Crystal Conundrums: Thunderstrike
The lands of Draygonia were vast and fertile, conquered and cultivated, a testimony to the Emperor's management skills. And the Draygonian soldiers patrolling those fields and orchards, eyes alert for illegal acts ranging from stealing apples to speaking sedition, were testimony to his military might. Gebrel avoided them. The soldiers carried powerful bows, their quivers filled with heavy arrows tipped with sharp steel heads. After watching them fire over thirty arrows, three volleys from ten bows, to murder a single fugitive, a runaway serf, Gebrel began making considerable usage of his Change, Paralysis, and Telepathy skills, avoiding battle rather than meeting them head on.
Not that this stopped him from gleaning from the efforts of the Draygonian serfs, of course. That very evening, he was hidden in an apple tree, positioned among the branches so that they formed a fairly comfortable, very secure hammock. Rather than pause for food as he'd travelled, he'd snatched food as he moved along, an egg or two from the chicken coop here, a string of sausages hanging from the rafters of a barn there. Only a few apples from that tree had disappeared down his gullet, cores and all, rather than leave them lying about the trunk to alert the soldiers. He was wrapped in a thin blanket for warmth, and his body was at rest.
His mind was not.
Gebrel! It's good to hear from you again!
Same here. How are you holding up?
I manage. The Emperor wants me alive and unharmed, but the soldiers and the "Finest Four" have their own designs.
Gebrel felt a chill. Did they hurt you?
I'm not a fighter... but I have some powers of my own. The soldiers think Kelbesque has claimed me, and they don't want to cross him. The Finest Four all think I'm the Emperor's new concubine, and they REALLY don't want to cross him.
What happened to the old concubine?
There wasn't any. Emperor Draygonia only has eyes for a woman named Asina, from Portoa.
So I've heard. Gebrel's tone was wry.
I take it you've met? Mesiah's was crisp.
Well... she IS one of the four wise "men."
Oh. Mesiah paused for a moment. What is she like?
Everybody loves her, not just the Emperor. But her only lover, in the more physical sense, is Kensu, another wise man.
And how do you feel about that?
Gebrel's mental voice assumed an air of melodramatic romance. My heart, my soul, my loins, all of them burn for you and only you, my violet tressed maiden. I would walk a thousand leagues just to hear your voice, I would face a thousand foes just to hold you in my arms...as a matter of fact, I'm doing just that.
Mesiah gasped for breath, as she waited out her peals of laughter. Oh, mercy, that was good. But don't think I'm going to just fall into your arms any more than the last time.
What if I give you flowers this time?
Good night, Mesiah.
Good night... you big jerk... she snickered as she signed off. Gebrel chuckled to himself and snuggled up in the thin blanket as best he could, before falling asleep.
Next morning, he half fell out of the tree, and spent some time in stretching, working stiffened muscles and joints, as they protested their confinement in the unyielding branches. Grabbing up a couple of apples for breakfast, he set out once again.
He moved on through the vineyards, where he snapped up handfuls of sweet juicy grapes as he moved along, making himself appear a soldier in the presence of serfs, a serf in the presence of soldiers. He passed through a pasture, and feeling thirsty, snuck underneath a cow and took some milk fresh from the source. Next came a pumpkin patch-and Gebrel almost got caught by an alert guard. Quickly paralysing the soldier, he rearranged his limp form to make it appear the man had stumbled and knocked himself out. Briefly contemplating the thought of a pie or mash, Gebrel dismissed the thought and moved on. Finally, he reached the end of the farmlands, and the beginnings of Mt. Hydra.
Mt. Hydra was formed of an active volcano, and it showed in the geological formations, pumic stones and volcanic ash littering the trails, fissures in the rocks creating narrow ravines to pass through, narrow crevices to squeeze through, and tubular tunnels formed of lava flow from long ago. Gebrel made his way through the mountain, guided by his compulsion, towards the secret lair of the resistance. Soon, he found it.
Two men in red leather vests, headbands, and trousers, suited for the warm volcanic atmosphere, and blending in with the rocks, stood guard. Gebrel called out, "Ho! Shyron!" The two men immediately drew their blades, set to challenge the intruder. Not a very friendly greeting, Gebrel thought. Um, um... let's try this...
"Oh! Hello, Stom! How'd... I thought you were already inside the fort?"
"Do I look like I'm inside the fort, handsome?"
The guard blushed crimson. "Please enter." And the handsome figure stepped past the guards, into the interior of Shyron-and face to face with his duplicate.
Stom eyed him up and down appreciatively. "You do that very well. It's as if I was looking in a mirror."
"Thanks." Gebrel smiled as he reverted to his true form. They clasped hands, then pulled each other into a fierce embrace. "I figured it'd be easier getting in here if I wasn't a stranger."
Stom shrugged. "We're on constant alert. Draygonia searches for this place night and day. Come, let me give you the grand tour."
Nestled in a small gorge within Mt. Hydra, Shyron was built on the fertile soil that can be found on the slopes of a volcano. The buildings, of sturdy local stone and ordered in neat rows, were seperated by alleyways filled with vines, grape vines, tomato vines, even a few pumpkins, growing to impressive sizes in the rich topsoil. "Of course, even all this can't feed us all," Stom said, as they approached a scowling, bearded man, glaring at a checklist in his hands. "Meet our logistics and supply officer."
Akahana looked up as they approached. Then his jaw dropped. Stom noted his surprise and turned to look at Gebrel. "Gebrel! Stop that!"
Gebrel grinned infectiously as he reverted again. "Sorry, I just couldn't resist."
"Aren't you supposed to use your powers responsibly?" Akahana grunted.
"First time I ever heard that one, boss." Gebrel clasped hands with Akahana, who scowled, before permitting himself to smile.
"Get out of here, you sword wielding psycho. I've got inventory to go over." Akahana turned to a man running up, and bellowed orders, criticisms, and threats, in a continuous barrage, a deafening monologue.
"Akahana's the one to thank for our food supply. We supplement with what we can grow here, but most of our food gets shipped through his people in Goa. Even then, meat's pretty hard to come by. Just try herding cattle through Hydra..."
They moved on, to the training hall. There, Tornel, clad in his customary blue vest, motioned for the class to continue to drill, as he clasped hands with Gebrel, before taking Stom's face in his hands and tenderly kissing him. "Good, you finally made it," he said, after finally letting Stom go. We're training these people here." He paused to shout out to a student, "with INTENT! Swing the sword like you mean it, like you would in a real fight!"
"The people training here are all fools," Stom muttered, shaking his head. "I'm worried."
"We have to take what we can get. We have a lack of men and are having troubles. Because of that armor..."
"Armor?" Gebrel blinked.
"They've refined their armor. This new stuff is stronger than anything we've seen before. Our swords can't hurt them unless we hit a joint, and since their swords are made out the same stuff..." Tornel yanked one end of his mustache. "...we are losing the battle. Our medical staff can't keep up with the wounded." Tornel bit his lip, then turned back to his class. "Pair up! Sparring..."
Stom led Gebrel on, to Asina, in the hospital. She sat at a table, crushing chunks of sugar into small granules. Her soft silks were replaced by blue robes of sturdy cloth, stained from her work. She brushed her hair away from her face, then looked up. "Gebrel!" She stood up, and embraced him fondly, before giving Stom a hug and kiss of his own.
"That was nice, even if it's wasted on me," Stom grinned affably. "Just don't let Tornel catch you, or he'll get jealous."
"Oh, is he a real bear?"
"More like a pussycat... Gebrel?" Stom glanced over to where Gebrel was standing over a wounded man. His chest was covered by heavy blankets, his body shivering fiercely. Gebrel looked askance at Asina.
"Infected chest wound. High fever, complications." Asina picked up the herbs and walked over to the man, lifted the covers to reveal a sucking puncture wound, packed with gauze. As Stom clenched his jaw and Gebrel swallowed heavily, she removed the gauze, washed off a syrup that coated his chest, then gently applied the sugar to the wound. The patient went rigid with pain at the touch of the granules, and gritted his teeth as he whimpered. "Hush. It's all right," Asina soothed, as she finished applying the sweetener. "Granulated sugar, to fight the infection." She grabbed a fresh wad of cotton. "Fresh gauze, to keep the wound sterile. There, that's not so bad, is it?"
"Oooo...please..." the man whispered, "give me water...oooo..." Gebrel watched as Asina poured water from a pitcher, into a cup, and held it to the man's lips. Gebrel chewed his lip, then drew the Sword of Water. With a slight surge of power, he applied a cold shaft of metal to the man's burning forehead. "Oooh..." He relaxed slightly, as the water slid down his throat, and the cool metal on his forehead relieved his fever. Soon, the patient subsided into unconsciousness.
"Gebrel, Zebu is waiting for you in the back of the temple," Asina murmured, as she stroked her patient's clammy brow, "go see him immediately." She moved on to her next patient, a man whose sheet covered form terminated abruptly where a leg should be. After a final glance at the wise man lost in her work, Gebrel left.
Gebrel found the temple at the highest point of the gorge, a charming little shrine for meditation and counsel. Striding past the stone pillars and heavy wooden doors, Gebrel found himself in a room with rich furnishings, soft red carpet over tiles of deepest azure. Sitting cross legged on the floor, at one side of the room, was the wise man of Leaf, Zebu. His face wrinkled up like wadded paper at the sight of the hero. "Great! You made it this far."
Gebrel knelt down next to the old man, bowing his head in greeting. "Hello, Zebu. What's up?" He reached out for an incense stick, lit it on a candle, then placed it in a brazier, letting the fragrant smoke rise up in misty curls. Zebu inhaled the delicious scent, savoring it fully, before replying.
"Besides the three swords you now possess, the most powerful, the Sword of Thunder, is in the cave of Styx. We would have retrieved it for you already, but..."
"But?" Gebrel arched one eyebrow.
"Evil spirits dwell within the cave, and keep us from invading there."
"So you're going to let me get it all by myself," Gebrel said in bright tones, "How very kind of you!"
Zebu grimaced. "Well, anyway, watch yourself."
"So where is this cave of Styx?"
"The gate to Styx is at the top of Mt. Hydra."
"It's got a gate?"
"They're very dangerous monsters."
"You... little..." Gebrel muttered to himself.
Zebu produced a large iron key, and held it out to Gebrel. "Take this key and go. And be careful."
Gebrel looked at the key a moment. Then he looked up at Zebu. "Before I do..."
"Who am I?" Zebu blinked.
Gebrel's mouth tightened. "I think I've run around blindly long enough. I want some answers. Who am I? What is my purpose? And what is my connection to Mesiah?" Zebu swallowed. "I'm not going anywhere until I get some answers, Zebu."
"I... I don't have your answers, Gebrel." Zebu's face was void of his customary good humor. "You'll have to speak with Azteca, when he comes back."
"And just when will he be coming back?" Gebrel's voice fairly dripped with irony.
"Within a couple of days," Zebu shrugged. "Certainly enough time for you to get the Sword. And time is of the essence, Gebrel."
Gebrel stared at Zebu long and hard. "All right," he said at last. "I'll get the Sword. But then I'd better get some answers, or Draygonia can claim the world for all I care. I'm getting sick of being treated like an obediant dog." He grabbed the key, then rose up, and left quickly.
He didn't leave Shyron that afternoon, or that evening, for that matter. Instead, Stom grabbed him by the arm and dragged him off for a hot meal. Asina, Tornel, and Akahana joined them in feasting on freshly roasted meat served on flat bread, with sliced onions and other vegetables, all of it washed down with freshly brewed beer, so new it still foamed when it poured into their large ceramic flagons. After polishing off three mugfulls of the bitter brew and three large platefuls piled high with the savory foods, Gebrel was no longer feeling angry and bitter. He barely remembered to make a quick call to Mesiah before dropping off to sleep on the cot provided for him.
Gebrel? What kept you?
I reached Shyron. Then I had a huge dinner.
Your mind seems fuzzy... Mesiah mused. You've been drinking, haven't you?
No! ...Well, three beers...
Uh huh. Good night, Gebrel...
The next morning, the hero rolled out of bed, stretched his muscles for a few minutes, then went in search of breakfast. Grabbing a loaf of bread and a chunk of soft cheese, he left Shyron with his mouth full of the simple, hearty fare, a waterskin hanging at his side. The guards bade him good luck, as he waved the handful of food in passing.
Mutants dwelled on Mt. Hydra. Slickly scaled, used to the heat, with a reptile's powerful muscles and tough hide. Carrying chain weapons, for brutal flailing strikes and entanglements of prey. Gebrel's method for dealing with them was simple-he ran, using his mammalian speed and endurance, and the amazing power of his rabbit boots, leaping and dashing past the brutes.
Finally, at the top of Hydra, Gebrel found a cave entrance, closed behind a heavy grate, of half rusted steel. Forcing the key into the hole, Gebrel grunted with exertion, as he turned the key through the rusted pins. Finally, he pulled the gate open, with a shriek of protesting hinges. And stepped through.
This isn't a cave, Gebrel thought to himself, as he stared at the brick walls, and the gargoyle statues that rested on square platforms. The dimly glowing panels on the ceiling. This is a temple... Then the gargoyles pivoted on their bases, their open mouths gaping at him. Uh oh...
From each mouth, chunks of lead began to spew forth, with resounding explosions echoing from the bowels of the stone beasts. Gebrel threw up his Barrier, and the lead bullets ricocheted off the invisible shield, as he dashed past the gargoyles at top speed, wincing with the pounding on his shielding. Past the corridor of stone gunmen, he raced, into a large room, in which a figure stood motionless. "Um, hello?" Gebrel greeted the robed figure.
The figure looked up at him, revealing-blankness, an empty steel plate, a gleaming strip of black where the eyes should be. The creature stared at him stiffly, then in a dull monotone uttered the words, "Intruder detected. Attack mode." Then it raised it's arm, revealing a long tube where a hand should be. And once again bullets poured at Gebrel.
With a mixture of the curious mingling of excitement and terror that is combat stress, with the tired frustration of yet more death coming at him, Gebrel leaped high over the blasts. Holding his shield before him as he charged up his Barrier, he came down on top of the metal figure, Sword of Water charged and ready. As a bullet slammed off his shield, leaving a small dent in the material, he thrust the sharp tip through the visor, shattering the black material. Then he fired, sending razor edged ice shards through his opponent.
With sudden, jerky movements, the creature stopped firing, and stumbled back. It's visor fell off, revealing a mass of metal wires and other strange mechanical parts, shredded by the icy blast. The robed machine fell to the floor with a muffled clang. Gebrel stared at the mechanical sentinal, and consulted his database. "A robot," he muttered. A mechanical man, used for labors too difficult, boring, or dangerous for a human. Guarding this place certainly applied as all three, he thought to himself.
Further on, Gebrel moved, past a more conventional assortment of nasty crawling things, that fed on each other and the things living in the streams of refuse that traced their way through the Styx, filled with all kinds of toxic chemicals and organic refuse. Gebrel held his breath as best as possible, and moved on, leaping over shallow fords, making his way to a staircase to an upper level.
On this level, Gebrel encountered a new menace, a new form of robot, formed of metal tentacles around an enormous eye. His powers already drained by the pounding from the gargoyles and other robots, Gebrel did not bother to stand and fight, but simply ran past them. Past the piles of heavy machinery that hummed and churned, providing power to the facilities, and maintaining the robot guards. Finally, past the various forms of death, Gebrel found his objective, resting securely on a rack. The Sword of Thunder...
Three feet of blade, just like the others, this one was curved like the Sword of Fire, a far heavier piece of razor edged metal, balanced far closer towards the tip than with the light slashing blade. Where the Sword of Fire would slice a target and lay it's surface open, this one would penetrate completely through, shearing with even greater force than the Sword of Wind. It was a sword for slow, powerful draw cuts, with a heavy crosspiece, a long bar extending over a foot in length, protecting his hand with the same aura of massive strength as exhibited by the blade itself. The heaviest, most powerful blade of the four...
Gebrel grasped the hilt with a hand thick with callous, and fingers of bone crushing strength. Since his awakening, he had wielded sword and shield on a daily basis, and now had become far stronger in every way. Holding the blade aloft as though it were a willow wand, he began taking experimental swings. Driving off his hips as with the Sword of Wind, he put the full force of his body behind each swing, following through in powerful draw cuts rather than retracting his strikes back into a guard. His feet began to move in a triangular pattern, stepping forward and back, left right left right, then more complicated groups of triangles, stepping into whirling spins, putting greater power into his slashes, a whirling dervish.
Gebrel! You've finally found the Sword of Thunder! Zebu's mind called out to him.
Was there any doubt? Gebrel allowed himself a bit of arrogance.
Tornel called out next. You've done a fine job Gebrel! The Grand Puba Azteca awaits you.
Asina called to him. We will lead you to the temple. Gebrel nodded, and opened himself up to them. Their minds joined with him, pulling him through through space, back to the temple of Shyron. He faded from the Styx, and reappeared in the temple. Three of the four wise men stood about him, while before him a massive figure stood. The black bearded figure regarded him calmly. "Greetings, Gebrel. I am Azteca."
Gebrel stared up and down at him, a process which took a while, given the sheer size of the man. Azteca towered over eight feet in height, his immense bulk shrowded in ornate robes of deepest blue. His hands, huge and powerful looking, carried a sceptre, it's steel shaft tipped with a softly glowing orb. Eyes that were glossy black orbs returned Gebrel's appraisal in kind.
"I was waiting for you," Azteca rumbled. "A lot has happened in the last 100 years. Much of it my own doing, alas." A sorrowful look came over him briefly, then cleared.
"Who am I?" Gebrel asked. "What is my purpose? Why was I in that cryogenic chamber? And Mesiah?"
Azteca paused, as if choosing the right words. "You and Mesiah went into sleep to prepare for the end of the world. You each had specific powers that could combat evil, and now the time has come for you to wield them. You must go to Goa, Draygon's main fortress, and defeat him-"
"I said NO." Gebrel's voice was iron. "I'm tired of being used like this. You people have sent me on all your errands since the day I woke up, and everytime I ask for answers, all I get is evasions. Even now." His eyes flashed. "Powers that could combat evil," he spat, "time to wield them. I want ANSWERS. Not impressive sounding platitudes. Not a promise for disclosure at a later date. ANSWERS. NOW! Or I quit. I walk out that door, and I don't come back."
Azteca returned Gebrel's glare evenly. "Then Mesiah will die."
Gebrel froze, and his knees began to tremble. He still wasn't sure what his exact relationship with Mesiah was, or why he should be so drawn to her. All he knew, was that the very thought of life without her sent waves of fear through him like no monster he had ever faced in battle. His entire body trembling with emotion, he finally released it with a slump of his shoulders. "Damn you," he sighed, brokenly.
"Gebrel! Hurry to Mesiah!" Azteca dictated to him, in no uncertain terms. Gebrel closed his eyes, squeezing tears out through his lids. He nodded.
"Wait." Asina spoke now. "He's right, Master." She fixed Gebrel with an agonized look, then turned her imploring eyes on Azteca. "He does deserve answers."
"Asina! You know what must be!"
"I know, Master. You taught me yourself." She looked at Gebrel. "But that was before I met the man behind the legend. He's not just a weapon, to be aimed at our enemies. He's better than that. I know his mind. And his heart. And his soul." She swallowed, and tears began to trickle down her cheeks. "He deserves to know. At least a little."
"Asina..." The Queen of Portoa looked the Grand Puba straight in the eyes, silently pleading with her eyes. Even Azteca faltered in the face of such powerless power. His mouth worked without sound, as he vainly attempted to argue with her. Finally, he nodded. "Very well." He swiveled his enormous head to face Gebrel. "Four wise men are here to counsel you, and to lead the people of the world to rebuild the shattered civilization of ancient times. But there was to have been a fifth. Draygon."
Zebu quietly continued the lecture. "We tried, through our powers, to lead the people in a good direction. But Draygon used this power wrongly and built an invading nation." He shook his head. "He hid the fact of who he was, and lured our best four warriors into his realm of Darkness."
"Yes." Tornel said. "Draygonia's Finest Four, were once our warriors. Lesser versions of you, to fight for all that is good and true. Draygon seduced them, by appealing to the darker desires within each. For Kelbesque, it was the thrill of battle, that mattered above all else. For Sabera, the chance to command men at her whim. Mado secretly enjoyed hurting others, and Draygon gave him that. And Karmine wanted knowledge, to learn all the secrets that existed. Now our heroes, are Draygonia's greatest villains." He bowed his head in shame.
"What does Mesiah have to do with this? Why does Draygon want her?" Gebrel asked, looking at each in turn. Azteca frowned uncertainly.
Tornel continued. "Azteca is unsure of Mesiah's exact power, but Emperor Draygon is trying to harness it to extend his realm of influence."
"You have to rescue her, Gebrel," Asina went on. "Your lives were mentioned as legends to the people to give them hope. If you don't destroy Draygonia, all will live in despair."
Gebrel's gaze shifted between the four of them, glancing at each in turn. Finally, he nodded. "All right. I'll go immediately."
"Not just yet," Akahana broke in, stepping into the temple casually. "I need him to run a few errands of my own, first."
Azteca stared at the merchant dumbfoundedly, the sort of gaze one might give to a dog, if it not only suddenly began speaking, but also requested a portion of one's dinner. He stuttered incoherantly, before finally finding his voice. "How dare you-who do you think you are- you-"
"Uh, Master?" Tornel broke in, uncertainly. "Akahana is the man responsible for all our provisions."
The burly bearded man nodded, a smirk playing about his features. "And if you want to eat tonight, I need his help." Azteca regarded Akahana warily. "Gebrel, come with me." Gebrel glanced at the Grand Puba, then nodded, a smile playing about his face as he followed Akahana out of the temple.
"You seem pretty pleased about something," Akahana remarked.
"The High and Mighty Lord Grand Puba made a bad first impression on me," Gebrel snorted. "It was nice to see you take him down a peg."
"A little arrogant, isn't he?"
"He didn't really do anything differant than the wise men. But they don't have that same attitude, that air of superiority. At least they treat me as though I were-how did Asina put it? A WEAPON TO BE AIMED." Gebrel shook his head.
Akahana smirked. "You are a weapon. The most powerful weapon I've ever seen. You're like some unstoppable force of nature. Someone points you in a direction, and you charge forward,. It doesn't matter what's in the way. You go through it."
"And just what direction do YOU intend to point me in, Boss?" Gebrel arched one eyebrow.
"Amazones." Akahana shrugged. "They owe me a few things, but they holding back. I need someone to get the merchandise here, immediately, or I won't be able to pay the smugglers bringing us our food. Can you bring them to me?" Gebrel smiled, and nodded.
In a flash, teleportion back to Brynmaer. A day's travel, to the southeast, taking a shortcut over a forded river. To Amazones, the home of the Amazon warrior tribe. Right up to the front gates, to the female warriors guarding against intrusions with deadly spears. The women warriors saluted. "Hail, sister!" They greeted Gebrel.
Gebrel smiled, touched her hand to her impressive bosom and bowed in return. "Hail, sisters. I come to speak on behalf of the merchant, Akahana." She smiled to herself, behind her disguise. All remained as strong and muscular as before, massive shoulders, powerful arms and legs. Only now, the curves of muscle were enhanced by the curves of altered hip structure and massive breasts, a truly amazonian warrior. The guards glanced at each other uncertainly.
"Since when do men like Akahana employ women such as you?" one asked.
"Oh, I've been his best agent for some time, now," Gebrel said airily.
"I though Gebrel was his best agent," she said suspiciously.
"Why, so you've heard of me," Gebrel replied cheerily. The guards stared at each other, astonished.
"I thought... you were supposed to be a man," the guard ventured.
"What?" Gebrel affected outrage. "Who's been telling you that? I'll make rope out of their guts!" The guards smiled, all was smoothed over, and Gebrel was admitted to the town of Amazones.
The town's buildings of white adobe were nestled inside a valley, easily defensible. Gebrel strode down the dirt roads, eyeing the inhabitants. The women were hard looking, no makeup adorning their strong features. Their well muscled bodies gave each other the same amounts of personal space that the men in many other regions only accorded to each other. A little differance, but it spoke volumes. Of equal importance was the lack of space accorded to the few men in the area. Such men were slender, lithely muscled from hard labor, and moved in a disturbingly demure manner. The older, attached men refused to look any woman in the eye, seeming to fade into the background. The young men would glance flirtaciously at the women about them, seeking prospective mates. Gebrel received many such looks, as she moved along, seeking the palace of the Amazonian Queen, a building no differant than the others, only quite a bit larger. Despite her constant efforts to stay in character, she could not help but notice that many of the women continued to wear skirts and dresses, particularly the young women. The men, for their part, wore tight pants and open shirts, exhibiting themselves for the benefit of the women. Gebrel returned a smile from one young man, and was shocked to realize that the youth was wearing makeup, for a clear complexion and dark eyelashes. Deeply shaken in a way she could not explain, she continued on.
Striding up to the palace, she adressed the guard. "Ho, fellow warrior. I am Gebrel, the Merchant Akahana's emmisary to the Queen."
The guard raised an eyebrow. "I'd heard..."
"That I was male? Do I look it?" The guard laughed, and shook her head. "Akahana is owed certain valuables by the Queen, and has sent me to receive payment."
"Aryllis giving that jerk a hard time again?" the guard scoffed. "Akahana's supposed to be a real... man, from what I've heard, but Aryllis shouldn't provoke him like that."
"Aw, Akahana's not so bad, once you get to know him."
"Are you kidding? He surrounds himself with pretty girls all the time! Makes them wait on him hand and foot..."
"All the girls in Portoa are pretty," Gebrel grinned. "Akahana takes pretty good care of his employees."
The guard nodded. "Just as we take care of Aryllis. She is good at hunting," she shook her head, "but she thinks fashion is more important. She just HAS to look beautiful."
"To each her own." Gebrel shrugged. The guard nodded, and led her inside, announcing her entrance.
"Your majesty, I present the mighty warrior Gebrel, in service to the merchant Akahana." The guard bowed, then withdrew.
Aryllis brushed died green hair back from a lovely heart shaped face. "You're Gebrel? But I thought... never mind." She smiled. Gebrel noted that she, unlike most of the women she ruled, wore makeup, a delicate touch of lipstick and blush. "Welcome to Amazones. I'm their gorgeous leader Aryllis."
"So you are." Gebrel bowed before her, then whipped her long hair back over her shoulder.
"Please, make yourself at home and rest for a while." At the wave of her hand, several charming young men began bringing in little tidbits, freshly roasted meat served between slices of bread with cheese and onions. "They're called handmeals," Aryllis explained. "You can eat them while hunting, with your bare hands. Quite tasty."
"Mmmmph mmphph." Gebrel heartily agreed. Then tried to react positively when one of the young men rubbed a hand over her arm suggestively. She smiled and nodded to the boy, who blushed and lowered his eyes. Another young man handed her a mug of clean water, and she washed down the mouthful.
"Your majesty," Gebrel began, when she'd finished the handmeal, "Akahana claims that certain payments owed are still outstanding..."
"Yes, for the Kirisa perfume. That horrid little man," she wrinkled up her nose. "Gebrel, you've dealt with him personally, you know what he's like. Tell, me, why don't you just forget him, and stay in our land? Why should I send him anything?"
"I can think of several such reasons, my lady." Gebrel began ticking them off on her fingers.
"One-it's a matter of honor. You have a debt to pay, and it must be paid.
"Two-Akahana is a good man, in his own way. I don't know what you would consider crimes, but I do know that he has never forced a woman to his bed, that he treats his female employees the same as his men, and that he is, in general, a hard but fair man.
"Three-it took quite a bit of doing for me to get those Kirisa plants, and I'd be very upset if it was all for nothing."
"You... you did? You obtained the Kirisa plants? I..." The Queen bit her lip, then nodded. "Bring the promised merchandise!" she called out, then looked at Gebrel. "You are so kind... I must reward you." She reached for her bow and quiver, then handed the bow to Gebrel. "My personal bow, brave warrior. And the Arrow of Moon." She withdrew a fine looking arrow, made completely of silver and copper. "This arrow is an artifact of legend, one of two ancient tools. The other, the Arrow of Sun, is said to be hidden on Mt. Shyron. The legends speak of great deeds being performed when both are reunited."
Gebrel accepted both items gratefully. "I thank you for this gift," she said. "Something tells me I'll be seeing that other Arrow soon enough."
The Queen grinned, and nodded. "Your beauty and modesty are worth more than the finest jewelry," she said, as a heavy chest, open to show it's contents, was placed before Gebrel by two of the young men. "Go in peace." Gebrel nodded, and hefted the chest almost effortlessly.
Gebrel exited the palace, chest in hand, then heard a faintly familiar voice call to him. "Hello, Gebrel. It's been a long time." She turned, and saw an Amazonian warrior, leaning against an adobe wall with arms crossed. Gebrel peered at her. "Brynmaer, remember?" She arched one eyebrow.
Gebrel nodded with realization. "Yes! I bought you a drink, the night before I left for Tornel's..." she trailed off, and stared at her with widened eyes.
The Amazon peered at her through narrowed lids. "How'd you do it?"
"I've learned a few new tricks since we last met. It's a pretty helpful spell."
"I bet." Her lips twisted in a half smile. "So... why shouldn't I raise the alarm?"
"I..." Gebrel flushed, at a loss.
"Give me a reason." She unfolded her arms, and advanced on him, slowly.
Gebrel flushed. "I need to get this back to Shyron, or people will starve."
"Other men?" She was now standing very close.
The Amazon nodded. "Why don't we take this conversation someplace private?" She glanced in the direction of her home.
"I... there's someone in my life, already..." Gebrel stammered, apologetically.
"Oh." She backed away a step. "What's she like?"
"Strong. Smart. Tough. She's in a very bad situation right now, but she didn't lose her cool. Not once." Gebrel's voice took on that vibrant, happy quality it always assumed, whenever she spoke of Mesiah.
"Ah. Then you'd better go help her." She turned and left, without another word. Gebrel watched her leave. Then she left the town limits, returned to her true form, and teleported back to Shyron.
Akahana received him with great delight. "Well done, kid!" He opened up the chest, revealing a collection of precious pieces of jewelry. Including a bracelet...
"Can I have that bracelet?" Gebrel asked suddenly. Akahana glanced at him, then nodded and handed him the piece. Gebrel ran his fingers over the piece and smiled. Holding the bracelet of blue with one hand, he grabbed the Ball of Water with the other. And affixed to the indentation. It locked into place with a click. "The Blizzard Bracelet," he murmered. He placed the Bracelet on the rack on his special sheath.
That night they planned a feast even more grand than the night before. Gebrel prudently decided to contact Mesiah BEFORE the quaffing of large quantities of alcohol.
Have you been drinking today? Mesiah's tone was arch.
Not a drop all day, I assure you! Gebrel responded sincerely.
Uh huh. What did you do today then?
I finished my journey to Amazones. Many strong and beautiful women. They reminded me of you.
Mesiah laughed. Thank you for that. How'd you get in? I've heard what they do to male intruders.
It was simple. I found out what it was like, to be a woman.
A pregnant pause. Come again?
I've learned a few things about disguises. Having that big chest wasn't so bad, but the attention I was getting from the boys was a bit disconcerting.
Now you know how it feels. Mesiah's thoughts were smug.
Also, I got a few new toys to play with. A bow and this magical arrow. Plus the Blizzard Bracelet. That's three Swords at full strength, plus the Sword, if not the Ball and Bracelt, of Thunder.
So, now what?
Now I come to rescue my love. A small gasp.
Say that again...
I love you. Mesiah gave no response. I love you. Still no response. Um, this is the point where you say...
Mesiah broke in, I love you too. She pulsed warmth now, and Gebrel could feel her body crying. I love you.
Even if I am a big jerk?
Mesiah snorted her laughter. Yes. She paused. Actually, you weren't so bad looking yourself, as I recall. For someone covered in other people's blood, that is.
Gebrel snorted. All part of the job. Irregular pay, high risk, low job security. But the job satisfaction can't be beat...
I'll be waiting, my love... Mesiah broke off, leaving Gebrel flushed with happiness. He smiled, and sighed deeply. Then he went to the feast.
They had roast meat, from several differant kinds of animal. More of the flat bread, this time made from corn rather than wheat, tougher to chew, but more flavorful. Onions and vegetables as well. Dried fruits, and bars of a sweet brown substance, made from beans and sugar, made up their dessert, a fine luxury brought by Akahana and served in special honor of Gebrel. At the serving of the candy bars and dried fruit, the drink of the evening switched from large mugs of beer, to cups of freshly brewed coffee, with a selection of "liquers" mixed in, distilled forms of alcohol, syrupy, sweet, and intensely potent. Gebrel savored the hot mix of sweet and bitter, as the talk ranged from successful raids against Draygonia to philosophy to whom in the camp was attracted to whom. "You're really making it hard on us guys, you know," one guardsman blinked owlishly, as he raised his cup to toast Gebrel. "All the girls in camp have had eyes for you alone, ever since you arrived."
Gebrel giggled, and held out his cup for a refill. "Only one woman in my life, Gil. Mesiah..." He sighed happily. "Most wonderful gal in the world. Tell 'em they ain't got a chance."
Gil snorted. "I'd tell Karen, but I don't think she'll listen."
"Karen? Karen is it? I'm sure Karen'll come around, in time..." Zebu grinned.
"Of course, the one all the MEN are secretly longing for, is-" Akahana began.
"Asina," they all said in unison, raising their cups to toast the Queen.
"Well, I'm not, anyway," Stom added, resting his head on Tornel's shoulder. Tornel wrapped his arm around his student and lover, smiling happily under his fierce mustache.
Discussion of intercamp romances continued, past the point where many of the celebrants had lost the ability to be sensible, or for that matter, comprehensible. Asina showed up, a large pitcher of water in hand. "Here, drink this," she said, filling up Gebrel's cup.
"Huh?" Gebrel peered foggily down at the cool liquid. "Wha f'r?"
"If you don't rehydrate, you'll have a hangover in the morning." Gebrel nodded, with wide movements of his skull, before downing as much of the water as he could force in at one swallow. Asina smiled and poured again, before moving on. "Here, Akahana, drink the water."
"I don't wanna drink the water." Akahana scowled.
"Drink the water."
"I don't wanna drink the water."
"Drink the water."
"I don't wanna drink the water."
"Please?" A charming smile.
"Ok." Akahana drank the water.
The next morning, Gebrel rose from his blankets and stretched out, feeling only a slight mugginess instead of a roaring headache, thanks to Asina's forethought. Readying his equipment, his Swords, Bracelets, provisions, and sundry equipment and cherished mementos, he clasped hands with each of his friends in turn, as they wised him good luck. "After Drayonia is destroyed," Stom said with a fierce grin, "we'll have a rematch of our last duel. This time I won't lose."
"You just might do it, at that." Gebrel grinned in kind.
"Be careful." Akahana clasped hands with him grimly.
Gebrel moved on swift legs, leaving Mt. Shyron behind him rapidly enough. Through the fields of Draygonia he ventured, past hollow eyed serfs in the fields, hard eyed soldiers among them. To Goa, the primary stronghold of Draygonia, he continued on.
Goa was an enormous city, cobbled streets seperating many buildings both large and small, walls of smooth whitewashed wood or brick, with attractive glazed tiles for roof shingles. Fences lined the roads, with flowering vines snaking through them, a picture of rich beauty. Except for the soldiers on every other street corner, of course. Grim and surly, or sadistically humorous, they turned an otherwise lovely scene into a dreary picture of oppressiveness.
Upon closer look, Gebrel realized the beauty was a mere facade. One in ten passersbye wore expensive, opulant clothes, with their noses in the air. The rest wore the same ragged attire as the peasants in the field, with the air of people who work long and hard, then spend most of their scant income on what food is available. Goa had the appearance of Portoa's wealth, but not the substance.
For that matter, so did Gebrel, in the guise of a wealthy tourist, the reality of his musculature become the fantasy of flab, his sturdy metal armor become lacy garments of materials that caressed the skin where it touched. With one hand clutching a wisp of silk to his nose, as if he were personally offended by the plebes he was forced to step past, he minced his way along, towards the fortress.
"Now that's a good costume," a voice sneered from Gebrel's flank. With a deliberate air, Gebrel slowly turned, his lip curled in a sneer. To face a particularly nasty looking soldier. "You've even got the mannerisms down," the soldier continued. "It's been a while, Gebrel."
Gebrel stared at him a moment, sent out a cautious, probing thought. "Kensu," he cooly returned. "You were missed at Shyron."
The wise man shrugged. "I had things to do. It's not like I wouldn't rather be with Asina, any day of the week." He gestured down at his disguise. "Sorry about my appearance, but I'm trying to get info on the tower in the sky."
"The what?" Gebrel blinked.
Kensu stared at him, aghast. "Didn't Azteca tell you?"
"Azteca didn't mention anything that wasn't dragged out of him."
Kensu raised an eyebrow. "Really? How'd you make him talk?"
"I didn't. Asina did."
Kensu chuckled. "Figures. That woman could make an Amazon marry an outsider." He smiled, then sobered. "Azteca probably doesn't want you to know about the tower yet. So..."
"So?" Gebrel cocked an eyebrow.
"So listen up. There's a tower, floating in the sky, to the south. No one really knows who made it, or why. Except maybe Azteca. Draygon thinks it's a weapon. A powerful one. And he knows that Mesiah has something to do with the tower. By the way, so do you, as far as I know."
"I'm not sure of the specifics. You'll have to get the answers from the Grand Puba. That's all I've been able to find out, so far. I'm going to be sneaking into Draygonia castle to see what I can find. Draygonia sees this tower as a weapon and has big plans for it. I'll continue to see what info I can dig up."
Gebrel nodded. "Be careful."
Kensu smiled again. This time, his lips were friendly, not mocking. "You be careful too."
Draygonia castle bore the same gargoyles as protected the cave of Styx. Clad in the form of a Draygonian soldier, Gebrel passed through without a problem. Keeping his eyes moving in case his cover was blown, he stepped up to the main gate, an enormous panel of thick steel, it's surface worked into the shape of a hideous monster, horned and fanged. Gebrel waved his hand to the slot to the side of the gate, where a guard waited to challenge anyone wishing to enter the castle. He began to think up a suitable story to convince the guard to let him in...
Gebrel! the panicked voice screamed into his head. Shyron is under attack! You must help us!
"Asina." Gebrel whispered.
Ahhhh! Asina's mind was heartbroken. Everyone is dying... Hurry... you must... Asina gave a last scream. Eyaaahhh!
"Asina!" His disguise faded away, the guard widened his eyes and opened his mouth to scream, and Gebrel teleported away in a flash.
Shyron was destroyed. The only way to describe it. Buildings were smashed, the walls in rubble, the roofs collapsed. And the bodies! The brave warriors of Shyron, lying on theground, their bodies twisted into broken angles by crushing blows, or sheared into pieces by sharp blades. Gebrel turned his head from one particularly gruesome corpse, to spy two others, collapsed atop each other, holding hands in a final, futile gesture. "Gil," Gebrel whispered. "Karen." Elsewhere more of the same met his tortured gaze, women and even children caught in the bloodbath. "No..." Gebrel whispered, tears beginning to leak from aching eyes.
"Gebrel..." He looked up, startled by a body that still moved.
"Akahana." He rushed forward, knelt down by his employers twisted, bleeding body.
The merchant prince caught Gebrel's hand up in a clasp shockingly weak, for man so robust in life. "I... I should have got... uh..." he coughed, and flecks of blood appeared on his lips, "an item... I left with a friend in G... Goa..." He sighed. "Take... ring... you're... boss... now... Uh... uuuh..." he breathed his last, his grip tightening around Gebrel's hand in a final, fierce gesture.
"Akahana..." Gebrel rose, and moved on, searching for survivors. Near the temple, he found Stom. The warrior lay on his back, his body crushed rather than cut, nearly every bone broken to powder, his breath coming in ragged gasps, as he attempted to keep inflating lungs with a crushed ribcage. "Stom, hold on!" Gebrel collapsed next to him. "Let me heal you..."
"Ooooh... Gebrel... Draygonia's army came..." Stom managed to gasp out, his voice gurgling and weak. "Everyone killed... watch out for Mado. He did this... he is more treacherous than the other three... Uh..."
"Don't speak. Wait. Let me heal you." Gebrel placed his hands on Stom's chest, to mend the shattered bones.
"Save your... strength... Take care of... Tornel... Oooo...... ...... ......" His eyes stared into Gebrel's eyes, imploringly, as he passed over into death. Gebrel closed his eyes, rubbed them with his hands to wipe away the burning tears. Then he stood, and rushed into the temple, hand hanging backward over his shoulder, ready to grab a Sword. His other hand gripped his shield all the tighter, as he slammed through the doors.
The carpets were ripped apart, the tiles smashed, the braziers overturned. Gebrel whirled about, searching frantically for any survivors. Then the voice boomed it's mocking laughter, from a point high above him. "Ha! Ha! I'm Mado!" The figure dropped from it's hiding place, clinging to the very ceiling. "I destroyed those silly wise men against the Emperor!"
Gebrel flushed with rage, then let it wash over him, pass, as he settled into a focused, icy rage. "You wouldn't have killed them. The Emperor would never let you kill Asina."
Mado sniggered. "Maybe... but now you will join the people of Shyron!" Dark blue robes rustled as the masked figure drew twin blades, of gleaming, razor edged Draygonian alloy. He leaped forward, into the attack, a blinding whirl, far faster than any opponent Gebrel had yet faced. Leaping backward with shield up at the guard, he drew the fastest blade he possessed- the Sword of Water. As he caught the first blade on his shield, he flicked out the point in a lightning thrust. Mado twisted away, then took advantage of the motion for another cut. Gebrel parried, riposted.
Mado continued to slash and spin, his blades moving too quickly for Gebrel to shift to the offensive. Gebrel began to shift from thrusts to cuts, his panic beginning to show. Then he mentally shook himself, realizing he was playing into the enemy's hands. The one who attacks sets the rules of engagement. So I must attack.
He lunged forward, holding up his shield before him, as he smashed into Mado in a body check. Caught off guard, Mado was knocked back, falling into a backwards roll, then a handspring to a back flip, as he moved out of range. Gebrel took advantage of the time to slip the Blizzard Bracelet onto his wrist.
Mado stabbed one sword into the floor, biting through the remnants of the lovely tiling, and his hand darted into his robes. He flung his hand out in one quick motion, and razor edged pieces of metal flew out in a spread pattern. Without even flinching, Gebrel blocked the devices with his Barrier, and continued to charge the Sword and Bracelet.
Even as the razor stars flew through the air, Mado grabbed up his sword and leapt in to attack again. Gebrel waited until the last minute, then unleashed his power. The shadowy warrior found himself flung aside by the elemental forces unleashed, a churning maelstrom of icy shards, whirling about Gebrel in a fierce blizzard. Mado screamed out in shock, at the biting cold, seeping into his muscles, his speed sapped by the numbing ice. He rolled to his feet, in a clumsy caricature of his former self, his agility lost to his trembling shivers.
His teeth chattering violently, Mado gasped out, "d-d-don't think that you've won! Don't forget we still have Mesiah and the other wise men!" He crossed his blades, and teleported to safety.
Gebrel stared at the empty space where Mado had stood, his gaze now capturing nothing but broken statuary. Then he roared, loud and long, screaming his rage to the empty, defiled temple. "Mado!" he screamed! "Draygon!"
He collapsed to his knees, trembling with rage. "You've just killed yourself, you monsters," he groaned, through gritted teeth. "As Asina said, I am a weapon to be aimed. And you have just aimed me at YOURSELVES!" He leapt up, spun on his heel, and teleported away, to Goa. To the stronghold of Drayon. To the place where his friends waited in captivity.
To his destiny.