Sara said the ‘gate’ stank of powerful magic. It looked like a rip in the air. The reds and blues radiated from the pulsating tear. It was a simple matter to walk through, emerging from the magical gate at the new location within a cave. There, they found a sturdy man-made wall with a massive iron, reinforced oaken door. The door was wizard locked. Someone in that distant time had gone to a lot of trouble to keep anyone from returning. Sara was able to break the lock, and dispel the magic on the door. They were high in the mountains and the air was bitterly cold from the snow that covered the higher peaks. Everybody hurriedly donned their cold weather clothing. Andrith disappeared into the night, scouting ahead while the party continued down a well-defined path.
Nighttime found them still high in a rugged mountain chain. Sitting around a small concealed fire, Bolinor kept watch, waiting for the half elf’s return, while the others slept. The commander stoking the fire sat on a log and looked at the moon. It was huge and full, a wolf’s moon he thought.
Andrith materialized in the firelight. “There is a human fort at the base of the trail. It’s big; the garrison would be about four hundred men.”
Bolinor shrugged. “Okay.”
He had obviously been thinking about something else. Andrith sat down and spooned some stew into a dish.
Bolinor asked, “What do you know of Devron, and the Drow?”
“That one man has caused more trouble and death than any other man in the history of my people. Twelve hundred years ago, Devron was what you humans call a Paladin, a righteous warrior. In the man’s single-minded quest to destroy evil, he found a sword of great power. The thing was sentient and turned out to be a banished demon lord. The sword bent Devron’s will to the dark arts. He managed to destroy the blade, but by then it was too late. He left the island, and came to our lands. It was wild then, and no human had reached there yet. It was in his wanderings that he found a Drow city. They taught him the greater mysteries. He led them in an attack on the Mystic Isle. The fighting was bitter. The invasion ended with the Drow defeated, and Devron badly injured. Most thought he had died from his wounds. So for the most part, the last eight hundred years have been quiet.”
“Do you think Devron is behind the attacks on the coast, or do you think this will end up with another attack on the ElvenKingdom?”
Andrith looked thoughtful, “Who can really tell? An elf will live almost twelve to fourteen hundred years if nothing happens. That is a long time for someone with a grudge to plan on how to get even. Now he’s a Lich, he has all the time he needs. The man is immortal.”
Andrith ate for a minute. “I think we are all in great trouble. I think the best way to defeat the elven army, would be to let the humans destroy each other. Then, when he is strong enough, he will attack. If he is not stopped, we will all be memories in a little while.”
Bolinor nodded agreement at Andrith’s assessment. “I think you’re right. I just hope we have found out early enough to be able to do something.”
The party descended to a lower slope, and followed the hills east for two days. Sara used her magical sight to scan the area. She ‘saw’ two other big camps of armed men near the fort. Each camp held close to ten thousand men. Out on the flats she saw a number of troops moving about. Camping on the hill they watched as close to forty-five thousand men arrived. They seemed to be waiting for something. Sara had also found five burnt out villages, and two empty and ruined cities. She magically teleported them back to their starting point, the cave in the mountains where they first arrived. Then they headed another two days in the other direction.
Late on the fourth night Cloe, who had been on watch, woke Bolinor. “Something’s out there. I can hear movement,” she whispered.
He quickly rose, and went to where she kept watch. Cloe hurried to wake the others.
Andrith appeared. “Cloe says we have visitors?”
Bolinor nodded, and the half elf disappeared into the night. The men and women spread out, moving towards the area. Then suddenly, there was a crashing noise, as a body blundered through the bushes, and harsh breathing could be heard. The two half elves had infravision that allowed them to see body heat a short distance away in the dark. One figure chased another, and three more fought to subdue a second that was on the ground. A woman’s scream of pain rang out in the night air. Cloe was closest to the struggling group, and without a pause she sprinted forward. The cry in the dark sounded frantic, the person most likely hurt; suddenly any sound was abruptly cut off.
Cloe ‘really’ didn’t like ‘camping out,’ and the last few days were a torment to her, so now she had someone to vent her frustrations out on. Swinging her staff with all the force her repressed feelings could muster, the man gurgled as he fell sideways, his head cleaved like a rotten melon. The second attacker whirled from the captive to confront the new threat. In the darkness the human was handicapped. The body on the ground kicked upward. The man dropped the sword he had just drawn, clutched his groin, and sank to his knees with a cry of anguish. Cloe spun. Her staff struck again with as much power and strength as before, and the man’s cries were cut short. Suddenly, a net fell over both women, and Cloe cried out in frustration as she became entangled. Her adrenalin running high, her heart pumping loudly in her ears only added to her feeling of bitterness as she watched a third man descend on them.
“Make me go ‘adventuring’ and see what you get!” she snarled in defiance.
As the lead figure ran past the hidden watchers, Nathan quickly sprang forward, pulled the fugitive down, and covered the person’s mouth before a cry of surprise could get out. Even as quick as he was, a startled yelp still escaped.
Nathan whispered urgently in the struggling figure’s ear, “We’re friends. Be quiet.” The man’s struggles stopped. Unfortunately, so did his pursuers when they lost sight of their quarry, and could hear him no more.
One cried out, “Find him he can’t have got far.”
“I’ve two here,” gasped another, as he struggled with the net.
Footsteps were heard in the dark, as they came to his assistance. The language was crude Common with a strange accent. He turned to his two companions who were lying on the ground.
“Get up, you dog eating bastards.” A kick with his foot got no response.
The man turned around quickly as a twig snapped. He went deathly still, threw down his sword, grunting in disgust, slowly raising his arms. His face twisted in fury, angry at being tricked. Andrith and Jazzel stood with bows drawn, their bodies tight with suppressed rage. Sara, off to one side, a broken twig in her hands; just shrugged her shoulders, her face a picture of innocence.
Bolinor was standing next to Sara with his arms folded, his expression cold with disgust. “Yes, can we help you?”
The man undid his sword belt and let it drop to the ground. “Bloody hell,” he muttered.
Bolinor walked forward. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Their new ‘friend’ sat tied to a tree. The man Nathan rescued stood a slight distance away, glaring at the prisoner. They all knew if the man standing so quietly had a weapon, or was even allowed to get close enough, the captive would only be a memory. The newcomer stood well over six foot. His feet were bare. His shirt strained at its seams each time he glared at the tied man. His breathing was deep with righteous anger. What was more startling was the man’s face, definitely human, but with cat-like qualities. His ears were pointed and high on his head. The nose and mouth were human-looking, but slightly pointed. His eyes, while normal shape, had the slit iris of a cat, and were a distinct yellow. He was covered in fur, so fine it seemed more like hair, and was a dark cream color, hardly noticeable as it had the same coloring as the man’s skin.
When he was angry, as he was now, he growled deep in his chest. His hands moved as if they had a life of their own. Each hand had three fingers and an opposable thumb. He had no fingernails but claws, sharp as a razor, which could be seen as he extended and retracted them from each fingertip. His teeth were again, for the most part human, but with slight points to them all. What was startling was his voice, soft, controlled, with a clear pleasant accent. He now turned, and stomped over to the small fire, and the rest of the party. He stopped as Andrith was reporting.
“It looks as if Cloe was taken by the others. There is sign of a second, what do you call yourselves, Koldorian?”
The man nodded. “The men who hunt us are slavers. They came to us two hundred plantings ago. My people were rulers here, and have been since the beginning of written time. In no time they started hunting us. Our females were taken for their pleasure. Even though we look different, our two races are compatible for couplings. Our army was the finest; but the Clean Skins reproduced faster than we did. Our females are able to give birth only once a year, in the Autumn Festival. It was a race of numbers that we couldn’t win. We number now only sixty thousand, and our last city is about ready to fall,” he sat down, a man defeated with no hope, “my wife, she was the one taken with your friend, we where hunting for the fabled gate to another world. Many Pathfinders have failed to return. My failure will truly condemn my people.”
It seemed as if once the man started talking he was unable to stop. The whole sordid mess came tumbling out. He looked as if he was glad someone else knew of his people’s plight.
“Maybe that’s what the men near the pass are waiting for; this city to fall, and then they can move on to our world,” Sara muttered softly.
Bolinor nodded. “It looks like it.”
The commander walked up and patted the man on the shoulder and said, “I’ve something interesting to tell you that you might want to hear.”
The rest of the night passed slowly. Cloe and other captives were thrown into a cage, still tied up. The slavers were fearful. Never in all the years the slavers had been at war, had a Koldorian woman dared to lift a finger against them. They argued about what to do with the stranger, and how to justify their friends who had been killed or were missing. Now, dawn heralded the arrival of the Slave Master. All the prisoners caught on this trip were brought to him. The catches were getting fewer and fewer; this lot had been survivors of an outlying village that were trying to get to the city. The men with them died bravely, but dead were still dead, and the women knew what was in store for them. There were seven, including Cloe. They were lined up and forcibly stripped. Cloe stood fighting back the pain and humiliation. Her face was swollen, her nose broken and some of her teeth were loosened, from a booted foot. Her jaw most certainly was broken. She stood awkwardly, holding her side. She knew from her healing training, that one or more of her ribs had been broken.
Each girl was just short of six foot. All had the build of a human female, but they too were cat-like. Like the male, they were covered with a fine hair-like fur. Now naked, Cloe could see some of them had vague shapes or stripes and different coloring. One girl was a tawny like a lion, and another had a light black tint, of the leopard. The hair on their head was like any other human woman, though longer, silky smooth, not coarse like a lion’s mane. The shades of color were richer, more vibrant. Like Cloe, some of the women showed signs of being abused.
Cloe’s guardian was slightly taller than the other Koldorian women; a light gray tabby coloring. Her wavy shoulder length blond hair was luxuriously thick and supple, it shone in the morning sun. She had two tiny ringlets on each side that framed her strangely beautiful face. What was most startling were her eyes, they were a clear, icy blue, like the sea after a storm. Even naked, and beaten, she still carried herself with dignity and courage. She looked with contempt at the slavers; they all knew her true feelings, it was written on every line of her elegant face.
During the night she talked to the elf woman, trying to get her resting peacefully. Cloe’s head in her protector’s lap, the cat woman’s tender fingers ministering to the elf’s many injuries.
“I don’t even know your name, but thank you for trying to help.” Cloe’s restlessness soon began to settle under her gentle voice. “My name is De Nera. My mate and I were looking for the lost portal. Now I have failed. I don’t even know if T-Nar lives,” she cried and a little sob shook her voice. “If he has fallen, then our mission is truly doomed and we have condemned our race to slavery and extinction.”
Cloe’s eyes fluttered open and she had to focus on the serene face above her. De Nera motioned for a container of water from one of the other captives, and gently lifted Cloe to drink. She grimaced and cried out. De Nera could feel wetness on her feet. She leaned sideways and could see blood staining them. The injured girl was bleeding in her urine. Cloe was enough of a master in her craft to know she was dying, but all Cloe could see was the pain the woman holding her was in. She only had to look in the Koldorian woman’s eyes and Cloe could see she was miserable, concerned for her missing husband, and the failure of their mission.
Cloe lay in a semblance of comfort, with her knee drawn up; it seemed to ease the pain in her stomach. She could hear the other captives talk. Sadness filled Cloe as she listened. These men favored Koldorian females because they could only conceive once a year; that made them perfect for working in the army’s brothels. The race that captured them was called Murdans; their women were treated as second-rate citizens, and were only used as breeding machines. A woman usually had six to eight children in rapid succession, before the process literally killed her. Most of their young women were taken as soon as they were physically able to conceive. Only the men were special, it had been like that for the last sixty years. The male population quadrupled. Each male, as soon as they turned six, was taken by the military. As a result of the breeding program, the only way the men could get any sexual relief was with a Koldorian slave. She lasted only about two years before dying. Each prisoner here knew her fate, and all looked resigned or apathetic.
Somewhere near dawn, Cloe faded off to sleep, De Nera softly sung a beautiful lullaby. The Koldorian stroked the elf’s hair almost lovingly, as her mother had done when De Nera was frightened as a youngster. She tucked Cloe’s hair behind her ear, another gesture her mother had used. De Nera stared in stunned incredibility as she looked at the elf woman’s pointed ears. Suddenly, De Nera knew with startling insight that Cloe was an outsider, so that meant she and her friends had come through the gate. Elation surged through De Nera’s breast. She ‘knew’ the portal was no myth. She furtively looked around and quickly covered the sleeping girl’s ear with her own hair. Now they had to survive, and to save the dreadfully injured woman. She suddenly represented freedom and survival for all the Koldorian people.
Sunrise started with a rude awaking by the brutal guards. The cage doors were thrown open with a tremendous bang; guards yelled at them in a harsh crude language that none of the women understood. But the message was clear; the prisoners were wanted outside. Many felt the cane or whip, one or two were dragged out by her hair. De Nera and another woman helped Cloe through the gate. There they were jostled in some semblance of a line, a protest brought swift reprisal. The Slave Master moved down the line looking over his stock. He would poke or prod, grab their thighs and breasts, and push against the woman’s belly. The third woman in line he saw was older, she had a pot stomach and her breasts sagged with the years. He pulled her roughly out of line and threw her to his men. She was dragged away screaming, then with a sickening, sudden finality her screams stopped. Cloe had trouble standing straight. She tried to focus on the edge of the clearing where the other woman had been taken, and she knew she would suffer the same fate. The Slave Master didn’t even hesitate; he jerked Cloe forward by her arm. She screamed in agony as he dislocated her shoulder and aggravated her other injuries. She then crumpled heavily to the ground and lay still. Instantly, the man swooped down, twined his fingers in her dirty, leaf strewn hair and jerked her battered and puffy face up. Again, she cried out as she felt something inside her tear. Her blond hair fell sideways revealing her pointed ears.
The Slave Master whirled on his men, Cloe forgotten. “She’s an outsider!” he bellowed.
He dropped her savagely, her head hitting the ground with a resounding whack. There was stunned silence; the other slavers backed from him uneasily, not wanting to get in his way.
The Slave Master stalked off, his cloak billowing behind him. “Get General Zar! Damn you. Move! Curse you all!”
The man bellowed in unreasonable fury. De Nera and the others hurried forward shielding the injured girl. They gently helped Cloe, as the guards yelled at them to return to the cage. Everyone was hit, kicked and beaten with clubs by the suddenly angry and frightened men. The other women took the punishment themselves, shielding the bloody and unconscious girl. They knew Cloe had been badly beaten for killing two of the slavers, but only De Nera had any idea why she frightened them so. She had given the women hope. The women heckled, jeered and taunted the men, even spitting at them as they locked the cage door and left. For once the slavers didn’t have the courage to say anything, much less retaliate physically.
The male Koldorian was called T-Nar. He watched confused as Sara sat before the prisoner, and went through her spell. She was able to probe the man’s mind. Sara needed the location of the slave camp, its exact layout and the number of guards as she would be teleporting to an unknown location, and didn’t want to appear within something and die. She could only teleport without harm to herself, if she had already been to a place before. Bolinor tried to explain to the man, but he wasn’t sure he understood himself what was about to happen. Sara waded through waves of hatred. At times she faltered as the depravity of what the man had done to other woman oozed through her. Sara did linger momentarily as she saw something that intrigued her. She would ask Jazzel about what she saw later. She blushed and hurried on, sorting the information from the damaged, deranged mind.
A short time later, Sara walked up to the men, rubbing her forehead.
“Hard?” Nathan asked.
She gave a tired smile, “Very. These people have no idea of magic. If they possessed any when they came over, they’ve lost it now. That man is truly evil. I had to wade through all the hatred. Even tied to the tree, you should see what he wants to do to Jazzel and me.”
T-Nar spoke up, “They are warped. A woman’s body should never be abused as they do. The Murdans are bred for war. They have more soldiers now than they will ever need.”
Bolinor said, “We think they are planning on coming through the gate once their master, who is trapped on the other side, can figure out how to break the magical lock someone else put on the gate, and attack our world.”
The cat man shook his head vaguely, his vacant look saying he didn’t understanding a thing Bolinor just said.
Bolinor laughed, and clapped T-Nar on the shoulder. “I’ll explain later, if I can make sense of it myself.”
Andrith asked, “Did you get enough for a trip?”
Sara nodded, “When?”
Bolinor looked at the moon; it was just rising over the horizon. “Soon.”
Andrith and Jazzel stood facing away from each other, and Sara stood in the middle. As the girl completed her spell, she touched the other two and all three disappeared. It seemed to take only seconds. For a split moment in time the lingering blue of dissipating magic filtered about their bodies and equipment.
A guard cried, “Hey you!”
Jazzel let fly with the arrow she held ready, just in case. The blue projectile hit the man. He voiced a soundless cry as his body was enveloped in the shimmering blue colored haze, and then vanished. Jazzel looked stunned, and moaned as she sank to her knees, quickly making the sign to protect her from evil.
Sara caught her by her upper arm and held her up. “The arrow still had the teleport spell on it. The energy was finally released when it hit the man. So the spell went off again,” she whispered.
“Where did he go?”
Jazzel barely caught Sara shrugging, “Only the gods know, I don’t.”
The woman shuddered, and then turned to follow Sara. Another two guards appeared, calling for their friend and Andrith put both down within a heartbeat of the other. One died with an agonizing wail.
“Hurry, we’ll have company soon.”
Sara nodded, already casting the spell to unlock the cage door.
Andrith moved to where Jazzel waited. “You okay?”
The girl smiled wanly. “I have never seen an arrow make a man disappear.”
The half elf smiled grimly. “I’ve seen some weird stuff, but this was a first for me as well.”
Voices began shouting around the camp. Men ran to where the two dead guards lay.
Sara came up behind Andrith. “Cloe is hurt ‘real’ bad, and there are six more of those Koldorians.”
“Can you take us all?” Andrith asked, as he let fly with an arrow.
“Okay, let’s go then.” Jazzel fired in a steady rhythm; the attackers backed off, and tried to flank her, after seeing four of their own drop with arrows in their chests.
Sara called, “We’re ready.”
Andrith looked to the ebony maid. “Come, we have to go.”
She hobbled awkwardly to him, and the half elf could see a crossbow bolt in her thigh. Another had drawn blood across her side.
“Give me your arm,” Andrith said urgently.
Jazzel leaned on his arm, and they shuffled to where the others knelt close to the injured girl. They all held hands, and when the last two linked up, Sara finished her spell, ignoring the shaft that plucked at her sleeve. At the completion, she touched Cloe and Jazzel, finishing the circle. The Koldorian women gasped as the blue light quickly covered everyone. Jazzel felt a momentary surge of panic remembering the guard. For a split second they all were shimmering with unreleased magic, and then with a faint poof, they vanished.
Andrith, Bolinor, T-Nar and De Nera, along with Sara, all sat around a small hidden fire. It had been a busy moment when the rescue party returned. The slave women had been able to recover the pitiful remnants of their shredded clothing after being rescued, even if it was a bit ripped at the seams. It was still enough to offer them a sense of modesty. Cloe was simply covered by a blanket, too injured to try and dress. The two Koldorians clung together.
Nathan said, more to himself than anyone else, “They’ll start purring next.”
Sure enough as he passed he could hear the faint noise from both. De Nera and T-Nar were almost afraid to let one another go; the woman nestled deep in the man’s arms. He leaned over and tenderly licked her ears. De Nera closed her eyes and moaned faintly. She reached up and gently kissed him. She stepped back and using her fingers traced his lips. Her smile was radiant.
“These people have found the gate. We can nuzzle later,” she whispered in excitement.
His eyes widened with hope. He put his arm around her and they returned to the small fire. Bolinor watched them, almost guilty of intruding on their private reunion. He wondered if Cassandra would ever love him as this woman loved her mate.
Jazzel’s wound was bandaged, and even now she stood guard, her wiry strength helping overcome what she referred to as a ‘pesky accident’. Two of the Koldorian women had been hurt in the last crossbow volley, one in the shoulder, and one in the butt. Their wounds were minor and easily treated. Cloe was a different story; the ex-slaves told the others how she had been beaten because she had dared to kill a slaver. Now more than ever De Nera was sure the gate had been found.
A council of war was being held.
“I think we should try and get Cloe back through the gate. The healers at Amberwine might still be able to save her if we can get her there,” Nathan said emphatically.
“Your plan, while good, is flawed. Our city of My-Pell is closer. With your friend’s magic ability we can all be there in a few minutes. Also, it is my duty as a Royal Pathfinder to make sure my queen is told of the gate.”
Bolinor looked at Sara. The girl looked beat, clumps of her burnt hair clung to her scalp, adding to her look of total exhaustion, Bolinor was sure was close.
“Sara, how do you feel?” Bolinor asked as he knelt next to her.
She looked gratefully at him. This ‘adventure’ was unlike anything she had ever done.
“I am very tired. If we return to the castle, I would have to teleport to the gate; we then would have to walk through to our side and then teleport home. I don’t know how much more I can do without a mistake. I need to rest,” she answered slowly.
When Sara mentioned ‘mistake’ Jazzel shuddered again, picturing the guard’s open-mouthed horror as he disappeared. She closed her eyes and grimaced tightly trying to erase the picture.
“Sara, this is important. Can you do one more trip?”
Sara looked deep inside; this decision would be the most important one she would make. On the outcome of her choice, Cloe would live or die, and Sara knew it. But she was also realistic enough to know that if she chose badly, they could all die.
“I’m very tired, commander, but I believe I have enough for ‘one’ more trip.”
Bolinor saw Andrith watching him and remembered his words, ‘A man of honor’.
“We’ll go to My-Pell. T-Nar, you and De Nera get together with Sara. I won’t be impressed if we end up in the city walls. Nathan, I want you and Jazzel to wait here. I want this pass held till we return.”
The council of war broke up, and they all hurried to do as had been outlined. Bolinor couldn’t leave the Koldorians here, and destroy the gate. He would condemn them all to death if they couldn’t escape. While the two Pathfinders worked with Sara, the rest of the party made a stretcher to carry Cloe on. Two of the freed women would carry it.
Bolinor shook hands with his friends. “I’m counting on you two to hold this pass. It won’t take long before the slavers head this way. If things go to plan, I’ll have reinforcements here soon.”
He returned to the circle and nodded to Sara, “Let’s do it.”