Chapter Twenty-one

"Fourteen thousand years seem to be a long time, measured with a single life span. But for the mountains that time is but a moment, and the life of the mountains themselves lasts a heartbeat only for the spirit of the whole world. Although the time past - the time when even the legendary Syrradrea didn't exist - seems so far apart from today, the world was not so much younger then. The same peoples inhabited it, the same foolish beings performed the same foolish deeds out of love or hate, defiance, hope or fury. They might have been your ancestors many generations removed, but they were not so much different in their hearts, for it needs more eons to change the spirit of living beings, than the wind needs to level a mountain.

But I, I was different then. Obsessed by wanderlust and an adventurer's spirit, I traveled already in my early years as a merchant through the known parts of the world. My brother, Daylahain, accompanied me. But while I lusted for experience and hoarded wealth, he listened to the words of the wise men, the priests and the mighty, and he forged bonds between the wide-scattered peoples with the force of his vision.

Oh, we both had our visions. But mine consisted of immeasurable treasures, eternal youth and power. Not evil power, not power to hurt and oppress others, but only to fulfill all my dreams, my every wish. We were poor back then - although my sense of business changed that rather quickly -, and I couldn't imagine anything more pleasurable than living in a gold-decorated marble palace, eating whatever and whenever I liked to, and always being in the company of beautiful girls. Simple dreams.

My brother believed that not the having was the most important thing, but the wanting. I didn't understand him. I started to become rich. I dared everything and harvested the winnings. Luck was at my side. I had bold ideas, and almost every one of them beared fruit.

Daylahain wasn't idle either, he too became prosperous. But while I erected my marble palace, he used his gold to prepare invisible bonds, chains formed of thoughts, that later should join the small single domains of that time together to a powerful empire. He became a lord, a wielder of power. I became rich and mighty in another way. But there was one thing I did not understand: why was Daylahain more content than I was? Before I had finished my thirtieth year, golden statues graced the hallways of my hometown, the very town I had formed from the oncetime village. But I was not happy. I could understand Daylahain's vision, but I did not understand what he gained from it. Even if he made himself king of an empire, he hadn't won more than I already possessed.

And I became restless and dissatisfied, grumpy and suspicious. I saw the big enemy looking around every corner - age. Oh, gold could buy magic to preserve my health until high age. Gold could buy me years of life, if I wanted that. My town had an academy of magic I had set up in my pride, and thanks to my donations the magicians there would do anything for me.

But in the end death would devour me. I was still young then, but the thoughts of my own end made me sick and old in the spirit. Daylahain didn't feel that kind of fear. He was in the process of forming something to endure beyond his death, something to make his name last for centuries. I didn't understand it at that time. He didn't only form an empire, but an idea.

And he didn't fear death. I started to get angry at him, because he didn't share my worries. I spent some time of the day with nothing else but thinking about ways to cheat death.

I visited the academy quite often. No, I never bothered anyone with my thoughts; for I believed that everyone was secretly as possessed by death as I was, only no one admitted it openly. I actually assumed that all those magicians had become magicians for the single reason of duping death, and that they all worked solely for that purpose. So they did already what I expected from them, and thus I was content just to sit there and watch and listen.

But over the time, doubts creeped into my mind. The magicians explored all kinds of questions possible and impossible, and I didn't always understand even the questions, much less the answers. And death seemed to be something that only occupied them every now and then. Not even at times when one of them died they showed the anxiety that was growing in my heart every day. They seemed to understand and accept death, and that was something I could never do.

I almost was at the point to approach them to make demands, so to speak as some kind of compensation for my donations. But then I met Ghanzekk the Leopard, a master of magic, who was about my age and pondered as well on death. He wasn't as obsessed as I was - or maybe he was, and my memory plays tricks on me, for at that time I was the center of the universe, and I judged all things only by myself.

We talked and became friends and entrusted each other with our secrets. Thus I learned about the stronghold of the immortals and the immeasurable reward he kept for those who dared to visit it - eternal life. Ghanzekk was determined to leave the academy and to search for it. I was ready to follow him. My gold and his powers would help us though the unknown far lands that stretched behind the borders of the known world.

I left my business to trustees who already proved their craftiness - my obsession didn't always leave me the time to gather riches, instead, I had already left most of my work to lackeys.

Then we set out. We wandered through a foreign world that was filled with secrets and wonders. Oo'men and other alien beings we encountered; empires and small hidden principalities bade us welcome. We gathered knowledge and asked questions, followed trails and got small pieces of big answers.

I never ran out of gold. I always saw opportunities and seized them, started deals, while Ghanzekk explored the truth behind myths. Sometimes we stayed a year or longer in one part of the world, and the gold clung to my fingers.

But I felt my time run out. The years came and went, and despite of all our research we hadn't found the secret place. We uncovered many a riddle and explored lost cultures, we strolled through forgotten cities and enjoyed the sparkle of hidden treasures. But the one treasure we coveted was greater by far. It was the greatest treasure of them all, the final reward for a troubled life in all those decades. And somehow the Gods withheld it >from us, although we both were convinced that we deserved it.

Then finally, in a country of dragons and stones, we found the truth - and the path to the stronghold of the immortals. Yet we needed another half dozen years to make our way. I was well beyond my fiftieth year when we stood in front of the gates of the stronghold, in a desert of snow and ice.

The Gods granted our wish. They made us immortal. After so many years we had reached the end of the way and could go home to enjoy the fruits of our labors."

"What is the stronghold of the immortals like?" Khiray asked.

"I would have expected that you'd ask 'Where'", Pallys returned.

"I don't think that I really want to know", the Fox stated.

Pallys nodded. "Then you are wiser than I have been. - It is a fortress of ice and crystal, a cold and forbidding place. No one lives there but one God and his Archangels, and even they are not really at home there - it is just as if they cast a shadow into this world, and that shadow we encountered there. The stronghold is filled with light, even if blackest night reigns the world outside, but it is a cold light, joyless and unapproachable, like the Gods themselves. One can feel the spirits of long forgotten times in the giant halls, and the souls of visitors of once roam throughout the windowless, mirrored corridors with their boundless colonnades under asymmetric icicle vaults. Your own steps have a hollow echo, and when you speak, you come to believe that it is not yourself who forms the words.

The skeleton of the earth rises under the ice, and a throne made from the living ivory bones of the world stands in the very center of the stronghold. Here one can speak to a God, if one dares, and demand the reward. A thousand or more children of this world have already stood there, and the God has elevated them to immortals. But no one is allowed to stay, nor does anyone want to. The stronghold is a place that tears your soul out of your body if you stay too long, and if you stare too much into the icy mirrors, you lose your spirit in them and become one of the howling ghosts that ride on ice storms through the caves and corridors.

So we returned home, which did not quite take another six years, because we stayed in my houses, lived off my gold and used my vessels along the way. All the things I purchased on the long journey were still there, faithfully maintained by trustworthy and very well paid servants.

I can imagine what you expect now. Treason at home, strangers in my home, intriguers that took my wealth. But that was not what happened. When we returned after more than thirty years of absence, Syrradrea had been founded, a powerful alliance of countries under one common crown, and that crown rested on the brow of my brother. Daylahain had become a king, and he had achieved that goal without bloodshed and enmity. He ruled over satisfied lords and happy citizens. Flowering new cities had been erected, and my hometown had become a giant metropolis. The trustees had even multiplied my possessions, and although there had been some unavoidable drawbacks, I owned more gold now than I could spend in a thousand years.

Only that my life would last longer than a thousand years. Much longer. And I had to prepare myself for it.

My brother greeted me personally. We talked for a long time, and we congratulated each other on having achieved our life's dream. He was a ruler, I was immortal.

But the laughing of his subjects made him happy. He took pleasure in the children's play, the richness of the fields, the new inventions and devices that had been built during the years. He admired the school of philosophers who praised the peaceful years and worked on a set of rules and laws to preserve the great, wonderful Syrradrea for all eternity. Daylahain hat three wives, twelve children and thirty-one grandchildren, and although he had gotten old, he was content.

And I - I had gotten just old. The stronghold of the immortals had given me eternal life, but I hadn't gotten back my youth. My brother had aged during the last five years while I didn't, and he had been the older one of us to start with, but despite this I looked older than him. He had lived a life while I hunted for a dream. He had a family, whereas I didn't even know whether I had left some child along the way.

I convinced myself that I was not too old for life. I used the gold to indulge completely in pleasures. More than twenty years I rolled in decadent joys. My brother died during that time, and another king ascended to the throne, sworn to the knighthood and its laws.

When Daylahain died, I rejoiced. My dream had carried me farther than his. I could go on until all eternity, while his life and hopes were over, had fallen prey to death, were blown away like ashes.

But during the course of the years I recognized the emptiness of life. I was rich already, I was immortal, I could do whatever pleased me. After I did and saw all the delightful things that were possible in my city, my senses returned, and I went back to work. Free of the fear of death, I thought I could run the business efficiently and astutely, thought to be happy.

But that was not true, alas. What lies beyond dreams, what is left if one has achieved everything? I didn't know how to create something anymore. Gold, gold... everything I had was gold. Women I could buy. Everyone knew who I was. Everyone knew what I was. Everyone tried to profit by my acquaintance. I let them carry on, gave from my gold, felt lonely in my marble palace even in the company of a dozen young girls. There was nothing left for me.

And Daylahain? He had had a family. He had founded this empire. Everything I saw was his work. The art, the inventions. The palaces, the streets, the silver roofs. Syrradrea had been his creation. Every morning the priests prayed to the Gods in his name. Every oath of knighthood contained his name. He was honored in the schools and universities. His work lasted beyond his death.

My trustees had bought statues and set them up in the main entrance hall. They bore his features.

Centuries passed. Somewhen I retreated to a single small room of my palace, lived out my life. They knew my name, but I was just some odd person, someone who had found no luck in immortality and riches. After five hundred years, I finally had enough. I had dreamt of eternal life, but not that kind of existance. My brother had lived and enjoyed his life, while mine had passed by when I could have stretched out my hand and just catch it.

Thus I returned to the university and met Ghanzekk. He had become the principal of the institute, and he was much happier with his fate than I was. He had dreams left, dreams beyond immortality, and his desire pushed him forward. He had traveled a lot in those centuries, bringing great power and knowledge to Syrradrea. The empire expanded peacefully because all the time new principalities and countries entered the alliance under the rule of good kings and mighty wizards, and no war ever shook the land.

I wanted to go on a quest again, searching for a new dream. Something that would made me my brother's equal, something to forget his long shadow. I could persuade Ghanzekk to come with me. Him I trusted like no other, with him I shared everything that mattered in my life.

We traveled a hundred years or longer throughout the world, we journeyed farther than ever before. I won't tell you about that time now; it was an epoch of excitement and adventure, and I almost felt as if I lived again.

But when we returned home, Syrradrea lay in ruins. A powerful neighborhood empire had perceived Syrradrea as a threat and sent its army against it. That alone would not have caused the downfall, but the king on the throne had been a weakling, the first fool since centuries to wear the crown. A sage could have changed the situation, avoided the war, but this king was none.

The war had torn the land apart and driven both empires into chaos. The roots of war sprouted and sowed hate on all sides, and the barbarians saw easy prey and invaded. The land was destroyed, my wealth lost, the beauty trampled underfoot.

Other countries rose in that place. Eight thousand years later, the Homelands - the ancient home of the Furrys - blossomed there, after the barbarians were civilized and had mingled with other tribes from the wild. But at that moment, I saw just ruins.

So Ghanzekk and I left the country. It was not just an empire that had been lost, but a dream, an idea. Tales of Syrradrea were to survive the millennia, but what had been a truth became legend.

Together with the fall of Syrradrea and the loss of my wealth - that part of my wealth, anyway - even my lucky hand at business seemed to be lost. No, maybe I just lost the zest for riches; I never had to go hungry, whenever I was in need, I managed to succeed in some bargain, and in any case I still had precious gold in many a country far away, hidden treasures only I could find, and servants working in my name, although they probably believed me dead by the time.

But I journeyed throughout the world without means, for a long time. I had become a restless wanderer. Ghanzekk went after his own goals; he was bereft of his university, but not of his plans. But I... I saw the world. Saw it as it is, full of hatred and dirt and self-interest. I saw empires come and go - treaties signed and broken. When I visited a city, I already anticipated it lying in ruins a hundred or a thousand years later, and if I chose to return later, I almost always found myself confirmed. I saw decay and death, the more since I remained unchanging forever. My scars healed that I got in small battles, and when I happened to lose a hand one day, it regrew in the course of twenty years. But I stayed far away from the violence, for the most part, and just watched what the so-called intelligent inhabitants of this world did to one another.

More than six thousand years passed this way. Sometimes I stayed in one place for the time of a life, but I revealed my immortality to no one and had to travel on whenever I came under suspicion. In some parts of the world there is no magic, and in others it is not welcome.

Then I met Ghanzekk again. He was not happy. He had perfected his art, refined his knowledge to the point where his talent alone put restraints on his power. And that talent was not great enough. He never told me what he desired, but I could guess from what he said: he wished to be a being of the spirit, free of the cumbersome body, consisting of sheer energy, similar to the Archangels - if not the Gods.

To you, that may seem outrageous - to you mortals. But if one lived for millennia, collecting titan powers on the way, living one's life in the center of immense energies, then one dreams of greater things than you ever may suspect. Ghanzekk was one of the greatest magicians that ever lived. Only the Archangels could stop him. Had he craved for wordly powers - and the Archangels permitted him his desire -, he would have conquered all the world.

But that was far from his mind. He wanted to shake off the limits of his body and his spirit, to grasp the final truths that lie beyond our mortality.

His talent however prevented this. He had to realize that time and power and knowledge wouldn't buy him access to his dream; it was forever out of his reach. For some time we lived together and pitied ourselves - ourselves, mind you, not each other. My talents awoke anew, and I gained some modest wealth for us.

Then we heard about Demons attacking a country not far from our home. Demons? Ghanzekk had an idea of what they were. He could look beyond the borders of our level and sphere and send out his astral body. He knew that they were incredibly evil and cruel, and he perceived them as a new, fitting challenge.

I accompanied him. I had the impression that magic didn't touch me, and that a magical duel like the one Ghanzekk planned for couldn't endanger me - not in the same way war or robbers or disasters did. And my gold could buy support for Ghanzekk, my friend.

Oh, how wrong I was...

When we arrived at that country - half a world from here -, we learned that a powerful sorcerer called Khurudarn had subjugated Demons and now conquered one country after another with their help. The Demons had developed some kind of magic - with his support - that could protect them >from the eyes of the Archangels. The final goal of that sorcerer was just the thing Ghanzekk had rejected for himself - to rule the world.

The invasion had been going on for years now. Burnt empires and eliminated people lined the way of Khurudarn and his Demons. We took up the fight against him, side by side with the few who still resisted his iron grip. Among them was another sorcerer, Anzikhed, who specialized in the lore of Demons and Archangels. He was the single reason why the resistance hadn't failed yet, leaving the courageous defenders to certain death.

I witnessed a magical master-fight. Ghanzekk and Anzikhed fought Khurudarn and his Demons with all means, and those weren't few - starting with the energies of the heavens down to the forces of the earth. I believe Ghanzekk learned more about Demons in that battle than in all his studies before. And I, who fancied himself a powerful man, was helpless, a spectator in a clash of titans, a toy of the fiery elements.

And in the end the Demons won. Azzhuzzim Beladanar, the Lord of the Worms, sealed a pact with Khurudarn and became the commander of his army. Beladanar was a master of cunning and strategy, and with his powers the sorcerer's influence multiplied. Ghanzekk and Anzikhed were overcome, and while Ghanzekk was taken to Hell, the Demons laid waste to our fortress and played their games with the survivors. I and Anzikhed were among them - Anzikhed, who shrouded himself in a cloak of illusions and kept hidden in front of Beladanar's eye.

We survived the Demons' victory party, we survived the imprisonment afterward, while Khurudarn kept on erecting his new empire. Somehow we never raised Beladanar's attention, probably because he was too superior to mere mortals to fear them. I don't know whether he just ignored us, or whether he was actually unable to recognize us, in the way we are unable to tell one ant apart from the other if it's not biting us - anyway, we lived through the years in the dungeon where we had been taken to rot. I and Anzikhed were the sole survivors, and we never heard of Ghanzekk again. We supposed that the Demons had killed him.

The years on a diet of dry bread and water in the company of rats had one benefit, though: the Demons did not devote themselves to our torture, like they had before, and our bodies healed again. I was immortal and equipped with astonishing powers of regeneration, Anzikhed was a magician - and although he had to hide his craft, the things he managed to do were enough to prevent him from slowly starving or from dying of inflamed wounds. My hands grew back, my eyes - although that wasn't too useful, for there was nothing to see but the occasional shine of torches whenever someone remembered us and sent us some food. And other injuries too... disappeared.

I became convinced that Khurudarn had forgotten all about us, and that only the habit of the dungeon masters caused someone to care for us, if care is the word you'd use. Maybe we even had tried an escape, after twenty or thirty years in the darkness, but where to should we go? Khurudarn's Demon empire surely covered the whole world by then - he had been invincible. No, it was quite safer to await Khurudarn's end inside the dungeon. That is the one privilege of immortality: you can bide your time, for years and years until every mortal being would go crazy.

Anzikhed was not immortal, and I never learned what plans and hopes he still had. We talked about a lot of things in all those years, but when we stumbled upon the question how to end the Demon rule, he always went silent with an icy stare. He could never overcome his defeat.

One day they threw a new prisoner into our cell. It was Ghanzekk. The Demons finally got tired of him. But the once mighty Leopard was hardly a sentient, living being anymore. His spirit wandered through another world, and his body was mutilated in so many ways that even I did not recognize him at first. I will not describe what the Demons did to him, and I never learned all of the tale anyway. But he healed, just like I did, at least his body, while his spirit wandered about in the darkness.

Finally the dungeon master died. His life, if not Khurudarn's, we had outlasted. The new master, a former kitchen serf that had fallen in the grave of the mighty, talked to us in his boredom and imaginary misery, and thus we learned about the situation outside.

After the fall of the defenders, Khurudarn had invaded and crushed ten more lands, but then his advance came to a halt. The sorcerer had sensed a great danger for himself, and while he was a power-hungry madman, he wasn't stupid. He had content himself with what he already had, and choked the land in his iron grip. Whatever the danger had been, it had obviously vanished now, because Khurudarn had reactivated his old pacts and called the Demons to earth again. He was ready to continue his plans.

I was not convinced that anyone could really stop him - even the single, mysterious danger that had ever managed to bring him to a halt, had finally disappeared; what in the world could be capable of harming him now? But when Anzikhed heard about it, he awoke to new life, and he started to plan our escape. He used his magic to cloud the mind of the dungeon master, and when Khurudarn left the dark, brooding city on a new campaign, we got away. For many weeks we fled through mountains and valleys, carrying Ghanzekk's body with us, until we had finally reached a spot that Anzikhed called his place of power. We had covered our tracks and gotten some breathing space, and during that time Anzikhed taught me a small part of his magic.

He told me about the way places of power come to be. Every living being, especially the intelligent, sentient creatures, consists of many mystic parts. One part only is the body, another one the waking spirit, a third is the immortal soul that breathes consciousness into the spirit and survives many bodies. One of those parts is a magical energy that originates in the source of all matter, energy of chaos that is hidden in the heart of every ever-so-small splinter. When the body dies, a part of that energy is set free. Sometimes it binds the spirit, if the death came at the wrong hour, and the troubled soul cannot go to rest. Sometimes it breaks free and soars to the stars. And sometimes the spirit fades, and the soul continues on its mysterious ways, but the energy stays behind - sinks into the ground, melts into the trees, becomes one with the stones.

Now, the nature of things is that those events happen often in places that saw great battles. Or anyplace where death had taken its toll and left much grief in its wake, like in a fire or flood. There are many occurrences that bind magical energy, but this is the most common one, and that's the way it happened there as well: in this place Anzikhed had lost his first battle against Khurudarn, and his hometown had been destroyed.

Energy, however, does not equal energy, always. Sunfire is different for a magician from a quake of the earth or a flash from the clouds. And it's just the same with invisible magical energies. There are some that are inaccessible for a magician, that slip from his mind like a fish from the hands of a fisher. But whenever there's some kind of affinity of magician to energy, a connection of any sort, he can catch it and use it, guide and direct it with his will.

The energy of that place, and even the energy of the spirits that walked there, had an affinity to Anzikhed's soul, since it was his people that had fallen in the place, and he himself had fought for his life there. Thus he could catch all that power and join it within himself, and while he gathered the strength for his action, the spirits appeared who had waited in the ruins to unite themselves with the power. The magician had explained to me how it was done, and trained with me a hundred times the words and gestures, until I felt the mystic energies in my soul and was sure that I could do it myself one day, should it ever become necessary.

And so he called the Archangel with all his power and the power of the ten thousand dead, and the Archangel came in a sea of fire.

And when I explained to him what had happened and how the Demons managed to hide from his gaze, he stepped out and confronted Khurudarn, Beladanar and all the Demons. I, however, took Ghanzekk's body and fled, for that was a battle I didn't want to witness.

We lived a hundred years in hiding, acting as peasants on a farm far off Khurudarn's empire, until all the living witnesses of the dreadful years had died, and only we remained. It took Ghanzekk decades to heal properly, and more decades still until his will to live rose again. Maybe his immortal body forced his soul to rest; in any case he awoke some day from his long sleep and started to make plans.

He wanted to destroy the Demons. Not only those who walked on our world - the Archangel had driven those back to Hell long since. No, he wanted to destroy Hell itself, or at least the Demons that lived there.

We quarreled. I had cared for him such a long time now that I refused to watch him throwing his life away in a hopeless battle. If only Archangels could beat a Lord of Hell, and even they didn't dare to cross the boundaries of Hell, he had to possess powers even beyond that of an Archangel if he wanted to carry out his plan.

But he answered that he could do what he wanted, and that I did not know a bit about magic - and he was quite correct in this - and therefore couldn't judge his chances in a fight. Finally we separated in anger, and he started seven thousand years of studies on the field of Demonology.

I lived on. Later I learned that Beladanar had escaped the fury of the Archangel - the Archangel had killed Khurudarn first, thereby destroying the pact of sorcerer and Demon, and making Beladanar's escape to Hell possible. Or rather, the destruction of the pact itself sucked Beladanar back to Hell, for the powers of the pact alone allow the Demons to come to this world. Hundreds of Demons had been slain, and Khurudarn's army was scattered to the winds."

"Oromar!" Khiray interrupted him. "I read about it once! I knew all along that I had heard Khurudarn's name before! That battle was the Fury of Oromar!"

"Right", the Rabbit sighed. "Although the old story doesn't even remotely match reality. Now, I told you everything: the story of my immortality, the story of Syrradrea, the story of Ghanzekk and me, and the story of how I met Beladanar for the first time. Although I never actually saw him, then. Do you understand now why I rather keep quiet about it?"

Khiray nodded. The thoughts in his head whirled frantically: Years of imprisonment under the Demon rule, a life of many thousand years... it hadn't become easier to understand Pallys, but more difficult.

"No", Saljin interjected. "One thing you haven't told us."

"Ah", Pallys moaned.

"What?" Khiray asked. He tried to imagine what the Foxtauress could mean.

"The places of power. Why are the ruins of Alvanere a place of power for you?" The Foxtauress was relentless. Khiray recognized that he should have asked about that detail himself, but on the other paw he could not expect to get an explanation for every one of Pallys' secrets. There might be thousands of them, a thousand tales...

"I lived there once", Pallys murmured. "The city was destroyed, its inhabitants killed. Not much different from what happened to Anzikhed. Death creates more places of power than life. The only places that draw even more energy are the temples where the Gods are worshipped. If you manage to become an acolyth of a God, or incorporate the God itself, you can draw enormous power from the souls of the believers..."

"Alvanere", Saljin reminded him.

"Well, well." The Rabbit looked down. "If you really have to hear about it. - As I told you, I just lived on. The days passed by me like before, I went about my work and my craft, I rebuilt a trade business. I have learnt many a craft in all those centuries, and I can do any kind of work, but as a merchant I still perform best.

But one thing was different. I had met a power that filled my very heart with fear. I had found something I even feared more than death. Demons. Should they ever return, I swore, I would flee as fast and as far as I could, no matter what and whom I would leave behind. I would do everything to avoid another confrontation with them.

If you just live during eternal days, without a true goal to follow with all your soul, that is bad enough. But fear had sneaked at my side like an unwelcome guest, and it never really disappeared. A thousand years I lived in different disguises, under different names far away from Khurudarn's former empire, before I even found the courage to return and look around there.

I was not really surprised that I could feel the power of those places. Oromar itself was without meaning for me, because I had never been there, but on the spot where Anzikhed had called the Archangel, I could still feel its power in the ground, and in the location where Khurudarn's sinister palace had stood, even for me - who was no magician - a place of power had formed that I could have used.

But nothing else told about Khurudarn's rule. His empire had crumbled, just like Syrradrea. The evil and the good alike had to make way for time, time that shapes the face of the world continually new. Time devours its children, and we who stand outside of time can do nothing but watch.

I wandered around the world, learned languages no Furry ever had heard, saw peoples that weren't even mentioned in the oldest of books, and traveled through landscapes that seemed to have jumped right out of dreams. A thousand years, and another thousand years, without aging, without feeling the hand of death, but always accompanied by fear, and alone in dark nights, even in those years that I lived out in the company of a family in peace. For all those I knew have died, all of them who shared a piece of my way: my wifes, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my enemies. No one understands the true nature of time but us who do not live within, and I saw that time is a hungry fellow.

So I learned to enjoy the company of books that kept and preserved the tales of long forgotten days for me. They brought me knowledge and wisdom and wealth. Maybe I finally held the books in higher regard than the life they represented; many told me so. I became a teacher during the times I did not pose as a merchant, a traveling sage that passed on his wisdom for meager pay, and many times I was called an oddfur.

When fate led me into the Homelands where Syrradrea once had been, I allowed myself a tiny moment of joy, because the Homelands were very similar to Syrradrea in those days. But my days of wandering weren't over yet. Pushed onward by curiosity, I followed the trail of a group of emigrants who had crossed the ocean in a small fleet. I came to the Armygan.

Some time I spent as an advisor at the Drunlord's court, but that is a risky position. I was well known and couldn't slip from one role into the next, >from one life into another. Thus I explored the hinterland instead. Alvanere was a big, flowering city then, and it was the place where I once again settled down, more than four hundred years ago. I had a wife and two little daughters, and a small shop near the city's borders. My books were well hidden - thousands of them that had survived the times. I kept them in a storehouse outside of the town. There were too many books of magic among them, books that would have disturbed my family - so I hid that I even possessed them. Just as I hid so many things.

In those days the Drunlord fought a real pest: the Pharrak. The lizard beings that lived east of the Armygan attacked the Furrys again and again, pillaged far-off villages, burnt whole cities down. When they say today that the Armygan hasn't known war for a thousand years, it may be true - but only if you consider nothing else as war but the fight of Furry against Furry. The raids of the Pharrak were no better than war, and they hit mostly the poor and the weak.

That summer had been hot and dry, and the harvest of the Pharrak seemed to have withered almost completely. Anyway, they invaded the Armygan like a swarm of hungry insects, and they even followed the rivers into the heart of the land. They took their women and children with them, and the Drunlord was convinced that they would try to settle here, instead of just plundering our wealth. But he could not allow that at any price: to have an enemy in his own land, an enemy as strong and battle-hardened as the Pharrak, would be a catastrophe. So he assembled an army.

But the Pharrak were faster. They arrived at Alvanere and stormed the city. Other than the Oo'men we don't have walls around our towns - although the Drunlord almost had some built. So the fall of the city came fast.

I wasn't present in Alvanere at that time, but had visited my secret storehouse. When I returned, I saw the battle. Now I had more than just books in my hideaway. There were a lot of magical items, some quite powerful weapons among them. I had the choice of taking the weapons and opposing the Pharrak, or staying in hiding, idly watching the fall of the town.

But to use the weapons would have marked me as magician, possibly revealed my secrets. I didn't know what to fear more: defeat, and death by the hands of the Pharrak, or victory, and the end of my secret life. I loved my secrets dearly then, and almost as much I loved my books. Therefore I sealed the storehouse and kept hidden in the swamp. The Pharrak stormed Alvanere and burnt it down. They killed all the inhabitants, and I wouldn't be surprised if they ate many of them as well. I could see the flames from my hiding-place in the fen, could hear the screams. No one survived, no one escaped.

But that was not the most terrible thing. Rather, when morning dawned, the Drunlord advanced, with all of his army, and now it was the Pharrak's screams that broke the silent air. The lord's magicians butchered them all, and so not only the citizens of Alvanere died in the ruins of their home, but their murderers too.

Had I used my magical weapons, it might have made a difference. With those tools the city's defenders could have held out until morning, and the town had survived. I couldn't possibly have guessed that the Drunlord came, but it made no difference for me. In some way I was responsible for the fall of Alvanere. I stumbled through the ashes of the wrecked city, the ashes of the dead, and I felt the energy from the deep speaking to me. Alvanere had become a place of power for me, maybe more powerful than any other. And what I feared most of all was that I could feel my wife and my daughters in the ashes. I fled this place, fled from the Armygan to the west, and traveled to the land of the Foxtaurs where I spent some decades before I returned to the Armygan again."

"What happened to the Pharrak?" Saljin demanded to know. "They couldn't all have died at Alvanere!"

"The Drunlord had them hunted down", Khiray answered hollowly. The thought of Pallys' fate depressed him. There were things he didn't really want to know. "None of the Pharrak that had come to the Armygan survived, or so it is told. Then the Drunlord equipped a fleet and sailed east. He burned down the cities of the Pharrak, devastated the villages, spoiled the fields with salt. He himself killed a thousand Pharrak, until the last survivors fled to their mountain refuges and never came down again to the plains. There has never been a Pharrak raid since then. Some claim that there are Pharrak in the swamps, maybe those who escaped the fury of the Drunlord, or some who came to the Armygan by land. But if they really exist, they are few, and they must live a primitive life, always be on guard to avoid the Furrys."

Saljin just nodded.

Pallys rose. "There is no more to tell. You know the whole truth now. I hope you are satisfied."

"Yes", Khiray murmured. Satisfied was not the right word for what he felt. But although he pitied the Rabbit, he knew he had done the right thing. Only the truth could help him with his decision. "We will sail to Alvanere", he announced. "If you can call an Archangel there who will defeat Beladanar, we have helped the Armygan more than if we inform the Drunlord first. We will worry about Galbren later."

Pallys bowed. "So be it. Please excuse me now, I will prepare myself for the magic. Do not disturb me until we reach Alvanere." With dragging steps he left the dining room and shuffled along to his cabin.

Khiray and Saljin left the hall and turned towards the bow. The deck above protected them from the rain that still poured down relentlessly and without pause. The rest of the crew was nowhere to see. Khiray opened the door of the galley. "Pakkaht?"

The Deer looked up from a pan with unidentifiable contents. "Yes? The dinner is not ready yet."

Saljin sniffed, but the results of Pakkaht's efforts did not smell so appetizing that she would have been overwhelmed by sudden hunger.

"I didn't want to talk to you about the food." Khiray crossed his arms. "You have heard everything."

"What, me?" The Deer threw back his antlers. "Heard what?"

The Fox sighed. "Don't play the fool. You did not agree to make dinner for nothing. You never mentioned with a single word that you are able to fry an egg, and if I judge you from what I see, you aren't even very good with that. One can overhear the dining hall quite well from the galley. I know that; I did it often enough. I had mentioned the dinner for one reason only: to see your reaction."

"And what, um, was my reaction?"

"The same I expected. You promoted yourself cook, to have a quiet place to listen."

Pakkaht waved the thought aside. "What a load of crap."

"I could throw you overboard here and now, but we need you too much. We are few enough; I do not want to hire more warriors who put themselves into danger, and you are a fine fighter."

"Throwing me overboard is not a bad idea at all. When you fight the Demons, I won't be aboard anyway."

Khiray noticed that Pakkaht hadn't slipped, but had deliberately dropped the mask. "I don't think it would be a nice idea to leave us standing in the rain. We need every hand. Even if I would try to hire soldiers along the river - people who do not even know what they are up against -, I wouldn't find fighters, but fisherfurrys and farmers at best."

"I'll sneak away at the first opportunity, believe me." The Deer stirred violently, furiously in the pan. "When I came aboard, I thought it would be a good idea to escape from Sookandil. In the Otter village I hadn't such a swell feeling anymore. And now I feel like I'm on a ship full of madfurrys who want to throw their lives away in a meaningless battle. I'll go ashore, and that's final. You can't lock me away or guard me all the time."

"That won't be necessary", Khiray said gently. "You will voluntarily stay with us and help us. It wouldn't be quite pleasant for you if everyone and his second cousin along the river would know about a certain dangerous outlaw running free in the neighbourhood. Especially if that outlaw was supposed to have been hanged in Sookandil. Isn't that so, Perlish?"

The Deer threw the pan back on the stove. The contents slopped over and burned on the metal plate with a hissing sound. "If you are so sly, Foxy, you should know that I just might cut your throats while you sleep!"

"Maybe, maybe not. Throats aren't cut that easily. And you are not a murderer, Perlish. You are a robber and a mercenary. To kill in battle is something else than to murder people in cold blood. Maybe you'd do it. But you had to get us all, even Delley and Saljin, and they're not easy game. And me and Sarmeen and Kinnih and Fryyk... No, I don't believe that you'd risk it. I do not intend to die, and you know that. As soon as we are in Drun'kaal, you can go. No one will ever hear about you from my mouth. Be our ally just like before. Be Pakkaht."

"Perdition! How did you know? Perlish had been hanged!"

Khiray shook his head. "Too many secrets. A Deer working as a tinker journeyman? Who has to leave Sookandil suddenly and unexpectedly? Who indeed wields the sword like a master and knows more about fighting and dying than a tinker ever'd have known? Had you been a warrior who had to hide for some reason, you had signed with Galbren's army. In the beginning I suspected you knew of the Demons. But you had another reason to flee. Galbren was hunting for outlaws. That's why you left the city instead of joining his army."

"He had admitted me to his troops", Perlish growled. "He wasn't interested in outlaws, even if he'd recognized me. But I couldn't have known!"

Khiray smiled. "I believed Perlish was dead. But Galbren was scheming, not genuinely hunting for criminals. He used it just as a method to improve his station. So it was entirely possible that Perlish himself had escaped - leaving only his unfortunate second, used as a front man, dangling from the gallows. Or maybe none of the hanged was an outlaw at all, and Galbren's victims were only vagrants that had crossed his way. And finally I remembered the rumor that Perlish was a Deer - none of the hanged belonged to that race. Then I had it figured out."

The outlaw wrinkled his forehead, then he laughed loudly. "Khiray, you are just as big a scoundrel as I am! Oh well, I'm in. It just goes against the grain for me that I mayhap lose my life fighting for a just cause - but we do have Demon weapons, don't we? Your word against mine. Perlish is dead, and no one will know better."

The Fox nodded. "No one outside this ship, anyway. I don't want any secrets on the 'Silver Ansicc'. No secrets."

The Deer cursed. "As you demand. But my life's story I won't tell!"

Khiray nodded thoughtfully. "I don't think I want to hear it." He closed the galley door behind himself.

* * *

"You knew it all the time?" Saljin demanded to know when they stood side by side at the front rail and looked across the river.

"Guessed", Khiray admitted. "I had to hear it from his mouth."

"He's a criminal."

"Sure", the Fox admitted. "But we need him. He has seen the Demons already, he won't run away screaming if we have to fight them. I can't hire anyone, really - at least no one whom I'd trust with guarding my back in a fight like this. I'd be happy if we had a hundredscore of warriors like him, but that is impossible. He's an outlaw, but he is our ally in this fight as well."

"The final fight", Saljin mused. "To win or to perish."

"Hold out or perish", Khiray corrected. "Or maybe both. All is up to Pallys."

"Do you think he'll manage?"

The Fox nodded. The rain flowed across his fur like tears. "He will. I wouldn't sail to Alvanere if I didn't believe in that."

"You're doing it for him, don't you? Not so much for the cities that might be destroyed. Because he had abandoned Alvanere. You're doing it so he can make up for it."

"Hm", Khiray mumbled. "Maybe. Maybe, though, I just want to watch when the Archangel roasts the Demons on a low flame of heavenly fire. And then we'll get busy with Galbren until he begs for mercy."

Saljin laughed ringingly. "As soon as we have him, we'll..."

A sudden memory flashed through Khiray. Fire... Demonic fire... He felt the heat on his skin, pain, heard voices. The ship disappeared from his sight. The Hell. The Hell. Somewhere Demons shrieked, and there was a sound like burning flesh. His fur stood on end. Chains, yes, heavy chains around his arms that kept him upright...

Then it was over. The ship reappeared, and the unwelcome memory paled to something that had happened a long time ago, that shouldn't bother him any more. He found himself in the arms of a worried Saljin. "What happened? What do you have?"

His muscles ached as if he had fought himself. "Nothing", he murmured. "The price was to pay..."

"Oh, Khiray!" Saljin shook her head desperately.

"It is okay... everything's fine. The Troll did it, I think - the Troll did more than just heal my body. He even did something with my memory. So I won't be Khezzarrik's prisoner for the rest of my life, although he is not in this world anymore. But it is not perfect. Sometimes I can see..."

"If all this is over, we'll visit the Trolls", the Foxtauress promised. "I will coax them into healing you once and for all."

"I don't think that#s possible", Khiray stated and straightened his body. "It is a part of me now. It will always be there, and even the Trolls can't change that. I was in Hell - and a part of me stayed there, will always be there." He looked down. "I had the choice."

Saljin licked his cheek. "No, you hadn't."

Gently he put his arms around her. "Maybe you're right. Do we have to stand in the rain for some reason?"

She smiled. "Would you rather have it a little warmer? More comfortable?"

"In whose tradition?"

"We'd miss dinner."

"Dinner? That dinner?" He shook his head. Drops of water sprayed. The rain had ceased, and the horizon was not as dark as before anymore. "I think to miss dinner will be a bless, not a risk."

"No one's tradition", she wispered into his ear. "Anything goes."

End of Chapter Twenty-one go to Chapter 22, back to Chapter 20.