Terra Incognita—Chapter Whatever I’m on Now

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.


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