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You can read the first 15% of this story for free; if you like it, you can read the rest for $4.00 (payable by paypal or credit card.)

[ Read more about author Stephen B. Pearl ]

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Dominel, Prince of Bani, Captain of the Bani heavy cavalry, leads his men in a desperate bid to still the advance of the Storm, an army of monsters that are slowly conquering his world. Left for dead behind enemy lines Dominel must fend off the monsters while trying to find a way to resurrect the lost magic of his world, which is his only hope of stopping the Storm. Running from hiding place to hiding place he journeys to the last of the wizards’ strongholds, gaining the dubious companionship of a catatonic girl along the way. He arrives at the stronghold to find nothing human alive. However, when dealing with wizards, this isn’t the obstacle he at first believes, and his instruction begins. Now the race is on. Can Dominel master magic before the forces of the Storm destroy his stronghold? Will he be able to heal the shattered mind of the girl? Will he be king enough to rally his downtrodden people for a final effort? Will he be wizard enough to lead them to the safe haven prepared for them by the ancient mages, or is humanity doomed to become a slave race to the monstrous Storm? By high magic, low trickery and the bravery of the desperate, all these questions are answered in HAVENS IN THE STORM.

Havens in the Storm

by Stephen B. Pearl

Jake & the Dragon








Stephen B. Pearl



          This book is dedicated to my beloved wife Joy without whose patience and support it never would have come to pass.

I also wish to offer special thanks to Mark and Kim from my face-to-face writers group and the helpful wonderful people on Critters, epically Andrew for hosting the whole shebang. I also want to thank Melody and the class of the Write to Publish class at Sheridan collage for your input and support.







          Dominel charged a centaur, a third larger than himself and his horse combined. The beast's pike slid against the angle of Dominel's shield, as his lance pierced the monster's chest.


          "That's for my brother," he snapped. Before he could free his lance, another centaur closed on him. Drawing his sword Dominel parried the spear thrust.


          "Give up, human. Your kind cannot defeat us. Your cavalry's line is broken. Surrender and I will grant you life," threatened the centaur.


          Dominel's only answer was to begin circling his foe on the blasted uneven ground that formed a wedge shaped slope leading to Duran pass.


          A second centaur and human appeared on top of a slight rise of land behind Dominel's foe. The other human drove his lance point at the second centaur. The beast stepped back but tripped on one of the tree stumps that littered the ground and stumbled into Dominel's foe.


          Seizing the opportunity the distraction afforded Dominel charged, knocking his enemy's spear aside, then drawing his blade across the beast's human-like throat. Blood showered Dominel's plate armour, painting it splotchy red. The second centaur turned to face Dominel, only to have its other foe's lance point blossom from its chest.


          "My Prince, look out," cried the man who had wielded the lance.


          Too late Dominel noticed the mutties diving beneath his horse. He pulled his feet from the stirrups and fell to the ground, rolling as far from the animal as he could. Two child-sized, dog-faced creatures, clad in leather jerkins were gutting Dominel's mount where it stood. Grunting with the effort of rising in his armour, Dominel gained his feet and attacked the mutties, slaying them with two quick blows.


          Trumpets sounded the retreat and he glanced about. The centaurs drove the remains of the cavalry before them, leaving the dismounted humans to face an oncoming tide of monstrous infantry.


          "The Storm has us for sure," said a panicked voice.


          "To me. To me men of Bani. We'll win through to our lines," bellowed Dominel.


          "I'm here, my prince," spoke a blood-soaked man.




          "Yes, my prince, keep rallying the men. Set them in a wedge formation, wounded in the centre. We'll have to cut our way back to the barricade."


          "Standard wedge. If you see a footman's shield on the dead, drop your horseman's kite shield and take it. The dead won't mind!" shouted Dominel.


          The unhorsed cavalrymen hastened to follow the order. In minutes the monster infantry enveloped the humans' formation. Screams filled the air as the wounded and dead fell to the ground. At the rear Dominel lost himself in a pattern of thrust and parry barely aware of his growing weariness.


          "My Prince. We've reached the front and the cavalry is charging again," called Scrantian.


          Dominel thrust with his sword, spilling the guts of a minotaur, then stepped to the wedge's centre.


          "They're coming for us, men. Be ready," he yelled.


          The horsemen struck the centaurs, who were leading the Storm's charge. Dominel's troops fell upon the monsters advanced force from the rear. The monsters' caught with no room to maneuver jostled one against the other impeding each other's thrusts and blocks. In minutes the humans fought through leaving the beasts that survived to run back to their main force.


          Dominel led his men through the log barricade his father had built across the pass his castle guarded. The area behind the barricade was a buzz of activity. Soldiers manned the defence, while chirurgeons removed the wounded to the castle, half an hour's march away. Light siege engines twanged and thudded as they hurled rocks at the enemy and the stench of fear filled the air.


          "The king demands your presence," said a herald, as Dominel  watched the last of his men pass behind the barricade and its huge gate swing shut.


          "I will be with the king as soon as I have seen to my men," replied Dominel.


          "He said immediately."


          "I may be youngest son, but I have things other than being disowned to worry about right now. I will join him when my men are seen to."


          "As you will, Prince Dominel," breathed the herald.


          "Was that wise? The heralds like you little enough as it is, and your father is king," said Scrantian. He'd removed the left arm of his armour and was inspecting a small wound.


          "Are you fit to command in my absence?" asked Dominel.


          "Just a scratch, Your Highness."


          "Good. See that the wounded are taken to the chirurgeons' tent. I want any man who can't fight to surrender his horse to one who can. We have more men than horses, so let's use what we have. All the horses should be watered, and send a herald to fetch down a salt lick for them.


          Get some lanterns as well. Those accursed clouds that follow the Storm are crowding out the sun. If this keeps up, we won't be able to tell friend from foe. Also make sure the men drink something. No wine! We need them alert."


          "Yes, my prince. Might I also suggest we send those with minor leg wounds to join the archers on the keep's battlements. That will free a few more able bodies to join us here."


          "Use your own judgment. You know I trust you," agreed Dominel, who then strode away.


          Arriving at the flap to his father's tent, Dominel was stopped by the guard and stood listening to the conversation within.


          "By the ancient gods, you slime crawling, demon lover. If it weren't for your kind the Storm wouldn't be here at all! You'll go where I tell you, and fight when I tell you," bellowed the King.


          "But, your most gracious Majesty. I simply thought that my order could do more good in the keep's temple, praying for our deliverance. The Covetous god can be most gracious to his children," whined the chief prelate's voice.


          Dominel's lip curled in distaste.


          "Gods and Demons! Your god was the one who caused all this. If your order hadn't slaughtered all the magic users they'd still be guarding the gates to our world. None of these thrice damned monsters would be here in the first place."


          "But the sorcerers were evil," pleaded the priest.


          "So say you. It seems to me they couldn't have been so bad if they guarded us from the Storm. Be honest. Your order feared their power. You disgust me, you snivelling worm!


          "I have spoken. Your order will head the infantry defence. There's no risk of you stabbing someone in the back that way. The only reason I haven't finished off the lot of you, is I needed sword fodder. Now go, you disgusting parasite."


          Dominel pulled down the visor of his helmet to hide his smile. The pasty faced priest left the tent, his leather armour flapping about his scrawny frame in his haste.


          Sticking his head through the flap, the guard announced Dominel, then gestured for him to enter. Pushing up the visor of his helmet, Dominel stepped into the tent.


          "The herald tells me you felt my summons was unimportant," opened the King, his grey-bearded face pulled into a grim expression and his blue eyes flashing.


          "I told them I would come as soon as I had seen to my men. The Third Cavalry is my responsibility, given by you, and I do not take it lightly, Your Majesty."


          A smile broke across Dominel's father's stern features. He motioned his son to sit at the table that filled the tent's centre. A map of the surrounding terrain covered the tabletop.


          "You have your mother's spirit, I'll grant you that, boy. I called you here to give you some bad news." The smile left his face.


          Dominel looked at the man and for the first time realised how old he was. It's not just the grey hair and wrinkles, and his armour hides his paunch, it's how he moves. He's lost hope.


          "Son, you are my youngest, and you are now captain of the First Cavalry."


          "Falik and Dalose? How?" Dominel swallowed hard as memories of his brothers in better times flashed through his mind.


          "In the charge. Your companies sent out spotters and found the stake traps. Damn, I told them to be careful. They lost half their horses in the charge. The rest were surrounded, only a handful escaped. I am placing all remaining Cavalry under your command."


          "Scrantian suggested sending out the scouts."


          "And you listened to him. You keep listening to people who know. I've only you and Falkner left. Seventeen years isn't enough to learn everything, so you keep listening to people who know and maybe I won't lose any more sons."


          "I, Father. We won't win, will we?"


          "No, but we can see to it that they never forget the price of Duran Pass. The countries to the west are counting on us to slow the Storm while they pray for a miracle. What I wouldn't give for one wizard, but that is not to be.

          "You know that peasant girl of yours. Amber was it? She's stayed with the chirurgeons. I was wrong about her. She will make you a fine consort when you marry the duchess, Karmilla." 


          Dominel smiled at his father.


          "Now commander, you should prepare your troops. The Storm are massing and I need your cavalry to spearhead our counter."


          The two men rose. For a moment they stood unsure of the emotional ground between them, then they embraced, their armour making a thunking sound, and Dominel left the tent.


          As he walked towards his troops Dominel scanned the battlement. Veterans, dressed in battered armour, stood ready for the final conflict in the kingdom of Bani. The wounded had been removed to the keep and a hush had fallen over the camp. Reaching the cavalry he scanned his men. Hopelessness hung on them like a shroud and only grim determination held them in their places.


          "What is the word?" asked Scrantian.


          "We ride to the defence. Oh yes, there is another thing." Raising his voice Dominel called, "Standard barrier."


          A lad, too young to shave, mounted on a dapple gelding moved to Dominel's side. He dipped the standard so the muddy, blood spattered flag of the Bani cavalry hung before his prince.


          Drawing a dagger, Dominel cut away the trim that showed it as the flag of the Third Cavalry. All looked on as the unadorned standard of the First Cavalry was raised. Where the trim had been, the flag's colours were bright and clean against the rest of it.


          "Dominel, your brothers?" asked Scrantian.


          "I am second son of the house of Otinerus King of Bani, Captain of the Bani First Cavalry," Dominel proclaimed as his men looked on.


          "I'm sor-" began Scrantian.


          "Later. Soon we will live or die. Either way, the time for tears is not yet come."


          Dominel watched as Scrantian stared at him, nodded once then spoke.


          "I suggest a three‑point attack, allowing the infantry to guard our back. That should draw off the largest beasts and give our light companies a chance to deal with the small ones."


          "Yes. I also want every man equipped with caltrops. If we have to retreat, I want to see crippled monsters all across the line."


          "That will make any further charges impossible!"


          "We have fewer the one hundred horse left. If any of us make it back to the barricade, we won't be attacking again. We'll be running to warn the other kingdoms the Storm is at their doors."


          "As you command, my prince."


          The First Cavalry waited behind the barricade's gate, with each second seeming like an hour. Guttural howls announced the Storm's advance. Moments later trumpets signalled the attack. The gate swung open and Dominel galloped into the fray.


          Lances splintered and swords broke, shields rent and men died, but nothing stopped the Storm.


          Dominel and Scrantian galloped into the midst of a company of ogres. The beasts looked like hairless gorillas with pig snouts and faces that mocked man's. Dominel's sword rose and fell as blood sprayed in all directions. A pikestaff hooked his shield, dragging him from his horse and snapping the strap that held the shield to his arm. Dazed he lay on the ground, fighting to rise against the weight of his armour. Scrantian reared his horse, allowing the beast's hooves to pummel the ogre that bent to dispatch his captain. Dominel fought to his feet in time to see a spear pierce his friend's helm, as another slaughtered his steed.


          "You murdering bastards," screamed Dominel. Forgetting his fatigue he snatched up his sword and charged the ogre that had killed Scrantian, driving the blade deep into the beast's belly. There was a blur at the edge of his vision, then everything went black.






          Dominel awoke, in the mud, his head throbbing. Through an effort of will, he slowed his heart and brought his pain under control. After a time he opened his eyes, then rose to his knees. The bodies of monsters and men were on all sides. A dead ogre lay beside him, with his sword protruding from its belly. He looked towards the barricade that blocked Duran pass and saw that it was breached in several places. Allowing his eyes to rove up the pass he saw smoke rising from where he knew his father's castle stood.


          "My head!" Gods, I must have been out a long time.


          Struggling to his feet, he stumbled to the ogre and pulled his sword from its flesh.  Then, blade in hand, he staggered across the battlefield. At first he paused to check the fallen humans he saw but finding none alive he soon put all his efforts towards leaving the field of his defeat.


          No use in going to the castle. It must be besieged by now.


          He shook his head and felt metal scrape against his scalp. Pulling off his helm, he stared at a hole in it the size of his palm.




          Dominel continued his weary trek, collapsing in the tall grass by the side of the road when his legs crumpled beneath him. After drinking from a ditch, he fell into a haunted sleep.


          When he awoke, he ached all over.


          What am I going to do? Yesterday I merely wanted to get away from the battlefield. Now what? he pondered as he lay in the grass.


          "You are the last of our line. You must regain the throne," his father's voice admonished him.


          Maybe if this was a human army, but against the monsters there is no hope!


          "You must survive," stated Scrantian's voice.


          The head blow must be affecting me. I'm hearing things, thought Dominel.


          "Live, my lord. The Border Mountains will be safe for a time," spoke the voice of his betrothed.


          "That's silly. They were overrun months ago," Dominel muttered.


          "The wizards made their last stand there. That magic still lives on. It will keep the monsters at bay, my love," whispered Amber's voice.


          "It's a goal at least," he agreed


          By rocking back and forth he turned face down on the grass, then pushing up with his arms, gained his feet.


          "Damnable plate! At least you can move in chainmail. I feel like a turtle every time I lie down," he grumbled and started towards the distant mountain range.


          Hours later he stopped at the ruin of a village. Hunger gnawed at him, so he decided to search the landowner's house. Shuffling through the smashed‑in doorway, he saw bodies and the splintered remains of furniture everywhere.


          "Another abattoir. At least the Storm is consistent."


          Coming to the second room, he looked in. It was in the same condition as the first. Heat-brittled bone crunched under his feet as he stepped through the doorway. A blackened section marked where a fire had burnt and skulls littered the floor.


          Lucky for me the front has moved west. The beasts that made camp here have probably followed the fighting.


          He crossed the room to another doorway, which led to what had been a kitchen.


          This doesn't look too hopeful.


          "Search and ye will find," echoed Scrantian's voice.


          "I'm losing my mind. Scrantian, you're dead! Why do you keep pestering me? I couldn't save you. Gods, I wish I could have. Oh what does it matter? I'll search, old ghost, maybe the monsters missed something in their looting."


          "Down, my sweet prince, down, my lover," whispered a voice on the edge of perception.


          "Amber?" gasped Dominel. He spun around looking for the peasant girl who had been his real love. "Still hearing things! Amber's as dead as the rest."


          "Feel, love. The time to feel again has come," urged the voice.


          With this he could no longer hold back his pain. He fell to his knees sobbing. Much later he looked at where his legs had disturbed the dust and saw a thin seam in the floor.


          What? he thought. Maybe a pantry.


          Kneeling, he swept the dirt away until he found an iron ring. Grasping it, he pulled. A trap door opened, revealing a stairway leading into a room that was a man's height square and full of shelves.


          Dominel's stomach growled as he descended the stairs, closing the trap door behind him. Something jumped from the shadows. A knife clanged against his armour. Leaping from the stairs, he grasped the wrist of his attacker and slammed it against the wall. The knife fell to the floor and Dominel stared at his foe in the dim light from the pantry's small window. She was human, a girl of maybe thirteen summers.


          She had brown hair, which hung in greasy strands obscuring her grit-covered face. She wore rags that might have once been a fine gown. Her young breasts barely dented the fabric and her dirt and blood-covered legs showed below the tattered hem.


          "I won't hurt you," said Dominel.


          She swung her free hand at his face. He caught her arm and held it.


          "Please stop, I won't hurt you," he repeated.


          A shudder ran through her and she collapsed against him.


          "Gods! What have you been through?" he murmured. Laying her on the floor, he investigated the room.


          The shelves were stocked with cheeses, salted meats, dried fruits and herbs. Also, to Dominel's delight, a cask of ale and several bottles of wine. So it was he made to eat. Noticing that the Girl's eyes were open he spoke to her.


          "Are you hungry?"


          She stared at the ceiling and didn't move.


          "I won't hurt you."


          She remained motionless.


          Dominel moved to her side and took her hand. "Please, speak to me." he said then released his grip. The hand stayed suspended as, if he still held it.


          "Odd?" he whispered and lifted the girl's leg. Releasing the limb he watched the girl hold it in position.


          "Oh Gods!" He muttered and posed her in what looked like a comfortable position.


            Later he removed his armour, found a corner and fell asleep.


          Guttural voices arguing in a strange tongue woke him. The girl, on the other side of the room, sat still and silent. He drew his sword and waited by the stairs.


          If they want me they'll have to pay for me, he thought. After a time the voices grew dim as the intruders carried their argument away from the ruined house.


          Moving to the girl's side he whispered, "Are you all right?"


          She stared straight ahead, as if he wasn't there.


          "I'm Dominel, prince of Bani. Who are you?"


          The girl made no response. Dominel backed away and stared at her.


          "Hungry?" he asked.


          Still no response.


          "Well I am." He took a bite from a cheese. Returning to the girl he pressed a piece of cheese into her hand.


          "You have to eat!"


          She remained silent.


          Dominel forced some cheese against her lips. She opened her mouth and accepted it without losing the blank expression on her face. After she swallowed, he guided the cheese in her hand to her mouth and she began to feed herself.


          "That's better."


          Later that day Dominel finished searching the landowner's house. He found little of value, although in one room there was an iron mirror leaning against the wall. He stared at his reflection in disbelief. His armour was caked with mud, while his blond hair fell about his shoulders in greasy strands. One side of his head was covered with dried blood and scabs. His angular face was filth-streaked and bore several half‑healed scratches, while his pale blue eyes looked haunted, as if his brothers' ghosts stared out through them.


          He shook himself and returned to the safety of the cellar.


          "They've fouled the well," he told his silent companion.


          The next day he searched the peasant huts, finding a pair of scissors. That evening he and the girl lost all but the scantiest caps of hair.


          "That will keep it out of our eyes won't it?"


          The girl stared straight ahead and didn't reply.


          A week passed with little change. Dominel sharpened his sword, cared for himself and the girl, and waited until the dwindling food supplies convinced him to move on. Fashioning packs from sacks that had held dried herbs he stuffed them with the remaining food. After donning his armour he strapped a pack to the girl's back and shouldered his own. Taking the girl's hand, he led her up the stairs. She followed but showed no sign of life beyond that. After listening at the door he pushed it open.


          Once outside they followed the road towards the mountains until they could walk no further, then took refuge in the remains of a barn. Dominel found a well of good water and drank his fill before settling in a heap of straw for the night. Despite his exhaustion, sleep evaded him, so he was awake to hear the girl, who lay beside him, crying out. "No! No! Please no!"


          He rose onto his elbow and stared at her.


          "No!" she whispered, then sobs shook her body. "Father," she cried then "No! No! No, please!"


          Grasping her shoulders Dominel shook her. She snapped awake.


          "It was only a dream. We have to be quiet. That's why I woke you," he said but she didn't move.


          The next day they walked for hours before coming to a place where a stream split the road. The sound of the water as it splashed and gurgled over the rocks added a spark of life to the dead land that seemed to follow the Storm.


          "We'll stop here to eat and move on in a bit," said Dominel.


          He was refilling the packs when harsh voices split the air.


          "Gods!" he swore, glancing around in search of a hiding place. The grass by the stream was trampled and there were no trees or large rocks near by. Muttering a curse, he reached for his sword.


          Two mutties appeared on the road and seeing the humans, leapt down the slope, swords clasped in their childlike hands. Dominel pushed the girl towards the stream. She took two steps and stopped with the water lapping about her ankles.


          "Damn," he cursed.


          The monsters separated, flanking him.


          "Come on, you filthy mutts, stand together," Dominel spat as he turned to face first one enemy, then another.


          Yipping, the creatures began to circle him, like dogs wearying a bear. Dominel lunged towards one of the beasts. The other jumped him, clutching his neck, while trying to thrust its sword into the gap in his armour where gorget met breastplate. Dominel slammed the pommel of his sword into the small beast's arm and was gratified to hear bone crunch. The monster howled in pain before dropping to the ground.


          The second beast lunged and Dominel thrust his blade through its throat. Grunting with the effort he dragged the impaled carcass around and threw it onto its companion. The mutties fell, in a tangle of arms and legs, and before they could recover Dominel finished his bloody work.


          "Pity it's not always so easy," he mumbled, wiping his blade. "Sometimes it seems as if for every one you kill ten arrive."


          The days passed and the food dwindled but little else seemed to change. A week after leaving the cellar they drew near the mouth of one of the lesser passes into the Border Mountains.


          "Something is wrong, I can feel it," Dominel remarked as the mountains grew to fill the horizon. Pulling the girl to a halt, he examined the road ahead of them.


          "Gods and demons! I should have seen it before. Those ruts in the road, heavy carts have used it and not long ago. Only ones who'd use carts around here are the Storm. Well, lass, what do you think of this? Not much, that's just what I expected." Hiding the girl behind a bramble, he crept to the top of a rise that overlooked the surrounding terrain.


          His heart quailed at the sight of a company of monsters camped in the entrance to the mountain pass.


          The mountains must be safe. Otherwise, why place them under siege. It must be...! he never finished his thought, because a rough hand closed about the back of his neck and his body was jerked into the air. He experienced a moment of blind terror before he was turned to face the horrid visage of a hill troll. Stinking, carnal breath issued from the troll's maw, which was full of razor-sharp teeth. The beast's nose resembled a pig's snout, and above it were two blood-red eyes. Its skin was the colour of a rotting corpse.


          "Yum yum!" exclaimed the troll.


          Dominel's mind filled with panic. All the troll had to do was close its hand and his neck would be crushed, despite his gorget.


          "You be Grim, yum yum, lunch, yes, yum yum," remarked the troll.


          Can't get my sword out in time, but maybe? thought Dominel.


          "Maybe yes, maybe no," he said.


          "Huh?" The troll had a puzzled expression on its face.


          "You Grim's, yum yum, lunch," it added after some thought.


          "Grim want, yum yum, lunch?"


          The troll thought hard, obviously taken aback.


          "Yes, Grim want lunch."


          "Grim want gold?"


          Grim stared at Dominel before replying.


          "Yes, Grim want gold, Grim have, yum yum!" So saying the troll smiled as if he had succeeded in some incredible mental task.


          "Grim, eat now, yum yum," said the troll. It grabbed Dominel's arm with its free hand and prepared to pull it off.




          The troll stared at Dominel in a quandary.


          Do it right, Dominel thought.


          "You can have gold and, yum yum, lunch."


          "Grim like gold."


          "Well you see, once you've eaten me, I won't need the gold I have hidden in the mountains. So I want to give it to you, as a gift."


          "Gift? Why you give Grim gift?"


          "Because you're such a handsome fellow and since you're going to marry my sister, you must have a dowry."


          "Marry sister?"


          "Of course. She's waiting for you below the hill. We can go get her now if you wish."


          "Sister not gold," said the troll, now utterly confused.


          "First we must get my sister, so she can help carry the gold to you. Since you can't go into the mountains."


          "Sister help bring gold. Me bring sister."


          "Good! Good! She's just over there." Dominel pointed to where the girl was hidden.


          Grim was there in a few strides and picked up the girl in his free hand.


          "How come she no move?"


          "Well... umm... You see my dear fellow, it's, well... Um... It's because she's overcome with joy to meet you. We better hurry. The sooner you get the gold, the sooner you can eat me."


          "Yum yum," replied Grim.


          "Oh, but dear me. How are we going to get by your friends in front of the pass? I guess you'll have to share your gold and lunch with them."


          "No share lunch. Me, Grim, smart, me get you through."


          With that Grim strode away, a human dangling from each hand.


          "Me, Grim, have bag, use carry things. You fit good Grim's bag. You gold fit good Grim's bag too," explained the troll.


          Dominel soon found himself set roughly onto his feet, with the girl beside him. Grim stared at them with a puzzled expression.


          "You sure you bring, Grim, gold, yum yum?"


          "Of course I will, Grim. You'll need the gold to care for my sister, now won't you?"


          "Grim think gold in mountains. Grim like, yum yum. When Grim eat, yum yum, Grim start with head so, yum yum, don't hurt."


          Grim pulled a large canvas sack out from under a bramble and held it open. "Grim say get in sack."


          "Thank you, Grim, you're very kind," said Dominel, as he led the girl into the sack. Grim's large hand closed the top of the bag and Dominel felt himself hoisted onto the troll's shoulder.


          I can't see anything and the stench, it's worse than the dressing room after warrior practice and the pigsty combined. Gods, I mustn't vomit, thought Dominel as he was jostled by the troll's swaying gait. The sound of harsh voices speaking in strange tongues surrounded him and at one point he felt pawing hands examine the sack as it swayed on Grim's back. Half‑panicked, he elbowed Grim through the fabric. He felt the troll turn and heard a growl. There was an answering phrase, then Grim turned and continued walking.


          When Dominel thought he could stand it no longer, the top of the sack opened and Grim looked in.


          "Me, Grim, smart! Me bring you other side of camp. Now you get gold, Yum Yum."


          "Of course," replied Dominel. Rising, he filled his lungs with clean air. Grasping the girl's hand, he dragged her to her feet.


          "It's only a little way up the trail, would you like to come?"


          "No! No, Grim go no farther. Magic strong, make Grim old."


          "Oh well. We'll be back soon," said Dominel. Taking the girl's hand he led her up the trail into the mountains. Grim watched them climb the pass.


          "Thank you Nanny Franks for telling me all those fairy stories. The nightmares were worth it! And thank the gods that trolls are dumb," said Dominel, once they were well away from the troll.


          "Yum yum, come back. Me no want gold," called Grim, just before he fell out of sight behind a bend in the trail.


          "You wait there. I'll be back when I have your gold," yelled Dominel. Then he added to himself, "and pigs fly over a blue moon!"






          Dominel followed the pass into the mountains until he came upon a cabin. The stable beside it suggested that it had been a relay post for the king's horsemen. He led the girl to the cabin's door and knocked. After a long wait he opened the door and found himself staring at the dangerous end of a crossbow.


          "Yur won't be takin' me or mine, yur filthy beasty," threatened the old man holding the weapon. He was a wild figure with grey hair and a beard sprouting off in all directions. His body was clothed in old, loosely fitting leather armour, and a sword hung from his side.


          "Believe me, sir, I have no intention of harming anyone," said Dominel.


          "Huh, well now yur don't look like one of em beasties. Though yur smell bad a one. What be yur name?"


          "I am Dominel, Prince of Bani, last of the line of Otinerus."


          "I was thinkin' all yur people be slain."


          "Not all. They left me for dead after I was knocked unconscious. I've been making my way to the mountains ever since."


          "I be thinkin' yur be tellin' the truth, but how can I be sure?"


          "I don't know how I can convince you I am who I say I am, but please put the crossbow down. I'll lay my sword aside, and we can talk. My companion needs rest," said Dominel with a gesture towards the girl.


          "Humm... well now... Yur be about settin' yur sword aside and yur can be comin' in."


          Dominel leaned his sword against the cottage's wall, then watched as the old man set his crossbow on the table behind him. Holding his palms open and in plain view Dominel stepped into the cottage, then reached back and pulled the girl in.


          "Emma, get yurself out here," called the old man.


          A door opposite the entry way opened and an old woman with grey hair neatly combed into a bun scurried into the room.


          "Now who be this stranger yur havin' in with all them beasties down the way?" she demanded.


          The old man made to reply but was cut off by the woman.


          "What's this now? A wee lass." She shuffled towards the girl, her plump body jiggling as she walked.


          "Now yur comin' in. Taint proper to leave a lass standin' in the door."


          "She doesn't talk," said Dominel.


          "Aw that be sad, but little wonder. With all the horror this poor lass must a seen travellin' through lands held by them beasties."


          The woman took the girl's hand and closed her eyes for a moment. Her brow wrinkled in concentration then she spoke again. "It's a wonder she be alive at all, it is with all the pain in the wee thing."


          She led the girl to a seat at the room's central table.


          "I made sure she ate," said Dominel.


          "And a good thing yur did, or she'd a starved. She's given up on the world she has."


          "Come on, lad. If Emma says yur all right, yur be all right. Pick up yur sword, we'll go fer a walk. We be above the Storm's murk here and should be enjoying the sun well we have it," said the old man.


          Dominel nodded and allowed himself to be led from the cottage.


          "I be Jason. I be the livery master here before them beasties came. Since then me and me Emma have been getting by doin' as we could. Lucky for us the mountains still be safe, but Emma says that won't be lasting."


          "Excuse me, your wife seemed to see into the girl. As if she could sense what the girl had been through, is she some kind of sorceress?"


          "No, lad, she taint. Least ways not the type yur be praying for. She'd just started her learning when the final battle was fought, nigh on forty years ago. I hid her and she escaped. She don't know how to keep them beasties back. It be sad it be. She can see the wall the old masters built getting weaker, but she don't be knowin' how it were built. She can't be a helping yur."




          "I know how yur feel. Seems all the great wizards be slain and taint nothing we can do. Emma tells me the walls won't be breakin' tomorrow. We has sometime."


          "Time for what?"


          "To live, lad, yur should know where there be life there be hope. Elsewise yur never have gotten this far, now would yur?"


          "I guess not."


          "Good! Now let's be headin' back to the cottage so's we can be havin' a look at yur lady friend. She be yur sister?"


          "No. I met her along the way. She needed help so I helped."


          "It be good to know that. That be why we'll win this. We's cares, and the gods be likin' that."


          By now they were back at the cottage door. Jason opened it and stepped inside. Dominel followed.


          "How be she?" asked Jason.


          The girl lay motionless on the floor, at the far side of the room by a small hearth.


          "Her body be all right. Her mind it be a different matter," answered Emma.


          Emma motioned for Dominel to take a seat opposite her at the heavy wooden table that occupied the room's centre.


          "That girl has been through sommet that forced her away from our world. She be living in a world of her own now. It be a guess if she ever comes out of it," she explained.


          "Gods! What did she live through? Do you know?"


          "I don't be knowing. If I could be sharin' it with her I could be makin' it easier fer her to bear. I could help her, but she be too fare down fer me to reach."


          "Isn't there anything we can do?"


          "We's can be a prayin', lad. We's can be a prayin'. Fer now the best thing fer her is rest. Yur both been pushed harder than a body should. Yur safe here, so yur should be about restin'."


          "I'd appreciate that," said Dominel, feeling like there was a heavy hand pushing him towards the floor.


          "That be good. Now we should be about cleanin' and dressin' yur in some new clothes. Yur scent's enough to knock a goblin dead," remarked Jason.


          Minutes later Dominel stood dripping wet and shivering beside the glacial stream behind the cottage. He soaped himself then, with a grimace, leapt back into the icy flow. His muscles cramping he scrambled out onto the bank.


          "Here, lad, be wrappin' yurself in this," said Jason, holding out a towel."I see you gave your cloths a scrub. I'll be about a hangin' them up and I'll fetch yur armour in as well. Yur be gettin' to the cottage, Emma's orders, and I shan't be crossin' Emma. She's be a nasty one when she be roused,"


          Dominel dried himself then with a glance at the blue sky and the pine forest on the valley's slopes walked to the cottage.


          No sooner had he entered the little building then Emma pushed a mug of broth into his hand and led the girl towards the stream.


          "Me Emma don't be wastin' a minute," remarked Jason, as he stepped through the door. "Yur look a sight better than yur did."


          "I feel better."


          "I'd be wagerin' on that. Why don't I get Emma's scissors and we can be fixin' yur hair. Must 'ave been chopped by a ghoul to be so ragged and yur beard could stand a trim."


          Dominel soon found himself in a chair with Jason clipping and fiddling about him.


          "Now that be an improvement."


          Dominel looked at himself in a small mirror Jason lent him.


          Gods, what a difference, he thought, comparing the face he now saw with the one he had seen in the mirror at the ruined house. This new reflection sported a small, pointed beard that seemed to lengthen his face, while the hair, though short, was well sculpted. What truly caught his attention though were his eyes. The shades of his brothers no longer stared through them. The haunted quality was gone, replaced by a strangeness, vaguely threatening in its aspect. He stared at his reflection, then jerked his gaze away.


          "Thank you, I look more myself now. How are my clothes?"


          "They be drying nicely." Before Jason could finish his sentence the door opened and Emma walked in, leading the girl who was wrapped in a blanket. The cleaning had done wonders for her. With the cover of dirt and dried blood gone her skin was an olive shade. Her face was pretty, made of soft rounded curves, with a slightly pug nose, while her short, brown hair shone in the light coming from the doorway.


          "Well are yur gonna be sittin' there and a starin', or be helpin' the wee'on' to a chair?" demanded Emma.


          Dominel stood and helped the girl to a seat. She was still oblivious to her surroundings.


          Several uneventful days passed at the cottage and Dominel started doing the heavy work around the place that posed a problem for the old couple. By the second week he felt at home and was pleased that Jason and Emma seemed to welcome his presence. It was thirteen days after his arrival before anything changed. He was stepping out of cottage's door when Emma called to him.


          "Be comin' back in the house."


          "Very well," he agreed, and took a seat at the table.


          "Dominel, I've been watchin' yur. Now I've a question for yur." Emma took a deep breath before continuing. "Would yur be willing to learn the bit of the art I've to teach?"


          Dominel's eyes glistened and elation ran through his soul.


          A chance to learn any of the lost sorceries. Gods and demons, what an opportunity!


          Forcing his voice to remain calm he replied," I would be honoured to take a place as your student."


          Emma began to chuckle then laughed loud and hard before speaking again. "Yur and yur flowery talk. I've not much to teach, but what I have be yurs. We'll be startin' tonight."


          That night Emma led Dominel to a plateau on the mountainside overlooking the cottage and began his instruction.


          "Before anythin' else, yur must be a learnin' how to relax," she began.


          "I am relaxed," he objected.


          "Nay, yur aren't. Yur no be relaxed before yur can be feelin' every muscle in yur body and knowin' where it be."


          "You mean like a warrior before going into battle, where you're totally aware of your body but detached from it?"


          "Lad, if yur can be doing that yur near a year ahead of startin'. Show me what yur can be doin'."


          Dominel took a stance with his feet shoulder width apart and tilted his pelvis forward for balance. Then taking the three deep, slow breaths his sword master had taught him, he allowed all thought to drain from his mind. He was filled with the euphoric floating sensation of the warrior state, while at the same time he was totally aware of his body. Muscles, nerves, tendons were all within his sensory field, ready to be commanded by his will. He rested in the warrior mind for a few moments before returning to the everyday world.


          "Well, lad, that be impressive fir sure. Now, can yur be using it to heal yurself?"


          "Heal myself?"


          "Aye, yur can be stoppin' bleedin' or makin' yurself stronger in meditation."


           "My sword master told me that some can make themselves stronger, or faster. He never mentioned anything about healing."


          "Well then, lad, I know where I'll be a startin' yur lessons. Now yur be listenin' to Emma. To be stoppin' the flow of the blood is easy, all yur got to do is..."


          Weeks passed and each night Emma took Dominel to the plateau to perform some mystical exercise. Many of the exercises struck him as inane. Who cared how hot or cold his hands were? He kept studying though, snapping up the bits of useful knowledge amongst the seemingly useless dross. Until one day Emma stopped him as he was stepping out of the cottage's door.


          "After tonight yur must be leavin'," she stated.




          "After tonight, yur must be leavin'. I've taught yur all I know and now yur must find yurself another teacher."


          "But there are no other teachers. All the masters have perished!"


          "Aye, all the masters be gone, but yur meant fir summit more than waitin' fir the shields to fall. Yur must be movin' on!"




          "That be what we be about seein' tonight. Now we'd best be going, the night be gettin' on."


          As they walked towards the plateau, Dominel observed his surroundings. He could plainly see the blue sparkles of energy that filled the world. Looking skyward, he saw the wall of energy that shielded the mountains. It curved over him like a giant glass bubble. As he watched the shield flickered ominously, then stood firm once more.


          "How long will the shield last?"


          "I reckon another two or three months where it be now, but I could be wrong."


          "What will happen when it crumbles?"


          "It won't be crumblin'. It be made so it shrinks when it be too weak to keep its size. It gets smaller and smaller, till it be too small to be guardin' a mouse. It will be years before it shrinks past me cottage, so there be nothin' to worry about. The old masters, they were strong they were. Now shush."


          By this time they were at the plateau. Emma instructed Dominel to kindle a fire in the centre of the little flat land and to sit staring into the flames.


          "Watch the fire as yur were taught, don't be thinkin'. Let yur mind see in the flames, remember yur want to be knowin' where yur to go."


          Dominel sat staring into the fire. Slowly his mind cleared of thoughts. The flames danced before him, gradually coalescing to form a cave's mouth at the end of a fiery trail. The fire crackled and sputtered, he felt his eyes drawn to the smoke. It moved to the east, towards the centre of the mountain range, despite the still air. He fell back, his head throbbing.


          "What were yur seein'?"


          "I saw a cave at the end of a trail and the smoke. I must go east!"


          Dominel paused then repeated himself with firmness. "Yes, I must go east."




          The next morning Dominel donned his battered armour.


          "I made yur sommet for yur trip," said Emma who indicated a pair of packs on the table beside her.


          Dominel opened one of the packs and saw it was full of food. "You shouldn't have, you've little enough for yourselves."


          "Now don't yur be being foolish, we've enough. Sides these be traveller's rations. Dried meat and spice rolls," countered Jason.


          Inhaling deeply Dominel could smell cinnamon and nutmeg coming off the rolls. "They smell delicious."


          "Aye, they be tasty, but the spice be keeping `em fresh. They'll last a moon afore they go off so's you'd notice," remarked Emma.


          Dominel started securing one of the packs and a water skin to the girl.


          "Shouldn't yur be leaving the lass?" asked Jason.


          "Be lettin' the boy alone. We're too old to be taking on a wee one who can't be doing for herself. Besides, It be sure the lass won't be findin' healin' here. Goodbye, me lad, be carin' fir yurself," said Emma. She helped Dominel don his pack and embraced him in front of the doorway.


           "Don't worry about the girl, Jason. I can't explain it, but I feel she belongs with me. Both of you take care, and thank you for everything."


          Dominel stepped out the door with the girl in tow.






          Dominel and the girl followed a track that paralleled the stream behind the cottage. Cliffs, with occasional pines clinging to them, rose on either side of the narrow road as it wound its way deeper into the mountains.


          "Tomorrow we should reach the main pass, if I remember the maps properly. I bet there are lots of people there," he said to the girl.


          She stared blankly ahead.


          "At least you don't talk too much. Ah, Demon spawn! I know it's not your fault," he muttered. "I should set up camp, night's closing in."


          Later, he stared into their campfire letting the flames cast images into his mind. They flickered and danced then slowly took form. He saw an army standing on a shore staring at a fleet of retreating ships. He saw his face in the flames, his lips forming words he did not know. The fire flared and the image was lost. Sighing, he lay down to sleep.


          The next day they started along the trail but Dominel paused at a spot where a deep gorge branched off to one side. A stream flowed from the gorge's mouth joining the flow beside the road.


          "Can you feel it? Not that you'd answer if you could. It's as if someone were pulling at my guts," he said.


          Clearing his mind, he allowed his inner sense to guide his eyes. His gaze came to rest on a series of stones in the streambed. They formed a trail up the gorge deeper into the mountains.


          "This is insane, but Emma told me to trust my instincts."


          Dominel led the girl onto the first of the stepping-stones. A steeply rising path opened up beside the stream, which rushed along its channel. Dominel didn't pause again until evening was closing in.


          He examined his surroundings seeing nothing but rocks, craggy cliff faces, a few scrub pines and brambles.


          "Gods, it's cold! I'd better make camp," he said.


          Leaving the girl in a rock fissure, that blocked the wind on three sides, he gathered bracken for fuel and kindled a fire at the open end of the groove. The girl shivered but was otherwise still.


          Night closed in around them making their small fire a puddle of warmth and light in an otherwise dark and threatening world. A blood-curdling howl rent the air and Dominel drew his sword. He scanned the darkness in front of the fissure that guarded his back and sides. A shadow moved in the twilight world beyond the fire's light. The deeper darkness took on form as it drew nearer the flame, revealing itself as a wolf. The beast had wiry grey hair and it was impossibly large. The strangest thing about it though was that its eyes shone with red light, like sunlight passing through a vial of blood.


          "Those eyes! A werewolf! But how could it penetrate the shield?" gasped Dominel.


          The beast snarled and leapt to the far side of the fire.


          "Stay back," commanded Dominel, brandishing his sword.


          Squatting, the creature glared at him. The flames flickered between them.


          They stood thus until the fire began to burn low and the werewolf inched forward. Fumbling behind him, Dominel found a piece of wood and tossed it onto the flames. The werewolf stepped back growling.


          Bloody marvellous! What happens when the fire burns out. Only silver works on werewolves. Of course, if I can hold out until morning it will turn back into a human, thought Dominel. The pile of bracken he'd collected now seemed woefully inadequate.


          "How to make it last," he muttered, then he remembered one of his sessions with Emma. She had had him make a candle burn higher and lower at her command.


          If the wood burns lower it will last longer, but I've never affected a campfire before and I don't know how high the fire has to burn to keep that thing back. It's my only chance!


          Dominel stared into the flames willing them to shrink. The werewolf crept closer, until it stood only an arm's length from the fire. When the fuel was consumed the beast moved nearer, forcing Dominel to add more wood. The fire flared, driving the werewolf back. Dominel joined his will to the flames and forced them down to a steady fuel-conserving burn.


          Night wore on and the werewolf stayed. Dominel strained to hold back the fire but his strength was quickly ebbing. His head throbbed and his body shook in a cold sweat.


          Why don't I give up? A quick death followed by a long sleep, he thought. Then out loud," NO!"


          He added the last piece of wood to the blaze. It kindled and flared as he tried to fight down the too quick burning but his power was spent. Rising he slumped against the chasm's wall, sword in hand. Before long the fire was little more than hot coals and the werewolf stood less than a hand's breadth from it, its mouth dripping saliva.


          The beast howled, pawing the air in frustration, then ran off.


          "What?" muttered Dominel, who then saw the last corner of the full moon disappearing behind the mountains. "Gods of my fathers, thank you." He collapsed into an exhausted sleep.


          He stood upon a plain with the creatures of the Storm


          He awoke to someone shaking him. Opening his eyes he stared into a face covered with a heavy, grey-streaked-black beard. Brown eyes and a high forehead ending in a tangle of black hair was all of the face that showed through the beard.


          "If you were going to kill me you already would have. Can I assume you're a friend?"


          "That you can, lad. I was out hunting and I saw you and your lady friend. I'd like to offer you my hospitality and I think you should accept. There's a werewolf about," answered the stranger.


          "I had a stand off with it last night," said Dominel, as he stood to better inspect the man.


          "Did it hurt anyone?"




          "I am Solin, son of Gumfrey, Count of Fretin." The stranger extended his hand.


          "Dominel, Prince of Bani, and my companion has, to the best of my knowledge, no name."


          "The Storm must have done evil things to her. She hardly breathes."


          "And she does not speak."


          "I'm forgetting my manners. My cabin is only a short way along the trail. We will be more comfortable there."


          Dominel gestured for Solin to lead, and taking the girl's hand brought her to her feet.


          Soon they came to a shelter made from a large fissure in the rock, over which Solin had built a roof, and sealed the open end with a wall of split logs. He pulled back a corner of the bearskin that served as a door.


          "Please enter," he offered.


          Dominel had to stoop to fit through the crude doorway and could barely stand erect in the chamber beyond. The inside of the shelter was wedge‑shaped, with its widest section at the door. The narrow end of the wedge contained a stone hearth, with a smoke hole above it. Against the wall to his left there was a cot. The centre of the room was dominated by a table made of piled stones, surmounted by rough‑hewn boards. A chair, hacked from a log, sat at the table. To his right was the only item in the shelter that showed any refinement of craftsmanship, a deacon's bench covered in ornate carvings.


          "Welcome to my humble abode, Prince Dominel. I apologize that it is not as grand as my palace but as it is at present, in, shall we say, unfriendly hands, this will have to serve."


          "Thank you, this is much better than the ground."


          "Yes. If you will excuse me, I'll go to the storage shed and get us some food. You must be famished after last night."


          "Thank you."


          A few minutes passed before Solin returned bearing meat, a bag of herbs and a water skin.


          "I'm afraid I've no wine. Grapes don't survive this high up the mountain."


          "Why do you live up here?"


          Solin knelt in front of the hearth and started piling coal onto the glowing embers.


          "I have my reasons. For one thing, there's a pit of coal not far off that supplies me with fuel."


          Solin placed a pot over his small fire and began to prepare a stew.


          "You could use wood further down the slope."


          Solin paused and growled "I like it here. There aren't people around asking dumb questions."


          "Why doesn't the werewolf bother you?"


          "That's easy. I put wolfsbane and silver on the door and smoke hole. It keeps him back. This shelter is quite safe from Lycanthropes."


          "Do you know the werewolf in its human form?"


          Dominel's hand inched towards his sword.


          "I know him, a good person. Lycanthropy is a curse, not a choice! That is why he moved to these mountains, so others would be safe from him. It is too far for the monster within to run to the nearest human settlement. Though now, with fugitives flooding the mountains that may change. Where can he run? The stew's ready. Sit. I'll serve you."


          Dominel took a seat at the table behind a wooden bowl of stew. He was soon finishing his third helping.


          "I'm sorry to eat like this."


          "Quite all right. You've already more than paid for your keep with your company. Human companionship is a rare gift here."


          "That I can imagine. I respect your decision to stay here for the safety of others."


          Solin paused where he squatted tending the fire, "You guessed."


          "It wasn't difficult. Deception doesn't come well to you. How did you get through the mountain's shields?"


          "I walked. I'm only a monster when the moon is full."


          "Hmm, yes. Is there anything you can do to free yourself?"


          "Short of killing myself, I don't think so."


          "There must be something."


          "It's said the wizards had a way, but I certainly don't know it and there aren't any left to ask."


          "That's true, much to all our sorrows."


          Dominel and Solin talked through most of the day. Then as evening drew in Solin ushered Dominel into the cot and settled the girl on a sheepskin by the hearth.


          Dominel dreamt he was wandering the halls of his father's castle. He was searching for something he had lost, but he didn't know what. As he searched, he became aware of something following him. He knew he had to find what he was looking for before it caught him.


          He burst into room after room, but what he wanted never appeared. Sweat soaked his clothing and his breath came in ragged gasps. Throwing open a door, he found a tall man with a grey beard in the room beyond.


          "Can't find it, can you?" snapped the stranger.


          "No," replied Dominel as he heard the creature following him draw nearer.


          "You won't if you keep lolling about. You've wasted enough time already!"


          "Certainly," agreed Dominel, as he made to run out the door.


          "Oh yes, before you go, I think you should know. You're dreaming. Whatever it is, just turn it into a toad."


          "Dreaming?" muttered Dominel. A rat the size of a panther leapt into the room.


          I hope I'm dreaming.


          He reached for his sword and said aloud "You're a toad!"


          The image around him blurred and he found himself by a pond with a man‑sized toad crouched in front of him. Wind whispered through the trees, and the toad croaked, a near-deafening sound.


          "I am dreaming!"


          He felt very detached from the person standing in front of the giant toad. The creature leapt at him, Dominel stepped aside and said "You're a normal sized frog."


          The toad disappeared and in its place appeared a small green frog.




          Dominel enjoyed himself by turning the frog into a garden snake, a sparrow and finally a kitten.


          "This is wonderful! If I know I'm dreaming I can control my dreams. Now for something worthwhile."


          He focussed his attention on a nearby tree. A moment passed, then the tree began to change. Soon a stunningly beautiful maiden stood in its place. Her brown hair fell just below her shoulders, while her slender body, with its large bosom, was covered by the flimsiest of lace, leaving her shapely hips and legs clear to view. Desire sparkled in her brown eyes. Dominel walked towards her and took her in his arms. His experimenting for that night had only just begun.


          The next morning he awoke with a kink in his back and a smile on his face. Moving cautiously, so as not to disturb the girl, he stepped outside.


          "Hoy there, how was your night?" called Solin, as he strode down the trail.


          "Better than you could imagine, but I'm afraid I have to move on."


          Dominel scanned the sky, hoping the weather would give him an excuse to stay.


          "I felt as much. Something told me you wouldn't be staying. Where will you go?"


          "Farther along that trail I was on. Do you know where it leads?"


          "Hmm, as far as I've taken it, it leads higher into the mountains. I've never reached the end of it. I came up from the south. Why do you want to follow it?"


          "I don't know. All I can say is I feel drawn to it, if that makes any sense."


          "It doesn't! Then again, in our world what does? Before you go, fill your bags with food from my stores, I've plenty to spare, and take some extra furs. It gets cold in the mountains."


          "Thank you."


          Dominel turned towards the cabin but Solin caught his arm and stopped him.


          "Wait! If you should find a way to break my curse, no matter how dangerous, promise me you'll return."


          "I promise."


          An hour later Dominel was leading the girl higher into the mountains. They walked all that day and deep into the night. He was uneasy despite Solin's assurances that a were‑creature could only be forced to change on the three nights of the full moon.


          The next day dawned cloudy and cold. Dominel had to force his stiffened joints to move, but soon he and the girl were once more ascending the trail. They had walked an hour when the sleet started. They trudged on in search of shelter, while the storm about them grew in fury. Soon the sleet gave way to snow, and a driving wind pushed against them. The furs wrapped about them flapped like flags in the tempest. The girl shivered silently, while Dominel felt the cold cutting him like a knife. After what seemed an eternity, they came to a spot where the cliff jutted out at an angle to the wind, creating a small, protected area.


          Fighting his way through the snow he dragged the girl to this crude shelter and huddled close to her.


          Without the wind to drive it, the snow fell gently about them, forming a soft blanket.


          Dominel felt warmth begin to tingle through him. It started with his frozen hands and feet and swiftly spread. He felt drowsy and he began to nod.


          The wind howled in the background, like the moan of a lonely spirit. He lay in the snow. His limbs were heavy and all he wanted to do was sleep. Slowly the notes of the wind resolved into new sounds.


          "Get up, you stupid fool," commanded the voice of Dominel's father.


          Dominel opened his eyes and looked up. Towering over him was the form of his sire, the snow clearly visible behind it.


          "Get up!" it ordered.


          "Sleepy," mumbled Dominel.


          "Get up now or you're going to die of the cold."


          "Cold? It's warm."


          "That's what it's like, you fool. You are the last of our line and I won't have you dying in some snow bank like a miserable bear cub! Do you understand me?"


          "But it's over, everyone's dead, no one to fight for, nothing to fight with."


          "You're never beaten until you think you're beaten! Damn it, son! If I can come back to the world of men from the land of our ancestors to talk to you, the least you could do is wake up to listen."


          "I'll try."


          "Good! Now remember how I raised you and don't give up the fight. Follow me!"


          Dominel tried to rise and couldn't. He tried again, this time struggling to his feat. He reached down and grabbed the girl. She groaned and lay still.


          "Well, what's keeping you?" demanded the spirit, as snow blew through the blue of its floor length robe. Dominel stared into the grey-bearded face and up at the blue eyes. "Ggggirl."


          "Oh yes, you have taken up with some trollop. Should have expected it, knowing you. You'll just have to drag her or leave her. Now get going!"


          Gripping the furs the girl wore Dominel pulled. Slowly she began to move, then, as he overcame her inertia, she jerked clear of the snow.


          He could never say how long he followed the grey head of the ghost through the swirling storm. All he knew was that by the time he stopped at the mouth of a cave his strength was spent and he collapsed on the ground.


          He found the numbness had left his arms and legs, replaced by painful throbbing, but now he could think clearly.


          "Well, don't be an idiot, get in the cave and out of this wind," snapped the ghost.




          "Gods and demons! Would I feed my own flesh and blood to bears? Get in that damn cave!"


          Grabbing the girl Dominel dragged her into the cave. Shortly beyond its mouth the snow gave way to a dry stone floor. He looked up to see beams spanning the ceiling.




          "The Wizards used to mine coal here. It was also their secret escape route. Unfortunately they never had the chance to use it. Build a fire, there's coal on the walls and some dry ties from the mine cart tracks down shaft."


          "Y... y... you're real!" breathed Dominel.


          "Of course I'm real. We're all real."


          "I th--th--thought I w--was g--going m--m--mad. H--h--hearing th--th--things."


          "You're no madder than you ever were. Though that's not saying much." Having said this the spirit vanished.


          Forcing his aching legs to move, Dominel made his way along the passage, which sloped steeply up. After stumbling six strides he came to the end of an old mining track. With numb fingers he grasped the hatchet Jason had given him and chopped kindling from the nearest tie. Using flint and steel he struck a spark, then another, until the tinder caught. He cautiously piled larger pieces of wood onto the blaze. He crawled back to the girl and dragged her to the fire before collapsing beside it.


          As the fire warmed the air about him Dominel felt his strength return.  At first he only fed the fire, building it with wood until it burnt high and bright, then knocking coal from the walls to add to the flames. Much later he laid his soaking clothes out to dry, then turned his attentions to the girl. She lay by the fire like death. Her lips were blue. Kneeling beside her he felt for her breath, sensing a faint pressure against the back of his hand.


          Sighing, in weariness and relief, he removed her soaked garments and examined her body. Her hands and feet were white and tipped with frostbite. The rest of her skin was icy to the touch.


          "Gods!" he exclaimed. Completing his examination he pushed her closer to the fire. This done he slumped against the cavern's wall and allowed his exhaustion to overtake him. His last waking thought was that his father had saved him. He had really been there!


          "Dark, darker, darkest. Light, lighter, lightest. High, higher, highest. This is magic," explained the voice.


          "Who are you?" asked Dominel, not sure whether he slept or woke.




          "Me, I must be dreaming."


          "Does it matter?"


          "I can't see."


          "You don't have to, just listen. The student is almost ready and the teacher awaits."




          "Don't be dense! Why did I have to be reborn in the form of a pigeon brain?"




          "Shut up. You are not sensitive enough to hear me for long. Thus I will only say this once. Follow the tunnel and go ever down, until you see a lake flanked by trees. Then ever up you must go, or else you pay your life as toll."


          Dominel awoke shivering. The fire had burnt down to glowing embers, which he built up. This done he turned to the girl. Her hands and feet were red but her breathing was strong.


          He pushed her hair back from her brow. At his touch her eyes snapped open and she pulled away from him. She glanced at her nakedness then at his. Screaming, she attacked him, scratching and biting. Dominel caught her wrists.


          "Stop it, stop it. I'm your friend, remember? I saved you from the house and the blizzard."


          The girl lashed out a knee, striking him squarely in the groin. Gasping with pain, he released her wrists. Like a wild thing she ran towards the tunnel's opening. Several moments later he felt sufficiently recovered to pull on his clothes and follow her. She stood at the tunnel's mouth, staring out over a landscape of cliffs and drifted snow.


          "Please, I saved you from that," he explained.


          The girl turned and looked at him, a numb expression on her face. He held out his hand. She shied away. He didn't move.


          "You must be cold. Come back to the fire. I won't hurt you."


          She stared at him, then tentatively took his hand.


          "What's your name?"


          The girl stared at him numbly as she dressed.


          "I'm Dominel, do you know where you are?"


          She continued to stare at him in silence.


          "Can't you speak?"


          She continued to stare.


          "Hmm. Maybe you don't speak Colinan. I'll try Merchantese."


          "You... umm... name?" he asked.


          The girl stared at him.


          Damn, thought Dominel, who left off and tried to plan his next move. At that moment his dream intruded upon his consciousness.


          Through the tunnel? What was it my father said? An escaped route for the wizards. There must be a wizard's stronghold at its other end. I haven't anything to loose.


          His course decided he noticed gnawing in his belly and tried to remember when he had last eaten. Deciding it had been too long he and the girl settled for a meal. As they ate, he spoke to her.


          "We're going to follow this tunnel. We'll need light, any suggestions? None. That's too bad, because I don't have materials for torches. What to do?


          "My armour, it won't burn! Yes it should do nicely. What do you think?"


          The girl stared at him blankly.


          "I'm glad you agree."


          Rising to his feet, he reached for his battered armour.


          "Let's see, there may be fighting yet, I don't want to damage it too badly. A knee cup should do."


          Using one of his daggers as a pry, he pulled the left knee free of the rest of his armour. That done, he cut two long strips from one of the hides Solin had given him. These he attached to the kneecup so that they crossed over its centre. Taking a piece of wood from an old mining cart trestle, that was as long as his arm and less rotten than most, he pushed it through where the leather crossed.


          Throughout this the girl watched curiously.


          Finally, Dominel filled the knee cup with bits of coal and slivers of wood. Using both of his daggers, he levered a flaming piece of coal into its centre.


          The wood caught and sent out a dim wavering light. He smiled at his makeshift brazier and the girl seeing that he was happy giggled.


          Donning the remainder of his armour and shouldering his pack, he led the way along the passage. The corridor sloped up for roughly fifteen strides from their resting place then divided into two. One passage led up, as if reaching for the mountain's peak. From this came a draft of cool fresh air. The other led down a flight of rock stairs. This had a musty smell, as if it had been closed too long.


          Dominel, mindful of his dream, started down the descending way.





          Dominel counted the stairs, coming to a downward sloping tunnel after the fiftieth step. This passage was typical of the mine. It was about two strides wide and three high, with rough-hewn walls, over which the brazier's dim light sent weird, dancing shadows. As he led the girl forward, they became a puddle of light in a sea of black.


          They walked for hours with infrequent stops, to pry coal from the walls. Occasionally passages branched to the sides but they held to the main course, which led ever down. The stillness of the cavern made the sound of their footsteps a thundering intrusion.


          When Dominel called a halt his eyes felt grainy and weariness gripped his body. "We should sleep here," he said. Prying coal from a deposit in the wall, he built a fire in the centre of the passage.


          The girl stared at him as he nodded once, then fell asleep.



          Dominel opened his eyes and looked at the bedchamber. The large canopy bed at its centre was draped in gauze curtains. A fire raged in the ornate hearth that filled the wall to his right, making it uncomfortably warm and stuffy. Tapestries, depicting women in passionate embraces, covered the remaining three walls. A stifling, smoky perfume filled the air.


          "Come to me, my lord." A seductive alto voice beckoned from the bed




          "Betrothed," spoke the voice. The bed curtains parted. The Duchess rose and walked towards Dominel. Her body was draped in gauzy silk, which did little to hide its well‑proportioned curves. The only sign of the children she had borne the old duke was a tracery of lines across her abdomen. In the fire's golden glow the wrinkles by her eyes vanished, making her look young.


          "I thought you preferred the company of your chamber maids?" observed Dominel.


          "You will need a legitimate heir and there is no reason it should be a chore for either of us," she explained, while playing with a long strand of her ebony hair.


          "What of Amber."


          "She is a consort. She knows the line must be secured. Once I have borne you a son, she can have you to herself. If that is your wish?"


          "You know I have fought against our marriage."


          "There is no reason you should feel suffocated by it. We are both civilised nobles. We can be... friends."


          Dominel felt his temperature rise and his breath quicken. Moving to the woman he traced the line of her back. Slowly his hands caressed her, exploring her ripe mature form.


          "Yes, good. You are much better than that dotard my father chose," said Karmilla, caressing her young lover's firm flesh.


          Dominel pulled away. The heat from the fire was overwhelming. With Karmilla's help he stripped. His breathing was like a bellows. Being nude made the room no cooler.


          "Yes, my prince, yes. To the bed."


          Without knowing how, Dominel found himself upon the bed, Karmilla towering above him. He tried to suckle her, but his need to breathe made it impossible.


          "I am ready for you, my young prince. I will take you now!" breathed Karmilla. Dominel felt himself slide into the silken glove of her womanhood. His breathing came in gasps and sweat rolled off him.


          "Yes, my prince. Yes. Yes," screamed Karmilla. Her hands stroking his chest. The weight of her crushed his lungs and his breathing became harder still. Before he knew it her hands were locked about his throat.


          "What?" he gasped, before sound was choked from him.


          "Yes. Join me. Yes," screamed Karmilla. Dominel struggled to pull the hands from his throat. Dots began to swim before his eyes. The hands became talons, choking the life from him. His vision blurred.


          "No, my love," spoke a soft voice. The talons eased their grip and Dominel gasped in the burning hot air and looked to see Amber standing beside the bed. She was naked and her honey blonde hair fell over her small, firm breasts. Her emerald eyes seemed to glow in her lovely youthful face.


          "Amber. What?" gasped Dominel.


          "Leave us, peasant!" snapped Karmilla.


          "Why do you do this? He is hope for our kind," challenged Amber.


          "The Covetous God is my hope. He has promised me new life as a ruling species if I do this thing for him." Karmilla raised her hand as if to strike Amber.


          "Dominel, choose. Love or lust, Life or death," pleaded Amber. A tear trickled over her cheek standing out against the golden hue the fire cast upon her skin.


          Without thinking Dominel reached to wipe the tear away.


          "No! I can please you. I can please you," screamed Karmilla, but she vanished as soon as Dominel touched Amber's cheek.


          "Amber, I am sor...."


          "Hush, my love. Know you dream of a danger you truly face. You must wake."


          "I don't want to. I want to stay with you."


          "I am but a ghost in dream. Soon I must depart to the land of our ancestors. I could not have tarried this long save the gates to the realm of the dead are overburdened by the war. All are forced to wait their turn. You must live, my love. You must save our world. You are hope. Live and find a living love to share that life. Promise me?"


          "I promise."


          Smiling, Amber vanished.


          Dominel awoke with a cough that shook his body. Forcing himself to move he rolled over and looked at the fire. The flames burnt low despite the unused fuel amongst them.


          The fire's eaten the prana from the air! I have to get away before I choke to death!


          He forced himself to his knees then collapsed.


          "Have to get away!" he whispered, as blackness enveloped him.





          The girl awoke to the sound of coughing. She had moved away from the fire when she had grown too hot. She felt dizzy and sluggish and she could smell smoke. Sitting up she watched Dominel collapse. A soft voice she couldn't understand prompted her to action. She didn't move. The voice grew louder then her body jerked awkwardly to its feet. Holding her breath she rushed to Dominel and dragged his prostrate form away from the fire. She stopped when it was a red dot in the distance and collapsed against the wall. She paused and tenderly stroked the cheek of the unconscious form before her.




          Dominel's head swam and he had no strength to move but he became vaguely aware of some one touching his cheek. He forced his eyes open and looked into the girl's face.


          "Farewell, my love, my turn has come," she whispered in Amber's voice, then she sat silently staring into the darkness.


          He slipped back into unconsciousness.




          Dominel awoke coughing. His head swam and he felt nauseous. Trying to rise he fell retching. He gulped air, filling his tortured lungs. Slowly his head cleared and he noticed the darkness about him.


          Did the fire go out?


          Groaning he moved and bumped against something soft. Reaching out he felt fur-clad legs.


          The girl.


          Forcing himself to sit he looked up the passage to where the fire was barely visible. He tried to speak but a fit of coughing stopped him. A cool hand pressed against his brow, soothing him. When his coughing fit ended he gasped out, "You saved my life, thank you."


          The girl shifted where she sat beside him, then was still.


          "Must get light," he croaked, his throat releasing a bolt of pain as he did so. The girl didn't move. Rising he leaned against the cavern's wall and stared at the fire where it smouldered and smoked.


          "How to reach our gear? I'm in no shape to hold my breath! If only there was a draft, but it's as still as death down here. Spirits of air, what I wouldn't give for a breeze."


          The air about him moved. Whispering into his ears.


          "What would you give for a breeze, child of men?"




          "What would you give for a breeze?" whispered the air.


          Dominel shook his head and asked "What would you like?"


          "Sweet spices and wine."


          "I've none."


          "Sweet spices. We smell them. Give us half of what you carry. The fire will bring it to us."


          "Sweet spices? Emma's, Journey rolls! Agreed!"


          Slowly the air began to shift, until a breeze wafted up the cavern. The fire brightened and Dominel scrambled towards it. He collected his gear, filled his brazier with burning coals and made to leave.


          "Our bargain, child of man! Be not false with the sylphs, we children of air remember insults!" hissed the wind.


          Dominel opened his pack and pulled out their store of rolls, dropping half of them onto the fire before walking down the passage.


          In minutes he and the girl were once more following the descending slope.


          That was strange. Of course this was a stronghold of wizards. There's no telling what of their magic remains. Was it really Amber, or just a dream?


          They walked for hours, each step seeming like the last. Slowly the passage changed. The air grew damp and water condensed and trickled down the walls. The floor became slippery and dotted with puddles and, to Dominel's dismay, the deposits of coal grew less frequent. After almost having his brazier burn out he filled one of their packs with coal.


          Long after their pause to gather fuel they came to a pair of large wooden doors, blocking the passage. These were covered with ornate carvings and across their top was a script Dominel didn't recognize.


          "Well at least it's different," he commented and grabbed the large brass ring that hung from the door nearer him.


          Despite its obvious weight and age the door opened easily.


          Cautiously, he stepped through the doorway, and what lay beyond dazzled him. He stood in a chamber forty strides across, with crystal-studded walls. The crystals took the dim red glow of his tiny brazier and reflected it, until it filled the room. A path of what looked like gold ran from the door to the edge of an oval lake. The lake was about twenty strides across, bisecting the chamber. On each side of the path stood trees carved from marble, bearing fruits of pure crystal.


          Dominel moved into the room, the girl at his heels. He didn't notice the door closing behind them. They followed the golden path to the water's edge, where a short pier projected into the lake. An ornate, bronze brazier stood at the pier's end. Moving to the brazier, He filled it with coal from his pack and dumped the contents of his small brazier on top.


          The fuel burnt with a clear white light, unlike any he had ever seen coal produce. The crystals sparkled brightly and cascades of colour filled the room with dancing rainbows, while the lake's surface became a mirror of glittering lights. His eyes were dazzled by the display and his soul was called to take flight into the beauty around it.


          He only slowly came to realize that he had to cross the lake, to reach the doors at the far side of the cavern. Studying the chamber he placed everything's location in his mind. Scanning the far bank, he noticed a boat moored at the pier opposite the one on which he stood. Studying the walls, he could see they were perfectly smooth, offering no hand or foot holds.


          "Why does everything have to be the hard way?" he grumbled, as he began to strip.


          The girl, glanced at him where he stood half naked on the pier, screamed and ran towards the door. She struggled in vain to pull it open. He ran to her but she turned on him kicking and biting. Remembering the last time she attacked him, he covered his groin and backed away.


          "I'm going to swim the lake," he explained, in an attempt to soothe her. She stood back to the door, glaring at him.


          He shrugged and removed his trousers, then placing one of his daggers between his teeth, lowered himself into the water. The lake at the pier's end only reached his chest, but it swiftly grew deeper. The water was cool but his body adjusted by the time he was a quarter of the way across.


          Something bumped against his side and he knocked at it instinctively. Something else bumped against him and he felt a cutting pain. Glancing at the source of the pain, he found an eel clinging to his flesh.


          The creature was translucent, but already beginning to redden as it sucked blood into itself. He grabbed the eel below its head and pulled it from his side, ripping his skin as he did so. Bringing it forward he glanced at the beast's circular mouth of razor-sharp teeth. Using his dagger he cut the creature in half and tossed the parts away.


          A moment later he felt another bump, then another. The water was alive with eels. They were attaching themselves to his body faster than he could pull them away. In terror he sprinted towards his destination until he saw the bottom rise beneath him. Standing he strode towards the pier pulling eels from his upper body until, dizzy and weak from loss of blood, he clambered onto the dock and pulled the creatures from his legs before falling unconscious.


          He awoke to screams and darkness. The fuel had burnt out in the brazier and no light graced the chamber. The screams continued and he identified the girl as their source.


          Must be the dark. I hope it's the dark! Gods, it's cold. Best not to think about it. Now how am I going to cross the lake without light.


          As he pondered this, he noticed a dim bluish haze radiating from him. Ignoring his nausea and pain, he rose to one elbow. Across the lake he could see a haze of violently convulsing reds and oranges.


          What in the name of the ancient gods? He wondered. Then something Emma had said echoed in his mind.


          "All things that be livin' be about makin' power, and somes can see it flowin' about um."


          With an effort he rose to his knees.


          "I think I'm going to retch. Demons of the pit, if there is a part of me that doesn't hurt it's dead. I wish the room would stop spinning."


          Groaning, he forced himself to look around. The bluish haze allowed him to "see", if "see" you could call it. It was more a matter of sensing where the haze was interrupted. He crawled towards the boat. The girl screamed again as he pulled himself into the small craft. Fumbling in the dark, he found a pair of oars and managed to get them in the oarlocks. By this time only the sound of whimpering came from the far shore.


          Shivering he crawled to the bowline and cast off.


          When the boat grated against the lake's bank he grasped the bowline and leapt for shore. He caught his balance before the boat driving back yanked the rope taut and sent him sprawling back first. Air blasted from his lungs, leaving him winded, but he kept his grip on the line.


          Gasping he forced air into his lungs then, shaky and sore, crawled to a rock and tied up the boat. He struggled to his feet and made his way towards the girl.


          "It's all right. I'm back," he said and was gratified that she stopped whimpering. "I'm going to get us some light."


He walked towards where he guessed their packs were. Working by feel, Dominel filled the large brazier with coal and kindling. Using flint and steel he struck sparks until the fuel lit. At first it was a dim glow but the light increased until the cavern was restored to its full radiant glory. As the light returned the girl grew calm.


          Dominel looked at himself. His body was covered with circular welts and his skin was as pale as death. He hurriedly dressed against the cold, then ate nearly half of their food supply.


          As he ate the girl approached him and placed a hand on his shoulder, as if to assure herself that he was truly there.


          Her pain, her longing, I feel it, she has such need, she's so empty and she wants....It's gone, he thought, as her hand slipped away. How could I feel that? Emma said she could feel others' emotions but I never did before. Time to worry about it when we're safely out of this cave.


"I'll pull the boat to the pier and then I can load us both up and row to the other shore," he explained to the girl, who stood watching him. She cocked her head to one side and smiled.


          Minutes later they passed through wooden doors identical to the ones they'd entered through on the other side of the lake. It took a while after the door closed for Dominel's eyes to adjust to the dim light. As soon as he could see they set off along the passage.


          The tunnel sloped gradually upwards and soon smaller tunnels began to branch off the main way. Over an hour later Dominel found a coal deposit to restore his dwindling supply and with a sigh of relief slumped against the wall.


          "We'll rest here. Gods, I feel drained. Of course, given that those eels drink blood, I guess I have been." He grinned at his own wit.


          The girl stared at him as he settled himself for sleep.


          "You've got this far," remarked a voice.


          "What?" Dominel tried to orient himself.


          "I didn't think you'd make it. You're lucky the Gods gave you the body of an ox to match your wit."


          "Who are you?"


          "I'm your brother."


          "You're not one of my brothers! None of them ever sounded like you."


          "Don't be an idiot! I was your brother in your last life, remember?"


          Dominel had a fleeting sense of recognition, like he faced a familiar foe.


          "We didn't get along, did we?"


          "I see you begin to remember. That is for the best. Now you inept serf, though we were foes, I must play my part in awakening you. Pity though that is."


          "You mean I'm dreaming?"


          "Dunce! You have been dreaming all your life. Now you're in a dream of a dream and you're closer to waking than you have ever been! Listen!"


          `From darkest night. From brightest day.


          From each of these they fell one day.


          A crystal fragment it was shorn.


          To open door cross on the morn.'


          "I hope you remember that, my moronic sibling!"


          The voice fell silent.


          Dominel awoke feeling like someone had stretched every muscle in his body then let it go with a snap. He found his pack by feel before he noticed it wasn't completely dark. A light as bright as his brazier reached him from further up the passage. Rising he woke the girl and led her towards the light's source. The air grew cold as they approached a small side passage. It was walled in white marble and curved gently so its far end couldn't be seen. A single downward step led into it.


          "No!" whispered a voice in the back of Dominel's mind.


          Ignoring the voice he shouted, "We're through," pulled the girl into the side passage and ran its length. The tunnel ended at a stone balcony overlooking a rocky canyon.


          "Fresh air, I never thought it could be so sweet, but gods that wind's cold. I don't see any way down, do you?" asked Dominel not expecting a reply.


          A grating sound echoed dully from the passage behind him and he turned to look the way he had just come.


          "Gods! No, a trap," he screamed.


          A slab of rock was slowly moving out from the wall to block the passage.


          "No way down!"  Dominel threw himself between the passage's wall and the moving stone trying to hold it in place. The girl joined him, but their efforts accomplished nothing.


          "Get through!" he commanded.


          The girl stared at him.


          Damn! he thought, as his elbow bumped against his sword hilt. It might work.


          Drawing his sword he braced it between the wall and the stone. Grabbing the girl he sprinted into the main cavern. The stone pushed against the sword, which held a moment, then bowed and snapped. The stone slammed home and darkness engulfed them.


          Dominel stood panting and trembling for a long time. When his hands steadied, he fumbled in his pack, finding his flint and steel and a lump of coal. Using rag, torn from his clothing, as tinder, he lit his brazier. The coal caught and the darkness was driven back by a wavering red glow.


          "That was too close!"


          They journeyed for several hours and a change became apparent in the tunnel. Rarely at first, but more frequently as time went by, they smelt drafts of fresh air and saw beams of light coming from side passages.


          Soon the light was constant enough for Dominel to extinguish his brazier. They walked until the daylight grew dim then kindled a fire and made camp.




          A jester clad in the traditional red and yellow of his profession danced and cantered before Dominel, singing a taunting song.


          "Lost your way.


          I would say.


          Lost a precious thing.


          Gone for sure.


          It is no more.


          Sword snapped like a bowstring."


          "Hold it. Who are you to taunt me, how was I to know it was a trap?" demanded Dominel.


          "Then ever up you must go or else you pay your life in toll," teased the jester who skipped away.


          Dominel awoke into the dim light that filtered into the cavern. He yawned, stretched, and woke the girl so they could continue. They followed the passage, which now ran level, until Dominel felt a tingling along his spine. He jerked to his right and seemingly pushed his hand through the wall. Grabbing something cold and hard, he pulled back his hand and examined its contents. It was a crystal that shone with a brilliant white radiance. He stood transfixed by its beauty, his being filled with peace and love for all things.


          "Master," said a melodious voice.


          "What?" asked Dominel.


          "Think of love, the satisfaction of helping others. The joy of children as they laugh and play about you. You desire a partner in this life, someone sharing your trials and triumphs. A person who completes you and puts loneliness to flight."


          "Who are you?"


          "The essence within you. The crystal of light. A catalyst. Feel the love of true friends and the gratitude of others. I offer so much. Choose my path. You have tried to live well until now, continue as you have begun."


          The voice grew silent in Dominel's mind. A force jerked him to the left and he reached out, his hand passing through another illusionary wall. Grabbing another hard cool object, he brought it into view. This time it was a malformed black crystal.


          "You hunger. All you survey can be yours. You can be king, your every whim law."


          "I'm not like that," countered Dominel.


          "Of course you are. You hunger for women to cater to your lusts, living to give you pleasure. Think of the mastery you have of those who fear you. If the fear is great enough, others will suffer any degradation to fulfil your desires. Choose me and this power is yours. You can order the world as you will."


          "No. I don't want a world of slaves."


          "Don't be hasty. Think of it. If a woman denies you, you can have her brought to you in chains for your satisfaction."


          Dominel's loins stirred at the thought of a willing woman chained and helpless ready to grant his every whim.


          "That intrigues you. Any woman, willing or no, can be yours in this manner."


          "Willing or no?" repeated Dominel. The import of the words struck him. Screeching in horror and disgust, he pulled away from the crystal, shaken by the knowledge that it had only offered to fulfil his own base desires.


          He made to throw the dark crystal away, but the words from his dream echoed in his ears.


          "From darkest night.


          From brightest day.


          From each of these they fell one day.


          A crystal fragment it was shorn.


          To open door cross on the morn."


          Dominel placed the dark crystal in an empty food bag and holding the shining crystal continued along the passage.


          Soon they reached a place where the cavern's walls were carved into reliefs of dragons, mermaids and other strange beasts. As well, the floors were covered with mosaics, depicting scenes from legend.


          They continued past ever more ornate art works until an iron door blocked their way. The door was engraved with a pentagram, with one point above the other four and several words in a strange script. Dominel reached for the door handle and pulled, but nothing happened.


          "We're stuck, all that journey wasted," he said and sank to the floor, his back against the wall.


          The girl frowned and joined him on the floor.


          "All we've been through for nothing! Unless?" He stared at the crystal in his hand.


          "To open door cross on the morn. All right. I've no choice so I'll wait."




          Dominel awoke to a chattering sound. The cavern around him was pitch dark. He reached towards the water skins and was rewarded with a nip on his hand.


          "Rats! We are close to the surface," he muttered, pulling away the cover he'd thrown over the crystal of light. The crystal shone. With a frightened squeal several furry bodies ran away from the food bag.


          Dominel sat up and stared at the door. He noticed that the cavern was growing slowly brighter. Looking up, he could see a shaft cut into its roof. Suddenly a beam of light pushed through the shaft and struck the centre of the pentacle on the door. Snatching the dark crystal from his pack, he rushed forward. The light revealed two slots, in the centre of the pentacle. Fumbling in his excitement, he pushed the crystals into the depressions. A hum filled the air and the door opened.


          Dominel shook the girl awake and collected their gear, before racing through the door. He ran up a short flight of stairs, emerging into the light of a new and glorious day.






          Dominel stopped at the top of the stairs. He was standing on a balcony carved into the mountain about two strides across. A stair descended from the platform's right side, linking a series of balconies like the one he stood upon and ending at a valley's floor.


          The valley was stunning, with mountains towering on all sides and a glacial river wandering its length. Trees covered the lower slopes, while snow-clad peaks stood out in bleak contrast to the vibrant life below. The valley's far end was formed by a sheer cliff, over which the river fell with a roar.


          Dominel heard a cry and glanced up to see eagles circling.


          "It's beautiful!" he exclaimed.


          The girl walked up beside him on the shelf of rock and stared out over the idyllic woodland.


          After strapping on his armour and pack he led the girl to the valley.


          As they descended the stair Dominel counted thirteen more balconies branching off it. Each of these had a door set into the mountainside, which he tried and failed to open. When they reached the base of the stair, they settled onto the soft soil.


          Long minutes passed before Dominel rose, stretched and walked into the forest. The girl leapt to her feet and followed him.


          The woods were full of overgrown trails that wound their way between deciduous trees, just coming into leaf, and tall evergreens. Birds sang and deer grazed placidly in the valley's meadows.


          "This has to be the most beautiful forest in the world," he said, as he inspected a clearing filled with spring flowers.


          "Bbb bbootful" echoed a soft voice behind him.


          "What?" he exclaimed, spinning around to stare at the girl.


          "BBBBootful," repeated the girl, smiling.


          "You can speak! Why haven't you said anything before?"


          The girl stared at him, smiled and said, "Bootful."


          Dominel smiled back at her.


          "No. You can't speak can you, but you can learn. So be it. I agree this place is beautiful."




          Dominel grinned and led her down the path. Wild grapes and a staggering variety of fruit trees grew along the trails' edges. They came upon a clearing full of wild strawberries and made a meal of the small, fruits.


          When the sun descended behind the mountain peaks. Dominel found a place where pine trees grew thick and close creating a hollow where their lower branches had died. They spent the night under their shelter.


          The next day he constructing a lean‑to and fire pit then taking one of his daggers and lashing it to a branch, made a crude spear.


          "I have to go hunting."


          "Bootful," replied the girl, who rose to her feet.


          "You stay here."


          The girl looked at him quizzically and stepped forward.


          "No, stay!"


          The girl looked at him obviously puzzled.


          Dominel took a step but she followed.




          "Damn," repeated the girl brightly.


          Dominel looked at her in astonishment.


          "I'm going to have to watch every word I say, aren't I?"


          She smiled at him.


          He looked around the meadow, then had an idea. Taking a bit of wood left from making the lean-to, he split its base into two and pulled it apart. He cut two more slits farther along its length, one on either side of the branch. Finally he whittled the top into a rounded oblong and cut a few quick slots to form a face. Taking a tattered fur he cut a hole for the head and one for each arm then pulled it onto the stick man.


          "This is for you to play with," he offered, passing the crude figurine to the girl.


          She took the figurine, looked at it, then stood it on the ground. It fell over and she snatched it up, cradling it.


          "You remember dolls. That's good, you play with dolly and I'll go hunting."


          Hefting his spear Dominel walked from the clearing. This time she let him go.


          Late that evening a scratched and bloody Dominel returned to the clearing with a deer carcass over his shoulders.


          "If I'd known it was going to be that hard, I wouldn't have started," he griped, as the girl moved to meet him.


          She stared at him with a quizzical expression on her face.


          "I know what you're thinking. I'm a prince. I should know how to hunt. Well I do. I got the damn thing, didn't I? It's just when I hunted with the royal court we had dogs and woodsmen to flush the game and I was on a horse."


          The girl smiled at him and said, "Bootful."


          "Thank you for the vote of confidence. This spear isn't exactly made for throwing either. I'm lucky I caught anything!


          "I better dress the meat. It won't take long."


          The girl skipped off to play.


          Half an hour later the deer's heart and liver sizzled on spits over the fire, while Dominel hung the rest of the carcass in a tree.


          "This is going to be good," he said, returning to the fireside.


          "Good," mimicked the girl, who sat across from him staring at the roasting meat.


          "And this valley is a beautiful place," he added, looking into the ink black, silver flecked sky.




          "Yes beautiful. I'll have to teach you more words, won't I?"




          Grinning Dominel reached for the roasting meat.


          Over the next few nights the moon grew smaller, until it was completely dark. Then it rose again, a silver crescent.


          Dominel lay in his lean‑to trying to sleep, and failing. Every time he began to drift off a sound like chanting echoed in his mind but when he fully awoke it was gone.


          "One: I'm going mad. Two: this was a stronghold of wizards. Take your pick, Dominel old boy. Either way, you're not getting any sleep till the voices shut up," he grumbled and crawled from the lean-to.


          Closing his eyes he entered the relaxed state his master at arms had taught him and Emma had refined. The chanting returned. Opening his eyes he followed the sound through the woods until a white radiance appeared before him. His trance deepened as he walked towards the luminance. Without realising what was happening he strode into the centre of the light, which seemed to both surround and pervade him.


          "What's happening?" he asked. No words came, only an echo of thought, which moved through the light as ripples on a pond.


          "Welcome, Ackdominel, Welcome home," replied the light. A feeling of warmth and love pervaded him.


          Dominel floated in a warm place devoid of thought as he heard himself reply. "Thank you Franlor. Are you to be my first teacher in this life?"


          Dominel wondered at what he said, yet it felt so natural. A strange sensation filled him. He felt as if he was staring down a long corridor of time, populated with beings he knew were himself, but yet were not. Being after being, all different, all the same. His consciousness reeled and his sanity rebelled.


          "Yes, Ackdominel. You must go to the lowest lodge tonight. There I will teach this consciousness. Now you had best go, this consciousness is already unbalanced from having the door flung open."


          "As you say," replied Dominel/AckDominel.


          He opened his eyes not having realized that they were closed.


          "What was that?" He wondered. An irresistible desire fell on him to open the lowest door off the stair.


          "It's locked," he told himself, as his feet carried him towards the doors in the cliff face.


          "Knock and thou shalt enter," muttered a voice in the back of his mind.


          He walked towards the lowest of the doors. Upon arriving he grabbed its handle and pulled, but nothing happened! Releasing the handle, he knocked on the stone. The door creaked open. He stared into a room that seemed to glow with a light similar to that cast by a half moon. The light came from everywhere and nowhere in the chamber. He stepped through the doorway into a square alcove about the length of his body across. It was hewn from the rock of the mountain. There was a door on each of the chamber's walls, which were ringed with cloak hooks, and a bench sat by the entrance.


          Intrigued he walked to the door on his right and opened it. This led to a round room nearly four strides across. A silver circle dominated its floor. At the circle's centre was a cloth draped altar with an object sitting atop it. He moved to the circle's edge and stared at the object. With a swirl of dust it leapt into the air and Dominel saw it was a human skull.


          "Gods and Demons!" he spat as he backed towards the door.


          "I mean you no harm, Ackdominel," spoke a man's voice. It was deep and resonant, and by its very tone seemed to still the terrified race of Dominel's heart.


          Dominel paused staring at the skull, which regarded him with empty sockets. "Wh, What are you?"


          "I am your old friend, Franlor. It is my task to teach you the first lessons of the high art in this life."


          "I am not AckDominel."


          "Of course you are! Ackdominel was your name in your last life. Ackdominel is your name among the keepers of the secret way. Ackdominel is your wizard name."


          "The what?"


          "You will learn that in time."


          "Very well, what are you?"


          "I have already told you."


          "No; you told me who you were, not what."


          "Really, AckDominel, you were born into a bit of a dunce, weren't you?"


          Dominel felt a chill run up his spine at the displeasure in the skull's voice, even as the macabre way the jaw moved with each word fascinated him.


          "Oh very well. I am a shade of a wizard," continued the skull. "When the life force of my last incarnation ebbed, I gave myself up as a sacrifice to see that my order would not fail. Oh sit down and I will tell you the whole story, then maybe we can get on with something important."


          AckDominel stared at the shade then sat on the floor.


          "It started many mortal years ago, when the exponents of the covetous god gained ascendancy amongst the rulers of the lands. They declared that all those who thought differently from themselves must be converted or slain. Thus, the persecution began. They hunted down the followers of nature and the hunt, as well as any other who dared to think for themselves. The numbers of the practitioners of the high art dwindled. They killed the mighty among us in our sleep and our lesser brethren were dragged before the courts and false confessions tortured from them.


          "We foresaw our downfall and knowing what would happen to the world with no wizards to protect it, took action.


          "Are you sure you comprehend this? Perhaps I should speak slower?"


          AckDominel looked at the skull, which was drifting back and forth across the circle as if pacing and said "Go on."


          "Several of us, whose time on the mortal plane was soon to end, poured our remaining life essences into magic vials. We sacrificed what worldly life remained to us and went to the borders of the spirit world. Those that remained placed the vials in magic seals, along with those parts of the body that could endure the wait."




          "Maybe you're not as dense as I guessed. To continue.


          "The greatest of our order sacrificed all that remained of his life and took to wandering the earth as a homeless ghost. He was held to the world by the life force which he had sacrificed. Able to see and hear, but unable to touch or affect anything. A lonely wanderer, ever in search of a suitable body. Which, when the time was right, he would, with the help of our brothers and sisters in the spirit world, bring to us. Thus we might use the life energies we left behind to enter this world and teach him. In this way our order would not die."


          "Why wouldn't this wizard already know everything?"


          "He would and he would not. When one enters a new body, the memories of the old are hidden. They become little more than vague feelings and natural aptitudes. Thus you must be taught to reach your memories. This is a natural thing. Because Ackdominel did not journey to the spirit world, your knowledge is closer to the surface. We hope to accomplish the work of decades in a few short years. But we have no time to waste!"


          "What must I do?"


          Franlor looked at AckDominel and the barren skull almost seemed to smile.


          "You must be Ackdominel, reincarnation of the master of my order, and my student."


          AckDominel sat silently. Visions of the monstrous hordes running before him, lightning reeking havoc in their ranks, filled his mind. "What is my first lesson?"


          Franlor began to speak.


          Time passed like a breeze, as Dominel sat listening to all Franlor had to say. His mind was enthralled by the words and their content. After a long while the shade paused.


          "It grows light. We must finish for today. You must return for further instruction at moon rise."


          "Why can't we continue now?"


          "The sun is too mighty. Its raw unfiltered power is capable of disrupting delicate enchantments. Besides, you must rest." So saying the skull settled once more on the altar.


          Dominel sat collecting himself then rose and left the chamber, closing the door behind him.


          He inspected the two remaining doors of the lodge. One of these led to a small room occupied by a serviceable rope bed and dresser. The other led into a kitchen. The kitchen consisted of a hearth cut into the wall, a central table and walls lined with cupboards. Looking closer, he found that the cupboards were full of jars of non-perishable food.


          He ran from the shelter with a whoop of jubilation and didn't stop running until he came to his lean‑to in the clearing. He found the girl in the process of dressing her stick doll. She looked at him and smiled.


          He gasped out "I've found us a new home."


          "Home?" mimicked the girl.


          "Yes, a new home. I've opened the first door into the mountain."




          "You really don't understand, do you? Come with me. I'll show you." He grabbed her hand and ran towards the rooms carved into the mountainside.


          After showing the girl the chambers, his enthusiasm began to fail and weariness overtook him. Thus it was soon after the sun was full up that he lay asleep on the rope bed.


          When he awoke he rose to find that the lodge had been dusted and swept. Going into the kitchen, he found the girl staring at a pot of water sitting over a cold, empty hearth. He looked at her inquiringly. The girl stared back and said "eat eat."


          Dominel smiled at his own foolishness.


          "It needs fire to get hot," he explained, as he moved to the coal bin.




          "Yes, fire. You did well cleaning. I'm proud of you."


          The girl beamed.


          Dominel began to prepare the hearth, as he did so he thought of the girl cleaning the lodge. The whole lodge!


          He bolted towards the ceremony room's door, grabbed its handle and nearly wrenched his shoulder from its socket trying to open it.


          The girl, who had followed him into the central chamber, watched him quizzically. He released the door handle and looked at her "It won't open!"


          Smiling she went back into the kitchen.


          Dominel spent the rest of that day examining the cupboards' contents and separating out the spoiled portion. Finally, though it felt like it never would, evening came and he waited on the balcony for moonrise. Slowly a sliver of silver became apparent over the mountain peaks. With haste he moved to the ceremony room's door and pulled it open. Taking a deep breath he stepped in. The skull hovered above the altar.


          "I was afraid," began Dominel.


          "That the door would not open," finished Franlor. "Fear not, it will always open when the moon is in the sky. Now let us begin."


          The skull talked through the night, cramming Ackdominel's mind with information. When Dominel left the ceremony room he went straight to bed and collapsed into a troubled sleep.


          He dreamt of ancient fires and a complex web of gold. Each golden thread touched all the others. Suddenly several of the threads unravelled and the web fell apart, like rags blown upon a stormy wind. One lone thread strove to hold the pieces together. He heard himself scream and awoke with sweat on his hands.


          He lay on the bed collecting himself, then pulled on his tattered surcoat and went outside. The sun was only slightly past the noon but he knew he wouldn't get back to sleep, so he searched for the girl. After nearly an hour he found her in a clearing, waving a stick about as if it were a sword. She duelled back and forth with her imaginary opponent, a determined look on her face. It took a long time for her to notice him.


          "Hello," he said.


          "H H Hello," she replied then smiled triumphantly.


          "You're learning quickly."


          She smiled, then her attention slipped and she playfully brandished her stick sword, challenging him to a duel.


          He stood still as stone. Painful memories of battles lost flooded his mind.


          She challenged him again and he brushed off his melancholy.


          Who knows, maybe it will help restore her memories, he thought, as he chose a suitable stick and moved to answer her challenge.


          The two duelled with Dominel easily blocking the girl's sweeping blows. Finally she grew bored of the game and left to play with some pebbles she had gathered earlier.


          That night found Dominel in the ceremony room with Franlor.


          "Did you dream well?" demanded the skull.


          "I slept horribly! I had nightmares."


          "I did not ask how you slept! I asked how you dreamt!"


          Dominel quickly described his dream of the previous night.


          "Good, Good! You have seen the pattern as it was and as it is."


          "This pattern, what is it?"


          "Everything! All things affect all others. The pattern is the way they relate. Eternity is like a great cloth and each thing in creation is a single thread."


          "So when the wizards were murdered threads were ripped from the pattern and it began to fall apart!"


          "Yes, you are beginning to understand. The thread you saw holding the remains together represents the students of the last wizards."


          "Students?" demanded Dominel, hope leaping in his heart.


          "Yes, students. Did you believe you were the only one? Many orders prepared for the downfall. You are not alone, Ackdominel. You are, however, one of a precious few."


          "Can I reach the others. Maybe together we could--."


          "Once you are trained, my student, once you are trained. For now let us discuss the basic premises behind the manipulation of Astral matter into semi‑permanent forms."


          Time passed quickly for Dominel. His nights were filled with instruction. His days with practising the arts taught him and playing with the girl. To amuse himself, he began to teach her the art of the blade. She learned quickly and he was soon forced to don his armour when they, "played swords", to avoid receiving a painful collection of bruises.


          One evening when he entered the ceremony room Franlor's skull rose labouriously into the air.


          "Are you well?" asked AckDominel.


          "That is a stupid question. I am dead! My energy is almost spent! My time as your teacher is through."


          "But, I've so much more to learn."


          "Learn it you shall. On the first day of the new moon you must go to the next lodge up the mountain. There another teacher awaits you. Before you leave this chamber, show honour to my bones. Within this altar is a cavity. Take what it contains and place my remains there.


          Fare thee well, remember the new moon. That is the time for beginnings."


          Having finished speaking the skull drifted to the altar top and lay still.


          Dominel numbly moved to the altar and wrapping the skull in the silken coverlet it sat upon, lifted it. This revealed a hatch, with a brass ring set at one end. The hatch opened to reveal a chamber containing a long pale blue robe and a golden key. He took the objects and put Franlor's bones in their place. Closing the hatch, he left the room.


          The girl was waiting for him when he stepped through the ceremony room's door.


          "Wrong, Dominel?" she asked.


          "He's gone."


          "Dead man go?"




          She grasped his hand, smiled and said "Eat."


          Dominel led the way to the kitchen.





          The new moon was riding up the eastern horizon. Dominel stood before the door of the second lodge, holding the gold key taken from Franlor's altar. When the dim moonlight touched the door a keyhole appeared. Dominel eased the key into the lock and turned it. The door swung inwards, revealing an entry hall identical to the one in the lodge below, save that a comfortable looking chair sat opposite the door. Moving to the door on the chamber's right he pushed it inwards. Entering the room he saw a padded throne in a circle of silver set into the floor. A skeleton sat upon the throne.


          From the size it must have been a woman, AckDominel guessed.


          He cleared his throat and called out, "I am AckDominel. I have come as Franlor instructed."


          "So you have," returned a soft feminine voice, which issued from the skeleton.


          AckDominel shuddered at the way the jawbone moved and the empty eye sockets stared through him.


          "I have come to learn what you would teach."


          "Good, let us begin. I am Shanal and our time is short. Listen well!"


          The night passed quickly and AckDominel discovered that learning from Shanal was a pleasure. Listening to her voice sparked warm feelings. When he closed his eyes, he saw not a skeleton but a handsome older woman, with long grey-streaked black hair, tan skin and dark eyes. She was dressed in a dark blue gown that accentuated the curves of a well proportioned body.


          By morning his mind spun with information and a soft voice echoed in his ears. It was reluctantly that he left the ceremony room. He made his way to the kitchen where he found some meal that hadn't spoiled and prepared breakfast. Soon after this the girl joined him. She now wore a tattered assortment of his old clothing, as well as her own. Dominel was dressed in the pale blue robe of a novice of the Keepers of the Secret Way.


          "One of these days I'll have to find you something nice to wear. You're far too pretty to be in rags," he commented, watching her across the table.


          The girl looked at the floor, blushed, and said, "Me pretty?"


          "Very." Dominel stroked her cheek and moved to embrace her in a brotherly way.


          She stiffened, then, screaming, drove her fist into his gut.


          The blow caught him by surprise and he buckled over. She sprinted into the other room.


          After catching his breath Dominel felt like yelling but his compassion halted him. "You must have been through something horrible. I am sorry."


          The girl glared at him through the doorway, then her features softened into a smile.


          "I wish there was some way I could reach you. Help you to deal with whatever those horrors did to you. Maybe some day?"


          After this he finished eating and went to bed.


          The following night AckDominel sat in the ceremony chamber listing to Shanal.


          "When channelling forces beyond your own power, it is important to keep your personal energy systems clear of all obstructions. As well you must constantly hold in your mind what you wish to accomplish in its entirety. As an example, when the wizards created the shield over the mountains, each of us had to keep the thought of the area the shield was to cover in the front of our minds. As we did this, we also had to focus on the shield's purpose and specifications. It was easier to increase its charge after it was erected, then we simply channelled energy into it and the pattern carried it to where it was needed."


          "Wait, are you saying it is possible to increase the shield's power with this technique?"


          "Yes. In truth this section is being taught out of sequence. You must practice channelling energies and I feel your practice should be to some purpose. Your efforts will not prevent the shield's collapse, but they will delay it."


          "Then it is a skill truly worth knowing."


          "Any skill is worth knowing! Now to continue."




          It was early evening of the following day that Dominel made his way to a wooded meadow near the centre of the valley and sat cross legged on the grass.


          I have to relax if this is going to work, he thought. Closing his eyes he forced his breathing to became deep and regular. His senses opened up to the world around him. He felt his body expand becoming one with the land around him. Rivers of energy flowed through the valley, converging and splitting then stretching out over the surface of his world. He felt them as tracks of hot and cold across his skin and saw them as ribbons of sparkling light against his closed eyelids. Reaching with his will he drew their force to his small physical form. The power built within him until he felt ready to burst. Shifting his focus he sent a beam of sparkling light, visible only to those trained in the ways of magic, straight up to where the shield arched above the mountains. Minutes passed and sweat soaked his clothes, then he groaned and fell back to lie on the ground.


          "Shanal said it would become easier with practice. I hope she's right!" he muttered, as he fought to still the pounding in his head.




          The next year passed with little event. Dominel moved through the various lodges, receiving a gift from each once his studies at that level were complete. By the end of that year he had climbed to the fifth lodge and had an excellent view from his balcony. The girl had continued to broaden her vocabulary at an alarming rate, often seeming more like she was remembering something forgotten than learning the words anew. She also excelled in learning the arts of battle. They were however no closer to unlocking her past than they had been upon coming to the valley.


          Dominel sat upon his balcony, arrayed in the gifts his teachers had given him. He was still clad in the robe Franlor had left him, but now he also wore a dark blue cloak. About his neck hung an amethyst pendant, and his waist was girthed by an ornate belt holding a ceremonial dagger. He was lost in thought, his mind filled with a technique he had just learned and its implications. Sensing a presence behind him, he looked over his shoulder to see the girl emerging from the lodge.


          "You unhappy?" she asked, seeing his expression.


          "Me? No, not really. Just thinking. I've learned how to do something that could help you remember."




          "Yes, the time before you met me. Before we came here."


          "Oh," said the girl, sounding hopeful, sceptical, and scared at the same time.


          "Would you like to remember?"


          "I don't know. I'm happy now. Would remember change that?"


          "It might. It also might explain why you won't let me touch you, or why you're afraid of being naked. If we knew, maybe we could fix it."


          The girl stared at the valley below for a time, then asked, "If I remember, I be smart like Dominel? Know how to make fire and other things?"


          "You would know everything you knew before, but you have to be the one to decide."


          She fell silent for a time before saying, "I, I, want to remember."


          "Good. We'll do it this evening after I've slept." Grasping her hand he added. "I'll do everything I can for you, little one."


          "I know."


          That evening Dominel went in search of the girl, finding her in a clearing close to the stair's base. He led her back to the stair where they sat on the ground facing each other.


          "It's not too late. You don't have to do this."


          The girl looked at him and in a small voice said, "Do it."


          Dominel took her hands and reached deep into his mind. Deeper and deeper he descended, into the core of his being. AckDominel saw himself as a mote of energy, then his thoughts turned to the girl.


          Merge, his mind commanded. His consciousness drifted towards hers. He saw her, a shining light before him. They drew closer, then touched and joined into a single light.


          What is this? Who am I? Where am I? demanded the part that was the girl.


          We are AckDominel. I am with you.


          We are one, returned the girl, now at peace.


          Yes, one.


          AckDominel examined the joint consciousness soon finding what he sought. In their thoughts a wall loomed, blocking the way to a section of their mind. The AckDominel part of their mind drew closer to the wall, even as the part that was the girl backed away in terror. AckDominel focussed his will and moved to the wall's base. The girl fought against him and it was all he could do to keep the joint consciousness there.


          He almost turned away but he could feel a desire almost as great as the fear. It radiated from the girl's side of their mind, a desire to open the wall, to know! Placing his will against the wall he called, "be gone!"


          At first nothing happened, then the wall dissolved. Their consciousness was caught in a flood of memories.


          They knew themselves, she was Melanie, a pretty fourteen year old daughter of Sir Calidids. It was a beautiful day as she ran and played in her father's fields, picking wildflowers. The world was wonderful. A handsome count's son would soon be arriving to pay court to her and there was nothing sweeter than living. She saw a stranger, in rent and dented armour, gallop up the lane to her father's house. Melanie ran towards the newcomer as he dismounted and started talking frantically with her father. She reached them as her father was leading the other man into the house.


          "Daddy, what is happening?" she asked.


          Her father turned to look at her. He was an older man, with steel grey hair and mustache, upon a handsome oval face. He smiled at her, revealing a tracery of laugh wrinkles about his deep blue eyes.


          "I have to go, my pretty. The border is under attack and I am summoned to my knightly duty of defence."


          "Father, let the younger men go."


          "No!" he snapped, then his voice softened. "I've still strength to wield a blade in defence of our land. It is my duty, but come here."


          Melanie approached and her father hugged her before he entered the house to arm himself.


          The next few days were spent in hectic activity. Melanie helped her mother order the local peasants into companies, in case the Storm should break through their first line of defence. Then it began. It was heralded by ragged men on spent horses riding towards the royal palace. The rag tag survivors of a fierce battle against impossible odds. They followed! They filled her memories. She wanted to lock them out but couldn't. Line upon line of monsters marched forward, sweeping the peasants, armed with their axes and hoes, away like leaves upon a hurricane.


The beasts marched on, finally reaching the house.


Mother stood before a window, releasing arrow after arrow at the invaders. A javelin pierced her skull, and she fell, blood spurting from her wound. Melanie picked up the bow and began to let fly, cursing herself for not paying more attention when her father had taught her how to shoot. Soon the arrows were spent and the Storm moved forward without fear. An ape-like ogre, with large yellow fangs, beat upon the door, splintering the oaken beam that held it. Kalin, an old lame peasant her father hired as a gardener, thrust at the monster with a spear, driving it deep into the creature's breast. The beast lashed out with a huge iron club, crushing Kalin's skull. The Ogre scuttled into the room, blood pouring from its wound. Melanie hacked at it with the kitchen knife she was carrying, but it clutched her wrist and twisted it until the knife fell clattering to the floor.


          Now the nightmare began in earnest. The horrible ogre dragged her to a bed and forced her down. Its stinking breath fell upon her face as it ripped at her clothes. Pain laced up from between her thighs as she felt rough hands pawing her body. After the Ogre came another horror, a creature with two heads.


          She felt defiled. Sickness and gore rose up from the depths of her existence. She pleaded for death, but the only response was more pain. They lashed her to the bed and still more pain followed. Her body was bruised, she felt sick and ashamed. During a brief respite she looked out the door through tear-filled eyes. A fire burned in the main room. On a spit over the flames hung the limp form of her mother. As she watched, an ogre ripped off an arm and began to gnaw on it. She screamed, but this only brought more pain, in the form of a small goblin with yellow skin and blood-red eyes. The beast struck her and snarled "Shut up!"


          Agony became her world, with night and day lost in a blur of tears. Occasionally a horror would enter the room to molest her, or force water down her unwilling throat.


          After an eternity she heard a horse on the cobblestones outside and the sounds of steel against steel. Her father burst into the room, his armour in ruins, the visor from his helmet torn completely away. She could see a deep graze across his forehead. He cut her bonds and grabbing her headed for the door. The sound of huge flat feet running reached her ears.


          Cursing, he dragged her to the pantry's trap door and wrenched it open. He lowered her into the darkness as a large creature with a bear-like body, a wide fur-covered face and shark-like mouth, burst into the room. The trap door slammed shut above her. The sound of combat drifted down to her. Other sounds soon joined in, as more monsters crowded into the room. One thing, then another thudded against the floor above. Something crashed with the sound of falling metal and everything became silent and dark.


          Grief assailed him/her. Loathing, self‑loathing. They felt defiled. Dominel felt pain where no man could. He felt a shame rarely known to men. The girl wept. Dominel wept, as he drew out her pain, taking it onto himself, accepting the horror of her memories, making it his own, lightening the girl's burden. Finally when he could stand no more he broke the contact.


          Time passed. They sat on the grass weeping. Dominel wanted to bathe to relieve the unclean feeling that filled him, but knew it wouldn't help. His loins throbbed with a remembered pain not his own and gore rose in his throat.




          The girl sat, loathing the touch of her own skin, the skin the horrors had touched. She felt herself slipping towards the oblivion she had used to wall back the pain.


          No! I can't! I won't. This is my chance to live again, I will have my revenge! Anger fired her and she fought against the remembered pain. It won't conquer me this time! I'll make them pay for my parents and what they did to me. She added as she wept, oblivious to all save her seething emotions.




          Time swept over them and it was deep in the night before they stirred. Dominel was the first to rise stiffly to his feet, feeling horrid.


          Hate for the monsters flared in him to heights before unimagined. He stumbled towards the river where he washed and washed, hoping to remove the taint of the shared memories and abducted emotions. When he could stand the cold no longer, he dragged himself from the freezing waters and collapsed on the grassy bank.


          When morning came he returned to the lodges, where he found the girl sitting at the stair's base, with her head in her hands.


          "Melanie," he asked softly.


          The girl looked up angrily.


          "Are you all right?"


          "Yes," she answered, her features softening. "I remember."


          "I know, so do I."


          "It was horrid!"




          She glared at him and was preparing to snap out. `How could you know?' when she realized what he had done. "You took it on yourself. Didn't you?"


          "As much as I could. It was too much for one person to deal with. Almost too much for two."


          "Yes. Thank you."


          Both fell silent for a long while.


          The next night AckDominel resumed his studies but memories interfered so that by morning he had gained little ground. He left the ceremonial chamber feeling tired and stupid. Making his way to the lodge's kitchen, he found the girl preparing a meal.


          "Hello," he said wearily and fell into the chair.


          "Hello," she replied, and after a pause continued. "It's funny. I used to think you were so smart to make fire and do all the little things I'd forgotten how to."


          "You used to get excited over little things too. I remember how you giggled and danced when we blew dandelion seeds into the wind."


          "Yes." She dished their meal into a pair of the porcelain bowls they had found in this lodge. Pulling a jug of syrup from a shelf, she brought it to the table.


          "How long has it been?" she asked, taking a seat opposite Dominel.


          "Over a year."


          "Over a year. The first thing I remember is that cottage near the mountain's base."


          "That's where Emma began to work on you. She didn't have the knowledge or power to touch your memories. Which is good. They would have destroyed her."


          As Dominel spoke he glanced about the kitchen, which was more ornate than the ones in the other lodges but still basically the same. Will the girl be the same? he wondered.


          "I just remembered the way you and I played swords. That must have been boring for a warrior such as yourself," said Melanie.


          "It kept me in practice. I taught you the basics," replied Dominel, a thin smile coming to his lips.


          "You did. Good!" Melanie's voice took on a menacing tone.




          Dominel could feel the woman's desire for vengeance fill the room like a cold fire, burning a friezing in the same moment.


          "Because I am going to destroy those monsters. They'll pay for what they did to me." Melanie's hands clenched into white knuckled fists.


          Dominel stared at her in silence, then asked, "When?"


          She paused and her fists relaxed.


          "When?" she repeated, sounding shocked. "Why as soon as I can get out of this valley!"


          "Well. If you want to commit suicide, it certainly is your business, but excuse me if I don't join you."




          "At best you're only half trained as a warrior. Besides it won't be blades that win the final victory against the Storm."


          "Then I'll take as many of them as I can before I fall."


          "There'll be time for that. The battle will be a long hard one. Give yourself time. Right now your death would be to no purpose. Wait a while, then maybe you can fight for a reason. We'll drive these beasts from our world, but not today."


          "I will wait, but only so long."


          "I ask no more." Dominel turned his attention to his porridge.


          The river of time flowed on and the agony of remembrance began to fade from Dominel and Melanie's minds and hearts. Dominel continued to train Melanie in the use of sword and dagger but now he added a bow to her arsenal. The bow was a crude affair, made from gut and a bent branch, with arrows formed of sharpened sticks and fallen bird feathers, but it served to refine the skills her father had taught her.


          As Dominel taught Melanie, he also concentrated on his own studies. He was now in the sixth lodge and had gained a dark blue initiate's robe upon leaving the fifth. With each passing night he gained a deeper perception of the universe around him and the magic within it.


          The year went on and Dominel passed into the seventh lodge then the eighth. It was while he was in the eighth lodge that he awoke feeling of great disquiet. Rising he hurried to the balcony to find the world a chaos of conflicting energies. Power surged and fluxed on all sides.


          "Gods!" he exclaimed. He reached out with his mind and checked the mountains' shield. It fluxed and flowed as if a great force pounded against it seeking to push its way past.


          AckDominel sat upon the balcony and forced his breathing to become deep and regular. He felt his inner being loosen, and sensed himself slipping free of his mortal shell. Like a sword from its scabbard AckDominel's spirit rose into the air. After checking the strength of the golden cord that connecting his thought body to his physical one he willed himself to the source of the attack.


          Arriving instantly, he hovered inside the shield inspecting what lay beyond. An encampment of monsters filled the opening of the largest mountain pass connecting Bani to the western kingdoms. The sky beyond the shield was a sea of black clouds. Just outside the shield's area of effect stood a creature with a head resembling a squid and a body similar to a man's. It was clad in a black robe and waves of force emanated from it, crashing against the shield. AckDominel watched, not understanding what he saw, but knowing it had to be stopped.


          Whispering a prayer for strength, he began his attack. Reaching out with his will he focussed it against the inside of the shield and began to pour energy into the barrier. Immediately he felt a foreign will resisting his efforts. The shield strobed with light, only a mystic could see, as the fabric of its creation bent against the onslaught of two powerful but opposed wills.


          This isn't going to work. I'm only holding it at bay, thought AckDominel as he pulled his power back from the shield.


          The squid-headed creature also paused. The tentacles about its mouth writhed and a hissing sound issued from its beak.


          What now? thought AckDominel.


          A bolt of malevolent force leapt from the squid creature, forcing a passage through the mountains' shield, and striking AckDominel.


          "Gods of my fathers!" He swore, as his personal defences shuddered. Glancing up he saw the mountains' shield close around the hole the blast had ripped, leaving a weak spot. "That's enough! I can't let it damage the shield. I have to take the battle into its mind. Keep the power contained around it."


          AckDominel's spirit body dove at the creature, disappearing into its physical form, grappling for control of the alien mind.


          "Get out! Get out! This is my mind, my body. Get Out!" screeched the creature's thoughts.


          "I will not leave!" countered AckDominel, as wave after wave of thought energy buffeted him. He pictured himself as clutching to a rock as a hurricane swept around him. The mind-scape altered to match his mental image. The wind roared as he dragged himself to a place where a rock outcrop provided shelter. The outcrop represented a section of his foe's mind the beast couldn't consciously access.


          "Where are you?" bellowed the squid creature. In the mind-scape it stood three times the height of a man. It rampaged over the mental terrain, searching for AckDominel.


          AckDominel slowly removed his concentration from the conceptional landscape. The terrain around him remained, drawing its energy from his foe's expectations as if the beast was dreaming.


          "Good. One less thing to drain me. Now to find a weakness." AckDominel began following the creature's alien thought patterns, until he touched its memories.


          "Good," he whispered, then noticed that the conceptional world around him was beginning to fade. "Not fast enough, squid face."


          Savagely he dragged forth the beast's memories. The mind-scape altered, becoming a stage where the past was played out. The memories encompassed the squid beast, as it experienced them exactly as it had before. A time as child that it had been mentally beaten by older stronger children of its species. The savagery of its teacher's attacks during the training that allowed it to master its abilities.


          AckDominel watched as a brutal life spread before him. His compassion caused him to pause, but then he became aware of other memories. People pulled before the beast and how it devoured their minds. The pleasure the creature drew from inflicting pain.


          AckDominel saw how the abused had become the abuser. Glancing up he saw that in his pause the beast had seized control of the mind-scape.


          "Human! I know where you are," it screamed. The mental image of it reached for AckDominel. He felt mental claws scrabble against his will. His grip on the beast's mind began to loosen.


          Images of hideous death filled AckDominel's mind. The mental terrain altered. He saw his brothers as shambling corpses coming to drag him into death. His father, sunken-eyed, maggot-riddled and rotting, laughed ghoulishly at his plight.


          "Illusion. Only illusion! My father's spirit is free! It came to me!" He nearly laughed as the twisted images dissolved into nothingness.


          Seizing the moment it took for the squid beast to choose a new attack, AckDominel dove into his foe's psyche, pulling up another agony. A mental duel from when the beast had been young. A hatchling from the same nestpool. There was too little food in the pool. They were the only two left. As close as its kind could come to love they shared the feeling, but only one could live. In victory the creature had lost itself.


          AckDominel released the full force of that long-buried grief. In the material world the squid beast fell to its knees sobbing. Mentally, emotion stole its ability to focus its thoughts.


          AckDominel shifted his target from his enemy's mind to its body. Mentally clutching the alien heart, he squeezed. The heart fluttered, stopped and as the beast teetered on the abyss of death, AckDominel's spirit raced back behind the mountains' shield.


          He watched as the squid beast fell to the ground.


          "Too close. Its mind was so twisted," breathed AckDominel.  An inner sense of danger niggled at the edge of his mind and he increased the strength of his personal shields. Before he was finished a savage attack struck him.


          "Gods! I though I'd killed it. That blast was even stronger than its last attack." Focussing his will on the sphere of energy that surrounded his thought body he pulled his defences together and examined the area for his foe. The squid creature's corpse lay where it had fallen.


          "What the?" he began, then he spotted her, standing by a rock only paces from the mountain's shield's boundary. It was a creature identical to the one he had just vanquished, except its hips flared out like a woman's.


          The new squid creature stared at him, then its tentacles writhed. Fiery red tendrils of energy lashed towards AckDominel. Gesturing towards the earth he summoned its power. Waves of brown energy intercepted the red and drew it into the ground.


          A female voice spoke in AckDominel's mind.


          "You killed the student. Can you defeat his mistress, manling?"


          I don't dare enter this thing's thoughts. I barely survived the other one. I have to battle it in the physical world and just hope the shield can take it, thought AckDominel. Then he spoke aloud, "You come as invaders. Leave or die."


          The female squid creature hissed and another bolt of energy flew at AckDominel, ripping a hole in the mountains' shield as it passed through. AckDominel shaped his own energies into a mirror, reflecting the energy back along its course. It streaked toward his foe, who, with a wave of her hand, dissipated the energy.


          "You will have to do better than that, Manling."


          Shifting to the offensive, AckDominel pictured a small blue arrow in his mind. He saw it, knew it, felt it, then directing it, using knowledge gained from his earlier duel, let it fly at his foe.


          The arrow struck the creature's shields, piercing them like a needle through cloth. It then entered the beast, burrowing deep into its alien brain.


          AckDominel sensed amusement welling up in his enemy.


          "Manling, you are a fool. The weakest child of my kind could cast a bolt with more force than your paltry attack. Now you die."


          The creature prepared another assault and without warning fell dead. AckDominel sighed and grinned at his own cleverness.


          "Cunning, intellect, imagination. These are the marks of a true duellist. Brute strength against brute strength is nothing but the makings of a bar room thug." Scrantian's voice echoed in AckDominel's mind. He smiled at the memory.


          The seemingly useless arrow of energy had done its task. After entering the squid creature's brain the bolt had lain quietly until the beast had attempted its next spell. Then the arrow had drawn the spell's energy into the beast's brain, killing it instantly.


          "In other words, old friend, sneaky works!"  AckDominel returned to his physical body.



                 FRIENDS FROM AFAR



          When Dominel opened his physical eyes it was to the sight of Melanie staring down at him, her face a mask of worry.


          "What happened?" she demanded.


          "They've wizards among the monsters. A pair of them attacked the shield," answered Dominel as he stood.


          "What? We have to get weapons, gather troops, build-"


          "The battle has been fought and won."


          "By who? How?"


          "By me. In my astral body, and for a first time, I think I did rather well."


          "But, but.... you were just sitting here."


          "My body was, not my mind." Dominel massaged his throbbing temples and stumbled to his bed.


          When he awoke Melanie demanded he explain everything in minute detail, then she fell silent.


          "What is it?" he asked.


          "You said you strengthened the shield."




          "But the shield is still receding?"


          Dominel leaned back in his seat and explained.


          "The shield over these mountains is too large for one person to maintain. All I did was strengthen a small area of it."


          "Oh. Do you think there'll be more of those squid wizard things?"


          "Probably, But there can't be many of them, or we would have seen them before."


          "You hope." Melanie grinned. "I hear squids don't have bones. I can hardly wait to find out."


          AckDominel told his tale to the mummified form of his latest teacher, Wellorm. Wellorm, his white linen wrappings showing clearly in the gloom of the ceremony room, sat silently upon his throne within the circle as AckDominel spoke. Finally, his voice dripping with disgust, he said.


          "I thought we had destroyed those foul creatures. Beware them, AckDominel! You did well to vanquish them. They must have lost much of their evil art since my days of life. Do not underestimate them. They are your deadliest foes."


          "What are they?"


          "They are the mind feeders. Many years ago they entered the earth plane in their never ending quest for food. It fell to our order to stop them. The battle raged at the gate and we finally pushed into their world. I thought that we destroyed them utterly. A few must have escaped our hands to return and trouble us now."


          "But why destroy them if all they sought was food."


          "They are parasites! They subsist on the thoughts of others, they feed on the mental energies others create. They drain their victim's mind of every thought, every glimmer of energy and leave the body to rot."


          AckDominel swallowed hard. "That being the case you had best tell me how to fight them effectively."


          The next morning Dominel went to bed, having learned more than he had ever wanted to about the mind feeders.


          Later that day, he wandered the woods, enjoying the late afternoon sun. After nearly an hour he saw Melanie in a clearing practising blows against a tree stump with a stick she used as a training sword.


          "Hail," he called.


          Melanie paused in her practice. The way the sweat-soaked material of his old blue robe clung to her lithe form caused him to swallow.


          "Hello. Did you sleep well?" said Melanie.


          "Very. Have you been practising long?" He struggled to keep his eyes on her face.


          "Most of the day. Our discussion yesterday set me to thinking."


          Oh Gods, I'm in for it now, Dominel thought. "About what?"


          "I need a sword. Do you know anything about making them?"


          "I was a prince! Princes don't work forges."


          "Damn! I'll need a sword when we leave the valley, and a better bow. Daggers are not enough."


          "I'm sorry I can't help you. My sword snapped trying to slow a stone slab, remember?"


          "Isn't there anything you can do?" She allowed her lashes to half cover her hazel eyes.


          Dominel swallowed as she smiled at him seductively.


          "All I can do is try. Maybe when we leave you could pick up a sword before we get out of the mountains."


          "The old wizards made magic swords."


          "Yes they would enchant swords. Some of them were master smiths as well, but I'm not."


          "Oh," she said, a pretty pout spreading across her face.


          Dominel despite himself drifted closer to her, smelling the aroma of her sweat and feeling the warmth emanating from her body.


Melanie saw him move closer. A tension gripped her, which for a moment warred with desire, then she abruptly stood up. "I have to finish my practice."


          "As you will. I'm going for a swim in the river."


          "But it's freezing!"


          "I know! Thank the gods for that!"


          Melanie's request preyed upon Dominel's mind until, while listing to Wellorm, the answer came to him.


          "Once one can control one's personal energy and the flow of energy in their surrounds, one can open gates to other planes. This is important because a great deal of information may be gathered by holding discourse with beings from the other planes."


          AckDominel's ears perked.


          "Is it possible for beings from the other worlds to enter ours through wizard opened gates, or do they have to use the natural ones the monsters entered through?" he asked.


          "Beings can enter through wizard opened gates, so long as there is enough matter of the appropriate type for their spirits to infuse with life. In fact, some wizards used to have frequent visitors from the other plane." Explained the mummy.


          "You told me before that there are friendly beings in the other worlds, as well as monsters."


          "Yes, there are Ki‑rin, the orders of good dragons, elves, dwarves, djinn and many others. Why?"


          "Would some of them be willing to aid humans?"


          "They have their own problems. I doubt they would send an army!"


          "Not an army, craftsmen, and not for nothing. I would give them the mountains when the humans left. After all they are part of my kingdom," explained AckDominel.


          "It could work. Why do you want craftsmen?"


          "I need swords, bows, armour, weapons of all kinds. The mountain range is swarming with refugees. I'll have to arm them if we're to reach the safe haven prepared for us."


          "Would it not be easier to have a human smith do the work?"


          "Those who could get a forge are already making what they can. The problem is, most were more accustomed to making horseshoes than spearheads. In addition, they are few and I have thousands to arm."


          "Do what you must. I will teach you how to summon beings from the other planes and pray that it brings no grief. To begin with, you must touch the essence of the plane or dimension you wish to reach inside yourself. For example if you wish to reach the plane of earth, focus on your sense of stability, your practicality, your material nature. The law of attraction, that like attracts like, will see that you reach your desired goal," began Wellorm.


          AckDominel had to wait before he could put his plan into action. Wellorm would allow him no time from his studies saying that his time on earth was too short to waste. The days turned into weeks, then into months. Finally one evening Dominel entered the ceremony room and found Wellorm sitting upon his throne as usual but his voice was faint and far away. AckDominel spoke softly.


          "Your time is nearly over, is it not?"


          "Yes, AckDominel, it is. Soon you must go to the tenth lodge. You have learned well and will soon be done with this place. Fight well!" the mummy said no more.


          AckDominel approached the mummy and stared down at a sheathed sword that rested across its knees. Reverently he removed the blade from the dead bandaged flesh and drew it. The blade shone with a light all its own, and symbols, in a script Wellorm had taught him, ran its length. AckDominel read the symbols aloud.


          "To call and command am I."


          Returning the sword to its sheath AckDominel left what had become a tomb.


          He walked to the lodge's bedroom, opened the door and looked in. Melanie lay upon the bed. Smiling at her he turned and walked to the lodge's entrance. He paused to look at the quarter moon, which shone behind a light veil of clouds.


          "Almost a month before I can enter the next lodge. I'll have time to call for help."


          He made his way to the eighth lodge where he spent the night.


          Dominel awoke shortly after dawn and climbed to the ninth lodge, where he met Melanie in the kitchen.


          "You're late leaving the ceremony chamber today," she observed, as he took a seat at the table.


          "Wellorm is gone."


          "Then you're going to the tenth lodge. Good!"


          Melanie placed a bowl of stew in front of him and sat down.


          Dominel took a mouthful of the stew and paused. He gave silent thanks that, since the awakening of her memories, Melanie had taken over the cooking chores.


          "When will you be starting the next lodge?"


          "What? Oh... not until the new moon rises, but before then I have to go away for a while."


          "Go away? Where to? The far end of the valley."


          "No, back to the chamber of the lake."


          "Why?" Melanie shuddered.


          "Because it is the only place where I can do what I must. I want you to stay here though."


          "Oh no you don't. Where you go I go!"


          "Melanie, there's no need for you to come along. I won't be gone long."


          "I'm going!"


          "No you're not."


          "Yes, I am!"


          "No, you're not!"


          Long after the stew had grown cold, Dominel realized one of the great truths that apply equally to mighty wizard kings, or humble swineherds. No man is as stubborn as a woman!


          Thus it was that he prepared two packs of supplies and set them aside for the following morning.


          The day of their departure was cold and rainy, which made the cavern seem less unattractive. After shouldering his pack and donning his magical items Dominel, who was still grumbling about female obstinacy, led Melanie to the cavern's mouth and descended into the dry darkness of the passage.


          The door at the passage's end stood exactly as they had left it over two years before. He paused.


          "What are you waiting for?" demanded Melanie.


          "I'm deciding on something." Dominel pulled the crystals from the door, allowing it to close with a bang.


          "Why did you do that?"


          "Because we'll need light and it will keep unwelcome guests from entering the valley." Dominel placed the dark crystal in his pack.


          "Guests! What guests?"


          "Who can say? I've still four lodges to pass through. I'm not about to take unnecessary chances. Shall we go?"


          They walked down the passage by the light of the crystal, which blazed in AckDominel's hand illuminating the cavern fifty paces in either direction. They travelled all that day and most of the next before coming to the large oaken door of the crystal chamber. Here Dominel lit a torch he had brought and passed it to Melanie.


          "This is where I want you to wait," he said.


          "I'm going in with you!"


          "It is too dangerous. I can take care of myself through what I have to do, but I can't take care of you as well."


          "I'm going with you."


          "Melanie, let me explain your options. You can stay here, or I can get the rope from my pack and tie you up. Either way you're staying here!"


          "You wouldn't dare!"


          "Enough!" said AckDominel, in a voice that though low throbbed throughout the cavern. "Stop being a child. I am a mystic. You are not. I will do this alone!"


          Saying that, he placed his hand against the door, which opened to his touch. He stepped into the chamber of the lake letting the door close behind him.


          Melanie stood silent and sullen, then threw herself at the door which remained closed.


          "Marvellous, just marvellous," she snarled.


          Dominel held the crystal aloft, allowing its light to refract from the walls, giving the room a wondrous lustre. The marble trees seemed to sway and the lake's surface was transformed into a billion diamond facets.


          "It is better like this. I don't have to swim with eels or put up with nagging."


          He took several moments to let his body calm from his argument. Finding a flat area to one side of the pier, he dropped his pack. Moving to the end of the pier he mounted the crystal of light on several knobs in the brazier's bowl. The crystal fit perfectly. Next he tied a strip of hide to the dark crystal and lowered it into the lake, securing it to the brazier's stand. An eel bumped into the black crystal and promptly died.


          Nasty, but at least there its magics won't disrupt my ritual, he thought and returned to his preparations.


          Soon AckDominel stood within a circle scribed in chalk on the floor. A triangle filled with stones was marked to the north of the circle.


          He reached with his mind, probing the rock around him. Reaching beyond the rock to the essence of rock. Then beyond that essence to the home plane of rock. He sought a mind open to his own and when he was about to give up he sensed something. AckDominel opened the way and spoke "Hello."


          "Hello. Who be there? This better no be a trick, or I'll bury ye bones," replied a gravelly voice.


          "It is no trick. I am AckDominel, child of the secret path. I wish to speak to a citizen of the elemental plane of earth."


          "Do ye now, let's have a look at ye."


          AckDominel concentrated on the triangle. He found himself and his circle in a world as different from any he knew as night is from day. Light glistened all about him, energy flowed on all sides of his circle. He felt as if he was in an endless corridor with rooms branching off in all directions. A strange figure stood in front of him. It was shaped like a stocky man with a large nose, bushy, grey flecked, brown hair and beard. It could have passed for a man, save it stood roughly half a man's height.


          "So ye be a human. I was thinking they'd killed all their wizards," said the little figure.


          "Almost all. May I ask the name of to whom I speak?"


          "Me name! I can't be telling ye me name! If ye be knowing me name I be in ye power. I won't be placing meself there, I won't."


          "I'm sorry. Actually, I meant what others call you."


          "Oh, if that be all. Call me Tom, wizard and healer, second grade. Why do you be callin' the plane of earth, I'd like to know?"


          "I've a proposition for you. I need tradesmen to supply arms to help me reclaim my world and if it can be arranged, warriors."


          "Tradesmen and warriors ye be saying. What be in it for us?"


          "The richest gift any can give."


          "Gold?" Tom looked vaguely interested.


          "That's only a small part of it."


          "Gems?" asked Tom, greed obvious in his aspect.


          "They are nothing compared to my gift. Though they are part of it."


          "Magic?" The dwarf now looked ready to burst with acquisition.


          "Part, but not all."


          "What?" Tom was nearly slavering.


          "The mountains from which I cast my thoughts. All that rest two or more man lengths below the surface, I will give you for your aid. It would be yours to rule as a free principally under the sceptre of the king."


          "Ye can't be given us that. The land be the king's."


          "I am the king! Last of my line. All I ask in return for this is that your people swear fidelity to me, as a principality under my sceptre. I will charge thee with the defence of the mountain realms and call on thee for a tithing of arms."


          Tom hummed, obviously deep in thought, then he spoke. "A free principality ye be saying?"


          "As any other in my realm."


          "And who would be prince?"


          "Whoever the dwarves that come wish. Think of it, all the stone in these mountains. The vast underground realm you could have and all the hidden riches yours for the finding."


          "It be a deal. Imagine prince, Frack Mik Nak, of...." Tom fell silent and paled. "Ye heard it. Handsome is as handsome does. Don't be using me name agen' me."


          "Of course not, good prince. So long as you and your subjects are loyal unto me and my descendants, your name need never be mentioned again."


          "Ye be a good and gracious king. I'll be needin' time to be gathering me subjects."


          "When should I reopen the gate?"


          "There be no need of that, ye majesty. I'll be gone but a few moments. Haven't they taught ye time don't be meaning a thing?"


          "I forgot," replied AckDominel, not wanting to reveal his ignorance to the dwarf.


          Tom flashed out of view then returned.


          "All right now, be opening the door," called Tom.


          AckDominel closed his eyes and concentrated. Suddenly he was back in the crystal chamber, staring at the pile of stones in the triangle. They stirred and shifted until they formed into the figure of Tom, only now because his body had been born of stone, his skin was grey.


          "I've two hundred others that be on their way," said Tom.


          AckDominel grabbed his sword, snatched a pebble left over from Tom's entrance into the world from the triangle and ran towards the door with Tom in hot pursuit. Throwing open the door AckDominel rushed by Melanie and jammed the pebble onto the passage's wall. Using his sword point he traced a large triangle about the pebble and stood back.


          The rock within the triangle formed into a diminutive figure, which when it was complete stepped forward and bowed.


          "Benwick at your service, Your Majesty," said the second dwarf.


          AckDominel acknowledged Benwick with a smile. Another dwarf was already forming at the back of the short triangular passage left by Benwick's entrance.


          "I hope there's enough rock," muttered Dominel.


          "There be," said Tom. "So this be me principality. Well I'll say that room with the crystals be a fine bit of work. We'll be a bit setting things to rights in the rest of the place."


          Melanie pushed past Tom to glower at Dominel.


          "What in the names of all the gods are you doing?" she demanded.


          Dominel smiled at her and said "Melanie, I would like you to meet our new ally, Prince Tom, of the dwarfen principality of..."


          Tom provided "Crystavan."


          Melanie stared at Tom then screamed. "As if we don't have enough problems with trolls! You have to bring Dwarves!"


          At that moment the fourth dwarf was stepping out of the ever deepening passage. In a flash its battle axe was out and a fury entered its eyes. "trolls! Where be they? I'll cut `em down! That's why I be here, haven't had a good fight in a hundred years."


          "They're not here yet," explained Dominel.


          The dwarf looked disappointed and walked down the passage to join the others. Melanie fell silent.


          Shortly after this Dominel warned Tom about the trapped tunnels, collected his equipment and left on his journey to the surface. That first march Dominel and Melanie only walked far enough to escape the clamour of the incoming Dwarves before stopping to sleep.


          Dominel busied himself by pulling a blanket from his pack, while trying to ignore Melanie's glowering gaze.


          "When you said you were calling for help, I thought they'd be humans. Not, not...."


          "Dwarves. They're living creatures like you or me. They're our friends."


          Melanie snorted. "At least they kill trolls. They can't be all bad."


          "Don't concern yourself. Once we leave the mountains you probably won't live long enough to see them again. They'll keep the mountains free of monsters and by the time we humans fight our way back to them, we'll both be long dead."


          Melanie had never considered the possibility of the war lasting beyond her lifetime. The thought daunted her and she fell silent.



                    TROUBLES TO BE DEALT WITH



          The next day Dominel and Melanie walked to the mine's door and placed the crystals in their slots to find they had no effect.


          "Damn!" muttered Dominel.


          "What is it?"


          "The door won't open until dawn."


          "What? Can't you do anything?"




          Dominel wasn't sure when he fell asleep but he knew he dreamt. In his dream he saw his teachers as they had been in life. They sat about him in a ring.


          "Hello," opened AckDominel.


          His teachers remained silent.


          "Have I done something wrong?"


          Franlor spoke.


          "It is nothing you have done, AckDominel. The pattern is decaying faster than we expected. The shields are less durable than we had hoped."


          "The shield about the mountains is strong."


          "For a time. Many of the other orders' shields are failing, and their students are less ready than you."


          "What can I do?"


          "Little. Continue your studies and aid the members of the other orders, no matter your personal feelings."


          Dominel was shaken into wakefulness by a dwarf with a shaggy, black beard and a round merry face.


          "I be begging your pardon, but I was about finding yur," said the dwarf.


          "Oh... Who are you? What do you want?" demanded Dominel. He sat up and with a groan realized why beds had been invented.


          "If it be pleasing, Yur Majesty, they call me Tuck. We've a problem."


          "What is it?"


          "If Yur Majesty will be allowing my impertinence. Seems you were making a small oversight when you were calling us."


          "What?" demanded Dominel, as the ceremony he'd used flashed through his mind.


          "Well if you'll be pardoning my saying so. T'ain't no food," answered Tuck.


          "Food? Of course! I'm a fool. You need food. I can't do anything until morning, when this door opens, but I've a store of provisions. I collected them for when I lead the humans out of the mountains. You're welcome to them."


          "Can't open the door till morning yur say? Why be that?"


          "It's magically locked."


          "Well, I guess we'll be havin' eel for a tother day."


          "Eel?" asked Dominel, in vengeful glee.


          "Yes. We be catching those beasties since yur left. Travelling be hungry work."


          "As soon as morning comes we can bring up the stores."


          "No! Pardon, Yur Majesty, if me people be caught in the sun of yur world our spirits be going back where we be from and our bodies be turning to stone."


          "You'll have to get the food the following night then. Tell me something. If you can't go outside, how will you grow food?"


          Tuck chuckled before replying. "Yur see, Yur Majesty, we be havin' farms back home, where the sun don't be as strong as yur's, as don't need the light of day. We grows what yur folks be calling mushrooms. Trouble is, it'll be a while afore our plants take."


          Dominel spoke to Tuck until the door opened, then waking Melanie, he abandoned the cavern for the surface world. He spent much of that day avoiding Melanie, who was in as foul a mood as he had ever seen her. Finally deciding to face her displeasure he joined her in the meadow where their first lean‑to had stood.


          "Say it so we can clear the air," he began.


          "Say what?" she asked, all innocence.


          "Tell me you don't like me bringing dwarves to our world. Tell me that there are already enough nonhumans here. Tell me that no good will come of it."


          "Why should I? You just did!"


          "You drive me mad! I'm trying to save our world. We're outnumbered. Not a chance of winning, and you complain about me calling allies!"


          "When they're not human!"


          "Gods and Demons, woman! They're our friends! They hate the monsters as much as we do!"


          "No one hates the monsters as much as me!"


          "Grow up! Do you think you're the only one who has a score to settle? Those beasts killed my parents, my brothers. Took my family's kingdom, made me a refugee in my own land. And don't forget I experienced what you did, every bit as much as you. I just refuse to let hate blind me to reality. Why do I bother? Go on. Wallow in your hate and self-pity. I've better things to do!"


          Dominel stomped out of the clearing, leaving Melanie weeping.


          He strode through the woods, anger rumbling in him like a storm, but as the sun began to wester he grew calm and found himself feeling tired and alone. He sat by the river staring into its depths, trying to lose himself in its flow.


          His perceptions were clouded by his upset and she moved silently. Thus he was unaware of her presence until she laid a hand upon his shoulder.


          Dominel leapt to his feet, turning at the same time.


          "It's only me!" gasped Melanie, startled by his reaction.




          "I was wrong! Have been wrong, about so many things." Saying this Melanie pulled Dominel close and kissed him.


          At first the kiss was tentative, only a nervous fluttering of lips, but it soon grew more insistent. They sank to the grass at the river's side. Dominel's hands gently caressed her, testing the waters of each new experience, ready at every moment to fall back. Under his caresses she melted, tension became calm, became passion.


          It was nearly dark when Dominel rose from the grass, feeling a placidness he hadn't felt in years.


          Melanie looked at him warmly. "I never dreamt it could be like this."


          Dominel smiled at her. "We had better get back to the lodge. The sun's almost down."


          "I know, but it's so delicious here."


          Melanie stood and pulled on her light blue robe.


          Dominel led the way to the lodges and had only topped the stair when he heard dwarfish voices in the passage before him.


          "Hail. It's almost sundown," he called.


          "Greetings, Yur Majesty," hollered Tuck.


          Smiling Dominel entered the passage. Upon reaching the door he could see a line of dwarves disappearing into the darkness.


          "Have you brought the whole kingdom?" gasped Dominel.


          Tuck smiled where he stood at the head of the line. "There be only fifty of me people, if it be pleasing, Yur Majesty. The others they be busy turning the mine into our home. By the by, you wouldn't have a map of the place would yur?"


          "I'm afraid I don't, why? Have you run into trouble with the traps?"


          "Not a bit. It just be searching the place will be taken awhile. We should have been about bringing the tothers."




          "Aye there's more be wanting to come. We figured it be best to start small. So the first group can be getting things set for them as follows."


          "Very wise. It looks like the sun's gone down. Let's get you that food."


          The next hour saw a steady procession of dwarves marching to the lowest lodge. Then moments later ascending the stair, carrying pots of foodstuffs nearly as large as themselves. They left the food in the protective darkness of the tunnel.


          Eventually the job was done. Tuck and Dominel stood before the mineshaft, looking at the containers within.


          "Will that be enough to last you? There is a little more in the lodge if you need it," said Dominel.


          "Aye, if it be pleasing, Yur Majesty. It should be lasting until we be harvesting our first crop. We don't need as much as humans in the way of vittles."


          "I'm glad to hear it."


          "Aye, it's our nature. If Yur Majesty would be excusing me, I'd best be moving. Prince Tom be waiting on these vittles."


          "Of course and good journey to you."


          In minutes the dwarves were out of sight and Dominel descended to the ninth lodge where Melanie waited for him.


          "Is it done?" she asked, an edge in her voice.


          "Yes, they've food enough to keep them until they can grow their own." Dominel walked over and kissed her.


          "Good! You can relax for the rest of the month."


          "No. I still have to summon other aid."


          "What! You're not summoning more unhuman creatures are you?"


          "Yes, I am! I am going to call the Sylvan plane of the elves. I intend to ask if they would aid us for the area above ground in the mountains. Legend has it that they're incredible archers."


          "Elves! Bad enough you give our world to dwarves! At least they stay underground, but to give the surface to elves. Where will humans live? Should we sprout wings and fly!"


          "Humans will live where they always have. Millions have died in the war. We couldn't hold all the kingdoms if we tried. There's more than enough room for our allies. Furthermore, I didn't give all the kingdom away, only the area of the mountains!"


          Melanie glared at him. Dominel rose and walked to the door.


          "Where do you think you're going?" she demanded.


          "To the eighth lodge, where I can get some peace."


          "Don't you dare leave this lodge! Not unless you want the first time to be the last!"


          Dominel paused at the door. The very nature of the threat enraged him. "Melanie, loving is a gift two people give each other, not a reward for submission to another's will. If you don't see it that way, I'll stick with my right hand. It will be better company!" He stomped out of the lodge.


          They didn't speak for several days, nurturing their respective grudges. Finally the night of the full moon arrived and AckDominel moved to the clearing he had chosen for his ritual.


          Using his sword, he traced triangles about two trees. He then cast a circle about himself. Facing a different compass point for each, he called the elements of creation, earth, air, fire and water, to guard his circle and aid him in his rites. Standing in the completed circle he began chanting softly, feeling the energies as they flowed about him. Raising the wand he had been given in the fifth lodge, he called aloud.


          "Wood and stream, on moon beam."


          "Breeze that blows, oh masters of bows."


          "Power and stealth, I call the elf."


          A hush fell over the woods. Not a breath of air stirred. Slowly a light formed in one of the triangles. The light grew and solidified into a figure, almost human in appearance, save that its skin shone with the radiance of a star and its ears formed delicate points, which protruded from under its long silver hair. The being was tall and slender, clad in a robe of leaf green that matched the colour of its eyes. It personified beauty and majesty.


          "Why do you call the Sylvan plane, mortal?"


          "I am AckDominel."


          "I know who you are, mortal, and the state of your world. What is it you wish?"


          AckDominel swallowed. He had met many kings and queens, but never had he seen such nobility. He inhaled deeply and spoke. "To ask your aid. Soon I must lead my people to the haven the wizards of old prepared and I will need bows to aid in our struggles. Also, I do not wish to surrender the mountain regions to the monsters uncontested. Thus I ask that you send me any of your people who wish to come. They may have the forest regions of the mountains, as a principality under my sceptre."


          "You bargain fairly, mortal. I am King Aneleal, high lord of my people. My youngest son, Talion, is recently come to adulthood and desires lands. As well there are those of my people who wish to hear the song of the bowstring. I will see what may be done."


          "Thank you, Your Majesty. In the beginning I must ask that you send no more than two."


          "Fear not, mortal. I know your mind. I will send no more than you can feed." Saying this Aneleal disappeared.


          AckDominel stared at the trees in the triangles as they slowly moulded into new forms. At first he wondered if Aneleal himself was coming. Then the wood shifted farther and colour flowed into the statue-like forms. AckDominel could now see one was a being like unto Aneleal, save that its hair was black as midnight under stormy skies. AckDominel looked to the other tree and what he saw took his breath away.


          Within the triangle was a stunningly beautiful maiden. Her skin was a rich shade of tan, while her body was tall and slender, like a young birch tree. Golden hair fell to her waist, shimmering like sunbeams. The points of her ears were barely visible through her hair. Above all else it was her face that captured his gaze. Her forehead was high but showed no crease, as if it had never known a frown. The brows of her eyes were black like her lashes, which guarded eyes that were two emerald pools. Her nose was slender, ending in a slight round over a pair of full cherry-red lips and a strong chin. Both figures stepped from the triangles, their long green robes rustling on the grass as they did so.


          AckDominel forced himself to the task of the moment and, with a last look at the beauty of the elfin maiden, dismissed the elemental powers and opened his circle.


          Turning to the male elf he spoke. "Greetings, Prince Talion, may the stars shine bright on our meeting."


          The elfin maid giggled and the sound was like water falling on the parched earth. "He is well spoken, Talion my love."


          "For one of his short‑lived kind, Qulinea, for one of his kind!" replied the male elf, in tones that left no doubt about what he thought of humans.


          "I assume you are the human I must pledge my allegiance to," continued Talion, making it sound as if he'd been told to follow the orders of a retarded baboon.


          Gods! What have I brought upon myself?  thought Dominel before replying. "Yes, I am King Dominel. Last of my line and."


          "Yes yes. Where is the patriation ceremony to be held?"


          Dominel forced a smile. "There will be no formal ceremony. I am king in exile, as you know."


          "Peasant race," muttered Talion, dropping to one knee. He drew the sword that hung at his waist and handed it hilt first to Dominel.


          Dominel took the blade then after a moment's thought spoke the pledge his father had used with his vassal lords.


          "Do you, Talion prince of the elfin realm, pledge to defend my kingdom and sovereignty against all threats? To be forever loyal unto me and uphold the laws set forth by my crown, as it is held by me and my descendants. Until the end of time?"


          "I do."


          "Then as is my right. I make you prince of the earthly elfin kingdom of the barrier peaks, ruler of its lands under me."


          So saying Dominel tapped Talion on each shoulder with the sword and handed it back to him.


          Talion rose to his feet and with an imperial look at Dominel demanded "Where is my Castle?"


          "You and your Lady may have the lodge under mine in the mountainside," Dominel gestured towards the lodges.


          "You live underground, like some Dwarf!" exclaimed Talion.


          "Do not be ungracious, my love. He does not know our ways," soothed Qulinea.


          "Very well," breathed Talion. "Your Majesty. It is not in the nature of my people to live underground."


          "I am sorry my offer offended you." Dominel barely mastered his temper. "If you prefer, you may sleep under the stars, until a suitable dwelling has been made."


          "This I will do. First show me exactly where you dwell."


          "A moment, Your Highness. Before anything else we've a debt to pay. Bringing you into this world has cost the forest."


          Saying this, Dominel moved to where the trees that had become the elves had been. Nothing was left of the trees but sundered leaves and wood chips. Sighing he picked up two potted saplings, which he proceeded to plant where the trees had stood.


          "I took these from where there were many saplings competing for life. They would have died without my intervention. I hope the nature spirits are appeased."


          "You put us to shame. We, beings of the forest, forget our duty and a human remembers. Thank you, Your Majesty," said Qulinea.


          Dominel beamed to hear the warmth and praise in her voice. Turning to the next matter at hand he led them towards the lodges.


          Soon they stood at the base of the mountain stair. Dominel excused himself and entered the lowest lodge emerging momentarily with a selection of dried foods drawn from his remaining stores.


          "You must be famished after your journey."


          "Is this how you welcome royalty on your world, with dry old husks," sneered Talion.


          Dominel felt his temper rising and this time made no effort to control it.


          "Who in the cosmos do you think you are? I've greeted you with the best I have. Given you every courtesy. The least you can do is be polite!"


          "How dare you?" began Talion.


          "Silence! If you did not notice, I am King! You are a Prince under me. If you cannot abide this, I need not your help!"


          "Why you arrogant clown! Call yourself a king! In my world you wouldn't be a scullery drudge! I'll teach you a lesson you won't forget," screeched Talion, reaching for his sword.


          AckDominel looked at Talion and pushed with his mind.


          "Put. It. Down!" AckDominel commanded.


          Talion gasped, sweat breaking out on his brow.


          "Put. It. Down!" repeated AckDominel.


          With a cry Talion dropped the sword.


          "Good! Let us understand each other. It is clear your father sent you to me more of his will than yours. Furthermore I can understand his motivations."


          Talion made to interrupt but AckDominel silenced him with a gesture.


          "Now what you must understand is that there are advantages to your situation. You can build a realm free of your father's rule. In addition, for many years after I and my people depart, you will be for all practical purposes autonomous of higher authority. What I offer you is freedom and responsibility. Now prove yourself a ruler and accept them both. I've no tolerance for spoiled children!"


          Talion glared at Dominel before hissing a reply. "If my father knew how you have abused me he'd - - -"


          "Laugh and say it was just what you needed," finished Qulinea. "I love you, that is why I came with you, but we must be honest with ourselves."


          Melanie's acid edged voice called from above. "So these are our allies."


          Dominel bit his lip and rolled his eyes skyward before speaking.


          "Prince Talion, Lady Qulinea, I'd like to introduce my friend, the Lady Melanie."


          Talion glanced towards Melanie and all traces of hostility left him. He bowed deeply and spoke as he straightened.


          "Greetings, Melanie, who is surely the fairest of mortal women."


          Melanie descended the stair and stopped at its base, staring at Talion. Her cheeks flushed in the moonlight.


          "Greetings, Your Highness," she breathed, dropping into a curtsy.


          Dominel shook his head and slipped aside to where he could whisper to Qulinea.


          "Is he always so militant?"


          "Only with men. With women I often believe I should get a leash and collar for him!" Qulinea smiled.


          "Is Melanie in any danger?"


          "Only if she wishes to be. I know our ways are not yours and you humans usually choose one mate at a time. I will make it clear to him that I do not welcome her into our marriage group. That will be the end of it. It is my right to bar any I do not wish to join us. Such is our law."


          "Good!" remarked Dominel, with such obvious relief that Qulinea laughed.


          A short time later Dominel and Melanie climbed the stairs to their lodge, while Talion and Qulinea, wrapped in blankets and Talion's cloak, settled beneath a tree.


          Dominel fell into bed, while Melanie sat in the chair that adorned this lodge's sleeping quarters, brushing her hair.


          "I didn't know they were so like us," she remarked.


          "They're elves. They look like us outside, although the differences run deeper than it appears, much deeper." Dominel responded jealously.


          "Oh posh. They seem nice and Talion is so handsome."


          "He's elfin fair, and argumentative, and demanding!"


          "I didn't find him so." Melanie smiled as she watched Dominel from the corner of her eye.


          "Well I did," spat Dominel, as he rolled over and punched the pillow.


          Melanie's smile broadened as she stood and began easing out of her robe.


Dominel sat up in bed staring. "What are you doing?"


          "Getting undressed, silly. Now that I've seen the elves and approve, we don't have anything to fight about. Now do we?"


          Dominel shook his head but gave up any attempt to understand the situation when Melanie's lips pressed firmly against his own.





          Dominel helped Talion build a shelter from living pine trees trimmed to suit the elf's specifications. They finished on the day preceding the new moon leaving Dominel free of all other obligations when he entered the eleventh lodge.


          Stepping into the lodge he noticed that the main room was larger than in the lower lodges and the walls were draped with tapestries. He walked to the ceremony room and entered it.


          AckDominel froze. The other ceremony rooms had each contained part of a corpse. This room didn't, instead there was a silver circle on the floor, containing an empty throne. On the far side of the room, outside the circle, he could see a silver triangle, with a crystal in its centre.


          Entering the circle he traced it with his sword and summoned the elements before sitting upon the throne. The triangle before him began to glow and smoke rose from the crystal, coalescing into the translucent figure of a man. The man appeared to be in his mid thirties, with grey-flecked black hair, a narrow face, brown eyes and a wiry build.


          "Greetings, Ackdominel, I am Kretras," said the phantom.


          "Greetings, are you my teacher?"


          "In a manner of speaking. I am here to aid you in realizing what you already know."




          "You have learned what you must know, but you have yet to realize the extent of your knowledge. You are unaware of your potential and it is my task to help you explore your abilities."


          "Very well. Before we begin, please tell me why this room is different from the ones before it?"


          "You are now a master and it is unsightly for a master to kneel at the feet of another, thus the throne is for you. As well, if you wished, you could speak freely with the dead. Your teacher need not have a physical form. Can you not see my spirit clearly?"


          "Yes, I see you clearly. Could you tell me how to speak with the dead?"


          "You already know. I will aid you to see what you know."


          Kretras asked a series of questions that AckDominel answered. By the end of ten minutes Ackdominel knew how to visit the dead and the dangers involved in doing so.


          As he continued his studies he became calmer and he saw the greater depths from which troubles arose.


          Once more life became routine, allowing him to relax.


          It was nearly two months after Talion's arrival, that he came to Dominel who lay sunning himself by the river.


          "Greetings, Your Majesty."


          "Greetings, Your Highness! How are you and your lovely mate?" Dominel emphasized highness.


          "We are well. I need you to bring more of my people into this world to be my subjects!"


          "Do you ask a boon of me? 'Prince', Talion."


          Talion flushed, "I... I... ask of you a boon, Your Majesty," he replied through clenched teeth.


          "Good, I will grant your request. After all, it's no good being a `prince' without subjects."


          "It is not!"


          That night found AckDominel in a forest glade with twelve trees standing inside triangles at his circle's edge. Talion and Qulinea stood to one side of the glade, with a pile of saplings, awaiting the arrival of their people.


          AckDominel cast his spell and the trees took shape, hard wood becoming soft flesh. Minutes later twelve elves stood where the trees had been. AckDominel swayed wearily in his circle.


          The elves stretched their long slender arms, tan in the moonlight. Each was like unto Talion or Qulinea, as any human to another and all possessed an unearthly beauty.


          "Prince Talion," said one elf, who stepped from his triangle. His hair was a mixture of silver and gold and while no signs of age were apparent on his face, AckDominel knew he was ancient.


          "Over here, it is good to see you, Shalor."


          "As it is to see you, my prince," replied the aged elf, who bowed. The oversized sleeves of his robe brushed the grass. "And you sir, must be King Dominel. Aneleal sends his regards." Straightening Shalor bowed to Dominel.


          AckDominel, having recovered somewhat from his efforts, bowed then spoke. "I am King AckDominel, and I greet you. Is all well with your noble ruler?"


          "He is well. He wishes me to give you this gift." Shalor handed AckDominel a fine wooden box.


          AckDominel opened the box reverently. Within were a pair of bracers wrought from the finest gold and jewels. Each was covered by a design of interlocking rings.


          "They are beautiful! I wish I had a gift to give in return."


          "You have already given his son a realm to rule. That was the greatest gift any could give."


          "Thank you." AckDominel paused, where he'd touched the bracer his hand tingled. "There is more to these than meets the eye."


          "Yes. King Aneleal would not share their secrets with me. If Prince Talion will allow, you and I can together delve their mysteries."


          "Are you a sorcerer?"


          "Of my kind. My spells are of a nature that would do little to aid you in your present need. I can however summon my brethren to this realm."


          "Hum hu Hum," interrupted Talion. "If you two are finished?"


          "Oh, of course. After you, Your Highness," said AckDominel.


          Talion led Dominel about the circle of elves, introducing him. They then planted saplings to take the places of the trees that had formed their bodies, as Dominel wearily made his way to the lodge and his lesson.


          Weeks passed and with each day Dominel felt his competence as a wizard increase. One day, as he emerged from the ceremony room, Melanie confronted him.


          "One of those creatures from the mine came here last night," she growled.


          "Oh. What do the dwarves want?"


          "I don't know! It said it wanted to meet you at the mine's entrance."


          "Humm... I wonder what they could want?"


          "I told you I don't know! I'll tell you one thing. I don't want those miserable malformed creatures parading up here constantly!"


          "It's the first time one of them has visited us in months. I'd hardly call that constantly."


          "Too often for my liking! Those things shouldn't even be on this world!"


          Dominel shook his head and left the lodge. He found the dwarf in the shadows behind the cavern's door and smiled when he recognized Tuck. "Greetings. Melanie didn't tell me it was you."


          "I be not surprised about that. She's a mean one she is."


          "I'm sorry if she said anything to offend you."


          "Not to be worrying yurself, Yur Majesty. Yur the one who be important to us and you treat us kind."


          "Thank you, but why did you want to see me?"


          "Well yur see, Yur Majesty, I've a wee bit of yur tithing."


          "Already! I was expecting you to set the mine in order first!"


          "That we did, Yur Majesty. If it be pleasing yur. We dwarves be fast workers."


          "Excellent! May I see the weapons?"


          Tuck unrolled a long slender bundle of cloth. Within were five swords and several daggers. Dominel hefted a sword. After so many years the blade felt strange in his hand. He tested its balance, then flicked the metal with his finger nail. The blade gave out a pure high‑pitched ring. "Beautiful!" he exclaimed, as he sent the sword whistling in an arc over his head.


          Tuck beamed "Aye considering we don't be having all the tools we be needing, it be a fair job."


          "Fair? These are some of the finest weapons I've ever seen! If this is fair, your good must be wondrous!"


          Tuck's chest inflated with pride and his height seemed to increase.


          "I must show these to Melanie. They'll win her over for sure."


          "I be doubtin' that, but yur can be trying. We'll be having more soon. Prince Tom be letting more of our people in now we be having things arranged."


          "Good. What are your numbers?"


          "We be nigh three-hundred."


          "Do you need anything?"


          "No that I can be thinkin' of. Our fungus farms be fine and while I don't be speaking age'n' the food of yur kind, I be liking the dishes me mother made."


          Dominel chuckled and rolled the swords back into the cloth. "Thank you for the swords but I must be going." He hefted the weapons under one arm.


          "That be fine, Yur Majesty. I have to be off meself." Tuck turned and strode into the darkness of the passage.



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