Terra Incognita—Chapter 16

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.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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