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Matthew J BLACK

M.Inf.Tech.(Data Comms), MBA, B.Sc

Grad.Cert.Inf.Tech.(Security), Grad.Cert.Inf.Tech.(Management)

MACS (Snr), CP, IP3P

Cert.II Stock Market Trading & Investment Strategies
Prince 2 Practitioner (Certified), Prince 2 Foundations (Certified), ITIL (Certified)
CCNP, CCNP – Enterprise, CCNP – Routing & Switching
CCDA, CCNA, CCNA – Security, CCNA – Routing & Switching, CCENT
Cisco IOS Security Specialist (CIOSSS)
Cisco Certified Specialist – Enterprise Advanced Infrastructure Implementation
Cisco Certified Specialist – Enterprise Core (CCS-ECore)
Cisco Certified Specialist – Security Identity Management Implementation (CCS-SIMI)



A Short Time Ago

The tall figure stood in front of the full-length mirror, gazing at his reflection.  He stood almost seven feet tall, dressed in tight fitting tunic and hose, both the midnight black of his hair.  The knee-high boots were also black, and made of the finest leather known.  The long, black cloak fell from his shoulders and billowed about his well-muscled form.  His eyes were a deep hazel, almost black themselves, while his skin was pale, the colour of someone who spends too much time indoors.  His features were strong and sharp, and perfectly proportioned.  His eyes drank in his image without him becoming conceited, as he waited in front of the mirror.

Slowly his reflection was replaced by one equally as striking.  The ebony black face of the woman was beautifully framed by luscious, silver-white hair.  The tips of her upswept ears were hidden from sight by her hair, but he knew that they were there anyway.  Her eyes were the rich green of tarnished copper, her lips red and full.  The gossamer veils the woman wore left nothing to the imagination, and the man caught flashes of the perfectly formed female body beneath.

“Good day, my Lord,” spoke the woman.

“Good day, my Lady.  To what do I owe this delightful intrusion?”

She laughed at his greeting.  “Why, I think you already know, otherwise why would a man as industrious as yourself be waiting to speak to one as lowly as I?”, she quipped back at him.

“True.  And now that we are done flattering each other, let us get down to business!  I have gone over your revisions to the plan and can find no problems.  Are you satisfied with the contributions of both sides?”

“I am.  I will set things in motion immediately.  Soon, that miserable little world will be ours, and after that the rest of the sphere.  From there we will spread out and conquer the other spheres one by one, and we will both have what we want.”

“It will still take a long time, my Lady, and many things can go wrong.  What of the prophecy?”

“What prophecy!  The ramblings of a demented old Elf are not prophecy!  Put it from your mind, and let us heed our own council in this momentous endeavour.”

“You speak wisely.  I agree.  Soon we will be victorious.  I look forward to the day.”

“Good.  I must go.  I will contact you when I have news.  Farewell.”

“As will I.  Farewell, O Queen.”

The image slowly faded back to his own.  When it was complete he turned towards the door.

“Is the Demon Queen more beautiful than I?”, asked the figure standing in the doorway.

“No, my love.  And you are not more beautiful then her.”  He smiled.  “Enough of your jealousy.  Let us retire and feast, and tomorrow you can start preparations for our part of the plan.”

Sixty Eight Turnings Ago

The thunder rolled overhead as the lightning crashed to the ground nearby.  Sister Alicia grimaced at the sound.  She hated thunderstorms, and the monastery seemed to attract more than its fair share.

The sister was annoyed.  To be awakened during the night by a traveller was bad enough, but to do so into a night like this was more than she could bare.  To make matters worse, Mother Superior now needed to be awakened as well, and guess whose job that was!  Still, she thought, this is part of my devotion to my Lady.

Sister Alicia knocked reverently on Mother Superior’s door.  There was no answer, so she knocked again.  Faint rustling came from the other side, and soon the door was opened by an old, grey haired lady.

“Yes?!”, asked Mother Superior, more a demand than a question.

“Forgive me Mother, but a young woman begged admittance to the monastery, and…”

“What, on a night like this?”, interrupted the old lady.  “She must be frozen to the bone.  Don’t tell me we have another pregnant girl who’s run away from home.  I know Lady Healthiea, bless her name, is our patron Goddess, but I do wish that that wouldn’t happen.  It causes any number of problems with the nearby communities.”

“No Mother, she is not pregnant.  She wishes to join our order.”

“Well, couldn’t that have waited till morning?”

“Mother, it would be easier to come and judge the situation yourself.”

“O, all right.  Let me get a shawl.”

The two nuns walked steadily through the halls, heading towards the chapel.  The storm and lightning still crashed around outside, making Sister Alicia jump.  Presently they reached the doors to the chapel.

“I hope this is worth it, Sister,” muttered Mother Superior under her breath.

Inside the chapel the old lady found a figure dressed in woodsman’s garb, lying face down on the floor in front of the altar.  The upper arms were straight out from the body, with the elbows bent so that the forearms and hands were pointed at the altar.  In the darkness she could make out the crossed ankles, but could see nothing else of the figure as it was dressed in a long cloak and hood.  It took a second for the old lady to recognise that the figure was lying in the Holy Penance position.

“Get a light,” she said to the Sister, who complied immediately.  “Now, my child, what brings you to our humble church?”

The figure did not raise its head, but the words were sweet and strong.  “I wish to join you, Mother.”

At the sound of the young voice Mother Superior looked closely at the hands of the girl lying at her feet.  They were covered in woodsman’s gloves, but Mother Superior found what she was looking for.  The girl’s hands had only three fingers each, instead of the normal four.

“You are Elven, I see,” she said.  “Why do you wish to join us?”

“I was driven out, out into the forest.  A forester befriended me and took care of me, but he is no longer of this world.  I feel a calling to Lady Healthiea, so I came here to join you in the good works that you do.”

The old lady’s mind reeled.  Driven out!  But Elves do not drive out their young, even if they have committed hideous crimes.  Only evil Elves are driven from their homes, and an Elf of Evil would not come to join a Church of Good, she thought.

“Come child.  Get up.  You’ll catch your death, lying there on those cold stones in wet clothes.”

The young woman slowly raised herself off the floor and stood before the old lady.  Now it was clear.  Now the Mother Superior knew why she had been awakened, why the young Elf had been driven from her family, why she wanted to become a nun.  For the beautiful Elven face that stared back at her was pitch black, the colour of ebony.  A Dark Elf face.  The face of a Drow.

Forty Two Turnings Ago

Dak awoke shivering into the night.  The dream had come again.  That made it four times this Nineday.  At least this time he hadn’t woken screaming, like the last time.  The other boys had teased him mercilessly, until he had silenced the biggest by punching him in the nose.  That had earned him a Nineday of kitchen duty, which he still had seven days to serve.

He looked around.  The dormitory was dark and quite, with only the sounds of his fellow orphans’ slow, steady breathing disturbing the silence.  Damm it!, he thought, why is this happening?

He tried to remember what the dream was about.  Usually, all he could recall was something frightening, but never the details.  But this time was different.  This time he could actually picture in his mind’s eye the sequence of his dream.  He saw himself as a child of about ten, playing with the other children while the adults went about their business.  Then, he heard the cracking and shifting of rock, and the warning horn that told of a cave-in at the mine.

Dak was excited now.  He had never been able to remember anything about the dream, but now the images came through, slowly at first, but with more and more ease, and he realised that it wasn’t a dream at all, but deeply buried memories trapped inside his own head.  He tried to remember more.

He saw Dwarves staggering out of the collapsing mine.  He remembered the cries of anguish from the women, and the deep guttural oaths and curses of the men.  He remembered seeing his father stagger out of the shaft, just as a huge slab of granite shifted and fell, straight towards where his father had stumbled and fallen.  He remembered the terrible cry as the rock hit home.

Dak shivered again, and tears welled in his eyes.  He felt like walking, like getting away.  He got up and headed for the door.  The dorm master would give him hell if it was discovered that he had been wandering, but Dak didn’t care.  He just wanted to get away from the others, just to wander the halls of the monastery aimlessly, not knowing or caring where his feet took him.  As he walked he remembered more.

In his mind’s eye he saw himself run towards the great stone slab.  He remembered reaching it and seeing the pain encrusted face of a fellow miner, but of his father there was no sign.  More rocks were falling, and the injured Dwarf was cursing at him to get clear, bloody froth forming at his lips.  Dak remembered lifting the Dwarf under the arms and dragging him away.

When they were clear, Dak remembered a feeling of warmth spread all over his hands, followed soon after by a faint blue glow.  He had placed his hands on the miner’s chest and legs, and the Dwarf had started to breathe easier.  He remembered the Priests arriving, remembered the miracles of healing that they beseeched their God to perform, and he remembered the cries of the families of those who were already in the Lands Of The Gods.

An old Priest had come up to Dak and had checked him and the miner for injuries.  The miner was sleeping peacefully, which had seemed to puzzle the old Priest.  Dak remembered the old Priest beginning to murmur the words of Magic, and his young mind knew no more.

Ahh, thought Dak, it must have been a spell to make me forget, and it’s finally wearing off.

He looked around.  His wanderings had brought him to The Great Hall.  It was here that the Priests and their charges took their meals, here that the great ceremonies and religious festivals that marked the Dwarven Calender were performed, and here that the Dwarves made ready for battle, and sang their Songs of Remembering were the battles were done.

Dak had been here many times, but it was only now that he really took notice of the place.  Along the walls were tapestries, each one showing the Dwarves of the monastery performing their duties.  In some were shown the Priests at their ceremonies, in others the Priests at war with Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, and yes, even a Dragon.  In still others the Priests were healing the sick and injured.  Between each one was a weapon or a shield displaying the heraldry of a great Priest or Warrior from the past.

As he wandered down the hall Dak became aware that some of the tapestries showed the Dwarven Priests healing their foes of the tapestries before.  He found this curios, until it dawned on him the essence of what one of his teaches had been trying to impart to him days before.  Although war was inevitable, and the Priests of Mordayadren have had and will have to go to war again, they were Priests of the Dwarven Healing God, and so had a moral obligation to relieve the suffering of everyone, even their enemies.

Dak reached the end of the hall and looked up at the altar and at the display behind it.  The altar was a block of black granite, flecked with white.  It was about four-foot high, three wide, and six long.  Draped across the top was a pure white cloth of silk, the only sign on it being the brown, equally lengthed arms of the Healing Cross, the holy symbol of Mordayadren.  The display on the wall behind the altar consisted of a pair of huge, double-bladed Battle-Axes, formed into an ‘X’.  At the junction point was another Healing Cross, about two-foot across, made of brown oak.

Dak walked behind the altar and stood directly in front of the display.  He reached up and took down the Cross, laying it reverently upon the altar.  As he turned back to the axes he thought he saw a rune on one of the blades.  Looking closer he decided that it must have been a trick of the light, for the blade was bare of any markings.  He removed the weapons from the wall and stepped around to the front of the altar and out into the room.  He had no idea what he was doing, but he felt as if he just had to give these a try.  A practice swing with the axe in his right hand felt good, so he tried a swing with his left.  Soon he was swinging the weapons in a complex figure eight, smoothly and naturally.

It felt so right to the young Dwarf.  As each axe continued to make figure eight sweeps Dak thought how strange this was.  He had never picked up a weapon in his life, let alone used one, and yet this felt so natural to him.  Dak slowly built up speed until the axes were making swishing sounds as they cleaved their way through the air.  Soon, each one started glancing off the other, making sweet ringing sounds, similar to those of the finest Elf crystal.  The ringing and swishing merged into one to make the whole seem as if the blades themselves were singing.  A smile of pure joy broke across Dak’s face, all thoughts of the dream forgotten.

“And just what do ya think ya doing?” inquired a deep, gruff voice.

Dak turned slowly towards the voice and bought the axes to rest.  There, standing in the doorway, was an old, grey-beared Dwarf.  His beard was long and bushy, folded in thrice and stuffed under his belt, the sign of an experience and wise campaigner.  His boots were old and comfortable, with his brown trousers tucked into the tops in the way of a Warrior.  The dull green jerkin was partially open, but hidden by the beard.  The old Dwarf’s eyes were set in a heavily lined, ruddy face, and were coloured the deep brown of freshly turned soil.

Dak looked sheepish as he replied.  “I couldn’t sleep.  I wasn’t hurting anything.  I just…”

“Just had to try them, didn’t ya?”, nodded the old Dwarf with a knowling look on his face.  “How old are ya now, Dak?”

“Fifteen, Sir”, Dak replied, amazed that the old Dwarf would know his name, let alone inquire his age.

“Fifteen, aye?  Well, it’s about time you learnt.  Past time, if you’d asked me, but who ever listens to an old Priest.  Put them back on the wall, and come with me”, directed the old Dwarf.

As Dak did so he recognised the Dwarf as the Priest who had caused him to forget that fateful day five Turnings before.  As he followed the old Priest out of the Hall, he wondered what would happen to him now.

Thirty Four Turnings Ago

The clouds scuttled past the moon as the young Elf leaned over the edge of the roof.  He was doing an incredibly stupid thing: burglary was always a dangerous undertaking, but to rob the tower of a Mage wasn’t just stupid, it was downright lethal.  The only good thing about all this was that the tower was remote, and that the Mage was away.  As he lowered himself over the edge and came to rest suspended in front of the shuttered window, Niskar thought back over the events that had lead him here.

Earlier this day he had been boasting to his fellow Thieves that an Elf would always be better than a Human at anything requiring finesse, from fine dining to burglary.  His friends had challenged him to prove it and he had accepted.  Thus he was now hanging five stories up outside a Mage’s window, suspended on a thin rope, trying desperately to calm his jagged nerves.

Carefully he slipped his thin-bladed dagger in between the shutters and tripped the latch.  After replacing the weapon in its boot sheath and taking a last, fugitive look around, Niskar slipped in the window as silently as only an Elf can.

He found himself in a circular room not much smaller than the tower itself.  On the floor was a pentangle, unlit candles the colour of the midnight sky at each of its points.  Bookcases covered every wall, even arching up over the only door into the room, and completely surrounding the room’s two windows.  The bookshelves were stuffed with books, and the table or workbench (Niskar couldn’t tell which) sitting to one side was almost over-flowing with strangely shaped glass objects and bits and pieces of dead creatures.

Niskar moved silently through the gloom to the far wall.  There, on a shelf, was an average sized book with faded gold lettering on its spine: Basic Spellcraft.  A book like that would prove he had been here, probably wouldn’t be missed by its owner, and wouldn’t be too hard to unload to the fences.  Niskar drew it from its resting-place on the shelf.

“So, a Thiefling invades my study!”, chuckled a voice as the room exploded into light.

Niskar whirled towards the sound and dropped into a crouch, his hand flying towards his dagger.  Near the window where he had entered stood a Human male dressed in long, flowing robes, his dark hair shining in the light which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  For a split second Niskar considered throwing his dagger, but even as the thought crossed his mind he knew that it would be useless.

“Put down that silly toy.  If I had wanted to harm you you would already be a rat scurrying for the safety of a hole, not that you aren’t a rat already.  I have no patience with stupid people, and you have been stupid enough for one night.”

Niskar replaced his dagger in its sheath and rose slowly to face the Mage.  The Human appeared to be about forty, with dark brown hair and a neatly trimmed goatee.  The eyes were a piercing blue and Niskar had the feeling that they were seeing straight into his soul.  The arrogance of his race and his youth took over and he stared back defiantly.

“Tell me, young Thiefling, did you come all the way out here on a dare?  Trying to steal something to prove you were a real Thief after all?  Hmmm?”

“What’s it to you, Human?”, was the ill-considered reply.

The figure by the window seemed to grow larger than the room itself as the power of the Mage’s voice cracked through Niskar’s arrogance and touched the primeval fear-centres of his mind.  “Do not be impertinent with me, Boy!  I have spared your life only because I am a thoughtful man, but my patience is wearing thin!  One more act of stupidity and you won’t get to perform another!”

Niskar visibly paled.  His confidence was not only shaken, but shattered to the four winds.  He guiltily looked down at the book still in his arms and gingerly placed it on the table.  When he looked up the Mage was looking thoughtfully at him.  “Now tell me, why are you here?” he was asked as the Mage seemed to shrink back to his normal height.

“It is as you said, Sir.  I was trying to prove I could rob this tower.”

The Mage’s mouth tightened into a grim smile at the honorific.  “If that’s the case, why did you not just take something from over here, where you entered?  Why go all the way across the room?  Why, in particular, that book?”

“I don’t know.  It just seemed…” Niskar trailed off.

“Hmm.  I thought so.  Even when they don’t know it the Power calls to those who are ready for it”, mumbled the Mage.  “Ever wanted to become a Wizard?”  This last was directed toward Niskar.

A Mage?!  Him, a Mage?!  Never even in his wildest dreams or nightmares had he ever considered the possibility of learning to use the Power.  But now it was being offered to him by a man he had tried to rob.  He knew it would be a long and arduous journey, for a Mage’s apprentice was little more then his master’s slave, at least while the aspirant learnt to recognise and control the Power.  But to have that Power…

Niskar sank slowly to his knees and bowed his head.  A single, choked filled word struggled from his chest and made itself heard: “Yes!”

Twenty Eight Turnings Ago

“What in the Nine Hells did you think you were doing?” bellowed King Teledrome.

His daughter, Shalee, stood at the bottom of the dais, eyes downcast.  She had been caught “borrowing” a jewelled necklace belonging to the wife of the Ambassador of Treeholm, and only some very quick negotiations and apologies from her father had smoothed things over.  Now, the King was focusing his attention and his wrath on the culprit.  “Well!?” he demanded.

Shalee kept her mouth shut and shuffled her feet nervously.  She knew she was in big trouble this time, and had wisely decided to keep silent.

“Nothing to say, I see!  You almost caused a split in the Alliance, you foolish girl!  What did you do it for?  You have everything you could possible want.”  Again Shalee kept silent.

“Well, if you have nothing to say for yourself than all I can do is decide your punishment.  For the next two Lunas you are not to go riding!”

“Father, no!” she finally cried out.  “You know how much I love to ride.  You can’t!”

“Three Lunas!”

“Father, please!”

“Four Lunas,” snarled the King as he rose to his full five foot eight inches, “and if I hear another word it’ll be an entire Turning!  Now go to your room and think about the consequences of what you have done!”

Shalee ran off, tears streaming down her face.  In her room she thought about her life and how unfair it was.  Looking out over the mountain peaks she envisioned a way out of her predicament.

That night, she silently crept down to the throne room, grabbed her father’s favourite sword, and fled into the night.

Twenty One Turnings Ago

Sir Donald paced impatiently up and down the hall.  He had been doing this for well over a day, and the waiting was wearing on him.  He hated waiting.  Even as a boy he had hated to wait for anything.

He reached the end of the corridor and turned back towards the door.  Once again he made up his mind to stop waiting and find out what was happening.  With grim determination he headed for the door.

Just as he reached it the door was thrown open and a bustling maid hurried out, almost colliding with her lord.  As the two of them recovered a harried looking old matron yelled at the girl to hurry, and catching sight of Sir Donald, hustled him outside once again.  “O no you don’t, my Lord.  ’Tis no place for men-folk.  Out!”

Chastised yet again Sir Donald once more began to pace.  What could be taking so long?, he thought to himself.  Surely it can’t take this long normally.  Something MUST be wrong!

Once more he decided to find out, but this time before he could get anywhere near the door an almighty scream of pain and relief echoed throughout the keep.  As he reached the portal it was thrown wide, and the old matron who had been keeping him outside for some day and a half smiled and said “’Tis a boy, my Lord.  A healthy, happy boy”, as she finally showed him in.

There, on the bed, lay Lady Rowena, his wife, covered in sweat and clearly exhausted.  She weakly smiled up at him as he came near.  “Look, my Lord!  Look at what I have given you!  A son!”  Lying in her arms, wrapped in cloth, was a newborn child.

Sir Donald gazed down at his wife and child, a smile splitting his once worried face.  “Steven shall be your name!” he declared, happy beyond all words.

“Steven”, agreed his wife.

Eighteen Turnings Ago

The full moon crept slowly above the horizon, casting long, misfigured shadows through the trees.  The man, little more than a boy, crept silently through the undergrowth towards the house.  All around him were others, each eager to catch and kill him, for he was distrusted and disliked by his fellow students.

His mother had bought him back from the Lands of the Barbarians when he was only four Turnings old.  Since then he had lived and learned with his extended family in this high, mountainous retreat, learning the skills that his grandfather taught to him and his cousins.  What should have been a happy time was marred with anger, jealously, and outright hostility by his extended family, especially his peers.  It wasn’t just that he looked different from everybody else, with his fair skin and bright blue eyes, or even that he also excelled in his lessons, far more than anyone else in living memory.  What made things the way they were was that every now and then strange things would happen around him.

They were only little things, like a ball swerving in mid-air to land in his outstretched hand, or an opponent slipping or tripping for no reason, but it had happened enough for him to win most contests, and his fellow students hated him for it.  It was so bad that when his grandfather had announced that he was to take the Test at the bare age of sixteen, the outrage of his uncles and cousins was such that they had vowed to kill him, instead of only wound him, if they caught him during his Test.

He tried to put these things from his mind and concentrate on his task.  As he moved through the trees his foot came up short.  He stopped instantly, then slowly reached down to see what he was caught on.  Across the top of his boot he found a vine stretched tight — too tight to be natural.  Looking along the vine he saw that it was holding back a branch of a particularly springy type of tree.  He smiled grimly to himself as he eased his foot out from under the vine.  Stepping over it he bent low and gave the vine a yank.  With a swish and a thump the branch swept across the space where he would have been and embedded the spikes attached to it into a tree.  The dark sheen that glistened of the wooden spikes confirmed his suspicion that poison would be used this night.  He moved on.

A few minutes later he spied one of his cousins perched up a tree when the young fool let the moon shine off his quarrel tip.  The black-clad figure on the ground gently eased the small crossbow off his back and took aim.  The quarrel was designed to inject a paralytic serum into its victim, not kill.  Which is more mercy than they’ll show me, he thought.

With a quite swish the quarrel struck home.  The figure in the tree swayed back and forth for a second, then toppled to the ground.  Shit!,thought the archer.  That’ll bring them all running.

He hurried quickly to where the watcher had fallen, checking to see he was all right.  Apart from a broken arm he was, so the archer pulled him into the shadow of a bush and quickly took his place in the tree.  He had only just reached his perch when other black-clad figures emerged from the surrounding forest.  One of them looked up at the figure in the tree, and without a word questioned as to which way their quarry had gone.  Smiling behind the black cloth covering his lower face the archer signalled off in a direction away from the house.  The figure on the ground acknowledged with a wave and led the others off in the direction indicated.  After they had left the archer swung down and resumed his assault on the house.

It wasn’t long after that when he found himself lying under a bush, warily looking out across over one hundred or so yards of manicured lawn.  There was no way he could cross it unseen, so his best bet was to sprint to the house while the guards were not looking.  But where were the guards?  No one was to be seen.  This is what had the archer peering cautiously out from under his bush.  After lying there for a good fifty minutes without seeing anyone, he made up his mind.

He surged to his feet and took off across the lawn, expecting a rain of missiles to cut him down with every step.  Unbelievably, he made the safety of the outside wall without a single arrow, let alone a warning cry, piercing the night.  Now he was even more wary.  This wasn’t right.  Something was going on.

He slid open the door that he had been told to enter and slipped inside.  There he found a figure kneeling in meditation in front of an altar.  The figure didn’t stir as the archer took the seven quick paces through the gloom to reach it, raising his sword as he did.  For a moment the archer hesitated, thinking that he recognised the figure as his grandfather, then his training broke through and the blade fell, cleanly removing the old man’s head from his shoulders.

As the head hit the floor the room was bathed in light.  Whirling about the archer faced the doorway through which he had entered to find his grandfather flanked by two of his older cousins.  He looked down at the figure behind him to discover that it was nothing more than a straw dummy.  With this realisation he fell to his knees and begged, “Master, I have failed you.  Permit me an honourable death.”

“No, I will not.”  With these words the archer’s two cousins grinned broadly and moved forward to drag him away.  “Stop!”, commanded the old man.  “Leave us!”  The two showed visible disappointment but dared not disobey.

“Now, my son.  Why do you want to die?” asked the old man when the two guards had left.

“Because I have failed you, Master”, was the reply.

“And how have you failed me?” was the next question.

“Because I did not complete my mission.  You ordered me to kill the man in this room.  That man was you.  You are standing alive before me now.  Therefore I have failed.”

“My daughter’s son, you misunderstood.  Let me explain.  I said to decapitate the figure that would be in this room when you entered.  This you did.  It was not me kneeling here, but this straw dummy that now has no head.  One of our Sorcerers cast an illusion on it to make it appear to be me.  My son, this was not a test of your abilities but a test of your loyalty to your mission.  This, I am glad to say, you have passed.  This is good, for I have a very important mission that needs to be fulfilled, and you are the only one capable.  If you had failed tonight our clan would have been doomed.”

The archer climbed slowly to his feet, glad that he had succeeded, but curious about what his grandfather was saying.  “May I know more, Master?”

“You will travel far and see many strange things.  I am sending you west, past Rhu-riku, to the land of your father.  There you will undertake but one of many hazardous missions.  Come, let us retire and discuss more over a meal.”

Fifteen Turnings Ago

He awoke dazed with a terrible ringing in his head.  Vague memories skittered about his mind.  He seemed to remember a coach being stopped by someone, but the memory slipped past his grasping mental fingers.  He tried to rub his face and found that he was tied down.  He raised his head and looked around.  He seemed to be lying on some sort of bed, in a room crudely hacked out of rock.  In the dim light he could make out a door, but nothing else of his present situation was apparent.  And then he heard them, and the memories came flooding back.

He had been on a coach travelling through the mountain pass between Deepharbour and The East Province when they had been set upon by rampaging Orcs.  The foul greenskins had attacked and killed almost everyone, but himself and two of the ladies had been knocked out and, presumably, dragged here.  What had happened next was unspeakable, as female Orcs had used him in their foul way for their own pleasure.  He only hopped that the two ladies had not suffered similar fates.

His recollections were interrupted as the door was thrown open and in walked six female orcs.  “No!” he cried hoarsely.  “No!  No more!”

“Yes more” one of them replied, reaching down and making his body betray him once again.  “But this time there are only five of us.  You were too good for Pigswill last time.”

He looked over at the only Orc not partaking in readying him.  She grinned back and pattered her belly.  Oh no!  Not that!, he thought.  Nothing can be as bad as that!

He was wrong.