Chapter Sixteen

Like the Otters before, the Bears were fascinated and terrified by the tale the crew of the 'Silver Ansicc' told. The Bears were among the physically strongest Furrys of the Armygan, but even they respected magic. The prospect of Demons venting their fury on all the land caused a great deal of dismay among them.

"I didn't mean to endanger Bear Mountain", Khiray affirmed when the conversation was brought round to the fate of the Otter village. "We simply would have sailed on so the Demons wouldn't have any reason to attack you. But a magician called Ghanzekk lives nearby, who may know a defensive spell against Demons. We have to talk to him."

"The old Ghanzekk...", one of the Bears mumbled. "Comes not often to the city. Grumpy fellow, doesn't want any guests, lives on small magic for all occasions. Doesn't exactly sound like a powerful sorcerer who's got something against Demons in his paw."

"So he's still alive", Khiray stated relievedly.

"Small wonder... there doesn't seem nuthing that could kill him. Once, during the epidemic, he treated sick un's here and never got infected 'imself."

"No day older he looks than the day he arrived here", another, ancient Bear remarked. "Magicians!"

Khiray frowned. Saljin began to suspect the same. Did Ghanzekk belong to those who had found the stronghold of the immortals?

"We'll continue our journey as soon as we have talked to Ghanzekk", the Fox promised. "We can only hope that the Demons won't find us here in the meantime. My crew will repair the ship as far as possible. I'll visit Ghanzekk alone."

"We'll visit Ghanzekk together", Saljin demanded.

Khiray turned around. "Your paw's hurt."

"Will do for walking."

"And we can't fight Demons anyway. It doesn't matter whether you come with me."

"I've got a nasty feeling." Something was bothering her - but she couldn't put her finger on it. Ghanzekk, the Leopard? The Demons? The inhabitants of Bear Mountain themselves? "And I can't do anything meaningful here, either."

The Fox nodded. "Okay. I don't know what's more dangerous: staying here where the Demons could find the ship, or going to the mountains where we can't expect help from anyone. I don't have a clue by what means Khezzarrik khi Valangassis finds us, and whether he can open gates at any place of his choice. Maybe we worry for nothing, and Bear Mountain is safe."

"I wouldn't bet on that", Pakkaht grumbled.

"We'll defend the city and our guests", the leader of the Bears stated soberly. "Gollik, hand out weapons and ring the alarm. All quarters of the city and especially the harbor must be watched continuously. Call some workers, they shall help with the ship. Do you need an escort?"

Khiray scratched his head. "We should better travel fast..."

"Okay, no courtesies." The Bear looked down. "We can be very fast..." Saljin saw the attack of the Demon Bears right before her. Fast, yes. Fast and deadly. "But we are not made for long wanderings, and our Otter friends here even less. And there's no one in the city I could recommend as bodyguard." He looked over the crowd as if he expected protest. "If you go right now, you can be back before nightfall. You won't need more than two hours for one trip... I hope."

He described the way to Khiray and Saljin that led up to Ghanzekk's remote house. The Leopard was not well-liked, but most Bears knew him.

A female Bear gave Saljin a package with food. "For the way", she said. "Your friends here will get some, too. Nobody shall starve."

Khiray smiled. "Thank you. We can use some help..."

"Don't mention it. We don't like to live together with other folks, but nobody shall think we don't know hospitality just as well as everyone else out there."

Shooshun, the freight master, stepped at Khiray's side. "Captain?"

"Something urgent?" Saljin could see that Khiray just wanted to press on and no longer waste time. The Fox never had the intention to stop in Bear Mountain. They had travelled the Otterpath to save time, and only the loss of Pallys' magic wand and the confession of the Rabbit that somewhere here a magician lived who knows Demons had forced Khiray to interrupt the journey for a short time. Some of the time advantage was thus lost, but they had to adapt their plans flexibly to the circumstances.

And who was to say whether Ghanzekk's acquaintance wouldn't become much more important than the lost hours?

"Captain, I know why you took me along. I'm not young anymore, and work's hard to find for me." The Tomcat watched his toes. "I thank you for it, but... I don't have a place on this journey. There is no freight, no balance, no loading or unloading, no calculating, nothing. I'm no warrior, and I'm not a great help on the river. I'm just in the way. Release me from service, please. I'll stay here and try to retire. Me and Kinnih shouldn't participate in this enterprise any longer."

Khiray nodded. "So be it..."

"Speak for yourself, old man!" the young Badger cried angrily. "I'm a true sailor, and I won't let the captain down!"

Shooshun wrinkled his muzzle and laid the ears back. "Kinnih, you could die."

"I know. And everyone else! And you as well, even if you stay here - what if the Demons destroy Bear Mountain out of rage? The captain may not need you, but me he does! Delley needs me for sure. The journey's still long!"

The Tomcat folded his arms. "Fryyk and his Otters are replacement enough for us both."

"But the Otters stay here! Fryyk alone may replace you, and me too, but what about Kaslin-Ray? The Rat was a true Riverfurry. The captain cannot afford to lose another sailor! Saljin doesn't know ships, Sarmeen is mute and not a real sailor either, Pakkaht knows the ship by now, but not as well as I do, and Pallys... hasn't been on a steamer for decades! Who's left, now? I know the engines, every single fad, I know the ship like the pocket of my vest, plank by plank. I've worked hard to be a part of this crew, and Khiray needs every hand!"

The Fox sighed. "I'm sorry."

"What?" Kinnih stared at him dumbfounded. "You want to get rid of me?"

Khiray shook his head. "No. I'm sorry you're right. I need you. We left Sookandil with a very small crew, especially since we are sailing day and night. Fryyk replaces Kaslin-Ray, and Shooshun's right when he claims I've got no task for him on this journey. If I could have my way, you'd both stay where you are safe and snug. But we can't sail the 'Ansicc' if we lose any more crewmen. I'm sorry to endanger you, but I can't demand of anyone to accompany me if not of his own volition. And whom could I ask?"

"There are Otter ships in the harbor", the Tomcat remarked. "You could sail them with a smaller crew."

"We are beyond the rapids already", Khiray reminded him. "Now the 'Ansicc' is faster and safer than any Otter ship. We don't depend on the wind and can make good speed, but only with a full crew. - It certainly would be very noble-minded and very stupid to reject the offered help and march on alone into danger. But I fancy myself neither. We have to fulfill a task."

Shooshun nodded. "I understand."

"No", Khiray replied. "I don't think so. But I understand you. I'll pay you a leave in gold, as soon as I'm back. If we survive all that, I'll get you aboard again, and if not... then you'll have to fend on on yourself." He turned away.

Saljin looked back while they marched towards the city borders. The elderly Tomcat stood lost and alone on the street. In a certain way he had already become a victim of the Demon war.

Bear Mountain was a small city. Bears didn't love company, so the houses were far apart and served as a home for one person only, or one family. Multi-storey houses were scarce; most of that buildings contained a store or a shop besides a home. Even though the city was spread more widely than other towns thanks to that characteristic, they arrived at the city limits after a rather short time. Most of the local Bears lived scattered about the countryside.

The Otterpath didn't flow through a narrow gorge here. Opposite of Bear Mountain steep slopes still graced the banks, but the city itself and most of its hinterland nestled in a valley between two peaks. Saljin knew they were closer to the ocean level here than in Sookandil, but nonetheless she had the impression of wandering through the mountains. The landscape was completely different. Ragged rocks graced the path. Far off she could see the mountain peaks, surrounded by clouds. Yes, there would be many Trolls living here. The Foxtauress scolded herself for not asking the Bears about them. They might know them well, or at least have heard about them.

"Stop! Now, wait!"

Pallys caught up with them not far from the city. The Rabbit had run all the distance. "You forgot the most important thing!" He offered the magic wand that could build the Demon barrier to Khiray. "There's enough energy left for one application at least! I showed you how to use it."

"I didn't forget it", the Fox explained and didn't make a move to take the staff. "I left it for you, in case the Demons appear in Bear Mountain."

"And if they appear here?"

"We're on our way to Ghanzekk, to acquire new wands like this, or other weapons against Demons." Khiray patted his purse. He took along enough gold to convince the magician, just for the case he didn't want to help them. "So we're protected on the way back, while you would have no protection at all if we took the staff."

"The Bears will help us."

Khiray shook his head. "They may be able fighters. But Hhrugha khi Dmurag was almost invincible before you used the staff against him. What's the use of warriors when you fight magic?"

Saljin felt insulted - she was a warrior! But she knew he was right. Her fight against the Demon had had little success. Kaslin-Ray had been wounded... maybe he'd never recover in full.

"Take it!" Pallys insisted, and finally Khiray put the staff in his belt.

"I'd like to know", he said, "why you don't visit Ghanzekk himself."

"That's a long story."

"I'd like to hear it. Right now!"

"You were in a hurry not so long ago. Just trust me!"

Khiray stroke his ears. "I trusted you once. For many years. But you thanked me by keeping a lot of secrets."

"That don't matter to you! It's my life!" The Rabbit bared its incisors as if he wanted to imitate foxish threat gestures. "You don't know what it's like!"

"Maybe not. Maybe it really didn't matter to me before. But now it does. You predicted the fall of the Armygan. What could matter more for me? - Besides, I suspect something else. Did you really fear Dorn's Rapids so much that you rather had taken the slow route, where we'd never have the chance of meeting Ghanzekk? Or why didn't you tell us about the magician when we set off? You knew he still lived here! He's one of the immortals, like you, isn't he?"

Pallys stared into his eyes for a moment, then he averted his gaze. "Yes."

"I'll tell you why you never mentioned him. He has weapons against the Demons. You feared I'd want to attack the Demons with those items."


Khiray breathed deeply. "So you rather kept their existence secret. You didn't leave a chance for the Armygan. You'd let the whole land perish, only to stay out of danger yourself! Tell me, why did you come with us at all? Why didn't you leave the moment you knew that Demons would be the enemy?"

Pallys shook his head, sending his ears flying. "No, no, no! I told you everything! You..." He took the hand of the Fox into his paws. "I told you what you are for me. I cannot let you die. You have to come with me! That fight is madness, even if Ghanzekk has produced thousands of staffs in all those years. The Demon's power is inexhaustible. The Archangels alone can defeat them!"

"I heard all this already before", Khiray said coldly.

"And it's true! I and Ghanzekk... we... fought Demons before. I can't tell you everything right now..."

"Why don't you go visiting him?"

"We had an argument. He wanted to dedicate his life to the fight against the Demons. He wanted - to conjure them, just to destroy them the moment they came into this world. I stole a book he needed to prevent his plans. I don't know whether he ever managed to execute his plans... Some decades ago, we met again in Bear Mountain. He threatened to kill me if I didn't return the book. I refused him and fled. He never found me again. He's obsessed."

"When, Pallys? When will you ever tell me everything, without any lies or excuses?"

The Rabbit turned away. "Maybe... when you're back."

"Pallys, I won't go with you if you don't stop lying to me. You said you don't know the Demons from your own experience."

The old teacher straightened his figure. "Yes, I lied! For you, and for me as well... You never lied in your whole life, huh? I just try to walk the right path."

"The right path for whom? Not for the Armygan, for sure!"

Pallys wrinkled his muzzle. "Empires come and go. Wars start and end again. Thousands suffer, and the world still turns... turns, and doesn't change. For some, their dreams come true, like for my brother. He founded an empire. He lived in an era of peace and wealth. But tell me, Khiray, what came of it all? Who even knows the name Syrradrea, except in legends?"

"It existed, once, the era of peace", Khiray silently answered. "It existed because your brother created it. It didn't fall from the heavens, it didn't come up by chance, and many may have given their lives to make it true. But even if Syrradrea is legend today, there were Furrys who lived there and were happy. Why do you think Syrradrea is legend today? We cannot create those places if we run away."

The Rabbit didn't reply. He walked back the street slowly, the ears drooping. Saljin saw that Khiray almost tried to run after him. But they hadn't any more time. Noon had passed, and the sun would sink fast and plunge the valley in shadows. Here, near the city, the street was well-kept, but the Bear had warned them: soon it would become rather rough.

Khiray turned to Saljin. "Do you think I'm too hard on him?"

The Foxtauress saw his eyes glistening wet. Pallys was his old teacher, his friend. "No", she said. "The Demons are the most dangerous and cruel creatures I ever saw. They must be fought."

"At any cost?" The Fox raised his arms. "I cause Pallys grief by just asking about things he doesn't want to remember. I know there are things I won't talk about myself, things I refuse myself to be reminded of..." On a sudden impulse, he hugged the Foxtauress tightly. "Oh, Saljin! Why do we have to make those decisions, do those things, just to prevent even more grief coming to bear?"

She looked in his eyes. "Because there's no one to do it for us."

He smiled weakly. "Yes, that's it, isn't it? We have to become heroes because no one else does this work for you. And because we are stupid enough to accept."

"Stupid?" She gently licked his muzzle. "I don't think I'd use that word." Saljin felt his hands caressing her fur. "I don't think either we have time for that."

With a sigh Khiray stepped away from her. "I know. Let's hurry. How's your paw?"

She had spared the injured leg, but it didn't trouble her now. A tight bandage supported the joint. It was neither broken nor dislocated. Foxtaur paws were tough. As long as she hadn't to carry anything heavy, she'd manage.

* * *

They followed the street that became a mere footpath after several forks. The Bears lived so scatteredly that the valley resembled a spider-web of little paths. Some didn't even have a way to their house at all but broke right through the woods. Bears lived off collecting food and hunting game - there was deer aplenty, as well as fish in the river. There was only a little farming; the Bears dug in mines for iron ore to send it to Drun'kaal: everything the forest didn't offer to them, they bought from the earned money. Ore, as well as fine stones for building, were scarce in the Armygan; no one could mine the swamp, and thus this kind of business was left to the mountain dwellers.

On their way they ate from the bag the female Bear had given them. It was cold, but tasty, and they didn't waste time by resting.

Saljin recognizes fast that, despite Khiray's worry about her paw, he was the slower one. He lived on a ship - his arms were rather trained than his legs, and he wasn't accustomed to long marches. She, on the other paw, had spent her life wandering. The gods hadn't given four paws to the Foxtaurs for nothing.

Moreover, they carried weapons. Khiray had a Troll steel sword and two knives with him; the sword was tied to his back. It was not a heavy load, but cumbersome. Saljin's Dekka'shin was heavier, but the weight wasn't new for her. She carried it strapped to her side, as was the custom, both blades sheathed in leather. It hampered her agility when she turned right or left, but while they wandered slowly it didn't get in the way a lot. She had carried a far greater load across the mountains: weapons, armor, clothing, food and merchandise.

Almost imperceptibly, she reduced speed. She would have insulted Khiray if she had offered a rest for his sake, and she wouldn't do him the dishonor to pretend fatigue herself. They had traveled for two hours now, always uphill, but their goal was nowhere in sight. The Bear had to be wrong in his guess.

They had reached a considerable height. Where the forest thinned, they could look far across the valley. Small rivers traversed the stony earth, and every now and then a more or less wide gap opened in the ground, crossed by the path by a wooden bridge.

Even farther up she could see deep gorges. Somewhere there the mines of the Bears would be located, but those weren't their destination. Ghanzekk just lived way out, all for himself, just like the Bears.

Saljin wondered what the Leopard magician did all day. Did he really develop weapons against the Demons to eradicate the Hellbeings? Hardly probable; not even the dark magicians of her own people had that kind of power. Ghanzekk was immortal - and how many years of his neverending life did he already waste on his enterprise?

Obsessed, Pallys had called him.

Stop! At the edge of the path, half-hidden under bushes and grass... She didn't show it to Khiray, he didn't know the signs. But she was sure that she just discovered a secret Troll mark.

They were all over the place, probably. Even here in Bear country they could stay hidden. She had seen that they lived here somewhere, that much she knew since the rapids - that place was not too far away from Bear Mountain. Even if the Troll city (provided that it existed at all, that it had ever existed) lay there, dozens of Trolls could still dwell nearby. Normally, they didn't build houses and didn't leave marks except for those who knew the signs. They were like rolling stones, easily visible, but hidden under everyone's eye if they wished.

The Trolls had always fascinated her, not only because she was the first of her people to contact them. They were unusual beings with habits of their own - some Foxtaurs didn't even understand the customs of the Oo'men or the Armygan Furrys, and the Trolls were even stranger. Saljin however hoped not only to understand them one day, but even to meet more mysterious beings still, those known only in legends, whispered of at the nightly fires, never seen by a Foxtaur's eye. She knew they were out there.

In a certain way she shared Khiray's dream. Travelling the world to see the world... She understood him well, even if he probably was enthusiastic about other things than she was.

Travelling together, throughout the Empire Dharwil and the remote lands beyond...

A dream. A dream that could never become true as long as they didn't survive their journey here. She sniffed the woodland air. In this clear calmness, one could almost forget the Demons. But they were there. Somewhere they waited to bring death upon them. Somewhere...


She caught her breath. The breeze carried the scent of Bear. Not of small brown bear, but of stinking monster, of Demon.

Khiray stopped. He had smelled them too. They looked around. The Fox pulled out the magic staff and took the sword with his right hand. For an unskilled warrior, it was difficult to free a back-strapped sword in a single draw; Khiray needed some seconds until it rested in his paw.

"Do you see something?"

Saljin shook her head. "No. I've got the impression they're behind us." She untied the straps from the Dekka'shin and swang it testingly through the air.

"Behind us! The city!"

"No, no. If they had come from the city, we would have noticed them earlier. An hour ago, the wind blew stronger up from the river. They have just appeared somewhere in our backs." Saljin wasn't sure about this, but there was no use in getting upset by the worst possible assumptions.

Did the Demons just watch them, or had they started pursuit already? Did they want to kill them, or did they just want to see where they were going?

Ghanzekk should have a weapon against the Demons. If they made it to his house, they were safe again. Pallys' staff could protect them once at most, but not for a long time. What did the Bears know about Ghanzekk? Maybe nothing - maybe an attack from the Leopard's side would catch them unawares.

In any case they had to act now. A low growl behind them forced them to move. "Run!" she shouted at Khiray.

The path suddenly seemed to get steeper and stonier as soon as they ran. Did they hear the Demon's paws already, or was it just the echo of their own?

And where was Ghanzekk's house? They should have arrived some time ago!

Then the Demon Bears broke from the brush behind them. They hadn't even used the path - Gate seemed to have transported them somewhere into the heart of the wilderness. Roaring menacingly they pounced on the fleeing Furrys.

Saljin needed only one glace over the shoulder to recognize that they couldn't escape.They were the Bears from Sookandil, but slightly changed in appearance: they were bigger still, the grey fur more shaggy and veined with dirty white streaks, the claws shining like metal. They carried no weapons.

They didn't need any.

Like steam engines put on land, they charged at the Fox and the Foxtauress. The muscles beneath the dirty, matted fur worked like pistons.

Seconds before they jumped, Khiray's arm moved. The green fire sprang forth from the staff, drew a line across the path, and the Demons collided with it in the midst of their jump.

The fire covered them, danced about their fur, bathed the pathway in a flickering emerald green. The Demons howled, this time not out of rage but in pain. The Bear shapes writhed, and for a moment it looked as if behind the shadow figures of the Bears the true form of the Demons appeared, many-headed monsters with tooth-lined maws and a ring of tentacles beneath the slimy trunk. But the image disappeared, and the Bears remained part of their reality.

"For a moment I doubted it would work", Khiray panted. "The magic energy doesn't only stop them, it attracts them as well. They can't go round the obstacle, even if they can pull free. First, the power of the bane has to be used up."

"We should be elsewhere then." Saljin turned away from the captured Bears who stuck in the fire like in a green glass wall, and started to run.

Where was Ghanzekk's house? Two hours, the Bear had said. But there wasn't even a fork nearby that might lead somewhere. Maybe the Leopard lived behind the next bend, maybe his house was kilometers away - they couldn't look through the forest here.

The signs lining the path... Saljin thought about it, then she decided against it. They could have followed the markings to the Trolls, but she didn't know nearly enough about the local customs. And she didn't want to endanger the Trolls. Who could say what Demonic magic might do to the stone beings?

Bears, maybe. If someone lived around here, they could ask him for help. But they had needed a hundred armed Bears to stop the two Demons - she didn't even dare to think of killing them, after her experience with Hhrugha khi Dmurag.

She noticed that Khiray fell back. "Faster!" she yelled at him. "We are almost there!" Or maybe not. She had to do something. Anything.

The Foxtauress raised her voice and called out in a long, hollow mourning sound. The Demons answered her from afar with raging cries.

But the answer she hoped for didn't come.

Khiray gasped for breath at her side. The path still led uphill - just another advantage for the Demons. They couldn't run much longer. Khiray was already tired, and she began to feel the hard pebbles under her paws as well. She couldn't carry him, even if that'd have helped. She hoped Ghanzekk had his Demon weapon at hand. If he had to search for it, the Bears would run straight through his house.

She tried it a second time and called. Khiray looked at her, somewhat bewildered, but he needed his breath for running.

The roar became a cry of triumph. The Demons were free, and Pallys' staff was probably completely useless now.

A strange voice mingled with the noise, an incredibly deep rumble, as if the mountain itself talked - a drone that was perceptible in her paws rather than audible in her ears. Saljin stopped for a moment to listen.

"What... we... should..." Khiray wasn't able to utter more than single words. Long-distance run was a discipline that had been woefully neglected aboard his ship.

"To the left!" the Foxtauress commanded and ran straight into the brush. Khiray followed - he was confused, but he hadn't any better solution to offer. Maybe he thought she had heard something and concluded that Ghanzekk was near.

The forest thinned. They ran downhill now, a great relief for their aching legs, but the undergrowth impeded their movement. They had to jump over roots and fallen trees, while the Bear Demons probably would break right through.

Then the forest opened. In front of them a big meadow spread, a slope that led down to a small river. Beyond that brook the forest began again abruptly, but that clearing - maybe created by a fire - was open space. If they had to fight, then they'd do it here where no surprises could suddenly jump from the trees.

Erratic blocks covered the meadow. Thousands of years ago, glaciers had carried them here, so it seemed, and forgotten them while slowly melting away. Wind and weather had only slightly smoothened their sharp edges and left the bizarre forms untouched for the most part. Some of the rocks were twice as high as Saljin and weighed many tons.

She and Khiray ran from the edge of the forest to the center of the clearing. In the middle of the rock formation Saljin stopped.

"What..." Khiray caught his breath only slowly. "Where... is... house?"

The Foxtauress shook her head. "I don't have a clue. The Bear only guessed how long we might need. Maybe it's still half an hour away. We can't run that far." She could, but Khiray didn't.

"Why... we here?"

"We fight as long as we can."

"Madness! They'll... kill us!"

"No, we..." She didn't come around to give Khiray an explanation, because at that moment the Bear Demons left the forest. They flew from the underwood in a cloud of torn branches and splintering twigs and gallopped down the slope, aiming directly at the waiting Furrys.

Saljin raised her Dekka'shin. Khiray tried to make a threatening gesture with the sword, but he only succeeded in looking like a totally tired and worn-out Fox. The Demons didn't laugh about him - laughing didn't belong to their repertoire. They simply charged on.

Khiray looked at the monsters, as bravely as someone in his situation could be. The Foxtauress wished she could have encouraged him, but the Demons - as improbable as it was - could have suspected something.

And if she was wrong?

She looked around for the last time.

If stone was nothing but stone?

Then death would come fast for them.

Pallys' staff fizzled in Khiray's hand and spewed forth a few sparks. Then it went out completely. The Fox dropped it and took his sword in both hands - he had seen the Bears fighting. They had no chance...

The Demons pounced at them, and this time there was no green fire to stop them.

But in the middle of the attack a hand caught them, bigger than their own paws, and bashed against their bodies. The Bears were thrown back in midair and fell heavily to the ground. The rock moved, unfolded from its sleeping position, took on a different form. Edges merged, limbs grew out of smooth surfaces, and the Troll rose.

It was bigger than the Bears - four meters, Saljin estimated. His legs were rocky stumps; Trolls weren't fast runners. But his arms, almost reaching to the ground, moved like giant flails.

Khiray stared at the Troll, unbelievingly. Then he fell to his knees.

Two arms, two legs, one head - insofar the Trolls resembled most other races (except Saljin's own). But that was as far as resemblance would go. The head had no visible eyes - Saljin, who knew the Trolls, could tell that their eyes consisted of dozens of ruby red splinters distributed across the front side of the head. Mouth or nose weren't visible, and the head connected to the shoulders without neck, unmovingly.

The whole body looked as if hewn from granite, but unfinished, as if the artist had chiselled the rough form at first and had gone off to dinner. Edges and bulges protruded from the being. As it moved, the rock at its joints became liquid, flowing to the new form - not always in a way expected by Furrys, as if the two-legged form was nothing but a politeness, as if the Trolls could imitate any shape at free will.

The Troll made a step in the direction of the Bears. The Demons got up and started to repeat the attack with even more force. They didn't mind that the Troll was many times bigger and heavier than they were - the madness of destruction hold them in its claws.

Or maybe that was their usual state - after all Saljin knew of the Bears, that was an obvious possibility.

Saljin tried to keep the Troll between herself and the Bears and hoped Khiray would follow her example. The fight was not over yet. If the Demons avoided the Troll's hands successfully and got through to the wanderers, they had won. The Foxtauress didn't delude herself about the span of time she could manage to fight back the Hell creatures.

But she didn't need to worry. A second stone unfolded with a grinding sound, stretched out, flowed upward and gained shape. And a third...

None of the rocks on the meadow was truly a rock. Everywhere Trolls rose, disturbed from their sleep by Saljin's cry for help. Big Trolls, even bigger than the first one - small Trolls, not even as big as herself. Stony, grotesque figures, as wide as high, with legs like trees and arms without hands. Towering slender giants who even formed noses in their faces (without needing it). One or two of them even ran about on four legs.

The Demons jumped again, but this time the Troll didn't just throw them back. He hit them in earnest.

The Bears' bones broke. The howl they produced was not of this world, but more fury than pain - those bodies were but disguising shadows in this level and sphere. Again and again the Troll smashed at the stinking lumps of fur, and one Troll after another accompanied him.

Hastily Saljin tried to explain to the Trolls what the Demons really were. But she didn't find the right words. How could she tell them with the few words she knew that the Demons could lose their shape and live on as a form of deadly jelly? Was that true at all for this kind of Demons, or did they come from another Circle of Hell than Hhrugha khi Dmurag?

But the Trolls seemed to know what they did. They encircled the Demons between them. The Bears put up furious resistance against the hits of the stone beings, although every bone in their bodies had to be broken. Hell creatures weren't stopped by such trivialities.

The Trolls didn't utter a sound, only their bodies grinded and crunched while they moved. The shrill screams that tore the silence came from the Demons alone.

Suddenly the Bear forms disappeared. The tentacled plantlike masses became visible in their place. No jelly - they really were another type of Demon.

Saljin went rigid. What deviltry could those true shapes of the Demons work? Could they hurt the Trolls?

Apparently not. The Trolls closed their circle, and Saljin couldn't see the monsters any longer. Only the giant arms and the neverending screams from within the encirclement proved that the Demons still fought against their demise. Whatever they tried, it was in vain; either they didn't possess the magic other Demons commanded, or the Trolls were immune against it.

It took a long while before the shrill sounds ceased, and even longer before the Trolls left the Demons alone. When they dissolved their circle, nothing was left of the Bear beasts but a greenish pile of more or less organic matter resembling neither the one shape nor the other. Green liquid watered the ground and drained away into the soil.

The Trolls curled together again. They didn't speak even now, just took their original position and their sleeping places and changed into harmless rocks. If it weren't for the dead Demons, everything could have been just a dream.

Khiray wanted to approach the Trolls and say something, but Saljin took his arm, put her finger on her muzzle and led him back to the forest.

End of Chapter Sixteen, go to Chapter 17, back to Chapter 15.