This, at last, is the end.  For those of you who have read this far, or will at some later date read this far, I thank you and hope it has been worth your time.  I enjoyed writing this story, but most of all I enjoyed finishing it, as doing so proved to me that I had the discipline necessary to write novels.  It may not be a great story, or well told, but it will always have a special place in my heart.  You always remember your first, they say.

So, thanks again for following Marcus and Heather.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Chapter 18

After the foul-smelling air of the Necromancer’s tower—Erasmus’s tower—the gentle wind of Glenfold assaulted him with its freshness and purity. Even as he sat next to the great fountain that he and Lorelei used to race to as children, he coughed in fits that left him gasping for air. The elven healers told him that his lungs were trying to force out the contaminants they had taken in during his brief captivity. He found himself wondering as he stared into the lightly churning water how Erasmus had survived so long in such a place, but a thought later he understood. Erasmus had not attained such extraordinary power as what he displayed in his efforts to take over the land of Terra without paying a price. His soul? Yes, Marcus knew, that had been included in the bargain, but also his physical body had suffered, as evidenced by his radical change of appearance.

Then, there was Lorelei. How had she survived even a short time in such a place of death? Marcus knew he would never know.

Nor, he realized suddenly, did he care.

After teleporting away from the tower with his two friends in tow—one dead and one barely alive—he stepped into the land of Glenfold at a full run, seeking the one person in the land that might yet save Heather. Leaving Wilkey’s body next to the fountain where the halfling and Lorelei had discussed her feelings for Marcus, he ran through the streets and raced up the steps of the royal palace three at a time. The guards at once moved to stop him, but he paralyzed them with a brief wave of his hand, not nearly enough to risk dropping his precious load, but enough to clear his path for the necessary few seconds. By the time the alert was raised, Marcus had entered the Audience Chamber and discovered the horrible truth.

King Lanian, the only hope he had for saving his beloved Heather, had died.

Marcus stood before the empty throne, holding Heather in his arms. He could feel her shallow respiration and the long, too long, pauses in between. Her skin, normally so soft and hot to his touch, felt cold and tight. Her eyes were closed and her slightly parted lips had abandoned their usual red hue for a deep purple.

Marcus looked at the empty throne and his heart broke. Collapsing to his knees, mindless of the impact upon the marble floor, he lay Heather before the throne and sobbed, unable to control his emotions any longer. So much had gone wrong on this quest, yet victory had still been won. The price, though, was more than he could bear.

Dozens of elves poured into the Audience Chamber around him, but he paid them no heed. Only the muffled sounds of voices and footfalls pierced the cloud of grief that surrounded him. He cared not for their conversation, their movements, or their alarm at his sudden entrance. All her cared for in the world, in any world, lay dying before him.

From that point, Marcus found his memory vague and disjointed, like a dream recalled hours after waking. Firm hands had led him from the chamber. He remember struggling against them, furious at their intervention in his mourning. He had stopped short of using his powers against them for their words were comforting, even if he could not hear them. As he was being led out of the room, he turned back and watched several healers place Heather’s limp form on a litter and bear her swiftly out another door.

The elves, members of the royal household that he knew well and not the guards, herded him away from the palace to the great fountain where another host of healers tended to his injuries, binding the wounds as well as he would allow before being sent off to tend to Heather. Seeing the spray of water refracting the light of the sun stirred greatly mixed emotions in him—anger, regret, and sorrow among them. Collapsing against the side of the stone basin, his body shook with wracking sobs that still did not express the depth of grief tearing at his soul. After some minutes, he calmed down enough to take stock of his surroundings. The dozen or so elves surrounding him eyed him closely, their worry obvious on their faces. Marcus steadied himself, thanked them, and apologized, although he had no idea why. He was not sorry for grieving for his loss, a sacrifice that had been made not only for himself, but for them as well. One by one, the elves departed, leaving only their best attempts at comforting words in their wakes.

Hours passed while Marcus stared alone at the water rising, then falling again into the basin before him. The waves of light dancing upon the waves of water might have fascinated him had he been seeing them, but the only image his mind would see was the lifeless form of the woman he loved lying upon cold marble.

He fought against the powerful urge to go to the Halls of Healing, to receive the final, definitive word that Heather was indeed dead. Several elves waited just beyond the common area between him and the lane that would take him to the healers, placed to stop him should he try to interfere. His magic would certainly allow him to bypass them without difficulty, but his rational mind had returned enough to tell him the idea was a poor one, more likely to offend the elves than to be of any help. He knew the knowledge of healing ran deep within the elven culture, but he also knew the limits to that knowledge. The blade that had wounded Heather had nearly killed him and her wound had been graver still. The healers were battling an enemy they could not defeat and Marcus waited only for their surrender.

The sun descended slowly toward the trees and after several hours of staring at its beams bounding off the surface of the water, Marcus decided he had waited long enough for the inevitable news. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he stood and turned away from the fountain.

What he saw stopped him from taking a single step.

A woman was walking toward him across the grass. At least, the figure approaching had the appearance of a woman, though Marcus knew better. Her long white hair flowed down over her equally white robes, both plain and beautiful in the afternoon sun. Her bare feet moved over the grass, yet not a single blade bent from her passage. With her coming, he became acutely aware of the magic that flowed through him. He could feel it pulling toward her like iron shavings to a magnet. Marcus could see the lovely face and glittering eyes as she drew closer and felt comforted by them, though he could not explain why.

She knows of death, he thought, no one better.

Terra, the embodiment of the land itself, stopped a few feet from him and stood regarding him in silence. Looking beyond her, he saw that the elves assigned to watch him had disappeared.

“You have done well, Marcus,” she said, this time choosing to speak aloud rather than in his mind. “My gratitude is yours.”

Marcus started to tell her that she could keep her gratitude, that he had sacrificed the one thing that meant more to him than her and all the beings that inhabited this land and her gratitude was not enough. Instead, he forced away his anger and nodded. His eyes drifted down to the grass at his feet, afraid to meet the gaze of those intense blue eyes for fear that they would read his anger.

“I felt the need to come in person and thank you for what you have done,” she said, “ not only for the elves, but for all, for had the Necromancer been allowed to conquer here, other worlds, including your own, may have felt his wrath.”

Marcus tried to imagine Erasmus turning his powers upon his world, beginning with the one who lived closest to the portal leading to it—his grandmother. The thought, as unlikely as it seemed, sickened him.

“I also came to repay the debt I owe for your sacrifice,” she continued. “You have risked much and lost much to defend me and my subjects, and I wish to give you something in exchange.”

“Can you give me Heather back?” he asked, tears welling in his eyes again. “That is the only thing I would ask from you.”

“There are some events even I cannot change,” she said gravely. “Death is one of those things, as much a part of me as life. Once bestowed, it is beyond my power to take it away. Only those seeking power apart from that I give have control over it, though even that control is false and vile.”

Marcus put his face in his hands and started to collapse to the grass. Strong hands, though, caught him and held him up.

“Know, Marcus, that while my powers over death are few, my powers over life are strong and so long as life exists, even as death draws near, my magic holds sway.”

Still holding Marcus, she stepped to the side and allowed him to see the commons behind her. At the far end, standing in a pale blue dress, stood Heather.

Marcus started, standing independently of Terra’s hands. His eyes widened in surprise and disbelief.

“Her will to live, to see you again, was strong and that, her love, allowed me to save her,” Terra said softly.

Marcus barely heard these words. His feet began carrying him forward even before she finished. Across the expanse of grass, Heather broke into a run toward him. They met at a full run, Marcus sweeping her into his arms and twirling her around. For time uncounted they covered each other in kisses, hardly believing the other was real. Great tears of joy streamed down both their cheeks, only to be kissed away before they fell to the grass. When, at last, stimuli from the rest of the world began to filter through their joy, Marcus turned back to thank Terra.

She was gone, as he knew she would be.

“Thank you,” he breathed to the air, knowing his words would be received.

For the remainder of that day and night, Marcus and Heather remained in a room in the royal palace given to them while they awaited arrangements to be made not only for the elven king, but also for Wilkes Poppinjay, the halfling hero who had slain the elven traitor Lorelei at the cost of his own life. The elves decided, after hearing Marcus’s tale of the Necromancer’s fall, to reward Wilkey with a state funeral and lay him near the tomb of Lanian, whose kingdom he played no small role in saving. Hearing this news touched Marcus, but enhanced his sorrow over losing such a loyal friend and the closest thing to a father he had ever known.

Still, Marcus knew, Wilkey would have enjoyed the elves making such a fuss over him and the idea that the halfling might be looking down on them from somewhere, nodding his fervent approval, lessened the ache.

While Marcus and Heather waited, they celebrated their reunion by making love, more slowly and passionately than either could remember doing in a very long time. Although it brought them great relief and physical pleasure, both cried throughout the act—for Wilkey, for Lanian, and for themselves, for their own loss. They had passed through the storm shaken, but still alive to feel the sharp pain of death that had claimed so many.

Later that night, both Marcus and Heather slept, cradled in each other’s arms. Had he slept alone, Marcus thought upon waking, he felt sure that his sleep would have been troubled by dreams of death—Wilkey’s, Heathers, his own. Heather’s arms, though, wrapped around him kept those dreams at bay and allowed him the first real rest he had found since returning to Terra. Seeing Heather’s smiling face as she woke, he knew his arms had done the same for her.

They were greeted soon after waking by two familiar faces. Polan and Valista, their faces beaming, brought them a hearty breakfast of venison and fruit. The tantalizing aroma of the food made Marcus realize how hungry he was, but he did not eat until he had spoken at length with the two elves about what was to take place that day and what they would have to do to prepare. After nearly an hour, Polan ushered his wife from the room, leaving Marcus and Heather to enjoy their meal.

Well rested and fed, they dressed in garments brought to them for the day’s ceremonies. Marcus donned a set of silk-lined robes, burgundy for the elven color of mourning. The new black, Marcus thought wryly. Heather wore a matching silk gown that fell from her shoulders like a scarlet waterfall. Her brown hair cascaded down her back and Marcus felt his breath stolen by her beauty. Kissing each other again, they had to fight the temptation to remove their finery and make love again. Heather finally liberated herself from Marcus’s embrace and started across the room before an unseen force lifted her up from the floor and sent her floated back toward Marcus.

“Stop that,” Heather scolded him playfully. “This is not the time for your silliness.”

Marcus conceded the point and the two of them made their way to the Audience Chamber where King Lanian would lie in state until that afternoon’s interment. Once they entered and saw the elven king lying upon a length of purple cloth, their moods sobered, but their hearts did not ache as they had on the previous day. The deceased ruler looked proud and noble in death, a victorious leader and savior of his people. His face no longer showed the pain and weariness that marred it until the end. Now, his countenance looked peaceful and content.

A dense group of elves surrounded Lanian’s body to pay their last respects. Many cried, particularly members of the royal household who had cherished the old monarch like a favorite grandparent. Others wept silent tears, unwilling to allow their emotions to show more than watery pools at the corners of their eyes. As Marcus and Heather approached, the elves parted to allow them to pass, many bowing to pay their own respects and condolences to the human couple who had come from another world to deliver them from destruction. Heather sobbed into Marcus’s shoulder, overwhelmed.

After a few quiet conversations with a few of the elves near where Lanian lay, Marcus noticed another thick group off to the far side of the Audience Chamber. He guided Heather, her hand on his arm, over to this smaller group and again the elves parted before them and bowed. Marcus could hear the whispered comments from some of the elves marveling at her beauty and knew by her blushing cheeks that she heard them as well.

When the last knot of elves noticed their coming and parted, Marcus and Heather beheld the body of their dear friend. The elves had dressed Wilkey in the finest garments, befitting a member of the royal household more than a common rogue from the tiny village of Yellow Banks that was no more than a pile of ash beside the Misteld. The halfling’s face, like the elven king’s, showed none of the trials that had led to his death. The relaxed muscles spoke silently of rest and leisure while the high-arching eyebrows and slight grin he wore gave him a mischievous look that caused Marcus a brief pang of sorrow. Moreover, beneath the folded hands across the halfling’s chest rested a ruby roughly the size of a tennis ball. Marcus smiled. One of the gems had been with Wilkey when he died. The other had been bartered for years of lodging, food, and drink that the halfling would never be allowed to enjoy. The second, Marcus suspected, had been recovered from the pub in Yellow Banks after its destruction. Both had been stolen from the elves and now, in their gratitude, they allowed Wilkey to keep them.

At dusk, the entire population of Glenfold, no longer forced to diligently guard their borders against legions of undead, lined the avenues of the city to witness their dead king and their halfling hero being escorted to their final rest. Members of the royal household and royal guard carried the elaborate oak caskets through the streets. Save for the chill wind that whistled between the buildings, the entire journey was silent as those unable to visit the palace paid their final respects to their king. Even the young children watching the scene, Heather noticed, kept their mouths closed in respect for the occasion.

Marcus and Heather walked immediately behind the two honored dead as they were carried to a hill just outside the city which served as a royal cemetery. The interment itself was quick, with surprising little ceremony, and for that Marcus was grateful. As the gilded door closed on the tomb, he heard a strong voice in his head telling him that the time had come for he and Heather to return to their own world.

The night following the funeral, the elves held a great feast to honor Marcus and Heather for defeating the threat to their nation. During the proceedings, the new king, a nephew of the late Lanian, asked Marcus to stand and speak to the assembled members of the court. The request took him by complete surprise, but as the cheers and anticipation of the crowd grew, Marcus stood and stepped to the head of the long table set in the gardens of the palace. At once, the elves fell silent and Marcus felt the fear rising inside him that came not from public speaking, but from speaking unprepared.

“My wife,” he began, indicating Heather to his right, who offered no objection to the title, “and I thank you for your hospitality, your care, and your condolences for our loss. We offer you those same condolences and pray the new king,” Marcus nodded in his direction, “will rule as wisely and as justly and with as much compassion as did Lanian.”

Marcus took a sip of wine, then continued. “When we came here, our goal was to save you, and ourselves, from the evils of the Necromancer. That has been done.” At this, a great wave of cheers swept up the table. Marcus waited for it to subside. “But I tell you now, that the work here is not done.”

Many of the seated elves gave Marcus concerned glances. A low whispering replaced the cheers. Again, Marcus waited a moment before continuing. “While the Necromancer has been defeated and his tower thrown down, there is work for the elves of Glenfold, work that my wife and I cannot complete. That work, my dear friends, is to rebuild this land and bring life to the places where the Necromancer brought death.”

The elves now wore expressions of mixed curiosity and determination. Marcus liked this and pressed on.

“This means not only the damage done to your borderlands, but also reaching beyond your lands to assist those unable to resist the legions of the dead. Yellow Banks, burned to the ground, will be rebuilt so that any who lived there that may have survived, will have a home free of fear. Even the dwarven kingdoms in the Norags, your enemies of old, need your help should any there be alive to accept it.”

This last statement brought a rough muttering from his audience which he ignored.

“I hope that you will hear my words and heed them. There is a saying where I come from: United we stand, divided we fall. Such is true in my world and such is true here. Should a threat as the Necromancer rise again, your best hope lay not in such as me, but in such as yourselves, united with the other peoples of this land to provide a sound defense against evil. This land may be dying, as some have told me since my return, but the best way to preserve it is to work together toward life.”

Marcus stared out over the assembled elves and found that he hand nothing more to say. He felt awkward for a moment as well over a hundred pairs of eyes studied him. Then, bowing quickly, he took his seat.

The new king, Kevken, stood and shocked Marcus by pledging to follow the suggestion of renewing ties with the dwarves if possible and branching beyond their own borders to provide assistance where they could give it. For the remainder of the feast, Kevken talked with Marcus and Heather about ideas for repairing what the Necromancer had destroyed, his memories of Lanian, and what Marcus and Heather had planned for their future.

Marcus realized that Heather felt the same urge to return home as he when she told the king that they would be leaving for the cave the following morning. Kevken, the gracious host, implored them to stay, but Marcus agreed with Heather’s sentiment. The king accepted their departure, but only on the grounds that they return when opportunity allowed.

The next morning, Marcus, Heather, and a small contingent of elves—including Polan and Valista—set out along the banks of the Misteld in the direction of the ruins of Yellow Banks. They traveled through the unseasonably mild weather at a leisurely pace, traveling until they grew tired of riding, then spending the rest of the day drinking in the last warmth of autumn before the winter chill. Often, Marcus and Heather sat together on the banks of the river wrapped in each others arms staring out over the water, engaged in private conversation. They talked of many things including their lost friends, but these moments were not laden with grief, only tinged by a faint shade of sorrow. As they rode across the rolling hills, this time on horses rather than griffons, Marcus and the elves told Heather many stories about the land she had helped save. Now that she had time to enjoy it, Heather observed the land and marveled at its beauty. Colors, smells, and sounds all seemed more vivid in this world and she Marcus why he had chosen to go back to the real world at all.

“Don’t you know,” he asked in return. “Can’t you feel it?”

She could feel it, she realized, more than ever as they approached the cave. As much as she enjoyed the world she now found herself in, she longed for the life waiting for her in North Carolina. She missed her friends, her job, and especially the Victorian that she would be moving her things back into when she and Marcus returned to Asheville.

Heather also noticed a subtle change in Marcus. She could not define the exact difference, but she felt a closeness to him now that she had never felt in their previous two years together. For once in their relationship, Heather felt that she knew all his secrets and Marcus seemed more relaxed for it, no longer having to bury such an important element of his past.

Finally, they reached the woods surrounding the cave where they had met the centaurs. Heather was apprehensive about a possible reunion with the creatures that had so willingly tried to help Erasmus kill her and Marcus, but the elves assured her the way was safe. Scouts had been deployed before their departure and reported that none of the centaurs at all remained in that part of the land. Where they had gone no one knew, but the path to the cave was secure for their passage.

As they made their way through the trees, leaves falling all about them like rain, Heather looked to her side and saw Marcus regarding her with a slight grin on his face.

“What are you smirking at?”

Marcus laughed. “Okay, I have to ask. How did you get the gun?”

Heather laughed in return and patted the pack tied to the pommel of her horse. “You remember in your room at your grandmother’s house when you told me to pack anything I thought I might need?” She patted the pack again. “I saw it in your suitcase and thought that if I was going into the woods at dark, I was going armed.”

Marcus raised his eyebrows and nodded. Damn good thing you did, the expression said.

The cave came into view gradually through the curtain of falling leaves. No scar was left of the recent trouble except for the large chunk missing from one tree marking Heather’s first attempt at using the Colt. Heather felt a lump rise in her throat as she thought of how close she had come to killing Wilkey there, before he could play his role in saving her and Marcus. She swallowed the lump and said a quiet word of gratitude to the halfling.

The entrance waited before them as they dismounted and said their farewells to the elven escort. Valista embraced both Marcus and Heather, her cheeks red and streaked with tears.

“Be careful,” she told them. “And be good to each other.”

Polan, ever more quiet than his wife, surprised Marcus by embracing him and shedding a few tears himself. He thanked Marcus and Heather for saving their land, and his wife, and bid them good fortune in their life ahead.

One by one, the remaining elves, most of which Marcus did not know well, thanked him and Heather for their deeds and began back toward Glenfold until only Valista and Polan remained to see them off.

When they packed their belongings and turned toward the cave, Heather found the gaping hole had lost its menacing quality. Now, it looked to her like her own front door after a long journey away. She and Marcus waved one final time to the remaining two elves and entered the darkness, hand in hand. They passed through without incident, giggling together after Marcus forced himself to burp, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

Emerging on the other side, Heather felt slightly disappointed. The brilliant sunshine of Terra had been replaced in their own world by gray skies and steady rain. The sound of it upon the leaves sounded to her like clapping, applause for the great things they had done. Looking down, Heather saw her clothes, the elaborate traveling garb provided for her by the elves, had reverted back to the clothes she had worn when they entered the cave. Her pack, likewise, had transformed back to the yellow Columbia backpack she had donned upon leaving Sylvia’s house.

Marcus stepped to the side of the cave entrance and found the metal ammunition box he had left there. Pulling it from the natural shelf, he opened it and pulled out his watch. He looked at it and smiled before handing it to Heather. Heather looked at the watch face and blinked in disbelief. The hands revolving around did not concern her, but looking at the date…

“You mean we’ve only been gone for two days?”

“Yep,” Marcus said as he put the ammunition box back into his pack. He stood up and looked at her, a mischievous grin widening upon his face. “Now, what should we do with the rest of our week’s vacation?”

Marcus took her into his arms, kissed her, and led her through the rain-soaked woods back to their lives.

Apparently, I posted two chapters last time instead of one.  Oh, well.  That just brings us closer to the end which, if I read right, should be another chapter or two after this one.  That’s right, we’re almost done.  If anyone has read this far, I thank you and worry that you don’t have anything better to do with your time.  Still, I hate leaving a story unfinished, so if anyone is still following Marcus and Heather, I appreciate it more than you

Chapter 17

Marcus awoke much the same way he had in the dwarven dungeons. He could not see and had no idea where he was. The air around him smelled of decay and flowers. He listened for a while before moving, sensing someone else in the room and indeed he could hear faint breathing and the quiet rustle of clothing from a few yards in front of him. The other said nothing, but Marcus could feel eyes upon him waiting for him to awaken.

As the fog cleared from his mind, he began to piece together what had happened to bring about this scenario. Slowly, the images fell into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—first the edges, then the really important content in the middle. The cave. The centaurs. The walls of flame. Heather and Wilkey getting to safety.

And one more thing.

As the memory came back to him, the identity of the Necromancer, his head jerked as though the thought was striking him anew. His reaction would have, he knew, been the same in the clearing by the cave entrance had he enough strength to produce it.

“Erasmus . . . “ he said in a hoarse croak.

“He’ll be back shortly,” said a voice, a female voice that Marcus recognized immediately. “He had to attend to . . . other business.”

It was Lorelei in front of him, he now knew. He could imagine her sitting in a chair, her legs crossing and uncrossing as she stood guard over the prisoner.

Marcus’s mind raced as he struggled to comprehend what was happening. One dear friend from childhood, not dead as Marcus had believed, was now his sworn enemy. Another had betrayed him, and her people, to align herself with the other. He felt he must be dreaming, but the ache now streaming into his shoulders told him otherwise. His hand were tied behind him, wrapped around some sort of stone. The surface of it was deeply etched in places and seemed to radiate a cold that seeped into his joints, making him feel much older.

He decided that, if this was a dream, he should at least play along.

“What other business?”

Lorelei laughed, the musical sound stabbing at his heart. “Well, it seems that your woman,” she said the word with bitter distaste, “and your half-wit friend could not mind their own business. Erasmus had gone to deal with them.”

Marcus sighed. He had hoped that Heather and Wilkey had both followed his instructions and escaped unharmed. He saw the both enter the cave and disappear into its depths, but neither of them apparently paid any heed to his wishes. His sacrifice, now that he saw it for what it was, had proved meaningless. Worse, he still could not feel the rush of magic in his veins that he expected to feel when Heather returned to their world. Had she gone in just beyond his sight and waited there, not bothering to go all the way through? That now seemed likely. It also sealed his doom.

“How did you get involved in . . . this?” he asked.

Marcus heard a chair scape against the floor. Lorelei had stood and now moved toward him. He could not hear her, but he could feel her drawing closer, could almost smell the honeysuckle scent that surrounded her. “When you left and I knew you weren’t coming back, I turned to Erasmus for consolation. He cared for me and convinced me that you never had any feelings for me and that I should forget about you. He confided in me and I in him. I grew to love him in your absence. Needless to say, I was shocked when I learned of the new magic he was learning, but I loved him still. When he told me he meant to lure you here and kill you, I told him that I would help in any way I could. Your bringing the woman was an unexpected turn, but he was prepared. He told me to try to win you over, to get you to fall in love with me instead, and hand you over to him when I had you in deep enough. If I could not get you to do that, then I was to wait for further instructions and report to him what your intentions were.”

“The inn,” Marcus said, seeing the solution to the puzzle and, as with so many others, finding the answer painfully obvious once revealed. “You went to him while we ate at the inn. You spoke to him during your watches. You even chose the spot where the dwarves could ambush us.”

“Erasmus chose it, I just had to lead you there. He had drawn a moon sigil in the grass that you could not see without your magic. Heather might have seen it, but she would not have recognized it in her stupidity. I even gave the halfling the bottle that night with a sleeping potion that I had carried from Glenfold, waiting for the right opportunity to use it.”

A moon sigil, Marcus knew, was a magical symbol that elves used to communicate in secret. Only elves or those possessing similar magic could see them. Marcus could not help but feel impressed by the ingenious simplicity of the plan.

“When you arrived and we learned that your powers were gone—rather, transferred to Heather—we knew fortune had smiled upon us. Still, you are ever the resourceful one, Marcus, and you played the game well. Just not well enough.”

A door opened to his left and Marcus heard the soft padding of footsteps approaching.

“Is our guest awake, Lorelei?” Erasmus asked. “I trust you have been keeping him entertained.”

The mirth in that voice made Marcus furious. The darkness before his eyes began to take on a red color that perfectly matched his mood. He desperately wanted to be unbound so he could kill his former friend, even if he had to do it with his bare hands.

Hands touched his face and his vision returned as the spell lifted. Marcus could see the room around him was large and, from the portion he could see, circular. He noticed immediately that the walls, floor and ceiling were composed of bones of various shapes and sizes. He also saw that not all of them were human. Worked into the construction were skulls of animals, some he recognized, others he did not. A large femur lay embedded in the wall before him looking like a dinosaur fossil. Large windows were regularly spaced around the perimeter of the wall, allowing a view of sickly-looking trees, but not any place that he recognized. A few tables and chairs broke the monotony of the room, each cluttered with various curiosities.

Erasmus stood before him, his hood pulled back to reveal his smiling face. Now, even more than in the clearing, Marcus could see how pale and unwell he looked. His hair, once thick and dark, now clung to his head in thin wisps of gray. The blue eyes were as intense as he remembered from his childhood, but the dark circles around them made him appear years older than he actually was. His pallid skin, stretched taut over the high cheekbones, gave him a ghastly appearance, particularly when he flashed his yellow smile.

“Where are Heather and Wilkey?” Marcus asked.

“Don’t worry about them,” Erasmus said, waving his hand dismissively. “I sent an old friend of yours out to greet them.”

As if on cue, Marcus heard a roar from outside, only slightly muffled by the walls of bone surrounding him. He recognized that bellow and his blood froze.

“Amadyr? How . . . ?”

Erasmus chuckled. “You would be amazed how useful a dead dragon can be, old friend. I thank you for helping her on her way, although I wish you had sped up the process a little. She took a tremendously long time to die and was not very cooperative with me while she lived.”

Marcus looked out the window for some glimpse of what was going on, but could only see trees far away. He could tell that where they stood was at a great height, but still no more than that.

“Why did you do all this?” Marcus asked, turning his attention back to Erasmus.

Erasmus paused, considering his response or at least pretending to consider. “Several reasons. First, I traveled with you and had glorious adventures, but I was never as good as you. No matter what I tried, your powers far exceeded my own. I was the most powerful wizard born of this land, but you were more powerful. Even when you left and I knew you would likely not return, I burned with the knowledge that if you did return, I would resume my role as your inferior. Therefore, I searched for . . . new powers, powers that I know you could not possess, or would not. I learned to used death and all the benefits it bestows on one brave enough to explore its reaches.”

Erasmus turned to Lorelei. “Second, I knew the fairest maiden in all the land loved you deeply. Again, I admit to jealousy. I had wanted Lorelei since the moment we first entered Glenfold, but she loved you instead. I watched as you overlooked her over and over, growing more angry at you with each advance she made that you turned away. Finally, you turned away from her at the fountain, her last effort to claim your heart. You denied her and I, watching from the shadows, saw my chance to fulfill that dream, at least. You left her to me and I claimed what was rightfully mine.”

Lorelei wrapped her arms around Erasmus and rewarded him with a long, passionate kiss. The image stirred a bit of jealousy and anger within Marcus, but mostly he felt only disgust at the sight. Hearing her voice when he awoke placed any lingering regrets of Lorelei out of his mind and he found that losing her, even in these circumstances, did not hurt nearly as much as the possibility of losing Heather.

Again, as if on cue, another roar shook the walls of the room. Erasmus gave a disinterested glance at the window, then turned back to Marcus.

“Finally, once I had enough power to rule this land, I knew that only being could possibly stop me. You. So, with Lorelei’s help, I devised a plan to lure you here. Little did I realize that you would bring another with you and that you would forfeit your powers to her, one so incapable of using them. By sending her back, you hoped to regain those powers and you might have had I not been prepared. The monolith you are tied to has a special property. I discovered it on one of my travels during your absence and have been waiting for the opportunity to use it ever since. It prevents magical use by anyone touching it. I don’t know if your powers returned, even if Heather did pass far enough through the portal. My own powers did not vanish when I passed through, but I suspect that is a result of our magic being from different places. Death is everywhere, as is death magic for the willing.

“Even without your powers, though, you proved formidable, as I hoped you would. I have truly enjoyed our game, old friend, but now the final move—the winning move—is mine.”

Erasmus moved forward, stopping inches from Marcus’s face. “I have taken everything from you—your powers, your allies, two women who loved you, and now, Marcus I will take your life before I complete my conquest.”

From beneath his black robes, Erasmus produced a silver knife. The long, thin blade seemed to radiate with a bluish-white light. Erasmus smiled.

“Goodbye, old friend.” he said. Then, the knife struck forward.

Marcus felt the blade sink deep beneath his ribs. At first, he felt the searing pain that he expected from a knife wound, but the burning was soon replaced by an extreme cold, if anything, more agonizing than the initial wound. With growing horror, he realized the blade was not only harming him physically, but also sucking the life from him. The bluish-white glow began to pulse in time with his heartbeat, which began to slow inside his chest as he drew closer to death.

A high-pitched shriek pulled Marcus’s attention away from the weapon feeding upon his life force. Looking up at the large window, he saw a large, dark shape hurtle out of the sky. The glass exploded inward, sending shards in all directions. Marcus closed his eyes and felt several small pieces pierce the skin of his face, but those stings paled in comparison to the ache of the blade in his chest.

When he opened his eyes a moment later, he could see the griffon tumbling into the room. Losing her balance when she shattered the window, she felt like a heavy stone, crashing into a table and bouncing across the floor toward Marcus.

Lorelei dove backward to avoid being bowled over by the beast. She landed gracefully and rolled away out of Marcus’s line of sight.

Erasmus, lacking Lorelei’s elven reflexes, turned away from his victim and froze. He unconsciously pulled the blade from Marcus’s chest, bringing a relief that Marcus had never felt. Warmth rushed back into his body as he fought to recover from the draining effects of the dagger.

Winterdusk skidded forward and Erasmus attempted to jump over her. Marcus thought he resembled a shortstop trying to leap over a base runner while attempting to turn a double play. The jump came late, though, and Erasmus’s foot caught in the griffon’s unfurled wing as she tumbled under him, sending him sprawling face first onto the hard floor.

The griffon’s momentum carried her on into Marcus. He felt the weight of the beast slam into his legs and expected to hear both his shin’s break. Instead, the monolith he was bound to, that was preventing him from using his magic, toppled over Winterdusk like a bowling pin. Marcus feared the heavy stone pillar falling on him, a result that would surely leave him with a crushed skull, but it spun just enough as it fell to avoid flattening him. Still, the impact jarred his whole body, nearly leaving him unconscious as the monolith rolled over, turning his face toward the ceiling.

Before Winterdusk came to a full stop, Marcus heard another voice he recognized, but this one filled him with hope rather than despair.

“Marcus!” Wilkey called from the broken window.

Marcus tried to call out, but the fall with the monolith had knocked the wind out of him. Still, Wilkey seemed to see him.

“Marcus!” the halfling called again, this time in a more relieved tone. Marcus could not imagine his friend being more relieved than he was himself.

Wilkey entered the room and Marcus craned his head around as far as his neck would allow to see him. He was about to tell the halfling to be careful when another figure moved to the right of the window.

In a flash of steel, Lorelei emerged from the shadows and, with both hands, plunged her sword deep into the halfling’s chest. Wilkey, possessing reflexes nearly as fine as the elven woman, struck out with his daggers before registering that he had been struck. The blades were smaller, but no less deadly. Each found an opening between the space of Lorelei’s ribs.

For a long moment, both opponents, halfling and elf, stared at each other as though shocked that the other was there. Neither registered pain, though blood began to pour from their respective wounds. Then, Lorelei tried to back away, aware that she may last long enough, even with her grave wounds, to help Erasmus before the end.

Wilkey held on. His hands, the knuckles turning white, held on firmly to the hilts of the daggers. As the elf tried to pull away, leaving her sword buried in Wilkey’s chest, the halfling dug in his heels. His arms seemed to wrap around her as though giving her a hug. Lorelei, however, wanted none of the embrace. She attempted to scream, but only emitted a hoarse whisper. A bubble of blood formed on her lips, then popped as she exhaled.

Slowly, Wilkey began to walk backward, pulling Lorelei along as he did. All the color had drained away from the halfling’s face, but his jaw was set and his eyes blazed. He inched back toward the railing that surrounded the thin landing just outside the windows, hauling Lorelei in like a trophy bass. The elf thrashed her arms, beating Wilkey with panic-induced strength, but he trudged on, mindless of the tiny fists pummeling him.

When Wilkey felt his back touch the rail, the sword blade sticking between the upper and lower bars, he turned slightly, allowing him to look at Marcus. His bloodless face gave him a faint smile, then he spoke. Marcus could not hear the words, but he could read them on the halfling’s lips and face.

“Thank you for saving me.”

Wilkey bent his knees and, summoning what Marcus knew was his last shred of strength, lifted up on the dagger hilts in his hands. Lorelei, also weakening, could not keep her balance against the unexpected move and she, along with Wilkey, toppled over the railing.

“Wilkey!” Marcus cried out as his friend disappeared from sight. He had known what Wilkey intended as soon as the halfling had started toward the railing, but seeing him do it, seeing him sacrifice himself to give Marcus a slim chance at life, still struck him a heavy blow. Wilkey had cleared another obstacle in their path to defeating Erasmus, but the price had been great.

Perhaps too great, Marcus thought.

Marcus forced his mind to set aside his grief and work on his current problem, as he knew Wilkey would have wanted. He still remained tied to a large stone, incapable of freeing himself by conventional or magical means. Craning his stiff neck again, he looked for some sign of Erasmus, but saw none. All around him, he heard nothing but the wind blowing through the shattered window.

A terrible pain erupted again in his chest. Looking down, he saw Erasmus standing over him, a deep gash across the pale forehead. A curtain of blood flowed down over his right eye, but the left glared at him with bestial hatred.

“He killed her! He killed her!,” he said, speaking through his clenched teeth.

Marcus could feel the silver blade twisting with each word, and the renewed sensation of his life draining away. The excruciating cold flowed through him again, as though filling the void left by the energy he was losing. Above him, blood dripped off Erasmus’s nose onto his face, only a few inches separating the two of them. His former friend trembled in rage and his visible eye glittered with madness. Within that gaze, Marcus could see the jealousy and hatred that had built up inside his friend for so many years.

He had never wanted to make Erasmus feel inferior. Yes, he had been stronger in magic and Lorelei had, at first, chosen him, but he could not remember ever intentionally waving those things before Erasmus, even in the competitive way so common among teenagers. During their travels together, Marcus realized that his life may someday depend on the solid foundation of friendship that existed between the two of them. Now, that foundation had crumbled and threatened to take down all of Terra in its destruction.

If Erasmus heard the click, he gave no sign. His only thought was of killing his former friend that had caused him so much pain. He pushed the silver dagger as far as Marcus’s body would allow and could feel the life ebbing from it. The cut on his head burned, but his leg, with its bone sticking out just below the kneecap, throbbed with apocalyptic pain. He would heal himself, he told himself, as soon as Marcus had taken his last breath and assured his complete victory over the lands of Terra.

A loud crash shattered the relative silence of the room. Something struck Erasmus in the shoulder, knocking him backward off of Marcus. He landed on his broken leg and screamed in pain as he fell to the floor.

Marcus turned his head, trying to see through his now-hazy vision, what had happened. He saw Heather standing in the broken remains of the window, his Colt revolver raised to chest level with two trembling hands.

“Shit!” she said. “I was aiming for his head.”

She rushed forward, dropping the gun as she did. Sliding to Marcus’s side, she looked down on him with teary eyes.

“I couldn’t go,” she said. “I couldn’t.”

“It’s okay,” Marcus whispered, still weak from the draining effects of the dagger. “Just get me off this thing and we’ll get out of here.”

Heather looked around and spotted the silver knife on the ground beside Erasmus. The black-robed figure was not moving, but Heather doubted that she had killed him. She snatched up the knife and began slicing through the ropes binding Marcus to the monolith. She had nearly freed his upper body and arms when something struck her, forcing her to drop the knife. An unseen force hit her with such force that she was propelled backward nearly to the broken window before landing hard. She gave a great whumph as she landed on her back, the breath forced from her lungs in a great gust.

Marcus stretched his hand out to catch the knife as it fell and cursed as it brushed his fingertips before clattering to the floor. He then strained against the ropes, trying to finish the work Heather had begun, but his muscles had not regained the strength necessary to break the last strands. Marcus expanded his chest and moved his arms back and forth as much as he could in hopes of fraying the rope enough for him to break free. His efforts, however, did not succeed in time.

The dark figure of Erasmus rose above him. A swath of blood had been wiped away from the mad eyes and the rictus grin that stretched the skin around his mouth enhanced the appearance of insanity. In his hand, the silver knife glittered in the light filtering in from outside.

“I wanted to do this right, but now I see I just need to get it over with,” Erasmus said, lowering the blade toward Marcus’s throat.

Another crash sounded and Marcus watched Erasmus recoil as something struck him hard in the chest. This gunshot brought a roar of agony and rage that ended in a strangled gurgle as Erasmus crumpled to the floor.

Heather rushed back to resume helping Marcus. Prying the knife from the hand of the man she had just shot, she brought it down to start working on the robes again. Her hands trembled violently and as Marcus looked up at her, he saw a deep gash along her left cheek. Still, she managed a pained smile.

“Got him that time,” she said.

She began working the knife back and forth again, sawing rapidly while all the while watching the figure lying in the shadows only inches from her. In her haste, she stabbed Marcus in the side, immediately setting to work the draining effect of the weapon.

“Oh, God!,” she squealed. “I’m sorry!” She began to sob.

“Don’t worry about it,” Marcus said. “Just get my arms free.”

After a few more seconds of work, Marcus felt the pressure lift from his chest and arms as the ropes loosened, then slithered off to either side of him. His arms first tingled, then burned as blood returned to the muscles of his arms. He took in a deep, welcome breath and struggled to a sitting position. He saw Erasmus was still not moving, but some instinct told him that he and Heather were not yet safe.

“Give me the knife and keep the gun pointed at him,” he told Heather, who complied thankfully.

While she had never wanted a gun in the house, had never approved of them at all, the weight of the Colt in her hand comforted her. As she had worked to free Marcus, she could feel the evil intent of the blade, as thought it was thinking independently of its wielder. When she had accidentally cut Marcus with it, she felt the weapon warm rapidly as the blood poured over its metal surface. The effect chilled her and almost caused her to fling the knife away in her disgust. She found that she preferred the revolver—not magical, perhaps, but damn sure not thinking on its own.

Marcus took the silver knife and a chill raced up his spine as he thought of his life force pouring into the thing. He could feel it thrum in his hand as though begging for more blood. Just a taste, he could almost hear the weapon say in his mind.

Fighting his revulsion, he leaned forward on the monolith and began cutting the ropes that bound his feet. His hands held the knife clumsily as the feeling had not completely, but he made steady progress. The bindings themselves were thick and hardly seemed like rope at all. Instead, he saw that they more closely resembled steel cable like that used on bridges. Still, the blade severed strand after strand as he furiously moved the knife over them, each one snapping with an audible ping as it let go. As each strand gave way, he glanced up for any change in the still unmoving figure of Erasmus lying almost at his feet. All he saw were the black robes, not even troubled by their occupant’s respiration from what he could see. A greenish-brown mist seemed to seep out of the black folds, clinging close to the ground like the fog that inhabited the swamp below. For the first time, he began to hope that Heather’s final bullet had ended their struggle.

Something still gnawed at Marcus, though, telling him that Erasmus was not dead. He could not define what made him so uncomfortable, but he cut at the ropes faster still in hopes of freeing himself at least from the monolith.

Finally, with a final tug, the ropes surrounding his feet gave way with a tiny pop and Marcus rolled off the stone pillar. He saw the runes carved into its sides, the etchings that he had felt earlier, and realized that they must have provided the protection against his magic that Erasmus had mentioned.

As his body left contact with it, Marcus felt the sensation he had waited for since his arrival in this land to avenge the friend he now hoped was dead. Like a river, long bound by a dam and finally allowed to flow on its natural course, magic flowed into Marcus. He thrilled in the sensation, an ecstasy beyond anything he had ever felt. The power flowed throughout his body, healing his physical and mental wounds and returning the strength he would need to see Heather safely back to their world.

He stood up beside Heather. She still held the Colt, but now its barrel pointed at her feet. Looking at Marcus, her eyes were wide with worried anticipation.

Did it work? Those eyes asked. Please tell me it worked.

Marcus nodded.

Heather dropped the gun then fell into his arms. She kissed him passionately and Marcus could feel the tears on her cheeks. He held her close, thankful not only for her role in saving him, but also for her love and forgiveness. Without either, he knew, he would likely be dead.

She let go of him and he turned to the crumpled black robes lying next to the monolith. He needed to be sure that Erasmus was dead before he left. Otherwise, the Necromancer, as those in Terra knew him now, would rebuild and seek domination all over again. Marcus could not allow the possibility of that, even if he had no intention of coming back.

Reaching down slowly, he grabbed a handful of the dark cloth. He could hear Heather take in a quick breath behind him and hold it, afraid to make a sound at this critical moment.

Apply slow pressure, he pulled upward on the robes. To his surprise, they came up easily, almost causing him to overbalance. He expected the weight of a body to accompany the weight of the cloth, but as he pulled, he saw the robes were empty.

A sound behind them made both Marcus and Heather spin around. The greenish-brown mist that had surrounded Erasmus’s robes was now forming a shape in front of the broken window. The gaseous material began to grow denser, blocking more and more of the light that shone through it from outside. A definite outline of a person was forming and Marcus’s heart sank.

It was Erasmus.

He had only seconds before Erasmus regained his physical form and his first goal was to get Heather clear of the danger. Feeling the magic now coursing through him, he turned to send her far away from the tower to the safety of Glenfold. Hopefully, the elves still held the undead forces besieging it at bay. He knew they would take Heather in and, once she told her story, would take heart that Marcus had regained his powers. Heather would not want to go, he knew, so he would have to act quickly before she could protest. He spun, raising his hands as he did, and felt the magic ready to do his bidding.

Heather, however, was not there.

Marcus searched frantically, thinking Heather had seen the mist becoming Erasmus and had taken cover. His mind raced as he scanned the room for her, panic filling his thoughts and taking his mind off his adversary.

As he took a few quick steps toward the back of the room, his hand lurched backward, nearly tearing his shoulder in its ferocity. He let go of the silver knife just before the tendons of his rotator cuff could snap. The blade flew across the room end over end and was caught by a pale hand.

Erasmus held the blade up. Standing almost naked before the window, he stared at Marcus with undisguised fury. The smile that had stretched his features before was gone, replaced by a bestial leer that reflected a madness equal to or greater than that present in his eyes. The only item Erasmus wore was an amulet, silver with a large red gem set in its center. The gem glowed brightly, casting a red glint on the silver weapon in front of it.

“Let’s finish this,” Erasmus spat.

Marcus raised his hands and felt the magic erupt from him. The feeling, long missed, reminded him of the many adventures he and Erasmus had shared and yet saddened him as he sought to kill his old friend. A beam of energy shot out from his hands and collided with his target, drawing the room in a brilliant white light.

When Marcus’s eyes adjusted, he looked to see the effect of the spell. He had never felt so much power passing through him and he wondered if any of Erasmus would be left.

To his dismay, Erasmus stood unharmed where he had been. The leer on his face widened. Beneath that leer, the red gem glowed more fiercely.

“Do you think I would have summoned you here unless I had some sort of protection from your powers?” he asked. He patted the amulet at his breast. “It took me years of research and trials, but I eventually perfected it and summoned you back, knowing that no magic or weapon of this world could harm me. You have sought to destroy me since you arrived, not knowing that such deeds are beyond your powers.”

Drawing the knife back, he hurled it at Marcus’s chest. As he did, Marcus felt something knock against him, almost sending him sprawling to the floor. Heather appeared suddenly, directly between him and the hurtling knife. The blade buried deep within her chest, just below her neck. Heather let out a small squeak of pain and surprise before falling in a heap upon the floor.

Marcus dropped to his knees beside her, ignoring Erasmus standing across the room. He could see the hilt of the blade sticking up from her chest and the blood slowly pulling around it, soaking through her white blouse. He pulled it out, horrified at the resistance he received while doing so, as though the blade refused to leave such as feast. The knife finally yielded to his pressure and Heather jerked as it slid out. She looked up at him, her eyes half open.

“I love you,” she said.

Across the room, Erasmus laughed. The sound was high-pitched and grating, snapping Marcus from his despair. Looking up, he glared at his old friend, a rage consuming him that he had never known before.

Marcus stood, mindless of the possibility of further attack, but aware that Erasmus would want to savor his grief, drink it in like water in a desert. When he reached his full height, he started forward, hands behind him like someone pacing in deep contemplation. Stopping a few feet in front of his foe, Marcus looked directly into the mad eyes.

“So you come willingly to your death?” Erasmus asked, amused.

“No,” Marcus replied. “Yours.”

He pulled the Colt from behind his back and raised it, using the natural speed he had shown among his peers on the annual gun range trips. His hand and eye met and agreed on their target before Erasmus could realize his danger. The revolver crashed again, this time sending a slug into the red gem set in the amulet on Erasmus’s bare chest. The jewel exploded, hurling shards of red in every direction. Several embedded themselves in the skin of Marcus’s face and hands, but he ignored the pain.

Erasmus, a look of horror replacing the dangerous leer, was hurled backward through the broken window. He landed against the railing where Wilkey and Lorelei had fallen off minutes before. Looking down at his chest, he could see the gaping hole the shot had left. Blood, flecked with bits of bone and his internal organs began to slide out of the wound. His eyes rose once again to Marcus. They no longer radiated madness, only shock. After doing his will for so long, death was now coming to claim him as well.

Marcus watched as the life poured from Erasmus. This time, there was no voice inside him telling him that he should still be wary. This time, he knew the deed was done.

He had started back to Heather when the tower gave a powerful lurch. The bones forming the floor beneath his feet seemed to be coming loose as he ran across them. He guessed that now Erasmus was dead, the magic supporting the structure was unraveling around them. He fought to hold his balance and reached Heather, nearly stumbling over as he kneeled by her side.

Her eyes were closed and for a brief, terrible moment, he thought she was gone, but when he touched her face, she opened her eyes.

“Did you stop him?” she asked in a light, airy voice.

Marcus nodded. “Yeah, he’s dead.”

“Good,” she answered. “Now, let’s go home.”

Placing his hands beneath her, he lifted Heather as easily as he might a small child, something he still hoped to have with her. Moving as quickly as he dared back to the window, he struggled against the increasing instability of the floor and the seismic thrashing of the tower itself. He reached the railing and moved beside the body of his childhood friend without a second glance. Instead, he looked down and saw far below the tiny figure of his other two childhood friends, one of which he intended to remove from this place of death.

Taking a deep breath, he called forth the magic again. He had never tried to teleport another person along with himself before, but he had complete confidence that he could. The wind picked up and its roar filled his ears. Then, a feeling of weightlessness filled him and when he opened his eyes, he found himself standing at the base of the tower, still holding Heather in his arms. All around him, bits of bone fell like a macabre snow shower. A few large ones struck him on the back and head, but he shook off their sting and sprinted forward to where Wilkey’s body lay.

Lorelei’s sword had been expelled from his shattered body when he struck the ground. The blade now rested next to the body of its owner, her red curls falling over her face. He allowed himself a momentary pang of regret, then put her out of his mind forever.

Knowing he could not pick up both Wilkey’s body and Heather, barely clinging to life herself, Marcus lay her beside the halfling and then took hold of their hands, one in each of his own. He had only teleported two people for the first time a few moments before, but the prospect of a third still added no element of doubt. Bringing forth the magic again, he focused on his destination. Again, he heard the wind roar in his ears and the sensation of weightlessness.

A second after the three figures vanished at its base, the tower of bone collapsed in upon itself, burying the bodies of Marcus’s childhood friends who erected it.


I’m sitting in computer class again tonight, which means I have a bit of free time to post the next chapter in the continuing tale of Marcus and Heather as they try to save a far-off land without killing each other or getting each other killed (they are different things).

Also, as I posted earlier on Twitter and Facebook earlier today, I am considering adding more content to this site by adding some video posts in place of the ones I normally write out.  I have a few reasons for wanting to do this.  First, I am a full-time worker, a full-time student, a full-time parent, and a full-time boyfriend, so I have very little time for writing fiction and even less for writing blog posts.  What I do have is an hour and a half commute to and from work each day that I normally fill by listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and occasionally music or sports.  It would be relatively easy for me to record a video as I’m driving and post it on here via YouTube.  It would also alleviate some of the guilt I have over paying for a website and not using it.

If anyone has any thoughts about this idea, including what tools I should use to best pull it off, please drop me a line through one of the many ways to reach me.

In the meantime, on with the show.

The griffons soared high above the canopy of color. Despite the calling of the flying beasts as they approached Glenfold, they flew around the elven kingdom and continued to follow the line of the Misteld as it snaked below them.

As they circumvented the elven lands, Marcus felt very uneasy. He watched the border intently, wondering if Lorelei had found her way back yet. He could sense Aspen below him, keenly aware of the proximity of Glenfold, pining for the comfort of her home. Marcus sympathized with the emotion; a part of him wanted to return to the familiar sights of the elven city and set aside his responsibility, to know a few last moments of peace with Heather before they both died.

The sun sank low on the horizon and Marcus found himself faced with a difficult decision. He wanted to reach the cave as soon as possible, but he also did not wish to tackle whatever challenged awaited them at the entrance to the cave in the dark. He particularly wanted to give Heather every opportunity to get through the cave, even if it meant sacrificing himself. He would not tell Heather this, of course, but he hoped it would not come to that.

“Let’s land there,” he called over the wind, pointing to a flat stretch of grass on the bank of the river.

Heather and Wilkey nodded their comprehension and guided the griffons into a downward spiral. Marcus followed, directing Aspen in a wide arc. When he landed and dismounted, he found his two companions looking at him expectantly.

Marcus was used to being looked to for direction. As a manager of a multi-million dollar business, he thrived on people looking to him to make the right decision. Now, though, he felt the weight of responsibility bearing down upon him, pressing upon his shoulders like an angry parent telling a wayward child to sit down and behave. He felt exhausted and a strong urge rose inside him to lie down in the soft grass and sleep until the world ended. He fought the impulse, looking at his childhood friend and the woman he loved and knowing they needed him to make those right decisions now more than ever.

“We’ll camp here tonight and leave before dawn,” he said with as much confidence as he could muster. “I’d rather not fight through a whole army of undead when I’m tired and hungry.”

They made camp, eating silently from the few remaining rations in Marcus’s pack. They all stared blankly in the meager fire, all feeling the same sense of foreboding about the coming day. Marcus reflected that this must be how inmates on death row feel the night before their execution.

Wilkey finally broke the silence. His voice sounded strangely loud and profane after the relative silence of the evening, interrupting the songs of the night birds and burbling of the river that had been the only sounds up to that point.

“I think I’m going to get some sleep,” he said, his voice low and grim. “Wake me up when it’s my turn for watch.”

Marcus watched the halfling curl up in his blanket and fall almost immediately to sleep. Part of him wanted to follow suit, but the dire situation they faced kept rolling through his brain and he knew that sleep would be slow in coming if it came at all. He continued to stare at the fire, absently watching the tiny flames flicker before him like exotic dancers. He barely noticed when Heather stood up and moved around the fire toward him. She sat next to him, pressing herself against him to ward of the chill autumn air. Her hand slipped forward, tentative at first, then picking up speed. She took his hand and squeezed gently.

Marcus looked at her and saw tears running down her cheeks. The orange light from the fire reflected off them, giving them the appearance of molten lava streaming down her face. Her dark eyes looked up at his and he saw something there that he had not seen in some time, in so long that he could not actually remember seeing it so clearly. He felt his own eyes burn suddenly and the lines of hot tears race down his own cheeks. He let them fall, not bothering to wipe them away, choosing instead to share his unspoken grief and fear with her.

“I love you,” she whispered, her voice sounding like a low, sad breeze. “I have the whole time, but I couldn’t live like that, like we were. I was lonely and angry and . . .”

She could not finish. She sobbed quietly, her face pressed into Marcus’s shoulder. Putting his arm around her, he pulled her closer to him and kissed her forehead, the tears falling down his face leaving two wet dots on her skin. They sat for some time, holding each other and crying in the still night.

“I never meant to hurt you,” he said. “I’m sorry, so sorry, that I didn’t see what I was doing to you. You’re the world to me and no matter what happens tomorrow, I want you to know that I love you.”

She looked up into his eyes again and Marcus saw fire in them, not reflected from the flames before them, but from deep within her. It was a look he had not seen in as long as he could remember, a look of longing and desire. The sight of those burning eyes sparked a similar emotion within him that surpassed any feeling he had ever experienced at work, even the ecstasy that flowed through him when he used his magical powers as a child. He took Heather in his arms and kissed her, their lips pressing urgently against each other. A tidal wave of passion swept over them and they lay back in the soft, fragrant grass. For a short blissful time, they forgot the dangers that awaited them and became lost in each other.

After their lovemaking, which they had done as quietly as possible to avoid waking the halfling sleeping a few feet away, they lay in each other’s arms and stared up at the stars twinkling in the clear sky above them. They talked no further about the troubles that had nearly driven them apart, preferring to stay with the realms of happier memories. They talked and giggled for hours before finally falling asleep together, not bothering to set a watch. Around them, the night remained calm and still, preparing for the storm that would soon erupt.

Marcus awoke after only a few hours. He carefully extracted himself from Heather’s arm which lay draped over him. The warmth of her skin against his made him feel very comfortable, but he knew that he would have to set his comfort aside to perform the task ahead. He rolled away from Heather and stood slowly, allowing his muscles to stretch.

Walking a few yards from the camp, he looked out over the wide stripe of the Misteld flowing serenely through the night. The fog they had encountered before on the river’s banks hovered above the water in a moonlit blanket. It looked to Marcus as though he could walk across to the opposite bank atop the white mist. He stared out over the water for some time, thinking of how best to confront the forces he knew would be aligned against them at the cave forbidding them entrance. Finally, with a plan half-formed in his mind, he returned to camp and woke the others.

The fire had died as they slept leaving them unable to prepare a hot meal. This point became moot, however, since none of them had any appetite. They packed their bedrolls onto the backs of the three griffons, then took to the predawn sky. The griffons soared through the chill air as the white line of the fog-shrouded Misteld snaked below them. Even the beasts apparently sensed the danger facing them as they drew nearer to it. Marcus could feel the unusual tension of the muscles in Aspen’s back as he sat astride her and could see the nervous way she twitched her head back and forth as if scanning for unseen dangers. He hoped that he could continue to count on the griffons to perform the way he wanted them to, but without Lorelei guiding and comforting them, he wondered how they would respond against the dark forces of the Necromancer.

As the sky brightened around them hailing the coming of dawn, Marcus looked farther along the river in search of any sign of what may lay ahead. Immediately, his eyes detected a dark line in the distance, reaching up from the ground like an accusatory finger. The smoke drifted upward in a wide column, caught by the prevailing winds, flattened out against an invisible ceiling. Though the sun’s rays had not lifted over the horizon yet, Marcus knew where the smoke rose from and his heart sank.

Yellow Banks was burning.

He turned to eye Wilkey, who also apparently realized what the smoke meant. Sitting astride his griffon, his face was pale, even in the dim light of morning and his eyes were wide with terror. Marcus knew the halfling held little true sentimental value for the small village, but Yellow Banks had always been a base of operation for him, a place to rest from his travels. Despite the run down appearance and the less than savory populace, he still considered it as much of a home as he could hope to have. Now, he knew, the entire village was likely destroyed along with most if not all of its residents.

Looking to his other side, Marcus studied Heather. She was not looking at the thick line of smoke parting the sky ahead like an ugly scar. Instead, he sat leaned over the neck of the griffon, huddling from the wind. Marcus could see her eyes were closed and her lips moving frantically. He could not hear what she was saying, but he guessed that if God existed in the form so many people believe in, he was hearing an odd request from her.

Finally, they reached Yellow Banks, diving through the column of smoke to land in the center of the village. As they had feared, the buildings were all either engulfed in flames or, in the case of the smaller buildings, already smoldering ruins. Lying in the dusty streets, dozens of halflings lay dead from various wounds. Some were horrendously burned, others rested in pools of blood emptied from gaping holes in their bodies, and still others lay mangled with their limbs bent into obscene angles. A few of the dead held what weapons they could manage in such a location—pitchforks, knives, a few short swords. Nothing living had been spared; even the animals, livestock and pets, lay scattered in bloody heaps throughout the village.

The suns rays were just peaking over the horizon. Marcus gaped as the devastation around him was revealed more clearly and felt a fury rising inside him that he had never experienced. Always laid back and practical, Marcus prided himself on his ability to manage under pressure while maintaining a cool head. Such attributes, he now realized, would be useless against the Necromancer.

Wilkey stood alone in the center of town. He faced the remains of what had formerly been The Pub with a vacant expression. No vestige of loss appeared there, only a bleary look of disbelief.

“We’ll get him,” Marcus told the halfling as he walked up to his side. It was all he could think to say. The combined horror over the fate of Yellow Banks and the rage filling his mind prevented him from finding something more comforting.

The halfling nodded. “I know you will, Marcus.”

“We,” Marcus corrected.

“No, you. You’re the only one who can stop him. You have to get her out of here so you can fight him. I’ll help you there, but . . .”

The halfling could not continue. Marcus knew that in his state of grief, Wilkey might do something foolish, but he would not deny any help his friend offered if it suited the rest of his plan.

Returning to the center of the village, Marcus took a few minutes to go over the plan he had developed staring out over the Misteld. Despite the many opportunities for failure it presented and the extreme risk, the strategy stirred no debate from Wilkey or Heather. Marcus had put as positive a spin on the matter as possible and was thankful for their belief in him, belief that he could not bring himself to share.

Within a few minutes, Marcus and Wilkey mounted the griffons and prepared to leave. Heather, seeing the destruction all around her, had remained on hers, clutching her pack over her eyes to prevent herself from seeing the dead bodies all around her. Marcus could hear her as he mounted Aspen, sobbing deeply into the leather pouch.

They lifted off again, allowing the griffons to choose a path through the choking smoke. The rose just above the trees and started toward the cave, hoping for at least some element of surprise. By staying low, Marcus wanted to reduce their visibility as they approached, even though he guessed the Necromancer had ways of spying on them aside from his own eyesight. Still, the low altitude gave them a better opportunity with anyone or anything else that may be guarding the entrance to the cave and for that Marcus hoped the ploy would be worthwhile.

They left the line of the river and soared over the trees where Marcus and Heather had met with the centaurs in what seemed now to be another life altogether different from the other life the two of them shared in North Carolina. Asheville now seemed as fictional as this land had seemed to Heather when Marcus first mentioned it and as they neared the cave, he wondered if they would ever see it again. He looked again at Heather, huddled against the wind, and his heart ached for her. What he intended to do, perhaps the only chance any of them would have to leave the scene alive, would most likely mean they would never see each other again and it pained him. That he had finally come to appreciate her, had worked so hard to show he could change while in this strange land, and now had to risk everything in order to save her felt like a bitter pill in the back of his throat, one he was not prepared to swallow.

He had turned over as many possibilities as he could in his mind, envisioned as many possible defenses to the cave as he think of, and yet he still felt unprepared to face what now lay just before them as they flew over the woods nearest the cave’s entrance. He had seen evidence of the cleverness possessed by the Necromancer and despite his feeling of being played with, he knew they had been quite lucky to have made it to this point, to this conclusion. A voice inside him told him that the close calls they had faced had been like acts in a play—carefully staged productions designed to lead them to one final confrontation. He could almost feel the invisible strings guiding his movements, but could no more resist their pull than could the puppet.

Now, he hoped, he would be able to cut those strings and give Heather, at least, a chance of escaping.

The cave came into view slowly. Its dark expanse opening at the far end of the clearing as it appeared over the tops of the trees. Marcus scanned the ground and felt his mouth fall open, the wind drying every bit of of moisture inside it. He blinked several times, thinking he must be hallucinating, that the Necromancer was playing some final evil trick upon them before moving in for the endgame. He hesitated before sending Aspen spiraling down to land, scanning the clearing all around to ensure his eyes were not deceiving him.

The clearing was empty.

Heather and Wilkey did not hesitate as Marcus had. If they noticed the oddity of the entrance to the cave being unguarded, they did not pause to ponder its meaning. Instead, they swooped down on their griffons in a straight line for the cave, hoping to outrun any devilry that may lie in wait for them below. Marcus called for them to stop, feeling an overpowering sense of wrongness with the whole scene, but the wind in his companions ears and their desire to reach the cave, made them deaf to his cries.

Marcus commanded Aspen to dive just as he saw movement explode from the trees around the clearing. Fear radiated out from his stomach in nauseous waves, threatening to rob him of his senses before he could reach the ground to help Heather. He watched as the circle of figures charged in from their hiding places, their muscular torsos blending seamlessly with their equine hindquarters, and surrounded the two griffons as they landed. Marcus saw Beorgan himself standing directly in front of the cave barking orders to his tribesmen as they closed in.

Fury rose inside Marcus, outweighing even that he had felt in the ruins of Yellow Banks, a white hot rage that enhanced his senses. Every thing around him seemed to slow down, allowing him a view of the scene in much greater detail than he had ever experienced in his life. His thoughts clear and quick, he knew exactly what he would do, the plan forming in his mind a moment after there had only been panic.

Aspen also sensed the need to help her kin. Tucking her wings to her sides, she dropped from the sky like a stone, unfurling them just before she collided with a pair of straggling centaurs, barely old enough to have the beginnings of beards on their tanned faces. The two centaurs felt the rush of wind over them and stumbled face first into the grass as the powerful wings brushed over their heads.

Marcus could hear cries of alarm around him as he and Aspen soared toward Heather and Wilkey, but he paid them no attention. All his focus, all his will, were fixed on reaching the two terrified figures standing in the middle of the rapidly closing ring of centaurs before they could be taken captive or simply executed on the spot.

A searing pain erupted in his right thigh and he could see objects streaking by him. Most of the arrows fired by the centaurs missed badly due to the great speed at which their targets were traveling, but a few, including the one now buried in the muscle of Marcus’s leg, found their mark. Aspen cried out in pain as several arrows pierced her flesh in various places. One of the missiles found the wing joint and sent the griffon down to the hard earth. She skipped once, trying valiantly to take off again, then crashed hard.

Marcus released the strap holding him to the saddle after the first contact with the ground. He tried to will the griffon back into the air, but knew the effort was useless. As Aspen neared the ground a second time, Marcus planted his feet upon the saddle and leaped forward, barely avoiding crashing with the griffon.

He had grown used to the sensation of flying after spending the previous few days with the griffons from Glenfold, but the few seconds he spent soaring above the trampled grass gave him no such sense of exhilaration. He watched helplessly as the ground rose up to meet him, trying to get his legs under him enough to lessen the impact on his head. The speed, however, made it impossible and he crashed hard on his chest, skidding several yards like an airplane during a belly landing before coming to rest in a divot of his own making. Far away it seemed, he felt a snapping in his wrist and a brief, hot spark of pain that soon washed away in the tidal wave of agony flowing from his chest.

“Oh, my God!” Heather shrieked as Marcus fought to keep from blacking out. He could hear her well and, despite the clods of dirt in his ears, he realized that he lay almost at her feet.

“Marcus! Marcus, are you okay?” she screamed above him, panic raising her voice to a new high.

Two pair of hands rolled him over and he tried to open his eyes. Dirt clogged them as well and soon he felt fingers digging the it out, allowing the light of the new day to filter in to them through the canopy of leaves. He tried to speak, but his chest felt as though someone had dropped a large tree trunk on him and he could not muster the necessary air to form the words. Heather’s face, tears streaming down her dusty cheeks, appeared over his, blotting out the sun’s rays.

“Shhh, don’t speak,” she said. Her hand appeared and wiped his forehead, returning to his line of sight awash in blood.

Marcus felt another pair of hands touching him, clutching his arms.

“Come on,” Wilkey said, his voice also an octave higher in his fear. “We have to get him to the cave.”

Marcus could feel the ground beneath him shake as the many hooves of the centaurs pounded toward them. He tried to echo the halfling’s words, but still unable to draw a breath, he could only nod. Pulling against Wilkey’s grasp, he stood with some effort and felt new waves of pain exploding through him like the finale of a fireworks display. His legs, though, seemed fine aside from the arrowhead stuck in his thigh—the shaft had broken off during his impact with the ground—and the long strips of flesh that had been scraped away during his landing.

Heather tried to help him as he stood, taking his left hand. Another atomic burst of pain lit up his wrist as she did and he pulled it away with a feeble gasp. Realizing her mistake, sobbing even harder, she took his upper arm instead and started toward the cave.
“Ye’ll not get through me,” a deep voice spoke above the angry calls of the other centaurs. The thundering hooves had halted, leaving an uneasy calm in the clearing, broken only by the low, droning conversation of the centaurs and the occasional stamping of a hoof. Beorgan stood directly between them and the cave entrance, his arms crossed in a stance of defiance. To either side of him stood a half dozen armed centaurs, bows drawn and arrows trained upon Marcus and his companions.

Marcus stopped and the others stopped with him. Standing a mere ten yards from the centaur chieftain, he rose up as straight as his broken bones would allow and looked directly at Beorgan. He still felt as though a large vice was clamped around his chest, but he spoke anyway.

“Beorgan, stand aside and repay the debt you owe me.”

His voice was only a whisper, but it carried through the clearing so that the centaur chieftain and all around him could hear it.

“M’debt was repaid to ye when ye returned to this land,” Beorgan said. “And you have no power, so say the Necromancer.”

Marcus now saw the ingenuity of the Necromancer’s plan. Why should he utilize his own powers when such an eager force could be duped into doing his bidding at no cost to himself?

“You’re a fool, Beorgan,” Marcus wheezed. “He’ll turn on you just as he turned on Chonis of the dwarves, or did he not mention that?”

Beorgan’s face showed no expression. “Say what ye might, human, but it’ll not spare you from him. Just surrender quietly and we’ll see that no harm come to ye in our wood.”

Marcus stared at the centaur for a full minute, deciding what to do. Finally, his mind settled on the plan he had originally developed, altered somewhat to fit the current scenario, but mostly intact and just as risky.

He stared at Beorgan a moment longer, then fell to his knees.

As he hoped they would, Heather and Wilkey dropped to assist him.

“We’re going to go with the plan,” he whispered to them between feigned coughs. “Be ready to run for the cave.”

Wilkey nodded and stood. Heather, though, clasped his arm tightly. Her eyes were wide as she looked at Marcus and finally the realization of what he intended showed in her brown orbs. Her lower lip quivered as more tears flanked it on either side. Stretching forward, Marcus kissed her softly, feeling the trembling lip against his own.

“Just do it . . . please . . . I’ll be okay as long as you get through that cave,” he said.

Doubt radiated from her beautiful face, and for a few seconds, Marcus thought she would resist. However, she too nodded finally and stood beside him.

Marcus rose once again to his feet, not raising his eyes to meet Beorgan’s. Reaching out, he took Heather’s hand in his own and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He felt the power surging from her body into his like electric current.

“Okay,” he said in his breathless voice, “we’ll come quietly.”

The centaurs flanking Beorgan lowered their bows slightly, seeing their quarry surrendering. As they did, Marcus called upon the magic flowing through him, forcing it out again and shaping it into the desired form. He felt the old ecstasy as it gushed from him like a geyser, but also felt the dangerous draining that came with it.

On either side of Marcus and his companions, a great wall of flame erupted from the ground. Reaching high into the air, it formed a corridor leading directly to the cave entrance while blocking them from the view of all the centaurs save the large black one that stood directly before them.

Beorgan reeled in shock as the magic exploded around him. Taking a few steps backward, his hindquarters backed into the wall of fire and he gave a hoarse cry of pain and surprise. Several seconds passed before the centaur thought to reach for the bow slung across his back.

It was all the time Wilkey needed.

The halfling closed the ten yards quickly, drawing the daggers from his belt. Leaping up, he planted one small foot on the centaur’s forefoot and propelled himself upward, slashing a wide arc just below Beorgan’s chin. A spray of blood followed the course of the blade.

The centaur chieftain abandoned all thoughts of drawing his own weapons at the burning pain in his neck. Reaching out, he clutched at the line of wretched heat with one hand and at Wilkey with his other. The halfling proved too nimble, though, bouncing clear of the large hand before it came close to seizing him.

Beorgan stumbled forward, as though trying to catch the blood spurting from his throat before it fell to the grass. His four legs danced wildly, carrying the centaur back and forth between the walls of flame before collapsing. Kneeling down, he gasped for air, creating bright red bubbles of blood on his lips. The last vision he had before blackness took him was of Marcus collapsing a few yards in front of him.

“No! Get up! Please, Marcus, get up!” Heather cried as she tried to lift Marcus up from his knees. Her fingers remained laced within his, allowing him to continue the spell protecting them from the centaurs.

“Go,” he gasped. “I’ll . . . follow you . . . when . . . I’m done.”

Heather continued to stare at him, her eyes pleading.

“Go!” Marcus said, forcing his voice to sound stronger despite the blackness that was rimming his vision.

Heather let go of his hand and bolted for the cave entrance. Marcus watched her with his failing eyesight as the walls of flame dropped away to either side of her. They were nearly extinguished when her lithe form disappeared into the shadowy recesses.

As the roaring conflagration died away, Marcus could hear the angry, confused shouts of the centaur around him again. He expected to be pierced from all sides with arrows, but none came. Hoof beats pounded all around him, but his fading strength had left him unable to even lift his eyes to see them surrounding him. His vision continued to darken; the green grass below him drifted in and out of focus. He hoped to at least feel the magic surge back into his veins before he blacked out to know that Heather had reached safety. Now, he doubted he would stay conscious long enough to know for sure and the thought worried him. What if sentries had been posted just inside the cave awaiting just such a stunt? He had no way of knowing.

When the wave of cold swept over him, he could not tell for sure if the sensation was a reaction inside his own body or if generated by some outside source. Only when he saw the hem of long black robes in the small hole that remained of his vision, did he know that the Necromancer had arrived.

“Hello, Marcus,” a familiar voice said. “Glad you could come.”

Marcus recognized the voice immediately, but could not believe his own ears. It had changed somewhat since he had last heard it, sounding older and deeper than he remembered, but he was sure he knew the source.

Fighting with his last ounce of strength, he forced his gaze upward. Looking into the dark hood, he saw the familiar blue eyes reflecting the morning sun. A thin smile stretched across the gaunt, pale face. He looked different, but there could be no doubt to his identity.

Marcus opened his mouth and tried to speak. The words died on his lips, leaving him in a weak gasp as he collapsed unconscious onto the soft grass.

Chapter 16

Heather ran past the dying centaur chieftain into the cave. As the darkness consumed her, she threw her hands out to feel for the walls. Her pace slowed once the noises from outside the cave died away and she picked her path carefully to avoid any outcropping of rock that might trip her.

A sound to her left, too big to be a rat or some similar cave dweller, made her halt. Her body went rigid to prevent any movement that might cause whatever hid a few feet to her left to hear her, if it had not already. She tried holding her breath, even though this proved difficult as her fear quickened her respiration. A sickening thought rose in her mind that the Necromancer had placed sentries in the cave to prevent them from passing through and she fought hard to keep from vomiting. She remained still, listening for the sound again for several seconds, before continuing on in a rush. After banging her toes on a low rock step, she swore loudly, but still heard no movement behind her indicating she was being followed.

Moving as quickly as she dared, she walked for what seemed like hours. The only sounds reaching her ears were the rhythmic dripping of water and the hurried rasping of her breath. Slowly, painfully, she made her way through the darkness and finally saw a pinpoint of light before her that grew larger as she drew nearer to it. Birdsong filled her ears, faint at first, then growing louder as the opening before her widened. She broke into a run and emerged into the brilliant sunshine of an autumn morning in Kentucky.

The air around her was crisp and her breath made wispy clouds as she exhaled. The air smelled of recent rain and wet leaves, reminding her of Glenfold. Looking around the clearing, she wondered how much time had passed since she and Marcus had entered the cave. She remembered that he had told her that time passed differently between the two worlds, but she had no idea if the difference was a constant that could be measured or a random twirl of clock hands.

She looked around for Wilkey, wondering how he felt coming to a land where his only kin were found in fairy tales. The halfling, however, was not in the clearing.

“Wilkey,” she called, quietly at first then louder as no response came. She walked back to the cave and looked around on the ground for some sign of passage, but could make out nothing in the blanket of dead leaves that lay there. Her search then carried her out away from the yawning hole. She wondered if perhaps some force had prevented the halfling from entering this world, but then she remembered the skull Marcus had found in the grass. The Necromancer had passed into this world, or at least sent someone in his stead, to drop off the grisly artifact so that Marcus would be sure to enter the cave. That meant, she knew, that denizens of that world could pass into theirs if they desired. Then another thought occurred to her, one that filled her with hope and fear at the same time.

The sound in the cave, she thought, that was Wilkey waiting for me to pass so he could go back and help Marcus.

Smiling despite herself, she marveled at the loyalty the small person had showed to Marcus. The halfling had helped Marcus at every turn and even now, in the face of overwhelming odds, he would go back to try to help one more time.

As she walked through the clearing, she came upon the skull lying in the grass where Marcus had left it. The etched words appeared stark against the white bone. Fighting her revulsion, she bent over and picked it up, unsure exactly why she was doing so. Something about the appearance of the thing, totally apart from her initial response, made her feel uneasy.

Lifting it in her hand, she could tell that it was much lighter than she expected, than a mass of bone that size should be. She held it close to her face to examine it and felt her stomach lurch as realization dawned upon her.

Heather dropped the skull carelessly back into the grass and took a few stumbling steps backward. Her hands clasped over her chest as she weighed the magnitude of what she had just learned. As she returned to her senses, she paced frantically through the clearing, unsure of what to do. Her eyes returned to the cave and, gazing at its open maw, she made her decision.

Checking the pack tied to her belt, the same pack she had when she first passed through the cave, thought now back in its nylon form, and made sure that what she was looking for was really there. She had checked it several times during the last few days as they pursued and were pursued by the Necromancer just to make sure that the item she was looking for was indeed there. Satisfied, she sprinted for the cave and disappeared once again into its gloom.

Wilkey waited for the sounds outside the cave to die away before making his way back to the entrance. He had heard Heather pass by him and had to stop himself from calling to her and sharing his plans. Doing so would only encourage her to stay and that was the last thing Marcus would want. He knew she had heard him, but he stayed quiet enough, as only a halfling could, to get her to move on without noticing him.

He had also expected Wilkey to pass into safety with Heather, though, and he had ignored that part of the instructions. While the thought of the Necromancer and his armies of undead terrified him, he feared what lay beyond the magical cave even more. Marcus had shared numerous stories with him about the land on the other side of that divide and, while fascinating, Wilkey found them unnerving when compared to the simplicity he found in Terra. Self-propelled carriages—automobiles, Marcus had called them—and video games and telly-vision scared the halfling in ways no undead army ever could. So, in spite of his friend’s directions to the contrary, Wilkey stayed behind and hoped for some opportunity to help his friend one more time.

From outside the cave, he heard the roaring of the flames lessen, then vanish completely, only to be replaced by angry shouting. Then, as though all sound had died, he could hear nothing from outside. Only a pale reflection of day shone into the recesses where he crouched allowing him some idea of which direction he needed to go to return to the entrance and his first impulse as the sound dropped away was to sprint out and see what was going on. He fought the urge, aware that doing so would likely get him killed, either by the centaurs for killing their chieftain or by the Necromancer if he had arrived for the fun of it.

He waited in the dark and listened for some indication of what was happening. He wondered if Marcus’s powers had been returned to him as Heather passed through the cave and if Marcus was strong enough to use them to save himself. He had not approved of the plan his friend had put forth, but knew he could not argue his point—that it meant sacrificing Marcus—and win. His friend intended to give himself up to save his halfling friend and the woman he loved, a deed that Wilkey found incredibly noble and foolish at the same time. If chance allowed, he told himself, he would help Marcus, even if it meant dying himself. The thought of perishing held little appeal for Wilkey, but he could imagine worse ways to go than helping a friend that risked everything for him.

When he could not longer withstand his curiosity, Wilkey tip-toed toward the cave entrance. He still heard no sound; even the birds had ceased their chattering. A dark vision sprouted in his mind of the Necromancer coming to a weakened Marcus and killing him with a bony outstretched finger before adding him to the legions of the dead. The halfling shook off the thought, aware that it made his feet want to sprint forward to see about his friend.

Finally, Wilkey reached the patch of sunlight that shone into the earthen hole. He tried to navigate in the shadows to get an idea of how many enemies he faced outside, but found none. The clearing stretching before him seemed completely devoid of life, showed almost no sign other than the trampled grass that anyone had been there at all. Even the flames generated by Marcus to save him and Heather had produced no effect on the tender blades.

More importantly, Wilkey saw, was that Marcus was no longer there either.

He looked around the clearing, scratching his head. He expected some guard would be placed in case he and Heather returned and felt irritated that the centaurs had taken him so lightly.

“Stupid horses,” he muttered.

A sound from behind him erased his indignation. A guard had been set apparently, or some form of pursuit, as the sound came from the cave directly behind him. Dashing for a nearby tangle of brush, he waited for his opportunity to ambush whatever came out of the darkness.

To his surprise, Heather came out. Looking madly around, he held her small pack in one hand and had the other deep inside it as though its contents might bite her. He could tell by her confused expression that she was as confused by the lack of a reception as he was.

Wilkey stood up and called to her. She spun quickly toward the sound of the voice and removed her hand from the pack. Wilkey saw a metal object, too short and rounded to be a sword or dagger. The thing had a wooden handle and a round opening that faced in his direction. He wondered what the crazy rod was and continued to wonder for a half-second before the end of the thing exploded. A high-pitched buzz skimmed by his right ear and a birch tree behind him erupted into a shower of splinters.

The halfling dropped like a stone to his stomach, aware that had Heather’s aim been slightly better, his skull, and not the tree, would have been reduced to fragments.

“Heather! It’s me, Wilkey!” he yelled from his prone position.

He heard a metallic click from the other side of the brush and braced himself for another explosion. None came. Instead, he heard a cry and running footsteps.

“Wilkey! Oh, please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead”

Heather appeared beside him and leaned down. Wilkey smiled at her.

“That’s some toy you have there.”

Heather tried to cry and laugh in relief at the same time. The result was a strangled snort that made her sound like she was choking. With shaking hands, she brushed wood chips from Wilkey’s dark hair, slapping him repeatedly as she did so.

“I’m fine,” he told her, waving his hands at hers to ward them off. “Just don’t point that thing at me again.”

Heather stared at him for a moment, as though seeing him for the first time. Tears streamed down her cheeks and her lower lip quivered. Then, she took him in her arms and hugged him severely.

After a series of choked protests, Heather released Wilkey, although with obvious reluctance. She looked to the halfling as though she might reach out and crush him again, so he moved away quickly, crawling backward on his feet and hands in a crab-like fashion.

“I’m fine,” he repeated. He hoped to snap the woman out of her hysterics and could see from the rapidly clearing expression on her face that he had succeeded. “Now, what are you doing back here?”

Heather wiped her eyes. “I could ask you the same question.”

Wilkey considered making up some excuse as to why he did not follow Marcus’s instructions, something that would have made it impossible for him to pass into Heather’s world. He certainly did not want to tell her that he was afraid.

“I . . . I wanted to come back and help Marcus,” he said.

“So do I,” Heather said. “I couldn’t go back without him.”

A sudden look of inspiration crossed her features with such rapidity that the halfling jumped.

“I have to tell him . . .” she trailed off, unsure of how to continue. “The skull—the one we found in clearing in front of the cave—it’s a fake. Made out of some kind of plaster.”

Wilkey’s brow furrowed as he processed this new information. He wondered why someone would fake Erasmus’s death if Marcus was already on his way, then a terrible answer occurred to him.

Heather saw realization descend upon the halfling. Yes, she thought, he sees it now.

“We have to find him,” Heather said, rising to her feet. “Where do you think they took him?”

Wilkey stood. “The only place that would make sense would be The Sand Fortress. It’s where the Necromancer is supposed to dwell,” he said.

“How do we get there?”

The halfling considered then pointed. “It’s about two weeks walk in that direction, through the desert, but by that time Marcus will either be dead or wish he was.”

“Where are the griffons? Did you see what happened to them after we landed?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I was the first one in the cave and I honestly never looked back. Maybe you can reach them like you did up in the Norags.”

Heather looked around as though she might spot one of the griffons lurking in the woods around them. Seeing none, she closed her eyes and concentrated on locating the griffons again.

Wilkey watched her with anxious impatience. He realized their only chance of reaching Marcus lay with the griffons that had served them so faithfully to this point in their journey. The beasts had risked much for them and Wilkey wondered if they, by no means unintelligent, would allow much more to be asked of them by someone other than the elves.

Time passed. Heather’s face transformed from passive rest to deep concentration. Her closed eyes bulged behind her eyelids and moved rapidly back and forth as if searching for something. Finally, Heather’s eyes snapped open and a tired frown drew down the corners of her mouth.

Wilkey’s heart sank. She had failed. Both of them had.

“Well, it was worth a shot,” she whispered. She had tried to project her thoughts out just as she had done in the mountains, but now there was something missing that had been inside her when she had succeeded before. As Marcus had hoped, the magical power that had occupied Heather when she first entered this land had departed when she left it. Her only hope was that it had found its way to Marcus and could help him save his life.

The halfling nodded. “I’d ride an oversized dragonfly right now if it would get us to Marcus.”

The two of them waited near the cave entrance for Winterdusk. They remained concealed behind the brush, just in case the centaurs returned, but saw no one. Their eyes frequently darted up to the skies to see if the griffon had arrived.

They sat near the cave entrance and tried to think of someway to reach Marcus before the Necromancer could finish him. In the meantime, Heather absently pulled the revolver again from her pack. She had grabbed it off the bed in Marcus’s room before setting off for the cave and she had frequently been drawn to look at it during their quest together. While the rest of their gear and clothing had changed when they passed into Terra, the Colt had remained exactly the same, a fact that escaped Heather until they sat in the relative safety of the centaur camp. Now, she wished she had turned the weapon on the entire tribe that night with her first target being the black-haired chieftain.

In truth, she knew very little of the weapon’s operation. Marcus had given her a brief explanation of how to use it—loading, aiming, firing—in the event of a robbery or similar crisis, but she had paid little attention. She detested guns and had argued long and hard to prevent one from being in her home. Marcus had won that argument, a fact Heather never got over, and now she found herself thankful that he had. Although she had nearly killed Wilkey with the weapon, she felt comforted by its cold steel surface and its weight. She might not know how to create walls of flame from thin air, as Marcus had done to save her life, but she could damn well point a gun and pull the trigger.

Wilkey finally gave the gun a cursory inspection, handling it as though it might bite if he squeezed too tightly. Heather explained to him in rough terms how it worked and the halfling turned the firearm back over to her, eyeing it with disgust.

“And people use those over there?” he asked, meaning the world she and Marcus had come from . “Use them a lot?”

“Unfortunately, people use them all the time,” she answered. She thought of all the sad newscasts she had seen that somehow involved a shooting. Wars, homicides, drug deals—even her idyllic Appalachian home was not immune to the immortal gun. The previous winter a man had killed his wife and three children before turning the gun upon himself, all within two miles of the Victorian she and Marcus shared.

Guns aren’t the problem, she thought, people are. Over here there are no guns—well, one—and there are still wars and murders and maybe drug deals for all I know.

A comical picture of an elf standing before a grand marble building façade peddling marijuana entered her head and she had to return her thoughts to Marcus to keep from giggling.

Above them, a fluttering of wings drew their attention upward. Gazing through the canopy, they could see a large figure floating down toward them. A few seconds later, they recognized the mottled feathers and coat of Winterdusk as she glided gracefully into the clearing. The griffon landed in front of the cave entrance and looked around quickly, obviously expecting a similar reception to the one she had received on her first arrival. Beak open, it pawed at the ground, creating deep gouge marks in its apprehension.

New hope rose within them both. Heather stood slowly from the brush, not wanting to agitate the already antsy beast.

“We’re here, Winterdusk,” Heather said in what she hoped was a calming voice.

The griffon showed no sign of calming down at first, then seemed to recognize Heather. Rising from its defensive posture, it nodded its head at the human as if inviting her to come forward.

Heather and Wilkey walked toward the griffon, although they wanted to sprint to her and bid her to fly at her fastest to reach Marcus. They raised their hands in a non-threatening gesture and slowly moved forward. Winterdusk showed no signs of aggression and allowed the two approaching figures to come to her. The saddle still lay across her muscular back, solving another one of their potential problems.

“Can you guide her to Marcus once we’re airborne?” Heather asked the halfling as she swung her leg over the saddle.

Wilkey sprung into the saddle, seating himself in front of Heather.

“I know where his tower is rumored to be,” Wilkey said. Heather could hear the note of uncertainty in his voice and did not like it.

“Well, I guess we’ll find out if the rumors are true.”

Winterdusk turned her head to look at them as if to see if they were secured to the saddle. Then, without warning, she sprung into the air. Heather felt her stomach leave her body and stay where she had just been on the ground, reminding her of the Warner Brothers cartoons where the coyote falls off the cliff chasing the roadrunner and falls, leaving only his eyes or his hand waving a sign. This led her to think of Marcus, who adored those cartoons, and who would never get to see them again if she did not grow some backbone. Marcus needed her—that much she knew just as he had known it when they set out on this journey—but only now could they see the true reason for Heather’s coming.

Marcus was destined to save Terra. Heather was destined to save Marcus.

The responsibility made her nauseous and she fought unsuccessfully to hold down the small amount of food she had forced down that morning. Turning her body and her head as far to the rear as she could manage, she fired off a stream of half-digested jerky along with a good deal of stomach acid. The whole package burned as it roared up her esophagus, particularly at the back of her throat just before it exited. She was careful, though, and not a drop of the mess landed on the griffon, who turned her head and peered back for a moment with avian shrewdness.

Yep, here I come to save the day, Heather told herself, quoting another cartoon as she wiped a line of spittle from her chin.

Winterdusk flew swiftly, but the sun was still high in the sky when they reached the domain rumored to be that of the Necromancer. The forest of majestic oaks and birches gave way suddenly to a cypress swamp dotted with sickly willows. A thick cloud of brown haze, reminding Heather of the smog she had sometimes seen in the Great Smokey Tourist Trap, clung around the bases of the trees like poisonous mulch. Despite their speed over the canopy, they could still see an occasional animal taking refuge in the thicker underbrush or slipping into the black water.

“What are we going to do when we get there?” Wilkey called over the rushing wind.

Now that they had nearly arrived at their destination, both of them realized that some plan would be needed, though neither knew what they were up against, much less how to prepare for it.

“I was hoping you would have a suggestion,” Heather said.

“Me? I improvise. Works fine most of the time, but there’s a first time for everything,” the halfling answered. “I figure if I don’t know what I’m going to do, my opponent won’t either.”

Heather felt that Wilkey’s logic was somehow flawed, but she could not think clearly enough to figure out how. Improvisation had never been a strong suit of hers, even during her high school days in drama class. No one could memorize a script quicker or recite lines with such precision, but attempting to just take off cold left her stuttering and embarrassed. Besides, she thought, the Necromancer is probably prepared for us.

“Look!” Wilkey called again, more excitement in his voice than before.

Heather followed the line of his finger into the distance over the swamp and felt a chill crawl up her spine, made worse by the cold air blowing past them as they flew. Rising up from the swamp before them like a accusatory finger, a white tower stretched above the trees toward the midday sun. It’s base rested inside a thick copse of cypress and rose into a slender spire that culminated in a wider crown that resembled two skeletal hands, palms turned in toward each other and fingers crooked toward the sky. Resting between the open palms, a flat structure resembling picture Heather had seen of unidentified flying objects sat. She thought the whole edifice resembled a nightmarish Space Needle.

As they drew close enough to see the detail on the tower, Winterdusk emitted a high shriek beneath them. Tucking her wings to her sides, she plummeted, leaving her two passengers grasping for support.

As she dove, the air around them became stiflingly hot. Only when they looked down did they see the gout of flame that rose up toward, and thanks to Winterdusk, by them. Heather could feel the surface of her skin burn like it had at Myrtle Beach the previous year when she had fallen asleep while sunbathing. This heat, though, came not from the sun, but from a much more ominous and deadly source.

Winterdusk dove down beneath the canopy over a large pool of water, then unfurled them. Flapping wildly, she fought to gain altitude as the trees ahead grew closer with each second. Heather and Wilkey both closed their eyes, bracing for impact.

The griffon shrieked again as an updraft lifted her upward. Her taloned feet brushed against the thick foliage as they rose back into the air.

Heather looked back to see where the fire had come from and screamed as she got her answer. A monstrous thing was rising from the swamp. Its huge head, overpopulated with wicked fangs, snaked out ahead of a bloated body. Behind it, a sinuous tail thrashed in the murky water. One bat-like wing extended from its left flank, but where the right should have been, a stubby appendage wiggled back and forth. Worst of all, at least to Heather, the thing glowed. Bathed in a sickly green light, the huge dragon followed them into the air.

“Amadyr!” Wilkey squealed. “But she’s . . . “

If Wilkey had finished the sentence, Heather did not hear, nor did she need to. She knew exactly what the halfling meant to say.

She’s dead, Heather thought.

Despite the pursuit that was rapidly bringing it closer to its prey, the gigantic form behind them certainly seemed dead. Great chunks of flesh had fallen away, carrying the scales with it, leaving only gaping holes through which only bones prevented a clear line of sight through the dragon’s body. The skin around the head was stretched tightly into a leering grin that showed much of the skull. In other places, the skin seemed nearly transparent through the green illumination. The most telling feature, though, were the red eyes, malevolent and mindless, staring at them. They were the same they had seen in countless corpses over the previous few days.

Another feature caught Heather’s attention as the dragon drew nearer. A green object resembling a large gem, the same color as the glow that surrounded it, but more substantial, hung on a chain from from the serpentine neck. The gem pulsed, bright then dim, like a heart beating.

“It has something around it’s neck,” Heather tried to call over the furious wind.

Wilkey nodded, though Heather could not be sure that he heard her or was just nodding to acknowledge that she had said something. Then, he looked back, leaning out to try to peer around Heather and his eyes grew wide. Turning back to face the front, he nodded again.

Winterdusk raced toward the white tower, flapping furiously to gain ground on the dragon and failing. Amadyr closed in on them quickly, despite her one wing. Looking back, Heather could see the stub of the right wing pumping in time with its counterpart. An outline of a wing could barely be seen attached to it, brighter in color than the glow that surrounded the rest of the creature.

Beneath her legs, Heather could feel the griffon’s chest expanding and contracting rapidly as she fought exhaustion and fear. Heather forced her mind to focus on how to escape, but found the voice of panic welling up inside her, blocking out her reason.

Winterdusk reached the tower just as Heather heard a loud intake of air from what sounded like directly behind her. The griffon banked sharply, nearly slamming Heather’s head against the building itself which they could now see was composed of bones of various shapes and sizes. The grotesque structure barely drew their notice, though, as another plume of fire erupted behind them, just missing them as they wheeled around out of range.

Amadyr, or what was left of her, let out a deafening roar of frustration. Heather looked back again and saw the one remaining wing point upward as the dragon attempted to follow them. With its larger wingspan, the maneuver took much more space and time than the griffon’s, giving them a little time to consider their options.

Heather saw Wilkey lean over Winterdusk’s neck and yell something to the griffon, who responded by giving another loud shriek and nodding. She had no idea what the halfling intended to do, but in front of her she could feel the tense set of his body. Only when the griffon turned back toward the dragon did her panic rise out of control.

“What the hell are you doing?” she yelled at Wilkey.

“Trust me,” the halfling yelled back.

Heather wanted to protest, even without a clear idea of what Wilkey intended to do, but decided that his plan, however risky it might be, was better than the one she had yet to develop.

Wintedusk flapped her wings again, fighting for altitude. She made directly for the tower as the dragon continued its turn, keeping it directly between her and her pursuer. As Amadyr completed her change of direction, the griffon copied its earlier, much shorter arc around the tower.

Heather thought she knew what the halfling intended, but as Winterdusk came out of her arc directly over top of the dragon, she realized that evasion was not the primary motive. Only when Wilkey unbound himself from the saddle did she understand how desperate and dangerous his plan was.

“I’m going to regret this,” he yelled at her, placing his feet beneath himself on the saddle in a crouching position.

Heather had just enough time to yell “No!” before the halfling leaped.

Screaming in terror, Heather watched Wilkey fall away before her. The halfling plunged with his arms and legs fanned out like a parachutist, with only an undead dragon separating him from a painful death in the swamp below.

With a small measure of relief, Heather saw Wilkey land hard on the back of the dragon, though that relief was short lived as he slid down the remaining scales toward the belly. Catching hold of the wing tendon, fully exposed by the decay that ravaged the body, he stopped his descent and pulled himself up solidly on Amadyr’s back. Crawling quickly with skill that Heather knew no human could match, the halfling made his way toward the beast’s neck.

Wilkey reached the chain and pulled his knife from his belt. The links were large, but thin, and the halfling slid the blade inside one. He twisted hard, grimacing with the effort.

Heather watched with keen interest as the dragon searched for signs of her prey, willing the chain to break. Finally, the link bent and gave way. The remaining links slid away like water to either side of the dragon’s neck, pulling the glowing green gemstone down with it. They fell down through the canopy and were lost from sight.

As the magic holding her remains together unraveled, Amadyr let out a final, terrific roar that was cut short as a large portion of her neck just beneath her lower jaw fell away. The green radiance receded, as did the phantom wing that supported her, and she began to topple out of the sky. As she fell, her body seemed to disintegrate, coming apart at every joint and every muscle. Tendons and ligaments snapped with audible relief and the entire body broke apart like a child’s model.

Sitting astride the dragon’s neck, Wilkey watched with wide-eyed terror as Amadyr broke apart. He could see the swamp approaching at shocking speed as they descended and could only close his eyes so as to not see the impact. A weightless feeling fell upon him as he thought so this is what it’s like to die.

A high-pitched shriek above him made him open his eyes, against his better judgment. A pair of taloned feet struck him hard in the back and he felt the sharp grip of Winterdusk cut deeply into his back. Ignoring the pain as best he could, he allowed the griffon to take him like a mouse captured by an owl, thankful, at least, to not be dead yet.

Below him, he watched the miscellaneous remains of Amadyr Onewing crash into the dark swamp. Pieces of bone and flesh littered the treetops in a long line out behind him and he wondered briefly where he would have landed had Winterdusk not come to his aid.

They landed in on a small hill in the middle of the swamp, the griffon dropping the halfling before touching down. Wilkey crumpled into a heap onto the soft moss and tried to catch his breath, a difficult task in the foul smelling miasma that clung to the surface and crawled up the hill like ants. The pain in his back blazed, but he was happy to be feeling anything at all. Looking back, he could not believe how brave, and stupid, a deed he had just done. The bravado surprised even himself—especially himself, now that he thought of it—and he could not help a slight smile as he pictured himself jumping onto the dragon’s back.

Heather dismounted and crouched at his side. “What the hell did you think you were doing up there?”

Wilkey heard the anger in her voice, but also the overwhelming relief that stole much of her indignation as she scolded him. She glared at him for a moment, unable to speak, then her face softened and she took a deep breath before speaking again.

“Come on, let’s get Marcus,” she said.

They mounted Winterdusk again and the griffon gave a mighty leap into the air, spinning around to fly back to the tower of bones.