At this point, we are just over halfway in the story.  I hope to have the rest posted this month as I’ll begin work on my Christmas stories soon and want to have most of December in which to post them, old and new.  My goal is to have another three stories this year to go along with the seven or so I have from previous years, plus a top-secret bonus piece (or two) for the season.

Anyway, please enjoy the further misadventures of Marcus and Heather as they try to extricate themselves from the horrific situation in which I placed them.  Being an author is cool like that.

Chapter 13

When Marcus reached the base of Amadyr’s mountain, he was drenched in sweat. He had taken the climb leisurely enough, working through the dilemma the dragon had faced him with and finding no clear way around it. Night had fallen in the Fell Lands, bringing cool air to the lee of the crag in a pleasant departure from the day’s blistering heat. Heather, Lorelei, and Wilkey waited for him near the griffons, each apart from the other absorbed in their own thoughts. No fire had been lit, Lorelei probably deciding it was too great a risk, but ample moonlight flooded down for Marcus to see his path down and those waiting for him at the bottom.

When he reached them, Wilkey was the first to approach, grinning broadly. “You’re still alive!”

Marcus could only nod and offer a weak smile in return. Yes, he had emerged from the cave of a dragon unharmed after entering it completely unarmed and powerless, for which he knew he should be thankful, but considering the information he had received there, part of him wished Amadyr had incinerated him. At least then he would not have to worry about the choice he would have to make.

He looked at Heather and saw relief pass over her. She started to take a few steps forward, then saw Lorelei doing the same. Both women, human and elf, stopped at the sight of the other advancing, and hung back, unwilling to show their emotions over Marcus’s safe return.

Women, thought Marcus.

“Well, what happened? What did she tell you?” Wilkey asked, the words coming out like automatic gunfire. “We know something happened because we saw light inside the cave. Did she try to kill you? Did she tell you how to get your powers back?”

“No, she didn’t try to kill me, though I think she wanted to.”

Wilkey gaped. “Was she scared?”

Marcus managed a snort of bitter laughter. “Hardly. She’s . . . she’s dying.”

“Did she tell you how to get your powers back?” The question came from Heather, standing a few feet away, looking hopeful and terrified in the pale light.

Marcus looked away from her. “She told me several things, but I have to think about them and try to figure out what they mean.”

“What did she tell you? Maybe we can help,” Lorelei said. Already she was preparing the griffons for flight. The large beasts kept peering upward at the cave, now lost in darkness in a recess of the mountain. They wanted to be far from Amadyr before they rested, as did Marcus.

“No, I have to do this on my own,” Marcus said.

“Then you better do it quickly,” Wilkey said. “We don’t have much time.”

“I’m aware of that,” Marcus replied. He felt more exhausted than he could ever remember feeling, weary beyond the effects of any athletic endeavor or stretch at work than he had ever experience. “Come on, let’s get out of here and find a place to make camp.”

He received concerned looks from his companions, but no argument. The each mounted the griffons and took to the skies, flying back toward the dark outlines of the Norags in the distance. The night air away from the mountain was warm, but compared to the ferocity of the day’s heat, that was quite welcome. The flew for several hours before reaching the base of the mountains. Marcus slumped forward in mid-flight, unable to hold himself up any longer, and awoke only as Aspen landed and he felt he rush of air around him cease.

When they dismounted, Marcus unrolled his bedroll and immediately lay down and fell asleep again. He would let the others decide who would keep watch and when. He knew only that he needed more rest to be able to function at all and to be able to decide whether Heather would live or die. He told himself that she would live, must live, but the dragon’s words kept invading his thoughts like a virus.

You must sacrifice the girl . . . if you save the girl, then countless others will die . . . choose the lives of the many over the life of the one . . . risk so much for a woman who does not wish to be with you when one who does . . .

Marcus found himself alone in a clearing, the same one that they had fled near the inn. Again, walking corpses surrounded him, approaching from all sides, forming a ring around him that he could not break through. He could feel the chill of death flowing from them like fog, wrapping around his ankles and climbing slowly up his legs. He looked around for some escape, even into the skies for some sign of Lorelei and the griffons, but saw nothing other than the solitary eye of the moon staring down in wide-eyed horror.

He scanned the ring of dead, their red eyes gleaming brighter than even the moon, and gasped. He knew some of them, recognized the faces even beneath the pallor and infernal gazes. Lanian, his already gaunt features now no more than skin stretched tight over a skeleton, shuffled forward, his bony fingers now wicked claws that reached toward Marcus. Wilkey stood near the elven king, shorter than the dead around him, but no less horrifying with his amiable grin transformed into a rictus. Turning he saw Lorelei, her beauty gone, replaced by the pale mantle of death beneath gaping holes in her once-perfect skin.

“Why, Marcus?” Lorelei’s voice asked from the gaping mouth of her corpse. “Why did you choose her over all of us? Was my love not enough? Then, love me now, Marcus, love me now in death.”

The corpses drew closer with agonizing slowness. Marcus spun this way and that, fighting the urge to retch, looking for some desperate chance to escape this doom descending upon him. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the dead surrounded him, their red eyes forming a shifting band as their uneven gait brought them closer to their victim.

Above him, he heard a noise, the creaking of great leathery wings. Amadyr appeared in the sky over the clearing, her lost wing restored and her full compliment of scales gleaming blood red in the moonlight. Atop her back, a black-robed figure stood undaunted by the up and down motion of the dragon as she flapped her wings.

“Dark times have befallen this land you have forgotten. You should have listened to Amadyr the Wise, Marcus,” the Necromancer said. “You have doomed everyone in this land and now have doomed yourself as well. You could not even save the one you love.”

The Necromancer pointed down at Marcus, who instinctively knew to look down. At his feet, cold and rigid, lay Heather. Her sightless eyes stared up into the night sky, her blue lips slightly parted as thought she may speak. Marcus knew, though, that she would never speak again. Heather, like the stinking bodies now almost upon him, was dead.

Feeling the tears of anger and hopelessness welling in his eyes, Marcus fell to his knees. He clutched Heather’s icy hand and held it to his cheek. Her skin burned his like cold metal, but he did not remove her hand, allowing his warm tears to flow over it unchecked. He sobbed and closed his eyes, feeling the first of the walking corpses seize his shoulder . . .

Marcus awoke to someone screaming, then realized that it was he that he was hearing. He throat felt raw from the exertion and his body was covered in cold sweat that made him shiver despite the warm air on this side of the Norags. Sitting up, he looked around the small camp and expected to see the others staring at him, wondering what had caused him to cry out. What he saw, though, only increased the terror that had not yet ebbed from his mind upon waking from the dream.

Lorelei lay sound asleep across the remains of the small fire they had lit to cook their evening meal. Nearby, Wilkey lay up against a small tree, snoring loudly. He held a bottle in his hand and had turned it over in his sleep, spilling its contents onto his pants. Heather, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Marcus was on his feet immediately, scanning the darkness around for any sign of movement, but the moon had already set and his vision only stretched a few yards around him. He remembered the episode in the centaur camp where she had disappeared to relieve herself and hoped, prayed, that she had gone to do the same.

“Heather,” he tried to call, but his throat was dry and would not make the sound rise above a whisper. He cleared his throat. “Heather!” he called, louder this time.

Lorelei rose up on her elbows. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Heather’s not here.”

The elf rose quickly, looking around the camp much as Marcus had done. He knew her eyes were much keener than his own, especially in the darkness, and hoped that she would see some sign of Heather that he had not.

His hopes were dashed, though, when she turned to him with wide eyes. “I don’t see her. I left Wilkey on watch, maybe he saw something.”

Marcus turned his attention to the halfling, still snoring before him. He could smell the alcohol on each loud exhalation and, upon closer inspection, on the large dark patch where the liquid had spilled over his thigh.

Enraged, Marcus lifted the halfling up by his shirt and slammed him against the tree he had been leaning against. The deep breath Wilkey had just taken in exploded from him, causing him to start coughing and sputtering as he fought to regain consciousness.

“Wha . . . Wha’s the matter, Marcus,” Wilkey gasped, his words slurred and accompanied by a fair amount of spit.

“Where’s Heather?” Marcus asked, speaking through his teeth in an effort to keep from screaming at the halfling.

“She’s right . . .” Wilkey started, pointing to where Heather’s bedroll still lay upon the ground. “She was there a bit ago.”

Marcus turned and flung the halfling roughly to the ground. Wilkey rolled a few feet and stopped, sprawling spread eagle on the ground near the fire. He made no effort to get up. Instead, he clutched his head and looked up at Marcus with an expression of purest confusion and hurt.

Marcus picked up the bottle from where it lay by the tree. He walked over the Wilkey brandishing it like a club, held high above his head. Grabbing the halfling again by the shirt, he lifted him up to a sitting position and waved the bottle at him.

“What the hell is this?” Marcus screamed, unable to control himself any longer. In some portion of his mind, he knew any number of predatory creatures could be nearby, even agents of the Necromancer, but he raged on heedless of the potential danger. “Where did you get this, you drunken bastard? You were supposed to be on watch, supposed to be looking out for trouble, and now you’ve let them take Heather, you bastard!” He had no idea who “they” were exactly, but he knew that Heather had not left the camp on her own.

Wilkey blinked rapidly, trying to force his eyes to focus on Marcus. Both his hands pressed hard against his temples as if holding his head on atop his shoulders. He brought his knees up in to his chest, almost rolling himself into a ball in his efforts to steady himself.

Marcus wanted to beat the halfling, to smash him over the head with the bottle in hopes of knocking some sense into him. He could not, though, and he knew it. Instead, he turned and hurled the bottle against the tree Wilkey had been reclining against. It smashed into a shower of glittering glass dust before disappearing into the night.

He stood wanting to roar with frustration, but held just enough control to understand that doing so would not bring him any closer to finding Heather. Behind him, he heard a metallic scraping noise and orange flame consumed the head of a torch held in Lorelei’s hand. Holding it high, she walked over to Heather’s bedroll and looked around in the new illumination.

“There are tracks here. The grass is matted down.”

Marcus ran to Aspen, sleeping on the side of camp opposite from where Heather had been abducted and retrieved the sword Polan had given him. He hurried to where Lorelei was and looked to where she pointed. The grass had indeed been trampled, apparently by several sets of feet. Here and there, Marcus saw the imprint of a booted heel in the soft ground.

“Dwarves,” Lorelei said, a poorly disguised tone of disgust in her voice. Marcus knew the elves and dwarves, being opposite in nearly every way imaginable, cared little for each other, though stopped just short of open warfare. Marcus had only visited the dwarven kingdom on one occasion as a child and found them warm enough in their own, gruff way, but for company he strongly preferred the folk of Glenfold over those dwelling beneath the Norags.

Following the light of the torch, Marcus and Lorelei followed the tracks away from the camp, hunched over like old crones as they strained their eyes to see every print the dwarves had left.

“Looks like four, maybe five,” Lorelei said.

Marcus thought the same, but held his tongue to keep from missing anything he might spot while sharing useless conversation. He followed the trail like a bloodhound, his head moving back and forth as they moved further from the camp. The path led them straight ahead, never wavering or bending as it went along toward the mountains. Finally, the light from the torch revealed a small hole, large enough for a man, or a dwarf, to fit through. Marcus could smell the freshly turned earth around it and the aroma reminded him of planting season during his childhood in Kentucky.

Lowering himself down onto his stomach, Marcus looked up at Lorelei. “Hand me the torch,” he said.

Lorelei did so and he lowered the flaming head past his own into the hole. The torch spluttered for a moment before revealing a vertical shaft that ran down for only a few feet before leveling off into a cross tunnel that ran parallel to the contour of the surface.

Marcus handed the torch back to Lorelei. “Hold this while I go down there, then you drop the torch through and follow.”

The elf stared at the hole with wide eyes. Many elves held a deep residing fear of being underground and he could see by the expression on Lorelei’s face that she was among them. He could tell, even in the uneven radiance cast by the torch, that she had gone pale at the prospect of entering the tunnel. To make matters worse, an elf invading the tunnels of the dwarves might be tantamount to a declaration of war considering the relationship between the two races, a relationship that was cold enough without any contact.

Marcus sensed the hesitation in Lorelei. “Come on,” he said, lowering his legs into the hole. “If we catch up soon enough, we won’t have to worry about any of the other dwarves knowing. We’ll get Heather, hurry back here, and be gone on the griffons long before we can stir up too much trouble.”

Somehow, he knew that accomplishing those plans would prove much more difficult than they sounded coming out of his mouth, but he slid down the hole anyway. He landed hard, but remained on his feet, sword drawn in case of an ambush. To his surprise, Lorelei dropped immediately beside him, landing gracefully into a ready position, the torch in one hand and a gleaming short sword in the other. Marcus had not seen the weapon and wondered briefly where she had been hiding it.

“The tracks lead that way,” Lorelei said, pointing to in a direction that Marcus knew led toward the mountains and the dwarven stronghold. The tunnel ahead of them looked like a natural cave system (Marcus was reminded forcefully of tours taken at Mammoth Cave) although he could see a few places where the dwarves had worked to widen the passage or level the floor for easier travel.

“Then that’s the way we’re going,” Marcus said. He started down the tunnel, Lorelei following behind, into the dwarven realm.

Wilkey sat in the camp for many minutes after Marcus and Lorelei passed out of hearing range. This was in part because he could not yet stand without wobbling, but mostly because he felt truly horrible for allowing Heather to be taken on his watch. Marcus had been a bit rough with him, he thought, but it was no more than he thought he deserved. Their group certainly had enough problems without him failing in his duties and plunging them into another dangerous situation.

He fought against the gray haze in his mind and tried to remember when he had picked up the bottle. He remembered them stopping to make camp after leaving the dragon’s lair and he remembered going to sleep. He recalled dimly Lorelei waking him up, telling him that she was exhausted and needed to sleep. He had foraged in his pack for a light snack when he came across the bottle, unlabeled and unadorned, among his other possessions. He took it out, examined it, and could not remember ever seeing it before. Pulling the cork, he smelled of the contents and inhaled the sweetest scent ever to pass through his nostrils. Then followed an experimental sip, a drink, a swig, then the whole bottle was upended as Wilkey poured the liquid down his throat. He had not had a sip of alcohol since Marcus had found him passed out in Yellow Banks and now he found himself rejoicing in the flavor. To him, it was like meeting a good friend after many years apart.

After the first few swallows, he could not remember anything else. He was normally quite adept at holding his liquor, especially for his diminutive size, but he had hardly consumed half the bottle when the irresistible urge to sleep stole over him like a strong breeze. When Marcus had invaded his room at the pub, the halfling had been drinking steadily for nearly three days, not allowing himself a single sober moment to reflect on the stupidity of what he was doing. He felt embarrassed that it had taken so little to produce a similar effect and that his weakness had come at such an inopportune time.

He rose to his feet, his knees swaying a bit before steadying, and clutched his head again. It pounded as though Amadyr herself had crawled in through his ear and was now trying to bust out through every inch of his skull. When he opened his eyes, everything seemed to be waving back and forth before him sending a wave of nausea that he had to focus all his will on to keep from taking over.

When his stomach finally settled, he took a few tentative steps in the direction he had seen Marcus and Lorelei go. He could see the tiny dot of the torch ahead of him and stumbled toward it. The ground was mostly level beneath him, but several rocks jutted up hidden in the grass and he stubbed his toes more than once, even falling over a particularly large stone in his path.

He had nearly reached the light of the torch when it disappeared. The flames dropped down and were gone as though being swallowed by the earth. When he reached the hole, nearly falling into it before he was aware of it, he found that his perception was not too far from the truth.

Looking down into the hole, he could see the faint flicker of torch light receding down one direction of the tunnel and hurried down the hole to avoid being left in the dark. He crashed hard onto his knees when he dropped, but managed to pull himself up quickly to follow the faint illumination moving quickly away from him.

Marcus and Lorelei followed the tunnel for what seemed like an interminably long time. Luckily, Marcus thought, they had encountered no side passages, no other corridors than the one they moved along to confuse matters. They stopped from time to time for a brief moment to ensure the dwarven footprints still led onward, then resumed their march.

Marcus could not tell if they were gaining ground on the dwarves who had abducted Heather, but he felt that they must be. He had no idea why he felt that way, but his gut told him that if they continued on at their current pace, they stood a good chance of catching the kidnappers, even inside their own caves. He had no idea how well fortified the dwarven city would be, but he strongly wanted to remain outside its perimeter if possible.

As he and Lorelei sped through the tunnel, Marcus considered many questions that nagged at his mind, even through the panic induced by Heather’s disappearance. First, he wondered why the dwarves had taken Heather in the first place. If they had all been invading land the dwarves felt was off limits to outsiders, then why not capture them all? Why take just one of them? Second, he wondered how the dwarves knew where they had camped? He guessed that their campfire could be seen from guard stations within the mountains themselves, they had made no effort to hide themselves, but the tunnel they now ran along seemed to be made to reach that point alone with no other corridors branching off of it. Finally, he wondered how Lorelei, with her heightened elven senses, had not heard the dwarves approaching. He asked the same about himself, too, although he attributed his lack of awareness to sheer exhaustion. If Lorelei felt the same, she certainly did not show it.

As they hurried along the tunnel, Marcus began to notice a gradual incline of the floor, becoming more and more pronounced as they drew closer to the mountains. Despite his excellent physical condition, he soon began to feel winded. His night’s sleep, which he desperately needed, had been cut short by the current crisis and he hoped to resolve it soon so that he might return to his bedroll before daybreak and at least manage a few hours of sleep before they continued on their quest.

One other thought pulled at his mind as they followed Heather’s abductors, one that he tried to force out completely, but could not quite wipe from his consciousness. What if, the voice said, sounding much like that of Amadyr, you let the dwarves have her. Then, perhaps, you could get your power back, defeat the Necromancer, and have Lorelei as a consolation.

Marcus would not accept the voice’s suggestion. He felt repulsed that his own mind would generate such a thought and even questioned whether it had generated it. Perhaps the dragon, he thought, planted some sort of suggestion on him during their conversation. He knew the idea was most unlikely, but he still grasped for anything to shift responsibility for his dark thoughts onto someone more deserving.

Lost in thought, he almost ran into Lorelei when she stopped ahead of him.

“What? What’s wrong?”

Lorelei held the torch high above her, the ceiling to the tunnel now almost eight feet high. She scanned the floor, a grim expression on her face.

“The tracks. They’re gone,” she whispered. “There’s a jumble right here, but they go no further down the tunnel.”

“Then where did . . . “ Marcus started to ask, but his question was cut short by a flurry of activity all around them. Hidden panels in the walls, cunningly designed to blend in seamlessly with their surroundings, swung open and dwarves erupted from them. The small, bearded warriors gave a loud cry in unison and flung themselves at Marcus and Lorelei, wielding war hammers and carrying shields.

Marcus ducked under a hammer blow, stumbling back down the tunnel in the direction from which they came. His maneuver had left him off balance, but it allowed him some much needed space in order to put up some sort of defense. He knew he was sorely at a disadvantage—the dwarves were all trained to be skilled fighters, especially within their underground domain, whereas Marcus knew very little about melee combat.

He found himself facing two opponents and, looking over their heads, saw Lorelei facing the same number. The two advancing on him wore wide grins as they began moving to either side of the tunnel in an effort to reflank their foe

Marcus did not want to have a dwarf on either side to contend with, so he pressed the engagement. Feinting to the left with his sword, he swung it around to his right in a low arc, hoping to catch the dwarf on that side off guard. Instead, the sword deflected off the round buckler and bounced out wide.

The other dwarf, who also had not been fooled by the bluff, dove in with his hammer, aiming for Marcus’s back. Marcus sensed him coming, though, and rolled to the side just as the strike fell. The hammer clanged against the shield as well, the momentum of the attack carrying the two dwarves into one another.

Using the momentary confusion, Marcus reached out with both hands and grabbed the shield of his attacker with both hands. The longsword fell from his grasp, but he paid no notice, still finding the weapon awkward in his hands. Clutching the buckler, he gave a hard turn as though steering a car into a hairpin curve at high speed. He felt the leather straps on the inward face of the shield go taut, stretch, then give with a sudden snap as the bones of the dwarf’s arm broke.

Howling in pain and outrage, the injured dwarf recoiled back against the opposite wall, dropping his hammer and trying to pry the shield off his broken arm with his unbroken one.

The other dwarf howled as well in shared outrage and swung his hammer in a vicious arc straight down hoping to crush Marcus’s skull. Realizing that he lacked the time to get out of the way, Marcus reached up and tried to catch the dwarf’s hands as they brought the weapon down. The combined force of the heavy hammer and the strength of the swing painfully jammed his wrists and forced him down to a sitting position.

The dwarf raised the hammer again, but this time Marcus was quicker. Kicking out hard with his right foot, he caught the dwarf’s kneecap and snapped it backward, producing a loud popping noise that reverberated down the tunnel. The dwarf stumbled forward, the momentum from his abbreviated swing forcing him down to the stone floor.

Marcus scrambled to his feet and heard another scuffle going on just down the tunnel. He saw on the opposite side of the torch now lying discarded on the floor, Lorelei had been battling two more of the dwarves. As he looked, though, he saw the melee end as the elf gave a shrill cry, cut short as she fell backward to the dark stone floor just beyond the circle of light produced by the small flame.

“Lorelei!” Marcus called, just as a hard, heavy object made contact with the back of his head, sending him into darkness.

Happy Veterans’ Day to one and all!  If you came here looking for my highly disturbing Halloween story, you’re out of luck—I just took it down.  However, I may be coerced to send it out on request for anyone who thinks life has just gotten a little too Disney for them.

Also, since it is Veterans’ Day, I would like to recognize my brother, Joe, who is currently stationed in Qatar.  He is practically a stone’s throw from Iran (which is bad, considering that they still stone people to death over there) and would have a front row seat should anything break out with them.  In addition, his wife was due to have their fourth child two days ago, but he isn’t allowed to fly home for almost another week.  For those of us who don’t serve or have never served, please remember that the sacrifice they make is not only measured in lives lost.  It is almost measured in time lost.

If you are joining late, this is the first completed novel manuscript I wrote, warts and all.  I did this one several years ago just to see if I had the discipline to finish a full novel and, though the results were nowhere near publishable, I thought it would be fun to post on here.  Plus, it gives me something to put on this site while I’m working to graduate in May.  It’s not particularly well-written, but there are parts I think turned out well, so please forgive me for the bad stuff.

Chapter 12

Once they were airborne, they followed Lorelei and the other elves to another clearing a few miles away. No animated bodies harassed them here, but the did not know how long they could count on being safe, so kept their conversation to a minimum.

“We thank you for helping us escape,” Polan told them once they landed. His eyes moved from Marcus to Lorelei, spreading gratitude to both.

Marcus shifted uncomfortably in the griffon’s saddle. “Had it not been for us, you could have lived out your life here in peace,” he said.

“Then that is all the more to be thankful for,” Valista said, smiling. She looked at Polan, who returned the smile. “Perhaps when they rebuild, they will send someone else in our place.”

“I hope so,” Heather said, her tone expressing genuine sincerity. Marcus hoped her concern for the elves’ relationship would translate to concern for their own.

Before mounting Blizzard, Polan walked up to Marcus and held out his longsword by the blade. “Take this,” he said. “We are returning to safety, but you go into further darkness. You may need it before all is done.”

Marcus could only nod in thanks. He had never used a sword in actual combat before and the blade felt awkward and heavy in his hands. He had done practice exercises among the elves during his childhood, but never imagined that he would have to rely on steel rather than his magic.

Within a few minutes, Valista and Polan had returned to the skies bound for Glenfold. The others, still astride the remaining griffons, kept a wary watch on the shadowy forest all around them. They could still feel the cold menace of the walking dead, though they could not tell how far away the abominations were.

Marcus looked at Lorelei as Wilkey adjusted his seating behind her. “Where to?” he asked.

The elf turned her gaze away from the trees and looked at him, her face cold and beautiful in the moonlight. Marcus again felt his breath stop within his chest as her green eyes, black in the dim light, boring into him. “We’ll go to the mountains. I know a place in the foothills where we might find some rest,” she said, her voice flat and icy.

Marcus wanted to talk to her, to ask her what he could do to smooth things over between them, but he wanted to do so in private, not around Wilkey and certainly not around Heather. He started to say something to her, but before a single word could leave his mouth, Lorelei had given Winterdusk the command to fly and she was gone in a flapping of wings.

Following the elf’s lead, the others spurred their griffons into the sky. The moon had reached its zenith and was beginning to lose altitude on its way to the horizon. Marcus watched the land beneath them as they flew, particularly when they passed over the smoldering remains of the inn. He could see no movement from below and the clearing around the ruin was too dark to see any thing moving there. The only motion he could see came from the pillar of gray smoke as they drifted by it.

They continued flying until the moon was about to set over the edge of the mountains. The griffons, excited and energized by their narrow escape near the inn, now showed the signs of weariness, breathing heavily with every flap of their enormous wings. Up ahead of Marcus, Lorelei directed Winterdusk into a downward spiral that Aspen and Sunbeam imitated, finally landing on a flat-topped hill overlooking the forest below.

“We’ll camp here for the rest of the night and into the day tomorrow,” Lorelei said, dismounting. “The griffons must rest before we pass over the mountains.”

“Me too,” Wilkey said. “I’m exhausted.”

“We’ll need to set up a watch,” Marcus said, sliding off Aspen and feeling his knees wobble again.

Heather lowered herself down from Sunbeam’s back. The yellow griffon was much better behaved with a different rider, even lowering its front so Heather could step down easier. She too stumbled and nearly fell before Marcus caught her in his arms.

“Easy does it,” he told her.

Heather grasped his arms for support and offered him the briefest of smiles before pulling away from him and steadying herself. She tottered for a moment, then took a tentative step forward before finding herself capable of self-propulsion. Turning away from Marcus, she began to unsling her pack from the griffon’s back, immediately pulling out her bed roll.

Wilkey did the same, spreading his blanket upon the ground and collapsing onto it like a sack full of stones. In a matter of seconds, even less time that Marcus himself could have managed, the halfling was snoring softly.

Marcus turned at last to Lorelei, making sure that Heather herself had followed Wilkey’s example and had passed off to sleep. He heard her breathing, deep and regular, and knew she would not wake for some time.

Lorelei sat upon a stone, gazing off into the forest. The light of the moon cascaded into her dark hair, making it shine and sparkle like a handful of glitter. Her face, though, was clouded in shadow, her expression unreadable as Marcus walked to her.

Sitting beside her on the stone, Marcus also looked out over the forest they had just fled. “You think we’ll be safe here?” he asked.

“I don’t believe you’ll be safe anywhere.”

“From them,” he nodded toward the forest, “or you.”

Lorelei turned to face him, revealing half her beautiful face in the silver light. Her cheeks were wet and reflected the moon in erratic lines. “Why, Marcus? Why?”

Marcus did not have to ask her what she meant, the look on her face told him well enough. Why do you insist on being with her, her eyes asked. Why can’t you love me instead?

Marcus tried, but could not bear her penetrating gaze for long. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I . . . I just love her.”

Lorelei turned back to the dark outline of the forest, her face lost again in shadow. “And I love you. I always have and always will.”

“How do you know? Things are different. I’m different now. How do you know that I’m still someone you could love.”

“I know you,” Lorelei said. “Far better than she ever could. I know who you are and who you were.”

Her statement made Marcus recall the day by the fountain, the day everything between them had changed forever. He sat in silence for some time, wondering how things would be different now if he had not been so blind or stupid or whatever he had been that made him not kiss her that day. Guilt rose in him again like the tide, forcing him to swallow just so he could speak again.

“I thought you must have found someone else. I could not have hoped to come back here and find you waiting for me.”

“I have been waiting,” Lorelei whispered. “I’ve turned down many offers, so many that most of my kin thought me mad. Even Erasmus said I should try to forget you, try to find someone else worthy, but no one else would ever be you.”

At the sound of his friend’s name, Marcus felt as if cold water had splashed him in the face. With all the turmoil he had faced, both internal and external, since returning to this land, Marcus had nearly forgotten what had summoned him here in the first place. Now, with the mention of Erasmus, his pain and anger seeped back into his consciousness. Yet, he fought it back, not wanting to take out his emotions on Lorelei.

“Erasmus sent me a letter, in my world,” he said. “I came back to find that he had been killed. Now, I have to avenge him, but I need you to help me. I can’t give you what you want from me, at least not now, but I know I can’t defeat the Necromancer without your help.”

For an age Lorelei remained quiet, her eyes dropping from the trees to her own feet. “He comforted me . . . after you left . . . Erasmus. He stayed in Glenfold for a while and listened to me cry for weeks. Told me that you were not ready to love me yet, but someday you would return and realize what you had left behind.”

“I do,” Marcus said, without thinking. He did realize, now, what he had abandoned in Lorelei, but he also realized that the time to do anything about it had passed. Heather had come along and stolen his heart, making him forget about the beautiful elven girl he had left beside a fountain so long ago.

He reached out to touch her arm. His hand crept toward her slowly, passing through the last rays of moonlight as they shone through the gaps in the mountains, but just as he was about to touch her, the light failed and he drew his hand back. He did not know why, but the impulse had been very strong and he followed it without question.

“You should get some sleep,” Lorelei told him. If she had been aware of his hand near her, she gave no notice. “Dawn will be here in a few hours.”

Marcus looked at her, his eyes trying to penetrate the darkness that fell over them with the moon’s disappearance behind the Norags, but could see no detail. He wanted to tell her to wait for him, to not despair, to give him time to see if things would work between Heather and himself. He wanted to tell her anything that would give her some hope and not make her feel rejected and hurt.

Yet, more than those things, Marcus wanted to tell her the truth.

Standing slowly, almost reaching out to her again, he turned and went to his own pack, unrolling his blankets and laying up on them. He thought he would lay on them for hours before sleep overcame him, but gave in to his weariness after only a few minutes.

Lorelei, still awake, watched the forest until long after the first rays of dawn were reflected in her tears.

Marcus awoke the next morning to the smell of cooked meat. The aroma drifted into his mind like a wonderful dream, which was exactly what he thought the smell was until he opened his eyes and saw smoke drifting by him.

Rising onto his elbows, he looked in amazement as, a few yards away, Wilkey sat tending a small fire over which a spit had been erected. A small boar turned slowly over the blaze, its skinned flesh browning to a beautiful color in the morning light. Marcus found the air cooler than it had been in previous days, either from the higher elevation or a change in the weather. Another difference was the presence of bright sunlight replacing the thick clouds from the day before. Broken only by a few high cirrus clouds, the sun’s rays did little to warm him, so Marcus moved closer to the fire.

“Good morning,” the halfling said. “Nice to see you returning to the land of the living.”

Wilkey’s words brought back images of the night before and Marcus shivered, his skin seeming as though it might crawl from his bones. He looked around and saw Heather a few yards away, rummaging through her pack as though she was looking for something. Lorelei, however, was not to be seen.

“Where’s . . . “ Marcus began to Wilkey, but his voice dropped as he glanced toward Heather.

The halfling gestured toward the forest. “She went back to survey the damage in the daylight. Woke me just after dawn and told me to cook this pig she shot nearby, which I have done with admirable skill considering how little I have to work with up here.” He motioned toward the sparse bits of wood that formed the base of the fire.

“Smells good,” Marcus said absently. “Did she say when she would be back?”

“No, but I expect she’ll return any time now.”

Heather set her pack aside with a sigh, apparently not finding what she was looking for within it. She stood and moved closer to the fire, careful not to sit too close to Marcus, but also not to sit too far away. Her eyes had a glazed look in the morning light, but Marcus could not tell whether it came from weariness, the terror they had faced the previous night, or a combination. Regardless, he thought they could all use the rest Lorelei had provided with her reconnaissance mission, and he was thankful for it. Though he himself had only slept a few hours on hard ground beneath his blanket, the sleep he had managed had been good and restful. He might have called it “the sleep of the dead” had the dead not been awake and trying to destroy them the night before.

They ate at a leisurely pace, Marcus slicing off pieces of pork and passing them around to his companions. Wilkey found a spring nearby and filled their water skins to bulging.

“There will be no clean water within the Fell Lands, so we should stock up now, I say,” the halfling said upon his return.

Marcus agreed. Though he had only visited the Fells once in his years of traveling these lands, he knew enough of their inhospitable conditions to know the water was likely not safe for bathing, much less drinking. Nor were they apt to find anything edible in the barren wastes, so as they broke camp waiting for Lorelei to return, Marcus cut off as much meat as he could for the journey, wrapping it in leaves to keep it from going bad.

Lorelei returned a short while later. Finding they had already prepared for travel, she only ate a small portion of the pork Marcus offered her before mounting Winterdusk again.

“I saw no sign of the things that attacked us,” she told them as they mounted their own griffons. “No footprints. Not even a bent blade of grass. It’s as though we imagined the entire incident.”

Marcus, looking down at the painful red welts that dotted his hands, knew better. Looking at Heather, he could tell that she wanted to believe the assault of the dead had been just a nightmare, but the frown on her face told him that she too knew the truth of what had happened.

“The inn still smokes,” Lorelei continued and far in the distance they could all see a thin line of gray reaching up into the blue sky. “But the same holds true there—no sign of anyone or anything other than the footprints we left ourselves.”

Marcus thought back to the night outside the borders of Glenfold, to the patch of grass he had seen rimmed with ice in the shape of two feet. He had also felt the cold radiating from the dead bodies as they moved toward him in the clearing. Something or someone, Marcus thought, must have gone behind them and removed the traces of their passage. While the horror now seemed more like that found in a nightmare, he knew the glowing red eyes and pallid flesh had not been figments of their collective imaginations.

They mounted the griffons quietly in the shadows of the Norags, each absorbed either in his or her own recollections of the previous night or worries about the journey ahead. As they sun reached it zenith, they took to the air again, finding it more chill as they gained altitude. They each pulled their cloaks tighter around themselves. The wind, blowing down from the mountain face, cut into them and Marcus soon lost feeling in his ears and nose. Below him, he could see the mountains rising up as if they were on a great escalator rising into the heavens. The wooded foothills gave way to patches of evergreens then low scrub then bare rock before they at last reached the snowcap high above the canopy of trees where, in the distance, a thin line of smoke could still be seen rising up from the smoldering ruins of the inn.

Lorelei led them atop Winterdusk toward a wide pass between two forbidding peaks whose tops were obscured in the clouds. Wilkey crouched behind her, using her as a shield from the biting wind and still shivering. Marcus looked to his side and saw Heather leaned over Sunbeam, her blue lips nearly touching the yellow feathers as she sought shelter from the cold. Beneath him, he could hear Aspen laboring to breath the thin air and could see her breath passing her beak in small puffs of vapor.

Just when Marcus thought they could not continue on in the frigid conditions, they emerged from the pass and saw a wide plain stretching out to the horizon. Below him he could hear a waterfall as snowmelt coursed downward to form a thin river that bisected the plain, a thin strip of blue laced through the barren ground of the Fell Lands. Marcus could see outcroppings of rock dotting the landscape, rising again as high as some of the smaller mountains of the Norags in some spots, but these were isolated and far less dense than the true range they had just passed through.

They dropped quickly. The sheer rock falling away beneath them was flat and smooth, the cliffs blasted by eons of sand and dust carried by the stiff wind they could now feel rising up to greet them as they drew closer to the dry plain. He wondered if Amadyr could scale such a vertical face, then decided that a creature as old, wise, and willful as a dragon would surely find a way if need demanded.

Marcus felt another significant difference as they descended from the snow-filled pass. The temperature, exceedingly cold as they soared through the mountains, was increasing rapidly, becoming much hotter than the forest had been on the other side. He found the air around him hot and stifling after the cool autumn weather he had experienced so far in his return to this land. He unfastened his cloak, allowing it to reach back with the wind like a hand waving farewell to the snowy pass above. Looking around, he saw the others doing the same. Heather’s lips had returned to their proper hue while Wilkey inched away from Lorelei to allow the rushing wind to pass between them.

They followed the course of the river for some time, keeping its shining, winding surface below them as it snaked through the Fells. Little vegetation grew here, even at the water’s edge, and what did looked dry and pitiful, brown leaved drooped over like sad faces. A few hearty trees, stripped of foliage, poked up here and there like bony hands. Marcus saw no animals, nor traces of any, save for the tell-tale squiggles of a sidewinder along a dune near the river.

For several hours, they flew onward, stopping only for brief rests along the banks of the river. During these stops, no one spoke more than necessary. The oppressive heat of the air and the desolation around them made all conversation seem trivial. Marcus suspected another reason for the lack of talk, however, although he said nothing about it, nor did any of the others.

In the distance, still far away, but keenly visible above the heat shimmer on the horizon, a large cave could be seen in a particularly high tower of rock, gaping like a wicked mouth calling for them to come closer so that it might see them better. Even at a distance, the cave gave Marcus an uneasy sensation. He could feel the powerful presence of Amadyr within. Worse still, he could feel that presence watching, observing their advance with hungry interest.

Amadyr was waiting for them—for him.

The sun dropped as they continued on that day, falling behind their destination and casting a long shadow toward them as the approached. The cave grew larger and larger as they drew near, widening as though to swallow them whole. The malice Marcus had felt grew also, as did the sensation of being watched. Even the griffons sensed it as they began to speak to one another in their own avian language. Around him, Marcus could see the tension in the others, as well, all of them staring forward into that great dark hole with growing dread upon their faces.

They reached the base of the mountain with a couple hours of day light left, though that illumination was blocked from their view by the pillar of stone. The griffons would fly no closer to the cave than the base, ignoring Lorelei’s pleas and, when pleas failed, commands. They landed lightly and stood rigid until the riders dismounted. Then the creatures shifted around nervously casting their fierce eyes upward.

The air in the shadow of the mountain was much cooler than that between them and the Norags, now appearing only as white-capped teeth jutting up along the far horizon. The dread feeling that had been growing within them was nearly palpable, it seemed to thicken the air around them distorting sight and sound.

Marcus looked at Heather and saw that she was trembling violently.

“You okay?” he asked.

Heather did not look at him—her eyes remained fixed on the great black oval above them. Slowly, her head nodded once, then shook side to side as though she had only begun to understand the question. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead despite the chill of being in the shadow of the mountain.

“Why don’t you stay here?” he said, more as a statement than a question.

Again, without removing her eyes from the cave mouth, she nodded.

Marcus turned to Wilkey. “You stay here with her,” he said. The halfling looked at him bewildered for a moment, then nodded emphatically, relieved to be excused from facing Amadyr.

“I’ll have to stay as well,” Lorelei said as Marcus turned to her. He had hoped that the elf, at least, would possess the nerve to accompany him into the dragon’s lair. Still, if fear was her motive, she hid it well, her face an emotionless mask. “If I go with you, the griffons will likely flee back to Glenfold, leaving us stranded here. I must stay here and keep them calm until you return.”

Marcus heard a moment of hesitation before her last word and knew Lorelei, despite the necessity of his coming here, had her doubts on whether he would return. She knew the hatred the dragon possessed toward Marcus, the fury of being crippled at the height of her power. For him to walk right into her den and seek her counsel was madness, but as Lanian had said, she was his only hope in discovering how to regain his powers and he knew that he must face her, regardless of his odds of survival.

It was Marcus’s turn to nod, this time at Lorelei. He understood why none of them could accompany him on this leg of the quest, though he detested those reasons just the same. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he began walking up the steep path that snaked upward along the side of the mountain like the trail of the sidewinder he had spotted on the dune. He elected to leave the sword Polan had given him after the destruction of the inn, deciding that it would do no good against the dragon and not wanting to be seen in any sort of threatening position.

As Marcus trudged up the path toward Amadyr, he rehearsed in his mind what he would say. He had no idea how to convince the dragon to help him and several scenarios played in his mind as he climbed, most of which involved him being incinerated at the end. He considered what tone to take with her—bold, fearful, pleading—and could decide on no good approach. Finally, he elected to play by ear, allowing the dragon to dictate the conversation, as he knew she probably would regardless of his intent or preparation.

Setting aside his concerns about the problems ahead of him, he found his thoughts returning to the problems he had left at the base of the path. He turned to check his progress and saw Heather and Lorelei, both tiny figures from his altitude, both as far from the other as possible under the circumstances. In some optimistic region of his mind, he could see the two of them becoming fast friends, as he and Lorelei had been in his youth. His pragmatic side, though, told him that, despite their similarities, because of their similarities, in fact, that would never happen. The main thing that divided them was the one that made the most difference—him—and he saw no way of bridging that gap.

It won’t matter if I die up here, he thought just as he emerged onto a wide rock shelf. The great cave yawned before him, as dark and sinister as a storm. Wind currents whistled across the opening and stirred up small dust devils that danced across the flat stone before dispersing into the open air. Other than the wind, the only noise Marcus could hear was the pounding of his own heart, so loud that he suspected Amadyr could hear it as well.

Marcus took several more steadying breaths before he was able to begin again toward the cave. With each step, small pebbles crunched under his feet, sounding incredibly loud to his own ears. He was confident that Amadyr sensed his presence just as he sensed hers, but he still wanted to remain as quiet as possible for some reason he could not quite name.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime to Marcus, he reached the mouth of the cave. Darkness lay before him in a nearly impenetrable sheet, blocking him from seeing more than a few feet inside. He suspected that Amadyr may lay just beyond that veil of shadow, probably enhancing it with her own magic. He could feel her power more than ever now, radiating out and surrounding him like a smothering, hot wind. A lump rose in his throat that he tried, and failed, to swallow back down. Standing in the doorway to likely death, he froze, unable to go forward, but not allowing himself to retreat. He knew that his quest to avenge Erasmus and save the other denizens of this land could go no further unless he entered the cave, but he found that his legs would not respond to his mental instructions, the fear in his stomach serving to block the nerve impulses that would trigger movement. In the end, just as hopelessness began to overtake him, the decision was made for him.

“Come in, Marcus,” a voice said from the darkness. The words were atonal, carrying no threat or invitation beyond their context, but the voice was definitely feminine, sultry and deep. It reminded Marcus of Sigourney Weaver and made him think of aliens who enjoyed nothing more than dining on the hapless humans who happened to invade their territory.

Marcus swallowed and entered.

The darkness inside the cave was nearly as absolute as it had been looking in, but as his eyes adjusted he started to see the outlines of the rock walls on either side. A dim illumination, emanating from nowhere and everywhere, gave him just enough light to navigate through the tunnel leading away from the outside. The floor beneath him felt perfectly smooth beneath his feet and sloped gradually downward as he walked on. The air around him smelled dank and stale, tinged with an odd, unpleasant scent that he could not quite make out. The memory that the aroma called to mind, perplexing Marcus, was one of caring for Heather a year or so before when she had the flu. He remembered the odd smell her body had produced during her high fever and it seemed the closest his mind could match to that inside the cave. He heard no sound inside the cave other than his own footsteps along the stone, leading him closer to Amadyr Onewing.

“I can smell your fear,” the voice said. “Why has the all-powerful Marcus come to me stinking of terror?”

In the darkness ahead, he could see a large mound at the center of a large cavern. The mound seemed to shift slightly, causing what little light filtering into the cave to twinkle like stars. A sound, like metal scraping on stone, echoed around him.

“I stink of fear because I am afraid,” he answered. His voice sounded clear and strong in the enclosed surroundings even as it rebounded repeatedly off the walls. He hoped it sounded convincing, especially since it was true.

“As well you should be. Although,” the voice answered as the dim light in the cave rose in intensity, allowing Marcus to see, “you may think me much less fearful that you had imagined.”

Amadyr lay before Marcus, her great bulk stretching from one side of the enormous cavern to the other along the back wall. Her long neck and tail curled back inward along her torso, nearly meeting in the middle of her expanse. The spines along her back pointed up nearly thirty feet above the cave floor running in a line between one long leathery wing and the stub of the other, a ragged flap of skin and bone reaching up from the dragon’s back like the fin of a fish.

Still, these sights alone did not keep Marcus’s attention for long. As he looked at the massive dragon, he saw many places where scales, thick and blood red over most of the body, had broken or fallen off completely. A neat pile of discarded scales, stretching to nearly the height of the prone dragon, lay off to one side. In the patches where the scales had come off completely, the smooth pink flesh was mostly covered over with a pale yellow discoloration that looked like mold in the insufficient light. Sores rose in these yellow patches, oozing a clear liquid down over the skin and scales below.

“You’re . . . you’re dying,” Marcus said, his shock revealed plainly in his awed voice and slack jaw.

“Yes, and I’m quite sure you are relieved to bear witness to the fact.”

“No,” Marcus answered earnestly. Despite his fear and revulsion of the dragon, he could not help but feel a deep sense of pity for her. The idea of such a mighty creatures succumbing to any sort of sickness, dying from anything less that a glorious battle, seemed unjust and unimaginable. He wondered what could cause such a condition in a dragon, how anything other that hard steel or spectacular magic could lay low such power. He wanted to articulate his shock and wonder, but all that came out was one word.

“How?”

The dragon breathed out, exhaling warm air that reinforced in Marcus the memory of Heather’s bout with the flu with the smell of sickness that it carried. “It began shortly after our confrontation, as a matter of fact. Despite my magic, infection set in within a few weeks after the elves returned me to the wild. I held suspicions that they had poisoned me, though I now believe that something entered my body when I fell into the elven forest, some plant that no dragon was meant to touch. Since then, the infection has slowly, very slowly, spread through my body. I was able to hold it at bay for some time, but gradually my efforts failed, leaving me in the state you see before you.”

Marcus could only stare at the patches of diseased flesh spotting the dragon’s exposed hide. His fear forgotten, he took a few strides closer to better examine the effects.

“Now,” Amadyr said, narrowing her yellow eyes. “Considering that you caused this, tell me why I should not destroy you now. You are powerless to stop me, your magic having left you when you returned to this land. Tell me why, Marcus, should I not end your life as you have ended mine.”

Marcus stopped advancing and looked warily at the fierce eyes boring into him. “How do you know about my powers?” he asked.

“While my physical body is too weak now to travel abroad, my mind can still stretch far. The disease that ravages more and more of me each day has yet to reach my mind, for which I am thankful. I saw your encounter with the centaurs, your brawl in Yellow Banks, your dealings with the elves. I know of the two women vying for your affection. I know your mission and the obstacles you face. I have seen much and know more than I have seen.”

Marcus stared at Amadyr, unable to hide his dismay. Even in her condition, sick and isolated from any civilization, she remained a formidable opponent. He had hoped to at least bluff her into believing that he could still use all the powers he had used to defeat her, but her words had dashed those hopes.

“You still have not answered my question,” Amadyr said. “Why should I not end your life here and now.”

As if in anticipation of doing just that, the massive head moved forward slightly. The muscular neck shifted like a snake and a few more scales fell to the floor with an almost metallic clang.

“Perhaps . . .” Marcus began, “Perhaps I can help you. Perhaps I can find a cure to your condition.”

Amadyr laughed. The sound, dark and bitter, echoed all around and nearly unnerved Marcus to the extent that he considered running back the way he had come in hopes of fleeing before she could recover and carry out her threat. Only the thought of the skull of his friend lying in the grass gave him the strength to stand his ground.

“You would no sooner cure me than I would have spared you had our battle turned out differently,” the dragon said.

“I promise you that if you help me, I will do what I can to return the favor. I will enlist the help of the elven healers if I have to.”

The great dragon laughed again, harder this time, her serpentine head rocking up and down with the effort. “Again, not a very likely scenario. The elves will rejoice in my death for as long as it takes the Necromancer to take Glenfold.”

“I give you my word,” Marcus said. “I will help you if I can. The elves will come here and do what they can as well. I give you my word on that as well. I will even have them bring food if you so desire.”

When Marcus finished, he saw that Amadyr was no longer laughing. Her yellow eyes narrowed again, she stretched her great head out, stopping it right before Marcus, so close that he could reach out and touch the scaly snout if not for his fear that he was about to be devoured.

For a while, the luminous yellow eyes only stared into Marcus’s. Finally, the head recoiled, coming to rest back in its original position along the dragon’s flank. “You are telling the truth, at least as far as you believe it. I do think, though, that you would find the elves more difficult to convince in your bargain, even to save themselves, and I care nothing for the charity of elves. I prefer to die with some shred of dignity rather than through further elven treachery. Still, ask what you so bravely came to ask.”

Marcus wanted to sigh in relief, but held back, afraid of letting his guard down around such a cunning foe. “Why can I not reach my powers except in times of extreme danger? And why could I perform it at the river, but not against the walking corpses?”

The questions came out in a quick stream. He knew that his voice carried a definite note of desperation that he could not repress, but he found that he did not care. The dragon knew his weaknesses, perhaps better than he did himself, and Marcus only cared now about finding out why he had lost the magic that he so needed.

Amadyr remained silent for some time and Marcus wondered if she had decided to go back on her word and kill him anyway. He could hear his heartbeat again, his blood pounding through his ears like rushing water.

“I will answer your question, though not to win your pity but to show you that any felt for me is misplaced. My path is clear—I will die within the walls of this cavern and the world will no longer fear Amadyr. You, however, face a dire choice and seeing you face it will bring me pleasure. The reason you have lost your power is the girl from your world you so unwisely brought with you. Her presence here has made it impossible for you to use the powers you seek.”

“But . . . why?” Marcus asked, despair rising inside him.

“I cannot say.”

“Cannot or will not?” Marcus asked.

Flame blew from Amadyr’s nostrils. “Do not get impertinent with me. I will tell you what you need to know, no more and no less. If that is not satisfactory, then leave me to die in peace.”

Marcus recoiled from the flames, silently berating himself for his impatience. He was not liking the answers he was receiving from the dragon, but if he was to remain alive to hear the rest, he would have to control his emotions.

“I apologize,” he said.

“I accept,” Amadyr said. “Now you wish to know how to go about regaining what you have lost.”

“Well, that seems obvious. I have to take Heather back to our world and then return to face the Necromancer. With her away from this world, my powers should return.”

The dragon dipped her head slightly to one side. “If only it was that simple,” she said, her words dripping with false compassion. “Removing the girl from the land may work, or it may not. Either way, you will lose precious time the Necromancer will use to strengthen his hold. The elven king is near death, as well, and should he pass on, there will be little chance of holding the borders of Glenfold.”

“But what choice do I have?”

“The only way you can regain your powers in enough time to stop the Necromancer, if even your powers will be enough, is to sacrifice the girl.”

Marcus stared. He had not heard her right, could not have heard her right.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You must sacrifice the girl,” Amadyr repeated. “You must allow her to die in order to save everyone else. If you do not, if you save the life of the girl, then countless others will die because of your choice. The Necromancer will march across the land of Glenfold and everywhere else, leaving none alive to resist his power.”

Amadyr’s head snaked close to him again, the corners of the mouth upturned into a wicked grin. “But you will have your love.”

Marcus reeled. Feeling his knees give way, he felt the cavern spin as he crashed to a sitting position. He had imagined many possible reasons for his powers to disappear when he returned to this land, but none of those scenarios required him to kill the woman he loved. He pulled his knees up to his chest and fought back tears, tears of rage and sadness and horror.

The dragon watched Marcus’s reaction to her words with amusement. “There is always the elven maiden. You need not face the world alone if you choose the lives of the many over the life of the one.”

Marcus tried to block the words, prevent their poison from entering his mind. Still, the thought of Lorelei pressed against him by the fountain returned unbidden to his memory, so vividly recalled that he almost feel the heat of her body. A vision of intense green eyes swam before him even if he closed his own to keep from seeing them.

He could not, would not, allow Heather to die here, but if she did . . .

“No!” he screamed, scrambling to his feet suddenly. “I will not accept what you have told me. I will find a way to defeat this evil, with or without my powers, but I will not sacrifice the woman I love.”

“So be it,” the dragon said. “Then you sacrifice the one who loves you. Would you risk so much for a woman who does not wish to be with you when one who does is so readily available?”

Again, Marcus thought he would fall to the floor, but his trembling knees held him up through pure will alone. The dragon’s words cut straight through his psyche, delving into its darkest corners and preying on all the confusion and frustration he had experienced since Heather had told him she wished to end their relationship. He loved Heather and still believed that he would not forfeit her regardless of the price. Still, he knew, if he died trying to defend her then she would die soon after. That would surely happen if he could not use his powers to counter those of the Necromancer. Worse yet, the image of Lorelei remained at the front of his consciousness along with all the feelings he still held for the elven woman. Perhaps, if Heather did die . . .

“No!” he screamed again. Feeling his strength returning to his legs, he faced Amadyr. “I will not choose. Since you have watched me this far, watch me a bit further and see me prove you wrong.”

Marcus turned and sprinted up the tunnel back to the mouth of the cave. Behind him, he could hear the dragon laughing. The sound echoed around him as the light inside the cavern vanished, pushed him forward with its mocking tone.

“I will watch, Marcus,” Amadyr called when he had reached the rocky shelf at the face of the cave. “I will watch you make your choice when it is the only one you can make.”