the glowing cloud below. Amanda scrambled back toward the edge of the circle to get away in time.



“Mortal worm,” boomed a furious voice. “You awaken me with a false gift?”



The sorcerer’s triumphant expression suddenly cracked. “What?” he blinked.



Stones continued to fall away. Soon nothing would be left of the floor. “The blood price is unpaid!”



Bel-Danab was suddenly stopped cold. “What?” he asked again. “I brought you…I brought a virgin sacrifice…” Trying to make sense of it all, he looked around for some answer and saw only Amanda as she finally crawled clear of the edge of the circle of runes. Then he understood. He rushed forward, furiously grabbing her by the hair. “Vile whore!”



Rage carried Amanda through her fear and pain. She heaved back and planted a forceful punch right on Bel-Danab’s nose, crushing it under her knuckles. “You asshole,” she raged, grabbing him by his robes to pull him down onto the floor with her. She slugged him in the gut as he fell again and again. “You pull all this evil shit and then you freak out that I got laid?!” She grabbed his head and slammed her knee into his face. “Argh! Fuck you, clown!”



Bolts of silvery force struck Amanda’s side, driving her onto the floor. They didn’t come from Bel-Danab, but rather his apprentice across the chasm, who fought to stay conscious and aid in this fight. Randast struggled to stay on his feet, putting all he could into summoning up another spell to finish off the girl once and for all.



Something sailed just past him, large and heavy and covered in flames. It had very nearly struck him. Randast gasped as he recognized the burned body of one of his bodyguards. Instinctively he spun, facing the wall of flame he’d created to protect himself. He was just in time to see the body of his other bodyguard, run through on his own blade, as it came flying through the fiery wall to crash straight into him.



Randast and the flaming corpse tumbled over the edge of the pit. The wall of fire quickly faded. Fallon looked out from the walkway to see the chamber greatly changed. Nothing remained of the floor out to the edge of the circle of runes. There was only green light, smoke and a terrible rumbling.



On the other side of the chamber, her lover fought against the last two bodyguards. He slammed his shield into one, driving forward to push the man into the pit. His foe fell screaming in sudden terror, and then was gone. The other one, wielding a spear, rushed at Eric as if to impale him and drive him over the edge as well. Eric parried, sidestepped and continued the fight.



Eric took a couple of wary steps back from his opponent. The guy was good, and Eric was sorely hurt. He shifted to one side, hoping to stay further away from the pit while he tried to figure out how to take the guy out. Then the floor shook, like an earthquake only very close. A second shock hit, and then a third.



One massive, red claw of some reptilian monster reached out of the pit. Its man-sized talons drove into the stone floor between Eric and his opponent.



“Oh, fuck!” Eric burst. He spun away from the remaining bodyguard. The hell with that dude. This was well beyond his ability to deal with. They had to get out.



Turned around now, Eric found Bel-Danab leaning on his staff just a few yards away. The wizard seemed for a moment indecisive; his attention seemed split between the pit and the fallen form of Amanda. Rage twisted the sorcerer’s face. He turned on Amanda, raising his staff high in the air as the gem at its top began to glow red. Eric sprinted forward with all he had.



Amanda was still moving, trying to recover. She managed only to roll over onto her back. “Wretched girl!” Bel-Danab cried. “I’ll have your blood one way or another!”



Amanda reached out to him with her fingers spread wide. A prismatic blast of color shot from her hands, engulfing Bel-Danab in a swirl of lights. His eyes went wide, then shut tight. He shook his head to clear it from its confusion. It cost him vital heartbeats of hesitation.



As Bel-Danab brought the staff down on his hated enemy, Eric’s sword slashed deeply through his side. Blood and gore flowed from the wound. Bel-Danab jerked in pain, then screamed in horror at the sight of how badly he’d been wounded. His staff fell from his hands into Amanda’s lap.



Beyond them, a second enormous claw clamped down over the edge of the pit. The shockwave through the floor cost Eric his balance. He staggered and fell to one knee before he could finish off the enemy in front of him.



“No,” Bel-Danab whispered.



In the heat of the moment, Amanda didn’t see the staff as a tool of great magic so much as a nice big stick. Snatching it up, she turned and thrust it straight into Bel-Danab’s chest with all her remaining strength. Amanda shoved the sorcerer off the edge and into the pit before finally collapsing onto the floor.



Bel-Danab’s final scream as he fell was silenced by a terrible crunch.



Eric didn’t stop to look over the side. He dropped his shield, wrapped his arm around Amanda and heaved her over his shoulder. “Hold onto that staff,” he grunted.



She could manage that at least. “We got him?” Amanda blinked.



“Yeah,” Eric huffed, already running for the nearest steps. The wound on his leg burned, but he had to ignore it. “You got him, Amanda. You beat the boss fight with rainbows.”



“Rainbows?”



“Fucking rainbows, hon. Fucking rainbows.”



“Wow.” Her voice conveyed exhaustion and confusion. “Jason would be so mad at that.”



“Come on!” Fallon shouted from the walkway. She stood over the fallen body of the spearman who had given Eric such trouble. “Move!”



“Stop!” roared a voice that shook the chamber. A blinding stream of fire erupted from the pit, blasting the entryway with enough heat to slag much of the stonework around it. As Eric reached Fallon, the three saw melted rock dripping from the ceiling around their only way out. All at once, they found themselves looking toward the pit.



Emerging from the smoke and flame was the huge, scaly red head of an immense dragon. “Wait,” it said, blood and rags from what remained of Bel-Danab dripping from its jaw.



Fallon stepped protectively in front of Eric and Amanda, her sword at the ready despite the obvious futility of it all.



“Peace,” the dragon rumbled. “I mean you no harm. You have done me a service here.”



“Then why cut off our escape?” Fallon demanded. Eric glanced at her in awe. She really didn’t back down from anything.



“I would have words, Cimmerian,” the dragon replied. It certainly didn’t have a mouth capable of human speech, yet it spoke clearly just the same. “I am in your debt. It is quite difficult to repay the dead.”



“Hey,” Amanda said blearily, “do I know you?”



“We have met, in a fashion.”



“Eric,” she said, “I think…I think maybe you’d better put me down.”



Her friend did as she asked, setting her down gently while sharing a look of trepidation with his lover. “Allow me to allay your dread,” the dragon said. With that, each of them felt a sudden rush of vitality and relief. Their wounds healed in seconds. Though still covered in the blood and grime of their battle, they felt as if they’d just gotten out of bed.

DEEP WITHIN THE HIMALAYAN MOUNTAINS sits a palace that nearly blends into the mountainside, nearly looking like it naturally belongs there. The snow is just beginning to pick up showing signs of an upcoming storm.



Up high atop a ridge overlooking the valley and palace sits a dark skinned creature with pointed ears, wild orange hair and a mask similar to that of a Kabuto. Behind her sit impatiently three Yeti, ancient creatures pulled from the deepest bowel of Hades and fully under her command.



Each creature is far larger than the tiny dark skinned figure is with their massive upper body and arms compared to their smaller torso and legs. Beneath the thick pelt of fur stick out spikes of clear bone that resemble ice from their head, backs and forearms. Drool constantly drips from a mouth full of razor sharp teeth and bad breath to match.



Destroy anyone in your way, but make sure the sword stays safe. She says in an ancient tongue.



The Yeti grunt digging their terrible clawed hands into the snow and then they leap over the edge and down the mountainside.



Meanwhile down across the valley in the quiet sanctuary of palace is the leader of the Black List, Alexandros, and his wife Rashida, former Egyptian princess.



Pulling out he thrusts deeply into her, burying himself totally inside her. He thrusts in and out, hard and fast, burying his cock totally in her body. Rashida moans loudly with each hard thrust. He reaches down to lift her legs and she wraps them around him. Leaning forward he kisses her face and neck, all while thrusting hard into her, fucking her as deeply as he can.



Her pussy feels so tight around him, warm and wet. He thrusts hard into her, repeatedly pounding himself into her body. He feels her pussy opening around his cock, taking him into it with each thrust. As she arches backward, he lowers his mouth down to take the offered breasts. Her moans of pleasure grow deeper and harder. She begins to push up toward him with each thrust, grinding her pelvis into him, taking him as deep into her body as she can.



Outside the three Yeti descend onto the palace grounds. Working solo, the beasts tear through the grounds and guards, ripping flesh from bone.



Alexandros hooks his hands under Rashida’s shoulders. Holding her tightly, he sucks on her breasts, moving between them, licking them all over and biting gently at the hard nipples. She cries out wild cries of passion as his cock slams in and out of her.



Then she squeals sharply just before he feels her body tighten around him as she erupts into an orgasm. She squeals and gasps into his neck and the sensation of her cumming brings him to the edge of his own, but he never gets there.



Before his eyes her head goes rolling of her shoulders onto the floor. Standing behind his wife is the vilest creature to ever walk this earth. He slides Rashida’s body off and attempts to make it to his sword, Masamune, but before he even get a few feet he feels the point of a sword at his neck with the blood of his wife still fresh on it.



“I would stay very still if I were you,” the dark skinned creature says glaring at him. “I’m here for the sword.”



“Isn’t going to happen, Magi,” Alexandros spats at her.



“Interesting that a human knows what I am,” she says a little puzzled.



“Not real hard if you study your history.”



A glint comes to her eye and she says, “So here is the famous Alexandros.” She smiles. “Sorry but I didn’t really recognize you without your clothing. My, my, those are quite a few scars you have.”



“Happens when you fight against evil like you.”



“Tsk, tsk. I’m not evil, just someone with an agenda.” She slips the blade up and strikes him across the face with the broad side of it, sending him to the floor. “Now like I said I am here for Masamune.



“Like I said it isn’t going happen,” he says defiantly. “As soon as I hand it over I’m dead.”



“That’s the idea,” she says wickedly.



“Then do it,” he says holding out his arms wide, exposing his chest to her.



Her wicked grin returns beneath the mask and she raises the blade to strike, but instead of doing so she spins around to catch the blade of Uriel, Alexandros’ Valkyrie guardian.



“Sneaky devil,” she says.



“I am no devil, you slimy whore,” Uriel replies.



They engage in combat between each other, both as good as the other like to sword masters fighting each other with neither gaining the upper hand over the other. Alexandros takes this opportunity to race over to Masamune. He slides the sword from its sheath and starts to join the fray when he is interrupted as one of the Yeti blast through the wall taking him to the ground.



The weight and strength of the creature is enormous and surprising to him, but being a veteran he is not easily over taken. As the Yeti brings up his hand to deal a deathblow, Alexandros manages to free his sword and take its hand off at the wrist before bringing the weapon back around and taking its head.



The full weight of the now dead creature drops on him and it takes a moment to maneuver his way from beneath it. When he gets to his feet he is somewhat relieved to see Uriel and the Magi still locked in battle.



As he races across the expanse of the room Uriel suffers a similar fate as yet another of the Yeti crash through the wall and into her. The dark skinned creature laughs and heads for the open window. As she reaches the ledge she looks back and nods to Alexandros. “Until next time.” Then she is gone out the window.



“Go after her,” Uriel yells. “I’ve got this one covered.”



Alexandros nods. Naked or not his blood burns for revenge. He runs at the window when a portion of the ceiling collapses with yet another Yeti down on top of Uriel. Indecision hits the leader of the Black List as he struggles between his friend and his vengeance. Finally, his friend’s life wins out and he leaps for the closest if the beasts.



The beast turns quickly, like he was expecting Alexandros and catches the man by the throat. The beast roars, launches spit of the smaller human. Alexandros calmly drives Masamune through the beast’s head. He falls to his knees recovering just in time to see Uriel cutting the last of the beasts in half.



The Valkyrie runs to the window past his friend and looks out. “No sign of her,” he says. “The storm has already picked up and her tracks are gone.” He turns around to face his human friend. “I told you to go.”



Alexandros doesn’t speak or face his friend as tears stream down his face as he holds the body of his wife in his arms.



FUNERAL PYRES FOR RASHIDA AND any others that died were held the next day with the remainder of that day used for mourning. Repairs were quickly set in motion because of both the cold and possibility of another attack.



Alexandros only made his appearance before the whole of the Black List during the funeral pyre events then holed up within the great hall on his throne dais relaying orders through Uriel.



“You can’t stay here forever,” Uriel says as she enters the great hall. “The fight is out there where we must strike first before they come back here in force.”



“And you think I do not know this?” Alexandros snaps.



“I understand you’re suffering, but you must clear your mind of this matter or send me to take care of it.”



Alexandros looks up at the Valkyrie quickly. “What is it you know that I don’t?”



“I know who attacked us and where to find them.”



“And you’ve waited this long to notify me of this?” Alexandros says angrily.



Uriel gives him a look of sincerity. “I thought it wise to give you the time you needed to grieve and I am more than willing to undertake the mission if you need more time.”



Alexandros stands grabbing Masamune in the process. “Get what provisions we need,” he says with authority. “We leave within the hour.”



BY THE TIME ALEXANDROS ARRIVED at the gate with two handpicked men, Uriel was already waiting with the provisions they would need along with four horses.



“Bringing them may only get them killed,” Uriel informs him.



“From the looks of it, you knew they were coming,” he replies grinning.



“That’s because I have know you for far too log now.”



“Then you know they are coming with us.”



She shakes her head as she hands off the reins to the other three horses. “Where we are going is a place we shall not take lightly.”



AFTER THREE DAYS OF TRAVELING through the Himalayas nearly nonstop, Uriel led Alexandros and his two most trusted men to a large mountain side. Before them sits a cave just large enough for them to enter on foot.



“What is this place?” Alexandros asks once they dismount their horses.



“This,” Uriel says, “is a cave. Beyond here lies the Valley of the Loteu.”



“The name holds no meaning for me.”



“I’d suspect not,” she says. “Finding any written word of them is near impossible.”



“Them?”



“The one that attacked is named Hirikika Eheclaln, a Magi.”



A look of recognition springs across Alexandros’ face and Uriel capitalizes upon it. “You had forgotten what Madu looked like.”



“For a moment,” he admits. “But I should have realized. I thought the Magi and Espers were on the side of good, not evil.”



Uriel smiles. “Any creature created by God is given free will and with it the choice to choose a side. Just as humans can be good or evil so can everything else.”



“Then who are the Loteu and why do you wait until now to notify me of their existence?” He rushes up the Uriel and grabs her clothing lifting her slightly off the ground and into the nearby wall. “Rashida could still be alive if not for your secrets!”



Uriel remains silent and calmly waits for Alexandros to releases her. “I didn’t tell you because I do not have the authority to.”



He spins back around to face her. “Then who does? Who decides to send a guardian for me but deems it necessary to leave me in the dark about such matters?”



“Like the men and women that follow you answer to you, I answer to another,” she answers showing a hint of real anger for the first time since Alexandros has known her. Then her features smooth out as calmness reclaims her. “I do not like it anymore than you do, but orders are orders.”



He shakes his head. “Then why are they here, allowed to exist and why do they want this,” he holds up Masamune, “so badly?”



“Long ago after the Asura were created and reign destruction upon their people and planet a council of twelve Magi and Espers forged twelve swords, infusing their souls and power into them. A champion was chosen and the twelve swords merged into one, Masamune. But the champion believed he could not lead an army against the Asura and fled to Earth with what remained of his people.



“When his people learned of what he did they became outraged and cast him out. For the sake of mankind and his own people, he hid the sword. Generations passed and the sword was forgotten about, at least that was what we hoped. The Loteu, members of the original scientists that created the Asura learned of the swords secrets and began seeking it out, ever unsuccessful, until now.”



“So why haven’t they been destroyed?”



“They have grown powerful over the ages and since they have remained here secluded we have left them.”



“You’re afraid of a war with them and the loss of lives,” he accuses the Valkyrie. “So now you risk my life to do your dirty work?”



“It’s not so much like you put it,” Uriel deflects.



“To hell it isn’t!” he shouts.



“You are a warrior beyond words and beyond any human to walk this Earth.”



“Your bravado isn’t going to change my feelings,” he sneers. “I do this because I seek vengeance and no other reason Uriel. I will not be used as a pawn for someone else’s bidding.”



“Whatever reasoning you use Alexandros, this fate has been thrown upon you.”



“Fate is a word used as a lie,” he says. “Lead us through so we can get this over and done with.”



Uriel about to speak opens then shuts her mouth and turns toward the cave. Alexandros instructs the two men to carry the supplies and they follow the Valkyrie into the cave.



The passage leads them through a series of twists and turns and strangely never grows dark, always at a constant twilight. Alexandros walks with his hand on the hilt of Masamune while the other two men cling to the supplies and their own weapons already drawn.



Eventually the team steps out from the mouth of the cave and into the Valley of the Loteu. Expecting to see snow and sky, all except for Uriel are surprised to see an open cavern with the same twilight glow cast across the ceiling.



A moss-like grass, something none of the men have ever seen before covers the cavern floor, while a strong steady river flows through the center of the valley. Above them hover five gigantic statues carved straight from the rock depicting women. All across the cavern walls are small streams of miniature-like waterfalls feeding the river below. Cresting the edges of rock along the walls is the same moss-like grass.



“What are those?” Alexandros asks pointing toward the massive statues.



Without looking up Uriel says, “Those are depictions of the Loteu. The other four are further down the valley.”



“How far down the valley before we reach our destination?” he asks as he scans the valley walls.



“The valley isn’t very big, but I suggest we rest and start for it early tomorrow,” Uriel suggests.



“I don’t like it,” Alexandros says. “We’re left too much in the open and we’re on lower ground.”



Uriel frowns. “This valley is unpatrolled and the last thing the Loteu will expect is a preemptive attack from us. More than likely they believe your still mourning for your wife.”



He doesn’t like it and against his better judgment he nods his agreement. At the base of one of the valley’s many waterfalls camp was set up. Afterward Alexandros instructed his two men across the river while pretending to still be in camp.



Uriel questioned about the two men, but Alexandros lied about them getting rest while he took first watch. He hated to lie to the Valkyrie but something nagged at him in the back of his head. She accepted his excuse and shortly after retired to her tent leaving the Black List leader alone.



He sits there watching Uriel’s tent while his two men kept watch over the valley. The uneasiness never left him and eventually he signaled the men and retired to his own tent. Several hours later he is awoke by a sudden movement within his tent. Instantaneously Masamune is in his hand and at the throat of beautifully tanned woman with long dark hair.



“Be quick with who you are before I cut your throat,” he threatens.



“My name is Isirath and I’ve come to give you warning,” she answers. When Alexandros doesn’t show any movement she continues, “If you wish to not believe me then kill me now.”



He scans the woman over noticing her sexy body underneath the very few clothes she is wearing. “You are far out of place here,” he says.



“And yet you’ve never been here, you can claim such an assessment.” Alexandros is about to make a comeback, but she continues. “You’re right I do not belong here, but I have had my eyes on you for quite some time.”



“An assassin, working in league with the Loteu then.”



“Quite the opposite,” she answers. “In fact someone closer to you is.” He looks toward Uriel’s tent though he cannot see through his own to see it. “Yes, your suspicions serve you well.”



“She is Valkyrie,” he protests. “Why would she betray us?”



“The seed of doubt has already taken root, even before my arrival.”



“How would you know?”



“It’s a gift I have,” Isirath admits. “I am an Apsara. My mother was a Magi and my father a demon.”



“I still don’t know why I should believe you, a half demon.”



“For the same reason you do the Marids and Zombies under your command,” she answers with a smile.



He pulls Masamune from her throat and turns to leave the tent but is stopped when Isirath’s hand reaches out to grab his. “I would wait until the morning.”



“Why should I let a traitor remain in my mists?”



“Because Uriel has already left to convene with the Loteu,” she explains. “They will strike in the morning.”



“And what about you?” he asks sounding very accusingly. “Why are willing to help me?”



“Another of my gifts is I catch glimpses of the future,” she says brushing his cheek. “Because of this I am drawn to you. I cannot say more because the future is ever shifting and can easily be swayed.”



She leans in and kisses him hard, firmly pushing her tongue into her mouth. She entwines it around his, sucking his tongue into her mouth as she runs her hand up and down him softly, bringing him to full arousal. Then she breaks away from the kiss and shifts to kneel in front of him, pulling open his pants and lowering her mouth down to his cock. Her tongue flicks out and she begins running it over his cock



Alexandros places a hand on her head stopping her. “I can’t.”



“I know you feel you can’t,” she says gazing up at him. “So sit back and relax.” She pushes him back and lowers her mouth down onto his cock.



Alexandros moans softly as he feels her lips sliding down him. She starts slowly, moving gently down him, sucking softly on his cock as her mouth moves up and down him. He moans at the feel of her mouth on him. She curls her tongue around his cock, making him gasp. Slowly her movements grow deeper and her sucking harder, drawing him deeper into her mouth.



Isirath lifts her head up, looking at him as she runs her tongue down his cock. She curls it around the base then licks back up along the underside. Alexandros gives a long groan of pleasure and she takes him in her mouth again, swallowing all of his cock into her mouth all the way to the back of her throat.



Alexandros gasps hard arching his head at the pleasure. She is sucking hard on him each time she moves along his cock. He reaches forward to wrap his fingers in her hair, gasping as her movement grows faster. She sinks down on him, taking him deeper into her mouth. This time he knows he can feel the head of his cock brushing against the back of her throat. Then she goes further, sliding down until her lips are pressed against his groin. He feels his cock sliding into her throat and she holds herself still before moving back up, then she drops back down him again, taking him deep into her throat.



As she increases her speed, swallowing him totally each time she sinks down, her lips slide along his shaft. The sensations flow through him exquisitely. Pleasure sweeps through him in waves, breaking against his resolve. As her movements grow harder and faster he feels his will crumbling.



She keeps up her movements even as he warns her of his impending orgasm. He groans as he feels all his control shatter as her mouth slides down him, taking his cock deep into her throat once again. His balls tighten and with a series of sharp grunts he cums, pumping his cum into her mouth. Her lips clamp around his cock, letting him fill her mouth with his cum, holding him still until he empties himself. Then she pulls away and gives a deliberate swallow and licks her lips to catch any remaining cum, smiling lustfully as she does so.



“Very nice,” she says. “I take it that it was nice for you as well?”



“Amazing,” he answers with lust filled eyes. Then he pulls her up to him and kisses her hard while reaching down to rub at her pussy. Isirath moans as he runs his fingers along her flesh and she reaches down in reaction to wrap her fingers around his cock.

41. A Fate-ful revelation



After more than a week of being restricted, to the inside of this palatial home, Payne had become alittle testy. Dycke was sure someone would find his head somewhere in the building, after he played a practical joke on her that she did not quite appreciate. She verbally tore his head off one afternoon, and then she ran up to her room crying. She bolted both doors and stayed there. She would not speak anyone, not even her parents, who tried to console her.



Dycke felt that this was the best time to speak to Marti about what was on his mind. He went to her and waited for her to acknowledge his presence, while she was on her computer. He stood there for a few minutes, and while he was waiting. He wondered if this was such a great idea. He started to turn and leave, when Marti said to him, “Hello, Dycke. We should go outside for a walk and you can tell me what has been worrying you for the past week.”



Dycke looked at her, as if she had two heads. He wondered where she had hidden her crystal ball, because she always seemed to know what was going on everywhere and in everyone’s mind. He said Marti, “Okay, but it is not going to be a thirteen mile walk.”



Marti took him out through the tunnel and out the back of the garage to a gazebo that was located by a man-made lake, in the center of the property. Once they sat down, Marti said, “What has been on your mind, Dycke? Almost everyone has noticed.”



“By everyone, do you mean, Fiona, also?”



“Yes Dycke, even Fiona has taken notice of your change of attitude. What is going on that you had to come to me, rather than speak to Fiona, who treats you like her younger brother, rather than a client?”



“Marti, what I am about to tell you, cannot go past you. This is a private conversation between us.”



“Okay Dycke, it stays with me.”



“The day prior to Payne having her face unmasked, I had this terrible premonition. I have had the same feeling, several times more, during the past week. I knew deep down in my soul, that Payne was going to be the most beautiful woman I had ever known. I also knew, in that same instant, that she was going to leave me. It will not happen now, but it has already started.



Today, it was because of a practical joke, which she normally loves. She will start school soon and when her schoolmates see her and the shock wears off, they will flock to her like bees to pollen. Those she selects to be her friends will idolize her. Those she chooses to alienate will become depressed because of what they did to her. She will stay with me to show off what she has, and what she can have because of her attachment to me. She will be the envy of everyone in school.



I am afraid that when she gets to Duke, that is when everything will fall apart, for us. She will no longer be the big fish in a small pond. There will be girls there almost as beautiful as she is, and she will not be as secure as she was in high school. The people at Duke will be better looking and many upper classmen are going to be attracted to her.



Even though we will be living together in a house, off campus, my worst fear is she will meet someone else, that she will start coming in late, hiding things from me, and eventually want to break up with me. She will not tell me the real reason for breaking up with me, the spare my feelings. From that moment on, however, I would not want to see her, again. I will be devastated. I will not know in what direction I should point my life. I will be nineteen years old, and feel like my life is over. This is why I asked talk to you, instead of Fiona. I would be crying now, if she was here, and she would be holding me, as my mother would be. I need advice from someone more detached from me, to give me a more dispassionate point of view. Payne will not tell me the real reason for breaking up with me, to spare my feelings. However, from that moment, I will not want to see her, again. I will be devastated. I will not know in what direction I should point my life. I will be nineteen years old, and feel like my life is over. This is why I asked to talk to you, instead of Fiona. I would be crying now, if she was here, and she would be holding me, as my mother would be. I needed advice from someone more detached from me, to give me a more dispassionate point of view. Please, Marti, help me, if you can.”



Marti sat there for amoment, digesting everything Dycke had just told her. He had no evidence of infidelity. Everything he told her was from a gut feeling; could she prepare him for such a loss? Payne and he had met on under ridiculous circumstances and fallen in love, at first sight. They had taken each other’s “virginity,” and as Dycke told her, if there was anything that was a ‘first’, they had done it together.



“Dycke, you have presented me with a very tall order and I’m going to give you the first thing that has come into my mind. ‘ Do not attend Duke.’ Tell Payne that the track coach from UNC contacted you and begged you to reconsider your decision to go to Duke and join his team at UNC. He understands your relationship with Payne. However, your majors are different. Your schedules will be different, and you will start training for track competition, during the summer. He said that he could make sure that your academic schedule was more flexible than Duke would make for you. You will be able to spend more time with her, between the adjustments of the schedule and your training regiments. Marti continued with her plan and it sounded better to Dycke every moment she continued.”



When she stopped, there was deadness in the air that called for someone to say something.



Finally, Dycke said something that was unintelligible.



Marti asked him to say it again.



Dycke said, “No!”



Marti demanded, “Say it out loud.”



“Fuck her. I will do it!”



Marti said, “Good! Now you have to remember:



First. She has done nothing wrong, yet.



Second. You must not change the way you speak, act, or treat her.



Third. You must continue to love her, as intensely as you do now.



Fourth. You must treat her parents the same way you have been treating them.



Fifth. Finally, if you screw up any of these, she may stay with you for all the wrong reasons. Then, you will wind up in a marriage, where you will both wind up hating each other. If this is going to happen, as you feel it is, let it happen before you get married, and before you have children. Do not let them be caught in a loveless marriage or worse in a single parent home.”



42. The Threat is real



An FBI agent, dressed as a cable technician, entered the main house on Tuesday afternoon. Marti and Fiona were expecting him, so there was no uproar when he walked in. Everyone sat down at the dining room table to hear what he had to say. He introduced himself as George Smith, and immediately, all who had assembled at the table, started laughing. He looked at them and said, “No, really, my name is George Smith. Only the CIA plays those name games.” After the chuckling quieted down, Marti asked him what he had found out for them.



George said, “You have attracted a very elite group. All they do is kidnap for money. We have been able to track fifteen kidnappings to them, and we suspect them for six more, all in Europe and Asia. This is their first foray, into the United States. In total, they have collected over three hundred million dollars in ransom. If it were I, I would have retired. However, in the last three years, they have picked up their pace, and are averaging three successful kidnappings a year. They always go after high-value targets, and they always ask for twenty million dollars or more. They get it, because they have not hurt any person they have kidnapped, when the ransom is paid, promptly. The two that were not paid were never found and believed dead.”



“Do you have any clue as to who they are?” Marti asked.



“We do now, because they are going after your boy. However, before that, they will like ghosts. Now we know that they are Russian expatriates, living in Switzerland. That is how they are able to hide all that cash. We found out that they were coming after Dycke, only after the fact. When we were invited into this case, we were able to backtrack it through the FAA systems, and then through your business systems in Antwerp. As soon as we got into the European Union, Interpol got involved, and they were able to ferret out bugs in the underground cables serving some of Mr. Schneider’s businesses. The bugs gave us computer addresses that led us to their team’s computer whiz. He is now under twenty four/seven surveillance. He cannot burp, without us hearing it, and he cannot shit, without us seeing it. They bugged his computer and all the computers at an Internet café, a few blocks from his apartment. If he tries to use it to send coded transmissions, we have it covered.”



Marti interrupted him, saying, “This is all very interesting stuff, George. However, when are they going to try and nab Dycke?”



“Oh, I’m sorry. I often find myself telling the story of how we wind up catching the bad guys. They are, already, in place. They are waiting for you to get bored here and return home. They will find out when your plane takes off and the approximate time of landing at Charleston. They will attack you, as soon as the aircraft is in the hangar, and the engines are shut down. They know your aircraft is in Burlington. They know you are here. There is a tracking device on, at least, one of the vehicles and on the aircraft itself. Do not try to remove it. We are going to try to use that against them. One of your people may have a tracking device on them, also, without knowing it. Check on it but do not turn off. The helicopter worried them, for a moment, until all three of your units joined up, in the same place, at the same time.”



Fiona spoke up and asked, “How many should we be expecting?



George said, “Amaximum of sixteen. From the display you gave them last Sunday, at the hospital, I would expect that they would throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at you. I told you that they have not killed many ‘principles,’ but they cut down their escorts like pawns. We will get our operational plan to you, as soon as possible. When you have looked over our plan, if you agree with both the date of departure, and the plan itself, use the word blue in your coded reply. If you disagree and want to make changes, send those changes, in the code, and use the word black in your code. They will watch you to make sure Dycke is on board the aircraft. I am sure that they will be watching the air traffic system, to verify that the plane does not deviate from its flight path from Burlington to Charleston. If it does, they will not show up. If it does not they will be there, en masse. We will get body armor to your aircraft. Do you need weapons?”



“A few air to air and air to ground missiles, for our helicopter would be good, just in case they try to use an aircraft for their escape.”



Marti said, “I think their plan is stupid, and from their success rate, I do not think they are stupid people. It would be crazy for sixteen people to attempt a kidnapping and firefight, in an open area on an Air Force base. The possibility of being faced with a rapid response force, that could be less than five minutes away. It makes no sense to me, at all. I think they’re setting us up, to flush us out.”



George said, “I have been here too long. If they have somebody watching this house, they will figure out that I am not a repairman. The fear you have is well founded. We thought about it, also. It makes much more sense to get him while he is en route from the airport to his house. We are scouting the route for the best ambush spots that will leave them with a variety of escape routes. We do not have enough people-power to cover them all, because of budgetary constraints, but we will do the best that we can.” And



Dycke jumped in and said, “If I threw in one million dollars, or ten million dollars, would you have enough money for the extra manpower?”



George said, “I believe that would be more than sufficient, but I would have to ask my superiors two questions:



First: Is it legal for a private citizen to pay the FBI for protection, against an imminent threat of kidnapping?



Second: Is one million dollars too little money? Is ten million dollars too much money? After I get the answer, I will get back to you.”



Dycke said, “Thank you, I would like that answer today, if at all possible. If the answer is no, I will have my attorney call a couple of senators and congressmen from South Carolina and possibly, the Attorney General of the United States, to see if that opinion can be changed.”



“I will give my boss that message. I am sure that it would give him the impression that you are not fooling around. Goodbye all.”



After George left the room, Marti sent Gary a text, on her secure telephone. She let him know that there was a security breach, on their computers, and that the enemy knows our every move!”



When Gary received the text, he was livid. In his entire career as a computer programmer, and security expert, no one had ever broken through his firewall programs. He was going to update it, and then backtrack along every line of code to find the culprit, who had broken his encryptions. He was going to cause that hacker so much pain; he would wish that he only had hemorrhoids, the size of grapefruits.



43. Preparing for War



The security team at Piker Temple’ office scanned the day’s mail, and found a letter for Dycke marked personal, and private. It was from a lawyer, Turnquest Schneider, in Switzerland. They were unsure, if there was a family relationship or not. Knowing that their communications were compromised, his security detail went to a local Staples store, purchased a “throw away” cellphone, and put in a call to Desiree. He said, “Desiree, Hank Moody. Have what looks like important message for Dycke from Turnquest Schneider. Sending by fax local Staples, under “Churchill.” Yes/no, two to three minutes.”



Desiree hustled to find either Marti or Fiona to get this message to them. She found them cloistered over a map of Charleston, going over routes to Dycke’s house. She relayed the message to them.



Fiona told Desiree to find Dycke.



Dycke was with Payne and her parents’ playing cards in the ‘rec’ room, while Steve was watching a re-run of Baywatch, on television. She told Dycke that Fiona wanted him, ‘now!’



Dycke went, immediately, to see what was up. Piker Temple went with him.



Dycke, after hearing whom the letter was from, said, “Send it, immediately!”



Marti was about to disagree, but held her tongue, because of the tone of Dycke’s voice.



Desiree called the number, simply said “Yes!”, and hung up.



Hank Moody received the message, and immediately faxed the copy of the letter to the UPS store, in Burlington. Even though he knew communication at his end was secure, there was no way to be sure that not all communication, at the receiving site was compromised. There was no way for the kidnappers to know, that the code 2 to 3 minutes, told Desiree where the receiving site would be.



Marti dispatched two Hummers with four men each, to pick up the letter. The trailing car immediately picked up the tail, and called it in. Shortly after the car that was tailing them, disappeared. They reached the UPS store and picked up the letter, addressed to Winston Churchill’s dog, Rufus, and proceeded back to the estate, without incident.



“Dycke, I have received word, through our mutual business partners, that you are expecting guests, when you return home. I thought it would be wonderful for you to have your great uncles Mercedes to ride in, while your guests are in town. This car is very heavy, and does not do well on gas mileage. However, it has strong curb appeal, him and dark shielded windows. Although, I am not sure you shall want to keep it, the bill of sale is in the glove box. Sign it and it is yours. You will owe me fifty euros for the car, and if you do not send it to me, quickly, I shall be destitute, after my U.S. taxes become due. It will arrive via a private freight courier, on March29th. It has been cleared by U.S. Customs, here in Switzerland. If you do not want the car, send it back to me. However, you must pay the freight charges. Cordially, Turnquest Schneider.



Dycke laughed. He turned the fax over to Marti to see what she is, made out of it. She looked at it and said, “Dycke, I think your uncle is sending you an armored car.”



Dycke replied, “That is what I thought.”



Fiona said, “That solves one big problem. No one will be able to get to our principals. I have seen the limo many times, and it will seat nine people easily. It does not look like an armored car. If the kidnappers are shooting anything, except armor piercing rounds or an RPG at it, everyone inside will be safe. Call a staff meeting, and we will brainstorm this new information, together. Then, we will send an update to the FBI.”



All of the agents gathered in the “great room,” and received maps with possible routes, from the Charleston airport to the Schneider house, and then the Temple house. There were only three possible routes to take, but only one logical one, unless you knew you were being followed, or set-up. One of the first questions asked was, “Why are we taking them to a known destination.”



Marti explained, “The kidnapper’s track record shows, that they do not kill the target, they kill protection detail, without mercy. Do the same to them, without hesitation. I believe if we do not get them now that they will try again later, when our intelligence reports are not as accurate. The FBI is ready. Interpol has all its resources working to help us. The local police will be on alert, as a backup. Everyone is as prepared as we will ever be.”



After she finished her speech, everyone in the room agreed with her assessment.



Marti continued her briefing and told everyone to look over their maps and find potential routes, chokepoints, escape routes, and especially schools and other high-density areas that could become targets for the kidnappers to take hostages. She told them when they were finished, to take someone else’s map, analyze it, make notes, give it to someone else, and review another map. After we have done it four times, we will go over it. No criticism will be considered too small to be checked. More criticisms of any potential route chokepoint, hazardous point or whatever will be taken into consideration. We will reconvene in four hours.



Four hours later, they reconvened, and the decisions seem to be unanimous. There was only one logical way for the team to get the principals home, without threatening too many civilians. Within one half mile of the hangar, on airport property, there were three universities, including Embry Riddle with their own fleet of aircraft. This area would have to be secured because of the possibility of the theft of these aircraft in an escape attempt. Their return was to be scheduled on aSaturday or Sunday, when very few students would be attending classes, at the universities.



The route from the airport would take them straight down Dorchester Road to the Temple’s home first and then, double-back to Dycke’s house. The trip would take thirty to forty minutes, along city streets with a forty-five mile per hour speed limit and traffic signals. No one was happy, however going any other way would tip their hand, and let the kidnappers know that they were on to them.



Working for them, however, was the lay of the land. Over eighty percent of the communities on both sides of the road were dead ends. There were two major arteries that they could get to and disappear in traffic, if they could get to them. Interstate 26 was to their North and Interstate 95 was to their West. They all agreed that this was not going to be their option. Charleston has a deep-water port, with ships arriving and departing every few hours. It has countless rivers running to the sea and bays and the intra-coastal waterway along its coast. It was a good bet that they had arrived by and would depart by ship. Fiona would contact the FBI to see what they could find out about the movement of commercial traffic into and out of the port of Charleston, in the next two weeks.

Getting back to where the kidnapping would take place, there was a, definite, difference of opinion. The discussion was professional, but heated. Each group explained how, and why, they had chosen their particular point for the ambush to take place. Each was well thought out, and explained in detail. Other groups dissected it, picked out the good points and found the plans flaws. Then, they went on to the next group’s position. At 11p.m., Marti stopped the meeting and told everyone to get some rest. They would reconvene at ten o’clock the next morning.



Dycke and all of the Temples were not living in a bubble, while all of this was going on. They heard the conversations. They heard the arguments and the raised voices. Each of them became more and more worried. Their lives were in the hands of these experts but they were worried, nonetheless. Dycke looked at each one of them and asked ‘if they wanted out’. He told them that he would set them up in another part of the country to do whatever they wanted to do, away from him, and more importantly, away from the danger. He looked at Payne and said, “I would hate to lose you. I love you more than words can say, but if anything were to happen to you, because of me, I could never live with myself. I will give you anything that you want. You will never need anything in your entire life but I could not survive if you got hurt, because of me.”



Payne looked at him and after she hit him said, “You idiot! Where would I be without you? I am not going anywhere. Where ever you go, I am going and if you try to leave me, I am going to put a collar around your neck and the leash is going to be around my wrist permanently.” When she finished saying this, she kissed him and Dycke cried, like a baby.



Payne said, “Why are you crying, you’re supposed to be happy?”



“I told you I am smarter than you are. These are happy tears!”



Payne hit him harder. “I told you never to say that, again.”



He said, “I know, I just wanted to feel some pain to make sure you meant it.”



Payne smacked him again, and said, “Are you sure now?”



“Yes, my love.”



Piker and Alletta both laughed at the antics of the two kids. Piker said to Dycke, “Seeing that my daughter is staying, my wife and I will also.”



“Thank you, dad. You will never know how much I appreciate it.”



Steve, on the other hand, decided to see what he could get out of the situation, as usual. He asked, “What is in it for me, if I decide to stay?”



Dycke looked at him and replied, “You, I don’t care if you stay or go. Have a good time, whatever your decision is.”



Steve was furious. Piker Alletta and Payne were hysterical. This made Steve even more furious. Steve looked at them and said, “You don’t care what happens to me, either?”



“No, Steve, we all care. Dycke just called your bluff ‘and you had nothing to back it up, as usual. If you at least him had your car, you could drive away with that. You tried to get something else out of this situation, but by trying that gambit, you lost everything,” his father said.



Payne retorted, “I keep telling you, Steve, that he is smarter than I am. If he is smarter than I am, you know damned well, that he is smarter than you are.”



“I am going to have to kill him after all,” Steve said.



Alletta replied, “That is what we need right now. Someone from the inside threatening to kill him, while we have kidnappers on the outside, trying to kidnap him and kill all of us.”



Desiree, stuck her head into the room and asked, “Who is trying to kill Dycke now?”



“The usual suspect,” Alletta said.



Desiree looked at Steve and said, “Should I call Joey in here, and have her teach you another lesson in manners?”



Steve looked at Desiree and replied, “I was just joking!”



Desiree said, “I was not.”



Steve looked horrified and said, “I will be good, I promise.”



Dycke looked at Steve and said, “If you are even a little bit hesitant, talk it over with your parents, and decide where you want to go, and I will set you up there in a college that will accept you, and make sure you have work after you have completed 4 years or your master’s degree or your doctorate.”



Everyone but Steve laughed at the suggestion that Steve could possibly go beyond four years of college, but thought it was a nice touch, for Dycke to offer it.



However, Steve complained, again. “You were going to set Payne up for life. Why not me?”



Dycke replied, “Steve, you barely like me, and you just threatened to kill me. I think I am being more than generous in offering you this transition to a new life.”



Piker looked at his son and said, “One day, Steve, you will learn to keep your mouth shut, before you stick both feet into it.”



“Do you think it is okay, if I take them out of my mouth now? It is hard to eat crow, with sneakers in there?”



Everyone laughed at Steve, and his remark, as he mimicked, trying to take shoes out of his mouth.



It was approaching midnight, and Dycke turned to Payne and said, “You struck me twice in the last half-hour, and it is time for me to get even. I am going to use the paddles, and take some pictures, tonight. To the bedroom, my dear, it is time to bear your derrière.”



“Don’t you talk like that in front of Steve, and my parents?”



“Payne dear, you must remember, it was your father that gave me the idea. As for Steve, it will drive him crazy, knowing that there are at least four people in the house that are having ‘congress’ and he is alone and dreaming about pass conquests.”



Steve said, “You son of a bitch!”



Dycke replied, “Steve, you know both my parents. How could you possibly say that?”



Steve knew that Dycke had gotten him, again. He threw his hands up in the air, said something under his breath, and stormed away.



Payne looked at her father and said, “Dad, I will get you for this!”



Alletta replied, “No dear, I will get him for this. Dycke when you are finished with the paddles, may I borrow them?”



Dycke looked at Piker and said, “All is fair in love and war, dad. Yes, mom, you can have them tomorrow.”



Piker looked at Dycke, “This is not included in the one million dollars or in my salary. You owe me big time, Dycke. She swings a mean paddle.”



Payne giggled and took Dycke’s hand and started upstairs to their bedroom. She thought, by the time they reached the third floor, she would think of a way to talking him out of it. She was wrong, and Dycke took some excellent pictures of two, fire engine red cheeks.



The next morning, at breakfast, Payne had to sit on a very soft pillow and she grimaced every time she moved. Her father and mother grinned at Payne, and her discomfort.



Steve laughed every time she moved.



Payne looked at her brother, and said, “Do not close your eyes, or turn your back brother. Strange things have been known to happen, in strange houses.”



Piker left as Payne threatened her brother. Then, he asked Dycke, “How many times, son?”



“Five swats to each cheek, dad.”



Payne said, “It felt like I was being caned.”



“Don’t worry, dear. Tomorrow morning, you will be able to laugh at your father.”



“It will not matter, mom. My pride hurts worse than my rear. I lost a bet to Dycke, because I did not think the problem through. I did it, again, the other night, and that is when you caught us in bed together, the following morning. He makes a habit out of baiting me, and I jump at it knowing I cannot lose. Then, he springs the trap and I loose, again. When I look back a moment later, I want to kick myself, because the answer is so obvious. Then he says to me is, “I told you I am smarter than you are.” I want to kill him for that, but he is correct.”



Alletta said, “Dear, it does not mean he is smarter than you are. It is like trying to compare Einstein with Fermi. Einstein created the theory. Fermi created the product.”



Payne smiled, “That’s why I like having you around mom. You always make me feel better.”



“You’re welcome, dear. Anytime you need me, I’m here.”



In the recreation room, tempers were wearing thin and opinions were still quite far apart, as to where the kidnappers would have the best opportunity to strike. Fiona had a brainstorm and said, “Everyone relax, I have the answer.”



She called out, “Alletta, come here, please.”



Alletta was very surprised to be summoned to the room where all the planning was being done. She could not imagine what value she could be to the discussions that concerned life and death situations. When she got to the room, she found out exactly why she was needed.



Fiona said to those gathered, “I would like you to meet the best shopper in all Charleston. Nothing goes on, close to Dorchester Road that Alletta does not know about. True, Alletta?”



Alletta smiled and said, “I have been known to spend a little time, and a few dollars, here and there, on that street. How can any of that knowledge help us?”



Marti asked her to look at the map and tell them where the busiest stores are, and the busiest intersections, and on what days?



Alletta started to speak, and thirty-five minutes later, all the men, and women in the room were startled by her knowledge, and feared for her husband’s wallet. However, she narrowed down the possible attack points to two intersections, and two different days.



Alletta said, “Monday is the worst traffic day in both directions on Dorchester. Between 7:30 and 11:30 in the morning, traffic is a nightmare on Dorchester Road. After that, it thins out to where it is just unbearable for most of the day. It seems that everyone likes to play bumper cars, on Monday. So, instead of having two lanes of traffic, in each direction, you are forced into one lane. Your speed is down to five or ten miles an hour. People out jogging, are going faster, than any car.



On Sundays, everyone goes to the malls and again, traffic comes to a standstill, at the intersection of Dorchester and Appian Way. There are three malls: One on the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest corners. The traffic light there is infuriating. It is, at least, two minutes long and when it, finally, gets to you, it only lets three, or four cars go through, before it turns red. The stores do not realize how much money they lose, because I am sitting in the car waiting at the traffic light.”



All of the agents broke into laughter. Piker, Dycke, and Payne, who had come in to the room and listened to Alletta, rattle off everything she knew about Dorchester Road and its stores were laughing with them.



Piker said, “Those stores loss is my gain.”



Alletta turned to her husband and said, “There is my skinflint husband. Dycke gave Piker a bonus of one million dollars to leave his firm, and work for him. What did he give me from all of this, besides aggravation? Zip. Zero. Nothing! He put the money into accounts that requires his signature, or his, and one of his children’s. His is always required. I cannot get at it, at all. It is not fair. If you hear screaming, and yelling, do not come running. I will be taking it out of his hide, inch by inch.”



Again, laughter broke out in the room. Everyone was laughing except Piker, who knew she was not kidding.



Piker said, “Excuse me, but in my own defense, I would like to say that I wanted to save some money for our summer vacation. However, if I let Alletta have access that money in February, it would have been gone by the beginning of June.”



Alletta screamed, “Not all of it!”



The entire room to broke-up into uncontrollable laughter.



After the room quieted, Piker asked Alletta, “When was the last time you spent money from your own account?”



She said, “Never! That is why I have your money.”



“When is the last time you checked your bank balance?”



“I do not know. You do that for me.”



“Yes Alletta, I do. That is how I know that you are a millionaire.”



The look on Alletta’s face was priceless. Her mouth was open, and her eyes were glazed. She was in a trance.



The people around her were laughing, and applauding, simultaneously.



Payne ran over to her mother, and said, “Can I have some money, mom. I want to start shopping, just like you!”



This shocked Alletta back to her normal state of mind. She said to Payne, “Go ask your father.”



Even Marti could not control herself. Dycke and Steve were holding their sides, because they were laughing so hard.



When her secure phone vibrated, Marti knew she was receiving a text message. It read, “GS one minute.”



Ten minutes later, they received a “Burst Transmission” via satellite from George Smith. It contained their plans for the operation to capture, and/or kill the kidnappers, when they tried to take Dycke.



After looking it over carefully, the team decided the FBI plan was deficient, in many areas. They set about the task of explaining to the FBI, nicely, that their original plan had missed many key points, and why their, updated plan, was better.



44. The FBI Comes Through



The one part of the burst transmission that was good news was the FBI had received permission to use Dycke’s money for the extra forces that would be needed, for such a complex operation.



That was good news to Marti, because they were about to add an air and sea variant to the operation. The sea operation was an area the FBI had totally overlooked. When Marti’s report was ready, they sent out the “Black” code followed by their own coded transmission, with their plan attached to it.



The FBI agents looked at it, and admitted it was better than their original plan. They did not think about water extraction points, through populated areas. They also did not know about the armored vehicle, coming in from Switzerland. This put a new wrinkle into the planning. After checking with Interpol, and with local telephone taps on the suspects, they realized that the kidnappers had not heard about it, either. This worked in their favor, because it would catch the kidnapper’s off-guard.



After two more transmissions, Sunday, April 1st, was picked as traveling day for the principals and preparations, and coordination was begun, for the assault that would take place, at Dorchester Road and Appian Way.



The FBI made a request, through the appropriate channels, that Charleston Air Force Base be required to have a Homeland Security Drill, on the military side of the airport, where the Air Force had their weapons and munitions storage, supply depot, aircraft maintenance, and parking facilities. On Air Force property, there were three universities, multiple businesses and aircraft hangers, where business jets and other aircraft were stored and maintained. This ruse was essential to the plan, as it kept the would-be kidnappers away from aircraft that could be used in an attempted air escape. The alert would start at 2 o’clock in the morning and continue through 10 o’clock in the evening. This was going to be a Homeland Security Drill and every inch of the base was to be guarded and searched thoroughly. Each member of the security force would be on alert. Every person going onto and off the base would be subject to inspection, and identification protocols. Every aircraft was going to be guarded and the weapons storage depot would be locked down, and guarded like Fort Knox.



On Friday, March 30th, Marti got an e-mail from Gary. It stated, “New security protocol in effect. Had multiple friends try to break through with no success. System is secure. Feel free to use.”



Marti was cryptic in her reply, simply saying, “Great news, and home soonest.”



All their equipment was packed and ready to go. On Friday morning, however, a small moving van pulled up to the front gate. It was immediately surrounded by security agents and the driver showed the bill of lading to the lead agent. At the bottom, it was signed by George Smith. The agent still was not convinced and told the driver to get out and open the rear door. He ordered the security team to take cover and if anything, moved inside the truck, to fire at will. The driver rolled up the door and climbed in. The lead agent climbed in with him, with his gun at the ready. The driver said, “I’m going to reach in my pocket and show you my credentials.”



The agent said, “Do it slowly, and with two fingers.”



The driver did as he was told and pulled out his identification and handed it to the agent.



The agent stepped back opened it and it revealed that the driver was an FBI agent.



“Fuck, why didn’t you just say so. You scared the shit out of me.”



The man from the FBI said, “We still think somebody’s watching the estate and we cannot pinpoint where he is.”



“Okay, what’s in the boxes?”



“Armor and guns.”



The agent said, “Oh goody, more toys!”



“You will not think so when you see them.”



The agent said, “Let’s open a few and find out.”



“You pick and I will open it.”



After opening the first box and seeing the automatic handguns and shotguns that were in there, the agent did not need to see anything else. He told the man to drive the truck, slowly around to the garage area. The truck was escorted there by the six-armed men, just in case the lead agent had been fooled. He need not have been worried.



Fiona came outside to inspect the goods. She went through each box and inspected each one closely. It smelled like each gun had been recently fired, and then checked and each vest was clearly marked with the FBI insignia. There were, also, two boxes of bullet resistant headgear, with face shields, which she doubted they would have time to put on if shooting started at the hangar.



She looked at the rounds of ammunition for the handguns and they were armor piercing rounds. She looked at the rounds for the shotguns and they were not. She could understand the logic behind that decision. In close quarters, a bullet was aimed at a perpetrators chest. A shotgun is addressed to, “To Whom It May Concern?” At close range, 6 to 10 feet, a blast from a shotgun could take down a perpetrator and the person to the right and left of him. It was best to use the nonlethal rounds to knock them down and injure them but not kill an innocent bystander, who happened to be standing next to him. The men they would be facing would definitely be wearing protective gear. The bullets they would be facing would penetrate their armor without a second thought.



Marti received an e-mail from Gary: “The eyes that were on you have left the scene and on their way here. The eyes on the aircraft are still in place. The pilots are under surveillance, but no contact has been made with them. I am inside their heads now. Would you like me to do anything?”



Marti replied, “Let the FBI know now. I will think about our end and get back to you later.”



Marti called another meeting to update the action plan. It was only supposed to be for the agents, but Dycke, Payne, Steve, Alletta, and Piker asked if they could sit in, because it concerned them, also.



Marti welcomed them to the meeting and told them to join in and raise any question or concerns.



She then took control of the meeting and said, “Okay, boys and girls, tea time is over. It is time to earn your money. The estate is no longer under surveillance and I have decided to move up the departure times for our cars. It was a five-hour trip from the estate to the Charleston airport. However, you are not going there. You are going to go home, rest, retrieve your civilian vehicles, and clothes. You shall move your Hummers to an area where they would not be seen or stand out.”



Marti pointed to the map on the wall, which showed Dorchester Road from Cross County Road to Delmar Highway, which is 18 miles beyond Appian Way, on Dorchester. She said, “This is the way I believe the attempt to take Dycke will go down. Our aircraft will arrive in the hangar, promptly at one o’clock. When we land, one fixed wing aircraft and one helicopter will take off. They will be our ‘spies in the sky’. Everyone will disembark from the aircraft, as usual, and we will leave the hangar at 1:03… When we turn on to Dorchester Road, I anticipate that we will pick up a two or three car tail. The FBI will be looking for any car, making radical movements, behind us, as we make that turn. When we approach the first traffic light, the Feds will make sure the light turns red. If they have spotted the cars, they will move some of their cars into a position, where the tails can be neutralized.

There is a lot of truck traffic in the right lane. They will turn right as we approach the second traffic light, which will also be red, thanks to the Feds. After that light, our cars will move into the right lane, and depending on how many cars they have tailing us and coming at us, we are an easy target for an attack all the way to third traffic light, which is Appian Way. Traffic stays slow up to Appian Way, because of the three malls at that intersection. The ‘perps’ must have figured a way to get Dycke and get themselves out of there, safely. My best guess is, ‘they will do it at the intersection itself. If I were the kidnapper, I would block off all Southwest bound traffic on Dorchester. I would use four or five cars to block the traffic lanes and have another car ready to transport Dycke, away from the scene. They would take Dycke Southwest on Dorchester to the next intersection, and then left through one of the communities, to the Ashley River. They could escape, using a high-speed boat. They could go east towards the Charleston Harbor and hide among the yachts on the Intracoastal Waterway. On the other hand, they could go west, and navigate through several intersecting rivers and canals and never be found.



Alternatively, if that way is blocked they could drive to Ladson Road and go northwest and attempt to escape by US 26, which I believe would be a bad move unless the crew was using motorcycles. They could disperse in any direction, and disappear into Charleston. Their only, other, escape route is southwest on Dorchester Road to Delmar Highway, where they can go, either north or south. What they do not know is, if they were to get that far, is the South Carolina Highway Patrol will have that area completely blocked off and our eyes in the sky will be telling them exactly what cars to look for, and how close they are.



However, the only vehicle we have to worry about is the one that is carrying Dycke and his family, but the perps will not get to them, because we have several surprises waiting for them on our side:



1: They do not know that we have broken into their computer system and are monitoring their radio communications.



2: They do not know about our eyes in the sky.



3. They do not know about the FBI and the manpower they have brought to bear on this situation.



4. They do not know that the limousine is armored.



5. They do not know that South Carolina Wildlife Commission with some help from the FBI will have the Ashley River blocked at the Colonial Historic site in the West and at Cross County Road in East.



6. Finally, thanks to the FBI, we are also going to have two armored Hummers waiting for us at the hangar. When the aircraft arrives, this is going to look like a normal trip home.



We want them to think that we have lowered our guard and that we have returned to normal status. The longer they believe this, the better for us. Those of you who are going to be assigned to the armored Hummers are not going to be happy with me, but you will follow these instructions religiously, “When the shooting starts, ‘you are not to get out of your vehicles.’ You are to move your cars in to defensive positions on each side of the limousine and wait for instructions. If the bad guys start closing on your position, unleash everything you have. Show them no mercy, because they will show you none.



Finally, Gabby will be in charge of coordination with FBI. She will be in our helicopter, which will close in, as soon as the first round is fired.



Alana will be in charge of our ground troops. I have already told her to play nice Feds, because there are going to be about a hundred, or more of them out there. However, we are independent contractors. We have our own rules, and we are here to protect our people. Alana step up here and tell your people what their jobs are and what you expect of each one of them.



Alana put up abigger, more detailed, map on the wall. She said, “This shows the area from just northeast of Appian Way to the next traffic light. This is Ladson Road. Our main area of concern is the Appian Way intersection, the malls, and parking areas. The Feds have taken the biggest mall, which is on the Southeast corner and the smaller one, on the Northeast corner. We have the mall on the Southwest corner, all to ourselves. We are going to wear shorts and tee shirts. We are going to go shopping. We are going to laugh and have a good time. We are going to arrive between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. and we are going to buy stuff and drop it off at the car and go buy some more and get something to eat and go back to the car. Let yourself be seen. We are going to team up as many men and women as we can. As you are walking to your car, get into a spat with your husband, talk about your children, or give your wife a pat on her ass. Draw attention to yourself, so anyone looking at you, feels comfortable seeing you walking toward your car. Look and act as normal as possible. When we run out of mixed pairs, we will start with groups of three and four women shopping out of two cars. Park as close to the perimeter of the parking lot as you feel comfortable, but do not park together. Back your cars in so no one can see you changing into your combat gear.



We are going to start leaving here around midnight, lights off until you get on US 70. Your route of travel tonight is US 70 West. The rest of the data will be fed into your GPS’s, but you probably know the route already. Considering the firepower you are carrying in the trunk of each vehicle, I suggest that you travel five miles an hour under the speed limit. It is a five-hour trip, so there is no need to hurry. We will need all of you well rested for Sunday. Make sure everything is packed and let me know when you’re ready to leave.” Any comments or questions?



Steve said, “If I was the kidnapper, I would block off the intersection in two directions, and once I knew I had the ability to get my target. I would call my helicopter, land it in the intersection, and get the target out of there in a hurry.”



Everyone in the room looked at him. They looked back at the map, and they thought about what he said. They realized this was a very good option and they had no time to set up a plan for it.”



Marti looked at Steve and said, “When Joey hit you, she must have woken up some of your James Bond cells. That is an excellent thought and something no member of this group had thought about. Well done, Steve, very well done!”



Marti turned to Gabby and said, “Get on a secure line to the Feds. Tell them what Steve came up with and see if they have something to counter it, because we do not. Tell them the kidnappers will not be able to get to our people, but they may be able to get a hostage and leadership out, using a helicopter.”



Everyone left the room, talking about the last minute hiccup in their planning. They could not believe that they missed something so obvious, that an eighteen-year-old kid had picked it up, out of thin air.



Steve had a big, shit-eating grin on his face. Finally, Dycke owed him something. Now, he was going to face him and collect.



Dycke was with Payne and his parents, as Steve approached him and said, “I want a Porsche Carrera, for saving your sorry ass.”



Dycke, Payne, Alletta, and Piker all laughed.



“What did I say that was so funny, this time?”



Dycke asked, “Who would like to answer Steve’s question, this time?



Alletta looked at Payne and tried to stare her down. Payne looked back at mother and said, “You are a millionaire, and you would not give me any money to go shopping. All I was trying to do was what you have been asking me to do all my life, ‘…try to be more like me…’ When I asked you for money so I could go shopping and buy clothes, and shoes and other girly stuff, so ‘…I could be more like you…’ you pushed me away, and sent me to daddy. I am very unhappy, with you.”



The three men in the room had had all they could take. It was time to do something serious, because they were going to die of laughter, if they did not. Dycke asked, “Which one of you is going to answer the question?”



Alletta said, “Go ahead, Payne, answer the question.”



“Thank you, mom. Does this mean you going to give me money, also?”



“Give me a little time to think about that. I have never had to spend my own money before, but for you, I will try.”



Payne said, “Why don’t you just give me your checkbook, mom. Or, sign a few checks and give them to me, and you will not have to worry about anything, ever again.”



Payne started by saying, “Steve did you listen to anything that was said in there? If you did, you would have heard Marti say, many times, that they were never going to get, into the car. Therefore, you asking for reward for saving ‘Dycke’s Ass’, which assumes that they can get into the car to get to him. Are we supposed to believe you, a certifiable nut, or Marti, who has been in the business of protecting people, for a very long time?”



Steve just shook his head, knowing he had been defeated, again, only this time, by logic. As long as no one in the car panicked and opened one of the doors, they would be safe.



It was decided, that they had had enough fun, for one evening, and bed was the best place for them. The Temples lead the parade up to the second and third floors, where every bedroom was in use.



The professionals were filled with pride, because of their prior accomplishments. However, now, they were filled with nervous energy, thinking about what was to come, on Sunday. They were edgy now; on Sunday, they would be razor sharp.



The FBI had sent packets of information with the weapons. They showed the murder scenes these kidnappers had left behind. They had killed, or injured over eighty security agents during their reign of terror.



Desiree had never been in a live firefight. She had all the training. She had been in some very tough situations. However, she had never fired her gun in anger. Sunday, she, or some of her comrades-in-arms, could join the ranks of the dead, or injured. For the first time, since she had started her training, she felt extremely tense, and her nerves were frayed. She had to find a way to calm herself down. She would be no good to anyone, on Sunday, or worse, she might be the cause of someone’s death, because she was not at her best. She knew she had to do something physical to bring her body under control.



45. Decisions



The drivers of the Hummers, that were going south, were desperate to get on the road. Alana acquiesced and let them start leaving at 10 p.m. Every ten minutes, quiet as a church mouse, a hummer left the estate and in complete secrecy. Finally, after the last hummer left, they closed and locked the gates, set the alarms, and everyone that remained settled down, for a good night’s sleep.



Piker and Alletta could be heard, reliving the night of passion, after the incident with Fiona, at the hospital. Her cries of passion could be heard, across the third floor and beyond.



Dycke and Payne were definitely not sleeping, because you could hear the giggling going on, from inside their room. Dycke was reminding Payne, that the screams she was hearing, were the reason she lost her bet to him, and that she would spend one glorious day, as his naked sex slave, doing every deviant and perverted sex act he could imagine.



Steve’s room was, also, next to his parents, and he had a pillow over his ears, trying to keep out the sounds of his mother’s moans of pleasure, while his father was driving her closer and closer to climax.



He knew he was not going to be able to fall asleep, so he decided to exercise. He moved to the center of his room, and started doing push-ups. He had just finished doing one hundred and flipped over, and started doing sit-ups, when someone kicked him in the ribs, fell across his body, and landed on the floor.



Steve cried out in pain.



A woman said, “‘Bloody hell!’ What the hell are you doing on the floor?”



“Desiree is that you?”



“Yes, and you still haven’t answered the fucking question. What are you doing on the floor?”



“My mother and father are screwing around, next door, and I could not sleep. I decided to exercise to get them out of my head, and tire myself out. Then, you walked in, kicked me, and broke a couple of my ribs. Now, I will be unable to exercise, and I still, will not be able to sleep, because of the pain in my side.”



“You have such a miserable life.”



“You do not have to rub it in. Desiree, what are you doing here?”



“I came to tuck you in.”



“That is really sweet of you. Do you do that every night?”



“No. Tonight is a special night and if you ever open your mouth up about it, I will have you drawn and quartered.”



Steve asked, “May I ask what your problem is?”



“I just needed to talk to someone and somehow I knew that you would be awake.”



“I guess you heard my mother screaming and yelling, also?”



“Yes. I heard. I have also heard your father is hung like a horse and he knows how to use that appendage, very well.”



Steve said, “That is too much information, Desiree. However, now I am certain of who my parents are. Are you going to tell me what is wrong, or are we going to play twenty questions?”



“Are you going to keep this between us, or am I going to have to kill you, before I leave this room.”



“It stays between us, ‘Des’, I swear.”



“Okay, here goes. I have never been in a firefight. I am not afraid of it. I have been extremely well trained. I know what to expect. I know what to do. I know how to handle myself. I am just so keyed up; I do not know what to do with myself, right now. Everyone else has been there, and done that. They are all sleeping like babies. I need to go outside to run, or do something physically exerting, just to bring my energy level down.



Steve asked, “Are you sure you just wanted to talk?”



Desiree said, “You are a son of a bitch!”



Steve said, “Would you please be quiet. My mother is getting laid next door.”



“Steve, if you ever breathed a word of what happens here; you will live the remainder of your life as a eunuch.”



“Desiree, I have been with a lot of women, and the one thing I have always been is ‘discreet.’ I never talk to anyone about any relationship I have with a girl. The girls at school trust me for that reason, and will go out with me, even knowing my reputation as a ladies man.”



Steve got up from the floor, and went over to his bed, where Desiree was sitting. He said to her, “I’ve never made love to an older woman.”



“You haven’t yet, Steve, and that is a very poor way to start.”



“I promise that I will make it up to you before you leave this room.”



Steve took her into his arms and kissed her for the first time. It was not a deep kiss. It was not even a good kiss. However, it was only the first kiss. After the first kiss, came the second kiss and that one was much better. He controlled his hands for a very long time, not wanting to rush Desiree into something that she might want to stop. However, as soon as her hands started to move on his body, his hands started to move along hers. He found the buttons on the back of her blouse, and with practiced ease, he unbuttoned each one. He unsnapped her bra, with one hand, and removed it and her and blouse at the same time.



Desiree felt naked, all of a sudden, and tried to cover her breasts. She was in a room, about to have sex with an eighteen-year-old boy, and she was acting like a virgin. He was doing very well, playing the part of a gigolo. She was an experienced, twenty-seven-year-old woman, who had been around the block a few times and she said to herself, “What is wrong with this picture”?



Steve moved his lips down Desiree’s jaw and neck along her arm and down her chest and finally she moved her arm away so that he could get to her breast. When he licked and then bit the nipple of her left breast, her pussy flooded and she never felt it coming. She did not even realize she was aroused. She thought she was tense, maybe nervous, but she never felt like she was aroused. She did not even think she was wet, but now her panties were soaked. Her pants were soaked. She had no clue what had happened to her but she wanted it to happen, repeatedly.



She pushed Steve away and he looked at her as if he had done something wrong. She just grabbed his shirt and lifted it off him, then pushed him back and took off his pajama bottoms leaving him naked. Then she took her slacks and panties off, leaving her only with her white anklets on. Before she could bend down and take those off, Steve grabbed her and threw her back onto the bed. She laughed and asked him if he had a thing for socks?



He said, “Not till now, however, I’ll come up with something?” Steve lunged for her, but missed and wound up face down on the bed and Desiree was riding him bareback, like a cowgirl, and her arms forcing his face further into a pillow.



Steve yelled, as best he could, “This is not fair!”



Desiree asked, “Why isn’t it fair?”



“Your pussy is so slippery I couldn’t hold on to you if I had to.”



Desiree started laughing and rolled off Steve’s back.



Steve climbed on top of her and attacked her breasts, again. However, this time he was taking no chances. He grabbed her knees and pulled them upwards, until he was able to lay his body on hers and put a nipple in his mouth.



Desiree squealed loudly and said, “You are not playing fair, not fair at all!”



Steve laughed, “I played by Dycke’s rules.”



Desiree squeaked, “What are those?”



“He cheats!”



“He does not cheat,” said Desiree.



While moving his tongue from her breasts, his down past her belly button, Steve smiled and said, “Ask him?”



Desiree was just about to say, “I will,” but she screamed out, “Oh fuck,” instead, as her second orgasm overwhelmed her, instead. Steve had just bitten her tender, inflamed, and over-excited clit. His arms had spread her knees, as wide apart as possible, and his mouth descended rapidly onto her open center. He wanted access to her juices and his mouth formed a seal around her vaginal lips that not even air could get through. His tongue probed and tortured her clit. It moved up and down, through the folds of her nether lips, and darted into and out of her vagina.



Desiree wanted more. She grabbed Steve by his hair and lifted his head up. She beckoned him with a finger, motioning for him to move up her body. She was hot enough now to melt steel, and there was no sense putting it off.



Steve put his knees inside of Desiree’s, and lay down on her body. He looked down at Desiree, who looked up at him, a little confused, at first, until he slowly thrust himself inside her. He was in control, whether she liked it or not. He set a slow but steady pace, which was exactly the opposite of what Desiree wanted, and needed. She wanted a sprint. He set up for marathon.



Desiree said to him, “If you don’t start to move, I am going to pick you up, throw you back on the floor, take what I want from you, and leave.”



“I thought you wanted to burn off some energy?”



“You may be burning off energy, but I may as well be reading and a fucking dictionary.”



Steve said, “Okay, first gear.” He reared back and started moving, like the wings on a hummingbird.



His speed and power caught Desiree totally off guard. Desiree could only use her hips to respond, and even that was hard, because of his onslaught. She could feel every ridge, of the width, of Steve’s, impressive cock, and she felt a shot of pain, when his cock hit her cervix.



Desiree wanted to taunt him to see if he had joked about this being, “first gear.” She said to him, “Is this all you have, Steve?”



Steve looked down at her and said, “Are you sure you can handle it?”



“Let me know when I can put dictionary down.”



“Second gear, with spin mode, coming up!” Steve’s motions slowed and his hips turned, like a washing machine agitator. That cycle stopped and he moved into high-speed drilling for about one moment. He stopped and went into a ‘one minute’ spin cycle, where his hips circled and dove as deep into Desiree as her cervix would let him, on each spin.

Desiree moaned, “Oh fuck that is good.”



Steve said into her ear, “There are still two more gears to go!”



Desiree could not answer because she was in the middle of an orgasm. When she did reply, she said, “Let me enjoy this one for a few more minutes, and then you can go to third gear.”



After a while, Steve released Desiree’s legs and said, “Third gear, full assault mode.” He flipped Desiree onto her stomach, and entered her from behind, without hesitation. He grabbed both her breasts, and pinched the tips her nipples.



Desiree knew she could not scream. She stuffed a pillow in her mouth, bit down hard and yelled as loud as she could. At that moment she admitted, that this kid was wise beyond his years.



Steve was not through with her yet. He released her breasts as he was pummeling her pussy and brought one hand down and played with her clit until he had it surrounded by two fingers and squeezed it. He continued to squeeze it and squeezed it again, until Desiree’s head was pounding against the pillow. He fuck her, as hard and as fast as he could, hitting her cervix every time. Then smacked her as hard as he had ever hit a woman, in his life, on her right ass cheek.



Desiree bit down hard on the pillow and screamed, as a huge orgasm overtook her, and dimmed her lights.



Steve continued his manipulation of her clitoris and smacked her ass again, but did not receive the same result. He felt himself rising to his own completion and wanted Desiree to finish with him. There was only one more thing that he could think of and he was not sure what her reaction would be to it. She could only kill him once, and she was sworn to protect him. However, he knew that was from outside threats, and not from her. He decided to do it and see what happened.



He leaned down over her body and said in her ear, “Big finish, I am coming.”



Desiree nodded and forced her head deeper into the pillow.



Steve moved his left leg and put it by her left hip. In one swift stroke, he removed his dick from her pussy, and rammed one third of it, into her ass.



Desiree’s head flew up from the bed. The pillow was still firmly trapped, between her teeth, and she was in ‘pain!’ She was screaming, into the pillow, as loud as she could. However, her pussy was flooding the sheets below her, like tourists under the falls, at Niagara.



Steve started to move back and forth in her, very slowly. He never went deeper, but he never pulled out. He started to move a little faster, when he saw Desiree’s shoulders start to relax. He started moving deeper into her, when her head started to nod and she started to moan. Almost 10 minutes later, he was fully embedded into her and she was pushing back against him.



Desiree moved herself up, onto all fours. She used her strength to exert more pressure against his prick. In all her life, she had never had anal sex, and one day, she would get even with Steve, if it were the last thing she ever did. She would have never chosen him to be her first, because of his size. She had a feeling there was going to be a pleasurable end, to her being fucked in the ass, and she might as well enjoy it, rather than think about it.



Steve was happy knowing that he had not hurt Desiree’, badly. He had seen her initial reaction, and was worried, but knew she was enjoying it, now. He went back to playing with a breast and her clit, which immediately had her neck snapped back, in pleasure.



He kept thrusting into her steadily, and he was worrying her clit with two fingers. The flow from her vagina with constant, and the words, going into the pillow, were ceaseless. Finally, he could take it no longer. He yelled to her, that he was coming, and blasted his semen, deep into her bowels. He continued stroking into her, and playing with her clit, until she joined him. Finally, Desiree dropped her head back onto the bed and her breathing calmed down. He, slowly, withdrew himself from her ass and was amazed at how quickly her sphincter closed. As she lay there, with her eyes closed, he went into the bathroom, cleaned himself up, and brought back a towel, and a glass of water, with him



Desiree had turned herself over and was lying on the pillow. She had nearly bitten through it and said to Steve, “I thought you had another gear?”



Steve looked at her and said, “Third gear, nearly knocked you out. If I go into overdrive, everybody in the building will know you are here.”



She said, “In other words, I have totally tapped you out, and there is nothing left in your little gun.”



“I could tell, by the look on your face, every time I was knocking at the door to your womb that you did not enjoy the pain that I was causing you. I was kind enough to back off several inches. If I had gone in all the way, I could have visited the room, where in the future, you and some lucky man will make a baby. My dick is two inches longer than my dad’s is. When I talked with him about sex, he told me that it is extremely painful for young woman when a man forces his way through her cervix, even though afterwards, it might be extremely pleasurable. I have never been able to put my entire dick, into any woman’s vagina. That is why I enjoy anal sex, so much. I am always able to get full penetration, without any repercussions. I can get most of my female friends to have an orgasm, when we do it that way, and I am fully pressed against their bodies.”



Desiree’ asked, “What did you two do, ‘measure each other’?”



“Yes,” Steve said. “We took my mom’s sewing tape and measured while we were both erect. My dad is wider but I am longer.”



“No wonder your mother walks around smiling all the time.”



Steve said, “She has a lot to smile about. My father keeps her happy, she gets to spend a lot of his money, and she just found out that she is a millionaire. Hell, I would smile, also,”



“I know I’m going to regret this, but how big are you?” Desiree asked Steve.



“I have never told this to anyone. Why would I share that with you, Des?”



“You have tonight told over my head, for the rest of your life. I will kill you; if you do not tell me and I will make your very short life, as painful as possible.”



“If this gets out, I know it will have come from you. Do not make me hurt you,” Steve said. “I am ten inches long, and six in inches in circumference.”



Desiree scrunched her face up and said, “Six inches in circumference and you had that beast stuck up my ass?”



Steve said, “Most people get freaked out, by the ten inches long.”



“You could be ten inches long and be a Spaghetti noodle. That dick of yours is the circumference of a bottle of water. If you stick something like that in a mouth, you could get ‘lock jaw.’”



Steve laughed and said, “It goes down a little bit after I cum.”



“Either that, or the girl had better have sharp teeth, so she can bite it off.”



Steve did not laughed this time, he just looked at Desiree and said, “Do not even joke about that. It is not funny.”



Desiree said to Steve, “One more piece of advice, Steve. Do not fool around with married women. If you get caught, and their husbands see that thing, they will take it out by the root.”



Steve said to Desiree, “I will have no trouble keeping myself busy with single women, while I am young, and unattached. Like my father, when I find the one I want to settle down with, it will be forever, at least on my part and hopefully, on hers.”



Desiree looked at Steve and said, “Somewhere in that head is a smart man, waiting to get out of the mind of the boy.”



“Desiree that is the nicest thing you have ever said to me.”



“Do not let that go to your head, Steve. I have to shower, and get back into my clothes. I have been here too long and someone may get up and look around. I cannot be found in this room, with you. Your fourth gear will have to be practiced on another, willing, young woman.”



Steve said, “You mean this is it? We cannot do this anymore?”



Desiree smiled at him and said, “No, Steve. As pleasurable, and as much fun as you and I had, this was a ‘Once-in-a-lifetime-deal.’ I needed it to calm down, and you wanted it. We served each other’s purpose, and we both had fun. Now, you are back to being my client. I am going to protect you to the absolute best of my ability. This afternoon is going to be very interesting. Keep your head about you, and follow instructions.



Steve said, “Yes, ma’am.”



Moments later, Desiree emerged from the bathroom, naked but toweling herself off. She saw Steve sitting on the bed with a sour look on his face, and asked him to stop pouting.



Steve smiled at her and said, “When the other girls see me pout, they always give me what I want. Why not you?”



Desiree smiled and said, “I have been suckered by more than one pair of moonstruck eyes too many. I am immune to them. Now, get into bed, if you can find adry spot, or go back on the floor, and get some sleep. We have a big day ahead of us.”



With that, she kissed him, dressed, and left the room. She descended the stairs and when she reached the second floor, she saw Fiona sitting there and she was not happy. Desiree said to herself, “I am in trouble.” She walked over to Fiona, and sat on the floor beside her and asked, “Am I fired?”



Fiona answered saying, “I should kick your ass, from here to next Tuesday.”



Desiree answered, “If you had been awake to do that at eleven o’clock, none of this would have happened.”



Fiona said, “Talk to me.”



Desiree started telling her everything that had transpired without leaving anything out. She was not worried about the afternoon, she just could not get her body to calm down, and this was the only way she could think to do it, without bothering anybody else. When she mentioned Steve’s size, Fiona had to laugh. Desiree looked at her, and asked, “Why are you laughing?”



Fiona explained to Desiree what had happened at Duke Medical Center, when Alletta said to her, “You have a gun in your purse, like I have a Popsicle in my pants.” and lost. In payment, she pulled Piker’s dick out of his pants, and showed it to her.



Desiree’ could not help, but laugh. However, the seriousness of the matter still lay before them. Desiree explained that she had already told Steve that this was a one-time event, and it would never occur again. If changing her detail, to another party served their client better, it would be okay with her. If firing her was appropriate, she was ready for that, also.



Fiona looked at Desiree and said, “I cannot move you from Steve, without it looking suspicious. We will talk about your future, with this organization, after today. If you want to keep your job, be sharp out there, and protect your client.”



Desiree said, “I always have, and I always will.”



46. “Nerves of Steal”



The FBI knew the nationalities of the kidnappers, but that in five dollars would get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. They needed their names, and their descriptions. They moved around the globe like ghosts. Therefore, the FBI hunted them like ghosts. Every hotel in a one hundred mile radius of Charleston was contacted to be on the alert, for any group of guests that checked-in, having heavy German or Russian accents. Until some new information came in, all anyone could do was in sit back, go over the plan, and make sure everyone knew it backwards, and forwards.



Meanwhile, at the Charleston Marriott, eighteen Swiss investors were being wined, and dined, by the Charleston Historic Society, in an attempt to fund a project, to protect Charleston’s written, cultural, and architectural heritage. After the formal presentation closed, everyone proceeded out to the veranda, which overlooked the Ashley River. It was a beautiful, star-lit, spring evening. The wine, and conversation flowed easily between the guests and society members. All spoke fluent French and had impeccable manners. As the evening ended, the Swiss investors requested another meeting to be set for Tuesday afternoon for a preliminary assessment of costs, and other technicalities. They would be willing to stay for another few days, because they felt that this was an opportunity with which, they wanted to be associated. The members of this Historical Society were elated, and a meeting was set for Tuesday afternoon.



The investors returned to their suites, and continued to discuss the business of the historical society, as two of their members swept the room for listening devices. After completion, they went over the plans to kidnap Dycke Schneider, once more. Their plan depended on timing, overwhelming firepower, and a disappearing act, into the crowds at the malls, for some of them. The main party, carrying Dycke, was to take their recreational vehicle to the river and then high-speed boat to the Charleston executive airport where two, long-range jet aircraft would be ready to go to a friendly, South African, country. Those men left behind, would attend the meeting Tuesday afternoon. They would sign the preliminary contracts, which would seal a worthless deal.



Grigory, aformer Colonel of the Soviet Special Forces, told his men that everything was in readiness. He said, the “RV” is camouflaged and your vehicles are in place. The boat, is in position and the aircrafts engines will be running when you get there. Schneider is worth seventy-five million Euros to us. We must grab him, and get out of this country, before the federal authorities get involved. The local cops are no match for us. His guards are better, but there are too few of them for us to worry about. The machine gun, on the RV, will keep them pinned down, while we grab our prize. You will get out of the country, and I will join you, next week. It would be unseemly of me, to break our host’s hearts, and not show up.



At 2 AM., the alert siren sounded at Charleston Air Force base. Men and women rushed to their assigned posts, waiting to hear exactly what their duty orders were. When their commanding officers arrived, they were told that this was a “Homeland Security Alert.” The entire military police, and security details were on alert, until further notice. They were to search every vehicle coming onto and leaving the base searching for anything and everything that was out of order. The entire military base was off-limits to civilians except departing and arriving aircraft, with full FAA clearance. Each aircraft was to be inspected, and there were to be no exceptions, until the base was reopened to normal traffic.



At eight in the morning, everyone, at the estate, was on the move. Last-minute messages were passed between Marti and Gary to make sure communications was still secure and that the bad guys had not received notice from their guy, in Switzerland, that something had gone wrong. So far, everything looked good, and they were looking at a ten o’clock departure for the airport.



It was nine o’clock in the morning, in Charleston, and the tour buses stopped, at the Patriots Point museum. Many of the guests went directly to see the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier, with a variety of aircraft displayed both on the flight deck, and on the hangar deck. A smaller group went to the USS Clagmore, a diesel powered submarine, and a third group went directly to the gift shop. In less than thirty minutes, members of each of these groups had gone to the parking lot, entered private vehicles, and left the area. They did not stand out in any way, and no one would ever be able to identify them. They proceeded, by their assigned routes, to their staging areas, where they changed into their camouflage clothing and body armor. The four men assigned to the RV waited patiently, five hundred yards northwest of the intersection of Dorchester Road and Appian Way, until no one could see them slip between the tall reeds of sawgrass, and reach the RV, which was hidden two hundred yards inside this undeveloped property. The RV was a restored World War II M8 / Greyhound. A lightly armored, six wheeled, all-terrain, vehicle. Its 37mm cannon was there, but it was not functional. Its biggest threat came from the 50 caliber, turret mounted, machine gun, which rotated three hundred sixty degrees. German troops, trucks, and trains hated the Greyhounds. These vehicles were fast, maneuverable, and deadly, but most of all, they had such a low profile, you could not see them, until they were almost upon you.



At eleven o’clock, the estate emptied and the cars rolled towards the Burlington airport. Marti kept in contact with Gary to see if there was any communication, between the kidnappers. So far, there was none.



However, as soon as, the pilots reached the aircraft and started their preflight, Gary called and reported that he had him intercepted a transmission advising the people in Charleston, “The ‘Eagle’ was preparing to leave the nest.” The message was not acknowledged. The two lookouts got in their car and proceeded towards I-95. Shortly after entering the highway, a police cruiser pulled up behind them, with lights flashing, and told the driver to pull over, which he did. The officers got out of their car and told the driver and passenger to get out. They were arrested immediately, on the federal warrant. An unmarked black car pulled up alongside them, and the officers gave the FBI agents, the men’s cell phones, walkie-talkies, and listening devices. The police kept the handguns and high-powered rifles that were found in the car. The car and license plates were, also listed as stolen. The police officers said to the spotters, “The Feds do not have to charge you two. South Carolina law will put you in prison for twenty plus years, for what you are carrying. Our prisons are not as nice as theirs and our prisoners do not like foreigners.”



Dycke’s entourage reached the aircraft without incident. The aircraft was going to be fully loaded, with people sitting in the aisles, for the fifty-five minute trip to Charleston. No agent was being left behind. Every agent was needed for today’s action and the plan required each one to perform specific actions.



The aircraft arrived on time and taxied into the hangar at 12:50PM. Everyone in the aircraft waited, until the limousine and the Humvees pulled up alongside, which they did exactly at 1 PM. A captain, lieutenant and eight armed airmen met the aircraft, as it rolled to astop, and opened the door. Marti got out and as she was getting ready to greet the captain. He presented her with his FBI credentials and said, “Hello Marti, I am George Smith.”



Marti looked at him with a frown on her face.



He said to her, “If we do not laugh now, Marti, the remainder of this day is going to be a bitch!”



Marti finally laughed.



He said, “My name is Richard Gutting. Everyone calls me, ‘Little Dick.’ You will see why, when I introduce you to ‘”Big Dick.’” It has no anatomical connotation, I assure you.”



Marti said, “You must have a strong ‘Ego’, to put up with that, all the time?”



Dick said, “Only the agents on my crew call me that. Anyone else winds up in Alaska, during the winter, and Louisiana, during the summer.”



Marti said, “I guess other agents hear about it, and learn very quickly.”



“Yes. It only took three agents, and four years for the entire Southeast region to learn about it. When the people came off my shit list, and asked for a transfer, the rest of the country found out about it, also. For them, I am Mister Gutting or Richard, until I tell them to call me Dick.



“It is wonderful having power?”



“Having it, yes. However, I do not believe in abusing.”



“I agree. Now can we get down to business?” They did, quickly.



The agents got out first and went to their Humvees and then the normal procession into Dycke’s new Mercedes. It was enormous inside. It had three full rows of seats with the collapsible row in the center. Alletta, Piker, and Payne sat in the back. Fiona, Dycke, and Marti sat in the center. Joey, Steve, and Desiree sat in forward seat. Milton drove, Grace sat in the center, and Marianne sat shotgun. At 1:03 PM, they left the hangar.

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