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.
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.