The Chronicles of the Seekers of Faerun - Chapter Sixteen

Adventure Date: January 9 , 2010

Last Updated: January 2, 2010


EXCERPT-as read by Lord Tornado No during The Dalelands Reading Tour

……There was a period of discontinuity. Swan found herself in a dimly lit space. The only illumination source was the white sphere from which she had stepped out. Though her vision was severely distance limited in the shadowy darkness, she spotted Risca, Guifoon in hand, in front of her. Well trained, she put her back to his, bow ready.

“Risca, I can’t see much. You?

“Hey me gurl. Welcome to the twilight zone. I see fine, but I see nothing in this room.”

Before Swan could respond, carrying a lantern, Okul stepped through. “Little sister, Risca, all is well? Even as he spoke, the three Seekers shifted their defensive stance to form a back-to-back triangle.

The light from the lantern did little to illuminate the shadowy greyness. They became aware of a faint odour, a charnel butchery odour.

“Okul” inquired Swan, “can you see anything? I can’t see much further than my arm. Risca says he can but more eyes would be welcome.”

“No Swan, my vision is blocked by this greyness. Stay close to me. Be vigilant.”

Neon stepped through, rapier ready. “Everyone keeping out of trouble?” he announced.

“By Bane’s bulging balls, what’s that smell?” he asked, even as the four shifted to form an outward looking square of axe, spear, bow and sword.

“Don’t know yet” Swan replied. “Neon how is your vision? How far can you see?

“Less than normal, but not so much so. My vision is good in low light, compliments of my elf mother. I see no one and no movement.

Gathar arrived, followed closely by Kilzadi. The lizard man spoke draconic words to the sorcerer.

“He says it has the smell of a slaughter house” translated the mage. “Okul, light up that shadow oil. Then we will all see much better.” Even as the dragon born did as bidden, Gideon passed through. “Glad you all could make this meeting” were his first words, happy that the Seekers were all together.

The shadow oil produced grey light as it burned. Yet that grey light illuminated the shadowy darkness. All could see normally now. They found themselves in a duplicate of the shadow hydra room. Just as foretold in the letter. But there were differences. The sphere was white with no tendrils. Instead of huge piles of rubble, there were huge stone columns circling the room. Most were eroded and cracked. The doors and alcoves with their Dusk lord statues seemed to be in the correct places.

The room seemed empty. The Seekers moved out quietly, investigating and exploring.

Neon, searching in the same area as the secret door, signalled back a negative. The odour of raw meat and blood grew stronger as one moved closer to the octagon room. Swan was searching out this area. Her keen ears heard the sound of bone being cleaved along with intermittent growling. It reminded her of forest lions feasting after their kill.

The door showed no indication of being trapped and it was not locked. Her hand signals brought the others to the door. Gideon signalled door open procedure ‘five’ The Seekers took their respective positions. Gathar, unsure what to do, stood by Kilzadi. Gideon, off to one side, pushed open the door.

It opened into an almost identical copy of the octagon room that the Seekers recognized.

The differences were the two large chests at the back of the spiral staircase. There was no rubble in this room. Instead, on table tops and hanging by hooks around the stairs were cadavers. Most were human. Most had been butchered and hacked. The awful stench increased a hundredfold.

The bodies were missing limbs, legs or arms or both. Some had been decapitated. Some were still dripping blood onto the floor. On a table was a torso. Its chest was split open, exposing the rib cage. Hovering over the torso, crunching on a bone, was a strange creature.

It stood twice the height of a normal person. Huge and bulky, it had 6 arms, ending in claw tipped hands. Resembling a cross between human and tiger, its stripped fur was matted with blood and gore. As the door opened, it turned to address them.

“Was not expecting…” It sniffed the air and snarled “Wait! You do not belong here. Good. Need fresh meat.” With those words it charged at them.

Three bows twanged as one. Neon and Swan’s arrows appeared to pass through shadow with no effect on the creature. Risca’s arrow struck the creature, sinking deep. It let out a roar of rage. By now Gideon’s crossbow bolt reached it and passed harmlessly through. Kilzadi was midway through an incantation.

Both Neon and Risca slung their bows and moved. Neon, drawing his rapier, to stand by the side of the door while Risca moved into the doorway, shield and Guifoon ready to brace against the monster’s charge. Okul and Gathar moved behind Risca spears levelled.

Swan had reloaded and shot again. With the same harmless effect. “Must do something about these one at a time shots. One shot at a time is seemly ineffective against these shadow things.”

Kilzadi ‘s incantation ended. A tiny ball of fire streaked from his pointing finger toward the creature. It struck the beast. There was an eruption of light and hot flames as the fireball exploded. The monster gave out a curdling scream of pain and anger. The odour of scorched hide and meat threatened to overwhelm the senses.

When the burst was finished, they could see the effects. Miraculously the tiger thing was still alive. Its flesh and fur seared black in many places. It oozed fluids from its many burned areas. It restarted its charge

Risca held his ground. Nothing is more difficult to budge than a stubborn dwarf. The creature collided with Risca and was slowed to a crawl. The force of the bull rush was absorbed. The monster was insane with pain and rage. “I’ll eat your bones! I’ll eat your bones!” it kept shouting. Its many clawed arms kept pounding at Risca who was deftly shielding himself. Painfully slowly, it was pushing Risca back.

Risca taunted back “Come on kitty, kitty, kitty. Here kitty.” The dwarf’s feet slid along the stone floor as he was forced back. But this gave time for the others to strike. Okul’s cry of ‘Tempusss’ coincided with a snarled draconic shout by Gathar. Two spears pushed forward and two spear heads embedded themselves. The monster screamed again and forced its way across the threshold.

The moment Neon waited for. Out of the shadows, leaping vertically upward, he twisted to give himself more momentum. On the turn, he lashed out with the rapier. It penetrated, hilt deep, through a catlike eye and into the brain. The creature gave out a sigh of surprise; as confusion crossed its face. It collapsed dead.

The Seekers gathered round. “Most impressive Neon. Does anyone know what that was?” inquired Gideon.

“Don’t matter” answered Risca. “It’s a dead cat thing now.” He whispered to Neon. “Good hit, red elf. I figured you more of a in the heart killer, not a in the head gurl, like me gurl.”

Neon smiled as he wiped the rapier clean of brain and skull bits. “I am more of a heart man as you say. Just ask the ladies. But not ever encountered anything like it, I didn’t know where its heart was. But the brain is usually inside the head. I had only one good attempt, so a sure head shot it was. Oh, just so you are aware, referring to Swan as the group’s ‘head gurl’, she may take umbrage.”

“Ah, a new word. Ummbr-rage. Is it good or bad.?”

Neon’s smile turned into a grin. “Go ask Swannie.”

The Seekers had entered into the octagon room, on guard. The slaughter stench was intense. Staring at the cadavers, Swan felt great anger and rage boil up.

“Is this what to expect if the Sharites prevail” she growled. People used as undead slaves or as food for monsters? We must crush them, Gideon. Literally stamp them out. Show no mercy!”

The venom in her words gave the others pause. It was Kilzadi who answered first. “Swan, I agree. Also, I’m glad, when your bloodthirsty aspect arises, that I am on your side.

“Later Swan” added Gideon. “Right now, let’s concentrate on what is in front of us. Doors first.”

There were only two doors in the room. Both doors yielded no traps and were unlocked. Both led into cobweb filled, dusty and now empty storage rooms. Neon found the chests safe to open. The first one was filled with hundreds and hundreds of silver coins. Buried inside the coins was a silken pouch containing two amethysts and a deep blue spindle.

The second one held gold coins, lots of them, as well as nine potion flasks.

Quickly distributing the new treasure, they began climbing the spiral staircase. It led to another octagonal room. But here instead of prisoners guarded by a Khumat, was a dark room. The room seemed to have the appearance of an old observatory.

The walls were fine stone. The ceiling, dome shaped, had stonework done to show the constellations. Chains controlled shutters which covered tall wide windows. The room was noticeably colder.

The only object in the room was a glossy black stone throne in the north wall. Even darker were the amorphous shaped shadows that flowed around the throne, on its back and seat.

Kilzadi spat a quick spell and turned slowly around. “The only magic is on the throne. Approach with caution. But first, more light.”

So saying, he pulled a chain to open a shutter. They looked out upon a different keep. All was murky. A moat surrounded the tower and in the distance was what could have been a bridge. “Not much to see” quipped Gideon. “Let’s check out that throne.”

The Seekers fanned out. In the lead were Risca and Kilzadi; the dwarf because he was reckless and fearless and the mage because the throne magic was unusual and intriguing.

They were within 10’ of the throne when they were attacked. The shadow blobs flowed toward them along wall and floor. One reached Risca while another merged with the shadow cast by Kilzadi.

“Ah, cold, so cold! Seekers beware” warned Kilzadi loudly as he fell to his knees and intoned power words. The draconic tattoos on his face flared brightly.

“Crull!” shrieked Risca. “It's cold!” He swung Guifoon in a hard smash at the shadow. The sound of the battle axe striking the stone floor resounded throughout the room. But the shadow blob had moved out of reach.

Other shadows approached the Seekers, even as they sprang into action.

Neon, two steps behind Risca, leaped forward driving his rapier into the shadow even as it avoided Guifoon. A shriek ran across their minds as the shadow shrunk and retreated.

Reacting quickly, Okul stabbed his spear at a shadow moving along a wall. Another mental shriek. Another shadow retreating. Swan, bow already loaded, launched her arrow at a shadow by the throne. Striking, it caused the shadow to retreat away.

Gideon recited a prayer. His crystal mace glowed a bright red, as if living flames danced inside. The large shadow approaching him hesitated for an instant. But it was long enough for the priest to strike. “Flames of Kossuth” he shouted. The mace smashed into the shadow blob. A cry of anguish sounded in their heads as the shadow splintered and disappeared.

Kilzadi finished his intonation. The silver stars embroidered on his black velvet gloves sparkled. Three flew off trailing silver contrails. They struck unerringly at his shadow. Another cry of anguish and the merged shadow blob splintered and disappeared.

The destruction of the two shadows changed the behaviour of the others. They became non-aggressive and flowed back to the throne. There, most merged into the stone. Only a few smaller ones continued to flow back and forth across the back of the throne.

“Well that was interesting”: observed Neon as he helped Risca recover.

Gideon did the same to Kilzadi. Are you hurt?” he inquired of the mage.

“Kilzadi nodded. “I’m fine. The intense cold is gone. The magic is still there but seems umh…more placid.”

The Seekers approached with extreme caution. They arrived at the base of the throne. The shadows did not react, just kept flowing around and around.

Neon, searched around the throne. He found anything unusual.

“It seems to be solid stone-no hollowness, no secret compartments, and no latches” he reported. “Now what?” All looked at Kilzadi.

The mage just shrugged. “As I said. The magic is still there.”

Without hesitation, Black Blade at the ready, Risca advanced. Unexpectedly, a compulsion to sit on the throne surged through him “Always wanted to try on a throne”, he foreshadowed his own future.

He sat with an oomph. “Cold on me arse.” he began. But then the shadows flitted across his face. “Oh” he slumped, “feel weak, weak.”

“The magic just spiked” shouted Kilzadi. Then before any action occurred, the shadows slid off the dwarf’s face and onto the throne.

“Hays, feel good now. Refreshed and hays, the cold is gone. Throne and room feel cozy.”

“Risca…all is well?” inquired Gideon.

“Yes. I am well. Better than before.” the dwarf answered stepping down.

“Cozy? Did he just use the word, cozy, correctly? In a sentence?” interjected Kilzadi. “This must be powerful magic.” This drew a glare from Risca.

Gideon, assured that Risca was in no danger, approached the throne. He was immediately seized with an urge to sit on the throne. Before he could think about it, he did so. Before the others could react, the shadows passed over his face. The priest grimaced in pain. “Constricting I’m being constricted!” “Another magic spike” shouted Kilzadi. Just as quickly, the shadows moved off Gideon and back onto the throne. Gideon then spoke out.

“Risca was right. I feel refreshed. I no longer feel the cold and I can see! It is like daylight.” He slowly arose and walked down. “Amazing. I can see as normal. The Seekers just stood around. They did not know how to react to all this. Apparently, nothing injurious had occurred. Or was occurring. On the contrary, benefits were to be had.

Swan was just as bewildered as the others. There were no obvious enemies that she could perceive. As her head moved side to side, searching for danger, she unwittingly had moved closer to the throne. As Gideon moved off, she was consumed with this urgency to take his place.

Once again, before there was any time for the others to react, she jumped onto the throne. The cold around her intensified. The shadows swirled on her face. She became immobile. A great pressure squeezed her. Breathing became difficult. Her body was being squeezed painfully. “Crushed. I am being crushed.” The shadows moved off her. The cold vanished. A veil was lifted from her eyes. She could see as clear as ever. “Amazing” she called out in reaction.

All this occurred in the short time it took for Okul to move close enough to reach up and pull her off the throne. “Swan? Say you are fine. Talk to me.”

“I’m fine, Okul. Just fine. Worry not. Gideon is correct. It is refreshing. I can see clearing and the cold is gone.”

The magic spiked when Swan sat.” reported Kilzadi. “It seems that one sits on the throne and good things happen, like cold resistance and proper vision in this damned greyness I will try next.”

He sat on the throne. The shadows moved along his face once. Then they resumed their normal movement around the throne. A minute passed.

“Well?” inquired Gideon. “Any effect?”

“Nothing” replied the sorcerer.” I cannot see better and this stone is freezing my butt

Another minute passed. “That does it” spoke out Kilzadi, rising up. “I am not waiting any longer. Nothing has changed and my ass can’t take any more.”

“That’s what you say to all the boys” jokingly snorted Risca. His eyes challenged any response from the mage. “We’re almost even for ‘cozy’. I still owe ya.”

Kilzadi’s eyes flared daggers at the dwarf. But he remained silent even as Neon and Swan coughed out laughter.

“Let me try” requested Neon. He sat and time passed. The shadows appeared not to be agitated. “I feel no different” he reported. “Next.” In a short time, Okul and even Gathar sat on the throne. Both had negative results.

“Well this is most interesting” observed Kilzadi. “The magic spiked only with Risca, Gideon and our Swannie. What is the commonality? Not gender. Not brains or beauty, because Risca is part of the equation.”

These last words elicited a ‘growl from the dwarf and a chuckle from the others.

“Perhaps there were only three charges and so the first three were affected” hypothesized Neon.


“Regardless” interjected Gideon. “There is nothing left to do here. We move out. Neon, take point. Okul, back him. The rest follow. Swan and I are the back check. Let’s do it Seekers!”

And so the group of heroes trooped out. Gideon turned to Swan who was stepping softly at his side. “Keep walking, but we need to talk. First did you feel a compulsion to sit on the throne?” At Swan’s nod he continued. “As did I. We can confirm with Risca later, but to me he looked coerced to sit. Tell me, when you described yourself as being crushed, had you ever felt that same exact way before? You’re nodding yes again. So let me guess. Was it the same sensation as when we were ensnared by Bareris’ tentacle spell?”

Swan almost stopped in surprise. “Why yes” she replied astonished. “How did you know?

“I guessed because the same happened to me. Then I remembered Risca being weakened almost to death by Bareris’ magic. The same response he gave while on the throne. Then I remembered that only we three were affected by the rogue wizard’s magic. Also I remembered that Bareris visited the Mystra’s temple in Harrowdale. I believe he underwent their Rite and was converted to use of the Shadow Weave magic. I surmise he attempted to resist and was driven insane. Then he either escaped or was released.”

Swan quickly grasped the flow. “That’s why only we three were affected. Somehow the throne interacted with his use of Shadow magic on us.”

“Yes. And since the interaction appears to be beneficial to us here in the Plane of Shadow, I wonder, if Bareris was, somehow subconsciously, used his magic to make us more proficient on this plane.”

“The better to make us able to survive, thereby bettering our chances to…”

“To destroy those in charge, hence destroying those responsible for his conversion?” finished Gideon. “It is possible, but we most likely will never know for certain."

She thought a moment. "It does not matter. He had to die for what he did."

"Yes. True enough. Now, more importantly, Swan, you must do something regarding Okul. You know as well as I that the Seekers function best knowing each other’s expectations. Lately none of us know exactly what to expect from him. You know what I am talking about.”

“Yes, I do” she managed sighing.

“Then you realize we cannot have him acting like a lovesick calf, or as your personal bodyguard, or a jealous suitor. Never knowing which aspect will next manifest. But something has changed in Okul and he has somehow fixated on you. Please Swan, for all our sakes, especially now, in this dangerous place, straighten this out. At least for now, until we return home.”

“Gideon, I will do whatever it takes. Oh why does this always happen to me? Why am I the focus of potential disruption of our group? First my childish behaviour with Neon, then my blunder with Kilzadi, now this episode with Okul. Who knows what next?”

It was the priest’s turn to sigh. “Swan, my dear girl, you are the only female of our little group. Were you were a wrinkly hag with rotten teeth and even worse body odour, then my job would be, oh, so much, much easier. But you are a perceptive, fearless, independent and a truly beautiful young lady. One with healthy appetites. You also happen to be spending close quarters and much time with handsome, vigorous, virile males also with healthy appetites. Of course the males will be buzzing around. As drone bees to the queen. And just between us, equally singly purposed and mindless. So, needless to say, you will be involved in all this manner of stuff, willingly or not. I do not mind the complicated interrelationships that will occur, but I do mind when these relationships interfere with our acting as a cohesive whole. It affects our survival. I am counting on you to get our Okul back on track. He needs to react with predictable behaviour. No more surprises. Now I have talked too much. Let’s catch up to the others.”

Swan then had thoughts. “So, friend Gideon, why are you not affected by the queen bee? I doubt that you are not, how did you phrase it, vigorous and virile. Are you concerned about your leadership status and so you remain aloof. Possible. Can it be that I do nothing for you? Because I am female? I doubt that. Because you already have someone close and dear? Again possible. I trust you with my life, dear friend Gideon and your secrets are yours to keep. But where does your heart lie? Who owns it?

I am definitely not lecherous, lusting after any and all powerful and beautiful males. Nor am I lisserling, flirting with them and testing their worthiness. I rule myself. Once, virgin and insecure, I thought only Inialos could hold my love. Now I know that this, for me, is restrictive. Love cannot be contained. It is not singular. It embraces all who love me heart and soul in return. My loved ones are all worthy. And so as much as Inialos holds it, so now does Ninniach and there is space if needed for Okul. My love for the Seekers is different, as is my love for my family and friends. The Seekers’ safety cannot be compromised by personal affection. Not mine, not Okul's, not anyone's. As you say, our survival depends on our doing what the others would expect. Unexpected deviation is dangerous, especially in the heat of battle.”

And so, she reached the obvious conclusion. "I will do whatever is needed, Gideon" she again emphasized.

“Yes, I know you will” confirmed the priest nonchalantly. “That is why I will not worry about it. I know your soul Swan. The soul of love gratified. The soul of a mother’s love. A saint’s soul. I know that you will see it through to a satisfactory end.”

They stopped speaking at this point. Gideon, because he had important decisions to ponder and finalize. Swan, because she was a bit staggered by Gideon’s revelation, wondering its meaning.

Reaching the stairs both Seekers looked out using their new, improved vision. The view through the tall, shutter free window now showed more features. The surrounding area was not swampy as back on the home Plane. Rather it was filled with wild grasses, brush and shrubs, all grey in the shadowy light. Below them, southwards, was the courtyard. In the midst of the shrubbery, there stood a large marble fountain. Once ornate, it was now, broken down and overgrown. Trodden down pathways slithered their way through the woodlands. What appeared to be the top of a large cage could be discerned. It was too far away to determine what, if anything was inside.

What they had thought to be a bridge was actually a dock. A boat seemed to be moored there. Again, it was too distant and shadowy to make out details other than it held two sets of oars.

Descending, once again they passed the hanging mutilated cadavers of slaughtered humans. The odour of butchered meat and seared flesh still thickened the air. Swan felt her ire rise once again.

“This evil must be stopped, Gideon. Once we have freed the captives, we must return to Ashabenford. There we must convene a council of all the religious and political leaders, warn them of this danger and make plans to destroy it.”

Without a break in his steps, he answered softly. “Worry not, Swan. This abomination will cease to be.” The calmness and surety of Gideon’s response soothed her. It indicated that Gideon had made the removal of this evil a priority. And so he would not rest until it was accomplished. The enemy would be destroyed. He would see to it.

Fingering Gutripper's hilt, she gave the priest a demonic grin. “Promise to leave some for me, friend Gideon. Promise me.”

“Of course Swan. Of course.”

By now they had re-joined the rest of the Seekers. They were gathered at the doorway leading to the courtyard. It was their first experience with the outside of the Shadow Plane.

The sky was a uniform gloomy grey. The illumination was as bright as a moonless night on the home plane. There were no stars. From their vantage, point, the courtyard appeared black and various shades of grey. The air seemed fresh, except that it was cold. It drew out their body heat as they breathed. Yet their breath did not frost up.

Gideon took command. “Swan, Neon, scout around the keep. The rest of us will head for the fountain we spied earlier. We will meet up there. Keep alert people. Let’s do it!”

Swan took the left side. As she moved silently and well hidden in the shadows, her ranger senses, heightened by her improved vision, alerted her to the trampling of the grass. She noted the presence of footprints, some made by human boots, others by drow. Most were shadowscale prints. There were even large paw tracks.

Their source eluded her, other than being feline.

The impressions told her that these pathways were well frequented and recently used.

In a short time they made their rendezvous, at the moss infested fountain. Neon duplicated Swan's findings.

Gideon nodded. "All right then, we take more precautions. Swan, Neon, you two can see fairly well in this gloom. So, Swan, take point for that cage thing we saw. If there is nothing there, then head for the moored boat. Neon, watch her back. The rest of us will be following you."

Off they went. For the rest of her life, Swan was at a loss to explain what happened shortly. Blame it on her inexperience of the new plane, blame it on her inattentiveness as her mind may have been on other matters or just blame it on a godly whim.

At this point she was close enough to distinguish moving figures. There was one crouched inside the cage. Around the cage, she noticed other similar figures and one extremely large one.

Then it happened. As she stealthily approached, she stepped on a loose tree branch. There was a loud crack like noise which broke the stillness. The reaction was immediate.

The forms began to head towards the sound; where Swan was standing. There were lots of growls, especially from the largest. As they neared, the smaller shapes were seen to be shadowscale undead, while the larger one was another crocodile humanoid khumat. The same kind of creature the Seekers had encountered and destroyed earlier in the Lost Refuge.

"Well that tears it" shouted Neon, leaping out of hiding. His sudden appearance caused some of the shadowscales to veer away from the scout towards him. "Seekers assemble" he yelled out. "Swan, I get to save your lovely butt again. Move it! Move it!"

"Me or my butt?" she hollered, loosing her arrow at the khumat. It appeared to pass harmlessly through shadow stuff. "Not again. Really must do something about these one arrow only shots." Then she became very busy dodging, twisting and tumbling her way in-between the shadowscales' and the khumat's attacks.

"Both of them. Move both", he whooped a reply. His longbow arrow struck true into the heart of the nearest attacking shadowscale. Even as it collapsed into a puddle of goo, he had drawn his rapier. He rushed the khumat. It towered over him and lunged with its cavernous toothed maw. It wanted to bite and swallow.

Neon used his agility and mobility to slip around its attack. As he ran past, his rapier drew a long bloody furrow along its flank. It roared out its pain and frustration.

By now the rest of the Seekers arrived. First on the scene was Okul. With a cry of 'Tempusss', he stopped to hurl a javelin at the khumat. It passed through shadow stuff. Undaunted, he proceeded to rush at it using his great spear.

It was at this point that Risca, with his battle cry of 'Crull', moved passed the huge warrior to be the first to engage the crocodile-like monster.

The lizard man, Gathar was only a step behind Okul. The sight of the undead shadowscales elicited a loud growl of hatred as he spurted to engage them.

Gideon and Kilzadi now arrived at the battle zone. They both began incantations; a prayer for the priest; a spell for the sorcerer.

Swan had just finished side-stepping a shadowscale spear lunge. Quickly surveying the combat, she noticed Gathar standing over his slain opponent. She also realized that the khumat had started to swing its mighty tail at the head of the unsuspecting lizard champion. It would deal a crushing blow.

Acting instinctively, she sprinted towards Gathar and leaped at his back. Just in time! She crashed into him, knocking him to the ground. So close was her timing that as she landed onto of the lizard man, she felt the tail swoosh just above her head. So close that she could smell it as it whizzed by.

Neon had just finished dispatching a shadowscale. "Freed its soul, as Swan would say."

Just as he turned to engage another, it gave a shriek of pain and fear. They all did! It and its kind hastened away along the trail. Only the khumat remained to fight. The rogue spared the shadowscale and instead rushed in to help against the khumat.

Gideon had finished his prayer. "….fear, fear the holy fires of Kossuth!" One could almost sense the burst of holy energy that spread out from the priest. All the undead lizardfolk shrieked out in terror as they turned away to run.

As they were running, Kilzadi finished his incantation '"…elemental fire" His draconic facial tattoos flared blue and green. A little ball of fire seemed to burst between the last two shadowscales. The explosive flames engulfed the rearmost shadowscales. The smell of burned goo drifted in the cold air.

Shrieking his battle cry, Risca assailed the khumat. A warrior true, he learned from past combats. Its lunge to swallow him whole was an anticipated move; one he hoped would happen.

Stopping dead in his tracks, the manoeuvre forced the khumat's jaws to snap where he would have been had he continued his charge. Using his shield, he rammed it up against the creature's bottom jaw, pushing it up, exposing the neck area. As its mouth snapped shut, he slashed Black Blade across its throat once and once again on the return swing.

Darkish blood gushed out. As the creature roared it's aguish, Risca roared his battle lust. "Risca smash! Risca smash! Crull! Crull!"

Okul's spear stabbed deep into the creature's chest. More dark blood spewed forth. The monster bent over screaming its rage and pain. It made to lunge at the dragon's son. This placed its large head in close to Risca. With another bellow of 'Crull', the dwarf powered Black Blade hilt deep through the skull bone into the brain. There was an explosion of blood, brain matter and bone chips. It collapsed in sudden death.

With no enemies left to fight, Risca's battle frenzy slowly ebbed away. "Me gurl is right. Those head shots are so final." Staring at the dead monster, a large grin spread across his bearded chin. A khumat had come close to killing him once. Now he had returned the favour. It was a good feeling.

Neon had stopped once he saw Risca's sword penetrate the creature's head. "Well the fun's over now. Time to check on the Swan girl."

Okul had beaten him there. He was helping Swan up as she was helping up Gathar. "You are fine little sister? he asked with deep concern, steadying her gently.

"Yes I'm fine." Without conscious effort, she leaned into him. "The others?"

"All seem to be well."

By now the rest of the Seekers had gathered around.

"Hey Swan, good moves", Neon's voice cut through the air. There was humour in it. "There is an old rogue jingle; stepping on sticks, gotta do some tricks. Stepping on grass, it saves your ass. Maybe something you should keep in mind for next time?"

"Oh, please. I don't need reminding I screwed up. Sorry everyone. "

Gideon responded. "No need for apologies Swan. We have all, as you say, screwed up, at one time or another. Some of us more than others. Correct Neon?"

The rogue gave a chuckle. "Yes of course. Correct."

Just then Gathar spoke out a lengthy discourse. Kilzadi translated the draconic speech.

"Well Swan. It seems you have made a new friend. It seems to be a knack you have. Especially with the males you jump on."

She smiled at the banter. But she could feel Okul tensing. Unseen she tightened her grip on his wrist to forestall any further actions. "Funny mage. Just tell me what he said. Tell all of us."

"The jist is that you risked your own life to save his in the heat of battle. Without compromise. For that he names you 'battle comrade'. It is something not lightly done. In return he will do the same for you, regardless of the odds. Should you be ...ahem… killed, then he will not rest until your death was avenged a hundred fold. He says you have the soul of a true warrior, brave and proud. Committed to the destruction of your enemy. But your heart is kind and merciful. Apparently he feels honoured to be your battle comrade. It means much in his culture."

Swan stared up at Gathar. He towered a good foot and a half over her. His body was covered in a thick greenish grey reptilian hide. The yard long tail twitched as it kept his balance.

She peered fearlessly into Gathar's yellow vertical eyes; the black pupils, luminous as they stared into her eyes.

"Tell him, that he honours me, but that I did nothing special. I did what I would have done for anyone else here. Anyone who fights beside us and risks their life for us, who has common enemies as us, is to me a Seeker, one of my squad. Tell him, I consider him one of us and gladly treat him so." Inspiration seized her. "Tell him this; In War Victory, In Peace Vigilance, In Death Sacrifice."

Kilzadi did as bid. The reaction was immediate. With no warning, Gathar reached, gripped her hand, and placed it over his heart. The lizard man spoke once again.

The sorcerer deciphered the words." He says he now realizes that you are more than a warrior. He says your words are divinely inspired. Now how would he know that? Anyway, you apparently have the spirit of a Mother Protector. A guardian of the recently hatched. One would be ferocious in defence of the tribe and its young ones. I think he finally realized how bloodthirsty you can get to be Swan. Ouch! Watch that elbow. He says when we return, he will ask the shaman, Kessesek, to initiate you into the tribe. Then as Mother Protector, its warriors and resources will be yours to command. Wow Swan, just think, you may get to be a lizard's mother. Ow! He is waiting for a response."

"Tell him…tell him, I look forward to it."

Kilzadi did so. Gathar throated a response. "He said 'praise to Semuanya' whatever that is."

Gideon replied with no hesitation. "Semuanya is the patron deity of the lizard folk."

At that point, Risca's voice drew their attention. He had wandered off, looking around the area. "Heys, over here! There is a lizard man in that cage."

Conversation stopped as the Seekers converged towards the cage. It contained an emaciated, beaten lizard man. Spotting Gathar, it addressed him in an excited voice. Gather replied back.. Again Kilzadi translated the draconic speech. All this occurred as Neon and Swan unlocked the cage.

"His name is Steersk, a warrior from the same tribe as Gathar. He and his group were captured recently. He says the lizards get taken to the village to be changed into shadowscale undead. The hairy warm ones are taken to the boat of the 'demon one'. He says he wants to join us to kill shadowscales and his other captors. No Neon, he says that he did not see anyone who looks like a small hairy one. He tried to escape and was placed in this cage to be used as an example before his own transformation. He says the shadowscales have a village. The trail to the west leads there. The trail east leads to the water and the boat.”

“Fine then” interrupted Neon, “we take the boat and go searching.”

“But that would leave those undead at our backs”, retorted Kilzadi. Also we have Steersk to guide us. Perhaps in the village we can find a clue as to where to take the boat, because right now we have no idea.”

Gideon decided. “Kilzadi is correct in this case Neon. But first we secure the boat and then go to the village. Okul, give our new ally a weapon and some equipment. Whatever we can spare. Let’s do it Seekers!”

In pairs the Seekers approached to where the boat was moored. Getting closer, Swan could easily make out a longish keelboat. It swayed in the black water of the bayou swamp. A single mast loomed over a captain’s cabin. Low in the hull were inset several benches. Sitting on these benches were four orcish skeletons, each manacled and chained to an oar.

As thy walked along the dock, the door to the cabin opened and a figure emerged. Swan, having spent time with Noristuor in Ashabenford, recognized the figure as a tiefling. Yet it resembled the mage as much as Gideon resembled Kilzadi. Unlike Noristuor, it had cloven feet. Its horns were goat-like instead of ram-like; its eyes a merciless red, not a calming yellow. It was black scaled everywhere, reeking of brimstone and radiating evil. It was dressed in a bloodstained naval captain's suit, with a large silver medallion dangling from its neck. In a guttural voice it hailed them.

“What is happening? What was that commotion earlier?’

Spotting the lizardfolk, it raised its voice to a shout. “And what are those lizards doing out of the cage?

Kilzadi attempted to answer. “We are bringing another shipment of dream walkers. We…” He got no further as the tiefling screamed out “Liar. Intruder!” It then began an incantation in a language recognizable as Abyssal.

At this point several things happened at once. Gideon and Kilzadi began to chant their own spells. Okul, Gathar and Steersk rushed the tiefling. Risca and Neon ran up from the back. Swan readied her bow for a clean shot.

There was a huge roar as a large cat-like beast leapt out of the boat cabin onto the dock way. Seeing the beast, Swan knew that this was the creature that had left the huge claw prints.

The tiefling finished first as balls of red energy shot from its fingers. But not at the Seekers. At the thick ropes holding the boat to the dock. They severed the stiff, solid threads. At the same time, his silver medallion flashed a brilliant glow. The skeletons began to row. The keelboat began to move away from the dock.

"Don't let that boat get away" screamed out Neon, worried that their only means of freeing Osier was escaping.

Now events proceeded quickly. The two lizard men veered to engage the cat beast. There was a flurry of snarls, claws and clubs as they fought.

Okul reached the tiefling. "Die!" He stabbed forth with his spear, a killing blow. No Seeker had fought a tiefling before. No one knew of their incredible agility.

The tiefling sidestepped the spear thrust. It moved inside the reach of the weapon, spun as Okul's charge continued, spoke a word of power and touched the warrior as he ran by. Okul disappeared only to reappear above the dark water beyond the boat. He gave a yelp of surprise as he splashed into it.

A ball of flame erupted from Kilzadi's hand as he completed his spell. It trailed fire as it streamed to the boat. It quickly reached the skeleton rowers. The explosion was loud, massive and hot. The skeleton bones were incinerated. The captain's cabin burst asunder. The boat began to burn.

"Nooooh!!" screamed the tiefling. It turned back to face the rushing Seekers. Its eyes glowed hate and promised torture. With a howl, it began a spell.

Swan released her arrow. The shaft flew true, but the demon bred was fast. He veered promptly. Instead of a killing strike, the missile struck his shoulder. Enough to stagger him and spoil the spell. It snarled spittle at the scout. Calmly and quickly, Swan reloaded. "Focus your mind. Okul will manage. Adjust for its speed. Kill the enemy."

Neon and Risca rushed by her, weapons at the ready.

“My turn for pussy”, the rogue declared to the dwarf. “You take hellboy.”

“Its clobbering time" shrilled Risca. "Crush for Crull!"

At this point, Gideon's prayer was answered. Kossuth's power filled the Seekers. Neon ran faster with more agility. The two lizard men felt refreshed as they struck out at the cat beast. Swan's aim improved as her target became clearer. Risca felt stronger, able to endure more.

Gideon shouted to Okul, who was swimming back to the dock, "The boat Okul. Head for the boat. Put out the fire! We need that boat!"

Kilzadi gained the insight to spell cast before the tiefling. His draconic tattoos flared. A bolt of fire struck the evil mage. Again it screamed, this time in great pain as its flesh burned.

Risca arrived. He moved to poise a shield smash. The enraged tiefling spoke a word and touched the shield. Risca felt a second of disorientation and then found himself falling into the water beside the burning boat. "I's hate getting wet. This is Okul's fault. He should have warned us." were his thoughts just before splash down.

The split second that the tiefling used to teleport Risca was the opening Swan was waiting for. As it touched the dwarf's shield, all its concentration was on the spell. Swan released her arrow. This time it was the killing blow. It entered the demon spawn's snarly mouth and emerged at the back of the neck, severing the spine in the process. The force caused it to slide along the wet dock, dead even before its skull struck the planks.

At the same time, Neon reached the cat creature. Both Gathar and Steersk were fighting well. They knew each others' moves and fought as a team. Both showed claw and bite wounds, but they had inflicted much damage on the creature.

As Neon arrived he gave a great leap. The feline beast reared to strike with his claws. This exposed it. Gathar stabbed and Steersk clubbed the underbelly. Neon twisted in mid air to avoid the raking talons. As he arced down, he stabbed out with his rapier. It passed through the cat thing's ear into its head. It stopped in mid roar and fell dead.

"Neon landed on his feet, crouched to absorb the landing shock. He straightened to find the two lizard men staring intently at him. "What's the matter guys?" he grinned, retrieving the rapier. "Never seen a thief-acrobat in action before"?

Okul had reached the boat and was helping Risca aboard. Risca seemed to be shouting at Okul. The two of them soon had the smouldering fires out. They began to row the boat back to dock. All the while Risca could be heard shouting.

Gideon took command. "Kilzadi, search that demon thing. Take everything that could be of use to us. Neon, get ropes. We need to secure that boat for our latter use. Swan, see to our lizard allies. They are the only ones who took damage. Hop to it Seekers. Time is getting shorter."

Swan approached the two Sharptooth tribesmen, curing wand in hand. "I know you don't understand me, but this will not hurt a bit. Just try to relax." Both warriors, bleeding, regarded her unflinchingly.

Calling upon the blessings of Solonar, she laid the wand on Steersk. The odour of green mint filled the cold air of the Shadow Plane. As his wounds healed, the lizard man spoke.

"He says his body and spirit belong to you, the Mother Protector", interpreted Kilzadi. The sorcerer had joined them. "He says, he will die protecting you and will obey you unquestionably. Another male, another conquest. That's our Swan girl. They don't even have to be warm-blooded do they, hey? You're hot enough for two or even three. Why am I not surprised?"

"Oh, shut up." Swan moved to Gathar. The giant soldier dropped to his knees and stared at the ground as she administered to his wounds.

"This one says, I should tell you that you, again, honour him. That you, as the favoured of so many deities, …I have no idea what he is babbling on about… should consider him worthy of your attention , blesses him. He says that now his spirit will ascend to the domain of Semuanya. He will die happy without fear."

"Tell him, no tell them both, that what I do, I do for everyone. They are not a special case. I have no intention of letting any Seeker die, if I can help it. If they want to honour me, then they should defend and protect their ..uhmm…hatchlings and weak ones. Also they should do all they can to forestall and counteract any encroaching evil and darkness."

Kilzadi did so. "Gathar says that your words just reinforce the fact that you are the Mother Protector. He doesn't seem to believe me when I tell him that there is nothing really special about you. Other than your good looks and attractive firm body, I mean. And that you always seem to be in rut. Ouch!"

Just then Gideon interrupted. "If you're finished hacking at each other over there, we could use some help here."

The heroes went to their aid. They tied ropes to the mooring pillars on the dock and threw the other ends to Risca and Okul. The two then tied the ropes to the boat, securing it to the dock.

The boat was still serviceable, despite the charred captain's cabin and the burned oar benches.

Swan leaped aboard anxious for her two companions. Risca was continuously muttering under his breath as he worked.

"Hey, you two all right?" She grabbed each by the arm, forcing them to stop and look at her. Okul just smiled at her concern. "Yes, dear sister. And I am most relieved to see that you are uninjured. Thank you Tempus."

"Well. I'm not" grumbled the dwarf. "Not only did I miss the combat, but I got completely soaked. Guifoon didn't like it either. And it's all Okul's fault."

"How can it be possibly be Okul's fault?"

"He should have warned us, not to let that demon son bastard touch us. Guifoon and I, we would have used different tactics to slice it up."

Okul spoke then. "Just let it be, dear sister. He is just frustrated that he missed the action and took a dunking. Then while the rest of you fought, he had to work to help retrieve the boat. He is upset that you all did well despite his absence. He thinks he is not as needed as he would like to be. He wanted to be close to protect you all, especially you. As did I., my Swan. He will return to normal soon."

Swan faced Risca. "You silly, old coot! You will always be needed. You are an integral part of this team and my dearest friend. Oh, why am I wasting time talking. I think I'll just 'squeeze' some good sense into that pea brain of yours. It's past due anyway." She motioned as to hold Risca's head in a tight embrace.

Risca backed off. "No, no me gurl. No squeezing! It's fine. Just fine. See. I'm smiling. I'm not upset anymore."

"All right then" Swan laughed. "No more nonsense gabbleygook about not being needed."

“O.K. people,” interjected Gideon. It’s all secure now. Let’s check out what we got.”

Kilzadi was the first into the captain’s cabin. Neon a close second. They could be heard rummaging. Soon they re-emerged. Neon carried an iron coffer, while Kilzadi held more casks of darklight oil.

Neon cracked his knuckles. “A simple lock. Almost too easy. Hoping for goodies.”

He opened it in no time. Therein were several items and various coins. The coins were gold and platinum. The items were interesting. Neon described them as he removed them.

“One silver comb. Swan, they knew you were coming. One arcane scroll. Must be for you, Kilzadi. Now this is interesting. An ivory lyre. Anyone here play the lyre? Because here is some music for it.” This last was said as he unrolled a piece of parchment. Musical notes could clearly be seen on it. But strangely enough, they were written in a linear fashion; no scales, no bars.

Also a note from our friend Esvele. She likes to leave us notes, doesn't she? It states 'Play this and the guardian at Black Tree Bend will subside.' Anyone familiar with Black tree bend? Thought not. What about the guardian? No, then I guess we will find out the hard way.

“Anyway, I can’t follow these notes. Anyone else? Risca, you seem to have some knowledge of music? Can you read it?”

The dwarf stared at the notes and shook his head. “Not seen notes like this before. Cannot help you.”

Kilzadi spoke up. “Let me take charge of them. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Make it so!” interjected Gideon. “The boat is now secured. Pack up all items. Double time to the village. Time is wasting. We eat on the march. Swan, take point with Steersk. Neon, you watch our backs. The rest of us will be in-between. Let’s do it Seekers.”

Shortly, they were on the march. The trails to the village were just wide enough for two abreast. They were muddy, which slowed their quick march. Along the sides were hanging low branches from overgrown thickets and bushes. They tended to scratch at exposed skin. At times the trails became swampy. The cold was ever present. Swan noticed the deep silence. No where could be heard common marshy sounds of insects and small animals. Only Kilzadi’s soft curses were audible as his boots filled with water.

In about two hours Steersk spoke excitedly to Gathar who in turn spoke to Kilzadi.

"We're getting close to the village. We should proceed more slowly and cautiously", reported the mage. "We don't know how many shadowscales are present. We could be greatly outnumbered."

"Good idea", replied the priest. "Tell our two friends to proceed cautiously. They can blend in more easily at a distance than the rest of us. They can also escape using the swamp, if need be. They are to get some idea of numbers along the trail, but not to go into the village without us. If spotted they can attempt to act as shadowscales. Have them report back, in say half an hour."

Once Kilzadi informed the lizard men of the plan, they set off silently and were soon out of sight.

Gideon turned to Swan. "If they do not return in the allotted time, how difficult would it be to track them?"

The scout examined the trail ground. "Difficult but doable I should be able to follow their trail as long as they didn't submerge themselves."

"Good enough. Take a short rest, everyone. But remain alert."

Swan approached Neon. Tugging on his arm, she led him a little ways away from the others. "Neccessit parralte, Ninniach. Neccessit ta'adviso." She spoke in dialect elvish. Even if they were overheard, only she and Neon were the only elvish speakers in the group.

The half-elf casually and gently smoothed away a lock from her forehead. He carried on in dialect elvish. "What do you need my advice about?" The seriousness of her tone forestalled any humorous retort.

"It concerns Okul." She quickly recapped what she and Gideon had discussed back in the observatory. She explained the situation with Okul, where it began, the pact they made, her feelings. "I'm asking you because of your experience and knowledge in these types of matters."

"I see", he sighed. "So, this pact you two made regarding not letting your feelings interfere, does not seem to be working? Why am I not surprised? Quit glaring at me. At least on his part. O.K. This will not be easy for me; given my feelings; advising you on this…I know, I know, it was my decision for our no involvement. Although keeping my hands off you is more difficult than anticipated. Fine then, what is it that YOU want from all this? "

"Desiro… Okul to be relaxed around me. I want his feelings not to interfere with the workings of the Seekers, especially in combat. I want for him to feel unthreatened when I interact with male friends…"

"You mean when you tease and flirt…don't hit me!"

"You know what I mean. I tease and flirt with Kilzadi. It does not mean I want to bed him."

"Not yet. Ouch! Sorry, couldn't resist."

"I want the Seekers to know what to expect from each other. I want the return of the easy banter. I want the trust and good relations back."

"Well, one way is to remove the source of the irritation. Either you or Okul could leave the group and go to a galaxy far, far away. Not being in each other's proximity, there would be no more friction and the remaining Seekers could then settle down to good relations. No, not very possible in the short term is it, or even the long term for that matter."

Neon cleared his throat. "There is a way which has a good chance of working. More than 50-50 anyway. But there is no guarantee. It also depends to what lengths you would go to resolve this matter. And how fond you are of Okul."

"I told Gideon, whatever it takes."

"Hear me out then. To summarize. Okul suddenly has feelings for you which have nothing to do with `you being his little sister'. What a surprise. These feelings have seemly erupted instantaneously. For whatever reason, he desires to, ah, shall we say, mate with you. Another surprise. Everyone wants to 'mate' with you."

"And so, he is protective of you and jealous for you. This new attitude interferes with his interactions with the Seekers. I know this from what he spoke to me of. Threats and promises. This new attitude also interferes with your interactions with the Seekers. You wish for this to end. But your own feelings towards Okul are all a jumble as well. He is a powerful handsome male. What a surprise. Yet you promised Gideon to resolve this matter. Does this about cover it? You nod."

"Here is my advice then.

"Just do it! Release his frustration. Oh, don't look so shocked. You're probably looking forward to this. Once I told you, I know your heart, Cygni. I know of your desire for intimacy with males that love and respect you. You too, have thought of this. Don't deny it. So, there are two possible outcomes."

"First-the mating urge will be sated. With the urge gone, whatever is driving him should dissipate. I hope. He should revert to normal. No more jealousy. I hope. No more over protectiveness. No more pining away. Or second, with the mating having taken place; he may now consider you a bonded pair. In that case, he will feel secure that you reciprocate his feelings. The tension will cease. And he won't threaten the rest of us. I hope. There would still be protectiveness, but on your terms."

"That's it? That's all? That's your advice? Why does it sound like you're asking me to whore myself out?

"No, I'm not. I did not say you should be receiving payment. Ouch! Just a little joke. Though I did say there was no guarantee. But it should work.

Besides, did you not tell our fearless leader 'whatever it takes'? So do it already. We are in unknown territory here, what with all this Growling and stuff. But it should work. As to pimping you…well it does open up interesting speculations. Oh, what visions just flashed through my mind. Ouch! Bane's balls, you do have sharp elbows. Notice your 'big brother' has been watching us from the beginning. From his scowl, I'm glad I am someone he likes, not Kilzadi. Kilzadi would most likely be swallowing spear steel by now. Whatever you do Cygni, do it soon. For all our sakes. We all want things to get back to normal."

"I must think on this, Ninniach. Meantime, I'll watch over Okul."

Swan left him then and went to stand by Okul. She was pensive. Shortly Gathar and Steersk returned. They conferred with Kilzadi and Gideon.

"They found the village" confirmed Gideon. It seems to be deserted, but they found fresh tracks going in. They encountered no one on the way there or back. Swan, take the lead with them. The rest of us will trail a bit behind. We'll clean out the village free any prisoners and then return for the boat"

By late afternoon body time, the trail ended at a huge deadfall. The spaces in-between the dead trees had been filled in with brush and mud. The result was a gigantic mound of dead wood and wet muck.

Swan signalled a stop. The trail ended at a wicker gate. Two dark oil torches cast a feeble light on either side of the gate. Moving silently, she hid as best she could in the shadows nearby. She could not espy any traps or guards. She motioned the others forward.

Okul and Risca each pulled on opposite ends of the gate. It could not withstand their combined great strengths and was easily pulled away. A low, narrow, damp dirt passageway extended darkly into the mound. Dead wood pieces were strewn around. The air stank of rot and musk.

Swan led the way in. Okul close behind. The passage curved slightly to the east. Swan could see a bend. She slowly followed it. It led to a large widen chamber. A hanging torch illuminated the area. She could make out several more passage ways leading out on the other side. The chamber was filled with roots and branches sticking out through the floor, walls and ceiling. She took a few steps in.

Suddenly, all around her, silent shadowscales emerged from their dark hiding places. She was surrounded. It was an entrapment and she had walked into it.

She screamed out a warning even as she fired her arrow.

Her sudden release arrow caught a shadowscale in the shoulder, spinning it around. She was still surrounded and they were closing in fast. There was no time to sling another arrow. The walls were too far away for climbing. She drew Gutripper but it was going to be difficult to fight her way out. She could avoid some of them, but the rest would be on her then. This is going to hurt.

Okul's javelin whizzed by her, catching an undead lizard in the face. It quickly crumbled as its head exploded. His desperate voice rang out. "Swan, return, I will cover you!"

She could hear Risca begin his charge with the start of a battle cry while the two lizard folk began deep growls of rage.

Then Kilzadi's urgent voice. "No! Everyone stay! Swan, run deeper into the warren. Find cover. Evade! Evade!"

She saw it then. The fiery trail of the sorcerer's cast fireball streamed above, close to the ceiling. She would have to stay low to avoid most of the blast to come. So instead of staying to fight, she tumbled away close to the floor.

"Oh Kilzadi? What have you done?" The fireball erupted. Her world turned hot and orange.

Kilzadi had seen the lovely scout being surrounded. There were ten or more of those shadowscales gathered about her. It was obvious that the others could not help in time. She could not avoid taking extreme punishment, perhaps even fatal. He could not allow this.

His facial draconic tattoos flared blue. Awareness of a method to aid Swan and destroy the enemy at the same time became evident. It would work for two reasons.

First his fire spells were less potent here on this Plane than normal and secondly Swan was good at evading. Oh yes, very, very good! As natural at evading as she was at enticing. And so any harm to her would …hopefully… be minimal.

Even as these thoughts flashed in his brain, his voice had already incanted a fireball spell.

Despite the magical protection of her cloak and that she had escaped by reaching a branch trail far into an apparent empty chamber, Swan still felt some effects of the fireball.

She could feel burn blisters along the back of her arms. Her lungs were filled with smoke. Her eyes were reddened and teary. The odours of seared wood and broiled reptilian flesh saturated her. Otherwise she felt unharmed. Hacking for air, she stood up shakily, as the others rushed into the chamber.

Okul was the first to reach her.

"Swan! Swan?" His voice was anguished. "Are you hurt? Talk to me!" A huge arm engulfed her, holding her close, while another gently wiped at her soot covered face.

She coughed into his comforting chest. "Yes. I'm fine. Fine. Just let me catch my breath. And drink some water." She could feel how tense he was with anxiety. She ran her hand up and down his neck scales in an effort to calm him. They felt good under her fingers.

Risca was next, followed closely by Gathar and Steersk. The two lizard folk hissing at each other as they followed Risca. The dwarf was distraught. She waved him down as another coughing fit overtook her. She was gulping the soothing water too quickly. "I'm. fine Risca, just fine. Really."

Risca tilted his head at her and ran his thumb along Guifoon's keen edge. "All right then. But we'll still be talking to that sorcerer…"

Okul snarled at this. "No! Me first! Then you…if there's anything left!"

"No, no my dears. You do not yet realize the favour he did me."

The rest of the Seekers came rushing in.

"Cygni?" voiced out Neon, bounding in. The concern and worry in his word was evident. Kilzadi and Gideon were right behind.

"Ninniach, benestati All's well. I'm all right everyone." She stared at the sorcerer. "Kill-Zaddi" she slowly emphasized his name. She approached him; hand on her stiletto's hilt.

'The 'mighty mage of magic' raised his hands. "Swan, wait. Let me explain…"

"Explain? There's nothing to explain. You most likely saved my life. I already died once. It is not all it's cracked up to be. I just want to thank you for not letting me go through that again. Although it would have been nice to visit with granpar one more time."

In times to come, Swan would always give an inadvertent chuckle remembering the incredulous looks on both the sorcerer's face and those of the other Seekers. As Kilzadi's jaw gaped open in complete surprise, she embraced him, hugged him and tongue kissed him the way he liked. But only for a short time.

"That's to show my appreciation for your quick thinking."

Kilzadi actually flushed a faint rose." Thank you, I think. You taste, just delicious, as expected, but you smell like smoke and burned leather."

"Consider yourself fortunate", broke in Neon. "Whenever I get thank you kisses, her odour is more akin to garbage and sewage." This eased the tension. Everyone visibly relaxed. Everyone, except the two lizard men, who did not understand what was spoken and Okul who clenching and unclenching his fist, staring daggers at Kilzadi.

Gideon quickly defused any possible conflict. His look at Swan told her to do something regarding Okul soon.

"So what is this place? That simple question brought them all back to their situation. They looked around. It was a den. But obviously, unused for sometime. A fire pit, long cold and dead, occupied the center. Strewn were pieces of broken pottery, utensils and other kitchen materials.

As they searched, Swan could feel her anger rising. Here the tribal culture would be passed on. Young ones would sit around the fires, bonding with the tribe; learning from the elders Stories, myths, heroes and history. A sense of who they were and where they came from. Now there was …nothing. Where were the young ones? What had happened to them when this village was taken? She knew the answer and it incensed her.

What use the undead of a fire pit? Or story telling? Or young ones? Another reason she had to ensure the destruction of these Sharites.

"Let's move out Seekers", ordered Gideon. "There is nothing here."

They exited the small chamber into the passage and then into the large chamber. Burned and parboiled shadowscales strewn the chamber. Unlike Swan, they did not evade the fireball.

They entered another passage way which soon widened into another large chamber. But a large pool of blackish water occupied the chamber's center. A strange reptilian scent lingered in the air. As they approached the water, Gathar and Steersk became agitated.

"There's something in the water!" translated Kilzadi. No sooner had he spoken these words that the water rippled. Emerging was a huge snake-like creature. Black scales ran down its length, ending in a long tail stinger. Unlike a snake, its face was humanoid. Green, vertical, slit eyes stared hostility at them. "You do not belong here", it hissed.

"A dark naga!" screamed out Kilzadi. He quickly began an incantation.

Swan was the first to act. Sensing the naga's evilness, she had already aimed and shot. The arrow struck deep into its neck. Darkish blood erupted. Risca, Gideon and Okul attacked. Neon at the rear loaded his bow.

The naga screamed out its pain in a power word. A lighting bolt thundered out of its mouth, striking Risca. Undaunted by the pain, as electrical sparks raced up and down his body, the dwarf hellreaver cried out 'Crull". Guifoon slashed once, twice. Twin furrows of blood appeared on the naga. Gideon and Okul struck almost simultaneously. "Kossuth!" shouted Gideon as his crystal mace shone red. He struck a mighty blow. There was a burst of Kossuth's holy flames. The naga creature proclaimed its pain. An instant later Okul's great spear drove its way deep into the monster's neck. It howled its hurt.

"You, I will curse" it howled prophetically, staring intense hatred at the dragon's son.

Neon's arrow struck it in the mouth, silencing any further words.

Now the sorcerer's spell was released. The naga was engulfed in fire. It screamed as it burned and died.

The Seekers gathered round.

"So, the shadowscales are not the only occupants of these warrens" concluded Gideon. "Stay on the alert, everyone."

Swan made her way over to Risca. "Let's take a look at you. How are you feeling?"

"I's fine, gurl. Just fine. Save your mint healing for when we really needs it."

Swan had taken hold of Risca's head, turning it this way and that as she examined him for serious damage. "Are you sure? That bolt of lightning…"

"That? That was nothing. As a young tad in the mountains, I's used to get struck by lighting on a regular basis. Mountain storm lightning! Real lightning! Not these weak namby-pamby magical ones. I's got used to it. I's fine, gurl."

"You know 'namby-pamby? What has Neon been teaching you? All right then. You're fine."

"There are objects in the water", spoke out Neon. He had been walking along the shore line of the large pond. "I can just make them out on the bottom. Anyone want to attempt a swim?" At these words all turned to stare at the lizard men. After Kilzadi explained the situation, there was no hesitation. They leaped into the water and began to bring up what were sealed clay urns. There were ten of them. Neon busied himself ensuring they were safe to unseal. In total, they recovered three thousands of silver coins, two hundred gold coins, a leather purse holding three pearls a spell book and a small vial holding a clay-like substance.

"Can we manage all these coins? Will they not slow us down?" inquired Swan

Both Neon and Kilzadi grinned. They had been piling the coins into the sorcerer's backpack. "Worry not succulent Swan. There is enough room in my very handy haversack for them", replied the mage.

Before the scout could retort, the lizard men cried out. Okul shouted a warning.

Turning she saw the naga monster rising up, its head looming above her, sharp tooted jaw ready to descend upon her.

Kilzadi and Neon, hands full of coins were slower to react. Gideon had walked further down the pool, away from the group. Risca reacted with Swan.

But the first to strike were the lizard men. Their reaction speed most likely saved the sensuous scout. Gathar's spear thrust deep into the naga's neck. Steersk's mighty club crushed its way. through scales and flesh. Risca reached the battle just as Swan fired her arrow into its neck. Guifoon drew a deep slash along its side.

Okul had the killing blow. Swan was endangered. His great spear, powered by his incredible strength, now doubled in his desire to protect Swan, sank hilt deep into its throat. Again, dark blood spewed out in huge gushes. Once again, the giant beast began to collapse, its eyes closing in death.

Falling with a large splash, it glared at Okul. "Your strength will be your weakness", it cursed him. Finally it died.

The Seekers once more gathered around the monster.

"Okul…?"Swan started to ask.

"No. I feel the same" answered the warrior, retrieving his spear. "There is no curse." Swan was taken a little aback. There seemed to be anger in his words. Anger directed at her.

"It must have regenerated", deduced Kilzadi. "Check it for some magical item, a ring or a broach perhaps."

Risca had been kicking at the corpse, seemingly much to the amusement of the lizard men.

"Regenerate? Regenerate! Here, regenerate this! "No sooner spoken, then he launched Guifoon down across the neck of the dead beast. The mighty blow quickly severed the head. Blood and noxious, odoriferous fluids belched forth. The headless torso writhed once. Its tail end shot out of the water only to drop back into the water.

Kilzadi noticed something peculiar about the stinger. He spoke a few draconic words to Gathar and Steersk. The two of them, dove back into the pool. They resurfaced, carrying and dragging the huge stinger tail. They dropped it on the wet shore. Kilzadi bent down to examine it closely.

"Yes. Most interesting", he exclaimed." Come everyone. See this." He pulled off a ring from the stinger tail. Also attached to the tail was what at first resembled a stick, but was actually a wand. Making a brief incantation, 'magical' he reported. "Here Neon. Put this on." He threw the ring to the half-elf.

Neon caught it easily. He turned it over, examining the plain steel ring. "You're sure?"

Kilzadi slowly nodded. He watched as the rogue slipped it on. There was no change for two breaths. "I'm sure now."

"I think we are done here", interrupted Gideon. "Let's move out. It's starting to get late."

The group set off. They quickly reached a branch in the trail. One smaller trail turned to the right and ended, in a short distance, at the entrance to a small chamber. The larger trail continued forward into the darkness.

The chamber entrance was open and with her new, improved vision, the scout could make out dozens of old, dried, lizard folk skulls along the walls and ceilings. What seemed to be a large mound of sand centered the chamber.

"Let's check it out. Carefully", ordered the priest of Kossuth.

Risca was becoming more and more impatient. He wanted this village recon to be ended so they could move on to more important matters, like destroying the true Sharites and drow. And so without waiting for the safety check, he hurried into the chamber.

On guard, he crossed the threshold. Immediately a fine spray of droplets materialized about his head and shoulders. As they settled down on him, he gasped out "Arg! Feels like burning! Acid burns."

Swan rushed to his side, followed closely by the others. "Close your eyes, Risca. Close them.! Keep out the acid." She reached to take out her healing rod.

She was interrupted by Gideon. "Let me do it. You know how much he enjoys the healing power of Kossuth. It may remind him about room entering protocol." He said this as he used his wand to heal the dwarf. Little tongues of flame raced around the dwarf, removing the acid marks.

"Arg! Hot pepper. Hurts more than the acid."

"Don't be too hard on him, Gideon" jokingly added Neon. "Risca makes a great trap trigger. Saves the rest of us from dangerous work."

The rest of the Seekers had spread out, examining the chamber and its contents. Kilzadi reported their findings.

"The lizard men say that this was the shadowscale tribe's egg chamber. This is where the females would come when ready to lay their eggs. Inside the sand. The sand was kept hot as to help incubate the eggs. The skulls are those of old tribal members, whose spirits watch over the hatchlings. All the tribes have a similar set-up. It's fairly obvious that this chamber has not been used in a long time."

Hearing these words, Swan's intense maternal instinct; the same one that would eventually make her renowned as the 'Mother Swan', arose in righteous rage. It had been building now for a time This knowledge released the pressure.

Swan drew Gutripper and help up the sword in front of her. The greyish orc blade shimmered in the dull light.

"Not unexpected! What use the undead for children? For perpetuating the tribe? For stories, songs and legends? And so a whole culture lost. Extinction! All because of these Sharites! And so the guardian spirits have nothing to watch over. Hear me!"

She then raised her voice to the sky. "I swear by all that is holy about home and hearth, by all that is good about protecting and raising the young ones, by all that is righteous about life itself, that I will crush these Sharites and end their predations."

"Well, that oath should have caught the attention of a few dozen deities" remarked Neon sarcastically. "They should be now watching closely. Lucky us."

"I actually feel sorry for the Sharites" continued Kilzadi, in the same vein. "They have aroused her bloodthirstiness. Gross error. We all know what happens when she becomes bloodthirsty. Those Shar worshipers are now doomed."

Risca, Guifoon in hand, moved to stand beside Swan. "Wee's with me gurl. Let's go kill the Shar-ite tees."

Wordlessly, Okul stepped up and planted the butt of his spear in the sand in front of her. The significance was obvious. He offered her his service. War and protection. She would lead, he would follow. His glare challenged the others to do the same.

Gathar and Steersk did not understand the words. But it was apparent they comprehended the emotions of the situation. Gathar hissed out a few words. Then he and Steersk came to flank Swan, one on each side.

"He said they will always stand with the Mother Protector" translated Kilzadi.

Neon had been staring at Swan, as if seeing a new aspect of her. "I'm here to rescue Osier. I also vowed to avenge Aleena right to the top. We know these Sharites are involved. These quests are not incompatible. I will help you Cygni."

Kilzadi had a big smile on his face. "Of course I will help. I aim to save your life many times over, enabling you to be more and more…grateful. Who knows? Your gratefulness may extend well beyond tongue kisses". He licked his lips and winked. Can't wait."

These remarks induced a snarl from Okul. "Dragon boy is still acting crazy. Someone should do something soon. Or I may have to."

"Well, let's make it unanimous then" put in Gideon. "None of these Shar followers will be left alive once we depart this plane. I make this promise to you all."

The Seekers' affirmation swelled Swan's heart. Shameless tears slid down her face. "Oh my friends. My dearest comrades. There is no need for you all to…"

"Oh stifle it Swan" ordered Gideon." As if we would let you face them alone. We are one squad. We stick up for each other. We are wasting time. We have to finish up here in this village. Clean out any remaining shadowscales and Shar worshipers before we head back to the boat. Its getting late and we must secure our rear so to speak. We are done here. Take the point Swan. Lead us out.

The commanding tone kicked in Swan's military training. Reflexively she replied "Yes sir. Okul, back me. Let's move." They stated off.

Kilzadi, grinning, whispered to Neon as the lizard men trailed after Okul." Too soon. I wanted to help secure her rear. Just as Gideon said we should do."

Neon grinned back. "Be careful. Knowing our Swannie, she may just secure yours. With her all purpose knife."

Kilzadi chuckled. "No. I think she is starting to like me better. What do you think?

"Like you, then yes. Like you that way? Don't delude yourself." Neon laughed back. "Of course, I may be wrong. So go ahead, mighty mage of lechery. You have nothing to lose except your anus." More chuckling as they prepare to follow Risca and Gideon out of the chamber.

"Wonderful girl, our Swan. Many, ah, attributes. I have wondered if she is unique or if that's how they are grown in Deepingdale? The 'we rule ourselves' syndrome. Yes, must check out their female fauna, especially now that Gwenect is recovering there. Perhaps Swan will accompany me? "Ah yes. Buy me a few rounds and I'll describe the best part of my spirit vision during the draconic ritual. You're the type to appreciate the …er… delicacy. Gwenect and Swan.

"Now I am truly intrigued. Sounds like a good story. Well worth the price of a few drinks." More chuckles.

Unexpectedly, Kilzadi became serious. "You know Neon, had we bantered thus in front of Okul, there is a good chance he would have attacked us, either verbally or physically. Surely you have noticed dragon boy's weird behaviour lately. Since the Tomb of Chanis. Something has to be done. Okul is becoming more unpredictable and dangerous. Gideon must be aware, no?"

Neon answered back, just as serious. "Gideon knows and has planned to normalize Okul's behaviour. He is wise enough to know it is affecting our group cohesion. Come on. Let us catch up. They will need us to save their butts again. My turn to save Swan's. You get to save Okul's."

"Ha, ha. You are so funny-not!"

Swan reached the point where the pathway met the entrance to the great chamber. Okul and the lizard men a step behind. Peering in, she could see the vast size of this area. The ceiling was twice as high as the rest of the warren.

To her right was a pool of dark stagnant marsh water, from which a wicker fence and gate extended forming a south wall. On the opposite side of where she stood, ran an identical wicker gate, forming an east wall. The far north end held a wicker gate. The large chamber itself was cold, dark and shadowy. With her improved vision, she could make out a large wicker cage. Something seemed to be moving inside it, but she could not make it out. The room could easily be hiding many dozen shadowscales in its shadowy darkness. Of course, it could easily hide her as well.

She turned to look back. Risca and Gideon were a few steps behind Gathar and Steersk. Beyond them, just now coming to a halt were Neon and Kilzadi.

"I'm going in", she informed Okul. "Count to ten and then lead the others in. Head for the opposite side of the chamber. Understood?"

"I do not like the fact that you will be alone and unprotected" retorted back the dragon born. Perhaps I should…"

"No!" she responded in an abrupt tone. Then her voice softened. "Okul, I have my role in the Seekers and you have yours. I know you have my welfare at heart. But we must do what is best for the squad. I promise you that we will talk later and discuss all this. For now, trust me, and do as I say." She laid her hand on his neck scales and soothingly stroked them.

The warrior looked at her intently. "For now, as you say." Then almost as an afterthought, "Please, be careful." She smiled then and with one last stroke, turned and vanished silently into the shadows.

Ten breaths later, Okul led the others in. Half way across, the attack began.

Shadowscales emerged from the darkness, yelling and waving war clubs. They charged straight at Okul. Off to one side appeared the largest shadowscale ever encountered. It was wider, taller and stronger than the others. Muscles rippled under breastplate armour as it swung a huge great sword. A belt of skulls wrapped its waist. It could only have been the tribal war leader.

At the sight of this beast, Gathar screeched out a challenge, war chief to war chief. A challenge that promised vengeance. The over-sized shadowscale roared back. They rushed each other. Steersk, screeching his own challenge, followed to aid Gathar.

Further back, more shadowscales emerged. They rushed at the priest and the sorcerer. Two more worked at the wicker cage, opening its door. There was a sonic blast, deafening and ear pounding, as something pony sized scuttled out

The creature that emerged was one of the strangest beetles that Risca had ever seen. Armour like carapace covered its thin body. It was jet black except for its red head. The top of the head contained a trumpet like organ from which sonic blasts originated Two large claws emerged from it s thorax, snapping open and close as it attacked. Razor sharp mandibles clanged together

"A bug! A blasted beetle bug! I'm the best for that. Lots of experience." With a cry of 'Its Clobbering Time!' the dwarf charged the giant insect.

Neon glanced around. The most dangerous enemies seemed to be the chieftain and the beetle. The chieftain was being opposed by the two lizard men. Only Risca was engaging the beetle. Kilzadi was beginning a spell. Gideon had moved up to stand by Okul. Swan was nowhere to be seen. Looking at the high walls and noting how easy they would be to climb, a plan fomented in his mind. "Time to help my favourite student."

Okul entered battle mode,concentrating on the attacking shadowscales. The sooner he destroyed them the sooner Swan would be safe. . He was vaguely aware of Gideon coming up beside him; vaguely aware of Gideon stating that it was time to destroy these abominations as opposed to just turning them away

Several of them were charging. Two veered off to attack Gideon. One came into striking range of his spear. "Tempus" he shouted, lunging with the spear, to impale. It was at this point that the naga's curse manifested.

Okul suddenly went all weak. His strength left him. His spear fell as his armour weight dropped him to his knees. He was helpless, too weak to even rise. The oncoming shadowscale howled in victory as it raised its large club, ready to crush the dragon born's skull.

Even in his powerless condition, Okul was a true soldier of Tempus. There was no fear of his impending demise, just a snarl of defiance; a readiness to keep fighting right to the end.

Gideon saw Okul fall. But at the same time he was engaged. "Kossuth`! Smite this blasphemy"! His crystal mace glowed intense red as it struck. The rushing shadowscale bellowed out its agony as it flamed for an instant and then blew apart. There was no time to aid Okul as the next shadowscale jumped in front of the priest.

With no warning an arrow whistled out of the shadows. The shadowscale, looming over Okul, had its head burst open as the arrow thundered through it. A second arrow did the same to the following undead lizard man

At the same time there was another flash of red. Gideon had exploded another undead. The immediate area was now clear of the shadowscales.

Swan emerged running from the shadows, rearming her bow. "Gideon, Okul is down. Help him!"

The priest was already bending over the warrior, even as the scout arrived.

"Okul, where is the wound?" he asked, attempting to support the warrior.

"No wound", he gasped back. Feel weak. I seem to have no strength. Cannot lift my arms. Cannot support myself. Oh, Swan. I failed my god and you."

"Later Okul. We'll talk later. Can you help him Gideon?"

"I can. But it will be temporary. I sense he has been cursed. There is no time now to remove it. I will need to beseech Kossuth for that ability. In the meantime…Mighty Kossuth, Lord of the Flame, I pray, lend some of your fiery strength to this warrior. Your enemies are his enemies. Enable him to destroy them."

As the priest prayed, Okul's body became enveloped in a warm, soothing flame. He felt muscles tightening, strength returning; not the dragon's strength that was his birthright, but more the strength of an irate bull. Still it was more than sufficient to allow him to once again grip his weapons and enter combat.

"My humblest thanks to you and your god, Gideon. I am not worthy. Now let us finish this, for all time." The three Seekers then scanned the situation.

Kilzadi finished his casting. With an explosive bang, hot inferno flames materialized around the approaching shadowscale. It had no time to cry out. In a brief moment, the intense heat incinerated it. The remains release a black thick offensive smoke.

"See, that's how it's done…" he turned to Neon, only to see the half elf's boots vanish into the shadows up the wall.

"Fine then. Don't watch. I don't need an audience."

Four more shadowscales came rushing out of the darkness.

"Let's get them all at once. Then there may be time to help the others, well Swannie anyway. Make her grateful once again. Oh, yum, yum. I can taste her now. Sweet peach above and juicy cherry below." Such were the lecher's thoughts.

The sorcerer's draconic tattoos flared blue as his quick spell released a ball of flame. It trailed fire towards the undead lizard men. Reaching them, it exploded in a hellish conflagration. These shadowscales did have time to scream as they were vaporized. Kilzadi then scanned the situation.

Risca had ignored the sonic blasts emanating from the beetle's horn-like protuberance. He just grit his teeth, ignored the unsettling vibrations, shouted battle cries and continued charging. His dwarven stubbornness kept him on course. They met with a clash.

The dwarf shield pushed one attacking claw aside, then swept down, its razor edge slicing through an insectoid leg. "That will hold it in place."

At the same time, he swung Guifoon to slice across, cutting off the opposite claw. The bug screeched in pain. But these manoeuvres left him exposed to the mandibles. They quickly closed around his waist. Only his breast plate prevented more damage. It saved his ribs as the mandibles crushing pressure caused a deep groove in the armour. Only one rib cracked.

Absorbing the pain, Guifoon lashed out. A mandible was cut off. The shield held off the other claw as Guifoon sliced off the other mandible on the back swing. But not before it gouged a deep groove across his cheek. "Call me Ska'arr'ed."

The beetle squealed in agony. It began to rear as if to fall and crush the dwarf. A flask, tossed out of the gloom above, smashed against the giant insect's head. The odour of acid dissolving flesh was noticeable as it ate through the carapace. The beetle squealed in pain once again.

Neon dropped out of the unseen ceiling to straddle the beetle's neck. His rapier drove deep into the vermin's eye. It squealed a third time as fluids jetted out. "Hey Risca! Did you miss your teacher? Its lesson time!"

"Don't need lessons in killing bugs! And don't steal my kill!"

The keen edge of Guifoon, powered by the dwarf's immense muscles, bisected the beetle's head lengthwise, stopping just short of Neon's manhood.

"Watch out! Careful! That's a precious jewel case you nearly cut open." These words were spoken as the rogue deftly leaped off the insect as it collapsed lifeless onto the floor.

Risca did not answer right away as he was too engaged in quaffing a potent healing potion. He could feel his rib repairing itself as his face wound closed.

"My kill! A lesson for you, red elf. Help me, yes, but stay out of the way. Next time I may not manage to halt my death blow in front of the 'jewel bag'."

"Then there will be many sad and forlorn maidens and matrons throughout the lands of Faerun. All eager to avenge their loss on one miserable dwarf."

"As there will be countless husbands, fathers and suitors, all raising cups to a certain dwarf's health and continued long life."

They both were chuckling as they scanned the situation.

The undead war chief's size, armour and weapons compensated him against his two opponents. The three lizard men each showed signs of the contest. Gathar and Steersk's tough hides show slashes and cuts where the undead's sword had struck.

The undead's breastplate showed large dents and holes from club and spear. The three snarled as they fought. There would be no quarter asked for or given. One fought because it was a creature of Shadow. Two fought to protect their tribe and for vengeance.

A hard blow knocked Gathar to his knees. The wound gushed green blood. With a growl, he tried to stand. The undead lifted its great sword for the killing blow. Several things occurred practically simultaneously.

Steersk's hardwood club hit the undead chief in the chest. He was sent staggering backwards. As he regained his balance, Risca's throwing axe struck its shoulder, again throwing it off balance.

With a snarl of rage and pain, it recovered and drew up its sword. Mindlessly, all it desired was the death of Gathar. Swan's arrow then hit, again knocking it back, so that the sword missed on its swing. Now with a howl of determination, it again leaped to behead Gathar.

Kilzadi had watched as Gathar went down. He observed the actions of the undead chieftain. Immediately he cast another fire burst spell. He incanted his last syllable just as Swan's arrow struck. An instant later, intense flames conjured around the chieftain. It screamed as it burned, turned into oily, black goo. All was now quiet. The chamber now smelled like gagging black tar.

The Seekers all reached the lizard men at about the same time. Swan immediately applied her healing wand to Gathar`s major wound. Soon the clean smell of mint and pine filled the area, overcoming the tarry stench. Gideon made sure that all the others were fine; in no need of healing.

As Swan healed him, Gathar hissed out words.

"He is thanking the Tribal Mother Protector, that's you Swan, for her restorative abilities. Apparently Semuanya is working through you to strengthen and unite the tribes. O.K. Whatever. He is going on again regarding how honoured he is, how you are the favoured of many deities yada, yada, yada."

Kilzadi had come to stand beside her and translated the draconic. Okul had withdrawn at his approach and stepped into the shadows, muttering to himself.

"I am really going to have to learn to speak draconic", said Swan as she worked. "It seems like such a useful language, as so many lizard kind beings know it. And especially if I am supposed to their Mother Protector."

"An excellent idea, Swannie. I could teach it to you, you know. Make you expert in the use of the draconic, ah, tongue. With my tutelage, and your quick study, you will, even more so than now, become a tongue expert. All I need from you is an oath to your god, that you will follow all my instructions without question or argument, no matter how unrelated they may seem, to you that is, to learning a language. Are we agreed then?"

Swan helped Gathar to his feet and turned to face the sorcerer. A smile on her face, blue eyes sparkling, she poked a finger into his chest. Hard. His wince indicated that it hurt.

"Not being a silly twit, I think that I will get Gathar and Steersk to tutor me. After all, they will be honoured to help their Mother Protector. Without seeking extraneous rewards.

"I keep tying, Swan. I keep trying", he answered rubbing at his chest.

Risca and Neon had been standing off from the others. While the dwarf was convincing Gideon that he was fine, needed no hot pepper healing, Neon was on guard, searching into the shadows, ensuring that there were no more shadowscales to surprise them. All his senses were on maximum function. His keen hearing detected what seemed to be voices.

"Listen! Quiet everyone", he ordered. Silence ensued. "Anyone else hear that? Sounds like draconic, coming from over there." He pointed to the north east. "Risca with me. Cover us."

The Seekers galvanized into action. Conversations stopped, weapons were readied. A few steps behind the half-elf and dwarf were Swan and the lizard men.

She hand signalled to Neon. "Careful. Check traps. Butt covered."

He signalled back "Watch butt. Close up. No touch. Play later."

They reached the wicker gate. Neon searched carefully. Finding nothing he motioned to Risca. The dwarf heaved at the gate, which then ripped open. The two entered. There was another wicker gate east to their right. A pathway extended west, to the left. Their current path continued north into the gloom.

There was definitely draconic being spoken to their right. The rogue signalled again. "Will check. Cover." Then he silently disappeared into the shadows. The ranger-scout followed after three heartbeats.

Swan watched Neon as he approached the wicker gate and peer in. In a short time he motioned her over. Arriving, he whispered "More prisoners. Let's get back and report."

Peering in as well, she could make out three more lizard men in a deep pit. They were hissing and squealing at each other. Trapped and obviously prisoners. The two Seekers returned to the group and explained the situation.

"Right then", planned out Gideon. "We'll do as Neon has suggested. He and Risca will continue along the north path. Swan, you and Okul will take the west branch. Kilzadi and I will take the lizard men to the prisoners. Find out what happened. Don't go too far. Ready?"

A terse, sharp growl interrupted. Not Gathar or Steersk, but Okul's.

"No. A lizard man comes with me and Swan!" His tone brooked no disagreement.

Gideon's eyebrows rose. For a moment there was silence. Then, with a glance at Swan that spoke volumes, he replied. "Fine then. Take Steersk. We will take Gathar to the other prisoners.

And so they set out. They split up at the prisoner pit. Swan led Okul and Steersk. The east passage widen into an older warren space. Muddy and wet, the outside swamp was encroaching. There was an odour of decayed wood and marsh gas. The area was unused. Swan noticed old footprints, but nothing recent. In a short time they reached the opposite side.

"Nothing here. We go back", she ordered. A shake of her head motioned Steersk to take lead. She fell in step with Okul.

"So what was all that about? Why did you insist that a lizard man accompany us?"

Gold flecked eyes looked at her abashed, but defiant. He spoke in anger. "I am ashamed. I failed my god and I failed you. Being cursed, I cannot protect you! I cannot protect myself! I cannot be alone with you; you need a protector. The lizard folk would lay down their lives for you."

Swan flashed of ire. "Do you not realize how you insult me? Why should I need 'protection' more than any other one of us? Sensing her anger, Steersk moved to interpose himself between the two Seekers. Throaty bass growls emanated as he menaced Okul.

The brown-haired scout gripped the lizard humanoid's wrist. Her gestures and voice calmed him. "I really must learn draconic." "Gideon said he would remove the curse. Are you so chauvinistic that you cannot accept MY protection for a short time?

The towering dragon's son ignored Steersk. He concentrated solely on Swan. He spoke softly, contritely.

"My mind knows all that you say is true. But my heart wants to ensure that no harm comes to you. As much as I struggle, my heart overrules my mind. As much as I strive against it, it dominates. And so I insult the one I cherish. All I can do is ask forgiveness."

Swan's fingers drummed nervously against her hip. Okul's words indicated his internal war was nearing a crisis. "My, oh my. Must do something to resolve this sooner than I had planned. But how, here, when?" "We will talk on this later. There is no time now. Agreed?" A slight nod. "Good. Let's return now."

Soon they reached the others. Neon and Risca had already returned and were conferring with Gideon. Kilzadi and Gathar were finishing tending to the three prisoners. Steersk spying them, made an 'urrsskk' sound. He looked at Swan, as if asking permission. A slight nod of her head sent him rushing towards them. Many draconic words were spoken between them. The lizard folk were all hissing and patting each other.

Gideon turned to face her. A quickly raised eyebrow told Swan that he was aware some interaction had occurred. "Report please." Short, succinct and formal. No need to raise Okul's irrational jealousy.

"There is nothing along the east branch. It has not been used in awhile and the swamp is creeping in."

Gideon nodded. "No surprise. Neon reports the north passage just ends out into the swamp. There is nothing here. We will backtrack and check out that west side area. Then we will determine the next course."

Swan glanced towards the lizard folk. "The prisoners?"

" More Sharptooths. They were to be converted into shadowscales. They need food and healing. They told us that the slave ship has just returned from taking the hairy ones to 'the stars'. We have no idea what that means. Let's collect them and get going."

They retreated south, back to the last battle site. The area still stunk of tar, blood and death. At the west bamboo gate they halted. It was pitch black on the other side. With no light, no matter how faint, even the Seekers with the enhanced low light vision could not penetrate the darkness.

"Risca-bring up another dark oil lamp here. Let's take a look." The dwarven warrior moved up and struck another lamp. There was a universal group gasp as the light betrayed the contents on the other side.

The section itself roughed out a 20' x 20' area. It contained the usual swampy encroachment, wood and mud walls and floor. The center north wall contained a gate which looked upon the prison pit area that held the prisoners. All along the floor was strewn thousands of gold and silver coins. The walls were covered in pelts, reptilian, amphibian and mammalian. Some recognizable, most not. Scattered haphazardly amongst the coins were golden and silver cups, saucers, and plates. Half buried in the muck were scroll cases, wands, shields and weapons. Most were broken and decayed, but some still appeared useable.

Kilzadi spat out a word of magic. "Bonanza! Lots of good stuff" he grinned greedily.

Wasting no time, Neon and Risca soon had the entrance gate taken down. The Seekers milled through the area, collecting coins and other valuable items. Kilzadi was selecting those that radiated magic.

"Hey Swannie, this seems to be for you." He reached down to pull up a semi-submerged scabbard. "Ouch! It's really cold!! Here catch." He hurled it at the scout.

Swan easily caught the scabbard. Despite her new cold resistance, she could feel the cold being released. Not as pain as did Kilzadi, but as a soothing sensation. The scabbard seemed to be white dragon hide. It contained a short sword, whose handle was smooth, white ivory with an ivory ball pommel. Unsheathing the sword revealed blue tinged white steel, with the appearance of extreme hard ice. The blade's cutting edges were razor thin and sharp. It thickened gradually approaching the center. The length of the blade tapered to a sharp point. The sword was finely balanced and the handle felt suited to her. The air around the blade dropped in temperature. Frost formed along its length. Swan felt an instant rapport with the weapon, as she took practice swings with it.

She gave out a small short laugh. She addressed the sword. "I like you girl. I hope you like me as much. I sense your naughtiness. You want to kiss freeze them. Coldkiss. I will call you Coldkiss. And I'll let you freeze as many Sharites and their minions as you want." At these last words, which were spoken in determination and anger, the air grew even colder and more frost formed.

Swan barked out another laugh. "Now Coldkiss, I want you to meet another friend of mine. His name is Gutripper. He has not had much experience with ladies, so he will be shy and unsure of himself. He is more of a slash 'em up and rip 'em apart kind of guy. Little finesse, just crude basics. But he saved me many times. I trust him unconditionally. So I want you to promise to be gentle with him and no teasing. All right? Good."

She drew out Gutripper and placed the dark grey cold iron blade against the shiny frost blade. The grey serrated edge contrasted nicely with the ice silver smooth edge.

"There. Say hello to each other." A short pause. "Yes, I'm glad the two of you like each other. The three of us, along with Granpar's bow, are going to be a Scourge against the Sharites." She clanged the swords together.

Sheathing them , she began to readjust her belt hitches so that Gutripper rode her right hip low, while Coldkiss rode the left high.

"Ah Swan, are you sure you're feeling well? Not too much stress?" Neon's voice spoke from behind.

She turned to face the red-haired half elf. He stood, head half cocked, staring intently. He had been gathering up gold coins, some still in hand.

The sight of the lean, handsome rogue, relaxed, but full of concern, brought a smile of pleasure to her face.

"Ninniach. What do you mean? I feel fine."

"Cygni-you were having a conversation with your swords. Not only that, you were introducing them to each other. That is not fine. Only for Risca, that is fine."

She grinned at him. "Father always said 'treat your weapons as your true friends and they will fight for you as true friends ought'.

He returned the grin. "Treating and caring for your weapons is one thing, but giving them names and personalities is a Risca thing. Not something one does sanely."

"Heys, red elf, talking about me again, to me gurl?" Risca called out as he approached them. "Listen, Gideon wants to call a council in ten minutes, but, gurl, he wants your help with the prisoners now.

He grinned at Swan. "Oh, before ya go, Guifoon and Black Blade want to meet ya new squirrel sticker. Is that allowed?"

With an even broader grin, she responded. "Of course. But don't call her a squirrel sticker. She will be offended. Her name is Coldkiss." She unsheathed the frost blade. Risca placed his battle axe and long sword against it.

"Guifoon likes her. Says she is a good fighter and an intil... intilet


"Yes, that's it. Black Blade is in awe of her power."

"She says she has much to learn from both of them. She hopes that they will find time to teach her."

Neon rolled his eyes. "I almost understood all that. I must be approaching insanity as well." He turned to leave.

"Hey, red elf. Where ya headed?"

"My rapier has a hot date with Okul's spear", he called back.

"Well, that should be interesting, seeing as they are both boys."

The rogue just shook his head and kept walking. Swan giggled.

"Thanks for playing along dear Risca."

Confusion swept across Risca's face. "Playing along? What ya mean playing along?"

This caused Swan to giggle even louder. She threw an arm around her dwarf friend hugging him. This was followed by a quick kiss on his cheek "Oh Risca. You are so dear to me. Never mind. Come on. Let us go see what Gideon wants." She led the embarrassed but still puzzled dwarf to where the priest was waiting.

"Ah, there you are, Swan" declared Gideon. "Please check up on the lizard folk. I'm going to beseech Kossuth for advice and put on some tea. We will discuss strategy while the kettle boils. By that time the rest of them should be finished their treasure hunt."

Soon all were gathered around. The lizard folk preferred their tea cold, while the others wanted it hot. One touch of Coldkiss on a hot tea mug and everyone could have want they wished. To the lizard men, this simple action by Swan just reinforced the idea that she was concerned for their welfare, something a Tribal Mother Protector would naturally do.

Gideon addressed Kilzadi. "So what have we found here?"

"Well, I'll have a final tally of the coins soon, and I think we should take some of those pelts, especially the more strange ones. We found several gold and silver plates and cups. As far as magical items are concerned, we have two scrolls, a wand, and a suit of studded leather and, of course, Swan's new sword."

"O.K. then. We rest here. We need to eat and we are almost out of magic. This place is easy to defend. We set up a watch schedule. Tomorrow, we finish checking out these burrows and then head back to the keep and the boat. Questions? No? Let's do it Seekers."

Eventually all was done and things had quieted. Kilzadi had explained to the lizard men what was going to happen. Everyone had eaten, watches were set and they were getting down to rest.

Swan, wrapped in her winter blanket, found herself searching out Okul. He was by himself in one of the dark corners, forlornly staring into the darkness.

"Okul, we share the last watch together", she whispered to him.

He nodded, still staring out. She gave a sigh of exasperation.

"May I sit with you? We have much to discuss. Now seems to be a good time."

That got his attention. He turned his head to look at her. Forgive me Swan. Yes of course. Please sit."

She accommodated herself by sitting next to him, close enough that their shoulders touched.

"Its not working, is it, this 'let's keep our distance and behave as brother and sister' is it? We both know that we cannot continue like this. It's affecting the Seeker bonding and more importantly, affecting our friendship. It was so much better before. The others are concerned."

"Oh Swan, I know." He clenched and unclenched his hands. "My reason says treat her as before and I want to, except that something burns inside me. When, I see you, I flame with desire, when I see you with other men, I erupt with jealously. I know it is not right, but I cannot seem to control myself. I know that it disappoints you. I know the others are becoming irritated. I truly want it to be as it was. I do not know what the matter with me is. It started recently. I have this intense need to protect you; to show my battle powers to you and I do not know why." He put his head down between his knees, as if he could not bear to look at her.

At this confession, the scout reached out and gently stroked at his head and neck scales. Okul felt warmer than she remembered. She did not know at puberty, not only did half gold dragons become sexually fixated, but their developing fire breathing system, raised their body temperature.

"Don't fret. We will get through this together. I'm not angry. We will resolve it. I know you are trying." It pained her to see this magnificent, powerful warrior in such an anxious state. It pained her because she had deep feelings for him.

He lifted his head to stare at her. Eyes, more golden than before probed into her sky blue ones. She could feel herself responding. She knew she had just flushed. Gods, he felt so good under her hands. She felt able to dive into the golden pool that was his eyes. She recalled Neon's advice. Nothing to lose, much to gain.

"You are not angry with me? Not disappointed?" he asked timidly.

"What? No, we will find a solution. We will put matters right." She yawned and snuggled herself deeper into his broad chest. "I'm so tired. Ummm! Nice and cozy and warm" she muttered quietly. "Hold me, please."

Okul carefully enclosed her inside his hefty biceps. "What will the others…" he began huskily into her ear.

"Let them get their own half dragon blanket warmer" was the sleepy reply.

He could not stop himself. Having her so close removed any rational thought. He closed his eyes and began murmuring the Growl of Arousal into her ear.

Swan could sense tingles coming in waves through her loins. Her breathing began to quicken. "No! Stop that!" She lashed out and rapped his head. Hard!"

The shock opened his eyes. He found her looking at him with a mixture of concern and pique.

"Swan, Swan, I am no good. I…"

"Okul, just be quiet. I am not angry. This is not the right time or place. That's all. Trust me. A girl knows about these things. Now, please, I am so tired. Let's just go to sleep. Show me your control. Hold me, warm me, and just go to sleep." So saying, she snuggled once again into him. Soon she slept.

Okul looked around. All the others were asleep except for Kilzadi who had first watch. Two of the lizard men were also awake. It was dark and getting colder. He looked down at the sleeping scout. Gods, but she was beautiful. A natural, wholesome beauty. And she seemed to like him Also a true warrior. And she seemed to like him. Her scent was intoxicating. And she seemed to like him. He took a deep breath to inhale her essence deep into his lungs. He felt himself hardening.

"No! Control. Must prove my control! I must pass this test! He grit his teeth and closed his eyes. He began to remember his grandfather and other bits of his past life before the Seekers. He began to relax and soon, he too slept.

That night, when the Seekers slept, all had Dreams of Darkness.

Risca found himself in the White Hart Inn. Oddly, no one seemed to notice he was there. Tending bar, Swan's uncle, Holdfast Harpenshield, completely ignored him when he asked for ale. Even shouting had no effect. And when he tried to grap a mug, he did not seem able to clutch it. It was as if he was invisible, intangible and silent to the rest of the patrons. But he could see and hear them just fine.

Just then, he thought he heard his name mentioned. As well, a truly offensive odour filled up the pub room.

Looking around, he spotted the Sembian cloth merchant Brechtu and his body guard, Olef. He wandered to their table, just as Olef was replying.

"Pee-Hew-put it away. It smells almost as bad as that flea-ridden dwarf Risca"

"Speaking of which, what's your interest in that barbarous oaf anyways"

Risca could feel his rage mounting at these words. "Oaf am I? Well this oaf is going to knock your block off." But before he could take any action, Brechtu's reply stopped him short.

"It never hurts to curry favour where you can", the merchant began." Our success may depend upon that 'barbarous oaf' as you call him"

"Success? What success? And why would it depend on him? And what did they smell?" Risca opened his mouth to speak, but just then the whole tavern began to shake violently. As it shook, it began to fade away.

He opened his eyes to find a blue dragon leaning over him and shaking on his arm. The shock made him gasp and reach for a weapon. As his eyes adjusted, he realizes he was staring up at Kilzadi's tattooed draconic visage.

"Finally awake", spoke the sorcerer. "Your watch. All seems quiet."

"Ah, now I know where the bad smell came from" answered the dwarf in relief as he got up and stretched.

"What are you talking about? Risca, people still have a hard time understanding you."

"It's nothing. Sleep and rest easy, knowing now I guard you."

"I'll rest easy knowing that Gathar is also on watch." With that and a grimace that made him resemble a snarling dragon, Kilzadi headed for his bedroll.

With one last yawn, Risca looked around. All did seem quiet. The Seekers were comfortably in dreamland. His acute vision picked out Swan and Okul in a dark corner. His gurl lay, oh, so peacefully snuggled inside the embrace of the soldier of Tempus. Okul's posture simulated a cocoon protecting a pupa. "Interesting." He walked off to sit with Gathar.

Neon walked in the Velarswood. It was a clear bright day. The smell of forest brought back memories of his childhood. Many were the times that Osier would bring him here for week-end escapes from his studies and training.

"Good for the elven half of your soul", the wise gnome would explain. "Get in touch with those ancient roots from your mother's side. Now set up a camp. After we'll see how adept you are at hiding and moving quietly in the woods." Then he would sit back and light up his pipe, while the young half-elf laboured frantically to pitch a tent, tend to the pack mules and make a campfire, prepare a meal.. All good skills that should be practiced regularly the gnome would say. In the evenings, the gnome would regale him with tales of his adventures, magic, and thievery; even stories about his mother, Ellarian Dawnhorn, and his father, Rasco Wilde, in their inseparable, younger days.

He had almost forgotten how much he used to enjoy those outings; so peaceful, so restful. Perhaps, when this was all over, Osier rescued, Aleena well avenged, he would take Jhaer on a camping trip. One that would also involve boating down a river. If she was reluctant to 'rough it, or too busy, then perhaps he would take Cygni. A smile widened his face. Perhaps he would ask both.

It was then that he heard the sound of hoofs galloping towards him. He quickly hid himself in the shrubbery. One horse, one pony, he thought. He was correct.

The sight that greeted his eyes, as the animals emerged along a road towards Harrowdale, almost made him lose restraint and laugh out loud.

Strapped onto the back of the horse, naked, bound and gagged was his old 'friend', the notorious Coobert Draftworth, eyes bulging in terror as the horse galloped by uncontrolled. Neon took in great pleasure in observing Coobert's bare rump slam down hard on the horse's back, only to rise again and repeat the process. Oooch- how that must hurt. Good!

Trailing a bit behind on a pony, but in the same predicament was another old 'friend', the gnome lowlife, Norry Waywrocket. Good riddance to both of you.

He was set to step out of hiding, when his keen ears picked up whispering. In drow! Moving silently and hiding in the brush, he approached the voices. He was so close now; he could make out every word. Noiselessly he parted branches to better see.

There standing by the side of the road, staring at the quickly disappearing equines and their riders, were two drow, male and a female. He recognized them both.

The male was Anuth, brother to Gwenect. It was he who had stabbed her nearly to death, turning to the dark side.

The female was the drow queen, she who had haunted his dreams before, - regal, self assured, and most dangerous. Full ruby red lips, and dark emerald eyes, on a patrician face, contrasted long flowing, snow white hair, thick and luxurious bounded in a long pony tail. Form fitting tight black full leather armour, studded with milky pearls, disclosed a taut, upright and ample bosom. Upon her head rested a small gold crown inset with a colourful array of spider shaped gems. A spider headed mace hung on one hip. A whip, ending in a snake coiled itself around one shoulder. Neon could actually make out the fanged mouth and the eyes on the snake. She was easily the most beautiful female he had ever seen, and he had known many beautiful women.

But she was also a killer. It was she that he remembered leading her drow hordes against Harrowdale, assaulting his mother and Osier, slaughtering all who stood in her way. He listened carefully.

"Shall we add them to our legions of darkness, my Lady?" Anuth queried, referring to Coobert and Norry.

"No", she proclaimed "When the time comes to strike, those bumbling fools can die along with all the others. The time will be soon. All is falling into place."

She then turned to stare directly at Neon's hiding place. A cruel smile broke on her face. She slowly stroked the whip handle as she ran her tongue slowly around her lips." Of course, there will be no need to eliminate all our enemies. Some of the more exotic ones, we may decide to keep and use as…pets." She began to walk towards him.

Neon turned to run. Retreat seemed most appropriate. He knew he was not ready to engage her. He took one step and the ground began to shake violently. He nearly lost his footing, but could not seem to run. He could sense her getting closer and closer. He could hear the hissing of the snake whip. The shaking continued, increasing and increasing. She was almost on top of him, whip raised to strike. He still could not move. The whip descended loudly, hissing and, face to face with the snake head, fangs bared, dripping venom…

He opened his eyes. Shaking him violently, face looming into his, was Risca. "Hey, red elf, wake up, wake up. Yas having a bad dream, methinks? Anyway, time for your watch."

"Risca, you have no idea how beautiful your face looks right now No fangs, no poison. Not the usual beautiful face that I am accustomed to waking up to, but for here and now, I'll take it."

Risca grinned, "I's like you too, Neon, but not that way. Not that desperate yet. Ha, ha. Anyway, it's still your watch. Well yours and Steersk's. Enjoy." The dwarf headed back to his sleeping bag.

Neon arose and shook his head Need to think on that dream. He headed for the little campfire.

Gideon whistled as he neared the little cottage. A fishing rod was held in one hand, while the other contained a basket full of the morning's catch. Four large trout. Yes, slow pan fried fish for supper tonight. He loved these lazy hazy days of summer. No obligations, no responsibilities. Just himself and her. She was most likely tending her little garden, waiting to see what he brought. What would he do without her? She was so much a part of his life now.

As he rounded the bend near the cottage, he heard rustling in the woods all around him. Stepping out to block his path was a Thayan Knight in full battle armour. Immediately appearing and standing slightly behind him was a Red Wizard. Before he could react, another similar pair stepped out behind him, blocking any retreat.

As he watched, he could see groups of knights and wizards, emerging to surround the little stone cottage.

Realization produced a coldness that moved up and down his body. "NO! They have found us! They know about her!"

Gideon was not aware that he had let go of the fishing rod and basket. He was not aware that he screamed defiance and rushed at the knight. He was unaware that he had begun to invoke a prayer to Kossuth. All that he was aware was that he had to reach her and protect her from harm. Then find an escape.

Before the prayer was finished, before his hands could push the knight out of his way, a shield smashed into the back of his head, knocking him to the ground. As he struggled to rise, another blow struck him in the gut, knocking the air out of his lungs.

He lay gasping. Then the sky was blocked by a Red Wizard face, staring down at him.

The knights bound and gagged him. When he was finally helpless, the wizard spoke.

"Fear not, fire priest. We are not here to harm you." Then with a nasty grin, "We are here to… uhmmm…offer you a business partnership. All we request is your full cooperation. Should you cooperate, then all will prosper. Fail to do so and well…" here the wizard glanced at the cottage, where several of the invading Thayans had already entered. Trashes and crashes could be heard, followed by a scream. "…others dear to you may come to harm." The grin vanished. The wizard's face turned hard. "Do we understand each other, priest? Good!"

Gideon began to tremble with anger and helplessness. They threatened her! He must act! The trembling became more violent. His whole body started to shake uncontrollably as he strained against the bindings. So uncontrollably that he…opened his eyes!

Neon was kneeling over him, shaking him roughly. "Gideon", the rogue asked, "Are you awake now? I had to really shake you. Are you all right?"

The cleric nodded; his dream vision slowly withdrawing. "Yes, I'm fine now. My turn to watch?"

Neon nodded back. "All is quiet. You're sure you're O.K.?

"Yes, yes. Go get more rest. I'll take over."

"O.K. then." Neon retreated to his sleeping bag.

Gideon moved to sit by the little fire. He did not watch alone, as Kossuth was always with him. And he had much to discuss with his deity.

CLANG! The hard sound of metal striking metal resounded throughout the practise yard. CLANG! Okul's spear point deflected Kurud's sword thrust. CRACK! Kurud's shield blocked Okul's immediate counter strike. Both men circled each other warily, silently parrying, feinting, and trying to produce that opening that one chance needed to make the 'kill'.

They sparred without armour. Dressed only in cotton trousers, their muscular torsos gleamed in the morning sun with thick perspiration. They had been at this for a few hours, each stubbornly refusing to show fatigue. The score stood at one apiece and the next 'kill' would determine today's winner.

Okul found pleasure in sparring with Kurud. He found enjoyment in the physical and mental training necessary to successfully overcome a well trained opponent as Kurud. He found contentment in the exertion and the camaraderie. He found relief for the time when he did not have to think about his father, his future and more recently the ever increasing need of must.

Kurud's shield dipped from tiredness, just a fraction, exposing his chest just a bit more. It was the opportunity, Okul had been waiting for. With a knee feint, he up stroked to the revealed opening.

But the shield drop had been a feint as well. Even as the spear descended, Kurud, spun away, moved inside the long reach of the spear and stabbed towards Okul's heart. The thrust stopped just as the sword point touched flesh. Okul's spear point pressed into the paladin's forehead even as Kurud shouted "My kill".

"My kill as well" responded the dragon son in a normal tone.

A large friendly grin grew across the Kurud's face. "A draw today, warrior of Tempus?"

Okul grinned back. "A draw today, paladin of Tyr.

They both withdrew their weapons.

"I must remember how quickly you can adjust from long to short range of your spear, Okul, or it may be the death of me in true combat."

"Watch the spearman as he grips his spear. If one hand holding the spear is withdrawn and placed perpendicular to the other grasp. The spearman is preparing for a change in range. Your shield feint fooled me and caused my demise."

"If the shield drops, watch the sword. If it is brought in close, then the drop is a feint. It’s a favourite trick of sword and shield fighters, especially Thayan Knights.

As both men turned to refresh themselves at the well, by pouring buckets of cold water over themselves, the sound of clapping came from behind them.

"Bravo gentlemen! Well done! Good show!

Both turned to see the tiefling mage, Noristuor, leaning against the fence and clapping. His red, roughened skin contrasted the blue and white robes worn. A symbol of Mystra was sewn onto the left shoulder. Yellow cat-like eyes peered at the two combatants. Yellowed boned ram horns jutted from his forehead, spiralling around a head of coarse, black hair. Draped around his shoulders and back was a black cloak with silver arcane symbols. The mage grinned, revealing prominent canines.

A fleeting small frown of distaste creased Kurud's lips. His senses told him that the wizard was good and true, but every time he glanced at the tiefling's face, he had to remind himself again that not all things born of evil need be evil. "What wish you here mage?" demanded Kurud.

"Why only to watch good jousting and to show my appreciation." "And what would a mage know of jousting?"

"Only that appearances do not tell you everything about those you need to know" Noristuor teased cryptically, "and that everything you need to know is not all it appears to be. Is that not true, Son of the Dragon?" he addressed Okul.

"Ah, yes, I suppose."

"Excellent. Remember my words. Well gentlemen, I bid you good day."

Both watched as the eccentric mage retrieved his staff and wandered off to perhaps pester some other innocent soul with his cryptic words

"Okul, what do you suppose that was all about?"

But Okul did not answer as his body was seized by an uncontrollable shaking that became stronger and stronger, until finally…he opened his eyes to see Gideon crouching over him, tugging on his arms as they held a warm, squirming Swan close to him.

Swan stretched her wings as she floated peacefully on the gentle, slow moving creek. The calm water was like a long mirror. Arching her neck, her reflection duplicated her motion. A beautiful, graceful trumpeter swan stared back at her. Except for her beak, forehead, legs and webbed feet, all black, the rest of her was covered in blinding snow white feathers. All without a blemish.

She looked away from the water towards the sky. Time to fly! Powerful webbed feet paddled against the water to raise up her body and achieve take off speed. Muscular wings flapped to produce launch lift.

In mere seconds, she was aloft and heading for the clouds. She gave out two loud trumpet honks in pure exuberance as the ground gave way. Soon she soared above the tallest trees. The majestic Cormanthor forest lay spread out below her. The wind against her face and the sun on her back felt wonderful. She honked once again out of sheer joy as she soared and angled a turn. A road cut through the forest and on it she spied three cloaked figures walking in the direction of Ashabenford. From their gait, she knew them to be wood elves. Curious, she circled round and dropped height to get closer.

As she did so, two moon elves stepped out of the forest onto the road in front of the three travellers. Her beak gaped open in surprise, as she recognized them; her good friends, the twins, Lathai and Simimar. Her heart began to beat faster, because if the twins were here could Inialos be close by? There was a short conversation between the twins and the others during which they removed their cloak hoods to reveal themselves. .

There was no mistaking that reddish gold hair; they were of the red hawk tribe from the Semberholme area. Two were males, an older one and a younger one. The third was a female, young, lithe and beautiful. Her keen bird sight caught Simimar motioning someone forward.

Out from the green stepped a handsome moon elf. Swan's heart gave a lurch. It was he. Her Inialos. She let out a trumpet note from gladness. As she circled one more time to approach the group, she noticed Inialos had began to converse with the young female,

Then all six elves continued along the road towards Ashabenford. Inialos and the female were at the rear, in deep conversation. As they walked, he kept brushing up against her. Swan could see that his attentions were not unwelcome.

A strange feeling swept through her. It was a mixture of jealously and happiness. Jealously because it was Inialos, who had been her first, whom she still loved and happiness because it was Inialos who she wished to have no regrets. His happiness was her happiness. He would not begrudge her championships and she could not begrudge his, One or the other or both may be killed tomorrow. But, oh, how pleasurable it would have been to be with him again, to feel him against her.

As she swooped, a motion caught her sharp avian vision. There! Watching the group from the shadows of the trees. Unnoticed. A shadowy figure.

Swan could not make out any features. She could not identify anything about the figure.

With no warning, a voice whispered into her ear. Surprised, she twisted and turned, but could not escape the voice. She knew it came from the figure.

"Perfect! All the pieces are moving into place. Soon they will take their place on stage, oblivious to the role they are about to play and the events that will soon be set in motion. As will you little bird, you and your companions."

The swan began to squirm. It had no control. The squirming became more and more aggressive until finally…Swan opened her eyes.

She found herself held tightly in the arms of Okul, while Gideon crouched over both of them. She squirmed against the fighter's grasp.

"Okul, loosen up. Release me." He did so as Gideon spoke. "Last watch people. Is everything alright now? You both seem edgy."

"Yes" replied Okul, slowly and reluctantly releasing Swan. To the scout, the question had two meanings

"Yes and soon, I hope." Gideon nodded understandably. "All is quiet. I need to rest. See you in a bit." The priest rose and left.

"Come Okul", said Swan, rising and removing her blanket. "Ooh, chilly. Let's head for the fire. I'll put on tea to warm us up as we watch." And think on my dream.

The tall warrior, rose, stretched, and gathered his spear. Following the scout, he began to ponder who in the group could be a traitor.

Kilzadi walked carefully in a large tunnel inside a mountain. He knew this, but not how he knew this. Faint light was provided by luminous moss clinging to the sides of the tunnel. Somewhere in the darkness water was dripping on rock.

His facial draconic tattoos itched only when he looked in the direction he was travelling and so they itched constantly. It meant that a dragon was nearby in that direction. And so he moved slowly and caution. For some unknown reason he could not reverse direction.

The tunnel slowly widened. The sorcerer crept along the wall. Eventually it opened up into a vast underground cavern. Rocks and boulders abounded, making the going treacherous. As he moved into the cavern, moving from large boulder to large boulder, in an attempt to stay hidden, the itchiness increased. He was getting closer to the dragon.

About half way into the cavern, he heard voices. He peered around the huge boulder and nearly froze with amazement. A great fear overcame him, but again, he seemed unable to retreat. He spied the dragon but not just any dragon. It was an ancient fang dragon.

The ancient male fang dragon was enormous and powerfully muscled, with massive, overdeveloped limbs. His body, covered in thick, brownish-white mottled bony plates, and which was interspersed with scythe-like blades, rippled as its razor sharp talons slowly tore into the central eye of the still writhing beholder. His long forked tails, each tipped with a pair of scythe-like bone blades, twitched as he savoured his dinner.

Facing the dragon was a figure. Purple robes draped gracefully over the form of a female, the low slung hood cast dark shadows over her face, concealing her features from view.

She stood their patiently, as she waited for the dragon to finish its meal. She stood her ground, even when those large glittering red eyes focus all their attention on her. At this point, he overheard their draconic conversation.

"Then its agreed Nartheling" "You will give us Crimdrac's Claw?"

The Claw. They are after my Claw. He gripped the handle of the dragon claw scimitar.

"Patience, my young necromancer, patience" whispered the dragon, "It would do you good to remember who is Master of the Mountain in this place." "But fear not, events have been set in motion, and soon my agent will deliver onto me Crimdrac's Claw, and then, as agreed, I will deliver it onto you"

Agent? What agent? Not the traitor again?

"Most Excellent! Mother will be so pleased."

Mother? Who is mother? Why does she want my Claw?

Suddenly the dragon lifted its head. A huge forked tongue stuck out towards the ceiling. Immense nostrils sniffed at the air.

"Human! Male! Magic!" The lips opened wide, exposing a mouth packed full of large sharp fangs and teeth. "Come out little human, come out."

The cavern began to shake. Boulders rolled, rocks fell, and dust began to fill the air. Kilzadi began to cough, stones narrowly missing his head as they crashed down.

Frozen with dragon fear, he still shouted out defiantly. "Not my Claw. I will never surrender my Claw. Not my Claw" he kept screaming. "Not my Claw! Over and over. The shaking increased in intensity. He looked up to see a large boulder falling straight at him. "Nooo!"

Just before collision, he opened his eyes and looked into Swan's beautiful baby blues.

She stopped shaking him awake. "Kilzadi, you were having a nightmare?"

"Huh? What? Yes, I guess I was." He found himself cold with perspiration. He looked over to see the rest of the Seekers gathered around having breakfast.

"You kept shouting 'not my claw' as it seemed you were convulsing. Well, it seems you weren't the only one. Here, I brought you some hot tea. Time to rise. We will be moving out soon. Gideon wants a conference before we head out. "

As he sipped, she took a towel rag piece and, in a motherly gesture, wiped away at his perspiration. She rose to leave.

"Hey, Swan", he stopped her and held out the tea mug. "Thanks", he whispered sincerely.

She smiled. "Hey, mighty magic user, you most likely saved me. It's what friends do."

A lustful beam crossed his eyes. "I'm selfish. Before you lose it, I want to use it."

She gave out a chortle and waved at him. "Don't take too long. Risca is still hungry."

He watched her leave, her natural feline swaying instilling erotic images in his mind. He sighed. Better get some breakfast before that dwarf eats my share.

In a short time, all the Seekers were gathered together ready for the conference. Gideon was speaking.

"There was no commotion last night. All the watches went undisturbed. That suggests that these warrens are vacant. But apparently, it seemed that we all had another one of those foreshadowing dreams. All except the lizard folk. They do not dream apparently."

"I don't know whether I envy them or pity them" interjected Neon.

I think we should all share them and discuss their implications. Kilzadi, you first."

"Alright. Has anyone ever heard of a fang dragon named Nartheling, the Master of the Mountain?"

And so it began. Each Seeker retelling their dream, each in their own way.

"So let me summarize" concluded Gideon. "We seem to have new players on the scene. Kilzadi's dragon, the purple cloaked female and her mother, (isn't purple the colour of Shar?), and Swan's cloaked stranger. Persons are after the Crimdrac's Claw, for whatever reason. Kilzadi, you must find out all about the Claw. History, purpose, powers, latent abilities and so on. We must find out why they want it. In the meanwhile, the Seekers will ensure that the Claw never leaves our hands. If they want it, it means we keep it.

According to Okul, we must be careful about who we trust in that looks are deceiving. Does this have to do with the so called traitor in our midst? I do not want to go through all that again." Here, Swan and Kilkzadi glanced at each other.

Does it have to do with the dragon's agents? We cannot tell at this stage. We must be vigilant.

Neon says, the evil drow .led by their queen are ready to erupt, endangering all the Dalelands, just to start. Swan tells us that Ashabedford is already in danger and that somehow her cloaked figure has a hand in arranging matters there. We do not know who these new players are, their motives or their relationships to each other.

And then Risca's dream, if we are to believe it, success or failure may somehow depend on his actions."

"Then we are doomed already" interrupted Kilzadi. Risca growled in response.

"And what of your dream, Gideon?" asked Neon.

"Well let me tell you." The priest then went on to describe his dream, but left out any mention of her in the cottage. He did not feel the time was right to reveal her existence to the Seekers. Besides, the less they knew the less that could be revealed to enemies.

"And so the Red Wizards want me to work with them for some purpose. How they fit into the scheme of things, I do not know."

Neon, having listened to the priest's account, raised an eyebrow. An expert in con games, half-truths and truth stretching, he recognized that Gideon spoke true but had omitted information. Wisely, he kept silent.

Gideon continued. "Kossuth spoke to me." That caught everyone's attention. "Apparently it is important that we maintain our present course. We continue to search for and free the Harrowdale prisoners, as well as do as much damage to the Sharites and drow as we can"

.A look of relief flitted across Neon's face.

"And so, this is my plan. We send back three lizard men to the keep with all the mundane stuff we will not use. They will be ordered to keep hidden and wait for the rest of us If we do not show up, then they will enter the black sphere and return home to tell all that has occurred and hopefully to get word somehow to Neon's mother.

The rest of us will finish exploring the rest of these warrens, learning what we can and eliminating any threats. When done, we return to the keep and use the boat, as we planned before. Questions?" There were none. "Fine then. Let's do it Seekers!"

The Seekers began their preparations. Gideon approached Okul. "Kossuth has blessed me with the means to remove your curse. I will do so now, but it won't be effective until tomorrow. Do you understand?"

"Yes, and I give thanks to your god."

"Good then. Should we enter battle and the curse take effect, I can strengthen you as I did yesterday. So stay close to me."

Okul looked to where Swan was making her preparations. "As you wish."

Soon all was ready. Instructions were given to the three freed prisoners. The rest of the Seekers battle ready themselves. Gathar approached Swan and hissed out words. Swan could make out a few words. Hey, I'm getting better at this draconic speech.

Mother…heart…ask, were what she understood. The three lizard men, heavily laden with Seeker material were staring at her, mouths open, tongues out. "Kilzadi," she called out.

The sorcerer stood beside her. Gathar repeated his words. The sorcerer translated.

"They want your blessing, since you are supposed to be their Tribal Mother. They know you go to battle for their sakes. So they are asking, before you leave them to give them a blessing of safety."

"Uh, O. K. Tell them ..uh, Walk in the spirit of Semuanya." She made a small motion with her hands, a motion that in later years would come to be known as 'The Sign of The Swan.'

Kilzadi did so. The effect was immediate. They repeated her motion and came to stand in front of her. Each took a turn placing her hand on their hearts. Then they turned to return to the keep. Gathar seemed to be bobbing his tail with approval.

"Three more conquests, Swannie. Keep at it and soon you will have all the lizard folk tribes at your command. Well, the males anyway."

"Oh, hush up."

Gideon approached. "All set to go. Lead us out Swan." The scout nodded. She motioned to Gathar and Steersk to back her. She figured being lizard men, she should keep their expertise and knowledge of warrens close.

Away from the treasure room, a path headed south, then veered east. As they moved quietly in the grey darkness, the odour of rotting vegetation became more intense. Eventually the passage opened up into a large chamber. It was a tangle of dead and rotting vegetation. The path continued across to the opposite side, where Swan could discern another wicker gate. Beyond was the swampy bayou.

Trees and brush grew right through the low ceiling, forming a sort of canopy. In many places, water dripped down from the ceiling. Piles of woody, wet mud lined up along the walls. What caught Swan's attention were the animal bones strewn throughout the chamber. Some showed signs of age, others fresher.

She looked at her two companions. Both Gathar and Steersk seemed on edge, their tongues flicking in and out. Then other than the dripping water, her sharp ears caught the sound of little feet scampering through the brush. She motioned for the party to halt.

The scampering came closer. Stepping out onto the pathway was a strange creature, making as strange sound. Arckk…, ark ark ark… arckk… ark ark ark. Looking like a small dog, it had pale grey-green scales with blue-black strips running along its back and tail. Two tiny scaly horns were present, one on each side of its head. It stared at Swan, curious and unafraid. Arckk…ark, ark, ark.

It was a lizard but one which Swan's ranger lore did not recognize. A lizard native to this plane?

As it showed no signs of either active or passive aggression, she motioned the others forward and entered the chamber. As she stepped in, it retreated back a few steps.

Two more made their appearance and the three cried out in unison. Arckk…ark, ark, ark…arckk…ark, ark, ark. The Seekers were right behind the scout.

"More of your little animal friends, Swan? joked Neon.

"They seem to like her. They must be males" quipped Kilzadi.

"All right people. Remember where we are. Well Swan?" Gideon's words silenced any further banter.

"They are definitely a kind of lizard, but none I know about. Wait. Let me try something." With those words reached into the part of her mind that held her ranger lore and she proceeded to make lizard like sounds. Hiss terp, terp iss hiss

There was no change in the actions of the funny lizards, but both Gathar and Steersk jerked in surprise and thumbed their tails in approval. It was as if they could understand some of what she was saying.

"Ah, Swan, what are you doing? Kilzadi was looking puzzled, as were some of the others.

"Speaking to them in lizard, but they do not understand me. They are not normal lizard animals. Then living here, I'm not surprised."

"You speak, ah, lizard?"

Swan gave a secretive smile. "I speak all animal languages. And they talk to me. You should be more careful in what you let your horses overhear. They tend to gossip, even Scout."

"Swan, you're just chalking full of amazing things. This from Neon.

"Yes, I know." Wait till you find out I can also talk to plants.

Gideon once again returned their attention to the situation at hand. "So how do we treat these lizards? A threat or a nuisance?"

Finally Risca who had been waiting impatiently, had reached the end. "Bah, he exclaimed rushing forward, "Big bugs, little lizards, who cares."

As he approached the lizards, they retreated from him, still giving out their calls.

"See, they run away. Come on. Time is wasting.'

Before he could be stopped, he continued on down the path. No sooner had he taken ten steps when the attack occurred. Moving in from the wall was a mound of vegetation and wet earth. It seemed to be a large tree bush with a mound of earth. Branches, like whips snapped at Risca, pummelling him.

"Crull" he screamed out, swinging Guifoon. The axe chopped far into the trunk. "Stupid bush! We'll chop you down!"

You attack one Seeker, you attack them all! They leaped into action. Gathar and Steersk snarled war cries and attacked. Reaching the mound, they lashed out with their weapons. Wood chips and bark flew as Gathar's spear bit deep and Steersk's club bashed away. More branches whipped away at the three Seekers, lacerating them. Shielding was ineffective as there were so many branches.

Swan reached into her pack and pulled out a flask of alchemist's fire. Kilzadi began a spell cast. Gideon's prayer boosted Okul with a bull strength while Neon released an arrow at the mound. The arrow struck true, deep into the trunk. The effect arrow being fired into the trunk of a tree.

"Chauntea's charming chest!" he swore. "How does one kill a plant thingy?"

"With fire" shouted Swan, launching the flask. Her aim was true, smashing against the mound. As the flask shattered, it released its viscous, clear oily liquid, which began to flame in the air. But it fizzled out before having a chance to burn. Not good.

Kilzadi's spell took effect. As luck would have it, it was to produce a fiery burst. It had the same effect…, a big fizzle. "Flame spells and fire are useless working on that walking tree" he exclaimed.

"Open to suggestions" replied Neon, scanning around for some helpful idea.

It was at that point that the horned lizards scuttled towards the battle site. Reaching the mound, they each gave out their cry and vibrated their horns. Blue-white blinding waves of electricity arced, filling the chamber with loud humming sounds. Shocks of pain travelled throughout the Seeker's bodies as the waves struck them.

Sight gradually returned. Gathar, Steersk and Risca, being the closest to the lizards, suffered the most damage. Numerous lacerations covered their torsos and faces, but joining them were deep, electrical burns. Regardless they continued their attacks on the tree thing. More importantly, the tree seemed to have regenerated. Large pieces of removed bark and gouged out wood had reformed to make it whole again.

"The lizards!" shouted Neon. "Get the damn lizards!" Swan needed no encouragement. Already she was loaded up and taking aim. Kilzadi was incanting another spell.

Both Okul and Gideon had charged into the battle site. Each with their own battle cry." Tempuuusss!" " Power of Kossuth!"

Neon, being pre-set, attacked first. His arrow unerringly passed through a lizard's heart, pinning it against the mound.

Swan's arrow followed a heartbeat later. It skewered a second lizard through its head, jerking it up into the air, to lie dead amongst the bones. Kilzadi's spell then manifested.

The third lizard's body burst open as flames erupted from its insides.

"O.K. lizards down." he called out. "What next?"

Before any response was forthcoming, Guifoon, powered by Risca's rage bit deep into the tree. Gathar's spear plunged deep into the core of the trunk. If a tree could scream in pain, it would have done so at that point. In retaliation, branches whipped down at the lizard man warrior, grappling him to the ground and whipping upon him.

By now Okul and Gideon reached the combat. Okul's great spear drove far into the mound, causing the branches to tremble and shake. Gideon's crystal mace, flames visible inside it, crushed into the trunk. Large amounts of bark and rotting wood were blasted out. Left behind were giant cracks emanating out from the impact crater. The entire mound shuddered.

Steersk, two-handed, took a mighty swing with his hardwood club. Screeching a battle cry, he slammed the club at the exact same spot as Gideon. There was an ear-splitting crack as the trunk fragmented violently. The mound collapsed and was still.

"Be alert" commanded Gideon, as silence settled in. They waited on guard for several moments but nothing changed. "All right, Swan, Neon, look around. Be careful."

Vigilant, the two infiltrators took opposite sides of the path and noiselessly proceeded to the wicker gate. They met no resistance. Staring out through the gate, they could see the pathway continue on and slowly blend into the bayou. They returned to report. Gideon had been healing the Seekers of their more serious wounds.

"We've reached the end" reported Neon. The warren ends here.

"Fine. Swan, heal up Neon, yourself and Risca here. He wanted to wait for your return. The rest of us will search around. So, what was that thing? A walking tree? A treant?"

"No" responded Swan, recalling Grammar's tales and descriptions of treants. Not a treant."

"No matter. Let's do it Seekers."

Swan took out her healing wand and began to heal the dwarf. Soon the clean smell of pine and mint overwhelmed the decayed odour of rotting plants and swampy water. At least for a time.

"Ah, no one heals better than me gurl" stated Risca deeply inhaling. "Well worth the waiting extra minutes of pain. Right red elf?

Swan had been sliding the wand over the rogue's worst burns, while her free hand stroked up and down his face and arms, insetting healing divine energies. Both had been looking intently at each other.

A devious smile crossed Neon's face. "Oh, yes Risca. It will be well worth the wait. Well, well worth it." An answering smile favoured him. Then Neon's countenance took on a serious overtone.

"Listen you two; in case something happens and I am not able to tell you this later, I need to tell you now. You two I trust and you're here now. It's Gideon. He…"

Before he could continue, loud steps behind them, indicated someone approaching. Okul stepped out of the brush. Okul gave a penetrating stare at Swan and Neon, at the way they were posed together. His eyes narrowed and his fist was seen to grip his spear even tighter.

"Swan" he began, "I thought if you were done here, we could continue the search together. I see I was mistaken." The last words were said in a terse voice. They caused her and Neon to eye each other. Much communication passed between them in that one glance.

Gripping his spear even tighter, he blatantly turned his back to them and walked away.

"Is it just me or is Okul really strange lately? Me gurl, what is with the two of you? Last night, I saw…" Risca inquired.

Ignoring Risca's statement, Neon spoke to Swan. "Remember my advice. Something must be done and soon…Later Risca."

"Yes. Yes. I know. I know! Now about Gideon…"

"I think he is holding something back. He is not telling us all. Something to do with the Red Wizards. It is bothering him extremely but he is not sharing. Perhaps he seeks to protect us. I am not sure. But I wanted you two to know. We do not know the whole story."

Swan and Risca were mulling this information, about to respond when Kilzadi's voice called out.

"Seekers! Here. I found something."

Without hesitation, they all ran towards the sorcerer. He kneeled beside a mound of earth, bones and decaying vegetation. Half uncovered was a skeleton. A leather belt and pouch was buckled around its hip bones.

Swan kneeled down beside him and examined the bones. "Human" she declared. Can't have been here that long. The leather is still in good condition and the bones have not yellowed too much."

"Prisoner?" asked the sorcerer.

Swan shrugged. "I can't determine."

"Well, let's see what it was carrying." He undid the pouch and poured out its contents.

Five red speckled green gems and a golden finger ring fell out. So, what's this?"

Neon picked up a gem, while Risca snatched the ring.

"Bloodstone" declared the rogue remembering the gnome Osier's lessons on gems and their quality. "Worth about half a hundred gold pieces."

"Not pure gold" observed the dwarf, using his race's uncanny ability to identify metals. "Half gold, half brass. Worth maybe five gold coins for its artistic value."

"Except for one thing" added the sorcerer. Kilzadi had laid a spell and passed his hands over the items. "The ring has a magical aura. Its purpose, I cannot ascertain. All else is normal. Anyone want to wear it?" There were no volunteers.

Gideon spoke up then. "Let's search a little while longer, in case there's other things we have missed. Then before it gets too late, we return to the keep".

They all separated to return to searching. Swan and Gideon stayed behind. Both clerics understood what remained to be done. Swan covered up the skeleton using the mud, dirt and branches. Gideon prayed over the makeshift grave and gave it a blessing.

"May your soul be in eternal restful peace. May your life be judged to be good." Then he sprinkled a few drops of holy water over the grave. He turned to walk away.

"Gideon…" Swan's soft voice halted him, "I just want you to know that you can always rely on me."

He stopped, turned and gave her a long, piercing look, as if to read her intent. His stare softened." I already know that Swan. I already know that. But thank you anyway. Come on, let's finish up here."

Soon the group had all re-gathered. There was nothing else to be found.

They began the trek back in silence, each wrapped in private thoughts. The only sounds being the squish of their feet in the marshy path. They reached the keep without incident. They were met by the other three lizard folk with many tail thumping and glad hisses. The keeled boat was still moored. The slain bodies still lay where they had fallen. After a quick, dry meal, a council was held.

"So it's been decided then" surmised Gideon. "Gathar remains with us while the other lizard folk return through the portal. There they will head back to their village to relate what has occurred here, to ensure they will be prepared foe invasion, to report to the Harrowdale authorities. With them, they will take all the mundane and unnecessary equipment."

This had been the most serious disagreement. Steersk and the new ones had protested this. They had wanted to continue to stay, fight and destroy their captors. But the boat could not have carried all of them. It was only when Gathar had asserted his authority as their war leader, cuffed a few heads and snarled the rest into obedience that resistance ended.

"The rest of us will do as we must. This place is in need of purification. Then we take the boat to where the prisoners were taken. Questions?" There were none. "Let's do it Seekers."

The equipment for returning was separated out and loaded into packs. Each lizard folk returning were given charge of their load. All then marched into the keep to the white spherical portal. The returning lizard folk then all stopped and turned to Swan.

Steersk spoke for them. She could make out the words, bless, honour and guidance.

"They need and want your guiding blessing" translated Kilzadi.

She approached them, making the Sign of the Swan and in rudimentary draconic spoke a few words. Her words caused the lizard men to hiss and move their tongues in and out in rapid succession.

Kilzadi rolled his eyes. "You told them to 'sit on the head of Semuanya', at least I think you said 'sit' and they are both amused and appreciative. You really should allow me to give you those lessons."

Steersk came to stand before her. Staring down, he reached for her hand and placed it over his heart. One by one, the others followed suit. Then with a few words to Gathar, he stepped into the white sphere and disappeared. The others quickly followed.

"Well, that's that. Come on people let's clean this place up." At Gideon's words they split up to perform their tasks.

One task consisted of disposing the remaining dead enemy bodies; the 4-armed feline humanoid, the khumat, the tiefling and its pet cat-like creature. Of course, there were no undead shadowscale bodies, having turned all to goo.

Risca and Swan had been assigned to this task.

The most disgusting chore was the clean up and removal of the humanoid remains in the room below the observatory. The cadavers also had to be given a decent burial. Gideon saved this for himself, with the help of Gathar, who was the least bothered by the wrapping of the butchered remains.

Neon and Kilzadi were to check over the keelboat to prepare it for sea worthiness.

In time, they were all completed. The scout and dwarf had just dug a pit, dragged the dead bodies into it and then covered it up. It was hard, hot work but simple enough. The rogue and sorcerer had repaired and adjusted what needed to be done and declared the boat ready.

They now all stood around the make sift graves the Gideon and Gathar had done, while the priest prayed over the remains.

At the end, the priest looked over the water. "It's getting too late and dark. We are all tired now. I suggest we have supper and rest, wait the night and leave first thing in the morning. Other suggestions?"

There were none and so they readied for their meal. While Gideon prayed to Kossuth for substance, the others filed away to attend to their own preparations. Swan found herself washing away the dirt, grime and perspiration of the day. Loosing her straps, ties and laces, she had rubbed crushed lavender over her skin for the soothing and pleasant odour effect. Then she had strolled back into the keep. The chains and hooks were gone now, but the smell and stains of blood were still evident. She had asked Kilzadi if he had a spell that could wash away the taint. He had replied that his magic was based on fire not water. The best he could do was to burn it down. Not an option yet.

She knew in her heart that sanctification was necessary. But how? She had gone up the stairs. She had opened up the shades to allow as much grey light, miserable as it was, into this keep of pain and death. But the throne held no answers. As she sat on it, staring out onto the grounds, she thought about how complicated it was all becoming. Gone were the simple scout days Gone were the days when her main concern was tracking down a rapid animal. Gone were the enjoyable times of escorting visitors throughout Deepingdale. She prayed. Solonar, Great Archer- please guide my aim.

Then, as if she an arrow had pierced her brain, sharp and quick, an idea suddenly manifested. But would it work? If true, she could solve two problems simultaneously. Chauntea, All-Mother, I beseech you, share your wisdom with me.

She jerked upright. It seemed that she could barely hear Aleena's voice in her head. A faint aspect of the lovely dark haired priestess formed. Her heart filled with grief. She yet missed her friend so.

"Swan, you are still such a sweet silly. All of us here love you very much. Of course it will work. Love offerings, uncorrupted, are among the most potent, especially when involving birth and re-birth. And especially when dedicated to the All-Mother, the unselfish purity of, heart, hearth, family and new beginnings. Kiss Ninniach for me and for his son.

All-Mother, you bless me. Oh Aleena, thank you, Thank you. She knew then what had to be done. She arose and made her way to Gideon.

She found him alone on the dock. He was looking out to sea. His posture indicated him to be deep in thought.

"Gideon, we need to discuss the consecration of this place. It needs to be done, especially if we need this keep as a foothold on this plane. At the very least, it will buy us a little time by keeping the evil forces busy should they return."

"Huh, what? Oh Swan, yes. All what you say is valid. The problem, my fellow cleric, is that Kossuth has not yet graced me with such an ability. Nor do I think you can cast such a powerful blessing over such a huge area."

"True, but there may be another way. One that could also solve the Seeker problem." She then related her plan.

Gideon was astounded. "You thought of this yourself?"

"Uh, no. I am fairly certain there was some kind of divine intervention." She offered no details. "And part of it was Neon's idea."

"By Kossuth's holy flames, Swan! You are willing to do this, with no guarantee of success either way? And you trust to tell me something so personal to you?"

"Of course" she replied a bit mystified. "Why would I not? I have full faith in the powers of good, and you are my squad leader. You have proved yourself many times to be wise and trustworthy. Also tomorrow, at this time realistically, we may be all dead. I want to die with no regrets. So we should at least make the attempt. Besides, it will not be a hardship for me. It has been on my mind for awhile now."

Gideon regarded her in a little awe. There was no doubt that if were to confide in anyone about his secrets it would be her. Swan, you have no idea how this burden of leadership weighs upon me. Your unwavering trust just makes it heavier. A mother's attitude. She has a mother's attitude. Favoured by many deities? I'm beginning to wonder…

Impulsively he embraced her, shocking himself as well as her.

"Swan, many times, I believed you are the glue that holds the Seekers together. Whatever items I have are yours .Let us join the others. There should be something left to eat." And the least I can do is try to ensure you some privacy.

And so they did. Gideon explained the night watches.

"We need to guard both the interior portal of the keep and the exterior, especially the boat, against possible incursions. So I propose two groups; myself, Swan and Okul and Gathar inside, the rest of you outside. Comments?"

There were none, other than the raised eyebrow of Neon, Kilzadi's look of disappointment and Okul's sullen silence. Risca, wordlessly, continued to sharpen his blades while Gathar crouched passively.

"Fine then. Let's do it Seekers."

And so, after a hasty meal, Swan and Okul found themselves below the observatory. Gideon and Gathar had taken the first watch in the portal room. Swan used one of the smaller storage rooms to place their bedrolls. She had already prepared for the ritual.

Okul seemed to be deliberately avoiding making eye contact. Swan regarded him in admiration. Where others saw blemishes, she saw embellishments. When others were repelled by scaled disfigurements, she was attracted to draconic beauty. While others saw a merciless terrifying warrior, she saw a gentle, loving person. Since the Chonis Tomb her feelings for him had been growing; she realized that now. If only his more recent behaviour towards her and the others was less aggressive. She broke the silence, speaking in a slow, serious tone.

"Okul, we need to finish our talk. There appeared to be times today and yesterday, when you seemed angry at me. Why is that?"

She observed the warrior tensing. Without looking up he responded.

"I find it easier to control my desires by simulating anger. When the need in me becomes too great, when the war raging inside me becomes unbearable, being angry at you, at myself, at this whole situation allows me to withdraw. It is my way of avoiding any unpleasantness, especially when you and the others banter and joke."

"We banter and joke because it eases the tensions and draws us closer together as a unit, as comrades in arms. They mostly focus on me as I am the only female in the group and I enjoy it"

"Yes, my mind understands that, but my emotions refuse to accept it. I used to try and watch over your honour, causing all sorts of friction. It is better if I withdraw."

"And so you hurt yourself to avoid confrontation. Okul, look at me. There is no need for this pain. No need at all.."

His gold shaded eyes bore into her blue ones.

"There is a beast in me. A beast that emerged suddenly one day. Without warning. One I can barely restrain. A beast that wants to ravish you; drive away all rivals. Last night I was able to control it. I do not know if I can do so again. Besides, you do not want my protection."

"Not in that sense and not to the exclusion of all else. Protect me as you would protect any other companion and dear friend as we in turn would protect you. Listen, there may be a way to calm the beast."

He was shocked silent for an instant. "Oh, how?"

"By letting the beast loose. By giving it free rein."

Another bit of silence. "You mean…"

Swan nodded. "Yes, that is exactly what I mean."

"No! I fear for you. The beast is mindless; it will hurt you as it uses you. You do not have to do this. And it probably will not work. So no! I can endure my pain. So no!"

Swan moved to him. One hand was placed on his arm, while the other stroked his face and neck.

"Listen. First, I am tougher than I look. I won't break that easily. And if it does hurt and won't stop when asked, help is just a shout away. Second, yes there is no guarantee. But as I keep reminding everyone, we may all be dead soon, so there really is nothing to lose and much to gain. Finally, it is not that I havvve to do it; it's I waaaant to do it. I have wanted to do this for awhile. Now is the time. Remember a girl knows about these things. I have strong feelings for you, Okul There, I am confessing. But there is one more thing." She went on to explain about the consecration ritual.

Her voice changed from serious to playful. She rubbed her fingers across his lips. "So, boy dragon still want to do the nicey-nicey with girl human?"

His reaction was immediate. He enveloped her; lifting her up and close easily as a doll.

They knelt naked facing each other, admiring each other's bodies. Okul was beginning to lose control, Growling, as Swan completed the ritual. The odour of incense filled the little room while little blessed candles flickered pale in the gloom.

On both of them, hands lingering as they had moved across his broad, muscle tight chest, she had painted lines joined forehead, breasts and crotch in a rough diamond shape. Inside were sketched the symbols of Solonar Thelandria and Chauntea. Swan prayed.

"Great Archer, drow hunter, bless your servant with divine energy. Energy to dispel the taint. Energy to banish the dark elves. Make this a place of safety succour. All-Mother, guardian of birth, accept this gift we offer. Bless the life energy of our love. Energy to reject the darkness. Energy to remove the shadows. Make this a place of protection and renewal."

"Swan, Swan" Okul growled in some desperation, his need plain in his hoarse voice.

"Its time now, loved one. Release the beast. Come to me"

With a feral snarl, he smothered her.

That night, someone eavesdropping on their door would have heard the sounds of love. Grunts, squeals and moans mixed with bellows, yips groans and cries of pleasure. The sounds of mouths and lips smacking, licking and sucking. The sounds of hands stroking and probing; flesh rubbing on flesh; of bodies moving together. The sounds of pleasure and enjoyment.

Someone with keen ears would have distinguished whispered words and phrases; 'so good, oh gods so good,' as well as 'again, do it again' and also 'perfect, just perfect'. The words were at times male and at times female. The sounds continued all night, with only brief pauses while bodies adjusted positions. Eventually, as morning approached, the sounds diminished into a silence.

Swan surfaced to wakefulness through a sea of gratifying sensations. A large, roughened tongue slid up and down her back, around her backside and down her legs. As it slid it removed all the dried fluids from the previous night's excess.

Uhmmm, nice- a tongue bath. A reminder why I love to make love with the men I love who love me.

The candles, by now, had all burned out. The room was in blackness. She could only feel the sharp nailed hand as it caressed down her side, rolling her over onto her back. She sensed the warm body next to her as now hot breath formed a gentle wind on her skin.

The tongue continued its exploration of cleanliness. Face, lips and neck were soon clean. It paid special attention to her breasts and nipples. There it was joined with the nips of sharp little teeth. It continued down across her stomach, down one leg and then up the other.

Finally it reached the juncture of her thighs. There it lingered, licking, grazing, and probing. The sensations were so sweet, they caused her to open her legs wider and arch her back. All this to allow the tongue more acess. Uhmmm, so good!

Shortly it trailed up across her navel, back to the breasts and then up into her mouth. Their kiss was deep.

Swan turned so they lay on their sides, chest to chest, legs intertwined.

"Thank you, loved one, for awakening me so thoughtfully."

As she spoke, she reached down to hold and stroke his manhood. She loved the way it felt, firm and malleable at the same time. Her fingers moved up and down the shaft, luxuriating in the feel of the ribbed tiny scales; the ones which had so increased her bliss last night. Gods, so big, so long so powerful, -how did I ever accommodate it all? Gods, no wonder, I feel so stretched out.

"So how does the beast feel this morning?"

"Content, my beauty." Okul replied, enjoying the ministrations of her hands and fingers. "So sated, he wants to roar out his satisfaction."

"Ah, don't or the others will all come running. I may be a selfish slut, but not an exhibitionist. At least not more than average. I do not require an audience. So how do you really feel?"

A sudden realization struck. "Swan, wait! We missed our watch!"

"Oh that. Worry not. Gideon and Gathar did double shifts."

" Huh, what? They knew?"

"Ah, sort of. Anyway, does not matter. When we join the others, they will all know. Now answer my question."

"All right. The beast feels satisfied, sated, at peace. The inner war is over and most important, Swan, I am in full control of the beast. It is like we are now together and do not have separate desires. We are at peace. Also we feel one cherry lighter and in want of more of your wanton. Also feel that after tonight; I can no longer be your brother- too many incest questions. Golds are not into incest."

She was stunned silent. So stunned that her hands stopped stroking. "Ah, Okul are you attempting to be …ah… humorous?" In all their time together, he had ever been the serious one, never any attempt at humour.

"So obvious is it? Then, I need more humour practice, just as much as beast needs more practice in doing the nicey-nicey with ex-sister. Do not be surprised. I am now the Dragon Reborn!"

His use of 're-born' and the humour all indicated to Swan a transformation. Perhaps and hopefully brought on by the ritual. Before she could respond, there was a knock. Gideon's voice was heard. "Breakfast. Ten minutes you two. That's an order."

She disentangled herself to sit up and light a dark oil lamp. As the light removed the darkness, they both looked upon each other. In unison, they both expressed surprise. They pointed at each other. "Oh my!"

There was no doubt now of transformation. Swan's was temporary. Her body was covered in, not only long nail scratches, but also bluish spots indicating teeth bruises and love bites. Rare were the spots left uncovered.

"The beast got carried away last night, Swan, my heart. It could not leave one part of you untouched. It had to have all of you. Every last piece of delicious you. Please forgive it. This uncontrolled intensity should not happen again."

She was too engrossed in Okul to answer. He had been transformed. His eyes were liquid pools of gold; the pupils barely discernable. The scales were shiny gold, more populous and harder. The face had changed contour, becoming more triangular and so more draconic; bumps where none existed before giving the impression of higher wisdom and serenity.\, a more gold dragon face.

"Okul, you look more draconic, like the beast has merged with you; /like you are a new being- a combination of two parents- a rebirth. A new being. Amazing!

"Swan dear heart - I feel different, more confident, and less insecure of you and your love. At peace and secure- in charge of my own future. I now wish more than ever to confront my father. There are more questions I need answered"

She reached across and hugged him hard. Planting a kiss, she went on.

"You seem so magnificent now- powerful, strong, and regal; with that look of peace. I also need to return to my parents. We will meet our respective sires together. What do you say?"

He answered by drawing her to him for a long drawn out kiss. "I say, you can walk by my side at any time and I will walk by yours. Now let us dress before I lose my new found serenity and commence another day of your ravishment."

"Ummm- a full day of ravishment- can't wait."

"You are a shameless corrupter of innocent boy virgins. This is why we all love you so." Laughing, they dressed and refreshed themselves.

Even as Swan opened the door, she could sense a change. There was a feeling of freshness in the air. It was warmer and much less gloomy. As they stepped into the large room, there was a sense of goodness; of holiness.

"It feels like a church" remarked Okul.

"Yes!" Swan felt overwhelmed. Thank you indomitable Solonnar. Thank you most gracious Chauntea. Thank you powers of good. Thank you with all my heart and soul.

"Yes" she repeated. "Holy ground here in the Plane of Shadow. The Great Refuge is now truly a refuge for all non evil beings." Shar will not be pleased. Good!

In future times the transformation of Okul combined with the sanctification of the keep and its environs would, in the circles of the Cult of the Swan, become known as The Second Miracle.

They stepped outside. The Seekers were all gathered round a small fire at their breakfast.

They all stopped to stare and gape as Swan and Okul emerged. The first to approach was Gideon, a smile on his face.

"Swan, it worked. Can you not feel the difference, sense the goodness? Well done Praise the gods. Thank you Swan" He embraced her in an awkward hug. He then looked Okul up and down.

"My, my. Well, there has been another change as well. How are you Okul? I hope you can appreciate all that she has done for you and the rest of us."

"Well met fearless leader. My spear is yours to command. As for Swan, all of me and mine is hers to command, forever. I go now to greet my fellow Seekers."

Left alone with Swan, the priest asked "So, how are you, truly?"

"A little tired and bruised, but exalted. I think you will find Okul to be his old self but with a better sense of humour. More at ease with his dragon nature Gideon, it was worth it, really was."

"Fine. I trust you. Come get some breakfast. And thank you again, oh minor cleric with apparent major abilities."

"It was the will of the gods, Gideon, not to with me.."

"Sure. If that was true we should all just pack up and go home, leaving the gods to sort things out amongst themselves."

Okul joined the others. "Greetings all. Just wanted to tell you that the Okul you used to know and love so well is back. No more Mr. Sullen. Actually a new and improved version as you can tell from my countenance. And because I too am fond of my fellow adventurers, and to celebrate my emergence as the Dragon Reborn, I will gift each of you."

The others just stared at him, mouths open in shock.

"First, my good friend and drinking companion, Risca Foraker. I have been noticing lately that you are getting sloppy and lazy in your combats. This is most likely due to your lack of suitable opponents. I mean bugs and trees. Really? So I will enhance your fighting skills by recommencing our jousting times, which we have ignored for a long while now. Being knocked down continuously by a superior warrior should begin to hone your skills."

"What?" Risca let out a shout of outrage. "You knock ME down on me arse? Well Guifoon says that we may just show you a thing or two. Both of us are anxious to smack down this, what did you call yourself…the Dragon Reborn? Ha!"

Then a large grin spread itself across his lips. "Good to have you back Okul. Still going to smack you down though."

"Thank you my friend. Thank you. You can thank Swan for my return."

"Oh yes" the dwarf replied, voice full of pride. "Me gurl is good. Very, very good!"

"Second, my brother-in-arms, Neon Wilde. Regardless what others think (here he glanced at Kilzadi), I am not a fool. I know what this past night has cost you. It is only something a brother would do for a beloved brother. And so for that, I name you blood brother. I will treat you as a well beloved brother. How you treat me is irrelevant, though I hope you accept me for a brother as well. Imagine, together we could be the 'Wilde Ones.'

Neon stood and reached up to put his hand on Okul's shoulder. He whispered so only he and Okul could hear. "You honour me and you shame me. I should have more faith in Cygni's choices." Then he grinned at the half dragon. "I will leave it to you explain this to our mother… Brother."

Okul placed his slight clawed hand on the half elf's shoulder and whispered back. "Brother! Our Swan loves you, you know. Know that I will never come between you and Swan. For your last night's pain, I will endure the same many times over. For you my brother."

Neon sighed. "Again you esteem me Events are a bit complicated for me at present. Cygni and I have an understanding at the moment. But I thank you for the sentiment and will hopefully likely take you up on it in the future. Thank you, brother."

Neon then returned to his place, being handed a cup of hot tea by Risca.

Okul turned to Kilzadi, who all this time had been staring unbelievably and speechless at the Dragon Reborn. His tattoos itched, implying the nearness of a dragon or dragon-kin. Until now, this had never happened in Okul's presence.

"Finally the 'mighty mage of magic'. Kill-Zeddi! Though we have been the most estranged of the Seekers lately, and despite the many times you belittled me and mocked me, so full of happiness am I now, and because of the many times you saved Seekers, especially Swan, I will bestow to you the largest gift of all. From this moment on I will….IGNORE YOU; unless of course you do something so dangerous or life threatening to us that I will be forced to KILL YOU ZEDDI."

Risca gaffed. Neon snorted hot tea through his nose. "Ouch that burns."

Okul continued. "Think of the benefits Kill-Zeddi. No more dirty looks. No more hits with spear ends. You may say what you wish about Swan or me without any worry that I will decapitate you. Is this not a generous gift? In fact you should continue to save Swan and the rest of us. The more you do so, the more I will be inclined to ignore any indiscretions. And so the longer you will be with us. No, no, no need to thank me. We are fellow Seekers after all. "

The sorcerer was astounded by Okul's novel statements. Before he could craft a response, Gideon and Swan joined them.

"Oh, is that my tea? Thank you Kilzadi" spoke Swan sitting beside him and taking the hot cup from his unresisting hand. "You boys all getting along? Getting reacquainted? Doing some manly bonding?"

More hot tea was expelled through Neon's nose. Ouch. "Listen if you three want to practice your comedy troupe routine, please do so when I am not drinking a hot liquid."

"This is extraordinary" were Kilzadi's first words of astonishment.

"Right." Gideon also chuckled. "Since I am the official party pooper, let me poop on this party. All breakfast finishers to pack up and see to the boat. Rest of you, gobble it down. We are in a hurry here folks. Kilzadi, you are in charge of Gathar until landfall. Neon you're the river rat, you get to steer. Swan, you're at the front, scouting for Neon. The rest of us are grunts, we row. Questions?"

Kilzadi spoke up. "Ah yes. Two things. There are only four sets of oars and five rowers. So, since I will be attempting to decipher the music sheet and play the harp, I should be excused from any rowing. Besides, my hands are delicate and bruise easily. I am delicate and bruise easily. Interesting. No reaction from dragon boy. No disdain at "shirking my duties". O.K. Dragon Reborn-ha-lets really put you to the test.

"Fine" agreed Gideon. And the second matter?"

Kilzadi addressed the scout. "Swannie, my delicious little fruitlet, at the head of the bow, staring out to sea, you will, in effect, be the boat's figurehead. Now it is a well established fact, Neon will also verify this, that unless maiden figureheads are topless they bring bad luck to the ship's crew. Now obviously you have no desire to bring harm to the Seekers, so one would suppose that you are going to hopefully…bare your lovely perk titties?"

He waited for Okul's reaction. And waited. By this time this type of banter, would have the warrior glowering at him, or whacking him or walking off in a pique. Instead he just sat there with a content smile on his face, wolfing down his breakfast. He is not reacting. Other than that silly grin. Can it be he has truly transformed? If true, what does it illustrate about Swan? Oh gods!

Nonchalantly, Swan reached a hand over to ruffle the sorcerer's hair. She felt good. The Seekers were back!

"No need mighty mage. All here have at least seen them and so... but wait you have not…ah well I suppose that means any ill luck will fall only on you. But look on the bright side. It is a delicate matter and you after all are an expert in delicacy."

Gideon took control once the hooting and side comments had died out. There was a new sense of optimism and camaraderie in the air. A new sense of Seeker mutual trust and togetherness. Gods knew they would need it in the future. `Let's move out Seekers."

Okul stood as the others left, leaving Swan and Neon. "Stay. Swan, I will prepare your gear ready and mine." This left the two alone.

"He really has changed" remarked Neon, watching the retreat of the warrior. "All due to you."

"Yes, but it was your initiative, your suggestion. It worked."

"So it did." His voice held deep regret.

She cupped his face while staring into his eyes. "Ninniach?"

"Cygni please; we have already been through this."

"Yes we have." Her voice carried sorrow. "This is for a dear friend."

With those words she leaned into him to kiss him hard. Then, mysteriously, it was as if someone else had taken control and she kissed him in a way that was not hers. The kiss lingered and lingered.

Neon was flabbergasted. She kisses…she kisses me as Aleena used to. How? How is it possible? Oh Aleena…Aleena…

The kiss broke off. "Swan what just…"

"And this is for me" she interrupted. Two tears had just begun to weld in her eyes. She kissed him deep again but this time the way she always kissed, her way, the Swan way.

"Time to get a move on, brother." Okul's voice broke their concentration. Handing Swan her knapsack he added. "The others are waiting."

Neon focused on Swan. Something strange just happened here. No time now, but definitely have to look into this. "Let's go then."

They neared the docked boat where the others were getting set. "So" he inquired. "Which heading?"

Swan looked out over the waters. Squinting, the water colour and sky colour became the same kink of murky grey. It was as though she viewed a grey space. Her heightened vision could discern a light, appearing as a lone faint star in a greyish cosmos. She recalled the words of the lizard folk prisoners."…hairy ones to the stars". Realization struck her. "I know where. Just follow my directions" And so they set off.

Lord No shut the book. "My throat is dry good people. Thank you. Now I suggest we retire to the after party." The applause was deafining.

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