Valley Of The Dragon Gods
By: Hensbane

Part Four

The sun was near the western rim of the valley turning the clouds pink and yellow as it began its pathway into night and long shadows crept down the sides of the distant cliffs as Hellbore began her walk toward the place called the Red Gryphon Inn and so Hellbore kept an eye out for any place that she might use for a camp since she had no idea of how far in she would have to travel before finding the inn. Along the path she walked through lush grasses as gray and black rabbits and large red and gray squirrels darted in front of her unafraid, majestic birds sang in the trees and bees hummed as they collected pollen from the mired of flowers that grew in plentitude around her. Hellbore breathed deeply and sighed for this place reminded her so much of her homeland. Hellbore bent down to pick a red flower from a thorny bush and was enjoying the spicy clove-like fragrance of it when the first hint of something wrong hit her; it wasn't an evil force but one of pain and loneliness.

Hellbore slowly rose from the flower bush and looked carefully around her to see if she could locate the source of this energy. Her human eyes saw nothing amiss so she shifted to her other sight and saw pale smoky images moving through a copse of trees. The images walked around aimlessly and some of them were crying into their ethereal hands while others clung to each other hopelessly. These were the specters that Old Frank had told her about. Still using her second sight she walked toward these ghostly images her hand outstretched open faced in friendship and greeting. A small white shape stopped moving and watched her approach, the figure materialized as Hellbore got closer to her and Hellbore could see it was a young dark haired child, a young girl dressed in strange tattered clothing. The child had long flowing hair and pale white skin, her eyes, once beautiful and dark in color were now merely burned out sockets in her skull and ghostly tears flowed down her cheeks.

"Child, why do you cry so? Why are all these people here in the trees, don't you and your people have a home to go to?" Hellbore asked as she knelt upon the ground close to the girl.

"We cannot go on for he who killed us yet lives and there is no one to avenge our deaths. In my tribe of Gypsies it is believed that until the one who brought about our deaths is dead himself we are cursed to wander forever in the place where our bodies ceased to exist. You are the first living being to talk to us, how can this be so?" The little girl had taken a semisolid form as she spoke to Hellbore and Hellbore could see that once this child had been truly beautiful and delicate of feature in life. Long black hair framed a tiny face and two large dark eyes were framed by heavy black lashes and brows, she had died before her nose could have finished growing into the hook shape that was obvious even at her young age.

"What is your name, child?" Hellbore asked the girl as she crouched there on the grass.

"Zeta. I am named after the flower you hold in your hand." The girl replied as she pointed to the red flower Hellbore still held.

"It is a beautiful name. Now I want to ask you who brought this fate upon you and your people." Hellbore kept her voice soft and encouraging as she hoped the child would tell her more of what had happened to her and her people.

"It was the dark one, the one called Karnak. We were slain as an offering of blood and pain to his dark evil gods and our blood ran across the soil that we stand on now. If you listen carefully you can hear the echoes of our screams when the night wind blows across the valley for he tortured us before allowing the life to leave our bodies." Zeta spoke in a matter of fact way allowing no emotion to color her words, but it was enough to give Hellbore an idea of what had gone on before her death.

Suddenly Hellbore’s mind was filled with overwhelming images of bodies being torn apart by hundreds of hairy beasts, not unlike the rogue werewolves she herself hunted down, but there were some differences for these beasts were like none Hellbore had ever before seen. These creatures were mixed-up and not natural, some had long fangs that dripped yellow venom, some had scales where fur should have been, some had rows upon rows of teeth like the sharks Hellbore had seen while swimming in the seas. Whoever had created these creatures had to have been the true personification of pure evil. She witnessed the mental images of small children being cast living onto open fires and women having creatures burst from their wombs. Her vision took in the gypsy men being tied to stakes and their eyes poked out with flaming brands or their arms and legs being torn off by the hairy beasts and devoured before their eyes. Then when Hellbore felt that her mind would collapse under the weight of all she was seeing, it stopped and her mind was set free. Hellbore sat down hard upon the ground in exhausted relief.

"I cannot return you and your people to the living world but I can vow that I shall do what I can to aid you if I can. That is all I can give you now for I also hunt things that are evil though different from the beasts that took your lives. If I find this Karnak I vow that he will take no more footsteps in the living world, that is all I can promise you." Hellbore spoke in a voice heavy with sorrow for this little girl and her people for like her own people they had no choices left to them. Whoever this Karnak was had taken away their lives and their futures leaving only these ghostly shapes in his wake.

The little girl who had been Zeta in the living world smiled down at the red haired woman and then she returned to the copse of trees and her people. When Hellbore looked up again at the trees the shadowy shapes had vanished from her normal sight but at her feet were five red Zeta flowers, a gift from the child who once was alive and named for this spice scented flower. Hellbore picked up the blossoms and held them tightly to her chest and she could feel hot tears coursing down her cheeks both for the gift and for the loss of Zeta’s people.

Part Five

Hellbore looked around again at the valley and smiled wryly thinking that this place was more than just what the eyes beheld for she could sense strange powers working here, not just ghostly spirits of those slain. She reminded herself not to take things at face value while in this place of many secrets and mysteries.

Part Six

"Well, this should prove to be interesting. I wonder what else I shall be treated to before I depart this valley of the Dragon Gods. This place called the Talos Valley. Hmm." Hellbore twisted her mouth into another wry grin and picked herself up off the ground then set about looking for a proper place to raise a camp for the night because she was not certain how faraway this Red Gryphon Inn might be. She had found herself a place where a narrow rill branched off from rapidly flowing a river to make her camp but just as she had cut down the second bow from an evergreen tree for her bed she heard voices coming from around the river bend. Hellbore followed the sounds and was surprised to see ten men standing around shouting into a pit. There was a contest going on from what she could make out at that distance so she carefully approached the area.

She stood next to a tall man with long dark ebony hair with silver wings along the temples. He had a voice that was deep enough to send shivers down her insides whenever he boomed out his cheers. She wished for a mirror to see if her face was clean and her hair was presentable, something she had not cared about in more than two hundred years. Hellbore blushed at her private thoughts. She then chided herself for allowing such thoughts enter into her mind for she was here on business not looking for male companionship.

"What contest is taking place here?" Hellbore boldly asked the tall dark haired man as she watched the two men in the pit punch each other.

"There was a disagreement inside the inn and since there is no violence allowed inside the building they decided to use the contest pit to settle their differences. Now some us have decided to put wagers on the out come their dispute." Karl looked more carefully at the stranger standing beside him at the pit edge. She wasn't beautiful in the ways of most women he knew but there was something about her that captured his attention. This woman was six-foot tall and her dark fox-red hair floated about her head like the mane of one of the great lions found in the deserts of the Phantom Realm. Karl looked deeply into the woman's eerie yellow-green eyes and saw secrets hidden in there. "I have never seen you around here before, have I? What name do you go by?"

"I go by my own name, Hellbore Reid. I am from the eastern lands; my people are called the Vinkins. Does that satisfy your curiosity?" Hellbore boldly laughed at the big man’s discomfiture. It had been a long while since she had ever made any male uncomfortable and she was enjoying ever second that it lasted. Hellbore knew that such a handsome man must either be married or have a hundred females waiting for him to call them to his side so she felt justified in baiting him. She thought that his ego was probably as big as he was and needed a punching down.

"I have heard of the Vinkin people, they are sea warriors are they not?" Karl told the woman standing before him. He had deliberately not risen to the bait she had cats out at him but kept his tone even and assured as he looked her over.

"They are mostly fishermen now, though you are correct about their once having been sea warriors. Do you know of this place called the Red Gryphon Inn? How far away from it am I?" Hellbore answered and asked the tall man. She wanted to get a hot meal and a long rest before she looked about for signs of the rogue werewolves. Besides this man was making her uncomfortable as he stared at her with his dark blue eyes.

"It is just beyond those trees. Are you planning on staying there for a time?" Karl asked hopefully. He did not understand his feelings for his rude and brash female but she intrigued him. It had been a very long time since he had been interested in any female except for bedding them and this one he wanted to get to know about.

"I am staying for a time; I am not certain how many days. I have been told to seek out a cook that works inside this place, a woman called Dora. Does she indeed work there?" Hellbore asked as she fulfilled Old Frank's direction.

"Dora? Dora is the finest cook in all the Phantom Realm." Karl motioned toward the trees again, "Now can I help you with your gear?"

Hellbore’s brows knitted together as she heard the inane remark from the tall man, how did he think she had gotten here in the first place. She had expected more from this man, so she tried not to bristle at the innocent remark for she was certain that he was just trying to be polite.

"Nay, but I thank you for asking but I am indeed puzzled as to how you think that I arrived here in this place. I have neither male slaves nor horse to carry me on my journeys, so why would I suddenly need help?" Hellbore hadn't meant to snap at the stranger with the deep voice, but she found her tongue speaking before she gave thought to her words for there was something about him that brought the worst of her naughty behavior.

Karl stepped back a pace from the red-haired female and smiled at her, his blue eyes twinkling in delight for he had managed to rile this woman who had appeared out of nowhere. He admired women who used no artifice around men but stood their ground when they felt offended and he had deliberately pushed himself in her direction. Karl wondered why this red-haired female brought out the teasing boy in him for he hadn't deliberately provoked a female since he was an unshaven lad of fifteen. Karl could not contain himself and he burst out laughing and motioned for the stranger to follow him through the copse of trees.

Hellbore followed the man into the three-story overlarge inn through a back doorway that opened up into the kitchen area where fragrant odors rushed to greet the two of them. Hot breads were being pulled from brick ovens and cast iron pots hung inside the enormous fireplace bubbled with steaming soups and spicy meats. Hellbore’s stomach rumbled loudly as it complained that it was empty and wanted to sample this wonderful fare.

Hellbore blushed when she saw the man staring at her when her stomached growled yet again even more loudly this time loudly not caring who heard its complaint.

"Excuse me. It has been a while since I have eaten a good meal and I fear that my stomach is not adverse to speaking aloud." Hellbore told the man who stood beside her with the silly grin on his face.

"Mine does the same thing when I enter this kitchen. Let me introduce you to our cook, Dora." Karl took Hellbore’s elbow and led her over to where a large round female was putting the finishing touches on a brace of pheasants.

"Dora, I have someone here I think would like to sample your fine cooking." Karl laughed softly. "Her stomach is making sounds like the war drums of the Senicas. We wouldn't want to see it on the warpath now would we?"

The cook looked over at Karl with her eyebrows raised in surprise. "Master Karl, what are you up to now?" Dora turned to take in the tall woman at Karl's side, she had never known Karl Strange to bring any stray females into the kitchen except some orphan that needed training to become one of the staff. Dora had to look up in order to see the entire stranger and when she took a good look at her she raised both of her thick black eyebrows and smiled warmly.

"My dear child, welcome to the Red Gryphon Inn. I see that the master here has once again forgotten his manners for he has not offered you a seat and a glass of wine to quench your thirst." So saying Dora with a speed that belied her size quickly produced a crystal clear polished glass filled with a dark red wine and she handed it to the woman. "Now since Master Karl Strange has not seen fit to properly introduce us, I am Dora Parker, head cook at this establishment." Dora paused to allow the woman to take a sip of her wine.

"I am Hellbore Reid of the east country. I come from the once city of Ducat, home of the Vinkins of the east. I thank you for your kind hospitality, Old Frank told me of you and your fine cooking." Hellbore managed to get out just before her stomach rumbled again but louder this time. Hellbore blushed deeply for the loud noisy complaints her stomach was making.

"Now we must see to your hunger, come and share a table with me, if it is all right. The dining room is just beginning to be set up for the evening meal and not yet ready for guests." Dora did not wait for a reply but went to filling the largest platter Hellbore had even seen with hot sweet potatoes covered with a thick molasses glaze, thick slices of red roast beef, an entire game hen, one enormous baked white potato covered in thick clotted cream and five slices of hot bread were added to the sides. Dora brought the feast to a small wooden table near the door to the dining room and then saw to it that silverware was placed before her. Hellbore requested wooden spoons instead of the silverware for her dining using the excuse of the metal tainting the taste of the food. She would have hated to have to explain the blisters that would have risen on her flesh when they touched silver.

Dora complied and for the next ten minutes stood there in the kitchen watching as the entire meal vanished into the slender woman. Hellbore rubbed her stomach in a satisfied manner and asked what time she was serving dinner.

Karl and Dora both laughed heartily as Hellbore raised from her seat.

"Did I say something wrong?" Hellbore asked as she looked over at the two people and wondered if they were laughing at her as a hard knot of embarrassment formed in her stomach.

"Nay, child! It is wonderful watching you enjoy my cooking and I am honored to prepare the meals for you. So many of the females that come here these days merely pick at their dinners and waste all that food so it is a pleasure to see someone enjoy her food." Dora quickly motioned to someone hidden behind a wall and a tiny girl with pale blonde hair appeared and removed Hellbore's plate and dinnerware. Hellbore watched silently as the child carried the dish over to a sink filled with steaming water and place it in carefully.

"You use children as servants?" Hellbore bristled. This was not something that she had considered when she came into the kitchen, for though she had seen children moving about the place she had not been watching what the children had been doing.

"No, Tara is an orphan and is in training here so that she can make her way in the world. Her parents were killed during a raid near here and I found her wondering about in a daze. I brought her here to Dora and Dora is teaching her serving skills and I have five older children who teach her lessons in reading and writing and ciphering so that one day Tara will be able to run her own business. It is a cruel world out there for orphans and the ignorant ones have it the worst." Karl Strange explained as he watched Tara go about her chores. "You are getting better at that, Tara. It won’t be long before you will be able to serve the meals."

"Master Karl, sir. I have only broken three dishes this week." Tara lisped since she was missing two front teeth.

"That's wonderful since last month you broke more than twenty." Karl teased the girl. It was an old game with them since the child laughed at his remark instead of getting her feelings hurt. "The potters won't have to work so hard this month." Karl knelt down and the child threw herself into his waiting arms and hugged him.

"I told you I would learn!" Tara lisped again as she hugged him then she noticed the tall stranger and gasped. "She is a giant!"

"Tara, I would like to introduce you to Hellbore Reid. She will be our guest for a while." Karl picked the tiny girl up in his powerful arms and carried Tara over to where Hellbore had been silently watching the interaction.

"Hellbore Reid, this young lady in training is Tara." Karl held the child up so she could get a closer look at Hellbore.

"Master Karl, she has eyes like the wolves. She won’t eat me will she?" Tara gasped and grabbed Karl tightly around the neck.

Hellbore laughed more in relief that Karl did not keep slaves than the child's innocent remark. "No, I won’t eat you child. I much prefer the fine food that Dora has prepared. Besides which do I look all hairy and fuzzy like the wolves?" Hellbore teased the girl.

"No, but your eyes are so funny looking." Then Tara blushed deep scarlet as she realized she had just insulted the stranger. "I am so sorry, please forgive my rudeness. Master Karl told me I was never to be rude to the people who came under this roof and I just forgot." Tara had large tears forming in her brown eyes and her fear was replaced with deep regret at her actions and as if in response to the rude remark a single blonde curl drooped across the child's forehead.

Hellbore could feel the child's emotions change from those of fear to those of honest regret and was moved to smile at the little girl who had just wanted to please this Master Karl Strange.

"There is nothing to forgive, Tara. My eyes are indeed different from most people but I am proud of that difference, for they allow me to see more clearly in the darkness than the average person besides what would this world be like if we all looked the same as everyone else? Now as to my being a giant, well I am taller than many women but among my own people I am of average height. My own mother was taller than I am now and my father was nearly as tall as Master Karl Strange. I come from Vinkin stock and my people are known for their height and fair skin though the hair coloring does run mostly to the blond colors we have many who have darker hair and even red like mine." Hellbore explained to the wide-eyed child.

"Now young lady if you have had your curiosity satisfied I do believe that it is time for your lessons." Karl admonished as he put the child back down on the floor and gave her a gentle push toward another door.

Tara turned back to Hellbore and asked shyly if she would be able to serve the lady with the yellow eyes.

"I will have no other serve me, Tara." Hellbore gave the child a brilliant smile as she watched her scurry through the door.

"You are kind to forgive her lapse in manners." Karl told Hellbore. He admired the gentle way Hellbore had handled Tara’s lapse in manners.

Dora watched the inner-play between her employer and the new female guest. It had been too long since the master of the Red Gryphon Inn had paid any attention to any female more than to merely welcome them to the Inn or warm his bed on a cold winter night. This female with the lion's mane hair was very different from those over dressed and far too coy other women. Master Karl had actually brought this lady into the kitchen to break bread with the staff. Dora wondered what was so special about this woman that he would offer her such hominess. This new situation would indeed bear watching, Dora thought to herself and she hummed a happy tune while she basted the roast beef turning slowly on the spit of the smoldering fire.

"If you have finished your meal, I shall show you to your room." Karl held onto Hellbore’s elbow as he led her from the warm kitchen. He was suddenly overcome with the intense desire to never let this woman go, but managed to push the emotion back down again as he walked her up the hallway of the second floor of the inn.

The room was not overlarge but very clean for the scent of beeswax and lemon tickled at Hellbore’s nose when she entered. The floors and walls were made of shining yellow pine, the furniture, consisting of a low bed and a dresser was of a red mahogany adding to the feeling of warmth and welcome to the place. The fireplace was cheerfully blazing and Hellbore could detect the scent of apple wood burning in it, beside the fireplace stood a hip tub which delighted Hellbore to no end. She really wanted to try it out and have the first tub bath in many years. Towels and bars of scented soap had been placed on a small red mahogany table beside the tub waiting for the bather.

"It is indeed the finest room I have seen in years!" Hellbore spoke with a true joy in her voice and she flounced over to the bed and actually bounced on the mattress like she was a young girl again.

Karl smiled warmly at her and said, "I am happy that you approve." Karl watched as Hellbore moved about the room touching this and that of the furnishings, not in a covetous manner but as though they were old friends who had been gone a long time.

"Are all your rooms like this?" Hellbore looked more closely at Karl her eyes sparkling like a young girl.

"Most of the room here are more like dormitories, for many of our guests are groups of men looking for adventure and easy wealth. I do demand that all the rooms are clean with no vermin to bother my guests but most men choose to still sleep in their own bed rolls on the floors." Karl laughed as he remembered his shock when he first learned of this situation about sleeping on the floors. It worked out well though since the maids didn't have to worry about changing the beds daily. Suddenly Karl felt something hot around his neck and grabbed beneath his dark blue cambric shirt. It was the strange blue diamond that he wore around his neck it was glowing hot. Something had changed somewhere Karl had no idea of where or what but it was coming soon.

Hellbore felt the sudden rush of power coming from Karl's direction and she turned to look at him and saw the glowing stone around his neck.

"What a beautiful stone, how long have you had it?" Hellbore asked using as calm a voice as she could muster at that moment for the stone called to her very soul as if it were a living thing. It hummed inside her head though she kept this fact to herself.

"I do not know how long I have had it for it appeared to me in a dream and when I awoke it was in my hand. Perhaps it has always been with me but I don't think so for I remember a strange dream about a lad in Scribal clothing all in black with silver runes across the sleeves and collar. It was so very long ago that the mind dims on what was reality and what was mere dreams." Karl kept hold of the glowing stone as he looked deep into its depth as if seeking answers to his unspoken questions. Then even as he spoke the jewel began to dim and was cool once more.

"Well, no matter where it came from it is truly beautiful. Now if you excuse me I shall go and fetch my gear and have a hot bath before the evening meal" Hellbore smiled as she watched Karl’s face blush and he stammered out his pardon for keeping her from her duties.

"You kept me from nothing, Master Karl." Hellbore answered quickly to remove his discomfort. "I have not enjoyed myself so much in more years than I can even remember." She had truly enjoyed talking to Karl a fact that she found disconcerting to say the least. He made her feel like a woman again, though if pressed she could not tell herself why.

"It’s Karl, Karl Strange. Please call me Karl." Karl managed to get out before he closed the door to her room.

Hellbore quickly looked over the appointments of the room and was more than pleased with all she saw in there but she had to gather her gear and get it stowed quickly if she wanted that hot bath before dinner. She followed the back staircase that Karl had brought her up by and found herself back in the kitchen area.

"Dora, do I ask of you or another about hot water into my rooms?" Hellbore was unsure of the arrangements in protocol of the staff.

"I will see to it that there is hot water waiting for you, but are you going out now?" Dora said as she glanced out the window and saw the long shadows of night reaching across the ground.

"I am merely going to fetch my gear and will return within the hour." Hellbore put on her best smile for the pudgy friendly cook.

"Be very careful my dear for strange tales have begun to trickle in about creatures that have been killing off some strangers who have passed through the area. No one has found their bodies only the bloody remains of their pack animals and their shredded gear. Master Karl has sent out several search parties but they have all returned empty handed. So keep a sharp eye out and your ears open and if you see or hear anything you come running back here for help." Dora warned Hellbore.

Hellbore was very interested in these events but didn't want to show her too much interest in these strange killings. She merely promised to be very careful out there and shut the door behind her when she left the building.

Hellbore used her unique shapeshifter training without having to change forms during her run back to the small copse of trees where she had left her gear that afternoon and after repacking the last of her iron pans into her rucksack she turned and headed back to the Red Gryphon Inn her mind fixed on the thoughts of hot water soaking the pains from her body and fragrant soap to wash her tired flesh.

She did not hear nor see the first creature that crawled out from behind a tree fall but she did catch the scent of the second as it leapt from the ground and at her throat. Hellbore no longer had to concentrate on shifting for it was an automatic reaction now after so many years, suddenly in the place where a woman had stood an enormous bear confronted the two eerie looking creatures that could have once been of the canine family but looked like lizards also for they had many scaly patches where fur should have been and their fangs were long and sharp as they snarled at her. Hellbore did not give them the opportunity to get close to her flesh when she saw that those fangs dripped a liquid she thought might be venom. The giant red furred bear swung a powerful paw at the first beast knocking it down just as the second creature charged her from behind, Hellbore as the bear turned on a heel and smacked the thing away from her position. The creature flew through the air and back over the dead fall just as the first thing rose from the ground to charge her yet again.

After the second attack Hellbore was tired of playing and tore the beast's chest open with six-inch claws exposing an expanse of solid muscle, the creature screamed out in pain and surprise as it hit the ground. Hellbore did not wait to see if it would rise yet again as she grabbed its neck and tore its head off its shoulders and tossed it over where the second thing had fallen. She was hoping that these things were cannibalistic and would stop attacking her for easier prey like their fallen comrade. Hellbore had no doubts that there were more of these strange beasts roaming the land out here so she threw her rucksack over her shoulder and began running back to the Inn, she finally did remember to shift back into human form before she reached the place where the outside lanterns were hung.

"This is a strange place to say the least." Hellbore commented to herself as she threw on clothing to enter the building again. Inside her thoughts of the attack were put aside when she heard Dora tell her that the bath was ready in he room and her mind filled with visions of clean fragrant soap bubbles and clean hair for she could still smell the foul stench of those strange beasts upon her human flesh.