A Brief Hiatus from my Hiatus

It’s been over a year since I wrote anything for here, so I thought I should pop back on and update anyone who is interested what the heck I’ve been doing with myself during that time.  So, here’s a few things that have kept me busy over the past year:

–In December, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Management.  Aside from my writing, or lack thereof recently, I have spent the bulk of my past two decades managing several businesses with varying levels of success.  In my slow-acting mind, it took fifteen years or so to decide that if I’m going to be managing businesses, I should probably have a piece of paper that says I am qualified to do so.  Therefore, I went back and finished my degree, although I am still waiting to participate in the graduation ceremony as mine was canceled due to an ice storm.

–After finishing my Bachelor’s, I thought “What the hell.  Might as well get a Master’s while I’m at it.”  So, in January, I began working toward my MBA in Human Resources Management.  HR is something I’ve always enjoyed as an aspect of my general management jobs, and I’ve trained numerous other managers in how to do it properly since I’ve been in management, so I thought it might be a good fit for me professionally if this whole writing thing doesn’t pan out.  Pro tip, writers:  Don’t stop dreaming or working, but have a viable Plan B.

–In other business-related news, I was downsized from my job in January and have been luxuriating on the couch since then, if you can call spending hours working on grad school work luxuriating.  I am still actively seeking employment, but the job market here in rural Tennessee is less than ideal, even for someone newly graduated with a management degree.

–Also in January, I made a change on the relationship front.  I made a wild, crazy, and long overdue move to be with a wonderful girl who grew up in the same town as me.  She made an even wilder and crazier move to relocate to Tennessee with me and after almost three months together, we are blissfully happy.

–All is not quiet on the writing front, either.  I have a short story due to be in an anthology toward the end of the year (if all goes as expected) and I will provide more details across my social media outlets as it becomes available. 

–Instead of writing, as I’ve been so busy with school stuff, I have turned to photography as a less-time-consuming creative activity.  I am exploring the option of adding a photography page on my website to feature what I think are the nicer shots I’ve done and I am having a wonderful time learning new techniques.  Much of my work already appears on my Instagram page if you would like to see it before I figure out how to post it on here.  Also, if you don’t already and would like to, please follow me on Twitter (@lee_smiley).

That is all the updatery for now.  I will post more if anything noteworthy (besides my passing Statistics) happens.  Until then, take care.

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Terra Incognita—The Last Chapter

This, at last, is the end.  For those of you who have read this far, or will at some later date read this far, I thank you and hope it has been worth your time.  I enjoyed writing this story, but most of all I enjoyed finishing it, as doing so proved to me that I had the discipline necessary to write novels.  It may not be a great story, or well told, but it will always have a special place in my heart.  You always remember your first, they say.

So, thanks again for following Marcus and Heather.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Chapter 18

After the foul-smelling air of the Necromancer’s tower—Erasmus’s tower—the gentle wind of Glenfold assaulted him with its freshness and purity. Even as he sat next to the great fountain that he and Lorelei used to race to as children, he coughed in fits that left him gasping for air. The elven healers told him that his lungs were trying to force out the contaminants they had taken in during his brief captivity. He found himself wondering as he stared into the lightly churning water how Erasmus had survived so long in such a place, but a thought later he understood. Erasmus had not attained such extraordinary power as what he displayed in his efforts to take over the land of Terra without paying a price. His soul? Yes, Marcus knew, that had been included in the bargain, but also his physical body had suffered, as evidenced by his radical change of appearance.

Then, there was Lorelei. How had she survived even a short time in such a place of death? Marcus knew he would never know.

Nor, he realized suddenly, did he care.

After teleporting away from the tower with his two friends in tow—one dead and one barely alive—he stepped into the land of Glenfold at a full run, seeking the one person in the land that might yet save Heather. Leaving Wilkey’s body next to the fountain where the halfling and Lorelei had discussed her feelings for Marcus, he ran through the streets and raced up the steps of the royal palace three at a time. The guards at once moved to stop him, but he paralyzed them with a brief wave of his hand, not nearly enough to risk dropping his precious load, but enough to clear his path for the necessary few seconds. By the time the alert was raised, Marcus had entered the Audience Chamber and discovered the horrible truth.

King Lanian, the only hope he had for saving his beloved Heather, had died.

Marcus stood before the empty throne, holding Heather in his arms. He could feel her shallow respiration and the long, too long, pauses in between. Her skin, normally so soft and hot to his touch, felt cold and tight. Her eyes were closed and her slightly parted lips had abandoned their usual red hue for a deep purple.

Marcus looked at the empty throne and his heart broke. Collapsing to his knees, mindless of the impact upon the marble floor, he lay Heather before the throne and sobbed, unable to control his emotions any longer. So much had gone wrong on this quest, yet victory had still been won. The price, though, was more than he could bear.

Dozens of elves poured into the Audience Chamber around him, but he paid them no heed. Only the muffled sounds of voices and footfalls pierced the cloud of grief that surrounded him. He cared not for their conversation, their movements, or their alarm at his sudden entrance. All her cared for in the world, in any world, lay dying before him.

From that point, Marcus found his memory vague and disjointed, like a dream recalled hours after waking. Firm hands had led him from the chamber. He remember struggling against them, furious at their intervention in his mourning. He had stopped short of using his powers against them for their words were comforting, even if he could not hear them. As he was being led out of the room, he turned back and watched several healers place Heather’s limp form on a litter and bear her swiftly out another door.

The elves, members of the royal household that he knew well and not the guards, herded him away from the palace to the great fountain where another host of healers tended to his injuries, binding the wounds as well as he would allow before being sent off to tend to Heather. Seeing the spray of water refracting the light of the sun stirred greatly mixed emotions in him—anger, regret, and sorrow among them. Collapsing against the side of the stone basin, his body shook with wracking sobs that still did not express the depth of grief tearing at his soul. After some minutes, he calmed down enough to take stock of his surroundings. The dozen or so elves surrounding him eyed him closely, their worry obvious on their faces. Marcus steadied himself, thanked them, and apologized, although he had no idea why. He was not sorry for grieving for his loss, a sacrifice that had been made not only for himself, but for them as well. One by one, the elves departed, leaving only their best attempts at comforting words in their wakes.

Hours passed while Marcus stared alone at the water rising, then falling again into the basin before him. The waves of light dancing upon the waves of water might have fascinated him had he been seeing them, but the only image his mind would see was the lifeless form of the woman he loved lying upon cold marble.

He fought against the powerful urge to go to the Halls of Healing, to receive the final, definitive word that Heather was indeed dead. Several elves waited just beyond the common area between him and the lane that would take him to the healers, placed to stop him should he try to interfere. His magic would certainly allow him to bypass them without difficulty, but his rational mind had returned enough to tell him the idea was a poor one, more likely to offend the elves than to be of any help. He knew the knowledge of healing ran deep within the elven culture, but he also knew the limits to that knowledge. The blade that had wounded Heather had nearly killed him and her wound had been graver still. The healers were battling an enemy they could not defeat and Marcus waited only for their surrender.

The sun descended slowly toward the trees and after several hours of staring at its beams bounding off the surface of the water, Marcus decided he had waited long enough for the inevitable news. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he stood and turned away from the fountain.

What he saw stopped him from taking a single step.

A woman was walking toward him across the grass. At least, the figure approaching had the appearance of a woman, though Marcus knew better. Her long white hair flowed down over her equally white robes, both plain and beautiful in the afternoon sun. Her bare feet moved over the grass, yet not a single blade bent from her passage. With her coming, he became acutely aware of the magic that flowed through him. He could feel it pulling toward her like iron shavings to a magnet. Marcus could see the lovely face and glittering eyes as she drew closer and felt comforted by them, though he could not explain why.

She knows of death, he thought, no one better.

Terra, the embodiment of the land itself, stopped a few feet from him and stood regarding him in silence. Looking beyond her, he saw that the elves assigned to watch him had disappeared.

“You have done well, Marcus,” she said, this time choosing to speak aloud rather than in his mind. “My gratitude is yours.”

Marcus started to tell her that she could keep her gratitude, that he had sacrificed the one thing that meant more to him than her and all the beings that inhabited this land and her gratitude was not enough. Instead, he forced away his anger and nodded. His eyes drifted down to the grass at his feet, afraid to meet the gaze of those intense blue eyes for fear that they would read his anger.

“I felt the need to come in person and thank you for what you have done,” she said, “ not only for the elves, but for all, for had the Necromancer been allowed to conquer here, other worlds, including your own, may have felt his wrath.”

Marcus tried to imagine Erasmus turning his powers upon his world, beginning with the one who lived closest to the portal leading to it—his grandmother. The thought, as unlikely as it seemed, sickened him.

“I also came to repay the debt I owe for your sacrifice,” she continued. “You have risked much and lost much to defend me and my subjects, and I wish to give you something in exchange.”

“Can you give me Heather back?” he asked, tears welling in his eyes again. “That is the only thing I would ask from you.”

“There are some events even I cannot change,” she said gravely. “Death is one of those things, as much a part of me as life. Once bestowed, it is beyond my power to take it away. Only those seeking power apart from that I give have control over it, though even that control is false and vile.”

Marcus put his face in his hands and started to collapse to the grass. Strong hands, though, caught him and held him up.

“Know, Marcus, that while my powers over death are few, my powers over life are strong and so long as life exists, even as death draws near, my magic holds sway.”

Still holding Marcus, she stepped to the side and allowed him to see the commons behind her. At the far end, standing in a pale blue dress, stood Heather.

Marcus started, standing independently of Terra’s hands. His eyes widened in surprise and disbelief.

“Her will to live, to see you again, was strong and that, her love, allowed me to save her,” Terra said softly.

Marcus barely heard these words. His feet began carrying him forward even before she finished. Across the expanse of grass, Heather broke into a run toward him. They met at a full run, Marcus sweeping her into his arms and twirling her around. For time uncounted they covered each other in kisses, hardly believing the other was real. Great tears of joy streamed down both their cheeks, only to be kissed away before they fell to the grass. When, at last, stimuli from the rest of the world began to filter through their joy, Marcus turned back to thank Terra.

She was gone, as he knew she would be.

“Thank you,” he breathed to the air, knowing his words would be received.

For the remainder of that day and night, Marcus and Heather remained in a room in the royal palace given to them while they awaited arrangements to be made not only for the elven king, but also for Wilkes Poppinjay, the halfling hero who had slain the elven traitor Lorelei at the cost of his own life. The elves decided, after hearing Marcus’s tale of the Necromancer’s fall, to reward Wilkey with a state funeral and lay him near the tomb of Lanian, whose kingdom he played no small role in saving. Hearing this news touched Marcus, but enhanced his sorrow over losing such a loyal friend and the closest thing to a father he had ever known.

Still, Marcus knew, Wilkey would have enjoyed the elves making such a fuss over him and the idea that the halfling might be looking down on them from somewhere, nodding his fervent approval, lessened the ache.

While Marcus and Heather waited, they celebrated their reunion by making love, more slowly and passionately than either could remember doing in a very long time. Although it brought them great relief and physical pleasure, both cried throughout the act—for Wilkey, for Lanian, and for themselves, for their own loss. They had passed through the storm shaken, but still alive to feel the sharp pain of death that had claimed so many.

Later that night, both Marcus and Heather slept, cradled in each other’s arms. Had he slept alone, Marcus thought upon waking, he felt sure that his sleep would have been troubled by dreams of death—Wilkey’s, Heathers, his own. Heather’s arms, though, wrapped around him kept those dreams at bay and allowed him the first real rest he had found since returning to Terra. Seeing Heather’s smiling face as she woke, he knew his arms had done the same for her.

They were greeted soon after waking by two familiar faces. Polan and Valista, their faces beaming, brought them a hearty breakfast of venison and fruit. The tantalizing aroma of the food made Marcus realize how hungry he was, but he did not eat until he had spoken at length with the two elves about what was to take place that day and what they would have to do to prepare. After nearly an hour, Polan ushered his wife from the room, leaving Marcus and Heather to enjoy their meal.

Well rested and fed, they dressed in garments brought to them for the day’s ceremonies. Marcus donned a set of silk-lined robes, burgundy for the elven color of mourning. The new black, Marcus thought wryly. Heather wore a matching silk gown that fell from her shoulders like a scarlet waterfall. Her brown hair cascaded down her back and Marcus felt his breath stolen by her beauty. Kissing each other again, they had to fight the temptation to remove their finery and make love again. Heather finally liberated herself from Marcus’s embrace and started across the room before an unseen force lifted her up from the floor and sent her floated back toward Marcus.

“Stop that,” Heather scolded him playfully. “This is not the time for your silliness.”

Marcus conceded the point and the two of them made their way to the Audience Chamber where King Lanian would lie in state until that afternoon’s interment. Once they entered and saw the elven king lying upon a length of purple cloth, their moods sobered, but their hearts did not ache as they had on the previous day. The deceased ruler looked proud and noble in death, a victorious leader and savior of his people. His face no longer showed the pain and weariness that marred it until the end. Now, his countenance looked peaceful and content.

A dense group of elves surrounded Lanian’s body to pay their last respects. Many cried, particularly members of the royal household who had cherished the old monarch like a favorite grandparent. Others wept silent tears, unwilling to allow their emotions to show more than watery pools at the corners of their eyes. As Marcus and Heather approached, the elves parted to allow them to pass, many bowing to pay their own respects and condolences to the human couple who had come from another world to deliver them from destruction. Heather sobbed into Marcus’s shoulder, overwhelmed.

After a few quiet conversations with a few of the elves near where Lanian lay, Marcus noticed another thick group off to the far side of the Audience Chamber. He guided Heather, her hand on his arm, over to this smaller group and again the elves parted before them and bowed. Marcus could hear the whispered comments from some of the elves marveling at her beauty and knew by her blushing cheeks that she heard them as well.

When the last knot of elves noticed their coming and parted, Marcus and Heather beheld the body of their dear friend. The elves had dressed Wilkey in the finest garments, befitting a member of the royal household more than a common rogue from the tiny village of Yellow Banks that was no more than a pile of ash beside the Misteld. The halfling’s face, like the elven king’s, showed none of the trials that had led to his death. The relaxed muscles spoke silently of rest and leisure while the high-arching eyebrows and slight grin he wore gave him a mischievous look that caused Marcus a brief pang of sorrow. Moreover, beneath the folded hands across the halfling’s chest rested a ruby roughly the size of a tennis ball. Marcus smiled. One of the gems had been with Wilkey when he died. The other had been bartered for years of lodging, food, and drink that the halfling would never be allowed to enjoy. The second, Marcus suspected, had been recovered from the pub in Yellow Banks after its destruction. Both had been stolen from the elves and now, in their gratitude, they allowed Wilkey to keep them.

At dusk, the entire population of Glenfold, no longer forced to diligently guard their borders against legions of undead, lined the avenues of the city to witness their dead king and their halfling hero being escorted to their final rest. Members of the royal household and royal guard carried the elaborate oak caskets through the streets. Save for the chill wind that whistled between the buildings, the entire journey was silent as those unable to visit the palace paid their final respects to their king. Even the young children watching the scene, Heather noticed, kept their mouths closed in respect for the occasion.

Marcus and Heather walked immediately behind the two honored dead as they were carried to a hill just outside the city which served as a royal cemetery. The interment itself was quick, with surprising little ceremony, and for that Marcus was grateful. As the gilded door closed on the tomb, he heard a strong voice in his head telling him that the time had come for he and Heather to return to their own world.

The night following the funeral, the elves held a great feast to honor Marcus and Heather for defeating the threat to their nation. During the proceedings, the new king, a nephew of the late Lanian, asked Marcus to stand and speak to the assembled members of the court. The request took him by complete surprise, but as the cheers and anticipation of the crowd grew, Marcus stood and stepped to the head of the long table set in the gardens of the palace. At once, the elves fell silent and Marcus felt the fear rising inside him that came not from public speaking, but from speaking unprepared.

“My wife,” he began, indicating Heather to his right, who offered no objection to the title, “and I thank you for your hospitality, your care, and your condolences for our loss. We offer you those same condolences and pray the new king,” Marcus nodded in his direction, “will rule as wisely and as justly and with as much compassion as did Lanian.”

Marcus took a sip of wine, then continued. “When we came here, our goal was to save you, and ourselves, from the evils of the Necromancer. That has been done.” At this, a great wave of cheers swept up the table. Marcus waited for it to subside. “But I tell you now, that the work here is not done.”

Many of the seated elves gave Marcus concerned glances. A low whispering replaced the cheers. Again, Marcus waited a moment before continuing. “While the Necromancer has been defeated and his tower thrown down, there is work for the elves of Glenfold, work that my wife and I cannot complete. That work, my dear friends, is to rebuild this land and bring life to the places where the Necromancer brought death.”

The elves now wore expressions of mixed curiosity and determination. Marcus liked this and pressed on.

“This means not only the damage done to your borderlands, but also reaching beyond your lands to assist those unable to resist the legions of the dead. Yellow Banks, burned to the ground, will be rebuilt so that any who lived there that may have survived, will have a home free of fear. Even the dwarven kingdoms in the Norags, your enemies of old, need your help should any there be alive to accept it.”

This last statement brought a rough muttering from his audience which he ignored.

“I hope that you will hear my words and heed them. There is a saying where I come from: United we stand, divided we fall. Such is true in my world and such is true here. Should a threat as the Necromancer rise again, your best hope lay not in such as me, but in such as yourselves, united with the other peoples of this land to provide a sound defense against evil. This land may be dying, as some have told me since my return, but the best way to preserve it is to work together toward life.”

Marcus stared out over the assembled elves and found that he hand nothing more to say. He felt awkward for a moment as well over a hundred pairs of eyes studied him. Then, bowing quickly, he took his seat.

The new king, Kevken, stood and shocked Marcus by pledging to follow the suggestion of renewing ties with the dwarves if possible and branching beyond their own borders to provide assistance where they could give it. For the remainder of the feast, Kevken talked with Marcus and Heather about ideas for repairing what the Necromancer had destroyed, his memories of Lanian, and what Marcus and Heather had planned for their future.

Marcus realized that Heather felt the same urge to return home as he when she told the king that they would be leaving for the cave the following morning. Kevken, the gracious host, implored them to stay, but Marcus agreed with Heather’s sentiment. The king accepted their departure, but only on the grounds that they return when opportunity allowed.

The next morning, Marcus, Heather, and a small contingent of elves—including Polan and Valista—set out along the banks of the Misteld in the direction of the ruins of Yellow Banks. They traveled through the unseasonably mild weather at a leisurely pace, traveling until they grew tired of riding, then spending the rest of the day drinking in the last warmth of autumn before the winter chill. Often, Marcus and Heather sat together on the banks of the river wrapped in each others arms staring out over the water, engaged in private conversation. They talked of many things including their lost friends, but these moments were not laden with grief, only tinged by a faint shade of sorrow. As they rode across the rolling hills, this time on horses rather than griffons, Marcus and the elves told Heather many stories about the land she had helped save. Now that she had time to enjoy it, Heather observed the land and marveled at its beauty. Colors, smells, and sounds all seemed more vivid in this world and she Marcus why he had chosen to go back to the real world at all.

“Don’t you know,” he asked in return. “Can’t you feel it?”

She could feel it, she realized, more than ever as they approached the cave. As much as she enjoyed the world she now found herself in, she longed for the life waiting for her in North Carolina. She missed her friends, her job, and especially the Victorian that she would be moving her things back into when she and Marcus returned to Asheville.

Heather also noticed a subtle change in Marcus. She could not define the exact difference, but she felt a closeness to him now that she had never felt in their previous two years together. For once in their relationship, Heather felt that she knew all his secrets and Marcus seemed more relaxed for it, no longer having to bury such an important element of his past.

Finally, they reached the woods surrounding the cave where they had met the centaurs. Heather was apprehensive about a possible reunion with the creatures that had so willingly tried to help Erasmus kill her and Marcus, but the elves assured her the way was safe. Scouts had been deployed before their departure and reported that none of the centaurs at all remained in that part of the land. Where they had gone no one knew, but the path to the cave was secure for their passage.

As they made their way through the trees, leaves falling all about them like rain, Heather looked to her side and saw Marcus regarding her with a slight grin on his face.

“What are you smirking at?”

Marcus laughed. “Okay, I have to ask. How did you get the gun?”

Heather laughed in return and patted the pack tied to the pommel of her horse. “You remember in your room at your grandmother’s house when you told me to pack anything I thought I might need?” She patted the pack again. “I saw it in your suitcase and thought that if I was going into the woods at dark, I was going armed.”

Marcus raised his eyebrows and nodded. Damn good thing you did, the expression said.

The cave came into view gradually through the curtain of falling leaves. No scar was left of the recent trouble except for the large chunk missing from one tree marking Heather’s first attempt at using the Colt. Heather felt a lump rise in her throat as she thought of how close she had come to killing Wilkey there, before he could play his role in saving her and Marcus. She swallowed the lump and said a quiet word of gratitude to the halfling.

The entrance waited before them as they dismounted and said their farewells to the elven escort. Valista embraced both Marcus and Heather, her cheeks red and streaked with tears.

“Be careful,” she told them. “And be good to each other.”

Polan, ever more quiet than his wife, surprised Marcus by embracing him and shedding a few tears himself. He thanked Marcus and Heather for saving their land, and his wife, and bid them good fortune in their life ahead.

One by one, the remaining elves, most of which Marcus did not know well, thanked him and Heather for their deeds and began back toward Glenfold until only Valista and Polan remained to see them off.

When they packed their belongings and turned toward the cave, Heather found the gaping hole had lost its menacing quality. Now, it looked to her like her own front door after a long journey away. She and Marcus waved one final time to the remaining two elves and entered the darkness, hand in hand. They passed through without incident, giggling together after Marcus forced himself to burp, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

Emerging on the other side, Heather felt slightly disappointed. The brilliant sunshine of Terra had been replaced in their own world by gray skies and steady rain. The sound of it upon the leaves sounded to her like clapping, applause for the great things they had done. Looking down, Heather saw her clothes, the elaborate traveling garb provided for her by the elves, had reverted back to the clothes she had worn when they entered the cave. Her pack, likewise, had transformed back to the yellow Columbia backpack she had donned upon leaving Sylvia’s house.

Marcus stepped to the side of the cave entrance and found the metal ammunition box he had left there. Pulling it from the natural shelf, he opened it and pulled out his watch. He looked at it and smiled before handing it to Heather. Heather looked at the watch face and blinked in disbelief. The hands revolving around did not concern her, but looking at the date…

“You mean we’ve only been gone for two days?”

“Yep,” Marcus said as he put the ammunition box back into his pack. He stood up and looked at her, a mischievous grin widening upon his face. “Now, what should we do with the rest of our week’s vacation?”

Marcus took her into his arms, kissed her, and led her through the rain-soaked woods back to their lives.

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Terra Incognita—Chapter Whatever I’m on Now

Apparently, I posted two chapters last time instead of one.  Oh, well.  That just brings us closer to the end which, if I read right, should be another chapter or two after this one.  That’s right, we’re almost done.  If anyone has read this far, I thank you and worry that you don’t have anything better to do with your time.  Still, I hate leaving a story unfinished, so if anyone is still following Marcus and Heather, I appreciate it more than you

Chapter 17

Marcus awoke much the same way he had in the dwarven dungeons. He could not see and had no idea where he was. The air around him smelled of decay and flowers. He listened for a while before moving, sensing someone else in the room and indeed he could hear faint breathing and the quiet rustle of clothing from a few yards in front of him. The other said nothing, but Marcus could feel eyes upon him waiting for him to awaken.

As the fog cleared from his mind, he began to piece together what had happened to bring about this scenario. Slowly, the images fell into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—first the edges, then the really important content in the middle. The cave. The centaurs. The walls of flame. Heather and Wilkey getting to safety.

And one more thing.

As the memory came back to him, the identity of the Necromancer, his head jerked as though the thought was striking him anew. His reaction would have, he knew, been the same in the clearing by the cave entrance had he enough strength to produce it.

“Erasmus . . . “ he said in a hoarse croak.

“He’ll be back shortly,” said a voice, a female voice that Marcus recognized immediately. “He had to attend to . . . other business.”

It was Lorelei in front of him, he now knew. He could imagine her sitting in a chair, her legs crossing and uncrossing as she stood guard over the prisoner.

Marcus’s mind raced as he struggled to comprehend what was happening. One dear friend from childhood, not dead as Marcus had believed, was now his sworn enemy. Another had betrayed him, and her people, to align herself with the other. He felt he must be dreaming, but the ache now streaming into his shoulders told him otherwise. His hand were tied behind him, wrapped around some sort of stone. The surface of it was deeply etched in places and seemed to radiate a cold that seeped into his joints, making him feel much older.

He decided that, if this was a dream, he should at least play along.

“What other business?”

Lorelei laughed, the musical sound stabbing at his heart. “Well, it seems that your woman,” she said the word with bitter distaste, “and your half-wit friend could not mind their own business. Erasmus had gone to deal with them.”

Marcus sighed. He had hoped that Heather and Wilkey had both followed his instructions and escaped unharmed. He saw the both enter the cave and disappear into its depths, but neither of them apparently paid any heed to his wishes. His sacrifice, now that he saw it for what it was, had proved meaningless. Worse, he still could not feel the rush of magic in his veins that he expected to feel when Heather returned to their world. Had she gone in just beyond his sight and waited there, not bothering to go all the way through? That now seemed likely. It also sealed his doom.

“How did you get involved in . . . this?” he asked.

Marcus heard a chair scape against the floor. Lorelei had stood and now moved toward him. He could not hear her, but he could feel her drawing closer, could almost smell the honeysuckle scent that surrounded her. “When you left and I knew you weren’t coming back, I turned to Erasmus for consolation. He cared for me and convinced me that you never had any feelings for me and that I should forget about you. He confided in me and I in him. I grew to love him in your absence. Needless to say, I was shocked when I learned of the new magic he was learning, but I loved him still. When he told me he meant to lure you here and kill you, I told him that I would help in any way I could. Your bringing the woman was an unexpected turn, but he was prepared. He told me to try to win you over, to get you to fall in love with me instead, and hand you over to him when I had you in deep enough. If I could not get you to do that, then I was to wait for further instructions and report to him what your intentions were.”

“The inn,” Marcus said, seeing the solution to the puzzle and, as with so many others, finding the answer painfully obvious once revealed. “You went to him while we ate at the inn. You spoke to him during your watches. You even chose the spot where the dwarves could ambush us.”

“Erasmus chose it, I just had to lead you there. He had drawn a moon sigil in the grass that you could not see without your magic. Heather might have seen it, but she would not have recognized it in her stupidity. I even gave the halfling the bottle that night with a sleeping potion that I had carried from Glenfold, waiting for the right opportunity to use it.”

A moon sigil, Marcus knew, was a magical symbol that elves used to communicate in secret. Only elves or those possessing similar magic could see them. Marcus could not help but feel impressed by the ingenious simplicity of the plan.

“When you arrived and we learned that your powers were gone—rather, transferred to Heather—we knew fortune had smiled upon us. Still, you are ever the resourceful one, Marcus, and you played the game well. Just not well enough.”

A door opened to his left and Marcus heard the soft padding of footsteps approaching.

“Is our guest awake, Lorelei?” Erasmus asked. “I trust you have been keeping him entertained.”

The mirth in that voice made Marcus furious. The darkness before his eyes began to take on a red color that perfectly matched his mood. He desperately wanted to be unbound so he could kill his former friend, even if he had to do it with his bare hands.

Hands touched his face and his vision returned as the spell lifted. Marcus could see the room around him was large and, from the portion he could see, circular. He noticed immediately that the walls, floor and ceiling were composed of bones of various shapes and sizes. He also saw that not all of them were human. Worked into the construction were skulls of animals, some he recognized, others he did not. A large femur lay embedded in the wall before him looking like a dinosaur fossil. Large windows were regularly spaced around the perimeter of the wall, allowing a view of sickly-looking trees, but not any place that he recognized. A few tables and chairs broke the monotony of the room, each cluttered with various curiosities.

Erasmus stood before him, his hood pulled back to reveal his smiling face. Now, even more than in the clearing, Marcus could see how pale and unwell he looked. His hair, once thick and dark, now clung to his head in thin wisps of gray. The blue eyes were as intense as he remembered from his childhood, but the dark circles around them made him appear years older than he actually was. His pallid skin, stretched taut over the high cheekbones, gave him a ghastly appearance, particularly when he flashed his yellow smile.

“Where are Heather and Wilkey?” Marcus asked.

“Don’t worry about them,” Erasmus said, waving his hand dismissively. “I sent an old friend of yours out to greet them.”

As if on cue, Marcus heard a roar from outside, only slightly muffled by the walls of bone surrounding him. He recognized that bellow and his blood froze.

“Amadyr? How . . . ?”

Erasmus chuckled. “You would be amazed how useful a dead dragon can be, old friend. I thank you for helping her on her way, although I wish you had sped up the process a little. She took a tremendously long time to die and was not very cooperative with me while she lived.”

Marcus looked out the window for some glimpse of what was going on, but could only see trees far away. He could tell that where they stood was at a great height, but still no more than that.

“Why did you do all this?” Marcus asked, turning his attention back to Erasmus.

Erasmus paused, considering his response or at least pretending to consider. “Several reasons. First, I traveled with you and had glorious adventures, but I was never as good as you. No matter what I tried, your powers far exceeded my own. I was the most powerful wizard born of this land, but you were more powerful. Even when you left and I knew you would likely not return, I burned with the knowledge that if you did return, I would resume my role as your inferior. Therefore, I searched for . . . new powers, powers that I know you could not possess, or would not. I learned to used death and all the benefits it bestows on one brave enough to explore its reaches.”

Erasmus turned to Lorelei. “Second, I knew the fairest maiden in all the land loved you deeply. Again, I admit to jealousy. I had wanted Lorelei since the moment we first entered Glenfold, but she loved you instead. I watched as you overlooked her over and over, growing more angry at you with each advance she made that you turned away. Finally, you turned away from her at the fountain, her last effort to claim your heart. You denied her and I, watching from the shadows, saw my chance to fulfill that dream, at least. You left her to me and I claimed what was rightfully mine.”

Lorelei wrapped her arms around Erasmus and rewarded him with a long, passionate kiss. The image stirred a bit of jealousy and anger within Marcus, but mostly he felt only disgust at the sight. Hearing her voice when he awoke placed any lingering regrets of Lorelei out of his mind and he found that losing her, even in these circumstances, did not hurt nearly as much as the possibility of losing Heather.

Again, as if on cue, another roar shook the walls of the room. Erasmus gave a disinterested glance at the window, then turned back to Marcus.

“Finally, once I had enough power to rule this land, I knew that only being could possibly stop me. You. So, with Lorelei’s help, I devised a plan to lure you here. Little did I realize that you would bring another with you and that you would forfeit your powers to her, one so incapable of using them. By sending her back, you hoped to regain those powers and you might have had I not been prepared. The monolith you are tied to has a special property. I discovered it on one of my travels during your absence and have been waiting for the opportunity to use it ever since. It prevents magical use by anyone touching it. I don’t know if your powers returned, even if Heather did pass far enough through the portal. My own powers did not vanish when I passed through, but I suspect that is a result of our magic being from different places. Death is everywhere, as is death magic for the willing.

“Even without your powers, though, you proved formidable, as I hoped you would. I have truly enjoyed our game, old friend, but now the final move—the winning move—is mine.”

Erasmus moved forward, stopping inches from Marcus’s face. “I have taken everything from you—your powers, your allies, two women who loved you, and now, Marcus I will take your life before I complete my conquest.”

From beneath his black robes, Erasmus produced a silver knife. The long, thin blade seemed to radiate with a bluish-white light. Erasmus smiled.

“Goodbye, old friend.” he said. Then, the knife struck forward.

Marcus felt the blade sink deep beneath his ribs. At first, he felt the searing pain that he expected from a knife wound, but the burning was soon replaced by an extreme cold, if anything, more agonizing than the initial wound. With growing horror, he realized the blade was not only harming him physically, but also sucking the life from him. The bluish-white glow began to pulse in time with his heartbeat, which began to slow inside his chest as he drew closer to death.

A high-pitched shriek pulled Marcus’s attention away from the weapon feeding upon his life force. Looking up at the large window, he saw a large, dark shape hurtle out of the sky. The glass exploded inward, sending shards in all directions. Marcus closed his eyes and felt several small pieces pierce the skin of his face, but those stings paled in comparison to the ache of the blade in his chest.

When he opened his eyes a moment later, he could see the griffon tumbling into the room. Losing her balance when she shattered the window, she felt like a heavy stone, crashing into a table and bouncing across the floor toward Marcus.

Lorelei dove backward to avoid being bowled over by the beast. She landed gracefully and rolled away out of Marcus’s line of sight.

Erasmus, lacking Lorelei’s elven reflexes, turned away from his victim and froze. He unconsciously pulled the blade from Marcus’s chest, bringing a relief that Marcus had never felt. Warmth rushed back into his body as he fought to recover from the draining effects of the dagger.

Winterdusk skidded forward and Erasmus attempted to jump over her. Marcus thought he resembled a shortstop trying to leap over a base runner while attempting to turn a double play. The jump came late, though, and Erasmus’s foot caught in the griffon’s unfurled wing as she tumbled under him, sending him sprawling face first onto the hard floor.

The griffon’s momentum carried her on into Marcus. He felt the weight of the beast slam into his legs and expected to hear both his shin’s break. Instead, the monolith he was bound to, that was preventing him from using his magic, toppled over Winterdusk like a bowling pin. Marcus feared the heavy stone pillar falling on him, a result that would surely leave him with a crushed skull, but it spun just enough as it fell to avoid flattening him. Still, the impact jarred his whole body, nearly leaving him unconscious as the monolith rolled over, turning his face toward the ceiling.

Before Winterdusk came to a full stop, Marcus heard another voice he recognized, but this one filled him with hope rather than despair.

“Marcus!” Wilkey called from the broken window.

Marcus tried to call out, but the fall with the monolith had knocked the wind out of him. Still, Wilkey seemed to see him.

“Marcus!” the halfling called again, this time in a more relieved tone. Marcus could not imagine his friend being more relieved than he was himself.

Wilkey entered the room and Marcus craned his head around as far as his neck would allow to see him. He was about to tell the halfling to be careful when another figure moved to the right of the window.

In a flash of steel, Lorelei emerged from the shadows and, with both hands, plunged her sword deep into the halfling’s chest. Wilkey, possessing reflexes nearly as fine as the elven woman, struck out with his daggers before registering that he had been struck. The blades were smaller, but no less deadly. Each found an opening between the space of Lorelei’s ribs.

For a long moment, both opponents, halfling and elf, stared at each other as though shocked that the other was there. Neither registered pain, though blood began to pour from their respective wounds. Then, Lorelei tried to back away, aware that she may last long enough, even with her grave wounds, to help Erasmus before the end.

Wilkey held on. His hands, the knuckles turning white, held on firmly to the hilts of the daggers. As the elf tried to pull away, leaving her sword buried in Wilkey’s chest, the halfling dug in his heels. His arms seemed to wrap around her as though giving her a hug. Lorelei, however, wanted none of the embrace. She attempted to scream, but only emitted a hoarse whisper. A bubble of blood formed on her lips, then popped as she exhaled.

Slowly, Wilkey began to walk backward, pulling Lorelei along as he did. All the color had drained away from the halfling’s face, but his jaw was set and his eyes blazed. He inched back toward the railing that surrounded the thin landing just outside the windows, hauling Lorelei in like a trophy bass. The elf thrashed her arms, beating Wilkey with panic-induced strength, but he trudged on, mindless of the tiny fists pummeling him.

When Wilkey felt his back touch the rail, the sword blade sticking between the upper and lower bars, he turned slightly, allowing him to look at Marcus. His bloodless face gave him a faint smile, then he spoke. Marcus could not hear the words, but he could read them on the halfling’s lips and face.

“Thank you for saving me.”

Wilkey bent his knees and, summoning what Marcus knew was his last shred of strength, lifted up on the dagger hilts in his hands. Lorelei, also weakening, could not keep her balance against the unexpected move and she, along with Wilkey, toppled over the railing.

“Wilkey!” Marcus cried out as his friend disappeared from sight. He had known what Wilkey intended as soon as the halfling had started toward the railing, but seeing him do it, seeing him sacrifice himself to give Marcus a slim chance at life, still struck him a heavy blow. Wilkey had cleared another obstacle in their path to defeating Erasmus, but the price had been great.

Perhaps too great, Marcus thought.

Marcus forced his mind to set aside his grief and work on his current problem, as he knew Wilkey would have wanted. He still remained tied to a large stone, incapable of freeing himself by conventional or magical means. Craning his stiff neck again, he looked for some sign of Erasmus, but saw none. All around him, he heard nothing but the wind blowing through the shattered window.

A terrible pain erupted again in his chest. Looking down, he saw Erasmus standing over him, a deep gash across the pale forehead. A curtain of blood flowed down over his right eye, but the left glared at him with bestial hatred.

“He killed her! He killed her!,” he said, speaking through his clenched teeth.

Marcus could feel the silver blade twisting with each word, and the renewed sensation of his life draining away. The excruciating cold flowed through him again, as though filling the void left by the energy he was losing. Above him, blood dripped off Erasmus’s nose onto his face, only a few inches separating the two of them. His former friend trembled in rage and his visible eye glittered with madness. Within that gaze, Marcus could see the jealousy and hatred that had built up inside his friend for so many years.

He had never wanted to make Erasmus feel inferior. Yes, he had been stronger in magic and Lorelei had, at first, chosen him, but he could not remember ever intentionally waving those things before Erasmus, even in the competitive way so common among teenagers. During their travels together, Marcus realized that his life may someday depend on the solid foundation of friendship that existed between the two of them. Now, that foundation had crumbled and threatened to take down all of Terra in its destruction.

If Erasmus heard the click, he gave no sign. His only thought was of killing his former friend that had caused him so much pain. He pushed the silver dagger as far as Marcus’s body would allow and could feel the life ebbing from it. The cut on his head burned, but his leg, with its bone sticking out just below the kneecap, throbbed with apocalyptic pain. He would heal himself, he told himself, as soon as Marcus had taken his last breath and assured his complete victory over the lands of Terra.

A loud crash shattered the relative silence of the room. Something struck Erasmus in the shoulder, knocking him backward off of Marcus. He landed on his broken leg and screamed in pain as he fell to the floor.

Marcus turned his head, trying to see through his now-hazy vision, what had happened. He saw Heather standing in the broken remains of the window, his Colt revolver raised to chest level with two trembling hands.

“Shit!” she said. “I was aiming for his head.”

She rushed forward, dropping the gun as she did. Sliding to Marcus’s side, she looked down on him with teary eyes.

“I couldn’t go,” she said. “I couldn’t.”

“It’s okay,” Marcus whispered, still weak from the draining effects of the dagger. “Just get me off this thing and we’ll get out of here.”

Heather looked around and spotted the silver knife on the ground beside Erasmus. The black-robed figure was not moving, but Heather doubted that she had killed him. She snatched up the knife and began slicing through the ropes binding Marcus to the monolith. She had nearly freed his upper body and arms when something struck her, forcing her to drop the knife. An unseen force hit her with such force that she was propelled backward nearly to the broken window before landing hard. She gave a great whumph as she landed on her back, the breath forced from her lungs in a great gust.

Marcus stretched his hand out to catch the knife as it fell and cursed as it brushed his fingertips before clattering to the floor. He then strained against the ropes, trying to finish the work Heather had begun, but his muscles had not regained the strength necessary to break the last strands. Marcus expanded his chest and moved his arms back and forth as much as he could in hopes of fraying the rope enough for him to break free. His efforts, however, did not succeed in time.

The dark figure of Erasmus rose above him. A swath of blood had been wiped away from the mad eyes and the rictus grin that stretched the skin around his mouth enhanced the appearance of insanity. In his hand, the silver knife glittered in the light filtering in from outside.

“I wanted to do this right, but now I see I just need to get it over with,” Erasmus said, lowering the blade toward Marcus’s throat.

Another crash sounded and Marcus watched Erasmus recoil as something struck him hard in the chest. This gunshot brought a roar of agony and rage that ended in a strangled gurgle as Erasmus crumpled to the floor.

Heather rushed back to resume helping Marcus. Prying the knife from the hand of the man she had just shot, she brought it down to start working on the robes again. Her hands trembled violently and as Marcus looked up at her, he saw a deep gash along her left cheek. Still, she managed a pained smile.

“Got him that time,” she said.

She began working the knife back and forth again, sawing rapidly while all the while watching the figure lying in the shadows only inches from her. In her haste, she stabbed Marcus in the side, immediately setting to work the draining effect of the weapon.

“Oh, God!,” she squealed. “I’m sorry!” She began to sob.

“Don’t worry about it,” Marcus said. “Just get my arms free.”

After a few more seconds of work, Marcus felt the pressure lift from his chest and arms as the ropes loosened, then slithered off to either side of him. His arms first tingled, then burned as blood returned to the muscles of his arms. He took in a deep, welcome breath and struggled to a sitting position. He saw Erasmus was still not moving, but some instinct told him that he and Heather were not yet safe.

“Give me the knife and keep the gun pointed at him,” he told Heather, who complied thankfully.

While she had never wanted a gun in the house, had never approved of them at all, the weight of the Colt in her hand comforted her. As she had worked to free Marcus, she could feel the evil intent of the blade, as thought it was thinking independently of its wielder. When she had accidentally cut Marcus with it, she felt the weapon warm rapidly as the blood poured over its metal surface. The effect chilled her and almost caused her to fling the knife away in her disgust. She found that she preferred the revolver—not magical, perhaps, but damn sure not thinking on its own.

Marcus took the silver knife and a chill raced up his spine as he thought of his life force pouring into the thing. He could feel it thrum in his hand as though begging for more blood. Just a taste, he could almost hear the weapon say in his mind.

Fighting his revulsion, he leaned forward on the monolith and began cutting the ropes that bound his feet. His hands held the knife clumsily as the feeling had not completely, but he made steady progress. The bindings themselves were thick and hardly seemed like rope at all. Instead, he saw that they more closely resembled steel cable like that used on bridges. Still, the blade severed strand after strand as he furiously moved the knife over them, each one snapping with an audible ping as it let go. As each strand gave way, he glanced up for any change in the still unmoving figure of Erasmus lying almost at his feet. All he saw were the black robes, not even troubled by their occupant’s respiration from what he could see. A greenish-brown mist seemed to seep out of the black folds, clinging close to the ground like the fog that inhabited the swamp below. For the first time, he began to hope that Heather’s final bullet had ended their struggle.

Something still gnawed at Marcus, though, telling him that Erasmus was not dead. He could not define what made him so uncomfortable, but he cut at the ropes faster still in hopes of freeing himself at least from the monolith.

Finally, with a final tug, the ropes surrounding his feet gave way with a tiny pop and Marcus rolled off the stone pillar. He saw the runes carved into its sides, the etchings that he had felt earlier, and realized that they must have provided the protection against his magic that Erasmus had mentioned.

As his body left contact with it, Marcus felt the sensation he had waited for since his arrival in this land to avenge the friend he now hoped was dead. Like a river, long bound by a dam and finally allowed to flow on its natural course, magic flowed into Marcus. He thrilled in the sensation, an ecstasy beyond anything he had ever felt. The power flowed throughout his body, healing his physical and mental wounds and returning the strength he would need to see Heather safely back to their world.

He stood up beside Heather. She still held the Colt, but now its barrel pointed at her feet. Looking at Marcus, her eyes were wide with worried anticipation.

Did it work? Those eyes asked. Please tell me it worked.

Marcus nodded.

Heather dropped the gun then fell into his arms. She kissed him passionately and Marcus could feel the tears on her cheeks. He held her close, thankful not only for her role in saving him, but also for her love and forgiveness. Without either, he knew, he would likely be dead.

She let go of him and he turned to the crumpled black robes lying next to the monolith. He needed to be sure that Erasmus was dead before he left. Otherwise, the Necromancer, as those in Terra knew him now, would rebuild and seek domination all over again. Marcus could not allow the possibility of that, even if he had no intention of coming back.

Reaching down slowly, he grabbed a handful of the dark cloth. He could hear Heather take in a quick breath behind him and hold it, afraid to make a sound at this critical moment.

Apply slow pressure, he pulled upward on the robes. To his surprise, they came up easily, almost causing him to overbalance. He expected the weight of a body to accompany the weight of the cloth, but as he pulled, he saw the robes were empty.

A sound behind them made both Marcus and Heather spin around. The greenish-brown mist that had surrounded Erasmus’s robes was now forming a shape in front of the broken window. The gaseous material began to grow denser, blocking more and more of the light that shone through it from outside. A definite outline of a person was forming and Marcus’s heart sank.

It was Erasmus.

He had only seconds before Erasmus regained his physical form and his first goal was to get Heather clear of the danger. Feeling the magic now coursing through him, he turned to send her far away from the tower to the safety of Glenfold. Hopefully, the elves still held the undead forces besieging it at bay. He knew they would take Heather in and, once she told her story, would take heart that Marcus had regained his powers. Heather would not want to go, he knew, so he would have to act quickly before she could protest. He spun, raising his hands as he did, and felt the magic ready to do his bidding.

Heather, however, was not there.

Marcus searched frantically, thinking Heather had seen the mist becoming Erasmus and had taken cover. His mind raced as he scanned the room for her, panic filling his thoughts and taking his mind off his adversary.

As he took a few quick steps toward the back of the room, his hand lurched backward, nearly tearing his shoulder in its ferocity. He let go of the silver knife just before the tendons of his rotator cuff could snap. The blade flew across the room end over end and was caught by a pale hand.

Erasmus held the blade up. Standing almost naked before the window, he stared at Marcus with undisguised fury. The smile that had stretched his features before was gone, replaced by a bestial leer that reflected a madness equal to or greater than that present in his eyes. The only item Erasmus wore was an amulet, silver with a large red gem set in its center. The gem glowed brightly, casting a red glint on the silver weapon in front of it.

“Let’s finish this,” Erasmus spat.

Marcus raised his hands and felt the magic erupt from him. The feeling, long missed, reminded him of the many adventures he and Erasmus had shared and yet saddened him as he sought to kill his old friend. A beam of energy shot out from his hands and collided with his target, drawing the room in a brilliant white light.

When Marcus’s eyes adjusted, he looked to see the effect of the spell. He had never felt so much power passing through him and he wondered if any of Erasmus would be left.

To his dismay, Erasmus stood unharmed where he had been. The leer on his face widened. Beneath that leer, the red gem glowed more fiercely.

“Do you think I would have summoned you here unless I had some sort of protection from your powers?” he asked. He patted the amulet at his breast. “It took me years of research and trials, but I eventually perfected it and summoned you back, knowing that no magic or weapon of this world could harm me. You have sought to destroy me since you arrived, not knowing that such deeds are beyond your powers.”

Drawing the knife back, he hurled it at Marcus’s chest. As he did, Marcus felt something knock against him, almost sending him sprawling to the floor. Heather appeared suddenly, directly between him and the hurtling knife. The blade buried deep within her chest, just below her neck. Heather let out a small squeak of pain and surprise before falling in a heap upon the floor.

Marcus dropped to his knees beside her, ignoring Erasmus standing across the room. He could see the hilt of the blade sticking up from her chest and the blood slowly pulling around it, soaking through her white blouse. He pulled it out, horrified at the resistance he received while doing so, as though the blade refused to leave such as feast. The knife finally yielded to his pressure and Heather jerked as it slid out. She looked up at him, her eyes half open.

“I love you,” she said.

Across the room, Erasmus laughed. The sound was high-pitched and grating, snapping Marcus from his despair. Looking up, he glared at his old friend, a rage consuming him that he had never known before.

Marcus stood, mindless of the possibility of further attack, but aware that Erasmus would want to savor his grief, drink it in like water in a desert. When he reached his full height, he started forward, hands behind him like someone pacing in deep contemplation. Stopping a few feet in front of his foe, Marcus looked directly into the mad eyes.

“So you come willingly to your death?” Erasmus asked, amused.

“No,” Marcus replied. “Yours.”

He pulled the Colt from behind his back and raised it, using the natural speed he had shown among his peers on the annual gun range trips. His hand and eye met and agreed on their target before Erasmus could realize his danger. The revolver crashed again, this time sending a slug into the red gem set in the amulet on Erasmus’s bare chest. The jewel exploded, hurling shards of red in every direction. Several embedded themselves in the skin of Marcus’s face and hands, but he ignored the pain.

Erasmus, a look of horror replacing the dangerous leer, was hurled backward through the broken window. He landed against the railing where Wilkey and Lorelei had fallen off minutes before. Looking down at his chest, he could see the gaping hole the shot had left. Blood, flecked with bits of bone and his internal organs began to slide out of the wound. His eyes rose once again to Marcus. They no longer radiated madness, only shock. After doing his will for so long, death was now coming to claim him as well.

Marcus watched as the life poured from Erasmus. This time, there was no voice inside him telling him that he should still be wary. This time, he knew the deed was done.

He had started back to Heather when the tower gave a powerful lurch. The bones forming the floor beneath his feet seemed to be coming loose as he ran across them. He guessed that now Erasmus was dead, the magic supporting the structure was unraveling around them. He fought to hold his balance and reached Heather, nearly stumbling over as he kneeled by her side.

Her eyes were closed and for a brief, terrible moment, he thought she was gone, but when he touched her face, she opened her eyes.

“Did you stop him?” she asked in a light, airy voice.

Marcus nodded. “Yeah, he’s dead.”

“Good,” she answered. “Now, let’s go home.”

Placing his hands beneath her, he lifted Heather as easily as he might a small child, something he still hoped to have with her. Moving as quickly as he dared back to the window, he struggled against the increasing instability of the floor and the seismic thrashing of the tower itself. He reached the railing and moved beside the body of his childhood friend without a second glance. Instead, he looked down and saw far below the tiny figure of his other two childhood friends, one of which he intended to remove from this place of death.

Taking a deep breath, he called forth the magic again. He had never tried to teleport another person along with himself before, but he had complete confidence that he could. The wind picked up and its roar filled his ears. Then, a feeling of weightlessness filled him and when he opened his eyes, he found himself standing at the base of the tower, still holding Heather in his arms. All around him, bits of bone fell like a macabre snow shower. A few large ones struck him on the back and head, but he shook off their sting and sprinted forward to where Wilkey’s body lay.

Lorelei’s sword had been expelled from his shattered body when he struck the ground. The blade now rested next to the body of its owner, her red curls falling over her face. He allowed himself a momentary pang of regret, then put her out of his mind forever.

Knowing he could not pick up both Wilkey’s body and Heather, barely clinging to life herself, Marcus lay her beside the halfling and then took hold of their hands, one in each of his own. He had only teleported two people for the first time a few moments before, but the prospect of a third still added no element of doubt. Bringing forth the magic again, he focused on his destination. Again, he heard the wind roar in his ears and the sensation of weightlessness.

A second after the three figures vanished at its base, the tower of bone collapsed in upon itself, burying the bodies of Marcus’s childhood friends who erected it.

know.

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Terra Incognita—Chapter 16

I’m sitting in computer class again tonight, which means I have a bit of free time to post the next chapter in the continuing tale of Marcus and Heather as they try to save a far-off land without killing each other or getting each other killed (they are different things).

Also, as I posted earlier on Twitter and Facebook earlier today, I am considering adding more content to this site by adding some video posts in place of the ones I normally write out.  I have a few reasons for wanting to do this.  First, I am a full-time worker, a full-time student, a full-time parent, and a full-time boyfriend, so I have very little time for writing fiction and even less for writing blog posts.  What I do have is an hour and a half commute to and from work each day that I normally fill by listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and occasionally music or sports.  It would be relatively easy for me to record a video as I’m driving and post it on here via YouTube.  It would also alleviate some of the guilt I have over paying for a website and not using it.

If anyone has any thoughts about this idea, including what tools I should use to best pull it off, please drop me a line through one of the many ways to reach me.

In the meantime, on with the show.

The griffons soared high above the canopy of color. Despite the calling of the flying beasts as they approached Glenfold, they flew around the elven kingdom and continued to follow the line of the Misteld as it snaked below them.

As they circumvented the elven lands, Marcus felt very uneasy. He watched the border intently, wondering if Lorelei had found her way back yet. He could sense Aspen below him, keenly aware of the proximity of Glenfold, pining for the comfort of her home. Marcus sympathized with the emotion; a part of him wanted to return to the familiar sights of the elven city and set aside his responsibility, to know a few last moments of peace with Heather before they both died.

The sun sank low on the horizon and Marcus found himself faced with a difficult decision. He wanted to reach the cave as soon as possible, but he also did not wish to tackle whatever challenged awaited them at the entrance to the cave in the dark. He particularly wanted to give Heather every opportunity to get through the cave, even if it meant sacrificing himself. He would not tell Heather this, of course, but he hoped it would not come to that.

“Let’s land there,” he called over the wind, pointing to a flat stretch of grass on the bank of the river.

Heather and Wilkey nodded their comprehension and guided the griffons into a downward spiral. Marcus followed, directing Aspen in a wide arc. When he landed and dismounted, he found his two companions looking at him expectantly.

Marcus was used to being looked to for direction. As a manager of a multi-million dollar business, he thrived on people looking to him to make the right decision. Now, though, he felt the weight of responsibility bearing down upon him, pressing upon his shoulders like an angry parent telling a wayward child to sit down and behave. He felt exhausted and a strong urge rose inside him to lie down in the soft grass and sleep until the world ended. He fought the impulse, looking at his childhood friend and the woman he loved and knowing they needed him to make those right decisions now more than ever.

“We’ll camp here tonight and leave before dawn,” he said with as much confidence as he could muster. “I’d rather not fight through a whole army of undead when I’m tired and hungry.”

They made camp, eating silently from the few remaining rations in Marcus’s pack. They all stared blankly in the meager fire, all feeling the same sense of foreboding about the coming day. Marcus reflected that this must be how inmates on death row feel the night before their execution.

Wilkey finally broke the silence. His voice sounded strangely loud and profane after the relative silence of the evening, interrupting the songs of the night birds and burbling of the river that had been the only sounds up to that point.

“I think I’m going to get some sleep,” he said, his voice low and grim. “Wake me up when it’s my turn for watch.”

Marcus watched the halfling curl up in his blanket and fall almost immediately to sleep. Part of him wanted to follow suit, but the dire situation they faced kept rolling through his brain and he knew that sleep would be slow in coming if it came at all. He continued to stare at the fire, absently watching the tiny flames flicker before him like exotic dancers. He barely noticed when Heather stood up and moved around the fire toward him. She sat next to him, pressing herself against him to ward of the chill autumn air. Her hand slipped forward, tentative at first, then picking up speed. She took his hand and squeezed gently.

Marcus looked at her and saw tears running down her cheeks. The orange light from the fire reflected off them, giving them the appearance of molten lava streaming down her face. Her dark eyes looked up at his and he saw something there that he had not seen in some time, in so long that he could not actually remember seeing it so clearly. He felt his own eyes burn suddenly and the lines of hot tears race down his own cheeks. He let them fall, not bothering to wipe them away, choosing instead to share his unspoken grief and fear with her.

“I love you,” she whispered, her voice sounding like a low, sad breeze. “I have the whole time, but I couldn’t live like that, like we were. I was lonely and angry and . . .”

She could not finish. She sobbed quietly, her face pressed into Marcus’s shoulder. Putting his arm around her, he pulled her closer to him and kissed her forehead, the tears falling down his face leaving two wet dots on her skin. They sat for some time, holding each other and crying in the still night.

“I never meant to hurt you,” he said. “I’m sorry, so sorry, that I didn’t see what I was doing to you. You’re the world to me and no matter what happens tomorrow, I want you to know that I love you.”

She looked up into his eyes again and Marcus saw fire in them, not reflected from the flames before them, but from deep within her. It was a look he had not seen in as long as he could remember, a look of longing and desire. The sight of those burning eyes sparked a similar emotion within him that surpassed any feeling he had ever experienced at work, even the ecstasy that flowed through him when he used his magical powers as a child. He took Heather in his arms and kissed her, their lips pressing urgently against each other. A tidal wave of passion swept over them and they lay back in the soft, fragrant grass. For a short blissful time, they forgot the dangers that awaited them and became lost in each other.

After their lovemaking, which they had done as quietly as possible to avoid waking the halfling sleeping a few feet away, they lay in each other’s arms and stared up at the stars twinkling in the clear sky above them. They talked no further about the troubles that had nearly driven them apart, preferring to stay with the realms of happier memories. They talked and giggled for hours before finally falling asleep together, not bothering to set a watch. Around them, the night remained calm and still, preparing for the storm that would soon erupt.

Marcus awoke after only a few hours. He carefully extracted himself from Heather’s arm which lay draped over him. The warmth of her skin against his made him feel very comfortable, but he knew that he would have to set his comfort aside to perform the task ahead. He rolled away from Heather and stood slowly, allowing his muscles to stretch.

Walking a few yards from the camp, he looked out over the wide stripe of the Misteld flowing serenely through the night. The fog they had encountered before on the river’s banks hovered above the water in a moonlit blanket. It looked to Marcus as though he could walk across to the opposite bank atop the white mist. He stared out over the water for some time, thinking of how best to confront the forces he knew would be aligned against them at the cave forbidding them entrance. Finally, with a plan half-formed in his mind, he returned to camp and woke the others.

The fire had died as they slept leaving them unable to prepare a hot meal. This point became moot, however, since none of them had any appetite. They packed their bedrolls onto the backs of the three griffons, then took to the predawn sky. The griffons soared through the chill air as the white line of the fog-shrouded Misteld snaked below them. Even the beasts apparently sensed the danger facing them as they drew nearer to it. Marcus could feel the unusual tension of the muscles in Aspen’s back as he sat astride her and could see the nervous way she twitched her head back and forth as if scanning for unseen dangers. He hoped that he could continue to count on the griffons to perform the way he wanted them to, but without Lorelei guiding and comforting them, he wondered how they would respond against the dark forces of the Necromancer.

As the sky brightened around them hailing the coming of dawn, Marcus looked farther along the river in search of any sign of what may lay ahead. Immediately, his eyes detected a dark line in the distance, reaching up from the ground like an accusatory finger. The smoke drifted upward in a wide column, caught by the prevailing winds, flattened out against an invisible ceiling. Though the sun’s rays had not lifted over the horizon yet, Marcus knew where the smoke rose from and his heart sank.

Yellow Banks was burning.

He turned to eye Wilkey, who also apparently realized what the smoke meant. Sitting astride his griffon, his face was pale, even in the dim light of morning and his eyes were wide with terror. Marcus knew the halfling held little true sentimental value for the small village, but Yellow Banks had always been a base of operation for him, a place to rest from his travels. Despite the run down appearance and the less than savory populace, he still considered it as much of a home as he could hope to have. Now, he knew, the entire village was likely destroyed along with most if not all of its residents.

Looking to his other side, Marcus studied Heather. She was not looking at the thick line of smoke parting the sky ahead like an ugly scar. Instead, he sat leaned over the neck of the griffon, huddling from the wind. Marcus could see her eyes were closed and her lips moving frantically. He could not hear what she was saying, but he guessed that if God existed in the form so many people believe in, he was hearing an odd request from her.

Finally, they reached Yellow Banks, diving through the column of smoke to land in the center of the village. As they had feared, the buildings were all either engulfed in flames or, in the case of the smaller buildings, already smoldering ruins. Lying in the dusty streets, dozens of halflings lay dead from various wounds. Some were horrendously burned, others rested in pools of blood emptied from gaping holes in their bodies, and still others lay mangled with their limbs bent into obscene angles. A few of the dead held what weapons they could manage in such a location—pitchforks, knives, a few short swords. Nothing living had been spared; even the animals, livestock and pets, lay scattered in bloody heaps throughout the village.

The suns rays were just peaking over the horizon. Marcus gaped as the devastation around him was revealed more clearly and felt a fury rising inside him that he had never experienced. Always laid back and practical, Marcus prided himself on his ability to manage under pressure while maintaining a cool head. Such attributes, he now realized, would be useless against the Necromancer.

Wilkey stood alone in the center of town. He faced the remains of what had formerly been The Pub with a vacant expression. No vestige of loss appeared there, only a bleary look of disbelief.

“We’ll get him,” Marcus told the halfling as he walked up to his side. It was all he could think to say. The combined horror over the fate of Yellow Banks and the rage filling his mind prevented him from finding something more comforting.

The halfling nodded. “I know you will, Marcus.”

“We,” Marcus corrected.

“No, you. You’re the only one who can stop him. You have to get her out of here so you can fight him. I’ll help you there, but . . .”

The halfling could not continue. Marcus knew that in his state of grief, Wilkey might do something foolish, but he would not deny any help his friend offered if it suited the rest of his plan.

Returning to the center of the village, Marcus took a few minutes to go over the plan he had developed staring out over the Misteld. Despite the many opportunities for failure it presented and the extreme risk, the strategy stirred no debate from Wilkey or Heather. Marcus had put as positive a spin on the matter as possible and was thankful for their belief in him, belief that he could not bring himself to share.

Within a few minutes, Marcus and Wilkey mounted the griffons and prepared to leave. Heather, seeing the destruction all around her, had remained on hers, clutching her pack over her eyes to prevent herself from seeing the dead bodies all around her. Marcus could hear her as he mounted Aspen, sobbing deeply into the leather pouch.

They lifted off again, allowing the griffons to choose a path through the choking smoke. The rose just above the trees and started toward the cave, hoping for at least some element of surprise. By staying low, Marcus wanted to reduce their visibility as they approached, even though he guessed the Necromancer had ways of spying on them aside from his own eyesight. Still, the low altitude gave them a better opportunity with anyone or anything else that may be guarding the entrance to the cave and for that Marcus hoped the ploy would be worthwhile.

They left the line of the river and soared over the trees where Marcus and Heather had met with the centaurs in what seemed now to be another life altogether different from the other life the two of them shared in North Carolina. Asheville now seemed as fictional as this land had seemed to Heather when Marcus first mentioned it and as they neared the cave, he wondered if they would ever see it again. He looked again at Heather, huddled against the wind, and his heart ached for her. What he intended to do, perhaps the only chance any of them would have to leave the scene alive, would most likely mean they would never see each other again and it pained him. That he had finally come to appreciate her, had worked so hard to show he could change while in this strange land, and now had to risk everything in order to save her felt like a bitter pill in the back of his throat, one he was not prepared to swallow.

He had turned over as many possibilities as he could in his mind, envisioned as many possible defenses to the cave as he think of, and yet he still felt unprepared to face what now lay just before them as they flew over the woods nearest the cave’s entrance. He had seen evidence of the cleverness possessed by the Necromancer and despite his feeling of being played with, he knew they had been quite lucky to have made it to this point, to this conclusion. A voice inside him told him that the close calls they had faced had been like acts in a play—carefully staged productions designed to lead them to one final confrontation. He could almost feel the invisible strings guiding his movements, but could no more resist their pull than could the puppet.

Now, he hoped, he would be able to cut those strings and give Heather, at least, a chance of escaping.

The cave came into view slowly. Its dark expanse opening at the far end of the clearing as it appeared over the tops of the trees. Marcus scanned the ground and felt his mouth fall open, the wind drying every bit of of moisture inside it. He blinked several times, thinking he must be hallucinating, that the Necromancer was playing some final evil trick upon them before moving in for the endgame. He hesitated before sending Aspen spiraling down to land, scanning the clearing all around to ensure his eyes were not deceiving him.

The clearing was empty.

Heather and Wilkey did not hesitate as Marcus had. If they noticed the oddity of the entrance to the cave being unguarded, they did not pause to ponder its meaning. Instead, they swooped down on their griffons in a straight line for the cave, hoping to outrun any devilry that may lie in wait for them below. Marcus called for them to stop, feeling an overpowering sense of wrongness with the whole scene, but the wind in his companions ears and their desire to reach the cave, made them deaf to his cries.

Marcus commanded Aspen to dive just as he saw movement explode from the trees around the clearing. Fear radiated out from his stomach in nauseous waves, threatening to rob him of his senses before he could reach the ground to help Heather. He watched as the circle of figures charged in from their hiding places, their muscular torsos blending seamlessly with their equine hindquarters, and surrounded the two griffons as they landed. Marcus saw Beorgan himself standing directly in front of the cave barking orders to his tribesmen as they closed in.

Fury rose inside Marcus, outweighing even that he had felt in the ruins of Yellow Banks, a white hot rage that enhanced his senses. Every thing around him seemed to slow down, allowing him a view of the scene in much greater detail than he had ever experienced in his life. His thoughts clear and quick, he knew exactly what he would do, the plan forming in his mind a moment after there had only been panic.

Aspen also sensed the need to help her kin. Tucking her wings to her sides, she dropped from the sky like a stone, unfurling them just before she collided with a pair of straggling centaurs, barely old enough to have the beginnings of beards on their tanned faces. The two centaurs felt the rush of wind over them and stumbled face first into the grass as the powerful wings brushed over their heads.

Marcus could hear cries of alarm around him as he and Aspen soared toward Heather and Wilkey, but he paid them no attention. All his focus, all his will, were fixed on reaching the two terrified figures standing in the middle of the rapidly closing ring of centaurs before they could be taken captive or simply executed on the spot.

A searing pain erupted in his right thigh and he could see objects streaking by him. Most of the arrows fired by the centaurs missed badly due to the great speed at which their targets were traveling, but a few, including the one now buried in the muscle of Marcus’s leg, found their mark. Aspen cried out in pain as several arrows pierced her flesh in various places. One of the missiles found the wing joint and sent the griffon down to the hard earth. She skipped once, trying valiantly to take off again, then crashed hard.

Marcus released the strap holding him to the saddle after the first contact with the ground. He tried to will the griffon back into the air, but knew the effort was useless. As Aspen neared the ground a second time, Marcus planted his feet upon the saddle and leaped forward, barely avoiding crashing with the griffon.

He had grown used to the sensation of flying after spending the previous few days with the griffons from Glenfold, but the few seconds he spent soaring above the trampled grass gave him no such sense of exhilaration. He watched helplessly as the ground rose up to meet him, trying to get his legs under him enough to lessen the impact on his head. The speed, however, made it impossible and he crashed hard on his chest, skidding several yards like an airplane during a belly landing before coming to rest in a divot of his own making. Far away it seemed, he felt a snapping in his wrist and a brief, hot spark of pain that soon washed away in the tidal wave of agony flowing from his chest.

“Oh, my God!” Heather shrieked as Marcus fought to keep from blacking out. He could hear her well and, despite the clods of dirt in his ears, he realized that he lay almost at her feet.

“Marcus! Marcus, are you okay?” she screamed above him, panic raising her voice to a new high.

Two pair of hands rolled him over and he tried to open his eyes. Dirt clogged them as well and soon he felt fingers digging the it out, allowing the light of the new day to filter in to them through the canopy of leaves. He tried to speak, but his chest felt as though someone had dropped a large tree trunk on him and he could not muster the necessary air to form the words. Heather’s face, tears streaming down her dusty cheeks, appeared over his, blotting out the sun’s rays.

“Shhh, don’t speak,” she said. Her hand appeared and wiped his forehead, returning to his line of sight awash in blood.

Marcus felt another pair of hands touching him, clutching his arms.

“Come on,” Wilkey said, his voice also an octave higher in his fear. “We have to get him to the cave.”

Marcus could feel the ground beneath him shake as the many hooves of the centaurs pounded toward them. He tried to echo the halfling’s words, but still unable to draw a breath, he could only nod. Pulling against Wilkey’s grasp, he stood with some effort and felt new waves of pain exploding through him like the finale of a fireworks display. His legs, though, seemed fine aside from the arrowhead stuck in his thigh—the shaft had broken off during his impact with the ground—and the long strips of flesh that had been scraped away during his landing.

Heather tried to help him as he stood, taking his left hand. Another atomic burst of pain lit up his wrist as she did and he pulled it away with a feeble gasp. Realizing her mistake, sobbing even harder, she took his upper arm instead and started toward the cave.
“Ye’ll not get through me,” a deep voice spoke above the angry calls of the other centaurs. The thundering hooves had halted, leaving an uneasy calm in the clearing, broken only by the low, droning conversation of the centaurs and the occasional stamping of a hoof. Beorgan stood directly between them and the cave entrance, his arms crossed in a stance of defiance. To either side of him stood a half dozen armed centaurs, bows drawn and arrows trained upon Marcus and his companions.

Marcus stopped and the others stopped with him. Standing a mere ten yards from the centaur chieftain, he rose up as straight as his broken bones would allow and looked directly at Beorgan. He still felt as though a large vice was clamped around his chest, but he spoke anyway.

“Beorgan, stand aside and repay the debt you owe me.”

His voice was only a whisper, but it carried through the clearing so that the centaur chieftain and all around him could hear it.

“M’debt was repaid to ye when ye returned to this land,” Beorgan said. “And you have no power, so say the Necromancer.”

Marcus now saw the ingenuity of the Necromancer’s plan. Why should he utilize his own powers when such an eager force could be duped into doing his bidding at no cost to himself?

“You’re a fool, Beorgan,” Marcus wheezed. “He’ll turn on you just as he turned on Chonis of the dwarves, or did he not mention that?”

Beorgan’s face showed no expression. “Say what ye might, human, but it’ll not spare you from him. Just surrender quietly and we’ll see that no harm come to ye in our wood.”

Marcus stared at the centaur for a full minute, deciding what to do. Finally, his mind settled on the plan he had originally developed, altered somewhat to fit the current scenario, but mostly intact and just as risky.

He stared at Beorgan a moment longer, then fell to his knees.

As he hoped they would, Heather and Wilkey dropped to assist him.

“We’re going to go with the plan,” he whispered to them between feigned coughs. “Be ready to run for the cave.”

Wilkey nodded and stood. Heather, though, clasped his arm tightly. Her eyes were wide as she looked at Marcus and finally the realization of what he intended showed in her brown orbs. Her lower lip quivered as more tears flanked it on either side. Stretching forward, Marcus kissed her softly, feeling the trembling lip against his own.

“Just do it . . . please . . . I’ll be okay as long as you get through that cave,” he said.

Doubt radiated from her beautiful face, and for a few seconds, Marcus thought she would resist. However, she too nodded finally and stood beside him.

Marcus rose once again to his feet, not raising his eyes to meet Beorgan’s. Reaching out, he took Heather’s hand in his own and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He felt the power surging from her body into his like electric current.

“Okay,” he said in his breathless voice, “we’ll come quietly.”

The centaurs flanking Beorgan lowered their bows slightly, seeing their quarry surrendering. As they did, Marcus called upon the magic flowing through him, forcing it out again and shaping it into the desired form. He felt the old ecstasy as it gushed from him like a geyser, but also felt the dangerous draining that came with it.

On either side of Marcus and his companions, a great wall of flame erupted from the ground. Reaching high into the air, it formed a corridor leading directly to the cave entrance while blocking them from the view of all the centaurs save the large black one that stood directly before them.

Beorgan reeled in shock as the magic exploded around him. Taking a few steps backward, his hindquarters backed into the wall of fire and he gave a hoarse cry of pain and surprise. Several seconds passed before the centaur thought to reach for the bow slung across his back.

It was all the time Wilkey needed.

The halfling closed the ten yards quickly, drawing the daggers from his belt. Leaping up, he planted one small foot on the centaur’s forefoot and propelled himself upward, slashing a wide arc just below Beorgan’s chin. A spray of blood followed the course of the blade.

The centaur chieftain abandoned all thoughts of drawing his own weapons at the burning pain in his neck. Reaching out, he clutched at the line of wretched heat with one hand and at Wilkey with his other. The halfling proved too nimble, though, bouncing clear of the large hand before it came close to seizing him.

Beorgan stumbled forward, as though trying to catch the blood spurting from his throat before it fell to the grass. His four legs danced wildly, carrying the centaur back and forth between the walls of flame before collapsing. Kneeling down, he gasped for air, creating bright red bubbles of blood on his lips. The last vision he had before blackness took him was of Marcus collapsing a few yards in front of him.

“No! Get up! Please, Marcus, get up!” Heather cried as she tried to lift Marcus up from his knees. Her fingers remained laced within his, allowing him to continue the spell protecting them from the centaurs.

“Go,” he gasped. “I’ll . . . follow you . . . when . . . I’m done.”

Heather continued to stare at him, her eyes pleading.

“Go!” Marcus said, forcing his voice to sound stronger despite the blackness that was rimming his vision.

Heather let go of his hand and bolted for the cave entrance. Marcus watched her with his failing eyesight as the walls of flame dropped away to either side of her. They were nearly extinguished when her lithe form disappeared into the shadowy recesses.

As the roaring conflagration died away, Marcus could hear the angry, confused shouts of the centaur around him again. He expected to be pierced from all sides with arrows, but none came. Hoof beats pounded all around him, but his fading strength had left him unable to even lift his eyes to see them surrounding him. His vision continued to darken; the green grass below him drifted in and out of focus. He hoped to at least feel the magic surge back into his veins before he blacked out to know that Heather had reached safety. Now, he doubted he would stay conscious long enough to know for sure and the thought worried him. What if sentries had been posted just inside the cave awaiting just such a stunt? He had no way of knowing.

When the wave of cold swept over him, he could not tell for sure if the sensation was a reaction inside his own body or if generated by some outside source. Only when he saw the hem of long black robes in the small hole that remained of his vision, did he know that the Necromancer had arrived.

“Hello, Marcus,” a familiar voice said. “Glad you could come.”

Marcus recognized the voice immediately, but could not believe his own ears. It had changed somewhat since he had last heard it, sounding older and deeper than he remembered, but he was sure he knew the source.

Fighting with his last ounce of strength, he forced his gaze upward. Looking into the dark hood, he saw the familiar blue eyes reflecting the morning sun. A thin smile stretched across the gaunt, pale face. He looked different, but there could be no doubt to his identity.

Marcus opened his mouth and tried to speak. The words died on his lips, leaving him in a weak gasp as he collapsed unconscious onto the soft grass.

Chapter 16

Heather ran past the dying centaur chieftain into the cave. As the darkness consumed her, she threw her hands out to feel for the walls. Her pace slowed once the noises from outside the cave died away and she picked her path carefully to avoid any outcropping of rock that might trip her.

A sound to her left, too big to be a rat or some similar cave dweller, made her halt. Her body went rigid to prevent any movement that might cause whatever hid a few feet to her left to hear her, if it had not already. She tried holding her breath, even though this proved difficult as her fear quickened her respiration. A sickening thought rose in her mind that the Necromancer had placed sentries in the cave to prevent them from passing through and she fought hard to keep from vomiting. She remained still, listening for the sound again for several seconds, before continuing on in a rush. After banging her toes on a low rock step, she swore loudly, but still heard no movement behind her indicating she was being followed.

Moving as quickly as she dared, she walked for what seemed like hours. The only sounds reaching her ears were the rhythmic dripping of water and the hurried rasping of her breath. Slowly, painfully, she made her way through the darkness and finally saw a pinpoint of light before her that grew larger as she drew nearer to it. Birdsong filled her ears, faint at first, then growing louder as the opening before her widened. She broke into a run and emerged into the brilliant sunshine of an autumn morning in Kentucky.

The air around her was crisp and her breath made wispy clouds as she exhaled. The air smelled of recent rain and wet leaves, reminding her of Glenfold. Looking around the clearing, she wondered how much time had passed since she and Marcus had entered the cave. She remembered that he had told her that time passed differently between the two worlds, but she had no idea if the difference was a constant that could be measured or a random twirl of clock hands.

She looked around for Wilkey, wondering how he felt coming to a land where his only kin were found in fairy tales. The halfling, however, was not in the clearing.

“Wilkey,” she called, quietly at first then louder as no response came. She walked back to the cave and looked around on the ground for some sign of passage, but could make out nothing in the blanket of dead leaves that lay there. Her search then carried her out away from the yawning hole. She wondered if perhaps some force had prevented the halfling from entering this world, but then she remembered the skull Marcus had found in the grass. The Necromancer had passed into this world, or at least sent someone in his stead, to drop off the grisly artifact so that Marcus would be sure to enter the cave. That meant, she knew, that denizens of that world could pass into theirs if they desired. Then another thought occurred to her, one that filled her with hope and fear at the same time.

The sound in the cave, she thought, that was Wilkey waiting for me to pass so he could go back and help Marcus.

Smiling despite herself, she marveled at the loyalty the small person had showed to Marcus. The halfling had helped Marcus at every turn and even now, in the face of overwhelming odds, he would go back to try to help one more time.

As she walked through the clearing, she came upon the skull lying in the grass where Marcus had left it. The etched words appeared stark against the white bone. Fighting her revulsion, she bent over and picked it up, unsure exactly why she was doing so. Something about the appearance of the thing, totally apart from her initial response, made her feel uneasy.

Lifting it in her hand, she could tell that it was much lighter than she expected, than a mass of bone that size should be. She held it close to her face to examine it and felt her stomach lurch as realization dawned upon her.

Heather dropped the skull carelessly back into the grass and took a few stumbling steps backward. Her hands clasped over her chest as she weighed the magnitude of what she had just learned. As she returned to her senses, she paced frantically through the clearing, unsure of what to do. Her eyes returned to the cave and, gazing at its open maw, she made her decision.

Checking the pack tied to her belt, the same pack she had when she first passed through the cave, thought now back in its nylon form, and made sure that what she was looking for was really there. She had checked it several times during the last few days as they pursued and were pursued by the Necromancer just to make sure that the item she was looking for was indeed there. Satisfied, she sprinted for the cave and disappeared once again into its gloom.

Wilkey waited for the sounds outside the cave to die away before making his way back to the entrance. He had heard Heather pass by him and had to stop himself from calling to her and sharing his plans. Doing so would only encourage her to stay and that was the last thing Marcus would want. He knew she had heard him, but he stayed quiet enough, as only a halfling could, to get her to move on without noticing him.

He had also expected Wilkey to pass into safety with Heather, though, and he had ignored that part of the instructions. While the thought of the Necromancer and his armies of undead terrified him, he feared what lay beyond the magical cave even more. Marcus had shared numerous stories with him about the land on the other side of that divide and, while fascinating, Wilkey found them unnerving when compared to the simplicity he found in Terra. Self-propelled carriages—automobiles, Marcus had called them—and video games and telly-vision scared the halfling in ways no undead army ever could. So, in spite of his friend’s directions to the contrary, Wilkey stayed behind and hoped for some opportunity to help his friend one more time.

From outside the cave, he heard the roaring of the flames lessen, then vanish completely, only to be replaced by angry shouting. Then, as though all sound had died, he could hear nothing from outside. Only a pale reflection of day shone into the recesses where he crouched allowing him some idea of which direction he needed to go to return to the entrance and his first impulse as the sound dropped away was to sprint out and see what was going on. He fought the urge, aware that doing so would likely get him killed, either by the centaurs for killing their chieftain or by the Necromancer if he had arrived for the fun of it.

He waited in the dark and listened for some indication of what was happening. He wondered if Marcus’s powers had been returned to him as Heather passed through the cave and if Marcus was strong enough to use them to save himself. He had not approved of the plan his friend had put forth, but knew he could not argue his point—that it meant sacrificing Marcus—and win. His friend intended to give himself up to save his halfling friend and the woman he loved, a deed that Wilkey found incredibly noble and foolish at the same time. If chance allowed, he told himself, he would help Marcus, even if it meant dying himself. The thought of perishing held little appeal for Wilkey, but he could imagine worse ways to go than helping a friend that risked everything for him.

When he could not longer withstand his curiosity, Wilkey tip-toed toward the cave entrance. He still heard no sound; even the birds had ceased their chattering. A dark vision sprouted in his mind of the Necromancer coming to a weakened Marcus and killing him with a bony outstretched finger before adding him to the legions of the dead. The halfling shook off the thought, aware that it made his feet want to sprint forward to see about his friend.

Finally, Wilkey reached the patch of sunlight that shone into the earthen hole. He tried to navigate in the shadows to get an idea of how many enemies he faced outside, but found none. The clearing stretching before him seemed completely devoid of life, showed almost no sign other than the trampled grass that anyone had been there at all. Even the flames generated by Marcus to save him and Heather had produced no effect on the tender blades.

More importantly, Wilkey saw, was that Marcus was no longer there either.

He looked around the clearing, scratching his head. He expected some guard would be placed in case he and Heather returned and felt irritated that the centaurs had taken him so lightly.

“Stupid horses,” he muttered.

A sound from behind him erased his indignation. A guard had been set apparently, or some form of pursuit, as the sound came from the cave directly behind him. Dashing for a nearby tangle of brush, he waited for his opportunity to ambush whatever came out of the darkness.

To his surprise, Heather came out. Looking madly around, he held her small pack in one hand and had the other deep inside it as though its contents might bite her. He could tell by her confused expression that she was as confused by the lack of a reception as he was.

Wilkey stood up and called to her. She spun quickly toward the sound of the voice and removed her hand from the pack. Wilkey saw a metal object, too short and rounded to be a sword or dagger. The thing had a wooden handle and a round opening that faced in his direction. He wondered what the crazy rod was and continued to wonder for a half-second before the end of the thing exploded. A high-pitched buzz skimmed by his right ear and a birch tree behind him erupted into a shower of splinters.

The halfling dropped like a stone to his stomach, aware that had Heather’s aim been slightly better, his skull, and not the tree, would have been reduced to fragments.

“Heather! It’s me, Wilkey!” he yelled from his prone position.

He heard a metallic click from the other side of the brush and braced himself for another explosion. None came. Instead, he heard a cry and running footsteps.

“Wilkey! Oh, please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead”

Heather appeared beside him and leaned down. Wilkey smiled at her.

“That’s some toy you have there.”

Heather tried to cry and laugh in relief at the same time. The result was a strangled snort that made her sound like she was choking. With shaking hands, she brushed wood chips from Wilkey’s dark hair, slapping him repeatedly as she did so.

“I’m fine,” he told her, waving his hands at hers to ward them off. “Just don’t point that thing at me again.”

Heather stared at him for a moment, as though seeing him for the first time. Tears streamed down her cheeks and her lower lip quivered. Then, she took him in her arms and hugged him severely.

After a series of choked protests, Heather released Wilkey, although with obvious reluctance. She looked to the halfling as though she might reach out and crush him again, so he moved away quickly, crawling backward on his feet and hands in a crab-like fashion.

“I’m fine,” he repeated. He hoped to snap the woman out of her hysterics and could see from the rapidly clearing expression on her face that he had succeeded. “Now, what are you doing back here?”

Heather wiped her eyes. “I could ask you the same question.”

Wilkey considered making up some excuse as to why he did not follow Marcus’s instructions, something that would have made it impossible for him to pass into Heather’s world. He certainly did not want to tell her that he was afraid.

“I . . . I wanted to come back and help Marcus,” he said.

“So do I,” Heather said. “I couldn’t go back without him.”

A sudden look of inspiration crossed her features with such rapidity that the halfling jumped.

“I have to tell him . . .” she trailed off, unsure of how to continue. “The skull—the one we found in clearing in front of the cave—it’s a fake. Made out of some kind of plaster.”

Wilkey’s brow furrowed as he processed this new information. He wondered why someone would fake Erasmus’s death if Marcus was already on his way, then a terrible answer occurred to him.

Heather saw realization descend upon the halfling. Yes, she thought, he sees it now.

“We have to find him,” Heather said, rising to her feet. “Where do you think they took him?”

Wilkey stood. “The only place that would make sense would be The Sand Fortress. It’s where the Necromancer is supposed to dwell,” he said.

“How do we get there?”

The halfling considered then pointed. “It’s about two weeks walk in that direction, through the desert, but by that time Marcus will either be dead or wish he was.”

“Where are the griffons? Did you see what happened to them after we landed?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I was the first one in the cave and I honestly never looked back. Maybe you can reach them like you did up in the Norags.”

Heather looked around as though she might spot one of the griffons lurking in the woods around them. Seeing none, she closed her eyes and concentrated on locating the griffons again.

Wilkey watched her with anxious impatience. He realized their only chance of reaching Marcus lay with the griffons that had served them so faithfully to this point in their journey. The beasts had risked much for them and Wilkey wondered if they, by no means unintelligent, would allow much more to be asked of them by someone other than the elves.

Time passed. Heather’s face transformed from passive rest to deep concentration. Her closed eyes bulged behind her eyelids and moved rapidly back and forth as if searching for something. Finally, Heather’s eyes snapped open and a tired frown drew down the corners of her mouth.

Wilkey’s heart sank. She had failed. Both of them had.

“Well, it was worth a shot,” she whispered. She had tried to project her thoughts out just as she had done in the mountains, but now there was something missing that had been inside her when she had succeeded before. As Marcus had hoped, the magical power that had occupied Heather when she first entered this land had departed when she left it. Her only hope was that it had found its way to Marcus and could help him save his life.

The halfling nodded. “I’d ride an oversized dragonfly right now if it would get us to Marcus.”

The two of them waited near the cave entrance for Winterdusk. They remained concealed behind the brush, just in case the centaurs returned, but saw no one. Their eyes frequently darted up to the skies to see if the griffon had arrived.

They sat near the cave entrance and tried to think of someway to reach Marcus before the Necromancer could finish him. In the meantime, Heather absently pulled the revolver again from her pack. She had grabbed it off the bed in Marcus’s room before setting off for the cave and she had frequently been drawn to look at it during their quest together. While the rest of their gear and clothing had changed when they passed into Terra, the Colt had remained exactly the same, a fact that escaped Heather until they sat in the relative safety of the centaur camp. Now, she wished she had turned the weapon on the entire tribe that night with her first target being the black-haired chieftain.

In truth, she knew very little of the weapon’s operation. Marcus had given her a brief explanation of how to use it—loading, aiming, firing—in the event of a robbery or similar crisis, but she had paid little attention. She detested guns and had argued long and hard to prevent one from being in her home. Marcus had won that argument, a fact Heather never got over, and now she found herself thankful that he had. Although she had nearly killed Wilkey with the weapon, she felt comforted by its cold steel surface and its weight. She might not know how to create walls of flame from thin air, as Marcus had done to save her life, but she could damn well point a gun and pull the trigger.

Wilkey finally gave the gun a cursory inspection, handling it as though it might bite if he squeezed too tightly. Heather explained to him in rough terms how it worked and the halfling turned the firearm back over to her, eyeing it with disgust.

“And people use those over there?” he asked, meaning the world she and Marcus had come from . “Use them a lot?”

“Unfortunately, people use them all the time,” she answered. She thought of all the sad newscasts she had seen that somehow involved a shooting. Wars, homicides, drug deals—even her idyllic Appalachian home was not immune to the immortal gun. The previous winter a man had killed his wife and three children before turning the gun upon himself, all within two miles of the Victorian she and Marcus shared.

Guns aren’t the problem, she thought, people are. Over here there are no guns—well, one—and there are still wars and murders and maybe drug deals for all I know.

A comical picture of an elf standing before a grand marble building façade peddling marijuana entered her head and she had to return her thoughts to Marcus to keep from giggling.

Above them, a fluttering of wings drew their attention upward. Gazing through the canopy, they could see a large figure floating down toward them. A few seconds later, they recognized the mottled feathers and coat of Winterdusk as she glided gracefully into the clearing. The griffon landed in front of the cave entrance and looked around quickly, obviously expecting a similar reception to the one she had received on her first arrival. Beak open, it pawed at the ground, creating deep gouge marks in its apprehension.

New hope rose within them both. Heather stood slowly from the brush, not wanting to agitate the already antsy beast.

“We’re here, Winterdusk,” Heather said in what she hoped was a calming voice.

The griffon showed no sign of calming down at first, then seemed to recognize Heather. Rising from its defensive posture, it nodded its head at the human as if inviting her to come forward.

Heather and Wilkey walked toward the griffon, although they wanted to sprint to her and bid her to fly at her fastest to reach Marcus. They raised their hands in a non-threatening gesture and slowly moved forward. Winterdusk showed no signs of aggression and allowed the two approaching figures to come to her. The saddle still lay across her muscular back, solving another one of their potential problems.

“Can you guide her to Marcus once we’re airborne?” Heather asked the halfling as she swung her leg over the saddle.

Wilkey sprung into the saddle, seating himself in front of Heather.

“I know where his tower is rumored to be,” Wilkey said. Heather could hear the note of uncertainty in his voice and did not like it.

“Well, I guess we’ll find out if the rumors are true.”

Winterdusk turned her head to look at them as if to see if they were secured to the saddle. Then, without warning, she sprung into the air. Heather felt her stomach leave her body and stay where she had just been on the ground, reminding her of the Warner Brothers cartoons where the coyote falls off the cliff chasing the roadrunner and falls, leaving only his eyes or his hand waving a sign. This led her to think of Marcus, who adored those cartoons, and who would never get to see them again if she did not grow some backbone. Marcus needed her—that much she knew just as he had known it when they set out on this journey—but only now could they see the true reason for Heather’s coming.

Marcus was destined to save Terra. Heather was destined to save Marcus.

The responsibility made her nauseous and she fought unsuccessfully to hold down the small amount of food she had forced down that morning. Turning her body and her head as far to the rear as she could manage, she fired off a stream of half-digested jerky along with a good deal of stomach acid. The whole package burned as it roared up her esophagus, particularly at the back of her throat just before it exited. She was careful, though, and not a drop of the mess landed on the griffon, who turned her head and peered back for a moment with avian shrewdness.

Yep, here I come to save the day, Heather told herself, quoting another cartoon as she wiped a line of spittle from her chin.

Winterdusk flew swiftly, but the sun was still high in the sky when they reached the domain rumored to be that of the Necromancer. The forest of majestic oaks and birches gave way suddenly to a cypress swamp dotted with sickly willows. A thick cloud of brown haze, reminding Heather of the smog she had sometimes seen in the Great Smokey Tourist Trap, clung around the bases of the trees like poisonous mulch. Despite their speed over the canopy, they could still see an occasional animal taking refuge in the thicker underbrush or slipping into the black water.

“What are we going to do when we get there?” Wilkey called over the rushing wind.

Now that they had nearly arrived at their destination, both of them realized that some plan would be needed, though neither knew what they were up against, much less how to prepare for it.

“I was hoping you would have a suggestion,” Heather said.

“Me? I improvise. Works fine most of the time, but there’s a first time for everything,” the halfling answered. “I figure if I don’t know what I’m going to do, my opponent won’t either.”

Heather felt that Wilkey’s logic was somehow flawed, but she could not think clearly enough to figure out how. Improvisation had never been a strong suit of hers, even during her high school days in drama class. No one could memorize a script quicker or recite lines with such precision, but attempting to just take off cold left her stuttering and embarrassed. Besides, she thought, the Necromancer is probably prepared for us.

“Look!” Wilkey called again, more excitement in his voice than before.

Heather followed the line of his finger into the distance over the swamp and felt a chill crawl up her spine, made worse by the cold air blowing past them as they flew. Rising up from the swamp before them like a accusatory finger, a white tower stretched above the trees toward the midday sun. It’s base rested inside a thick copse of cypress and rose into a slender spire that culminated in a wider crown that resembled two skeletal hands, palms turned in toward each other and fingers crooked toward the sky. Resting between the open palms, a flat structure resembling picture Heather had seen of unidentified flying objects sat. She thought the whole edifice resembled a nightmarish Space Needle.

As they drew close enough to see the detail on the tower, Winterdusk emitted a high shriek beneath them. Tucking her wings to her sides, she plummeted, leaving her two passengers grasping for support.

As she dove, the air around them became stiflingly hot. Only when they looked down did they see the gout of flame that rose up toward, and thanks to Winterdusk, by them. Heather could feel the surface of her skin burn like it had at Myrtle Beach the previous year when she had fallen asleep while sunbathing. This heat, though, came not from the sun, but from a much more ominous and deadly source.

Winterdusk dove down beneath the canopy over a large pool of water, then unfurled them. Flapping wildly, she fought to gain altitude as the trees ahead grew closer with each second. Heather and Wilkey both closed their eyes, bracing for impact.

The griffon shrieked again as an updraft lifted her upward. Her taloned feet brushed against the thick foliage as they rose back into the air.

Heather looked back to see where the fire had come from and screamed as she got her answer. A monstrous thing was rising from the swamp. Its huge head, overpopulated with wicked fangs, snaked out ahead of a bloated body. Behind it, a sinuous tail thrashed in the murky water. One bat-like wing extended from its left flank, but where the right should have been, a stubby appendage wiggled back and forth. Worst of all, at least to Heather, the thing glowed. Bathed in a sickly green light, the huge dragon followed them into the air.

“Amadyr!” Wilkey squealed. “But she’s . . . “

If Wilkey had finished the sentence, Heather did not hear, nor did she need to. She knew exactly what the halfling meant to say.

She’s dead, Heather thought.

Despite the pursuit that was rapidly bringing it closer to its prey, the gigantic form behind them certainly seemed dead. Great chunks of flesh had fallen away, carrying the scales with it, leaving only gaping holes through which only bones prevented a clear line of sight through the dragon’s body. The skin around the head was stretched tightly into a leering grin that showed much of the skull. In other places, the skin seemed nearly transparent through the green illumination. The most telling feature, though, were the red eyes, malevolent and mindless, staring at them. They were the same they had seen in countless corpses over the previous few days.

Another feature caught Heather’s attention as the dragon drew nearer. A green object resembling a large gem, the same color as the glow that surrounded it, but more substantial, hung on a chain from from the serpentine neck. The gem pulsed, bright then dim, like a heart beating.

“It has something around it’s neck,” Heather tried to call over the furious wind.

Wilkey nodded, though Heather could not be sure that he heard her or was just nodding to acknowledge that she had said something. Then, he looked back, leaning out to try to peer around Heather and his eyes grew wide. Turning back to face the front, he nodded again.

Winterdusk raced toward the white tower, flapping furiously to gain ground on the dragon and failing. Amadyr closed in on them quickly, despite her one wing. Looking back, Heather could see the stub of the right wing pumping in time with its counterpart. An outline of a wing could barely be seen attached to it, brighter in color than the glow that surrounded the rest of the creature.

Beneath her legs, Heather could feel the griffon’s chest expanding and contracting rapidly as she fought exhaustion and fear. Heather forced her mind to focus on how to escape, but found the voice of panic welling up inside her, blocking out her reason.

Winterdusk reached the tower just as Heather heard a loud intake of air from what sounded like directly behind her. The griffon banked sharply, nearly slamming Heather’s head against the building itself which they could now see was composed of bones of various shapes and sizes. The grotesque structure barely drew their notice, though, as another plume of fire erupted behind them, just missing them as they wheeled around out of range.

Amadyr, or what was left of her, let out a deafening roar of frustration. Heather looked back again and saw the one remaining wing point upward as the dragon attempted to follow them. With its larger wingspan, the maneuver took much more space and time than the griffon’s, giving them a little time to consider their options.

Heather saw Wilkey lean over Winterdusk’s neck and yell something to the griffon, who responded by giving another loud shriek and nodding. She had no idea what the halfling intended to do, but in front of her she could feel the tense set of his body. Only when the griffon turned back toward the dragon did her panic rise out of control.

“What the hell are you doing?” she yelled at Wilkey.

“Trust me,” the halfling yelled back.

Heather wanted to protest, even without a clear idea of what Wilkey intended to do, but decided that his plan, however risky it might be, was better than the one she had yet to develop.

Wintedusk flapped her wings again, fighting for altitude. She made directly for the tower as the dragon continued its turn, keeping it directly between her and her pursuer. As Amadyr completed her change of direction, the griffon copied its earlier, much shorter arc around the tower.

Heather thought she knew what the halfling intended, but as Winterdusk came out of her arc directly over top of the dragon, she realized that evasion was not the primary motive. Only when Wilkey unbound himself from the saddle did she understand how desperate and dangerous his plan was.

“I’m going to regret this,” he yelled at her, placing his feet beneath himself on the saddle in a crouching position.

Heather had just enough time to yell “No!” before the halfling leaped.

Screaming in terror, Heather watched Wilkey fall away before her. The halfling plunged with his arms and legs fanned out like a parachutist, with only an undead dragon separating him from a painful death in the swamp below.

With a small measure of relief, Heather saw Wilkey land hard on the back of the dragon, though that relief was short lived as he slid down the remaining scales toward the belly. Catching hold of the wing tendon, fully exposed by the decay that ravaged the body, he stopped his descent and pulled himself up solidly on Amadyr’s back. Crawling quickly with skill that Heather knew no human could match, the halfling made his way toward the beast’s neck.

Wilkey reached the chain and pulled his knife from his belt. The links were large, but thin, and the halfling slid the blade inside one. He twisted hard, grimacing with the effort.

Heather watched with keen interest as the dragon searched for signs of her prey, willing the chain to break. Finally, the link bent and gave way. The remaining links slid away like water to either side of the dragon’s neck, pulling the glowing green gemstone down with it. They fell down through the canopy and were lost from sight.

As the magic holding her remains together unraveled, Amadyr let out a final, terrific roar that was cut short as a large portion of her neck just beneath her lower jaw fell away. The green radiance receded, as did the phantom wing that supported her, and she began to topple out of the sky. As she fell, her body seemed to disintegrate, coming apart at every joint and every muscle. Tendons and ligaments snapped with audible relief and the entire body broke apart like a child’s model.

Sitting astride the dragon’s neck, Wilkey watched with wide-eyed terror as Amadyr broke apart. He could see the swamp approaching at shocking speed as they descended and could only close his eyes so as to not see the impact. A weightless feeling fell upon him as he thought so this is what it’s like to die.

A high-pitched shriek above him made him open his eyes, against his better judgment. A pair of taloned feet struck him hard in the back and he felt the sharp grip of Winterdusk cut deeply into his back. Ignoring the pain as best he could, he allowed the griffon to take him like a mouse captured by an owl, thankful, at least, to not be dead yet.

Below him, he watched the miscellaneous remains of Amadyr Onewing crash into the dark swamp. Pieces of bone and flesh littered the treetops in a long line out behind him and he wondered briefly where he would have landed had Winterdusk not come to his aid.

They landed in on a small hill in the middle of the swamp, the griffon dropping the halfling before touching down. Wilkey crumpled into a heap onto the soft moss and tried to catch his breath, a difficult task in the foul smelling miasma that clung to the surface and crawled up the hill like ants. The pain in his back blazed, but he was happy to be feeling anything at all. Looking back, he could not believe how brave, and stupid, a deed he had just done. The bravado surprised even himself—especially himself, now that he thought of it—and he could not help a slight smile as he pictured himself jumping onto the dragon’s back.

Heather dismounted and crouched at his side. “What the hell did you think you were doing up there?”

Wilkey heard the anger in her voice, but also the overwhelming relief that stole much of her indignation as she scolded him. She glared at him for a moment, unable to speak, then her face softened and she took a deep breath before speaking again.

“Come on, let’s get Marcus,” she said.

They mounted Winterdusk again and the griffon gave a mighty leap into the air, spinning around to fly back to the tower of bones.

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Terra Incognita—Chapter 15

I am sitting in an introductory computer science class (the things I do for credit hours!) and the instructor is going over how to add a favorite in Internet Explorer.  Sooooooo, I figure it’s a good time to jump back in to the continuing saga of Marcus and Heather.  For those of you just joining me, I am serializing the first novel manuscript I ever completed.  I started back in the fall, so if you want to start from the beginning, feel free to browse my archives.

In the meantime, here’s the next chapter.  Sorry to those who have waited so anxiously to find out what happens.  The end draweth nigh.

Chapter 15

The first thing that Marcus noticed when he awoke was the intense cold. He lay on his back and, despite the small arc of warmth radiating from a small fire he could hear crackling near him, Marcus could feel the hairs all over his body rising to slow the loss of body heat. The chill was similar to that he had felt around the bodies of the dead that he had encountered, working painfully into his joints and muscles. It clung to him like plastic wrap.

This must be what leftovers feel like in the freezer, he thought, and the idea made him chuckle slightly.

“He’s awake,” he heard Heather’s voice say.

Wilkey answered, a bit further away. “No, I think he’s just dreaming.”

“I wish he would wake up,” Heather said.

“He will. It’s just like at the border to Glenfold. He used his power and it almost killed him again,” Wilkey said.

“But why? Why is it affecting him like this? What chance do we have if he almost dies every time he does something?”

Marcus tried to speak, but his response came out as an unintelligible moan. He tried to sit up, but his joints and muscles, throbbing at rest, ignited when he attempted to set them into motion. With a deep breath, he gave up and lay still.

Opening his eyes, he saw Heather appear over him. She looked down upon him with a mixture of grief and joy, the river of tears running down in the wide ocean of her grin. Her face was pale and he thought her lips looked bluer than usual, though it was hard to focus on them with her teeth chattering behind them. Flakes of snow littered her dark hair. Marcus thought she looked beautiful.

“Are you okay?” she asked him, the concern plain in her voice. He did not know if her concern was for him or for herself or for them all and he found that he did not care. He guessed it might be a combination of all three, and that was good enough for him.

It was a long time before he could answer. His jaw opened and he tried to formulate words, but what came out was slurred and unrecognizable as human speech. Unable to speak, he nodded his head, sending white hot flashes of pain from his neck down his spine and to all points south.

He turned his gaze to the tiny fire burning nearby. Through the flame and sickly wisps of brown smoke, he could see Wilkey sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest. The halfling also looked pale, huddled against the cold and sitting so close to the fire that he might burn his toes if he stretched them to their full length. Wilkey’s eyes danced in the flickering light of the fire and Marcus could see the relief in them when he saw his friend regaining consciousness.

“I’m . . . “he tried to speak again, forming the words slowly and with great deliberation. “I’m okay. Just exhausted.”

Heather reached down with her hand and placed it on his forehead. He could see her doing this, but her skin felt strangely distant, as though she touched him through a thick glove. Still, his body seemed to recognize the contact with hers. Marcus could feel energy flowing into him, clearing his mind and loosening his taut muscles.

“You’re fever’s almost gone,” she said. “Although we need to get you out of here or it may come back.”

“Where are we? What happened after we jumped?”

Marcus replayed in his mind the last few moments in the dwarven city. He remembered the jump, the fall, the fear and then—what? Just as he became convinced they were going to die, smashed upon a stone platform in front of thousands of hostile dwarves, all went black. No, not exactly, he thought. First blue, then black. He recalled their crossing the Misteld into Glenfold and thought the blue aura that protected them from the raging river had protected them again, this time transporting them to another place. He had told them before they jumped to concentrate on the hills at the foot of the Norags where they had camped after the destruction of the inn, a place he thought they could visualize well. His objective had been to magically teleport the three of them to that spot, but that had failed. Still, simply being alive more than made up for the unexpected location.

“We’re somewhere in the Norags,” Wilkey answered. “After we jumped, I think we all blacked out. All I remember is a flash of blue light and the next thing I knew I was face down in a snow bank. You and Heather were beside me, just like we had jumped from that room, and Heather was already waking up, but you didn’t move. At first, we thought you were dead, but we found this cave pretty quick and got you inside just in case. I had to go back out to find what little firewood I could scrounge at this altitude, but I managed to find a little before the storm hit.”

When the halfling finished, Marcus found that he could hear the wind blowing outside across the opening to their shelter, moaning with icy misery. The unearthly sound made him shiver above the cold. The sudden movement sent another lance of pain through his body, but not so bad as the first.

“How long have we been here?” Marcus asked.

“Several hours, maybe a day, it’s hard to tell up here. The storm’s made it impossible for us to see what time of day it is. The snow is blinding and we can’t get outside to see if it’s day or night,” Heather said.

Marcus considered this and pondered what they should do. Obviously, they should not go into midst of a mountain snow storm, but he knew that the longer they stayed in one place, the more likely it was that the Necromancer would track them down. He wondered if the evil wizard had called on the dwarves yet and, if so, what fate had befallen Chonis.

Wilkey, staring at him from across the fire, seemed to read his mind. “When we first woke up, I heard a booming sound to the south. Then, the ground shook, like an earthquake. A few minutes later, I could see lines of smoke coming from the direction the loud noise had come from, but I lost them as the snow began to fall harder.”

Marcus imagined several different scenarios that could have produced the scene the halfling had described and all of them probably meant the total destruction of the dwarves. He felt for them, despite their hostile treatment of him and his friends while in their custody. Chonis had acted in what he thought was the best interest of his people and, as Marcus had predicted, the Necromancer had made him pay dearly. He wept inwardly for the many innocent lives that were lost, but he felt no regret for escaping. Now, with the Necromancer’s powers in full evidence, he needed to find a way to defeat him more than ever.

Rolling painfully to his side, Marcus managed to prop himself up on his elbow and look around the cave for the first time. He began to develop a strong distaste to being underground, especially after his experience in the dwarven dungeons, then their sewers, and even the cave, with light streaming in through its opening a few yards away, made him feel claustrophobic. Yes, he knew they would have to leave soon, if for no other reason than to get Marcus back into the open air.

Heather began to prepare some of the rations stored deep within Marcus’s magical pouch. They ate a cheerless meal of dried meat and stale bread, unable to tell for sure if it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner they were not enjoying. When they had eaten, Wilkey and Heather lay as close to the fire as was safe and slept while Marcus lay awake, watching the shadows dance across the ceiling. He listened as the breathing of his companions grew slower and more regular, particularly Heather’s, whose breathing he had often listened to as a cure for insomnia. Soon, though, Wilkey’s high-pitched snores blocked out the sounds of her respiration and Marcus knew he had slept enough for now. He was tired, exhausted, but his brain now ran wild trying to find a solution to this newest problem—how to get out of the Norags before they froze to death or were discovered.

When he felt confident that the other two were sleeping soundly, he struggled to his feet. The pain in his muscles and joints, combined with the dreary cold seeping into his body, made the task an experiment in agony, but he stood anyway. The longer he lay on the hard stone floor, he knew, the longer it would take to lose the pain threatening to claim his consciousness. The process took nearly fifteen minutes and when he at last stretched to his full height he was gasping for breath and supporting himself with a trembling hand pressed against the cold stone wall. He closed his eyes to avoid watching the cave spin before them and only when he felt the nausea that swept through him subside did he open them again.

He could see the opening to the cave a long ten yards distant and slowly made his way toward it, bracing himself against the wall to keep from pitching forward. Every step sent flames of pain up from his feet to his head. He was forced to stop and rest three times along the way, waiting for the ache to lessen enough for him to continue while catching his breath that blew in and out in short, shallow puffs.

When he reached the opening of the cave, he could see the snow falling down outside, but not much else beyond the blanket of white. It was apparently daytime—a dull gray light filled in the spaces between the snowflakes and Marcus watched the shifting, swirling curtain as it fell almost sideways in the fierce wind. He tried to train his eyes on individual dots of white as they soared past, but he could follow none for more than a second or two as they flowed around each other like drops of water in a great river.

His thoughts turned to Lorelei and he wondered what fate had befallen her with the dwarves. If the dwarven city had been destroyed, as Wilkey seemed to think it had, then was Lorelei destroyed with it, crushed in some cell similar to the one he had found himself in. Perhaps, he thought, she was already dead before the fall of the city, even before he himself awoke in the dungeons. He knew the dwarves held the elves in the utmost contempt and would not tolerate any violating their borders, but they were not an evil race who would kill one on sight, or so he thought.

The thoughts of Lorelei, aside from worrying him, made him feel guilty, as well. The beautiful elven maiden deserved more than unrequited love from a human, but had followed him, he knew, in order to see if there was more, to make him be absolutely sure it was Heather, and not her, that he truly wanted to be with. She had offered herself to him as a girl and was prepared to do it again as a woman, but he instead led her off to be captured by dwarves and possibly killed.

Still, a voice inside him said that Lorelei had not been killed by the dwarves. His instinct told him clearly that she had managed to escape her captors, but perhaps had not had the time or the ability to come looking for him. He did not begrudge her that, though, he had not had the time to search for her either, although he guessed that some part of him even then recognized that to search for someone who had already escaped would be a waste of valuable time. He could not identify the source of that feeling, but it was strong and gave him some peace of mind as he gazed out at the wintery gale.

Marcus could not say how long her watched the snow falling outside the cave. The scene was tranquil and he smiled. For a while, he forgot his pain, his weariness, his frustration, his fear and stared blankly into the falling white mass that seemed to pulse with life with every gust of wind. He felt he could have watched their hypnotic dance forever and been perfectly happy the entire time. He did not notice his feet edging closer to the snow that piled up near the cave entrance, nor the white flecks that began to appear on his robes before melting from his body heat. The swirling waves drew him closer and closer, finally drawing him into the wind. Marcus wheeled about slowly, looking all around with wide eyes as the storm consumed him. He walked into its depths, mindless of the cold and the wetness that began to seep through to his skin. Unable to see even his feet in the snow beneath him, Marcus had the sensation that he was flying, adrift on the gale like a dandelion seed. Part of him, a small part, told him that he was risking his life by trekking into the fury of winter, but that thin, cautionary voice was drowned by a larger, stronger voice of delight telling him to press on and enjoy the spectacle around him.

He moved onward, he feet carrying him where they willed through the snow now piled up to his knees. He did not fear falling from some high precipice, nor of the storm dislodging rocks from above to crush him. The only real, but irrational, fear that he felt was that the storm would end, leaving him with only a memory of its beauty.

The wind moved him on for some time, though how long he could not tell any more than he could tell where he was going. The ground beneath his feet swelled and receded like gently rolling hills and he had no trouble keeping his footing, even in the icy environment. All around him the white river flowed and carried him downstream toward some unknown destination, some place where he was meant to go, some place where he would find what he was looking for.

Marcus passed between two high rocks and finally found something to look at besides the snow. Though their detail was hard to make out, Marcus could see pictures etched into the otherwise smooth surfaces of the stones. Marcus studied these closer and saw that one picture depicted the rising sun, its upper hemisphere appearing over the horizon and casting rays of light that looked like eyelashes. The other drawing showed a tree rising up from the ground and spreading its leaves in a wide arc.

As he walked beyond the two etched stones, the snow and the wind suddenly ceased. Looking back, he could still see the storm raging behind him, but it could not penetrate the opening between the stones. The silence left in place of the howling wind seemed just as loud to Marcus, who stood in awe watching the flakes fly toward him, then disappear as though they had never been. Soon, however, the silence was replaced by another sound, faint at first, but rising slowly to the call the attention of his mind. Music, tinkling and random like wind chimes, came from before him.

A short, snow-covered path led away from the etched stones and Marcus followed it, hearing the chimes grow more distinct with every step. The path was narrow between the rock walls, but overhead he could still see the river of snow as it flowed over him, not a flake falling down to him. He wondered idly how the path itself became covered with snow if none could penetrate whatever force lay around this area, but the gentle music quickly put such concerns out of his mind.

He continued on, the trail sloping gradually down before opening into a wide, bowl-shaped depression in the rock. The ground here was also covered with brilliant white snow, despite the fact that no snow fell here, as with the path leading to it. The wall forming it seemed perfectly smooth, though no etchings had been done here. Above the walls, Marcus could still see the blowing snow, though here it was swirling in a mighty vortex, a dazzling tornado of glittering white that rose into the heavens beyond his vision. The most remarkable thing about the basin, though was not the walls or the snow above, but the person sitting in the middle.

A figure, dressed head to toe in plain white robes, sat upon a stone bench, its head bent low as if in prayer. At first, Marcus thought it must be a statue or, worse, someone who have come here and frozen to death. It did not move as he took another step forward, but Marcus knew instinctively that it was indeed alive. He could feel life pulsing out from it like waves of heat, though no such warmth was needed here. Despite the snow lying all around him, the basin was not the least bit cold.

Across from the robed figure, another stone bench sat empty. Marcus moved forward, his eyes watching the other every moment, looking for some sign of movement, even a muscle twitch beneath the robes. He saw none, but the feeling of great life and great energy seemed more powerful to him as he took a seat on the empty bench. He looked across the distance, trying to see into the lowered hood, but still could see no detail even a few short feet away. He was reminded of the Necromancer, but the forces here did not feel malevolent. Rather, he thought, the figure before him made him feel calm and content.

“Who are you?” Marcus asked. He whispered the question, but the words bounced off the walls as though he had yelled them, gaining strength as they rose up into the vortex of snow.

At last, the figure raised its head. The hood fell back revealing long, white tresses of hair flowing down around a beautiful female face. Penetrating eyes the color of tropical seas looked up at him, tiny crows feet etched in their corners. Beneath those glittering orbs, a delicate nose hung over full pink lips, slightly parted in a demure smile. The woman’s skin was remarkably pale, almost as white as the snow around her, and completely unblemished save by the thin lines around her eyes.

“I am someone who wishes you to succeed, Marcus,” the woman said. At least, Marcus heard her say it. At no point, however, did he see her lips move to articulate the sounds. He realized that the woman had spoken not out loud for any and all to hear, but directly into his mind. A sudden, protective thought entered his brain.

“Can you read my mind?” he asked.

“I could if I wished, but that is not why I am here,” the woman replied. Her voice was rich and smooth, a bit higher than that of Amadyr, but possessed of the same authority and power. “I am here to help you.”

“How can you help?”

“I can tell you how to get your powers back, powers you will need to defeat the Necromancer,” she answered.

The woman’s tone did not change in her responses and she continued to look upon Marcus with a watery mixture of interest and amusement. He wondered how the woman knew he would be here, or if she had summoned him herself. Already he was forgetting the pull he felt to enter the snow storm, but for now that impulse still remained clearly enough in his mind for him to realize that he was not at fault for journeying out into such a hostile climate.

“Who are you?” Marcus ventured to ask again. He wished to know who he was dealing with before he accepting any assistance, even from someone he felt sure would be able to help him. He desperately wished to regain his powers—he had seen enough of the Necromancer’s forces to want to leave him alone—but he still decided to proceed with caution.

“I am Terra,” the woman said. “I am the land and the sea and the air. I am all things of this world.”

Marcus blinked in amazement. He had expected perhaps some wizard unknown to him before. He had expected some holy person, acting on the behalf of some god or goddess to assist him in his quest. Instead, he was getting divine intervention from the land itself in the form of this goddess. The fact humbled him and he fell to his knees before her out of confused respect. While he had never held much stock in religion, coming face to face with an eternal being, someone he could reach out and touch if courage allowed, made him feel small and insignificant.

“Do not prostrate yourself before me, I am not worthy of worship. I am no goddess, as you believe, only an embodiment of the rocks, water, and life you see around you,” Terra said mildly. “All I ask is respect from those who live within my boundaries and that is why I have summoned you. The Necromancer has violated the laws I have set down and now he had grown too powerful for me to stop alone. His power nearly rivals mine now. His ability to destroy outweighs mine to create. That is why I brought you here and why I wish to help you.”

Marcus returned slowly to his seat on the stone bench. He still looked at Terra with awe, but he was now listening to her every word, knowing she would provide him with the answers that he had not received already.

“What do I need to do?” he asked. “Amadyr told me I would have to sacrifice Heather to regain my powers, but that is too difficult for me to do. I nearly lost her to the dwarves and nearly died getting her back. I cannot give her up—I love her too much—even if it means leaving you and yours to your fates.”

When Marcus finished, he could not believe the word had actually come from his mouth. Still, they reflected his true feelings and he knew somehow that Terra would know if he began lying to her. The best thing he could do, he thought, was lay everything out and let her decide what should be done. He would not sacrifice Heather, even if that meant he and everyone in this land died as well.

He expected Terra to look angry or, at best, disappointed. Instead, the ageless face grinned wider. “What Amadyr told you is not entirely accurate, nor is it entirely false. That is the way with a good lie—it is a house of straw built upon a solid foundation.”

Marcus jumped at her implication. “Then you mean . . . Heather doesn’t have to die for me to save everyone . . . and you.”

Marcus added the last part as an afterthought, but the idea seemed right to him. Some intuition told him that Terra’s involvement had less to do with saving those in her land as with saving the land, herself, from the Necromancer. As evil swept over, and death consumed all under the reign of the evil wizard, the land would die as well. Terra would die if Marcus could not find a way to victory.

“Heather does not have to die,” Terra confirmed. “Although there is no way for you to use your powers while she is here. She must leave this land before your powers will be restored.”

“Why?”

“When the two of you came through the cave,” Terra said, “she was the first one to reach the other side. While you lingered in the space between the two worlds, she passed through more quickly and when she did, the powers that you once owned were bestowed upon her.”

Marcus paused to allow this idea to seep into his mind. If what Terra was saying was true, and Marcus had no reason to doubt that is was, then Heather had possessed the powers, his powers, all along without being aware of it. While she may have felt the energy flowing through her, she would not have registered its meaning without having felt it before entering the cave.

One question rose from this realization. “If she had the magic with her, in her, then how was I able to protect us from the Misteld? And how was I able to teleport us here? How could I do those things without magic?”

Terra continued to smile. “You did not do those things,” she said, her voice sounding like a patient parent speaking to a curious child. “Or rather, you did not do them alone. You were able to cast the magic necessary to save your lives, but in both cases, you were making physical contact with Heather. That contact served as a bridge between her power and your will, enabling you to perform those feats. You served as a conduit to cast the spells and that is why after each you suffered such exhaustion. You were performing magic your body said you had no reason to be performing. The most your body would allow on it own was the small tongue of flame that you have been able to produce since your return.”

Marcus leaned back on the bench and nearly fell off the other side. Looking back on their journey, everything Terra said made sense. All the pieces to the puzzle fell neatly into place and for the first time since realizing he could not reach his powers on his own, he saw a real glimmer of hope at the end of their quest. Relief washed over him like the heavy drifts of snow that were forming outside the small basin where he and Terra sat. Armed with the truth, he felt he could now go forward and at least attempt to defeat the Necromancer.

“I have to get Heather back to the cave,” he said, more to himself than to Terra. She sat across from him, unmoving, still wearing the same smile as he assimilated the information she was giving him into a solid plan. “I have to send her back home and then, then my powers will be restored to me.”

He looked up at Terra for some confirmation that this theory was correct. She nodded and Marcus stood up, immediately ready to set off. Terra, however, raised her hand, the skin of her palm and long fingers the same pale color as her face.

“I must give you two warnings before you go,” she said. “First, you must know that the cave will be guarded now. The Necromancer knows of your dilemma and will stop at nothing to keep you from reaching that cave with Heather.”

Marcus had already thought of this possibility, but knew there was no help for it. He would either gain the cave and get Heather through alive or die trying.

“Second,” Terra continued, “when you do face the Necromancer, you will find more than just his dark magic opposing you. You will find your own emotions working against you, but you must set those aside or be lost. While you may wish for another outcome, the truth dictates that only one outcome is possible—you or he must die.”

“What do you mean? Why would I not want him to die?”

“You will learn soon enough. For now, time grows short and you must take Heather back to the cave before it is too late. Already, Lanian lay upon his deathbed, unwilling to give up life until you have succeeded in fulfilling your promise to him and to his people, but his time too grows short and death may not wait for you to defeat the Necromancer,” Terra said.

Marcus stared at her. He wanted to ask her many more questions, to barrage her with them until they were all answered, but he knew that such an exercise would be a waste of valuable time and Terra would likely not answer anyway. Instead, he bowed to her, feeling awkward doing so, and started back up the path toward the etched stones.

“Remember what I said, Marcus,” Terra called after him. “Do not allow your emotions to cloud your responsibility.”

Turning back to face her, he nodded and watched as she disappeared before his eyes.

Walking back up the snow-covered path, Marcus felt significantly better knowing he would not have to choose between the death of the countless denizens of this land and the death of the woman he loved, but he remained troubled by the cryptic warning given him by the mysterious entity. He understood his responsibility as well as anyone could, he supposed, and could think of nothing that might distract him from his quest. He tried to think of any scenario that might do just that and could think of none aside from losing Heather, although if that happened, there would be no point in defeating the Necromancer.

Thinking of Heather brought another disconcerting thought to his mind, one that was as hard to get his hands around as the warning Terra had given him. When he had read the letter sent by Erasmus, his instinct told him that he needed Heather to join him when he returned to this other world, to help him succeed against the Necromancer. Now, though, he wondered how he could have been so wrong. Thus far, the only thing Heather had been good for was depriving him of the powers that should have been his. Granted, they had come a long way towards reconciliation, for which Marcus was grateful, but that did not prevent him from feeling a pang of anger toward her. The feeling was dim, but undeniable. He felt cheated by his instinct telling him to bring her and by the powers that decided to bestow themselves on her rather than waiting for their true master.

When he reached the top of the path and the etched stones, he saw that the snow storm had all but blown itself out. Flakes still fell, some appearing as large as saucers, in the beautiful Christmas card style that Marcus had seen often since moving to the Appalachians. He could not remember the route he had taken to the etched stones, but he could still see his tracks in the snow. The footprints were partially filled in, but the regular indentions in the otherwise virgin snow still gave him a solid direction in which to head.

As he made his way back to the cave where he hoped Heather and Wilkey still slept, he began laying the foundations of his plans to first get to the cave. Terra was right, of course, the cave would be guarded, the Necromancer knowing by now as well as Marcus where his enemies would head. He asked himself, and not for the first time, how much the Necromancer really knew about him and how he had come by the knowledge. He at least knew some of his past, having killed Erasmus to draw him in, but he seemed to know not only where they were at all times, but where they were going. The red eyes watching him before they entered Glenfold, the attack at the inn, the dwarves—even the dwarves taking Heather had been instrumented by the Necromancer, yet the evil wizard had yet to make a personal appearance. This fact jagged against the inner workings of Marcus’s mind like a wrong note in a piano concerto. Considering the power the Necromancer had displayed thus far, why had he not simply appeared before them and slain them all where they stood? Knowing where they were and where they were going, why had he not met them before Glenfold, at the cave even? He had even known of Marcus’s progress before he had entered the cave, as evidenced by the vision he had sent at the Opryland Hotel.

Marcus felt he knew the answer, but that answer seemed to go against everything he had seen thus far. He presented the only real threat to the Necromancer’s plan, but so far he felt like just another pawn on a massive chessboard. He felt like he was being played with and he desperately wanted to know why.

Arriving at the cave, Marcus entered and found Wilkey and Heather just rising from their sleep. They both looked at him with bleary eyes, surprised to see him up and moving so soon after nearly dying from the spell that teleported them to the top of this mountain. Heather glanced up to the white flakes suspended in Marcus’s hair and raised her eyebrows in a questioning expression.

“I went for a walk,” Marcus explained.

Wilkey nodded and began adding a few sticks to the depleted fire, but Heather narrowed her eyes.

“A walk to where?” she asked.

Marcus debated over whether to tell them the whole strange tale of his conversation with the spiritual embodiment of this world and eventually decided that he would offer them an edited version. Having a successful career in retail management, he knew how to control the flow of information, separating what others needed to know and what they did not. He told them of the snow storm, the majority of the conversation with Terra.. He did not share, however, the questions that still danced in his mind. He gave them what they needed to know without adding the parts that would worry them more than they already were.

“There is one more thing I need to tell you,” Marcus said after he finished recounting the tale of his trek through the snow. “I know why my powers aren’t working.”

Both Heather and Wilkey stared at him with wide eyes, waiting for him to continue. They had traveled a long way to find this piece of information, and now they held their breaths hoping for some easy solution that would allow them a chance, however small, at victory.

“I don’t have my powers,” Marcus continued, “because you have them.”

He looked at Heather, who stared blankly at him.

“Do you understand me?” he asked her. “You were the first through the cave, so you received the power.”

Heather continued to stare. Marcus could not decide whether she had not heard him or whether she could not understand what she was hearing. He was just about to repeat the question when she blinked and opened her mouth to speak. She gaped at him, trying to form the words.

“What are you talking about?” she finally managed to whisper.

“When you emerged from the cave first, the land or whatever grants those powers granted them to you. It couldn’t recognize me from anyone else, so it gave them to you. You’ve had them since we arrived here,” Marcus explained.

Heather shook her head. “That’s not possible. How did you save us at the river? How did you magic us up here away from the dwarves? I couldn’t do those things.”

“You did do them,” Marcus said. “Well, not completely. I actually did the spells, but I had to draw the magic out of you. That’s why I was so exhausted after the spells.”

Heather’s head continued to move side to side. “There’s no way—“

“Look,” Marcus interrupted, “I know the idea sounds crazy, but it’s the only solution that makes any sense with what’s happened. Now, we can either argue about this and wait for the Necromancer to find us or we can figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

Marcus heard his own voice raise as he finished speaking, but could not keep the note of impatience from his words. Whether Heather believed him or not, he knew, was irrelevant. What mattered was that they left the freezing cave where they now sat and returned to their quest before it was too late.

Leaving the cave, they stepped out into the snow and for the first time since waking, Marcus took a look around to figure out where they were. He tried first to find the prints he had left on his return from his conversation with Terra, but could only see pristine snow leading out from the cave. Not enough snow had fallen since his return to vanish them completely, he thought, but he had nonetheless expected them to be gone. He knew years of searching would not allow him to find those etched stones or the basin with the two stone benches in its middle. Terra had created that place just for him and now that their talk had ended, she had uncreated it just as easily.

They stood in a snowy pass that was high up in the mountains, but not as near the top as he had initially thought. Above them, they could see the cliff over the cave they had just left rising into thick white clouds. Another rock wall rose before them, also disappearing into the clouds above, forming a pass they could take left or right. Marcus was unable to see the sun to determine the time, nor could he see the lands to either side of the mountains, but he remembered Wilkey’s report of what he had seen when they arrived.

“Where did you see that smoke?” he asked the halfling.

The halfling pointed toward the right, but diagonally so that his finger indicated the stone cliff before them. “Over that way I think. It was just before we entered the cave with you so I’m sure that’s right.”

“How sure?”

“Almost completely,” Wilkey answered, but his voice revealed the doubt that hid behind the words.

They followed the path to the right, having no better means of determining their location. The pass began as a simple, flat plateau of snow-covered rock, but soon they found themselves walking carefully up a gradually steeper grade. The thick blanket of powder made the going slow and treacherous. Rocks, hidden by the snow, seemed to leap up at regular intervals and bash their shins or threaten to turn their ankles. They all fell several times, including once when Wilkey nearly fell through a crevasse in the rock before being pulled to safety by Marcus. From then on, they walked single file, Marcus in the lead, so as to minimize the risk of such unforeseen dangers.

After an hour of toiling through the snow, they emerged atop a crest that looked out from the range to the lands beyond. A sea of reds and golds and greens greeted their eyes and Marcus thanked his good fortune for allowing them to choose the correct path toward the friendly lands of Glenfold, thought he elven lands still lay many miles away.

They continued on, the slope now pointing down and becoming even more hazardous than when they had trudged up to the crest. Footing was especially hard to maintain with gravity working against them as they stepped from slippery rock to slippery rock. Now when they fell, the often rolled or slid some distance before stopping, cutting out the legs from anyone who may be ahead. After a while, they began sliding down the slope on their backsides, rather than ending up there accidentally, but even their controlled progress was difficult the icy rocks offered little purchase for their hands and feet.

Marcus slid down ahead of the others, so he was first to see the slope ahead falling away in a steep wall. Despite noticing the drop off several yards before reaching it, he still had a difficult time stopping his momentum so that he would not topple over the edge. The others did not see the danger as quickly. Their responses came later, but they had less problem halting the motion of the smaller bodies than did Marcus, who looked out from their perch and wondered what to do next.

“We could teleport down,” Wilkey offered. “Like we did with the dwarves.”

Marcus shook his head. “We don’t have time to wait while I recover again.”

He looked at Heather, studying her for a moment. She looked like she was half asleep, as though she still considered this whole adventure to be nothing but an elaborate dream. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up at him and gave thin smile.

“What?” she asked, embarrassed by the intensity of his gaze.

Marcus did not answer. Instead, he continued to study Heather, wondering if he could show her how to use the magic that he now knew to be inside her. Could he explain to her how it worked, for him, anyway, and then expect her to use it to get them off the side of this mountain?

He decided that if there was to be any magical training for Heather, it would be when they were safely on solid ground. Now was not the time to see if she could harness the powers to do something useful, not when their lives depended on her success. He searched his memory to see what sort of instruction there had been for him, what lessons he had learned to use the magic when it resided with him, and could remember none. His knowledge of those powers and how to use them had been natural to him, as much so as breathing, and if Heather did not feel them and understand them in the same fashion, he was not going to stake their lives on her learning in a few minutes.

“What we really need now are the griffons,” Wilkey said, looking over at the long drop below where they sat.

Marcus looked at Heather again, this time grinning. “Maybe we can contact them,” he said. “Heather, I want you to try to picture the griffons, right where we left them, and try to project your will upon them. Tell them you want them to fly to us and carry us back to Glenfold.”

Heather’s expression at this suggestion changed from wary confusion to open disbelief. “You want me to do some ESP crap and get the griffons to fly up here? Are you out of your mind?”

“No, but I want you to be out of yours,” Marcus said. “If you don’t do it, we’re likely to be stuck up here a long time if we’re lucky and dead down there,” he pointed over the drop, “if we’re not.”

Heather kept her face contorted in her disagreeable way, but offered no further verbal resistance. She seemed to measure Marcus for a while, then laughed.

“You’re serious about this,” she said.

Marcus felt his impatience rising again, but swallowed it down with some effort. “Unless you want to die on this mountain, you need to at least try. I could try to do it for you, but if it didn’t work, I’d probably be unconscious again and if we’re still up here at nightfall, we’ll probably not have to worry about the Necromancer unless he comes along and raises our limp bodies.”

The image of some evil wizard animating her body after she died, doing whatever he liked with it, broke through Heather’s defenses like a battering ram. Marcus watched as the color drained from her face and her eyebrows dropped to their normal position above her chocolate eyes. A shiver Marcus knew to be unrelated to the cold began at the base of her spine and rose to her neck

“I don’t think it will work,” she said, “ but I’ll try.”

Heather closed her eyes and Marcus held his breath. He wondered how much effort she would actually put into the process of contacting the griffons, but he soon let go of his fear as he saw her brows come together in a tight knot from her concentration. Her face contorted as though she was in pain and remained that way for several seconds before she relaxed, the lines on her forehead smoothing gradually. She grinned and her mouth opened slightly in what looked like a mixture of glee and surprise.

“I found them,” she whispered. “I’m going to try to communicate with them.”

Several more seconds of silence followed during which she assumed her countenance of concentration again, straining to do something she really did not believe she was doing. Her mouth tightened and her eyes clenched even harder.

“Come on,” she said, her voice urging and insistent. “Come on.”

Marcus watched and waited. Part of him still felt jaded that she was using his powers, or at least what he thought of as his powers, but watching her overcome her doubt and use that power to communicate with beasts miles away made him feel proud. He though of how she had laughed at him as they drove along I-40 in Tennessee, how she had ridiculed him for his belief in the world that now lay all around them. He wondered what that old, skeptical Heather would think of this new one trying to telepathically contact mythical beasts. The idea made him smile.

Heather’s face contorted a final time as though it was trying to collapse in upon itself, then cleared. A wide smile rose on her face. She looked very proud of herself.

“They’re coming,” she said. “I told them we would go back to Feldem and they agreed to carry us back to Glenfold.”

“That’s good,” Marcus said. “We’ll just wait here for them.”

Wilkey laughed. “Good idea, since we have nowhere else to go.”

The three of them sat huddled together near the top of the drop off and waited for the griffons, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts. Finally, Wilkey stood and, dusting the snow off himself, told Marcus and Heather that he was going to walk around to get his blood pumping again. Marcus watched the halfling walk with some difficulty through the snow.

“I’m sorry,” Heather said beside him. The words were completely unexpected and Marcus looked at her in confusion for a moment before his mind registered that she was indeed apologizing. “I’m sorry for . . . for not believe you . . . about all this.”

Marcus felt at a loss for words. His hope for this quest, besides stopping the Necromancer, was to repair his relationship with Heather. He felt confident that he had done that, even if they might not live long enough to enjoy it, but he imagined that if any apologies were to take place, they would be his directed to her. Instead, sitting huddled in deep snow atop a mountain, she was apologizing to him. It was far more than he could hope for, but made him feel warm inside anyway, regardless of the cold air surrounding them.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last, putting his arm around her shoulders. “I’m sorry for being a workaholic jerk and not treating you the way you deserve to be treated.”
He pulled her close and she did not resist. He thought he knew what that meant, but he wanted verbal assurance.

“So, do you forgive me? Enough to try again?”

She sat silent for a full minute. Each second caused Marcus’s heart to beat more frantically, sure that she was going to refuse him again in spite of everything they had been through since passing through the cave. Finally, she nestled closer to him, resting her head on his chest.

“I never really wanted to let you go,” she said. “I just wanted to get your attention. I sat at Tanya’s apartment and cried all night after you left.”

Marcus thought back on the night when he had driven to try to talk with her and had talked with her best friend instead, the night he had received the letter from Erasmus that led them here. That night seemed to be from another life and, looking at the multicolored forest that stretched far below them toward a land populated with elves, he supposed it was.

“Do you think we’ll make it back?” she asked. “I know we haven’t finished what we need to do here and that it’s only going to get more dangerous than it already has been, but do you think we’ll win?”

Marcus considered for a moment, then, knowing Heather must be feeling the same way he had felt when he asked if she forgave him, answered.

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t know how just yet, but I do know we’ll win. We’re meant to win.”

“What do you think she meant about not letting your emotions get in the way of stopping the Necromancer?” she asked, referring to his conversation with Terra. Her voice was muffled as she buried her face into his chest for warmth. “Do you think it has something to do with me?”

“I don’t know,” Marcus answered. In truth, he had wondered the same thing to himself and could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. He had no idea how his emotions for Heather could affect his desire to defeat the evil force that threatened this land unless the Necromancer captured her and he was made to choose, as Amadyr had said, between Heather’s life and the lives of everyone in Terra. The embodiment of Terra had told him, though, that he would not have to make that choice so he looked for other possibilities and saw none.

Marcus looked at her and reached into a pocket of his robes. When his hand came out, it was holding the small silver ornament he had taken from the Necromancer’s lackey in the pub in Yellow Banks when they first set out on there quest. Upon closer inspection, Heather could see the thing was vaguely oval in shape with a gemstone of some sort that she could not identify in the center. The stone resembled a cat’s eye, deep yellow with a black line down the middle. Holding it out, he wrapped the chain around Heather’s neck and secured it.

“What’s this?” she asked.

Marcus withdrew his hands slowly, caressing the smooth skin of her neck. “It’s something to help keep you safe. Cover the cat’s eye with your hand and see what happens.”

Heather did as Marcus asked and at first could tell no difference. Slowly, an odd sensation like gooseflesh began roving over the surface of her skin, beginning at first at her breastbone beneath the ornament and gradually extending over the entire surface of her body. Still, she could tell no immediate change and looked at Marcus blankly.

“What’s it supposed to do?”

“Look down at yourself,” Marcus said with an amused grin.

Heather did and gasped. Looking down, she expected to see herself shivering in her light clothing. Instead, she saw only an imprint in the snow where she sat.

“I’m . . . “ she began, but could not finish the thought.

“Invisible,” Marcus finished for her. “Just cover that thing up and no one will be able to see you.”
Marcus questioned his own words as soon as he spoke them. He knew most normal people would not be able to see her, but would the Necromancer? With his array of magical resources, would he be able to penetrate the magic of the cat’s eye? He could not say for sure, but he decided not to trouble Heather with such concerns until it was necessary.

“They’re here!” Wilkey called from a few yards away. The halfing was scrambling through the path he had previously made in the snow and pointing to the sky. “The griffons are here! Let’s get off this damn rock and get somewhere warm.”

The griffons landed, their taloned feet finding easy purchase even in the thick snow, and eyed them casually. Winterdusk scanned the ledge and gave a loud cry. The sound reverberated off the cliffs and caused Marcus to look up, wary of the possibility of an avalanche.

Ruffling her mottled feathers, Winterdusk walked around sniffing the snow, even peering out over the drop, Marcus knew, for Lorelei. Ever faithful to her master, the griffon sat on her haunches and would not rise so Marcus and the others could ride her to safety.

“Leave her then,” Wilkey said. “The three of us can get back on Aspen and Sunbeam.”

Marcus considered this idea, then dismissed it. He doubted the elves would look favorably on them losing Lorelei, even if she was not dead, but to leave one of their precious mounts would compound matters more than Marcus wanted.

“Heather, try to talk to her and explain that Lorelei is fine and will hopefully meet us in Glenfold,” he said.

“You want me to lie?” she asked.

“No, we don’t know if it’s a lie or not, but it may be the only way for us to get her home.”

Heather looked at Marcus for a moment, shrugged, and closed her eyes. She reached out toward Winterdusk with her hand, not quite touching the mottled feathers. The griffon turned her head toward Heather as though the woman had said something. Marcus supposed she had, although the only one who could hear it was the griffon herself. Finally, Heather opened her eyes.

“She says she’ll do it,” Heather said. “Although she still doesn’t like the idea.”

“I don’t care if she likes it or not, as long as she does it,” Marcus said.

Within a few minutes, the three of them were seated upon the griffons and flying toward the cave and whatever danger lay before it.

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Happy New Year

It’s 2013 and I am still on hiatus from writing.  For those of you who are just tuning in, I decided to take a break from writing fiction a year and a half ago to go back to school so I may get a better job to support me and my family, thus enabling me to write again.  So, to all of you who hoped I’d be posting more writing-related stuff on here this year, I’m afraid you must prepare to be disappointed.  I can’t say that I won’t post something here and there, but I don’t see a sudden year-long flurry in my writing-related posts when I don’t have the writing to talk about.

It it helps, you’re not the only ones waiting.

There is a memory device known as the method of loci.  It’s been around since ancient Greek and Roman times, but it still shows up today in pop culture, from Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris to the BBC incarnation of Sherlock.  Method of loci is sometimes called the “palace of the mind”, as it involves the mental construction of a visual environment in which the thinker may store memories by linking them to a physical, even imagined, location.  This is particularly well-described by Harris as Hannibal Lecter’s mental palace is an elaborate, decorated structure in tune with everything we know about the fictional serial killer.

I’m not so talented as Hannibal Lecter with his sprawling mental palace.  I have a mental diner.  It’s where the characters from my stories hang out when they’re not being called to duty in my fiction.

A young man sits at a table by the window.  A tattoo in the shape of a sword hilt is barely visible on his chest above the open top of his white shirt.  A beautiful dark-haired woman clings to his arm, occasionally casting wary glances at the demon sitting at the bar who stares at her with a immovable grin.

A few stools down from the demon, a man in all-black attire types away at a laptop and pointedly ignores the caped figure in the corner booth, giving an interview to several adoring reporters in the corner booth.

An older man sits near the door.  His leathery face matches his worn cowboy boots and he absently rubs his Colt revolver with one hand and the silver cross tied around his neck with the other.  The shot of tequila in front of him is untouched.

Another older man sits in the back of the diner.  Propped up next to him is a large box wrapped in thick chains.  Occasionally, something inside causes the box to rock violently and the man looks upon it with tear-filled eyes.

A young girl sits at a table by another window.  She sings quietly to herself while a dozen or so bees swirl around her head.

Near the door to the kitchen, a wizard sits staring at a picture of his terminally-ill mother as electricity crackles between his fingers.

An elf sits at the end of the bar.  His head rests on the worn, polished wood and he snores too loudly for someone so small.  A half-finished glass of milk rests in front of him next to police badge.

Finally, Santa Claus sits in the middle of the room.  His hands shake as he pops a couple of Xanax and lights a cigarette.  A highball glass and a bottle of Maker’s Mark sit in front of him and he jerks violently in surprise at the smallest noise.

Other characters come and go, but these are the regulars.  They are they stalwarts—the ideas that are strong enough that they just won’t leave my head, even when I know I won’t be able to work on them for some time.  They sit and dine and drink, sometimes watching the news on the television above the bar.  Occasionally, one will take a restroom break or make a phone call to someone on the outside.

And, like you, they wait.

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Tales of Christmas Present–The Christmas Fare

Again, I have fallen short of my goal of producing three new Christmas stories this year.  This disappoints me as I’ve had a few weeks since school ended in which to work, but those weeks seemed to be more hectic than usual, even for someone who manages a large retail store at the holidays and I have, again, failed.  I would eventually like to put these and a number of other Christmas stories in an anthology with the “nice” stories on one side and the “naughty” stories on the other.  That, however, will require me to write a bunch more.

Maybe some day.

In the meantime, here is the one I sorta finished.  I didn’t really have a chance to polish it much, so I apologize for any ugly writing.

Lastly, I would like to wish anyone reading this a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

(Author’s Note:  You can follow the exact route taken in this story, and see everything mentioned, on Google StreetView.  Every landmark mentioned is really there.  My apologies to anyone (read Jennifer) who thinks it’s too heavy handed—I just ran out of time.)

The Christmas Fare

“Merry Christmas,” Jimmy said as his passengers stepped out of the cab. They smiled and waved at him through the window as they started up the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue. Bundled against the blowing snow, they walked briskly away, the man and the woman each holding one of the little girl’s hands as they disappeared into the night.

Jimmy pocketed the cash they gave him, including a generous tip, into the inside pocket of his coat. While he was parked, he checked the back seat to make sure the small family hadn’t left anything. Passengers were always leaving something behind and he didn’t relish the idea of chasing them down in this weather at the end of his shift.

Aside from a few wet footprints on the floorboard, the seat was empty and clean, the shine from the Armor-All he sprayed on it that morning still relatively intact despite eight hours of butts sliding in and out. Jimmy took meticulous care of his cab, inside and out, and he valued the days he didn’t have to clean out spilled Starbucks or pools of vomit. On those days, he would spend hours scooping, cleaning, disinfecting, and returning the interior of his cab to its regular, pristine condition. A clean cab was a profitable cab, he knew, and no one in all of New York had a cleaner cab than Jimmy Barnes.

Tonight, he was especially glad to have little maintenance to do to the cab. It was Christmas and, even if he did have to spend it at the hospital, he wanted to be with his daughter.

He flipped off his duty light and prepared to pull out onto Fifth when the back door opened. Sighing in frustration, he turned to tell the passenger that his shift had just ended, but that he could call another cab to…

A man sat in his back seat. Wearing a familiar red suit and a long, white beard, he looked at Jimmy with bloodshot eyes, a ragged bag and a belt lined with tiny brass bells in beside him on the seat. Drunk, Jimmy thought, but something in the man’s steady gaze made him doubt his gut. Regardless, he couldn’t tell a guy dressed up in a Santa suit to get out of his cab.

“Where to, Santa?” Jimmy asked.

“LaGuardia,” the man said, barely above a whisper.

Jimmy nodded, turned on the meter, and pulled out onto Fifth. He drove along in silence for a few blocks, but when he turned onto 79th, he couldn’t help himself.

“LaGuardia, huh? Taking a plane back to the North Pole.”

In the dark cab, Jimmy couldn’t see the man, but he heard a weary chuckle from the back seat.

“Something like that,” the man said.

Jimmy stopped at the light at Madison. Light traffic, mostly cabs like his, splashed through the slush in front of him. New York had seen its first white Christmas in several years and, while it was good for the season, the five or six inches of snow had kept millions of hearty New Yorkers at home with their glasses of eggnog rather than braving the elements. His business, the cab business thrived in such weather, though, so he didn’t mind.

Glancing in his rear view mirror, Jimmy could see the man in the back seat. He slouched against the door, his weary gaze seeming to stare into the darkened windows of Serafina.

“You okay, buddy?” Jimmy asked as the light turned green and he crossed Madison.

The man seemed to snap out of some deep thought and looked at Jimmy. From the glow of the streetlights, muted by the falling snow, he could see the man smile, the corners of his white moustache turning upward.

“Yes,” he said. “Just a little tired. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“None of us are, my friend. None of us are.” Jimmy caught the yellow light and turned left onto Park Avenue. “I guess I’d be tired, too, if I had delivered toys all around the world last night.”

Again the man chuckled, a deep, throaty sound that embodied the weariness in the man’s eyes. “Like I said, I’m not as young as I used to be. And there’s a damn lot of kids in the world.”

“Well, you don’t have to explain it to me, buddy. I only have one and that’s more than enough,” Jimmy said. “In fact, as soon as I drop you off safe and sound a LaGuardia, I’m off to see her for Christmas.”

“That’s good,” the man in the back seat said. “Fathers should be with their daughters at Christmas.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. “I had to work late last night—picked up an extra shift—and then turn around and work again today, so we haven’t even had Christmas yet.”

“I’m sorry to keep you from getting home.”

Jimmy dismissed the apology with a wave. “Don’t worry about it. I’m not even going home. My daughter’s in the hospital, so I’m going there.”

At 85th, Jimmy waited behind four other cabs, watching the snow fall on the barren trees to his left. His thoughts drifted, as they often did, to Riley. Only when the car behind him honked did he realize the light had turned green and he could go.

“I’m sorry about your daughter,” the man said. Jimmy had nearly forgotten about him in his mental wanderings and he started at the voice. “Nothing serious, I hope.”

Jimmy never told passengers about his daughter and it surprised him that he was doing it now. Even so, when he opened his mouth to tell him that his daughter would be fine, he said something else entirely.

“Cancer,” Jimmy said, shocked to hear it spill from his lips so casually. “Not the fatal kind, thank God, but the kind that takes a long time and a lot of money to fix.”

Jimmy looked again in the rear view mirror and locked eyes with the man. He couldn’t see them well in the dim light, but he could see something else beyond the weariness. He could see sympathy, as though the man had reached through the partition and given him a reassuring grasp of his shoulder. To Jimmy, it felt as if the cab had filled with the compassion flowing from the dark eyes set deep beneath bushy white eyebrows, so much that Jimmy felt he couldn’t breathe from drowning in it.

“I’m sorry,” the man said, and Jimmy knew he was.

Jimmy turned right on 96th, drove past the library and stopped at the light on Lexington. Across the way, even the Starbucks was closed, the people normally lined up out the door left to make their own coffee. More cabs criss-crossed in front of him and when the light turned green, he drove on. He guided the cab through the slush and turned left onto the ramp for FDR Drive. He merged onto FDR and looked out through the snow at the black band of the East River to his right. After Riley’s diagnosis, he had come down to the river and thought of throwing himself in, of letting the water do what it would with him. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t leave Riley to face her sickness alone.

“It’s okay,” Jimmy said. “I mean, it’s not okay, but it is what it is, you know? Riley—that’s my daughter, Riley—has been a real trooper through everything. To be honest, I think she’s been the one keeping me going instead of the other way around.” He took exit 17 to take the Triboro Bridge (damn those government types who wanted to call it the RFK—it would always be Triboro to him) and slowed down to navigate the slippery bridge. There were more cars here and he was careful to leave a good deal of space between himself and them. He breezed through the E-Z Pass lane at the toll booth, as thankful for that bit of technology as he was for the machines the hospital used to keep Riley alive as she endured surgery after surgery.

“She was only nine when she first got sick. At first, the doctors just said she had the flu or something, gave her some antibiotics, but it kept coming back. Finally, they ran a bunch of tests on her—the first of many—and came back with the words no parent wants to hear. Cancer. Now, understand, it’s just me. Riley’s mom ran out on us when Riles was just two and both my parents are dead, so it’s been just me and her forever. So, the doctor comes out and tells me my little girl has cancer…well, I just lost it. But damn if I didn’t have to find it again pretty quick. They took me back to see Riley and I held her while the doc explained what was going on and what was going to happen.”

Jimmy took the ramp for I-278 as his mind went back to how scared he was. It was right after that first talk with the doctor that he had gone down to the river. Even as his mind returned to it, he saw the sign posted next to the highway. “Life is worth living” it said, along with a number to call for people who want to debate the issue. Jimmy had not called the number. He hadn’t needed to. He only needed to think about his little girl, scared and alone in the hospital, to know that life, his life anyway, was indeed worth living. If only because she needed it to be.

Up ahead, flashing blue lights on the left side of the road marked a wreck. Jimmy slowed to a crawl as he approached and saw a white Nissan with the front end smashed where it had collided with the median. Gotta slow down in the snow, buddy, Jimmy thought.

“And Riley’s been great, just amazing, through the whole thing,” he continued. He still had no idea why he was telling this random passenger about Riley, but in doing so, Jimmy felt a weight lifting from him. He talked to strangers all day, every day, but almost never said anything of consequence. He commented on the weather, on the sites of New York, on news both local and national, and on whatever sport his passengers liked, but he never talked about his personal life. At least, not until now. “Every day, no matter what the doctors or nurses say, no matter how bad she feels or how sick she is from the poison they’re giving her to kill the cancer, she stays positive. Keeps her head up like nobody’s business. Even when I know she wants to give up, wants to just roll over and go to sleep, she keeps fighting. She’s strong, my Riley. Stronger than me, anyway, and I’m not afraid to say it.”

Jimmy glanced in his rear view mirror, but could see nothing in the darkness of the back seat but a silhouette in the headlights of the car behind them.

“I think she thinks she has to be strong for me. Doesn’t want me to see her cry. I’ve gone in sometimes after a shift and can see her red eyes and the damp spots on her pillow, but when I walk through the door, all the tears are gone. She won’t let me see them. Not a drop. I think she knows, deep down, that if I see hers, she’ll see mine and I don’t think she can handle seeing me cry.”

Traffic picked up as they neared the airport. Another wreck, this one on the off ramp to Astoria, made Jimmy let his foot a fraction more off the gas.

“And, you know, it’s hard,” he continued. “It’s hard because her mother ran out on us and it’s just been me and her. Just me and her. Every cut she’s had, every toy she’s broken, every math problem she couldn’t figure out, it’s been daddy to fix it. And I have. Even on a cabbie’s pay and with the bills piling up, it’s been daddy fixing things for her so she can have what she needs, even if it’s not what she wants. And, dammit, she doesn’t want much. Never asked for a goddamn thing in her life. She’s the most grateful kid—no, the most grateful human being—I’ve ever met. And let me tell you, pal, I’ve met a lot of damn people in this job.”

As he passed the exit for Brooklyn and Staten Island, I-278 changed to Grand Central parkway and Jimmy realized two things. First, he realized he was crying. Great tears poured unchecked down his cheeks and dropped onto his chest. The second thing he realized was that he didn’t care. He had not told any of his feelings about his daughter’s illness to anyone because, well, he just didn’t have any else to talk to. And if he couldn’t tell it to Santa, by God, who could he tell? Even as it was painful to give speech to the worries that had dogged him for years—that he wasn’t a good father, that he wasn’t a good provider for his daughter, that maybe she’d be better off with someone else—he felt a weight lifting from him in the telling.

“I mean, she’s just so damn strong,” Jimmy went on. “Riley. She’s just so strong and she makes me so proud and makes me want to be strong, but I’m . . . I’m just not strong. Not that strong. I put on a good face for her, but that’s all it is. Acting. And you wanna know the worst part about her? She’s so strong, she makes me feel weak. Everyone at the hospital tells me how strong she is, how she takes her treatments like a champ and tells me how proud I must be to have such a strong little girl, and I am, but sometimes I just wanna, you know, scream at them. I wanna tell them, yeah, she’s strong, but her dad’s a fucking coward who can’t pay his bills and doesn’t know how he’s gonna tell his strong little girl that her daddy couldn’t afford to buy her Christmas presents this year. And I can’t tell her that. I can’t tell her that because she’ll think it’s her fault. Her fault that her daddy is a shmuck who never went to college and drives a shitty cab around and can’t make ends meet. I can’t tell her that. Even if it’s true.”

By the time he reached the airport exit, Jimmy could barely see the road through his tears. He drove the cab up the ramp at a crawl, easing it into the sweeping curve that became Central Terminal Drive. Finally, he pulled up to the curb in front of the terminal and shifted the cab into park.

Jimmy wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and turned around to face his passenger. “Look, pal, I’m sorry I—“

The man dressed as Santa Claus still sat in the back seat. Eye closed, the worn sack pulled over him like a blanket, he snored quietly, too low to be heard over the traffic and slushy roads.

Jimmy wanted to scream. He wanted to get out, throw the man onto the sidewalk, and, Santa suit or not, beat the shit out of him.

The feeling faded just as quickly as it came. He knew the guy probably couldn’t help falling asleep. He’d looked on the verge of collapse when he got in the cab and Jimmy couldn’t blame him for nodding off, no matter how much he wanted to. Besides, Jimmy still felt better having told the tale, still felt the burden lifted from his shoulders, even if the guy hadn’t heard a word of it.

“Hey, buddy,” Jimmy said, knocking on the Plexiglas partition between the front and back seats. “Hey, we’re here.”

The man opened his eyes and blinked at Jimmy.

“Hey, we’re at LaGuardia. Time to fly on back to the North Pole.”

Santa, still blinking, sat up and looked around. “Indeed we are.” He pulled three twenties from a coat pocket and handed them to Jimmy.

Jimmy pocketed the bills. “Thank you. Need any help?”

The man shook his head as he opened the door. He held up the empty sack and winked at Jimmy.

“No,” he said. “I’m traveling light tonight.”

“Well,” Jimmy said. “You have a Merry Christmas. What’s left of it, anyway.”

“Oh, I will.” The man winked again, closed the door, and disappeared into the crowd of people milling about in front of the terminal.

Jimmy shifted the cab into drive and pulled away from the curb when sound from the backseat made him pull back into the curb, drawing a long horn blast from the cab behind him. He shifted to park again and turned to find the belt with the rows of tiny brass bells lining its black leather still in the seat.

Grabbing the belt, Jimmy threw open his door, nearly getting run over by a limousine in the process, and ran after the man dressed as Santa. He weaved through traffic on the sidewalk just as easily as he could in his cab, but saw no sign of the red suit. He went into the terminal and looked around with similar luck. He asked a few airport security guards if they had seen a man dressed in a Santa suit.

“Yeah,” one of the guards chuckled, “He flew by here last night. Buzzed the tower and everything.”

“Maverick!” the other guard yelled, drawing strange looks from people walking nearby.

Jimmy gave them both the finger as they laughed and went on with his search for another twenty minutes before giving up. The belt still clutched in his hand, he walked back to the cab. He opened the door and tossed the belt inside, drawing a small cacophony from the bells. Only when he slid in and buckled his seatbelt did he see the folded note card atop his dash just above the steering wheel. Jimmy picked up the card and opened it. It was unadorned, the script written in a plain, bold hand.

Check your trunk.

Jimmy got out of the cab again and leapt to the back of the vehicle. He fumbled with his key for a moment before plunging it into the lock and opening the trunk.

Dozens of wrapped gifts of various sizes filled the trunk, all bearing tags with “For Riley” written in the same bold hand, surrounding a black leather briefcase. With trembling hands, Jimmy flipped the latches on the briefcase and opened it.

Stacks of neatly banded one hundred dollar bills filled the case. To be sure, Jimmy pulled one of the stacks out, keeping it below the rim of the trunk to be safe, and flipped through the bills with his finger. His hands shook violently now, and he struggled to return the band to the case.

Atop the stacks of bills lay another card. Jimmy picked this one up and nearly dropped it when he read it.

Tell Riley to have a Merry Christmas. And you have one as well. SC.

SC. Santa Claus.

Jimmy barely found the strength to shut the trunk lid. When he did and returned to the driver’s seat, he had to hold onto the cab for support and then slid into a sitting position. Instead of driving away, he sat parked against the curb and sobbed into his hands for a half hour. If anyone saw him, wondered what he was doing crying in a parked cab at LaGuardia, no one asked.

And then Jimmy did something else. Beginning in the pit of his stomach where, for so long, he had carried the worry of supporting his daughter, a laugh rose through him and burst from him like water from a geyser. He laughed until his sides hurt and he gasped for air, leaning over into passenger seat until he could stop.

Finally, after nearly an hour at the airport, Jimmy started the car and pulled away from the curb, heading for the hospital and his little girl. His strong Riley. His daughter, who would have Christmas after all.

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Tales of Christmas Past–Penny’s Snowglobe

Unless I’ve missed one, this is the last of the old Christmas stories.  If you’ve read, I hope you have enjoyed.

PENNY’S SNOWGLOBE

Penny Wilkes sat on her couch, waiting. She had taken the initiative to put on her pajamas, mostly out of routine, and she stared at Tinkerbell and her fairy friends until she thought they were dancing across the flannel. Despite her dress, Penny was not ready for bed, was not even sleepy. She had waited for this night and had planned accordingly—sleeping through the day, taking naps when she could force her eyes to close, even making and gulping down some of the instant coffee her mother kept in the freezer for guests, as she didn’t drink it herself.

Penny had to be awake when he came. She knew the rules, knew that Santa only came to the children on his “nice” list when they were asleep, but she didn’t know of any other children who had so urgent a need to speak to Santa as she did.

She got up off the couch, looking up at the clock as she did. It was just past two in the morning—her mother had taught her how to read a clock not even six months before—and she wondered how much longer it would be. She paced the floor, a habit she had also learned from her mother, who would follow the same track from wall to wall in the small living room, circling the couch like a racecar on a test drive while she chewed on her fingers and mumbled to herself. She thought that Penny could not hear her talk about the medical bills, about Penny’s father walking out on them, about her worries for Christmas, but Penny heard it all.

Now, with her own worries, Penny mimicked her mother’s actions precisely, if unconsciously, her tiny feet in their flannel footies scuffling across the floor with barely a sound as she chewed her own tiny fingers. The only thing she did not copy was the mumbling. Penny was a very deliberate girl and had thought of nothing in advance to mumble, so her lips remained closed in a tight line.

The house in Queens where Penny lived with her mother was small and, without a fireplace or chimney, she wasn’t quite sure how Santa would get in. Every trip around the couch she would look at the front door, at the curtained windows, at the stairs that led up to her mother’s room, at the back door past the kitchen, and then back to the front door, checking with each like a night watchman making rounds. On every fifth circuit, she rearranged the cookies she had placed on the coffee table and checked the temperature of the milk, sticking her finger in to see if it was still cold enough. She listened hard for any sign of his approach—sleigh bells, the click-clack of reindeer hooves on the roof, even a distant “Ho, ho, ho”, but she heard nothing other than the whisper of her feet on the carpet and the ticking of the wall clock.

When the fireplace appeared against one wall where none had been before, she almost walked by it without realizing what it was. She jumped, her feet catching on a half-second later than the rest of her, and she nearly stumbled to the floor. Strong hands wearing black leather gloves trimmed in gray fur reached out and caught her, helping her back to her feet.

Penny righted herself and looked up at the one who had helped her. Just as she had hoped, he was there, his suit dotted here and there with ash as though someone had sprinkled pepper on him. He looked down at her with a kind, but confused, expression on his bearded face.

“Penny,” Santa said, “you’re up awfully late.”

“I had to wait for you, Santa.” She said. The only reason she could get the words out over her nervousness, was that she had been practicing them every waking moment for three days. She knew, when the moment came, she would have to plead her case without error, without stumbling over the words.

Only now did she notice the velvet bag slung over his shoulder. Santa lowered it the floor with an audible sigh. “Funny thing about this bag,” he said, smiling. “No matter how much I take out of it, it never feels any lighter.” He stepped over to the couch, sat down, and browsed the cookies a moment before selecting an oatmeal raisin. He took a small bite and chewed slowly, closing his eyes to savor the morsel, then washed it down with a swallow of milk. When he was done, he looked at Penny and smiled.

“Excellent cookie,” he said. “Now, Penny, you know I’m not supposed to stop until you’re asleep, right?”

“Yes, Santa.”

“So,” Santa asked, taking another bite of the cookie. “What’s a nice girl like you doing up at an hour like this?”

“It’s my momma,” Penny said. “Come upstairs and I’ll show you.”

Penny led Santa up the dark, narrow flight of stairs and along a short hallway to a closed door. She opened the door without knocking and led Santa into the room as she flipped on the light.

“There she is,” Penny said, pointing at the bed. “I need you to help her. She won’t wake up.”

Santa moved to the side of the bed and looked down at the figure before him. To a young girl like Penny, he supposed, she might look like she was sleeping, covered up in bed with her eyes closed. But Santa saw the pallor of her skin and the way the covers above her chest never moved. He took off one of his black gloves and felt the woman’s neck, finding no pulse beneath skin as cold as his backyard. Leaned over the bed, he saw the empty pill bottle still clutched in her hand.

“Make her wake up, Santa,” Penny said. “That’s all I want for Christmas. For my momma to wake up.”

Santa stood motionless for some time, tears sliding down over his red cheeks into his beard. He looked at Penny and saw the same tears running down her cheeks. Santa knew that, despite her age, she understood that her mother was gone, that he was her only hope of getting her back.

Yet, despite all the powers he possessed as Santa Claus, this was one gift he could not give.

He put his hand on Penny’s shoulder and led her out of the room as the girl burst into loud sobs. To Santa, it seemed like a dam bursting, all the fear and pain she had hidden behind her hope in him gushing out of her in a great flood of misery.

“No, Santa!” she wailed. “You have to help her! You have to make her wake up!”

Santa picked her up and carried her back down the stairs to the couch. There, he sat with her in his arms, rocking back and forth until her sobs, little by little, tapered off into quiet snuffling. In some part of his mind, he knew he was falling behind schedule, but nothing in the world—not the cookies or the reindeer or the gifts–mattered more to him in that moment than little Penny Wilkes.

Then, just when he thought he could do nothing for her, Santa had an idea.

“Penny,” he said, his voice gentle and low. “Penny, are you listening to me?”

She gave a loud snuffle and wiped her dripping nose with the sleeve of her pajamas. “Yes, Santa.”

He propped her up on his knee so he could look at her. “Penny, I’m afraid that not even I can wake up your mother. I’m very sorry.”

Penny looked as though she was about to break down again, but she took a deep, shuddering breath, closed her red-rimmed eyes, and nodded.

“But,” he said. “I do have another present for you. It won’t bring your mommy back, but you might like it. Do you want to see it?”

“I can open it now?” she asked.

“I insist,” Santa said. He moved her onto the couch and reached for his bag. Reaching inside, he rummaged around for some time before he found what he was looking for and, when he removed his hand, he held a wrapped present. He held it out to Penny and she took it, removing the bow and paper with care. When she opened the box, she saw a small, glittering snowglobe.

“It’s pretty,” Penny said.

“It’s more than pretty,” Santa said. “It’s magical.”

“What’s it do?”

Santa took the snowglobe from the box and stood it up on the coffee table. The snow inside shifted and swirled as though a blizzard raged within the glass sphere, revealing nothing of the scene within.

“I can’t tell you that,” Santa said. “Right now, you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll figure it out.”

“But I’m not sleepy,” Penny said, her wide eyes fixed on the snowglobe.

Santa reached into a pocket of his coat and pulled out a pinch of silver powder. He reached out and sprinkled it over Penny’s head. At once, her eyes grew heavy and closed. She leaned back against the couch and, a moment later, was softly snoring.

“Sleep now, Penny Wilkes,” Santa said as he moved to the fireplace. “And Merry Christmas.”

In a flash of light, both Santa and the fireplace were gone.

Penny woke on Christmas morning and saw from the light squeezing through the ice-crusted windows that the sun was up. She sat up on the couch, wiped her eyes, and looked around as she tried to remember what had happened. Only when she saw the snowglobe where Santa had left it on the coffee table did the pieces come together.

She picked up the snowglobe, surprised at how light it was in her tiny hands. The snow, still swirling inside, changed at her touch, the white flakes inside slowing until she could see an image begin to take shape within the glass sphere. As she watched, she saw a tiny figure that looked very much like her, dressed in her coat and boots, hat and gloves, opening a front door that looked very much like the one that stood only a few feet away from her.

Penny set the snowglobe back on the table and stared at it in wonder. No longer touching it, the snow swirled inside again, a miniature blizzard just inside the glass. With one tentative finger, she touched it again and gasped as the snow halted to reveal the same scene as before, the tiny version of her going out the door of the house.

She knew what she had to do now. She just didn’t know if she could.

With slow steps, Penny climbed the stairs, going first to her room. She dressed, putting on the dress her mother had gotten her for Christmas only a few weeks before. Then, she brushed her hair and teeth in the bathroom before going to the door to her mother’s room. She stopped there, afraid that if she went in, saw her mother still lying in the bed, that she would not be able to leave her behind, no matter what her magical snowglobe wanted her to do.

She opened the door and went inside.

The room was different than it had been the previous night. Instead of the piles of laundry that lay scattered like islands upon the floor, the room was clean. Light streamed in through the open curtains that had been shut the night before. Still, Penny saw none of this. Her eyes rested only on the empty, made bed before her. A piece of folded paper rested on the pillow where her mother’s cold head should have been and Penny picked it up, opened it, and read the two sentences written in a neat hand:

She will be taken care of.

Be brave, Penny.

At that moment, Penny did not want to be brave. She fell to her knees at the side of the bed and cried for her mother, now truly lost to her. She wailed, burying her face into the bed linens that still smelled of her mother’s perfume, and cried until she could summon no more tears. When she was done, she pulled herself to her feet and, without looking back, left the room, shutting the door behind her. The click of the door was drowned out by what sounded like a string, pulled taut like a piano wire, breaking in her heart.

Penny walked back downstairs and put on her coat, her boots, her hat and her gloves. Then, she picked up the snowglobe and, just like the tiny girl inside, opened the front door and stepped out into the snowy morning.

The sunlight reflecting off the snow was blinding, and as her eyes adjusted, she looked around for some sign of what she was supposed to do next. The street looked just as it always did, save for the new coat of snow upon the ground. A few people milled about outside the tightly packed buildings, some shoveling the snow, others playing in it. A few children near the corner gave Penny a quizzical look, wondering if she was coming out to play with them after being shut up inside for so long. A taxi cab passed by, leaving a slushy trail in the street.

Penny looked again at the snowglobe, pulling it so close that her nose touched the glass. When it did, the snow cleared again and showed the tiny girl inside entering the subway tunnel two blocks away, the one near the pizzeria her mother always took her to on her birthday.

Adjusting her scarf to keep out the cold, Penny walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the snowglobe cradled against her chest. The snow was past her ankles, but dry, the kind she would normally kick into the air as she walked just so she could see the sunlight reflecting off the tiny flakes. Now, though, setting off alone in the world with nothing but a snowglobe for company, she dragged her feet, turning back every few steps as her view of the house grew more narrow. Finally, at the corner, she could no longer see the house, just the outline of the front steps, and it felt as though another string broke in her heart.

She crossed through the slick intersection without another look back, checking for traffic and waiting for the signal as her mother had taught her. Traffic in either direction was light in this part of the city and especially so on Christmas morning. On the next block, she found it the same as her own—a few people working or playing, a passing car—and soon came to the subway entrance. The pizzeria was closed for the holiday, but the sight of it, the memories that flooded her mind as she gazed inside the darkened windows, nearly made her turn back and return to the house.

But her mother was not there, so Penny walked down the steps to the subway station. When she reached the bottom, she consulted the snowglobe again, removing one glove with her teeth to touch it with her bare fingers. Again, the snow parted and showed the girl swiping a card through an electronic reader at the gate, then walking through and getting on a train just as it arrived in the station.

Penny felt a moment of panic. Her mother had never given her a subway pass, preferring to take taxis whenever she had to travel any distance. Just as she was about to head back up the steps, she reached into her pocket and found a hard piece of plastic tucked inside. She pulled it out and, just like the girl in the snowglobe, swiped it through the reader. The gate opened for her just as she heard the approaching train rumble into the station, its brakes hissing like her mother’s tea kettle.

She moved across the platform and, when the doors to one of the cars opened, she stepped inside and found it empty except for a large black man, huddled in a heavy coat on the opposite end of the car. He wore dark sunglasses that reminded Penny of a movie she had watched with her mother about a guy who played piano, even though he was blind. Ray something, she thought.

The door of the car slid shut behind her and, with a jolt that nearly sent Penny tumbling onto the floor, the train started forward.

“Merry Christmas,” the black man said from the front of the car. He never looked at her, his face tilted toward the ceiling as though he was staring at the sun.

Penny said nothing; her mother had told her not to talk to strangers. Instead, she sat down on the seat furthest from the man and clutched the snowglobe to her chest.

“Not in the holiday spirit, eh?” the man said. “Can’t say I blame you. World’s a hard place.”

Penny did not look up at him, afraid that, even blind, he would continue to talk to her. To her relief, he said nothing more, only sat back staring at the same spot on the ceiling, rocking with the motion of the train as it sped beneath the New York streets.

The train passed by several stations, but did not stop. Penny saw them out the window, flashes of light and blurred faces breaking the monotony of the dark tunnels. In every station they passed, she looked for the blurred face of her mother, knowing she wouldn’t be there but hoping she would. She imagined herself stepping off the train into her mother’s arms, her mother healthy and happy, ready for them to be a family again.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, hoping the image in her head would appear within its snowy recesses, but instead she saw only herself exiting the train at the other end, near the blind man, and entering another station, a large sign reading Fifth Avenue on one wall.

She felt the train start to slow and stood up. She was wary of the large man, even blind, and she walked as quietly as she could the length of the car in the hopes that he would not hear her. If he did, he showed no sign of it and continued to look up at the ceiling, almost as though he was expecting something to happen there. Penny stayed on the side opposite from him, as close to the seats as possible, and moved into position to exit the car as soon as the doors opened.

The doors slid apart and, at the same time, the train came to a full stop, jolting Penny again. This time, the snowglobe slipped from her grasp. She gasped and reached for it, knowing in that moment she would never be able to catch it. Her eyes closed as she listened for the noise of shattered glass and broken dreams.

There was no smash of the snowglobe hitting the floor of the train. Even when Penny was sure it should have hit the ground, there was no sound of impact.

Penny opened her eyes and saw the snowglobe was whole and unbroken. A large hand, gloved fingers spread around the glass sphere, held the object a few inches above the ground. The blind man, kneeling in the floor beside her, his arm outstretched to its fullest length to catch the snowglobe, smiled and held it out to her.

Penny stood there for several seconds before she realized she wasn’t breathing. When at last she took a breath, a gasped “Thank You” came out, barely audible.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Can’t be too careful. Now, you go on before the door closes.”

Penny stepped out of the car and looked back at the blind man.

“You have a Merry Christmas, Penny,” he said to her just as the doors slid shut again. With another lurch, the train moved on to its next stop.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and saw herself walked up the steps to the outside. It wasn’t until the fourth step that she wondered how the blind man had known her name.

She found herself in a part of the city she didn’t recognize. Tall buildings stood on one side of her and a snow-covered park stood on the opposite side of the busy street. Kids played in the park, throwing snowballs and building snowmen and making snow angels. On her side, a steady stream of people walked in both directions, passing her as though she was an island in the center of a great river.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and this time it showed her entering a building with a green canopy stretching out over the sidewalk. Looking up, she could see the canopy half a block away and she started walking toward it, falling in line with the flow of people moving in that direction. The adults jostled her as their long strides carried them past her and the children, some tagging along at the heels of the adults, gave Penny interested looks as they struggled to keep up. Penny ignored them all, intent only on keeping hold of the snowglobe and reaching the building with the green canopy.

When she reached the correct building, she saw a doorman standing in the snow just outside the door. His face was lean and red from the cold, but when he saw Penny it broke into a warm smile.

“You must be Penny,” he said, bending down to address her at eye level. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Expecting me?” Penny asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Absolutely,” the doorman replied. “Please go on in.” He opened the glass door for her and half-pushed her through into a spacious lobby dominated by the biggest Christmas tree Penny had ever seen. It soared upward like the building itself, almost too tall to be believed, and was covered top to bottom with silvery lights that twinkled like stars.

Penny stared at the tree for sometime before realizing that she had no idea what to do next. She consulted the snowglobe, which showed her entering the elevator near where she was standing and pressing the topmost button on the panel inside. Penny did as the image showed, the doors of the elevator sliding open at her approach and closing as she pushed the appropriate button.

The elevator traveled for what seemed like, to Penny, days. When it finally stopped and the doors opened, she found herself facing a short hallway, at the end of which stood a single door on which hung a large wreath.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, but this time the blizzard inside did not clear to reveal the next step of her journey. She set it down in the elevator, stepped out, and watched the doors close before she heard the car descend. This, Penny realized, she would have to do alone.

Taking a deep breath, Penny padded down the hall and knocked on the door. She could smell the deep pine scent from the wreath. The smell reminded her of the cleaner her mother had used on their tile floors and it calmed her even as it reminded her of her loss. Still, wherever she was and whatever she was supposed to do there, the smell of the pine wreath made her sure that her mother approved.

The door opened and Penny saw two people inside, a man and a woman. They were both still wearing their pajamas, matching red flannel, and both looked as though they had been crying right before she had knocked on the door. They both stared at her, red-eyed and weary, as if they could not believe what was standing on their doorstep. Then, they stepped aside, an unspoken invitation.

Penny walked into a large, open apartment. The rooms she could see were decorated with the type of furniture—dark woods and soft fabrics—her mother always talked about wanting to have. A television, bigger than her old bed, dominated one wall in the living room above a lit fireplace. A massive kitchen stood off to one side, spotless and filled with stainless steel. On the far side of the apartment, large windows offered a spectacular view of Central Park and the city beyond. In one corner, a Christmas tree stood in the middle of a mountain of presents, more than she had ever seen in one place.

Then, Penny noticed the pictures. On the walls, on the tables, even on the mantle beneath the billboard-sized television, the young face of a girl, no older than herself, stared out at her. In some of them, she was alone, but in others, she was with the two people-obviously her parents—who still stood by the open front door staring at Penny. There she was with them at the Grand Canyon. There she was again with the Sydney Opera House in the background. There she was again, standing with her parents, the Eiffel Tower rising up behind them.

Penny picked up one of the pictures from a nearby end table. The girl wore a school uniform with a backpack slung over her shoulder. She smiled into the camera with two missing front teeth.

The man and woman shut the door, but continued to stare at Penny.

“Where is she?” Penny asked, holding out the photograph of the girl.

Instead of answering, the couple exchanged glances. The woman buried her face in her hands and began to sob quietly. The man led his wife to the couch and sat her down.

“That’s our daughter,” the man explained. “Jillian. She . . . she died last week.”

When he spoke, the woman cried harder and he put his arm around her.

Penny put the picture down, ashamed she had asked. She turned away from the crying lady and looked at the Christmas tree. Now that she was closer, she saw the tags on the packages, the name “Jillian” on nearly every one. Presents for a girl who would never open them. Penny knelt before the tree and, feeling the sting of her own loss mirrored in the woman behind her, began to cry herself.

Two pairs of strong arms lifted her from the floor.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” the man said. “She had been sick a long time.”

Penny shook her head. “No,” she said through her tears, “My mother . . . .”

They all cried for some time, each suffering from his or her own loss, each feeling the others’ pain. Finally, when they could cry no more, they sat before the Christmas tree and looked at each other.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Penny.” She thought of giving her last name, but, with her mother gone, her family name didn’t seem to matter.

“I’m Max,” the man said.

“And I’m Susan,” the woman said, still wiping her eyes.

Penny, remembering her manners, shook their hands. Then she stood up and went back to the window. She looked out over snow-covered park and at the tiny people and cars milling about.

“Penny,” Max said. “Would you like to stay with us tonight? We . . . we would love to have you.”

Penny looked out over the city. She thought about Santa and her mother and these new people in her life and how she came to be with them. She thought about the snowglobe.

“Yes,” she said. “I think I would like that.”

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Tales of Christmas Past–Death of a Mall Santa

This one also requires a warning for language, content, and other inappropriateness.  Read at your own peril.

DEATH OF A MALL SANTA

“Santa?”

Frank heard the name. Somewhere in his bourbon-soaked brain, he checked and found the name wasn’t his. He ignored the question.

“Santa?” the voice asked again, small and curious. “Santa, are you awake?”

He sent the small part of his brain that was still functioning to double-check the name, comparing it against his own. No, he finally decided, he was not Santa. He was Frank. Fifty-two. Two-seventy. Involuntarily retired.

And completely drunk.

He was not Santa. That was a ridiculous notion. Just because he had put on a few pounds over the years and had let his beard grow out to a scraggly white mess and had taken a part-time job as a —

“Shit!” Frank said as the pieces slammed together like a car crash. He sat up, nearly dumping the shocked, white-faced child from his lap. The girl’s mother rushed in, her face alight with anger, and scooped up the child as she started crying.

“You are a disgrace,” the well-dressed woman said through gritted teeth. She pushed her sobbing child behind her as though Frank might leap up from his grand chair and bite the kid. “I’m going to see that you get fired for this, you . . . you . . . animal.”

The woman stormed off in the direction of the mall office, all but dragging her child behind her.

“Have a Merry Christmas,” Frank called. When he was sure she was out of earshot, he muttered “bitch” in what he thought was a quiet voice, but several more parents, standing open-mouthed in line, gasped when he said it and left the queue, following the first woman toward the office.

A girl in an elf costume, young enough to do such work without feeling ashamed, but old enough for Frank to imagine her naked, leaned forward until her nose was nearly touching his. The look of rage on her face cracked a moment when he exhaled, blowing Jim Beam breath at her, but returned after she retreated several inches.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Her name, Frank remembered, was Holly. Very appropriate for someone wearing an elf costume. Or maybe it was Haley. A minute before he had to double check his own name, so he applauded himself for at least getting close. “You can’t come in here drunk off your ass, pass out when the kids are talking to you, or call their mothers bitches. Are you trying to get us both fired? I need this job like you need a bath, so don’t fuck this up. You hear me?”

Frank started to reply, but when he opened his mouth, the words came out as a long, loud burp that turned heads across the wide corridor of the mall.

“Ohmygod,” Holly/Haley said, “that is so disgusting.”

Frank stood up, listening to the impulse as it arrived half-formed in his head. He wobbled for a moment, teetering back and forth, threatening to fall into the plastic candy canes marking each side of the path to his chair. Finally, putting his hands out like a tightrope walker, he steadied himself and smiled at his accomplishment.

“What are you doing?” Holly/Haley asked, backing away.

“Bathroom,” he answered, following the explanation with another loud burp. “Too many milk and cookies.”

Frank stumbled away from the chair, tripping over the strings of lights that surrounded his faux kingdom and nearly falling into the arms of a young gay couple. He shook off the lights, nodded to the two men, and said, “Why don’t you two go home and make a fruitcake?” Laughing hysterically at his own wit, Frank shuffled past the couple and weaved toward the restrooms. He passed the various stores, packed with customers doing their last minute Christmas shopping, and bowled through the steady stream of people moving in the opposite direction. Most of them saw him, or at least heard the bells strapped to his belt, and moved out of the way. The rest he pushed aside, not bothering with apologies. In his drunkenness, Frank saw only a mass of faces parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses.

He reached the hallway where the restrooms were located and knew he would not make it in time. He broke out in a half-sprint to the door, knocking several people down as he held his hand over his mouth. A young boy, unfortunate enough to be in the doorway when Frank reached it, bowled over backward as, to his eyes, Santa ran over him and dove for the nearest open stall. A moment later, the sound of Frank’s insides roaring out through his mouth drowned out the boy’s crying or the father’s angry yells.

When he was done retching, Frank slid to the floor beside the toilet, appreciating the cool tile under his skin. His gut felt as though a reindeer had kicked him. Now that he could hear above the sound of his own puking, he could tell his outburst (or the smell it created) had cleared the room of anyone who wanted to use the restroom and could wait until he reached the next closest one.

Satisfied that he was alone, Frank closed his eyes, hoping to rest a moment before mall security came to lead him out of the building. Seconds later, he was asleep.

“Ahem.”

Frank heard the voice and thought it was part of his dream. He had no idea why Sally Field would be saying “Ahem” in the middle of their lovemaking, but he decided he could overlook it.

“Ahem.”

Frank opened his eyes, wincing as the bright fluorescents sent shafts of pain through his skull. All he could see at first was the white base of the toilet. After another brief memory search, he pieced together how he came to be in the floor of a mall restroom and wondered how much longer it would be before the mall cops came for him. He figured he had not been out long, since he still lay in the floor.

“A-hem.”

Too late, he thought.

Frank struggled to pull himself to a sitting position, trying to think of something clever to say to the officers before they hauled him off. He ignored the pounding in his head and turned to face his punishment.

No officers, mall or otherwise, were standing at the door to the stall. No humans at all waited for him.

Instead, a tiny figure, no more than two feet tall, stood just beyond the open stall door, watching Frank with an impassive expression. Its large, luminous eyes would have been its most striking feature if not for the huge, pointed ears that stuck out from its head like the fins on a vintage Chevy.

“What . . . who are you?” Frank asked. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the little man was still there.

“My name is Tinsel,” the figure said in a high, almost girlish, voice. “As to what I am, I’m an elf. From the North Pole.”

Frank blinked at him. Aside from his diminutive size and his admittedly elf-like facial features, he thought Tinsel could not look less like an elf from the North Pole. Instead of the bright red and green outfit he had always seen on television or on Haley/Holly, he wore an outfit of all black. His long sleeved shirt fit snugly over an impressive build for someone so short, while his pants were loose and bore several pockets that bulged with objects he could not see. A large pouch, also black, hung from his belt. In place of pointed shoes with bells on them, Tinsel wore miniature black combat boots. To Frank, he more closely resembled an oversized G.I. Joe action figure than any elf he had ever imagined.

Still, Frank’s head hurt too much to allow him to argue. “Okay,” he said, “what do you want?”

Tinsel reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and read, “Frank McCloskey, you have been found guilty of gross misconduct in your role as Mall Santa at the Windmere Mall. In accordance with the Mall Santa Code, which you signed upon your employment for this position, you are found to be in violation of your contract and have been designated for termination.” When he finished, he refolded the paper and tucked it back into his pocket.

Frank waited a moment to make sure the elf was finished. Then, he burst out in a fit of laughter that threatened to tear his skull in two.

“What?” he asked, tears of amusement streaming down his cheeks. “The mall sent you to fire me?”

“No, Frank,” Tinsel said, not smiling in return. “I’m not here to fire you. I’m here to kill you.”

Frank took in the serious expression on the little face and laughed harder. Even when he smacked his head on the toilet and slid back down into a horizontal position, he continued to chuckle, unable to control himself.

The laughter died abruptly, however, when Frank’s body went into harsh spasms that pounded his face against the base of the toilet like a woodpecker building a home. His body jumped and thrashed as pain rippled through his body, multiplying that in his head a hundred times over. The smell of burning flesh, likely his own, drifted to his nose. He heard screaming and it took several seconds for him to realize that the sound was coming from him.

Finally, the pain eased, but not all at once. It ebbed away slowly, retracting an inch at a time and leaving numbness in its wake.

Frank was only dimly aware of the tiny pair of feet walking on him. Tinsel barely weighed anything and to Frank’s fried nerves, it felt as though the footsteps traveling up his side were on someone else’s body instead of his own. When the elf reached where Frank could see him, he held a small device in his hands that looked like a plastic icicle, blue electricity arcing from the tip.

“I didn’t want to do that, Frank,” he said. “But I need you to understand. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The choice is up to you.”

Frank looked at the electric icicle. “Let me think about it for a moment.” Then, quicker than anyone would have expected, he rolled over on his back and grabbed Tinsel’s head, no bigger than a softball in his hand. As the elf brought the icicle down toward his chest, Frank lifted him up and over the rim of the toilet, slamming him into the bowl as though he was dunking a basketball. Tinsel’s tiny howl of rage was cut short as his mouth filled with what Frank hoped was not just water.

With effort, Frank pulled himself to his feet. He paused only a moment to look back at the two booted feet thrashing in the air before staggering to the door and out of the bathroom. His head still hurt and his limbs occasionally failed to respond to his commands, but each step that brought him closer to the exit made him feel a degree better. Through the glass doors at the end of the hall, he saw that night had fallen and no cars filled the parking lot beyond. He figured the mall was closed, but as long as the night guard didn’t catch him trying to exit the building, he’d get away clean.

He was three strides from the door, three strides from freedom, when he saw the chains. Thin chains of popcorn wound among the latch bars, offering a comical distraction to his escape. He shook his head, bemused, and the act sent a new pulse of pain that he knew would vanish with his first breath of outside air. He reached down and pushed the latch.

The latch did not move. The door remained closed.

Frank pushed again, harder this time. Still, the door defied him. He took a step back and hit the latch again, throwing his full weight into it and bouncing off as the latch stayed motionless as though set in concrete. With a snarl, he grabbed the chains of popcorn and pulled, expecting them to crumble in his grip. The chains felt like lead in his hands and would not budge a millimeter, even as he grabbed them and leaned back with all his weight. In exasperation, he gave the door a hard kick that served only to send a new flood of pain through his lower leg.

He looked through the glass at the parking lot, tinged yellow by the street lights standing sentinel over the pavement. He was inches from freedom, from being able to disappear into the night and never return to this place again.

With one last look of longing, he turned away from the door, looking for another exit. He was almost back to the restroom when he heard a small voice from inside.

“Did you think it would be that easy, Frank?”

Frank resisted the impulse to open the door and look inside, choosing instead to pick up his pace as he entered the main corridor of the mall. As he stepped out into the main wing of the mall, every light in the building flared to life, causing him to recoil as though in pain. The gates that barred entrance to the various shops along the corridor slid open, their metallic grating creating a spine-shivering chorus that nearly sent Frank back the other way. Locked windows on kiosks snapped open, displays rolled out into the traffic aisles on their own, and the fountain that formed the center spoke of the mall’s corridors roared into operation, the various lighted reindeer and polar bears that stood sentry around it paying no notice. Finally, the speakers in the corridors, in every store, even in all the electronic devices in the Radio Shack across hall from Frank crackled before a voice, tiny but annoyed, said, “Okay, Frank, we’ll do it the hard way.”

The voice died away, replaced by Michael Jackson singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as such high volume that Frank thought his eardrums might throw themselves out of his head.

Barely audible above the deafening Motown track, Frank heard the restroom door creak open and, not looking back, began to run.

He made it exactly two steps before he tripped and fell, smacking his face hard on the tile floor. As he half-bounced on his jelly-like waist, he felt a tooth pop loose from his mouth and go clicking away ahead of him.

“Shit!” he screamed as pain slammed through his skull again. He rolled over on his back quickly, expecting the commando elf to be right on top of him, but instead he found a trio of radio-controlled trucks forming a line a few feet away. He had tripped over these somehow and, in his anger, he reached out with his foot to kick one away. The truck backed away just beyond his reach, beeping its high-pitched horn at him.

Frank clamored to his feet and stepped toward the truck to make sure he didn’t miss with his second attempt. “Fucking piece of sh—.” He kicked out again, but this time the truck accelerated forward. Before Frank could retract his leg, the toy had used its knobby, hard wheels to climb his foot and start to ascend his leg, digging through his red pants and gouging the skin beneath. Frank roared in pain as the thing seemed to be eating his leg, pinching great chunks of his meaty thighs between its spinning tires and plastic frame. Frank danced around on one foot, beating at the truck with his fists, as the other two began attacking his other leg, looking for some purchase to follow the first up the other side.

“Damn!” Smack. “Piece!” Smack. “Of shit!” With both hands, Frank managed to pry the toy truck off his leg, losing a strip of flesh from his inner thigh in the process. He howled in agony and rage, this time landing a kick on one of the trucks and sending it flying. It landed on its top several feet away, the tires still spinning as though reaching for him.

Frank pushed the other two trucks away with his feet, then stomped on each in turn until they were no more than piles of debris.

“Take that!” he said. A wheel atop one of the shattered trucks spun in response and Frank ran, his moment of triumph passed.

He ran toward the center of the mall. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw no sign of Tinsel or his avenging toy trucks, nor did he see the large kiosk he ran into. He bounced back with a startled cry, landing hard on his red-clad bottom. He looked up, ready to launch into a new round of swearing, but the words evaporated before they could leave his mouth, smothered by his terror.

Dolls, two dozen or more, stood all around and atop the kiosk Frank had struck. They stared at him with big, glassy eyes that looked innocent and passive when they weren’t moving, but now looked cold and lethal. Adding to their chilling appearance, the dolls stood atop a kiosk that was not the one where they spent their days being inanimate for potential buyers, but was instead one that sold sets of cutlery, shining sets of knives the dolls were now distributing like a bucket brigade to all their party. Frank could not swallow the scream that erupted from him as the little plastic boys and girls, armed with what looked like swords in their tiny hands, approached him like some menacing beast they meant to put down.

Frank scrambled backward just as the nearest dolls swiped at his shin. He got to his feet as the mass of dolls hobbled toward them on their stiff legs and he danced away as they stabbed at his ankles. He glanced around for something he could use to defend himself and, finding nothing, tried to jump a nearby bench to reach the other side of the corridor. He nearly made the leap, but his back foot caught the topmost wooden slat and sent him down hard on his left shoulder. He felt the joint dislocate and let out another high-pitched scream, this one of pain. His head swam, but he fought off the tempting blackness that colored the edges of his vision, visualizing the army of dolls instead. He pulled himself to his feet, mindful of the pitter patter of tiny feet drawing closer to him, and forced his legs to amble on through the mall.

His gaze down, Frank only knew he had reached the center of the mall by the roaring of water in his ears. It was the only thing he could hear over his own heartbeat and it helped clear his head. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the dolls were still coming, but their miniscule strides made their chase difficult.

“Frank,” Tinsel’s voice chimed in from everywhere again, “you’re just delaying the inevitable. Give up now and I’ll call off the dolls.”

“Fuck you, you reindeer-fucking pygmy!” Frank roared to the heavens.

“Have it your way,” Tinsel said through the overhead speakers.

Frank allowed himself the slightest grin before he heard the growl behind him. The smile melted from his face as he turned around, coming face to face with the massive lighted polar bear that, moments before, had been standing completely stationary atop the platform in the middle of the fountain. Now, spray from the fountain sizzled off the bear’s glowing bulbs and tiny arcs of electricity crawled along the wires that made up its body. It’s eyes, once white and benevolent as character from a Coca-cola commercial, now glowed a murderous red. It opened its wide, electric mouth, showing a series of blazing bulbs lined up in wicked rows of teeth.

The bear roared.

Frank soiled his Santa suit.

The bear reached out to swipe at Frank with one massive wire paw, but Frank scrambled backward, nearly into the onrushing tide of knife-wielding dolls.

Frank yelped and ran forward, sprinting at an angle that carried him just past the lighted polar bear along the edge of the fountain. The bear roared again and Frank could hear the clicking of its wire paws as it padded after him. He wanted to looked over his shoulder, to see the absurdity of the situation in full, but he would not slow down or risk running into something again.

Rounding the fountain, Frank saw his next obstacle right away. A line of Christmas trees from a nearby shop stretched the length of the corridor, forming a wall of green between him and whatever lay beyond. He knew the trees did not have to stop him completely, only slow him down enough for the polar bear or the dolls to catch up with him, so rather than try to find some way around the prickly branches, Frank picked out what looked like the smallest, weakest tree in the line and pounded for it.

“Red rover, red rover,” he panted as he lowered his shoulder and hit the tree like a linebacker. The tree gave surprisingly easily and Frank, not expecting such success, toppled forward as though he was being dispensed from a soda machine full of Diet Santa.

Frank lay on his back, winded, and closed his eyes. He could hear the soft padding of the knife-wielding dolls coming closer and the growl of the lighted polar bear as it too approached. Part of his brain screamed for him to get up, to flee, to keep fighting for his life, but all his limbs felt like pudding. He had no strength left to do anything but lie on his back, panting, and wait for the end.

“I didn’t have to be this way, Frank.”

Frank opened his eyes and saw Tinsel’s face, upside down and inches above his own. The elf regarded him with a tiny mixture of boredom and sadness.

“Just get it over with,” Frank said, closing his eyes again. He felt Tinsel climb up onto his shoulder, unable and unwilling to stop him. The little feet climbed atop his broad chest and stopped and Frank, hearing the familiar crackle of the electric icicle, just hoped it would be quick.

“Tinsel?” a different, deeper voice asked from a short distance away. “What are you doing?”

When the elf spoke, Frank heard quavering words and knew the elf was afraid. “Santa? I . . . I was just doing what you . . . what you told me to do.”

Frank found just enough strength to raise his head. Santa Claus—no poor sap working at some run down mall, but the real Father Christmas himself—stood only a few yards from Frank’s feet, close enough that Frank could smell the faint musk of reindeer he gave off. He regarded them both—man and elf—with an amused twinkle in his eyes.

“Now, Tinsel,” Santa said, an amused twinkle in his eyes, “I didn’t tell you to kill him.”

Frank felt relief beyond any emotion he had ever felt in his life. Energy flooded back into his limbs and as Tinsel opened his mouth to protest, Frank smacked the elf off his chest. Tinsel rolled along the tile, disappearing into the mob of angry dolls.

“Santa,” Frank said. He crawled across the floor and lay at Santa’s feet, a penitent sinner seeking absolution. “Oh, Santa, thank you. Thank you for not letting him kill me. I’m sorry, so sorry for how I’ve acted and I promise you that I will get my act together and—“

Santa laughed, his deep “Ho Ho Ho” resonating through every corner of the mall. “Get up, Frank. I have something for you.”

Frank could not believe his good fortune. He scrambled to his feet, trying to forget that he had been chased by an army of animated toys, that he had come within seconds of being killed by an insane elf, and that he had dropped a load in his rented Santa suit. He had survived all of that and now here was the real Santa Claus, about to give him a present. He looked over to where Tinsel had picked himself up and stuck his tongue out at the elf.

Santa reached into his bag. “Tinsel, he said, “I didn’t tell you to kill him.” He removed his hand from the bag, but instead of a wrapped present, he held a 9mm handgun. “I told you that I’d kill him.” Santa pointed the gun against Frank’s chest and pulled the trigger.

Frank felt a searing pain in his chest and back, then all feeling washed away. He was dimly aware that he was falling, but he felt nothing as he landed on the hard tile yet again. The last thing he saw before his vision failed was Santa standing over him, gun barrel still smoking.

Santa pointed the gun again, this time at Frank’s head, and as he pulled the trigger he spoke the last words Frank would ever hear.

“Frank McCloskey,” Santa said. “You’ve been naughty.”

DEATH OF A MALL SANTA

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