Terra Incognita—Chapter 9

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.

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