Sunday, July 24, 2016

Still on Hiatus

Hi Folks,

I am not completely back but for reasons some of you may know I am writing a story as a gift for a young boy. I had to publish it here so that he may read it in the future on the internet.

When the turmoil settles at the steading we will be back to our regularly scheduled fantasy, games, book, etc programming.

For those who have read and left comments I am deeply appreciative and I thank you for your patience.

The Gift Part Twenty Four

The terrace was very crowded with nearly sixty goblins and another two dozen centaurs. Fortunately, the Atlanteans built on a grand scale. Justin looked for his father and sister but found neither although Dog was running for their rooms. Dog would have been useless in explaining the sudden invasion in any case so it was left to Justin to explain why there were a troop of goblins and centaurs on the monastery grounds and why it was a good idea to keep them separate from each other.
After their long time lost in the deep forest both the goblins and the centaurs were stunned by the sunshine and the open spaces around them as well as the people and buildings.
More and more people kept arriving. The centaurs were looking particularly nervous with all the people and being cramped in a tight spot. Justin spotted Bishop Hoel who was in charge of the cathedral and the order here and he asked for help.
“Your Grace, would you be so kind as to arrange for quarters for my friends?” Justin asked Bishop Hoel.
The clergyman was nonplussed for a moment but recovered quickly, “Certainly, My Son, you have returned safely and with at least one surprise. No doubt more will be forthcoming.”
“Brothers,” Hoel addressed his subordinates, “Let us find food and lodging for all.”
“Do not worry, Chieftain,” Hoel said in unaccented Centaur to Sunwolf, “We have lodgings fit for all manner of folk. I am certain you will be pleased with what we can provide.”
“Feeling the light giver is gift enough for any man after an eternity in darkness,” Sunwolf replied in the common tongue although his pronunciation was clearly from lands around the Cold Belt and a bit archaic. “Please, we would be happy to go wherever you might find a place for us.”
The goblins were equally uneasy but were obviously happy to see the centaurs leaving. They were also equally out of place on the terrace of the cathedral grounds.
“I have not forgotten you,” Hoel smiled at the goblin leader.
“Tolbiac, son of Peppin,” Tolbiac introduced himself.
“Bishop Hoel,” Hoel smiled and offered his hand.
The way Hoel had offered his hand allowed to Tolbiac to kiss the bishop’s ring or to shake the proffered hand. Tolbiac bowed to kiss the ring.
“Your Grace,” he said politely.
“Christ’s blessing on you and all your folk,” Hoel replied with a gentle smile. “For you there is no problem in finding accommodations. We have a whole wing that is empty since this is not the season for pilgrims.”
Justin had started to head for his family’s suite but stopped short. When he left it was the middle of the pilgrim season and many came to be baptized or for their confirmation, or knighthood ceremonies.
“What day is it?” Justin asked an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“It is the feast day of Saint Valeria of the Isles or Saint Anthony of Padua according to the time of the Earth that is lost,” Bishop Hoel said gently.
“That is more than half a year!” Justin exclaimed.
Overcome with a sudden panic he followed Dog’s path to their suites and found Shandra and his father sitting up on their beds while Dog ran from one to the other and his mother was weeping for joy.
“You did it!” his mother jumped up to hug Justin fiercely. “You brought them back. I knew you would. I never lost hope!”
Hoel had followed at a more dignified pace, “No indeed she did not our Paladin was ever faithful. She had faith in God and faith in you, my Son.” Hoel patted Justin’s shoulder.
At that moment everyone heard a loud crash like a granite block split by giants. Justin felt something raise the hairs on the back of his neck and noted that everyone looked surprised or uneasy.
“What was that?” they all said together.
Shandra and her father tried to get out of their respective beds but Dog sat on Don and Michelle held her daughter.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Michelle scolded both of them, “I just got you back. Someone else can go look. Justin you stay right here too. The Bishop has plenty of men who can go look for a loud noise.”
“That was more than a loud noise,” Justin replied but when he saw the determined look on his mother’s face he relented. “Okay, I could use a bit of rest as well.”
“And I can trust that my people will be investing thunder from a clear sky,” Bishop Hoel said firmly sitting himself at a table with tea and cookies.
Justin realized he was famished and figured that his father and sister probably were as well. “Please, let me serve,” Justin said as he poured tea for the Bishop and offered the plate of cookies.
“Chocolate chip, Dad’s favorite,” Justin said with a smile.
“We might as well eat them,” Michelle replied, “I was saving them for the funeral.”
Shandra made a rude noise and threw a pillow at her mother while Don just laughed.
“Yes, well that does spoil my plans for the next Mass as well,” Hoel replied with a dry smile.
Justin found the cookies were just what he needed. His training as Kantrus had given him the discipline to survive in the shadow lands where hunger and thirst were real but not physical. The more you gave into those feelings and impulses the greater the effects would be upon you. You could starve by believing you were starving. Justin enjoyed the cookies and tea because he could. He could allow himself to feel the hunger and thirst without fear that his own feelings would wind up killing him. Giving in to the sensations of hunger and thirst in the shadow lands could lead a man to become linked to the shadow lands permanently. The mental and spiritual sensations could lead to actual physical changes dooming the victim to wandering the shadow lands until you finally convinced yourself you were dead and died.
While Shandra and Don were obviously weaker they were not as weak as nearly nine months in the shadow lands should have left them. Strong magics had been keeping them whole far longer than Justin had thought possible. Their time in the shadow land versus the real world was the longest Justin had ever read about. Indeed, usually no time passed for a traveler through the shadow lands that meant they had been in realms so far from this plane of existence that the transitions were taking time or perhaps time ran at different rates in different realms.
A brother came bustling in and spoke in quiet tones with the bishop. Justin watched while Bishop Hoel’s eyebrows rose higher and his face took on a look of surprise and wonder.
“I believe that a major miracle has just occurred. Here and now,” Hoel was attempting to maintain his composure but his curiosity and excitement were getting the better of him.
“What happened, your Grace?” Justin asked.
“The grave of one of the Orc attackers has opened and a man, a human man has stepped forth!” Hoel replied. “I need to see to this.”

“Of course, your Grace,” Michelle replied, “I can watch over my family.”
“It might be Myntimur,” Shandra told Justin. “You should go see. If it is him, we’ll want to see him.”
“Myntimur?” Hoel asked Shandra, “Who is he?”
“He was the Orc that almost killed Dad and me,” Shandra replied. “He converted and found a path we believe, to Purgatory while in the shadow lands.”
“Oh, my!” Bishop Hoel quickly crossed himself than rose and strode as quickly as dignity allowed (or perhaps even a bit quicker) towards the graveyard followed closely by the brother that had brought the news.
“Even if it isn’t him, whomever he is just walked out of a grave. I think we’ll be wanting to speak to him. Once everyone else has,” Don chuckled, “I do believe that he’ll have more than a few people wanting to speak to him. This is after all one of the greatest cathedrals in the known world and is famous for its outreach and evangelization of non-humans. It has more than a few scholars, clergymen, and church fathers whose whole life has been spent reading and contemplating just such an event. I’d be surprised if he gets a chance to speak at all for the next few days.”

Justin quickly hugged his family before going to see the miracle, if it was one, for himself. 

The Gift Part Twenty Three

Don and Dog took point while Justin and Shandra walked together behind. She had taken quite a battering from the girtablilu and her own berzerkergang took its own toll. Justin watched her carefully for signs of fatigue. The question was that how much was fatigue, how much was depression at the terrible surroundings and worry over her family, and how much was plain boredom from the endless walking.
After a moment Justin found himself stepping into tepid water that felt ice cold after the burning rocky land he had been traveling. It was much darker than the black plain so it took time for his eyes to adjust. His other senses adjusted more quickly. The air was full of moisture and the angry hum of mosquitoes were in his ears.
“I'm right here,” Don said in low tones. “Not sure where this swamp is but it is the right direction anyway. More life.”
“All I hear is bugs,” Shandra replied, “I bet there are spiders.”
“Dog?” Don asked the hellhound. The hellhound took a couple sniffs then Don nodded, “Okay,” he drew that out, “there are spiders here. Big ones too about the size of my hand and other bugs as well as various other shadowlings. So yay. We're on the right track.”
“I hate spiders,” Shandra and Justin exclaimed together.
“Good to see you agreeing on something,” Don laughed and Dog chuckled in dog-fashion.
The swamp was shallow and low clouds hid the moon every time it appeared ready to reveal itself another cloud would slide across the moon blocking it out. However, starlight was reflected from the black water below them. Justin began to hear the sounds of movement in the swamp further out quiet splashing and the drip-drip-drip of condensation dripping from the drenched moss.
The water was as ripely rich as any cold water swamp with rotting smells everywhere. Moving slowly and carefully they managed to stay out of sinkholes or other obvious dangers. Somewhere not too far away something let out a long, low roar that shook water droplets from the leaves and moss into the water below and gave Justin a start.
“That's just a croc or an alligator,” Don said calmly. “Although, by the sound of it an almighty big one. I'd just as soon not stay around to see if he's angry at us for trespassing on his swamp.”
They slogged through the water as quietly as they could. Most of the swamp was flat water with reeds and dead or fallen trees. Other areas were raised above the surrounding water and covered thickly in trees and undergrowth. Most of the trees were alders or cedars. When one of them inevitably rotted and fell it would leave a large gap in tree line until other trees grew on its back. These nurse logs could make a nasty tangle so Don avoided leading his party near the taller mounds. They stepped under an arcing trunk of a vine maple cluster and found themselves in a dark cold rainforest.
The trees were a mixture of deciduous trees that had lost their leaves for the season and old evergreens that were hundreds of feet high. The old evergreens blocked the light from the full moon over head and they could barely glimpse it along the path as they passed through heavily moss covered maples, alders, and cottonwoods. Undergrowth was thicker beneath the deciduous trees and thinner beneath the big cedars, spruces, and hemlocks. Don could smell fir trees not too far away and the moldering remains of this year’s berries and the mast on the ground beneath the bushes. The duff under the trees themselves gave off a dustier smell almost like old books in an attic.
They heard the clattering of hooves and a light started around them. Centaurs both men and women were surrounding them,Don carefully put his nocked arrow back into his quiver.
“Do you live in this realm?” Don asked in what Justin recognized as passable Centaur speech.
“No!” a Centaur man stepped forward looming over Don, “we are lost here,” he answered in Common. “We do not know how we got here.”
“We thought you were more of the goblins that haunt these woods. I hate this forest of ever-night. I do not know how long we have been here but the sun has never rose and this moon has never moved in the sky. I do not care for most forests. We live on the plains to the cold band side of the Empire. Our forests are smaller and know their place in things not these wagon thick trunks and leaves piled a foot deep everywhere.”
“I can help,” Don said with relief in his voice. “I can get you out of here. Although the journey will almost certainly be dangerous.”
“What about us?” A small voice piped almost at Shandra's shoulder. She spun on one foot and almost drew her weapon only checking herself at the last moment not wanting to provoke the centaurs.
“No!” the centaurs' spokesman said angrily. “You kill us every chance you get. You set traps for our strongest and try to lure the weaker off the path with your tricks!”
“You chased us in here!” the goblin replied. “You were hunting us like animals. What did you expect us to do?”
“You were trespassing!” declared the centaur, “And furthermore --”
“No, not another word,” Don said to both men with a forcefulness that stopped them with surprise. “I will guide you both out or neither. Step out where we can see you.”
A surprisingly tall man just a shade under six feet stepped out into the silvery moonlight. He was dark complected and Don suspected quite green in the right light. He had what Victorians would have called elvish ears pointed at the tips and swept back and a long fall of what in this light was black hair but Don was again certain it would be a dark green to match the light green of the goblin's complexion in a normal light.
“I am Don Silver-Arm of the Order of Saint Michael, once of the Shadow Queen's own Guides and this is my daughter Shandra Silver-Arm and son Justin Silver-Arm.”
Justin seemed surprised at the name but he had known for years that Don saw him as no different than any of his other children. Justin was more surprised looking at the goblin man. Other than a slight 'rounding' of his features and his green complexion he could have been an elf. Goblins had always been found on Earth (at least in myth) but did they have their own realm in Faery? Justin was so caught up in examining the goblin that he almost missed the introductions.
“I am Tolbiac Son of Peppin,” the goblin introduced himself.
“I am Sunwolf of the Ten Bears tribe,” the centaur replied reluctantly.
“Good, I find that people are less likely to hunt down and kill someone they can sit down and talk with,” Don said with finality. “Not that talk solves everything. However, just getting us out of here is an improvement and I know that even if it is nowhere near where you came into the Shadow-Lands you will eventually be able to make your ways home if you are patient.”
“Fine,” Sunwolf ground out between gritted teeth, “a shadow warden can find the way from here. I care not if the goblins find their way with us.”
“You are gracious,” Tolbiac murmured.
“Thank you,” Sunwolf replied trying his best to be gracious.
“For the pain we have caused you and yours here I ask your pardon,” Sunwolf said. “We could have been looking for a way out. Instead we continued a needless fight.”
“I also apologize for the times we struck without need but out of spite,” Tolbiac said quietly. “If we are both still here it is because we were both foolish or unfortunate. Either way my people say we ourselves are to blame for our fortunes good or bad.”
Other centaurs and goblins began slipping into the moonlight. The centaurs were not a beautiful people like the elves but were a handsome people with clean limbs and features and proud expressions. The goblins were what Justin would call beautiful or handsome depending on whether they were a man or a woman and almost but not quite elfin.
Don sorted out the order of march with Justin and Shandra separating the two rival groups to prevent misunderstandings or attempts at revenge. Walking through the forest the centaurs were hardly quiet. Their hooves snapped and bumped roots like a herd of elk. Justin had seen and heard elk at home so he was used to the sound. The goblins were as quiet as he expected. While at one time goblins had lived in isolated villages and small hamlets mostly farming or harvesting the bounty of forest and water they now lived a nomadic life.

With the arrival of humans in the Known World they had been displaced and for a while lived as slaves of the Empire. Now they kept to the deep forest for the most part or joined Traveler caravans. They were a dwindling people. Seeing their distress Justin determined that he would try to find them a new home. The lands of the Tuathe De were broad and mostly empty perhaps the goblins could take the old royal city of Tara now long abandon. While Justin was musing he stepped into broad sunlight on the terrace of the monastery at Bridgetown.

The Gift Chapter Twenty Two

Justin leaned against Dog as he stood up. His palms were scraped and bloody but the heat was drying his blood quickly. Not wanting to risk attracting attention here Justin avoided using a healing spell and simply wrapped his hands in bandages. Dog waited patiently while Justin finished then he took a drink of water. He normally would have resisted the urge to hunger or thirst in the shadow-lands, however the loss of blood was plenty real and his body needed to replace the loss.
“Where to, partner?” Justin asked Dog.
Dog pointed his muzzle almost straight in front of Justin and the two began walking across the blasted landscape. It was hot, dry, and smelled of old bones and regret to Justin. What Dog's more sensitive nose told him about the hostile land Justin could only guess. The orb hanging above him stared down with the menace of a mindless titan. It radiated hate as much as it radiated heat but the hate was directionless. It was a spiritual and perhaps physical burden beating down ceaselessly from above. Justin imagined that the mesas that rose above the plain he was walking were eroded as much from the hate and spite as from heat cracking or the timeless eons.
Dog padded across the dried flesh and bones of the dead world. The white hellhound did not keep to a straight trail as he had before. He avoided the petrified tangles of old sagebrush and strange piles of broken basalt. The piles were low and small like pitcher's mounds made of crushed and flaked rock. Between was dust broken by jutting bits of basalt that thrust upward through the dusty alkali ground. Justin could feel the heat of the ground through his boots. He wondered how Dog could walk it barefoot.
“Oso,” Justin said, “Do you want something on your paws? You could fry an egg on the ground here.”
Dog looked up at Justin and gave a weary grin. Justin patted Dog's shoulder and the big animal leaned into him for a moment before they moved on.
Justin was not sure how far they had walked but they were making progress the flat alkali dust plain gave over to rolling hills covered in the odd leafless stone sagebrush. He glanced up at the orb above him. He had no intention of coming this way again if he could nor did he want to know what blind malevolence was behind the black sphere but it was almost impossible for someone who had made a study of the shadow-lands and realms between not to give some pause for the most noticeable feature.
The orb was a matte black in a dimly blue gray sky like a tumor surrounded by a bruise. It was ugly and after a moment he looked away. There was nothing to learn there. Maybe there was nothing in this realm that had ever or would ever live. Dog and he had traveled far from anywhere he had been before. Perhaps the sky was the eye of a titan? Justin thrust the thought from him and brought his attention back to Dog just in time to see Dog bounding forward and Justin heard weapons clashing and the shouts of combat.
************                        *******************                ****************
Shandra and her father continued into the rolling hills. He had his bow nocked and held with just his left hand. His index finger kept a bit of tension on the bow to keep the arrow on the string but the nock itself was carved of sheep's horn and was designed to stay on. It was better to be safe than sorry though. Shandra carried her sheathed weapon in her left hand. The two both watched the way they were going and each other out of the corners of their eyes as they moved around the clumps of sage shaped rocks and jagged edges of basalt sticking up through the dusty ground.
Shandra had the honed senses of a wild creature and stopped poised like a panther to leap away or to pounce her right hand went to the hilt of her weapon. Her father paused to see if he could spot whatever had caught her attention. He brought his bow up to half draw and scanned the further distance. He caught something at the edge of his vision above and drew his bow back to his ear. Above them circled a pair of vultures. Shandra looked up and then back down whatever had caught her attention was closer.
She saw what looked like men riding horses with banners then her mind translated what she was actually seeing. The torsos were not actually human. There were four arms and the torsos were too long. The heads were only human shaped. The jaws opened at the bottom and were hinged sideways with saw-edged mandibles. The eyes were a series of compound eyes that gave small flashes as if they were mirrored surfaces. The bodies beneath were a horror out of nightmare. The bottom of the torso joined at a ninety-degree angle with the body of a giant scorpion. All of the creatures were the deepest black except at the joints of the scorpion body where it was a brilliant arterial scarlet.
Shandra examined her foes. The monsters were armed with clubs of stone in each hand but their greatest weapons were their size and the huge pincers on the front of their scorpion body. A quick glance told her the pincers could cut a man in two.
Don looked down and grunted as if gut punched. Then he began winging arrows swift as the wind towards the monsters' eyes. To their consternation the monsters batted the arrows out of the air with their stone clubs.
“Run,” Shandra said firmly and patted her father on the shoulder when he reached for another arrow. Instead of drawing an arrow he cased his bow and followed his daughter's fleet steps to the base of the last mesa they had passed. The scorpion-men pounded after them the sound of their skittering run like heavy iron bars slamming into the earth. They could feel the vibration of the charge just before they were running in the shadow of the mesa.
They arrived just before the monsters reached them. There was a narrow 'cove' in the rock it even provided a measure of shade from above. The monsters spread out a dozen or more each as large as a draft horse. Don had his ax and shield in his hands Shandra her golden hued glaive. A flurry of blows from the stone clubs rained down at them like hail. They blocked or dodged most of the blows and returned better than they received as the monsters pulled back clicking their mandibles to each other leaving a couple of severed arms and hands and a dead creature spurting yellow fluid from a cracked carapace.
“Go berserk but stay with me,” Don said.
“I don't know if I can,” Shandra replied tightly, “I usually just keep fighting until the bad guys are dead.”
“That's not an option here but you cannot survive much more of this,” Don reached over and touched where her bruises were spreading from under her armor. “That elven stuff is light but doesn't protect very well. It's either go berserk or get pounded into paste.”
The scorpion-men finished with their clicking, chittering conference and drove back in for the attack this time the blows from their arms came strictly from the side. Then down stabbed a pair of stingers. Don was expecting it and took a couple of punishing blows on his armor. He blocked the one lashing down at his daughter with his spiked buckler and met the other straight on with the spike on top of his ax. The spike drove deep into the leathery flesh around the stinger. He was trying to deflect rather than meet the blow with his shield head on and his arm was still driven down Shandra dodged nearly behind her father and that stinger thudded into the earth. She cut at one of the scarlet joints as neatly as surgeon and the tail rose up stingerless spraying yellow ichor.
The stinger Don jammed his ax into recoiled as fast as it shot forward nearly wrenching his arm from the socket. For a second he was exposed but the wounded scorpion-man was too engrossed in the pain of his tail to take advantage of the opening. By the time he had pulled back and another taken his place Don and Shandra were standing again.
“Okay!” Shandra shouted over the angry clattering of the monsters, “I'll try it. Please God don't let me leave Dad's side!”
She stepped back for the moment of concentration she needed and Don faced the monsters alone. He dodged, parried, and blocked in a whirlwind of gold but still took a number of blows fortunately his armor was much better protection than his daughter's. Their stone clubs still had the force of small battering rams and it was all he could do to hold where he was. Then he heard a panther's scream behind him, goose flesh rose all over his body and a chill ran down his back. Don had no memory since coming to this world of seeing his daughter go berserk and the results frightened him.
She stepped next to him transformed. Her hair stood out from her head like a red-gold halo, her muscles stood out in stark relief and her teeth were bared to the gum line.
Everything slowed to a leisurely crawl for Shandra. The lightning quick speed of the scorpion-men was nothing more than friends playing at badminton. A stinger lashed down at her head and she laughed as she caught the telson in one hand crushing it like a porcelain cup. She drove her six-foot-long weapon one handed into the join of the human and scorpion torsos of the same creature sawing the four-foot blade back and forth in the wound.
The monster quivered like a dying insect. Shandra kicked the tons-heavy body off the blade grunting in surprise at the weight and the traction the eight legs provided the scorpion body.
She looked over at her father who appeared to be moving in slow motion. Her own thoughts were basic and slower than normal replaced by a joyous rage that washed over her like fire. However, she remembered to be careful with her friends and family as they were very breakable when she was in this state.
Another scorpion-man skittered to replace the one she had killed and she pounced on the back of the one facing her father chopping its head off in two quick blows forehand and back hand before jumping back down next to her father. Stay here, something in her head commanded her. Shandra was on the verge of rebellion against the thought when she remembered her father looked very fragile next to these monsters best to stay where she could protect him.
The next pair of monsters that could come at them in the cove of rock learned nothing from the previous ones probably because they simply hadn't really seen Shandra in action. One died with all his arms sheared off and his “human” torso cleaved in two. The other had his face turned into a ghastly ruin by the golden blade of Don's ax then his head went flying to bounce several yards away. The others paused at this with more chittering. Shandra was ready charge into them in the open but her father held her back. She almost grabbed his arm to toss him away but stopped herself in time.
The scorpion-men pulled the dead carcasses of their fellows back by their tails watching to see if their trapped prey would take the opportunity to sally. They then walked forward much more deliberately using their upper arms as a distraction while snapping at them with their giant pincers.
Shandra sheared through one of the claws but the second grabbed her by the waist. Normally the pincer would have cut her in half. However, berserk state made her muscles harder than seasoned oak and she screamed with as much frustration as pain that she couldn't get a proper swing at one of the joints to cut the pincer off.
Don was dodging the lower pincers which were fortunately slower than their thinner upper arms but he was taking a battering from the stone clubs. The monsters just had too many arms. One advantage he did have was that Connor the ranger and shadow warden had sparred with his friend Sioc many times. He was experienced with combat with a four-armed foe. The problem was that he usually came off the worse for sparring with Allan.
Don saw the pincer holding his daughter and threw himself between the pincers of the monster holding him while whirling his ax up then dashing it down on the brilliant red joint of the pincer holding his daughter. It was as thick as a five-gallon bucket but he sheared it half off.
Shandra was furious at the bug man for holding her and jackknifed upward kicking with both moccasined feet on the monster’s torso. The pincer ripped free at the joint spraying yellow fluid like a fire hose for a couple seconds before the pressure in its body grew too low and it slowed further.
Don was swept into the torso of the monster he was fighting and it began to crush him with the force of a mill-powered forging hammer.
************                          *****************                  **************
Justin looked down the slope and saw his father and sister fighting scorpion-men properly called girtablilu. They were the creation of the demon Tiamat created from her spite and anger to battle the younger gods. In the books Kantrus and Justin had read the girtablilu were terrible foes.
Justin heard the hellhound roar and saw Dog running forward to battle with the girtablilu. Justin concentrated for a half second and brought up an ice fortress walling off the little cove from the monsters outside. The fathom-thick ice wall cut two of the girtablilu in half. One of them was alive when the ice crushed his middle to paste against the stony ground.
The creatures had been created by an angry demon and knew magic like fish knew water. Their heads turned up hill and two charged at Justin while the rest began battering at the ice fortress. Justin knew the heat would do more to weaken his creation and quickly too. The ice was already steaming away where it touched the ground and the rocks around the edges of the cove. He hoped he had enough time to work the magic he intended.
Justin whistled for Dog like he used to for Oso hoping the hellhound would turn back because the spell he was going to use took into effect a wide area. He raised his hands said words in a language not meant for human throats then dashed his arms down as if dashing something to the ground. A storm of ice broke around the scorpion-men battering them down with spikes and hailstones the size of barrels. Dog danced through the storm and the hail and blades of ice missed him by a hair's breadth at the most but he made his way back to Justin's side where the ice did not fall.
It was bitter hail and ice filled with the hate of the realm around them and it battered the scorpion-men with the impartial malice of an idiot titan. It was also battering the ice fortress but it was a fathom thick and could withstand the storm. Justin watched for long seconds as the ice pounded down on the girtablilu cracking their carapaces and battering them as insects crushed under an icy boot. Stopping the spell was harder than starting it. This place liked to cause pain even to its own denizens. After long minutes of struggle and just when Justin was certain the ice walls protecting his father and sister would break he was able to regain control of the spell and stop it. The ice lay several feet deep in some places but it concentrated around the girtablilu who were buried yards deep in quickly melting shards and stones of ice.
It took another spell he was reluctant to cast here not wanting to attract attention but he was able to clear a way through the ice to get to his family trapped by the protecting ice. To Justin's mystical sight both of them were clearly spirits and not physical at all. However, here in the shadow-lands the distinction was often one without a difference.
The two of them were propped sitting against the back wall of the cove icy melt water deep around their legs and feet. Shandra was in her dazed and fatigued stated following her going berserk. She also had several bad cuts and bruises all over her body. Don gave Justin a wan smile and laughed when Dog checked out Shandra carefully. “Yeah, your my animal companion alright,” Don said chuckling.
“Come on, Shandra let's get some medicine down you,” Don said as he took a healing flask from Justin and helped her drink it. The effect was slower than it should have been but it did begin to heal her wounds and return her to her proper color.
Don drank another after he was certain the one would be enough for Shandra.
“Well, I can feel my ribs popping back into place. That hurt.” By the tone Don could have been commenting on the time of day.
“So you and Lassie here came to get Timmy out of the well?” Don asked Justin who looked at his father quizzically.
Shandra laughed, “What is it boy? Timmy's caught under the tractor in the barn? Lead the way Lassie.”
“No, Lassie was a girl,” Don laughed, “the dog who played her was a boy.”
“Stupid name for a dog anyway,” Shandra grumped.

“Justin,” Shandra hugged him fiercely, “you did real good. You too, Oso. Now let's get out of here.”

The Gift Chapter Twenty One

Shandra was following her father when she looked up halfway through a step he was simply gone. When her foot landed he was there and they were off the long rolling grasslands. Myntimur nearly bumped into her from behind. Instead he moved with surprising grace for a man in heavy armor and carrying a heavy shield to the side.
He was always careful to respect their space and never approached either Shandra or her father without reason or a warning like clearing his throat or speaking quietly. He's not a bad traveling companion for an orc, Shandra thought to herself then felt a rush of embarrassment. Myntimur had been nothing but courteous in his own rough way.
“Is this the place?” Myntimur asked. His question was mostly for Don but he included Shandra as well.
“Maybe,” Don replied they were on a long slope of broken basalt gravel that slid slowly away from their feet whenever they moved making an odd reptilian hiss as if the stone fragments were talking to each other.
It looked much like the channeled scablands of Eastern Washington. There were isolated mesas on a flat plain with tumbled scree of basalt at the bases of the tall mesas. The land appeared flat but was actually gently rolling with hidden dips and hollows. It also had many differences from the channeled scablands. While hot enough to bake bread the light was dull and colorless. A huge black orb hung high low above them pressing down on them as if threatening to crush them and the land beneath into fine powder. Low tangles of what might have been sage brush hundreds or even thousands of years ago trailed along the rocky ground.
Shandra picked up one of the branches and tossed it to Myntimur who grunted at the weight.
“Stone,” he declared, “A plant grown from stone. I have never heard of such a thing.”
“If this were a natural place I might have a natural explanation for a stone plant,” Shandra replied. “Here? It could have been made this way – well any time. Is that right?” She asked her father.
“Maybe.” Don replied, “There's no telling how long any one section of the shadow-lands have been around some appear to have been around since God said, “Let there be Light” and others might have been just created when you take that first step from one shadow to the next.
“You usually don't see such emptiness after covering so much distance. We met those marooned ghosts over eighty thousand steps ago --”
“Wait,” Shandra interrupted, “You count steps?”
“How else to measure how far you have traveled or long you have been here?
Myntimur answered nodding, “That is good thinking. There is nothing truly solid here to measure one's self against, nor time, nor space. So you measure yourself against yourself. It is truth.”
Shandra was slightly embarrassed that an orc came to the answer swifter than she did but she had grown up with the shadow-lands and had preconceptions that Myntimur did not. She realized that she might not be as worried as she should be simply because her father had been traveling through them before she was ever born. What dangers was she missing because she knew too much or thought she knew too much about the shadow-lands?
“So we've traveled about ten leagues?” Shandra mused translating steps into the long Tuathe De league.
“Forty miles,” Don converted the distance for Myntimur, “Or sixty-five --”
“Kilometers,” Myntimur finished, “Yes, we study different measuring systems.”
“That is only a long day's hike maybe two,” Myntimur was trying to work it out in his head. “I feel as if we have traveled further.”
“Yes,” Don replied, “It is a paradox but in the shadow-lands distances are tricky. We might be crossing all this distance and when Shandra and I emerge we will have gone nowhere but to wherever our bodies are. I have only made journeys like this twice before leaving my body behind. It is beyond dangerous and foolhardy but this time we had no choice.”
“Let us walk,” Myntimur looked up at the lowering orb above them, “I think this place hates us more than most places we have been here.”
“I feel like something is watching us here,” Shandra replied.
“Maybe,” Don nodded to his companions, “Let's get moving. We won't get out of here any quicker standing here.”
Matching deed to words Don walked off the last few feet of scree that was slowly eroding from the mesa rising above them. After they had traveled fifty steps a sharp –crack-- sounded and a boulder the size of a large wagon dropped where they had stepped into this realm. It slid to the end of the scree then tumbled once shaking the ground and raising a plume of gray-black dust.
The three exchanged worried glances and Shandra let out a slow silent whistle. Even Myntimur's stoic expression was shaken. Don turned and pointed to their route with his chin and began walking again after a moment Shandra and Myntimur followed.
Walking through the realm quickly became tortuous as they had to avoid the petrified brush. It bruised the foot right through their shoes and twisted beneath their feet as if to trip them every time.
The heat from above was oppressive and the ground beneath their feet held that heat stubbornly. There was no step they took that did not bake them from above and below. The dry air stole the moisture from their skin and nostrils and left them parched with a thirst that had no relief.
“Is there no water here?” Myntimur asked angrily.
“Perhaps but we would be wise not to drink or eat of anything we find here,” Don replied, “it is an evil or at least hostile realm we have found ourselves in and nothing here would nourish us. Or give the illusion of nourishing us. As I said before the hunger, thirst, the heat we feel all that is illusion.”
“I sweat my breath is loud in my ears and my chest is hot as a forge's bellows. All this is illusion? A trick?” Myntimur demanded.
“I do not know if it is a trick in the way you mean, Myntimur. I only know that it is not real and that living men can be doomed forever if they eat of anything they find in certain lands along the paths.”
“We are ghosts of ourselves according to you,” Myntimur replied. “Can we be harmed by water if we find it?”
“We are in greater danger we are more easily manipulated because we are not solid men,” Don said. “In any case any water found here would be full of poison.”
Myntimur looked around and took a deep breath, “I do not smell poison.”
“Myntimur,” Shandra spoke carefully, “Do you feel different?”
“I --” he paused, “I feel, yes. I do feel different although I cannot say how.” Myntimur looked distressed. “Am I fading like a ghost or spirit?”
“No!” Shandra said emphatically, “You are not. You are well --” she quickly reached into her satchel and pulled out a small hand mirror. “Before I hand this to you remember you might not see what my father and I see.”
Myntimur took the mirror carefully and looked at his hands. They were no longer ape like paws and the nails were squared off human nails. He looked for a long time before he turned the mirror over. Again he looked a long time especially at his eyes.
“What do you see,” Myntimur's voice was carefully flat.
“I see a man,” Shandra replied.
“As do I,” Don added.
“Is this what I would have been?” Myntimur asked quietly.
“Perhaps, probably,” Don replied.
“What does this mean?” Myntimur asked handing the mirror back to Shandra.
“It means that you are what you are,” Don replied. “You are near the end of your journey.”
They continued but Myntimur had a firmer step and his eyes were clear and bright. Myntimur's natural complexion was a medium brown. His eyes dark brown almost black and his hair was black as the orb above them. They stopped at the foot of a tall long mesa that towered far above them. Perhaps eighteen hundred to two thousand feet Don estimated looking up. Because he was studying the edge along the top of the mesa he didn't notice Myntimur's actions for a moment.
Myntimur was looking along the ground carefully, “I see a trail here. Going up.”
Father and daughter looked at Myntimur startled then they both saw it. The trail was faint and narrow how long ago it had been used Don couldn't say.
“There's likely an easier path on that side,” Don pointed to their left, “where the mesa has tumbled into a ramp almost. But I think this is the one you're supposed to take.”
“Then it is farewell,” Myntimur replied.
He shook both their hands in the human fashion.
“Thank you for your help,” Shandra told Myntimur, “I am proud to have fought by your side.”
“You're a good man,” Don nodded, “I'm proud to know you. I'll ask my son to say a Mass for you.”
“I would be grateful. Tell your son that I believe in one God, the maker of All Things and in His Son who came to Earth and died for our sins.”
“I will do that,” Don replied.
Myntimur sheathed his spear in a sheath on the inside of his shield and strapped it to his broad back.
“I will bear the burdens I was given here until I am released of them even if I never use my weapons again,” Myntimur remarked.
“Good the heat is hotter here and it is as steep as a mountainside. The path is pure rocks but it is straight and narrow,” Myntimur said with a smile. With that he started up the scree and the rock face using his strong arms and legs to gain purchase and keep going upward.
Don and Michelle watched him for a minute before turning and continuing on through the dark yet dry and hot wasteland.

The Gift Chapter Twenty

Justin's first step into the shadow-lands was into a blast of icy cold wind. Grit and ash blasted his face and he quickly turned to wrap a scarf around his face. Dog sneezed and coughed to clear his lungs. He was in a dark and cold wasteland with frost blighted clumps of grass separated by frozen sand and patches of ice. It was a rolling landscape of desolation that stretched as far as Justin's eyes could see.
Quickly checking his magical wards and forces near him he cast a spell seeking out dangers or those who recently passed. Justin trusted Dog to do any guiding and path finding necessary. There had been magical traffic in the recent past. Well recent in the sense that a timeless realm could have time. Perhaps it was not as timeless as his studies and travels with his father had suggested? The shadow-lands could theoretically lead anywhere or some said any time. Justin was afraid to try anything like that.
Kantrus and Justin learned the same message from their studies of traveling through the shadow-lands travel across time was fraught with extreme peril and only to be undertaken as a last resort. When it happened accidentally there was rarely a way to reverse the time travel or the damages it caused. This accidental time travel while traveling between realms was the basis for most legends of extreme differences in time between Faery realms and mortal ones. Although, there were differences of that Justin was convinced even if he had no way to test it without traveling there himself and right now he was far too busy.
“Dog,” Justin asked the hellhound, “do you know where we are?”
The dog nodded in a human fashion and pointed with his right paw towards their left straight into the blast of the wind and grit.
“Okay, it's always the hardest path that leads where you're going,” Justin gave a bitter chuckle. “Let's find Dad and Shandra.”
The two began carefully walking across the windy terrain. The ground was gritty icy sand that shifted unexpectedly beneath their feet. The tussocks of weeds had hook like thorns at the ends so they needed to avoid those as well. Justin had traveled through the shadow-lands with his father and dog before but did not remember it being this hostile to travelers nor this difficult to traverse. Most journeys were ended in a matter of steps. Once Justin judged they had walked a mile he was certain this was going to be nothing like any previous trip he had made through the shadow-lands.
Justin and Dog had been walking for hours perhaps a whole day when Justin noticed that the ground was changing. The tussocks were changing becoming taller and having seedpods at the tops rather than hooking thorns and the scent of cold salt was becoming stronger. Justin took one more step and abruptly transitioned.
The first thing he noticed was that the wind no longer was blowing sandy grit into his eyes but simply tiny particles of ice that bit like stinging insects. The sky became darker but the light did not change much as they found themselves on an icy strand with old dried drift wood sticking out from the sand and chunks of sea ice abandon by the ocean. The sea ice stretched for as far as Justin's eye could see. There was no hint of water not even when he stood at the top of the highest dune and scanned the horizon for several minutes. Dog stood waiting patiently. If he was in a hurry he showed no signs of it.
The strand stretched to their left and right. Dog paced resolutely to the right so that the icy grit blew into them on their left side. Justin decided that it was not just the particles of ice off the bergs stranded on the beach and beyond but that there was a steady fall of tiny particles of hail or ice. It was certainly not soft nor pleasant enough to be snow. The clouds were a dark gray unlike the brown gray clouds from earlier. The bergs while gritty did reflect some of the light above and left the perpetual twilight at about the same light level just from different sources. Justin couldn't pinpoint where there was a light giving body behind the clouds and whether it was a wan sun or a full moon.
Did there have to be something behind the clouds? In this blighted realm might they be the source of the dim and dismal light? Despite the tussocks of grass nothing seemed to actually grow here. The grass was a dead gray that made a hissing noise as the gritty wind blew through the stands. Justin watched for other figures. He had found other people or creatures on the shadow-path before but this time they were left alone. He didn't even have the feeling of being watched. They could have been the only two creatures in the entire realms and perhaps they were. It was hard to say how much time had passed for them. Justin knew no time or no measurable amount of time had passed in the outside world.
How long had he and Dog been walking? Justin knew he didn't need to but he spoke to Dog anyway, “Do you want to stop for a moment?”
Dog gave him a quizzical look.
“Just a moment to catch my bearings and think.”
Dog nodded and settled himself on the dead sea side of a tussock.
“We've stayed on this side the whole time,” Justin said. “Is there something wrong with the lee side of the dunes?”
Dog looked over on the lee side of the dunes that stretched into long rolling shadows and nodded.
“You've been here before?”
Dog squinted looking out across the dead sea and shook his head. Then he shook his massive head like any other normal dog clearing the grit from his head, ears and eyes.
Justin had only spoken occasionally to Dog while they traveled through the wastes. There wasn't much to say and it was a long and tiring journey for both of them. Justin knew it was psychological in nature but that didn't change the fact that he felt hunger and thirst. Dog must be feeling the same.
Or maybe he doesn't
, Justin mused. Dog was a supernatural creature. Maybe he felt nothing or maybe he felt a constant thirst and hunger and kept it in check for his love of his family? How could Justin even ask his family pet without hurting his feelings. This was the same guy he had 'speak' or 'sit' for a treat. Maybe Dog resented being Oso? If he did he hid it well.
“Time to go?” Justin asked Dog who jumped up and shook the sand from his coat before resuming his miles eating pace up the strand. Dog was eager to put some distance behind them.
The ice was thickening on Justin's eyelashes and biting into his left hand. He rubbed his eyes and he bumped against Dog who had stopped. When he looked up rubbing the ice out of his eyes he saw a woman standing before him.
No, not a woman and not standing. It had the head and shoulders of a woman on the torso and body of a lion with great black wings stretching furled above her back like a high ebon cowl reaching far over her head. The woman's face was beautiful and serene with long black hair and dark eyes. Her smooth complexion was unaffected by the wind or the grit. The creature sat on her hind quarters and was much taller than Justin.
Justin could feel dog pushing him back like the time a strange man had come to the door and Oso had growled and stood between him and the man claiming to be looking for Justin's mother. Dog was growling deep in his chest but quietly so that Justin could only feel it through his legs rather than hear it.
He could feel the force of the sphinx's gaze her eyes smote him like a physical blow. When she opened her mouth to speak her teeth were delicately pointed. She maintained her gaze on Justin ignoring Dog.
“You are far from where you belong mortal.”
Her voice was perfect indeed it was Angelic. She was one of the third of the fallen angels that did not fight Lucifer nor join him in his rebellion. They had been cast out but not into hell for their refusal to fight. They knew their fate would be decided at the end of time. Perhaps it had already been decided. There were many like her in the further corners of the universes some even took elven or human form. Some were neutral or even friendly to humans. Others were as hostile as the demons that had been cast into Hell. Justin could feel the malevolence dripping from every perfect word and glance.
“It has been long and long since a mortal has stumbled through this stretch of sand and ice. I have been exiled here before Cain shattered his brother's head and spilled his blood upon the ground.
“I was here through long ages when others joined me in exile and I was worshiped as a goddess. But since the time of the Flood I have heard the speech of others on only three occasions.”
Justin shivered but did not flee he knew that if she sensed the slightest weakness she would pounce like a cat with a wounded bird.
“No you are not Sealed with the Mark of Cain and thus you can be my prey should circumstances bring you to the right place and time. And yet -” her voice grew pensive.
“You are not fully human either but your soul is. This is an exquisite riddle. A puzzle to be savored to be sure. What are you? Perhaps I'll open you up and get a closer look,” the sphinx leaned forward reaching out with an over-sized leonine paw with needle sharp claws the size of meat hooks.
At that Dog exploded roaring like a lion and his growl was a glacier calving an avalanche in spring. Dog was the size of a great polar bear and the red glare from his eyes caused the sphinx to flinch back. She did not move from where she was sitting but she put her paw back down very carefully.
“So it appears I am the only one that shows her true face here now,” the sphinx said with a hint of irritation. “We were not all equal even before our,” she paused, “relocation. Which one of us has retained more power I wonder?”
Dog stood stiff legged and proud his tail up staring straight into her eyes. She locked eyes with him for a long moment but it was the night black eyes of the desert sands that looked away first.
Her voice dripped venom, “You cannot be but you are!” She shrieked at Dog, “You are far more than you appear in more ways than one.” She looked as if she would attack then she sat back with finality and spit out, “You've been forgiven!
“How, why, for what? How can you have earned that? What does it matter that you have taken a vow of silence with only one man with whom you can speak? I have heard rumors that others have been forgiven but to meet one, meet one in the flesh and here in front of me without even the chance to make you pay for my pain!
“Get you gone from this realm. Go! I care not that you have people, humans you love and cherish. Go before I forget that I was once mistress and worshiped by thousands.
“I have that hound. What have you ever been but a servant? Mongrel, ever eager to do someone's bidding. Dog is a fine form for you. Go howl in some corner and grovel for scraps!”
Justin edged by the sphinx without taking his eyes from her and within two or three steps he felt a cold blast across his back. Whether it was magic or just the wind he never learned the answer. All he knew was that he was hurt and bleeding on his hands and knees with the heat from the ground burning his palms. He looked up at a flat rocky volcanic plain broken with shattered stumps of mesas long ago weathered to jagged crumbling teeth jutting from the black, cracked plain.

He was hurt, bleeding, and immediately felt the air drawing the moisture from his lungs. Justin looked up to see a huge black orb hanging in the sky. It gave off no light that he could sense but he felt heat on his face as he turned up to look at it. Dog bumped a white muzzle under his ribs and Justin felt far safer than he had just moments before facing the fallen angel.

The Gift Chapter Nineteen

Don and Shandra found themselves on a dark plain with gray grass swaying listlessly in a thing whistling wind that tugged at the clothes and their exposed skin. Shandra was the first to notice their attire and equipment.
“Dad, we have all our gear! Our clothes, weapons, everything!”
“And that's not right,” Don replied quietly. “We had just the clothes we could throw on and what we could quickly grab. I've got my battle ax and armor and you have your armor and bow as well.”
Shandra stood as if they were traveling for adventure with her light wood and leather elven made armor. Her smoothly muscular arms made nothing of the heavy two-handed weapon she held lightly in one hand. The wind tugged at her red hair but that was the only thing out of place. She showed no signs of having just been in a fight. In this light her white armor with silver trim was a dull gray with black trim.
“Where's Dog?” Shandra asked subdued. “He should have followed us here. For that matter where is here?”
“We're in the shadow-lands and in deep,” Don replied, “If I were trying to lose somebody in here, here is where I would take them.
“I don't know if I have ever been here before as it can shift on you in a single step or changes can just sneak up on you. As long as we stick together we can get home. I don't know how long it will take but usually no time passes in the real world no matter how long you are here. I don't know if that will hold true now when I don't know yet where we will be going. I do have a direction. That way.” Don pointed to their left where a very pale sun or moon might have been trying to shine through the clouds covering the gray sky above them.
After less than a step a hulking savage appeared on the grass before them. It was an orc in full battle armor of the Grossdeutschland slave army and carrying a short heavy spear and shield.
He leaped up ready for battle but Don and Shandra separated a bit giving her room to swing the Dair Maegair. Don already had an arrow nocked and before the orc could gain his feet it was at full draw and ready to wing towards his eye.
“There's no need to fight,” Don said in an even voice. “We are not enemies here. As a matter of fact, I think we can help each other.”
Shandra saw a flicker in the orc's eye, “Don't try it. I dropped you once. I can do it again and this time I know that arrow will move faster than you can.”
The orc took a step or two back. He was still close enough to launch an attack but no longer overtly threatening.
“What do you mean help?” the orc demanded in a pidgin of German laced with Orc.
“Do you know where we are?” Don asked in the common tongue it was a variety of Breton Celtic influenced by several other languages mostly Germanic tongues but many loan words and phrases from Latin and Atlantean.
“I do not know,” the orc answered in the same language. He looked around to get his bearings. The weight of the situation causing his broad ape-like shoulders to visibly droop and the point of his spear lowered to the ground.
“We are in the shadow-lands,” Don told him.
“Hel? Are we dead?”
“I do not think myself or my daughter are dead but we are close to it,” Don paused before continuing.
“I saw you die however before I was overcome by the poison on your claws.”
They were surprised to see the Orc bow his head. “That was ill-done. A man should be able to kill with his weapons or not at all. I am a warrior not an assassin.”
“That is how I can perhaps help you,” Don replied. “I know that you are not orcneas. I know that you are a man who has been changed or your fathers were changed from men into this.”
“This is true.” Myntimur replied, “Some whisper Orcs are men or their children that have been taken by the orcneas and have been changed. It is a -- painful process. Why would you want to help me? Your church says we are damned.”
“That is not true,” Don replied, “The orcneas are damned. They are undead animated by demonic spirits. You are still a man with a soul. I know you have done wrong in your life but you never had the chance to see the right.”
“The church believes that there is a place for men like you who have never had the chance to hear the word of God. I can guide you to the path you must take.”
“You can take him to Purgatory?” Shandra asked surprised.
The orc did not miss the byplay and watched Don closely for his answer.
“No, I can get him only to the path he must take. We could follow it as well but I suspect our bodies would soon follow us into death and we are meant to come back for we are truly still alive.”
“This would not take me to the Hall of Honor I was promised,” the orc replied thoughtfully.
“What is your name? I am Shandra of the Silver-Arm and this is my father Don.”
“You have the look of family,” the orc nodded, “I am Myntimur. Formerly soldier slave to the Grossdeutschland.” He said the last with a hint of humor at his new status. Death had brought freedom.
“Myntimur,” Shandra replied, “We are Tuathe De. We keep our word and never lie about matters of honor. If my father says he can take you to the beginning of the path he can.”
“I have traveled the world.” Shandra said earnestly, “I know of other realms and beliefs but there are only two permanent places of rest for a human soul and your soul is still human. No matter how you might have been changed on the outside. No matter what you may have done. You still have a chance.”
Myntimur's eyes were stubborn and it was difficult to read his expression so much of the humanity had been taken from him. Myntimur even after speaking to him still looked more apelike than human to her eyes. Worse his complexion was a sickly black bruised color like a long drowned corpse. Myntimur's eyes were milky like a corpse as well save for the hard black of the pupil. What was done to their people was an abomination. It was all Shandra could do not to shudder with horror.
“Will this not take you further from your goal?” Myntimur asked shrewdly.
“Yes, without a doubt,” Don replied, “However I would not leave my worst enemy much less an honorable man who was only following orders here without a guide when I know I can eventually find the path he needs.
“Besides, if you are meant to find it I believe you will find it quickly.”
“Me find it?”
“I will guide but you will have to see your path when we come to it. A man must walk that final path alone. I think we were meant to find you here and that we were meant to guide you. That means that other powers are at work. The powers that brewed your poison were those of darkness. Our holy books specifically prohibit such. However, there is another power at work here and that must give us hope we will find the path for you as well.”
“That is wisdom although not one that would be heard from our leaders or shaman,” Myntimur declared. “Guide me and we will find this path together.”
Myntimur, Don and Shandra traveled into the shadow-lands. The wind was bitterly cold and often blowing in their faces. Myntimur was armed as an orcish heavy infantryman. He was wearing a black enameled hauberk of steel scale mail, a helm with laced side plates and supports crossing the top in a 't' while another jutted over his brow. In his left hand he carried a large oval shield black with a white swastika. The shield had five plumbatae clipped to the inside of the shield where Myntimur could reach them quickly. In his right hand he carried a short spear with a long broad blade and a heavy bronze ball on the end.
“You are the one who struck me?” he asked Shandra.
“Yes.” She had the sheath to her  Dair Maegair in her left hand ready for an instant draw and cut but that was just precaution she did not sense hostility from Myntimur.
“You do not look like your father. He carries a lighter weapon and wears metal armor. You have on elvish leather and wood armor. You carry that great sword. It is heavier than it looks.”
“Yes, although he and my mother trained me I chose a different path to follow. Why do you ask?”
“We are all armed and trained the same. Some are better, some are worse but training style same. Weapons are the same.” He paused and thought putting his question into order. “What is it like being different?”
“What is it like being the same?”
“There is confidence in your training and in your companions,” He answered promptly. “You know that your methods are tried and true. You know you can depend on those around you.”
“Ah,” Shandra raised her hand and Myntimur paused.
“That is something we both share. Tuathe De and the Warrior Folk can both depend on those around them. My father is a master of his chosen weapons as am I. My brother is a war healer and battle mage and my mother a paladin. We all use different weapons and tactics but we can all depend on the other to do his job and cover your companions' back.”
“This I understand,” Myntimur declared. “A man can concentrate on his own task when he knows that he need not worry about those of others.”
“Are all Orcs warriors?”
“No!” Myntimur was adamant. “No women are warriors. Their job is to bear the next generation of soldiers. Those men who do not have the -” he paused seeking the right words. “Those that do not have the right, ability and aggression. They become workers. Slaves that perform according to their ability. They are not allowed to take a mate or even be with a female except on a special occasion when the sterile ones or captives of war are sent as a gift.”
Shandra repressed a shudder.
“Each Tuathe De is free to choose his own life.” Shandra replied, “Most men and many women choose to learn the ways of war. We also learn from childhood to raise our own food; to gather, to hunt and fish.
“Our women learn the tasks of combing the sheep and making our cloth. We also do most of the cooking and raising the children. Men work in metal, leather, and wood. It is a good life full of music, dance, stories and when we choose honorable combat.”
“You have traveled much,” Myntimur stated.
“Yes nearly as much as my parents. Although as a shadow-warden my father has traveled to places no other human foot has trod.” Shandra's eyes were scanning the grasslands seeking any sign of any change. Although they were walking towards a light she saw no signs they were getting closer.
Don was ahead scouting the way. He was already in the shadow-lands so he did not 'pop' into or out of view. He was still hard to keep track of. He was elusive as a ghost through the grass.
Myntimur's apelike nostrils widened and his eyes did as well. It was one of those moments when a person saw with perfect clarity and Shandra was surprised to notice that Myntimur's eyes had lost the milky drowned looked and looked like normal dark brown human eyes.
At the same instant Shandra felt a tingle at the base of her neck as the hair at the nape of her neck stood up on its own. Don spun on his heel and dropped to one knee drawing his dragon-horn bow back to his ear seeking a target for his red-fletched arrow.
Up from the grass out of cleverly concealed holes in the ground came men. Men so thin and covered in sores and mud that Shandra was not sure that they were human. Their teeth were certainly filed as they rose up shrieking to the attack. Their weapons were clubs made of human femurs with splinters of bone lodged in cracks.
Shandra stepped to the first spider-hole and her  Dair Maegair swept twice severing the first attacker from his collarbone to his opposite hip the body dropping two pieces. Her weapon continued through and out slicing the next enemy's thigh to the bone. The last thing he saw was Myntimur's short spear stabbing down straight into his heart.
Don dropped the closest to him with an arrow through the throat and out the spine. In one smooth motion he slid his bow into its case and drew his battle ax and buckler from his belt.
The battle ax was made from golden-steel and appeared light and graceful in his hand. He drove into the middle of the spider-holes in a whirlwind of gold and red as blood arced away from his blade and the spikes on the top and back of his ax. A head poked out of a spider-hole and he stove in the face with a stamping heel.
Shandra and Myntimur had accounted for a handful more each and the rest threw down their weapons and began running through the tall grass. Myntimur was still on his guard and between the three of them they found a pair of savage men still hiding.
When Myntimur flipped back the woven grass cover of the spider-hole the two inside flinched down and covered their faces. Shandra motioned them out with her bloodied glaive.
The men were starvelings nothing but stark bones standing out against ashy skin. Their hair was rank and gray with malnutrition and stress. What flesh was left on their bones was stringy and thin. It looked to Shandra like dried beef rather than human muscle. And they stank. They stank like nothing Shandra had ever smelled or imagined in all her travels. The gut wrenching smell was enough to make her want to kill them just so she could end their encounter and move safely away from the gray skinned men.
Her father approached carefully with an arrow nocked scanning the rest of the area for more hiding places. She saw the fever-bright look in their eyes and the drool start in their mouths and Shandra blurted out, “You eat each other most of the time.”
The men glanced at each other with just a shadow of something maybe shame or regret passing across their faces.
“There's nothing else here,” one of them said almost to himself. “Nothing at all but the grass.”
“We eat that,” the other said. “A lot of that but it doesn't do more than fill you for a bit before it gives you a belly ache and the runs.”
“So we have to eat, you know,” he paused, “the other flesh.”
“We're you sailors on a ship?” Don asked almost sympathetically.
“How did you know?” For the first time one of them showed interest in their captors as more than some source of food.
“The ship sank and you wound up here?”
“Yes!” one of the men replied eagerly, “Do you know the way home?”
“Yes,” Don replied, “I can send you where you belong or at least away from here. Anywhere is better than here right?”
“Only too right, Sir,” one of them replied glad to hear the voice of authority.
Don nodded to his daughter and in a smooth and effortless motion drove an arrow into one of the men's eyes. Before the other realized what happened Shandra swept her sword in a single motion and the other man's head bounced twice in the grass.
“Why did you kill them?” Myntimur asked. He would have done the same but considered his human companions different.
“I didn't. They were already dead. They just didn't know it. Because of that they were torturing themselves here and couldn't leave. I've seen it before,” Don's eyes were haunted.
“It's rare you see a whole crew but it happens.”
“This is a bad spot. I wish I could have guided them out but their spot is not yours and they're past any help I could give them here.”
“I was not sure. Not really sure you could find my path,” Myntimur said. “But you do know where you are going and I am going.”
“Yes and I will tell you a secret shadow-walkers do not usually share. There is not hunger or thirst here except what is in your mind. That crew was too bound up with their lust for food and drink in their mind and souls. They would never had heard my words.”
“You will feel hunger and thirst. And fatigue and weariness of the mind and spirit but none of those really exist here. They are all things we create here. Be aware of it and you can master it. We do not tell others because most men lie to themselves and say, 'I can master my hunger' or 'thirst means nothing to me' but they find themselves lost here and go slowly mad. It is better not to venture here than to come here unprepared.”
“Anything a man can master, I can master,” Myntimur declared.
“You or your ancestors were men,” Shandra reminded him. “What is still good and strong in your spirit is still that. That is why some orcs or half orcs come to the Church and change their ways.”
“That is truth as well?” Myntimur demanded.
“Truth,” Don nodded.
“Orcneas or their orc worshippers take human children and warp them into orcs. Once an orc they will grow up like an orc but more than one has been healed by a miracle. Nothing bad done to you can twist you forever. You can master it and be whatever you choose. That's what makes an orc different than an orcneas. An orcneas is a demon a lesser demon but still a demon. They are damned to hell. An orc no matter how black his sins is still a man.”

Myntimur gave a half cough, turned and began walking in the direction they had been traveling. Shandra and her father gave him time to think things through himself. Unknown to him small changes were coming over him here in the shadow-lands. His eyes were clearing and his ears were less pointed. The sickly pallor of a drowned corpse was leaving his skin. Myntimur did not know it but he was becoming a man.