…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…

A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.


Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue



1
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
2
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
3-4
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
5-6
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
7
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
8
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
9
Chapter 9 - On the Road
10
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
11
Chapter 11 - New Quests
12
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels

Chapter 11 – New Quests

By the time they reached the Winder pass into Shapier, they were all three outfitted with new fighting gear. Jaladior had at last expounded to them the meaning of his official-sounding professional title: he was a designer of magical armor and weaponry from a famous school in the Faladeioan city of Alsioacor; this was the reason Telmiquor had been holding him, in the hopes that the warlord might get something useful out of his cousin, which Jaladior turned out to be. Now he insisted on journeying with them for a while in order to repay their kindness in rescuing him.

For En Shevil it was a new sword, called a katana, which all through the rest of their journey south she was learning to use. She wanted no more than this — a sword not quite so distinctive as her two unique maruroha blades, with a name not quite so morbid. She called it Sulah, Bringer.

For Toro, Jaladior designed a breechplate and bracers set with matching strap-holsters for his various weapons. Toro certainly did not want to refuse the offer, but also did not need anything particularly fancy.

For Elsa, however, it was an entire set of armor, designed during painstaking, hilarious planning sessions each night over the fire for at least a week. En Shevil was more than amused at the exchanges between the warrior and the designer, which often went something like this:

“But I do not understand why you would make it so bare in this area.”

“It’s not really bare, you see,” Jaladior would respond, quite proud of himself. “The armor’s just invisible there.”

“Invisible? But why invisible armor?”

“Well, it looks better that way.”

“But armor is not to look good. Armor is for protection. Why, if there is armor there, must it be invisible?” Elsa was getting frustrated.

“Because you have a beautiful stomach!” Jaladior would cry, getting frustrated.

Then Elsa would protest the shape of the invisible area, saying it would make her look like something she was not, and Jaladior would say it would look different when she was wearing it.

“And I do not understand why you have used this red here. Is this metal?”

“Yes, dyed steel; very strong, very expensive.”

“Why spare the money?”

“It will look good with the red-brown.”

“But why red-brown at all?”

“It will look nice with your hair.”

It is armor!

And by this time En Shevil would be laughing so hard that they would call off their discussion for a later time. But eventually the plans were finished, meeting the demands of both aestheticism and practicality, and all that remained was to construct the outfit.

So when they reached Liegends, the largest southern city west of the mountains, they stopped for a week while Jaladior threw money around in order to attain the rewards he had concocted for his three heroes. Five smiths went to work overtime to put Elsa’s armor together, and two more were hired for the other tasks; meanwhile the travelers relaxed at an inn and repeatedly gaped at how many trips Jaladior made to the money changer. But finally it was all done and the impatient three bade their erstwhile companion a friendly good-bye, with many thanks attached, and continued southward.

***

Abdallah smiled slightly as a minotaur and two blonde women with the look of Spielburg came over the ridge and began descending the slope towards the city. Maybe tonight wouldn’t be as boring as he’d thought. His eyes lingered on the tall bull-man so long that the women were nearly to the gate before he brought his eyes down and began to welcome them. “Greetings, and welcome to… En Shevil?” Was it possible?

“Hello, Abdallah,” said the first woman quietly. “How have you been?”

“But I thought… I’d heard that…. Never mind. It’s been so long since we’ve seen you here — have you heard what’s happened since you left?”

En Shevil nodded slightly with a smile, wondering at the same time what he had heard. Did he know what she had been? “I know all about Achim — the prince, I mean. In fact, he’s the reason I’m here.”

“He isn’t in the city,” said Abdallah, proud to be able to give some information. “He’s in Tarna.”

“Actually he isn’t,” said En Shevil. “He disappeared thence a while ago, and I’m trying to find him. I thought I’d stop home on my way down there.”

The guard looked thoughtful in a horrified manner, gave a small ‘oh,’ and waved at them as they passed. The others had not yet spoken a word.

Gates Plaza looked the same, warm and blue in the moonlight. The Katta’s Tail Inn, as she caught a glimpse of it behind an exiting customer, looked prosperous. “We will stay here tonight,” Elsa said, and En Shevil could hear how weary she was. She nodded, and her companions left her to walk on alone. As she ambled up the northern street, drawing near to fountain plaza, she could hear the whine of the magical spring as it gave life to the city. Reaching it, she crouched and cupped her hands under the water. Slowly she drank it, remembering how it tasted after almost a year away, noting that Spielburg water was sweeter than that of Shapier. She looked around. The apothecary’s sign was the same, as was that of the magic shop. Through the eastern doorway was home.

She stopped briefly to look up at the palace. It looked so exactly like the one in Rasier that memories converged on her and her eyes filled with inexplicable tears. After a moment she realized that she was weeping for her loss of girlishness. Even in the harem, in danger every moment of great dishonor from the men around her, in her mind there had always been brighter times ahead. And though she had sorrowed for the loss of Thalanna as a friend, it had not consumed her; she’d still had reason to go on living. Now what did she have?

Pushing these dismal thoughts from her mind, she turned and walked the rest of the short distance to her own door. There she hesitated. Her parents were probably yet awake, but how would they receive her? She shook her head, smiling a little at her own foolishness. How else should they receive her but with love and welcome? They did not know the things she had done. She opened the door and stepped inside.

A dagger came at her from nowhere, and instinctively she had her swords out and crossed to knock it away from her face where it would have made quite a mess. The ringing sound muffled the gasp from the thrower, and as En Shevil replaced her weapons she looked her mother in the eye. Not knowing quite what to say, they both stood there for a moment. Then they spoke at once.

“I’m only back for…”

“En Shevil, you’re…”

The warrior dropped to her knees as her mother ran to her, held the katta woman in a tight embrace. Kylur seemed frailer than En Shevil remembered, less filled out and more careworn.

“En Shevil!” came Manta’s voice from the bedroom door, and the girl hugged him in her turn. A hug was great proof of affection from katta, and En Shevil felt at once what it meant to them to have her home.

“The prince said you were dead,” whispered Kylur, brushing a tear from her whisker. En Shevil bowed her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I never had a chance yet to come prove him wrong.”

They all went into the kitchen and sat around the table with mugs of Kylur’s not-quite-the-best-in-town coffee. When dawn came they were still talking.

Later that day, En Shevil stood before the weapons shop, wondering… This was difficult and probably futile, but necessary. She took a deep breath and opened the door. She having entered quietly, Issur did not turn from his forge until he heard the door shut behind her. It would probably be best not to let those on the plaza see what went on between them.

The burly man stared at her for a long moment. “I’d like to talk to you,” she said evenly.

“You…” Issur took several steps closer, shaven brows down, still staring at the girl. “How dare you…”

En Shevil’s eyebrows lowered. “How dare I what?

Issur’s lips curled and he gave a grunt of anger. “I’ll kill you, you dirty little thief!” he roared, and came at her. Grasping his upper arms, she gave him a twist and landed him on the floor.

Stepping back she said quickly, “I don’t want to fight you…” she looked at the anvil and smiled, “unless you’d care to arm wrestle.”

Picking himself up, Issur seemed barely able to restrain himself from jumping at her again. But she had already taught him that she knew something, so he only said, “You’re on.” Moving up to his side of the anvil and resting his elbow on it, he jerked his head at her in challenge. She smirked at him, if only to taunt him, and took his hand. Without warning or countdown, Issur applied pressure, and En Shevil scarcely had time to save herself from being slammed immediately. Slowly she forced his arm back, straining against a man who was about as strong as she was. When his hand was within an inch of the metal, she put on a burst of force and slammed him.

Fluidly she stood up straight and whipped out her katana. Holding it to Issur’s neck she said quietly, “I don’t want you to bother me. I don’t want your friends to bother me. And I never want to hear a word from EOF. You got it?”

Issur’s eyes glittered, and his guttural “got it” showed clearly that he was not cowed; but he took her point. She sheathed the blade and went to the door. With her hand on the knob she turned and looked at Issur. He was still by the anvil, watching her. “Oh — and leave the prince alone, too.” With that she left.

On the plaza, she sighed with relief, and smiled as she looked at the Adventurers’ Guild. Who would be the Guildmaster now that Uhura was gone? She entered and looked around. It had certainly changed; the rugs on the floor had been replaced by a huge bearskin with the head attached. The monster must have been fourteen feet tall when it was alive.

The moosehead with its dopey hat was still on the wall, no longer dusty. The EOF plaque and message board were as they had been, a significantly smaller number of papers on the second. The spears from beside the wall were gone, and in their place a row of swords. The Simbani shields had been replaced with more contemporary versions, and En Shevil thought that she did not like the room as much as she had before.

Near the curtained doorway was a chair in which sat a fat woman with short black hair and a pug nose. She smiled pudgily at En Shevil, but did not rise. “Welcome,” she said, then gave a holler over her shoulder. “Rawn, come out! You’ve got a guest!”

En Shevil smiled slightly as the curtain was drawn back and a young woman entered the main room. She had the older woman’s strong looks but a great deal more beauty and delicacy in her features, from her pointed ears to her small, sharp nose to her fine hands and small feet. She seemed to be part faerie, though the mother, as En Shevil guessed the seated woman to be, was not.

“Hello,” said the girl, and her voice was rather monotone. “I Rawnmé am, Guildmaster here.” Rawnmé’s hair was black and short, with a strange bluish tint to it. She was clad in a loose shirt and leggings, and her feet were bare.

“My name is En Shevil,” said the warrior, placing her hand on her breast and half-bowing. She steeled herself for the rest of her introduction. “I am also known as Deathscar.”

Rawnmé did not move or speak for a moment, but her mother’s eyes grew wide. Finally the girl observed, “Surprised to see you, I am.”

En Shevil nodded minutely. “I only stepped in to see how things had changed; I did not mean to disturb you.” She immediately turned and walked to the log book. She smiled as she saw the last signature: “Achim, Hero of Spielburg.”

As she picked up the pen, she blinked and shook her head, for the words seemed to blow away and shift. Several different names flashed before her eyes, and she looked away for a moment. When she returned her gaze, Achim’s name was again signed with a flourish. But what had she seen? “Red the Dimwitted,” “Karis Rodriguez,” “A Guy Who Happened to be in Town?” There had been more, many claiming to be the Hero of Spielburg, except a smeared entry that said Heroine.

“So,” said Rawnmé softly from close behind her. “Them you see.”

“What does it mean?” asked En Shevil.

“This world where we live many layers has; in each, many the same events take place, only with different results and by different people brought about. Some so different that whole lands and kingdoms that in others exist, here do not.” As she spoke, the warrior quickly signed, “En Shevil, also called Deathscar.”

“Then these are the Heroes of Spielburg from other… layers?” she asked. This concept was wholly new to her.

“Yes, and why one can their names in this book see, I cannot tell. Some magic in the book, I deem.”

En Shevil remembered a time when she had looked at this book years ago. “I’ve never seen them here before.”

Rawnmé shrugged. “Likely, you noticed them not.”

“I would have noticed something like this. Why do I see them now?” The words were swimming over the page again.

“Anyone with clear magic can them see.”

En Shevil snorted. Despite recent revelations, she was still not comfortable with the idea that she possessed magic.

Rawnmé’s eyes narrowed and she looked the warrior up and down. “You an warrior are, and yet strong your power is. Clear magic I know, when it I feel.”

“And, pray, what is the difference between the clear and the normal kinds?” asked En Shevil half-sarcastically, deciding not to argue more.

“What ‘normal’ you call, the type is that by magicians is used,” said the girl, striding around the room. She fingered one of the swords in the holder, then cast herself upon the floor cross-legged. En Shevil walked slowly over to her while she continued. “Upon an fixed, though expandable, reserve of magic points or mana they draw, requiring words and gestures spells to cast. Clear magic with magical species comes, such as djinn and their kind, some types of dragons, pixies, and so forth. Also you, I guess. Their magic power in their life force and energy rests. Small spells will affect you not at all; the greater ones may your strength tax, and if for what is beyond your power you try, you may yourself harm. But you will never an set spell need, magic to work-no words previously written or gestures orchestrated, though I have found that an gesture the will strengthens and the spell eases.”

“You are quite the expert on magic,” said En Shevil, who had taken a seat next to the other girl. She was feeling a little shaky with all this talk of magic, and held her courage fast.

“My father an half-faerie was, and his father an djinn, so I an quarter djinn am, another faerie, and half human. But you fully human seem.” Rawnmé seemed to be lost in a sort of reverie, even with En Shevil sitting there. “Of gifts I have heard — magical creatures turning over part of their life force for the healing of an human friend and thus with magic them imbuing, but so much you have! Multiple gifts, perhaps? What would the chance be, at more than one such gift in a lifetime having? An accident it could have been, of course — an mistaken inheritance of power from an dragon patriarch. She looked to En Shevil for the answer. “I give up.”

“Well…” she began, then looked shrewdly at the faerie-girl. What reason had she to be pouring out her heart to this Rawnmé? She looked around, and observed that the chair by the doorway was empty.

“Oh, please tell,” begged Rawnmé, and a strange girlish look crossed her face that was quite alien to the cold, prideful expression that it had and once again held. Her voice was not quite so monotone then, and En Shevil guessed that this was a display of her human side. She decided she had nothing to lose, and gave her an account of her experience with Bandis and Orono. She was near tears by the end of it, the feelings she had developed in those first few minutes of amnesia still present. Rawnmé’s eyes were shining, her hands clasped.

“Too wonderful that is!” she said, sounding anything but excited: she had slipped back into faerie-mode again. “Not,” she added hastily, “the death or the pain or elsewhat. But when she died, you must have so close been that her life force immediately to you went, which what healed you was. Thus she your life saved, and to you magic gave on top of it.”

En Shevil shuddered, unable to do otherwise. “Words can describe it for me, but wonderful is not one of them. Perhaps weird or terrifying would be nearer the mark. Also sad.”

Rawnmé seemed to draw back slightly, looking at En Shevil with almost unfriendly eyes. “Something against magic you have? I had heard, that the previous Guildmaster here liked it not, but her I never met.”

“My every experience with magic had brought me only pain, and it cannot be denied that it frightens me a great deal.”

Rawnmé no longer looked affronted but sympathetic, her pale green-blue eyes taking on a liquid tone. “You seem the kind not, who easily susceptible to fear is.”

“No. Besides isolated events, such as being tangled with a djinn fifty feet in the air and being ambushed by seven trolls at once, the only things that have ever really frightened me, even the thought of them, were magic and the sea… and myself.” She really had not meant to add this last, but Rawnmé did not seem to pick up on it.

“Oh,” said Rawnmé in a different tone. “I understand. An problem I have with the ocean as well.”

“With the help of a friend, I was able to face the sea and keep a hold on myself, though I should probably die of fright if I were required to swim, or to try. But to magic I fear I will never be reconciled.”

“And what for yourself?” asked the Guildmaster. She had noticed after all. En Shevil looked away. “Your pardon,” said Rawnmé most humbly.

“Oh, no,” said En Shevil. “I need to talk about it more and think about it less. I feared myself for what I had done as Deathscar, for what I was capable of doing. I feared the fact that I could kill and walk away. But I found that I could master my abilities, fight only when I had to and kill only if there was absolutely no other choice. Orono said that as long as I don’t kill in anger I won’t go insane again. And I guess it’s not the skill that’s the problem, anyway — just the evil use of it”

“Insane?” asked Rawnmé with no apparent surprise, then shook her head. “But I shall no more in that direction pry. What now I wonder this is: if your fears you desire to conquer, why not magic try?”

“Oh, no,” said En Shevil, standing up and stepping backwards. “No magic for me. That’s not something I deal with.” She avoided the fact that she’d already used magic twice.

“Your fear unreasonable seems,” said Rawnmé, her emotionless voice beginning to get on En Shevil’s nerves. “Thus, as you I see, you must desire it to conquer.”

“You’re right, but not by making it part of my life.”

Rawnmé forced a smile. “Then your fighting skill allow me to see.”

“In there?” En Shevil indicated the door that had customarily led to the practice room. Rawnmé nodded, and En Shevil entered without another word. Brandishing her katana she took a defensive stance as Rawnmé drew from the air a very long, thin sword of northwestern styling.

“Guildmaster did I not become for magic alone,” Rawnmé said calmly, raising her sword to a dueling position.

En Shevil began the spar with a typical feint of sword and a simultaneous kick at her opponent’s thighs (she would have aimed for the knees, but did not want actually to hurt the other girl). Rawnmé avoided this by simplistically stepping backwards, at the same time sweeping her own sword forward in a seemingly useless blow that fell far short of En Shevil’s body. But in the instant the latter was regaining its balance after the double-footed kick, Rawnmé darted forward and gave her three taps of the sword on the shoulders and chest. Startled, En Shevil waved her katana about for a moment and wished for her own swords. Annoyed, she flipped over the short half-faerie and kicked backwards. But Rawnmé again simply stepped out of the way, turned smoothly, and hit En Shevil’s side with her sword.

Very swiftly En Shevil whirled, katana outflung to drive the other back if she was close. The maruroha’s arm was thrown wide, though, when Rawnmé brought her own sword down strongly on the katana and then quite gracefully stabbed forward into En Shevil’s stomach. The human decided to stop pulling her punches and sprang forward. The hand-blow she aimed at the half-faerie’s shoulder missed as Rawnmé ducked, and the katana strike at the other girl’s back lost half its potency as Rawnmé’s sword poked En Shevil in the knee. More annoyed than ever, En Shevil pushed from her hands, kicking the other with both feet and knocking her over. The human turned to regard her opponent — who was even then upright once again.

“Your sword is dull,” En Shevil remarked as they circled each other.

“Its sharpness I control. To practice its use is better dull.”

En Shevil stepped forward and fell to a crouch, aiming a sword sweep at Rawnmé’s left shoulder. The other girl barely parried, then stepped backwards again before En Shevil could try another kick. That was an aggravating tactic, but impressively effective. Then Rawnmé threw herself forward in a sudden charge that En Shevil dodged, thinking she had gained an advantage. But Rawnmé stopped short when the maruroha stepped aside, and swung her sword heavily over onto En Shevil’s head. The human brought her katana up to block and was forced downward, staggering backward, arms wavering. “Wonderful,” En Shevil grunted, falling backwards into a sitting position and rolling away. “You’re very good.”

Rawnmé bowed her head in acceptance of the compliment. “Finished, are we?” En Shevil nodded.

“You win,” she smiled. “I need to work on my swordplay more. That little ‘stepaway’ move really works, doesn’t it?”

“You, perhaps, might more frequently away jump.

En Shevil grinned. “I’ve got to go. I hope I see you again sometime, maybe have a rematch?”

“Shapier you depart on this day?”

“Well, tomorrow. But today I’ve got to buy some supplies and things. Thanks for talking with me. And fighting with me.”

“Your time I value.” Rawnmé gave a little bow as they left the room.

“Goodbye.”

En Shevil went to meet Elsa at the Katta’s Tail Inn, where they shared a blissfully Shapierian meal prepared by perhaps the best cook in the world. En Shevil then took her friends out on a brief tour of the Shapierian streets she so much loved. Every step was a joy to her, from the far end of Tarik of the Stars to the dark northwestern corner of Askeri Darb. She paid visits to Harik Attar and some of the guards with whom she used to flirt. She even dropped in on Dinarzaad. Elsa and Toro stood back, amused, at each of these encounters and watched En Shevil’s almost childish delight at seeing her home again. But that evening when they parted company until the next morning, the maruroha seemed sad.

The leave-taking with Manta and Kylur, the next morning, was surprisingly less painful than the one of a little less than a year before. As Elsa had said about her own father, they were content to know that she lived. And that she was still their own En Shevil, despite what she’d gone through. Her greatest fear had been resolved in their wholehearted acceptance of her even after her entire story was told; now she could depart the city knowing she had once again a home there.

Their travels across the desert were unremarkable. They encountered jackalmen constantly, terrorsaurii more infrequently, and the occasional brigand by day. When they reached the town of Laj’ayah, it being little more than a walled group of dome-houses clustered around an oasis with a few saurus yards, they joined a caravan. Thus eventually they reached Rasier.

En Shevil had not been expecting any emotional reaction to this city, and the tears springing in her eyes came as somewhat of a shock to her. The golden glow of the walls, the happy faces of the katta merchants, the singing rush of fountain water on the central plaza — all these contrasted so directly with her memories of this place as to make her almost confused at the changes. In the now-respectable Blue Parrot Inn she learned all she wanted to know. Zayishah was ruling the city and surrounding area (with the help, no doubt, of the ever-vigilante Mayzun), and things could not be better for katta and humans alike. This update left her relatively unprepared for the less pleasant news she received from Thaylish.

The latter En Shevil found by accident, wandering the streets of Rasier and looking absently at its inhabitants. The first topic to come up in their conversation was, naturally, what had happened to En Shevil at the beginning of the battle at the palace. Then, inevitably, they turned to discussing the fate of the various members of the Underground. It was not long before En Shevil learned of Thalanna’s death. Their speech was not far extended past that, though they parted on friendly terms. The news did not really shock her, but she wept a little; it was a mark of some sort.

The party left Rasier the next day; two weeks later they had made their way over the Shalyah pass into Tarna.

It was not so bad as En Shevil had expected: not as dusty as Shapier, though not as pleasantly hot, and actually rather picturesque. With the savanna stretching out flatly before them, here and there a ravine or ridge or cluster of hills to add variety, she felt at once in the open, uncrowded, and yet safely hidden from prying eyes. The wildlife was a fascination to her as well: from the ferocious, excitable rhinoceros and the easily-startled antelope to the calm, ponderous elephant and the aggressive, stupid giant ant; she had heard of it all and seen most of it, but never extensively as she did now.

The city was impressive. Even a long-time citizen of the mighty Shapier, which claimed almost rightly to be the greatest city known to man, had to admit that Tarna, shaped as it was like a giant pyramid, each layer being a ‘plaza’ with a different purpose, was truly grand. Approaching the front they saw first the massive statues of the liontaur gods, some of them shared by the people of Egypt, and then the huge, guarded gates. These were wide-flung and did not seem to be routinely closed. The two liontaurs looked at them with eyes glinting, no trace of friendliness or hostility in their gazes. “Welcome, humans and minotaur, to the city of Tarna,” one of them said. “And so welcome shall you ever be, provided you follow the laws of the land.”

“The greater laws,” said the second guard, “are that none shall practice magic on the streets; that none shall enter the liontaur’s section of the city; that honor shall be the thought in all your dealings.”

“Having heard these laws, enter freely the city of Tarna with the knowledge that justice shall be meted to any who scorns them.”

En Shevil nodded her head to the guards, and stepped up the few stairs with her friends behind her. “We need to find Rakeesh first, I think,” she said uncertainly; she was looking at the impressive corridor just inside the gates: mighty pillars and well-tended shrubbery marked the way to a more imposing edifice ahead, the pyramid that made up the higher part of the city stood before them, its sides stair-stepping up to a great height while a flight of true stairs climbed dizzyingly straight to the door near the summit. Halfway up was a walkway leading left and right, and before the stairs actually began there was another. This they took, randomly choosing left as it looked brighter and more open.

“This Rakeesh — who is he?” Elsa asked as they walked. They found themselves on a small plaza containing a few buildings (all buildings seemed built into the layer above them, making a ‘building’ really only a door into the greater pyramid). The one construction that stood apart from the rest of them was a large rectangular building with two doors (there didn’t seem to be actual doors here, just doorways), looking like it might fall over at any time. As they came out past a large stone plant-repository, they saw to their right a wide flight of stairs leading up to the half-way point up the pyramid. To their left was a pair of similar flights leading down to the next plaza.

People passed them, going across the plaza and up and down the stairs: humans, liontaurs, and others. Some seemed busy, others meandered, but all seemed to have a clear idea of where they were. And they were all polite.

“Rakeesh is…” En Shevil trailed off, looking around and having no idea where to go. Cities needed streets! She shook herself and continued. “Rakeesh was a friend of mine while he was in Shapier. He’s a liontaur. Achim said he was going with him to Tarna.”

“Where we go?” Toro asked, stamping his hooves nervously. A passing canine looked up at him briefly, but did not speak.

“I suggest we try that large building there,” Elsa said, pointing to the unstable rectangle. “We may ask for directions, at least.”

Inside the dark doorway they went, Toro ducking low to pass under and all three standing still for several moments while their eyes adjusted. A woman approached them, looking Egyptian in dress. “Habarishi, Bwana. Nharak sa’id, effendi. Welcome to the Welcome Inn. I am known as the Welcome Woman.”

They all looked around them. There were several tables at which people sat on cushions eating. Stairs led up to a balcony that circled the entire, tall room and was filled with doors. Satisfied that this was the right place to be, Elsa said, “We need two rooms, connected if possible.”

The woman nodded and smiled. “If you will but pay fifteen Royals, you may have two fine rooms for seven days.”

“When we have seen the money changer of your city, we will pay you,” said Elsa as they all realized their error. “For now will you give us directions to the home of…” Her brow furrowed.

“Rakeesh,” En Shevil put in.

“Rakeesh and his lifemate Kreesha live under the sign of the pentagram across the plaza,” said the Welcome Woman. “If you will but pledge to pay when you have seen the money changer, I can situate you in your rooms immediately.”

En Shevil looked over at Elsa with surprise, and found the same emotion on the other’s face. ‘Pledge?’ “Very well,” Elsa said, and the woman gestured them to follow her. With the gaze of most of the inn’s patrons on them (that is, on Toro), they went up the stairs and through a door. The room looked comfortable enough, with two beds and a door standing open to a second room. The welcome woman bowed herself out.

With a sigh En Shevil deposited her pack on the floor and shook out her velvet cloak before putting it back on. “Where to now?” she asked. “The money changer, I assume.”

“I believe I should visit the money changer while you try and find your friend Rakeesh,” Elsa said. “I will take Toro with me.”

En Shevil’s progress was impeded, however, immediately she parted company with her friends outside the inn. A man had been standing beside the doorway, apparently waiting for her.

A long scar ran from the top of his right ear down to his collarbone. His brown eyes were flecked with black and serious, his hair long and of a dark brown-black. He was shorter than she was, rather stocky, and clad in mail. A large sword hung at his side, and a pack was on his back. However, he looked remarkably clean and un-travelworn for an adventurer. He approached her swiftly. “You are the one called Deathscar?”

“Yes, I am.”

He had been joined by another man, a canine, shorter and somewhat fatter though of less initial width. He looked more the adventurer, clad in Punjabi-style travelware that had apparently seen much use. A bow was visible across his back, slung where it could be easily reached and not hindered by the pack/quiver he also wore. He seemed quite agitated, and the expression on his face was one of barely restrained outrage. He did not speak, however, and it took En Shevil a few moments to see the other human’s hand, quite low, in a warding position. This man spoke again. “I charge you, in the name of Honor and for the good of Tarna, to come with me to the Hall of Judgement to stand before the Council of Tarna.”

En Shevil sighed; she’d known this had to come sometime — it was exactly that from which Achim had sought to protect her by bringing her to this very place. Without even bothering to ask the man’s name or business with her, she nodded. “Very well,” she said.

He looked at her curiously, then gestured. Making sure to keep the armored man between the canine and herself, she went with him across the plaza, up the stairs, and to the doorway on the right. A liontaur guard stopped them. “This is she?” the woman asked, gesturing at En Shevil.

“Yes,” the armored man told the liontaur.

The latter turned to the maruroha and nodded her head. “I have been instructed to take your weapons before I allow you to enter.”

This was another not-surprise, and En Shevil unstrapped her two sheaths — katana and maruroha — from her back and handed them to the liontaur without question. Her heart was beating rapidly by now, and she wondered what would be the outcome of this afternoon.

Inside, the chamber was high and wide, ornate and richly-furnished with fine pallets for the liontaurs who sat within. At the far end of the room on a great seat of ivory sat a stately male liontaur with a look of contempt about him, and before him were six women. This was the Council of Tarna, and En Shevil did not like the way they were gazing at her.

The armored man gestured her to stand aside to the left of the walkway running up the middle of the room and dividing the Council into threes. With his companion, the armored man took three steps forward. “Council of Tarna,” he said — “I, Seanque sheah Olio, Paladin of Awehara, stand before you.”

“Seanque sheah Olio, you stand before us in honor.” This was the far liontaur on the left side, wearing a tall orange headdress, gold earrings, and an intricate necklace. She held a staff in her hand.

“I, Todi of Punjabi, stand before you,” said the Paladin’s companion, his hairy fists clenched.

“Todi, you stand before us in honor. Paladin, speak your errand.”

Seanque gestured at Todi. “At the bidding of this man, I have sought and followed the killer Deathscar until I found her in this land. I bring her before you, knowing the honor of the Council of Tarna, that justice may be served.” Seanque looked to En Shevil with a nod, holding out a hand to her. The look on his face was puzzlingly sympathetic.

“The Council of Tarna has heard of the rampage of this so-called killer,” said the liontaur nearest her on the right — she wore feathers of green, pink, and black on a silver headdress with a red gem.

“The Council now calls Deathscar to stand before them,” said the one with the orange headdress.

Reluctantly, En Shevil took several slow steps forward. The other two humans stepped aside, and the maruroha swallowed hard. “Ah… here I am,” she said. “I… stand before you.”

“Deathscar, you are accused of high-degree slaughter in the lands of Punjabi, Avva’rel, and Spielburg. How do you answer?” There was complete silence in the great chamber, every pair of eyes fixed on the maruroha warrior. The liontaurs’ were unblinking, almost impassive; the kings’ were even distant. The humans’ were intense, staring straight through her as if to pierce her soul.

En Shevil took a deep breath and spoke clearly. “I am guilty of the charge.” The liontaurs around her drew back visibly, the looks on their faces taking on a horrified mark. “But when I did those things I was insane. Completely. I had no idea what I was doing other than… responding to a… an instinct, almost, something physical that I could not resist because my mind was not clear.” She had never put this thought into words before. It had not been something she’d liked to think about before. “I have since been cured of my insanity by the wizard Erasmus –” she thought it best not to mention her recent relapse in south Spielburg — “and have striven to atone for my wrongdoings with a life of honor.”

There was much stirring among the council, and the women spoke among themselves. Finally one, the most naked of the six, asked, “Will any speak for the testimony given by this human?”

“I will speak for En Shevil,” came a deep voice from behind her.

Turning with a smile she cried, “Rakeesh!”

“Rakeesh sah Tarna, you stand before us in honor,” said Orange-headdress. “Speak for her, then.”

“I knew En Shevil, that has been called Deathscar, in Shapier for some time. I know what strength she carries within her–more than enough to fight the darkness that has been implanted in her soul. I also know that this darkness is foreign to her, and that her heart is pure. She is not naturally a murderer, and will not become one again.”

En Shevil noticed Seanque nodding as he stepped forward. “I can sense in her a great evil, but it’s something she’s fighting.”

“But…” Todi began.

Seanque cut him off gently, shaking his head. “She’s not a criminal, and has no reason to be punished.”

“All the same,” said an older liontaur woman, “we do not know fully that we can trust her.”

“The word of Rasha Rakeesh sah Tarna should be enough for that!” another said indignantly.

“Let her soul be weighed by Sekhmet,” suggested a third, the youth who had asked for someone to speak for En Shevil.

“No!” cried the liontaur with the pointed red headdress. “That law has been broken once too often!”

“This is a great matter,” said another gravely, “as was the first. Perhaps a judgement of her soul is in order.” This one wore a blue headdress with a pentagram over her brow.

“Her destiny is caught up with that of the Prince of Shapier,” Rakeesh put in. “If he was allowed to be tested, so should she be.”

There was thoughtful silence for a moment, and En Shevil wondered what Achim had gotten himself into here. Then the king spoke. “Let the human’s soul be weighed. If she is judged unworthy, let justice be meted to her.” He stood, and the other liontaurs stood with him. A guard advanced and took En Shevil’s arm, though not roughly, and guided her towards the door.

“En Shevil, are you all right?” Elsa asked as the maruroha came out of the Judgement hall.

“I’m fine, Elsa; nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“What are they doing to you?” She gestured to the guards at the other woman’s sides.

“They’re just taking me up to their temple to be judged, or something.”

“This is not your concern, human,” said Red-headdress haughtily as she emerged.

“En Shevil is my friend,” Elsa replied hotly. “What happens to her is my concern.”

The warrior from the Council Hall separated Elsa and En Shevil. “You are forbidden to enter the temple. Her fate will be decided there.”

En Shevil was taken around a corner and up the very long flight of steps to the dark doorway. The warrior liontaur took her place beside it, gesturing the other guards away, and Red-headdress, whom En Shevil guessed to be a priestess, indicated that the human should enter. None of the other Council members had come with them besides the young warrior.

Inside, En Shevil was taken to face a massive statue of a six-pawed leonine creature of strange, inexplicable beauty. A priest was called forth from some inner chamber, and the ceremony, if that was what it was, began without preamble.

“Hear me, your priestess, oh Sekhmet, Mother of Tarna. There stands before you one who shall be judged. Her soul shall be weighed against the Feather of Truth, and the future shall be revealed: whether life in honor or death in justice.” From the altar-like table before them the liontaur took a large cup full of swirling black liquid. “Drink now, soul that shall be weighed. May you balance the Feather of Truth.”

En Shevil took the cup in both hands, feeling its weight as she looked at the dark contents. With a deep breath she took a sip, not sure exactly how much she was supposed to drink, and in an instant was dizzily toppling to the ground. Her vision failed.

When she awoke, or that was how it felt, she was floating bodiless in a strange landscape of shifting greens, pinks, and blues. The eerie colors hurt her eyes, and she tried to close them but could not. A voice spoke.

It was the priestess, and it said, “Choose that which you were.”

Immediately a number of hazy objects appeared floating before her, all gilded and heavily shadowed. A heart, a key, a pentagram, a sword, a cup, and an ankh all beckoned to her, each seeming to cry out that she should choose it. But there was no doubt in her mind as to which she wanted, and she reached out mentally for the ankh. The voice spoke again.

“As you enter a town, you see a group of people gathered around a crude gallows. A badly injured man with a noose around his neck calls out to you for help and says that he is innocent. The crowd shouts, ‘Murderer!’ What do you do?”

En Shevil would have frowned. “I would…” she began, thinking. “I would defend him from the crowd until I could discover the truth.”

The objects faded, to be replaced by a second set. “Choose that which you are.” From the hourglass, key, yin-yang, ring, infinity symbol, and fist arrayed before her she chose the ring; it was not much of a choice, as once her nonexistent eyes laid hold of it they would not let go. “You are battling a powerful dragon and both of you are near death. The dragon offers you half its treasure hoard if you will let it live. What do you do?”

“Why am I battling this dragon?” En Shevil almost demanded, at once and with a feeling of shock.

“It has been terrorizing the kingdom,” answered the priestess after a moment’s hesitation.

En Shevil thought hard. “The treasure hoard doesn’t matter to me, but I won’t kill it. I will use its treasure to bargain with it, and make it leave the country.”

There was a short silence; then the priestess intoned, “Choose that which you shall be.” This time ankh, candle, pentagram, sword, cup, and ring were the items presented. En Shevil was suddenly at a total loss, for none of them spoke to her. In her mind was everything dead silent, and she had no idea which to choose. All was clouded, and the brilliant colors behind the objects commanded her attention more than the objects themselves. Finally she chose randomly, and found that she had again selected the ankh. It looked bigger than before.

“Three huge stone statues stand before you,” the priestess said. “One is of a lion, one of a falcon, and one of a snake. Each of the statues speaks to you, saying, ‘Choose me and I shall guide you.’ What do you do?”

“Guide me where, I wonder,” En Shevil said rhetorically.

The priestess answered her anyway, “I cannot say.”

“I would choose the falcon, I think.”

All went black for a moment, and when the colors returned they bore before them the image of the head of the goddess-statue in the temple. It spoke. Such was its voice that En Shevil trembled and marveled, for it was at once compassionate and cruel, ancient and ageless. It was the voice of the goddess Sekhmet. “Thy soul has been weighed. Thou hast chosen thine own path, and by that path ye shall be judged.”

The ankh appeared. “The first is that which was: peace. The Ankh is life, wisdom, the union of male and female. It is the doorway to enlightenment. It is inner knowledge. With the Ankh within, you have harmony. With the Ankh within, you respect all living things.”

The ring displaced the ankh. “The second is that which is: desire. The Ring is Purity and Perfection. It is without beginning or end. It is wealth, the sign of authority, the oath of honor. It is a token of love, a pledge of faith. To choose the ring is to reveal the need for things ungained, and a yearning for that which is not.”

Again the ankh appeared. “The third is that which will be: greater peace. Again the Ankh is life and enlightenment. In the future it is greater than in the past; it is greater harmony and it is greater respect for living things.”

A yin-yang appeared, shimmering. “That which you are and that which you should be are not the same. Your life has been lived in apathy and darkness, but your desires and actions belie this. Your soul is in conflict, but it is only because you are greater than what you have allowed yourself to be.”

“Thou hast been judged worthy.”

En Shevil abstractly breathed a sigh of very real relief, and then realized that the ceremony was not over.

“You have gained darkness, but may tread the path of greater light. Cast aside you indifference and the comfort of the darkness; face your fears and learn what you should know. Only thus can you become what you should be.

“Do not rely on your friends for more than knowledge, for they have their own paths. Gain from them all the knowledge you can, but hinder them not in their ways. It is through learning that you may grow.

“Above all, remain diligent. In apathy lies not a return to your former self but a return to darkness. Death is not your way, but neither is a life in vain. Work for the future and the self you should become.

“This is that which might yet be. Thy path is thine own to follow or not. Go forth freely now, mistress of the darker night.”

***

In warmth and comfort she awoke again–then sat up, startled. Looking around in shock she found herself in the room at the Welcome Inn. A bitter taste was in her throat, and she felt light-headed. Elsa spoke from behind her. “They brought you down from the temple and gave you into my keeping. I was very glad to hear that you are not to be executed.” En Shevil did not speak, only got to her feet and stretched. She felt deliciously rested. “You have slept for several hours,” Elsa continued. “An angry canine followed me all the way to the door of the inn, shouting curses about justice all the way. Another man had to restrain him.”

En Shevil smiled wanly. “Just like that girl in Spielburg,” she murmured sadly. “I’m glad too that I’m not going to be executed. Have you talked to anyone here yet?”

“I visited the money changer and settled our business here. I bought some SPIM in the bazaar, but I have mostly been waiting for you to awaken.”

“Where’s Toro?”

“He was invited to walk through the liontaur section of the city; he will be back before nightfall.”

“Well, I want to find Rakeesh. He probably saved my life back there. Come with me?”

Elsa nodded, and together they left the room.

Across the plaza at the doorway under the pentagram, En Shevil was unsure of what to do. After moments of hesitating, peering into the dimness, she was startled by a woman’s voice calling her. “You may enter, En Shevil.”

“Ah, thanks,” she said, and did so, followed by her friend.

Within stood Rakeesh and one of the liontaur Council members; it was the one with the blue headdress and the pentagram. “Greetings, En Shevil,” said Rakeesh. He appeared to be smiling. “I understand your judgement with Sekhmet was satisfactory.”

“Yes… well… yes.” En Shevil knew she should be happy that she’d not been condemned to death, but still wished she understood the goddess’ words a little bit better. “Rakeesh, this is my friend Elsa von Spielburg — Elsa, this is Rakeesh.”

Elsa made a manly bow to Rakeesh, who responded, acknowledging her in the style of Tarna. “It is my honor to know you,” Rakeesh said. “I have heard much of your heroics in your father’s kingdom.”

“And from En Shevil I have heard much of you,” Elsa said.

“This is Kreesha, my lifemate and friend,” Rakeesh said with a gesture.

“We are glad to meet you,” Elsa said.

Rakeesh then turned to En Shevil. “I guess you have come to Tarna because of Achim?”

She nodded. “We wanted to find him. What can you tell us?”

Rakeesh sighed, shaking his head. “He defeated a very powerful Demon Wizard, but a week later he disappeared. I was with him at the time — he simply vanished, and I sensed some evil involved in his taking.”

“I fear it may have been some kind of backlash from the Demon Wizard,” said Kreesha. “The spell which removed him came and went so quickly that I can find no trace of it, and cannot tell what sort of magic it was. Since, I have attempted to locate him, as has the archmage Erasmus and the enchantress Aziza. But none of our spells can find him.” En Shevil folded her arms and looked at the floor. Kreesha hastened to add, “That is not definitive, however. If you will but remain here for a while, we may receive news of him.”

The Shapierian looked back up at them, sorrow in her face. “I guess I have no other choice,” she said sadly.

“I am sorry,” said Rakeesh, remembering how he had once comforted Achim on a very similar point in this very room. “Perhaps you would like to go hunting on the savanna with me. We could speak.”

Kreesha looked at her husband with slight surprise, and En Shevil’s expression was quizzical. Rakeesh must have something specific to say to her, and it couldn’t hurt to listen to him. Maybe he could help her with Sekhmet’s prophecy as well. “All right,” she said.

At that moment another liontaur entered from another chamber. She was younger, and bore a resemblance to Kreesha. “Ah, Reeshaka,” said Rakeesh, “come and meet our guests.”

Reeshaka advanced and greeted them. “I am Reeshaka dar Kreesha, a warrior of Tarna.”

“I am En Shevil, or Deathscar,” said the maruroha unfalteringly with her hybrid-bow.

“And I am Elsa von Spielburg.”

“I am honored to know you.” Reeshaka did not react in the slightest at En Shevil’s ‘other name,’ and the Shapierian hoped that maybe she had not heard the rumors. “Do you go hunting with my father?”

En Shevil looked at Elsa questioningly, and the other said, “En Shevil shall. I shall remain in the city and relax.”

“My kind hunt by night,” said Rakeesh to En Shevil with a tone that was somewhat challenging. “Is this all right with you?”

En Shevil gave a half-smile — she was too depressed to grin — and nodded. “Sunset at the gates?” she said.

“I shall be there,” Rakeesh replied.

“Then we’ll just go now,” En Shevil said with a sigh, and turned to leave. “Thanks for the information.”

“Thank you,” said Elsa, smiling at the liontaurs before she joined En Shevil out the door.

Outside, En Shevil immediately forsaw trouble when she observed the canine and his Paladin companion approaching them. The Paladin looked troubled.

“If you weren’t under the protection of the Council,” the canine growled, baring his teeth at her, “I would shoot you through the liver.” He called her something very uncomplimentary in company with a rude gesture. She looked away while Elsa hung back. “You killed my family,” he said in a tone of anguished rage.

Heart threatening to rend, En Shevil faced him once more. “I’m…” She simply could not find the words. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, thanks,” he spat. “That makes it all better.”

“Is there anything I can…?” It sounded stupid.

“You can die.

She sighed, tears rolling from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said again, this time because she did not intend to die. “I’m sorry.”

Todi clenched his fists, teeth still gleaming openly, and turned sharply to walk away. “Justice,” he shouted. “Where is justice?”

En Shevil also turned, heading swiftly towards the inn, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “There is something you can do for him,” Seanque said from behind her. She faced the Paladin. “A generation ago, a great treasure was stolen from Todi’s… late… grandfather. It was a book, listing all the genealogies of the royal families of Punjabi and Avva’rel for more than a thousand years. It was very valuable, and very precious to his family. No one knows where it is now. If you happened to find it on your travels, and returned it to them, perhaps that might alleviate your suffering somewhat. It would probably not help with theirs, but at least you would know that justice had in part been served.”

“Thank you,” she said, truly grateful.

He nodded, and walked away.

Elsa looked as if she wanted to say something but did not know the right words. En Shevil smiled briefly at her, grateful as usual for the friendly sentiment, and continued towards the inn.

That evening at sunset, En Shevil was at the gates as she had promised. Wordlessly she and Rakeesh set out into the savanna as the light faded and both pairs of eyes switched to night-vision. “We will go to the north-east,” he said, “and find some zebra.” She nodded, and for some time they jogged in relative silence.

Finally Rakeesh remarked, “You have changed much since I knew you in Shapier.” En Shevil only nodded. “Tell me what has happened.”

She sighed and began to explain about Bandis, Ytsomo Kwai, and her maruroharyu training. “Then I killed a man. I didn’t find out until a long time later that it was that that made me go crazy. It was because I killed him in anger, and it woke up the dragon blood in me; Orono says my body and mind can’t handle that, so I went crazy.”

“I know what happened then.”

“No, you don’t. You only know the outside. But… I became something so… so evil…” She was frustrated that she could not adequately explain.

“I do know,” Rakeesh said quietly. “That was specifically why I wanted to talk to you: it left a mark on your aura, and anyone who can read auras will be able to sense it.”

“What is it?” En Shevil asked in horror.

“I fear that you have rediscovered the Way of the Avigilante.”

“The what?”

“The Avigilante Way was rarely taught, but many found it on their own. It is the natural opposite of a Paladin, a Dark Paladin if you will. Their powers are as diverse and mighty as are those of a Paladin. It is lucky for you that you were healed when you were, else you might have been tainted with the dark powers for life.”

“But you said I was tainted already!”

“Not irreversibly, however. The Way of the Paladin, being the natural opposite, can erase the evil of your past.”

“How could I ever become a Paladin?”

“The Way of the Paladin welcomes any who choose to follow it, for it brings happiness to one’s life whether it is followed in completion or not. Though, as I have said, your aura may be tainted for life, you can never be so far removed into darkness that the light is beyond your reach. As great an Avigilante warrior as you were, even greater a Paladin may you be.”

She shook her head. “I still don’t understand how I can just forget what I did, especially if I want to go with all this Honor stuff.”

“Sadly, it is often impossible to forget the dishonorable actions of one’s past,” Rakeesh told her. “I would guess this to be the case with you. However, a Paladin’s power is based on the Honor if his or her heart and soul, and the strength of his or her Will — not by the deeds of his or her past. If you still cherished the evil as you did in your madness — if you still desired to kill as you once did–then I would say Paladinhood was beyond you. But you have put those things behind you. Though while the implanted evil within you remains you may never gain the great powers of a Paladin, it is the intent and the purity of your heart that will drive you towards the road of light.”

“I think I understand,” En Shevil said slowly. “If I want to be good, and I continued to deny the part of me that’s evil, my Honor will be based on that desire and the part of me that is good?”

“Exactly,” Rakeesh replied with a smile. “If you strive with all your Will to resist the evil within you and build to a greater good with what you have, you will be on the road to Paladinhood already.”

“And how can I know if I’m on the right path?”

“You will feel it, when you do right and when you do wrong.”

She nodded. “But one more thing,” she said, stopping him. “Something feels wrong about hunting for my own food.” Something deep also felt right, but that only heightened the human sense of wrongness. “Can your Paladin Way fix that?”

Rakeesh was inwardly overjoyed: such a question proved that En Shevil was prepared to hear anything he had to say. “I shall explain,” he said, “as we run.”

The Welcome Inn was beginning to glow in the light of dawn, ruddy and friendly, as En Shevil returned from the savanna. To her surprise, Elsa was sitting at the table in their room and looking as if she had not slept at all.

“I have been thinking,” she said. “A messenger arrived by magic while you were gone and brought me this letter.” She held up a fine-looking parchment of off-white. “I shall read it.”

“To the renowned and honorable Elsa von Spielburg,

“It may have reached your ears that King Justinian of Silmaria has been assassinated. Rather than claim the kingship as would be my right as a descendent of Silmaria’s kings of old, I have pressed for a more democratic method of decision. Through the time-honored Rites of Rulership, seven tests of valor and virtue, the new King of Silmaria will prove himself and ascend the throne. Having urged so vehemently for these Rites to take place, I have now been called open to produce and sponsor a contestant. There are several reasons I have chosen you.

“The first is that I believe it is your desert. You are in your own right a princess, daughter of a man who is king in all but name. However, you have been cheated out of your heritage by the dated concept of primugeniture, and have been forced to give way to a brother whose worth as king is dubiously based on his greater age. I would provide for you a surrogate birthright by giving you a chance at the Silmarian kingship.

“The second reason is that I have a strong belief in your ability to win these Rites, as well as to proficiently head the kingdom once you have done so. I would choose neither a bureaucrat incapable of performing the tasks demanded by the Rites, nor a mindless hero incapable of ruling the country after he had won it. Your expertise in governing the brigands of Spielburg while under enchantment impressed me, but your brilliant actions in driving them out once disenchanted proved to me fully your capability of both winning and successfully maintaining the kingship of this land.

“My third and last cause for choosing you arises from a more metaphysical concern for Silmaria. The kingdom being settled on a group of islands, we are quite often cut off from the rest of the world. Thus we are late to receive and accept many of the developments of modern times. One such idea is that of women adopting roles that are, in Silmarian tradition, reserved for men. Two such positions are warrior and king, and that your being one could lead to your being the other would certainly come as a shock to the people, but would be to their greater enlightenment as they were forced to recognize and applaud your proficiency at both.

“I cannot pretend that what I am asking of you would be in any way easy. The Rites themselves are designed to prove the worth, physically, mentally, and spiritually, of the competitors, and not to be simply completed; besides this, we know that there is an assassin loose somewhere in the kingdom — two have fallen to his poisoned blade, and more may yet be killed before he his found. I am, in essence, asking you to risk all for a country you may never even have seen. However, when you consider the stakes and set them to balance against the rewards, you may find that this venture is worth your contemplation.

“My messenger will return to you in three days’ time, drawn by magic to the seal on this letter. If you would be so kind as either to tell him of your refusal or to accompany him to my home on the island of Minos — which lies near to Marete, primary island of Silmaria–I would be infinitely grateful. I offer you board in my house and access to all the vast resources a rich and powerful Silmarian counselor can provide, if only you will come and aid us in our time of need. You are as a light in the darkness of a troubled time; therefore I ask not for myself, but for my country.

“Yours most sincerely and respectfully,

“Minos, Counselor to the Kings of Silmaria”

There was silence for some time while the two women looked at each other. “Just when things were looking up,” En Shevil finally said in a rueful tone. “You’re going to go, aren’t you?”

Elsa nodded. “It was not an easy decision. My search for the Prince of Shapier cannot be lightly abandoned, nor do I wish to part from you my friend. However, since you will be carrying on that search and will understand my reasons, I feel I can do this. They need me in Silmaria, and I need them. I cannot help feeling that I should have been the ruler of Spielburg after my father.” She shook her head. “I feel that fate has placed this opportunity in my hands, and I would be a fool not to take advantage of it.”

“I do understand,” En Shevil said with a sigh. “I’ll miss you, though.”

Elsa smiled. “And I will miss you. Perhaps you may come and visit me some time.”

“I’ll try.”

En Shevil had never been a creature of much patience. After Elsa left, the diminutive joys of life in Tarna–sparring with Reeshaka, discussing magic with Kreesha or Honor with Rakeesh, and wandering the savanna — soon dwindled to barely-endurable pastimes that did little to keep loneliness in check. For one thing, she did not like Reeshaka much, and was coming to be so proficient with the katana (with Rakeesh’s tutoring) as to beat her solidly every time. She still did not feel comfortable with all the talk of magic, and feared that she often alienated Kreesha with her distancing and withdrawals. Lastly, talk of Honor and the Paladin Way suggested to her restless mind more fixedness than she was prepared to suffer at the moment. She did not have the patience to remain in Tarna and become a Paladin or anything of the kind. She needed to get out, go adventuring, experience new things. She needed to retrieve a book and vanquish a dragon. She needed to forget her past and build a new future.

But mostly, she needed to find Achim.

She remembered the last few times she’d left her brief place of residence and set out for unknown adventures. She smiled as she thought that none of them seemed, in her mind, as bright as this departure. Perhaps, she reflected, the world was not so dark because the mirror in her room was not so dark.

“I am sorry I have no news of the Prince,” Kreesha said as En Shevil prepared to leave. “I will send you word immediately if I hear anything.”

“Maybe we can have a rematch sometime,” Reeshaka commented, though without much hope.

Rakeesh put his hand on the human’s shoulder. He was smiling his fierce, friendly leonine grin. “I am proud of the strength with which you act,” he said. “Your destiny is brightening every moment you tread the right path. Do not forget the Way, and eventually you will do no wrong. I wish you good fortune in your search, Sekhmet’s guidance in your travels, and Honor in all your dealings. Farewell, En Shevil.”

So, with the promise of her destiny brightening and Sekhmet’s good will upon her, En Shevil set forth again, head high, towards a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness, but with it always Honor.


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