Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 9

Published: 5 May 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

One Wrong Step

The evening was getting a little chilly and Kieren secretly wished they could build a fire to help keep warm. Regrettably, he had to accept the fact that it wouldn't be possible. Any fire, even a small one, would instantly reveal their presence to anyone within several leagues of their current location, which included the mountain ranges. This meant prudence suggested it would be best to do without a fire, no matter how inconvenient it seemed.

While attempting to think of another way to stay warm, Kieren was tempted to signal Garreth and Romaric and let them know they should pull their bedrolls closer together. If they did that, they would be able to share their blankets and body heat. The problem was that after what happened earlier, when Beraut tried to arrange them for the night, his friends made it quite clear they weren't ready to make up yet. Even though Kieren knew how his two friends felt about him, he still considered letting them know what he was thinking and decided to see how they might react.

First, Kieren looked to his right and then to his left, to see what his two friends were doing. He immediately noticed they both appeared to be shivering too and quickly calculated the worst possible scenario that might happen was for them to merely turn down his offer. At the same time, he also concluded he would have to act soon, before his friends donned the masks Beraut had provided them, so they wouldn't have to see the haunting effects of the spirit world. That's why, when Kieren noticed Garreth and Romaric getting ready to put the mask on, he decided to make his move. Even though Garreth had hurt him deeply back in Thorold, when he pointed out that Kieren wasn't a real elf, Kieren realized Garreth had just done it because he had been hurt too. For that reason, Kieren was willing to temporarily swallow his pride and make the offer. He would make the first move, especially if it meant they might become friends again and none of them would have to be cold all night long.

What Kieren didn't know was that his two friends had also been furtively glancing over in his direction out of the corner of their eyes. They were also growing increasingly uncomfortable in the cooler night air and trying to figure out what they could do to change that fact. Garreth and Romaric had even been trying to figure out what was going through Kieren's mind at this point and wondered if he might be open to doing something similar.

Since neither elf was sure if Kieren was actually growing away from them or if he truly felt he didn't need their companionship any longer, they thought possibly they could patch things up. Maybe they had jumped to a faulty conclusion back at Thorold, as Beraut had suggested, and if they had, neither wanted their friendship to end due to an unfortunate misunderstanding. After all, they had been best friends for so long that none of them was ready to consider that it had come to an end.

As they continued to observe Kieren's actions, the elves began to wonder if he was thinking about them as well. That question was soon answered for them and put their minds at rest. At nearly the same instant, Garreth and Romaric each saw Kieren lift his blanket and extend it in their direction. At first, neither elf was sure why Kieren was doing this, but then they also noticed he was motioning for them to move closer. It didn't take much of an imagination to figure out what he meant by this gesture. He was giving them an invitation to share his bedding, as he would have done prior to their disagreement.

Somewhat stunned by this unexpected offer, it didn't motivate either elf to respond right away. Instead, they looked past Kieren and toward each other, in an attempt to determine what their counterpart thought of this opportunity. After several seconds of studying the other's expressions, Garreth and Romaric merely nodded their heads at each other, to indicate they were willing to go along with this idea. Slowly, they rose up and threw their bedding over Kieren's blanket, and once that had been done, they crawled under the collection of blankets and got comfortable on either side of their friend.

All three teens realized they would now be warmer and much more comfortable throughout the night, but that wasn't all that had just happened. They had also taken a major step toward making up, even if none of them was ready to admit it quite yet. Contentedly, however, the trio settled in for the evening without making a big fuss about what had just happened. No one was willing to do more than concede they were agreeable to sharing body heat for the night, but it was a start. It also proved that their little spat hadn't yet escalated to the point where their friendship no longer had a chance to survive.

Before they settled in to sleep, Garreth and Romaric utilized their blindfolds, so they could keep from viewing the specters roaming the valley. Kieren, on the other hand, was a little slower to do the same thing. As he lay there, he hesitantly looked about and began to notice the silvery swirls that were moving around him and reflecting the moonlight. Kieren thought some of these swirls were even beginning to form the outlines of different creatures, but he found their features to be vague and not clearly defined.

Although these apparitions had been present throughout the day, they only started to become truly visible in the softer glow of the moonlight. During the many hours of daylight, the travelers had been mostly oblivious to these ghostly forms, because they were blotted out by the harsh glare of the sun. This made the spirits extremely difficult to discern, but it was only part of the reason no one had been attuned to their presence. Each of them had also been focused on the tasks at hand, such as not tripping on the undergrowth and watching for other dangers, so no one had time to seek out these ghostly apparitions. However, this had now changed and during the brief time Kieren had been lying quietly on the ground, staring into space, these visions had become increasingly harder to ignore.

As he glanced around at the others, Kieren noticed the warriors had either secured the sleeping masks over their eyes or had merely gone to sleep. They obviously were not interested in seeing or investigating this phenomenon further, but Kieren's curiosity was causing an inner conflict. The teen wasn't certain how he was going to deal with this opportunity and hadn't yet decided whether he wanted to study these forms as they drifted around him. Maybe it would be better for him to use the time to get some rest instead.

After a few minutes of this internal debate, Kieren suddenly realized he was now the only one still awake, with the possible exception of the wizard. Desperately, he tried to figure out what he wanted to do next, and after a few agonizing minutes he finally decided to follow the others' lead. Carefully, he tied the strip of cloth over his eyes and secured it behind his head.

That should have finally put the matter to rest, but even after he had fastened his mask into position, Kieren continued to toy with the idea of investigating what was happening in the air around him. Several minutes later, he changed his mind again and decided to remove the covering from his face. He was now ready, and even somewhat eager, to investigate the spirit world that lay just beyond this temporary curtain of darkness.

Cautiously, Kieren lifted the restrictive cloth from his face, but as it inched it upward, he continued to keep his eyes shut. Even after the mask was completely removed from his head, he still didn't open his eyes, while he sought to find the courage to match his curiosity. Before he did this though, he slid his body backward and out from under the covers, so he could sit up. He had decided to do this so he wouldn't disturb his friends while he observed the specters around him. He also wanted to be upright, rather than lying down, as he examined this ghostly phenomenon.

After another few moments had passed, the teen conceded there would be no perfect time to begin his investigation, so he merely opened his eyes. Just as his vision was restored to him, a spectral form bore down on his position and startled him. It wasn't that this apparition was hideous, or even that is was extremely large. The thing was, it had just materialized out of nowhere before the teen was prepared for something like this to happen. However, now it was slowly drifting away, so he had time to regain his composure.

Although Kieren had been shocked by its sudden appearance, he continued to focus on the spectral shape. Without warning, the ghostly form spun around and came at him again. This time it continued moving in his direction until it completely passed through his upper torso. Fortunately, Kieren remembered the wizard's description of the apparitions and knew it had done him no harm, so he didn't panic. Instead, he tried to see as many of the other spirits as he could.

Kieren's head was snapping back and forth as he looked in all directions to observe the other cloud-like shapes that floated haphazardly in the air around him. As the moonlight reflected off the surface of these wispy forms, Kieren could make out a few features. Sometimes, Kieren thought he was even able to recognize the race this ghostly visage had once been a member of, but most of the time they bore little resemblance to their previous form.

As Kieren focused on yet another of these shapes, the spirit suddenly rushed in his direction, while at the same time taking on a monstrous appearance. Although it wasn't clearly defined, its head was huge, misshapen and had irregular lumps erupting from it. It also appeared to have a large, flat nose, similar to a snout, and gigantic fangs for teeth. This caused Kieren's eyes to snap shut once more, in an involuntary reflexive action to its repulsive form. Due to his quick response to the situation, he was only mildly frightened by this occurrence, so it didn't take long before Kieren opened his eyes again. It seemed his desire, to see even more of these shapes was far greater than his trepidation of them.

The next of these ghostly shapes he saw appeared to be the outline of a soft, delicate being. Upon seeing this, Kieren suddenly felt a deep empathy for it and was seeking to identify with the specter. He was even trying to reach out to it mentally, when it too suddenly changed into a menacing beast, more terrifying than the Serpent Colossus.

The likeness this simple specter took on was not that of any monster that could be seen in this world. Instead, it resembled some ungodly creation that even Kieren's vivid imagination would have had trouble coming up with. The head was similar to that of a dragon, but it had four thick horns growing out of it. There were two horns on top of its head and another protruding out of each side of its face. It also had a long, serpent-like tongue and very large eyes, but the thing that bothered the teen the most was that something seemed to be oozing from multiple areas on its head.

Seeing this repugnant form caused Kieren's blood to suddenly cease flowing through his veins and made his heart skip a beat or two. The rapid transformation the spirit had made also caused Kieren to suck in a large amount of air, which filled his lungs too quickly and momentarily caused him to cease his regular breathing rhythm as well.

Without warning, and almost as quickly as the wraith had mutated before his eyes, it changed again, but this time into something much less frightening. Now, it had an almost childlike feel to it – innocent and non-threatening. Then, it slowly began to glide away from him and moved off to haunt another part of the valley. As he watched it drift away, Kieren wondered if this specter had once actually been a child and its transformation was its own attempt to play some sort of childish game to see if it could frighten someone older than itself.

Although at first Kieren didn't understand why these spirits kept changing appearance, he eventually deduced it must be a physical representation of the suffering that particular entity was going through. By continually shifting from a likeness that was similar to what it had once been and then into a form that more closely represented the turbulent state it had been driven to after its death. By doing this, it was merely signaling the extent of the torment it was currently enduring. In some ways, it was a never-ending condemnation that had to be continually played out.

Besides representing the soul's eternal agony, the constant physical changes these ghostly forms made was like their maddening cries and a means of keeping others away. Kieren knew from Beraut's description of this place that the only way this curse could be broken was for their deaths to be avenged. When that happened and Madumda had been destroyed, then their souls would finally be set free.

As Kieren's attention turned to another shape that hovered nearby, he caught sight of the wizard. Beraut had been silently and patiently watching him from the other side of the campsite, because he wanted to see how his ward was reacting to the ghostly beings. The wizard had witnessed most of the things the teen had been doing, as Kieren carried out his personal investigation of the spectral world. Now, Beraut sat grinning at the youth's courage. When he noticed Kieren looking in his direction, the wizard merely nodded at the lad to let him know he approved, before turning slightly away, in order to allow Kieren his privacy.

Beraut hoped the youngster would continue his observations unhindered and undisturbed, which Kieren did. Since he had received the wizard's subtle approval and confirmation to carry on, Kieren turned back to examine more of the shapes. In fact, it wasn't very long after Beraut had turned away from him that another group of these constantly changing figures garnered the lad's attention and enthralled him. Kieren continued to watch and examine this multitude of forms for another half hour, before he finally decided it was time to get some rest. At that point, Kieren realized he would need all the strength he could muster in the morning when they resumed their journey. For that reason, he reluctantly slid back under the covers and into his proper position, so he could get some rest.

After Kieren had closed his eyes, it didn't take very long for him to drift off into a dream-filled slumber. During this period, numerous images and scenes flashed through his mind in rapid succession. These visions were also constantly changing, but only a few of them were truly frightening. They ranged from his eventual showdown with Madumda, to another where he was with one of these restless spirits roaming the valley. Finally, he ended with a vision actually placing him in Thorley when this ghastly deed occurred. Just as the teen was beginning to settle into another nighttime vision, the wizard gently, and mercifully, shook him awake.

As Beraut watched his ward begin to stir to life, he wished he could find a way to communicate his feelings to him. He had been quite impressed by the way Kieren had conducted himself throughout the evening and, therefore, would have liked to be able to tell him so. The problem was, he could not actually come up with an appropriate method to convey the depth of his feelings to the young man, since he wouldn't be able to do this verbally. Somewhat frustrated by this dilemma, the wizard eventually decided to just leave it be for now, but vowed he would address this matter with Kieren at a later time, once he could actually speak to the boy.

As Kieren slowly opened his eyes, he was greeted by the soft, pale light of dawn, which was already falling across the valley floor and quickly evaporating the morning frost. While his mind was drifting back into consciousness, he noticed Garreth and Romaric were not getting up and seemed to be trying to sneak a few extra minutes of sleep. Kieren knew they couldn't afford to dally or they would hold up the others, so he took the time to make sure they were also awake and getting ready for the new day.

After rousing Kieren, Beraut continued his rounds, until he had awakened each of the other travelers as well. Once all of the warriors were getting up and beginning to move about, that individual would slowly shake the cobwebs from his brain, before grabbing a quick meal from his pack. After they had finished eating, they packed up their gear and got ready to resume their journey. Each of them was anxiously looking forward to finally getting moving again, so they could be free of this unpleasant location.

Apparently, the valley was weighing heavily on each of their minds, because the depth of their concerns was etched upon their faces and evident in their body language. It was quite obvious that no one, except the wizard, had slept well, since he was the only one who seemed energetic and alert. Even Qaim had been tortured by many disquieting visions, although none of the companions were able to understand the true extent of his anxiety. They also didn't realize that most of Qaim's nightmares had been centered upon the condor and not the ghostly forms in the valley. Ever since the aignx had first seen that freak of nature, it had become the focal point of his most profound fears.

Shifting his attention back to the others, the wizard noticed a sudden sense of urgency in their actions. With a renewed burst of energy, the small group moved forward and made their way toward the opening at the other end of the valley. They were also motivated by the thought that they would soon be able to remove the protective gear they had been wearing and finally able to regain their lost sense. Not being able to hear continued to be a very unnatural and unnerving situation for them, so they were eager to reach the point where they would finally have it restored. In fact, each of them was eagerly anticipating being able to function in a normal manner again, once they broke free of this unholy vale.

This yearning almost caused them to race forward, in an effort to seek their freedom from this desolate land as rapidly as they could, but Beraut soon put an end to this idea. When the wizard noticed the others were increasing their pace and trying to force him to go faster, he signaled them to slow down. He even demonstrated some of the dangers a hasty retreat could cause to happen. Beraut was concerned they would step into a rough patch of ground and injure an ankle or leg, or even stumble and dislodge their protective earpieces. Once the others realized the wisdom in the message the wizard was conveying, order was restored to their ranks. Now, they plodded forward and steadily aimed for the gap that would free them from this haunted valley.

Beraut was constantly on the lookout for danger and his head continually jerked from side to side, as he scanned the ground and air in every direction. The wizard was worried that Madumda might have created other dangerous creatures to reside here, so they could prevent something like this from happening. For this reason, Beraut didn't even relax his efforts when they stopped for a brief rest at noon, so they could partake of another quick meal. He seemed more concerned than normal, but the others merely assumed the condor was the primary reason for his current uneasiness.

Once they sat down, Doenilio quickly unfastened his chinstrap and took off his helmet. As soon as it had been removed, he set it on the ground beside him. Sedain was shocked to see what the older dwarf had done, so he waved his arm about, in an attempt to get his countryman's attention. Once Doenilio was focused on him, Sedain pointed toward the helmet. He hoped this simple gesture would be enough to allow him to find out why Doenilio had taken it off in the first place.

As soon as he caught Sedain's drift, Doenilio lifted his chin and gave him a better view of his neck. He wanted the younger dwarf to observe the reddened, raw flesh over his throat, which had previously been hidden from view. Unfortunately, Doenilio had tied the leather strap on his helmet tighter than he should have, in order to keep the protective headgear secure. This had caused it to rub against his skin and allowed it to irritate his neck, until it had now become quite painful.

Sedain nodded his head in acknowledgment and then began to rummage through his pack. After a few seconds of this effort, Sedain produced a container of salve, which he then handed to Doenilio. The older warrior nodded his thanks and then applied some the ointment to his injured flesh, which immediately began to feel better. Once he'd finished coating the damaged skin, he handed the salve back to Sedain and they both went back to attending to their own business.

As they were getting ready to set off again, Garreth spotted Doenilio's helmet still lying on the ground. Concerned, he walked over to the dwarf, tapped him on the shoulder and then pointed toward his headgear. Following the direction of the elf's arm, Doenilio noticed this piece of his armor where he had left it. This caused his hands to instinctively rise to his head, in an attempt to confirm it was his.

Once he realized his young friend had prevented him from making a costly error, Doenilio winked and bowed politely, to express his gratitude. Garreth merely smiled and bowed slightly in return, to let Doenilio know he was welcome. As the elf moved away, Doenilio picked up his headgear and placed it back where it was supposed to be.

Unaware of this minor drama being played out behind them, Beraut and the others had started off again, as they continued their hike forward. This also meant that Doenilio was forced to take a new place in the formation, so he was now in line just ahead of Turquinine. The Mitikuan had made certain Doenilio was in front of him, and not behind, since Beraut had let Turquinine know that he wanted him to be the last one in this procession.

As they trudged on, Kieren noticed the wizard was still actively searching for signs of danger. The teen, however, was more concerned that the real threat might actually come from a place they least expected it. He conjectured that if Madumda had planned to guard this valley, he would more than likely have placed troops near the gap between the two mountain ranges – the very spot toward which they were now heading. That would be the most likely place to prevent strangers from entering or exiting the valley, and it would also be the best location to ambush those who had been foolish enough to attempt such a journey.

These thoughts caused Kieren to look apprehensively toward the opening between the peaks in front of them, as he wondered if this was indeed the fate that awaited them. He had no way to inform the others about his concerns and wasn't certain Beraut would take him seriously, so he decided it was up to him to remain alert for any signs of danger.

As they moved closer to this area, an increasing sense of dread began to weigh upon Kieren and added to his growing concerns. These fears were magnified with each passing step, since the peaks on either side seemed to grow higher and loomed even more menacingly over them. This sensation seemed to give greater credence to Kieren's suspicions, so he remained on a heightened state of vigilance, even after Beraut signaled them to pause for a late afternoon respite. The wizard felt everyone needed this breather before they made their final thrust to get to the gap separating the two mountain ranges.

As they relaxed, Kieren continued to remain on guard for signs of danger and monitored the area as best he could. At one point, after he leaned forward to grab his drink and straightened up again, he briefly felt the medallion brush against his chest. This caused him to think about it for the first time since they had left Thorold. He remembered Beraut's description of the powers it held, especially the clear crystal side, which would allow him to see things that were located far away. He also considered the wizard's warning about using such magic.

As he attempted to keep his intentions hidden from the others, Kieren gingerly fingered the chain that lay beneath his garments, while weighing those warnings in his mind. He concluded they were still leagues away from Treblanc and the Dark Lord, so the use of the medallion would most likely go undetected, since this side of the medallion used a minimal amount of magic. After all, he had used the other, more powerful side in the cave to avoid the patrol and that didn't seem to have caused any problems. Even though his reasoning might have been sufficient to ease his concerns, Kieren continued to think this situation through. He certainly didn't wish to leave anything to chance or create more problems along the way.

As he continued to internally debate this decision, Kieren also decided it would be highly unlikely that Madumda would be with any warriors he might have stationed near the gap. The only reason the Dark Lord might be at that location would be if he suspected or knew of their journey through the valley. If that were the case, then they were already in serious jeopardy and using the medallion wouldn't cause any more harm. In fact, it might even do them some good by alerting them to a potential threat.

Kieren also considered whether he should tell Beraut about his concern or if he should just do this on his own. When he looked for the wizard, he saw Beraut was busy scanning a different area for another, very real threat – that huge bird. This made Kieren wonder if his own concern was unfounded, possibly even childish, such as when Garreth worried about assassins and spies as they made their way to Leander. After all, wouldn't Beraut be able to deal with a handful of soldiers, even if they happened to be waiting in that area?

After thinking it over, Kieren decided to do this on his own. If he discovered something there, then he would tell his mentor so Beraut could decide what their next step should be. Having finally reached this conclusion, Kieren cautiously withdrew the medallion from its hiding place and held it in his hands. Slowly, he turned it so the crystal side was facing up, so he could begin to concentrate on seeing the rocky slopes on both sides of the gap.

When the first of those areas came into focus, Kieren was able to view the portion the Citadel Mountains near the pass. He searched the area carefully and looked for signs of hidden troops or traps, but discovered nothing. Next, he concentrated on the opposite ridge, the arm extending from the Amber Mountain range. Once again he discovered nothing that alarmed him, so he summoned up the courage to bring the gap into view.

As he scanned the opening between the two rocky slopes, the teen found that it too was devoid of any life or activity. Seeing this, Kieren breathed a sigh of relief and realized his fears had been unfounded and the opening was unwatched. As he lifted up his head, so he could look up at the peaks that still loomed before him, he did so without experiencing the severe sense of anxiety that had plagued him earlier. However, it was also when he noticed Beraut walking toward him, indicating it was time to resume their journey. Kieren assumed the wizard had obviously felt him using the medallion, yet Beraut didn't indicate he had any problem with it. Immediately, Kieren determined he must have acted appropriately and this thought made him feel a lot better about what he'd done.

As the small party made its way toward their goal, everyone began to notice the vegetation was becoming thicker and more cumbersome. Kieren thought this might be by design and meant to prevent or discourage people from trying to enter the valley in the first place. He believed this because the closer they got to the opening between the mountain chains, the denser the undergrowth seemed to become. Kieren was focusing on this possibility when he unexpectedly saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

Looking up, he realized Beraut was signaling them to take cover again. The wizard was pointing toward a depression in the ground and indicating they should move into it and lie down. Then the wizard pointed off to his right and flapped his arms, to let them know the giant bird was headed in their direction again.

Without further encouragement, everyone did as the wizard wished and swiftly moved towards the tiny gully. The shallow depression was all that remained of one of the many irrigation ditches that had once been used to move water throughout the region, but the good part was that it was still wide and deep enough for everyone to fit into it. Over time, this channel had partially been filled in with dust, airborne debris and rotting vegetation, until it was now only half its previous depth. This, however, still left it adequate to provide sufficient cover during this threat.

Fortunately, it didn't take long before those in the front were laying belly-down in the shallow trench. Some were also carefully peeking over the lip of the depression, even though it might not be the smartest thing to do. Regardless, they continued to strain to observe the condor's approach.

Turquinine and Doenilio were at the rear of the formation and the last to get to the hiding place. As they drew nearer to it, the dwarf snagged his boot on some of the briars that grew so freely across the valley floor and lost his footing. As he fell forward, the diminutive warrior first tried to catch his balance, but when that failed, he attempted to soften his impact by extending his arms in front of him.

When his hands hit the dirt, instead of letting his elbows bend to lessen the force of the blow, Doenilio kept his arms locked and this caused his head to snap forward. This, in turn, caused his helmet to come flying off of his head. The dwarf had only tied his chinstrap loosely this time, in an attempt to give his neck a chance to heal, but that decision now proved costly. It was the sight of Doenilio's headgear bouncing past them that brought the dwarf's plight to the attention of a few of those who had been just in front of him in line.

If that wasn't bad enough, when his helmet came off it also pulled the dwarf's protective binding free, which in turn loosened the seal on one of his earplugs. Within seconds, Doenilio was writhing on the ground, clasping his hands over the ear with the partially dislodged earplug and howling in agony.

Although those closest to him couldn't actually hear his screams, they did look in his direction, after seeing his helmet bouncing around. This meant they were now witnessing his involuntary spasms, as he flailed about in excruciating pain. Knowing these movements and sounds would draw the attention of the condor, Turquinine slid his body over Doenilio, as he tried to restrain and gag him. The giant warrior had been behind the dwarf and had seen everything that had happened. Unfortunately, he had been unable to react in time to do anything to prevent it.

Now, in an effort to contain this terrible situation, Turquinine tried to keep the dwarf from bringing attention to the entire group. His efforts though, were only effective for a few seconds. While attempting to restrain the dwarf, the Mitikuan had placed his hand over Doenilio's mouth, in order to muffle his screams. Somehow during the dwarf's attempts to break free, he managed to bite the knight's hand, in the fleshy section between the thumb and index finger. This caused Turquinine to pull his hand away slightly, as his body rolled almost imperceptibly to the left, so he could determine how much damage the dwarf had caused.

As the Mitikuan began to inspect his hand to see if the skin had been broken or if it was bleeding, the change in his position was enough to give Doenilio the opportunity he needed to break free. Once the dwarf had pulled away from Turquinine's grasp, he leaped up and raced from his hiding place.

Those who saw what Doenilio was doing were horrified, even though they were unable to fully comprehend the significance of what was happening. Kieren even attempted to rise up and go after the dwarf, but he never got the chance to continue. As soon as he realized what the boy was about to do, Rhys grabbed Kieren's arm and pulled him back down into the depression. Rhys then slid his body forward and completely restrained the lad, so he couldn't do anything foolish.

Beraut also lifted his upper body off the ground, as if he might rise to do something as well, but only for a moment. After thinking about it, the wizard eventually also lowered his torso back into the ditch and remained there. Reluctantly, he decided it prudent, as well as beneficial to the safety of everyone else, to merely let destiny play itself out.

Each of the companions remained frozen and dumbfounded as they watched the dwarf zigzag his way across the valley floor. Occasionally, Doenilio would fall, whenever more of the thorny vegetation ensnared his feet or clothing, but that was never enough to keep him down for good. He would simply get up and take off again, since he was totally consumed by his madness. Before long, his movements caught the attention of the condor and it flew in Doenilio's direction. The guardian of the valley circled effortlessly above the dwarf, as it cautiously investigated the source of the disturbance below.

When the others noticed the condor approaching their friend's position, they held their breath and hoped the giant beast would think Doenilio insignificant and unworthy of further scrutiny. After circling above him for several minutes, the monstrous bird began to swoop lower and drew ever nearer to the dwarf. As the two forms grew closer together, the remainder of the party was able to get a better feel for the true enormity of this foe. As the condor dove nearer to the spot where the dwarf was running aimlessly about, everything became unnervingly clear. They could now see for themselves that Doenilio was barely as large as one of the giant bird's clawed feet.

The condor first made an exploratory pass over Doenilio, in an effort to determine what type of defenses its target might possess. When nothing happened, the bird judged this creature would put up little resistance and zeroed in on him. As the enormous beast made its final dive toward the dwarf, it extended its talons forward of its body, which left no doubt about its intentions.

Desperately, Kieren looked around at the others and tried to make eye contact with each of them. He didn't care which one, but he hoped to be able to wordlessly plead for someone to help save the dwarf. Try as he might, everyone's focus was on the scene playing out on the valley floor, so his effort was for naught. The one thing he couldn't understand was why no one was rushing to Doenilio's aid.

As he looked around, Kieren was able to read the expressions of terror and shock on Garreth and Romaric's faces. He could also see tears streaking down their cheeks. He understood how they felt, but neither elf noticed Kieren staring in their direction.

Turning his attention back to the dwarf, Kieren watched in horror and disbelief as the monstrous bird swooped in on Doenilio from behind. Later, they all agreed it was fortunate their friend hadn't seen the end coming, even if it might not have registered mentally with him at the time. When the giant claw finally reached him, its razor sharp talons pierced Doenilio's armor and body, just before the monster lifted him off the ground.

Each of them cringed as they witnessed the dwarf being skewered so easily, but only Beraut and Qaim were able to hear Doenilio's final pitiful wail as his life was taken. In stunned disbelief, all any of them could do was watch as the condor dragged Doenilio's limp body skyward and carried it off toward the distant mountain range.

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