And, so, we continue with the adventures of Marcus and Heather as they do whatever it is they are doing at this point of the story.  Happy reading!

Chapter 11

Marcus returned to his room at the top of the stairs, following directly behind Heather and watching the sway of her hips as she ascended the stairs. The dress sharply accentuated the femininity of her body, fitting tightly in some areas and hanging loose from others.

“Quit looking at my butt,” Heather said without turning around. Her tone was reproachful, but not filled with the loathing it had held at the beginning of their quest. Marcus marveled at how she knew he was staring at her backside, but then he realized that he was always staring at her backside when they were together, so the rebuke was well justified. She had told him that she sometimes felt more like a piece of meat to him than a partner, but he had laughed it off, asking her if she would like to marinade in the bathtub with him. Now, he supposed, he saw more clearly what she meant and, with effort, cast his eyes down to his feet as they climbed the wooden steps.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Heather opened her door and Marcus opened his. Neither said a word as they entered their rooms, but just as his door was about to close, he looked up. Heather stood with her door a few inches from shutting, looking at him. They stared at each other for a moment, saying nothing, not even to wish each other sweet dreams. Marcus did not know if they were back to that point yet, where he could wish something good for her without her turning it into something wrong.

Heather continued to look at him, a bit of the blue dress visible below her face. She gave him a slight smile, then shut the door. As he held his open, he heard the metallic scrape of a chain being slid into place. He had not entertained any thoughts of attempting to visit her in her room in the middle of the night, but if he had, the sound of her chaining the door would have driven them from his mind.

Walking to his bed, Marcus lay upon it, still clothed. Unable to get the image of Heather in the dress out of his mind, particularly the view when she leaned over to him, exposing the tantalizing swell of her breasts. He smiled, despite himself, feeling for a moment like a teenager with a crush, knowing it was as likely to be rejected as not, and not caring at all.

Then, an image of intense green eyes moved in beside that of Heather. Soon, he was seeing Lorelei wearing an identical blue dress and his thoughts again became confused. He loved Heather, that much he knew, but hurting Lorelei seemed completely wrong, a sin against nature somehow. That’s what it was, natural to have feelings for Lorelei. She was beautiful, vibrant, and, above all, she loved him. Any of those factors alone would be enough with most men to spur a commitment, but just as Marcus would begin to imagine himself with the elven woman, the image of Heather in the blue dress would swim before his eyes.

He wrested with his confused emotions for some time. Hours passed as he lay on the bed, still dressed and not at all sleepy. Finally, he decided he needed some fresh air, not only to clear his thoughts, but also to tire out his body enough for him to get some rest before they started in the morning.

Rising from the bed, Marcus left the room, shutting the door silently behind himself. He crossed the hall and placed his ear against the door behind which Heather had disappeared with her lovely smile. Faintly, he heard soft snoring and knew that she was not having nearly the trouble sleeping that he was.

He quietly descended the stairs again, thankful that the solid construction of the building eliminating any creaking boards. When he reached the bottom, he started to turn toward the front of the inn, but changed his mind and moved the other direction, stopping outside of Lorelei’s door. He leaned against it just as he had with Heather’s and heard only silence from within, not even the light breathing he expected. He wondered if Lorelei was still awake and, if so, what she was thinking.

He again walked toward the front of the hall, his soft boots making no noise as he did. Coming to the front door, he turned and saw Polan sitting in the same chair where he had been when they had first arrived. The room was dark, but the elf’s eyes gleamed in the dim candlelight that filtered in from the dining room. Marcus guessed that the disagreements between the two elves had escalated after dinner, causing Polan to seek refuge away from his wife. Still, he did not want to get involved in the drama of other couples when he had so much of his own to manage.

“Is it okay if I go outside for a bit?” Marcus asked. He knew that some enchantment on the door had required Lorelei to place her fingers on it before being allowed in and did not wish to get outside with no way back in should Polan decided to retire before Marcus returned.

“Yes,” Polan said. Marcus was unable to see his mouth in the dark. “Now that you have been allowed entry, the door will open for you when you decide to return. I am just about to go to bed myself.”

“I don’t think I’ll be long,” Marcus said. “I just want to get some fresh air before I go to sleep.”

“Very well,” the elf said, rising. “Good night to you.”

“And you,” Marcus said, watching the shadowy form of the elf enter the dining room and disappear from view.

Marcus turned to the door and pulled the latch. The heavy oaken door swung inward on well-oiled hinges, allowing the strong smell of autumn rain and fallen leaves inside. Stepping outside, Marcus could see the clearing around the inn quite well, thanks to the half moon that had risen above the treetops, casting its illumination through the thinning clouds.

He walked out the door and along the front wall of the inn, looking out into the chill darkness and thinking about the two women asleep inside, both vying for his love and both deserving of it. Making decisions had always been something Marcus considered himself an expert at, something that gained him wide recognition among his peers at SportsWorld. He wondered what Mike Green, his boss and his friend, would think about him in his current predicament, unable to decide between two women. Marcus would tell him, he thought, that determining who to hire and who to fire was far easier than deciding to whom to give your love.

Reaching the corner of the inn, Marcus turned and continued on along the side wall. He continued to weigh the options presented by both Heather and Lorelei, imagining them both on a large set of scales with every asset for each weighing down her side. As he compared the two, Heather’s tray dropped lower and lower, lifting Lorelei’s as it went. There were simply more things in Heather’s favor, he saw, or he was deliberately shifting things that way because, deep down, that was the result he wanted.

Either way, he knew that Heather was the right choice for him.

He stared out into the dark wood beyond the clearing as this epiphany struck him. That Heather held a much greater promise for happiness than Lorelei, despite the elf’s unsurpassed beauty, felt true to Marcus. He had known since they had started dating that Heather was meant for him and he silently berated himself for allowing things to slip out of control the way they had, for ignoring her the way he had done.

Leaning against the wall of the inn, watching his breath in the cool air, Marcus cleared away the confusion and the guilt that had bound his mind since his reunion with Lorelei. He would tell the elven beauty that his heart belonged to another and that she would have to move on. He would always have a place for her in his heart, he knew, but Lorelei was not his destiny as Heather was.

He continued to stare out into the trees, then a disturbing sight roused him from his introspective thoughts. Beyond the light of the moon, within the shadows of the trees, Marcus could make out two points of red light. They were the same height and size as those he had spied just outside the borders of Glenfold, though he realized that they were now farther off, fifty yards or so from him.

Instead of remaining stationary, though, the red lights now moved. Bobbing up and down slightly, the lights were constant, never dimming, but seemed to be moving toward him through the trees. As he looked around, Marcus saw other sets of red lights amidst the dark trunks, also moving with a disturbing up and down motion.

Fear rose within Marcus as he counted six sets of the lights spaced apart in the woods just beyond the clearing. He thought about the footprints he had discovered outside their camp before and a chill unrelated to the coolness of the air crept up his spine, causing the hair at the base of his neck to stand on end.

Finally, a form emerged from the shadows of the wood and entered the moonlight clearing. Marcus gasped as he saw what looked like at first glance, a human with bright red eyes. No human, though, could look so . . . so . . .

Dead, Marcus thought, they’re all dead.

More figures stepped onto the grass surrounding the inn, all in various stages of decomposition. Marcus was forcefully reminding of the classic George Romero films and half expected the walking corpses to start calling for his brains.

However, the approaching dead did not speak. Shuffling forward, arms hanging limply at their sides, they walked with eerie deliberation toward the inn, red eyes gleaming brighter than the half moon.

Marcus looked around for something to use against them, cursing once again the failure of his powers. He spotted a woodsman’s axe a few yards away leaning against a stack of cut logs for the fire. Running to it, he lifted it and checked the double-edged blade, finding it keen and heavy.

The dead drew closer and Marcus could see them more clearly now. The one closest to him was the body of an elven male, young at the time of his death, but now looking ancient as his skin sagged from his bones. He was dressed in what Marcus knew was an elven scout’s uniform, light gray shirt and pants, though these hung in tatters around his torso and legs. A sudden breeze blew the scraps of fabric back away from the decaying skin, giving them the appearance of gray flame snapping in the wind.

About twenty yards from the inn, the walking corpses halted. Standing stone still in the grass, vacant expressions beneath their glowing eyes, they looked at the walls in slack-jawed silence.

Marcus again studied the one closest to himself and saw that its jaw had gone quite slack. In fact, the jaw opened wide and continued to open until he heard a loud crack as the joint gave way. The mandible swung down suddenly, leaving an obscenely large opening for a mouth that seemed feral and wicked below the twin red orbs. Marcus watched the scene with horror, horror that increased when a voice came from the gaping hole in the corpse’s face.

“Marcus,” the voice said. The jaw did not move and Marcus doubted that the creature itself was actually making the noise. More likely, he thought, the person controlling these dead would be the one talking. “You were warned to go back home and forget this quest. By not doing so, you have elected to die and have doomed your friends to the same fate.”

Marcus held the axe in his hand, ready to strike at the first sign of movement. Still, he knew that he could not contend with all six of the dead he saw plush however many he could not see on the other sides of the building. He felt confident that the Necromancer had the inn surrounded so that if, by chance, Marcus was able to fend off one wave of attack, the building would still be vulnerable on the other sides.

“I will go back when you are dead,” Marcus screamed at the walking dead. He hoped his voice would be loud enough to wake the others, if not to join him in his defense, then to at least not be taken unawares when the attack began.

Cold laughter erupted from the gaping mouth. To hear such sound and not see the body projecting it shaking at all chilled Marcus more than the autumn air around him. “Then you may return now, for I am already dead.”

Marcus’s mind raced, trying to determine what that statement meant while also trying to divine some way out of his dire predicament. As his thoughts whirled, however, the corpses moved again, shuffling forward toward him and the inn.

He raised the axe and charged forward, stirring up a cloud of dead leaves into the moonlit air. Lifting the blade high over his head, he started to swing downward when the corpse before him burst into flames. Unable to stop the progress of the heavy weapon, Marcus felt his hands burn as the axe sunk deeply into the flaming body. He drew them back in painful alarm, loosing his grip on the axe in the progress. Watching in shocked disbelief, he saw the handle of the axe ignite and burn to ash within a few seconds in the fiercely hot fire. The double-edged blade, still lodged in the middle of the corpses face, glowed brilliantly red.

Marcus backed away, unsure of what to do. The flaming body drew nearer to him, reaching out with its arms as though it only wanted to give him a warm hug, a very warm hug. He thought of trying to summon his powers once more to extinguish his attacker, but knew that if he passed out, he would surely die, either by the hand of the Necromancer’s automaton, or in the inferno the inn was about to become.

Setting aside any consideration of attacking the fiery masses descending up on him, Marcus turned and sprinted back down the side of the inn, barely avoided two other assailants as they approached the wooden wall. Rounding the corner to the front of the building, his fears were confirmed as he saw more dead nearing the inn on its front and side. Pelting across the grass, he came at last to the front door and pushed on it. It held at first, creating a feeling in Marcus’s gut that bordered on extreme nausea. Then, the door glowed slightly where his hand touched it and swung back to permit him to enter.

Stepping just inside the door, he slammed it shut. “Everyone up,” he yelled at the top of his voice. Just outside, he could here the crackling of flames. “We’re under attack.”

Almost immediately, Valista and Polan appeared, each in their nightclothes and wielding longswords. Marcus could hear movement from upstairs, but could not tell if Wilkey or Heather or both had heard his cries. He charged up the stairs three at a time and reached the landing just as Wilkey ran out of his room, carrying his pack. Heather’s door remained open and Marcus placed an ear to it as Wilkey joined him.

Hearing nothing behind the door, Marcus tried the doorknob. It did not turn. Stepping back, he raised a foot and kicked the door just above the lock. The wood cracked beneath the blow, but the door held. He readied himself for another kick when he heard Heather’s terrified voice from behind the door.

“What the . . . who’s there?” she asked, her voice loud and panicked.

“We have to get out of here,” Marcus yelled through the door. “We’re under attack.”

He heard a hurried shuffling inside before Heather opened the door and peered out, apparently to verify the truth of his story. She wore her traveling clothes again, Marcus saw with some relief, the blue dress left behind on the dressing table.

“Come on,” Marcus said to her, more softly. “This place is about to go up in flames.”

Heather stared at him with wide eyes. “Is it Amadyr?”

“Thankfully, no,” Marcus said, although he truly did not know whether he would prefer facing the dragon or the flaming fiends he could hear bashing the walls of the inn. “We just need to get out of here now.”

Heather complied without question, for which Marcus was very grateful. They raced back down the stairs as the first tendrils of smoke began to filter up the staircase, causing them to cough before dropping low enough to get beneath its suffocating cloud. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Valista and Polan both stood there waiting for them. Both of them had tied scarves around their faces to block out the smoke and they handed some to Marcus, Heather, and Wilkey, bidding them to do the same.

Marcus sped down the hall to the room Lorelei had entered and banged on the door. When he received no answer, he raised his foot again and kicked. Again, the door emitted a loud cracking sound, but held shut. He kicked again and a third time before the door frame finally splintered and the portal opened, slamming against the wall of the room.

The room beyond was empty, save for a copious amount of thick smoke that poured into the hall as the door opened. The outside facing wall was completely engulfed in flames and, as Marcus watched, the window exploded outward in a storm of glass.

“Lorelei,” Marcus called above the snapping flames. He ducked down and scanned the room beneath the smoke, checking to see if perhaps Lorelei lay unconscious, or worse, and could not hear him. Still, he found the room devoid of any life save that of the dancing fire.

Returning to the others, Marcus found them all bend down to avoid the cloud of black smoke that floated beneath the ceiling. The walls of the inn creaked ominously as the sound of crackling fire grew louder.

“She’s gone,” Marcus said. “Lorelei’s gone.”

Wilkey and Heather both exchanged puzzled looks, but the two elves looked less uncertain.

“She must have gone out for a walk,” Valista said.

“Well, then, let’s do the same before this place comes down around our heads,” Marcus said.

He spun around, looking for some exit. The sounds of the flame increased steadily in volume and a shudder ran through the wooden structure. Knowing they only had a few minutes before they would be consumed, Marcus raced through a number of escape options and his gaze came to rest on the front door. It remained shut, thought Marcus could hear pounding upon its exterior, like two powerful fists trying to gain entrance. A thought occurred to him then, a half-made plan that was still better than anything else his mind, or the others, had offered.

Taking up the axe which he had dropped at the base of the stairs, Marcus held it in his hands for a moment, considering. The others watched him curiously, but Marcus could see a flicker of hope in their eyes, hope that Marcus had a brilliant plan that would allow them all to escape with their lives.

Marcus turned to Polan. “When I give you the word, I want you to open the front door.”

The elf looked at him, startled, but nodded. He crouched and half-crawled to the door. Reaching up, he tested the handle with his hand and drew it back quickly, telling the others that it was extremely hot. He then pulled off his shirt, pulling it over his head to reveal his thin upper body, and wrapped it tightly around his hand. He tested his grip on the door, nodded in satisfaction, then looked to Marcus for the go ahead to pull it open.

Marcus turned to the other three. “When he opens that door, I’m going to charge through. I want the three of you to be right behind me. We may only have a few seconds to get clear. Single file out the door, then run to the clearing where the griffons are.”

Marcus did not know if Valista and Polan knew exactly which clearing he was referring to, but he reckoned they probably did. He figured the clearing was a regular landing spot, a sort of airport for the large flying beasts. If not, he decided, they could simply follow the rest of them to it.

He paused, looking around into the entry room where Valista and Polan had been sitting when they arrived. The room was sparsely decorated, but here and there he could see various personal effects the two elves had brought from Glenfold or had collected during their time in the remote inn. A chord of guilt sounded within him—he had brought this doom upon them and now they looked to him for some means of escape, despite the fact that everything they owned in this building would soon be ash and smoke. Sighing, then coughing as the smoke cloud thickened, he set those thoughts aside to focus on the job at hand.

He ran to the back of the hall. The heat there was tremendous and Marcus felt that the back wall would likely collapse at any time. Turning, he saw the others had flattened themselves against the interior walls, making room for his charge. He nodded at Polan, who nodded back. Then, he was running.

Marcus had built up a good deal of speed by the time he neared the end of the hallway. He flashed by the others in a blur and the smoke behind him divided like the wake of a speed boat. When he was a few yards from the door, he yelled, “Now!” and Polan yanked the door open.

When the door opened, a pillar of flame rushed inside, feeding itself on the air being forced out of the building by the increasing smoke. The yellow tongues drifted up and curled across the ceiling. The figure producing the flames, the dead body, appeared inside the conflagration like a blackened piece of wood, but still moved forward as the door swung open. Raising its flaming arms, it reached outward for Marcus as though greeting him as a long lost relative.

Marcus reached his full speed at the moment he reached the threshold. Holding the axe out before him like a lance, he struck the flaming body square in the chest and, with some effort, hoisted it up before him as he ran out the door. The fire flickered around him and the heat, intense and blistering, covered him like a blanket. Still, he drove forward and soon felt the chill night air on his back. Behind him, he could hear the others following and Heather’s shrieks of terror as she saw the truth of what was attacking the building.

He felt his arms give out about twenty yards from the front door and he gave one final thrust of the axe, pushing the flaming corpse backward into the grass. It struggled to get up, but its blackened limbs would no longer support its efforts to rise. Marcus turned away from it, realizing that other threats were more in need of his attention.

Heather, Wilkey, and the two elves huddled around Marcus and looked back at the inn. The walls were completely engulfed and most of the windows had exploded from the pressure. The roof leaned to one side as the wall supporting it sagged, then began to crumble. From the chimney, thick smoke poured out, looking almost normal for a cool autumn evening except for the odd angle at which it now pointed.

The entire building became a huge inferno, leaving no wood visible beneath the roaring flames. Marcus could see that the dead that had attacked now stood still in the midst of the fire, blackened columns among the orange glow. They no longer pounded on the walls, seemingly content to watch the inn burn despite not catching their intended prey. Then, Marcus saw something else in the fire. He blinked his eyes and wiped them with the raw, singed flesh on the back of his wrist and still the image was there. As the others saw it as well, they gave a collective gasp.

A face, huge and skull-like, appeared in the flames of the inn. Marcus could make out the eyes and mouth, dark patches against the brilliant light of the burning inn. The eyes blinked twice, as if trying to focus on them as Marcus had tried to do on it, then the mouth curled into a crooked smile, sending a wisp of smoke from its upturned corner.

“Marcus . . . “ the face whispered, it voice barely more than the sound of the flames, hissing and popping. “Marcus, I told you to turn back and still you defy me. You will have no other chances to leave. You and the girl will die.” The face then vanished as quickly as it had appeared just as the walls of the inn gave way and collapsed into a heap, sending sparks high into the air.

Marcus turned to Heather who stared at him in horror. She had missed the Necromancer’s previous displays of power and now knew what magical force they were up against. He hoped that she now understood how important it was for him to regain his powers, whatever the danger. Such a power would eventually destroy everyone in this land and, despite Heather’s wishes to go home as quickly as possible, wishes that Marcus shared, she understood the importance of stopping the Necromancer’s plans.

“Quick,” Marcus said. “Let’s get to the griffons.”

“What about Lorelei,” Wilkey asked, gazing back at the burning pile of wood that had moments before been an inn.

“She wasn’t in her room, so she must have already gotten out before the attack,” Marcus said, although he did take an overlong glance at the glowing heap. He felt confident that Lorelei had escaped, but he would not be sure until they found her again and that shred of doubt gave him a weighty pain in his gut. “If she’s anywhere in the area, she’ll be with the griffons.”

Marcus led them to the tree line, looking around carefully in case more animated dead emerged to begin a second wave. He saw none, but he felt eyes watching him and a hostile will permeating the forest around them. He tried to hear any possible sound of a hidden attacker among the underbrush, but the snaps and pops of burning wood behind them made it very difficult. Still, they pushed on, Polan taking the lead along the path with his sword drawn and his sharp elven eyes finding the path easily. Valista, her sword in hand, as well, brought up the rear, scanning the forest to either side and behind to ensure that no pursuit followed them.

They met no resistance along the path to where they had left the griffons. Walking carefully and quietly, they moved along slowly, watching all angles until at last they emerged again into the clearing.

Leaving the darkness of the woods, however, they found no griffons awaiting them. The clearing was empty save for grass and the silvery light of the moon.

“Damn it!” Marcus yelled. “Where the hell are they?”

“Maybe they were attacked and Lorelei took them to the sky for safety,” Valista offered, looking up into the sky.

They all looked up, seeing no sign of the creatures. Continuing out into the middle of the clearing, Marcus looked around and saw the grass flattened, but could not tell by what. Polan also scanned the ground, being more versed in tracking than Marcus.

“Too many tracks,” he said, agreeing with Marcus’s assessment. “Mostly griffon, but also boots, but that could have been you as you dismounted and came to the inn.”

“Or,” Wilkey chimed in, his voice higher than usual, “it could have been them.”

They all looked up and followed the halfling’s pointing finger. From the shadows of the forest, figures were coming forward. More dead bodies, in various stages of decay, advanced upon them with their slow, shuffling steps. Dozens of them flowed into the clearing from every direction, leaving no gap between them for another escape such as the one at the inn.

Marcus and his companions drew closer to one another. Polan and Valista, however, charged forward, sprinting across the grass toward the nearest body. Swinging their swords in graceful arcs, they attacked, their blades cutting deeply into the dead flesh and stopping them no more than a fly would landing on the desiccated skin. The two elves backed away, Valista unable to pull her blade from the corpses, and fled back to where Marcus and the others stood.

All around them, the ring of the dead tightened. Soon, the rotting bodies were shoulder to shoulder, some passing behind others to form another ring around their victims. Again a wave of coldness swept out from them as they moved in, their red eyes blazing in one long beam that looked to Marcus like a neon tube.

The animated corpses closed in with agonizing slowness. They were within thirty yards . . . then twenty . . . then ten. Now, Marcus could smell them as well as feel their mindless malevolence, the odor of rotting meat clouded the air around them.

Marcus searched within himself, looking for some way to reach those abilities that he knew lay just beyond his reach like a doorknob to a young child. He knew he would have to reach those powers to save them, even if it meant his death from the exertion. His one goal was to save the others if he could. Perhaps Wilkey and the elves could escort Heather back to the cave, he thought.

Then, just as he closed his eyes to try to draw upon his magic, he was startled out of his revelry by a loud shriek. At first, he thought Heather had made it, though it sounded like nothing the human voice could generate. Looking around, the dead nearly close enough that he could touch them, he saw a shadow pass before the light of the moon and felt a large form pass just over his head, smashing into the corpses nearest him.

“It’s Lorelei!” Valista yelled, pointing above.

Marcus looked and saw Blizzard, fresh from his run through the corpses near his rider, wheeling about for another pass. The other griffons, with similar calls to the one Blizzard had made before his charge, dove from the night sky and cut through the ranks of the dead like a scythe through wheat. Even Sunbeam, smaller than his other kin, devastated those within his path, raking the dead flesh with his claws and beak.

The corpses stopped advancing, apparently dimly aware of their danger, but unable to process some plan to deal with it. Marcus wondered what the Necromancer was thinking as his army was decimated by the ferocity of the griffons.

After clearing out a small space around Marcus and the others, the griffons landed beside them. Lorelei sat upon Winterdusk, looking pale and beautiful in the moonlight.

“Valista and Polan, you’ll have to take Blizzard and return to Glenfold. Wilkey can ride with me on Winterdusk. You,” she pointed at Heather, “will take Sunbeam and Marcus can take Aspen.”

No one argued with the commands. They watched the dead bodies around them began to advance again, more urgency in their shuffle now that their prey was escaping. Each mounted the griffons as they were instructed, fumbling with the straps to ensure that the griffons with two riders would not lose either of them in midflight. In a few moments, the griffons took to the air, leaving behind a sea of dead bodies in their wake. Looking down, Marcus could see hundreds of corpses milling about in the clearing as if they were waiting for some outdoor concert by a popular singer. He was awed by the sheer numbers of them and wondered, not for the first time, if he could contend with the power of the Necromancer, even with his powers restored.

Chapter 10

Not a word was spoken by any of the four companions as they walked back into the streets of Glenfold. The only sounds any of them made, aside from their footfalls on the rock-strewn paths, were the occasional grunts and sighs of Wilkey hauling the heavy pack. Marcus thought at first to take the burden from the halfling, but determined that the sound effects were just that, an attempt to make the effort seem more than it was so someone else would take it off his hands. He smiled in spite of himself, hiding the grin with his hand so Lorelei would not turn suddenly and see him making light of her pain.

They came at last to a massive, but otherwise unremarkable, building of gray stone. The entered through a narrow archway and passed along a torch-lit corridor for sometime, occasionally turning this way and that, before exiting again into the light of day. Behind him, Marcus could hear Heather gasp as she looked out into the space they had just entered. The dome roof above them rose high above the ground, reminding Marcus of indoor stadiums he saw on television, but at various intervals across the wooden structure, large openings allowed them to see patches of gray clouds still clinging to the skies overhead. Along each wall, large holes were cut into the stone, not deep, but far enough back that their far walls were obscured in shadow. Upon the ground, an odd mixture of straw and feathers littered the dirt floor. The whole place smelled to Marcus like the chicken houses some farmers operated in Kentucky near where he grew up, a very distinguishable stench for anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced it.

However, the features of the room were not what caught Heather’s eyes, or Marcus’s who could not recall ever having visited this place as a child.

It was the griffons that demanded their attention.

Swooping in and out of the building through the great open windows at the top of the building, the massive creatures flew above them, barely noticing the four newcomers who had entered their building. Their magnificent eagle heads and torsos blending seamlessly with their feline hindquarters, the beasts exuded a sense of power and cunning that could be seen in every movement of their graceful bodies. Several stood perched around the perimeter of the building on great nests made into the niches that had been prepared in the walls. On the ground level, a lone elf was issuing commands to a particularly large griffon, mottled gray in color, which turned to regard them with cold, fierce eyes.

The elf before them looked older, but not nearly so old as Lanian. His hair was a dull gray matching the clouds that could still be seen through the openings in the ceiling above them, and his face bore many wrinkles. Still, he moved extraordinarily well for one of such an advanced age, Marcus thought, and handled the griffon with absolute confidence. In one hand, he held several dead rabbits that he was apparently using in some training exercise, an exercise that, by the look of exasperation on his face, was not going well.

“Lorelei,” the elf said in a surprised tone. “I wasn’t expecting you for another day or so. I’m afraid this one’s not ready to go with you yet. Still too stubborn.” He motioned to the beast in front of him, which seemed to understand what the elf was saying as it cocked its head sideways and squawked loudly, sounding like a huge eagle.

“I don’t care, Felden” Lorelei answered. “She’s the one I’m taking. She’ll respond to me.” Lorelei strode forward and patted the griffon’s neck. The large avian head leaned into her, nestling against her torso in an affectionate manner and making soft cooing sounds that reminded Marcus forcefully of a pigeon.

Feldem looked up and saw the others standing in the doorway, wary to approach such a fearsome looking beast despite Loralai’s display. He motioned them to come forward, stopped, appearing to think something over, and motioned for them to approach again, but more cautiously. “Slowly, now. They’ve never smelled any of your kind before. I’m fairly sure they’ll be fine, but just in case, don’t rush up to her.” He motioned to the griffon Lorelei was caressing. “Especially not this one. She still has a wild streak.”

Marcus, Heather, and Wilkey all walked forward toward Feldem, constantly looking around them and, particularly, above them as they did. A few of the griffons above them, high in their perches, looked down upon them curiously. One even buffeted its wings, producing a small storm of dust and straw, and scared Heather to the point that she clutched Marcus’s arm for support. As they approached Lorelei, the griffon she was with looked up suddenly, its predatory eyes scanning them over. Marcus could hear it taking in breath through its beak, taking in their scent, while deciding if they were friend or foe.

Feldem moved quickly to their side, offering the remaining rabbits, one to each. “Here,” he told them, “try giving her these. It might work as a peace offering so she won’t be too suspicious of you. Just throw them up and she’ll catch them.”

Heather stepped around Marcus, releasing his arm as absently as she had taken it, and gave her rabbit a weak toss, barely flinging it a few yards before it prepared to strike the hay-strewn floor of the room. Just as it was about to land, though, the griffon darted forward like a cobra striking at a mongoose and snatched the rabbit out of the air. Throwing its head back, it lifted the rabbit up and allowed it to fall down into its throat while its hooked beak chewed it, breaking the rabbit’s bones with sounds like pencils breaking. When the griffon looked down again, the rabbit was completely gone save for a small piece of brown fur still clinging to the tip of its beak.

Wilkey threw his next, nearly smacking the griffon in the face with it before the beak opened again and nearly swallowed the rabbit whole. Then, Marcus took his and swung it around slowly by his side like a lasso. Giving it a mighty fling into the air, he saw the griffon explode from the ground as several others swooped down from mid-flight or their nests to try to claim the prize. The rabbit soared upward and it looked for a moment as if a half dozen griffons would crash into each other in their efforts to catch it.

Instead, a white griffon, slightly smaller than the one Lorelei was taking, dove down nearly on a straight vertical drop, its wings pinned to its sides to increase its velocity, and plucked the rabbit right from the beak of the mottled gray. Still facing the danger of impact with another of its kind, it stayed in the dive until it was about to slam into the hard floor, then opened its wings wide, slowing its descent at the last moment, and swept directly over their heads in a flurry of wind, dust, straw and feathers. It made a large arc around the room, ignoring the squawks of protests from its cohorts, and rose again with three powerful strokes of its wings to perch upon the ledge at the very top of the building.

Marcus watched the white griffon the entire way and turned back to Feldem and Lorelei, smiling. “I’ll take that one,” he told them, pointing up to the white griffon enjoying its snack high above their heads.

Lorelei continued to ignore Marcus, but the older elf beamed at him. “Good choice, that’s one of our best and brightest, as you just saw.”

Heather stepped forward then, pushing Marcus aside. She looked at Feldem and Lorelei, her hands on her hips. “Wait a minute, here. You mean to tell me that we’re going to ride those things? In the air?”

Feldem laughed. “Well, they won’t move very fast walking through the woods, will they?”

“Oh, no,” Heather said, shaking her head. “I’m not getting on one of those. I’ll just walk, thank you very much.”

Lorelei looked at Heather and her expression made Marcus’s blood chill in his veins. “We have to take the griffons. If we don’t, we’ll never make it to the Fell Lands in time to save my people.”

Heather looked at Marcus for support, but saw she would gain none on this matter from him. “Where are these Fell Lands? Where are we going, Marcus?”

Marcus wanted to avoid the question, hoping it would come up after they had already been on their way for some time, too far away to return to Glenfold. Now, however, he saw that he would have to reveal their destination and their reason for going if he was even to convince Heather and Wilkey to join them, for behind Heather, Marcus could see the halfling had gone pale, staring at him with wide eyes.

“We’re going to see the oldest and probably wisest being in these lands. She is the only one who may know why my powers have lessened and how I can get them back.”

“What kind of being are you talking about,” Heather asked.

Marcus hesitated. Here it is, he thought. “Amadyr Onewing is a . . . a dragon.”

Heather blinked several times but said nothing. Finally, her tongue seemed to loosen itself. “We’re going to see a dragon with one wing to find out how you can use your powers?”

“Uh . . . yeah,” Marcus replied.

Feldem, sensing the uncomfortable nature of the conversation, interrupted. “Marcus, can you help me and Lorelei gather the saddles and equipment you’ll need for the journey?”

Marcus readily agreed, thankful that he would not have to answer any more questions right away. He knew Heather had several more, but he knew Wilkey could fill in the blanks so that he would not have to. Smiling weakly at her, he turned and jogged after the two elves to a corridor opposite the one they had used to enter the room.

Heather turned and looked at Wilkey. The halfling stood statue still, pale as cream, staring into nothing. “A dragon with one wing?” she asked.

Wilkey snapped out of his catatonia with a start. “What?” he asked, sounding as if he had just awoken from a dream.

“I asked about the dragon with one wing that we’re going to see,” Heather said.

Wilkey swallowed. “Yes, Amadyr. The Great Wyrm. Oldest of Old. She has had many names over the centuries, but Onewing is a relatively new one. For ages, she terrorized all the peoples of this land, stealing livestock and burning towns at will, with no one to resist her. She even attacked the elves, as formidable as they are, with great success until . . .” he looked up at Heather, “until Marcus came.”

“Marcus defeated her?”

Wilkey nodded, his focus far distant as he recalled the tale. “That’s why they call her Onewing now. She was preying upon the elves because they were hiding their livestock. One day, she flew through the magical barrier, being powerfully magical herself, and unleashed her fury on the city itself. She had threatened to burn the whole city to the ground when Marcus walked out to the common area, next to the fountain where . . .” The halfling shifted his eyes uncomfortably, not wishing to remind Heather of what she had seen with Marcus and Lorelei. “Anyway, Amadyr attacked, breathed fire down on him, but he countered by producing a pillar of water from the fountain that blocked the fire. Then, he pulled out a dagger, the one he still carries, and hurled it at her. Amadyr, thinking she had nothing to fear from so small a weapon, ignored it while she prepared to attack again. The dagger struck her wing, lodged itself inside the joint, and a great flash of light came from it. Amadyr was thrown down among the trees which ripped her wing off as she fell. The elves and Marcus moved her body while she was still unconscious beyond the borders of Glenfold and left her by the river. When they returned the next day, she was gone, but elven scouts managed to follow her as she returned to her cave high in the mountains of the Fell Lands, a horrible, barren place far from here.”

Heather listened intently, then looked into the darkness of the corridor where Marcus had disappeared with the elves. She marveled to think of how much power it took to defeat a dragon, as Wilkey had described it. For the first time since their trip through the cave, she began to realize how terrible losing such power in a time like this would be. She felt sorry for Marcus and guilty for her lack of understanding. Regardless of any vendetta for the death of his friend, Heather felt that simply regaining what he had lost would be more than enough motivation to continue on this quest were she in his shoes.

The two elves and Marcus came back, each bearing a large pile of leather and steel in their arms. When they returned to where Heather and Wilkey were standing, they dropped their loads before them and Heather saw that four complex saddles lay before her. She had owned a horse in her youth and was well acquainted with the tools of the equine trade, but the equipment before her looked foreign, having been adjusted to allow for the differences in anatomy between the two creatures. The saddles were smaller than those used for horses and cut differently to allow the wings their full range of movement. In addition, the straps that held the saddle on seemed to be at odd angles from what she knew, again to compensate for the vast difference in mount.

Feldem smiled at Heather’s perplexed look. “That’s exactly how I looked when we first tried to saddle one a few years ago. These are some I’ve made modifications to so they’ll fit and not hinder their movement. We’ve only been keeping griffons for about ten years, so there’s a lot we still don’t know about them, but we have managed to use a few as mounts on particularly important occasions.”

“I’d say this qualifies as ‘particularly important’,” Wilkey said. The halfling was also eyeing the saddles. His expression said that he would sooner face the dragon alone and on foot than sit in one of the saddles atop a griffon.

Feldem showed Lorelei how to harness the saddle to the mottled gray griffon, Winterdusk, he called her. He bade the others to watch as well, telling them that he expected them to saddle their own when he finished with Lorelei. He would still be available to help, of course, but they would need to know how to do this in the wild with no handler there to help them or else they might be a thousand feet in the air and figure out they had done it wrong as they plummeted to the ground.

When the saddle was securely strapped to Winterdusk, Feldem produced a small, silver whistle from his breast pocket. On it, he blew two long, harsh notes and a short sharp note. Looking up, Marcus saw the white griffon he had picked out step out from its perch and float to the floor beside him. It turned its head to regard him with its eagle eye, then turned its attention to Feldem.

“I don’t think they’ve ever smelled humans,” Feldem said, a bit nervous, “or halflings, but I think that if they were going to attack you, they would have already done so. At least your coming in with Lorelei showed them that you are friendly to the elves.”

Marcus did not take a good deal of comfort from the handler’s statement, but moved forward anyway to attach the saddle the way he had seen it done in their example. The white griffon tensed at first and Marcus wondered if he would have the reflexes to escape if the hooked beak came down on the back of his neck. He doubted it, but found the point moot as the beast relaxed and allowed Marcus to place the saddle on its back.

“What’s this one called?” he asked Feldem.

“Blizzard,” the handler replied. “He’s one of the most cunning of the lot. It took very little to train him and I think some times he was the one training me.”

Next, a dark brown griffon, Aspen, was selected to be Heather’s mount. A female, like Winterdusk, it seemed to enjoy being called to stand next to Blizzard as Heather fought to strap on the saddle, hardly taking her large, dark eyes off him. After much cursing and a few squawks of protest from Aspen, Feldem proclaimed the saddle safe and looked around to find a griffon for Wilkey, who seemed less than eager.

“If it’s all right with you, I’d prefer to just ride with Marcus,” the halfling said.

Feldem would hear none of it, saying that the saddles would only accommodate one rider and that adding another would not only be unsafe, but would also be a hindrance to the griffon. After some moments of deliberation, Feldem drew his whistle again and blew one long note and three short, shrill notes that seemed to echo in the cavernous room. A second later, a feathery bolt leaped from the upper most reaches of the walls and dived straight down, plummeting at a dizzying speed. Just as the griffon was about to splatter into the floor, it unfurled its wings like the sails on a clipper ship, and sped directly toward them. As he drew near, Feldem blew another note on his whistle, a loud wavering call that made the griffon pull up just short and land lightly beside Aspen.

Wilkey looked at his selected mount and could not keep himself from laughing. The griffon was smaller than the others by a substantial amount. To make matters worse, the feathers that covered the front half of its body were yellow, making it easily the most eye-catching creature in the room.

“This is Sunbeam,” Feldem explained. “He’s a little rambunctious, but he’s a loyal steed nonetheless.”

Wilkey did not looked convinced. “You expect me to fly a chicken to the Fell Lands?” he asked.

Sunbeam seemed to take his meaning, even if he could not understand the words. He head-butted the halfling, producing a loud thunk as his feather-covered skull connected with Wilkey’s. The halfling, caught completely by surprise, fell backward in a cloud of feathers and dust. He got immediately to his feet, giving the griffon a look of contempt, but said nothing that might warrant further violence.

Within a half hour, Feldem had all seated the four upon their griffons and instructed them in some basic commands. He said he doubted they would encounter any threats while in the air, but he drilled them briefly on mid-air combat just in case. Using Lorelei as an example, as she had already ridden a few of the griffons over the past few years, he explained how to make the mounts dive, climb, and whirl about with only verbal commands. The reins that they held did not help them steer, Feldem told them, serving only to help them stay seated along with a complicated series of straps and ties that secured them to the saddle.

At last, Lorelei instructed her griffon to land and Marcus took his turn in the air. He found the motion nauseating at first, but as his body adjusted to the rhythmic beating of the great white wings, he found the experience exhilarating. They were still inside the great building that housed the rest of the griffons, but the wind still whipped his hair as he bade his mount to dive and roll, feeling its powerful body flex and contort to perform the necessary avionics. Soon, he felt that he had mastered all the commands Feldem had given them and he landed, giving the griffon and affectionate pat on the neck.

Heather took her turn next and, though it seemed to Marcus that she was quite a natural at guiding the griffon through the necessary commands, he saw her face when she landed to be slightly tinged with green. She looked at him, trying to hide her dizziness and discomfort, and smiled weakly.

Wilkey, on the other hand, had trouble simply trying to mount his griffon. The yellow beast moved away from the halfling every time Wilkey tried to hoist his foot into the stirrup, inspiring a comical one-legged dance as Wilkey followed. Finally, Feldem retrieved his whistle and blew one short note at Sunbeam, who stopped moving altogether and allowed the halfling to finally straddle his back. When airborne, the yellow cared little for the halfling’s commands, preferring instead to perform a series of difficult rolls and turns designed to dislodge Wilkey from his perch. Feldem called again on his whistle after a few minutes, commanding Sunbeam to land. Wilkey did not even have time to pull his foot from the stirrup and swing his leg over the saddle before his lunch came back out the way it had gone in.

Feldem scolded the yellow griffon for some time, then talked to it in low soothing tones that Marcus hoped would settle the beast for their trip. He felt he had quite enough to worry about with the silent conflict between Heather and Lorelei, not to mention their task with Amadyr, and cared little to add an airsick halfling to that list.

Towards mid-afternoon, with their gear distributed and packed upon the griffons, the party prepared to leave Glenfold. Feldem assured them that they could get well beyond the borders by dusk and if any moonlight penetrated through the clouds, they could also travel a good distance by night.

“One word of caution, though,” the handler added. “You won’t be able to take the griffons all the way to Amadyr’s lair. Once they pick up her scent, no one would be able to move them any closer. There are few things that scare a griffon, but a dragon is the top of that list.”

“How close will they get us?” Marcus asked.

“That depends on how soon they pick up her scent,” Feldem said.

After going over the commands one more time, the four companions instructed their mounts to take off, circling the room a few times to gain altitude, and one by one exited the building through one of the large holes in the roof.

Rising quickly above the city, Marcus marveled at the vista that lay before him. The magnificent forest of the elves, always beautiful, lay stretched below him in a patchwork of golds, oranges, and reds. The thick foliage, in its autumnal glory, spread before them as far as the eye could see as they climbed, only broken by the rejoining of the two branches of the Misteld that circled Glenfold many miles in the distance. Though no sun yet appeared through the clouds, the overcast skies appeared lighter and less gloomy than they had previously, and Marcus found his spirit uplifted by the warm wind and the smell of recent rains that filled the air.

Looking around him, he saw the others and imagined by their expressions of awe that their thoughts were similar to his. Only Wilkey seemed to not be sharing their delight, holding the reins and the edge of his saddle with white-knuckled hands and his eyes clenched tightly as though he was trying to compute something very difficult in his brain. Marcus felt sorry for the halfling, but too much so, thinking back to the episode at the pub in Yellow Banks where Marcus had found him passed out drunk.

Maybe the clean air up here will do him some good, Marcus thought, turning his attention back to the incredible view before him.

They closed upon the borders of Glenfold in what felt like only a few minutes. Marcus knew that more time than that had passed by the lower position of the sun, but at their height above the forest, he could not gauge for sure how fast they were going. As they soared over the point where the Misteld fused again into a wide, raging torrent, Marcus could barely hear the roar of the rapids over the whistling wind blowing into his ears. He looked down and could see no movement on the ground, but his instincts told him that they were being watched by eyes on both sides of the border. He thought about requesting the griffons to fly higher to use the blanket of stratus above them for concealment, but looking up could not measure how far the lowest level of the cloud cover would be. Wilkey, drenched in sweat and still clenching his eyes shut, would not follow them any higher, he knew, and Marcus also knew they needed to stay together from now on to have any hope of success.

Lorelei, astride Winterdusk, flew out in front of the others, the elf knowing the land better than the others, especially from above. Her red hair whipped back in the wind, looking like flame in the rays of the setting sun, emerging from a break in the clouds. Marcus tried to imagine what she was thinking as they traveled on, what her emotions were like after his scene with Heather by the fountain. He knew his own emotions were confused and irritating, like the cacophony of many voices in a crowded room. On the one hand, he loved Heather and could not imagine his life without her. On the other, he found Lorelei compelling him in ways that Heather never had and the thought of her body pressed against his while they rolled in the grass still made his skin tingle. He elected to see how things went and hoped they sorted themselves out in a way that would benefit all, although he usually found that such optimism failed him more often than not.

They flew on, the griffons riding the air currents with no sign of weariness, until the sun’s last rays gilded the clouds nearest the horizon. Above them stars appeared through openings in the thinning clouds and the air around them began to chill quickly. Looking to his side, he could see Heather in the failing light trying to fold her arms across herself for warmth while still holding tight to the reins. Wilkey, on his other side, still held on with a vice-like grip, now occasionally opening his eyes to ensure that the others were still around them.

Marcus urged Blizzard to increase his speed until he drew even with Lorelei. “I think we should find a place to land,” he yelled to her over the rushing wind. “The others are getting cold.”

Lorelei turned to him and her expression made him cold. Her vivid green eyes appeared as great, dark orbs in the shadows of her face and the firm set of her mouth told him that she still had not forgotten his words to Heather. Without any warning, she gave the command for Winterdusk to dive, aiming for a small clearing barely discernible in the failing light of day.

The other griffons did not even wait for their riders to instruct them to dive, following after Winterdusk on their own, either knowing the commands were coming or out of a desire not to be separated. In wide circles, they lost altitude until they at last landing in a small grassy area, roughly the size of a baseball diamond. The wood around them, while thinner than those of Glenfold, were dark and forbidding, causing Heather and Wilkey to glance about them nervously as the griffons squawked to each other loudly.

Each rider dismounted. Marcus slid off his saddle and felt his knees buckled beneath his weight. He had never been much of a horseman, preferring to walk even in these lands when he chose not to use his abilities to teleport, and found the weakness of his legs disconcerting. He recalled seeing in some well-made Western movies how the riders would dismount after a long ride and squat down a few times to resume proper circulation to their legs. Marcus did this and found the exercise to be of enormous help, the numbness in his legs replaced with a dull, aching pain, that nevertheless gave him full strength in his muscles.

Heather, he saw, was doing the same, though she had obviously not felt the effects of the ride like Marcus had, being an experienced rider. Wilkey slid off Sunbeam and all the way down to a sitting position upon the grass, leaning against the griffon’s powerful hind leg for support while he gasped for air.

Lorelei swung off her saddle and landed lightly on the ground below, walking toward them as soon as her feet touched the dewy grass. She looked like she suffered no effects from the long ride and Marcus found himself feeling jealous.

The elf stopped in the center of the clearing and looked around for a moment. “I know where we are,” she said simply. “There is an inn where we can stay not far from here. We can leave the griffons here and return for them in the morning.”

A pang of dread rose in Marcus at the thought of leaving the griffons. They would certainly be in no danger with their many physical defenses, claws and beaks, as well as their ability to flee into the sky should the odds overwhelm them, but Marcus could not escape the feeling that parting ways from the griffons would leave them, at best, with no other transportation to the Fell Lands than their own feet. Still, he trusted Loralai’s judgment, despite her obvious negativity toward him at the moment, and retrieved his pack from the side of the saddle.

The others did the same, slinging their packs over their shoulders and wordlessly falling into step behind Lorelei as she walked to the edge of the wood. As they neared the tree line, a path appeared before them, although it still remained practically invisible to the humans and the halfling. Lorelei walked confidently forward, not slowing her stride as she left the patch of grass. As they followed, the others walked in single file and met no resistance from the underbrush the could barely see growing up wild all around them. The elf knew this way well, they saw, and Marcus wondered how many times Lorelei had walked this particular path, or if her enhanced eyesight simply made the clear way more obvious to her.

They walked for some time, no one saying a word in the hushing darkness of the forest. All around them, they could hear birds singing their night songs and crickets providing their rhythmic string music. A deer exploded from the underbrush at one point, startling all of them except Lorelei, who only paused a moment while the others collected themselves before continuing on in silence.

At last they came to another clearing where a sprawling two-story building rose in the darkness. Welcoming slivers of light could be seen in the shuttered windows and faint voices could be heard from within. From a point farther around the clearing, the dark outline of a thin road could be seen like a black ribbon along the ground, barely visible in the starlight.

“What is this place?” Marcus asked. “I don’t recall ever coming here.”

Lorelei turned to look at him, her face impassive. “It wasn’t here the last time you visited these lands. We built it here as a means of alerting Glenfold of any threat from Amadyr. Our scouts that travel to the Fell Lands use it as a place to rest before tackling the mountains.”

“You said it was an inn.”

“And so it is,” Lorelei returned with a note of impatience. “We also take in travelers to these lands as need arises. We find it the best way to keep Amadyr from guessing our true intentions.”

Marcus doubted that if Amadyr knew of the inn, she would have thought it simply an elven business venture. The dragon, despite her physical incapacity, still possessed a powerful mind or else Lanian would not have sent him to her with his problem. He looked up over the dark canopy of trees on the other side of the building and could vaguely see the outline of the Norag Mountains, jutting upward like rotted teeth in the distance. On the other side, the Fell Lands stretched out for an unknown distance under the complete control of the Great Onewing.

They came to the inn and could hear the voices more distinctly now. The building was a simple design, built of logs that reminded Marcus of the homes in a Shaker community he visited as a child in Kentucky. No sign hung outside advertising it as a rest stop for weary travelers and he wondered how anyone knew of its existence in such a remote area. The last time he passed through these lands, the road had been there, but it led only into the mountains where the dwarves dwelled inside their cavernous mines. No one he knew took the road into the mountains, so close to the Fell and the dwarven gate, which was known all around as an inhospitable place littered with cunning traps designed to deter trespassers.

Lorelei put the fingertips of her right hand upon the wood door. Immediately, the voices within stopped talking. Footsteps, advancing quickly, could be heard coming to the door and a female voice came from inside.

“Who is it?”

The voice did not sound fearful, but Marcus detected a wariness in its tone.

“It is Lorelei.”

A slot in the door opened and two slanted elven eyes peered out at them. They scanned each member of the party, having to raise up to the visual limits allowed by the small window to see the diminutive Wilkey. The window snapped shut and for a long time nothing happened. Then, the door opened, spilling warm light upon them.

Lorelei entered first, not looking back to the others. She offered no introduction to the the female elf that stood by the door, nor to the male who sat in a chair in the room just inside the door. Instead, she walked straight through to the back of the building and disappeared into a room, shutting the door softly behind her.

Marcus looked at the two elves that had let them in and smiled. “We thank you for your hospitality. I am Marcus and these are Heather and Wilkey.”

The male elf nodded in greeting, but the female stared down the hallway where Lorelei had disappeared a moment before. She wore a concerned look which vanished as she turned again to regard Marcus. “Yes, we are glad to have you. It gets rather lonely being out here with so few visitors. I am Valista and this is Polan.” She motioned to the male elf, who nodded again, and then gave another quick look down the hall in Loralai’s wake. “I imagine you are all very hungry. We have prepared a meal, though it will be cold soon if you do not eat straight away.”

“Thank you again,” Marcus said. He turned to look at Heather and Wilkey, both of them standing by the door with awkward looks on their faces. Both held their packs in their hands and the halfling was looking around as though trying to decide where to set it down.

“Valista,” Marcus said as the elf turned to lead them to their dinner. “Is there somewhere where we can put our things and freshen up before we eat.”

The elf raised her hands to her mouth and gave a small gasp. “Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Like I said, we’re not used to many visitors. Usually the only ones we get are elves who regularly come here and treat the place as a second home. Please follow me.”

Valista led them up a narrow staircase to another hallway that mirrored the one down which Lorelei had left them. She motioned to the six doors that flanked the hall. “Choose any you like. They’re all the same, more or less, although the last on the right has a wider bed than the others.” She gave Marcus a meaningful look that she smoothly shifted to Heather before returning back down the stairs.

Heather thanked Valista as she passed and stepped by Marcus to enter the first room on the right, shutting the door behind her as Lorelei had done. Wilkey walked down the hall to the room with the larger bed that Valista had mentioned and entered, smiling at Marcus as he did so. Sighing, Marcus took the first room on the left.

The quarters were small, but comfortable. A large rug covered most of the wood plank floor and a bed that Marcus guessed would equate to a twin size in his world stood in the center of the far wall, the sheets already turned down. A desk sat in one corner with an oil lamp atop it, lit and turned down low so that its soft light danced across the room. On a small table near the window, a ceramic jug and basin sat ready, faint wisps of steam floating out the top, and a thick towel lay beside them.

Setting his pack down at the foot of the bed, Marcus stepped to the table and, taking the jug in hand, poured some water in the basin. He noted that as soon as he placed the jug back upon the table, it refilled itself, the warm water rising again to within a few inches of the top. He stared at the magical device, so simple in its purpose, and felt a sudden pang of loss. Such simple magic he could have done in his sleep as a child, but now he was forced to confront a dangerous enemy in the thin hope that he could move the boulder blocking his access to those abilities. Putting his hands in the warm water, feeling the muscles relax from their exertion holding the reins of the griffon, he sighed and closed his eyes.

“Is there really any hope?” he asked himself aloud.

Finding no answer in the otherwise empty room, he washed his hands and face, toweling them dry, and left the room to return downstairs for dinner.

Walking down the steps, Marcus heard steps approaching and saw Lorelei sweep by below him. He saw that she carried a plain wooden bowl in which a small assortment of different foods was neatly arranged, though she passed too quickly for him to see what she was eating. She did not look up the stairs at him, either not hearing him descending or still ignoring him. Marcus assumed the latter knowing the advanced senses the elves possessed as a race. He heard a door open and shut, then proceeded down the stairs.

Lorelei had returned to the room into which she had disappeared earlier. The door was shut and Marcus, seeing no one else, walked quietly down to it. He wanted to talk to her, reason with her, tell her how confused he was. He wanted to talk to her alone, without fear of interruption, even though he knew the temptation to give in to the power of those green eyes may be too much for him to withstand.

He raised his hand and started to knock on the door, but his hand stopped just a few inches short of striking the wood. He heard steps from the hall above and could not tell if they belonged to Wilkey or Heather. In either case, he did not want them seeing him about to knock on Loralai’s door, particularly not Heather, and moved quickly away up the hall, pretending to be exploring the back reaches of the house.

The footsteps came down the stairs quickly and Marcus saw Wilkey appear at the bottom. He turned, caught sight of Marcus, and started to speak before Marcus raised a warning hand, telling him to be quiet. Wilkey stared at him for a moment, not understanding, so Marcus pointed his thumb at the door Lorelei had shut behind her when they entered the inn. The halfling nodded his comprehension and motioned for Marcus to follow him.

“Nice place,” Marcus whispered when he reached the stairway again.

“Nicer than most of the inns I’ve been in,” the halfling agreed. “Although probably not much of a money maker. Not enough rooms.”

Marcus considered this, then remembering that the business side of the inn simply fronted its true purpose of keeping a watch on Amadyr, he elected not to open the topic for discussion.

“What’s with her?” Wilkey whispered, throwing his head back in the direction of Loralai’s door.”

“She thinks she’s in love with me.” Marcus could not hide the note of sadness in his voice, saying that he really did not believe what he had just said. He knew that Lorelei loved him. No woman could get that angry at anyone other than someone she loved.

“And what do you think?” the halfling asked.

“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Marcus said. “I just want to speak to Amadyr and get back my powers so I can defeat this Necromancer. I’m going to give up on women.”

“A wise choice, my friend,” Wilkey said, smiling. He clapped his small hand on Marcus’s back and they walked to the dining room adjacent to the room they had first entered inside the inn. They had not been showed the location of the room, but a wonderful smell of cooked meat drifted down the hall and they only had to follow the tempting aroma to find the table.

When they entered the dining room, Valista and Polan were already there, seated at the far end away from the door. Another door on that end led to what Marcus assumed was the kitchen. The table held many plates and bowls full of a delicious range of foods—roasted venison, vegetables, cheeses, and others—and beside each of the three plates sat a goblet filled with an amber liquid. The mingling scents of the different dishes intoxicated Marcus and he saw Wilkey’s nostrils flaring, taking in the same olfactory bliss as he.

“Please sit,” Valista said. “I’m sure you must be starving after your long journey.”

“Yes,” Wilkey answered simply, seating himself at the table.

Marcus studied the three places that had been set for them. “I guess Lorelei won’t be joining us?” he asked, knowing the answer before he did.

Valista smiled, but not before a look of concern passed over her face like the shadow of a cloud. “She said she was not feeling well and needed a little time to herself. She told me to ask your pardons.”

Taking the seat at the head of the table opposite Polan, he looked over and saw Wilkey already piling food upon his plate, lustily gazing at the dishes while he made his selections.

“This is a very nice place,” Marcus repeated, this time to their hosts. “It’s a shame it is so far from Glenfold.”

“Yes,” Valista sighed. “We do miss our home, but this assignment is a great honor for us. It does get lonely sometimes, but the solitude is great for elves like us.”

Marcus looked at Polan and agreed. The male elf had yet to speak a word to them. Had he not heard the two of them speaking from outside the door as they approached, Marcus might have thought him mute. He was handsome enough, though he appeared to be nearing middle age, whatever that meant for elves. His hair, cut extremely short to his scalp, was mostly black, but a patch of gray appeared over each pointed ear and swept backward as if someone had swiped him on each side with a paintbrush.

As Marcus finished filling his plate, he heard steps from the hall and for a half second thought Lorelei had decided to join them after all. Instead, Heather came through he door, sniffing the air like a hungry dog and when Marcus saw her, he let his fork, half raised to his mouth, drop back to the plate.

Heather stood in the doorway wearing a pale blue dress, cut perfectly to accentuate her body. The material clung to her curves in all the right places, Marcus saw, and revealed enough skin below the neck and above the ankle to be conservative and enticing at the same time. The dress was simple, lacking any adornment save a small silver oak leaf attached to the base of each of the two thin straps that rose up her chest and disappeared over her shoulder. Even her hair looked different, Marcus saw, as she had pulled it up and fixed it in a loose bun, showing off the perfect skin of her neck and shoulders.

Everyone in the room remained silent until Heather began to blush with embarrassment. “This dress was on the bed,” she said. “I hope it’s okay that I put it on.”

“Of course it is,” Valista said, waving her hand. “That’s why I put it up there. It’s sized more for a human, and I knew you would want something to get you out of your traveling clothes, even for just one night.”

“Thank you,” Heather said, her voice low with touched sincerity.

“It’s nothing,” Valista assured her. “Now, please sit and eat.”

Heather did, sneaking a quick glance at Marcus to ensure he was still staring raptly at her, which he was. In all the troubles of their relationship, Marcus realized that he sometimes lost track of how beautiful she truly was. All thought of food, however delicious, left his mind as he stared fixedly at the woman sitting next to him.

Heather leaned over toward him, showing him a little more cleavage and causing his heart to beat rapidly. “Quit gawking,” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

Marcus did, though he continued to peek at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.

They each ate their fill, engaging in small talk between mouthfuls, and when they finished the meal, Marcus could not remember the last time he felt so full. Beside him, Wilkey leaned back in his chair, patted his stomach, and groaned.

“That ought to hold me over for a couple of hours,” the halfling said.

“You ate enough to hold me over for a month,” Heather told him.

“You need to eat more,” Wilkey returned. “You’re too skinny.”

Heather barked a laugh. Marcus knew that she had been unjustly self-conscious of her weight since reaching adolescence and he hoped the good-natured remark would not ruin her obvious good mood. Instead, he saw, she smiled and looked at Marcus, as though they were sharing some inside joke. He assumed she was thinking the same thing about her self-image, but could not be sure, so he smiled and raised one eyebrow in response. He hoped the gesture would be enigmatic enough to make her think he knew exactly what she meant.

“So, how long has it been since you’ve seen any activity from Amadyr?” Marcus asked, changing the subject. He saw that Valista and Polan exchanged glances.

“We haven’t seen any sign of her since she returned to the Fells,” Polan answered, shocking Marcus by breaking his long silence. “I think she’s dead.”

Polan looked at Valista. “I also think that we have been here too long and that the time has come for us to return to the protection of Glenfold. There are many other dangers in these times than a dead dragon.”

Marcus saw another look pass between the two elves and could tell, based on Polan’s tone and his dark glance at Valista, that the thought of them giving up their assignment and returning to the elven kingdom was a source of some tension between them. Had he been isolated away from civilization for nearly fifteen years, Marcus imagined he would feel the same way.

“Have you not even been allowed to visit your home since you’ve been out here?” Heather asked, seeming to read Marcus’s thoughts.

“We have,” Valista said. “Four times a year we are replaced for two weeks at a time. We return home, but as neither of us have any family there, we are usually ready to return after a few days.”

Polan looked again at Valista, his countenance countering what she had just said. Speak for yourself, his eyes said.

Heather could see the same tension as Marcus. Turning to him, she raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes slightly, as if to say “these two have problems.” Marcus returned the look, though he was considering whether he and Heather appeared the same way around others. No one had ever asked if there was some trouble between them, which is why it came as such a surprise when their relationship crumbled the way it did. Now, he knew seeing the interaction between the two elves, that no one needed to ask. The issues in their relationship were obvious, completely obvious to anyone except him.

The conversation continued on for nearly an hour before being interrupted by a loud noise from beside Marcus. Wilkey had fallen asleep, his head leaned back against the chair, and was snoring with miraculous volume for such a small body. Those still conscious at the table shared a good laugh, Heather even looking at Marcus for a moment with a gleeful twinkle in her eyes that made his heart jump.

“Yes, it is late and I’m sure you will need your rest before your day’s travels tomorrow,” Valista said. “I think we will retire as well.”

Polan, surprisingly to Marcus, offered no argument to this suggestion. The two elves had disagreed over every other topic during their conversation—from the fate of Amadyr to the politics of their home kingdom. Rising, the male elf left the table, muttering a quick “Good night” to the visitors. As he walked through the kitchen, Valista watched him, her eyes sad to the point of tears.

“He’s normally much more jovial than he is tonight,” she said. “He was never very social, even before he and I married, but the strain of this assignment is getting to him—the uncertainty over the fate of Amadyr and the threat of the Necromancer—it’s more of a waiting game than even he has the patience for.”

Marcus and Heather both bid Valista a good night, then woke Wilkey. The halfling lowered his head down to its proper position and rubbed his eyes.

“Time for breakfast, already?” he asked.

I have some new and exciting things planned for here soon.  Well, new anyway.  Maybe even some old things done again in a new way.  I’m crazy like that.

In the meantime, we continue our tale following Marcus and Heather around on their journey through that dangerous realm we know as “relationships”.

Chapter 9

Wilkey walked through the streets of Glenfold in a foul temper. He absently rubbed his wrists and checked them often to see if the manacles had left marks. It was still early morning, the sun had not appeared over the horizon and probably would not that day as Wilkey observed the thick gray clouds still hanging over the land. He knew he probably should not be out by himself at such an odd time, given his unfounded reputation as a thief, but he certainly did not want to vent his temper on Marcus or Heather, both of whom would likely return the favor and double it for good measure.

He thought about them as a couple and decided that, despite the obvious attraction they both had for each other, they were ill-suited to be more than friends. Heather had told him that they were just that, but the halfling knew better. No friends of the opposite sex could aggravate one another that much unless they had shared the same bed. He saw problems on both sides of the relationship, particularly that he seemed to pay little attention to her unless he was saving her life and she did not appreciate it when he did.

Still, Heather had been quite concerned after their episode crossing the border into Glenfold and for the first time since they had left Yellow Banks, she had not been afraid to show that she truly cared for Marcus. He, likewise, proved his love by his valiant, if ill-advised, rescue of the damsel in distress.

For some time, Wilkey walked through the streets, slowly beginning to bear elves on their way to their daily tasks. They all gave him wary looks as he passed, as if he carried some sort of plague that may infect them should he get too close, but no one questioned his motivations for being out so early on a dreary morning. He came at last to the large common area that lay in the center of the elven city. Always finding the place restful in his previous visits, mostly with Marcus during his younger days, he strolled onto the grass and breathed deeply, smelling the wet earth and lush grass.

He found that he had entered the common close to the massive stone fountain that dominated its center. Ornately carved with scenes of rich symbolism to the elves that he could not fathom, he stepped forward to admire it as he had done many times, watching the great jet of water spring into the air before separating into thousands of tiny droplets before splashing to the wide pool below.

As he reached the fountain, however, he found that he was not the only one out admiring it so early in the day. A beautiful red-haired elven girl, the one they had seen at the riverbank, sat on the edge of the fountain and stared into it shifting waters. Her eyes were rimmed with red to match her hair and Wilkey knew the streaks of water on her cheeks did not come from being too close to the falling water. Sitting with her legs pulled up tight to her chest, she did not notice him until he was standing right beside her and his appearance made her jump slightly.

“Sorry, Lorelei,” Wilkey said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you saw me coming up.”

Lorelei, her face turned back to the base of the fountain, shook her head. “No, I was lost in thought and didn’t see you at all, Wilkey.”

The halfling motioned to the flat stone ledge of the basin next to her. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked.

“No, not at all.”

Wilkey did so, keeping his eyes on the young elven maiden as she stared into the water and through it into the more turbulent depths of her mind. For a long time he said nothing, trying to decide the exact thing that brought her here in such a disposition. He decided that, rather than take an ill-advised guess, he would wait for her to answer the question on her own, so he sat and waited, hands folded in his lap waiting for her to burst with whatever was bothering her.

He did not wait long.

“Who is she?” Lorelei blurted out. “Are they together? Did she come here with him?”

The questions flew at the halfling in rapid succession so that he could barely make out what she was saying. He guessed that seeing Heather with Marcus would create a problem and he took some satisfaction in knowing that he was right, but seeing the look of anguish on the elf’s beautiful face, he wished that somehow he could have been wrong.

Electing to keep what he suspected existed between Marcus and Heather out of the conversation, he repeated what Heather had told him during their camp a few nights before. “They’re just friends. They argue all the time when they’re not ignoring each other.”

“Then why did he risk his own life to save hers?”

Wilkey had no answer at first. “You know how Marcus is,” he said at last, his voice hesitant. “Always has to be saving someone.”

If Lorelei found the halfling’s response comforting, she gave no sign. She turned her head again to stare at the water, watching the droplets forming thousands of rings that floated out from each drop until the surface of the pool danced with their tiny waves.

“Has he mentioned me at all?” Lorelei asked.

“Yes,” he assured her. “In fact, we talked about you before we reached the border.”

“What did he say?”

Wilkey’s mind raced for something that sounded better than the truth, some embellishment that would set her heart more at ease. “He just said he wondered how you were and if he would be able to see you while he was here.”

Lorelei turned to look at him, her intense green eyes boring into his. Wilkey felt a strong sensation that she was peering into him, trying to determine if he was lying. If she found evidence one way or the other, she did not say. He decided to change the subject.

“So, how have you been?” he asked. “I hear that the situation on the border has grown worse.”

Lorelei did not answer. Her eyes were once again on the pool of water, but her focus was somewhere far away. “Why did he bring her?” she asked, not bothering to look up.

“He said something about her being necessary to defeat the Necromancer,” Wilkey said. “That’s why he had to protect her at the river, he needs her for some reason or he can’t challenge the Dark One.”

She considered this for a long time. Wilkey sat fidgeting, growing more and more uncomfortable with the conversation and his inability to direct it elsewhere. Finally, she turned her whole body, letting her long legs fall over the side and her bare feet to touch the grass below. Tears fell again down the flawless skin of her cheeks.

“I drove him away,” she whispered. “I don’t know how, but I did. This is the first time he’s been back since . . . since . . .” She turned her head back and looked at the fountain, sending its pillar of water high into the air above them.

Wilkey sat dumbfounded. He had no idea what Lorelei was talking about, nor did he believe that she had anything to do with Marcus leaving for such a long time. Reaching out with a tentative hand, he patted her back.

“No, I doubt that,” he said in what he hoped was a reassuring voice. “He’s just been busy with other things.”

“Like her,” Lorelei whispered.

Another long, heavy silence fell upon them. Wilkey did not know how to respond to Lorelei’s insecurities so that she would feel better, so, against his nature, he said nothing for some time. Eventually, though, the halfling could not control himself.

“Besides,” he said. “Marcus hasn’t been very good company lately. Other than that bit at the river, a pretty good feat, of course, he’s lost all his power.”

Lorelei stood quickly, startling Wilkey so badly that he nearly fell into the fountain. “I don’t care,” she said. “He still has power over me.”

Without waiting for a response, the elf walked away from the fountain and was soon gone from the halfling’s sight.

 

Marcus returned to the room where he had spent the night recovering and found Heather awake, staring at the window. It amused him to see that she had wiped the spittle her gaping mouth had left on the glass, but his good humor did not last long.

“Where have you been?” Heather spat. “Out visiting some elven girlfriend?”

Marcus took a step back and stared at Heather in shock. In their years together, he had never known her to be jealous, even when he would comment on how attractive another woman was. She often criticized him on his taste in women and assured him that, since he had found someone so wonderful, that he should leave well enough alone. Also, and more disturbing to Marcus, was the fact that she seemed to know or at least suspect something about Lorelei. He had been thinking about what Wilkey had said about his childhood friend as they approached Glenfold and he wondered if the halfling had been too forthcoming with his information while Marcus slept.

“No,” he finally said, assuming an incredulous expression. “I woke up, saw you were still asleep, and went to visit with the king.”

“Oh, is that what you call her?” Heather snarled.

“Yes . . . no . . . ,” Marcus stammered. “Look, I’ll take you to meet him if you like. He was like a father to me growing up, but he’s very ill and seeing him that way has really gotten me down, so if you’ll get off my back, I’d greatly appreciate it.” His voice rose as he finished his statement, signaling the elevation in his anger as he defended himself from Heather’s attacks.

Heather glared at Marcus through narrowed eyes. “Who’s this Lorelei person you were talking about in your sleep?”

Marcus felt his jaw drop as though it had suddenly turned to lead. Now he knew why she was so suspicious of him, but he could do nothing to prevent looking guilty with the revelation that he had been talking about Lorelei while he dreamed of their parting at the fountain. He knew every moment he waited to respond dug him deeper into the hole he was burying himself in, but his brain had seized entirely. All thought processes screeched to a halt as he searched frantically for a way out of the argument.

Finally, Heather decided that he was not going to answer. “I want you to take me home, Marcus,” she said. “You’ve had some really bad ideas in the past, but this one really tops them all.”

Heather turned and looked out the window, arms crossed over her chest. Marcus could see the firm set of her jaw as she waited for him to refuse her request, allowing the pressure to build so that when he did say no, she would explode on him like Krakatoa, loud enough to be heard for miles around. He even saw her trembling in the muted light spilling in through the glass, tiny earthquakes foreshadowing the fury she was about to unleash.

Instead of arguing, which he knew would only make the devastation more complete, he turned on his heels and walked out of the room. He realized that in doing so, it would confirm, at least to Heather, that there was someone else, but he found that he did not care at that moment what she thought.

Soon, his feet had carried him out of the royal residence, leading him to any destination where he would not have to deal with Heather and her accusations. He could see, angry though he was, where she would find reason to be concerned if he had mentioned Lorelei’s name in his sleep and he wondered if that name would prove to be the final nail in the coffin before they buried their relationship forever.

Marcus paid no attention to where he was going as he walked the streets bathed in dull gray light from the overcast sky. His subconscious directed him as though following some map from his memory of the city, pulling him down this street and that, between buildings he half remembered and others that he had no recollection of at all. After some time, how long he could not tell with the sun hidden behind the thick clouds, he found himself walking on lush green grass as the faint sound of falling water reached his ears.

Looking up in surprise, Marcus found himself facing the fountain he had raced Lorelei to in his dream. Such a strong feeling of déjà vu swept over him that he shivered. The feeling was so compelling that he thought for a moment that he would break into a run to try to reach the fountain before the lightning-fast elven girl could overtake him. At the same time, he wanted to be as far from the fountain as possible. Many years had passed since his last meeting with Lorelei and the wisdom of age and the precision of foresight had shown him why she had fled from him that day. Still, if Wilkey was to be believed, always a dangerous endeavor, what Marcus had attributed to an unrequited crush, puppy love, actually went much deeper.

As if pulled directly from his mind, he looked up at the fountain again and saw Wilkey sitting on the lip of the basin, hailing him over. He looked around quickly without realizing he was doing it to see if he had perhaps generated Lorelei from his thoughts as well, but saw no trace of her red tresses. Turning his attention back to the fountain, he saw the halfling gesturing more emphatically, waving his arms as though he was directing a jumbo jet into its gate.

Knowing he would only create more animosity and questions if he turned and fled, Marcus walked slowly toward Wilkey, the sounds of falling water growing louder with each step, drop after drop resounding in his memory like the familiar notes of a bittersweet love song. He reached the basin at last, finding it exactly the same as it had been those years before, and sat down next to the halfling, staring at his own folded hands resting in his lap.

“You just missed her,” Wilkey said.

Marcus did not ask who the halfling meant. There was no need. Before he could stop himself, his head darted up and scanned the common area and the columned building beyond where he had last seen the blazing red hair disappearing into his memory. Not seeing any trace of Lorelei and feeling embarrassed for his reaction to the mention of her, he returned his gaze to his hands.

He could no longer deny that he wished to see Lorelei again. Aside from his recent troubles with Heather, he felt growing curiosity about the elven girl he had left behind in Glenfold. In some secluded portion of his mind, he had been imagining what his life would be like if only he had returned her kiss as they rested where he now sat. He began to draw her in his mind even before they approached Glenfold’s borders, how the beautiful girl would have matured into a breathtaking adult. The thought brought him guilty pleasure and he thanked good fortune that Heather could not, as yet, read his mind so completely as to extract that well-guarded secret.

“It’s probably better that you did, though,” the halfling continued, seeing that Marcus was not likely to comment. “She was rather emotional.”

“Why?” Marcus asked, regretting immediately that he had done so.

“You,” Wilkey answered simply.

Marcus had expected the answer, but his foresight did not lessen the impact the single word made on him. He winced as though the halfling had slapped him, seeing at last the truth of his situation, that his very complicated life continued to to grow more complicated every second with no hope of working itself out to any satisfactory conclusion.

Part of him, a small part, felt angry at Lorelei. Just when he thought things could not get much worse, she had imposed her emotional baggage upon him and made him feel a good deal of guilt in the process, not only for how he had treated her on his last visit to Glenfold, but also for his current visit, arriving powerless and nearly hopeless, half-dead at the border, and bearing another woman alongside him. Regardless of the true state of his relationship with Heather, bringing her to the elven lands would no doubt create a tense situation with Lorelei should the two of them meet. She obviously knew about his return and about Heather, and Marcus knew that she would expect the worst, that he had brought the woman from his own world because she was his mate.

“What did she say?” Marcus asked at last, unable to resist.

“She asked me about Heather,” the halfling asked. “Why you had brought her and what she meant to you.”

Marcus felt sick as he imagined Wilkey telling Lorelei about his relationship with Heather. Knowing about the two of them, she would likely hide away until he had gone from Glenfold, probably never to see Marcus again.

“She saw you at the river, saw you coming out with Heather,” Wilkey continued. “She asked why you would risk your life for her.”

Marcus put his hand over his eyes.

“And what did you tell her?”

Wilkey looked at him in surprise. “Well, I told her you were just friends. That you didn’t know why you needed to bring her, you just knew she had something to do with stopping the Necromancer.”

Marcus looked up at the halfling. “You didn’t tell her that Heather and I are . . . ?”

“No,” the halfling said, looking incredulous. “She was already crying. Do you think I wanted to make matters worse by telling her that.”

Marcus did not answer. He felt a sudden lightness in his abdomen, as though someone had just removed a heavy stone from the middle of it. For the first time in days, some part of this quest had gone better than he had expected. A subtle pang of guilt still crept around his joy, a thought that he should not be nearly so glad to still have a chance at a woman who was not Heather. He knew deep down he still loved her, but the prospect of being with Lorelei in her absence made his relationship woes seem much less important.

Standing, Marcus turned back to the halfling. “You don’t know how grateful I am for that. You’re right, she doesn’t need to be any more upset that she already is. Perhaps when we get back, I can sit and talk with her about everything.” He smiled at Wilkey, feeling good despite his extreme weariness. “I think I’m going to take a nap, and then we’ll set off this afternoon.”

Wilkey decided to go gather supplies for the next leg of their journey and they parted ways, agreeing to meet at the fountain later in the day. Marcus walked back toward the king’s home, feeling the lightness in his step fade as he realized what he would have to do once they left the protective borders of Glenfold. What the old king had said terrified him and he knew that once he told Heather and Wilkey where they were going, they too would be even more scared than he.

Across forest and hill they would travel, into barrens and wastes, through innumerable agents of the Necromancer and other obstacles, but in the end, it was the destination that worried Marcus the most. The one place in all this strange, dangerous land that he did not want visit was now the place he urgently needed to get to. The odds of learning how to restore his power there seemed astronomical, but Lanian had said that his only hope, their only hope, lay in Marcus reaching that site that had meant death for so many and somehow extracting the information he needed, the secret only she would know.

Despite all his efforts to think of another solution, Marcus accepted that his only hope now lay with the last being who would ever want to help him, who hated him above all things.

He returned to the king’s home, knowing that far beyond the borders of Glenfold, Amadyr waited.

Marcus slept for a few hours, the gray light of day not bothering him at all in his exhaustion. Heather had not been in the room when he returned, nor were any of her things. A food tray had been brought and left for him, a delicious assortment of fruits and breads, and he ate greedily before lying down to rest.

When he awoke, there was still no sign of Heather. He wondered idly where she had gone, but did not concern himself too much. Even if she was angry enough, and foolish enough, to attempt to leave Glenfold on her own, he knew the elves would not permit her to travel beyond the borders without him. Dressing leisurely from the fresh robes laid out for him by the elves, he gathered his pack which had been recovered from the river and set out to consult with the king once more before leaving his hospitality for the dangers of the wild.

He found Lanian once again in his throne room, but this time he was not alone. Sitting at his feet, where Marcus had been that morning, sat Lorelei.

She did not look the same as she had as a child, nor did she match the image of her he had created en route to Glenfold. Rather, her beauty seemed divine, far beyond anything his imagination could create. Her red hair, flowing in long waves down her back, looked fuller than he remembered, like molten rock flowing from a volcano. Her light skin, flawless and unmarked, glowed with a vibrancy that made her look more like a goddess than anyone who would eventually suffer the indignity of death. Her green eyes drew him in like a magnet draws an iron filing, pulling the air from his lungs at the same time. In breathless silence, he stood in the open doorway and stared at Lorelei, losing all sense of time and place.

After what could have been an eternity, the elven king broke the silence.a

“Come in and shut the door, Marcus,” Lanian said. “Elves my age are very susceptible to drafts.”

Marcus felt hot blood rise into his cheeks as he turned and shut the door, slamming it loudly in his anxiety. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before turning back to face Lorelei and the king, hoping to regain his composure. When he did bring his eyes to bear on them again, he felt his breath stolen from him again, but he fought to retain control and walked toward them, feeling the room grow hotter with each step he took toward Lorelei. He tried not to look at her, but the starkness of the room and the gravity of her beauty made that impossible.

“Lorelei,” the king began, sweeping his hand in her direction, “has requested to accompany you on the remainder of your journey. While I cannot pull any warriors from their duties protecting our borders, I can assure you that she is a capable fighter in her own right, having been in charge of securing the city for some time now. I realize that you knew her as a child, but I encourage you to not let those memories cloud your judgment. She will make a worthy addition to your party, should you decide to let her join.”

Marcus stood speechless. His mind reeled from this turn of events, and he fought fiercely to restart his thought process which seemed to have completely shut down. Then, dozens of thoughts exploded into being at once, each vying for prominence at the front of his consciousness. On one hand, he wanted Lorelei to accompany him to the ends of the earth, seeing her again drawing for emotions for her that he did not know he had. At the same time, he was terrified at the thought of her and Heather traveling in the same party, knowing that each could, and probably would, ruin his chances with the other. The two conflicting impulses pulled at each other with such strength that Marcus became dizzy.

“I . . . I . . .” he stammered, not sure at all what to say, “I . . . okay.”

He had not known he was going to agree until his mouth released the word. He seemed much more stunned by his acceptance than either of the elves before him, both looking at him in patient anticipation.

“Very well,” Lanian said, sounding pleased. “I trust you’ll be leaving immediately. I know how urgently you wish to continue on your quest. Please know that the thoughts of the elves of Glenfold go with you.”

Marcus took the king’s words as his cue to leave, and turned to walk to the door. He could not hear Lorelei’s soft footfalls behind him, but he knew she was there, could feel her appraising gaze on his back. Exiting the throne room, he allowed her to pass and quietly shut the door behind them, leaving the two of them alone in the corridor.

Immediately, Lorelei flung her arms around Marcus’s neck. She pressed herself against him, holding him tightly and Marcus unconsciously returned the embrace. The smell of her thick hair, sweet and inviting, intoxicated him as the long tresses blocked everything else from his vision.

After an eternity of holding one another, the two parted, reluctantly, each maintaining contact as long as possible to not completely lose the moment. Marcus found that his tongue had glued itself to the roof of his mouth, allowing him only a dumb smile in response to Lorelei’s glittering gaze. He found himself drawn again into her green eyes as the memory of the day at the fountain flooded back. The whole room seemed to move around them, space itself altering to draw them closer. Another strong feeling of déjà vu shook Marcus and he imagined that he could hear falling water just behind him. At last, the distance between them, spanning two worlds and many years, closed as their lips touched.

Electricity seemed to pour through Marcus. Every muscle, every nerve, seemed to blaze with fire as he pressed his lips to Lorelei’s. The kiss proved to be more than he had imagined, sensual and innocent, light and fierce. Reaching up, he ran his fingers into her hair, then ran his hand slowly down the side of her face, caressing the soft, perfect skin. Finally they parted, leaving Marcus breathless again, but also slightly disturbed. Hidden away from the heat that flowed through him as he kissed Lorelei, a small, but tangible, spot of guilt lay frozen in his gut, telling him through the blinding passion that, despite their troubles, he loved another.

Marcus took an involuntary step backward, afraid that he would kiss her again if he remained so close to her. Lorelei remained still, staring at him with unabashed affection as he tried to regroup.

“I told Wilkey to meet us at . . . “ he paused, knowing what effect the rest of the statement would have on the elf, “the fountain around now. We’d better get going.”

“Yes, Marcus, but we have one more place to stop after the fountain,” she said. Her lips curled into a smile. “I have a surprise for you.”

Chills rippled through Marcus when he heard her mention his name, distracting him so that he only caught the general idea of what she said a few moments after she had finished speaking.

They left the king’s home together, neither speaking, both content to relish the kiss that had ended the long wait for both of them. Marcus felt a strong compulsion to take her hand as they walked, but Lorelei slipped out of his reach just as he was about to give in.

“I’ll race you,” she said, a mischievous glint in her luminous eyes.

Marcus smiled at her. “You’re on.”

Instead of running, though, Lorelei stepped quickly toward Marcus, seizing his head with her delicate hands, and kissed him again, her lips pressing urgently against his. Marcus felt his head swim, then she let go, springing back away from him. Turning gracefully on her heel, she trotted down the street backwards, waving at him as she took the lead.

Marcus snapped back to reality, realizing he was giving her a head start. “Hey,” he shouted, “that’s cheating.”

Laughing, he ran after her, feeling more giddy than he ever did racing her as a boy. He knew then as now that he stood no chance of winning the race, but that did not seem to matter. All he could think of was getting to the fountain and lying on the edge of its basin, becoming lost in those green eyes and soft lips.

He ran on, relying on his memory to guide him through the mostly deserted streets. While he was not nearly as fleet of foot or as lightweight as he had been at twelve years of age, he was a better conditioned athlete as an adult, stronger and more disciplined. Almost all their races as children involved Marcus getting a painful stitch in his side, slowing him down to some degree as the elven girl made up ground quickly. Now, he breathed relatively easily despite running full speed through the narrow alleys and wide lanes on his way to the common area.

Bursting onto the wide sea of grass, just as he had in his memory, Marcus looked ahead and saw the fountain, its jet of water glistening in the sun. He scanned around him as he ran, seeing no sign of Lorelei, and ran harder hoping to finally end his losing streak after years of waiting.

Just then, however, he heard the sound he had been dreading. Soft padding of feet, moving impossibly fast, approached him from behind. He dared not look back, the fountain looming larger and larger in front of him. He had never held the lead so late as a child and this thought spurred him onward, drawing upon every bit of strength to pump his legs as fast as they would go.

The footsteps still closed in, soon drawing even, and then passing him in a blur of dark gray and red. Lorelei’s legs scissored back and forth, reminding Marcus of cartoons featuring the Road Runner. Accepting defeat, he pulled up, laughing hard between gasps of breath as he doubled over. When he reached the fountain, on his hands and knees, he collapsed before Lorelei who sat again on the basin’s edge, legs crossed, looking at him with amused detachment.

“So that’s where you’ve been all these years,” Lorelei laughed. “Getting faster. You almost had me that time, but I’m still too much for you.”

“I’ll say,” Marcus gasped. He rolled over, feeling the breeze slide over him as he stared upward into the thick gray clouds. Lorelei peered down at him, appearing upside down as he lay at her feet.

“Perhaps you’re getting too old for this sort of thing,” she said. Laughing, she flung herself on top of Marcus and the two of them rolled in the grass like two young children, absent of any cares of the world at large.

“What the hell is going on here?” asked a familiar voice, tinged with anger. Marcus looked around in panic and saw Heather striding across the grass, looking as though she were about to kill the next person who spoke. Beside her, Wilkey trotted along holding a large pack stuffed full with what Marcus hoped were supplies for the long trip on which they were about to embark.

Standing up quickly, Marcus and Lorelei glanced quickly at each other, then at the advancing Heather. The elf still had bits of dried grass stuck to her auburn hair and Marcus fought the urge to pick it out, knowing it would send Heather into an even bigger fit. A small part of him wanted to do it for spite, though, and he grinned despite himself.

Heather saw the grin and interpreted it as a sign of guilt. Ignoring Lorelei completely, she walked up to Marcus and stood directly in front of him, so close that he could feel her hot breath on his chin. Her face was a mask of fury, but behind it he could see a well of tears, held back only by her extreme willpower. “Who is she? Is that the girl you were talking about in your sleep?”

Marcus felt as if tiny bugs were crawling beneath every inch of his skin, the question making him highly uncomfortable. He knew every moment he hesitated to answer would double the wrath he faced from her, so he decided to do something he rarely ever did, particularly where Heather was concerned. Taking the indignation and pain she had caused by ending their relationship, he harnessed the anger he kept locked deep inside him, using it to take the offensive in his desperate hope of saving the quest that he knew, in part, depended on Heather’s participation.

Stepping forward so that Heather was forced to give ground to keep from being knocked down into the grass, Marcus unloaded his anger. “What the hell do you care? You told me that you don’t want to be with me, so why are you getting so upset to see me with someone else?” He gestured back to Lorelei, watching the scene unfold in horror. “Lorelei is an old childhood friend of mine that I have not seen for a long time and she has agreed to risk her life to go with us to try to stop the evil things that are going on here. If you want to be mad at me, that’s fine, but I think you should at least show a little respect for someone willing to risk her own life to keep you safe.”

Heather stepped back and could no longer keep the tears from falling. In thick rivulets, they streamed down her cheeks like rivers drawn on a map. She opened her mouth to speak, but for the first time since he had known her, she had been struck speechless.

Marcus pressed his advantage, hoping that by going the extra mile now, he could avoid similar confrontations later on when difficult situations arose. He pointed at her, not quite threatening, but commanding her attention. “Now, you listen to me,” he told her. “You said you want to go home, well, I can’t do that right now. I have things I have to do here and you, unfortunately, have to go with me. I can’t send you back the way we came because you’d be killed before you ever reached the cave and I can’t leave you here because for some reason that I still haven’t figured out, you’re part of this and I need you to go with me. I’m sorry if you don’t like those arrangements, but the way I see, I have nothing else to lose with you, do I?”

He lowered his hand and looked at Heather. Tears gushed from her eyes, but still she said nothing. Her lower lip trembled violently as though the muscles that operated it were being shocked by some electrical source. Her shoulders slumped and Marcus saw that her anger, her scathing cynicism, and her negative feelings toward him were melting away, revealing the loneliness, fear, and hurt that she really felt, that he made her feel by his treatment of her.

All at once, Marcus remembered why he had fallen in love with her in the first place. Beneath her rigid defenses, Heather remained a small, fearful, beautiful woman only looking for some reassurance and protection. Her beautiful brown eyes looked up at him, red-rimmed and swollen, and deep within them he could see how much she looked to him for those things and how much he had ignored her needs. By venting his frustrations, he had opened her true feelings up to him, knowing that it was he that caused her to hide them in the first place. Her heart and mind fell open before him like a book, but Marcus wondered at what price he had paid for that glimpse into her soul.

Marcus kneeled down in the grass before her and took her hands in his, heedless of anyone else around him. He looked up into her tear-streaked face and felt a burning in his own eyes. “I still love you and I still want to prove it,” he told her in a voice that he hoped only she could hear. “I need you to come with me and help me do what I need to do, then we’ll go home and get back to being us, the old us, the us that was so perfect.”

For a moment, he thought she would refuse and braced himself for it, unable to think of where to go next with his argument should the one he just made fail. Then, she smiled and squeezed his hands. “Okay,” she said, “just . . . just take care of me, okay?”

Marcus returned the smile and inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, not just because she was capitulating with his plans, but also because he had seen into the deepest part of her, the insecure, terrified part, and she had not rejected him. Rather, she had ushered him in and shut the door behind him, hoping he would save her from being so scared of this world, and theirs. He had always been somewhat attentive to her needs, physical and material ones, at least, but he now saw that he had neglected her most basic needs—those of the soul.

Heather helped pull him to his feet and Marcus turned to tell their assembled party what his plans were, but the sight of Lorelei stopped him cold. The elf stood exactly where she had risen from their play on the grass, but now her expression had gone frigid, completely devoid of emotion or color. The tiny flakes of dried grass still clung to her hair, but she paid them no mind. Her vivid eyes stared at Marcus with unreadable intention or thought, her countenance giving no indication of the internal firestorm his interaction with Heather had caused. Seeing her stoic face, Marcus wanted to channel his exasperation with her just as he had done with Heather, to burst out and ask “Now what’s the matter with you?” in the hopes that perhaps he salvage some portion of that relationship as well.

He did not, though, and finally Wilkey, still holding the heavy bag of supplies, broke the uncomfortable silence. “Well, if we’re going today, we better start out or we won’t even make it out of the city by dark,” the halfling said.

All three of them—Marcus, Heather, and Lorelei—turned to regard the halfling as if they could not understand what he was saying, or why he would be saying it in such an emotional moment. Surprisingly, Lorelei responded first.

“We’ll cover plenty of ground by nightfall,” she said in an icy tone. “I’ve arranged for transportation.” Turning, she walked away from them, leaving Marcus and the others to follow along in her wake.

Chapter 8

Honeysuckle . . .

The sweet scent in his nose stirred Marcus gently in his sleep. He did not open his eyes, only breathing in the air and smiling as happy memories from his past played in his mind like a movie. He was twelve again, running between buildings of gray stone, beautiful buildings covered with fragrant honeysuckle that bloomed all year, saturating the air with its scent. His feet, much smaller then, were pounding the narrow cobblestone lanes as he ran. Dashing past adult elves going about their own business, he muttered a steady chant of apologies. This time he knew he was going to win, after so many losses, and he sprinted even harder as he made the last turn around the corner of a tall building lined with columns and entered a wide grassy field.

A fountain stood in the center of the field, its jet of water erupting high into the cloudless sky before falling in a glittering shower into the basin below. The grass ahead of him swayed in the light wind, rippling toward the fountain as thought it would pick him up and carry him along. He tried to outrun even the waves of grass as he pelted toward the fountain, growing larger and larger in eyes as he pelted toward it. A great feeling of triumph began to fill him. His legs pumped wildly and the stitch in his side exploded with pain, but he ignored it as the thrill of victory blocked out all discomfort.

Then, his heart sank.

He heard light feet behind him running through the grass, quickly growing louder as they approached him. He kept his eyes fixed on his destination, but now the fountain appeared as unreachable as the stars. Still he ran, but his pace seemed to slow despite his efforts to hold the inevitable at bay.

A figure flew past him, like a dark green comet with an auburn tail. The lithe form of the elven girl, using her long legs to take the lead, passed him as though he was standing still. Her long red hair trailed in a straight line behind her and Marcus briefly attained ideas of grabbing it before it passed beyond his arm’s reach. He knew she would never race again if he cheated in such a disgusting manner, though that mattered little right now as he watched her turn around in mid-stride, waving to him as she increased her lead running backwards.

When he reached the fountain, completely winded, he found Lorelei sitting on the edge of the basin absently splashing with water with her bare feet. He collapsed against the ornate stone carvings and tipped his head down in the water. When he raised up just above the surface, gulping air, a small foot appeared below him and splashed a fresh spout of water into his face. He wiped the water from his eyes and snorted it from his nose as giggles overcame the girl beside him.

“I won again,” Lorelei said.

Marcus nodded, still too out of breath to speak.

She drew her feet out of the water, turning to face him and pulling her knees up to her chest. “You almost won that time, though,” she said, her tone almost believable.

Marcus pulled his exhausted body up to lie on the side of the basin and rested his head back between her feet. He looked up at the mist drifting off the fountain’s spray and regained his breath as he watched the kaleidoscope of colors produced as the sun’s light shone through it. He felt thin fingers begin to run through his wet hair, massaging his scalp and relaxing him. His pulse, sounding like a drum roll in his own ears a few moments before, regained its normal rhythm and he sighed deeply.

“I only stopped once,” the elf said. “I ran into a friend of mine and she was telling me all about this boy she likes, going on and on, and I told her that I was racing you to the fountain and after I won, I might have time to come back to talk some more.”

Marcus could hear the smile on her face without having to see it. Marcus, who had not stopped at all, only shook his head, enjoying the feeling of her fingertips as they moved side to side. “Well,” he said at last. “If you’re so interested in what she has to say, you shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Lorelei’s fingers extricated themselves from his wet hair and Marcus felt a pang of regret at his words, a product of his bruised ego more than anything else. He wanted her to stay by the fountain with him all afternoon, preferably rubbing his scalp the whole time, but he knew that she wanted to stay just as much. He heard her moving behind him and then her face appeared by his, her head resting in her delicate hand and she leaned on her elbow.

Their faces were very close now and Marcus could smell the sweetness of her breath as she studied his face. He felt the intense scrutiny and had to exert every ounce of willpower to keep his eyes focused on the flecks of colored light floating out from the fountain. His gaze seemed drawn like an iron filing to a magnet to her brilliant green eyes, but he fought the urge, though as ultimately unsuccessfully as the iron filing fights the magnet.

He dared a quick glance, then forced his eyes to return to their upward view. “I think we need to find something I can actually compete in,” he said. “I don’t think you can give me any more of a head start unless you let me just wait for you here.”

Lorelei did not answer, though Marcus could still feel her intense eyes upon him. A long while passed, filled only by the sound of thousands of droplets of water splashing into the basin. Finally, curious beyond endurance as to the source of the delay, he turned to look at her fully.

As was becoming a more and more frequent occurrence, his breath was stolen away momentarily by her beauty. They had been friends for as long as Marcus had been visiting the elven kingdom, but only in recent months had he come to realize the his playmate was, in fact, a girl. The skinny tomboy he had met those years before, her red hair always tied back to keep it out of her way as she wrestled in the grass with the boys, was gone now and in her place was a young woman, her vibrant tresses cascading down her forearm and framing her pale face. The emerald eyes he had seen narrowed so often that he had only paid heed to their true color within the last year now seemed large and luminous, shining with their own internal light.

Marcus felt his head swim and wondered if the exertion from the race had been too much for him. Lorelei appeared to be moving closer to him, her face closing the space between them at an almost imperceptible pace. Marcus tried to move, feeling extraordinarily uncomfortable and wildly excited at the same time, but found himself paralyzed, caught in her eyes like the prey of a snake. His pulse, so recently returned to normal, resumed it frantic beating until Marcus thought it might leap out of his chest.

The eyes moved closer and now he noticed the lips, more red than he could ever remember seeing them, slightly parted and on a direct course for his own. Panic rose in him like the water spraying up from the fountain and finally overcame his paralysis. With a sudden jerk, he pulled himself away just as their lips touched and found himself falling. He splashed into the water, feeling its chill close around him as he sank to the shallow bottom. He rose up quickly, coughing and sputtering, and started to apologize to Lorelei. Then, he stopped.

Lorelei was no longer by the fountain.

Marcus saw her running fast back across the field, her auburn hair again streaking behind her in shining waves. He thought he heard a deep sob issue from her, carried to him by the wind still rippling the grass before him, and wondered what he had done to make her so upset. He figured that when he righted himself from his comic fall, she would be there roaring with laughter. Instead, he rose to find her running away from him at top speed, leaving him confused and worried.

In a matter of seconds, the red locks disappeared between the columns of the last building he had passed before charging onto the field. Marcus stood alone in the sparkling shower from the fountain and pondered the immense complexity it took to be a girl.

“Lorelei . . . “ Marcus said in his sleep. His hand reached out into the air above where he lay upon the soft bed and Heather gave him a look of irritation. She sat beside the bed, but not so close that she would be mistaken for someone who cared about the outcome of his unconsciousness. Only when he began muttering in his sleep, some elven name, did she even look up at him, expressing her displeasure with a sour look.

“Oh, shut up,” she said to him, careful not to speak loud enough to wake him up. The elven healer had told her that Marcus needed to rest as long as was necessary to regain his strength and, despite her feelings toward their relationship, she was appreciative enough of his saving her life to follow those instructions, even if he was the one who put her life in jeopardy in the first place.

Marcus lowered his hand slowly back to the bed and began to breath deeply again. Heather looked back at him and her eyes lingered there for a long moment before she forced them to resume gazing out the window. Rain fell hard outside, its rhythmic pounding on the roof accompanied by an occasional roll of distant thunder. Through the curtains of gray moving across the land, she could make out a few of the buildings, plain gray structures covered with what looked like ivy. She had read of the beauty of elven lands in Tolkien and had seen such in numerous movies, and was sorely disappointed by the simple, Spartan designs of Glenfold. The room in which she and Marcus now where reminded her of those in an Amish community she had visited on a school field trip, furnished by plain furniture and heated by a wood fire from the red brick fireplace.

She sat back in her chair, an uncomfortable piece woven from thin strips of wood tied around an ash frame with leather strings, and he wet hair pressed against her back, soaking slightly through the fresh clothes she had been given. Sighing, she stood and walked to the fire, turning her back to let the heat dry her off. She looked at the sleeping form of Marcus and began replaying the scene at the river again in her mind. She had been through it several times, but still had trouble convincing herself of what she had seen.

As she stood on the riverbank, too terrified to follow Marcus and Wilkey, she tried desperately to disbelieve everything that was happening. Up to that point, Heather had decided that the whole journey from Sylvia’s house was an elaborate dream that she was having and that her best option would be to just go with the flow. She believed in the power of dreams to tell the dreamer something that he or she may have missed in their everyday life if the dream was translated correctly.

She had no idea what dreaming about centaurs and knife-wielding halflings told her about herself or her life, but she guessed that would come in time.

Standing next the Misteld, parted like in some scene from a biblical movie, her disbelief began to wane. She had experienced many nightmares over the years, although not nearly as many since she began sharing her bed with Marcus, but none of them contained the terror she experienced staring at the obsidian path leading between two roaring walls of water. Feeling her body reacting to her fear, Heather finally began to suspect that she was not, after all, dreaming and started to think instead that she was losing her mind. No dream could combine all the stimuli she faced standing at the river—the sound of the water, the mist floating off its surface to land in cooling patches across her face, the smell of river water carried on the stiff breeze.

She stood paralyzed with fear when she saw Marcus sprinting back across the riverbed in her direction and found herself wanting to run out to meet him, afraid to be left alone across the water from him. Her legs would not move, though, remaining planted as firmly to the stony bank as if she had grown roots there. She stared through streaming tears as Marcus charged up the black way toward her and took her in his arms. He led her down, nearly dragging her at first, before she regained some control of her legs and began stumbling along, escorted by his strong arms.

When they had reached the bottom, however, the true terror began. They stood between the two banks, both seeming as far away as distant galaxies, as the walls of water collapsed around them. Without even the breath to scream, Heather watched with resigned wonder as the gray light of the clouds above was blocked out by the crashing waves. She clutched at Marcus, dimly aware that he was there, and took a large gulp of air before being swept away by the strong current.

Then, her breath stopped altogether. A light had formed around the two of them, shielding them from the Misteld’s fury. Water flowed all around them, but they seemed to be encased in a bubble of light, its edges shifting and bending with the force of the river like an amoeba. Beside her, she could feel Marcus growing very hot, as though burning with fever. She looked at him and smiled, recalling their visit to Chattanooga in her shock. He looked up at her and she thought she could see him faintly glowing, matching the barrier protecting them from being swept away. Waves of energy pulsed out from him and Heather was shocked to see him weakening before her eyes at the effort. His eyes bulged slightly as he observed the glowing bubble around them, then his eyelids drooped dangerously as though he would collapse from exhaustion. Without a word, he urged her forward, pressing the small of her back in the direction of the obsidian lane still visible under their feet.

As they scaled the riverbed, spouts of water began to shoot into their sanctuary, making the smooth black stone slick and difficult to navigate. Marcus pressed her relentlessly onward, but Heather could feel the pressure he was applying to her back lessen quickly as they neared the surface. She began to see light above them in addition to the collapsing shield around them. Soon, she thought she could make out the faint outline of Wilkey standing on the bank ahead and Marcus redoubled his efforts, pushing her hard ahead of him. She broke the surface of the river and immediately felt hands clutch her blouse, pulling her up and out of the cold water.

Many voices surrounded her, hurriedly calling out commands and shouting for assistance. She collapsed onto the stony surface of the bank, gulping in air to her appease her burning lungs and looked around. Wilkey sat next to her, staring at the river intently as other forms, lithe and graceful, dashed around at the water’s edge.

“He’s being swept away,” Wilkey said quietly, as though he was commentating on some sporting event. “They’re trying to reach him, but he’s caught in the current.”

Heather tried to sit up to see what the halfling was talking about, but could not find the strength in her limbs to hold her up. She lay down again, tears once again falling down her cheeks, when she felt Wilkey start next to her.

“They caught him,” he exclaimed. “They flung out a rope with a hook on it and caught his robes just like a fish.”

Heather felt relief sweep over her just as they water had done in the river as the magical divide had collapsed. Her tears came faster, but she realized that Marcus may be dead already despite the efforts to rescue him.

With supreme effort, she forced herself to rise to a sitting position. She looked downstream and saw a cluster of elves about fifty yards down the bank, surrounding a red and black form that lay on the ground at their feet. Groaning, she rolled forward and tried to stand before a strong hand rested on her shoulder, forcing her back down into a sitting position.

“It’s okay,” a female voice said from over her head. “He’s alive, but just barely. We will take him to the healers. In the meantime, you must rest.”

Heather looked up, the movement of her head making her dizzy as she did. Standing above her, staring into the rain, was an elven woman, her long red hair falling down around her shoulders like flames. She wore an expression of grave concern as she watched the elves preparing to carry Marcus to receive the necessary care. After a few moments, she pried her eyes away from the scene down the river and looked down at Heather. Her face softened, and Heather was hypnotized by the elven maiden’s eyes, brilliant circles of emerald glittering beneath long lashes. Heather had never been attracted to another woman before, finding that she liked men far too much to entertain such thoughts, but she found herself entranced by the preternatural beauty of the woman standing above her.

The elven woman called to a group of elven men that emerged from the trees behind them and instructed them to assist Heather and Wilkey in following those who had borne away Marcus. She then turned without another word and disappeared into the trees, her graceful strides carrying her quickly into the shadows.

The elven men had helped Heather gingerly to her feet and asked her if she had suffered any injury. She assured them that she had not, but they lifted her up anyway, hoisting her lightly between them as they followed the auburn-haired female.

“Thanks for asking about me,” she heard Wilkey say as they entered the woods. “Glad to see how concerned you are about my health.”

When no one responded to the halfling, Heather turned her head awkwardly to see him trotting along just behind her, scowling. She noticed Wilkey glancing around frequently, taking in all the elves that for now paid no attention to him. This behavior gave her the impression that he felt remarkably uncomfortable around the elves and she found herself wondering if the two rubies had been all he had stolen from them.

After a long trek through the woods, they reached the city, Heather still being carried by the two elven males. She thought at first they had come to some cemetery as she looked upon the weathered gray buildings scattered across the large clearing, but soon saw that the buildings were not places to house the dead, but houses for the living. She saw a few elves walking hurriedly through the streets, hardly giving their strange party a glance as they passed into the heart of the city. Heather felt a high degree of tension among the residents of Glenfold, made all the more evident in the firm set of the mouths of those she saw. She had always pictured elves as a merry people, dancing and singing in the moonlight before a roaring fire. Here she saw a grim-faced people, beset by war and sacrifice.

The buildings around them reflected the demeanor of their inhabitants. They were once beautiful marvels of architecture, she knew, but the withered vines that covered their cracked facades described a dying culture, derelict and void of the grandeur that it once held. She was forcefully reminded of pictures she had seen of ruins from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, sad monuments of former greatness.

The caravan moved up a hill toward a building in the center of the city, a massive stone structure dominating the smaller buildings surrounding it like courtiers bowing to the king. Through the steady rain, she could make out ornate frescoes lining the upper reaches of the walls depicting great battles with ferocious-looking beasts of what she hoped was a long ago age. The rain ceased to drench he as their party passed between two great columns into a sheltered courtyard and through a large pair of oaken doors, opening wide with a faint metallic squeal.

Within the building, she found the interior in pleasant opposition to the exterior. The halls were warmly decorated and filled with light from several glass spheres which hovered near the ceiling at intervals down the corridor. The elves moved quickly onward, the ones bearing Marcus in the lead and those carrying Heather a short distance behind. When they reached a crossway, however, Marcus was taken down the left hall, while those directing Heather took a right turn. She tried to pull free of their grasp, but the elves held her tight as she squirmed.

“It is necessary,” one of them said simply. “You will be reunited soon.”

Heather had no idea what they were talking about, but she hoped it turned out better than they were making it sound.

She was led into a spacious room with wide windows looking out upon the elven city as far as the rain, falling harder now in the growing wind, would allow. She waited there for some time, hours by her reckoning, before the door opened again and Marcus was carried in on a stretcher. For one nauseating moment, Heather thought that he had died before the elves could do anything to help him, or that they had not been able to do anything to save him. She felt hot tears spring into her eyes as she started forward. Then, Marcus gave a small groan, rolling his head from one side to the other and Heather stopped cold. Her tears dried up in anger and she spun on her heels, striding to the other side of the room to be as far from him as she could while keeping him still within her sight. She was furious at him for making her believe he was dead, relieve that he was not, and more furious because of the complicated blend of the two emotions.

The elves set the stretcher down easily and slid Marcus onto a bed beneath a large bay window. They both glanced curiously at Heather, then at each other, and left the room without so much as a word to the human female.

Heather watched Marcus sleeping for some time before moving slowly toward him again, as though he would jump up and try to frighten her, laughing heartily as she nearly jumped out of her skin. He loved a good practical joke, but as she moved closer, she saw that Marcus was in no condition to perform any pranks. His face was more pale than she had ever seen it, even more so than it had been during the weeklong episode of the flu he had suffered the previous year right before his store’s annual inventory. He had worked nearly eighty hours with a high fever and never once considered taking a day off to get well. By the end of that week, he was severely dehydrated and spent the two days following in the hospital being chastised for how stupid it was to abuse himself in such a fashion.

As he lay in the hospital, too exhausted to acknowledge her presence, she sat stolidly beside him, alternating between reading a Dan Brown novel and wiping the sweat pouring from him. Now, she found herself in similar circumstances, but the nature of their relationship had changed from those happier times, so she sat staring out the window, feeling both defiant and guilty for not attempting to comfort the man she had, and maybe still, loved.

She remained in the room for the rest of the day and no one else entered except for a young female elf bearing a tray of food. She bowed slightly as she entered and placed the tray on a table near the door before backing out again with another bow. Heather felt a strong urge to go to the door and throw the tray outside it to express her anger at being left alone with her confused thoughts about Marcus, but as she approached the aroma of meat and bread filled her nostrils, reminding her that she had not eaten for some time. She sat down and immediately began to eat with rapid enjoyment, savoring each bit of the succulent meal. When she had finished, she wiped a bit of grease from her lips and looked over her shoulder at the sleeping Marcus, half-concealed in shadows cast from the mysterious orbs of light illuminating the room. Her sense of guilt chimed in again, telling her that she should not have been so selfish as to devour the whole meal herself, but consoled herself by believing that Marcus would probably remain asleep the rest of the night and that she would be more than happy to request a meal for him should he wake by morning.

Heather returned to her chair by the window and stared out into the darkness. Night had fallen suddenly, aided in its descent by the dark clouds that still dumped torrents of rain onto Glenfold. Through the gloom, she thought she could seen other sources of light where she had been able to see buildings earlier in the day. Gradually, weariness overcame her and she fell asleep, leaning back in her chair and propped against the window as the rain continued to beat out its steady rhythm.

Marcus awoke early the next morning, feeling ravenous and dizzy. He tried unsuccessfully to sit up, feeling his head spin as he tried to determine where he was, they lay back down a while before attempting another go. The room seemed familiar to him, though he could not recall ever having been there as a child. He suspected that he would know the room from the outside, though, knowing from the stark gray walls that he was now within the borders of Glenfold.

He tried to remember how he had come to be in that room and drew a complete blank. His last memory consisted of pushing Heather forward through the Misteld as the magical barrier protecting them from certain death disintegrated. Turning, he saw Heather asleep in a chair a few feet away, looking quite uncomfortable as her face pressed against the window pane. A small line of drool stretched from her lower lip in a slight arc to the glass and he had to suppress a laugh to keep from waking her.

Slowly, he attempted to rise again and found the dizziness lessened as he did so. The smell of cooked meat and bread filled his nostrils and his stomach growled audibly. He looked by the door and saw the remains of Heather’s meal from the previous night and wished he had been awake to enjoy it with her, although he doubted it would have been as enjoyable as he would have liked in light of their recent troubles.

He lowered his legs to the stone floor, feeling his strength returning in minute increments. The disorientation was very mild as he stood and pushed off from the bed to support his own weight and he took a tentative step to see how his body would react. Satisfied, he quietly moved to the door and let himself out into the corridor.

Memory flooded back to him as he looked up and down the hall, finding himself in the king’s residence that he had visited several times as a child. Everything seemed much smaller, as places of childhood often do to adults when they go back, and he felt a sweet sense of nostalgia as he started in the direction that he knew would take him to the main hall. He saw no one, no servants milling about performing their daily duties and this fact made him slightly uneasy as he continued on. In days past, the corridors would have been filled with various members of the royal household each pursuing his or her own personal service to the king.

At last, Marcus reached the gilded doors leading to the king’s audience chamber. He glanced around for the chamberlain, who by protocol would announce him before he would be allowed to enter, but still saw no one. Trying the door, he found it unlocked and it swung open easily as he pulled the handle.

Stepping in, Marcus finally saw someone. An elven man, stooped with age, sat upon an ornate throne at the far end of the room. Gray hair fell from around around his shoulders as he leaned back into the wood back with eyes closed. He appeared to be sleeping, his thin lips parted slightly, but as Marcus walked to the center of the room, he spoke.

“I see you have recovered, Marcus,” the elf said, eyes still closed. “The healers told me they doubted whether you would survive the night.”

“You know me, Your Highness,” Marcus returned, bowing slightly. “Always fighting the odds.”

The old elf opened his eyes at last and Marcus looked into the steel gray orbs. The last time he had seen King Lanian of Glenfold had been just following the incident at the fountain. He had come to tell the king farewell, knowing that he would probably never return to his borders. Now, he had returned and could feel the same warmth and compassion from the old monarch that he had sensed as a young boy, but now the feeling was tempered with another fact that Marcus knew instinctively.

King Lanian was dying.

Lanian had been old through all the years that Marcus could remember them, but before he still seemed to radiate a vitality that surpassed most in the prime of their lives. He was wildly popular among the elves and he wondered how his approaching death would be handled by the population of Glenfold.

The king studied Marcus shrewdly for a long moment before speaking again. “Yes, always fighting something,” he said, a soft chuckle shaking his chest before he gave in to a fit of harsh, wracking coughs that caused him to nearly collapse from the throne, holding its arms tightly for support with his white, bony hands.

Marcus rushed in to aid Lanian, forgetting protocol that required him to remain a certain distance from the king to ensure his safety. He lifted the king back to a sitting position and wiped away the blood that appeared on his lips with the hem of his robes. Taking the frail hand in his own, Marcus kneeled down beside the throne and looked at Lanian.

“What has happened to you, father?” Calling the king such made him tremble slightly. He had not thought of saying that, the word taking him totally by surprise, but as he thought back over his childhood, he recognized that Lanian had been the closest person to a father that he had ever known and felt the word surprisingly appropriate.

If the king had noticed what Marcus had called him, he paid no attention. “As all living things must die, so do elves when their time comes,” he said. “But to answer your question, it is this war. The Necromancer presses us on all sides and I’m afraid the borders may not hold much longer. It has taken considerable strength to hold them this long, but that strength is fading, Marcus.”

“That’s why I’ve come,” Marcus said, his voice barely a whisper. “I’ve come to stop him.”

“You may find that harder than you ever imagined,” Lanian said. “He is more powerful than anything I have seen in my long, long life.”

Marcus squeezed the old elf’s hand slightly. “I will find a way, but that is one of the reasons I’ve come back to Glenfold.”

“Yes, I am aware of why you have returned,” Lanian said, smiling slightly. “The halfling proved to be a very informative source once we pardoned him for his crimes. We did give him quite a scare, though. Put him in chains, even.”

Marcus could not help but laugh. He had always admired the elven king’s sense of humor and now, even as he waited on the threshold of death, Lanian allowed himself to appreciate a good joke. Turning to sit on the step directly in front of the throne, Marcus looked across the empty throne room. He had never known it to be so empty before, absent of the courtiers and advisors and petitioners that had always caused the place to be a chaotic dance of politics. He decided to take advantage of the solitude rather than question it, approaching the main cause for his visit.

“I have returned to fight him, like I said . . . “Marcus began. He found confiding the truth to the king to be oddly difficult considering his affection for the old elf. Worry filled him that Lanian would decide it was some fault of his own that had caused his struggled to connect with the power he now knew from the episode at the river that he still possessed. He felt ashamed for not returning to see the elven monarch as his health declined, guilty for not being there, and he wondered deep down if his magical difficulties were a penance for not being here earlier in Lanian’s time of need. The logical portion of his mind told him that his theory was a silly notion, but he clung to it nonetheless.

Lanian saved him the trouble of completing his sentence. “You have come to ask if we know why your power seems to have waned,” he said sagely. Leaning back into the cushions of the throne, he closed his eyes again. “You think you have done something wrong to drive away your talents, despite the tremendous strength it took to save yourself and your female companion from the Misteld, and you wish to know how to get them back.”

Marcus stared in amazement at the old elven king, shocked by his insight. He knew that one who had lived as long as Lanian and had seen as much as he should be able to read others with a fair amount of accuracy, but Marcus found his precision uncanny and unnerving.

The wise old elf also mentioned the power Marcus had used at the river, but that incident only further confused the situation. If all he could do any other time was produce a tiny flame, how had he produced the enormous magical energy necessary to keep the river at bay. Also, why had the effort drained him nearly to the point of death? Did he have to be in mortal peril to use his abilities. Yes, he thought, he had reached that well of power, but doing so only created more questions that he could not answer.

“Yes,” Marcus said, the only response he could muster.

Lanian leaned forward again and Marcus turned to make sure the elf did not topple forth from his throne. Instead, Lanian placed his hand upon his shoulder and smiled again, a sad smile that line his wrinkled face even more than it had been.

“I do not know why you cannot reach your power, Marcus, nor do any of the other elders,” the king said, his voice shaking. “I wish with all my wisdom that I did, but your troubles are beyond my experience and understanding. I realize that our fate, the fate of Glenfold and all the lands around it, may hinge on discovering the solution to this question, but I am sorry to say that I do not know the answer.”

Marcus slumped in absolute misery. To this point, he had not been excessively worried about not being able to duplicate the power he possessed as a boy, knowing the elves would be able to solve the riddle and prepare him for the battle with the Necromancer on even footing, magic against magic. Now, with this revelation, he felt small and helpless, doomed to a grisly end that would take Heather and all the inhabitants of these lands with him. Staring at the floor, he thought of Heather, leaning awkwardly against the window a few rooms away. He cursed himself for bringing her and wondered what compulsion had insisted that she accompany him on such a hopeless mission.

He felt the thin hand squeeze his shoulder, still showing surprising strength in its grip. Marcus looked up, trying unsuccessfully to fight the tears of frustration that rimmed his eyes. He looked at Lanian and immediately the tears dried, the light in the old king’s own eyes filling Marcus with a new sense of hope.

“There may be one who does know how to help you,” the king told him. “One who has seen more than me and who knows more about the ways of the land than I, but I hesitate to mention her name, for it will be one you will hear with great trepidation.”

Marcus did not care. He trusted Lanian beyond measure and if the elven king knew of one possibility that could extricate them from utter destruction, then he wanted to know as soon as possible. Time for them all was short, but for Lanian, time could be measured in days or even hours. Marcus felt he must defeat the Necromancer somehow by the time the elven king died or Glenfold would fall and, with it, all hope.

However, Marcus was not prepared for the name Lanian gave him and only after some minutes of staring at the king in mute shock did he finally nod his head and leave the king to begin this new leg of his quest.