Happy Veterans’ Day to one and all!  If you came here looking for my highly disturbing Halloween story, you’re out of luck—I just took it down.  However, I may be coerced to send it out on request for anyone who thinks life has just gotten a little too Disney for them.

Also, since it is Veterans’ Day, I would like to recognize my brother, Joe, who is currently stationed in Qatar.  He is practically a stone’s throw from Iran (which is bad, considering that they still stone people to death over there) and would have a front row seat should anything break out with them.  In addition, his wife was due to have their fourth child two days ago, but he isn’t allowed to fly home for almost another week.  For those of us who don’t serve or have never served, please remember that the sacrifice they make is not only measured in lives lost.  It is almost measured in time lost.

If you are joining late, this is the first completed novel manuscript I wrote, warts and all.  I did this one several years ago just to see if I had the discipline to finish a full novel and, though the results were nowhere near publishable, I thought it would be fun to post on here.  Plus, it gives me something to put on this site while I’m working to graduate in May.  It’s not particularly well-written, but there are parts I think turned out well, so please forgive me for the bad stuff.

Chapter 12

Once they were airborne, they followed Lorelei and the other elves to another clearing a few miles away. No animated bodies harassed them here, but the did not know how long they could count on being safe, so kept their conversation to a minimum.

“We thank you for helping us escape,” Polan told them once they landed. His eyes moved from Marcus to Lorelei, spreading gratitude to both.

Marcus shifted uncomfortably in the griffon’s saddle. “Had it not been for us, you could have lived out your life here in peace,” he said.

“Then that is all the more to be thankful for,” Valista said, smiling. She looked at Polan, who returned the smile. “Perhaps when they rebuild, they will send someone else in our place.”

“I hope so,” Heather said, her tone expressing genuine sincerity. Marcus hoped her concern for the elves’ relationship would translate to concern for their own.

Before mounting Blizzard, Polan walked up to Marcus and held out his longsword by the blade. “Take this,” he said. “We are returning to safety, but you go into further darkness. You may need it before all is done.”

Marcus could only nod in thanks. He had never used a sword in actual combat before and the blade felt awkward and heavy in his hands. He had done practice exercises among the elves during his childhood, but never imagined that he would have to rely on steel rather than his magic.

Within a few minutes, Valista and Polan had returned to the skies bound for Glenfold. The others, still astride the remaining griffons, kept a wary watch on the shadowy forest all around them. They could still feel the cold menace of the walking dead, though they could not tell how far away the abominations were.

Marcus looked at Lorelei as Wilkey adjusted his seating behind her. “Where to?” he asked.

The elf turned her gaze away from the trees and looked at him, her face cold and beautiful in the moonlight. Marcus again felt his breath stop within his chest as her green eyes, black in the dim light, boring into him. “We’ll go to the mountains. I know a place in the foothills where we might find some rest,” she said, her voice flat and icy.

Marcus wanted to talk to her, to ask her what he could do to smooth things over between them, but he wanted to do so in private, not around Wilkey and certainly not around Heather. He started to say something to her, but before a single word could leave his mouth, Lorelei had given Winterdusk the command to fly and she was gone in a flapping of wings.

Following the elf’s lead, the others spurred their griffons into the sky. The moon had reached its zenith and was beginning to lose altitude on its way to the horizon. Marcus watched the land beneath them as they flew, particularly when they passed over the smoldering remains of the inn. He could see no movement from below and the clearing around the ruin was too dark to see any thing moving there. The only motion he could see came from the pillar of gray smoke as they drifted by it.

They continued flying until the moon was about to set over the edge of the mountains. The griffons, excited and energized by their narrow escape near the inn, now showed the signs of weariness, breathing heavily with every flap of their enormous wings. Up ahead of Marcus, Lorelei directed Winterdusk into a downward spiral that Aspen and Sunbeam imitated, finally landing on a flat-topped hill overlooking the forest below.

“We’ll camp here for the rest of the night and into the day tomorrow,” Lorelei said, dismounting. “The griffons must rest before we pass over the mountains.”

“Me too,” Wilkey said. “I’m exhausted.”

“We’ll need to set up a watch,” Marcus said, sliding off Aspen and feeling his knees wobble again.

Heather lowered herself down from Sunbeam’s back. The yellow griffon was much better behaved with a different rider, even lowering its front so Heather could step down easier. She too stumbled and nearly fell before Marcus caught her in his arms.

“Easy does it,” he told her.

Heather grasped his arms for support and offered him the briefest of smiles before pulling away from him and steadying herself. She tottered for a moment, then took a tentative step forward before finding herself capable of self-propulsion. Turning away from Marcus, she began to unsling her pack from the griffon’s back, immediately pulling out her bed roll.

Wilkey did the same, spreading his blanket upon the ground and collapsing onto it like a sack full of stones. In a matter of seconds, even less time that Marcus himself could have managed, the halfling was snoring softly.

Marcus turned at last to Lorelei, making sure that Heather herself had followed Wilkey’s example and had passed off to sleep. He heard her breathing, deep and regular, and knew she would not wake for some time.

Lorelei sat upon a stone, gazing off into the forest. The light of the moon cascaded into her dark hair, making it shine and sparkle like a handful of glitter. Her face, though, was clouded in shadow, her expression unreadable as Marcus walked to her.

Sitting beside her on the stone, Marcus also looked out over the forest they had just fled. “You think we’ll be safe here?” he asked.

“I don’t believe you’ll be safe anywhere.”

“From them,” he nodded toward the forest, “or you.”

Lorelei turned to face him, revealing half her beautiful face in the silver light. Her cheeks were wet and reflected the moon in erratic lines. “Why, Marcus? Why?”

Marcus did not have to ask her what she meant, the look on her face told him well enough. Why do you insist on being with her, her eyes asked. Why can’t you love me instead?

Marcus tried, but could not bear her penetrating gaze for long. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I . . . I just love her.”

Lorelei turned back to the dark outline of the forest, her face lost again in shadow. “And I love you. I always have and always will.”

“How do you know? Things are different. I’m different now. How do you know that I’m still someone you could love.”

“I know you,” Lorelei said. “Far better than she ever could. I know who you are and who you were.”

Her statement made Marcus recall the day by the fountain, the day everything between them had changed forever. He sat in silence for some time, wondering how things would be different now if he had not been so blind or stupid or whatever he had been that made him not kiss her that day. Guilt rose in him again like the tide, forcing him to swallow just so he could speak again.

“I thought you must have found someone else. I could not have hoped to come back here and find you waiting for me.”

“I have been waiting,” Lorelei whispered. “I’ve turned down many offers, so many that most of my kin thought me mad. Even Erasmus said I should try to forget you, try to find someone else worthy, but no one else would ever be you.”

At the sound of his friend’s name, Marcus felt as if cold water had splashed him in the face. With all the turmoil he had faced, both internal and external, since returning to this land, Marcus had nearly forgotten what had summoned him here in the first place. Now, with the mention of Erasmus, his pain and anger seeped back into his consciousness. Yet, he fought it back, not wanting to take out his emotions on Lorelei.

“Erasmus sent me a letter, in my world,” he said. “I came back to find that he had been killed. Now, I have to avenge him, but I need you to help me. I can’t give you what you want from me, at least not now, but I know I can’t defeat the Necromancer without your help.”

For an age Lorelei remained quiet, her eyes dropping from the trees to her own feet. “He comforted me . . . after you left . . . Erasmus. He stayed in Glenfold for a while and listened to me cry for weeks. Told me that you were not ready to love me yet, but someday you would return and realize what you had left behind.”

“I do,” Marcus said, without thinking. He did realize, now, what he had abandoned in Lorelei, but he also realized that the time to do anything about it had passed. Heather had come along and stolen his heart, making him forget about the beautiful elven girl he had left beside a fountain so long ago.

He reached out to touch her arm. His hand crept toward her slowly, passing through the last rays of moonlight as they shone through the gaps in the mountains, but just as he was about to touch her, the light failed and he drew his hand back. He did not know why, but the impulse had been very strong and he followed it without question.

“You should get some sleep,” Lorelei told him. If she had been aware of his hand near her, she gave no notice. “Dawn will be here in a few hours.”

Marcus looked at her, his eyes trying to penetrate the darkness that fell over them with the moon’s disappearance behind the Norags, but could see no detail. He wanted to tell her to wait for him, to not despair, to give him time to see if things would work between Heather and himself. He wanted to tell her anything that would give her some hope and not make her feel rejected and hurt.

Yet, more than those things, Marcus wanted to tell her the truth.

Standing slowly, almost reaching out to her again, he turned and went to his own pack, unrolling his blankets and laying up on them. He thought he would lay on them for hours before sleep overcame him, but gave in to his weariness after only a few minutes.

Lorelei, still awake, watched the forest until long after the first rays of dawn were reflected in her tears.

Marcus awoke the next morning to the smell of cooked meat. The aroma drifted into his mind like a wonderful dream, which was exactly what he thought the smell was until he opened his eyes and saw smoke drifting by him.

Rising onto his elbows, he looked in amazement as, a few yards away, Wilkey sat tending a small fire over which a spit had been erected. A small boar turned slowly over the blaze, its skinned flesh browning to a beautiful color in the morning light. Marcus found the air cooler than it had been in previous days, either from the higher elevation or a change in the weather. Another difference was the presence of bright sunlight replacing the thick clouds from the day before. Broken only by a few high cirrus clouds, the sun’s rays did little to warm him, so Marcus moved closer to the fire.

“Good morning,” the halfling said. “Nice to see you returning to the land of the living.”

Wilkey’s words brought back images of the night before and Marcus shivered, his skin seeming as though it might crawl from his bones. He looked around and saw Heather a few yards away, rummaging through her pack as though she was looking for something. Lorelei, however, was not to be seen.

“Where’s . . . “ Marcus began to Wilkey, but his voice dropped as he glanced toward Heather.

The halfling gestured toward the forest. “She went back to survey the damage in the daylight. Woke me just after dawn and told me to cook this pig she shot nearby, which I have done with admirable skill considering how little I have to work with up here.” He motioned toward the sparse bits of wood that formed the base of the fire.

“Smells good,” Marcus said absently. “Did she say when she would be back?”

“No, but I expect she’ll return any time now.”

Heather set her pack aside with a sigh, apparently not finding what she was looking for within it. She stood and moved closer to the fire, careful not to sit too close to Marcus, but also not to sit too far away. Her eyes had a glazed look in the morning light, but Marcus could not tell whether it came from weariness, the terror they had faced the previous night, or a combination. Regardless, he thought they could all use the rest Lorelei had provided with her reconnaissance mission, and he was thankful for it. Though he himself had only slept a few hours on hard ground beneath his blanket, the sleep he had managed had been good and restful. He might have called it “the sleep of the dead” had the dead not been awake and trying to destroy them the night before.

They ate at a leisurely pace, Marcus slicing off pieces of pork and passing them around to his companions. Wilkey found a spring nearby and filled their water skins to bulging.

“There will be no clean water within the Fell Lands, so we should stock up now, I say,” the halfling said upon his return.

Marcus agreed. Though he had only visited the Fells once in his years of traveling these lands, he knew enough of their inhospitable conditions to know the water was likely not safe for bathing, much less drinking. Nor were they apt to find anything edible in the barren wastes, so as they broke camp waiting for Lorelei to return, Marcus cut off as much meat as he could for the journey, wrapping it in leaves to keep it from going bad.

Lorelei returned a short while later. Finding they had already prepared for travel, she only ate a small portion of the pork Marcus offered her before mounting Winterdusk again.

“I saw no sign of the things that attacked us,” she told them as they mounted their own griffons. “No footprints. Not even a bent blade of grass. It’s as though we imagined the entire incident.”

Marcus, looking down at the painful red welts that dotted his hands, knew better. Looking at Heather, he could tell that she wanted to believe the assault of the dead had been just a nightmare, but the frown on her face told him that she too knew the truth of what had happened.

“The inn still smokes,” Lorelei continued and far in the distance they could all see a thin line of gray reaching up into the blue sky. “But the same holds true there—no sign of anyone or anything other than the footprints we left ourselves.”

Marcus thought back to the night outside the borders of Glenfold, to the patch of grass he had seen rimmed with ice in the shape of two feet. He had also felt the cold radiating from the dead bodies as they moved toward him in the clearing. Something or someone, Marcus thought, must have gone behind them and removed the traces of their passage. While the horror now seemed more like that found in a nightmare, he knew the glowing red eyes and pallid flesh had not been figments of their collective imaginations.

They mounted the griffons quietly in the shadows of the Norags, each absorbed either in his or her own recollections of the previous night or worries about the journey ahead. As they sun reached it zenith, they took to the air again, finding it more chill as they gained altitude. They each pulled their cloaks tighter around themselves. The wind, blowing down from the mountain face, cut into them and Marcus soon lost feeling in his ears and nose. Below him, he could see the mountains rising up as if they were on a great escalator rising into the heavens. The wooded foothills gave way to patches of evergreens then low scrub then bare rock before they at last reached the snowcap high above the canopy of trees where, in the distance, a thin line of smoke could still be seen rising up from the smoldering ruins of the inn.

Lorelei led them atop Winterdusk toward a wide pass between two forbidding peaks whose tops were obscured in the clouds. Wilkey crouched behind her, using her as a shield from the biting wind and still shivering. Marcus looked to his side and saw Heather leaned over Sunbeam, her blue lips nearly touching the yellow feathers as she sought shelter from the cold. Beneath him, he could hear Aspen laboring to breath the thin air and could see her breath passing her beak in small puffs of vapor.

Just when Marcus thought they could not continue on in the frigid conditions, they emerged from the pass and saw a wide plain stretching out to the horizon. Below him he could hear a waterfall as snowmelt coursed downward to form a thin river that bisected the plain, a thin strip of blue laced through the barren ground of the Fell Lands. Marcus could see outcroppings of rock dotting the landscape, rising again as high as some of the smaller mountains of the Norags in some spots, but these were isolated and far less dense than the true range they had just passed through.

They dropped quickly. The sheer rock falling away beneath them was flat and smooth, the cliffs blasted by eons of sand and dust carried by the stiff wind they could now feel rising up to greet them as they drew closer to the dry plain. He wondered if Amadyr could scale such a vertical face, then decided that a creature as old, wise, and willful as a dragon would surely find a way if need demanded.

Marcus felt another significant difference as they descended from the snow-filled pass. The temperature, exceedingly cold as they soared through the mountains, was increasing rapidly, becoming much hotter than the forest had been on the other side. He found the air around him hot and stifling after the cool autumn weather he had experienced so far in his return to this land. He unfastened his cloak, allowing it to reach back with the wind like a hand waving farewell to the snowy pass above. Looking around, he saw the others doing the same. Heather’s lips had returned to their proper hue while Wilkey inched away from Lorelei to allow the rushing wind to pass between them.

They followed the course of the river for some time, keeping its shining, winding surface below them as it snaked through the Fells. Little vegetation grew here, even at the water’s edge, and what did looked dry and pitiful, brown leaved drooped over like sad faces. A few hearty trees, stripped of foliage, poked up here and there like bony hands. Marcus saw no animals, nor traces of any, save for the tell-tale squiggles of a sidewinder along a dune near the river.

For several hours, they flew onward, stopping only for brief rests along the banks of the river. During these stops, no one spoke more than necessary. The oppressive heat of the air and the desolation around them made all conversation seem trivial. Marcus suspected another reason for the lack of talk, however, although he said nothing about it, nor did any of the others.

In the distance, still far away, but keenly visible above the heat shimmer on the horizon, a large cave could be seen in a particularly high tower of rock, gaping like a wicked mouth calling for them to come closer so that it might see them better. Even at a distance, the cave gave Marcus an uneasy sensation. He could feel the powerful presence of Amadyr within. Worse still, he could feel that presence watching, observing their advance with hungry interest.

Amadyr was waiting for them—for him.

The sun dropped as they continued on that day, falling behind their destination and casting a long shadow toward them as the approached. The cave grew larger and larger as they drew near, widening as though to swallow them whole. The malice Marcus had felt grew also, as did the sensation of being watched. Even the griffons sensed it as they began to speak to one another in their own avian language. Around him, Marcus could see the tension in the others, as well, all of them staring forward into that great dark hole with growing dread upon their faces.

They reached the base of the mountain with a couple hours of day light left, though that illumination was blocked from their view by the pillar of stone. The griffons would fly no closer to the cave than the base, ignoring Lorelei’s pleas and, when pleas failed, commands. They landed lightly and stood rigid until the riders dismounted. Then the creatures shifted around nervously casting their fierce eyes upward.

The air in the shadow of the mountain was much cooler than that between them and the Norags, now appearing only as white-capped teeth jutting up along the far horizon. The dread feeling that had been growing within them was nearly palpable, it seemed to thicken the air around them distorting sight and sound.

Marcus looked at Heather and saw that she was trembling violently.

“You okay?” he asked.

Heather did not look at him—her eyes remained fixed on the great black oval above them. Slowly, her head nodded once, then shook side to side as though she had only begun to understand the question. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead despite the chill of being in the shadow of the mountain.

“Why don’t you stay here?” he said, more as a statement than a question.

Again, without removing her eyes from the cave mouth, she nodded.

Marcus turned to Wilkey. “You stay here with her,” he said. The halfling looked at him bewildered for a moment, then nodded emphatically, relieved to be excused from facing Amadyr.

“I’ll have to stay as well,” Lorelei said as Marcus turned to her. He had hoped that the elf, at least, would possess the nerve to accompany him into the dragon’s lair. Still, if fear was her motive, she hid it well, her face an emotionless mask. “If I go with you, the griffons will likely flee back to Glenfold, leaving us stranded here. I must stay here and keep them calm until you return.”

Marcus heard a moment of hesitation before her last word and knew Lorelei, despite the necessity of his coming here, had her doubts on whether he would return. She knew the hatred the dragon possessed toward Marcus, the fury of being crippled at the height of her power. For him to walk right into her den and seek her counsel was madness, but as Lanian had said, she was his only hope in discovering how to regain his powers and he knew that he must face her, regardless of his odds of survival.

It was Marcus’s turn to nod, this time at Lorelei. He understood why none of them could accompany him on this leg of the quest, though he detested those reasons just the same. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he began walking up the steep path that snaked upward along the side of the mountain like the trail of the sidewinder he had spotted on the dune. He elected to leave the sword Polan had given him after the destruction of the inn, deciding that it would do no good against the dragon and not wanting to be seen in any sort of threatening position.

As Marcus trudged up the path toward Amadyr, he rehearsed in his mind what he would say. He had no idea how to convince the dragon to help him and several scenarios played in his mind as he climbed, most of which involved him being incinerated at the end. He considered what tone to take with her—bold, fearful, pleading—and could decide on no good approach. Finally, he elected to play by ear, allowing the dragon to dictate the conversation, as he knew she probably would regardless of his intent or preparation.

Setting aside his concerns about the problems ahead of him, he found his thoughts returning to the problems he had left at the base of the path. He turned to check his progress and saw Heather and Lorelei, both tiny figures from his altitude, both as far from the other as possible under the circumstances. In some optimistic region of his mind, he could see the two of them becoming fast friends, as he and Lorelei had been in his youth. His pragmatic side, though, told him that, despite their similarities, because of their similarities, in fact, that would never happen. The main thing that divided them was the one that made the most difference—him—and he saw no way of bridging that gap.

It won’t matter if I die up here, he thought just as he emerged onto a wide rock shelf. The great cave yawned before him, as dark and sinister as a storm. Wind currents whistled across the opening and stirred up small dust devils that danced across the flat stone before dispersing into the open air. Other than the wind, the only noise Marcus could hear was the pounding of his own heart, so loud that he suspected Amadyr could hear it as well.

Marcus took several more steadying breaths before he was able to begin again toward the cave. With each step, small pebbles crunched under his feet, sounding incredibly loud to his own ears. He was confident that Amadyr sensed his presence just as he sensed hers, but he still wanted to remain as quiet as possible for some reason he could not quite name.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime to Marcus, he reached the mouth of the cave. Darkness lay before him in a nearly impenetrable sheet, blocking him from seeing more than a few feet inside. He suspected that Amadyr may lay just beyond that veil of shadow, probably enhancing it with her own magic. He could feel her power more than ever now, radiating out and surrounding him like a smothering, hot wind. A lump rose in his throat that he tried, and failed, to swallow back down. Standing in the doorway to likely death, he froze, unable to go forward, but not allowing himself to retreat. He knew that his quest to avenge Erasmus and save the other denizens of this land could go no further unless he entered the cave, but he found that his legs would not respond to his mental instructions, the fear in his stomach serving to block the nerve impulses that would trigger movement. In the end, just as hopelessness began to overtake him, the decision was made for him.

“Come in, Marcus,” a voice said from the darkness. The words were atonal, carrying no threat or invitation beyond their context, but the voice was definitely feminine, sultry and deep. It reminded Marcus of Sigourney Weaver and made him think of aliens who enjoyed nothing more than dining on the hapless humans who happened to invade their territory.

Marcus swallowed and entered.

The darkness inside the cave was nearly as absolute as it had been looking in, but as his eyes adjusted he started to see the outlines of the rock walls on either side. A dim illumination, emanating from nowhere and everywhere, gave him just enough light to navigate through the tunnel leading away from the outside. The floor beneath him felt perfectly smooth beneath his feet and sloped gradually downward as he walked on. The air around him smelled dank and stale, tinged with an odd, unpleasant scent that he could not quite make out. The memory that the aroma called to mind, perplexing Marcus, was one of caring for Heather a year or so before when she had the flu. He remembered the odd smell her body had produced during her high fever and it seemed the closest his mind could match to that inside the cave. He heard no sound inside the cave other than his own footsteps along the stone, leading him closer to Amadyr Onewing.

“I can smell your fear,” the voice said. “Why has the all-powerful Marcus come to me stinking of terror?”

In the darkness ahead, he could see a large mound at the center of a large cavern. The mound seemed to shift slightly, causing what little light filtering into the cave to twinkle like stars. A sound, like metal scraping on stone, echoed around him.

“I stink of fear because I am afraid,” he answered. His voice sounded clear and strong in the enclosed surroundings even as it rebounded repeatedly off the walls. He hoped it sounded convincing, especially since it was true.

“As well you should be. Although,” the voice answered as the dim light in the cave rose in intensity, allowing Marcus to see, “you may think me much less fearful that you had imagined.”

Amadyr lay before Marcus, her great bulk stretching from one side of the enormous cavern to the other along the back wall. Her long neck and tail curled back inward along her torso, nearly meeting in the middle of her expanse. The spines along her back pointed up nearly thirty feet above the cave floor running in a line between one long leathery wing and the stub of the other, a ragged flap of skin and bone reaching up from the dragon’s back like the fin of a fish.

Still, these sights alone did not keep Marcus’s attention for long. As he looked at the massive dragon, he saw many places where scales, thick and blood red over most of the body, had broken or fallen off completely. A neat pile of discarded scales, stretching to nearly the height of the prone dragon, lay off to one side. In the patches where the scales had come off completely, the smooth pink flesh was mostly covered over with a pale yellow discoloration that looked like mold in the insufficient light. Sores rose in these yellow patches, oozing a clear liquid down over the skin and scales below.

“You’re . . . you’re dying,” Marcus said, his shock revealed plainly in his awed voice and slack jaw.

“Yes, and I’m quite sure you are relieved to bear witness to the fact.”

“No,” Marcus answered earnestly. Despite his fear and revulsion of the dragon, he could not help but feel a deep sense of pity for her. The idea of such a mighty creatures succumbing to any sort of sickness, dying from anything less that a glorious battle, seemed unjust and unimaginable. He wondered what could cause such a condition in a dragon, how anything other that hard steel or spectacular magic could lay low such power. He wanted to articulate his shock and wonder, but all that came out was one word.

“How?”

The dragon breathed out, exhaling warm air that reinforced in Marcus the memory of Heather’s bout with the flu with the smell of sickness that it carried. “It began shortly after our confrontation, as a matter of fact. Despite my magic, infection set in within a few weeks after the elves returned me to the wild. I held suspicions that they had poisoned me, though I now believe that something entered my body when I fell into the elven forest, some plant that no dragon was meant to touch. Since then, the infection has slowly, very slowly, spread through my body. I was able to hold it at bay for some time, but gradually my efforts failed, leaving me in the state you see before you.”

Marcus could only stare at the patches of diseased flesh spotting the dragon’s exposed hide. His fear forgotten, he took a few strides closer to better examine the effects.

“Now,” Amadyr said, narrowing her yellow eyes. “Considering that you caused this, tell me why I should not destroy you now. You are powerless to stop me, your magic having left you when you returned to this land. Tell me why, Marcus, should I not end your life as you have ended mine.”

Marcus stopped advancing and looked warily at the fierce eyes boring into him. “How do you know about my powers?” he asked.

“While my physical body is too weak now to travel abroad, my mind can still stretch far. The disease that ravages more and more of me each day has yet to reach my mind, for which I am thankful. I saw your encounter with the centaurs, your brawl in Yellow Banks, your dealings with the elves. I know of the two women vying for your affection. I know your mission and the obstacles you face. I have seen much and know more than I have seen.”

Marcus stared at Amadyr, unable to hide his dismay. Even in her condition, sick and isolated from any civilization, she remained a formidable opponent. He had hoped to at least bluff her into believing that he could still use all the powers he had used to defeat her, but her words had dashed those hopes.

“You still have not answered my question,” Amadyr said. “Why should I not end your life here and now.”

As if in anticipation of doing just that, the massive head moved forward slightly. The muscular neck shifted like a snake and a few more scales fell to the floor with an almost metallic clang.

“Perhaps . . .” Marcus began, “Perhaps I can help you. Perhaps I can find a cure to your condition.”

Amadyr laughed. The sound, dark and bitter, echoed all around and nearly unnerved Marcus to the extent that he considered running back the way he had come in hopes of fleeing before she could recover and carry out her threat. Only the thought of the skull of his friend lying in the grass gave him the strength to stand his ground.

“You would no sooner cure me than I would have spared you had our battle turned out differently,” the dragon said.

“I promise you that if you help me, I will do what I can to return the favor. I will enlist the help of the elven healers if I have to.”

The great dragon laughed again, harder this time, her serpentine head rocking up and down with the effort. “Again, not a very likely scenario. The elves will rejoice in my death for as long as it takes the Necromancer to take Glenfold.”

“I give you my word,” Marcus said. “I will help you if I can. The elves will come here and do what they can as well. I give you my word on that as well. I will even have them bring food if you so desire.”

When Marcus finished, he saw that Amadyr was no longer laughing. Her yellow eyes narrowed again, she stretched her great head out, stopping it right before Marcus, so close that he could reach out and touch the scaly snout if not for his fear that he was about to be devoured.

For a while, the luminous yellow eyes only stared into Marcus’s. Finally, the head recoiled, coming to rest back in its original position along the dragon’s flank. “You are telling the truth, at least as far as you believe it. I do think, though, that you would find the elves more difficult to convince in your bargain, even to save themselves, and I care nothing for the charity of elves. I prefer to die with some shred of dignity rather than through further elven treachery. Still, ask what you so bravely came to ask.”

Marcus wanted to sigh in relief, but held back, afraid of letting his guard down around such a cunning foe. “Why can I not reach my powers except in times of extreme danger? And why could I perform it at the river, but not against the walking corpses?”

The questions came out in a quick stream. He knew that his voice carried a definite note of desperation that he could not repress, but he found that he did not care. The dragon knew his weaknesses, perhaps better than he did himself, and Marcus only cared now about finding out why he had lost the magic that he so needed.

Amadyr remained silent for some time and Marcus wondered if she had decided to go back on her word and kill him anyway. He could hear his heartbeat again, his blood pounding through his ears like rushing water.

“I will answer your question, though not to win your pity but to show you that any felt for me is misplaced. My path is clear—I will die within the walls of this cavern and the world will no longer fear Amadyr. You, however, face a dire choice and seeing you face it will bring me pleasure. The reason you have lost your power is the girl from your world you so unwisely brought with you. Her presence here has made it impossible for you to use the powers you seek.”

“But . . . why?” Marcus asked, despair rising inside him.

“I cannot say.”

“Cannot or will not?” Marcus asked.

Flame blew from Amadyr’s nostrils. “Do not get impertinent with me. I will tell you what you need to know, no more and no less. If that is not satisfactory, then leave me to die in peace.”

Marcus recoiled from the flames, silently berating himself for his impatience. He was not liking the answers he was receiving from the dragon, but if he was to remain alive to hear the rest, he would have to control his emotions.

“I apologize,” he said.

“I accept,” Amadyr said. “Now you wish to know how to go about regaining what you have lost.”

“Well, that seems obvious. I have to take Heather back to our world and then return to face the Necromancer. With her away from this world, my powers should return.”

The dragon dipped her head slightly to one side. “If only it was that simple,” she said, her words dripping with false compassion. “Removing the girl from the land may work, or it may not. Either way, you will lose precious time the Necromancer will use to strengthen his hold. The elven king is near death, as well, and should he pass on, there will be little chance of holding the borders of Glenfold.”

“But what choice do I have?”

“The only way you can regain your powers in enough time to stop the Necromancer, if even your powers will be enough, is to sacrifice the girl.”

Marcus stared. He had not heard her right, could not have heard her right.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You must sacrifice the girl,” Amadyr repeated. “You must allow her to die in order to save everyone else. If you do not, if you save the life of the girl, then countless others will die because of your choice. The Necromancer will march across the land of Glenfold and everywhere else, leaving none alive to resist his power.”

Amadyr’s head snaked close to him again, the corners of the mouth upturned into a wicked grin. “But you will have your love.”

Marcus reeled. Feeling his knees give way, he felt the cavern spin as he crashed to a sitting position. He had imagined many possible reasons for his powers to disappear when he returned to this land, but none of those scenarios required him to kill the woman he loved. He pulled his knees up to his chest and fought back tears, tears of rage and sadness and horror.

The dragon watched Marcus’s reaction to her words with amusement. “There is always the elven maiden. You need not face the world alone if you choose the lives of the many over the life of the one.”

Marcus tried to block the words, prevent their poison from entering his mind. Still, the thought of Lorelei pressed against him by the fountain returned unbidden to his memory, so vividly recalled that he almost feel the heat of her body. A vision of intense green eyes swam before him even if he closed his own to keep from seeing them.

He could not, would not, allow Heather to die here, but if she did . . .

“No!” he screamed, scrambling to his feet suddenly. “I will not accept what you have told me. I will find a way to defeat this evil, with or without my powers, but I will not sacrifice the woman I love.”

“So be it,” the dragon said. “Then you sacrifice the one who loves you. Would you risk so much for a woman who does not wish to be with you when one who does is so readily available?”

Again, Marcus thought he would fall to the floor, but his trembling knees held him up through pure will alone. The dragon’s words cut straight through his psyche, delving into its darkest corners and preying on all the confusion and frustration he had experienced since Heather had told him she wished to end their relationship. He loved Heather and still believed that he would not forfeit her regardless of the price. Still, he knew, if he died trying to defend her then she would die soon after. That would surely happen if he could not use his powers to counter those of the Necromancer. Worse yet, the image of Lorelei remained at the front of his consciousness along with all the feelings he still held for the elven woman. Perhaps, if Heather did die . . .

“No!” he screamed again. Feeling his strength returning to his legs, he faced Amadyr. “I will not choose. Since you have watched me this far, watch me a bit further and see me prove you wrong.”

Marcus turned and sprinted up the tunnel back to the mouth of the cave. Behind him, he could hear the dragon laughing. The sound echoed around him as the light inside the cavern vanished, pushed him forward with its mocking tone.

“I will watch, Marcus,” Amadyr called when he had reached the rocky shelf at the face of the cave. “I will watch you make your choice when it is the only one you can make.”

And, so, we continue with the adventures of Marcus and Heather as they do whatever it is they are doing at this point of the story.  Happy reading!

Chapter 11

Marcus returned to his room at the top of the stairs, following directly behind Heather and watching the sway of her hips as she ascended the stairs. The dress sharply accentuated the femininity of her body, fitting tightly in some areas and hanging loose from others.

“Quit looking at my butt,” Heather said without turning around. Her tone was reproachful, but not filled with the loathing it had held at the beginning of their quest. Marcus marveled at how she knew he was staring at her backside, but then he realized that he was always staring at her backside when they were together, so the rebuke was well justified. She had told him that she sometimes felt more like a piece of meat to him than a partner, but he had laughed it off, asking her if she would like to marinade in the bathtub with him. Now, he supposed, he saw more clearly what she meant and, with effort, cast his eyes down to his feet as they climbed the wooden steps.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Heather opened her door and Marcus opened his. Neither said a word as they entered their rooms, but just as his door was about to close, he looked up. Heather stood with her door a few inches from shutting, looking at him. They stared at each other for a moment, saying nothing, not even to wish each other sweet dreams. Marcus did not know if they were back to that point yet, where he could wish something good for her without her turning it into something wrong.

Heather continued to look at him, a bit of the blue dress visible below her face. She gave him a slight smile, then shut the door. As he held his open, he heard the metallic scrape of a chain being slid into place. He had not entertained any thoughts of attempting to visit her in her room in the middle of the night, but if he had, the sound of her chaining the door would have driven them from his mind.

Walking to his bed, Marcus lay upon it, still clothed. Unable to get the image of Heather in the dress out of his mind, particularly the view when she leaned over to him, exposing the tantalizing swell of her breasts. He smiled, despite himself, feeling for a moment like a teenager with a crush, knowing it was as likely to be rejected as not, and not caring at all.

Then, an image of intense green eyes moved in beside that of Heather. Soon, he was seeing Lorelei wearing an identical blue dress and his thoughts again became confused. He loved Heather, that much he knew, but hurting Lorelei seemed completely wrong, a sin against nature somehow. That’s what it was, natural to have feelings for Lorelei. She was beautiful, vibrant, and, above all, she loved him. Any of those factors alone would be enough with most men to spur a commitment, but just as Marcus would begin to imagine himself with the elven woman, the image of Heather in the blue dress would swim before his eyes.

He wrested with his confused emotions for some time. Hours passed as he lay on the bed, still dressed and not at all sleepy. Finally, he decided he needed some fresh air, not only to clear his thoughts, but also to tire out his body enough for him to get some rest before they started in the morning.

Rising from the bed, Marcus left the room, shutting the door silently behind himself. He crossed the hall and placed his ear against the door behind which Heather had disappeared with her lovely smile. Faintly, he heard soft snoring and knew that she was not having nearly the trouble sleeping that he was.

He quietly descended the stairs again, thankful that the solid construction of the building eliminating any creaking boards. When he reached the bottom, he started to turn toward the front of the inn, but changed his mind and moved the other direction, stopping outside of Lorelei’s door. He leaned against it just as he had with Heather’s and heard only silence from within, not even the light breathing he expected. He wondered if Lorelei was still awake and, if so, what she was thinking.

He again walked toward the front of the hall, his soft boots making no noise as he did. Coming to the front door, he turned and saw Polan sitting in the same chair where he had been when they had first arrived. The room was dark, but the elf’s eyes gleamed in the dim candlelight that filtered in from the dining room. Marcus guessed that the disagreements between the two elves had escalated after dinner, causing Polan to seek refuge away from his wife. Still, he did not want to get involved in the drama of other couples when he had so much of his own to manage.

“Is it okay if I go outside for a bit?” Marcus asked. He knew that some enchantment on the door had required Lorelei to place her fingers on it before being allowed in and did not wish to get outside with no way back in should Polan decided to retire before Marcus returned.

“Yes,” Polan said. Marcus was unable to see his mouth in the dark. “Now that you have been allowed entry, the door will open for you when you decide to return. I am just about to go to bed myself.”

“I don’t think I’ll be long,” Marcus said. “I just want to get some fresh air before I go to sleep.”

“Very well,” the elf said, rising. “Good night to you.”

“And you,” Marcus said, watching the shadowy form of the elf enter the dining room and disappear from view.

Marcus turned to the door and pulled the latch. The heavy oaken door swung inward on well-oiled hinges, allowing the strong smell of autumn rain and fallen leaves inside. Stepping outside, Marcus could see the clearing around the inn quite well, thanks to the half moon that had risen above the treetops, casting its illumination through the thinning clouds.

He walked out the door and along the front wall of the inn, looking out into the chill darkness and thinking about the two women asleep inside, both vying for his love and both deserving of it. Making decisions had always been something Marcus considered himself an expert at, something that gained him wide recognition among his peers at SportsWorld. He wondered what Mike Green, his boss and his friend, would think about him in his current predicament, unable to decide between two women. Marcus would tell him, he thought, that determining who to hire and who to fire was far easier than deciding to whom to give your love.

Reaching the corner of the inn, Marcus turned and continued on along the side wall. He continued to weigh the options presented by both Heather and Lorelei, imagining them both on a large set of scales with every asset for each weighing down her side. As he compared the two, Heather’s tray dropped lower and lower, lifting Lorelei’s as it went. There were simply more things in Heather’s favor, he saw, or he was deliberately shifting things that way because, deep down, that was the result he wanted.

Either way, he knew that Heather was the right choice for him.

He stared out into the dark wood beyond the clearing as this epiphany struck him. That Heather held a much greater promise for happiness than Lorelei, despite the elf’s unsurpassed beauty, felt true to Marcus. He had known since they had started dating that Heather was meant for him and he silently berated himself for allowing things to slip out of control the way they had, for ignoring her the way he had done.

Leaning against the wall of the inn, watching his breath in the cool air, Marcus cleared away the confusion and the guilt that had bound his mind since his reunion with Lorelei. He would tell the elven beauty that his heart belonged to another and that she would have to move on. He would always have a place for her in his heart, he knew, but Lorelei was not his destiny as Heather was.

He continued to stare out into the trees, then a disturbing sight roused him from his introspective thoughts. Beyond the light of the moon, within the shadows of the trees, Marcus could make out two points of red light. They were the same height and size as those he had spied just outside the borders of Glenfold, though he realized that they were now farther off, fifty yards or so from him.

Instead of remaining stationary, though, the red lights now moved. Bobbing up and down slightly, the lights were constant, never dimming, but seemed to be moving toward him through the trees. As he looked around, Marcus saw other sets of red lights amidst the dark trunks, also moving with a disturbing up and down motion.

Fear rose within Marcus as he counted six sets of the lights spaced apart in the woods just beyond the clearing. He thought about the footprints he had discovered outside their camp before and a chill unrelated to the coolness of the air crept up his spine, causing the hair at the base of his neck to stand on end.

Finally, a form emerged from the shadows of the wood and entered the moonlight clearing. Marcus gasped as he saw what looked like at first glance, a human with bright red eyes. No human, though, could look so . . . so . . .

Dead, Marcus thought, they’re all dead.

More figures stepped onto the grass surrounding the inn, all in various stages of decomposition. Marcus was forcefully reminding of the classic George Romero films and half expected the walking corpses to start calling for his brains.

However, the approaching dead did not speak. Shuffling forward, arms hanging limply at their sides, they walked with eerie deliberation toward the inn, red eyes gleaming brighter than the half moon.

Marcus looked around for something to use against them, cursing once again the failure of his powers. He spotted a woodsman’s axe a few yards away leaning against a stack of cut logs for the fire. Running to it, he lifted it and checked the double-edged blade, finding it keen and heavy.

The dead drew closer and Marcus could see them more clearly now. The one closest to him was the body of an elven male, young at the time of his death, but now looking ancient as his skin sagged from his bones. He was dressed in what Marcus knew was an elven scout’s uniform, light gray shirt and pants, though these hung in tatters around his torso and legs. A sudden breeze blew the scraps of fabric back away from the decaying skin, giving them the appearance of gray flame snapping in the wind.

About twenty yards from the inn, the walking corpses halted. Standing stone still in the grass, vacant expressions beneath their glowing eyes, they looked at the walls in slack-jawed silence.

Marcus again studied the one closest to himself and saw that its jaw had gone quite slack. In fact, the jaw opened wide and continued to open until he heard a loud crack as the joint gave way. The mandible swung down suddenly, leaving an obscenely large opening for a mouth that seemed feral and wicked below the twin red orbs. Marcus watched the scene with horror, horror that increased when a voice came from the gaping hole in the corpse’s face.

“Marcus,” the voice said. The jaw did not move and Marcus doubted that the creature itself was actually making the noise. More likely, he thought, the person controlling these dead would be the one talking. “You were warned to go back home and forget this quest. By not doing so, you have elected to die and have doomed your friends to the same fate.”

Marcus held the axe in his hand, ready to strike at the first sign of movement. Still, he knew that he could not contend with all six of the dead he saw plush however many he could not see on the other sides of the building. He felt confident that the Necromancer had the inn surrounded so that if, by chance, Marcus was able to fend off one wave of attack, the building would still be vulnerable on the other sides.

“I will go back when you are dead,” Marcus screamed at the walking dead. He hoped his voice would be loud enough to wake the others, if not to join him in his defense, then to at least not be taken unawares when the attack began.

Cold laughter erupted from the gaping mouth. To hear such sound and not see the body projecting it shaking at all chilled Marcus more than the autumn air around him. “Then you may return now, for I am already dead.”

Marcus’s mind raced, trying to determine what that statement meant while also trying to divine some way out of his dire predicament. As his thoughts whirled, however, the corpses moved again, shuffling forward toward him and the inn.

He raised the axe and charged forward, stirring up a cloud of dead leaves into the moonlit air. Lifting the blade high over his head, he started to swing downward when the corpse before him burst into flames. Unable to stop the progress of the heavy weapon, Marcus felt his hands burn as the axe sunk deeply into the flaming body. He drew them back in painful alarm, loosing his grip on the axe in the progress. Watching in shocked disbelief, he saw the handle of the axe ignite and burn to ash within a few seconds in the fiercely hot fire. The double-edged blade, still lodged in the middle of the corpses face, glowed brilliantly red.

Marcus backed away, unsure of what to do. The flaming body drew nearer to him, reaching out with its arms as though it only wanted to give him a warm hug, a very warm hug. He thought of trying to summon his powers once more to extinguish his attacker, but knew that if he passed out, he would surely die, either by the hand of the Necromancer’s automaton, or in the inferno the inn was about to become.

Setting aside any consideration of attacking the fiery masses descending up on him, Marcus turned and sprinted back down the side of the inn, barely avoided two other assailants as they approached the wooden wall. Rounding the corner to the front of the building, his fears were confirmed as he saw more dead nearing the inn on its front and side. Pelting across the grass, he came at last to the front door and pushed on it. It held at first, creating a feeling in Marcus’s gut that bordered on extreme nausea. Then, the door glowed slightly where his hand touched it and swung back to permit him to enter.

Stepping just inside the door, he slammed it shut. “Everyone up,” he yelled at the top of his voice. Just outside, he could here the crackling of flames. “We’re under attack.”

Almost immediately, Valista and Polan appeared, each in their nightclothes and wielding longswords. Marcus could hear movement from upstairs, but could not tell if Wilkey or Heather or both had heard his cries. He charged up the stairs three at a time and reached the landing just as Wilkey ran out of his room, carrying his pack. Heather’s door remained open and Marcus placed an ear to it as Wilkey joined him.

Hearing nothing behind the door, Marcus tried the doorknob. It did not turn. Stepping back, he raised a foot and kicked the door just above the lock. The wood cracked beneath the blow, but the door held. He readied himself for another kick when he heard Heather’s terrified voice from behind the door.

“What the . . . who’s there?” she asked, her voice loud and panicked.

“We have to get out of here,” Marcus yelled through the door. “We’re under attack.”

He heard a hurried shuffling inside before Heather opened the door and peered out, apparently to verify the truth of his story. She wore her traveling clothes again, Marcus saw with some relief, the blue dress left behind on the dressing table.

“Come on,” Marcus said to her, more softly. “This place is about to go up in flames.”

Heather stared at him with wide eyes. “Is it Amadyr?”

“Thankfully, no,” Marcus said, although he truly did not know whether he would prefer facing the dragon or the flaming fiends he could hear bashing the walls of the inn. “We just need to get out of here now.”

Heather complied without question, for which Marcus was very grateful. They raced back down the stairs as the first tendrils of smoke began to filter up the staircase, causing them to cough before dropping low enough to get beneath its suffocating cloud. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Valista and Polan both stood there waiting for them. Both of them had tied scarves around their faces to block out the smoke and they handed some to Marcus, Heather, and Wilkey, bidding them to do the same.

Marcus sped down the hall to the room Lorelei had entered and banged on the door. When he received no answer, he raised his foot again and kicked. Again, the door emitted a loud cracking sound, but held shut. He kicked again and a third time before the door frame finally splintered and the portal opened, slamming against the wall of the room.

The room beyond was empty, save for a copious amount of thick smoke that poured into the hall as the door opened. The outside facing wall was completely engulfed in flames and, as Marcus watched, the window exploded outward in a storm of glass.

“Lorelei,” Marcus called above the snapping flames. He ducked down and scanned the room beneath the smoke, checking to see if perhaps Lorelei lay unconscious, or worse, and could not hear him. Still, he found the room devoid of any life save that of the dancing fire.

Returning to the others, Marcus found them all bend down to avoid the cloud of black smoke that floated beneath the ceiling. The walls of the inn creaked ominously as the sound of crackling fire grew louder.

“She’s gone,” Marcus said. “Lorelei’s gone.”

Wilkey and Heather both exchanged puzzled looks, but the two elves looked less uncertain.

“She must have gone out for a walk,” Valista said.

“Well, then, let’s do the same before this place comes down around our heads,” Marcus said.

He spun around, looking for some exit. The sounds of the flame increased steadily in volume and a shudder ran through the wooden structure. Knowing they only had a few minutes before they would be consumed, Marcus raced through a number of escape options and his gaze came to rest on the front door. It remained shut, thought Marcus could hear pounding upon its exterior, like two powerful fists trying to gain entrance. A thought occurred to him then, a half-made plan that was still better than anything else his mind, or the others, had offered.

Taking up the axe which he had dropped at the base of the stairs, Marcus held it in his hands for a moment, considering. The others watched him curiously, but Marcus could see a flicker of hope in their eyes, hope that Marcus had a brilliant plan that would allow them all to escape with their lives.

Marcus turned to Polan. “When I give you the word, I want you to open the front door.”

The elf looked at him, startled, but nodded. He crouched and half-crawled to the door. Reaching up, he tested the handle with his hand and drew it back quickly, telling the others that it was extremely hot. He then pulled off his shirt, pulling it over his head to reveal his thin upper body, and wrapped it tightly around his hand. He tested his grip on the door, nodded in satisfaction, then looked to Marcus for the go ahead to pull it open.

Marcus turned to the other three. “When he opens that door, I’m going to charge through. I want the three of you to be right behind me. We may only have a few seconds to get clear. Single file out the door, then run to the clearing where the griffons are.”

Marcus did not know if Valista and Polan knew exactly which clearing he was referring to, but he reckoned they probably did. He figured the clearing was a regular landing spot, a sort of airport for the large flying beasts. If not, he decided, they could simply follow the rest of them to it.

He paused, looking around into the entry room where Valista and Polan had been sitting when they arrived. The room was sparsely decorated, but here and there he could see various personal effects the two elves had brought from Glenfold or had collected during their time in the remote inn. A chord of guilt sounded within him—he had brought this doom upon them and now they looked to him for some means of escape, despite the fact that everything they owned in this building would soon be ash and smoke. Sighing, then coughing as the smoke cloud thickened, he set those thoughts aside to focus on the job at hand.

He ran to the back of the hall. The heat there was tremendous and Marcus felt that the back wall would likely collapse at any time. Turning, he saw the others had flattened themselves against the interior walls, making room for his charge. He nodded at Polan, who nodded back. Then, he was running.

Marcus had built up a good deal of speed by the time he neared the end of the hallway. He flashed by the others in a blur and the smoke behind him divided like the wake of a speed boat. When he was a few yards from the door, he yelled, “Now!” and Polan yanked the door open.

When the door opened, a pillar of flame rushed inside, feeding itself on the air being forced out of the building by the increasing smoke. The yellow tongues drifted up and curled across the ceiling. The figure producing the flames, the dead body, appeared inside the conflagration like a blackened piece of wood, but still moved forward as the door swung open. Raising its flaming arms, it reached outward for Marcus as though greeting him as a long lost relative.

Marcus reached his full speed at the moment he reached the threshold. Holding the axe out before him like a lance, he struck the flaming body square in the chest and, with some effort, hoisted it up before him as he ran out the door. The fire flickered around him and the heat, intense and blistering, covered him like a blanket. Still, he drove forward and soon felt the chill night air on his back. Behind him, he could hear the others following and Heather’s shrieks of terror as she saw the truth of what was attacking the building.

He felt his arms give out about twenty yards from the front door and he gave one final thrust of the axe, pushing the flaming corpse backward into the grass. It struggled to get up, but its blackened limbs would no longer support its efforts to rise. Marcus turned away from it, realizing that other threats were more in need of his attention.

Heather, Wilkey, and the two elves huddled around Marcus and looked back at the inn. The walls were completely engulfed and most of the windows had exploded from the pressure. The roof leaned to one side as the wall supporting it sagged, then began to crumble. From the chimney, thick smoke poured out, looking almost normal for a cool autumn evening except for the odd angle at which it now pointed.

The entire building became a huge inferno, leaving no wood visible beneath the roaring flames. Marcus could see that the dead that had attacked now stood still in the midst of the fire, blackened columns among the orange glow. They no longer pounded on the walls, seemingly content to watch the inn burn despite not catching their intended prey. Then, Marcus saw something else in the fire. He blinked his eyes and wiped them with the raw, singed flesh on the back of his wrist and still the image was there. As the others saw it as well, they gave a collective gasp.

A face, huge and skull-like, appeared in the flames of the inn. Marcus could make out the eyes and mouth, dark patches against the brilliant light of the burning inn. The eyes blinked twice, as if trying to focus on them as Marcus had tried to do on it, then the mouth curled into a crooked smile, sending a wisp of smoke from its upturned corner.

“Marcus . . . “ the face whispered, it voice barely more than the sound of the flames, hissing and popping. “Marcus, I told you to turn back and still you defy me. You will have no other chances to leave. You and the girl will die.” The face then vanished as quickly as it had appeared just as the walls of the inn gave way and collapsed into a heap, sending sparks high into the air.

Marcus turned to Heather who stared at him in horror. She had missed the Necromancer’s previous displays of power and now knew what magical force they were up against. He hoped that she now understood how important it was for him to regain his powers, whatever the danger. Such a power would eventually destroy everyone in this land and, despite Heather’s wishes to go home as quickly as possible, wishes that Marcus shared, she understood the importance of stopping the Necromancer’s plans.

“Quick,” Marcus said. “Let’s get to the griffons.”

“What about Lorelei,” Wilkey asked, gazing back at the burning pile of wood that had moments before been an inn.

“She wasn’t in her room, so she must have already gotten out before the attack,” Marcus said, although he did take an overlong glance at the glowing heap. He felt confident that Lorelei had escaped, but he would not be sure until they found her again and that shred of doubt gave him a weighty pain in his gut. “If she’s anywhere in the area, she’ll be with the griffons.”

Marcus led them to the tree line, looking around carefully in case more animated dead emerged to begin a second wave. He saw none, but he felt eyes watching him and a hostile will permeating the forest around them. He tried to hear any possible sound of a hidden attacker among the underbrush, but the snaps and pops of burning wood behind them made it very difficult. Still, they pushed on, Polan taking the lead along the path with his sword drawn and his sharp elven eyes finding the path easily. Valista, her sword in hand, as well, brought up the rear, scanning the forest to either side and behind to ensure that no pursuit followed them.

They met no resistance along the path to where they had left the griffons. Walking carefully and quietly, they moved along slowly, watching all angles until at last they emerged again into the clearing.

Leaving the darkness of the woods, however, they found no griffons awaiting them. The clearing was empty save for grass and the silvery light of the moon.

“Damn it!” Marcus yelled. “Where the hell are they?”

“Maybe they were attacked and Lorelei took them to the sky for safety,” Valista offered, looking up into the sky.

They all looked up, seeing no sign of the creatures. Continuing out into the middle of the clearing, Marcus looked around and saw the grass flattened, but could not tell by what. Polan also scanned the ground, being more versed in tracking than Marcus.

“Too many tracks,” he said, agreeing with Marcus’s assessment. “Mostly griffon, but also boots, but that could have been you as you dismounted and came to the inn.”

“Or,” Wilkey chimed in, his voice higher than usual, “it could have been them.”

They all looked up and followed the halfling’s pointing finger. From the shadows of the forest, figures were coming forward. More dead bodies, in various stages of decay, advanced upon them with their slow, shuffling steps. Dozens of them flowed into the clearing from every direction, leaving no gap between them for another escape such as the one at the inn.

Marcus and his companions drew closer to one another. Polan and Valista, however, charged forward, sprinting across the grass toward the nearest body. Swinging their swords in graceful arcs, they attacked, their blades cutting deeply into the dead flesh and stopping them no more than a fly would landing on the desiccated skin. The two elves backed away, Valista unable to pull her blade from the corpses, and fled back to where Marcus and the others stood.

All around them, the ring of the dead tightened. Soon, the rotting bodies were shoulder to shoulder, some passing behind others to form another ring around their victims. Again a wave of coldness swept out from them as they moved in, their red eyes blazing in one long beam that looked to Marcus like a neon tube.

The animated corpses closed in with agonizing slowness. They were within thirty yards . . . then twenty . . . then ten. Now, Marcus could smell them as well as feel their mindless malevolence, the odor of rotting meat clouded the air around them.

Marcus searched within himself, looking for some way to reach those abilities that he knew lay just beyond his reach like a doorknob to a young child. He knew he would have to reach those powers to save them, even if it meant his death from the exertion. His one goal was to save the others if he could. Perhaps Wilkey and the elves could escort Heather back to the cave, he thought.

Then, just as he closed his eyes to try to draw upon his magic, he was startled out of his revelry by a loud shriek. At first, he thought Heather had made it, though it sounded like nothing the human voice could generate. Looking around, the dead nearly close enough that he could touch them, he saw a shadow pass before the light of the moon and felt a large form pass just over his head, smashing into the corpses nearest him.

“It’s Lorelei!” Valista yelled, pointing above.

Marcus looked and saw Blizzard, fresh from his run through the corpses near his rider, wheeling about for another pass. The other griffons, with similar calls to the one Blizzard had made before his charge, dove from the night sky and cut through the ranks of the dead like a scythe through wheat. Even Sunbeam, smaller than his other kin, devastated those within his path, raking the dead flesh with his claws and beak.

The corpses stopped advancing, apparently dimly aware of their danger, but unable to process some plan to deal with it. Marcus wondered what the Necromancer was thinking as his army was decimated by the ferocity of the griffons.

After clearing out a small space around Marcus and the others, the griffons landed beside them. Lorelei sat upon Winterdusk, looking pale and beautiful in the moonlight.

“Valista and Polan, you’ll have to take Blizzard and return to Glenfold. Wilkey can ride with me on Winterdusk. You,” she pointed at Heather, “will take Sunbeam and Marcus can take Aspen.”

No one argued with the commands. They watched the dead bodies around them began to advance again, more urgency in their shuffle now that their prey was escaping. Each mounted the griffons as they were instructed, fumbling with the straps to ensure that the griffons with two riders would not lose either of them in midflight. In a few moments, the griffons took to the air, leaving behind a sea of dead bodies in their wake. Looking down, Marcus could see hundreds of corpses milling about in the clearing as if they were waiting for some outdoor concert by a popular singer. He was awed by the sheer numbers of them and wondered, not for the first time, if he could contend with the power of the Necromancer, even with his powers restored.

Chapter 10

Not a word was spoken by any of the four companions as they walked back into the streets of Glenfold. The only sounds any of them made, aside from their footfalls on the rock-strewn paths, were the occasional grunts and sighs of Wilkey hauling the heavy pack. Marcus thought at first to take the burden from the halfling, but determined that the sound effects were just that, an attempt to make the effort seem more than it was so someone else would take it off his hands. He smiled in spite of himself, hiding the grin with his hand so Lorelei would not turn suddenly and see him making light of her pain.

They came at last to a massive, but otherwise unremarkable, building of gray stone. The entered through a narrow archway and passed along a torch-lit corridor for sometime, occasionally turning this way and that, before exiting again into the light of day. Behind him, Marcus could hear Heather gasp as she looked out into the space they had just entered. The dome roof above them rose high above the ground, reminding Marcus of indoor stadiums he saw on television, but at various intervals across the wooden structure, large openings allowed them to see patches of gray clouds still clinging to the skies overhead. Along each wall, large holes were cut into the stone, not deep, but far enough back that their far walls were obscured in shadow. Upon the ground, an odd mixture of straw and feathers littered the dirt floor. The whole place smelled to Marcus like the chicken houses some farmers operated in Kentucky near where he grew up, a very distinguishable stench for anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced it.

However, the features of the room were not what caught Heather’s eyes, or Marcus’s who could not recall ever having visited this place as a child.

It was the griffons that demanded their attention.

Swooping in and out of the building through the great open windows at the top of the building, the massive creatures flew above them, barely noticing the four newcomers who had entered their building. Their magnificent eagle heads and torsos blending seamlessly with their feline hindquarters, the beasts exuded a sense of power and cunning that could be seen in every movement of their graceful bodies. Several stood perched around the perimeter of the building on great nests made into the niches that had been prepared in the walls. On the ground level, a lone elf was issuing commands to a particularly large griffon, mottled gray in color, which turned to regard them with cold, fierce eyes.

The elf before them looked older, but not nearly so old as Lanian. His hair was a dull gray matching the clouds that could still be seen through the openings in the ceiling above them, and his face bore many wrinkles. Still, he moved extraordinarily well for one of such an advanced age, Marcus thought, and handled the griffon with absolute confidence. In one hand, he held several dead rabbits that he was apparently using in some training exercise, an exercise that, by the look of exasperation on his face, was not going well.

“Lorelei,” the elf said in a surprised tone. “I wasn’t expecting you for another day or so. I’m afraid this one’s not ready to go with you yet. Still too stubborn.” He motioned to the beast in front of him, which seemed to understand what the elf was saying as it cocked its head sideways and squawked loudly, sounding like a huge eagle.

“I don’t care, Felden” Lorelei answered. “She’s the one I’m taking. She’ll respond to me.” Lorelei strode forward and patted the griffon’s neck. The large avian head leaned into her, nestling against her torso in an affectionate manner and making soft cooing sounds that reminded Marcus forcefully of a pigeon.

Feldem looked up and saw the others standing in the doorway, wary to approach such a fearsome looking beast despite Loralai’s display. He motioned them to come forward, stopped, appearing to think something over, and motioned for them to approach again, but more cautiously. “Slowly, now. They’ve never smelled any of your kind before. I’m fairly sure they’ll be fine, but just in case, don’t rush up to her.” He motioned to the griffon Lorelei was caressing. “Especially not this one. She still has a wild streak.”

Marcus, Heather, and Wilkey all walked forward toward Feldem, constantly looking around them and, particularly, above them as they did. A few of the griffons above them, high in their perches, looked down upon them curiously. One even buffeted its wings, producing a small storm of dust and straw, and scared Heather to the point that she clutched Marcus’s arm for support. As they approached Lorelei, the griffon she was with looked up suddenly, its predatory eyes scanning them over. Marcus could hear it taking in breath through its beak, taking in their scent, while deciding if they were friend or foe.

Feldem moved quickly to their side, offering the remaining rabbits, one to each. “Here,” he told them, “try giving her these. It might work as a peace offering so she won’t be too suspicious of you. Just throw them up and she’ll catch them.”

Heather stepped around Marcus, releasing his arm as absently as she had taken it, and gave her rabbit a weak toss, barely flinging it a few yards before it prepared to strike the hay-strewn floor of the room. Just as it was about to land, though, the griffon darted forward like a cobra striking at a mongoose and snatched the rabbit out of the air. Throwing its head back, it lifted the rabbit up and allowed it to fall down into its throat while its hooked beak chewed it, breaking the rabbit’s bones with sounds like pencils breaking. When the griffon looked down again, the rabbit was completely gone save for a small piece of brown fur still clinging to the tip of its beak.

Wilkey threw his next, nearly smacking the griffon in the face with it before the beak opened again and nearly swallowed the rabbit whole. Then, Marcus took his and swung it around slowly by his side like a lasso. Giving it a mighty fling into the air, he saw the griffon explode from the ground as several others swooped down from mid-flight or their nests to try to claim the prize. The rabbit soared upward and it looked for a moment as if a half dozen griffons would crash into each other in their efforts to catch it.

Instead, a white griffon, slightly smaller than the one Lorelei was taking, dove down nearly on a straight vertical drop, its wings pinned to its sides to increase its velocity, and plucked the rabbit right from the beak of the mottled gray. Still facing the danger of impact with another of its kind, it stayed in the dive until it was about to slam into the hard floor, then opened its wings wide, slowing its descent at the last moment, and swept directly over their heads in a flurry of wind, dust, straw and feathers. It made a large arc around the room, ignoring the squawks of protests from its cohorts, and rose again with three powerful strokes of its wings to perch upon the ledge at the very top of the building.

Marcus watched the white griffon the entire way and turned back to Feldem and Lorelei, smiling. “I’ll take that one,” he told them, pointing up to the white griffon enjoying its snack high above their heads.

Lorelei continued to ignore Marcus, but the older elf beamed at him. “Good choice, that’s one of our best and brightest, as you just saw.”

Heather stepped forward then, pushing Marcus aside. She looked at Feldem and Lorelei, her hands on her hips. “Wait a minute, here. You mean to tell me that we’re going to ride those things? In the air?”

Feldem laughed. “Well, they won’t move very fast walking through the woods, will they?”

“Oh, no,” Heather said, shaking her head. “I’m not getting on one of those. I’ll just walk, thank you very much.”

Lorelei looked at Heather and her expression made Marcus’s blood chill in his veins. “We have to take the griffons. If we don’t, we’ll never make it to the Fell Lands in time to save my people.”

Heather looked at Marcus for support, but saw she would gain none on this matter from him. “Where are these Fell Lands? Where are we going, Marcus?”

Marcus wanted to avoid the question, hoping it would come up after they had already been on their way for some time, too far away to return to Glenfold. Now, however, he saw that he would have to reveal their destination and their reason for going if he was even to convince Heather and Wilkey to join them, for behind Heather, Marcus could see the halfling had gone pale, staring at him with wide eyes.

“We’re going to see the oldest and probably wisest being in these lands. She is the only one who may know why my powers have lessened and how I can get them back.”

“What kind of being are you talking about,” Heather asked.

Marcus hesitated. Here it is, he thought. “Amadyr Onewing is a . . . a dragon.”

Heather blinked several times but said nothing. Finally, her tongue seemed to loosen itself. “We’re going to see a dragon with one wing to find out how you can use your powers?”

“Uh . . . yeah,” Marcus replied.

Feldem, sensing the uncomfortable nature of the conversation, interrupted. “Marcus, can you help me and Lorelei gather the saddles and equipment you’ll need for the journey?”

Marcus readily agreed, thankful that he would not have to answer any more questions right away. He knew Heather had several more, but he knew Wilkey could fill in the blanks so that he would not have to. Smiling weakly at her, he turned and jogged after the two elves to a corridor opposite the one they had used to enter the room.

Heather turned and looked at Wilkey. The halfling stood statue still, pale as cream, staring into nothing. “A dragon with one wing?” she asked.

Wilkey snapped out of his catatonia with a start. “What?” he asked, sounding as if he had just awoken from a dream.

“I asked about the dragon with one wing that we’re going to see,” Heather said.

Wilkey swallowed. “Yes, Amadyr. The Great Wyrm. Oldest of Old. She has had many names over the centuries, but Onewing is a relatively new one. For ages, she terrorized all the peoples of this land, stealing livestock and burning towns at will, with no one to resist her. She even attacked the elves, as formidable as they are, with great success until . . .” he looked up at Heather, “until Marcus came.”

“Marcus defeated her?”

Wilkey nodded, his focus far distant as he recalled the tale. “That’s why they call her Onewing now. She was preying upon the elves because they were hiding their livestock. One day, she flew through the magical barrier, being powerfully magical herself, and unleashed her fury on the city itself. She had threatened to burn the whole city to the ground when Marcus walked out to the common area, next to the fountain where . . .” The halfling shifted his eyes uncomfortably, not wishing to remind Heather of what she had seen with Marcus and Lorelei. “Anyway, Amadyr attacked, breathed fire down on him, but he countered by producing a pillar of water from the fountain that blocked the fire. Then, he pulled out a dagger, the one he still carries, and hurled it at her. Amadyr, thinking she had nothing to fear from so small a weapon, ignored it while she prepared to attack again. The dagger struck her wing, lodged itself inside the joint, and a great flash of light came from it. Amadyr was thrown down among the trees which ripped her wing off as she fell. The elves and Marcus moved her body while she was still unconscious beyond the borders of Glenfold and left her by the river. When they returned the next day, she was gone, but elven scouts managed to follow her as she returned to her cave high in the mountains of the Fell Lands, a horrible, barren place far from here.”

Heather listened intently, then looked into the darkness of the corridor where Marcus had disappeared with the elves. She marveled to think of how much power it took to defeat a dragon, as Wilkey had described it. For the first time since their trip through the cave, she began to realize how terrible losing such power in a time like this would be. She felt sorry for Marcus and guilty for her lack of understanding. Regardless of any vendetta for the death of his friend, Heather felt that simply regaining what he had lost would be more than enough motivation to continue on this quest were she in his shoes.

The two elves and Marcus came back, each bearing a large pile of leather and steel in their arms. When they returned to where Heather and Wilkey were standing, they dropped their loads before them and Heather saw that four complex saddles lay before her. She had owned a horse in her youth and was well acquainted with the tools of the equine trade, but the equipment before her looked foreign, having been adjusted to allow for the differences in anatomy between the two creatures. The saddles were smaller than those used for horses and cut differently to allow the wings their full range of movement. In addition, the straps that held the saddle on seemed to be at odd angles from what she knew, again to compensate for the vast difference in mount.

Feldem smiled at Heather’s perplexed look. “That’s exactly how I looked when we first tried to saddle one a few years ago. These are some I’ve made modifications to so they’ll fit and not hinder their movement. We’ve only been keeping griffons for about ten years, so there’s a lot we still don’t know about them, but we have managed to use a few as mounts on particularly important occasions.”

“I’d say this qualifies as ‘particularly important’,” Wilkey said. The halfling was also eyeing the saddles. His expression said that he would sooner face the dragon alone and on foot than sit in one of the saddles atop a griffon.

Feldem showed Lorelei how to harness the saddle to the mottled gray griffon, Winterdusk, he called her. He bade the others to watch as well, telling them that he expected them to saddle their own when he finished with Lorelei. He would still be available to help, of course, but they would need to know how to do this in the wild with no handler there to help them or else they might be a thousand feet in the air and figure out they had done it wrong as they plummeted to the ground.

When the saddle was securely strapped to Winterdusk, Feldem produced a small, silver whistle from his breast pocket. On it, he blew two long, harsh notes and a short sharp note. Looking up, Marcus saw the white griffon he had picked out step out from its perch and float to the floor beside him. It turned its head to regard him with its eagle eye, then turned its attention to Feldem.

“I don’t think they’ve ever smelled humans,” Feldem said, a bit nervous, “or halflings, but I think that if they were going to attack you, they would have already done so. At least your coming in with Lorelei showed them that you are friendly to the elves.”

Marcus did not take a good deal of comfort from the handler’s statement, but moved forward anyway to attach the saddle the way he had seen it done in their example. The white griffon tensed at first and Marcus wondered if he would have the reflexes to escape if the hooked beak came down on the back of his neck. He doubted it, but found the point moot as the beast relaxed and allowed Marcus to place the saddle on its back.

“What’s this one called?” he asked Feldem.

“Blizzard,” the handler replied. “He’s one of the most cunning of the lot. It took very little to train him and I think some times he was the one training me.”

Next, a dark brown griffon, Aspen, was selected to be Heather’s mount. A female, like Winterdusk, it seemed to enjoy being called to stand next to Blizzard as Heather fought to strap on the saddle, hardly taking her large, dark eyes off him. After much cursing and a few squawks of protest from Aspen, Feldem proclaimed the saddle safe and looked around to find a griffon for Wilkey, who seemed less than eager.

“If it’s all right with you, I’d prefer to just ride with Marcus,” the halfling said.

Feldem would hear none of it, saying that the saddles would only accommodate one rider and that adding another would not only be unsafe, but would also be a hindrance to the griffon. After some moments of deliberation, Feldem drew his whistle again and blew one long note and three short, shrill notes that seemed to echo in the cavernous room. A second later, a feathery bolt leaped from the upper most reaches of the walls and dived straight down, plummeting at a dizzying speed. Just as the griffon was about to splatter into the floor, it unfurled its wings like the sails on a clipper ship, and sped directly toward them. As he drew near, Feldem blew another note on his whistle, a loud wavering call that made the griffon pull up just short and land lightly beside Aspen.

Wilkey looked at his selected mount and could not keep himself from laughing. The griffon was smaller than the others by a substantial amount. To make matters worse, the feathers that covered the front half of its body were yellow, making it easily the most eye-catching creature in the room.

“This is Sunbeam,” Feldem explained. “He’s a little rambunctious, but he’s a loyal steed nonetheless.”

Wilkey did not looked convinced. “You expect me to fly a chicken to the Fell Lands?” he asked.

Sunbeam seemed to take his meaning, even if he could not understand the words. He head-butted the halfling, producing a loud thunk as his feather-covered skull connected with Wilkey’s. The halfling, caught completely by surprise, fell backward in a cloud of feathers and dust. He got immediately to his feet, giving the griffon a look of contempt, but said nothing that might warrant further violence.

Within a half hour, Feldem had all seated the four upon their griffons and instructed them in some basic commands. He said he doubted they would encounter any threats while in the air, but he drilled them briefly on mid-air combat just in case. Using Lorelei as an example, as she had already ridden a few of the griffons over the past few years, he explained how to make the mounts dive, climb, and whirl about with only verbal commands. The reins that they held did not help them steer, Feldem told them, serving only to help them stay seated along with a complicated series of straps and ties that secured them to the saddle.

At last, Lorelei instructed her griffon to land and Marcus took his turn in the air. He found the motion nauseating at first, but as his body adjusted to the rhythmic beating of the great white wings, he found the experience exhilarating. They were still inside the great building that housed the rest of the griffons, but the wind still whipped his hair as he bade his mount to dive and roll, feeling its powerful body flex and contort to perform the necessary avionics. Soon, he felt that he had mastered all the commands Feldem had given them and he landed, giving the griffon and affectionate pat on the neck.

Heather took her turn next and, though it seemed to Marcus that she was quite a natural at guiding the griffon through the necessary commands, he saw her face when she landed to be slightly tinged with green. She looked at him, trying to hide her dizziness and discomfort, and smiled weakly.

Wilkey, on the other hand, had trouble simply trying to mount his griffon. The yellow beast moved away from the halfling every time Wilkey tried to hoist his foot into the stirrup, inspiring a comical one-legged dance as Wilkey followed. Finally, Feldem retrieved his whistle and blew one short note at Sunbeam, who stopped moving altogether and allowed the halfling to finally straddle his back. When airborne, the yellow cared little for the halfling’s commands, preferring instead to perform a series of difficult rolls and turns designed to dislodge Wilkey from his perch. Feldem called again on his whistle after a few minutes, commanding Sunbeam to land. Wilkey did not even have time to pull his foot from the stirrup and swing his leg over the saddle before his lunch came back out the way it had gone in.

Feldem scolded the yellow griffon for some time, then talked to it in low soothing tones that Marcus hoped would settle the beast for their trip. He felt he had quite enough to worry about with the silent conflict between Heather and Lorelei, not to mention their task with Amadyr, and cared little to add an airsick halfling to that list.

Towards mid-afternoon, with their gear distributed and packed upon the griffons, the party prepared to leave Glenfold. Feldem assured them that they could get well beyond the borders by dusk and if any moonlight penetrated through the clouds, they could also travel a good distance by night.

“One word of caution, though,” the handler added. “You won’t be able to take the griffons all the way to Amadyr’s lair. Once they pick up her scent, no one would be able to move them any closer. There are few things that scare a griffon, but a dragon is the top of that list.”

“How close will they get us?” Marcus asked.

“That depends on how soon they pick up her scent,” Feldem said.

After going over the commands one more time, the four companions instructed their mounts to take off, circling the room a few times to gain altitude, and one by one exited the building through one of the large holes in the roof.

Rising quickly above the city, Marcus marveled at the vista that lay before him. The magnificent forest of the elves, always beautiful, lay stretched below him in a patchwork of golds, oranges, and reds. The thick foliage, in its autumnal glory, spread before them as far as the eye could see as they climbed, only broken by the rejoining of the two branches of the Misteld that circled Glenfold many miles in the distance. Though no sun yet appeared through the clouds, the overcast skies appeared lighter and less gloomy than they had previously, and Marcus found his spirit uplifted by the warm wind and the smell of recent rains that filled the air.

Looking around him, he saw the others and imagined by their expressions of awe that their thoughts were similar to his. Only Wilkey seemed to not be sharing their delight, holding the reins and the edge of his saddle with white-knuckled hands and his eyes clenched tightly as though he was trying to compute something very difficult in his brain. Marcus felt sorry for the halfling, but too much so, thinking back to the episode at the pub in Yellow Banks where Marcus had found him passed out drunk.

Maybe the clean air up here will do him some good, Marcus thought, turning his attention back to the incredible view before him.

They closed upon the borders of Glenfold in what felt like only a few minutes. Marcus knew that more time than that had passed by the lower position of the sun, but at their height above the forest, he could not gauge for sure how fast they were going. As they soared over the point where the Misteld fused again into a wide, raging torrent, Marcus could barely hear the roar of the rapids over the whistling wind blowing into his ears. He looked down and could see no movement on the ground, but his instincts told him that they were being watched by eyes on both sides of the border. He thought about requesting the griffons to fly higher to use the blanket of stratus above them for concealment, but looking up could not measure how far the lowest level of the cloud cover would be. Wilkey, drenched in sweat and still clenching his eyes shut, would not follow them any higher, he knew, and Marcus also knew they needed to stay together from now on to have any hope of success.

Lorelei, astride Winterdusk, flew out in front of the others, the elf knowing the land better than the others, especially from above. Her red hair whipped back in the wind, looking like flame in the rays of the setting sun, emerging from a break in the clouds. Marcus tried to imagine what she was thinking as they traveled on, what her emotions were like after his scene with Heather by the fountain. He knew his own emotions were confused and irritating, like the cacophony of many voices in a crowded room. On the one hand, he loved Heather and could not imagine his life without her. On the other, he found Lorelei compelling him in ways that Heather never had and the thought of her body pressed against his while they rolled in the grass still made his skin tingle. He elected to see how things went and hoped they sorted themselves out in a way that would benefit all, although he usually found that such optimism failed him more often than not.

They flew on, the griffons riding the air currents with no sign of weariness, until the sun’s last rays gilded the clouds nearest the horizon. Above them stars appeared through openings in the thinning clouds and the air around them began to chill quickly. Looking to his side, he could see Heather in the failing light trying to fold her arms across herself for warmth while still holding tight to the reins. Wilkey, on his other side, still held on with a vice-like grip, now occasionally opening his eyes to ensure that the others were still around them.

Marcus urged Blizzard to increase his speed until he drew even with Lorelei. “I think we should find a place to land,” he yelled to her over the rushing wind. “The others are getting cold.”

Lorelei turned to him and her expression made him cold. Her vivid green eyes appeared as great, dark orbs in the shadows of her face and the firm set of her mouth told him that she still had not forgotten his words to Heather. Without any warning, she gave the command for Winterdusk to dive, aiming for a small clearing barely discernible in the failing light of day.

The other griffons did not even wait for their riders to instruct them to dive, following after Winterdusk on their own, either knowing the commands were coming or out of a desire not to be separated. In wide circles, they lost altitude until they at last landing in a small grassy area, roughly the size of a baseball diamond. The wood around them, while thinner than those of Glenfold, were dark and forbidding, causing Heather and Wilkey to glance about them nervously as the griffons squawked to each other loudly.

Each rider dismounted. Marcus slid off his saddle and felt his knees buckled beneath his weight. He had never been much of a horseman, preferring to walk even in these lands when he chose not to use his abilities to teleport, and found the weakness of his legs disconcerting. He recalled seeing in some well-made Western movies how the riders would dismount after a long ride and squat down a few times to resume proper circulation to their legs. Marcus did this and found the exercise to be of enormous help, the numbness in his legs replaced with a dull, aching pain, that nevertheless gave him full strength in his muscles.

Heather, he saw, was doing the same, though she had obviously not felt the effects of the ride like Marcus had, being an experienced rider. Wilkey slid off Sunbeam and all the way down to a sitting position upon the grass, leaning against the griffon’s powerful hind leg for support while he gasped for air.

Lorelei swung off her saddle and landed lightly on the ground below, walking toward them as soon as her feet touched the dewy grass. She looked like she suffered no effects from the long ride and Marcus found himself feeling jealous.

The elf stopped in the center of the clearing and looked around for a moment. “I know where we are,” she said simply. “There is an inn where we can stay not far from here. We can leave the griffons here and return for them in the morning.”

A pang of dread rose in Marcus at the thought of leaving the griffons. They would certainly be in no danger with their many physical defenses, claws and beaks, as well as their ability to flee into the sky should the odds overwhelm them, but Marcus could not escape the feeling that parting ways from the griffons would leave them, at best, with no other transportation to the Fell Lands than their own feet. Still, he trusted Loralai’s judgment, despite her obvious negativity toward him at the moment, and retrieved his pack from the side of the saddle.

The others did the same, slinging their packs over their shoulders and wordlessly falling into step behind Lorelei as she walked to the edge of the wood. As they neared the tree line, a path appeared before them, although it still remained practically invisible to the humans and the halfling. Lorelei walked confidently forward, not slowing her stride as she left the patch of grass. As they followed, the others walked in single file and met no resistance from the underbrush the could barely see growing up wild all around them. The elf knew this way well, they saw, and Marcus wondered how many times Lorelei had walked this particular path, or if her enhanced eyesight simply made the clear way more obvious to her.

They walked for some time, no one saying a word in the hushing darkness of the forest. All around them, they could hear birds singing their night songs and crickets providing their rhythmic string music. A deer exploded from the underbrush at one point, startling all of them except Lorelei, who only paused a moment while the others collected themselves before continuing on in silence.

At last they came to another clearing where a sprawling two-story building rose in the darkness. Welcoming slivers of light could be seen in the shuttered windows and faint voices could be heard from within. From a point farther around the clearing, the dark outline of a thin road could be seen like a black ribbon along the ground, barely visible in the starlight.

“What is this place?” Marcus asked. “I don’t recall ever coming here.”

Lorelei turned to look at him, her face impassive. “It wasn’t here the last time you visited these lands. We built it here as a means of alerting Glenfold of any threat from Amadyr. Our scouts that travel to the Fell Lands use it as a place to rest before tackling the mountains.”

“You said it was an inn.”

“And so it is,” Lorelei returned with a note of impatience. “We also take in travelers to these lands as need arises. We find it the best way to keep Amadyr from guessing our true intentions.”

Marcus doubted that if Amadyr knew of the inn, she would have thought it simply an elven business venture. The dragon, despite her physical incapacity, still possessed a powerful mind or else Lanian would not have sent him to her with his problem. He looked up over the dark canopy of trees on the other side of the building and could vaguely see the outline of the Norag Mountains, jutting upward like rotted teeth in the distance. On the other side, the Fell Lands stretched out for an unknown distance under the complete control of the Great Onewing.

They came to the inn and could hear the voices more distinctly now. The building was a simple design, built of logs that reminded Marcus of the homes in a Shaker community he visited as a child in Kentucky. No sign hung outside advertising it as a rest stop for weary travelers and he wondered how anyone knew of its existence in such a remote area. The last time he passed through these lands, the road had been there, but it led only into the mountains where the dwarves dwelled inside their cavernous mines. No one he knew took the road into the mountains, so close to the Fell and the dwarven gate, which was known all around as an inhospitable place littered with cunning traps designed to deter trespassers.

Lorelei put the fingertips of her right hand upon the wood door. Immediately, the voices within stopped talking. Footsteps, advancing quickly, could be heard coming to the door and a female voice came from inside.

“Who is it?”

The voice did not sound fearful, but Marcus detected a wariness in its tone.

“It is Lorelei.”

A slot in the door opened and two slanted elven eyes peered out at them. They scanned each member of the party, having to raise up to the visual limits allowed by the small window to see the diminutive Wilkey. The window snapped shut and for a long time nothing happened. Then, the door opened, spilling warm light upon them.

Lorelei entered first, not looking back to the others. She offered no introduction to the the female elf that stood by the door, nor to the male who sat in a chair in the room just inside the door. Instead, she walked straight through to the back of the building and disappeared into a room, shutting the door softly behind her.

Marcus looked at the two elves that had let them in and smiled. “We thank you for your hospitality. I am Marcus and these are Heather and Wilkey.”

The male elf nodded in greeting, but the female stared down the hallway where Lorelei had disappeared a moment before. She wore a concerned look which vanished as she turned again to regard Marcus. “Yes, we are glad to have you. It gets rather lonely being out here with so few visitors. I am Valista and this is Polan.” She motioned to the male elf, who nodded again, and then gave another quick look down the hall in Loralai’s wake. “I imagine you are all very hungry. We have prepared a meal, though it will be cold soon if you do not eat straight away.”

“Thank you again,” Marcus said. He turned to look at Heather and Wilkey, both of them standing by the door with awkward looks on their faces. Both held their packs in their hands and the halfling was looking around as though trying to decide where to set it down.

“Valista,” Marcus said as the elf turned to lead them to their dinner. “Is there somewhere where we can put our things and freshen up before we eat.”

The elf raised her hands to her mouth and gave a small gasp. “Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Like I said, we’re not used to many visitors. Usually the only ones we get are elves who regularly come here and treat the place as a second home. Please follow me.”

Valista led them up a narrow staircase to another hallway that mirrored the one down which Lorelei had left them. She motioned to the six doors that flanked the hall. “Choose any you like. They’re all the same, more or less, although the last on the right has a wider bed than the others.” She gave Marcus a meaningful look that she smoothly shifted to Heather before returning back down the stairs.

Heather thanked Valista as she passed and stepped by Marcus to enter the first room on the right, shutting the door behind her as Lorelei had done. Wilkey walked down the hall to the room with the larger bed that Valista had mentioned and entered, smiling at Marcus as he did so. Sighing, Marcus took the first room on the left.

The quarters were small, but comfortable. A large rug covered most of the wood plank floor and a bed that Marcus guessed would equate to a twin size in his world stood in the center of the far wall, the sheets already turned down. A desk sat in one corner with an oil lamp atop it, lit and turned down low so that its soft light danced across the room. On a small table near the window, a ceramic jug and basin sat ready, faint wisps of steam floating out the top, and a thick towel lay beside them.

Setting his pack down at the foot of the bed, Marcus stepped to the table and, taking the jug in hand, poured some water in the basin. He noted that as soon as he placed the jug back upon the table, it refilled itself, the warm water rising again to within a few inches of the top. He stared at the magical device, so simple in its purpose, and felt a sudden pang of loss. Such simple magic he could have done in his sleep as a child, but now he was forced to confront a dangerous enemy in the thin hope that he could move the boulder blocking his access to those abilities. Putting his hands in the warm water, feeling the muscles relax from their exertion holding the reins of the griffon, he sighed and closed his eyes.

“Is there really any hope?” he asked himself aloud.

Finding no answer in the otherwise empty room, he washed his hands and face, toweling them dry, and left the room to return downstairs for dinner.

Walking down the steps, Marcus heard steps approaching and saw Lorelei sweep by below him. He saw that she carried a plain wooden bowl in which a small assortment of different foods was neatly arranged, though she passed too quickly for him to see what she was eating. She did not look up the stairs at him, either not hearing him descending or still ignoring him. Marcus assumed the latter knowing the advanced senses the elves possessed as a race. He heard a door open and shut, then proceeded down the stairs.

Lorelei had returned to the room into which she had disappeared earlier. The door was shut and Marcus, seeing no one else, walked quietly down to it. He wanted to talk to her, reason with her, tell her how confused he was. He wanted to talk to her alone, without fear of interruption, even though he knew the temptation to give in to the power of those green eyes may be too much for him to withstand.

He raised his hand and started to knock on the door, but his hand stopped just a few inches short of striking the wood. He heard steps from the hall above and could not tell if they belonged to Wilkey or Heather. In either case, he did not want them seeing him about to knock on Loralai’s door, particularly not Heather, and moved quickly away up the hall, pretending to be exploring the back reaches of the house.

The footsteps came down the stairs quickly and Marcus saw Wilkey appear at the bottom. He turned, caught sight of Marcus, and started to speak before Marcus raised a warning hand, telling him to be quiet. Wilkey stared at him for a moment, not understanding, so Marcus pointed his thumb at the door Lorelei had shut behind her when they entered the inn. The halfling nodded his comprehension and motioned for Marcus to follow him.

“Nice place,” Marcus whispered when he reached the stairway again.

“Nicer than most of the inns I’ve been in,” the halfling agreed. “Although probably not much of a money maker. Not enough rooms.”

Marcus considered this, then remembering that the business side of the inn simply fronted its true purpose of keeping a watch on Amadyr, he elected not to open the topic for discussion.

“What’s with her?” Wilkey whispered, throwing his head back in the direction of Loralai’s door.”

“She thinks she’s in love with me.” Marcus could not hide the note of sadness in his voice, saying that he really did not believe what he had just said. He knew that Lorelei loved him. No woman could get that angry at anyone other than someone she loved.

“And what do you think?” the halfling asked.

“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Marcus said. “I just want to speak to Amadyr and get back my powers so I can defeat this Necromancer. I’m going to give up on women.”

“A wise choice, my friend,” Wilkey said, smiling. He clapped his small hand on Marcus’s back and they walked to the dining room adjacent to the room they had first entered inside the inn. They had not been showed the location of the room, but a wonderful smell of cooked meat drifted down the hall and they only had to follow the tempting aroma to find the table.

When they entered the dining room, Valista and Polan were already there, seated at the far end away from the door. Another door on that end led to what Marcus assumed was the kitchen. The table held many plates and bowls full of a delicious range of foods—roasted venison, vegetables, cheeses, and others—and beside each of the three plates sat a goblet filled with an amber liquid. The mingling scents of the different dishes intoxicated Marcus and he saw Wilkey’s nostrils flaring, taking in the same olfactory bliss as he.

“Please sit,” Valista said. “I’m sure you must be starving after your long journey.”

“Yes,” Wilkey answered simply, seating himself at the table.

Marcus studied the three places that had been set for them. “I guess Lorelei won’t be joining us?” he asked, knowing the answer before he did.

Valista smiled, but not before a look of concern passed over her face like the shadow of a cloud. “She said she was not feeling well and needed a little time to herself. She told me to ask your pardons.”

Taking the seat at the head of the table opposite Polan, he looked over and saw Wilkey already piling food upon his plate, lustily gazing at the dishes while he made his selections.

“This is a very nice place,” Marcus repeated, this time to their hosts. “It’s a shame it is so far from Glenfold.”

“Yes,” Valista sighed. “We do miss our home, but this assignment is a great honor for us. It does get lonely sometimes, but the solitude is great for elves like us.”

Marcus looked at Polan and agreed. The male elf had yet to speak a word to them. Had he not heard the two of them speaking from outside the door as they approached, Marcus might have thought him mute. He was handsome enough, though he appeared to be nearing middle age, whatever that meant for elves. His hair, cut extremely short to his scalp, was mostly black, but a patch of gray appeared over each pointed ear and swept backward as if someone had swiped him on each side with a paintbrush.

As Marcus finished filling his plate, he heard steps from the hall and for a half second thought Lorelei had decided to join them after all. Instead, Heather came through he door, sniffing the air like a hungry dog and when Marcus saw her, he let his fork, half raised to his mouth, drop back to the plate.

Heather stood in the doorway wearing a pale blue dress, cut perfectly to accentuate her body. The material clung to her curves in all the right places, Marcus saw, and revealed enough skin below the neck and above the ankle to be conservative and enticing at the same time. The dress was simple, lacking any adornment save a small silver oak leaf attached to the base of each of the two thin straps that rose up her chest and disappeared over her shoulder. Even her hair looked different, Marcus saw, as she had pulled it up and fixed it in a loose bun, showing off the perfect skin of her neck and shoulders.

Everyone in the room remained silent until Heather began to blush with embarrassment. “This dress was on the bed,” she said. “I hope it’s okay that I put it on.”

“Of course it is,” Valista said, waving her hand. “That’s why I put it up there. It’s sized more for a human, and I knew you would want something to get you out of your traveling clothes, even for just one night.”

“Thank you,” Heather said, her voice low with touched sincerity.

“It’s nothing,” Valista assured her. “Now, please sit and eat.”

Heather did, sneaking a quick glance at Marcus to ensure he was still staring raptly at her, which he was. In all the troubles of their relationship, Marcus realized that he sometimes lost track of how beautiful she truly was. All thought of food, however delicious, left his mind as he stared fixedly at the woman sitting next to him.

Heather leaned over toward him, showing him a little more cleavage and causing his heart to beat rapidly. “Quit gawking,” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

Marcus did, though he continued to peek at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.

They each ate their fill, engaging in small talk between mouthfuls, and when they finished the meal, Marcus could not remember the last time he felt so full. Beside him, Wilkey leaned back in his chair, patted his stomach, and groaned.

“That ought to hold me over for a couple of hours,” the halfling said.

“You ate enough to hold me over for a month,” Heather told him.

“You need to eat more,” Wilkey returned. “You’re too skinny.”

Heather barked a laugh. Marcus knew that she had been unjustly self-conscious of her weight since reaching adolescence and he hoped the good-natured remark would not ruin her obvious good mood. Instead, he saw, she smiled and looked at Marcus, as though they were sharing some inside joke. He assumed she was thinking the same thing about her self-image, but could not be sure, so he smiled and raised one eyebrow in response. He hoped the gesture would be enigmatic enough to make her think he knew exactly what she meant.

“So, how long has it been since you’ve seen any activity from Amadyr?” Marcus asked, changing the subject. He saw that Valista and Polan exchanged glances.

“We haven’t seen any sign of her since she returned to the Fells,” Polan answered, shocking Marcus by breaking his long silence. “I think she’s dead.”

Polan looked at Valista. “I also think that we have been here too long and that the time has come for us to return to the protection of Glenfold. There are many other dangers in these times than a dead dragon.”

Marcus saw another look pass between the two elves and could tell, based on Polan’s tone and his dark glance at Valista, that the thought of them giving up their assignment and returning to the elven kingdom was a source of some tension between them. Had he been isolated away from civilization for nearly fifteen years, Marcus imagined he would feel the same way.

“Have you not even been allowed to visit your home since you’ve been out here?” Heather asked, seeming to read Marcus’s thoughts.

“We have,” Valista said. “Four times a year we are replaced for two weeks at a time. We return home, but as neither of us have any family there, we are usually ready to return after a few days.”

Polan looked again at Valista, his countenance countering what she had just said. Speak for yourself, his eyes said.

Heather could see the same tension as Marcus. Turning to him, she raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes slightly, as if to say “these two have problems.” Marcus returned the look, though he was considering whether he and Heather appeared the same way around others. No one had ever asked if there was some trouble between them, which is why it came as such a surprise when their relationship crumbled the way it did. Now, he knew seeing the interaction between the two elves, that no one needed to ask. The issues in their relationship were obvious, completely obvious to anyone except him.

The conversation continued on for nearly an hour before being interrupted by a loud noise from beside Marcus. Wilkey had fallen asleep, his head leaned back against the chair, and was snoring with miraculous volume for such a small body. Those still conscious at the table shared a good laugh, Heather even looking at Marcus for a moment with a gleeful twinkle in her eyes that made his heart jump.

“Yes, it is late and I’m sure you will need your rest before your day’s travels tomorrow,” Valista said. “I think we will retire as well.”

Polan, surprisingly to Marcus, offered no argument to this suggestion. The two elves had disagreed over every other topic during their conversation—from the fate of Amadyr to the politics of their home kingdom. Rising, the male elf left the table, muttering a quick “Good night” to the visitors. As he walked through the kitchen, Valista watched him, her eyes sad to the point of tears.

“He’s normally much more jovial than he is tonight,” she said. “He was never very social, even before he and I married, but the strain of this assignment is getting to him—the uncertainty over the fate of Amadyr and the threat of the Necromancer—it’s more of a waiting game than even he has the patience for.”

Marcus and Heather both bid Valista a good night, then woke Wilkey. The halfling lowered his head down to its proper position and rubbed his eyes.

“Time for breakfast, already?” he asked.

I have some new and exciting things planned for here soon.  Well, new anyway.  Maybe even some old things done again in a new way.  I’m crazy like that.

In the meantime, we continue our tale following Marcus and Heather around on their journey through that dangerous realm we know as “relationships”.

Chapter 9

Wilkey walked through the streets of Glenfold in a foul temper. He absently rubbed his wrists and checked them often to see if the manacles had left marks. It was still early morning, the sun had not appeared over the horizon and probably would not that day as Wilkey observed the thick gray clouds still hanging over the land. He knew he probably should not be out by himself at such an odd time, given his unfounded reputation as a thief, but he certainly did not want to vent his temper on Marcus or Heather, both of whom would likely return the favor and double it for good measure.

He thought about them as a couple and decided that, despite the obvious attraction they both had for each other, they were ill-suited to be more than friends. Heather had told him that they were just that, but the halfling knew better. No friends of the opposite sex could aggravate one another that much unless they had shared the same bed. He saw problems on both sides of the relationship, particularly that he seemed to pay little attention to her unless he was saving her life and she did not appreciate it when he did.

Still, Heather had been quite concerned after their episode crossing the border into Glenfold and for the first time since they had left Yellow Banks, she had not been afraid to show that she truly cared for Marcus. He, likewise, proved his love by his valiant, if ill-advised, rescue of the damsel in distress.

For some time, Wilkey walked through the streets, slowly beginning to bear elves on their way to their daily tasks. They all gave him wary looks as he passed, as if he carried some sort of plague that may infect them should he get too close, but no one questioned his motivations for being out so early on a dreary morning. He came at last to the large common area that lay in the center of the elven city. Always finding the place restful in his previous visits, mostly with Marcus during his younger days, he strolled onto the grass and breathed deeply, smelling the wet earth and lush grass.

He found that he had entered the common close to the massive stone fountain that dominated its center. Ornately carved with scenes of rich symbolism to the elves that he could not fathom, he stepped forward to admire it as he had done many times, watching the great jet of water spring into the air before separating into thousands of tiny droplets before splashing to the wide pool below.

As he reached the fountain, however, he found that he was not the only one out admiring it so early in the day. A beautiful red-haired elven girl, the one they had seen at the riverbank, sat on the edge of the fountain and stared into it shifting waters. Her eyes were rimmed with red to match her hair and Wilkey knew the streaks of water on her cheeks did not come from being too close to the falling water. Sitting with her legs pulled up tight to her chest, she did not notice him until he was standing right beside her and his appearance made her jump slightly.

“Sorry, Lorelei,” Wilkey said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you saw me coming up.”

Lorelei, her face turned back to the base of the fountain, shook her head. “No, I was lost in thought and didn’t see you at all, Wilkey.”

The halfling motioned to the flat stone ledge of the basin next to her. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked.

“No, not at all.”

Wilkey did so, keeping his eyes on the young elven maiden as she stared into the water and through it into the more turbulent depths of her mind. For a long time he said nothing, trying to decide the exact thing that brought her here in such a disposition. He decided that, rather than take an ill-advised guess, he would wait for her to answer the question on her own, so he sat and waited, hands folded in his lap waiting for her to burst with whatever was bothering her.

He did not wait long.

“Who is she?” Lorelei blurted out. “Are they together? Did she come here with him?”

The questions flew at the halfling in rapid succession so that he could barely make out what she was saying. He guessed that seeing Heather with Marcus would create a problem and he took some satisfaction in knowing that he was right, but seeing the look of anguish on the elf’s beautiful face, he wished that somehow he could have been wrong.

Electing to keep what he suspected existed between Marcus and Heather out of the conversation, he repeated what Heather had told him during their camp a few nights before. “They’re just friends. They argue all the time when they’re not ignoring each other.”

“Then why did he risk his own life to save hers?”

Wilkey had no answer at first. “You know how Marcus is,” he said at last, his voice hesitant. “Always has to be saving someone.”

If Lorelei found the halfling’s response comforting, she gave no sign. She turned her head again to stare at the water, watching the droplets forming thousands of rings that floated out from each drop until the surface of the pool danced with their tiny waves.

“Has he mentioned me at all?” Lorelei asked.

“Yes,” he assured her. “In fact, we talked about you before we reached the border.”

“What did he say?”

Wilkey’s mind raced for something that sounded better than the truth, some embellishment that would set her heart more at ease. “He just said he wondered how you were and if he would be able to see you while he was here.”

Lorelei turned to look at him, her intense green eyes boring into his. Wilkey felt a strong sensation that she was peering into him, trying to determine if he was lying. If she found evidence one way or the other, she did not say. He decided to change the subject.

“So, how have you been?” he asked. “I hear that the situation on the border has grown worse.”

Lorelei did not answer. Her eyes were once again on the pool of water, but her focus was somewhere far away. “Why did he bring her?” she asked, not bothering to look up.

“He said something about her being necessary to defeat the Necromancer,” Wilkey said. “That’s why he had to protect her at the river, he needs her for some reason or he can’t challenge the Dark One.”

She considered this for a long time. Wilkey sat fidgeting, growing more and more uncomfortable with the conversation and his inability to direct it elsewhere. Finally, she turned her whole body, letting her long legs fall over the side and her bare feet to touch the grass below. Tears fell again down the flawless skin of her cheeks.

“I drove him away,” she whispered. “I don’t know how, but I did. This is the first time he’s been back since . . . since . . .” She turned her head back and looked at the fountain, sending its pillar of water high into the air above them.

Wilkey sat dumbfounded. He had no idea what Lorelei was talking about, nor did he believe that she had anything to do with Marcus leaving for such a long time. Reaching out with a tentative hand, he patted her back.

“No, I doubt that,” he said in what he hoped was a reassuring voice. “He’s just been busy with other things.”

“Like her,” Lorelei whispered.

Another long, heavy silence fell upon them. Wilkey did not know how to respond to Lorelei’s insecurities so that she would feel better, so, against his nature, he said nothing for some time. Eventually, though, the halfling could not control himself.

“Besides,” he said. “Marcus hasn’t been very good company lately. Other than that bit at the river, a pretty good feat, of course, he’s lost all his power.”

Lorelei stood quickly, startling Wilkey so badly that he nearly fell into the fountain. “I don’t care,” she said. “He still has power over me.”

Without waiting for a response, the elf walked away from the fountain and was soon gone from the halfling’s sight.

 

Marcus returned to the room where he had spent the night recovering and found Heather awake, staring at the window. It amused him to see that she had wiped the spittle her gaping mouth had left on the glass, but his good humor did not last long.

“Where have you been?” Heather spat. “Out visiting some elven girlfriend?”

Marcus took a step back and stared at Heather in shock. In their years together, he had never known her to be jealous, even when he would comment on how attractive another woman was. She often criticized him on his taste in women and assured him that, since he had found someone so wonderful, that he should leave well enough alone. Also, and more disturbing to Marcus, was the fact that she seemed to know or at least suspect something about Lorelei. He had been thinking about what Wilkey had said about his childhood friend as they approached Glenfold and he wondered if the halfling had been too forthcoming with his information while Marcus slept.

“No,” he finally said, assuming an incredulous expression. “I woke up, saw you were still asleep, and went to visit with the king.”

“Oh, is that what you call her?” Heather snarled.

“Yes . . . no . . . ,” Marcus stammered. “Look, I’ll take you to meet him if you like. He was like a father to me growing up, but he’s very ill and seeing him that way has really gotten me down, so if you’ll get off my back, I’d greatly appreciate it.” His voice rose as he finished his statement, signaling the elevation in his anger as he defended himself from Heather’s attacks.

Heather glared at Marcus through narrowed eyes. “Who’s this Lorelei person you were talking about in your sleep?”

Marcus felt his jaw drop as though it had suddenly turned to lead. Now he knew why she was so suspicious of him, but he could do nothing to prevent looking guilty with the revelation that he had been talking about Lorelei while he dreamed of their parting at the fountain. He knew every moment he waited to respond dug him deeper into the hole he was burying himself in, but his brain had seized entirely. All thought processes screeched to a halt as he searched frantically for a way out of the argument.

Finally, Heather decided that he was not going to answer. “I want you to take me home, Marcus,” she said. “You’ve had some really bad ideas in the past, but this one really tops them all.”

Heather turned and looked out the window, arms crossed over her chest. Marcus could see the firm set of her jaw as she waited for him to refuse her request, allowing the pressure to build so that when he did say no, she would explode on him like Krakatoa, loud enough to be heard for miles around. He even saw her trembling in the muted light spilling in through the glass, tiny earthquakes foreshadowing the fury she was about to unleash.

Instead of arguing, which he knew would only make the devastation more complete, he turned on his heels and walked out of the room. He realized that in doing so, it would confirm, at least to Heather, that there was someone else, but he found that he did not care at that moment what she thought.

Soon, his feet had carried him out of the royal residence, leading him to any destination where he would not have to deal with Heather and her accusations. He could see, angry though he was, where she would find reason to be concerned if he had mentioned Lorelei’s name in his sleep and he wondered if that name would prove to be the final nail in the coffin before they buried their relationship forever.

Marcus paid no attention to where he was going as he walked the streets bathed in dull gray light from the overcast sky. His subconscious directed him as though following some map from his memory of the city, pulling him down this street and that, between buildings he half remembered and others that he had no recollection of at all. After some time, how long he could not tell with the sun hidden behind the thick clouds, he found himself walking on lush green grass as the faint sound of falling water reached his ears.

Looking up in surprise, Marcus found himself facing the fountain he had raced Lorelei to in his dream. Such a strong feeling of déjà vu swept over him that he shivered. The feeling was so compelling that he thought for a moment that he would break into a run to try to reach the fountain before the lightning-fast elven girl could overtake him. At the same time, he wanted to be as far from the fountain as possible. Many years had passed since his last meeting with Lorelei and the wisdom of age and the precision of foresight had shown him why she had fled from him that day. Still, if Wilkey was to be believed, always a dangerous endeavor, what Marcus had attributed to an unrequited crush, puppy love, actually went much deeper.

As if pulled directly from his mind, he looked up at the fountain again and saw Wilkey sitting on the lip of the basin, hailing him over. He looked around quickly without realizing he was doing it to see if he had perhaps generated Lorelei from his thoughts as well, but saw no trace of her red tresses. Turning his attention back to the fountain, he saw the halfling gesturing more emphatically, waving his arms as though he was directing a jumbo jet into its gate.

Knowing he would only create more animosity and questions if he turned and fled, Marcus walked slowly toward Wilkey, the sounds of falling water growing louder with each step, drop after drop resounding in his memory like the familiar notes of a bittersweet love song. He reached the basin at last, finding it exactly the same as it had been those years before, and sat down next to the halfling, staring at his own folded hands resting in his lap.

“You just missed her,” Wilkey said.

Marcus did not ask who the halfling meant. There was no need. Before he could stop himself, his head darted up and scanned the common area and the columned building beyond where he had last seen the blazing red hair disappearing into his memory. Not seeing any trace of Lorelei and feeling embarrassed for his reaction to the mention of her, he returned his gaze to his hands.

He could no longer deny that he wished to see Lorelei again. Aside from his recent troubles with Heather, he felt growing curiosity about the elven girl he had left behind in Glenfold. In some secluded portion of his mind, he had been imagining what his life would be like if only he had returned her kiss as they rested where he now sat. He began to draw her in his mind even before they approached Glenfold’s borders, how the beautiful girl would have matured into a breathtaking adult. The thought brought him guilty pleasure and he thanked good fortune that Heather could not, as yet, read his mind so completely as to extract that well-guarded secret.

“It’s probably better that you did, though,” the halfling continued, seeing that Marcus was not likely to comment. “She was rather emotional.”

“Why?” Marcus asked, regretting immediately that he had done so.

“You,” Wilkey answered simply.

Marcus had expected the answer, but his foresight did not lessen the impact the single word made on him. He winced as though the halfling had slapped him, seeing at last the truth of his situation, that his very complicated life continued to to grow more complicated every second with no hope of working itself out to any satisfactory conclusion.

Part of him, a small part, felt angry at Lorelei. Just when he thought things could not get much worse, she had imposed her emotional baggage upon him and made him feel a good deal of guilt in the process, not only for how he had treated her on his last visit to Glenfold, but also for his current visit, arriving powerless and nearly hopeless, half-dead at the border, and bearing another woman alongside him. Regardless of the true state of his relationship with Heather, bringing her to the elven lands would no doubt create a tense situation with Lorelei should the two of them meet. She obviously knew about his return and about Heather, and Marcus knew that she would expect the worst, that he had brought the woman from his own world because she was his mate.

“What did she say?” Marcus asked at last, unable to resist.

“She asked me about Heather,” the halfling asked. “Why you had brought her and what she meant to you.”

Marcus felt sick as he imagined Wilkey telling Lorelei about his relationship with Heather. Knowing about the two of them, she would likely hide away until he had gone from Glenfold, probably never to see Marcus again.

“She saw you at the river, saw you coming out with Heather,” Wilkey continued. “She asked why you would risk your life for her.”

Marcus put his hand over his eyes.

“And what did you tell her?”

Wilkey looked at him in surprise. “Well, I told her you were just friends. That you didn’t know why you needed to bring her, you just knew she had something to do with stopping the Necromancer.”

Marcus looked up at the halfling. “You didn’t tell her that Heather and I are . . . ?”

“No,” the halfling said, looking incredulous. “She was already crying. Do you think I wanted to make matters worse by telling her that.”

Marcus did not answer. He felt a sudden lightness in his abdomen, as though someone had just removed a heavy stone from the middle of it. For the first time in days, some part of this quest had gone better than he had expected. A subtle pang of guilt still crept around his joy, a thought that he should not be nearly so glad to still have a chance at a woman who was not Heather. He knew deep down he still loved her, but the prospect of being with Lorelei in her absence made his relationship woes seem much less important.

Standing, Marcus turned back to the halfling. “You don’t know how grateful I am for that. You’re right, she doesn’t need to be any more upset that she already is. Perhaps when we get back, I can sit and talk with her about everything.” He smiled at Wilkey, feeling good despite his extreme weariness. “I think I’m going to take a nap, and then we’ll set off this afternoon.”

Wilkey decided to go gather supplies for the next leg of their journey and they parted ways, agreeing to meet at the fountain later in the day. Marcus walked back toward the king’s home, feeling the lightness in his step fade as he realized what he would have to do once they left the protective borders of Glenfold. What the old king had said terrified him and he knew that once he told Heather and Wilkey where they were going, they too would be even more scared than he.

Across forest and hill they would travel, into barrens and wastes, through innumerable agents of the Necromancer and other obstacles, but in the end, it was the destination that worried Marcus the most. The one place in all this strange, dangerous land that he did not want visit was now the place he urgently needed to get to. The odds of learning how to restore his power there seemed astronomical, but Lanian had said that his only hope, their only hope, lay in Marcus reaching that site that had meant death for so many and somehow extracting the information he needed, the secret only she would know.

Despite all his efforts to think of another solution, Marcus accepted that his only hope now lay with the last being who would ever want to help him, who hated him above all things.

He returned to the king’s home, knowing that far beyond the borders of Glenfold, Amadyr waited.

Marcus slept for a few hours, the gray light of day not bothering him at all in his exhaustion. Heather had not been in the room when he returned, nor were any of her things. A food tray had been brought and left for him, a delicious assortment of fruits and breads, and he ate greedily before lying down to rest.

When he awoke, there was still no sign of Heather. He wondered idly where she had gone, but did not concern himself too much. Even if she was angry enough, and foolish enough, to attempt to leave Glenfold on her own, he knew the elves would not permit her to travel beyond the borders without him. Dressing leisurely from the fresh robes laid out for him by the elves, he gathered his pack which had been recovered from the river and set out to consult with the king once more before leaving his hospitality for the dangers of the wild.

He found Lanian once again in his throne room, but this time he was not alone. Sitting at his feet, where Marcus had been that morning, sat Lorelei.

She did not look the same as she had as a child, nor did she match the image of her he had created en route to Glenfold. Rather, her beauty seemed divine, far beyond anything his imagination could create. Her red hair, flowing in long waves down her back, looked fuller than he remembered, like molten rock flowing from a volcano. Her light skin, flawless and unmarked, glowed with a vibrancy that made her look more like a goddess than anyone who would eventually suffer the indignity of death. Her green eyes drew him in like a magnet draws an iron filing, pulling the air from his lungs at the same time. In breathless silence, he stood in the open doorway and stared at Lorelei, losing all sense of time and place.

After what could have been an eternity, the elven king broke the silence.a

“Come in and shut the door, Marcus,” Lanian said. “Elves my age are very susceptible to drafts.”

Marcus felt hot blood rise into his cheeks as he turned and shut the door, slamming it loudly in his anxiety. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before turning back to face Lorelei and the king, hoping to regain his composure. When he did bring his eyes to bear on them again, he felt his breath stolen from him again, but he fought to retain control and walked toward them, feeling the room grow hotter with each step he took toward Lorelei. He tried not to look at her, but the starkness of the room and the gravity of her beauty made that impossible.

“Lorelei,” the king began, sweeping his hand in her direction, “has requested to accompany you on the remainder of your journey. While I cannot pull any warriors from their duties protecting our borders, I can assure you that she is a capable fighter in her own right, having been in charge of securing the city for some time now. I realize that you knew her as a child, but I encourage you to not let those memories cloud your judgment. She will make a worthy addition to your party, should you decide to let her join.”

Marcus stood speechless. His mind reeled from this turn of events, and he fought fiercely to restart his thought process which seemed to have completely shut down. Then, dozens of thoughts exploded into being at once, each vying for prominence at the front of his consciousness. On one hand, he wanted Lorelei to accompany him to the ends of the earth, seeing her again drawing for emotions for her that he did not know he had. At the same time, he was terrified at the thought of her and Heather traveling in the same party, knowing that each could, and probably would, ruin his chances with the other. The two conflicting impulses pulled at each other with such strength that Marcus became dizzy.

“I . . . I . . .” he stammered, not sure at all what to say, “I . . . okay.”

He had not known he was going to agree until his mouth released the word. He seemed much more stunned by his acceptance than either of the elves before him, both looking at him in patient anticipation.

“Very well,” Lanian said, sounding pleased. “I trust you’ll be leaving immediately. I know how urgently you wish to continue on your quest. Please know that the thoughts of the elves of Glenfold go with you.”

Marcus took the king’s words as his cue to leave, and turned to walk to the door. He could not hear Lorelei’s soft footfalls behind him, but he knew she was there, could feel her appraising gaze on his back. Exiting the throne room, he allowed her to pass and quietly shut the door behind them, leaving the two of them alone in the corridor.

Immediately, Lorelei flung her arms around Marcus’s neck. She pressed herself against him, holding him tightly and Marcus unconsciously returned the embrace. The smell of her thick hair, sweet and inviting, intoxicated him as the long tresses blocked everything else from his vision.

After an eternity of holding one another, the two parted, reluctantly, each maintaining contact as long as possible to not completely lose the moment. Marcus found that his tongue had glued itself to the roof of his mouth, allowing him only a dumb smile in response to Lorelei’s glittering gaze. He found himself drawn again into her green eyes as the memory of the day at the fountain flooded back. The whole room seemed to move around them, space itself altering to draw them closer. Another strong feeling of déjà vu shook Marcus and he imagined that he could hear falling water just behind him. At last, the distance between them, spanning two worlds and many years, closed as their lips touched.

Electricity seemed to pour through Marcus. Every muscle, every nerve, seemed to blaze with fire as he pressed his lips to Lorelei’s. The kiss proved to be more than he had imagined, sensual and innocent, light and fierce. Reaching up, he ran his fingers into her hair, then ran his hand slowly down the side of her face, caressing the soft, perfect skin. Finally they parted, leaving Marcus breathless again, but also slightly disturbed. Hidden away from the heat that flowed through him as he kissed Lorelei, a small, but tangible, spot of guilt lay frozen in his gut, telling him through the blinding passion that, despite their troubles, he loved another.

Marcus took an involuntary step backward, afraid that he would kiss her again if he remained so close to her. Lorelei remained still, staring at him with unabashed affection as he tried to regroup.

“I told Wilkey to meet us at . . . “ he paused, knowing what effect the rest of the statement would have on the elf, “the fountain around now. We’d better get going.”

“Yes, Marcus, but we have one more place to stop after the fountain,” she said. Her lips curled into a smile. “I have a surprise for you.”

Chills rippled through Marcus when he heard her mention his name, distracting him so that he only caught the general idea of what she said a few moments after she had finished speaking.

They left the king’s home together, neither speaking, both content to relish the kiss that had ended the long wait for both of them. Marcus felt a strong compulsion to take her hand as they walked, but Lorelei slipped out of his reach just as he was about to give in.

“I’ll race you,” she said, a mischievous glint in her luminous eyes.

Marcus smiled at her. “You’re on.”

Instead of running, though, Lorelei stepped quickly toward Marcus, seizing his head with her delicate hands, and kissed him again, her lips pressing urgently against his. Marcus felt his head swim, then she let go, springing back away from him. Turning gracefully on her heel, she trotted down the street backwards, waving at him as she took the lead.

Marcus snapped back to reality, realizing he was giving her a head start. “Hey,” he shouted, “that’s cheating.”

Laughing, he ran after her, feeling more giddy than he ever did racing her as a boy. He knew then as now that he stood no chance of winning the race, but that did not seem to matter. All he could think of was getting to the fountain and lying on the edge of its basin, becoming lost in those green eyes and soft lips.

He ran on, relying on his memory to guide him through the mostly deserted streets. While he was not nearly as fleet of foot or as lightweight as he had been at twelve years of age, he was a better conditioned athlete as an adult, stronger and more disciplined. Almost all their races as children involved Marcus getting a painful stitch in his side, slowing him down to some degree as the elven girl made up ground quickly. Now, he breathed relatively easily despite running full speed through the narrow alleys and wide lanes on his way to the common area.

Bursting onto the wide sea of grass, just as he had in his memory, Marcus looked ahead and saw the fountain, its jet of water glistening in the sun. He scanned around him as he ran, seeing no sign of Lorelei, and ran harder hoping to finally end his losing streak after years of waiting.

Just then, however, he heard the sound he had been dreading. Soft padding of feet, moving impossibly fast, approached him from behind. He dared not look back, the fountain looming larger and larger in front of him. He had never held the lead so late as a child and this thought spurred him onward, drawing upon every bit of strength to pump his legs as fast as they would go.

The footsteps still closed in, soon drawing even, and then passing him in a blur of dark gray and red. Lorelei’s legs scissored back and forth, reminding Marcus of cartoons featuring the Road Runner. Accepting defeat, he pulled up, laughing hard between gasps of breath as he doubled over. When he reached the fountain, on his hands and knees, he collapsed before Lorelei who sat again on the basin’s edge, legs crossed, looking at him with amused detachment.

“So that’s where you’ve been all these years,” Lorelei laughed. “Getting faster. You almost had me that time, but I’m still too much for you.”

“I’ll say,” Marcus gasped. He rolled over, feeling the breeze slide over him as he stared upward into the thick gray clouds. Lorelei peered down at him, appearing upside down as he lay at her feet.

“Perhaps you’re getting too old for this sort of thing,” she said. Laughing, she flung herself on top of Marcus and the two of them rolled in the grass like two young children, absent of any cares of the world at large.

“What the hell is going on here?” asked a familiar voice, tinged with anger. Marcus looked around in panic and saw Heather striding across the grass, looking as though she were about to kill the next person who spoke. Beside her, Wilkey trotted along holding a large pack stuffed full with what Marcus hoped were supplies for the long trip on which they were about to embark.

Standing up quickly, Marcus and Lorelei glanced quickly at each other, then at the advancing Heather. The elf still had bits of dried grass stuck to her auburn hair and Marcus fought the urge to pick it out, knowing it would send Heather into an even bigger fit. A small part of him wanted to do it for spite, though, and he grinned despite himself.

Heather saw the grin and interpreted it as a sign of guilt. Ignoring Lorelei completely, she walked up to Marcus and stood directly in front of him, so close that he could feel her hot breath on his chin. Her face was a mask of fury, but behind it he could see a well of tears, held back only by her extreme willpower. “Who is she? Is that the girl you were talking about in your sleep?”

Marcus felt as if tiny bugs were crawling beneath every inch of his skin, the question making him highly uncomfortable. He knew every moment he hesitated to answer would double the wrath he faced from her, so he decided to do something he rarely ever did, particularly where Heather was concerned. Taking the indignation and pain she had caused by ending their relationship, he harnessed the anger he kept locked deep inside him, using it to take the offensive in his desperate hope of saving the quest that he knew, in part, depended on Heather’s participation.

Stepping forward so that Heather was forced to give ground to keep from being knocked down into the grass, Marcus unloaded his anger. “What the hell do you care? You told me that you don’t want to be with me, so why are you getting so upset to see me with someone else?” He gestured back to Lorelei, watching the scene unfold in horror. “Lorelei is an old childhood friend of mine that I have not seen for a long time and she has agreed to risk her life to go with us to try to stop the evil things that are going on here. If you want to be mad at me, that’s fine, but I think you should at least show a little respect for someone willing to risk her own life to keep you safe.”

Heather stepped back and could no longer keep the tears from falling. In thick rivulets, they streamed down her cheeks like rivers drawn on a map. She opened her mouth to speak, but for the first time since he had known her, she had been struck speechless.

Marcus pressed his advantage, hoping that by going the extra mile now, he could avoid similar confrontations later on when difficult situations arose. He pointed at her, not quite threatening, but commanding her attention. “Now, you listen to me,” he told her. “You said you want to go home, well, I can’t do that right now. I have things I have to do here and you, unfortunately, have to go with me. I can’t send you back the way we came because you’d be killed before you ever reached the cave and I can’t leave you here because for some reason that I still haven’t figured out, you’re part of this and I need you to go with me. I’m sorry if you don’t like those arrangements, but the way I see, I have nothing else to lose with you, do I?”

He lowered his hand and looked at Heather. Tears gushed from her eyes, but still she said nothing. Her lower lip trembled violently as though the muscles that operated it were being shocked by some electrical source. Her shoulders slumped and Marcus saw that her anger, her scathing cynicism, and her negative feelings toward him were melting away, revealing the loneliness, fear, and hurt that she really felt, that he made her feel by his treatment of her.

All at once, Marcus remembered why he had fallen in love with her in the first place. Beneath her rigid defenses, Heather remained a small, fearful, beautiful woman only looking for some reassurance and protection. Her beautiful brown eyes looked up at him, red-rimmed and swollen, and deep within them he could see how much she looked to him for those things and how much he had ignored her needs. By venting his frustrations, he had opened her true feelings up to him, knowing that it was he that caused her to hide them in the first place. Her heart and mind fell open before him like a book, but Marcus wondered at what price he had paid for that glimpse into her soul.

Marcus kneeled down in the grass before her and took her hands in his, heedless of anyone else around him. He looked up into her tear-streaked face and felt a burning in his own eyes. “I still love you and I still want to prove it,” he told her in a voice that he hoped only she could hear. “I need you to come with me and help me do what I need to do, then we’ll go home and get back to being us, the old us, the us that was so perfect.”

For a moment, he thought she would refuse and braced himself for it, unable to think of where to go next with his argument should the one he just made fail. Then, she smiled and squeezed his hands. “Okay,” she said, “just . . . just take care of me, okay?”

Marcus returned the smile and inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, not just because she was capitulating with his plans, but also because he had seen into the deepest part of her, the insecure, terrified part, and she had not rejected him. Rather, she had ushered him in and shut the door behind him, hoping he would save her from being so scared of this world, and theirs. He had always been somewhat attentive to her needs, physical and material ones, at least, but he now saw that he had neglected her most basic needs—those of the soul.

Heather helped pull him to his feet and Marcus turned to tell their assembled party what his plans were, but the sight of Lorelei stopped him cold. The elf stood exactly where she had risen from their play on the grass, but now her expression had gone frigid, completely devoid of emotion or color. The tiny flakes of dried grass still clung to her hair, but she paid them no mind. Her vivid eyes stared at Marcus with unreadable intention or thought, her countenance giving no indication of the internal firestorm his interaction with Heather had caused. Seeing her stoic face, Marcus wanted to channel his exasperation with her just as he had done with Heather, to burst out and ask “Now what’s the matter with you?” in the hopes that perhaps he salvage some portion of that relationship as well.

He did not, though, and finally Wilkey, still holding the heavy bag of supplies, broke the uncomfortable silence. “Well, if we’re going today, we better start out or we won’t even make it out of the city by dark,” the halfling said.

All three of them—Marcus, Heather, and Lorelei—turned to regard the halfling as if they could not understand what he was saying, or why he would be saying it in such an emotional moment. Surprisingly, Lorelei responded first.

“We’ll cover plenty of ground by nightfall,” she said in an icy tone. “I’ve arranged for transportation.” Turning, she walked away from them, leaving Marcus and the others to follow along in her wake.

Chapter 8

Honeysuckle . . .

The sweet scent in his nose stirred Marcus gently in his sleep. He did not open his eyes, only breathing in the air and smiling as happy memories from his past played in his mind like a movie. He was twelve again, running between buildings of gray stone, beautiful buildings covered with fragrant honeysuckle that bloomed all year, saturating the air with its scent. His feet, much smaller then, were pounding the narrow cobblestone lanes as he ran. Dashing past adult elves going about their own business, he muttered a steady chant of apologies. This time he knew he was going to win, after so many losses, and he sprinted even harder as he made the last turn around the corner of a tall building lined with columns and entered a wide grassy field.

A fountain stood in the center of the field, its jet of water erupting high into the cloudless sky before falling in a glittering shower into the basin below. The grass ahead of him swayed in the light wind, rippling toward the fountain as thought it would pick him up and carry him along. He tried to outrun even the waves of grass as he pelted toward the fountain, growing larger and larger in eyes as he pelted toward it. A great feeling of triumph began to fill him. His legs pumped wildly and the stitch in his side exploded with pain, but he ignored it as the thrill of victory blocked out all discomfort.

Then, his heart sank.

He heard light feet behind him running through the grass, quickly growing louder as they approached him. He kept his eyes fixed on his destination, but now the fountain appeared as unreachable as the stars. Still he ran, but his pace seemed to slow despite his efforts to hold the inevitable at bay.

A figure flew past him, like a dark green comet with an auburn tail. The lithe form of the elven girl, using her long legs to take the lead, passed him as though he was standing still. Her long red hair trailed in a straight line behind her and Marcus briefly attained ideas of grabbing it before it passed beyond his arm’s reach. He knew she would never race again if he cheated in such a disgusting manner, though that mattered little right now as he watched her turn around in mid-stride, waving to him as she increased her lead running backwards.

When he reached the fountain, completely winded, he found Lorelei sitting on the edge of the basin absently splashing with water with her bare feet. He collapsed against the ornate stone carvings and tipped his head down in the water. When he raised up just above the surface, gulping air, a small foot appeared below him and splashed a fresh spout of water into his face. He wiped the water from his eyes and snorted it from his nose as giggles overcame the girl beside him.

“I won again,” Lorelei said.

Marcus nodded, still too out of breath to speak.

She drew her feet out of the water, turning to face him and pulling her knees up to her chest. “You almost won that time, though,” she said, her tone almost believable.

Marcus pulled his exhausted body up to lie on the side of the basin and rested his head back between her feet. He looked up at the mist drifting off the fountain’s spray and regained his breath as he watched the kaleidoscope of colors produced as the sun’s light shone through it. He felt thin fingers begin to run through his wet hair, massaging his scalp and relaxing him. His pulse, sounding like a drum roll in his own ears a few moments before, regained its normal rhythm and he sighed deeply.

“I only stopped once,” the elf said. “I ran into a friend of mine and she was telling me all about this boy she likes, going on and on, and I told her that I was racing you to the fountain and after I won, I might have time to come back to talk some more.”

Marcus could hear the smile on her face without having to see it. Marcus, who had not stopped at all, only shook his head, enjoying the feeling of her fingertips as they moved side to side. “Well,” he said at last. “If you’re so interested in what she has to say, you shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Lorelei’s fingers extricated themselves from his wet hair and Marcus felt a pang of regret at his words, a product of his bruised ego more than anything else. He wanted her to stay by the fountain with him all afternoon, preferably rubbing his scalp the whole time, but he knew that she wanted to stay just as much. He heard her moving behind him and then her face appeared by his, her head resting in her delicate hand and she leaned on her elbow.

Their faces were very close now and Marcus could smell the sweetness of her breath as she studied his face. He felt the intense scrutiny and had to exert every ounce of willpower to keep his eyes focused on the flecks of colored light floating out from the fountain. His gaze seemed drawn like an iron filing to a magnet to her brilliant green eyes, but he fought the urge, though as ultimately unsuccessfully as the iron filing fights the magnet.

He dared a quick glance, then forced his eyes to return to their upward view. “I think we need to find something I can actually compete in,” he said. “I don’t think you can give me any more of a head start unless you let me just wait for you here.”

Lorelei did not answer, though Marcus could still feel her intense eyes upon him. A long while passed, filled only by the sound of thousands of droplets of water splashing into the basin. Finally, curious beyond endurance as to the source of the delay, he turned to look at her fully.

As was becoming a more and more frequent occurrence, his breath was stolen away momentarily by her beauty. They had been friends for as long as Marcus had been visiting the elven kingdom, but only in recent months had he come to realize the his playmate was, in fact, a girl. The skinny tomboy he had met those years before, her red hair always tied back to keep it out of her way as she wrestled in the grass with the boys, was gone now and in her place was a young woman, her vibrant tresses cascading down her forearm and framing her pale face. The emerald eyes he had seen narrowed so often that he had only paid heed to their true color within the last year now seemed large and luminous, shining with their own internal light.

Marcus felt his head swim and wondered if the exertion from the race had been too much for him. Lorelei appeared to be moving closer to him, her face closing the space between them at an almost imperceptible pace. Marcus tried to move, feeling extraordinarily uncomfortable and wildly excited at the same time, but found himself paralyzed, caught in her eyes like the prey of a snake. His pulse, so recently returned to normal, resumed it frantic beating until Marcus thought it might leap out of his chest.

The eyes moved closer and now he noticed the lips, more red than he could ever remember seeing them, slightly parted and on a direct course for his own. Panic rose in him like the water spraying up from the fountain and finally overcame his paralysis. With a sudden jerk, he pulled himself away just as their lips touched and found himself falling. He splashed into the water, feeling its chill close around him as he sank to the shallow bottom. He rose up quickly, coughing and sputtering, and started to apologize to Lorelei. Then, he stopped.

Lorelei was no longer by the fountain.

Marcus saw her running fast back across the field, her auburn hair again streaking behind her in shining waves. He thought he heard a deep sob issue from her, carried to him by the wind still rippling the grass before him, and wondered what he had done to make her so upset. He figured that when he righted himself from his comic fall, she would be there roaring with laughter. Instead, he rose to find her running away from him at top speed, leaving him confused and worried.

In a matter of seconds, the red locks disappeared between the columns of the last building he had passed before charging onto the field. Marcus stood alone in the sparkling shower from the fountain and pondered the immense complexity it took to be a girl.

“Lorelei . . . “ Marcus said in his sleep. His hand reached out into the air above where he lay upon the soft bed and Heather gave him a look of irritation. She sat beside the bed, but not so close that she would be mistaken for someone who cared about the outcome of his unconsciousness. Only when he began muttering in his sleep, some elven name, did she even look up at him, expressing her displeasure with a sour look.

“Oh, shut up,” she said to him, careful not to speak loud enough to wake him up. The elven healer had told her that Marcus needed to rest as long as was necessary to regain his strength and, despite her feelings toward their relationship, she was appreciative enough of his saving her life to follow those instructions, even if he was the one who put her life in jeopardy in the first place.

Marcus lowered his hand slowly back to the bed and began to breath deeply again. Heather looked back at him and her eyes lingered there for a long moment before she forced them to resume gazing out the window. Rain fell hard outside, its rhythmic pounding on the roof accompanied by an occasional roll of distant thunder. Through the curtains of gray moving across the land, she could make out a few of the buildings, plain gray structures covered with what looked like ivy. She had read of the beauty of elven lands in Tolkien and had seen such in numerous movies, and was sorely disappointed by the simple, Spartan designs of Glenfold. The room in which she and Marcus now where reminded her of those in an Amish community she had visited on a school field trip, furnished by plain furniture and heated by a wood fire from the red brick fireplace.

She sat back in her chair, an uncomfortable piece woven from thin strips of wood tied around an ash frame with leather strings, and he wet hair pressed against her back, soaking slightly through the fresh clothes she had been given. Sighing, she stood and walked to the fire, turning her back to let the heat dry her off. She looked at the sleeping form of Marcus and began replaying the scene at the river again in her mind. She had been through it several times, but still had trouble convincing herself of what she had seen.

As she stood on the riverbank, too terrified to follow Marcus and Wilkey, she tried desperately to disbelieve everything that was happening. Up to that point, Heather had decided that the whole journey from Sylvia’s house was an elaborate dream that she was having and that her best option would be to just go with the flow. She believed in the power of dreams to tell the dreamer something that he or she may have missed in their everyday life if the dream was translated correctly.

She had no idea what dreaming about centaurs and knife-wielding halflings told her about herself or her life, but she guessed that would come in time.

Standing next the Misteld, parted like in some scene from a biblical movie, her disbelief began to wane. She had experienced many nightmares over the years, although not nearly as many since she began sharing her bed with Marcus, but none of them contained the terror she experienced staring at the obsidian path leading between two roaring walls of water. Feeling her body reacting to her fear, Heather finally began to suspect that she was not, after all, dreaming and started to think instead that she was losing her mind. No dream could combine all the stimuli she faced standing at the river—the sound of the water, the mist floating off its surface to land in cooling patches across her face, the smell of river water carried on the stiff breeze.

She stood paralyzed with fear when she saw Marcus sprinting back across the riverbed in her direction and found herself wanting to run out to meet him, afraid to be left alone across the water from him. Her legs would not move, though, remaining planted as firmly to the stony bank as if she had grown roots there. She stared through streaming tears as Marcus charged up the black way toward her and took her in his arms. He led her down, nearly dragging her at first, before she regained some control of her legs and began stumbling along, escorted by his strong arms.

When they had reached the bottom, however, the true terror began. They stood between the two banks, both seeming as far away as distant galaxies, as the walls of water collapsed around them. Without even the breath to scream, Heather watched with resigned wonder as the gray light of the clouds above was blocked out by the crashing waves. She clutched at Marcus, dimly aware that he was there, and took a large gulp of air before being swept away by the strong current.

Then, her breath stopped altogether. A light had formed around the two of them, shielding them from the Misteld’s fury. Water flowed all around them, but they seemed to be encased in a bubble of light, its edges shifting and bending with the force of the river like an amoeba. Beside her, she could feel Marcus growing very hot, as though burning with fever. She looked at him and smiled, recalling their visit to Chattanooga in her shock. He looked up at her and she thought she could see him faintly glowing, matching the barrier protecting them from being swept away. Waves of energy pulsed out from him and Heather was shocked to see him weakening before her eyes at the effort. His eyes bulged slightly as he observed the glowing bubble around them, then his eyelids drooped dangerously as though he would collapse from exhaustion. Without a word, he urged her forward, pressing the small of her back in the direction of the obsidian lane still visible under their feet.

As they scaled the riverbed, spouts of water began to shoot into their sanctuary, making the smooth black stone slick and difficult to navigate. Marcus pressed her relentlessly onward, but Heather could feel the pressure he was applying to her back lessen quickly as they neared the surface. She began to see light above them in addition to the collapsing shield around them. Soon, she thought she could make out the faint outline of Wilkey standing on the bank ahead and Marcus redoubled his efforts, pushing her hard ahead of him. She broke the surface of the river and immediately felt hands clutch her blouse, pulling her up and out of the cold water.

Many voices surrounded her, hurriedly calling out commands and shouting for assistance. She collapsed onto the stony surface of the bank, gulping in air to her appease her burning lungs and looked around. Wilkey sat next to her, staring at the river intently as other forms, lithe and graceful, dashed around at the water’s edge.

“He’s being swept away,” Wilkey said quietly, as though he was commentating on some sporting event. “They’re trying to reach him, but he’s caught in the current.”

Heather tried to sit up to see what the halfling was talking about, but could not find the strength in her limbs to hold her up. She lay down again, tears once again falling down her cheeks, when she felt Wilkey start next to her.

“They caught him,” he exclaimed. “They flung out a rope with a hook on it and caught his robes just like a fish.”

Heather felt relief sweep over her just as they water had done in the river as the magical divide had collapsed. Her tears came faster, but she realized that Marcus may be dead already despite the efforts to rescue him.

With supreme effort, she forced herself to rise to a sitting position. She looked downstream and saw a cluster of elves about fifty yards down the bank, surrounding a red and black form that lay on the ground at their feet. Groaning, she rolled forward and tried to stand before a strong hand rested on her shoulder, forcing her back down into a sitting position.

“It’s okay,” a female voice said from over her head. “He’s alive, but just barely. We will take him to the healers. In the meantime, you must rest.”

Heather looked up, the movement of her head making her dizzy as she did. Standing above her, staring into the rain, was an elven woman, her long red hair falling down around her shoulders like flames. She wore an expression of grave concern as she watched the elves preparing to carry Marcus to receive the necessary care. After a few moments, she pried her eyes away from the scene down the river and looked down at Heather. Her face softened, and Heather was hypnotized by the elven maiden’s eyes, brilliant circles of emerald glittering beneath long lashes. Heather had never been attracted to another woman before, finding that she liked men far too much to entertain such thoughts, but she found herself entranced by the preternatural beauty of the woman standing above her.

The elven woman called to a group of elven men that emerged from the trees behind them and instructed them to assist Heather and Wilkey in following those who had borne away Marcus. She then turned without another word and disappeared into the trees, her graceful strides carrying her quickly into the shadows.

The elven men had helped Heather gingerly to her feet and asked her if she had suffered any injury. She assured them that she had not, but they lifted her up anyway, hoisting her lightly between them as they followed the auburn-haired female.

“Thanks for asking about me,” she heard Wilkey say as they entered the woods. “Glad to see how concerned you are about my health.”

When no one responded to the halfling, Heather turned her head awkwardly to see him trotting along just behind her, scowling. She noticed Wilkey glancing around frequently, taking in all the elves that for now paid no attention to him. This behavior gave her the impression that he felt remarkably uncomfortable around the elves and she found herself wondering if the two rubies had been all he had stolen from them.

After a long trek through the woods, they reached the city, Heather still being carried by the two elven males. She thought at first they had come to some cemetery as she looked upon the weathered gray buildings scattered across the large clearing, but soon saw that the buildings were not places to house the dead, but houses for the living. She saw a few elves walking hurriedly through the streets, hardly giving their strange party a glance as they passed into the heart of the city. Heather felt a high degree of tension among the residents of Glenfold, made all the more evident in the firm set of the mouths of those she saw. She had always pictured elves as a merry people, dancing and singing in the moonlight before a roaring fire. Here she saw a grim-faced people, beset by war and sacrifice.

The buildings around them reflected the demeanor of their inhabitants. They were once beautiful marvels of architecture, she knew, but the withered vines that covered their cracked facades described a dying culture, derelict and void of the grandeur that it once held. She was forcefully reminded of pictures she had seen of ruins from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, sad monuments of former greatness.

The caravan moved up a hill toward a building in the center of the city, a massive stone structure dominating the smaller buildings surrounding it like courtiers bowing to the king. Through the steady rain, she could make out ornate frescoes lining the upper reaches of the walls depicting great battles with ferocious-looking beasts of what she hoped was a long ago age. The rain ceased to drench he as their party passed between two great columns into a sheltered courtyard and through a large pair of oaken doors, opening wide with a faint metallic squeal.

Within the building, she found the interior in pleasant opposition to the exterior. The halls were warmly decorated and filled with light from several glass spheres which hovered near the ceiling at intervals down the corridor. The elves moved quickly onward, the ones bearing Marcus in the lead and those carrying Heather a short distance behind. When they reached a crossway, however, Marcus was taken down the left hall, while those directing Heather took a right turn. She tried to pull free of their grasp, but the elves held her tight as she squirmed.

“It is necessary,” one of them said simply. “You will be reunited soon.”

Heather had no idea what they were talking about, but she hoped it turned out better than they were making it sound.

She was led into a spacious room with wide windows looking out upon the elven city as far as the rain, falling harder now in the growing wind, would allow. She waited there for some time, hours by her reckoning, before the door opened again and Marcus was carried in on a stretcher. For one nauseating moment, Heather thought that he had died before the elves could do anything to help him, or that they had not been able to do anything to save him. She felt hot tears spring into her eyes as she started forward. Then, Marcus gave a small groan, rolling his head from one side to the other and Heather stopped cold. Her tears dried up in anger and she spun on her heels, striding to the other side of the room to be as far from him as she could while keeping him still within her sight. She was furious at him for making her believe he was dead, relieve that he was not, and more furious because of the complicated blend of the two emotions.

The elves set the stretcher down easily and slid Marcus onto a bed beneath a large bay window. They both glanced curiously at Heather, then at each other, and left the room without so much as a word to the human female.

Heather watched Marcus sleeping for some time before moving slowly toward him again, as though he would jump up and try to frighten her, laughing heartily as she nearly jumped out of her skin. He loved a good practical joke, but as she moved closer, she saw that Marcus was in no condition to perform any pranks. His face was more pale than she had ever seen it, even more so than it had been during the weeklong episode of the flu he had suffered the previous year right before his store’s annual inventory. He had worked nearly eighty hours with a high fever and never once considered taking a day off to get well. By the end of that week, he was severely dehydrated and spent the two days following in the hospital being chastised for how stupid it was to abuse himself in such a fashion.

As he lay in the hospital, too exhausted to acknowledge her presence, she sat stolidly beside him, alternating between reading a Dan Brown novel and wiping the sweat pouring from him. Now, she found herself in similar circumstances, but the nature of their relationship had changed from those happier times, so she sat staring out the window, feeling both defiant and guilty for not attempting to comfort the man she had, and maybe still, loved.

She remained in the room for the rest of the day and no one else entered except for a young female elf bearing a tray of food. She bowed slightly as she entered and placed the tray on a table near the door before backing out again with another bow. Heather felt a strong urge to go to the door and throw the tray outside it to express her anger at being left alone with her confused thoughts about Marcus, but as she approached the aroma of meat and bread filled her nostrils, reminding her that she had not eaten for some time. She sat down and immediately began to eat with rapid enjoyment, savoring each bit of the succulent meal. When she had finished, she wiped a bit of grease from her lips and looked over her shoulder at the sleeping Marcus, half-concealed in shadows cast from the mysterious orbs of light illuminating the room. Her sense of guilt chimed in again, telling her that she should not have been so selfish as to devour the whole meal herself, but consoled herself by believing that Marcus would probably remain asleep the rest of the night and that she would be more than happy to request a meal for him should he wake by morning.

Heather returned to her chair by the window and stared out into the darkness. Night had fallen suddenly, aided in its descent by the dark clouds that still dumped torrents of rain onto Glenfold. Through the gloom, she thought she could seen other sources of light where she had been able to see buildings earlier in the day. Gradually, weariness overcame her and she fell asleep, leaning back in her chair and propped against the window as the rain continued to beat out its steady rhythm.

Marcus awoke early the next morning, feeling ravenous and dizzy. He tried unsuccessfully to sit up, feeling his head spin as he tried to determine where he was, they lay back down a while before attempting another go. The room seemed familiar to him, though he could not recall ever having been there as a child. He suspected that he would know the room from the outside, though, knowing from the stark gray walls that he was now within the borders of Glenfold.

He tried to remember how he had come to be in that room and drew a complete blank. His last memory consisted of pushing Heather forward through the Misteld as the magical barrier protecting them from certain death disintegrated. Turning, he saw Heather asleep in a chair a few feet away, looking quite uncomfortable as her face pressed against the window pane. A small line of drool stretched from her lower lip in a slight arc to the glass and he had to suppress a laugh to keep from waking her.

Slowly, he attempted to rise again and found the dizziness lessened as he did so. The smell of cooked meat and bread filled his nostrils and his stomach growled audibly. He looked by the door and saw the remains of Heather’s meal from the previous night and wished he had been awake to enjoy it with her, although he doubted it would have been as enjoyable as he would have liked in light of their recent troubles.

He lowered his legs to the stone floor, feeling his strength returning in minute increments. The disorientation was very mild as he stood and pushed off from the bed to support his own weight and he took a tentative step to see how his body would react. Satisfied, he quietly moved to the door and let himself out into the corridor.

Memory flooded back to him as he looked up and down the hall, finding himself in the king’s residence that he had visited several times as a child. Everything seemed much smaller, as places of childhood often do to adults when they go back, and he felt a sweet sense of nostalgia as he started in the direction that he knew would take him to the main hall. He saw no one, no servants milling about performing their daily duties and this fact made him slightly uneasy as he continued on. In days past, the corridors would have been filled with various members of the royal household each pursuing his or her own personal service to the king.

At last, Marcus reached the gilded doors leading to the king’s audience chamber. He glanced around for the chamberlain, who by protocol would announce him before he would be allowed to enter, but still saw no one. Trying the door, he found it unlocked and it swung open easily as he pulled the handle.

Stepping in, Marcus finally saw someone. An elven man, stooped with age, sat upon an ornate throne at the far end of the room. Gray hair fell from around around his shoulders as he leaned back into the wood back with eyes closed. He appeared to be sleeping, his thin lips parted slightly, but as Marcus walked to the center of the room, he spoke.

“I see you have recovered, Marcus,” the elf said, eyes still closed. “The healers told me they doubted whether you would survive the night.”

“You know me, Your Highness,” Marcus returned, bowing slightly. “Always fighting the odds.”

The old elf opened his eyes at last and Marcus looked into the steel gray orbs. The last time he had seen King Lanian of Glenfold had been just following the incident at the fountain. He had come to tell the king farewell, knowing that he would probably never return to his borders. Now, he had returned and could feel the same warmth and compassion from the old monarch that he had sensed as a young boy, but now the feeling was tempered with another fact that Marcus knew instinctively.

King Lanian was dying.

Lanian had been old through all the years that Marcus could remember them, but before he still seemed to radiate a vitality that surpassed most in the prime of their lives. He was wildly popular among the elves and he wondered how his approaching death would be handled by the population of Glenfold.

The king studied Marcus shrewdly for a long moment before speaking again. “Yes, always fighting something,” he said, a soft chuckle shaking his chest before he gave in to a fit of harsh, wracking coughs that caused him to nearly collapse from the throne, holding its arms tightly for support with his white, bony hands.

Marcus rushed in to aid Lanian, forgetting protocol that required him to remain a certain distance from the king to ensure his safety. He lifted the king back to a sitting position and wiped away the blood that appeared on his lips with the hem of his robes. Taking the frail hand in his own, Marcus kneeled down beside the throne and looked at Lanian.

“What has happened to you, father?” Calling the king such made him tremble slightly. He had not thought of saying that, the word taking him totally by surprise, but as he thought back over his childhood, he recognized that Lanian had been the closest person to a father that he had ever known and felt the word surprisingly appropriate.

If the king had noticed what Marcus had called him, he paid no attention. “As all living things must die, so do elves when their time comes,” he said. “But to answer your question, it is this war. The Necromancer presses us on all sides and I’m afraid the borders may not hold much longer. It has taken considerable strength to hold them this long, but that strength is fading, Marcus.”

“That’s why I’ve come,” Marcus said, his voice barely a whisper. “I’ve come to stop him.”

“You may find that harder than you ever imagined,” Lanian said. “He is more powerful than anything I have seen in my long, long life.”

Marcus squeezed the old elf’s hand slightly. “I will find a way, but that is one of the reasons I’ve come back to Glenfold.”

“Yes, I am aware of why you have returned,” Lanian said, smiling slightly. “The halfling proved to be a very informative source once we pardoned him for his crimes. We did give him quite a scare, though. Put him in chains, even.”

Marcus could not help but laugh. He had always admired the elven king’s sense of humor and now, even as he waited on the threshold of death, Lanian allowed himself to appreciate a good joke. Turning to sit on the step directly in front of the throne, Marcus looked across the empty throne room. He had never known it to be so empty before, absent of the courtiers and advisors and petitioners that had always caused the place to be a chaotic dance of politics. He decided to take advantage of the solitude rather than question it, approaching the main cause for his visit.

“I have returned to fight him, like I said . . . “Marcus began. He found confiding the truth to the king to be oddly difficult considering his affection for the old elf. Worry filled him that Lanian would decide it was some fault of his own that had caused his struggled to connect with the power he now knew from the episode at the river that he still possessed. He felt ashamed for not returning to see the elven monarch as his health declined, guilty for not being there, and he wondered deep down if his magical difficulties were a penance for not being here earlier in Lanian’s time of need. The logical portion of his mind told him that his theory was a silly notion, but he clung to it nonetheless.

Lanian saved him the trouble of completing his sentence. “You have come to ask if we know why your power seems to have waned,” he said sagely. Leaning back into the cushions of the throne, he closed his eyes again. “You think you have done something wrong to drive away your talents, despite the tremendous strength it took to save yourself and your female companion from the Misteld, and you wish to know how to get them back.”

Marcus stared in amazement at the old elven king, shocked by his insight. He knew that one who had lived as long as Lanian and had seen as much as he should be able to read others with a fair amount of accuracy, but Marcus found his precision uncanny and unnerving.

The wise old elf also mentioned the power Marcus had used at the river, but that incident only further confused the situation. If all he could do any other time was produce a tiny flame, how had he produced the enormous magical energy necessary to keep the river at bay. Also, why had the effort drained him nearly to the point of death? Did he have to be in mortal peril to use his abilities. Yes, he thought, he had reached that well of power, but doing so only created more questions that he could not answer.

“Yes,” Marcus said, the only response he could muster.

Lanian leaned forward again and Marcus turned to make sure the elf did not topple forth from his throne. Instead, Lanian placed his hand upon his shoulder and smiled again, a sad smile that line his wrinkled face even more than it had been.

“I do not know why you cannot reach your power, Marcus, nor do any of the other elders,” the king said, his voice shaking. “I wish with all my wisdom that I did, but your troubles are beyond my experience and understanding. I realize that our fate, the fate of Glenfold and all the lands around it, may hinge on discovering the solution to this question, but I am sorry to say that I do not know the answer.”

Marcus slumped in absolute misery. To this point, he had not been excessively worried about not being able to duplicate the power he possessed as a boy, knowing the elves would be able to solve the riddle and prepare him for the battle with the Necromancer on even footing, magic against magic. Now, with this revelation, he felt small and helpless, doomed to a grisly end that would take Heather and all the inhabitants of these lands with him. Staring at the floor, he thought of Heather, leaning awkwardly against the window a few rooms away. He cursed himself for bringing her and wondered what compulsion had insisted that she accompany him on such a hopeless mission.

He felt the thin hand squeeze his shoulder, still showing surprising strength in its grip. Marcus looked up, trying unsuccessfully to fight the tears of frustration that rimmed his eyes. He looked at Lanian and immediately the tears dried, the light in the old king’s own eyes filling Marcus with a new sense of hope.

“There may be one who does know how to help you,” the king told him. “One who has seen more than me and who knows more about the ways of the land than I, but I hesitate to mention her name, for it will be one you will hear with great trepidation.”

Marcus did not care. He trusted Lanian beyond measure and if the elven king knew of one possibility that could extricate them from utter destruction, then he wanted to know as soon as possible. Time for them all was short, but for Lanian, time could be measured in days or even hours. Marcus felt he must defeat the Necromancer somehow by the time the elven king died or Glenfold would fall and, with it, all hope.

However, Marcus was not prepared for the name Lanian gave him and only after some minutes of staring at the king in mute shock did he finally nod his head and leave the king to begin this new leg of his quest.

Chapter 7

As night fell, they made camp along the banks of the river as thick fog began to roll in from the Misteld. The surrounding grassy hills and even the river beyond a few yards soon was lost in a gray haze, illuminated only by the full moon that had reached it zenith before the sun had disappeared over the horizon. The fog not only obscured their vision, but sounds as well seemed to only penetrate a short distance into the mist. Even the gentle rushing of the river a few feet away sounded muffled compared to its earlier cacophony.

Wilkey and Heather sat opposite of each other across a small fire. After a dinner of dried meat eaten in relative silence, Marcus had walked up the riverbank to collect his thoughts and decide on what course they should take, leaving the two of them to their own thoughts.

“So, how long have you and Marcus known each other?” Wilkey asked, his high, casual voice grating in Heather’s ears in the gloom of the fog. She was amazed upon listening to the halfling that his voice carried a subtle accent that she most closely associated with native New Yorkers and the effect was almost comic in their current setting.

“I’ve known him for about ten years,” she answered. “We met in college.”

Wilkey smiled and nodded sagely, although Heather doubted whether he knew what college was or even what the concept of a year meant, if time passed differently in this strange land.

“You didn’t know him when he came her as a youth?” he asked, his pronunciation of “youth” recalling to her mind Joe Pesci. The resemblance with Pesci continued with the halfling’s diminutive stature, but ended there. Wilkey possessed a wiry build and a young face, except for tiny lines that had begun to appear around the corners of his eyes. His thin nose ended in an absurdly sharp point that looked as though it would puncture his hand should he sneeze into it.

“No,” she answered. “Or else I might have known about all of this.” Heather waved her hand to indicated the thick wall of fog surrounding them all.

“He never mentioned anything about us?” Wilkey asked, sounding somewhat hurt.

“No, not that I would have believed him,” she said, thinking of the scene in the Toyota on their way to Kentucky.

Wilkey sat silent for a long while, staring into the campfire. Then, he pulled a blanket from his pack, arranged it neatly in the tall grass, and lay back upon it, closing his eyes.

Heather tried to fight the question she had been wondering about since the episode with the centaurs the previous day. “What was he like before? Marcus?” she asked, her voice hurried as though she were pushing out the words. “When he had this power everyone keeps talking about?”

The halfling opened one eye, regarding her for a moment, then opened the other and leaned up onto his elbows. He stared into the fire again and wrinkled his brows. Heather could not tell if he was trying to remember or if he was simply trying to decide how to word his response.

“Marcus first came here as a young boy in your terms,” the halfling began. “He happened upon Yellow Banks and got into a bit of trouble with some men who hoped to sell him down the river.”

Heather had no idea what selling someone down the river meant, but it brought to mind tales of slave trading from before America’s Civil War.

Wilkey continued. “Three of them attacked him and just when they were about to grab him, he waved his hand at them and flames shot out. The three men ran off and never came back to Yellow Banks. Marcus discovered that he could do all sorts of things, amazing things. Anything he wanted to do he could do it—produce fire or lightning or water, control the wind, create things out of the air—anything. All he had to do was think about it.

“Pretty soon he was out travelling here and there, fighting evil and rescuing ladies and whatever other trouble he could get into. He grew up a lot here, but eventually he came less and less and then he stopped coming altogether. Those of us who knew him best guess when he left the last time that we would not see him again. He left me his magical items to watch over, which he never would have done if he had any intention of ever returning. Even Erasmus knew he was not coming back.

“Who was Erasmus,” Heather interrupted, asking the other question she was most curious about. “How did he and Marcus meet and how did he send us a letter on . . . on our side?”

Wilkey shrugged. “I don’t know anything about a message sent to you, but I do know about Erasmus. Marcus met him during a particularly nasty ambush some ogres had set, knowing Marcus was in the area. The ogres pressed him pretty hard and might have killed him except for the intervention of Erasmus. He never told us where he came from and I don’t know that he knew himself. He did have some of the same abilities as Marcus, though, and it was a pretty good thing that day. He distracted the ogres enough to allow Marcus to escape, almost at the cost of his own life. From that day on, Marcus never went anywhere without Erasmus. Like brothers, those two, and Erasmus seemed to always know when Marcus was coming. He’d wait by the cave for him, infuriating the centaurs, but he was always there when Marcus came over.

“Still, as Marcus grew older, they seemed to grow apart. They never fought, they just didn’t seem to enjoy being around each other as much. I think Erasmus became jealous over the power Marcus had, which just seemed to grow the more he was here, and I think Marcus got bored and started to take more interest in other things, pretty girls, for instance.”

The halfling raised his eyebrows and looked meaningfully at Heather.

“So where do you fit in with all of this?” Heather asked, skipping over the innuendo. “How did you and Marcus become acquainted?

“Now, that’s a good story,” Wilkey said. “One fine morning as I was about to be hanged in Yellow Banks over a slight misunderstanding with a wealthy merchant, Marcus and Erasmus walked into town and asked what was going on. The sheriff explained the merchant’s side of things and conveniently forgot to tell Marcus my point of view. I remember Marcus looking up at me standing on the gallows, just a small boy by your standards, and it seemed like he was looking into me, right down into my soul.” He patted his chest for emphasis. “Then he asked that I be released into his charge and offered to pay double restitution to the merchant. The merchant was a greedy bastard who cared more about getting rich than seeing me die, although not by much, and he agreed to the deal. Marcus had just come from a rather fruitful excursion and had just enough gold to pay the man off.

“As you can imagine, I was overjoyed to not have my neck stretched, but I was suspicious about what motives Marcus had for saving me. By that time, he had gained a reputation around here as a sort of savior, crossing the lands looking for wrongs to right. When he took me into his service, he had a lot of doubters, but he said he needed someone with my particular skills to help him and I’ve been faithful to him ever since.”

“What skills?” Heather asked suspiciously.

“You know . . . the regular stuff–picking locks, disarming traps, and the occasional close combat when things get a little chaotic.”

“So, you’re a thief,” she said it as a question, but her tone proclaimed it as more of a statement.

“Why, no, good lady,” Wilkey responded, surprised. “I am merely an opportunist who believes in using the talents he has for a greater good.”

“Like stealing gems from elves?”

Wilkey seemed taken aback and for the first time since she and Marcus had picked him up, Heather found him at a loss for words. Rather than press the matter, she changed the subject.

“Who are these elves we’re going to see anyway? What can they do to help us?” she asked.

Wilkey lay back down on his blanket and stared up into the thick fog drifting over the campsite. “They’re considered the last bastion of knowledge in this land, although even they are drifting into decay along with the rest of us. Glenfold used to be a place of amazing beauty, but time has removed its shine. It is still an enchanted place, to be sure, but even the elven kingdom cannot last forever.”

The halfling, apparently tired or bored with conversation, rolled over and faced away from Heather. Soon, his light, whistling snores could be heard drifting across the fire in a slow rhythm.

Heather looked up the riverbank into the swirling fog rolling in from the river. It swept by like gray curtains, hiding what lay ahead for them. She thought she could just make out the outline of Marcus a few yards away, a form darker than the darkness around him sitting on the edge of the whispering river. She wondered what he was thinking and, for a moment, if it was her.

Lying back on her leather pack, she soon fell into the welcome respite of sleep herself and her light snores joined those of the halfling.

Marcus sat on the bank of the Misteld and stared into his own mind. He could see a small patch of the river beneath the blanket of fog that surrounded him, but paid it no attention. With his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around them, his eyes focused on nothing but the swirling fog, allowing his memory to replay back the events of the day. Cold sweat, having nothing to do with the weather, beaded him from head to foot and chilled him, though he would get no closer to the fire until he was ready to rejoin the others. One question rolled around in his head, filling him with fear and dread, all the more because he could find no answer to it.

“What if she had died?” he asked himself again, repeating the question to himself over and over as if doing so would make the answer obvious. His practical side suspected that he would continue on his quest, but his heart told him not to be so sure.

As he had crouched next to Heather in the pub, certain death poised over them both, he found an absolute fear that he had not known existed until that point, not fear for himself, but fear for her. He had cheated death too many times to remember in this magical realm, but never had he been solely responsible for the safety of one he loved as much as he loved Heather. In the wake of the their relationship’s failings, Marcus seemed to forget how much he truly loved the woman he now faintly heard snoring from beside the fire. The thought of the fear, the helplessness, that had crashed down upon him as they faced the halfling boss in the pub brought a wave of nausea that still had not completely passed, and grew stronger when he imagined the blade raised high, prepared to strike.

He looked at the camp briefly, seeing the soft glow of the dying fire as a nebulous glow in the mist. A strong desire came to him, a desire to walk over and sweep Heather into his arms and hold her until time ended, but he resisted. His cheek still stung slightly from her earlier assault, and he had no intention of allowing her to reinforce the pain.

Turning his attention back to the river, he thought of the elves and prayed to any forces that might be listening that they would know why his power had departed. No, not departed, he thought, it’s only hiding.He could still feel the power, like the hum of a generator far below ground, could sense its almost electric charge around him, but it felt as if a wall had been erected to prevent him from reaching it, using it, controlling it. His attention turned back away from his inward thoughts and he found himself actually reaching out, his hand stretching into the fog before him.

He pulled his hand back and sighed. He knew they could reach Glenfold by nightfall the next day if they made good time, but it would require a fierce march along the river over uneven and difficult terrain. He wondered what was going through Heather’s mind as they walked, whether she had decided that he was not worth the effort, especially after dragging her to this world where so many things could mean the end of not only their relationship, but also the end of their lives. He felt hopeless and alone. Despite rejoining with Wilkey, he longed for the company of Erasmus, who always seemed to know the right thing to say or do while Marcus faced the troubling days of his youth.

Marcus tried desperately to express confidence and poise with Heather from the moment they had exited the cave, even when he discovered that his powers had fled, but he questioned how long he could pretend that he was not scared of dying, or worse, of losing her.

His troubled mind offering no rest, Marcus returned to camp and sat next to the fire. He studied Heather closely, her beautiful face relaxed in sleep, and tears streamed down his face unchecked and fell onto his robes. For most of the night, he sat awake, looking at the most important thing to him in the world, in any world, and swore that he would find a way to protect her at any cost.

After waking Wilkey for his turn at watch, Marcus fell asleep just as they sky began to lighten, heralding the sun’s imminent arrival. When he awoke a few hours later, the thick fog still hovered about them dreamlike and filtered the light appearing over the horizon into a shifting curtain of yellow. He was covered with a thin layer of condensation that gave him a deep chill as it seeped through his robes. Wilkey and Heather, their possessions already packed and ready, waited in silence for Marcus to dry off as best he could and set them off again toward Glenfold.

For several hours, they marched in near silence, any conversation dampened by the forbidding mist all about them. Their only source of navigation was the river, burbling and swishing ever to their left as they walked along its bank. Trees appeared at sparse intervals along their path, emerging from the fog like great, lanky beasts ready to snatch them up for a morning meal. Marcus would frequently stop and listen to any noise arising from the grayed-out landscape as their passage caused many animals to stir and flee in their wake.

As the sun rose higher into the clear sky, the fog began to burn off, leaving more and more of the land visible to the travelers. The river was revealed gradually, its waters flowing lazily toward the elven kingdom that lay ahead. When the sun reached its zenith, Marcus called a halt so they could take a light lunch before continuing on. He felt the sense of urgency building again, whispering in his ear that they should move as quickly as possible and not tarry any longer that necessary. Marcus felt a distinct feeling of foreboding as they ate in silence and he guessed the same pall had fallen upon Heather and Wilkey. They had not continued their conversation from the previous night, nor had Heather asked any more questions. He knew there were many other questions revolving slowly in her ever-curious mind, but he also knew that she would ask them when time and context allowed.

They set out again after finished their meal and continued on along the banks of the Misteld for some time before Wilkey, who had been covering rear guard, passed Heather and caught up with Marcus.

“Have you thought about what will happen when we reach Glenfold?” the halfling asked.

Marcus thought he heard a dash of amused expectation in Wilkey’s voice, but convinced himself that he had imagined it.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m going to ask the elders if they know what has happened to me. Why I can’t produce more than a tiny flame.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” the halfling said, the amusement definitely there and more pronounced. “I’m talking about her.”

“Heather?” Marcus asked, completely at a loss of what Wilkey was getting at.

“No, your other her.”

“My other . . . “ he began, then realization struck him like a brick. He stopped in mid-stride, nearly tripping over a thick knot of grass. Behind him, Heather stopped and looked around nervously. The fog had lifted completely, but her eyes remained wide and vigilant, looking for anything she thought might be remotely dangerous after their close call of the previous day.

“Yes, her,” Wilkey repeated. “Lorelei.”

Marcus glanced back and saw that Heather still remained thankfully out of earshot, although she regarded the pair with apprehensive curiosity. Marcus walked on, Wilkey at his elbow, waiting for his reply.

“She’s just a child,” Marcus said at last. “She’ll have to understand that childhood crushes . . . that puppy love . . . those things fade over time.”

“First,” Wilkey said, now taking obvious delight in Marcus’s lack of comfort on the subject. “I think you’ll find that she’s no longer the child you remember. Second, I think you may have underestimated her “childhood crush” as you call it.”

Marcus sighed, seeing a new complication to his already complicated return to this land. In his mind he recalled a beautiful elven girl and the promise he made to her and, despite his feelings for Heather, he felt something inside him stir. A feeling of dread crept into his gut, but beneath that something stronger, nervous excitement, at the thought of seeing Lorelei again. Combining with these two emotions, another built up to join them as he looked back at Heather stepping along behind them, careful to avoid the tangles of underbrush that grew along the riverbank. He looked at her, scared but resolute, and beautiful, and felt a flood of guilt over his growing excitement.

Looking down at Wilkey, still at his elbow and staring up at him with a sly grin, he shrugged. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes. In the meantime, we should focus on trying to get to Glenfold before dark. I have a bad feeling about what may happen if we don’t.”

Wilkey let the subject go and fell back behind Heather in their small column. Marcus could hear Heather questioning him about their conversation and the halfling’s refusal to share any information.

“We’re just talking about what we’re going to do when we get to the elven realm,” Wilkey answered her, not quite lying, but obscuring enough of the truth to make Heather suspicious. She certainly was not stupid and knew Marcus well enough to know that their discussion had not been nearly so simple.

“And what is that?” Heather asked.

“Get something to drink,” the halfling answered with a wink.

As they walked on beside the whispering Misteld, the high grass gave way to a gradually thickening forest, tall oaks and ashes reaching for the sun arcing high overhead. A soft breeze blew through the canopy, stirring the leaves and scattering the beams of sun that shone down among them. The underbrush, though, also grew thicker, slowing their progress as they paused now and then to extricate themselves from brambles.

Marcus could almost feel the sun sliding down to its bed over the horizon and as it grew ever closer, his sense of nervousness increased. His feeling of dread grew steadily stronger as the shadows lengthened in the trees. For some reason he could not explain, he wanted to be within the relatively safe confines of the elven kingdom before nightfall, but as he led them ever closer to the borders Heather stopped, sitting down heavily on a fallen tree.

Marcus heard her halt and turned to look at her with wide eyes. Casting a nervous glance at the trees all around, he motioned for her to get up.

“I can’t,” she stated flatly. “I can’t go any more today.”

Marcus looked around again, as if expecting some horrible monster to erupt from the underbrush and devour them whole. “Come on, it’s not much further,” he said.

Heather shook her head and Marcus saw she was weary to the bone. Although they had been hiking several times on the various trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains, those had only been casual occasions, more to find a quiet place to make love than for the actual sport of it. He tried to think of those times, happier days when making love was still very much on their minds.

After a long moment, Wilkey cast the deciding vote. “I think we ought to stop, Marcus. It’s getting too dark to find our way through these woods,” the halfling said.

Marcus stepped and looked away into the darkening wood. He wanted to scream at them, rant and rave until they understood the urgency that he felt, but he dared not raise his voice with the unseen menace he sensed almost looming over them.

“Okay,” he said in a low voice, turning back to them. “But no fire. As little talk as possible. And we keep a watch all night.”

Heather looked up at him, then took a quick look around into the trees. “What’s wrong?”

Wilkey was already unpacking their evening meal. “Yeah,” he said. “What’s bothering you?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Marcus answered. “Maybe nothing. I just have a bad feeling about tonight, that’s why I want to keep a watch. Just a precaution.”

“Okay,” Wilkey said jovially. “You first then, me second, and milady here will go third.”

Heather nodded her approval, and accepted the dried meat and cup of water the halfling offered her. She said nothing, but slid down the fallen trunk and leaned against it, closing her eyes as she ate.

Within a half hour, both Heather and Wilkey fell fast asleep, leaving Marcus with his stomach clenched with foreboding. The sounds of night closed around them with the darkness and soon he could only see faint outlines of his two companions lying only a few feet away among the grass and dead leaves. Both snored lightly again, but to Marcus the sound seemed magnified, as though they were breathing through bullhorns. He wondered if they would even wake if something attacked them in the night, tired as they were from the day’s march.

Marcus stared down at the dark outline of his hands. He could feel them tremble slightly, his fingers moving of their own volition as they were prone to do when he felt stress, very rare moments considering his reputation among the management of SportsWorld for being cool under the most chaotic conditions. He considered using his time alone to try again to reach his lost powers, but decided not to dare drawing any more attention to their camp than the whistling snores were already.

He waited. For an interminable time he stared into the darkness, listening for any change in the sounds of insects and night birds. He could hear the faint murmur of the Misteld through the trees and once again, though he could only feel it and not see it, the fog rolled in from the river. A few times he thought he heard steps trudging through the underbrush and considered lighting his thumb to investigate. He swallowed the notion with great difficulty, holding the ornate hilt of the knife at his belt all the while.

After several hours, Marcus finally began to feel himself succumbing to the weariness that had already claimed the others. Despite his efforts to remain alert, his eyelids grew leaden and drooped slowly down, imperceptible in the absence of light. He allowed his eyes to close, realizing that he should wake Wilkey soon for his turn at watch, when his eyes popped wide open, a sudden strong feeling of being watched seizing him and shaking him awake.

He opened his eyes, but otherwise did not move, afraid to indicate his presence to whoever or whatever he felt watching him. He could still hear Heather and Wilkey breathing steadily near him. He cast his gaze upward slowly, scanning the darkness stretching away from him, looking for anything, listening for anything that may give away the location of the intruder in their midst.

Some distance away, two points of red light shone faintly among the trees. They did not flicker, momentarily blocked by eyelids. Their illumination remained constant and unwavering, though sometimes gaining a corona as a tendril of fog passed before them. He could see no source of the lights, the darkness surrounding them being absolute.

Marcus stood, his eyes focused on the two red lights as he did so. He tried to judge the distance to them, thinking to rush out and take the initiative before anything could attack them, but in the complete blackness of the woods, he could not determine if the lights were five yards or fifty yards into the trees. His feet edged toward them, quietly shuffling among the dead leaves. He stared desperately into the dark, trying to force his eyes to see what menace stood there, watching with what he knew were two red eyes, but still he only saw the two red dots against the velvety black night.

As he continued to edge closer, Marcus bumped Wilkey with his foot, causing the halfling to snore loudly and stir, crunching the leaves below him.

“My turn for watch already?” the halfling asked sleepily. “I haven’t slept at all.”

Marcus looked down quickly, prying his eyes off the red lights just a moment to whisper a sharp warning to the halfling. He looked back up a second later, and the lights were no longer there.

Marcus felt the hair raise on the back of his neck and gooseflesh race down his entire body. He looked around frantically for the lights, but saw only inky blackness. Drawing his knife, he forced himself to calm down and think, but found no better solution than to wait and try to listen above the sound of his blood rushing through his ears.

For the remainder of the night, Marcus stood and stared into the dark woods around him. Even as the first gray light of dawn filtered through the leaves to show the forest floor, he watched intently for the red lights to return. As soon as the light was sufficient, he walked out in the direction he thought the lights had been.

He searched the underbrush as he walked, slowly scanning each plant for some sign of passage. Finally, about twenty yards out from where Wilkey and Heather still slept, he saw a small patch of thick grass, hardly bigger than the area two feet would occupy standing there, trampled flat. The blades, instead of green, were a dark, dead brown in two elongated shapes that resembled footprints, in sharp contrast to the vibrant green plants all around. The fog had left a coating of condensation on the underbrush, but on the brown patches of grass, the dew had frozen, hanging from the dead blades like white claws.

Marcus searched the ground around the footprints for some time and found no other traces of whatever had caused such a scene. Whatever had stood in that spot staring at them with its red eyes seemed to have simply appeared then disappeared. Worried, but thankful that daylight had come again, he returned to the camp and found Wilkey and Heather both awake.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” the halfling asked, chewing on a piece of dried deer meat. “You didn’t have to stay up the whole night, although I do appreciate the sleep.”

He considered telling them about the mysterious red points of light he had seen and the traces left in the forest by their owner, but the concerned look on Heather’s face stopped him.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d let the two of you rest,” he told them, looking away from Heather in case she could see some sign of the lie on his face. “I’ll get enough rest when we are safely within the borders of Glenfold.”

Marcus felt weariness crawling all over his body and with many miles yet to go before reaching the elven lands, he wanted nothing more than to lie down as they had done and sleep long into the day. However, he thought of their voyeur with hellfire for eyes and knew that they must reach Glenfold by dark or the next visit would not be so benign.

They ate quickly in the gathering light of dawn, light dampened by the remnants of the fog stretching out from the river and by the oncoming clouds moving in over the trees, gray and threatening of rain. Within twenty minutes, they began their trek again, picking through the underbrush single file, each consumed in his or her own thoughts.

As they walked, the forest grew denser and the underbrush grew thinner, allowing them to pick up their pace dramatically. To their left, the Misteld sang its watery song, never far from their straining ears among the other sounds of the deep woods. The terrain began a gradual decline after a while, and the sound of the river grew harsher and louder, indicating a section of rapids interrupting the smooth flow of the water. Frogs belted out their invitation to the imminent rain, their croaks blending into the burbling of the turbulent water to produce an almost comical symphony of nature.

They walked easily as they passed further into the valley. Despite the change in weather, their spirits grew lighter as they neared the borders of Glenfold, even allowing for idle conversation in hushed voices. The sides of the valley rose up on either side of them like great waves of multi-colored foliage and Heather beamed in their beauty. Marcus looked back at her at one point and she, forgetting herself for a moment, gave him a dazzling smile, reminding him poignantly of their happier times together. Turning his attention back to the path ahead, he tried to commit to memory that smile so that, if all other causes were lost, he would have that one image to fall back on.

At last, sometime past midday as far as Marcus could tell, they came to a clearing where the river, running parallel to them for their entire journey, forked around a grove of majestic oaks advancing off into the valley. The left branch snaked away from them, disappearing around a bend beyond their line of sight, and the right branch spread before them, flowing swiftly between them and their destination.

“There it is,” Marcus told Heather. “Glenfold, the elven realm.”

Heather looked across the wide river with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen trees so . . . so beautiful,” she whispered so that Marcus barely heard her over the rushing water.

“Now,” Wilkey chimed in. “How do we get across?”

Marcus stared across the water at the distant bank. He still felt unseen eyes observing them, waiting for an opportunity to catch them unawares, and knew they needed to cross before dark. Even in his younger days when he could command the elements, he never crossed the elven border without invitation. He would send a message, usually by charming a song bird, and send it in advance of his arrival at the river. When he came to the river in those earlier days, he would find a path through the water, similar to the biblical story of Moses parting the Red Sea. Now he felt another correlation to that story, knowing that he must lead his companions across or face certain death if night fell around them on the side they now occupied.

Heather walked down the water’s edge and looked appraisingly at it, even dipping the toe of her boot into the water. “It’s cold,” she said. “But I think we could probably swim across.”

“No, we can’t,” Marcus said. He looked down upon the bank of the river and bent to pick up a small, flat stone at the water’s edge. He considered it thoughtfully for a moment, then drew back and slung it skipping along the surface of the river. The stone skimmed across until it reached a point halfway between the two banks, then it stopped suddenly with a musical ping before slipping out of sight.

“Magical protection,” Marcus said in response to Heather’s inquiring look. “We could swim to that point, then we’d have to come back or drown.”

Still, the experiment triggered something in his memory and he struggled with it for only a few moments before he found it. Marcus recalled a day long ago when the elves would not lower their magical shield for anyone, yet he had managed to cross. The elves had prepared a contingency for one of their own travelling who returned to find the path across the river impassable and Marcus had learned it long ago from a beautiful elven girl.

Lorelei.

Marcus scanned the ground again, looking for another stone, but one very particular and very out of place along the bank of a river. Finally, he found what he was looking for, a glassy black piece of obsidian lying half-obscured in the mud at the edge of the water. He pried it loose as it gave a tiny squelching sound as if it was loathe to leave it riverside view. Using an inside corner of his cloak, he wiped the stone clean and found that it was perfectly round, nearly the size of a tea saucer, and remarkable light in his hands.

Heather and Wilkey, who had been staring at Marcus with unveiled curiosity, now stared at the obsidian disk in wonder.

“What’s that?” Wilkey asked.

Marcus held the disk up, feeling the first drops of rain fall as he did. Droplets of water landed on the stone forming tiny black beads on its surface.

“It’s our key,” Marcus told them.

“Okay,” Heather said, her voice taking on a tone of annoyed skepticism as they rain began to fall harder. “Then where’s the keyhole, genius?”

Marcus did not answer, though the barb of her question nearly drew a nasty retort out of him. Instead, he held the disk and looked out over the water, studying the trees on the far side to be sure he was in the right place. He knew he would only have once chance to get across without help from the elves, help that he knew would not come before nightfall.

Pulling the obsidian disk back, he sent it sailing across the water just as he had done with the previous stone. This time, however, the stone did not touch the water, nor did it stop halfway across to fall into the depths below. The disk soared out perfectly straight just above the rippling waves of the river. In its wake, a line of silver light appeared in the water and the river began to part as though being drawn open by an enormous zipper. As the water peeled back, it revealed a walkway, also of obsidian, running along the riverbed.

The disk carried over the entire width of the river, parting the water as it went, and landed on the opposite bank, shattering as it did so.

“Come on,” Marcus said. “We have to get across before the water fills in the gap.” He stared along the obsidian path, finding it dry and easily passable. He moved quickly down the slope toward the center of the riverbed and turned to make sure the others were following him.

Wilkey stepped along lightly a few yards behind him, watching the water warily on either side. Heather, on the other hand, still stood upon the far bank gaping at the divided river. She started to step forward, but drew back her foot, staring at the water on either side with wide eyes.

“Come on,” Marcus repeated, calling out over the rushing water to either side of him. “It’s safe for a few minutes, but we have to hurry.” Turning back, he walked quickly to the other side and emerged from the path onto the stony bank of Glenfold.

Wilkey grew more nervous about the magic around him as he continued along the obsidian path and finished the trick at a run. Sweating, more from fear than the physical exertion of the short sprint, he smiled at Marcus. “Nice trick,” he said.

Marcus paid no attention. Heather stood on the far bank, her arms folded across her chest. Her hands gripped her upper arms tightly and Marcus could see her rocking back and forth slightly. Even at such a distance, he could see tears streaming down her face and he knew that another level of her disbelief had broken allowing a new wave of fear to wash over her. As she had followed him across the grasslands and into the forests, she grew ever more comfortable with the surroundings, forgetting the differences that separated the two worlds. Now, faced with proof of such powerful magic, fresh terror consumed her and rendered her unable to move.

Fearing that she would faint and plunge into the turbulent water, Marcus knew he would have to ask fast to save her. He tore back across the obsidian path, heedless of the jets of water beginning to spray across the magical divide. Reaching the bank where Heather stood, he put his arm around her and nearly picked her up off the ground as he led her down the black walkway, fast becoming wet and slick as more and more of the river broke free of its magical restraints.

As they reached the center of the riverbed and began up the other side, Marcus realized that he had reacted a few seconds too late. Great beams of water battered them from both sides as they fought to clear the river before the divide closed completely. He looked up at the far bank, seemingly miles away as the water closed overhead like great jaws devouring them whole.

In a panic, Marcus pulled Heather closer to him and tried once again to summon the power that he knew lay just beyond his reach. He felt the chill of the water close around them and took a deep breath, closing his eyes and preparing for the river to sweep them away to their deaths. Instead, he exhaled and found that he could breath air still, though pain wracked his body as he inhaled again. Beside him he heard Heather gasp and thought she too was taking her last breath. He opened his eyes after a few seconds in which he grew more and more surprise to still be allowed to breath and looked around in wonder.

The swiftly flowing waters of the Misteld completely surrounded them, but Marcus and Heather themselves stood holding each other inside a small bubble, hardly bigger than the space their bodies occupied. A faint shimmering light could be seen around the perimeter of the air pocket as it moved and swayed with the current of the river. All around them, they could see fish swimming in and out of view in the murky water, detouring around the two humans invading their domain as they did so.

Heather appeared to have shed her fear as she looked on in amazement at the sight of the river flowing around her. She looked back at last at Marcus and a broad smile lit her face, reflecting the luminescence of the bubble. “It’s like the aquarium we went to in Chattanooga,” she said.

Marcus heard her, but as she spoke her voice seemed to fade and grow distant, as though she were speaking from the end of a long tunnel. He felt his strength quickly draining away from him as he supplied the necessary force to protect them from drowning. He did not respond to her reminiscence except to pull her ahead, urgently leading her up along the obsidian path he could still see laid out before them. Fighting to remain conscious, his willpower sifting out of him like grains of sand in an hourglass, he led Heather upward, noticing all the while the pocket of air surrounding them growing smaller and smaller. Both of them bent over as the bubble closed in around them like shrink wrap and breathing became difficult, making it even harder for Marcus to keep going. Beside him, Heather whispered words of encouragement, but the fear had seeped in again as water began to do the same and the words came out hollow and tinged with doubt.

Marcus pressed on, feeling his legs starting to wobble. The soft light emitted by the magical barrier closing in around them began to darken with the rest of his vision. Even Heather, standing as close as possible to him without sharing the same physical space, began to dim as his mind began to shut down from its exertion. He forced his legs to pump up and down, sliding occasionally on the slick stone walkway, but slowly gaining ground. The only thought his overtaxed brain could manage was that he would not allow Heather to die in such a fashion.

The shining force keeping the water at bay wavered finally and the small holes that had been allowing water in for some time broke free, permitting great spouts of river water to pour in, forcing what little air remained for them to the very top. The Misteld closed in around them like water in a jar and they stretched their necks up for one last gulp of air before the cold, dark water enclosed them.

Marcus took what he knew this time to be his last breath of air. With one final effort, he pitched forward, hearing only a dull rushing in his ears as water filled them. The darkness, held back so long by his indomitable will, claimed him at last and he knew no more.

I apologize for the delay in posting this chapter.  I’m a busy guy.  However, this is a particularly long chapter, so for those of you still reading this story (yes, both of you), you have even more of my bad writing to consume.

Chapter 6

The centaurs led Marcus and Heather through a path in the woods for nearly an hour before coming to another clearing, nearly four times the size of the one next to the cave. Several tents were pitched around a large central fire pit where several centaurs could be seen stacking wood for the evening. For the first time, they could see females, similar in their muscular appearance to the males except for the leather wraps around their torsos. Stationed around the perimeter, Marcus could see sentries posted, staring out into the surrounding woods with bows ready in their large hands and full quivers strapped across their broad shoulders.

“We must fight te survive here,” Beorgan said, seeing Marcus eyeing the guards. “Not only again the rival tribes, but now the Dark One sends his forces as well.”

Beorgan surveyed his tribe, noting how each member, down to the smallest centaur, performed some duty, some assigned task that benefitted the whole. Marcus saw the look of pride on his dark face, but also saw a great sadness that tinged its hard lines like a dark lining around a cloud. “We are but half as many as we were two summers ago.” He looked at Marcus and for a moment, Marcus saw deep thoughtfulness breaking through the wild expression of his eyes. “Our time is ending, but we will fight until it does.”

Marcus remembered vaguely meeting the centaur chieftain on a few occasions during his childhood. He had always been impressed by their physical attributes and their sometimes raunchy way of speaking, but he thought now that he had greatly underestimated Beorgan’s intelligence on those previous trips. While the centaur had little knowledge of, or care for, the happenings of the outside world, he was now forced to deal with them as they had invaded his lands. Marcus heard the undertone of resignation in his voice as he spoke of his tribe and knew that much consideration had been given to the tide of evil that now threatened to destroy them, only to decide that resistance would be useless.

“I wish to know more about this Necromancer,” Marcus said. “Who is he and what does he want?”

“I know not who he is,” Beorgan answered, “but I do know what he wants—to rule.”

The fire pit in the center of the camp roared to life as they approached it and Marcus felt heat pour off in waves. A female centaur with a lovely human-like face and voluptuous torso approached Beorgan and offered him a water skin. The black centaur took it without a word of thanks and took a long draught. He then offered it to Marcus who also took a lengthy pull. The water tasted sweet and clear, like the bottled water he and Heather bought in bulk at the wholesale club.

Marcus turned and offered the skin to Heather, who took a step back. She glanced at the centaur with an unmistakable look of disgust on her face. “No thanks, not thirsty,” she said.

He looked around the camp to see if any of the other centaurs noticed the refusal. They would be highly offended, he knew, to see her decline such as precious gift as drinking water, but fortunately, none appeared to have noticed. The tribe still hurried about here and there performing their chores as the last light of day waned.

Some of the females set about preparing dinner over the fire pit. A wild boar hung suspended on a spit and revolved slowly directly over the fire. Soon, the smell of roasting pork filled their nostrils and Marcus heard behind him Heather’s stomach give a loud growl.

“I suppose you’re not hungry, either,” he whispered to her.

Heather curled her upper lip and mimed his words, shaking her head from side to side for emphasis. She sat next to Marcus, her legs crossed in front of her. Beorgan had lowered himself gracefully to a seated position in the dirt on his other side and Marcus marveled at how smoothly the centaurs moved with their conglomeration of bodies and the way their full bodies served to amplify their speech, kicking excitedly in the grass and shuffling a shy hoof in the dust.

“I had a mind that ye’d return,” Beorgan said to him as hot, fragrant pieces of the boar were being served on wooden plates. He stuffed a large chunk of boar meat into his mouth and continued in a nearly inaudible voice. “That’s why we set up here, thinking ye’d be coming back. Been here neigh on two moons.”

“I should have returned sooner,” Marcus said, staring into the fire. “Erasmus is dead.”

Beorgan dropped the meat he had been prying off the bone and looked at Marcus. “The Dark One got him too, eh? Well, he be a good one, powerful, but not so much as ye.”

Marcus said nothing. While they had not said so openly, Marcus knew that the centaurs regarded him as a possible savior, the only one who could possibly oppose the Necromancer and help them regain their lost glory. How would they feel if he told them that he had no power anymore? That all his talents may have left him as he grew older and forgot about them? He looked around the camp and saw several clusters of centaurs talking together. Many of them had smiles on their faces and all of them kept looking back at Marcus with disturbing regularity. Sudden anger rose up in him, anger at their false hope, at their inability to do anything to help themselves, at their ignorance of Erasmus’s fate.

He forced himself to calm down, realizing that could not blame the centaur tribe for what he knew were his own insecurities and grief.

Again, Marcus searched deep within himself, looking for the rush of power he recalled having as a child in this strange land. He remembered feeling like great amounts of electricity flowed up from the ground through him to be conducted in whatever means necessary to follow his bidding, but he could not find that sensation. Doubt and despair settled in his stomach like large stones and he found that his appetite vanished like a snowball in the Amazon.

He looked at Heather, sitting a few feet away, keeping to herself. She had overcome her aversion to the tribe’s hospitality and ate the meat she was offered with obvious relish. One of the female centaurs approached with a wooden cup roughly the size of a half-gallon milk carton and Heather drained half of the water inside with one long gulp. She looked up and saw Marcus watching her. She smiled, embarrassed, and wiped the pork grease off her full lips with the back of her small hand.

Looking at her, Marcus felt something rise within him. A small something, but it excited him, nonetheless, and feeling that tiny amount of energy coursing through him when he saw her, made him suspect why his instinct insisted so hard on her coming in the first place.

She’s the key, he thought, she’s the key to everything.

He smiled back at her, winked, and turned back to Beorgan.

“What can you tell me about the Necromancer?”

Beorgan examined the bone he had been chewing on the smallest missed portion of meat still clinging to it. Finding none, he tossed it absently into the fire. “He first came about two summers after ye traveled here last. Built a great tower of bones out in the Barrens and for neigh on eight year he stay there, never seen by man nor beast. Then, he sent his armies out in all directions, an army of dead.”

The large centaur shivered. His race valued life, but found violation of one’s death a most vile act of treachery.

“The dead poured over the villages and spread outward, swelling their numbers ever more from the killing they did. They would slay and the dead would rise right up where they fell to join them against their own. Now, only a few folk still stand against them. We centaurs have set aside our tribal battles to unite against the Dark One and all have suffered great losses.” Beorgan’s voice dropped. “There still be no trust between the tribes, only death.”

Taking a closer look at the other centaurs gathered in small groups around the fire pit, he saw signs of the onslaught Beorgan talked about. Nearly all of the members of his tribe bore a number of scars, reflecting the firelight in shining stripes among the fur of their lower bodies and the smooth skin of their upper bodies. Many had been mangled in some fashion, missing fingers and hands were common among both the males and females. Others bore more obvious signs of battle, such as large chestnut colored male whose entire face bore the unmistakable blotchy appearance of one who had been badly burned.

Beorgan continued. “The elves still hold the dead at bay, but their power is waning as well. Their forest is no longer the stronghold it once was and they are besieged by the armies of the Dark One. The dwarves are scattered from their hills. Most of the men have fled to the outreaches of the land, into the desert and beyond, those that have not sided with the Dark One, that is.”

The centaur stopped speaking and looked at Marcus, as if expecting him to say what he planned to do to fix the whole nasty business. In such a trying time, the chief looked for some sign, any sign, to bring hope back to his people, to spur them on to a battle he hoped would not prove their destruction.

Marcus returned the gaze for a moment, but found he could not hold eye contact for long. He worried that in some mystical way, the centaur would read his thoughts and see that he had not returned with the power he possessed as a child. He did not know why the power, that feeling of being a conduit for some great energy within the land, was not there, but he felt an almost tangible force blocking his efforts to reach it like a locked door to a vast treasure vault.

He looked once again at Heather and saw, with some surprise, that she had arranged her pack beneath her head and had drifted off to sleep, bathed in the flickering light of the fire. Emotion welled up inside Marcus, a mixture of parental protectiveness and adoring amusement. He rose to his feet, removed his cloak, and covered her with it. She accepted it sleepily, pulling it up close to her face and breathing deeply.

“Smells like you . . . “ she mumbled, not bothering to open her eyes, and drifted back to sleep.

Marcus waited for Heather’s breathing to grow regular, basking in her serene expression as the fire danced behind him, then returned to the centaur chieftain’s, side. Beorgan sat with his legs folded under him and stared at Heather with a thoughtful expression on his dark face.

“She be fair, Marcus,” he said. “You intend to breed with her?”

Marcus found the question remarkably poignant and funny at the same time. They had certainly talked about having children, several times, but their current journey into this strange other world changed the situation entirely. Not only would he have to contend with Heather’s negative feelings toward his as both a potential husband and father, he would also have to fulfill his quest with their relationship, and their lives, intact. For a brief moment, he considered taking Heather and leading her back to the cave at first light, leaving this remnant of his childhood to its own fortunes. Then, the image of a skull lying in grass rose into his mind and his determination reset itself, resolving his temporary inner conflict. He would go on, he told himself, and he would bring Heather with him, doing his best to protect her along the way.

He looked again at her sleeping form, mostly concealed beneath the thick cloak he had given her. What if I can’t protect her, he asked himself, feeling fear for the first time since they had left the cave. What if I’ve only brought her to her death.

Marcus answered the centaur finally, still looking at his cloak draped over Heather’s small body. “Yes, I do want to have children with her.” He turned to look directly into the big centaur’s eyes. “As soon as I have avenged Erasmus and your people and all the others who have been touched by this Necromancer, I want to leave and have as many children as she wants.”

That night, Marcus slept beside Heather on the hard ground. Not as close as they did in the bedroom of their Victorian, but close enough to reach out to her when the nightmares came. He dreamt of facing an army of corpses with only Heather at his side. The encircling mass of bodies shuffled forward slowly as from some George A. Romero film, ever tightening the space between them and their intended victims. Marcus tried to summon the power he knew lay just beyond the locked door, but could not. The dead swarmed in and pried Heather from his grasp just before they overwhelmed him, driving him to the ground beneath a wave of decaying flesh and bone.

He woke suddenly, cold sweat pouring in rivulets down his face and chest. The blood red robes he wore clung to his skin like wet paper and he felt his left hand clutching something soft. His head turned and he found the cloak in his hand, with Heather nowhere to be seen.

He gained his feet in less time than it took his rushing heart to perform a full beat. Turning this way and that, he scanned the clearing, looking for some sign of where she had gone. The fear from his nightmare returned and settled in his lower abdomen like a sharp boulder. He peered at the ground and saw several small footprints moving this way and that, but could determine no direction from them. At the perimeter of the camp, the centaur sentries stood their silent vigil, staring into the predawn light of the woods beyond.

Just as he was about to wake the entire tribe by screaming her name, Heather reappeared, stepping lightly from the woods on the opposite end of camp. She brushed of the nettles that clung to her cotton pants and began to walk back to where Marcus stood glaring at her. Seeing him awake with an expression of mingled relief and fury, she halted.

“What?” she asked. “I had to pee.”

Marcus raised his hand and ran his fingers through his thick hair, sighing in exasperation. He started to berate her, to tell her that she had no idea what sort of evil things could be even now looking for them, demons sent by the Necromancer to make quick work of this perceived threat with no real power. He opened his mouth and shut it several times, looking like a gaping fish, before raising his hands in the air and trembling his frustration into nothingness.

When he turned back to her, she flung his cloak, which he had dropped in his desperate search for her, into his face. She offered no word of thanks, no sign of gratitude whatever, and he knew that the guards had once again been posted on her emotions, regardless of any affection she had shown the previous night. He wondered how one person could go from one extreme to another with such rapidity, then decided not to press his luck. He left her alone to gather her things and set out to find Beorgan.

He found the black centaur partially obscured in the shadows of a large elm tree, staring out into the thick foliage beyond. The pragmatic side of Marcus, the one that operated a multi-million dollar business, was impressed by this show of responsibility from the centaur chief. That he took up the same duties as everyone else in his tribe spoke volumes about his ability to lead his kinsmen through such troubled times.

“Parting with us so soon?” Beorgan asked, eyes still fixed on the woods beyond.

“I wish to speak with the elves.” Marcus had no idea why he had said this, he had thought little of the elves of this land since arriving and had not decided to visit them until Beorgan had asked the question.

“I thought ye might,” Beorgan nodded. “They be wise, though never friends of me and me kin.”

Heather approached from the camp and stood a few feet away from where Marcus stood talking with the centaur. She blinked at them, gave a gigantic yawn, and looked at Marcus expectantly, as if to say “so, what now?” She had tied her long hair back with a piece of leather she had acquired from somewhere and had her pack slung over her shoulder like a college student toting a backpack.

Marcus turned back to Beorgan, still staring into the gloom of the early morning. “I swear to you that I will do everything within my power to stop the Necromancer, Beorgan. I give you my word.”

Finally, the centaur turned and looked at Marcus. An amused cunning danced in his dark eyes. “That which be within your power may be too little, Marcus,” he said.

Marcus realized then that the centaur knew his fears of being powerless upon his return to the land and his mouth fell open. He wondered if Beorgan had known this outside the cave when he had bluffed them into releasing Heather, or at least thought he was bluffing them. Perhaps, he thought, I was the one being bluffed.

“May hap the elves will help ye find that which ye seek. Until then, I bid you fair travels, Marcus, and good fortune on your quest,” Beorgan said.

Marcus thanked Beorgan for his hospitality and set off into the woods under the watchful gaze of the centaur chieftain.

He and Heather walked through the woods as the first rays of dawn appeared over the horizon, casting long shadows in the deep trees. For some time, they journeyed in silence, broken only by the occasional yawn from Heather a few steps behind. Marcus tried hard to stifle the yawns that rose in reaction to hers, but found himself unable to avoid the urge. He did not feel sleepy, despite spending the previous night lying upon the hard ground of the camp, but as he thought of the long, long trip ahead, a weariness settled on him that made him long for the soft bed in the upstairs bedroom, even if she no longer shared it with him. The thought that he could sleep for days vanished, however, when Heather finally spoke.

“So where are we going, anyway?”

“We are going to the North Pole to see Santa and his elves,” Marcus answered. His tone was casual, as straight forward as he could make it, but he still heard a sigh of exasperation from behind him. “But first, we are going to a small village only a few miles from here, a place called Yellow Banks, to look up an old friend of mine.”

“Assuming that friend’s not dead, too,” she answered.

Marcus turned on her, unable to hold his tongue any longer. “Look, I’m sorry I brought you into this. I’m sorry I dragged you all the way here without telling you what was going on but, number one, you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you everything and, number two, I really don’t know why I had to bring you. Something told me I needed you to do what I’m supposed to do. As soon as I know what you’re here for, I’ll be sure to tell you, but in the meantime, a little support or even just a little silence would be a good thing.”

Marcus turned on his heel and started again up the small deer path that was leading them through the forest. He had walked ten paces when he noticed the absence of Heather’s footfalls behind him. He turned again, and saw on her face a strange mixture of shock and, surprisingly to him, comprehension.

“I . . . I’m sorry,” she whispered, not looking at him. She tried to speak again, but her lower jaw trembled and she shut it again.

Marcus felt his heart sink. Never in their relationship had he ever berated her as he had just done. He felt ashamed of making her feel so small, but at the same time, a small voice in his head told him that maybe she needed to feel small this once. She had hurt his feelings and he certainly had enough things to worry about without fearing her barbed comments.

“It’s okay, I’m just worried,” he told her and started along the path again.

They walked again in silence for a long time and eventually the trees around them began to thin and then disappeared. The stopped at the edge of the woods as the sun was beginning its steady climb into the sky and sat down in the shade to rest before continuing on.

“So, what do I need to know about this place?” Heather asked. “If I’m here to help you, what do I need to know to survive?”

Marcus had been lost in his own thoughts, but snapped back to the present with the sound of her voice. He pondered the question for a while, looking off over the hills before them. “When I came here as a child,” he began, “I had this amazing magical power. I could create and destroy things with a thought and a wave of my hand. I gained a reputation as this powerful wizard who traveled the lands fighting evil where I found it and helping the dwellers here as much as I could. We had a lot of good time, Erasmus and me, roving this way and that, battling the darkness and nearly getting killed in the process. Erasmus also could do magic, perhaps not as much as me, but he was resourceful, cunning and he made much more creative use of the power he had than I did.

Marcus smiled, his face looking back upon his childhood. “I don’t even remember half the things we did. Like I said, I had pretty much forgotten all about this place, or chalked it up to some vivid dream I had, but every moment here brings back a flood of memories.”

“I’m glad you remember that part about saving Beorgan,” Heather said.

It was as close to an apology and an expression of gratitude as he was likely to get under the circumstances, but he welcomed it all the same.

“There are a few things you should know before we get to Yellow Banks, though,” he told her. “First, try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Yellow Banks is a pretty rough place, kind of like the towns you see in those movies about the Old West. A lot of traders and mercenaries frequent the place and it can be a dangerous place for a beautiful woman.”

Heather smiled at the compliment, despite herself.

“Second, you should follow my lead, whatever I do and no matter how crazy it seems at the time. The people here probably still know my name, but they won’t believe I’m me until I prove myself, like I had to do with the centaurs.”

“Well, that should be easy,” Heather said. “Just show them a bit of that magical power and they’ll be sure to see who you are.”

“That’s the last thing,” Marcus said, fixing his gaze on her brown eyes. “I don’t think I have that power any more. I haven’t felt it since we’ve been back.”

Heather stared at him, horrorstruck. “You mean you’ve come back her with this great reputation as some kind of wizard or something and you’re telling me that you can’t do any of it anymore. How are you suppose to beat this Necrowhatever and keep us from getting killed?” Realization swept over her, adding to her terrified expression. “You mean that all that stuff you said to the centaurs was a bluff? You really couldn’t have stopped them in they wanted to carry me off?”

She looked at him intently, her eyes pleading for some reassurance that he had the ability to protect her in this strange, dangerous land. She found none. Marcus only looked off into the distance, his face grave.

Marcus decided to test his theory, to see if perhaps he was wrong about the state of his abilities. Holding out his hand, palm up, he concentrated with all his might, hoping to produce a ball of pure light as he had done so many times delving in caves and dungeons with Erasmus at his side. Sweat appeared on his brow and his head began to tremble from the effort. No light came at first, but as he prepared to give up, a small flicker ignited in his hand and an orange tongue of flame sprang from his thumb, as if he had used a Zippo. He stared at it for a moment, delight and disappointment both washing over him, and after a few seconds the flame died.

“Well,” Marcus said, “I guess that’s a start.” The effort had left him exhausted and his breath came in quick rasps. He had never run a marathon, but imagined that if he did so, it would feel much as he did now.

“A start? A start?” Heather’s voice was hysterical. “So if something else attacks us, what are you going to do, ask it if it needs a light?”

She stood and began walking around in small circles, as Marcus knew she was prone to do during times of stress. Her lips moved all the while as she mumbled and gestured emphatically. Marcus knew she was building up steam before exploding on him and thought the time was right to move on again.

Standing, he felt the weariness of his attempt at producing magic gradually leaving him and started off through the tall grass that dominated the hills at the edge of the woods. He did not look back at Heather, even when he heard her yelp in surprise upon finding that he was leaving her behind. Her legs swished through the grass as she hurried to catch up, falling into place behind him again.

They walked through the waist high waves of grass, weaving between the hills that rose up around them like rounded gravestones. In a few places, they could see streaks of grass lying flat marking where some man or beast had passed in the recent past, but otherwise the land showed very little sign of traffic. Off in the distance, Marcus thought he could hear the first whispering of the river, the Misteld he remembered it being called, and soon after saw small plumes of chimney smoke rising in a small copse of trees at the edge of the silver line of the river.

“Okay,” Heather said, unable to keep her silence any longer. Marcus was relieved to hear her voice not coming out in shrill screams and looked at her as she spoke. “Who’s this friend of yours we’re going to find? Someone who can help us figure out how to get your power back?”

“His name is Wilkey, and I doubt he’ll be able to help get my power back,” Marcus answered. “But he is full of information and has a few things of mine that we may need on this trip.”

Marcus continued. “He’s also a swindler and a thief, so be on your guard with him.”

Heather stared at him. “You entrusted some of your possessions to a thief?” she asked.

“Yes,” Marcus replied, as if this were a perfectly natural answer. “He owes me his life several times over, so I have faith in him, regardless of how he’s treated others over the years.”

“You’ve been gone a long time. You really think he will have kept his promise this long?”

“I guess we’ll have to find out,” Marcus said and they started again toward the village of Yellow Banks. As they approached, they came to the River Misteld and walked parallel to it as they approached the buildings which now appeared through the trees. The brown water flowed along at a leisurely pace and now Heather saw how the village had arrived at its name. Yellow flowers she could not identify grew in thick patches upon the riverbank, creeping down into the water and floating in places like strands of blonde hair. The breeze blowing across the river carried their scent and Heather found their perfume far less appealing than their appearance, an odd mixture of honeysuckle and old garbage.

They entered the grove of trees and came to the outer buildings before Heather stopped walking. Looking around her, she stared in amazement as Marcus continued on. “What the hell is this,” she asked, “Munchkinland?”

The buildings of Yellow Banks ran in three concentric circles from a central common area in the middle of which stood a stone fountain. A small man on an equally small pony stood atop the fountain, cast in marble, and rearing to the sky like a great monument of war. Four buildings stood around the common area, each two stories, each roughly half the size of the Victorian Heather and Marcus had shared. The doors she could see stood no higher than her shoulders, roughly four and a half feet from top to bottom. The buildings on the outskirts of the village were confined to one floor each and their roofs barely reached past the top of Marcus’s head. She had a strange feeling of disorientation and clutched the nearest gutter for support as she dealt with the sensation that she had grown to the size of a giraffe.

Marcus studied her for a moment, then said, “Just remember what I said about this being a rough town and be ready for anything.”

“What are they going to do?” she asked. “Drop a house on me?”

“Just remember what I said,” Marcus repeated and turned to walk further into the town.

As they penetrated deeper into the circles of small buildings, they saw the first signs of their residents as eyes appeared from behind curtains just before unseen hands drew them shut again. They could hear voices coming from one of the buildings in the center ring and the pinging of what sounded to be a toy piano like the one they had given Heather’s niece for Christmas the previous year. As they reached the center ring of buildings, Heather could feel dozens of pairs of eyes looking at her and she wondered if their stares were just curiosity at the appearance of strangers, or something more sinister. She stepped closer to Marcus, unconsciously wanting to be near to him in case something went wrong.

Marcus took no notice of the onlookers huddled in their houses. He had expected such a reception and knew that with armies of the dead walking the land, new faces, even old new faces, would be viewed with utmost suspicion. He sought the source of the music and came to the front of one of the two story buildings. This building appeared well-constructed with walls of dried mud bricks, but had fallen into a state of disrepair that gave it a sad, shabby look. Large cracks ran up the walls like varicose veins and the opaque windows were dotted with missing or broken panes. A sign on the door proclaimed the place, The Pub.

“How original, huh?” Marcus asked as he pushed open the door. He was forced to stoop to enter the doorway and remained slightly bent beneath the low ceiling inside. Heather entered right behind him, bending to avoid the door jamb, but found just enough clearance inside to stand upright, although she could feel her hair brushing against the ceiling planks.

Inside, the sound of voices and the toy piano stopped immediately as they entered the room. Around two dozen little men sat around various tables staring at them intently. The tabletops reached just above Heather’s knees and in from of each little man was a tankard of some dark, foamy liquid at some level of consumption. At the far end of the room, a bar ran the length of the back wall and another little man stood behind it, stopping in mid-wipe as he cleaned one of the empty mugs.

Marcus scanned the room, looking at each and failing to find Wilkey. He moved forward through the tables, his steps sounding obscenely loud in the silence of the room, and leaned over the bar. “I’m looking for someone. A man named Wilkey,” he said to the bartender, a portly figure nearly as wide as he was tall.

Upon hearing Marcus speak, the clusters seated around the bar began to whisper and mumble excitedly, sounding much like a hive of bees perceiving a threat nearby. The little men leaned in toward one another and spoke urgently, some laughing and others giving Marcus dark looks.

Marcus kept his attention focused on the bartender and saw a line of sweat appear near the line of his gray hair and trickled down across the expanse of his forehead. He wiped the mug absently with his rag and looked down at the bar.

“Ain’t no Wilkey, here, Master,” he said.

Marcus frowned, but did not look away. “Are you sure? It would be a shame if he was here and no one told him that Marcus had returned to see him.”

At the mention of his name, Marcus heard a renewed buzzing from the tables around him. He heard one particularly loud voice near the door say “I knew it were him. Didn’t I tell ya it were him?” He could not, in the whispered cacophony, tell the overall sentiment the mention of his name caused, but decided he would worry about that later.

“Well, I ain’t much for keepin’ secrets,” the bartender said, “but if I were searching for Wilkey, I’d look upstairs in the second room on the right.”

Marcus thanked him and started up the stairs at the end of the bar before the bartender spoke again.

“But I’m not figurin’ you’ll like him in the state he’s in. He’s in a bad way, he is.”

Marcus hurried up the stairs, leaving Heather to the stares of the little men. She glanced around the room shyly, hoping to not catch their attention, but every pair of eyes seemed to be on her. She never felt comfortable in front of crowds and now could not remember ever feeling more uncomfortable or being in front of a stranger crowd. Taking a seat by the door, her knees bent up into her chest in the low ladder-back, she watched the stairs and waited for Marcus to return.

Marcus took the stairs three at a time, careful not to bump his head upon reaching the upper landing. Four quick steps brought him to the door the bartender had said and he knocked on it three times, listening for any movement inside. He heard none and knocked again, louder this time. Still, no sound came from across the door. He tried the knob, but it would not turn. Finally, out of ideas, he placed his hand flat against the door and concentrated on unlocking the door, a feat he had performed almost without thinking as a child crawling through dungeons with Erasmus by his side.

The lock held. Not even the sound of a tumbler moving rewarded Marcus for his efforts.

Marcus stood back from the door and kicked it, just above the knob and with a splintering pop, it opened. A strong smell of beer assailed Marcus as he entered and saw Wilkey, lying passed out upon the floor next to a pool of drying vomit. The small man’s dark clothes were covered in dust and badly wrinkled as if he had slept in them for days. Marcus felt sure that he had been sleeping in them as the smell of Wilkey’s body combined with the beer and vomit aroma to produce a nauseating stew for the nose. Wilkey’s black hair pointed in all directions except for a small patch near the top that lay flat against an empty bottle, still clutched in his right hand.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Marcus nearly choked on the strong aroma filling the room and stepped forward to where Wilkey lay sprawled upon the floor. He reached down and with strength born of growing anger he lifted Wilkey by his dusty shirt and shook him awake.

“Wake up, you little bastard,” Marcus said through gritted teeth.

Wilkey flopped in Marcus’s hand like a rag doll and mumbled, “Whosit? What the . . . ?” before puking again, spewing thin, whiskey-scented bile and just missing the leather boots Marcus wore.

Marcus smacked him, not very hard, but hard enough to get his attention. Wilkey’s eyes snapped open like window shades and he blinked sleepily at Marcus. As he opened his eyes, he cringed from the light flooding in from the window and winced painfully as he tried to focus on who had lifted him off the floor.

“M-M-Marcus?” he asked, his voice slurred. He raised a dirty sleeve to wipe away a trickled of fluid from the corner of his mouth. “Is that you?”

Marcus stared at him a moment, disgusted, then dropped him unceremoniously onto the bed. Taking a seat across the room, his knees out wide to compensate for the low chair, Marcus shook his head. “Wilkey, what the hell has happened to you?”

Wilkey struggled to roll over and blinked rapidly at Marcus, still trying to flush the disorientation from his mind. He absently wiped at his filthy clothes and looked remarkably put out.

“It’s been rough since you’ve been gone, Marcus, very rough.”

“Looking at you, I can believe that,” Marcus answered.

Wilkey continued to fidget uncomfortably, as though he sat on hot coals and was not allowed to get up. He refused to make eye contact with Marcus and made frequent glances at the door as if he intended to bolt for it any second. “What . . . what brings you back?” he asked.

“You know why I’ve come back,” Marcus answered.

“Ah, the Necromancer.”

“Yeah, and you also know why I came here to find you,” Marcus said.

Wilkey fidgeted more now, giving himself the appearance that he was suffering some sort of seizure. His glances at the half-open door became stares filled with longing. After a long pause, he nodded, without looking at Marcus.

“Where are my things, Wilkey?” Marcus asked, sensing trouble. “What have you done with them?”

“Well . . .” Wilkey began in a trembling voice. “You see . . .”

Marcus groaned in exasperation. “What did you do? Sell them so you could drink yourself into a stupor? Barter them for some cheap whore? Or perhaps you just lost them in a fit of gambling?”

Wilkey looked at Marcus finally, his wide eyes showing plainly the fear that had been rising in him since he recognized his visitor. “No, Marcus, nothing like that,” he said. “They took them.”

“Who’s they?” Marcus asked, leaning forward to look more closely at the little man. He wanted to be sure that he was not being lied to and moved in close enough to smell the stench of liquor that still clung to him.

“The bosses,” Wilkey answered, panicked. “You probably saw them downstairs. They spend almost all their time here, when they’re not out robbing people, or killing them. Three halflings, all dressed in black.”

Marcus scanned his memory of the barroom below and vaguely recalled a table in the corner occupied by three such figures as Wilkey described. They had remained stock still as he entered and made his inquiry to the bar man. Then, a thought struck his mind like a bolt of lightning, wiping all the anger he felt toward Wilkey, and replacing it with cold, sickening fear. As he rose, he heard raised voices from downstairs and an ear-piercing scream.

“Heather . . .” he moaned as he sprinted out the door.

Heather watched Marcus ascend the stairs and felt the all the eyes shift around to her as soon as he was out of sight. She tried to scan the room casually, smiling and trying not to show the fear that made her desperately want to exit the building and wait outside. Looking at the pub’s patrons sitting all around her, she found herself recalling Tolkien’s description of hobbits from her reading of The Lord of the Ringsin college. However, the grim, haunted faces around her looked nothing like the Frodo and Sam she had envisioned. All wore dark clothing, mostly caked in dirt too thick to determine their actual color. Many bore scars or festering sores upon their faces, signs of the harsh lives they endured in this dangerous land. Some continued to stare at her through narrow eyes while leaning over to whisper in conspiratorial tones to their neighbors.

She soon grew tired of their scrutiny and turned her attention instead to the low table in front of her, counting the moments until she heard the sounds of Marcus returning down the stairs. She decided to launch a new verbal assault when they left the pub, berating him for leaving her alone with such unsavory company, when she heard footsteps, but not from the staircase. Heavy boots pounded upon the plank forward from the corner of the pub moving in her direction. She did not look up, but could hears chairs sliding across the wood as the steps moved closer. Only when three shadows fell across the table she was so pointedly staring at did she look.

Heather gasped looking into the faces of the three figures before her. Never could she recall seeing more disturbing expressions. Each glared at her with obvious malice and amusement on their rounded faces. They were short, but stocky, much larger than the rest of the inhabitants of the village she had seen so far. Each wore a long knife strapped to his belt and the blades glinted merrily in the light spilling in from the oil lamps lighting the interior of the pub.

The figure in the center, his pock-marked face crowned by thick black eyebrows that knitted together above his nose, gave her a crooked grin. “What we got here, boys? Looks like the big’un done left us a plaything.”

Heather started to stand and move for the door, but the little man to her left cut off her escape, drawing his knife and motioning her to return to her seat. She did so, then saw the remaining two draw their knives as well.

Her nerves frayed to the breaking point, Heather let out a high-pitched scream which momentarily drove her assailants back from surprise. She tried to duck under the table, but banged her head on the edge, causing brilliant bolts of pain to temporarily haze her vision. The table slid loudly across the wood planks as she struck it, then more loudly as the three knife-wielding thugs pulled it out away from her to allow themselves easier access. As Heather fought to remain conscious, she wondered vaguely how she had gotten herself into such a mess. She tried to scream again, but only a short whisper came out as she watched the three little men moving toward her.

“Marcus . . .”

Marcus tore through the open door, cursing himself for not bringing Heather up with him. He started to run down the stairs, nearly fell, and only managed a controlled stumble to the bottom. Reaching the bar again, he saw three halflings dressed just as Wilkey had described advancing upon Heather with their long knives drawn.

He thought of trying to call upon the power which was either gone or lying dormant to dispatch the threat, but knew if nothing happened that he would not have time to try a Plan B. Instead, he grabbed the first solid object he could get his hands on, a bottle half full of some dark liquor standing just behind the bar, and hurled it at the center attacker. The bottle struck the halfling in the back of the head and shattered, propelling him forward on top of the swooning Heather. Marcus heard his knife clatter to the wooden floor as the remaining two turned to find the source of the bottle.

The one closest too him charged forward with his knife, holding it out in front of him like an Olympic runner carrying the torch to begin the games. Marcus held his ground and, just before the halfling had closed enough ground to slash at him, grabbed an empty chair and flung it forward.

The halfling dodged the chair easily, sidestepping the clumsy attack with remarkable agility, but recovered to find Marcus stepping forward with a clenched fist. The blow landed squarely on the halfling’s forehead and knocked him backward over a nearby table, sweeping off three empty mugs as he collided with the side wall of the pub. Marcus winced as pain shot up from his knuckles to his wrist and forearm. He had never been in a physical altercation in his adult life and now discovered that rarely did the movies get it right.

Marcus felt, rather than saw, the next attack coming. A high-pitched whistle caused him to dive for the floor as the third attacker’s knife sailed less than an inch over his head. The hilt of the weapon struck hard against the wall and clattered to the floor before the stairs.

He looked toward the front of the room and saw the third halfling retrieve his fallen comrade’s weapon from the floor beside him. Thick-soled boots ran nimbly through the tables and chairs as he struggled to a kneeling position. As the halfling sprang to attack, Marcus seized another chair and slid it into the path of his leaping foe, catching his feet as he rose into the air and causing him to fall short of his intended target, crashing to the floor face first.

Marcus heard the halfling he had punched rising to his feet and drew his own knife to be better prepared. He stood, banged his head painfully against a support beam, and fought hard to correct his swimming vision before the other could advance. In an act of desperation, he kicked out for the table the halfling had cleared off and connected just as the small, furious face appeared at its edge. The heavy table lurched forward, wedging the halfling’s head with a loud crack between itself and the wall. The halfling twitched a moment, eyes wide with shock, then remained still.

The other patrons of the pub had discreetly filed out as soon as the three had signaled their intentions with Heather. Now, the only halfling in the room still conscious was the bartender, cowering beneath the bar. Marcus, in the newly wrought silence of the room, could hear the portly body shaking the glass mugs as he trembled out of sight.

A groan came from the direction of the front door and Marcus braced himself for a continuation of the attack. Instead, the groan was definitely female, causing him to rush forward to see if his foolish acts of leaving her alone and coming to such a rescue had doomed her to die in this land. He saw Heather squirm beneath the body of the prone halfling but saw no sign of blood other than a dark patch of matted hair at the back of the halfling’s head. Picking up the drenched figure, he tossed his body aside like a hay bale and looked down at Heather, afraid of what he would see.

As quick as lightning, Heather’s hand rose up and slapped him hard across the face, further stinging the area she had struck the previous day. She lay curled into a ball upon the floor, sobbing wildly with fear and anger. The liquor that had sprayed from the shattered bottle spotted her cotton shirt, but Marcus saw no sign of injury to her and felt an enormous geyser of relief rise up within him. He took her into his arms and, despite her half-hearted protests and half-audible curses, drew her close to him.

He was still holding her when a shadow fell across them and caused him to look up. The halfling he had tripped with the chair had recovered and stood poised over them brandishing his wicked knife and a more wicked smile. Caught by surprise and without his own knife that he had dropped a few feet away, Marcus recoiled, seeking only to protect Heather from the oncoming blow.

The attack never came.

The halfling raised the blade above his head and his expression suddenly changed, shifting from triumphant glee to painful shock instantly. His knife hand lowered slowly, then dropped the blade to the floor. A small gasp, sounding like air escaping from a tire, left his mouth and a drop of blood trickled down from on of his nostrils. Closing his eyes, the halfling dropped in a heap next to Marcus, a small knife hilt jutting from the back of his neck

Wilkey stood at the base of the stairs, leaning upon the rail for support. He trembled visibly, but gave Marcus a wry smile. “Guess I got here just in time, eh?” he asked.

Marcus stood slowly, hauling Heather to her feet as he did so. He looked down at the dead halfling with wide eyes and for the first time he realized how serious their situation would be without his powers. He looked up again at Wilkey and offered a faint smile. “Nice shot,” he said.

Holding his head as though it might fall off, Wilkey waded cautiously through the tables and chairs. “Yeah,” he agreed, “considering I was seeing five of him. Glad I picked the right one to throw at.” He looked up and saw Heather. “Whoa, Marcus, you didn’t tell me you had a lady friend with you. I guess you must be the one they were after. Nice scream, by the way.”

Heather offered no reply. She recoiled from Wilkey as he approached, as a small child might back away from a large dog. Her eyes, still brimming with tears, appeared glazed and unfocused as she surveyed they scene.

Wilkey seemed nonplussed. “Great, Marcus, you brought a mute girl with you. That’ll be helpful.”

The pock-marked halfling Marcus had struck with the bottle gave a loud groan and moved, causing Heather to back against the wall with a tiny yelp. Marcus picked up his own knife and hurried to the walking figure. He slid his boot beneath the halfling’s ample stomach and heaved him over on his back with a loud thump.

Taking one of the ladder-back chairs in hand, he placed it over the halfling’s chest with the bottom support resting just above the windpipe. He straddled the chair, sitting backwards and leaning over its back to look down at the pock-marked face.

“Bring me that bottle,” Marcus told Wilkey, pointing to another decanter of dark brown fluid standing abandoned on the bar. Wilkey did so without question, but with a curious cast of his eyebrows.

Marcus accepted the bottle and stared at it a moment, swirling its contents slowly and watching the light from the lamps in the pub flicker and dance off the tiny waves. He then began pouring the contents onto the upturned face of the halfling. The halfling sputtered and groaned before finally opening his eyes, looking at Marcus with extreme hatred and fear. The support rods of the chair over him immobilized his arms and after a brief struggle, he lay still glaring up at his captor.

Holding out his hand as he had done earlier, Marcus tried to summon the flame he had been able to generate earlier. He was not disappointed as the orange tongue jumped to the end of his thumb and remained there. He looked down and smiled. “You may not be aware of this, but the liquid I just poured over you is nearly all alcohol. Very flammable,” he said. “Now, you’re going to answer a few questions or I’m going to make you extra crispy.”

In response, the halfling spit upward, barely lacking the force necessary to hit Marcus in the face. “I’m not saying anything to you,” he snarled.

Marcus shrugged and leaned the chair forward, pressing it against the halfling’s windpipe. He listened as the little man struggled for breath and then pulled back, allowing him to recover in a fit of coughing and deep pulls of air. “Now, let’s start with what you took from Wilkey over there. Hand it over.”

The halfling narrowed his eyes as he cut them over to look at Wilkey and Marcus thought he would continue to resist. He guessed wrong, however, as the thick-fingered hand reached into his shirt and produced a small silver ornament attached to a silver chain. Marcus reached down and removed the item carefully and tucked into a pocket of his robes, careful not to take his attention off such a potentially dangerous adversary.

“I take the the other two have the other items?” Marcus asked.

The halfling still stared murderously at Marcus, but nodded. Wilkey, who had been off to the side making rude gestures to the pock-marked halfling, performed a quick search of the other two “bosses” as he had called them and produced a silver ring and a worn leather bag, similar to the one he already possessed. This bag, however, glittered slightly, like stars in an oiled leather sky. Wilkey brought these to Marcus who stored them likewise within his robes.

“Now, why did you attack us?” Marcus asked.

The halfling said nothing, only glared back in furious defiance.

Marcus held out his hand again and recalled the small flame. “You’re trying my patience and . . . “ he started, but the halfling interrupted.

“He sent us . . . to stop you.”

Marcus banished the fire, unable to hold it any longer. Sweat trickled down his brow from the exertion of producing it and he felt the same weariness he had felt upon leaving the woods earlier in the day. He hoped the halfling would either be too stupid or too blinded by rage to see his weakened state since he doubted that he could hold the stocky fellow down should he try to lift up suddenly.

“Who sent you?” Marcus asked.

“Him,” the halfling answered, as if the answer was obvious, and Marcus supposed it was. “The Necromancer.”

Marcus leaned back in the chair and considered for a moment. He had surely expected the answer, but it disturbed him that his quest had only just begun and already he was being hounded by the Necromancer’s forces. He decided, though, that before he could plan out his next move, he needed to take care of the small detail lying beneath him.

“I want you to give a message to this Necromancer,” Marcus told the halfling. “Can you do that?”

The halfling nodded again. A look of eagerness appeared on his face as he realized that Marcus did not intend to kill him where he lay. His eyes quickly scanned the room, looking for the closest item he could employ as a weapon when Marcus removed his weight from the chair holding him at bay.

“I want you to tell the Necromancer this,” Marcus said, bringing the thick glass bottled down over the back of the chair. It exploded in a shower of glass upon the halfling’s forehead, cutting a deep gash in his scalp and knocking him unconscious again.

Marcus waited a moment before standing to be sure he had done the job right, then stood up and looked at Wilkey. “Get whatever you need from your room upstairs,” he said. “We’re leaving.”

“Where to?” Wilkey asked.

Marcus did not answer. Instead, he turned to Heather who still stood trembling against the wall next to the pub’s door. Her eyes bulged from their sockets, tears brimming the red edges. She held her arms crossed over her chest, squeezing herself tightly as though hugging herself. Marcus walked to her and started to put his arm around her, hoping to comfort her in the wake of such a close brush with death, but she recoiled from him as she might have from the halfling now lying unconscious and bleeding on the floor before her. Giving Marcus a warning glance, she stepped quickly out the door.

Marcus sighed and surveyed the wreckage around the room. Despite the several chairs he had used, none appeared damaged and other that a few overturned tables, the pub could have been reopened for business almost immediately. He could see the bartender peeking out to assess the situation and his eyes widened with fear as Marcus walked toward him. Fear changed to surprise as Marcus pulled two gold coins from a pocket of his robes and laid them on the bar, sliding them across for emphasis.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, knowing that the halfling had probably never seen one gold coin in his life, much less two, gold being exceptionally rare in these parts.

Turning, Marcus started toward the front door just as Wilkey returned down the stairs, a leather sack slung over one shoulder. He dashed out in front of Marcus and, in mock chivalry, held the swinging door open with a wide smile.

Marcus stepped out into the sunshine and found Heather standing just outside the door. Exiting the room had apparently lessened the shock of what had transpired there, although the effects of seeing her now ex-fiancé killing another being in defense of her still showed themselves in the slack-jawed surprise evident on her face. She still held her own arms across her chest and looked around nervously as though she expected a horde of halflings to charge at her from all directions in retribution for the deaths of two, maybe three, of their own. As Marcus walked toward her, she backed away.

Feeling more exasperated than he cared to admit, Marcus changed his direction abruptly and began walking away from the pub, back through the circles of buildings and into the grove of trees surrounding Yellow Banks. He did not look back, but could hear Wilkey and, a little further behind, Heather following along behind.

“Where to, oh mighty one?” Wilkey asked, drawing even with Marcus.

Marcus, whose mind was working too furiously to appreciate the halfling’s sense of humor, did not answer at first. He slowed his pace and stared at Wilkey as they filed past the last of the tree and reentered the high grass that continued on aside the Misteld. “First of all, I will tell you that I appreciate you saving us back there,” he said at last. “But I will also tell you that I won’t be able to tolerate your personal problems on this trip. I have enough of my own, thank you. As drunk as you were when I found you, as you still are, you’re lucky that I’m giving you the opportunity to help at all.”

Seeing the pained expression on Wilkey’s face, Marcus softened his tone. “When I was younger, I knew I could rely on you no matter how bad things got over here. That’s why I trusted you with these objects.” He patted his robes. “I need to know that I can rely on you again. Circumstances have changed and we need all the allies, all the sober allies, that we can get.”

Wilkey fell back a pace and remained silent for some time. Marcus looked back occasionally as they walked and saw that the halfling still suffered from a massive hangover, squinting to the point of nearly closing his eyes to the bright sunlight and holding his head as though it might explode. Behind him walked Heather, staring vacantly into the distance, seeing nothing, Marcus suspected, other than her own life flashing before her eyes.

“Oh, in response to your question earlier about where we are going,” Marcus said, turning to Wilkey. “We are going to Glenfold.”

Wilkey’s eyes widened nearly to rival Heather’s. “The elves?” he said, horrified. “We can’t go there.”

“Why not?”

Wilkey stuttered for a moment and Marcus readied himself for the lie he knew would follow. “They . . . they aren’t allowing anyone in their realm. It’s been forbidden to all since the siege began.”

Marcus suspected there actually was some truth to the statement, but also knew Wilkey was concealing some ulterior motive for wanting to avoid the elven kingdom. He decided to take a guess.

“What did you take from them?” he asked sternly, as a parent might speak to a young child who had shoplifted candy from a convenience store.

Wilkey stopped walking and began fidgeting, moving his weight from one foot to the other and back as though he stood on a bed of hot coals. “I don’t know what you mean, Marcus,” he said in a higher pitched voice.

Marcus stopped and turned completely to face the halfling. Placing his hands on his hips, he said nothing. Feeling the penetrating gaze, he reached into his pocket and slowly pulled out a glittering ruby as large as a tennis ball. He gazed at it longingly for a long moment, then handed it out to Marcus.

“There were two,” Wilkey admitted, speaking at the ground. “But I used one to pay for my room at the pub and all the food and drink I could want for the next five years.”

Pocketing the ruby, Marcus gave a look to Heather who had stopped just behind Wilkey. Her face had lost its shocked mask and now only told of extreme weariness from the day’s events.

“We’ll make camp here,” Marcus decided. Looking around the grassy hills surrounding them on three sides and the river on the fourth, he did not like the openness of their position along the trail, but knew he could not drag Heather much further without her collapsing. He, too, felt exhausted, the adrenaline from the pub brawl having long departed. As he thought of how close he had come to getting Heather and himself killed, his hands trembled and he immediately sought to put them to some work by finding a suitable spot to sleep for the night.

Heather sat down at once, unceremoniously plopping down into the tall grass. Wilkey unshouldered his pack and sat down a few feet away.

“So, Marcus being very rude, we’ve not been properly introduced,” he said to Heather. “I’m Wilkes Poppinjay, an old friend of Marcus’s. What brings you to our lovely land.”

Marcus listened to the conversation intently, pretending to scan the area around them for anything of interest and was surprised when Heather answered in a perfectly casual voice.

“I’m Heather,” she said. She did not offer her hand in greeting, but Wilkey took it anyway, planting a kiss on its back.

“A pleasure meeting you, Heather,” he said cordially. “Are you and Marcus united?”

Marcus knew this translated to “Are you married?” and apparently Heather figured it out as well.

“No,” she answered, wiping the hand Wilkey had kissed absently. “We’re just friends.”

The words stung Marcus as though he had fallen on a porcupine.

“Some friend to drag you to this place,” Wilkey said. “This land is dying and soon every one of us will die with it. The Necromancer will see to that.”

“Hey, Marcus,” Wilkey said, twisting around to look at him. “Why didn’t you just blast those guys in the pub with a spell or something? You could have saved both of us a lot of trouble.”

Marcus, already underwhelmed by Wilkey’s faith in his ability to stop the Necromancer, decided to go for broke. “I couldn’t have. My power is gone.”

Wilkey twirled quickly, coming to rest on his knees, and stared open-mouthed at Marcus. “What? How can that be? Where did it go?”

Marcus gave up the pretense of searching the area and sat down across from his two companions. “I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to see the elves.”

“You think they’ll know?”

“I hope so,” Marcus answered. “If not, we might as well go hand ourselves over to the Necromancer now.”

Chapter 5

When nearly an hour of daylight remained, Marcus felt the uncomfortable sense of urgency again and knew it was time to move on toward his appointed task. He took his suitcase into the bedroom he had occupied as a child and began to unpack it carefully, laying each item on the bed as he did so. He sighed as he looked at the bed, an ancient four-poster on which sat the same feather mattress he had slept on for so many years. No pillow top, adjustable, waterbed or any other mattress ever felt as comfortable as that lumpy sack of goose down and a sudden weariness washed over him as he realized that it would be some time before he would be able to rest in it again, if at all.

He continued to unpack, looking over each item as he decided what to bring with him. He knew from experience that certain things would not carry over in any form, but others would, although in a somewhat different shape or material. He dressed for comfort, there would still be a mile trek through the woods to reach the cave and he knew what he wore during that part would matter little once he entered. He strapped a purple Nike fanny pack around his waist, thinking of how much it would make him look like an elderly visitor to Disney World. The only other item he elected to take was a hunting knife sporting a nearly ten inch blade and a leather sheath which he strapped to his belt. The knife handle, made of ivory, showed the signs of extensive use in its yellowed color and worn places, but he smiled as he secured it, patting it like an old friend he had not seen in many years. The blade, left to him by his father, had made the trip many times during his youth and Marcus felt reassured that it was ready to accompany him once again.

The only item remaining in his bag he felt some conflict over was the handgun. He had carried a concealed weapons permit since his twentieth birthday and usually left the gun, a vintage Colt .45 revolver, locked in his desk at home. Heather had never been comfortable about having one in the house, particularly in a room downstairs where a burglar may reach it before they did, but she had relented on the grounds that he disposed of it should they ever decide to have children.

Marcus stared at the weapon, which he only fired once or twice a year during the occasional trip to a firing range near Gatlinburg with some of the other managers from SportsWorld. He had always shown a remarkable proficiency with it, particularly during simulation and quick draw drills, but decided to leave it in the suitcase just as Heather entered the room. She did not knock, causing Marcus to feel a spike of resent as she invaded the only place in the world, this world, at least, that he considered to be just his. Still, he needed to set that aside in order to try to reach her, to convince her to go along on this silly game of his to the cave where all her questions would be answered.

“What are you doing?” she asked as if she had walked in to find him masturbating. “You can’t be going out there now, it’s raining?”

“I’ve been rained on before.” He kept his back turned to her, scanning the items spread across the bed on last time. Satisfied, he turned and looked at her. “You want to know what all this is about?”

“Well, yeah,” she answered.

“Then you need to get whatever you think you’ll need and join me outside.”

He stepped past her and strode out the door without looking back. His grandmother waited for him by the door, her arms crossed and an expression of worry on her face.

“Please be careful, Marcus,” she said.

“I will, Gran,” he assured her. They hugged tightly for a long moment and between the pats on his back he thought he heard Heather frantically rummaging through her things in the back bedroom. He put on a light jacket his grandmother offered and stepped out of the house into the rain.

Walking to the corner of the house, he scanned the edge of the woods, dark and forbidding a few hundred yards in the distance. His vision only penetrated a few feet into the trees, but he knew enough light was left in the day for him to find his way to the cave with relative ease. As he stood staring at his destination, a mixed bag of feelings swept through him, ranging from nostalgia to delighted anticipation to dark dread. He took a deep breath, smelling the clean scent of the rain all around him, and started forward.

“Marcus!” Heather came dashing out the door, carrying a small black bag similar to those he had seen carried by doctors in old movies. She wore a bright pink raincoat, certainly his grandmothers, and he smiled at the sheer vibrancy of it in such bleak weather, and such bleak circumstances. He wondered idly how it would change on the other side.

She turned her head in his direction and hurried to catch up with him, though he had stopped walking, and nearly fell face forward into the wet grass as she slid to a stop. He caught her in his strong arms and for a moment she glanced up at him with an expression he did not at once recognize or expect. Hope. Hope and anticipation. He saw then that regardless of her doubt or suspicion of his motives, she perhaps wanted to believe him because, despite the seemingly terminal problems in their relationship, she still loved him.

Marcus felt himself return the smile involuntarily and watched Heather’s vanish almost immediately. She had been caught with her guard down and the vacant expression that took up residence on her face said that she would not let it happen again.

Marcus wiped his smile off just as quickly, but remaining grinning inside.

“Okay,” he said, letting go of her. “Let’s go.”

Turning on his heel in the wet grass, Marcus walked away from the house toward the dark line of the woods. He heard Heather’s small feet splashing behind him, remaining a few steps behind as though she wanted to keep an eye on him, make sure he had no opportunity to play a joke on her. He walked along faster, his longer strides opening such a lead on her that she had to jog to keep up. She caught up finally just as they reached the trees.

“All right,” she said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a note of apprehension in her voice. “Where are we going?”

Marcus did not look at her. “I’ve already told you where we are going.”

She circled in front of him, standing between him and the dark woods. “Okay, I’ve played along,” her voice rose with impatience. “I’ve walked out here and now I want to know what this is really all about and I don’t want to hear any crap about some imaginary friend.”

Marcus could only look at her, prying his eyes from the dark shadows beneath the trees ahead. A dozen responses came to him, some calm, most not, and he decided the best road would be the silent one. Stepping to his left, he walked past her and entered the woods.

The woods looked as dark and forbidding from inside as they had looked from the outside. Thin, gray light filtered in the through the canopy of leaves providing dappled luminescence by which they could navigate through the thick trunks. As they entered, all sound seemed to be muted and the air took on a heaviness that had nothing to do with the weather. The rain could still be heard falling above before it filtered down through the leaves to settle in dark pools scattered about in the underbrush.

Marcus saw that little had changed since his last visit. Over ten years had passed, but he could see the faint outline of the path he took back and forth during his many trips as a child. He thought the underbrush had grown thicker, probably from a lack of foot traffic and a few trees he remembered standing now lay on their sides, victims of the violent thunderstorms that sometimes ravaged the area or disease.

He kept his hand on the hilt of the knife at his side as he walked. Packs of feral dogs sometimes roamed the woods and, while they usually fled from humans, he had heard of some, driven mad by rabies or hunger, that had attacked humans, although he had never heard of one of these attacks that did not involve a young child.

Heather trailed a few feet behind again, sighing from exasperation. Marcus felt thankful the the path was so narrow, allowing them to pass only in single file and preventing her from circling around him again to slow him down.

Marcus began to feel a strange pulling sensation coming from ahead of him. It was as if someone had wrapped a rope around his chest and was pulling him forward. The sense of urgency nearly overwhelmed him now and he had to fight hard against the urge to run along the path that he knew so well, leaving Heather behind to fend for herself. The thought that he needed her to accompany him grew in proportion to this need to hurry and he could not risk her turning back.

Behind him, Marcus could hear her mumbling to herself. He distinctly heard the words “snipe hunt” and had to stifle a snort of laughter. He wondered if she actually believed he would drive her hundreds of miles and lead her out in the pouring rain to perform such a crude practical joke, then decided, considered the state of their relationship, she probably did.

They walked on for nearly half an hour before Marcus stopped at the edge of a small clearing. Heather stopped behind him and peered around to see what lay ahead.

“What the hell is that?” she asked, glancing up at Marcus.

Marcus took a step forward into the clearing and did not answer. The mouth of the cave, smooth and round, opened up from the side of a small hill like a great yawning maw. Thick strands of moss-covered ivy hung down like dark green tresses of hair and twin oaks, the only ones in this stretch of woods, stood silent duty on either side like guards at Buckingham Palace. The grass in the clearing looked trampled, as though many feet had marched through here not so long ago.

Marcus saw none of these details, however. His attention lay fixed on what he, and Heather, saw in the center of the clearing.

“What the hell is that?” Heather repeated, more insistent now, a note of confused fear in her voice.

Marcus again declined to answer. Instead, he stepped forward into the clearing and knelt down beside the small object, no larger than a child’s ball. He tentatively reached down to pick it up out of the grass and shuddered when he saw his suspicions confirmed.

It was a skull.

Marcus, who had played with the idea of becoming a forensic anthropologist before catching the “retail bug” as he called it, knew from its size that the skull had come from a small human, probably no older than fourteen or fifteen. Staring at the facial features, he saw nothing that indicated trauma, no bone fractures or missing teeth. Then, he rotated the skull forward to examine the cranial bones and his eyes widened with shock and horror.

Etched into the bone, words were written. The tool used to produce the letters had obviously been sharp, but little care was taken to write neatly on such a medium. Marcus read the passage as Heather peered over his shoulder and stepped back again with a strangled scream.

HERE LIES ERASMUS, the words read, MAY HE REST IN PIECES.

Heather continued to walk backwards until she had returned to the edge of the clearing. She placed her back against a tree trunk and struggled for breath.

“What the hell is going on here, Marcus?” she asked.

Marcus placed the skull gently back on the ground, as though it were made of expensive crystal. He caressed its top lightly, his fingers lingering over the indentions of the letters, and stood suddenly, turning to look at Heather.

“He’s dead,” Marcus told her in a mild, unaffected voice. He looked down at the skull at his feet and felt tears, warmer than the rain falling against his face, sliding down his already soaked cheeks.

“I was too late,” he said softly so that Heather barely heard him.

“Marcus, let’s get out of here, I really don’t like this.”

Marcus looked at her as she had looked at him so many time over the past two days, like she had gone mad.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’re leaving, but we’re going through there.” He pointed at the cave.

“I don’t want to go anywhere near there.”

“Then I’ll go alone!” Marcus yelled. “How can you stand there and expect me not to do something after they’ve done this,” he pointed at the skull, “to my friend?”

Marcus strode to the mouth of the cave and stopped, turning to see what decision she would make.

“But . . . but . . .” Heather stammered. “He’s not real.” Still holding on desperately to her doubts, she looked at the anguish and determination on Marcus’s face and felt them start to crumble between her fingers.

“He’s not real,” she repeated, pleading to him.

Marcus looked at the skull lying at her feet, then looked back up to her with his red-rimmed eyes. He turned away and walked to the side of the cave. Heather watched as he pulled a metal ammunition box from his pack, the words United States Army printed in black upon the lid. Taking off his watch, he placed it inside and shut the lid, sliding the box into a small natural shelf in the limestone wall.

“He’s real to me,” he said and stepped into the cave, disappearing into the shadows beyond.

Heather stood alone in the clearing waiting for Marcus to reappear. Time passed very slowly as she watched the mouth of the cave and gradually realized that he was not coming back. The sounds of the forests, twittering birds and buzzing cicadas, already muffled by the density of the woods, were drowned out completely by the pounding heartbeat she heard in her ears. A feeling that she was being watched swept over her and she looked down at the grinning skull. She had bumped it with her foot and now its cavernous eyes stared up at her in silent anticipation of what she would do.

“Damn it,” she muttered, sounding more scared than she would admit, even to herself. She ran forward and plunged into the cave, slowing only as the darkness grew around her and she lost all sense of where she was. She could hear water dripping, but with the echo her sense of direction failed to tell her where the sound was coming from. The ground under her feet seemed solid enough, and smooth except for the occasional snapping that she hoped came from a piece of wood rather than the bones her imagination told her lay scattered about the damp earth. She felt eyes on her again, this time many sets, and wondered briefly if bats dwelled in the cave, preparing for their nightly forage for insects.

She paused to look back, but no light could be seen from the clearing she had left only a few yards behind. Finding herself alone now in complete darkness, Heather felt her resolve begin to break. She made a quick, full turn which completely disoriented her in the blackness and as she fell she let out a scream of terror.

Strong arms caught her as she fell and she collapsed into them. A faint wisp of Curve, the cologne she had bought for Marcus their first Christmas together, reached her nose and she sobbed in relief, clutching at his arms to pull herself to him.

“I’ve got you,” he told her, pulling her in and holding her reassuringly. “I’m sorry I left you, but you don’t understand what I have to do and how important it is that I get started immediately.”

“Why?” Heather asked. “If he’s dead, why do you still have to go through with it? What if you die, too? What will I do then?”

Marcus held her close to his chest, feeling the her shake from her crying. Warmth spread in a patch across his shirt as her tears soaked through. In the dark, he allowed himself to smile, aware that she could not see him to put up her guard once again. He had convinced her at last, he knew. Now, at least, that difficult task was completed.

“Come on, let’s go. It’s not much farther now,” he told her, wrapping his arm around her to lead her through the complete darkness.

Heather seemed to recover a bit once they began moving. “How do you know where you’re going?” she asked.

“I can feel it, like that other world is pulling me along toward it.”

They walked forward for several steps, unable to see even each other’s eyes in the lightless cave. The ground remained mercifully flat and smooth and Marcus walked with the confidence of a blind person within the friendly confines of his own home, a sharp memory and repetition allowing him to see the safest path.

A faint light began to grow up ahead. At first, Heather thought it only a phantom spot of light that some people see in areas of complete darkness or, worse, her mind imposing an optical illusion, making her see light because it so desperately needed to see it. Instead, the light grew brighter as they approached and the smell of fresh air began to replace the damp, earthy smell of the cave. Faint bird songs floated in on the breeze and Heather found herself first jogging then sprinting toward the opening. Marcus yelled something to her, a warning by the sound of his voice, but she ignored him, answering only the call of her mind to be out of the darkness and into the light of day.

She burst out of the end of the cave into another small clearing, nearly identical to the one they had entered the cave from on the other side. Only here, bright sunshine fell through the opening in the canopy instead of pelting rain and a stiff breeze blew her hair back in light brown waves.

She stopped at once when she heard the movement around her and realized her error when she caught a smell that brought back memories of her childhood.

“Horses,” she muttered as a large shape emerged from the trees, blocking out the sun. She strained to see what approached her but was momentarily blinded. All around she heard hoof beats as they closed in from all directions, enclosing her in a tight circle.

Heather stared in disbelieving horror as her eyes adjusted. At first, she thought she had stumbled upon a hunting party of men on horseback, but the figures surrounding her were not men, nor were they horses. A sleek horse’s body stood before her, but where the neck should rise up to the majestic animal’s head, the short fur blended seamlessly with the upper torso of muscular man. Dark, turbulent eyes stared down at her from a height of nearly eight feet and a crooked grin made the face look feral and wicked.

“Look what me’s found, cents,” the centaur said to its companions, now blocking every means of escape from the clearing. A rowdy chorus of chuckles sounded from the others.

The centaur reached down, its massive hands looking as they could crush her with the slightest squeeze. Heather fell back, landing hard in the grass, and started crawling backwards to escape the beast. She had managed only a yard of clearance before she ran into something solid and felt herself being lifted off the ground by her waist. Kicking and screaming, she fought desperately as the centaur lifted her high into the air and, with remarkable dexterity, turned her writhing body around to face him.

This centaur was considerably larger than the first that had tried to pick her up and obviously older. Whereas the first had short light brown hair that matched its fur, this one sported a shaggy black mane, striped with gray that also appeared in its salt and pepper fur. A necklace of bones was the only adornment it wore and this was partly concealed by the thick black beard cascading in tight braids down the front of its expansive chest.

The black centaur regarded her for a moment, then spoke to the others. “She be a might pretty worm, the way she wiggle. May hap we should toss her in the river and catch a fish.”

This suggestion was greeted with a gruff cheer from the others, stamping their hooves in their excited amusement.

“If I was you, Beorgan, I’d put her down and apologize,” a voice from outside the circle of centaurs said.

A flurry of hoof beats sounded as the centaurs turned to see the speaker. Arrows were notched onto bow strings and pulled taut, ready to fire at this threat emerging from the cave.

Heather could not see where the voice had come from, but knew that Marcus had spoken and was now trying to rescue her. She nearly sobbed again with relief, but her agitation over his delay in reaching her cut the cry short. She twisted her body, trying to see if the centaurs would shoot him down like a rabbit, but the large centaur held her firmly.

“I’ll put her down when I’ve a mind te,” Beorgan said, his eyes narrowing. He tucked Heather under his arm like a newspaper. “And who be ye te tell me what te do?”

Now Heather could see Marcus and she gasped. He was no longer wearing his hooded raincoat and blue jeans. Blood red robes fell down to nearly his feet which had shed their Columbia hikers for supple, leather boots. A black hooded cloak was fastened about his throat with a silver clasp in the shape of a four-pointed star. His hazel eyes scanned the clearing, seeming to count the centaurs.

“Have you forgotten me so soon, Beorgan, after all I did for you in past days?” Marcus asked.

Another centaur stepped forward, its sandy blonde hair falling into its eyes. “Ye look familiar, but ye can’t be the boy. He has gone for good.”

The other centaurs stared hard at Marcus, as if trying to decide if they knew him or not. Beorgan stepped forward finally and looked down, bending so that Marcus could feel his breath upon his face. “If ye are who ye say ye are, prove it,” the black centaur said, regarding Marcus skeptically. “Show us ye power, boy”

Marcus kept silent for a long while, staring into the wild eyes. Fear leaped up from his stomach and nearly erupted from his mouth in a stream of vomit. This was the one thing he had hoped to avoid until he had ample opportunity to test his power. He wondered if the abilities he possessed as a young boy remained with him as a young man. If he attempted to find out now, and failed to produce, the centaurs would kill him where he stood and carry Heather off to serve as a slave, at best.

He looked at Heather, staring at him with unabashed wonder and hope. After all their arguments and hard feelings, they were now in danger of losing not only their relationships, but their lives. He thought that if he died, how he would never have the opportunity to prove to Heather how much he really cared for her. The last thing he wanted now was to fail her, or himself.

Beorgan continued to stare at Marcus, waiting for some fantastic proof of his identity.

Marcus swallowed his fear, showing it would mean a quick death. “If you value your life, Beorgan, you’ll prefer I not show you anything.” His voice softened, but remained clear and confident. “I have not come back to fight with you, my old friend, but to seek your help.”

The black centaur raised up slightly, continuing to look at Marcus. He seemed to absorb them into his mind and turn them over with all his cunning, deciding whether to believe Marcus or pound him into the ground with a hardened hoof.

Marcus struggled to find something to prove who he was, some convincing piece of evidence that would not require him to display the power he was not sure he still had. His mind raced and finally settled on a memory, one that seemed to be only from a dream.

He took a step forward toward the centaur holding Heather. “You may recall, Beorgan, that I saved your life,” he said.

The centaur recoiled slightly, but recovered quickly, unconsciously drawing Heather a little further away from Marcus.

“As you lay dying from a poisoned arrow from a rival tribe, it was I who found the remedy to save you before you passed on,” Marcus continued. “Your powerful body was writhing in pain, weakened beyond even the youngest of your kind. You waited for, no, begged for death, when I arrived with the antidote and then when you recovered you pledged to return the favor.”

He stepped directly in front of the centaur and, to his own amazement, bent forward allowing the centaur an unobstructed view of his exposed neck, leaving himself fully at the large centaur’s mercy. “Now, I return to this land and I ask you to fulfill the vow you made those years ago.”

For a brief moment, nothing happened. Marcus still doubted the memory that he hoped would save himself and Heather and expected the centaur to laugh just before crushing his skull upon the hard ground. Instead, he heard a much softer footfall as Beorgan lowered Heather to the ground.

Heather rushed forward and engulfed him in her arms. Her head dove in quickly as though she was about to kiss him, then stopped. She looked at him intently, staring deep into his eyes, then smacked him hard across the face.

The centaurs stood stunned, then broke out into raucous laughter. Marcus fell back, more stunned than the centaurs and looked at Heather in pained confusion.

“What the hell was that for?” he asked.

She charged in again and attempted to strike him again, but he caught her hand.

“Why did you bring me here?” she sobbed, collapsing into a heap on the grass. “Why did you bring me here?”

Marcus could only stare at her, muted at the depth of her fear and humiliation. He searched for some answer, some wise reasoning behind his decision to bring her to this world. He found none. He knew that telling her he did not know why he needed her here, only that he did, would only infuriate her further.

The centaurs milled around nervously. Marcus knew that such displays of emotion such as the one Heather now engaged in were considered a deplorable show of weakness and they whispered to each other in their hoarse voices, watching the scene before them all the while. He also knew that they hoped he would do something to further provoke her anger enough to lash out at him again. While they could not comprehend the grief and fear Heather displayed, physical violence and retribution they understood with absolute clarity.

Marcus knelt down beside Heather and took her hands in his own. This created an excited murmur that buzzed through the whispering voices like electricity through a high voltage line. He ignored them and their desire to see the sense smacked out of him again. He lifted Heather’s hands to his chest and squeezed them gently.

She looked up at him again, this time with an expression of questioning anger, still waiting for an answer to her question. Tears streamed down her cheeks creating wet channels in the dust that had settled there over the past few minutes. She started to draw her hands back, but Marcus held them firmly.

“I . . .” he started to give the I-told-you-so speech, but swallowed it back, afraid to push his luck any more than he already had. “ . . . I can’t do this without you. I know it’s a lot to ask, for you to come to this horrible place and all the risk that comes with it, but I need you with me, because I can’t do it alone.”

Marcus kept his voice low and wondered how well centaurs could hear. He felt hot tears lining his own face as he stared into her chocolate eyes, not from any stress of his own, but as a reaction to her stress, a deep feeling of empathy that saw her pain and wanted to do something to acknowledge it.

Heather stared at him for an eternity, then allowed a thin smile to soften her features. Again, Marcus was struck by her simple beauty and felt his heart give a solid thump against his chest as he looked at her.

“I guess I should have believed you, huh?” she asked, allowing him to help her to her feet.

“I wouldn’t have believed me, either.”

She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and for the first time since exiting the cave, she realized that her clothing had changed. A cotton blouse, a pink so light that it appeared to be blushing, had replaced the raincoat and loose cotton pant flapped around her legs in the slight breeze instead of her blue jeans. Her own Timberland hikers had, like Marcus’s, been replaced by supple leather boots of indeterminable make. Even her hiking pack, the first item she had bought for herself at SportsWorld, now appeared as a large leather satchel, hand-stitched and worn. She twirled once like Cinderella after her rags had been changed into a ball gown, and looked again at Marcus, studying the robes and cloak.

“You look ridiculous,” she told him.

“You look pretty damn hot yourself.”

She smiled at him again, this time in amusement. “I don’t know,” she said, turning. “Do these pants make my butt look big?”

Marcus sighed and said nothing. He stepped past her and looked up at Beorgan who had watched the entire scene with detached impatience.

“Will you please lead us?” Marcus asked him. “I wish to know what I can do to help you and your kinsmen.”

Beorgan nodded. He turned and walked to the edge of the clearing and into the trees, muttering to one of the other centaurs. Marcus caught the word “humans” and “weak” in the discussion, but let them form their own opinions. Putting his arms around Heather’s shoulders, he followed the black centaur into the woods.

I read some of this now and some of the writing is painfully bad.  Oh, well.

Chapter 4

It was several hours before Marcus fell back into slumber. By that time, he was questioning whether he had seen the image at all or if he had dreamed the whole thing. To be safe, he slept on the sofa, turned around so the back faced the window. Before doing so, however, he had thoroughly examined the window, running his hand over the perfectly dry panes. Marcus even opened one side of the window and peered upward at the glass ceiling looking for some sign of the rope he knew he would not find

When sleep finally did overtake him, Marcus slept soundly and, surprising to him, dreamlessly. Morning was nearly gone when he rose, stretching to relieve the soreness in his muscles. He took another look at the bay window, still seeing no evidence of moisture or of his own dead body hanging just beyond.

He turned away from the window and saw the bedroom door was open. He walked to it, peered around the corner, and found it empty. Heather’s twin suitcases, already packed, lay on the bed. Heather herself was nowhere to be found.

Marcus checked the bath and found the towel Heather had used in a heap on the floor. He amused himself comparing the immaculate marble vanity before him to the one at home, lost beneath a sea of cosmetics and other beauty supplies. He often complained about the infestation which, he remembered with a pang, was no longer in the house they had shared until recently.

He showered, wondering where Heather had decided to go for breakfast, if that was where she had gone. When he finished, he dressed and repacked his suitcase. He had gathered all the suitcases by the door to the suite when it opened and Heather walked in carrying a bag from one of the shops in the hotel. She did not speak, choosing instead to take up the smaller of her luggage and proceed back out the door into the hall. Marcus, grabbing the other two bags, followed.

He stayed in her wake, not daring to follow too closely. She wore jeans that fit loosely, but accentuated the curvature of her hips and he felt the flame of desire stir within him. Still, the thought of her reaction to his situation, categorical disbelief, bothered him like a pebble in his shoe. Marcus tried to imagine their roles being reversed and what his response to such a revelation would be and decided that it would not included the verbal barbs he had faced the previous day.

Marcus nearly missed the elevator Heather had entered, sliding his hand between the doors just in time to make them reopen. She gave him an innocent look, glazed over with mischief. As they rode down to the ground floor, neither of them dared to look at the other and when at last they stopped and the doors opened, they stepped out in silence and made for the parking lot. He had done their checkout over the phone, so he bypassed the registration desk a few steps behind her, carrying the two larger bags. He noted that her bag seemed heavier and he wondered briefly if she had done some extra shopping or just stuffed it full of valueless objects to add to the weight he would carry.

The sky outside was overcast, not threatening of storms but of long, steady rain that would soak everything and everyone foolish enough to be caught in it. Marcus unlocked the doors and popped the trunk lid with his remote and Heather got in the passenger seat still without speaking, leaving her bag by the back tire. He loaded the bags, tossing hers in unceremoniously, and slammed the lid shut again.

Climbing in behind the wheel, he turned the key in the ignition. Heather sat unmoving and Marcus thought if Rodin had sculpted her pose, he would have named the piece, “The Pouter.” Her arms crossed upon her chest, she stared at nothing through the windshield. He imagined her reaction to what he thought he had seen through the bay window the previous night and smiled as he pictured her scrambling to unlock the door and get into the hall in nothing but her birthday suit. She would probably have run all the way to the front desk, Marcus fantasized, before realized that she was naked.

This thought lightened his mood considerable and, after picking up a late breakfast to go, he found he preferred the silence of the drive over the verbal warfare Heather had engaged in yesterday. He turned on the radio to a country station and bopped his head a little from side to side while he ate, cruising along the interstate north towards Kentucky. Nearly an hour had passed and they were nearing the state line when Heather finally broke her self-imposed gag order.

“So why are we going to Kentucky again?” she asked. Her tone said she had been waiting for the answer to this question for some time, even though Marcus had already given it. He thought briefly of pulling the letter out of the console again, but changed his mind. No amount of reasoning or persuasion would convince her of where they were going, just as no amount of reason could be found in it. To some degree, he understood her disbelief of the circumstances of the letter Marcus had received, but that did not lessen the sting of her words. He wanted it to be untrue as much as she believed it to be, but he knew that the time would come when she would believe because she would have no choice but to believe.

“You’ll find out when we get there,” Marcus said. He realized that his answer seemed to indicate that he was conceding to her point of view, that the letter and its content were a complete fabrication, but that was unimportant. All that mattered to him now was keeping a tentative peace until she was faced with the unbelievable.

He thought of the letter again, running it verbatim through his mind again like a favorite song. Erasmus. The name itself conjured too many images and memories to describe and a strong feeling of unease entered him as they crossed into Kentucky. He felt somehow that time was growing increasingly short in that other place, like an hourglass pouring down to its final grains of sand. He silently cursed himself for not driving straight through, for stopping in a posh hotel while the dark events in the letter moved on with increasing speed. Unconsciously, his foot pressed down a little harder on the accelerator, hoping to make up for the time he now felt was foolishly wasted.

That’s what I saw last night, Marcus thought, a message. He had nearly dismissed his vision from the night before as a dream, but now he suspected another answer—a sign. It had been a sign from the evil Erasmus had written about, the Necromancer, warning him not to get involved. That this Necromancer held enough power to penetrate the real world greatly disturbed Marcus and he wondered how Erasmus thought he would have enough strength to counter such magic.

Checking beside him, he saw that Heather’s silence had slid smoothly into a nap. She lay turned slightly toward him in the seat, which she had reclined to a nearly horizontal position. Her hand rested under her chin in an almost contemplative posture. He stared at her a moment, mindless of the road ahead, and marveled again at how beautiful she was. Her lips pursed out slightly as she slept and he felt a strong inclination to lean over and kiss her, overcome only by a stronger inclination to not have the stuffing smacked out of him. Their lips had met many times before, but a reunion would have to wait until their relationship could be resolved, for better or worse.

He continued to drive north for another seventy miles before turning off the interstate. The gray sky still threatened rain, but none had yet fallen on them as he guided the Toyota through the hills and trees of his childhood home. Soon he began to recognize familiar landmarks, sites that still toggled his memory, but looked different now, smaller and time-worn, stores he had seen built, now boarded up with leasing opportunities available, the local elementary school, complete with a new gymnasium and auditorium, and, of course, the new Wal-Mart Supercenter complete with everything a town of barely three thousand people could need.

Marcus drove slowly through his hometown, recalling episodes from his childhood with every turn of his head, and soon emerged out the other side, back into the wooded hills, spotted here and there with houses and tobacco barns. The roads curved around the terrain like a length of string dropped carelessly on the ground. Sinkholes, so common in cave country, appeared regularly among the fields.

Heather stirred finally, opening her eyes wide and looking at her watch. She leaned up in her seat and looked out at the unfamiliar landscape.

“Are we there yet?” she asked.

Marcus wanted to ask, “Is the car still moving?” but decided a fight so close to their destination should be avoided. Instead, he said, “Almost. Just a couple more miles.”

Turning off the state highway, the Toyota cruised along a narrow country lane, hardly wide enough to accommodate his car, much less two if they encountered any traffic. They did not meet anyone, however, and four miles later Marcus turned onto a long, gravel drive that snaked up a hill to a small brick house.

They reached the house just as the first large drops of rain began to fall. Grabbing the bags from the trunk, Marcus and Heather both raced to the front door, where Marcus knocked three times. After a few moments, the door opened and a small, aged woman looked out at them. She was dressed in a cotton dress that looked more like a nightgown than something to be worn in public. Thick, light gray hair streaked out in all directions from her head like sunbeams in a child’s drawing. Her eyes, though, danced with vitality as she recognized her visitors.

“Marcus, come in,” she said excitedly.

“Hi, Granny,” Marcus said. He opened the door and hugged her, his arms wrapping around her small frame. “How are you?”

“Still livin’,” she answered.

Heather entered behind Marcus and smiled at his grandmother. They had met once before when their relationship had just begun and Heather insisted on seeing where Marcus grew up. He had brought her here, where he had lived with his grandmother since he was two, his parents having been killed in an automobile accident. Marcus had no memories of his parents, but his grandmother had ensured they would not be forgotten. Pictures of his parents adorned every wall and occupied many frames on any flat surface that would hold them. A fair number of pictures of Marcus at nearly every stage of his childhood also were numerous and the resemblance between him and his father was unmistakable. Heather had marveled at their last visit at how many pictures the house held.

“When you get to be my age, sweetie,” his grandmother had explained, “most of the things you have to look forward are in the past.

Marcus knew his grandmother was in her eighties and though she was still quite lively for her age, she looked markedly older than Marcus remembered seeing her two years before. The lines in her face seemed deeper, time eroding them like water in a riverbed. Her back was slightly stooped now, making the proud, upright woman look small and humbled. These things troubled Marcus more than a little. In light of what he felt lay ahead, he counted on his grandmother’s strength more than ever to help him through it.

Heather stood in the doorway and offered a polite, but impersonal, greeting. Sylvia, as everyone but Marcus called her, waved this off and with surprising speed wrapped her bony arms around Heather, who stiffened a moment before relaxing and returning the embrace.

“How are you, sweetie?” Sylvia asked.

“I’m good,” Heather answered.

Marcus had told his grandmother nothing of Heather’s leaving and hoped she would not have the insight to detect that anything was wrong in their relationship. However, when he saw his grandmother turn away from Heather, the look she gave Marcus told him that she suspected trouble.

“So,” Marcus said, “what’s for lunch?” He smiled broadly, trying to change the subject before the questions started.

Sylvia shook her head. “That’s just like you, always thinkin’ with your stomach. It’s a wonder you’re not four hundred pounds.”

“I would be,” Marcus said, “if I ate your cooking all the time.”

Sylvia turned on Heather. “I’m sending my recipe books home with you so you can make him fix you a decent meal.”

Heather laughed a real laugh for the first time since their trip had begun the day before. “You’ve obviously never seen him around a kitchen.”

“Don’t let him fool you. He can cook. Watched me do it for years. You just gotta make him want to do it.” She gave Heather a sly wink, as if she knew exactly how a woman could make a man want to do something.

Sylvia ushered them into the kitchen and the two of them sat down as she bustled around the kitchen. She had obviously known about when to expect them as lunch was nearly ready when they arrived. Potatoes had been peeled and boiled in preparation for mashing and baby carrots sat in their buttery bath giving off sweet, fragrant steam. Soon, Marcus heard the familiar pop and sizzle of chicken being placed in the electric skillet and he grinned. Even if this whole thing goes wrong, he thought, at least I’ll get a good meal out of it. He looked at Heather and, though she tried to hide it, saw that she was also anticipating a good home-cooked meal.

An hour later, stuffed to the point that he thought his insides would pop, expelling the large meal all over the dining room, Marcus sat back and patted his bulging stomach. All that remained of the meal were a few unidentifiable crumbs and a caramel smear from the turtle cake his grandmother had “whipped up just in case someone special stopped by”. For a long while, the only sounds were the metallic pings of silverware on dishes as the combatants called a truce in their war on hunger.

Sylvia finally broke the silence. “You’re going back, aren’t you?” The question shocked Marcus, not only for its directness, but also for its uncanny insight. He had not spoken to her about the other place since he was a child and thought, hoped even, that she had forgotten all about his long trips exploring the woods. He looked at Heather who wore an expression mirroring his own feelings, but mixed with a good dose of confusion.

“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” his grandmother repeated when he still failed to answer. “To that other place?”

Marcus fought to recover his senses. He realized then that he never had any intention of revealing his true reasons for the visit, hoping to pass it off as just a vacation from work, a chance to get away with Heather to spend some quality time and renew, if not save, their relationship. A dozen responses sprang to his mind, but none of them offered safe passage through these troubled waters. If he lied, she would know, she always knew when he lied and repeatedly told him how bad he was at it, just as Heather did. Finally, he decided that the truth, however unprepared he was to share it, was his best option.

He nodded.

“I thought so,” Sylvia said, sitting back in her chair with a satisfied look on her lined face. “Knew you wouldn’t drive all this way just to see the person who raised you.”

“Gran . . . “ Marcus started, and ended. His thoughts still seemed to be stuck, like a car in a deep snow drift, spinning its tires in a futile attempt to extricate itself.

His grandmother leaned forward and patted his arm. “Now don’t go thinkin’ I’m some psychic like that Sylvia Browne lady or whatever. I knew you’d be comin’ weeks ago, but not because of some vision or something.”

“How did you know?” Marcus asked. It was all his mind, otherwise seized up entirely, could spit out.

His grandmother gave a look out the dining room window. The thick clouds outside had blotted out most of the daylight and a steady rain could be heard on the glass. Marcus knew, a mile or so straight out from that window, a cave opened in the woods, mostly hidden by underbrush and moss. Out that window, a whole other world opened up.

“I’ve been hearin’ things,” she started, looking back at her grandson. “Not in that ready-for-the-nuthouse kinda way. Stange things, comin’ from those woods. And lights. Sometimes I’ll be sittin’ outside just ‘fore the news comes on and I’ll see lights shinin’ up through the trees.”

Heather, who had been silent through most of dinner, except for a few polite compliments on the quality of the meal and some rather short answers to Sylvia’s general questions about her well-being, spoke. “Could be some sort of drug lab or something, or maybe a moonshine operation.”

“Girl, you don’t know nothin’,” Sylvia said, waving her hand dismissively at Heather. “No drug lab’s gonna make the noises I’ve heard in those woods. Anyone making anything like that ain’t gonna want to draw attention to themselves by hollerin’ and putting up a bunch of damn lights. And nobody around here’s gonna go to the trouble of makin’ shine when they can go up the road and buy a case of beer for cheap. People are too lazy to work for their booze nowadays.”

Heather eased back into her seat and offered no argument. Marcus saw in her face that, while the logic was sound, she still held onto her suspicion. She looked at Marcus and her eyes narrowed, as if trying to make him reveal the joke he and his grandmother were both playing on her.

Marcus turned his attention back to his grandmother. “How long are we talking about here? How long has this been going on?” he asked.

“Oh, I’d say three weeks or so,” she answered. “Started out makin’ the awfulest racket, then last week the lights started. Like somethin’ was getting ready to bust out of there and start somethin’.”

Marcus stood and walked around the table to the window. He stared out through the glass and could see the dark outline of the woods refracted in the droplets of water. No lights could be seen in the darkening sky and he knew somehow that there would be no more lights. Not tonight or any other night. They had achieved their purpose and would shine no more.

He had come.

Today is the third anniversary of my mother’s death.  Instead of writing about that, as I did here and here, I’m going to recommend anyone who is my Facebook friend to read what my brother wrote about the topic today.  It’s another perspective, well-told, and it makes me just as sad to read his account as it does for me to go back and read my own.

That said, my mom wouldn’t want me to dwell on the sadness when I have so many other things to be happy about.  In that same spirit, here is the third installment of my first completed novel.  As I’ve recounted before, my mother had aspirations of being a writer and I think she would’ve been proud of me just for finishing this story, not to mention the other works I’ve had published.

Chapter 3

Marcus awoke early again the next day, long before the sun made its first appearance over the eastern hills. He loaded his suitcase into the trunk, wondering if he had forgotten anything before deciding that it did not matter. He was careful to leave enough room for Heather’s things.

As the first full rays of dawn found him, he pulled the Toyota out of the driveway and made the ten minute drive to IHOP, arriving there at a quarter until eight. He was only mildly surprised to see the Ford sitting in the parking lot. He had expected her, but not quite so early. He could see through the back glass that Heather was not alone. Tanya, he knew, had come with her for moral support, and to drive the Ford back, of course.

At that moment, Marcus realized the reason for Heather arriving so early. She still was undecided about whether to give him a second chance and he knew that if he failed to convince her, Tanya would be waiting outside to whisk her away from him forever.

His mind flicked back to the letter, now stashed in the console between the front seats and only through great force of will did he wrest control away to the problem at hand. To talk Heather into joining him on this trip, he would need to focus on her every word to the exclusion of all else.

He parked two spaces over from the Ford and got out. Heather stood by the passenger door, arms folded across her chest. To Marcus, she looked as radiant as always and he found that putting the letter out of his thoughts would be much easier seeing her in person. A hundred happy memories of her flashed through his mind as he looked at her and every bit of his concentration trained on her lovely features.

He walked toward her slowly despite his urge to rush in and embrace her. Offering a weak smile, he asked, “Can I buy you breakfast?” He hoped those words would illicit some response. He had asked her the same question the morning after their first night of lovemaking.

If she recognized the question or its significance, she gave no sign. She nodded once, then turned to go inside.

Marcus turned to look at Tanya, in the drivers seat of the Ford and found her expression equally blank. Any empathy he may have gained from their conversation of two nights ago was obviously spent. Still, she had helped him get this far and he offered a mouthed “thank you” for which he received, and expected, no acknowledgement.

Hurrying to catch up with Heather, he found her already seated browsing the menu. Marcus knew that she was not actually deciding on what to order, the two of them ate there frequently and had long ago memorized the menu. Still, she turned the menu over, scanning each line with her dark brown eyes to avoid looking at him.

Marcus sat down across from her. He did not touch his menu except to slide it to the edge of the table for the server to pick up. An uncomfortable silence fell across the table, broken only by the common clanking and scraping sounds found in nearly every restaurant. For what seemed like an eternity, he stared at the menu separating him from Heather.

A server approached, placing a couple of drink napkins on the table, and asked if they would like some coffee and Marcus, seeing that Heather planned to keep her silence, said, “Thank you, no, I’ll have some orange juice.”

“One O.J., ” the server repeated, her upbeat tone reminding Marcus of his conversation with Mike the day before. “And for you, ma’am?”

“Water,” Heather spoke from behind the menu.

“And one H two O,” the server said, marking her order pad. “I’ll get these and be right back out to get your order.”

Marcus thanked her and she scurried off to fill their drink order. Turning to the menu still blocking Heather’s face from view, he said, “Thanks for meeting me.”

There was still no response, which Marcus read as a sign to continue. “I’ve been thinking over the past few days how wrong I’ve been to treat you like I have.” Silence. “I’m more sorry than you can imagine. I never wanted to hurt you.” More silence. “You mean so much more to me than any job I can ever have and I’ve been blind, or maybe just stupid, to take your love for granted.”

At last, Heather folded the menu slapping it shut with an audible smack. She was about to launch her rebuttal as the server returned with their drinks. They gave their orders and Marcus was thankful for the brief respite, hoping it may serve to deprive Heather of some of her bluster.

The server left them again to enter their orders and Heather turned her dark eyes again on Marcus. “You have no idea what I’m even mad about. You’re not sorry how you’ve treated me and, moreover, I don’t think you really give a damn,” she said in a harsh whisper. “You spend so much time at that stupid store. You don’t know what I do in my spare time, what television shows I watch while you’re there selling that crap. For all you know, I could be out screwing every guy within a hundred miles of here.” The volume of her voice rose so that the last sentence could be heard across the restaurant and many heads turned to see the source of the disturbance.

Marcus felt the eyes upon him, but would not acknowledge them. He stared into those brown eyes, staring back into his with a fury he had never known in them before. With a sudden flash of insight, he finally recognized the pain the dedication to his career had caused Heather and for the first time he truly felt the shame he ought to have felt the entire time they had been together. For the first time, he understood her.

He could feel his eyes grow wet and when he opened his mouth to speak, his voice broke. His mouth opened and shut a few times like a fish, searching for words that seemed to be whirling in his brain like clothes during the spin cycle. Finally, he managed a question, the only thought he could articulate.

“What can I do to fix this?” It was a statement he had used several times over the year in his store to diffuse customer complaints and now it sounded cheesy to his own ears. He felt sure that Heather would see through the question, but if she did, she gave no indication.

Instead, her eyes also welled with tears, tears that she refused to let fall. “I don’t think you can.” Her voice was barely a whisper now, but it carried well enough for Marcus to hear it over the blood pounding in his own ears.

The server appeared at their side, seemingly out of nowhere, and offered their two plates. Her pleasant demeanor still in place, she asked them if everything was okay and, without waiting for their response, hurried to fetch refills for another table.

Marcus knew he had to regroup or lose any chance of holding on to Heather, regardless of his intuitions about her place in his journey. He looked for some place in his mind to gain some stable footing, some safe harbor to collect the ship of his thoughts. Finally, as he felt ready to give up and flee out the door, his confident side, the side of him that managed every aspect of a multi-million dollar business, took over and developed a plan.

“Tell you what,” he said, his voice sounding just over the state line from begging, “you spend the next week with me, sleeping separately if you like, just like two friends on a road trip. We’ll talk, God will we talk, and then, after we get home, I support whatever you want to do–stay or leave. I do love you, but if that means letting you go after this week, then so be it.”

Heather, who had been staring intently at her cheese blintz, looked up. Her eyes were dry, Marcus saw, and the rage he had seen in them earlier was gone.

“One week,” she repeated, “I’ll give you that long to prove to me that you can think about something other than that store. I suppose I owe you that much.” Her voice was blank, emotionless, but it was capitulation and for that Marcus was thankful.

“You don’t owe me anything,” Marcus said, feeling a sweet wave of relief wash away the stones he swore had settled in his stomach. “If anything, I owe you for putting up with me.”

He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. They ate their breakfasts, Marcus with particular relish borne of his good fortune. They made some small talk, mostly about mutual friends and the social drama that was occurring in other people’s lives while they pointedly avoided that in their own lives.

At five past nine, they paid their bill, left a sizeable tip for the server, and left the restaurant. Tanya waited outside with the trunk popped on the Ford. Her arms folded, she still glared at Marcus as though she smelled something foul, but she said nothing as she helped Heather with her two suitcases. Marcus took them in at once in a feeble attempt at chivalry and mouthed another silent “thank you” to Tanya who again offered no response.

A few minutes later, Marcus took the ramp onto the interstate and headed west toward the Tennessee line. Heather had said nothing since their departure from the restaurant. She sat staring morosely out the window as might a child right before asking “Are we there yet?” or “How much further?” The rounded, tree-covered hills of Appalachia, awash in fall color, trundled past on either side. For over an hour, Marcus waited for Heather to speak, even to comment about the weather, which was wholly unremarkable even for autumn. He figured that, as a male, he would hold a distinct advantage if he drove in silence, because all the women he had ever known seemed to view silence as a sin against nature. They found it uncomfortable for some reason unfathomable to anyone without the old double-x chromosomes. Men, on the other hand, loved the silence, loved the deer stand and the end bar stool. Only a group of men could sit around for hours at a time, not speaking, and yet enjoy themselves.

Finally, having left the tourist traps of the Great Smokies behind them, Heather spoke. “So why this trip all of a sudden? Won’t that cause an inconvenience to the store?” Sarcasm dripped heavily from the questions like water from a saturated sponge.

“It’s taken care of,” Marcus answered.

He waited for her to speak again, to take another jab at his intentions. He had purposely not answered the first question because, in truth, he did not know how to answer. He could not feed her the same line he had Mike because she would soon enough know the truth of where they had to go. She would know, Marcus thought, but she still would not believe. Silence set in for another fifteen minutes before yielding again, this time to Marcus.

“You ever have an imaginary friend growing up?” he asked her.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Heather turn her head and stare at him. He spared a quick glance and read her expression as a mixture of surprise and confusion, like someone who had just misjudged the number of steps while descending a ladder.

She stared at him for nearly a mile, trying to fathom any possible significance to the question before answering. “I had Analecia,” she said, almost too low for him to hear.

“Excuse me?” He had heard her perfectly, but he had known nothing about this aspect of her life, despite sharing her bed for most of the previous two years. With her pragmatic, conservative demeanor, Heather hardly seemed the type to have even acquaintances generated from her imagination, much less friends.

“Analecia,” she repeated. “When I was four or five, we lived on a little farm outside of Greenville. There weren’t any kids around to play with, so I made do with what I had. Analecia was a fairy, or an angel, or something like that. She was older than me and had beautiful wings that glistened in the sun. We moved into town about a year later and I remember telling my mom that Analecia didn’t want to move. About that time, I learned to read, anyway, and started spending more time with other people’s fantasies than my own” Her words, no longer carrying rich deposits of sarcasm, took on a wistful tone as she described her fictional playmate.

Marcus saw her smile as she looked out the windshield, lost in some pleasant memory of her childhood. He was struck again by how beautiful she was and how empty his life would be without her.

She noticed him looking at her, blushed, and turned to look out the passenger window. “Why don’t you watch the damn road,” she scolded.

Marcus turned his gaze back to the interstate, a slight grin curling the left side of his mouth. Again, they cruised in silence for some time with the hills dropping lower as they passed through the Tennessee Valley. The stopped in Knoxville for a restroom break and lunch at an Arby’s near the interstate before continuing on in relative silence, broken only by the sound of passing traffic and the Toyota’s tires upon the asphalt.

“Why did you want to know if I had any imaginary friends?” Heather asked, nearly an hour after the she had answered the question.

“Just curious,” Marcus answered.

“Yeah, right,” she said, sarcasm appearing again. “That’s not a “just curious” kind of question.”

Marcus shrugged.

Heather stared at him, waiting for a better answer than two raised shoulders and a goofy look. Seeing that none were coming, she turned the tables.

“How about you? You have any make-believe buddies you’d throw the ol’ pigskin to when you were a kid?”

“No, mine don’t know anything about football,” Marcus answered. He laughed slightly at the thought, but stopped when he realized the opening he’d left for the ever-observant Heather.

“Don’t?” She jumped on it immediately like a cat pouncing on a butterfly. “Are they still around? Maybe that’s who you’ve been spending all your time with?” She snorted a humorless laugh. “And here I was thinking it was that damn store keeping you away from home so much, how stupid of me.” She laughed again, a sound that normally put him beyond happiness, but now grated on his nerves. “You’ve been out running around with Harvey the Rabbit.”

Marcus found far less humor in Heather’s wit than she did herself, but he held back the scathing retort that sprang to the tip of his tongue as she laughed. He sat watching the road again, keeping his expression perfectly even until Heather looked at him with an equally blank stare. He realized that trying to explain the situation would be near impossible, but now he saw just how near. In some part of his brain where the sun always shines, he hoped she would be receptive to his tale, regardless of how fantastic it seemed, but those hopes were dashed in her echoing laughter.

“I lived on a farm, too,” Marcus began, forcing his voice to hide the frustration he felt. “All the way up until I left for college.” He paused a moment, trying to decided how to continue. “There weren’t any kids near me, either, not within a few miles anyway, but one thing Kentucky has that North Carolina lacks is caves. Our place was along the northern rim of Mammoth Cave and outside of the park there are all sorts of sink holes and undiscovered entrances to the cave system. We had about fifty acres, so we found a few of them on our property. Most of them had already been mapped, but I found one, just after my eighth birthday, that no one had ever seen previously.”

Heather glanced at him, an odd sort of concern masking her features. “Yeah, I was by myself,” he said in answer to her silent question. “We went camping all the time and those were simpler times.” He thought the statement made him sound much older than he was, but he pressed on. “Anyway, I was out in the woods one day and this cave just seemed to appear out of nowhere. I’d never seen it before and I’d been by where it was hundreds of times.”

At this point, Marcus glanced at Heather, who was listening raptly with the trained ear of one used to hearing legal arguments and dissecting them for weaknesses. He knew the seed of doubt was already beginning to bloom, but he continued anyway.

“My dad was friends with one of the cave guides who had taken us spelunking with him a few times, so I walked in a bit just to see how far back the thing went. The opening was pretty wide and flat, so I managed to walk in quite a ways before I got spooked enough to turn around.”

Here goes, Marcus thought, time to break out the straight jacket.

“I turned and walked out the same way I’d come in. Couldn’t have been more than fifty feet, but when I came out I wasn’t were I had started. The terrain had changed. I was . . . somewhere else.”

He looked again at Heather. Her eyebrows stretched nearly into her hairline, giving her the look of someone working at a nursing home humoring the mumblings of an advanced Alzheimer’s patient. Marcus turned away, unable to continue meet her patronizing stare.

“I explored this new place,” he left out a great many details, but told himself that he would cover them in due course, “and made a friend, probably my best friend growing up. His name was Erasmus.”

Marcus stopped speaking, again unsure how to continue the tale. He thought he might as well go for broke, knowing he had already lost his credibility, but his instinct told him that the time was not right for full disclosure, even if she already thought he was crazy.

“So that was your imaginary friend? Erasmus?” Heather said, trying not to sound like she had serious doubts about his mental health. “I have to say, you have a much better imagination than I do.”

“Yeah, Erasmus was my imaginary friend. I went back to that cave, and through it, hundreds of times over the next few years. I could spend weeks in that other place and only hours would pass in the real world. We had many adventures together, Erasmus and me, but as I grew older and discovered sports and then girls, I stopped going as often. By the time I was fourteen or so, I stopped going at all.”

“Fourteen?” she said, unable to keep the note of amusement out of her voice. “You held on for a long time, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I thought so,” Marcus answered, his eyes pointed at the road ahead but seeing far off places. “I pretty much forgot all about Erasmus and that other place . . . until two days ago when I, when we, received this in the mail.” He pulled open the console and extricated the strange letter, handing it to Heather. She unfolded the message, also noticing the odd material on which it had been sent.

Dear Marcus,

After these many seasons, the time has come at last for me to send to you for aid. Dark times have befallen this land you have forgotten. An evil force, the Necromancer, has begun a campaign to rule us all and murder those who will not bow to his will. Our powers to resist him will soon fail without your support. Only you have the strength to withstand this onslaught and we now beseech you to return to us and fulfill the destiny for which you have been chosen. Time is short, so please be swift before all hope is extinguished and the land you once loved is no more

Erasmus

For a long time after she had finished reading, Heather stared at the letter. Then, she gently folded it and placed it in her lap.

“Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?” she asked angrily. “You must be out of your damn mind if you think I’m gonna fall for this.”

Marcus said nothing. He simply drove, his eyes fixed upon the horizon. For nearly an hour, he drove on in silence while Heather waited for him to break down laughing. He had gained a well-deserved reputation over the years for elaborate practical jokes and people close to him always lived with the fear that his evil genius would one day turn on them. Still, he resented the fact that Heather thought he would try to put one over on her, particularly considering the state of their relationship on this trip. The last thing any person in his position would want to do, he thought, would be to get a few yucks from the one deciding whether or not they ought to stay together.

They arrived in Nashville shortly before eight and Marcus decided, without consulting Heather, to get a room for the night. He glanced over to the passenger seat and spied Heather sulking, growing angry that he had not revealed the joke yet. He knew he had to assure sleeping arrangements would be totally separate, even if it meant finding two rooms, but in her current mood, he figured that she would not be the most pleasant company anyway.

He had worked in Nashville a few times and knew the main roads well enough to get around when and where he needed. SportsWorld had recently opened their third location in the area, the first that he himself had not assisted in selecting and training the staff. Finally, he pulled the Toyota into the parking lot of the Opryland Hotel and parked near the registration entrance.

Heather got out, stretched her lean body, and circled around to the back of the car. Marcus got out, opened the trunk, and pulled out his suitcase along with the larger of Heather’s two. Heather took up the smaller one, shut the trunk, and looked at Marcus.

“You gonna tell me what you’re up to, or do I have to figure it out on my own?” she asked.

“I guess you’ll just have to figure it out,” he said, lugging the two bags toward the entrance.

The two of them walked up to the registration line, waiting behind a harried mother of three small children who all wanted to run off in different directions to explore the wonders of the hotel. After a few minutes, Marcus stepped forward and inquired about a suite, knowing that they offered not only separate beds, but also separate rooms for their sleeping convenience. Receiving directions from the desk clerk, Marcus led Heather to the fifth floor and entered the designated room.

A large bay window overlooked what looked like a tropical canopy. The conservatory stretched into the distance, still within the confines of the hotel, but providing a strong feeling of being outdoors. Directly below the window, a small waterfall burbled its way down to ground level. He could see several people milling around on the various walkways and balconies below and wondered for a moment how many of them had problems remotely close to the ones he now faced.

Not a single one, he told himself.

Hearing Heather behind him, he turned to see her hauling her suitcases into the adjoining room which held two beds and a similar view of the indoor paradise below.

“You hungry?” he called to her.

“No, I’m going to bed,” she answered, shutting the door behind her without another word.

Marcus found that, despite the trials of the day, that he was hungry and left the room in search of one of the restaurants on the other side of the hotel. He settled in a sports bar, ordered a steak dinner and a beer, and watched Sportscenter until he felt sufficiently sleepy to return to the suite.

He took a circuitous route back to the room. The hotel, in its vast maze of corridors, walkways, and wings, often disoriented those without a well-developed sense of direction, but Marcus navigated easily, pausing at a few of the various shops to gaze in the windows. At half past eleven, he reentered the suite and found it just as he left it, his unopened suitcase next to the window where he had gazed out upon the conservatory.

The door Heather had closed earlier remained closed and a thin band of darkness leaked out from beneath it. He knew she would be fast asleep, or at least pretending to be just in case he wanted to try something. He had no desire to enter the room and knew it would be locked even if he did.

Instead, he pulled a plush chair to the bay window and sat down, staring out over the canopy of trees. He could hear the muffled sound of the waterfall outside and that, combined with the meal and beer, drew a heavy blanket of weariness over him. He snuggled back into the soft chair and felt his head gain weight, sinking slowly to rest on his chest.

He had nearly succumbed to sleep when he noticed a flickering of the light dancing upon his eyelids. He opened them slowly as they seemed to have gained a majority of the weight dragging down his head and looked through the window.

Suspended before him, dangling from a long rope tied to the rafters far above, was himself. His eyelids lost their heaviness immediately and slapped open like window shades as he watched his own body swinging and rotating fifteen feet away from the glass. The body’s eyes, his eyes, bulged until Marcus thought they would pop out and be washed away by the waterfall below. The swollen face, his face, had turned an odd blue color, deprived of the oxygen it so desperately needed.

Marcus screamed, though the sound was cut off as he overturned the chair backwards and smacked his skull hard on the cherry table in the middle of the room. He scrambled back into a sitting position, rubbing hard on the knot already forming on the back of his head, He watched himself slowly rotating for a moment, then the image began to grow hazy. Thinking it was his brain reacting to the blow, he rubbed his eyes and looked again through the bay window. The haze continued to grow and Marcus realized that condensation was obscuring his view. A large patch of moisture collected on the glass, blurring the horrible scene just outside, and then words began to appear as if drawn by a child’s finger.

He read the words, feeling a chill he thought would have frozen the medium in which it was written to a thick frost. He stared at them in wonder, and his sense of apprehension blossomed into a case of full-blown fear.

GO BACK MARCUS . . . he read.

GO BACK MARCUS OR DIE.

Marcus dared a glance at the bedroom door and when it did not open, he turned back to the window.

The words, the condensation, his swinging corpse were all gone.