Even while Kali brooded over Wyynde’s troubled future, the warrior’s past actions were the subject of much discussion between a platinum-haired girl named Mara and a lithe and lovely swordswoman named Lady Chian.
Mara sat with her legs curled up beneath her as she perched on top of a sloping stone wall. Below her, the agile Lady Chian was nimbly practicing with her sword. The girl babbled on and on, and Chian managed to listen while still keeping the perfect sense of self and center so vital to her combat skills. “I mean, he was laughing at me!” said Mara. “That’s why I’ve been avoiding you all since the migration from the City of the Golden Gate. I didn’t want to see him or hear him. It all hurts too much!”
Chian frowned and placed her blade in its hip sheath. “Mara, I do not mean to sound harsh, but your feelings for Wyynde were ever one-sided. He cares for you as a friend, but he has never loved you in a romantic way. You can’t blame him for seeking out a partner who is more mature… that is to say… who is closer to his own level of age and experience. You must also realize that his words and deeds are greatly altered from what they were when we first met you on the snowy planes outside the city. He lost his father. He took the role of dhonu or chief of the Khe-Wannantu and then went along with a marriage of state. All of these things went against his nature. He is a shy man who shuns the spotlight and fears public affection like a plague. He has never turned away from any fight or peril, but he fled from his homeland long ago because he feared becoming tied down to political matters.”
Swinging one leg down to dangle it over the wall, Mara nodded and replied, “Yes, I know he has suffered a lot. Deedra’s Chain! I cared for him when Garn’s spells and the loss of his homeland left him a broken guy. I tried to help the big lug. I even wanted to care for him after he was changed into an animal-man by that creepy technologist. When he was trapped as half-man and half-beast, he was wild, but still had the same caring and shy manner about him when he could fight the animal urges that played games with his mind. It was only after Arion cured him that he turned so mean!”
“Mara, girl, he lost his mother and his tribe to the flood created by Garn,” said Chian. “Then Garn enslaved him and turned him against Arion. You can’t claim that you don’t know what that did to him! His devotion to Arion was so strong that having it twisted into hatred slowly drove him mad. He never got to recover from the madness, because he fell into the hands of the experimenting fiends who made him half-man and half-beast! Surely you can see that that kind of suffering would rob even a saint of certain traits of patience or restraint?”
Jumping down, Mara said, “Chian, don’t misunderstand me! I can forgive him for that. I can even justify the way he tried to… you know. He was like an animal when he grabbed me, but what I can’t forget is the way he laughed at me with T’Gallah because I ran away from him.”
Tears began to form in her expressive eyes as Mara relived her ordeal. She had been thrilled to see the handsome guardsman when Arion brought him back to his normal form. She had flung herself into his arms and expressed her love for him. But while he had accepted her warmth, he also responded with a passion and roughness that frightened her and cheapened her feelings for him until they seemed nothing more than a sordid lust.
“I pulled away from him, and he just laughed,” said Mara. “He laughed a harsh laugh, like some kinda animal! Then I heard him talking to T’Gallah. They were making fun of me! I had to get away, so I ran into the rougher part of the city and found Dharel! His music and singing attracted me, and I lost myself in the fun of just watching him perform! That seedy tavern was like a beautiful palace, thanks to his talent. I guess what really thrilled me the most was the way he came over to me and talked to me. We talked for hours and hours, and I found him to be a real dream come true. He’s gentle and funny and warm. I think I may love him!” Mara stared off into space, seeming to see the young blond singer who had charmed her so completely.
Chian shook her head and said, “Mara, Dharel is closer to your age. He also shares your power of shape-changing. Still, do not rush from one crush into another passion that might harm you. Be calm and think clearly. Find the center, as I have told you when I gave you lessons with the blade!”
“Dharel is wonderful!” said Mara. “He saved Queen T’Gallah when the city sank! I hoped you’d be happy for me! Still, I guess Arion has you under a spell, too!”
“Mara, I will not listen to more of your mad talk about Arion,” replied Chian. “He cares for you and Wyynde. He did all he could to help him. Wyynde knows that. Why do you persist in hating him?”
Growing angry, Mara said, “Arion is to blame for every bad thing that happened to Wyynde. He brought Garn to Khe-Wannantu in his own body! He let him escape from that prison in the middle of Wyynde’s home. He failed to stop him from killing all those people! He failed to stop him from driving King D’Tilluh to end his own life! He let Wyynde be changed into a beast and then did nothing to fix his mind! Arion even let the City of the Golden Gate sink! He’s useless, and I hate him!”
Shifting her form, she changed from a petite and pretty girl into a winged white dragon. Flapping her leathery wings, she soared away, leaving Chian to gaze up at her in concern.
“She is troubled by more than young love and first loss! Why does she still hate my beloved so much? It is as if she never recovered from the madness of Garn’s spell that controlled us all! This Dharel worries me as well. He may take advantage of the girl if I do not stop him!” Lady Chian sighed.
“Ye’ve got more than that girl to worry ye’rself about now! Ye also have to deal with the likes o’ me!” said a striking woman who stepped out of the shrubbery and growth that covered the clearing. She wore black leather pants and a top of the same material. Her hair was fiery red and came down toward her elfin face in a row of jagged bangs. Her icy blue eyes blazed with an intensity and passion that gave even Chian pause.
“Who are you?” said Chian as she scowled and drew her sword. “What is your problem with me? I will warn you that I am in no mood to trifle with you!”
The other woman smiled coldly. “Well, now, that’s more than fine with me! I’m nae going to trifle with ye. I’m aiming to do nought but cut you down where ye stand!” she said as he raised her own sword and raced forward.
Chian lowered her blade and blocked the woman’s first swing. The clang of the swords rang out in the empty glade, and Chian darted aside nimbly even as her foe stepped closer and spun her blade around to deflect Chian’s own weapon.
“Come on! Is this all ye kin do?” mocked the redhead. “I thought a kin-stealer like you would give me more of a fight!”
Ducking her foe’s swinging blade, Chian rolled across the green to rise up and connect with the flat of the blade.
The other woman staggered aside and kicked her in the face. “Oh? Now, did that get a rise out o’ ye? Good! Let me see how ye like this!” she said, jumping in the air and allowing Chian’s own attack to sail below her feet. Landing, she elbowed Chian in the nose before whirling around to bring her sword down across the green-clad woman’s back.
Before they could continue their fight, a blonde girl of ten years of age ran forward and shouted at them. “Owyns, Chian — stop! Stop it!” she said.
Chian and her foe dropped their blades and glared at each other as the girl drew closer. “Lyla? You know this vixen?” asked Chian.
The woman in black leather glowered and said, “Aye, that she does! I be her sister! I’ve come to rescue her from the likes of you!”
“Owyns, Chian saved me from Da’!” said Lyla. “He wanted to give me to the slavers! She is my friend!”
“She saved you, aye, but for what purpose?” said Owyns. “You know nought about the world, child! She may have designs o’ her own!”
“Your father the Huntsman wanted to give Lyla as payment for your tribal debts,” said Chian. “I stopped that. She came with me of her own free will!”
Placing both hands on her hips, Owyns said, “Be it so, girl? Well, then mayhap I was a bit hasty. Still, kin be kin, and I’ll be takin’ the girl with me!”
“I will cut you down where you stand before I allow anyone to take her back to that cruel fate!” vowed Chian.
“Will ye?” said Owyns. “Will ye indeed? I rather doubt that! I be countin’ the bruises ‘pon you left by my strong arm. I don’t think ye can stop me, but I will tell ye plainly that I want nothing more than to see her safe. Our da’ was a brute. I ran away from him years ago. I don’t wish to see his face again this side of the Cold Lands.”
“Come with me,” said Chian. “We will talk. You can see the city. You and Lyla can talk as well.”
Taking her sister by the arm, Lyla said, “Owyns, come with me now! Please! Ye’ll like it here!”
“Very well, child! I’ll give ye a chance!” said Owyns as she nodded slowly and studied Lady Chian coldly.
As Mara winged her way over the city in her white dragon form, she failed to notice a group of irate people who stood sorrowfully before a ruined building. They muttered and cried and some shouted in anger, but the girl was lost in thoughts of her own and did not notice them.
The oldest man in the group seemed to be some kind of spokesman. Turning to face the others, he spoke in measured tones like a skilled orator. “Friends, this sight brings me near to tears,” he said, “but rather than submit to such useless sorrow, I will instead rouse myself into a purposeful anger! This temple, once sacred to the great goddess Deedra, was defiled and left in ruin during the dark days of Garn Daanuth! Now he is dead, and we are free to restore the shrine to its lost glory! We will not forget the pain we feel now as we see the earth mother’s hearth left in ruin. We will move forward, though, and restore it to even greater beauty than it knew before!” The crowd roared in approval.
In another part of the city, another group met with equal anger and emotion. They were a group of outlaws who had long used the abandoned city as their base. Their leader was a big bald man with a skull etched upon his bald pate in red and blue hues. “We won’t let those refugees from the City of the Golden Gate drive us out!” he cried. “We’ve ruled these streets for years, and we’ll continue to do so! So swears Skullus!”
The dirty and brutal group echoed his boasts and pledged their loyalty.
Finally, a more fearsome crowd had assembled in a darkened chamber that was barely illuminated by a few flickering and smoldering candles. They came from different walks of life. Some were dirty and wore barely enough to keep them warm, but others were dressed in the rarest of silks or wore gaudy jewelry from foreign lands. Still, the odd group shared the same expression of almost hypnotically induced rage.
They moved and shouted as music filled the room, and a young man with artfully upswept and dyed hair sang to the masses on an elevated stage. His words were slurred as if by narcotic influence, but the audience appeared to understand his message clearly.
There was something sinister about his singing, and the atmosphere was heavy and dark with a hint of danger and death. He lowered his voice to a whisper, and the song ended as the entire crowd screamed or raised their hands in salute to his performance. The young man named Dharel smiled in recognition as a dark-gowned beauty stepped onto the stage and placed one hand on his arm.
Her nails were bright red and sharply shaped. She was pale, but her brilliant red lips and heavily painted eyes stood out in sharp contrast to her pallor. She wore a filmy black gown with high heels and long, fingerless white gloves. She spoke in a voice that alternated between a sweetly toned aubade and a raspy croak. “Do you feel the power and the presence?” she asked them. “The darkling prince hears your cries, and he stirs. Know that he will remember your worship and reward it when he comes into his own. Cursed Tynan’s spell shall not hold him forever! Until the day of awakening comes anew, we will carry on in the name of Kr’rth, and we will do what would please him. We will bring death and pain to this place, and in so doing we will sanctify it in his name!”
“Kr’rth! Kr’rth! Kr’rth!” screamed the cult as the sultry abbess of Kr’rth smiled in appreciation.
Within the crowd stood the now-human Mara. Having arrived moments before, she stared at Dharel with adoration in her wide eyes. Moving along with the mob, she seemed to retain none of her former spirit or self-will.
Although the outlaws led by Skullus and the worshippers of Deedra did not realize it, their own rage and passion also fed the slumbering Kr’rth, just as did the frenzied cries of his cult. In a place not of this realm, the sleeping monster stirred slightly and then remained still again.