Terra Incognita—Chapter 15

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

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

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you read my mind?” he asked.

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

“How can you help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I went for a walk,” Marcus explained.

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

“A walk to where?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

He looked at Heather, who stared blankly at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?” she asked.

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

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

“What’s it supposed to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want me to lie?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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