Friday, July 18, 2008

"The Elephant Crusade" -- Act III

First, a quick note: As I was finishing up the third act of "The Elephant Crusade" I realized three acts simply was not going to suffice, that am additional fourth act was necessary. That means today's post, originally intended to be the final act, will not be the finale of "The Elephant Crusade".

I'll be posting the fourth and final act next week.

Thanks and, as always, enjoy!


"The Elephant Crusade"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT III: Balori Leaves the Bizo

SOFT SNOWS AND WICKED STRENGTHS: Wherein Balori Receives Training; Negkendra Confronts Akadia Dorn; The Weasel King Learns of Plots Against His Throne



Akadia Dorn's facial hair extended down from the tips of his mustache and a thin goatee into three cords. Each end was braided unto itself and then all three braided together below the chin as a rope of hair. As was his mustache and beard, so too was the hair atop his head. Three large cornrows had been made and braided to hang as a rope down the middle of his back. His hair was dark, though lightening with the slightest onset of middle-age.

He wore a thawb of deep green embroidered with scenes of mahouts herding elephants. He carried with him a crop, though he never used it. He provided elephants to the Eternal Empress to the far east, but never had he trained one. The crop was a signature of his station and nothing more. The crop was an ornament, a piece of jewelry sent forth by the Eternal Empress, an expression of her gratitude for his services and loyalty. It was finely made with leather. the handle had been wrapped with a silver encasing hand-carved with elephants trumpeting in a long parade, much like the Elephant Crusade he commanded from the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar. The end was tipped with incredibly short gold chains, perhaps three or four links each, and weighted with solid gold globes. It was a fine treasure, a treasure many secretly lusted after.

Akadia Dorn's task was simple. He managed the mahouts and organized the business matters of the Elephant Crusade from the bazaar. Prior to the Elephant crusade, he had made his way through the world by many means. He had been a mercenary, a bounty hunter, a handler of horses, a stable hand, a sailor for a brief time until he discovered the roiling seas made him ill, a cook, a mule, hired guard, and an exporter of fruits. He came to manage the Elephant Crusade through a friend called Macia Thrace who had once known him as an exporter in a port. Macia recognized Akadia's mind for business and numbers. "You are much too smart for thuggish work," he had said to Akadia, "one day you'll learn to work with your mind and rest your back."

Akadia enjoyed the work he did for the Eternal Empress, a woman whom he had never met nor did he need to. He was happy to work hard without using himself physically, noting his friend had been right to suggest such work. The pay was the best he had ever received, plus he occasionally took a little extra for himself. He dared not do this often, for he feared being found out and forced from the position. Plus, with the pay and enjoyment he got commanding the mahouts, most of whom he found amiable, he slowly came to realize he was growing quite loyal to the Empress and her cause.

In time the sailor and mercenary Macia Thrace - once the friend to Zahir the Indomitable - departed from the ship Baqir and duty to Captain Faraj. they parted well and as friends and colleagues. Macia felt himself getting old with work and, however, and several years before had begun to amass a small fortune and investing it, mainly in the port near the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar.

When he parted from the Baqir, Macia cashed out all his monies and invested them into the Elephant Crusade, making him a small partner in the matter and relieving the Empress and the few other investors from the financial strain of the effort. Macia's main reason to invest in the Elephant Crusade was his faith in his friend Akadia.

Once the money was invested, Macia paid a visit to the manager. Together they smiled and regaled one another with tall tales and bold lies of adventures. Akadia was happy to have Macia invested with his business. They drank all through the night and enjoyed themselves with women and each others' company.

The next day when Akadia went about tending to the elephants and mahouts and general daily business, Macia asked if he could somehow help in matters. Akadia asked Macia to be his assistant. "It is not a position of glamorous adventures," Akadia warned.

"I care not for that, but I've been at sea a long time and working as a hired warrior for many years before that. I cannot foresee myself sitting around all day. Anything to keep my hands busy will suffice," Macia explained.

Akadia was correct in his warning. The tasks set to Macia were rarely little more than pedestrian, but Macia enjoyed them in comparison to the demanding life at sea.

It was not long, however, that Macia was offered the chance to own a small sloop. "I know you need my assistance," said Macia to Akadia, "but it would seem I cannot purge waterborne life from my blood. I expect to merely ferry people up the river and back a few days each week. the rest of the time I could work here with you."

Akadia laughed and slapped his friend on the back, "Do not fear offending me! You are a partner in matters now and can do as you wish. i am not your captain, you are at last your a captain of your own. Buy the sloop and be happy. If you still wish to help here, I would like the company!"

And so the two friends became neighbors, businessmen and respected members of the community. Together they forged a life of prosperity and health and happiness.

Once, after the day's work was completed by both men and they little else to do besides spend their time luxuriously, they entered the main street of the bazaar to find a place to share a lunch and take in the sights. As they passed a jeweler, Akadia's eye was caught by an enormous emerald flanked by three young and strapping guards. "By the gods!" he exclaimed. "That must be big as a small man!"

The jeweler agreed. "I've just received it. It is said it was once the jewel of Zingtai and was sold here before, but as all grand luxuries must be sold, it had returned, this time to me. Would you care to purchase it?"

Akadia was tempted, but knew the price would surely set him back a fortune.

Macia shook his head, afraid, and told his friend, "Do not even think it, friend. Once I had troubles with an enchanted jewel and what I tell you be true: a good friend died from it."

The jeweler nodded. "Great prizes breed jealousy and greed. This is why I have these young men guarding the jewel."

Again Macia shook his head. "This was not mere greed that took my friend. Indeed, I and my old mates gave up the jewel to rid ourselves of it. Such thing are often cursed!"

Unknowing, the man called Sinvergüenza - loyal servant to none other than the demon dog Yaska Selith - stood nearby, listening. He looked to his men, now eight strong, before approaching the jeweler. "How much do you ask for such a fine item?" he asked.

The jeweler smiled, hoping the two interested men would start a bidding war. "A tawdry ten-thousand would convince me to part with such finery."

"Ten-thousand!" Akadia scoffed. It was far more than he had expected. And though he scoffed, he secretly desired the jewel.

Thinking the matter was settled, Macia said, "Friend, let us leave from here. I am hungry."

Akadia, at first, did not move away from the jeweler. But when he saw Sinvergüenza produce the money from a large satchel at his back - money he had robbed from people all over the world in his travels towards the Peony Tea House - Akadia reluctantly turned away. His desire for the jewel, however, persisted.

Akadia, as he was ushered away by his friend, saw Sinvergüenza take the jewel and wrapped it in a large cloth. He then heard this purchaser of the jewel send his men along their way with instructions to deliver the jewel to someone at the Plain of Adoration as an offering of his loyalty. He then was whisked away amidst a crowd and lost sight of the jewel, the man who had purchased it, and his desires were soon forgotten.

Sinvergüenza followed his men outside the bazaar, watching as his men dipped beyond the horizon. He then turned, proceeding alone the rest of the way to the Peony Tea House.



As Balori left the palace of the Eternal Empress he thought her request possibly impossible. In stead of continuing on in his quest, he stopped at the site of the tower. There he found the abusive mahout known as Ghalib. The workers and even the elephants stopped their labors as Balori walked into their midst. He approached Ghalib. Lashing out his trunk, he grabbed the mahout about the neck. Ghalib coughed, choking as air escaped from him.

Balori cried out, tears of rage in his eyes. He thought of the bloody forehead of his cousin, half-brother and friend Tafari as he impaled himself against the edge of a massive stone. He thought of his desires to see homelands he had never seen. He thought of his own childhood foolishness, thinking stupidly his training was playing. He cried out in rage and horror as the head and face of Ghalib turned fist red, then purple and at last blue.

A spearman's shout caught his attention. Balori looked to see the spearman with a javelin to Masozi's ear. "Let him go!" cried the spearman.

With great reluctance and little care, Balori unraveled his trunk from about Ghalib's neck. The mahout fell to the ground with a thud. Gasping, coughing, Ghalib yelled out, "Kill her!"

The spearman did as he was commanded. He drove the javelin deep into Masozi's ear.

With a gurgle and horribly loud death rattle, Masozi toppled.

With great force and another cry Balori picked up Ghalib once more, strangling the mahout with his trunk. He threw the dead body to the ground. He then pressed his heavy foot against the mahout's head. The weight was much too much for the small man's skull to resist. It spattered, liquefying into crimson viscous gore.

Balori stood, eying the rest of the mahouts and his fellow elephants, the body of Ghalib lying motionless up against his foot and the ugly spatter sprayed out under his foot. He went to his mother, dead and lying motionless. He approached her.

Balori squatted near her, the mahouts nearby afraid to attack. He caressed her trunk with his own, rubbing his massive ear against her side. he removed the javelin from her ear with his trunk. He whispered softly to her. "I'm so sorry, mother. I've failed you. I'm so sorry we're here. But I will make things right once more. I'll free all our people and you'll be so very proud of me. I promise you this." He cried out in pain and anguish.

Several javelins bit at his skin. Balori stood, fighting back and killing another three men, but in the end there were too many attackers for him to defend against.

Afraid, reluctant, unknowing of where to go or how to start his task of restoring the stars to the nighttime sky or if the Eternal Empress would even honor her word after the deaths he had caused, Balori left the land of the Bizo.



It took many days before Aniabas' wounds healed enough they did not sting, but they truly made him unrecognizable. His face was minced severely into ugliness. It did, however, provide him with a great mask with which to hide within the town renamed Yutown in honor of the Weasel King, as the kingdom had been renamed Raijudon also in his honor.

After several days of searching and frightfully hiding and carefully stepping through shadows, Aniabas had amassed a network of subjects loyal to him - or in the very least people who hated the tyranny of Raiju Yu. Many were pleased to hear of his survival and longed for his return to the throne.

One such person was a young boy named Roct, a child far from being a man and not yet capable of surviving on his own. He had caught the favor of Raiju Yu as he allowed the Weasel King to sodomize him whenever he desired. In return, Raiju Yu allowed Roct and his older sister Cordelia to live in the castle. Cordelia was a personal servant to Raiju Yu, as well, bringing him foods and the like. Their parents had been killed in the overthrow. They were all the family they each had.

But Roct came to Aniabas as a smuggler of goods outlawed by Raiju Yu. Aniabas had been looking for weapons to arm his loyalists, but Raiju Yu had taken all the weapons away from the townsfolk. Roct, however, knew people that could get weapons and other contraband to him outside the town. As a favored subject of Raiju Yu, Roct could pass in and out of the town with little notice to himself and without being inspected or hassled by Raiju Yu's guards.

Roct brought to Aniabas a beautiful falcata. "I doubt you could hide it on your person," Roct told him as he collected his money for delivering the sword to the former king.

"I'll not need to when the time comes," hinted Aniabas. He thanked the boy and they parted ways for a time.

That night as brother and sister bedded down for the night together as they often did for security and warmth, Roct said he thought someone might be planning a coup against the Weasel King.

"Why do you think this?" asked Cordelia.

"Today, when I was doing my usual business in town, I sold a disfigured man a rather large sword. There would be no way he could carry it without notice and I told him so. He said he hoped he would soon not have to," the boy explained.

Cordelia thought on this. She hugged her brother and said, "Should anything ever happen in this castle, we must hide and let things take their course. We should never be involved in such matters."

Roct said, "But sister, we are fortunate ones. Every day I travel into the town I see people turned out of their homes and living as beggars and whores. Raiju Yu has been kind and given us a safe place to live. We barely do anything for him in return. Should we not be good to him in return?"

"When first Raiju Yu fouled you, you came to me in tears and pain. You were quite bloody and afraid. Do you remember this?" Cordelia asked.

Roct nodded, shivering with memory.

"This is what he does to the people in the town. Every day he hurts them. They have been turned out of their homes by Raiju Yu. He is an evil creature, a creature of hate." Again she said, "Should anything ever happen within the castle, we must hide and allow things to take their course. If Raiju Yu is overthrown, we will surely be freed. If he remains in power after an attempted coup, our lives would not be changed. Things could only be made worse if we were to involve ourselves in such matters and the person we did not help, indeed the person we worked against were to take power. We must hide and do nothing more."

"But now, when the Weasel King does what he does to me, I do not feel the pain as I did once before. All I must do is lie still and allow him to do as he needs. Is that so bad? Why be in pain when one only has to remain still momentarily?" asked the little boy.

Cordelia shook her head and sighed. "I fear I cannot explain things any better."

Roct fell asleep that night thinking of coups and the homeless people he knew of in the streets.

Early the next morning, he was called to Raiju Yu's side. He went as he always did and presented himself fully nude before the Weasel King.

"How are you, my young one?" asked Raiju Yu.

"Well, sire," Roct yawned. He turned around and bent over.

Raiju Yu mounted the boy.

When Raiju yu was finished, as Rot was dressing himself, the new king called him to his bed. Roct obeyed. He lay beside the king. Raiju Yu then called for Cordelia to bring him some fruits and wine to eat and drink.

"How sweet you are," Raiju Yu nearly cooed, stroking the boy's fine hair. "If ever I were to lose power of my throne, you would surely be a missed thing. It is good, then, my power is unchallenged, is it not?"

Roct thought on these words, thought about how nice his life appeared compared to those suffering in the town and how it was all because Raiju Yu was his benefactor. He felt a certain loyalty to the weasel.

Cordelia brought the fruits and wine.

"Your highness," said Roct. "I've something I must tell you."

Raiju Yu poured the young boy some wine before pouring himself some. "What is it, my sweet lad?"

Suspecting her brother's words, Cordelia, who stood nearby in case Raiju Yu needed anything further, said, "Roct! There's no need to bother the king with matters!"

Raiju Yu's curiosity perked, he asked, "Matters? What matters?"

Cordelia shook her head vigorously at Roct.

Roct said, "But sister, we owe Raiju Yu everything. We must tell him."

Growing impatient, Raiju Yu demanded, "What is it you desire to tell me but not your sister?"

"It is a matter of which we cannot be sure of," Cordelia said swiftly.

"Hush, girl," Raiju Yu commanded. He then turned to Roct, "What is it, boy?"

Roct said simply, "There are traitors in our midst."



Negkendra knew nothing of Ghalib's death for he had left the Bizoans long before Balori had. He wandered many countrysides without aim. He begged for his food more than once. His clothes fell to tatters and his spirit followed. Not a single day passed without his thoughts turning toward the elephants he had witnessed abuse and driven to near-death.

Unknowing where else to go, he at last returned to the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar where he was hired as a souk's assistant, sweeping floors and carrying out trash. Once a trusted and respected member of the bazaar, he returned to his humble origins of nameless shopkeeper's hireling.

Every day he heard whispers of the Elephant Crusade. it seemed to him to have become the single largest business in all the bazaar, second only to textiles and incense. Whenever these whispers came to his ears, he would turn his head away, burying himself amidst work and going deaf to the world. At last, on a night he was allowed some freedom from his duties, he decided to visit the other areas of the bazaar. Perhaps unwilling to admit to himself, he found the center of the business for the Elephant Crusade. He entered as they were closing the doors. Some assistants tried to turn him away, but her remained determined in seeing Akadia Dorn.

Akadia Dorn obliged this stranger, thinking he may be a customer or future employee.

"Let him in," commanded Akadia Dorn.

The souk had a large foyer. its walls were wood as were two pillars in its center. Every inch was hand-carved with elephant motifs and the thin carvings were inlaid with gold. The eyes of the carved elephants sparkled with various jewels. Negkendra knew then the business he had helped start was now immensely profitable and this only served to make him fill with more sorrow.

"How may I help you, friend?" asked Akadia.

"If you be Akadia Dorn," Negkendra said timidly, "I ask you with all humbleness to end your career with the Elephant Crusade. Indeed, I ask you to end the Elephant Crusade all together."

Akadia and his men laughed uproariously. Surely, thought they, this man jested. But seeing his face now somber, sad and serious, Akadia Dorn approached him. "Why would you ask such a thing? What matter is it of yours that I carrying on in my business?"

Negkendra bowed his head, half in shame and half in respect to Akadia Dorn, and introduced himself. "I am Negkendra, the first mahout to have helped Shabar, aide to the Eternal Empress, start the Elephant Crusade."

Akadia's brow creased with curiosity and confusion. "Then you should know the healthy life I command. Why would you ask me to give all this up?"

"Because," explained Negkendra, "they torture the elephants, sometimes to death."

Akadia chuckled, wanting to laugh but afraid for some reason to offend this man. "Who are you really?"

"Sir, I tell you the truth of my identity."

"If you are truly who you say, then why are you here in rags and not living a life larger than I at the side of the Eternal Empress?" Akadia asked.

Negkendra sighed. "Once I did, but one day I saw another mahout beat an elephant to death and beyond, not ceasing in the beating until I stopped his hand."

Akadia cocked his head, still confused. "What does it matter if a mahout kills a rebellious and therefore useless elephant? They are dumb animals, not men or gods or gifted ones."

Negkendra could not think of a response, but knew any response he would give would most likely not change Akadia Dorn's stance. He most likely loved his life of abundance too much to give it up. But then, as Negkendra thought, he himself has once had enjoyed such a life and he had given it all up. Perhaps, thought negkendra, this man would, too. The thing that had changed his mind over a life of abundance had been bearing witness to the atrocities against the elephants.

"Please, sir," Negkendra said at last, "I think it in your best interests to visit the Eternal Empress one day and see witness the work she does, the work she needs the elephants for."

Akadia grew wary of Negkendra's words. "You dare suggest more how I should conduct my business?" he raged. "I live a good life! I hurt no one! I make no wars! I murder no one with my hands! And you dare suggest I change my life? To give up my very livelihood?"

"With apologies," Negkendra said as he made for the door.

"And what has become of you? What has become of the glorious First Mahout of the Elephant Crusade you can make such demands of me?"

Negkendra stopped at the door, looked back and said, "I sweep the floors of a souk."

Akadia Dorn and his men laughed riotously as Negkendra left their presence.



Balori first came into a village along a river. The people there were in awwe of him, regarding him as a god. They fed him and told him of their gods. He felt respected and loved by the people and loved them in return. He felt he owed the people the truth and confessed he was not a god at all, but once was a normal elephant and that he had been made to help free his people.

The village's headman, hearing this, came to Balori saying he should visit the old man that lived in the mountains nearby. "His name is Nahum of the Snows. He lives high in the mountain where it always snows. He has been our spiritual guide in times of crisis for hundreds of years. Go to him, Balori. See him and feel his wisdom."

Trusting the headman, Balori did as he was instructed. It took him several days to climb up the mountain called Bai Baldric. On the way he passed a pleasant man descending the mountain on a tired old mule.

"Have you seen the old man of the snows?" asked Balori.

The pleasant man cackled and nodded. "And he knows you are approaching!"

Balori thanked the man and continued on his way, struggling to find cliffs and crags large enough to serve as foot- and hand-holds. At last, in the wintry forever winters of Bai Baldric. He hated the snow and the cold as it made his skin crack and stretch thin as though shrinking and the snows numbed him toes and feet.

Looking around, Balori found a large cave. He entered, hoping at least to escape the torrential winds that bit at him if not actually discover the lair of Nahum of the Snows.

The cave opened onto a cavern even larger than its mouth. Balori found he did not have to duck or struggle to get inside. Stalagmites and stalactites spotted the cavern that sparkled in a fire's glow. Looking to the fire, Balori found the pleasant man he had passed on the mountain sitting beside it, stoking the flames.

"Sir," said Balori as he drew near the warm and comforting fire. "How did you get back here? When we passed one another you were descending the mountain. Now you are here and not once did I see you pass me on the way up. Is there some other entrance to this cavern?"

The pleasant man laughed. "Oh, no. There is no other ingress or egress than that which brought you here."

"Then how did you get here without me seeing you?" Balori asked.

Again the man laughed. "Why, this is my home. I can come and go as I please. Now come closer and enjoy the fire with me."

Content on warming himself, Balori sat on the hard rocky floor of the cavern next to the man and let the fire warm him.

The pleasant man offered him food in the form of ginger cakes he professed to making himself from vegetation from the mountainside.

"I saw little vegetation near here," said Balori as he gratefully accepted one.

"This is my home," explained the man. "I can harvest as I need."

Balori nodded and enjoyed his fill of the ginger cakes. Balori then asked, "Old man, when first we passed you said I could find Nahum of the Snows here on the mountain. Where would he live?"

The pleasant man giggled, "Why, right here. This is the only spot he could live." He then added, "This is my home, I am the Nahum you seek."

"What? But why didn't you tell me that when first we passed? You could have saved me quite the effort and rescued me from these incredible frosts so high on the mountain!"

Nahum cackled. "Why, you never asked my name. Had you done so, I would have told you and you would have saved yourself all those troubles!"

Balori growled angrily.

"Tell me," said Nahum. "What has brought you here?"

Angry, wanting to do harm to the old man, but seeking guidance to fulfill his quest for the Eternal Empress and free his people, Balori said, "The headman of the village below sent me. I come seeking answers as to how to restore the stars to the nighttime sky."

"Oh!" gasped Nahum. "That is quite the task."

"Could you help me?"

Nahum did not laugh. He instead shook his head, "I know not what has caused their fall."

Balori's face grew long with defeat.

"However," said Nahum, "Know I perhaps where you could begin. First, you will need to know how to fly. Know you such a skill?"

Balori looked at Nahum confusedly. "Do I appear to have wings as the bird? I am helplessly grounded."

Nahum nodded, thinking. His own face grew long. He feared asking the next question, for what he thought Balori might need was something against his whole nature. "Know you how to fight?"

Balori said, "I can strangle a man easily with my trunk. Or crush him underfoot."

"No one would doubt you've the strength, but have you been trained in fighting arts?"

Balori shook his head. He admitted, "I've not been in this form long. I am most likely a whelp in most ways of the mortal world except where elephants are concerned."

Balori's candor made Nahum chuckle again. "I cannot help you learn fighting. I will send you to my brother for that."

Nahum got up and stepped outside, instructing Balori to follow.

"Must I?" Balori wrapped his arms about himself, peering out into the vast whiteness of the snowy mountaintop.

"Come!" instructed Nahum.

Balori did as he was told and soon Nahum was plucking a piece from a hanging cloud and placing it above the ground before Balori. "Sit upon it," instructed Nahum as he smiled.

Balori said, "I cannot! It's thinness won't support anything!"

Nahum raised a reprimanding finger to Balori. "The weakest thing has its strengths. Sit upon it, cross-legged."

Balori tested the cloud piece with his hand. As his hand went throug, he cried out, "I will fall! You instruct me in foolishness!"

Nahum's voice grew with great, deep commanding tones. "Sit upon it! Sit now!"

Balori thought the man to be quite bold in his attempt to command a creature more than twice his size. "Very well. I will do as you say and when I fall into the snow, making a fool of myself, I will murder you as though you were a wicked mahout!"

Balori turned, his back to the cloud, and leaned backward.

Much to his surprised, the cloud, which he could barely feel as a comforting, ethereal mist, held his weight.

Nahum laughed amiably and showed Balori how to sit on the cloud in the lotus position. "It is only from this position you will be able to command the cloud," said Nahum.

With some small practice, Balori was quickly able to fly atop the floating cloud to great heights.

"Now go to the mountain called Bai Mot. It is nearby and you will be able to fly there. There you will find my brother, the Dark Ram. He will teach you in the ways of fighting."

Balori thanked Nahum of the Snows whose laugh echoed off the Bai Baldric. Balori and Nahum waved to one another as the elephant flew away atop his cloud.

Balori then came to Bai Mot, a mountain so dark its stony surface, some parts of it peaking out from beneath a cover of snow, appeared black as Kalavata's wings. There, upon a peak, Balori spied a black ram charging and butting the mountain, shaping it again and again with his thrusting head. Seeing the ram thrusting his head into stone reminded him of Tafari and for a moment his heart welled with sadness and loss. He fought back a single tear as he flew closer.

When the ram saw Balori, he called, "Who disturbs my exercise?"

Balori floated nearer, shivering from the cold. "I am Balori Shongoyo and I have been sent by Nahum of the Snows to find his brother, one named Dark Ram."

The ram then changed into the shape of an old man with a face vastly decorated with ta moko in the shape of ram's horns around the nose and mouth. His ears were pierced with small ram's horns. "I am Dark Ram. Why would my weakling brother send you to me?"

"He seems to think I need to learn the ways of fighting," Balori drew closer still, so close in fact that he stepped off the cloud and stood next to the man. With a quick snort, Balori sucked the cloud up into his trunk where he stored it for later use.

"And why would you need to know how to fight?" asked the old man.

"I wish to free my people - the elephants of Ife - from the Eternal Empress, but to do so I must fulfill a task for her. I must restore the stars to the nighttime sky," Balori explained.

The old man considered this. "I could not begin to tell you how to do such a thing, but my brother may be correct in his suspicions that you will need to know how to fight."

"Your brother?" asked Balori.

"Indeed, I am Dark Ram, the brother of Nahum that you seek. And if he and I suspect correctly, there may be wickedness behind the fallen stars, which would mean you will need to know fighting skills." Dark Ram eyed Balori who was shivering in the cold and rocking back and forth on his feet, giving each foot temporary relief from the freezing snows.

"I may enjoy teaching one as weak as you," Dark Ram said.

"Weak? You dare call me weak?" Balori raged. "I could crush your head beneath my foot!"

"Oh, there is strength and there is strength," replied Dark Ram cryptically. "But if you are so strong, why do you dance in the snows? Do the little flakes hurt you?"

Balori, angry and feeling the slight, said, "It is cold! Surely every creature feels cold and heat!"

"Then why do I not shiver as you?" asked Dark Ram.

Balori then noticed the old man, seemingly feeble, did not appear concerned with the freezing snows. "You are a mystic," Balori explained more to himself than Dark Ram, "I saw with my own eyes your changing. You cast spells to be warm, doing tricks to assuage the effects of the snow."

"The only trick," explained Dark Ram, "is not minding."

Dark Ram lead Balori into a massive cavern, much like the one he had found Nahum in, and began his training. "You will learn testa," said Dark Ram. "It is an ancient art and few know it."

Balori began sparing, learning katas and punches and kicks and knees; he was taught how to gouge eyes and rake backs with his new hands; Dark Ram showed him how to utilize his long, long tusks as spears; he received blows to the chest from Dark Ram in his ram form to strengthen condition him to pain; he sat outside in the torrential snows for hours on end; at last he learned to deliver devastating headbutts to targets. Each time he practiced his headbutt, Balori screamed with sorrowful thoughts of Tafari, but his thoughts soon turned to grunts of effort and, indeed, concentrating on the memory of his dead friend allowed him to channel so much energy into a single headbutt that soon he was able to break stalagmites with one blow, causing them to explode into a rain of pebbles and powdery dust.

Between training, in the quiet moments after meals and sleep, Dark Ram further taught Balori lessons against pain by heating black stones in fires and then inserting them under the elephant's skin along the ridge of his brow. At first the pain was excruciating to Balori, but by the time Dark Ram neared completion of the design, Balori sat unmoving and unnerved. The final design gave Balori a line of raised black skin arching over each eye and extending almost to each ear.

In another effort to subdue pain, Dark Ram decorated Balori's forehead with ta moko above the line of stones. For this, he crushed the outer shells of bugs to make a red dye. He tattooed parallel lines sweeping from the center of Balori's forehead out to the ears. Dark Ram then ground a luminescent moss into a dye that he used to tattoo small dots throughout Balori's ears. Balori found this painful as his ears were thin and sensitive, but managed not to pull away. When completed, each of Balori's ears appeared as a tapestry of glinting, glowing stars.

Dark Ram next produced an iron rod and heated it in the fire. With it's sharp tip and burning heat he carved six black bands in the middle of each of Balori's tusks. Below these bands, towards the tips of the tusks and on the outer side, Dark Ram burn-carved first a snowflake in the left tusk then a ram's head in the right. "These represent you teachers," explained Dark Ram, "my borther and I."

After this Dark Ram instructed Balori to head to the far side of the mountain and dig in the snows there. "A few years ago," he explained, "when the stars fell from the Heavens, one such star broke lose and came to rest on the other side of Bai Mot. I've been meaning to retrieve it, but have as yet not done so. Go, Balori, find it and return it here and with it we will make you proper weapons."

Balori did as he had been instructed. He snorted out the cloud from his tusk, mounted it and flew to teh other side of Bai Mot. He dug and dug for many days until, at last, he found a large hunk of black stone, a stone unlike any other stone on the mountain. It had a slight sheen and was heavier than any other rock of its size would have been. Balori lifted the stone, mounted his piece of cloud again, and returned to the side of Dark Ram, presenting to him the odd stone.

"Good," Dark Ram said.

"It was quite heavy," Balori commented.

"Because it is no mere stone. It is made of Star Iron, the strongest iron one could hope for," explained Dark Ram.

Together they set about the task of making for Balori three weapons. Balori worked at stoking the fire, making it as hot as it would go. So hot did the fire become that much of the snow outside the cavern's entrance melted away. Dark Ram then showed Balori how to work the iron with a hammer and tools. Balori grew strong, his shoulders broadening, his arms thickening, his chest rippling from the work. One after another Balori was made to forge his own weapons.

At last Balori held all three weapons, finished and polished and ready. In his left hand he wielded a battle axe, its blade elongated to appear as an elephant's ear and nearly as big; in his right hand he held a massive kopesh; and in his trunk he gripped a tri-bladed mambele throwing knife. Each weapon glowed with a sheen. Each weapon was sharpened to fine edges. Each weapon gleamed deadly and wicked.

"Thank you," Balori told Dark Ram.

"It was my pleasure. You made a fine student. Now you must go and find your destiny. Return the stars to the nighttime sky and to the people all over the world," Dark Ram said with a smile, a rare thing for Dark Ram.

Balori again thanked him. He trumpeted, flinging forth his cloud, sat upon it and flew off the mountain called Bai Mot.


That's it for this week, folks. Remember to look for the fourth and final act next Friday!

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