Pride of her Parents 17-19+

…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 17 – Dance of Destinies

This chapter was to begin with En Shevil accompanying Achim around Silmaria as he looked for balloon components. As you’ll see in the scene below, this plan doesn’t quite fit with what I’d already written, wherein En Shevil seems completely ignorant of and surprised by the completed balloon.

That evening, En Shevil fights Elsa in the arena. Who wins? I really have no idea.

The next day, Achim tests his balloon by visiting Katrina on Zante. In the scene below, there’s some implication that En Shevil is aware of this, but I don’t know how she knows. Meanwhile, En Shevil visits another world through the transporter. This was intended to be a moment of crossover with another QfG fic world I had going way back in the day, but of course that never happened.

Though the scene below claims to be taking place on the same day as Achim’s test run, my timeline had it set for the following day.



“Dazah!” cried Achim cheerfully. Cheerfully, no doubt, because he’s been to see his lady-friend, thought En Shevil grimly, not stopping to remind herself that Achim was almost always cheerful. “Come with me!” He beckoned her over to him, much to the smiles of those around him in the marketplace. Gloomily she trudged down the stairs and walked across the plaza, past the bank and to where Achim stood on the bridge. He spoke quietly to her as he took her arm and walked towards the docks area. “I’m going to Delos,” he said. “I’ve put together a flying machine!”

She shook her head in disbelief.

“No, truly I have! It works, too! I tried it out this morning, but I thought I’d see if you wanted to come with me and hear your future.”

She shook her head emphatically no.

He looked a little crestfallen. “Well, I don’t care if you want to hear your future or not. I’m not too hot on hearing mine, either. But do you at least want to come with me?”

She shrugged, then nodded.

“Great! Come on!” He started to run, so apparently excited was he, and she had no choice but to follow, shaking her head the entire way.

He slowed once he reached the foot of the stairs beside the Dead Parrot Inn, and kept on at a more or less reasonable walk. “The Famous Adventurer also told me there’s a grove full of dryads on Delos. He said something weird about dancing with them and bringing them presents or something, so I picked up some stuff I thought dryads might like and I figure I’ll visit them too.”

En Shevil rolled her eyes under her mask, but kept her head politely still. These Rites of Rulership were getting silly. She noticed they were heading out the north gate, and assumed they must be making for Science Island.

The lengthy process of attaining the latter done with, En Shevil was able to see where Achim’s ‘flying machine’ was standing, on a platform just above them. To avoid being criticized as she had been on a similar Science Island, she levitated them up to their destination. Achim thanked her quickly and pulled her aboard. It was shaped like a small boat, with a strange hexagonal bag of limp cloth attached to it and oar-like contrivances that must be for steering. Still skeptical, she sat down and leaned back against the wall, waiting for this miracle to work. Achim pulled a tinder box from his pack and lit the small brazier that sat in the center of the boat, then sat back himself, apparently waiting as much as she. The brazier, she noticed, sat directly under the opening of the prostrate bag, and as she watched the hot air from the little cooking device began to fill the cloth form and cause it to billow into the air.

At that moment she was frightened — what if this cursed thing should work, and she be carried up into the air with nothing but a piece of wood between her and the deep, terrible ocean? Shuddering, she clenched her hands on the sides and waited, ready to teleport herself anywhere else should the thing actually begin to rise. After a few moments more, she had calmed somewhat, when suddenly the flying machine jerked and jumped into the air. Its ascent after that first lift was surprisingly gentle, and she found herself no longer afraid. In fact, the smooth movement of the gondola as Achim propelled it forward with the wing-like oars was rather soothing, and she even ventured once or twice to look over the side.

“You see?” said the Hero. “Isn’t it great?”

She managed a half-hearted nod, still amazed that the thing worked at all.

“I’m going to win this Rite too.” He sighed suddenly, but did not continue.

She tilted her head in curiosity, but he was not looking her way. Does he think of me or Katrina? she wondered. Is there any hope left for us? She suddenly sat up straight. There’s one way to find out, she thought, and that’s at Delos. She willed the wind to a higher speed.

They floated over Marete without a word, she looking down in amazement at the mouth of Mount Draconis below them. That was a sight she’d never thought to see. “That’s Delos there,” said Achim at last, and began poking at the coals in the brazier, trying to cool them. En Shevil helped with magic, not realizing how she was going to terrify herself when they descended much more rapidly than she could have desired. However, they landed in one piece and secured the gondola, then began tramping through the wild toward a spot Achim had marked on his map but they had not seen from the air.

With every step they took the forest became denser, darkening with thickening foliage and approaching dusk. The temple they reached after a half hour’s walk was shadowed and eerie; the building itself was in ruins, shattered, overgrown, and unreachable, but what was left of the courtyard was relatively free of plant life. Toppled and broken lay most of the pillars, however, save those that had framed a path up a flight of steps to the temple doors. Between the highest two stood the statue of a woman, without detail and with the appearance of great age. Beyond the stairs was a beast-mouthed fountain pouring into a square pool of little depth, silvery and calm.

Together they approached the stairs and the statue, both assuming that this must be the key somehow to gaining an audience with the oracle. But when after several moments nothing had changed, En Shevil began wandering around the small paved area looking at things. She knelt and took a drink from the fountain; its waters were sharp and clean. In the pool floated a large black-purple flower with massive petals and a compelling scent, but she left it alone as it had the feeling of death about it. On the timelessly-preserved floor that lay under the water a few feet down, a number of coins lay shining. She knelt and pulled up her flared sleeve, reaching down into the water; but she was strangely unable to reach the glittering metal.

Achim’s eyes were locked on her, his thoughts singular: that her arm looked like En Shevil’s arm, with the same subtle musculature and slender length, but without the dark tan or the long, thick scar. He sighed, and she looked up at him. He turned away casually.

Retreating from the water’s edge, she continued to look around. On an ornate yet decrepit pillar, standing before the fountain and leaning far to the right, she could make out inscribed words somewhat dulled with age. As she read them, she shivered, for even had they been pleasant words in themselves, they were not associated, in her mind, with pleasant memories.

Paean unto Hades. All waters that flow on the earth flow to Hades. Alas, all life soon flows there too. Where those waters flow, a gate will open. Alas, too soon it opens for you.

Sing unto Hades this sad sorrow’s song. Alas, all life is quickly passed, and the gates of Hades shall open before you. Alas, this song shall be your last.

She slapped her thigh to get Achim’s attention, and when he turned she beckoned. As he read the words he nodded. “F.A. told me he found this here. You should feel lucky you didn’t have to come into Hades with me.”

Lucky… she thought with a sarcastic tone, but stopped, unsure of what exactly she was thinking. A small splash made her turn, and she noticed Achim standing beside the pool. Had he added another coin to the unreachable depth?

Suddenly a voice echoed through the clearing, majestic and elegant: “Any who seeks their destiny must seek alone.”

Achim turned his head to look at En Shevil, who shrugged and headed for the forest. When she was gone, Achim looked around for something to change. Maybe he needed more money. But before his hand was halfway into his belt-purse a soft light began to shine down from the statue between the pillars. He raised his eyes, and saw that the statue had transformed, gaining life and becoming who he guessed must be the Sibyl herself. Once more she spoke, and Achim listened in silence.

“Welcome, rescuer, mourner, Prince, master of the night. I am the Sibyl, who sees what is to come. Hear now the future that fate brings you:

“Your way is darkened with blood and death. The first death that you have confronted yet lives. The second death, Death itself, has already dragged you to its depths, and there is yet more to come. The next death you face is one whose fate crosses yours. That which he cannot own he would destroy. He will seek victory even in his defeat.

“Seven deaths, and the Dragon grows restless in dreamless sleep. Four posts that pinned it to darkness have been broken in blood. Three more shall be shattered in death. The last death shall awaken the Dragon fully. New-awakened, the Dragon is weak, but each feel of fear and pain feeds it. Fix first the pillar or it shall fly free. Death brought the Dragon to life. Only death will defeat it. Through the blood of love and the death of death will the Dragon die. Without sacrifice the Dragon is deathless. The last death you face will be the death of Death.

“Your way is marked with death. Face it gladly and your way is marked with glory. That is the fate that awaits you.” The statue’s green, hooded gown faded once more to the brown-grey of stone.

Achim shook his head. None of that made any sense. The only part he understood was that about Death dragging him to its depths: that must mean the Rite of Courage. And now he had to face more death? Too confusing. And, most disappointing, nothing to clarify his confusion on the matter of women. En Shevil, Katrina, Dazah… too many women in his life, and all the Sibyl could say was something weird about the ‘blood of love.’ Again he shook his head, and turned his steps for the entrance of the clearing.

Dazah was gazing up into a tree, watching a pair of birds singing together. Achim smiled and tried to sneak up on her, but she turned sharply and shook her head at him. Snapping his fingers in disappointment, he said, “Well, I’m done. It didn’t make any sense, what she said. Do you want to try?” Dazah nodded. “I’ll wait here.”

En Shevil made her way back to the Sibyl’s courtyard, fervently hoping that she would understand whatever the oracle had to say. Once there, she pulled a drachma from her pocket and tossed it into the water, watching it sink very slowly to the bottom. When it settled, the light shone on her and the statue moved.

“Welcome, killer, divided, warper of prophecy, mistress of the darker night. I am the Sibyl, who sees what is to come. Hear now the future that fate brings you:

“Your way is torn, and by your choice will you be broken. The choice lies in action or fear, and you will be torn by it. The path of action is dark, filled with death and evil, the evil of the Dragon that you must battle. The path of fear is darker, filled with endless death and boundless evil, the evil of the dragon that you will become.

“Choose the path of action and you will conquer, by your sacrifice and your courage to overcome the three things which you most fear. Glory and honor are yours by this path. You will be broken, but that part which is good shall be the remainder. You shall be torn, but that which you fear shall vanish.

“Choose the path of fear and the dragon will consume you, destroying with your hands all that you love. Destruction and lonely madness are yours by this path. You will be broken, and that part which is good shall be commended to nothingness. You shall be torn, and that which you fear you shall become. Lastly must you be torn by death from that which you love.

“Only by the blood of love shall you find the death of your death, and only by the action of goodness. That is the fate that awaits you.”

En Shevil shook her head. None of that made any sense! The only thing she understood was that she was to have a choice between destroying a dragon and becoming a dragon, which was almost logical when she thought about what she was. But what was this about being broken and torn? She sighed: no mention of Achim at all. What did the Sibyl mean, ‘blood of love?’ Still shaking her head, she retraced her path back to the forest.

They walked in silence through the forest, each thinking of the Sibyl’s words. En Shevil did not even know where they were going. At last they came to a spot where the trees opened into what looked like a hallway with floor of roots and roof of boughs. Stepping carefully through after Achim, En Shevil looked around her in shock at the dryads as she entered the clearing. Seven of them stood in a semicircle around a grassy plot onto which the passageway opened. Tall and stately, they were shaped somewhat like slim, beautiful women with mossy hair of various colors and closed eyes on their delicate faces. A deep aura of nature surrounded them, and a feeling of magic that was familiar (she could not remember whence). Here was wisdom, age, and power along with beauty.

“Julanar gave me these seeds,” Achim said, pulling a small bag from his pack. “I thought the dryads might like them. They’re magical, fast-growing seeds.” He went to the first dryad and bent, scraping a little hole in the ground at her roots. Pressing one seed into it, he covered the hole again. How sweet! thought En Shevil, enraptured. After a moment’s thought, Achin pulled an amphora from his pack and gave the newly-planted seed a small drink. Whether it was the seed, the water, or both, the dryad awoke. She raised her head, hair swinging back, and opened her eyes. They were a watery blue and very bright. The dryad began to sing.

It was an eerie, haunting sound — beautiful and riveting, like the unexpected flowing of river water to an invalid who has been indoors for many months. Achim and En Shevil stood totally transfixed for long moments, listening to the wordless song of the dryad. Then Achim moved on to the next, repeating his planting ceremony.

The second dryad’s voice joined the first in a clear, soft harmony, still in a minor key and frighteningly lovely. Achim continued to the rest of the dryads in the circle, giving each a seed and a drink. As he finished with the last, he returned to En Shevil’s side, in the middle of the clearing, and faced the dyrads to see if anything interesting would happen.

The song was complex, seven voices rising and falling in wonderful patterns, but now more sounds joined them: a beat of the hooves of young bucks, lords of the forest; an undertone of water, the uneasy-peaceful rushing of the sea against the shore; the chirps of nighttime crickets; the calls of many unfamiliar birds: all the marks of nature, over which the dryads ruled, filled the humans’ ears and consumed them. Orbs of sparkling, pastel light flew before their eyes, swirling around them and illuminating the clearing with strange, wild colors. The wind whistled softly as the dryads swayed with their music, and the flowers began to grow.

The seeds Achim had planted sprouted with the magic of the song, and great purple blossoms, magnificently huge, crept their way up and around the trunks of the dryads, giving them robes of brilliant violet and green. With this magic En Shevil could feel some power rising around them, rising within herself, that promised to burst forth any moment and sweep them both away.

Suddenly they were dancing, dancing together in an exotic waltz to the tune of the dryads’ song. But there were no dryads. There was only she and he in each other’s arms, whirling in a mist of light and color, sound and feeling, a oneness with the universe and with nature. They spun from cloud to cloud, the world changing hue as they went. Clasped hands up, they turned out from each other and came back, pirouetting together once again, dizzyingly and so wonderfully. They careened dangerously close to the savage lightning, thunder their drumbeat. Green spheres surrounded and illumed his face as he smiled for the pure joy of living. They flew through a sky of birds and dove, weaving in and out in a dance so complex it could not be. Rays of royal purple colored her hair as it whipped around her face, and she laughed silently. They floated lazily above the mirror-calm lily-water, then raced down with the river to the sea. They swam, both fearlessly, through a silverwhite rush of coruscating fish, twisting around each other to form patterns in the water before they broke the surface and danced back into the sky once more. He sent her out under his arm, crimson lights attaching themselves to her as she spun, and pulled her back to him…

And the music stopped.

Once again in the forest glade, dark now and silent but for the dim, distant sounds of Delos’ animalia, they found themselves standing in the blue-brown shadows of early evening, tightly clasping each other and looking into each other’s faces — one masked, the other with a look of serious joy that was almost frightening.

They each sprang back, mortified, and looked away from the other. The dance had ended; the Rite was done. Still, all through the nearly silent trip back to Silmaria, En Shevil could not help but dwell on those few endless moments where she had felt once more at last his embrace, felt one with him as they danced through the unity of nature. Whatever his new attachments might be, she could never forget that she was in love with him.


Chapter 18

This chapter, which never got a title, was the one that needed the most work; as you’ll see, it consists only of a very brief scene and a lot of timeline entries. If this chapter were as close to complete as the others I worked on back in the day, I might have forced myself to finish it all up properly. But, then again, I might not have.

So here we open with the announcement of the Rite of Peace. Of course En Shevil runs off to find her little boyfriend, or perhaps just runs off to Mary-Sue about for a while and then he finds her. In any case…



“Hey, Dazah!” Achim cried from behind her. She turned from the board, smiling invisibly. “You saw what the new Rite is, right?” She nodded, eyebrows down. The thought of her Achim going all the way to Atlantis–an underwater city–was not at all appealing to her. “Are you coming with me?” She shook her head violently. “Aw, why not?”

She shook her head again, raising her hands in a no-way-in-Tartarus sort of gesture, and he shrugged. “Well, I’ll see you when I get back then.” He started to walk off, then stopped. “Well, will you come with me to Zante?” She started at the name, wondering what Zante could have to do with the Rite of Peace. Making a questioning gesture with her hands and shoulders, she asked him why. “I figure my friend Katrina can help me solve the water problem.”

En Shevil dismissed that with a wave of her hand, hoping her magic was powerful enough to do what she intended. She approached him and put her hands on either side of his head, then envisioned his various breathing organs. With a surge of magical power she did some quick editing, and he was ready for business.

“Whoa!” he cried, jumping back. Apparently he’d felt that. She made what she hoped was an I’m-sorry gesture, and then some swimming motions with her arms as she took a deep breath. “You mean–” began Achim with a grin. “You’re sure…”

She nodded almost hesitantly. She was, of course, not sure. But she did not want him running off to Katrina for help. “Hey, that’s great!” Achim gave her that teeth-flashing smile of his. “Thank you so much!

She nodded her acknowledgement, and waved him away. As long as he doesn’t go to Zante, she thought.



Achim goes off to swim and such, while En Shevil heads into the transporter. It was going to be another crossover, this time with the world of a different QfG fic author — what we’d arranged to happen was basically ‘En Shevil gets killed’ — but obviously that didn’t happen either.

It takes Achim until the next day to get the Rite of Peace done. While he’s working on that, after her crossover adventure, En Shevil returns to Delos seeking the Sybil’s insight on the drug. The statue does not speak to her, but something (I forget what; probably the feeling of death mentioned in chapter 17) causes her to pluck the black lotus and take it back to Silmaria. (Though nothing ever actually comes of this.)

The next day, Achim presents the Peace Statue and wins the Rite. Then my timeline says, Achim drags En Shevil around with him all day; acquires deed to Gnome Ann’s Land; dances at Gnome Ann’s Land. I assume this means that he’s dragging her around in the pursuit of the deed and such, but who really knows at this point?

What reaction I had envisioned from En Shevil seeing her erstwhile boyfriend in ladies’ clothing I don’t recall, nor in what light I was going to have that scene play. Fifteen years ago I was much more stupid about gender boundaries and stereotypes than I am now, so I don’t really like to imagine what I might have had in mind back then.

This day is also the first of En Shevil’s week as the arena champion. I don’t have anything noted for whom she’s fighting or what the outcome is, however. As I said, this is the most incomplete chapter of the final four.


Chapter 19 – Blood of Love, Death of Death

We open this chapter with the announcement of the Rite of Justice. Achim goes to Zante to ask Katrina’s advice on the matter, though I’m not sure why or what she could possibly know. Maybe he just wants to see her? I’m sure that makes En Shevil happy. En Shevil, by the way, recognizes Katrina on sight in the scene below, but I don’t think I ever wrote or even planned a scene in which they meet face-to-face.

En Shevil, meanwhile, is trying to dig up information on the assassin, and visits the Thieves’ Guild looking for clues. No indication in my notes about what she finds. This, by the way, is her second day as arena champion, but again I didn’t designate an opponent for her.

The next day, En Shevil goes through the transporter again. This was to be yet another crossover, with another author’s world, but I don’t remember anything about it. She would probably have been killed by someone else’s main character again. Too bad.

In the evening, Achim encounters Bruno and heads off to Minos Island. Then, in the middle of the night, the following scene takes place…



“En Shevil,” came a great voice that she could not help but recognize, shattering her sleep and making her jump.

“Orono!” she cried.

“The time of thy proving draweth nigh, little one. Arm thyself.” As Orono continued speaking, En Shevil arose without question, dressed, and prepared for battle. “Even now thy champion and Elsa fight for the freedom of this land, but they shall fail, for Minos is their doom. The Prophecy Stone shall be broken and the Dragon of Marete shall awaken. If the heroes fight, they shall conquer, but not without heavy and grievous loss: the dragon shall claim many lives before the battle endeth. Thou art the only hope for them.”

“Why me?” asked En Shevil, speaking magically.

“Thou hast the blood of the greater dragons in thee, child. Now thou mayest live up to thine heritage, thrust on thee though it was: conquer this dragon and destroy it; save thy friends and prove thyself a true Heroine worthy of the man thou lovest.”

“How in the name of Iblis am I supposed to kill a dragon in some way that they can’t do just as easily?”

“Listen, thou arrogant child! The Dragon of Marete was created by the binding of dark powers. Thus, he is of the lesser blood, with no consciousness beyond the desire for death. Such creatures can, in the course of centuries, be tamed by those of greater blood, but for him there is now no such chance. Thou, of the higher breed, hast the power to control him for a time, to drive him away from Marete and weaken him unto his destruction. Thou must throw aside thy petty fear of the power within thee, for thou wilt need it to the last.”

“Why can’t you just kill him?”

“I give thee but a chance to regain thy standing in the eyes of dragons the world over. If thou deniest this opportunity, Marete shall not be destroyed.” En Shevil understood. She didn’t even have to take this chance; the dragon would still be killed if she went back to bed. Orono added, “Perhaps after this deed thou wilt feel at peace with thyself — saving the lives of all of Marete must surely be recompense for taking the lives that thou hast.” There the dragon was wrong, of course, wasn’t she? No matter — having heard what she had, En Shevil could no more remain here than she could swim. She secured her silence charm around her neck, and at that moment the air filled with magic, rippling, and she disappeared.

Startled, she found herself in a very different place: great rocky walls reared up on all sides, dark yet lit with a pulsating crimson light. A river of lava lay before her, the painful heat causing her to step back. Through its steam she saw the warped image of a brilliantly-colored temple, before whose shattered doors stood the dragon, restrained only by three thin lines of purple lightning. Nearby stood Achim, Elsa, and Toro, and, above the ground in an oval of red light, Katrina. She could not be sure, but it seemed that a small crowd of humans was massed in the hazy darkness to her left.

“Dazah!” cried Achim. “I’m sorry to drag you into this, but help me stand this pillar up!” He was pushing against a dragon pillar, the last one unbroken on Marete. She looked around, wondering whether to obey him or face the dragon. “The dragon can’t be harmed if this isn’t standing!” he cried. So she ran to his side.

Even with their combined strength it would not move. Elsa, Katrina, and Toro were all heading for the dragon when another shape appeared through the steam, green-skinned and huge. “Gort fight dragon,” he said, surprising them all. “Gort be hero too.”

With a shocked smile Achim cried, “Gort! Come help us with this thing!” The false man approached and applied all his effort to the pillar, which, with three sets of arms and backs working on it, slowly righted. “Everyone! You can attack now!”

The group that En Shevil thought she had imagined in the darkness poured forward, and her breath was caught in her throat as she saw the familiar shape in the lead: Reeshaka was pitting her small band of EOF warriors against an opponent that was doubtless beyond the mental scope of any of them. Nevertheless, she admired their bravery. But for all the attacks, magic and otherwise, now being placed on the monster, the dragon did not seem to be taking any hurt.

“Sacrifice,” she heard Achim say as he stood upright, slapping his palms on his thighs. “Katrina!” he cried, turning. “The Sybil said there must be a sacrifice for the dragon to die! ‘The blood of love!'”

“Blood to attract the forces from the dragon? That would work! Who though is willing to face this death?”

“‘Face this death’–‘blood of love…'” She did not hear him whisper, En Shevil… “I’ll do it!” said Achim. Her heart leaped with fear, and she grasped at him as he ran from her side, though she missed him entirely. Achim stood before the dragon, just across the river, raising his arms. “Hey, dragon!” he shouted, throwing his magical spear at the monster’s head. The latter rose into the air, letting out an earsplitting roar that spoke to En Shevil’s ears the love of death and a lust for blood. That horrible kinship had again awakened in her with the sound, strong and fierce as it had not been on Hydra Island. It stirred her anger, and, caught up in a sudden rage, she took a deep breath and returned the cry, roaring the dragon’s roar from weak human lungs fueled by magic and despair. Something sharp lodged itself in her chest, and she realized she had shattered her silence charm.

But she had prevented the sacrifice. The dragon’s head remained motionless in the air, startled in the unexpected recognition of one of its own kin in a strange body. Its attackers were staring at her as well, and for a moment all was silent. She ran forward, jumping with a double flip over the stream and racing to the dragon’s side. Laying her hands flat on the burning hot flank of the creature, she opened herself to him. The great rolling desert of her magic was laid bare to the searing pool of magma that was his consciousness; the two combined, lava spilling onto the sand and melting it until all was a rolling whirlpool of glassy molten rock. She entered into his mind, somehow letting her body unform; she was the dragon.

Images of his life bombarded her: a primitive, devilish awareness pairing with dark powers called forth by the Atlantean wizards to create him; destroying most of Atlantis, then flying wildly over the sea, twisting and spinning through the swiftly-moving air that heated at his passing; burning for the sheer joy of ruin, destroying forests and towns, evaporating lakes, devouring every creature in his path. She felt once more the adrenaline of killing, and the evil passion of Avigilante power. Deathscar had returned. She saw him sleep, glutted on the lives of thousands, for many years; she felt the hunger of his awakening, his realization that a new island had formed where he had destroyed the old; she felt him arise and destroy once more, bringing new death to Silmaria. Deathscar rejoiced at his triumph, feeling the glorious fullness that came from the dragon’s feast.

Then she felt his pain as he weakened, suddenly and without preamble, at the raising of a simple pillar by the hands of tiny men. A second pillar stood, and she felt his power being bound. With every new pillar she cringed, feeling it in him like a knife wound. Finally she watched him retreat to the palace in Dragon Blood Cavern, bound and powerless. The wrath of Deathscar joined with her brother dragon at the humans who had caused him such pain. All was the desire to make them suffer.

She watched him in the darkness of long years, brooding and bitter, until a sudden snapping crack, accompanied by the dying cry of a Silmarian guard, gave him a sudden hope of new life. The second death and broken pillar woke him fully, and soon five more deaths were to set him free. Free. He was free to bring vengeance on those who had imprisoned him. His strength regained, he was no longer a prisoner of pathetic man. He was Doom, and Deathscar was with him in readiness, joining him in the pleasure of his sudden freedom. Their quest was now for the destruction of Silmaria.

They reared up, breaking the lightning bolts like ropes and sending them snapping, whip-like, into the ground with crackling surges of dying power. They beat their wings, rising up above the heads of the frightened attackers, and rose out of the rocks. Two small shapes followed them into the sky. High above Marete they soared, ready to sweep down and bring destruction on Silmaria and anything else they could find. The dragon Deathscar laughed, roaring with its newfound strength.

But En Shevil was not dead yet. Slowly, even as the dragon she had become prepared to bring doom to the little island, she regained control of herself. The Sechburg months of concentrating on pushing Deathscar aside had been of worth, for without them she would never have had the strength to do so now. More than ever she could see the split in herself: En Shevil the human, the thief, the warrior, and Deathscar the dragon, the murderer, the madwoman. She could not be dragon and human at once–and therefore the Dragon must die. She drove him away from Marete.

Briefly over the sea they flew, wild and consumed with fire and rage. Over the mainland where their shadow brought fear to all who stood below; past barren lands where little grew and no man lived, and finally out to where the great ocean was cold and empty and huge islands of ice floated. They twisted and dove in the sky, he attempting to shake her from his mind. But as his fire died in the cold of the north his mind and her magic were cooling, hardening together irrevocably. She knew that once she left his mind, her magic (what she had not already exhausted) would be lost to her forever, trapped in the dying consciousness of a creature she had renounced, relinquished with the dark power from the depths of Marete. So also would be lost her own draconic half. But how to kill him?

They fell towards the sea, feeling her strength draining out of her as he fought even harder for control. Into the icy water they plunged, a great steam rising and waves spreading out in every direction. There was no more fear in her for this water, this dragon’s grave–it was life after death as Deathscar met her final end. They struggled, he still trying to break free and she ever weakening, but she pushed him deeper, until light was gone and his body drew its last breath. And there the dragon died. As his mind spun into blackness, pulling her with it, she grasped at the last thread of magic, her last chance to live–willing herself out, willing herself free. She felt a terrible pain as if she were being ripped apart, as if someone were tearing her heart from her chest, wrenching some inner part of her like a bee’s stinger. At once came the sensations of something strongly grasping her arms and existence fading away into nothingness. But even as the sable curtain fell across her vision, she smiled with a spirit mouth, knowing that what she had lost was a killer. Whether En Shevil lived or died, Deathscar had come to her story’s conclusion.

When she awoke she was on the uncomfortable bed in the octagonal room of Erasmus’ castle. Through what stricture of magic she did not know, she was clothed as she had been before the battle, save only that her charm was gone and her hair once again blonde. She sat up, chest fluttering, then fell back again, completely exhausted. “Achim,” she murmured.

“Last thing I heard, he was headed for Minos to beat someone up, or rescue Elsa, or something.” This was Fenris, who now hopped onto the bed beside her. He said something else she could not hear, for she fell then into an intense and dreamless sleep until at least ten hours later when she again opened her eyes and sat up. Her energy was totally restored, but something was missing inside her. She felt lighter somehow, less weighed down, and yet somehow complete and full as she had not been since her transportation to Itsumo Kawai. Rawn sat at the table looking out the window into a night sky. She sighed once, then turned her head towards En Shevil. Seeing her awake, she jumped up and rushed over to her, every semblance of Faery calm momentarily gone. She swore some oath of her homeland and clasped the other in her arms. “You’re alive!”

“I’ve been alive for the last while, it seems” she said.

“But you could not hear me say it while you slept,” said Rawn, her eyes filled with tears. “And you have saved Silmaria from Doom.”

“How did I get here?”

“I thought you were gonna die, so I lev’d you into the transporter. And now you’re back, safe and whole.”

“Levitated me? From where? I was miles away, out in the ocean!”

“Your friends rescued you. The demons.”

“How?”

“They followed the dragon, and found your body.”

“Askgaella doesn’t have wings.”

“It would appear she does now.”

“How? Where are they?”

“They said they are going east, but that they will see you again.”

“What? Why did they leave?”

“They seemed rather shy of humans.”

“Where is Achim?”

“I have been watching him for you. When he reached the city he collapsed; he is also only just awakened. The city now wishes to know your fate. They asked me if I knew aught of you, and I told them I would look for you. What do you wish?”

“My magic is gone,” said En Shevil softly, picking up the mask that lay on the table. “Send me to Achim, please. I must speak with him before I decide.”

“You will tell him? You know he loves you.”

“I… haven’t decided yet.” And I don’t know that. Rawn nodded, and magic filled the air. She found herself standing beside the gate near Gnome Ann’s Land. Achim was walking slowly up the slope, doubtless heading for the Hall of Kings. “Achim,” she said. He stopped, remaining motionless for a moment, then turned and looked at her. His hand went to his face, then he ran to meet her and throw his arms around her. He was weeping, and did not say anything for several moments.

Finally he released her, taking a step back but never removing his eyes from her. “Dazah,” he said. “You’re alive.” She nodded slowly. He reached one hand into his pocket, and his cheeks went red. “I keep making the mistake of not acting soon enough, and run the risk of losing someone else I love.” He pulled his fist from his pocket and opened his hand to display a golden ring with a small white gem. “Will you… please… marry me?”

Her emotion at that moment, to hear those words, was indescribable. Almost without thought guiding them her hands reached up, slower than slow, to the mask on her face. Close to tears herself, she removed it and dropped her arms again, looking him openly eye to eye for the first time since she could not remember when. “If you still want me, I will,” she said.



Evidently I had intended another scene, or at least a transitional paragraph, here, since I have a line of nonsense words in the file breaking up these two parts. Maybe I was just so happy to have finally hooked up my boring leads that I typed nonsense words in my excitement. In any case, on with the ending!



After a tearful meeting with Logos, Rakeesh, Erasmus, Rawnmé, and Elsa, during which plans were made and goodbyes were said, En Shevil, Achim, and Elsa were called to stand on the platform as the entire population of the island was summoned to the Hall of Kings. Needless to say, only the very lucky citizens actually got a place in the Hall, the rest spilling out into the courtyards and beyond. As the battle-weary group stood on the platform in the Hall, all they could see was a mass of happy movement, and the overwhelming sounds of joy swept over them. En Shevil’s heart fluttered in a way she had never before felt as she realized that she was one of the primary causes of their happiness. She glanced up at Erasmus and Rawn as they lounged on a hovering purple sofa nearby. They smiled.

Logos stood forward, raising his staff for silence. This spread like a wave out of the wide-flung doors to the standing crowd without. Eager anticipation was in the air as the centaur began to speak. “The Rites of Rulership are over. Here are the heroes who have freed Silmaria. They have freed our fishing villages, and driven the invaders off Marete. They have defeated the general of the mercenaries, and made certain they will never return to Silmaria’s shores. They have dared the depths of Hades, and proved their courage and valor. They have brought us peace with Atlantis, and made the seas safe for boats and travel. They have brought the unjust to justice, and made the murderers pay for their crimes. These are the ones who averted this dire fate. These are the Heroes of Silmaria!”

The aforementioned were deafened by the roar of loving gratitude welling from the wildly applauding crowd. Cries of loyalty were in every throat, tears in every eye. Minutes passed as the Silmarians continued to cheer, until Logos raised his staff once more. When they were quieted, he continued.

“Many of our citizens, although uninvolved in the Rites of Rulership, have stood beside the Prince of Shapier and the Heroine of Spielburg, and gallantly risked their lives in facing the Dragon of Doom so that the prophecy of Silmaria’s destruction should not come to pass. To name them, Toro the minotaur; Gort the scientist; Reeshaka dar Kreesha and her noble warriors of the Eternal Order of Fighters; and the mage Katrina.

“But another has also faced the dragon, shining above the rest in her courage and self-sacrifice. Though seemingly resigning herself to death in the action, she single-handedly defeated the Dragon of Doom; she has saved Silmaria and the rest of the world. Here is Dazah, En Shevil of Shapier!”

The cheers that followed must have been heard in the far corners of the earth, and the great hall shook to its foundations. En Shevil was so filled with happiness that she covered her face with her hands and wept.

Truly she had redeemed herself.

“One person has proven himself beyond all others in the Rites of Rulership,” continued Logos at last. “He has shown again and again the true meaning of heroism. He has earned the title of Hero in four lands, and again in ours. Silmaria has never had someone more fitting to sit upon her throne. Achim, Prince of Shapier, will you bear the burden of our crown? Will you become the next king of Silmaria?”

Achim grinned, looking around the Hall of Kings gleefully. “I will not be your King,” he said at last. There was a noise of general surprise and limited displeasure from the crowd.

“Why? Why have you gone through so much for us, risked your life for Silmaria? Why do you not want the reward of the rulership of this kingdom?” Logos knew, of course, but wanted Achim to tell the assembly.

“I do not intend to leave my adopted father without an heir, and it will be a big enough task to rule Shapier someday.” He turned to En Shevil and took her hand. “Also, this Heroine here has finally agreed to become my wife, and I intend to go home and marry her before she runs off again!” He pulled her to him and put his arms around her. For a moment there was silence as there had not been for any previous pause, a sort of collective gasp at the perfect, fitting sweetness of this announcement. Then arms waved and a tremendous cheer burst forth, a cheer more full of encouraging words and hopeful phrases than any other had been.

Logos was smiling at her and the tears running down her cheeks. “The blessings and good wishes of Silmaria will go with you both; may your union be one of happiness and peace. And do you both take this as token of our gratitude.” He gestured, and a guard stepped forward with something in his hands shrouded in black cloth. “The Prophecy Stone is gone, but it will always be a symbol of this dark time in Silmaria, and the light you have restored. Wolfie the canine has prepared this replica, and now we hope you will accept it as a badge of honor.” The guard presented the small statue to En Shevil, who pulled free the cloth and gazed at the Stone in wonder. This, then, was the symbol of their victory. It was truly beautiful. “There is but one other apart from the Prince who has proven that she deserves the throne of Silmaria. Elsa von Spielburg, will you be the next king of Silmaria?”

Elsa, looking righteously proud, responded, “Yes, I will serve this kingdom gladly, for the honor of Silmaria and these my friends. I will be King of Marete!”

Logos nodded, and raised the gilt-edged box of dark carven wood which he held. Dead silence fell as he lifted its lid and drew out a thin silver circlet set with a single blue stone, holding it up before the people. He turned to Elsa, who knelt, and set it slowly upon her head. “Behold Elsa, King of Silmaria!”

The following elated clamor from the people was thunderous, Elsa’s smile more genuine than most En Shevil had ever seen on her face. The new King of Silmaria went over to her friend and squeezed her hand. “Thank you,” she said, though En Shevil could only read her lips.

“Congratulations,” the Shapierian replied. “I know you’ll be wonderful.”

Achim shook Elsa’s hand heartily with a wide grin, and put his mouth to En Shevil’s ear. “Are you ready to go home?” he asked.

Longing suddenly with a weary homesickness for the sands of Shapier, she nodded, and he signaled Erasmus. “Yes, please,” she said as magic filled the air and the sounds of cheering Silmarians dimmed. “I want to see my parents.”



So that’s the official end of Pride of her Parents, and I think it raises a lot of questions. Can En Shevil really get over her interminable angst guilt about what she did as Deathscar? Why did Orono imply that En Shevil was still terrified of magic when she’s clearly been using magic indiscriminately (and at Mary-Sue levels of power) for quite some time? Did Achim really think he was in love with ‘Dazah,’ or was he just so happy to see her alive that he inadvertently proposed? If the game hadn’t been patched, might he not have engaged both her hand and Katrina’s? And what the crap actually happened to Askgaella and Gorllex?

Well, some of those questions might have been answered, more or less, in one or both of the sequels I had planned. Sequels to a story that was destined never to be finished? Yes, this is the way I work.


About the Sequels

The first sequel to Pride of her Parents was to be called Second Chances, a fairly blatant encapsulation of the story’s theme. Harun Al-Rashid tells En Shevil that, though he’s allowing her to marry his adopted son and heir, he doesn’t entirely trust her. He believes in second chances, however, and is allowing her the opportunity to prove herself trustworthy. So there’s a huge wedding ceremony, and En Shevil is made Princess of Shapier. Can you guess which Gloriannan kingdom I’ve always liked to inflict cultural appropriation on best?

Anyway, I wrote a scene:



A cloaked man, pressed into a corner at the back of the hall by the excited crowd, scowled and clenched his fists. “Princess. Hah! That’s just a common harem girl.”

“That may be,” said his companion, gazing intently at the newlyweds. “But we are not here to discuss them, for I must return to W.I.T. as soon as may be — I’m not supposed to leave during my 200-year basic training.”

The other smirked. “If it weren’t for me, you’d never have lived long enough to get to W.I.T., let alone known enough magic to pass the entrance exam.”

“I know perfectly well enough how you saved my life and set me up as the apprentice of Ad Avis,” was the reply. “Its results might well have been disastrous but for that young man yonder.” Al Scurva pointed to the prince of Shapier. “And so I am hesitant to give you what you asked for — I don’t want you to harm him.”

“How I use it is my own business. Besides, you said yourself that you don’t know how to unlock its powers. I’ll sell it and get out of his country — and hers, now.”

Al Scurva nodded. “Here it is,” he said, and dropped into the other’s hand a wildly ornate ring of immense size and apparent value. “And I’d advise getting out of the country soon. The Dark Master is at W.I.T. right now, and Shapier is her next stop. Sparks may fly when she meets up with the prince and princess. Not that she calls herself the Dark Master anymore, but I don’t trust her.”

“I can take care of myself,” the cloaked man said with a thin smile. “Your debt to me is repaid; now get back to W.I.T. before I squeal on you.”



That was Khaveen, by the way. Under that cloak? Yeah, Khaveen.

So. Dinarzaad wants to start a proper Thieves’ Guild in Shapier, and asks En Shevil and Achim for their blessing on the endeavor. This they readily grant, since apparently any moral development of these characters during PohP did not affect their thiefly ways.

Katrina comes to visit Achim, who may still be slightly in love with her. En Shevil doesn’t trust the former Dark Master (and is undoubtedly ridiculously jealous), and tells Achim so, perhaps in not so many words. Achim, who also believes in second chances, invites Katrina to stay at the royal palace.

Khaveen comes to Katrina in secret, and they discuss how to get En Shevil out of the way. En Shevil, you may recall, is still part djinn, and can therefore be bound to a magical item and commanded just like any djinn. Perhaps Katrina has recognized this (I have no notes on how they know this will work), because she agrees to create a binding ritual to bind En Shevil to the ring Khaveen obtained in the scene above from Al Scurva.

En Shevil receives a message supposedly from Dinarzaad requesting that the Princess come inspect the premises of the new Thieves’ Guild. When En Shevil goes, she instead meets Khaveen, who really sent the message (how he knew about Dinarzaad and the Thieves’ Guild I also don’t know), and he performs the ritual that binds En Shevil to the ring. Then he takes her to Rasier.

In Rasier, Khaveen has En Shevil enchant Zayishah so she thinks she’s in love with him. Then he gives this public sob-story about having been under Ad Avis’ power all along, and this allows him to marry Zayishah and become co-ruler of Rasier alongside her. The Sultan gives him basically the same speech he gave En Shevil about second chances.

Katrina volunteers to help Achim search for his suddenly missing wife, and leads him off on a wild goose chase to various random places hoping that he will realize that he loves her more than he ever loved En Shevil.

A note in question marks, indicating I wasn’t sure about this plot point, mentions Khaveen having En Shevil murder former Emir Arus Al-Din, probably just to get him out of the way in case he tried to assume power again. This would have been awful for Miss Angsty Former Deathscar, and who knows whether it would actually have happened or not?

Meanwhile, Achim and Katrina discover some old friends.



It was one of those semi-cool nights where the wind has a full, fat feeling to it and whips so wildly about that one almost believes inadvertent flight is possible. The partially-forested land through which they traveled gave them an ample, if fluctuating, taste of these disorderly gusts as they passed from one copse to the next. Katrina had placed a peace spell over them to make walking a bit easier, but that didn’t keep stray wisps of moving air from reaching in and wreaking havoc: tearing the band from Katrina’s hair so it snapped out behind her like a flag, throwing Achim off balance by its unexpected force so that he leaned heavily on his creaking staff or sometimes fell. It would have been a pleasant night for, perhaps, hide-and-seek or capture the banner; it was not a pleasant night for travel.

“I think there is a valley ahead,” Katrina relayed back to him. She always led in such weather, since the spell was easier to maintain, she said, from the front. Her voice sounded soft, but he knew she was nearly shouting. Even within their shifting sphere of semi-calm, the storm-promising weather was roaring.

“We should stop there!” Achim replied, equally loudly.

“I am overtaxed,” Katrina said wearily. “We must stop there.”

The valley opened abruptly beneath them; it was really more of a large ravine. In the darkness they could see no way down, but one thing was quite visible: the lights at the bottom. They blinked as trees swayed and hid them, but invariably came back: friendly town-like lights in reds and greens. Achim smiled faintly: civilization was always a good thing, because there they might find news of En Shevil and her kidnapper.

A burst of light from his left startled him, and he watched the four glowing orbs spin from Katrina’s hands into the valley, illuminating the land all about in search of a navigable downward path. It was some time before they found one, and that was some distance away. As they picked their way along the valley’s lip to the spot where the grade was somewhat more accessible, Achim could see Katrina drooping. She’d been sustaining the calm bubble for miles now, and must be exhausted. He hurried to offer her an arm, and she leaned on him gratefully. And only a few steps downward the wind stopped.

They continued to hear it whistling, however, above them as they moved carefully down the pseudo-path, but somehow the ravine seemed eerily quiet after the tumult of the gale. Katrina let the spell go and held onto Achim’s arm tightly, now letting him guide. So it was that they were attacked — she weakening with every cautious step; he blindly attentive to her needs.

They must have come from the trees, Achim confusedly reflected, for they dove down feet-first from either side and each knocked one of the travelers to the ground. Achim seized hold of the shrub into which he was flung and thus held himself, but Katrina tumbled several yards down the uncertain slope until she came to rest with a moan against an upthrust rock.

The prince jumped to his feet at once, though his shoulder ached where he’d been struck. His enemy came at him again, a dark shape swooping down towards him just as the first lightning-flash of the storm shot through the clouds high above them and poured light into the valley for the splinter of a second. As he hit the earth a second time, Achim cried out in surprise, for that momentary view had told him much: wide, bat-like wings, a long, dart-ended tail, and an inhuman visage had marked his attacker for what she was. But what were demons doing here?

She was on top of him now, yanking his dagger from his sheath and tossing it away. She tucked her wings as they rolled painfully over rock and bush, working methodically to secure his hands. When she had done this her wings burst open again, and caught her to her feet. He was brought to stand, and could feel the sharp, warm point of her tail against his neck.

Her companion appeared in front of them, coming to look closely at their captive. At the same time, though his newly-acquired scrapes and bruises were beginning to smart and his head was reeling from a blow, Achim attempted to return the favor.

The other demon was clad in black, an intricate outfit of strange and overlapping design that left the right shoulder bare. This caught the human’s attention because of the glowing tattoo that adorned it, a bizarre and vaguely disturbing symbol. A symbol that he recognized. It was at this moment, looking at the exposed shoulder, that he noticed Katrina on her feet behind it, preparing to cast a deadly spell — a spell he recognized far better than he did the bright coiling lines on the demon’s shoulder.

“Stop!” he shouted. “These are allies!”

With the first word the demon had snapped around to face Katrina, but at the latter phrase had turned again to regard Achim with confusion and surprise. The mage held her spell, ready to unleash the furious dragon fire at any time. “What are you talking about?” she demanded, hoarse and suspicious.

“Just trust me,” Achim said, then directed his words at the other man. “Will you take us to your queen?” I’d better be remembering this right, or we’re likely to end up possessed.

“You know of our queen?” the demon demanded. “What is your name?”

“I am Achim, Prince of Shapier, husband of En Shevil.”

His addressee started, eyebrows rising in shock. Achim’s arms were instantly released and he felt the demoness step away. “That name is indeed a password,” she said. “Your pardon, lord.”

Achim felt himself gingerly and looked around for his pack and walking stick. Katrina had lowered her arms, but her stance was yet stiff and skeptical. “What are these creatures?” she said. Her voice trembled with exhaustion, and her hands trembled. Achim went to her in consternation.

“I think they’re friends,” he said. “Let me find your pack.”

“We will carry you and your lady to the stronghold,” offered the demon.

“Oh,” Achim said, a bit embarrassed, “this isn’t En Shevil — this is Katrina, my friend. En Shevil was kidnapped, and we’re looking for her.”

“The savior kidnapped?!” gasped the demoness. “How? By whom?”

At that moment Katrina fainted, and Achim barely caught her. “Let me take your companion down,” the demon said, coming quickly to the prince’s side. “I will have a room made up for her. But the queen will want to see you; will you come at once?” It was beginning to rain, and as he relinquished the woman’s limp form he looked about him for their fallen things. “I will send someone up to find your pack,” the demon added, sounding somewhat ashamed.

“Very well,” the prince allowed. The demoness jumped into the air, caught his arms as she wheeled, then plunged sickeningly into the darkness below. They barely, but quite expertly, missed a slough of obstacles, and soon the lights of the little town were more that points in the blackness, but windows clearly visible. They landed within a walled yard before a large but plain building of wood. The rain was by this time pouring, but was thinner here at the valley’s floor. The demon and Katrina were not readily visible, and the demoness hustled the dizzied Achim inside before he could cast even a glance about for them.

A long hallway with doors on either side — the entire place was wood, smoky candles illuming the way — and a large room, opening up at the end, filled out the entire expanse of the building. This expansive chamber was empty and dim, and seemed a council room of sorts, as a lengthy table surrounded by ladder-back chairs



So Askgaella and Gorllex have started a haven for, basically, demons that don’t want to be evil. What sucks about this is that it seems to have been mostly a cameo, because they don’t show up in the rest of the summary for this story. Askgaella was kinda the best PohP character, and her continuing adventures seem way more interesting than all this nonsense with Katrina, but whatevs.

Eventually Achim and Katrina get back around to Shapier — possibly because they’ve heard news of weird stuff going on in Rasier and Achim insists on going back despite Katrina’s deceptive protests trying to keep him away. And then the hyper-drama really starts.



“Aw, I hate it when Ishah’s doing her Emir stuff,” Khaveen grumbled, slamming the door and stalking into the room. En Shevil, kneeling by the bed as he had commanded her this morning, looked away in distaste. “And don’t you give me that look,” he cried, adding an unfriendly moniker. He strode over to her with a grin, anger disappearing in an instant as it always did with her — she couldn’t disobey him, after all. “En Shevil, I command you to kiss me,” he said.

“To hear is to obey, master,” she replied with a sigh, starting to rise in disgust as she turned her face towards him.

A strange, sudden noise filled the room, and the door burst open, its hinges blown away by destructive magic. Khaveen pulled away from his slave, and she fell back down onto her knees. “Khaveen!” Achim roared. “Get away from my wife!”

“Your wife, huh?” Khaveen mocked, though she could see how surprised he was at Achim’s presence. “If she’s yours, why’s she here next to my bed?”

With an obscenity towards his rival Achim advanced.

Khaveen continued to speak, unperturbed. “Let’s see… how can I hurt you the most? Kill her?”

“No!” the prince shouted, sprinting forward.

A cruel, bestial light kindled in Khaveen’s eyes; he quickly put the bed between him and Achim as he spoke. “You’re right! That wouldn’t be bad enough!” Lips pulling wide into a maniacal grin, he screamed, “En Shevil, I command you to kill him!

The room fell silent for a split second as everyone froze in horror except the enslaved. She climbed slowly to her feet, biting her lip, her heart tearing with every move she made. Slowly, very slowly, she spoke against her will. “To hear… is to obey… master.” Tears pouring from her eyes and jaw set against a welling agonized scream, she began moving very slowly towards her husband.

At that moment fire filled her vision and she was hurled backwards in great pain against the far wall. Katrina stood crouching, hand aglow with crimson light, face twisted with rage, before Achim. “I won’t let him die,” she growled.

En Shevil pushed herself to her feet and again started her advance. “Thank you,” she said between clenched teeth. “But if you stand in my way, I will have to kill you.”

Katrina cast another spell, sending a ball of lightning towards her enemy. En Shevil blocked it with a magical wall. “Don’t thank me, fool!” the Dark Master cried as she began another offensive. “I’ll kill you, and Achim will be mine!”

The truth of the entire business dawned on En Shevil just then. “So it was you that gave Khaveen his power over me!” she cried. “How dare you?”



So of course they fight while the men watch. I don’t know if you remember all the details of this nonsense, but the reason En Shevil is half djinn is because she absorbed the powers of the dying daughter of Iblis and Orono the dragon. So basically En Shevil is half Iblis. I know, right. Anyway, even the former Dark Master can’t stand up against angry half Iblis, so Katrina is defeated.

At this point, as Katrina dies, she activates a sort of failsafe she built into the enslavement ritual, which frees En Shevil from the ring and Khaveen’s control so En Shevil won’t be forced to follow the command to kill Achim. This is the kind of dramatic bullshit I absolutely adore. Even now, years and years later, I’m kinda like, Oh, that’s some good stuff. She really loved him all along! For some reason.

So then of course En Shevil kills Khaveen. The notes don’t indicate what method I had in mind for her to use, so I’m not sure whether or not I remembered my own magical rules here: En Shevil’s dragon magic left her at the end of PohP, and she can only use her djinn magic when she’s enslaved and commanded to do so. So if I thought she was going to use magic against her enemy here, wrong!!

However she does it, she does it, and everyone can go home and live happily ever after. Except that Zayishah is going to be seriously traumatized after having been married to (and presumably sexually active with) a man she loathed, and, hell, she might even be pregnant with his rape-baby. And En Shevil has done more awful things to angst about, and may also have been sexually abused by Khaveen. And Achim undoubtedly has some residual feelings for Katrina, who has now sacrificed herself for him twice, yo.

Anyway, that was just the first planned sequel. Can you handle more? If so, read on!

The second sequel was to be called, very creatively, Victim’s Revenge. That may have been a working title — I don’t really remember — but it is at least the name of the file in which the few details I have on this and the one scene I wrote are kept. And this shit is priceless, you guys. I am crying with laughter as I read through it. The best way to share the glory with you is just to quote the entire document:



Some victim of Deathscar’s murder rampage (family was killed)
He was also working for Telmiquor.
So En Shevil ruined his life twice.
Steals away En Shevil’s child to raise.
Makes child evil.
This is for revenge.

The well-made door swung noiselessly to behind her, and she eased the latch shut in silence. The pure darkness beyond was chilly and static, dead. She crept forward, trying to find a scrap of light to reflect off of her eyes at the invisible surroundings. This she failed to do before a voice spoke — his voice.

“I am not surprised you made it so far,” he said easily. His chill tones echoed across the open space of what must be a rather large chamber. “But you have arrived too late.”

Light flashed in her eyes as the room was suddenly illuminated, and she crouched, blinded. Something heavy, flung before ever the darkness was pierced, struck her just at that moment, knocking her backwards. Her head struck the floor and she struggled to sit up under the weight as the world spun. It kept her down as if of its own will. But she already knew. Her body was sluggish and unresponsive, and she already knew. That cooling limpness could be nothing else.

“Harun…” she choked, wrapping her arms around the stiff shoulders and cradling the corpse as she knelt. His pale face, frozen in a desperate expression of horror, was already beginning to take on a grey tinge, and under the tight noose around the bloated throat the skin was puckered and blue. His elbows were twisted at odd angles, and his ankles had been tied. His clothing was shredded, and bruises and other abrasions dotted his disfigured body, already stiffening in her miserable embrace. He had not been dead long.

Doodle was speaking lightly. “You should have seen that look on his face when I had Deedle break his arms and put him on the box,” he said. “He had no idea why I’d betray him. Called me father, asked me why.” Doodle laughed heartily. “And then his eyes when I told him — when I told him — that you were his mother! — and kicked the box away. It was beautiful.”

En Shevil had been so intent on Harun’s tortured face that she had not bothered until now to gaze at the room around her, or up at the man who had hurt her so much. Now she raised her eyes to his seeing nothing but their horrible malice: inexpressible anguish meeting vengeful madness. Such a grief and pain as she had never before known welled up in her, and she bent over Harun’s body, weak but tense with massive sobs. She gasped as tears poured from her eyes.

Doodle laughed again. “Doesn’t it hurt?” he asked. “It’s too bad you couldn’t see me twist that theoretical and quite unexpected knife in your son’s belly, isn’t it?” She heard him stand. “But… here I have a more literal knife…” Here was the ring of steel. “…and since your son is dead…” He took a few steps. “…perhaps you’d prefer to see it — ha ha — in the body of — your — granddaughter?”

The sudden wail of a baby ripped across the silence and into En Shevil’s broken heart like a mirror of the weapon Doodle held in his hand. Dropping Harun’s body violently and springing to her feet, En Shevil started forward with a shriek of abandoned horror as Doodle raised a gleaming knife high above a bassinet not far from the throne-like seat he had just vacated.

A string of words such as she had never before used in her eventful life issued from her mouth as she sprinted with all her power towards the dais — but never could she reach it in time. The air seemed to swirl and pull around Doodle as the dagger fell in a deadly sweep, time slowing in agonizing detail. She was still a good ten feet away.



Oh, man, can you believe that? Remember how PohP had a happy ending? And then Second Chances had a Well, we’re all going to need therapy, but still relatively happy ending? Obviously we were plunging into depths of dramatic despair here in order to round off the trilogy with the saddest weirdness I could come up with.

Especially when, if I recall my own intentions correctly, En Shevil’s best friend Elsa the King of Silmaria, having been assisting in the search for Harun and led there by another, magical method, materializes suddenly in the path of the knife and gets stabbed to death in place of En Shevil’s little granddaughter!

I mean, what. Seriously. And the working names Doodle and Deedle make the incredible drama and angst all the more hilarious.

Like, I really cannot stop laughing at this.

So there you have it, folks — the final, miserable end for our Mary-Sue En Shevil, the pride of her parents! Almost twenty years after her heroic debut, the story finally draws to its wretched conclusion!

All of this nonsense gets a , because, although it’s incredibly bad, it also makes me laugh really hard and I have such a nostalgic connection with it.


Meme (theater movie), Deedle, accident update, writings, PotD drive-thru sign

24. Tell us about the last movie you saw in theaters. I think it was probably the time ZG and I went to see Inception (again) in the dollar theater and I fell asleep. I seem to recall having been up late the night before and up early that day, and I just couldn’t stay awake. But if you mean the last movie I saw for the first time in theaters, hmm…. that may also have been Inception. It is so hard for me to remember what movies I’ve seen. What the hell even came out last year… I don’t know. Anyway, Inception is super wonderful badass love and I love it.

Yesterday I played with Deedle ^__^ OK, so, my mother was mixing food coloring into water to entertain him, and at one point he was so surprised that yellow and red made orange that he cried, “It got me!” and that was probably the funniest thing ever. He often says, “I can’t like it,” about foods he doesn’t want to eat, and apparently yesterday at some point my sister (his mom) was trying to get him to do something he didn’t want to do… and he looked at her all seriously and said, “Mommy, I can’t love you.” P described this as her very first ‘mother of an adolescent child moment’ come really early (since D is 3).

In other, also very good news, the cop from the accident the other night called me back and left a message saying that the guy in the car is going to be just fine: he’s got scratches and broken bones, but no long-term serious injuries like brain trauma or anything. So that is very good.

In third news, I wrote the freaking cutest scene of Heero and Duo for Plastic part 74. Sadly, I doubt Plastic is going to end up longer than PohP, which is still defiantly holding its own at 242 pages — but it’s definitely going to be longer than ASZz, which is 194 pages. I’m estimating somewhere around 225 pages at this point, so it will at least be a solid second place… and maybe someday something will overtake good old PohP.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of my actually continuing ASZz, but I’m afraid I see that as a distant possibility at best. In fact, I’ve been thinking about taking down that first chapter of part 2 and calling the story complete. Which is dreadfully sad, since I’ve got some really awesome bits written for part 2 and it was going to be so angsty and romantic and shit. But whatever. Fandom wheels turn, even if mine turn very slowly. I will still always love Saitou and Sano.

I was up until 4 this morning talking to seester and brother-in-law, so I got up late, which means very little time for anything before work. That’s still rather OK, since I keep getting so much writing done at work, but it does make the day feel somewhat short and pointless. But I will eat Cup O’Noods and that will be good. Three days until I get paid!

Photo of the day:

This is from an Albuquerque McDonald’s drive-thru window. I love it.

Meme (GW), productivity, drawing, dreams (Saitou, zombs, Russ)

7. How you came across tumblr, and how your life has changed since joining. Aight, I haven’t the faintest idea what “tumblr” is, so instead we’ll make this prompt, “How you came across your current major fandom, and how your life has changed since joining.”

So. Gundam Wing. Of course I’d known of GW as long as I’d known about anime in general, but I didn’t actually watch the series until about (estimating here; could check to be sure, but too lazy) five years ago. Interestingly, I was reading Heero/Duo fanfiction long before I ever watched the show… but, looking back, it was all dreadfully out of character. Oh, weeping uke Duo…

Anyway, this one co-worker of mine at Virgin Mobile was something of an anime fan in general and a good deal more of a Gundam Wing fan specifically. In conversation it came up that I’d never seen the series. He happened to have the Battlefield of Pacifists manga with him at the time, so he let me read it. Of course it confused the hell out of me (I remember wondering rather intensely who Zechs and Treize were, since they were mentioned over and over and over), but there was all this Quatre/Trowa stuff that was so blatant I assumed they must be canon, and that made me happy and got me interested.

So I bought a boxed set of the series off ebay and watched it. And I’ll be perfectly frank: I think the GW canon is rather silly. I mean, I love it; don’t get me wrong — just various aspects of it kinda crack me up, I think the characters are vastly superior to the setting, and the majority of my fic is likely to be AU. MmmmAU.

As for how my life has changed since joining… well, Rurouni Kenshin, and particularly Saitou/Sano (may they rest in peace), has gone so dry and barren in the last few years that I’d kinda forgotten what it’s like to be in a fandom where people are actually doing things. It’s amazing! These GW people post stories and everything!

I can’t claim that Gundam Wing has been solely responsible for my increase in productivity this year, because I think unemployment has had a huge part in that too, but even so… Sun and Shade is, like, my third-longest fic, and Plastic is shaping up to take second or possibly even first. God, that would be something, if it overtook PohP… the end of an era, that would be… In any case, I’ve written a lot of GW fic in (for me) an impressively short time. At last count my number of RK fic pages was something like 1,200, so it’s not likely that GW will top that any time soon, but, still, 300 pages in a year is not something I usually achieve.

OK, enough of that. So it’s Wednesday now, I think. I don’t even feel the tiniest bit guilty about the lack of journal writing lately, because it is Christmas time. I have been hanging out with my brotha and Zombie Girl and working on my stuff. My story’s finished, though I’ma run through it a couple more times; my MV’s going to be finished today, and I am, in fact, working on it right now (writing this post in phases while MV does time-consuming item); and I finished my picture the other night.

That picture >_< I am not very good at drawing. I like to think I’m pretty good at shading, but my linework suuuuucks. This is why a tablet is a lifesaver for me. When I draw on my tablet, I can easily repair faulty linework. I drew Heero with an insanely long torso so he looks like an alien? No problem; I can move and resize the area(s) in question until he looks a little more natural. And if I don’t like the change I’ve made, I can undo it.

But if I’m drawing on paper and I notice that my boys have bizarrely elongated torsos, the options are 1) to erase half of what I’ve already drawn in order to fix it or 2) just to live with it. The first option is problematic because, at my level of fail, I often don’t notice these issues until the lineart is practically done. Which means I’ve already, at great pain, come up with a bunch of stuff that I like and probably won’t be able to duplicate. But the second option is also a problem because of ZOMG WHAT IS WRONG WITH HIM WHY IS HIS CHEST THE SAME LENGTH AS HIS LEGS.

But I like working with Prismas, and I like the way my shading turns out. Not only that, but my carpal tunnel syndrome greatly prefers me to work with actual pencils rather than on a tablet, so the tablet is only an option every so often. So more often than not I get stuck with these scary, disproportionate (but fairly nicely-shaded) pieces that drive me up the wall because I know I could have done them better on tablet. MOU.

I also have a number of dreams I want to mention. In one, I was writing in a notebook (as I often do), and Saitou came up with another of my notebooks to see if it was mine. He was laughing at my handwriting and the little pictures of faces I’d drawn within. In my dreams I often have this interestingly hopeless relationship with Saitou: he and I both know that I want him and that he doesn’t want me; I flirt with him anyway, and he responds with relatively good-natured mockery. That’s what this dream was like.

In another, very sad dream, there were zombies. AAUGH zombie dreams; how I wish I didn’t have them. Anyway, I and two other people that were kindof almost my siblings were trying to sleep, and the process of sleeping teleported us to different parts of the building or something..? And my parents were selflessly guarding us and helping with this process (it was a very complicated process, for sleeping), keeping zombies off us while we got our very important rest… or something. All I really know about it is that it was noble and sad.

At one point, there was a fairly strong zombie attack, and Lester and my mom got injured. After the zombies were all cleared up, my mom realized that she’d been bitten and was going to die and turn into a zombie. This is so sad I can’t even document it here without crying. Because she put her gun to her head very coolly and calmly, unhesitatingly ready to kill herself and negate the possibility of becoming a zomb before we had to do it for her. Lester was in much the same situation, and I suggested that we all kill ourselves — because it was obvious we weren’t going to escape, and if two of us were going to die anyway we might as well all go. That was when I woke up, thank Poe.

In another dream, I was Mary Russell and married to Sherlock Holmes. I was trying to solve some mystery, which was, for some reason, set up like a treasure hunt — I had, like, a list of clues. One of them indicated that I needed to get the bait off of some guy’s fishing hook. It was random. Later, Lester was following this same list, and I was able to help him because I’d already done half of it. The whole dream didn’t make much sense.

What was really amusing about it, though, was that I-dreamer was aware that I had taken over the role of Russ and was contemplating things from the outside like, “Wait, is this before or after she married him…” and “How often did they have sex? Am I going to have to have sex with Holmes?” Also, in this dream apparently Russell was an anime character rather than a book character, and I kept pronouncing her name “Rasseru” XD XD

There were other dreams, but thinking about these ones has made me forget them. I had one of those bad sleeps last night — the kind where I wake up every half hour or so, and therefore remember a lot more dreams than usual (though they simultaneously make less sense).

Also I think I had more to say, but now I will go out to lunch wis family types. Therefore I will write other stuff tomorrow or whatevs.

DF/PohP

So I start up Dragon Fire because I need to check some things for PohP (which, one of these days, I would really like to stop thinking about; as things currently stand, there are four chapters left before the end), and I discover that I have no saved games. And the point I need to check on is, like, after the fourth Rite or something. Mou. Well, nothing wrong wis playing QfG, I suppose… and making some freaking saved games at decent spots this time…

Pride of her Parents 15-16

…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 15 – Forms of Hell

The world En Shevil entered was completely different from the ones she’d seen so far. Instead of the pleasant, well-ordered Silmarian city to which she was accustomed, the landscape around her was wild and rocky, untamed by any hand except that of corruption. In fact, she stood knee-deep in a stream of oily, black water. All around her, rocks jutted up in formations made unnatural by their scarring as if by explosions and staining as if by smoke. It was as if a great war had been fought here at some point, involving large quantities of fire, for no sign of the city remained. The sky was the worst, and as she looked up she began to feel a headache at the swirling patterns of eerie green that filled it. As far as she could see in every direction was wilderness: ridges of the strange stone and foliage of stunted, twisted grey-brown-black. She breathed a murmur of amazement.

“I hope you’re seeking me,” said a familiar voice from nearby, “because I’m a great deal more powerful here.” En Shevil turned to see Askgaella crouched in a crag nearby. The demoness dropped to the ground several feet away from the human, standing straight and remaining where she was. She looked much the worse for wear: her clothing, stained and rumpled, had apparently not been washed for some time; her hair had grown out to a rather masculine length; her cheeks were sunken and her ribs showing as if she’d not eaten right for some time.

“You don’t look more powerful,” said En Shevil carefully. She would not go so far as a friendly, ‘are you all right?’ but she would neither be completely hostile.

“I gave up a good portion of my life force in order to cross over the last time I came to find you.”

“Why in Tartarus would you…?”

“I was so angry at you after our previous meeting I couldn’t think of anything else; I was willing to go to any length to reach you again, and this time I wouldn’t have minded killing rather than possessing you.” She did not mention by what method she had ‘crossed over’ that had required this great power drain. She sighed, her large eyes filled with an unhappy emotion En Shevil did not quite recognize. “Then you showed me mercy, and I was prepared to give you up forever until that dragon killed me. When I returned, I was dishonorably discharged from the military and my family wouldn’t take me in. I’ve been living here as an outcast ever since.”

“I’m sorry to be the cause of that,” was all En Shevil could find to say.

Askgaella looked away. “I don’t suppose you have any food,” she said without much hope.

“None. I don’t usually bring food into these other worlds.”

“Which reminds me — how are you here? This world was conquered by my glorious king and absorbed into the Hell of the world you and I come from; but I thought you could only get here through Hell.”

“And magic,” shrugged En Shevil. “This is my second-least-favorite world so far.”

“Yes, this place is soo pleasant. Wait — what did you like worse than this?”

“Never mind. How can I help you?”

“You can’t. And if my people find you here they’ll either enslave you or kill you. I would suspect the latter.” En Shevil shrugged again, her face nonchalant. “You are unafraid of death, then?”

“Death will only return me to my own world.”

Askgaella’s jaw twitched, her eyes gleaming. “I certainly won’t kill you, then,” she said after a long moment.

“Of course not,” said En Shevil, wondering what the demoness’ problem was. “You only want to possess me.”

“Not anymore.”

“What do you want, then?”

“I want out. I don’t want to be a slave to the king anymore, especially an outcast slave. I don’t care about you or anyone else, unless you help me get out of here.”

“What about your friends? Don’t you have anyone?”

Askgaella took a deep, sobbing breath, thinking of Gorllex. “I’m willing to lose everything to get out of here.”

“And how can I help you with that?”

Askgaella turned away, knowing that the answer would only anger the woman.

“Well?”

“By letting me possess you,” she said at last.

En Shevil snorted. “That makes sense.”

“If what you say is true about your death, then if I possess you here, and you die, both our essences might be transported back to your world, where I might regain my corporal form because I died here rather than there. For that same reason, the ties that bind my soul to this world would probably be broken.”

“What?”

“Never mind. There’s no way I can get you to trust me.” Askgaella, to En Shevil’s total amazement, turned and began walking away. The human could not bear this, and called her back.

“I want to help you, but as you said, there is no way I can trust you. How do I know you won’t keep my body?”

“I couldn’t. Once you die here, if you will, as you say, be drawn back to your own world, my spirit will leave your body and be clothed again in mine.”

“And how can I believe that?”

“You can’t. Not without knowing the strictures of demonry.”

“Wait. I do want to help you…” En Shevil thought hard, wondering how she could deal with this situation. “Is there any other way we could get out of this world?”

Askgaella looked away, shaking her head. “And I wouldn’t leave without Gorllex anyway. No, that’s a lie… I’m such a selfless person,” she spat in self-derision. “I’d leave without him that quick; but I’d regret it the rest of eternity.”

“Who is Gorllex?”

“My friend.”

“And where is he?”

Askgaella pointed away at the horizon. “Back in the Hell of our world. It’s a six-day journey.”

En Shevil followed the line of the demoness’ thin arm to the taloned finger. She sighed. “Six days? Why are you so far?”

“Do you ever listen to anything? I was banished.”

En Shevil nodded, and started walking. “Well, let’s go.”

Askgaella just looked at her. “What are you talking about?”

The maruroha glanced back with a smile. “Let’s go get this friend of yours.”

Askgaella shook her head, a smile growing on her own face, though it was derisive. “No, you really don’t listen. What part of ‘enslave or kill you’ don’t you understand?”

“I’m stronger than when we last met.” En Shevil did not stop walking, though she was forced to pick her way carefully across the blasted landscape.

Askgaella followed reluctantly. “Well, that’s good,” she was saying, “considering that the last time we met, you weren’t even a match for me… but I’m sure, if you’re stronger now, you can face the king’s legions without trouble.”

“You can stay here, if you’re scared,” En Shevil replied, looking sidelong at the demoness. “I’ll bring him back. His name was Gorllex?”

“And you are bent on helping me why?”

“Hell-bent,” was all En Shevil said in response. She didn’t usually make puns, but this one was so obvious that she couldn’t help herself.

Askgaella rolled her eyes, but fell into a more regular walking pace beside the human. “Your name is En Shevil, isn’t it?”

“You remembered.”

“No, I was guessing, and some Shapierian-sounding name I heard from a woman who looked exactly like you just happened to be the first thing that came to mind.”

“If you’re being rude to try and change my mind about this, it won’t work.”

“Rude?”

En Shevil laughed. “I don’t remember your name, though, so you’ll have to tell me again…”

“Your memory is worse than you think, since I never told you in the first place.”

“Well, what is it?”

“Askgaella Chekghaera.”

“So, who is this Gorllex?”

“My friend. Didn’t I tell you that?”

With a shrug, En Shevil said nothing. She was wishing that there were a way she could use magic to get them to their destination instantly, or in fewer days at the very least — the problem was, the only transportation she’d done so far had been to a place she could visualize (as she’d seen it in the crystal), and she didn’t think she could just blink off to somewhere she’d never seen. Eventually, as she could find no answer, she gave up this train of thought and started to wonder how she could magically provide them with food for the necessarily long journey. Once again, she feared it could not be done without knowing the food she wanted to summon — and what was there in Hell that she knew? It did not worry her particularly for the remainder of that day, nor did Askgaella say anything about eating; but then, the demoness had no idea that En Shevil could work magic, so it was no surprise that she did not bring it up. En Shevil was rather hungry as she went to sleep on the vaguely foul-smelling earth at the conclusion of their march.

Askgaella asked her again the next day why she was so determined to help, and once again En Shevil evaded the question. It seemed clear that the demoness did not understand the concept of motive-free philanthropy, and En Shevil didn’t feel like lecturing her on it. That night she was hungrier than before, and she feared it would soon begin to sap her energy. Askgaella had again shown no signs of flagging that day, but her state of near-starvation was obvious; perhaps it was hope that kept her going.

The next morning, En Shevil determined to try something to feed them, whether it ended up working or not. So instead of setting out immediately, she looked around for ideas.

“It hasn’t changed since we went to sleep last night,” Askgaella remarked, but even her sarcasm was fading into a listless, miserable-sounding mumble.

En Shevil finally decided that whatever she tried was going to be crazy, so she might as well aim high with an attempt to turn rocks into bread. “It’s going to change now,” she replied.

The demoness eyed her curiously as she laid her palms both against the first rock she could reach. “What are you doing?” she asked in a suspicious tone. “Don’t tell me you’ve been a magician all along…”

En Shevil stared at the stone, which did not look even remotely like a loaf of bread. She stared, and the stone stared back. It took several moments for her to be able even to picture it as a loaf of bread, but once she had the image in her mind she willed it to be so. It was a strange sensation, and one she still could not help but shy away from at first: like wishing, except with a mysterious power to back it and make that wish a reality dependant only on how hard she could concentrate on it.

Askgaella swore in a whisper. En Shevil shook herself, feeling dizzy and a little sick. But when she looked down, she found that her hands lay now on a large, dark mass of what was unmistakably bread.

That might have been useful sometime before this,” Askgaella remarked, a little harshly, when she’d recovered her faculty of speech.

“I’ve just started using these powers,” En Shevil replied calmly — softly, as she could find little energy for more volume. “I wasn’t even sure if I could do it at all.”

Askgaella, who was staring at the bread, did not reply.

Laughing briefly, En Shevil lifted the miracle slowly from the ground. “I should have chosen a cleaner rock,” she mumbled as bits of dirt came up with it and moss shuffled off its far side. She brushed it as clean as she could, settled it on her lap, and tore off a piece. It was dark beneath the crust as well, and much harder than she’d expected. “Hopefully it won’t make us sick.”

“For all I care at this point…” Askgaella began, but silenced herself by sinking her sharp teeth into the chunk of bread the human handed her.

En Shevil smiled and ripped off another piece for herself. It tasted… earthy.

It was an impressive ‘loaf,’ as the rock had not been small, but they ended up eating it down to the last crumb — for Askgaella did not disdain the dirtier parts — before they rose and continued on their trek.

“So,” the Shapierian remarked after some thought, “what does Gorllex look like?”

“He’s a Hexgcredioth,” Askgaella replied. Then she rolled her eyes, apparently at herself, and added, “Which of course means a lot to you. His skin is browner than mine –” she ran a talon along the burgundy flesh of her arm — “and he’s got horn under both eyes –” she tapped the bony spot beneath one of her own. “He’s fourth class, so he’s got wings and no tail.”

“That reminds me — what happened to your wings?”

Askgaella snorted. “The moment a demon has military rank — and most of us do — we stop maturing on our own. I can’t grow my wings back at this point unless I get promoted.”

“What would happen naturally?” En Shevil wondered curiously.

“Personal development, I suppose you’d call it,” Askgaella replied with a shrug. “Strength and will and whatnot determine how you’re shaped.”

The human nodded thoughtfully, then after a while brought the conversation back to its original topic. “So, is there any sure way I could recognize this man of yours if you aren’t around to compare skin tones?”

Askgaella looked hesitant for a moment, probably because she didn’t like the thought of them being separated on this venture, then tilted her head and indicated a spot where her neck was pierced with a silver barbell. “See this? He has one in the same spot.”

En Shevil nodded again.

Thanks to the magic that she was gradually and still somewhat uncomfortably growing accustomed to, they managed to stay fed throughout the rest of their journey. And eventually they came in sight of buildings and streets enclosed within a high wall, drawing closer as they continued moving in the direction En Shevil had arbitrarily started calling ‘west.’ She’d been expecting to find the land a touch less unpleasant once they left the assimilated world behind, but though it seemed to have been tamed to a certain extent, fire-blasted rock and sickening sky was obviously just the norm in Hell.

“That was the border barracks,” Askgaella explained as they stopped and looked down at the still somewhat distant military complex, “until the border shifted.”

En Shevil was curious what was beyond the borders of Hell until normal circumstances, but decided that was a question for another time and allowed the demoness to continue.

“I was lurking around hoping to be found and destroyed, then didn’t have the nerve to go through with it and just let them chase me out there–” she gestured the direction they’d come– “for a couple of days.”

The human inferred from this that Askgaella had been here hoping to run into Gorllex at some point and had been discovered. “Let’s get closer,” was all she said in reply.

By unspoken consent they moved more slowly and cautiously as they neared the place and eventually were within a hundred yards of the outer wall. Following this carefully, they came to a little rocky hollow from which they could look out at the gate. The stiff guards flanking it indicated immediately that there could be no direct approach to entry.

Turning to Askgaella En Shevil murmured, “I can climb the wall and sneak inside and find him. Will I be able to talk to him, or will he try to attack me?”

The demoness regarded her with an expression of narrow-eyed disdain. “I wasn’t aware that you were a god,” she drawled. “But, certainly, once you get in there, avoiding a bored and murderous battalion who wouldn’t mind eating your flesh, you can figure out which of the sixteen or so buildings he’s in and catch him alone long enough to approach him… he’d probably recognize you, so if you talked fast he might not kill you immediately. Then you could easily walk him back out past all those same demons, including his commanding officers, here to the banished criminal waiting for him.”

Struggling for a perfect deadpan, En Shevil nodded. “Sounds like a good plan.”

Askgaella stared for several moments, then finally produced an actual smile. “You know, it’s a shame I never possessed you,” she remarked; “I would have enjoyed absorbing some of your inarguable logic.”

En Shevil grinned. “Do you know what I did before I became a warrior?”

“Yes, I know your entire life’s story.”

With a shake of her head, still smiling, the human replied, “I was a thief,” and took off toward the wall before the demoness could make further protest.

Despite the flippancy that really seemed the best way to deal with Askgaella’s endless sarcasm, the seriousness of this situation was heavy on her shoulders. She did not fear death; she liked to tell herself that, with atonement in mind, she didn’t even fear torturous, protracted death… but her own life was not the major stake of this gamble. Fortunate it was that she’d been to rob Minos not long ago, and she must remember to thank Elsa again, for this was like a more dire and much more important version of that robbery, and she felt better about it for the practice.

The base was not vast, but the buildings were tightly laid and complicated. This actually made undetected movement easier, but how she was going to locate a single person — or, more accurately, a single piece of jewelry — in a place like this, she was not certain. As the heart-pounding search dragged on, however, she began to feel worse for Askgaella than for herself: sitting outside with no idea of the human’s success, practically waiting to be caught, had to be worse than actually doing something. But this was a brief moment’s reflection only, as with demons everywhere En Shevil couldn’t afford long to break her concentration.

It took her over an hour to locate Gorllex, then another half before she was conversant enough with the comings and goings of the building she’d seen him enter even to consider her own entry. Inside, she deemed it to be a sort of mess hall or cafeteria — and not one she would ever want to eat in if she could help it, for the smells in the air were the very essence of nausea — and found to her frustration that to remain hidden in an alcove just to the left of the ingress was her only option: she could see part of the main room from here, with its long tables and benches of what appeared to be black wood, but could not find a way to get a better look, to discern the layout or the number of demons present, without putting herself into full visibility.

Nervous, she waited, keeping tally of those who came and went and how many (by estimate) were left inside, and wondered what in all the worlds could be keeping Gorllex so long. Surely soldiers didn’t have so much leisure as this…

At last there came a moment when, if what she remembered was correct, there shouldn’t be anyone left in there. Though doubting very much that it was safe or even empty as she only half suspected, she was tired of waiting and took the chance. Moving forward silently, she entered the dining room.

It was bigger than she’d judged, with one full row more of the long tables than she’d expected and a sort of bar and open storeroom at the far end. And about halfway across from her, there sat a large winged demon placidly eating. Apparently some soldiers did have the leisure to spend as long as they wanted in the mess hall, as she hadn’t seen this one enter — which meant he’d been here the greater part of an hour.

She might have been able to conceal herself from him if he hadn’t looked over at just that moment. His ugly face took on a puzzled frown and he started to rise, but she had already leapt forward. Before he could halfway draw his sword or even cry out, she’d knocked him unconscious with a hard kick to the back of the skull.

Hard indeed… she’d had no idea any living creature’s flesh could be so hard. Her foot was tingling as she stood on it again, as if she’d attacked a wall.

“Askgaella?”

En Shevil turned toward the shocked voice and found the very man she was seeking coming from behind the counter. She didn’t like to think about the bloodstains on the butcher’s apron he wore, but this at least explained why he’d been in here so long.

“She’s outside,” she replied, “waiting for us.”

“A shame,” he said, looking past her to the man who was now slumped into his food. “She’d have killed to see that.” He was drawing closer to En Shevil, and she could see that he was indeed very handsome — for a demon — and also quite wary, ready to fight her at any moment.

“I’m getting Askgaella out of here, back to my world, but she didn’t want to leave without you.”

He stopped moving and appeared pensive. His half-frown, she thought, spoke more indecision than displeasure, though she couldn’t be sure. Finally he asked, “Why would you help her?”

“We don’t have time to debate this,” En Shevil urged, glancing around nervously. “We’ve got to get going fast so we can get to her before you’re missed.”

“I can’t trust you,” he said grimly.

Every instant they wasted here put this entire thing that much closer to failure. With a deep breath, En Shevil commanded, “Possess me, then. I can sneak us back and climb the wall. She’s waiting near the gate.”

He still appeared suspicious of her, but obviously saw that this was a sure way to stay in control of the situation. Stepping up to her, he laid his clawed hands on her shoulders.

Of death and torture she might be unafraid, but of giving control of her lethal weapon of a body over to a member of the most murderous race she knew… She schooled herself ruthlessly not to shy away, but could not help flinching at the contact from his palms. At this, the expression on his face softened; he could tell she was frightened, and it evidently did quite a bit to help him trust her. This, in turn, did a little to help her trust him.

“I’ll leave you in control for now,” he said, and as their eyes locked he dissolved suddenly into thick smoke that streamed into her through her nostrils.

She choked and grunted and lashed out with her hands. An overwhelming helplessness and frantic despair filled her all at once, even as he did, and she gradually lost every sensation of authority over her muscles but without any lessening in the consciousness of her surroundings. Fear of falling; extreme agitation at the abnormality of the circumstance; desire to struggle, to fight, to flee, and an inability to do any of these that was crushingly complete… She’d heard that the few people that escaped demon enslavement rarely survived long, and now, merely in the first few moments of possession, she understood why. She wanted to escape, she wanted to sleep, she wanted to die — and none of these options were open to her except as he dictated; she could only watch. It would be a quick road to madness from here, and that was a place she never wanted to visit again.

And then, all of a sudden with a draining sensation, the foreign influence was gone and her faculties were her own again. She reeled, stomach churning, head spinning, as she tried to get hold of herself. She knew, from the unusual heaviness about her that was not necessarily physical, that he was still there and could take over again at any time, but for now he’d given her control as he’d promised. And there wasn’t time to stand around in shock, but she had to take a moment to recover. Thus it was too soon, and yet not nearly soon enough, that she made her way, still trembling slightly and feeling very sick, out of the mess hall.

The trip across the complex, against all expectations, helped to calm her. Though she couldn’t so soon forget he was there, doing something she was good at and concentrating intently on it improved her state of mind, and she felt that they would succeed. Over the wall with arms and legs that were weaker than they should have been and they were out; crossing the last distance perhaps a little too hastily, she looked forward to throwing herself on the ground, calming her heartbeat, and taking a short, well-deserved rest before they set off.

But as she entered the rocky hollow and caught sight of Askgaella crouching in the shadows and apparently attempting to disguise the myriad emotions that were yet twisting her face, to her very great horror she felt her control fading quickly, and the helplessness of before returning as she could do nothing to prevent it. In her agitation at moving forward without willing it, the questions were they betrayed? and what were Gorllex’s intentions? had only a little hold on her.

“He didn’t come with you?” the demoness was saying, and at another time En Shevil might have felt pity for her. At the moment, however, although her mind remained as troubled as before, there was suddenly mixed with it a fair amount of confusion, embarrassment, and even bemusement as she found herself… kissing… Askgaella.

She’d only had a few kisses in her life, and she had to think this one most unusual. It ended, and she felt herself drawing back and saw the skeptical expression on the other woman’s face. “I’m sure the human appreciates that, Gorllex,” Askgaella remarked.

En Shevil was aware of blood rushing to her face, and her fruitless struggle increased; it felt like such a violation to have her body reacting to someone else’s emotions. Almost worse was the sensation of speaking without having sent the command to her lungs and throat and tongue and lips, of hearing her own voice expressing a thought that was not of her conception:

“I… For a moment I forgot…” The awkwardness and embarrassment in the half statement were so alien to En Shevil’s usual tone, it rather made the struggle even bitterer. The idea that the possessing demon could forget, even for a moment, that he was in a body not his own, did not help. Well, at least they were not betrayed.

After a moment she was mistress of herself once again, and once again reeled. She cursed as soon as her voice was her own. Askgaella, contrary to what En Shevil would have expected, had the grace to look a little embarrassed.

There was silence for a moment as En Shevil gathered herself and the demoness said nothing. Then the human demanded, perhaps a little more fiercely than she should have, “Why are you still in there?”

Before Gorllex could make any sort of answer, Askgaella broke in with, “Wait; don’t leave her yet. En Shevil, are you sure that if you die you’ll return to your world?”

En Shevil immediately thought she knew where this was going, and had to reflect that even a demoness who’d decided to be relatively decent was still going to be relatively ruthless. However… “Yes, but I don’t know how that will help now there are two of you.”

“You can be possessed by as many demons as your strength can handle,” Askgaella replied.

Yes, ruthless. En Shevil couldn’t help a brief shudder as she imagined the miserable sensations of possession doubled, but what could she say? She’d set out to help, and gotten them this far; she’d agreed to one possession, agreed to trust Gorllex… she couldn’t now retract… but the thought was repulsive.

Askgaella, evidently perceiving this, looked grim.

At that moment they became away of noise behind them, and, moving to the edge of the hollow, observed that the gate was opening and the guards shifting. En Shevil’s heart sank as she realized what this might mean. “I had to knock someone out to get to him; they might be looking for me.”

“Well, we’re in good shape,” Askgaella replied without looking at her; “we should be able to avoid them indefinitely.”

The human took another deep breath and turned toward the sarcastic demoness. “Do it,” she said.

Askgaella gave her a hard look that almost asked if she was sure, but of course did not say it out loud. Without further ado, she took En Shevil by the shoulders, stared her in the eyes, and dissolved into her.

It was almost too much to bear a second time; she nearly could not control her own body under these circumstances, though Askgaella exerted no influence. It was as much as she could do to stagger forward to meet and attack the demons emerging from the gate. She was not sure that even during her suicidal days in Spielburg she had wished for death quite as intensely as she did now; the rushing of worlds when it came was possibly the most profound relief she’d ever felt.

She was more tired than usual when she awoke, but the immediate, undeniable feeling of being alone in her body, free and light, was nearly enough to make her cry. She lay quietly for some time just savoring the feeling.

Eventually she rose, still reveling in her sense of self, and went downstairs. There, she encountered Erasmus and Fenris in the great room playing some kind of magical game as they often did.

“Erasmus, look!” chirped the rat. “Our demon deliverer’s done dozing!”

“Ah, good morning!” Erasmus paused whatever he was doing so that the miniature storm he’d been conjuring went completely motionless in the air. Gesturing her his direction he continued, “You’re very lucky to be here at all, my girl! If you’d asked me about dying from a Hell that had been absorbed into the Hell of our world, I would have firmly advised against it! There was no guarantee that you would return here at all under those circumstances; you’re lucky not to be in Hades right now — or worse!”

Oddly enough, Erasmus’ tone was too cheerful to make this information more than clinically disturbing. And when he added with a bright smile, “Still, no harm done, and our research has made significant progress thanks to you!” she couldn’t help smiling herself.

“Where are Askgaella and Gorllex?” she asked, wondering what kind of a scene they must have caused on arrival.

“We had a pleasant chat,” Erasmus beamed. He was never fazed by anything, it seemed. “A most interesting and informative discussion. They didn’t feel it was entirely safe to stay here very long, though, so they left.”

En Shevil was a little disappointed. “I’m going to see what Achim’s doing,” she decided.

“You’ll find it’s rather ironic.”

“Why? What’s he doing?”

“I don’t know what kind of progress he’s made — I’ve been too engrossed in this game lately to watch him — but the latest rite requires him to go to Hades.”

“Hades?” echoed En Shevil in surprise.

“Yes!” replied Erasmus. “Isn’t that interesting?”

She could tell that he wanted to get back to the aforementioned game, and as she was anxious to check on Achim after this news, she returned to her own room without further conversation and was reaching for her crystal when her feet had barely touched the floor.

“Show me the Prince of Shapier,” she commanded, and waited breathlessly for the mist to clear. If he had already made it to Hades, would the glass show him? And how would that differ from him having been killed in the attempt? But he appeared after a moment very much in the realm of the living, though she did not recognize the room or the man he was talking to. She sighed in relief. He and the elderly stranger were evidently discussing Hades, but whether the conversation would produce favorable results she could not tell.

“Show me Elsa von Spielburg,” was her next request. The warrior was evidently on Minos Island, by the décor, and seemed to be reading a book and looking dissatisfied with it; and no wonder — figuring out on one’s own how to get to Hades without dying couldn’t be easy or particularly enjoyable.

Well, she didn’t want to let either of them go to the underworld without backup of some kind, but on the research end of things she was likely to be of little help. Wondering how circumspect she could be and still get information out of this thing, she commanded, “Show me the outside of the building Achim’s in.”

The crystal complied. En Shevil thought she knew the place; it was near the smaller city gates. After readying herself, wearing her mask, she willed herself there.

The weather was warm and pleasant, though a little humid for her tastes — but, then, it always was, here — so she didn’t mind waiting outside for a while on the bright sand. She was realizing, shielding her eyes from the sun and looking into the mild blue sky, that she really didn’t know what day it was.

“Dazah!”

She turned to find the man she was waiting for emerging, and waved at him a little.

“Hello,” he greeted her. “What are you doing?” She gestured to herself and then to him. “You want to come with me?” he said with a surprised smile. She nodded. He started into something else enthusiastic and then stopped, raising a brow. “You… do realize I’m going to Hades, right?”

She nodded again.

He grinned. “All right, then! Elsa told me how you helped her defeat the hydra. I’d love to have you along. This sounds like the most dangerous rite yet, so I’ll need all the help I can get. Let’s go.”

Marveling at the cheerfulness of a man who could give a smile and a jovial, ‘Let’s go’ in the face of a trip to the realm of Hades, she followed him across the shore and up the hill to the main gate. He waved to the guard as they left the city.

It was quite a tramp through the wilderness to wherever they were going (Achim apparently knew where that was), and it became dark almost immediately. Finally she stopped him, as they passed through a green-shadowy grove between rock walls. She shook her head, holding her hands out in confusion. He smiled, his white teeth flashing in the light of a suddenly-revealed moon. “The Famous Adventurer told me how to get into Hades; we have to go to the Dragon Pillar at the southern base of Mount Draconis.” She nodded, accepting that explanation for the present, and they moved on.

Dawn was approaching when they reached the sought-after location, but the morning light had not yet reached into the dell where the Dragon Pillar stood. Or had once stood. As they entered, her eyes caught sight of the latest assassination: a Silmarian guard face-down on the ground beside the stream, already decomposing. Achim walked forward, shaking his head. “Putting guards up at all the Pillars was the stupidest thing they could have done: just more blood for the assassin to break them with.” Indeed, the Pillar was shattered, cracked diagonally down the base like the others, its draconic cap lying on the ground.

“I could have just used this water,” he murmured. She gave a questioning tilt of her head and he explained. “I have to pour blood-tainted water on a spot where running water flows underground. That should open the door to Hades with the right incantation — F.A. told me that one too.” He pulled a small amphora free from his belt, and at the same time wiggled a bandaged finger for her to see. “I used m y own blood when he told me about it, but I guess I could have just used this water. When we get back we should bury him.” En Shevil nodded. “Well, let’s go.” He turned from the pitiful sight of the Silmarian corpse and walked toward the stone wall of the alcove. There, indeed, the water dove underground.

En Shevil shook her head, which movement matched that of her hands and knees. She had done several stupid things in her life, but this had to be at the top of the list. Making the best of an unexpected Hell was one thing, but consciously walking into Hades was another. Achim uncorked his amphora and slowly poured the water into the stream where it churned beneath the rocks. Giving her a look from the corner of his eye — she thought he was perhaps a little embarrassed by the ceremonial feeling of these proceedings — he began to chant solemnly:

“All waters that flow on the earth flow to Hades.

Alas, all life soon flows there too.

Where those waters flow, a gate will open.

Alas, too soon it opens for you.”

He had barely re-corked the bottle when the ground began to shake; the dim sky darkened in an instant to smoky black, revealed by swift flashes of lightning and great crashing noises. Blinded, they were both thrown to the ground by the sickening heave of the earth beneath them.

The flashes slowed; the darkness faded; the shaking stopped. En Shevil looked around to find herself still beside the stream in the dell of the Dragon Pillar. But Achim was nowhere to be seen. She sprang to her feet, alarmed, parting her lips and soundlessly mouthing his name before she remembered she could not speak. She was suddenly conscious of a new sound: low but building, it consisted of a strange wind-like howling, eerie shrieks and moans carried on moving air, the cries of countless anguished souls. A mighty shiver ran through her as she thought of the dead screaming in the agony of their dark realm. What was happening?

“Dazah? Dazah, where are you?” She jumped as she heard his voice, so close yet from no source she could see. It was as if he were standing beside her invisible, and she was likewise hidden to his eyes. “Dazah, can you hear me?” Oh, how she wanted to return his call! “Well, I guess this is Hades,” he continued, sounding strange against the chilling cries of the dead. “I’ll do this without her, then.”

After a moment another voice startled her, still near at hand and almost drowning out the wails from beyond. “Welcome to Hades,” it growled.

A second voice stated, “I am Cerberus…”

“…guardian of the gates,” finished a third.

En Shevil reflected that, given the name, the three voices all probably came from the same creature.

“I make certain no dead shall leave Hades,” said the first voice.

“I make certain no living enter Hades,” came the second.

“You are not welcome here!” finished the third.

“Hello,” said Achim’s surprised tone, then went on soothingly. “I just have to get water from the river Styx so I can win the Rite of Courage back in Silmaria.”

The three voices let out barking laughs. “Oh sure,” said the first, “I’ve heard that before.”

“‘All I want is a little Styx water. I won’t bother anything else,'” mocked the second.

“Then they try to bring someone back to life,” added the third.

“You don’t fool me.”

“You won’t get past me.”

“Unless you first die.”

“Or come up with a suitable bribe.”

“Bribe?” Achim asked, and the voices echoed the word greedily. “Well, I suppose you fellows want food of some sort, right?”

“Right!” they chorused.

“Well, let’s see what I got.” It was obvious that Achim was terribly nervous about all this. He began to mumble, his voice barely audible above the terrible dirge that would not cease. “Hmm, fruit, pizza, gyros, more pizza, chocolate.”

“Gimme that!” shrieked the second voice, in reference to what she could not tell.

“That second pizza looks good,” said the first voice.

“Mm, candy,” said the third.

The next several moments were filled with the impolite noise of dog-like chomping, punctuated by exclamations like, ‘Mm, savory.’ Finally Cerberus was apparently finished eating, for the first voice said,

“All right, I’m satisfied. You can enter.”

“But,” the second voice warned gleefully, “you may not be able to leave!”

“At least your soul won’t have far to go,” the third chortled.

The next few minutes were as silent as the grave, which silence En Shevil was discovering to be highly overrated. She stood still, eyes closed, listening intently for any spoken word. The sounds of the dead wrapped around her, consuming her, numbing her flesh and freezing her blood: in their miserable cries she heard countless stories of despair, cruelty, and darkness, and feeling irresistibly connected, she opened herself to them until she was one with them, hearing them from all around, inside and out. Thus she was knocked off her feet when the next voice spoke.

“Achim, Bringer of Darkness,” it said.

Powerful, beautiful, terrible, it brought to her heart sudden joy and hope, dispelling in an instant the apathetic horror of the previous short eternity in death. In its immeasurable strength, its kindness, soft and firm at once, she felt for a second time the might and majesty of a god. Surely this new speaker could be none other than Hades, lord of the underworld.

“It is not yet your time to be here,” he said. “The living are not welcome, and you shall not cross the river Styx into Hades. I, the guardian of the dead who knows all the souls that dwell within, forbid it.

“Yet there are two souls bound to you in death.” It was at this moment that En Shevil, captivated by the voice, realized anew that he did not speak to her but to Achim. She rose slowly to her feet as the calm, melodic tone continued. “For you have touched their hearts and wakened love within them.” She pressed herself up against the stone wall, straining her ears so as not to miss a word. “Love is the only thing that transcends the silent sleep of death. Now their souls have sensed you, and yearn to be with you.”

“Who are they?” It was Achim’s voice, but strangled and distorted so that she almost did not recognize it. What was this emotion twisting his words?

“The first soul is bright with beauty and power, shining like the sun with all the joy and goodness it held in life. It is the soul of Erana.” En Shevil drew in a sharp breath, excitement overcoming her. Erana?

A soft, thin voice floated to meet her hearing, lower but no less smooth than that of the god. “I dream I am wandering endlessly through empty gardens. Everything is pale and cold as if made of lifeless ice — there is beauty, but no joy. I seek a light that I have seen but once before, in the distance. It is warm, and melts the ice that covers everything, bringing color and life to the flowers. But it moves on, and all returns to ghostly white.” The voice of Erana, En Shevil thought in wonder. I’ve heard something no one has for so many years…

“And the other?” Achim’s tone was still contorted, tight and almost wild.

“The other soul is dark, shadowed by the deeds of her past. Yet there is great power within, and a fierce yearning for the light and love that were not known in life.”

“Who? Who?”

“‘Tis the soul you knew as Katrina, the Dark Master.”

There was no response from Achim, and listen as she would she could hear nothing for several moments. Who was this Katrina? What was she to Achim? Why had he been so anxious to hear her name? A cold fear began to creep over En Shevil’s heart. Was he forgetting her at last? Truly forgetting her? What nightmare was this?

“What nightmare is this?” echoed a dark voice, and at first she fancied it to be her own mind. But her thoughts didn’t have a Mordavian accent, and this voice did. “I am in darkness, yet I am powerless. The coffin has been nailed shut, and I cannot move; I am trapped!” Coffin? “What is this ache that fills me? Who am I waiting for? Will it be the stake through my heart, turning me to dust? Or the taste of his warm lips on mine, restoring me to life? It does not matter which, if only he would touch me once more.” Oh, was that ever true!

“Their souls have been disturbed by your uncalled-for presence,” said the god. “They cannot rest in their longing to be with you. You may end the suffering of one of them. You can restore her to life, and give her the chance to experience joy and pleasure once more. Which soul would you choose to give the gift of life?”

Silence.

Erana! En Shevil urged, not even entirely sure why.

“Which soul?”

Still no sound.

Erana, Achim!

“Do you make your choice?”

“Katrina,” Achim’s voice, now full and clear, said at last.

“You have chosen to free the soul of Katrina. I commend the soul of Erana to oblivion.”

A long, heart-rending wail joined those that, muted, already filled her ears, pulling at her with sorrow. I have heard Erana’s last cry, she thought. And who is this Katrina, that Achim cares for so much?

“There is a price for every gift. The soul does not lightly leave the silent sleep. The dead does not lightly leave the grave. You can restore this soul to life, but the price may be more than you are willing to pay. Will you give your life to give this soul life?”

En Shevil’s mouth opened, her body stiff with shivering. What?!

The god continued inexorably. “Are you willing to sacrifice everything for love?”

No.

“You have entered the realm of the dead. Now will you remain in eternal darkness, that she shall be free to know the joy of life once more?”

En Shevil stood tense, eyes squeezed shut against a terrible pain. Please, Achim, no.

“Will you give your life to her?”

“I will,” came Achim’s voice without hesitation.

The appalling cries of the dead heightened, rising to hideous shrieks that blasted her ears. Tearing at the wall, clawing it, pounding the rock with her fists, En Shevil screamed silently, No! no! no! I love you, Achim. There was a man’s sudden sharp cry, and she echoed it in her mind and heart, falling to her knees in abject misery.

The calm hateful voice spoke once more. “Through your willing sacrifice, life has been brought to death. Her soul shall soon be free.”

The woman Katrina’s voice seemed brighter now. “I see light before me. I am awakening from this nightmare at last! Meet me on the island known as Zante. I will be awaiting you there.”

Her mind was numb, and no more voices spoke.

Achim…

Very slowly, slowly, slowly crept over her the awareness of the last words. Meet me on the island known as Zante. I will be awaiting you there. Meet me on the island. I will be awaiting you. Meet me… awaiting you… En Shevil stood. To whom had the woman been speaking? To whom if not Achim?

She tore off her mask to allow the choking tears to fall, and rubbed the wetness from her face with her sleeve. After sponging out the inside of her mask, she tried to gain control of herself. If Achim were in truth still alive, he might be returning any time. She must not reveal herself, must not react, must not throw herself at him and weep on his shoulder. She must be impassive and wordless, Dazah the silence itself, and allow him to follow his new love. The love for whom he would give his life. The love in which she had no part. She put her mask back on.

Her heart was broken.

Thunder rolled through the earth and sky, throwing her to the ground once more as flashes of lighting lit the suddenly-darkened air. Struggling to stand at last, she found Achim beside her. He was smiling, a shocked look of happiness she had never seen on his face. “I was worried about you for a moment there,” he said. “I guess only one person can enter Hades at a time. Well, I got the water. I picked up some Lethe water too; Salim will think it’s interesting. Let’s head back to Silmaria.”

And why, why, why did he have to smile so brightly as he added, “I’ve got to go visit a friend?”


Chapter 16 – Horror and Heartache

En Shevil sighed as she entered the parlor. “I desperately need something to take my mind off things.”

“How was the Rite of Courage?” asked Rawn, and immediately realized it was the wrong question.

“Have you ever heard of a woman called Katrina — a powerful mage?” En Shevil pulled herself into the chair across from the other girl and leaned her head back, eyes closed.

“Katrina,” said Rawn, sucking breath through her teeth. “If it is the same Katrina, she was the Dark Master for over a century. No one quite knows what became of her, other than that she is dead now.”

“Not anymore.”

Rawn went pale, if it were possible for her skin to achieve a lighter tone. “You do not mean… the Prince…”

“He brought her back to life. She’s on some island out there, and he’s gone to visit her. As far as I can tell, he’s…” She drew a breath and let it out again. “He’s got some pretty strong feelings for her.”

“I am sorry.”

En Shevil pushed herself out of the chair. “I’m going away. Elsewhere, anywhere besides this horrible world.”

“Very well. I shall see you upon your return.”

“Maybe I won’t come back this time.”

Rawn half smiled. “Good luck.”

The Shapierian did not return the expression, only willed herself to the high room and stepped heavily into the portal.

Before she was even fully materialized, hands seized her arms, gauntleted hands that took no care to be gentle. Voices swore — in… Latin? — at her sudden, obviously magical appearance, and she found herself in the clutches of two men. Their Hesparian armor bore the device of a broken mouth, which made her think uncomfortably of the scar she’d worn for so long on her own face. The men had a ragged look that made her guess these were not quite the strike-and-fade mercenaries of her world, however great the resemblance.

The soldiers ceased their exclamations and tightened their grips, sword tips driving into her back and side. They seemed to be waiting for something, so she took the opportunity to look around. They stood in a charred circle of blackened earth in what looked to be a garden. Clearly untended for weeks, if not longer, it ran rank where it had not been demolished.

It looked indolent, the destruction: flowers trampled, decorative trees hacked to bits by sharp blades, scraps of food and other trash scattered about the ground; it would appear that these broken-mouth soldiers had made this former bower their free-time haunt. It did not seem to have lessened their vigilance, however, though they were yet motionless with her as if indecisive.

Finally one of them spoke, a few questioning words she did not understand. The other apparently agreed, and they began marching her over the bridge from the garden into the Nob Hill area. It looked the same as it had in her world, save the wildlife: again, the boots and weapons of obviously very bored soldiers had taken their toll on trees, grass, and shrubberies. It seemed these invaders had occupied the city for some time.

When they reached the Hall of Kings, its well-kept lawn and stately trees looking strikingly beautiful in contrast to the rest of the area, she saw that the guards there wore the same armor as her captors. One of the former hailed the latter, but stopped speaking abruptly upon seeing her face. She could not see his, due to the helmet he wore, but the slight shaking of his head was enough to show his amazement. After a moment he started again with a long, quick string of words — questions, as far as En Shevil could tell. After much discussion, all four men staring at her intently all the while, the guards opened the gate and she was prodded to indicate that she should walk again.

Inside the Hall of Kings they encountered more guards, and the same sort of conversation took place among them there. The same astonishment accompanied all their words and gestures. She could only make guesses as to what they found so amazing about her. The great hall itself was empty, and she was led through a side door into a hallway. They passed many more doors, large and enameled, some of which stood open to reveal rich, empty rooms. Finally they reached another guarded door where they were greeted in the first words she’d heard yet in the merchant tongue: “Who seeks the presence — ” He broke off, staring at her, and swore. Then he jerked his head, stepped aside, and allowed them to pass.

The guards did not seem so sure of themselves now, and hesitated a moment before opening the door. Once inside, they released their grips on her arms and pushed her forward, taking a stance in front of the door as if ready to bolt. Looking around, she rubbed the throbbing spots where their hands had been. A woman standing by the window spoke: “Who approaches the Empress unannounced?”

En Shevil heard and understood, knowing now why those around her had been so shocked at her appearance. The voice was her own.

As this ‘Empress’ turned, En Shevil stared at her. Her hair, looking a great deal longer and paler than En Shevil remembered her own hair ever having been, was pulled up into a number of large, swinging loops. She wore a loose robe that touched the floor, sleeves half-covering her hands, of cerulean deepening to black by the time it reached the hem. It was embroidered with large swirls of silver, and being so beautiful looked out of place: as the Empress faced her, En Shevil could see that under the open robe she was clad completely in stark black, tight and functional, with the device of the broken mouth blood-red bright on her breast.

The Empress stared, scarred lips slightly parted. There was a glowing hardness in her eyes that En Shevil hazily recognized from the few times she’d caught a glimpse of herself in still water during her time as Deathscar. It was clear that whatever had happened in this world to bring this Empress to where she was, she was still most certainly insane.

“Leave us,” the Empress commanded harshly. “Do not enter this room again, and suffer no one else to do so.” The guards seemed all too happy to comply, and soon En Shevil was alone with herself. “Who in Tartarus are you?”

“I am…” She faltered, but the look in the Empress’ eye was not one to cross; she felt compelled to answer. “I am what you might have been, I guess.”

“Whence come you?”

“A different world, the same as this one.”

“So you have lived the same life as we?”

“Obviously not quite.” En Shevil wondered at the Empress picking up on this after such a taciturn answer to her question; En Shevil would not have. Or was her counterpart in this world smarter than she was?

“What happened to you?” The Empress’ eyes were narrowed to slits, and she glanced back and forth with no apparent cause.

“When?”

“We will tolerate no rudeness from you. Do you know who we are?”

“En Shevil, of Shapier?”

A force, obviously magical, struck En Shevil in the face and knocked her down. Eyes closed and head throbbing, she lay on the floor as the Empress said, “Never, never, never say that name again.”

The tone in her voice was frightening. “You’re crazy,” En Shevil gasped as she sat up. “Erasmus never healed you.”

“Erasmus!” laughed the Empress. “It was about the time we reached his castle we realized our magic powers, which was convenient for killing him.” She smirked. “And yes, we are crazy. But we keep it under fairly tight control. It comes and goes, and we deal with it accordingly.”

En Shevil shook her head in confusion, climbing to her feet. “What about… the Hero?”

The Empress lowered her brows as if she did not quite understand the question. “What about him?”

“Didn’t he try to save you?”

“We haven’t seen him since we left Shapier.” The Empress was wringing her hands as if nervous, though still staring intently at En Shevil.

“Did he defeat the demon king in Tarna?”

The Empress shrugged. “It’s likely. The king was never that bright.”

En Shevil’s eyes went wide. “Askgaella?”

The Empress threw back her head and shrieked with laughter. “That pathetic fool of a Chekghaera came out and tried for ‘Deathscar’ at first, and got killed so many times she was destroyed. So Taramolix Ingk came for ‘Deathscar,’ and now we are the Scar-Mouth Empress, ruler of the Conjoinèd Lands.”

“Which lands?” asked En Shevil softly.

“Silmaria. Tejato, Lokgard, Nova Roma, all the lands around without rulers. Soon we will cross the mountains into Mordavia and Spielburg. We only came to this part of the world to build ourselves an army.” The Empress laughed again. “But now we shall stall our plans in order to solidify the Conjoinèd Lands to our name. Your arrival showed perfect timing.” She gave a little hop as if with joy, then began pacing back and forth, swishing her robes.

“What do you mean?”

“What shall my new face be?” Magically she shifted through the shapes of a number of warrior woman — famous, legendary, and all beautiful and noble. “Perhaps this one.” She stopped with Elsa von Spielburg. “She squealed when I killed her.”

En Shevil was filled with nausea, disgust at this creature that was half herself, half fanatic demon — this monster she could easily have become. “Elsa is my friend.” She could not remove her eyes from the Empress, who had twisted Elsa’s mouth into a half-grin, nearly bestial as it revealed a mouthful of overly-sharp teeth.

“Poor thing,” she giggled. “This, then. Though you probably don’t know what Chollichihaua looked like.” And indeed, the new shape En Shevil did not recognize, though she saw now why Askgaella was so beautiful. “But, no, I would not stain my frame with such a visage.” She slipped back to the image of the Spielburg Heroine.

“Askgaella is my friend as well,” growled En Shevil, not even flinching at the word ‘friend.’

“Askgaella was a coward and a fool. So much for my opinion of you.” The Empress suddenly fell into a fit of laughter, crumpling up the end of her robe in her left hand and leaning heavily on a chair with her right. She laughed so long, tears running down her cheeks, that En Shevil, feeling she might never stop, thought it was safe to try for an escape. Standing straight, she began to back toward the door when finally the Empress ceased. “Hold still!” she howled, and threw a blast of magic at the other woman that knocked her over with a painful jolt through her body. En Shevil’s stinging eyes rapidly lost their sight, and all she knew was the feeling of the rich carpet under her, her lungs’ heavy panting, and the sound of the Empress’ angry growl — all this over a generous helping of pain, of course.

She was obviously not in that little jail cell down by the gates. This was her first, somewhat absurd thought before the pain started and kept her from thinking anything else for several moments. It was just a headache, really, but such a throbbing, skull-splitting sensation as she had never felt before. Gingerly she tried willing it away with magic, but cried out as daggers of pain stabbed out from whatever internal center housed her power, careening through her entire frame with burning speed. For a moment she lay, absolutely helpless from agony, before the new pain receded and the headache felt like a blessing in comparison. She sat up.

She was wearing the tight, harsh, black uniform of the Empress, complete with the blue robe and spiked boots. The taste of blood was on her lips, and, raising her hand, she found that she’d been cut across the mouth to duplicate the scar she’d once had there. She did not understand.

The room was fine, and the bed in which she sat was large and comfortable. Decorative pillars stood all around, and on several of them empty vases waited forlornly for flowers. Two ornamental counters flanked a sunken part of the floor, reached by a step, in which a bench ran along the wall under three windows to create a charming ‘sitting room’ area. The windows, heavily barred though they were, combined with the skylight to give the room a cheerful, daylit look. Overall it was a beautiful chamber made for someone of prestige — so what was she doing here dressed as her devilish alter-ego?

She did not know how many hours she sat there, propped against the back of the bed, head leaning and eyes closed. Her headache erased any idea she might have had of looking for a means of escape. Eventually, she slid down under the coverlet and slept more fully, though still not deeply enough. She awoke perhaps every twenty minutes during the night, and her dreams were filled with acts of violence committed upon her head; hunger was their secondary theme. So her night passed miserably, and when it was over she felt as if she had not slept at all. But she thought the pain had lessened somewhat.

As she soon discovered, she was wrong — it was only the new pains of hunger that took her mind off the headache. Her stomach cramped, and eventually the hunger faded to a dull gnaw to allow the other discomfort to return in full thunder. After hours of tiredly attempting to keep her body comfortable without jarring her head, she grew annoyed and decided to risk walking. She couldn’t stay on this bed forever anyway.

With each painful step she regretted rising, but finally made it over to the window. Outside was a pretty, well-kept courtyard filled with flowers, shrubberies, and little paths. Reaching her arm between the bars, she managed to unlatch and swing outward the shutters that contained the glass panels. The smell of flowers and a gentle breeze filled the room, and she hoped fresh air would help with her headache. She then began a slow circumnavigation of the chamber in order to find out exactly what it contained.

Past the sunken window area, against the back wall, was a marble statue carved out of an ornate arch of the same white material. It was surrounded on the floor by a semicircle of tiles, unlike the stiff, expensive-looking carpeting of the rest of the room. En Shevil stared at this for long moments, her mind slowly fighting its way through her pain to interpret what her thief’s instincts were trying to tell her. She finally realized what it was: the architecture of the room, not to mention the tiling, suggested rather a door than a statue. The scratch marks on the ceramic flooring also seemed to indicate the figure’s hasty adjustment; but it would be the work of three strong men to move this massive piece of art. She restrained herself from shaking her head and looked to the next wall.

A large changing screen stood behind the spacious Silmarian-style bed, hiding the back right corner from view from the door. Behind this was a dark spot with four square indentations in the carpet where a wardrobe perhaps had stood, and a full-length mirror mounted on the wall. Besides a few hangings that matched the carpet, tiles, and vases — and concealed only brick — the room was bare.

En Shevil sat down on the bench by the window after inspecting all this, and leaned her head back against the counter.

This extensive exploration of her area of confinement turned out, far from being helpful, rather to have been a bad idea — if only because it left her nothing to do over the next several days. At least, she thought it was several days that she dragged herself around the unwelcoming chamber in ever-increasing misery. Nothing stirred in the courtyard beyond the barred windows; the only noises in the palace were distant, irrelevant, and unintelligible; and, best of all, nobody came in to bring her either further torment or food. She had never gone so long without eating; she wondered how many weeks it took to starve to death. But she was certain that was not the empress’ intent, sure the food was withheld simply to weaken her for whatever that eventual purpose was.

She fell to contemplating the remarkable pain that flared up every time she attempted to use magic. Having nothing better to do, she explored it, tried to determine how it worked and if there might not be some way around it. This pursuit did not last long. That is, it did not take up much of her time, for the reckless abandon with which she was eventually overcome led her to attempt to break through the curse or whatever it was with magic — and in doing so she occasioned a rush of agony so severe it rendered her unconscious. After repeating this experience a few times and passing an indeterminate number of hours thus, she gave it up, and a seemingly endless period of idle, diluted contemplation followed.

She never lacked topics of reflection in any world, but here the overwhelming subject was pain. The pain that prevented her magic and the pain of starvation blended like sharp colors, and the result was a unique discomfort greater than the sum of its parts. And that was before the almost corporeal boredom added its weight.

Without too heavy a sense of self-deprecation she wondered to what extent, if any, her unrelated suffering equaled penance. It didn’t assist her victims… it wasn’t inflicted by anyone in a position to mete out punishment… she didn’t think it made her a better person… yet somehow, in some sense, it seemed… right.

She broke into a weak laugh, leaning her face against the counter and closing her eyes. Distracted with hunger, largely disconnected from the flow of time, cut off from all contact with anyone, contemplating the nature of suffering… she must soon grow as mad as her captor… as mad as she herself once had been. And perhaps that was the empress’ desire.

This thought, which at its inception had scarcely been serious, suddenly gripped her and sent an unexpected chill of horror through her. It still wasn’t a particularly realistic theory, but it led her to a fear that might be more plausible. Her original madness had been the result of rage and killing lust stirring up her dragon blood beyond what her humanity could handle… but didn’t it seem frighteningly possible that the same effect might be attained by another set of extreme circumstances? And what would be the result of returning to insanity in another world? Was there anything she could do about it, in any event?

She was in precisely the wrong situation to combat a feeling of helplessness (being, in fact, helpless), and she tried somewhat frantically to review her options while any presence of mind, however scant, remained to her.

Her immediate thought that she must kill herself brought images to mind, gut-twisting and hazy — glistening rocks at a misty waterfall’s foot, glistening blades against her body in a misery-shrouded room — and she shuddered. Even knowing the impermanence of the action in her present situation, she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to do it. The other problem she saw was that she might not be physically capable. She had no weapon, and she didn’t know if her current strength was enough to do herself sufficient harm. And a failed attempt, she feared, would put her in a much worse position than her present one.

Of course, sitting around trying to determine which objects in the room around her she might drop onto her head or throw herself against to the most lethal effect wasn’t much better.

Eventually she decided that she might as well try. Though she didn’t greatly fancy adding the pain and inconvenience of a non-deadly wound to her discomfort, the return to insanity (however plausible it was or wasn’t in this situation) was something she feared more than any physical suffering.

The means on which she eventually fixed was one of the urns. At this level of strength it seemed unlikely she could lift them, but if she could just shift one to a more precarious position atop its pillar and throw herself at the latter, she might bring the urn down with enough force to achieve her end. Or she might just give herself a bigger headache. She thought it was worth the risk.

Sliding the jar proved a greater trial even than she’d anticipated; actually, just the typical movements of standing for more than a few seconds and reaching above her head were almost more than she could handle, and she had to take a break between getting the urn to a spot where it might even topple on its own and the next stage of her plan. Eventually, though, she was poised (with as much poise as she could currently command) at the opposite end of the room working up the energy to run and plotting the optimal position of her body hitting the pillar. From there everything went as planned. Almost.

She’d died frequently enough now to be familiar with what it felt like, even when she was unconscious at the time. This didn’t mean she was specifically aware that it hadn’t happened, but it did ensure her lack of surprise on waking and finding herself in the bed in her by-now-too-familiar prison. It almost seemed like she’d never made the attempt at all, that she’d merely dreamed it: apart from all the urns having been removed, the room looked exactly as it had, and her physical state didn’t seem to have changed. She doubted that a blow to the head strong enough to knock her unconscious could possibly leave no other indication of its occurrence, and therefore concluded she must have been healed of whatever wound it had left. Which raised again the question of what in the world the Empress wanted with her.

At last she found out.

Sitting against the counter, staring out the window, thinking almost nothing as she had been since her suicide attempt (it felt like days), she barely had the energy to react when the Empress entered.

“I’m disappointed,” the latter said at once. “I thought you would be clever enough to come up with another way to try to kill yourself.”

En Shevil had no response other than to drag her body upright.

“Tie her hands,” the Empress commanded, and a pair of guards stepped forward to obey.

“Like that’s necessary,” En Shevil muttered, and was herself a bit surprised at her ability to articulate.

With a smile, “Oh, but it is,” replied the Empress. “You have to appear completely under my control.”

“Why don’t you just possess me?” wondered En Shevil with weary sardonicism as her hands were roughly, tightly bound behind her back.

“That wouldn’t work with the flag,” the Empress said vaguely.

En Shevil gave a shallow sigh as she was led from the room with no clear idea of what was going on. Through the ornate, echoing corridors of the Hall of Kings they led her, none too gently, to the main doors. Here they were joined — or, rather, the Empress was joined by what seemed to be an honor guard of some sort. That woman had shifted her form to that of Elsa von Spielburg again, and this time had even gone so far as to imitate Elsa’s style of dress. The number of threatening guards around En Shevil also increased, and there was a scramble for order, for formation even, before the main doors were flung open before them.

As she was marched out smartly into the sunlight — the first she’d felt directly on her skin in she didn’t know how long — she was a little surprised to see the open space beyond the Hall of Kings packed with people. Even the green lawn of that eminent building was teeming with observers. All the movement and color hurt En Shevil’s head to look at, and she was concentrating too much on steadying her weary, uneven steps to divine details; but if she’d had to guess, she would have said that citizens of half a dozen nations were assembled here to watch whatever the Empress had planned. Were they under duress? She couldn’t quite tell what variety of crowd control the Hesperian soldiers at the edges of the throng were there for.

The appearance of En Shevil and the Empress was met with an uproarious cry from the gathered watchers; the cacophony was so great as to defy interpretation, so En Shevil wasn’t sure whether it was joyful greeting or angry defiance — or perhaps just meaningless noise the guards insisted upon. At any rate, it increased as the little procession moved down the aisle that divided the teeming crowd and climbed some steps onto a high platform that had been built since En Shevil had last been outside the Hall of Kings.

For a moment she wondered vaguely how long it had been, how long she’d spent in that room, how long the Empress had been preparing for this. That frame of mind, however, was shattered when, with a sick sort of shock, she saw the arrangements on the platform and realized exactly what was intended here, why she was dressed as the Empress, and how the Empress disguised as Elsa was going to solidify the Conjoinèd Lands to her name. As the guards forced En Shevil to her knees before the block, the Empress began to speak.

Rather than the less effective insane woman, the demon must be largely in control at this point, for the words were lucid — inspiring, even. En Shevil wasn’t listening particularly closely, but this much was evident from what she did hear and the people’s reaction to it. That the Empress could so coolly decry her own evil and yet subtly promote the unity of the kingdoms she sought now to rule as Elsa was impressive even to the woman she was about to kill. Still, as the latter watched the grain of the wood immediately in front of her, she was reflecting that this plan, though clever, probably wouldn’t work particularly well; if the Empress planned to continue conquering lands, it didn’t much matter whose face she wore in so doing. But perhaps the demon and the madwoman didn’t see it that way.

It seemed bad form to allow the Empress carry this off without a hitch, but there was a certain hypnotic fascination to the scene: disguised as what she might have become, about to be executed by herself disguised as her best friend… she couldn’t rouse herself to protest or fight back. She was still exhausted and dull, and was certain that attempting to use magic would have the same results as before.

The Empress had a good sense of timing, at least: her speech only dragged on to the point where the masses started to shift restlessly below before she hefted, seemingly from nowhere, a massive axe with a blue-glowing blade. Turning toward En Shevil, who had looked up, the Empress couldn’t seem to resist a triumphant and somewhat crafty smile at her victim. En Shevil really had nothing to say or do in response except to decide that she might as well not make them force her any further; she lowered her own head and neck into place.

“And so!” the Empress concluded, raising the axe, “She shall pay for her crimes!”

As the great weapon fell, time seemed to slow. For one long, bewildering, horrifying moment, En Shevil somehow seemed to feel herself in two places at once: kneeling at the block, waiting to die; and swinging the axe downward with all the force in her body, beating her enemy out of existence. At once victim and executioner, traveler and Empress, yet the shock of pain and disorientation and subsequently fading reality came as a harsh surprise; she thought her body struggled momentarily just as the head was separated from it, but then her awareness ended.

Intermingled and protracted dreams of beheading and personal confusion followed, and when she eventually awoke it was gasping, clutching at her neck in consternation and disgust. That last vision haunted her still… her grip on the axe-haft, bringing the blade down to her own neck, killing herself with a stranger’s hands… In actuality, decapitation had been far less painful than a few other deaths she’d experienced, but the mental images associated with it had rendered it, overall, far worse.

No one was in the room; outside the clouds were the colors of dusk. She stood, chilled as the cold sweat on her body was touched by the lightly moving air through the windows. She shook her head to rid herself of the grogginess of sleep, and transported to the parlor looking for Rawn.

The mage was not there. En Shevil sent a magical call through the house, reflecting briefly on how pleasant it was to be able to use magic again without fear. She received no answer. Uncomfortably she stepped through the portal that led to the sitting room. She did not want to have to explore the entire castle searching for Rawn; it was a big place. Besides, Rawn would have answered her call, wouldn’t she? She made her way outside.

There was still no sign of Rawn, Erasmus, or Fenris. Through growing darkness she walked the high pathway to the transporter, and appeared at Nob Hill. The first thing she saw was a strange object floating in the air in front of her: it was like a red bubble with a thick outer skin, with a string tied to its lower end. As she reached out to touch it, it exploded with a bang, and a strip of paper that had been trapped within floated spinning to the ground. She bent and seized it. “Come to the healers’,” it said.

The healers?! En Shevil took off at a sprint across the plaza toward the stairs. This really wasn’t what she needed to calm her after her experience in the other world, but she attempted to put that behind her as she ran; her friends might very well need her assistance, even if only as moral support.

At first no one answered her knock, but eventually the door opened somewhat sluggishly and En Shevil found herself looking into a woman’s weary face. She didn’t know the name of either of the healers, but the Shapierian features of this person had always called up a vague fondness in En Shevil despite their never having spoken.

The woman greeted her with a sigh. “Come inside,” she said.

Obeying, En Shevil followed the healer into the building, through the main room, and at last into a small chamber evidently designed for the treatment of individual patients. There, it was with a distinct shock that En Shevil saw Erasmus lying still and unconscious on a bed with a coverlet drawn up to his neck beneath his long beard. Fenris sat on the bedside table, Rawn stood on the other side, and the other healer was bending over the wizard.

“What’s going on?” En Shevil gasped. “What happened?”

“He has been poisoned,” Rawn replied in that uncannily even tone of hers.

“Poisoned?!” echoed En Shevil in horror.

“It isn’t a poison,” contradicted the healer man. “It’s a drug.”

“I am still not certain I understand the distinction,” Rawn commented.

“It’s hard to explain,” said the healer, scratching his head. “Poisons are meant to hurt or kill, but that’s pretty simple and a lot of the time they’re natural. Drugs are more complicated. They’re designed by people, usually with a combination of natural elements and things they created themselves, and they can be meant to do all sorts of different things — sometimes good things, like fighting a specific illness; sometimes bad things, like permanent damage to someone’s brain so their way of thinking is entirely changed.”



I started writing Pride of her Parents in 1997, and finally realized, two decades later, that it would never be finished. It’s a hilariously bad story that doesn’t really need to be finished, but since Quest for Glory introduced me to the concept of fanfiction, something that has become very important in my life, this story still holds a special place in my heart.

What there is of this chapter is just the first of several scenes I wrote ages ago; all I needed to do was connect them in order to finish the story. Having finally become aware that this is never going to happen, I’ve decided to post it all with notes in between to fill the gaps. That way, if anyone is amusing themselves by reading this nonsense, they can, at least, if brave, get all the way to the end.

As for this chapter, En Shevil learns all she can about the drug from Salim and Julanar. The next day, the Rite of Destiny is announced. En Shevil, thinking that the effects of the drug sound very much like those she herself suffered at the hands of the scientists in the world she visited where Gort was the King of Silmaria, goes to Science Island to question the scientists.

I don’t remember if I ever had any details of this encounter in mind; my Dragon Mage timeline simply says, En Shevil confronts the scientists to no avail. There was probably going to be more rather unnecessary emphasis on the fact that En Shevil is not the most intelligent person in the world.


Pride of her Parents 13-14

…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 13 – Looking Forward

The rain was very wet, as rain always was, but not the driving, stinging, wind-plagued rain of Tarna; it was an almost pleasant, cheerful storm. Her velvet cloak at first repelled the huge, fat drops, but before she reached the arena she was soaked through, and glad to shake her cape from her shoulders and look about her. “Good evening,” she said to the guard, studying him. With another glance around to determine that he was the only obvious fighter in the room (no need to make a fool out of herself, after all), she said, “You are Kokeeno…?” She had forgotten the surname.

“I am Kokeeno Pookameeso,” he replied, “of the Silmarian Guard.” He spoke as if he did not like the fine quality of his voice and wished to roughen it, which was a shame, for his tone was lovely. This was one of those people she would stand and speak with for hours just to hear his voice.

“I am Dazah,” she said.

He examined her, with what thoughts she could not guess as his stance did not change and his face was invisible. “I look forward to this combat,” he said at last. “May the best warrior win.” She decided then that she liked him: from what she had heard lately, a woman who fought was held in contempt. And strange-looking she was!

The fist after-effect she had noticed of the transportation device was that it reverted her body to a more or less original state, though still matured to her 19-years’ age. All her scars were gone (mixed emotions had come with that revelation), as was her hair besides a fine, reddish, downy sort of baby-fluff coating her head. Her skin was soft — too soft for her liking, for she found that she bruised and scratched rather too easily — and had regressed to its Aryan paleness as if she had never spent seventeen years in the Shapierian desert. She worried for the first time in her life about sunburn. And more to the point, she was wearing a strange purple mask she’d found in Erasmus’ castle — she couldn’t count on any hood to stay down over her face during a fight, and she wanted to test her skills after that farce in the other layer without revealing herself. All in all, she would not have blamed Kokeeno for laughing at her.

“My greetings to all of you,” Ferarri said from his high stand over the audience as they prepared to fight. He obviously had some spell or other augmenting his voice, for even from down in the arena doorway En Shevil could hear it. “Welcome to the arena, and tonight’s spectacle of deadly combat. Tonight, the champion of this contest is someone most of you know. He has served the city of Silmaria for many years as a guard. He has proved himself to be both valiant and brave. Ladies and gentlemen, I call to battle Kokeeno Pookameeso!”

The man in question stepped forward from the opposite side. “I, Kokeeno Pookameso, shall defend the honor of the guards of Silmaria.” The crowd cheered.

“Tonight’s challenger,” Ferarri continued, “is a ninja of mysterious powers. I call to battle Dazah!” En Shevil stepped forward and nodded to Ferrari, then to Kokeeno as the crowd booed her. She had decided not to speak (though she had been instructed to introduce herself) in case Achim were watching. Ferarri obviously noted this (it fit with her pseudonym, after all). “Let the contest begin!”

Rather regretting she had to harm such an apparently nice person, she went to. Her first move was to flip over him, landing on her hands behind him to strike the small of his back with her feet. This both threw him of balance and most certainly bruised her (armor on one’s opponent was thoroughly disagreeable). She realized she would have to use her katana, much as she had wanted to avoid it, if she was ever to get anywhere against his armor. Sweeping it free in a graceful arc, she brought it around with her right hand to strike him (she hoped; her back was to him) in the stomach.

She spun, barely in time to block the spearhead that came swinging around as he mirrored her movement. They were facing each other again, and the guard suddenly surprised her by aiming a kick at her stomach. She blocked it with her knee — he was only wearing sandals, after all — and brought her katana down towards the leather-covered spot on his lower left bicep. Naturally he jerked his shield up to block the sword, but in doing so he threw himself off balance, being already on one foot and now forced backwards from the top. As he teetered, she kicked him in the head, getting a screaming spear-wound in her thigh for it. He fell, however. Jumping back with a grimace, she waited for him to rise, then darted to his left and gave the elbow of his shield-arm a hard crack with her left hand. His arm stiffened and he let go the shield, crouching back and stabbing at her with his spear. She sprang again out of the way, then did a triple flip to land behind him a second time.

He was not to be fooled by the same trick twice, and threw himself aside before she could knock him in the back again. But she instead darted after him and stabbed the back of his right knee, kicking his left. He thrust his spear-butt backwards into her stomach, momentarily fazing her. As she stumbled backwards he limped around to face her, jabbing at her chest. She knocked the blow away with her katana, nicking the wood of his weapon near the head. Then unexpectedly she went from crouching in pain to aiming a high kick at his right shoulder. Momentarily he dropped his spear, but regained it before her next blow, which was a kick at his other shoulder.

Kokeeno was beginning to wobble. She ducked his next, uncertain thrust and put her weight on her hands as she struck out with her feet at his right ankle, knocking his legs out from under him. Wrenching the spear from his hand, she eased the point up into his helmet and placed the sharp tip under his chin. She wondered if she would have to force him to yield or something silly like that, but was reassured when Ferarri cried, “Tonight’s victory belongs to Dazah!” The assembled Silmarians cheered, and she released the unsteady Kokeeno. The two of them were led into a back room that held, apparently, only a closet with no door. Into this they were instructed to go, and Kokeeno stepped in without question. En Shevil, wondering, walked slowly under the archway. Magic flashed around her, and she felt her wounds healed. But when she came out she was shaking, just a bit, from the startlement of the thing. She wondered what such an enchanted device must have cost Ferarri. She was given a prize purse of 250 drachma, at which point she joined the dispersing crowd outside the arena and headed for the Dead Parrot.

It was but the day after next that she learned to her surprise of Kokeeno Pookameeso’s murder. Little specific grief followed the revelation, but any such death must make her sorry. To her happiness, however, she read the following message on the news board:

“The fishing village of Naxos has been freed from the mercenaries by Achim, Prince of Shapier.”

Disappointingly, it said nothing of the next Rite; for that she had to wait until the next day — but she whiled away her time comfortably by visiting another world. “Competitors must find the location of the Hesperian Mercenaries’ fortress and defeat their general. The person that returns with the general’s shield shall be deemed the winner of this quest.” She worried a bit about Achim, but was fairly sure (hoped she was fairly sure) that he could take care of himself. After ascertaining that checking the news board was all she wanted to do in the city, she returned to the transporter and Erasmus’ castle.

“I think we have determined how to solve the hair problem,” Rawn said as she entered. “We have woven a new spell over the device that should make your hair its usual length and color when you return this time.”

En Shevil had an amusing idea. “Could you do anything to keep it red?” she asked. “It would be convenient for my disguise.”

Erasmus shrugged. “I see no reason why not,” he said. This being only her third world, he, Rawnmé and Fenris still felt the need to gather in the octagonal room to watch her go and return. “Rawn, let’s…” he launched into a long magical tirade that En Shevil ignored.

Eventually, after some magic, they were apparently ready, and En Shevil stepped through. The sensations were still so new to her as to be wholly engrossing, and she was dwelling on them even after she had rematerialized at her destination. Thus, it took her a moment before she began to gape.

The fine houses of Nob Hill were gone, and had been replaced by a long row of boxy structures with identical doors and windows. No sign was there of the arena, but instead stood a large building of florescent colors with a bright yellow, rounded letter M over the door. From it wafted the scents of baked potatoes and… pizza?

The ground had been paved as far as her eye could see, and nearly all the foliage was gone. What little remained was strangely twisted and mutated, as if it had long been exposed to unhealthy soil or other conditions. And the most bizarre sight of all was the Hall of Kings, or what should have been: massive, many-storeyed, rising up into thin, strange towers around a great dome, the whole thing had an artificial, metallic look to it, and lightning danced from one tower to the next. Where the gate in her world was flanked by the proud Silmarian Guard, here was an eight-foot box of black metal with a door in its face. She could not resist. She had to enter.

In darkness she found herself, for she was quickly shut in. Feeling a bit worried, she pawed her way forward until she found the opposite wall not five feet away. Suddenly something flashed to life at her right, making her jump. It was a square, green-glowing and eerily hovering on the wall. As she approached she found that there were words written on it in white: “Welcome to the Hall of Kings. You, too, can witness the genius at work within these walls. Please take the simple Entry Quiz to prove your worth. Do Serious Research!”

“Ah… all right,” she said, not knowing quite how this magical-looking square worked.

And it began to ask her questions. She couldn’t be quite sure, but she felt they were rather silly — “What does every ruling figure need?” with the following choices offered: “To be able to spell Betelgeuse,” “To be able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw,” “A diploma from the Academy of Science in Silmaria,” “A perpetual motion machine.” If she answered three wrong the thing would tell her, “That was your third wrong answer. I’m sorry, but you are not qualified to enter our presence.”

“This is so stupid,” she grumbled, giving yet another incorrect response. Still, determined to get past, she activated the test sequence for the third time and tried again. She was beginning to remember the first few answers very well (“B — to discover the true meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, not to mention gain rulership in major countries,” “A — without science, the world would be destroyed by ignorance and superstition!” “D — all of the above”), and after much trial and error she made it. The screen flashed and read, “Congratulations! It is probable that you have the makings of a scientist! Go to the Academy today to find out!” A door opened before her. She jumped as a metallic voice spoke out of nowhere:

“You may enter the Hall of Kings now.”

“It’s about time,” she snorted, much more frustrated than she felt she should be. Unable to find whoever had just spoken, she shrugged and stepped forward into the light. The box closed up again behind, and she looked around. The lawn that should have been to her left and right was not there. Instead, a field of odorous, wide-leafed plants stood several feet high on either side of the path. Many seemed to be the subject of botanical experiments, for they sat in small circles of water or under miniature, clear domes. She bent and examined one. Its smell was not pleasant, but reminded her vaguely of something she had once eaten a great deal of. Garlic, perhaps, but she could not be quite sure. She headed on towards the great doors.

These were twenty-foot slabs of metal with large, exaggerated-looking rivets. At about face-level was a flat panel, interrupting the bumps on the rest of the surface, that seemed to be thinner than the surrounding material. Seeing no handles or other marks, and not know what else to do, En Shevil knocked on the smooth rectangle. It opened inwards, showing a pair of huge glowing eyes and otherwise darkness. These eyes were pressed startlingly close to the door, and she took a step back in wonder. “Who seeks to enter?” said a voice suspiciously like the metallic one she had heard moments earlier.

“My name is En Shevil,” she said. “I’m a traveler, and I’d like to see the Hall of Kings.”

“Whom do you recognize as King of Silmaria?” the creature continued. The eyes never blinked, and their glow was strangely steady.

She sucked in a breath. “Um, I just got here today,” she said. “I don’t know who the king is.” Not a lie, truly.

There was a whirring sound. “We have no record of your arrival. We must contact the harbormaster.”

“I didn’t come by boat,” she said. “I came by magic.”

There was a very long silence, and the eyes never moved. But the whirring sound continued. “Please, enter,” the voice finally said, and the doors swung open with an extended (and undue, En Shevil thought) sound of multiple gears. Someone’s been bored around here, she was thinking. It’s a door, not a clock.

She had no cause to be suspicious of the ease of her admittance until, halfway down the boxy metal hallway, two guards fell silently into place just behind her, keeping her pace. She did not turn to look at them, but felt that neither their uniforms nor their drawn weapons were anything similar to what she’d seen in her own world.

The great hall that gave the building its name was not far ahead, and murmuring voices could be heard from within. Upon her entrance, one of the guards took her right arm and whispered in her ear, “You will stand here with us.” En Shevil did not think of resisting, especially since she was almost too busy looking around to hear him.

The place looked normal enough at first glance, but on closer examination she decided that whoever was ruling this Silmaria was decidedly weird. The round, domed room was hung with a myriad of fine banners, most of them bearing pictures of books and other symbols of wisdom. But they were all in dark colors, blacks and greys. Next, the pillars around the inner circle, separating the arena-like seating from the main floor, were square — and spiked! Staring at them skeptically, she almost felt she had seen similar pillars somewhere in her world. The strangest sight of all, however, was the tile beneath her feet, for across the floor of the room’s inner circle stretched a huge marble pizza. Half of it was topped with red circles and yellow triangles, the rest with green circles and grey fish. She blinked a few times, telling herself that she was not seeing a giant pizza on the floor of the ruler’s main audience hall. Confident at last that it was, in fact, actually there, she raised her eyes to try and ascertain the identity of said ruler.

There was a fanfare, although the sound had a very metallic quality to it and seemed to come, instead of from living trumpeters, from somewhere near the top of the wall just before the dome began. From this same area a voice spoke. “All make obeisance before his high majesty — genius of science, champion of logic, scourge of superstition — Academy graduate, Rite conqueror, King of Silmaria and someday of the whole world….. Gort!

En Shevil stifled a giggle. “’King Gort?’” she murmured, feeling with the words a tightening of the guard’s hand on her arm.

The Silmarians were all making some sort of weird salute towards the platform at the head of the room, and En Shevil watched curiously as the king emerged. She giggled again at the sight of the massive, boxy, green-skinned man in royal attire — complete with bushy cape. “Infidel,” hissed the guard into her ear, and something hard and metallic pressed warningly to her back. This almost increased her desire to laugh, for she could not imagine loyalty to this moronic-looking “king.” But then, perhaps when he spoke she would be surprised.

He did not speak. Instead, a short and nearly bald man to his right greeted the people in what sounded like a ritual beginning to the audience or whatever it was. “Your loyalty does credit to your intelligence. Some of you may have the makings of true scientists.” He nodded graciously to them. “If the Speaker would please bring up the first item of business for today’s council?”

A young, somewhat nervous-looking man stood forward with a long scroll. “Um, the first — um, item — is the accusation of citizen Ionestra, for deception and the practice of High Trickery.”

“Let her be brought forward,” the bald man said, and En Shevil did not miss the sly poke he gave to the King — who then gestured to accompany the statement. Are these people stupid? En Shevil wondered, to follow this ridiculous mockery of a puppet?

Two guards dragged a ragged brown-haired girl up to stand just before the king’s dais, she fighting them all the way, and stood holding her in anticipation of her sentence. She struggled for a few moments, then straightened and regarded the king and his minister proudly. “Citizen Ionestra,” the bald man began with a disdainful curl of his lip, “you have been caught in the act of that practice which is most detrimental to our society: the deceit which your type calls ‘magic.’” He said the word with ultimate derision, but En Shevil saw very clearly that emotion to which she was by painful experience most attuned: fear. This man was a thousand times more afraid of magic than En Shevil was, and she wondered why. “Everyone knows that this ‘magic’ of yours does not exist, but that by your High Trickery you have made it seem like you have a power greater than that of Science, the only true power in the universe. Do you deny this?”

The girl’s voice was steady as she responded — loudly — but held an audible undertone of fear and despair; she knew what her fate was to be. En Shevil was by this time so curious as to what was going on that she was almost jumping, straining to hear all she could over the soft sounds of the council. “I will never deny,” the girl was saying, “that I practice magic — and that MAGIC IS REAL!” Her voice rose to a sudden, startling scream. “AND YOU CAN’T CHANGE THAT!

The following silence was alive with expectancy, eager in a horrifying sort of way as the bald man stared wordlessly at the poor Ionestra. Finally he shook his head in mock pity. “You have sealed your doom. Your punishment is death.”

En Shevil was surprised into loud and angry speech. “What?!” Heads turned to regard her, even that of the king and his minister.

“All citizens of and visitors to Silmaria are aware of the law,” the latter commented in her direction.

“You can’t execute her just for practicing magic!” En Shevil shrieked, and with a twist flipped her annoying guard to the floor. She ran to Ionestra’s side and disarmed the girl’s guards in a few swift kicks.

Meanwhile the bald man was wailing. “Guards! Stop her! She is of the deceivers — those who would convince innocents that such things as ‘magic’ really exist!”

“Magic does exist!” En Shevil cried, though her voice was strained by the uncanny weariness she was again beginning to feel. “That’s how I’m even here!” Guards were converging on them, and someone had run up to the platform and was whispering in the ear of the bald man. En Shevil began to fight off the guards, shouting all the while. “How can you people follow a king that doesn’t even talk? How can you put up with this stupid law about magic? What kind of doormat kingdom is this?”

That was as far as she got. She might have been able to fend off the weak guards indefinitely, despite her combat inhibitions, but at that moment something odd happened: she was suddenly surrounded by a bright light, and spasms of cramp-like pain cracked through every muscle in her body. With a cry she fell to the floor, aching and in terrible fear of another such blow. If these people don’t allow magic, what in Tartarus was that?

Several guards surrounded her, steadily pointing their strange-looking weapons at her as she was hauled to her feet. She noticed she had been separated from Ionestra, who was now crying.

“So you are the intruder,” the minister said when she was looking at him again: “you are the one who infiltrated our kingdom in order to spread your lies about magic to the good people of Silmaria. Whoever hired you must have been a person of sufficient intelligence, for it is apparent you are not: our records show you could not even pass the simple entry test in less than seven tries.”

Laughter filled the gallery, and En Shevil was becoming angry. It took some effort to move her jaw and tongue in order to speak coherently, and the council was forced to quiet in order to hear her almost-whispered words. “Your test is hardly proof of intelligence.”

“Nor are any of your actions,” was the bald man’s smooth and obviously spontaneous response. More laughter followed both statements. “You mindless warrior! Doesn’t it ever disturb you not to be among the smaller circle of humanity that has been gifted with reasonably-sized cognitive abilities?”

En Shevil puzzled through this briefly and snorted. “How could you possible know?”

“Imbecile! You blunder in here with your great physical powers without any contemplation as to our powers of security. See how easily you were outwitted and captured! Mind over matter!” The maruroha was now slightly confused, and it must have been evident on her face, for the minister smirked. “For espionage, High Trickery, and aiding a traitor to the country, not to mention several other minor charges that do not need to be listed, you are sentenced to death along with this citizen, with his majesty’s blessing.”

Gort nodded.

Ionestra’s weeping became audible. “Please don’t kill me!” she cried. “I’ll never use magic again! I’ll leave the country and never come back! Please!”

“Science is not cruel,” the minister consoled her. “The drug is quick and painless and even somewhat pleasant; you will sleep peacefully until you die.”

En Shevil struggled, but her body was sluggish and hurt, and would not move without jerking. So she resorted to her only option. “You’re the stupid one!” she cried in the loudest tone her fumbling organs could command. “You’re the one who’s afraid of something you can’t use!” Someone was approaching her through the ranks of guards, and she knew her time was short. “Maybe I can’t win your stupid test at your stupid door, but at least I’m trying to do something good with what I’ve got — not trying to use a bunch of lies and a stupid monster figurehead to take over the world!

At that moment she was conscious of many pairs of hands on her, particularly on her right arm; someone pinched her, and a tiny sharp stab prickled in her elbow. The mass of guards began to blur, and her entire frame relaxed. She fell forward into darkness.

Her first word upon awakening back in Erasmus’ octagonal tower room was not polite. “I just had two weeks of the most bizarre dreams I’ve ever had in my life,” she groaned.

“Do not forget your are fighting in the arena tonight,” Rawn remarked from nearby. “You asked me to remind you.”

Not having witnessed the previous evening’s tournament, (she’d spent the time easily in the Dead Parrot with her fellow ex-harem-girls), En Shevil was totally unprepared for what she found upon meeting Magnum Opus

So ugly a man she had not expected, but that was hardly his fault — although with less deliberate muscle and more attention to hygiene he might have been more attractive. His faults of appearance were complicated by his stance, which was so completely beyond arrogance as to be almost amusing. But this was nothing to his address upon her greeting him.

“So,” he began, “you dare to challenge me, Magnum Opus? Poor, overconfident fool, your defeat will come swiftly. Had you been a man, I might have hoped for some exercise from the fight. But a woman? Ha!” He tossed his head with a deep, contemptuous laugh. Then he looked more closely at her and gave a wide, toothy smile with his overlarge mouth. “Perhaps you would prefer to skip this battle entirely and return to my room at the inn?”

He looked at her expectantly, and En Shevil stared at him a moment before she realized that he was in earnest. She tried to speak but dissolved rather into laughter, leaning on the wall for support as her stomach cramped with the force of her mirth. She could do nothing but laugh at such a man who, on top of everything he already was, tried to be taken seriously. “I think…” she said between gasps for breath, “…I think that… I will enjoy… beating you…”

Magnum glared at her as the door beside them was opened from within and they were allowed to enter.

“Tonight’s champion has more than proven himself in battle. He has the reputation as a leader of warriors, and tireless student of the marshal arts. From the city-state of Nova Roma, I summon to battle Magnum Opus!” From her position in the challenger’s doorway, En Shevil giggled.

Magnum stepped forward, his face holding all the expectancy of a warm welcome that such a disposition as his must. He spoke, loudly and without even the appearance of deference towards the supervisor of the event. “I, Magnum Opus, brilliant tactician and strategist, shall demonstrate to all in Silmaria that I am unsurpassed in my combat skills. I shall defeat all who challenge me. Ave, Ferarri. I, who shall make my opponent die, salute you.”

Oh, honestly, En Shevil thought, with a prodigious roll of eyes. She was then introduced, and the battle began.

Taking automatically to the offensive, she rolled forward and spun on her hands to knock Magnum’s legs out from under him with her own. He clattered to the ground and did a backwards roll to his feet again. More agile than I thought in that armor. Magnum took a powerful swipe at her with his massive sword as she sprang up, and she leaned her upper body back to avoid it, kicking out at his left knee with her right foot at the same moment. He stumbled forward a step, sword driving wildly past En Shevil’s left shoulder. She turned ninety degrees to the right and drove her left forearm up into his right armpit, then ducked and backed out under his outstretched arm.

Magnum dropped his sword. This is too easy, En Shevil thought; for as Magnum bent to recover it, she kicked him hard in the face. Despite this he managed to close his hand on the hilt before her blow knocked him back, and his growl of rage as he charged evidenced just how much she’d hurt him. She flipped tightly to her left, missing the Hesperian’s blade so narrowly that had her hair not been pulled back in a braid-crown (Rawn had done that) it might have been shorn. Immediately she landed she jumped to avoid the diagonally-downward left-to-right stroke Magnum had reversed into. As she hit the ground again she barely twisted out of the way as a third swift slice threatened to take her left arm off. He wants swordplay, she thought. Wonderful.

Deciding to go dramatic, she did a high jump into the air, flipped thrice and dove with newly-drawn katana bearing down on Magnum’s helmeted head. As she had expected, he raised his own sword to repel her, and she allowed herself to be thrown from him in a controlled flight, landing crouched with blade at the ready before her. He was beginning to circle her with defenses high, looking for an opening. She straightened and watched him for a brief moment before flying into motion again.

The next few seconds flashed in the light of ringing swords, uncountable blows levied and repelled until En Shevil ended the sequence and the fight with the same move she’d used to begin her bout with Kokeeno: after twisting his sword away from her midsection and as he was preparing, lightning-fast, for another stab, she flipped over him, landed head-down on her left hand, and slammed her feet into his back. At that same moment she pushed off with the hand that bore her weight to put her upright once more, and whirled to face the off-balance warrior. Remembering the healing closet and knowing that mercy was not necessary, she stabbed his leg; he fell twisting to the ground, sword beneath him. She put a foot on his rear and the tip of her sword to his neck.

“The winner of this bloody battle –“ Didn’t Ferarri get a kick out of saying that! “– is Dazah!”

En Shevil could have sworn that Magnum was blushing as she allowed him to rise, but it was difficult to tell for the lowness of his hanging head. As they entered the outer healing chamber, En Shevil sighed, “Had you been a man, I might have hoped for some exercise from this fight.”

The next day, on her way out to check the notice board, she saw a familiar golden-white figure basking in the sub-tropical sunlight on a great rock just across the bridge from the transporter. With a smile she quickened her pace.

“Rakeesh,” she greeted him from behind. The liontaur turned and looked at her for a long time.

“So,” he said at last, slowly, “Silence speaks.” She nodded. “Why are you here?”

“I’m helping Erasmus and Rawnmé with some experiments.”

He gestured to her hair, which was still in that adorable braid-crown. “Why do you conceal yourself?”

“I don’t want Achim to know I’m alive,” she said with a shrug that did not speak how she truly felt. “And actually the hair isn’t so much a concealment thing; it’s a magic thing.”

“Why do you act thus?”

“Achim’s gotten over me; he has new… friends, now. It would only shock and disturb him if I came back into his life.”

“Your reasoning is wise: a Paladin tries to avoid harming others at all times. But that must to a reasonable extent include yourself — and you still love him.”

She looked away. “It doesn’t matter,” she said finally. “I don’t deserve him anyway.”

“What you are determines what you deserve,” said Rakeesh, “and you will always be strong of heart and pure of intent. And he still loves you.”

“Excuse me,” she said, and, crouching, slipped into the shrubbery behind Rakeesh’s rock. Observing the approaching Prince of Shapier, Rakeesh knew why.

En Shevil slipped back to the transporter as she heard Achim begin to speak. “I think I know where mercenaries are hiding out!”

I can check the messages when I get back, she thought. Now she was growing excited for whatever the magical transporter would hold for her today. Fenris was not present, and En Shevil took this as a sign of the increasing normality of her ventures. However, nothing could accustom her to the acutely bizarre sensations associated with her travel. And the feeling that filled her upon transition was something she’d never even felt before: free-falling.

In the first instant she screamed, but immediately her lungs stopped their function and the sound ceased. Freezing moisture bit into her agonizingly as clouds rushed past, but she barely had time to wonder what was happening before she was in the clear air, head downwards, and moving increasingly swiftly towards a vast and terrifying expanse of ocean below. She did not pause to wonder where Marete was; she did not think to prepare herself for the pain of the approaching impact; she did not consider how she might somehow swim to safety if she survived the fall — she merely gave in to terror.

It was mute, it was blind, it was cold and piercing, and it was momentary. She had expected it to drag out, seem to last forever, but her descent was by now too rapid. As she slammed into the stony surface of the water with all the force of a hundred foot fall she blacked out. It was but for a moment, and at her return she was conscious of raging, enveloping pain — she felt every bone in her body must be broken, her eyes were broken, and her teeth seemed to be leaning inwards; consuming, intolerable cold — she was still plunging deeper into the clinging water; terrible, burning fluctuation of internal organs — struggling against the increasing pressure, empty lungs in desperate need of air; and lastly, saturating, clawing fear — a child of fire and earth suddenly immersed in a hostile world of water.

Without thinking she tried to draw breath. Agony clawed at her lungs and black slashes of oblivion flashed across her consciousness. In panic she struggled, thrashing her mangled limbs slowly and clumsily. Everything seemed on fire, and jolts of incredible pain shot through her with every movement. But she was fading rapidly, and soon the void of death swallowed her, water rushing in like a whirlpool as her body vanished.

She fell to the floor, screaming. Rawn was at her side, arms about her shoulders, in an instant. She spoke no words, but radiated calm. Slowly the image of endless, gluttonous water and its sadistic desires fell away from her eyes, and the room came gradually into view. She knelt, hands pressed against the comforting surface beneath her, and gasped for almost a full minute. Finally she climbed to her feet, and fainted.

Achim’s experience the next day was similar. Returning in acute exhaustion from an unimportant and overlooked island called Sifnos, he stood in his bedroom doorway at Gnome Ann’s Land staring blankly at the distant wall for some time. Her questions fell unanswered, for his weariness and grief were deafening. The previous sleepless night had held many times its fair share of sneaking and fighting, and the last, highly personal battle, had been so taxing as to drain him more than entirely.

His plan was to eat before falling into bed, but after standing silently at the door for almost a full minute, he closed his eyes and slumped to the floor.

“It took the entire kitchen staff to get him into bed,” Nawar reported later at the Dead Parrot. “I wonder what their secret is,” she added with a laugh. I’ve got to find a new source for gossip, En Shevil thought with an aching heart. Or maybe I should just explain the whole thing to her. That thought was almost amusing.

“I guess they can cook,” Budar put in — she always heard what Nawar was saying — “Why do you think Ferarri likes me?”

“You two deserve each other,” Nawar said.

“So, what else have you heard about the Rite?” En Shevil asked, lest the conversation degenerate into one of the harem girls’ typical banterfests.

Nawar shrugged. “I don’t care much about it. The prince won, that’s all I know. Oh — and Magnum Opus was murdered out in the woods somewhere.”

“Magnum murdered?” En Shevil echoed, more than a bit surprised. “I can’t say I’ll miss him, as little contact as I even had with him. But he was one of the most interesting swordfighters I’ve ever fought.” She gave a sighing laugh. “I’m really starting to wonder what’s going on around here.”

“There is another contest I care about more,” Nawar said with a dreamy look, ignoring En Shevil’s words. “I hope he wins.”

“And what contest would that be?” inquired the stony voice of Elsa von Spielburg from behind Nawar. She had descended the stairs and now stood in all her aloof glory beside the stage.

Nawar’s eyes narrowed, and her body went rigid. En Shevil had never before seen a meeting between these two women, but she could easily have guessed at the tension that might exist between them. “I’m sure you know what I mean,” Nawar replied at last.

“He may win,” Elsa replied, with cutting derision: she could not stomach Nawar’s superficiality, “but not because such as you wishes it.”

En Shevil had made her way to the thieves’ guild the night before, and knew exactly what they were talking about. She had not realized, however, that Elsa was involved in the Chief Thief contest.

“Ferarri might be very interested to hear your speculations about who’s really going to win that contest,” Nawar spat back.

Elsa snorted. “Ferarri can’t touch me.”

“Only because you’re hiding behind Minos.”

“I wonder who’s fighting now that Magnum’s dead?” En Shevil spoke over whatever Elsa said next and strode purposefully towards the stairs, pulling her hood farther down over her face.

Reeshaka’s was the latest name under ‘This week’s Champion’ — as a matter of fact, this was already her second day. Ferarri certainly didn’t lose any time between news-of-death and appointment-of-successor. En Shevil tapped the board on the next and pointed to herself. “You know the price,” the bookie said, flipping a page in his log and marking her down to fight on the liontaur’s third day. En Shevil counted out the drachma for him.

Before long she was joined by Elsa. “That woman belongs in a harem.”

En Shevil put a hand to her mouth in symbol of laughter and drew Elsa away. The bookie laughed as they went. “I wasn’t about to get between you,” En Shevil murmured when they were nearing the door. “I had enough of that in school.”

“I do not see what you see in her,” Elsa commented darkly.

“I don’t see what Achim sees in her,” En Shevil replied and added with an amused sidelong glance, “but as for me — well, we’re fellow ex-harem girls.”

Elsa stopped and looked at her friend askance, disbelieving. She saw the laughter in En Shevil’s eyes and blushed. “My comment was meant…”

The Shapierian laughed again and waved the half-apology away. “It’s an embarrassing detail I don’t mention often.”

“I would be glad to hear it at another time. But tonight I came to speak to you about a more serious matter.”

“What?”

By this time they were exiting the Parrot, and Elsa looked around them carefully before heading up the beach and continuing with an explanation. “I did intend to win the Chief Thief contest. When I am the Queen of Silmaria, I want to make sure I have the thieves, especially Ferarri, under my thumb.” She stopped outside the Adventurers’ Guild and gave a significant glance towards the Thieves’ Guild below. “But I have been pondering on this, and I feel that it is not perhaps the wisest course of action for me. Tell me, my friend, where will you go from here?”

En Shevil was surprised at this question, and was not yet beginning to link the two topics of the conversation. “I don’t know,” she said, confused. “I’m here because I wanted to see Achim again, and see what he’s going to do. I guess it depends on him.”

“Then I wish to make you an offer: that you become the Chief Thief of Silmaria, and I will make you a counselor when I am Queen. We will keep law and order in the land, yet still allow those of our secret profession limited freedom.”

Taken completely aback, En Shevil could only stutter for a moment and then fall silent in thought. She really didn’t have any idea what would be the next step in her life, but she felt suddenly that to be basing her future on the actions of someone else would be beyond ridiculous. This was a definite and pleasant-sounding failsafe in case things didn’t work out between her and Achim. And at the rate I’m going, she was thinking, I’m heading for Chief Thiefdom. “Wonderful,” she said aloud. “Great idea. It’s a choice, anyway. If I decide not to follow Achim wherever he goes next, I’ll stay here and do that.”

Elsa smiled. “I thank you,” she said sincerely. “I would be glad to have you by my side.”

“How do I get into the contest?” En Shevil asked.

“You will have to put a substantial amount of money down,” Elsa replied. “And the one sure way of winning the contest is to present the Blackbird.”

En Shevil grinned. “Which is…?”

Elsa’s eyes narrowed. “Minos took it from me, under the guise of protecting it. I believe he does not intend to return it.”

The Shapierian looked worried for a moment. “It is yours, though…”

“It is a gift I would gladly give you, my friend.”

“Wonderful. How do I get there?”

“First you must enter,” Elsa said. “The fee must be up to nearly a thousand drachma by this time; do you have enough?”

En Shevil shrugged. “I’ve beat some people in the arena, and Rawn lent me some — I should be good.”

“I will await you here.”

As it came out, the fee was only 882 drachma (which was hefty enough), and then they were off to Minos Island. Elsa returned to the large private boat first, alone, to give the appearance of normality; En Shevil slipped aboard just as it silently cast off. It was a frightening moment — the dark water hissing beneath her as she leapt, a possibly hostile goon manning the helm, her whole body swaying with the rocking of the sea as her feet touched down with a slight thud and she crouched warily on the deck — but at last she found her way safely to the small hold, sitting very still and keeping all her courage about her for the brief sea voyage.

Elsa had warned her on the way to the boat about the large number of guards Minos employed, and yet En Shevil was surprised. The man was very, very paranoid who stationed half a dozen goons outside his mansion — which was itself more like a fortress, snuggled into the rock cleft as it was, accessible on the fourth side only by sea. The maruroha crouched in the shadows out of sight for some time after Elsa and her escort entered the house. She was deep in thought. The Blackbird was an obvious motive, but there had to be some other reason for Minos to have such an impressive contingent on his payroll. And no respectable Silmarian-style guards these — every one was a goon, though the smaller shapes stationed on the towers of the outer wall seemed human. She peered at them, squinting and trying to make out their strange forms. Definitely helmeted, but she could not determine anything more since she’d wrapped the tie of her robe-like shirt low about her brow to shade her eyes and hide any light that might reflect off of them. They glowed like a katta’s when she was employing her dark-seeing talent, and she didn’t want to give herself away by something so obvious. Of course that meant she was standing in the chilly night air in only a tight undershirt and her baggy white pants — but such things mattered little on this sort of expedition. She did wish, however, that she’d worn a different color tonight. Ah, well, she thought a bit apprehensively. A thief in white is more talented than a thief in black.

She began to creep forward, clinging to the rock wall on her right and staying low. Her slow-bending feet made not a sound, her hands equally silent as they touched the stone now and then to get the feel of it. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms and shoulders as she drew coldness from the island around her as if ingesting it. A thief must be one with the land around her, she was thinking. They always said at home that only healers and nature magicians were “one with the desert;” but I think they were wrong. Her body seemed like liquid as she melded with her surroundings, moving almost magically through bushes without a rustle. Silence enveloped her, awareness heightened — both of her own body, the pull and slack of every muscle and tendon; and her enemies, so that she could nearly identify in feet and inches where each one stood and how deeply he breathed. Though she did not realize it, she had reached an ineffable level of skill as a thief. She felt strangely warm.

Finally she was close enough to discern detail on the bodies of the helmeted tower-guards. Their armor was undoubtedly of Hesperian style, and their helmets were the type she had sometimes seen while wandering Marete: skull-like and all-concealing. What is Minos up to? she wondered. Surely he’s not responsible for the mercenaries’ attack! She shrugged the thought away; mercenaries were… mercenary, after all.

So far it looked easy, but she needed to see more. The stone surfaces around her were sheer, and to prevent grapnel-style scaling the walls had been regularly adorned with sloping, flat-sided protrusions. Unfortunately for the good name of the architect, one of these at the far eastern side was positioned close enough to the cliff that someone (En Shevil at least) could shimmy up between them with not too much difficulty and catch on to the top of the overhanging lip at the wall’s head. Vaulting over the crenellated edge, she crouched on the narrow parapet beyond and continued to plot.

Elsa had not exaggerated the number of guards. She had already seen five or six goons outside the front gate, and beyond there were perhaps ten more — not to mention at least four mercenaries. She stayed where she was for some time, planning in detail each further step. Between the corner of the mansion and the cliff wall, where a narrow alley led towards the back yards, a goon stood squarely. That one she would have to walk straight past, only a few yards away; but goons were not the most intelligent of all cheap labor, nor the most brilliantly night-sighted. The white pants might be a problem, though; she must remember to minimize her legs.

he entire east end of the house seemed to be a standardized living area, probably a type of barracks for all these guards. It would be easy to climb, and the windows were wide and gaping, but this wasn’t much help: given the mistrustful nature of this whole setup, she thought, there was not likely to be an entrance from the barracks to the inner house; so she shifted her gaze to the front door. No good — two goons stood directly in front of it. But above… a fairly low balcony without rails seemed to hold, in the deep shadows behind its pillars, two doors that probably led where she wanted to go. Lined up with each door was a mercenary, but they stood at the very edge, peering out over the gate with ready bows, leaving a good three feet for her to slip behind them and enter the house.

After briefly plotting her exact climbing route, she turned and jumped from the wall, catching the ledge to shorten the fall and dropping softly to the ground. In a stooping run she crossed the yard, eliciting not so much as blink from the corner goon despite her ivory attire. Up the barrack wall and onto the balcony in a split second, and she was ready to enter.

Frustrated, she found the door locked. Not funny, she thought as she withdrew her lockpick from her undershirt. Oh, for those good old days when she’d had a lot of hair! But that might have gotten in the way here, since (if she recalled correctly) her bulky ponytail had stuck out three inches from the back of her head. She could practically feel the body warmth of the man standing directly behind her; fortunately he would not feel hers, nor any slight movement of air caused by her passing, nor would he see her — his well-padded armor and restrictive helmet would ensure that. And if she could manage this, the near-silent click of the lock giving would also be dimmed in his well-protected ears. She grinned, aware of the irony of such thoughts from the mind of a warrior.

The lock was more difficult than she’d been expecting, and by the time she felt its oiled tumblers align in satisfying quietness, a thin sheen of sweat had formed on her previously cold skin. So far, however, she congratulated herself on having alerted not a single guard. The next moment she bit her lip and the bright mood dissipated as she realized that if the house was lit within, the ensuing luminance from the door’s opening would give her away. She turned slowly, estimating the exact width she would need to slip through, the exact path of the light’s ray, and the exact dimensions of the left guard’s helmet. Could she enter in time that the small amount of light falling onto it would not cause him to turn his head? She knew that, at times, someone who could not see in the dark (or someone who could and was not currently employing the technique), staring straight ahead into darkness for a extended period, would imagine all manner of distracting things: nonexistent auras of light, pulsating blobs of color, movement where there was none. If she could time it correctly, he would discount it as a trick of the brain.

A thought came to her all of a sudden — Why don’t I just charge in, fight them all off, grab the bird, and run? A myriad of answers shouted her idea down, the most prominent being, What would that prove? I can’t be Chief Thief by maruroharyu skill!

It’s wonderful, she told herself, concentrating on the door again. I can do it. She forced these mental statements of confidence, for in all honesty she was not nearly as sure of her thiefly abilities as she was of her warrior prowess. She took a deep, silent breath and opened the door.

Light fell for an instant, her slim body slid through, the guard turned his head — but the door was closed, and En Shevil was already pressed against the inside wall, hidden by the thick marble doorframe. There, she tried frantically to calm her racing heart while she stared at the staff-bearing centaur posted immediately to the left of the ingress she’d just employed. Great Iblis, she was thinking, how did it happen that he was looking over there right as I came in? She forced her eyes to narrow, practically dragged her pulse down to a normal rate, and scanned the huge chamber. She was on the second level, a balustraded walkway off of which several doors opened. Based on what Elsa had told her, the Blackbird was located in a storage room at the far end; its doors were flanked by goons. Her nervousness faded as she studied these, and she knew she could easily use the same trick by which she’d attained entry to the house: the goons stood at least two feet out from the wall. But their position at the end of an exposed walkway, and the possibility of turning heads anywhere else in the room presented a massive problem.

She let her eyes run up the gold pillar at the meeting of the balcony railings. It connected to an outcropping in the ceiling where the flat part met an upward sloping gold skylight of immense size. With a great deal of effort and probably some noise she could climb the pillar and slide, clinging, along the rectangular outcropping. Then she could swing to the top of the storage room door’s bulky frame, lean down, pick the lock, and swing inside without the goons noticing. Then jackalmen will fly me home, she thought with a nervous mental giggle. As if there’s any way they wouldn’t see me swinging from the ceiling!

All right… but keep thinking along the same lines… She smiled as she saw a plausible path and mapped it out in detail. Observing the centaur to her left, she waited for the perfect moment and darted to the corner of the pillar’s base, then crawled around like a spider to the underside of the balcony — ceiling to the lower level. Clinging to the beveled edgeboard, she made her way along towards the far end of the walkway. The only problem she encountered was when she reached a great hanging tapestry hooked into the very gilded molding on which she relied. Her response to this dilemma was to move exceptionally slowly so as not to cause any unusual ripples of movement in the fabric. By the time she turned the corner and traversed the short end of the balcony, she was sickeningly dizzy; her head throbbed; her clayish arms were beginning to sting. Yet a few more exertions were required: haul herself up over the railing, pressed against the wall behind the goon, and jump silently to catch the top of the doorframe and spring up with trembling limbs. The goon beneath her turned slowly to regard the wall, probably alerted by the breeze of her passing but too stupid to investigate further. As he stared at the shadowy corner, she dropped backwards into the door’s recess where she hoped the other goon could not see her, and tried the knob.

She frowned; it was unlocked. Though six inches thick like the previous door she’d opened, it swung silently outward for her use. With a shrug she went inside, easing the latch into place behind her. There, she slumped in relief that the room was empty. No sound from outside suggested she’d been detected; Minos really should look into some kind of magical thief barrier.

Her critical eye swept the treasure chamber. I should take all of this junk, as long as I’m here, she thought, for the room was quite stuffed with wonderful things: bags and bags of money; large, fine Shapierian rugs of muted colors; tall ornate jars of perfumed oils and shorter ones of unknown content; masterful paintings of mythological characters; the walls were lined with shelf-filled, grate-covered alcoves obviously stocked to the brim with an assortment of smaller things. There were potions of all kinds, weapons glowing with magic, similarly-endowed armor, a great deal of money in neatly organized pouches, jewelry of both the decorative and functional types, and — the Blackbird! She grinned and headed for the first alcove on her left. The trap on its lock brought her up short, and she snorted softly. I hate traps, she reflected, for they were not her area of thiefly expertise.

Nevertheless she managed this one, which involved a swiftly-spinning disk and sliding plates that must never all be in the same position; she saw signs to indicate that an explosion might occur if her fingers were not sufficiently nimble. And the lock that followed was no game either. Again she found sweat on her back and brow by the time she finished. But at that moment her triumph was sweet enough to make up for all previous discomfort as she lifted the heavy statue off the shelf and hefted it. She let out the long, slow breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and a great load of tension fled her body.

The pouched money was the only other thing she eventually decided to take; the rest was too bulky for her to drag out to Elsa’s boat — and there was no way in Tartarus she was making more than one trip. Though objects always interested her more than pure currency, she felt that due to the significance of this particular robbery she should take all she could carry. So she stuffed her pockets with leather-clad drachma, strapped the Blackbird to her back with the tie of her shirt, and looked around for a quick escape.

The one window was set in the far wall, high up, small and barred — and, judging by the rest of this place, was likely to be well-maintained. But it couldn’t hurt her to check it out. She hauled the largest rolled rug over and propped it up against the wall, where its top was still four feet from the recession of the window. It was a test of balance to climb, as its inclination was to slide and bend, but eventually she made it to the top and jumped for the window as the rug fell away and came half-undone, its remaining roll ending up nearly where it had been before, next to the others. She smiled as she realized she might be able to leave the room almost exactly the way she’d entered it, minus a few details.

She turned her attention to the window and rolled her eyes. It was trapped even more elaborately than the Blackbird’s alcove had been. The good news was that it would swing open, bars attached to a stone frame on a heavy metal hinge, when the trap was disarmed and the padlock undone. She would then be on the eastern cliff side of the house in the narrow lane she’d noticed earlier. A swift kick to the base of the goon guard’s skull would allow her access to the front yard, which she could exit in the same way she had entered (she hoped; the wall was probably less scaleable on the inside). Then the last step was to stow away a second time on Elsa’s boat until her friend left Minos Island for Marete and the announcement of the next Rite of Rulership in the morning. Just a quick walk around the plaza.

But she could not sleep on the small, yacht-like ship. A few rays of pale, diluted light slanted down from the grate covering the hold, and to amuse herself she held the Blackbird under them to admire its fine craftsmanship. It was a beautiful thing, one she and every other thief in Glorianna had coveted for years. Its weight made her exhausted arms tremble, and she could not hold it long. So she tied it to her back again and curled up in an attempt to get some rest; she had to fight Reeshaka in seven or eight hours. But the silver-tinged glint of her ebony prize had burned its way into her eyes, and she shook — not from the exertions of the night or even the overcool sea air, but because what the glitter of the statue symbolized was so very momentous. It was a future, a stability she was reaching towards and perhaps had been for all the past year: an end to her life on the run for whatever reason.

But was it the future she wanted?


Chapter 14 – Various Ends

The sun was sinking on Reeshaka, Achim, and Rakeesh as they conversed by the large rock outside of the arena. The Rite of Conquest had been declared Achim’s that morning, and from Rakeesh the other two were trying to wheedle some clue as to the nature of the next Rite. The Paladin refused to budge, but instead continued to question the Prince of Shapier about his Conquest the night before last.

Achim was shaking his head. “I fought him to a standstill. I knocked him down and put a spear to his neck and told him to surrender.”

“You did all you could, my friend,” Rakeesh said. “You gave Honor its full measure. Your intent, in this case, was more important than the results.”

“I still don’t like it,” Achim muttered.

“At least you made it to the island,” Reeshaka said. “The others couldn’t even figure out where they were.”

“And then Magnum!” the Prince cried, his tone now one of outrage. “That was pure murder! He wasn’t even given a chance to defend himself!”

Rakeesh nodded. “I fear that when I think about this, I am not the calm Paladin I should be. I sometimes find myself wanting Revenge rather than Justice for these murders.”

“But why these murders?” Reeshaka asked rhetorically. “Why shatter dragon pillars? Surely they don’t want to wake the dragon!”

“I don’t know,” Achim said, and then looked up with a quizzical expression, as if reminded of something. “I can’t figure out that Dazah woman, either. Perhaps she’s tied up in this somehow.”

“What do you mean?” Rakeesh asked swiftly, while Reeshaka prudently held her tongue.

“Well, for one thing, there’s something strangely familiar about her fighting style — something I should remember. They call her a ninja, but which form is she using? It’s not karate.”

“Perhaps she simply does not want her identity to be know.”

“I only see her at the Arena and the Dead Parrot,” continued Achim thoughtfully — “She’s fighting you tonight, isn’t she? She’s never in the marketplace during the day. Why does she pretend to be mute? ‘Dazah’ means ‘silence,’ but I know she talks to Elsa and Nawar. Why them? And why in the world is her hair different every time I see her?”

Reeshaka giggled.

“I do not think she is the assassin,” Rakeesh said bluntly.

“Why?”

Instead of answer, Rakeesh commanded, “Get down!” Achim dropped to the ground as a dagger spun through the air to bury itself in the older liontaur’s body. As a horrified Reeshaka called out, “Father!” the Prince threw himself towards the dark hooded figure, but a familiar pulling feeling filled the air and the stranger disappeared. Turning again, Achim saw to his surprise Dazah kneeling on the rock beside the fallen, a bottle of poison resistance pills in her hand. She pointed away, towards the guards at the Hall of Kings. He took her meaning, dashing off to fetch help. When he returned, Dazah was gone. It seemed she had never been there at all, for Reeshaka now held her father’s head in her lap, the bottle in her other hand.

“Where did she go?” Achim asked.

“To Erasmus,” the warrior replied.

“Well, she’s not the assassin.”

“No.”

With grim faces they attended the guards who carried friend and father down to the healers’ on the lower plaza. Dazah, Erasmus, Rawnmé and Shakra soon joined them there. Little analysis was required to determine that the poisoned dagger was of the same sort as the one that killed King Justinian. Salim was silent and downcast as he worked at cleaning the wound, for it deeply stabbed his joyful heart to face such a malicious hurt.

The three mages spoke a slow and powerful incantation over the weakening body of their friend, but were baffled by the strong charm laid on the poison itself. After this and all that Salim had done, it was still only a faint hope that Rakeesh would live.

As they all stood silent, crowded in the tiny back room of the healers’, the air was tense with grief, anger, and fear. Achim watched the victim’s children with especial pity, and noted with a half inner smile the comforting hand placed on Reeshaka’s shoulder by the mysterious Dazah. The liontaur rounded on the human fiercely and growled, “Time for our rematch.” Dazah nodded.

I should let her win, En Shevil was thinking while Ferarri announced them at mundane length. She’d like that. Reeshaka was stating bluntly that she would fight to ease her anger at her father’s attacker. En Shevil wondered suddenly how the liontaur’s involvement with Silmaria’s EOF chapter was coming along. Arena battles were probably a great convenience in that area. Maybe I won’t let her win, she reflected. After all, she also had inside herself a bit of anger at Rakeesh’s attempted murderer. But she knew that to fight in anger was a bad idea.

Remembering to strike a confident pose at the appropriate introductory moment, En Shevil prepared to do battle. She knew for a fact this time that Achim was watching, for he’d come to the arena with the contestants. So she redoubled her decision to give Reeshaka a good fight. If throwing herself against a brick wall would help the liontaur let out stress, so be it. She tensed, ready for the contest to begin.

She’d always wondered how it was that she constantly defeated Reeshaka when she couldn’t do the same to Rakeesh — liontaurs, as a general rule, were bigger, stronger, and much faster than humans, not to mention having an extra set of limbs with which to fight; and Reeshaka was Rakeesh’s daughter. En Shevil didn’t understand the level to which Reeshaka’s beating and demon possession not long ago had affected her fighting skills, her self-confidence, and her actual physical strength. The blunt and rather talkative victim had given her all the dry details, of course, sitting at their ease on a pentagram rug in a dark and comfortable room where nothing could threaten — but even she had never hinted at the change brought about by the terrible events. En Shevil, who did not even fully comprehend exactly what had happened, thought nothing of it, never suspected.

So it was with complete surprise that she was knocked seven feet backwards by Reeshaka’s sudden charge, her katana nearly flying from her hand. The crowd gave a murmur of surprised anticipation, leaning forward in their seats, for much had been expected of this mysterious newcomer who’d with little effort humiliated Kokeeno Pookameeso and Magnum Opus.

En Shevil jumped to her feet, eyes wide, sword raised, as the liontaur came at her again. She dodged aside at the last moment, but Reeshaka had stopped, risen to her hind legs, and driven her heavy spear downward to her right — straight into En Shevil’s stomach. Throwing herself backwards did not save En Shevil the long, shallow slice from between her breasts to a little deeper just above her abdomen. Staggering in pain, she crouched, with blade at the ready and red lights flashing across her vision, to meet the liontaur again. This time she was warned, tensed for any necessary escaping spring, despite the distracting flapping of her bisected shirt and the pouring of blood across her lower half.

Reeshaka bounded forward, landing in a twisted squat that completely evaded the sweep of En Shevil’s katana. The huge spear stabbed tightly forward into the maruroha’s knee, catching it just as En Shevil jumped. Her escape was spun awry, her kneecap chipped and dripping blood. She landed and crumpled on the right, rolling away from her touchdown spot automatically and attempting to rise. The damage to her knee was more shock than real hurt, as it had been thrust painfully in the wrong direction, and she could stand. She decided to go on the offensive, as it seemed she would not be able to get any advantage by defense on this inexplicably-improved enemy.

Her current spot was behind the liontaur, but Reeshaka spun faster than her eyes were willing to credit and bore down on her with the close-held head of her spear. That thing’s bigger than my head, En Shevil reflected, jumping high and forward into a tight flip that would put her behind her opponent again. But as she kicked backwards upon landing, her weakened right knee lessening the force of her blow, she found nothing where she’d aimed. Beginning to spin, she was shocked to find powerful, clawed feet striking hard at her shoulders and bowling her over. This time she did lose her weapon, and felt before she could rise Reeshaka’s forelegs holding her down and the liontaur’s spear at her neck. Dirt, churned up by sharp claws and twisting shoes, was ground into her stomach wound, and she clenched her teeth against an outcry. How could she, who had once dealt with an entire fortress full of trolls, lose to a single opponent?

Ferarri seemed singularly pleased as he announced this fact, since it had not been expected and was read as an increase in profits — at least for the next fights of both Dazah and Reeshaka. En Shevil might have resented being thus used had she not been concentrating so hard on her own state. She was sorely looking forward to the healing chamber, though for her wounded pride it would do little.

During her trip through that room of miracles, she was made fully aware how very overrated it was. The cut across her front was reduced to an itchy, barely-healed scar; the chip in her kneecap remained under the healed skin. The next event to which she looked forward was a trip through the world transporter. She still couldn’t believe she’d lost.

She glanced over to where Reeshaka stood talking to a burly man near the arena entrance. He reminded En Shevil of Issur, and she hoped that their battle had been beneficial towards that end. She turned for home, and nearly jumped to find Achim directly behind her. It was the first time “Dazah” had been this close to him, and was definitely a test of the credibility of her persona.

Barely catching herself and remembering not to greet him aloud, she simply stared until he spoke instead. “Are you all right?” She nodded. “That fight was amazing. I expected you to win!”

She really did love the sound of his voice. Something inside her, especially after this small humiliation, wanted very desperately to give up — to give up everything. She felt a physical inclination to sink up against him and snuggle into his chest. She swore at herself silently and forced a shrug in response to his statement. “I hope your wounds aren’t bad,” Achim continued. “I always lose when I fight in the arena, but I don’t usually get hurt like that.” She held her head still against the urge to shake it — Achim didn’t have any pride of the sort that would be wounded by defeat. But would it be wounded if his ex-girlfriend won Chief Thief against him?

Feeling suddenly uncomfortable, she began to walk slowly towards the transporter. Achim kept pace. “You stay with Erasmus, right?” She nodded again. “I hear you’re doing magical experiments with him and his partner, that faerie.” Another nod. “Are you a wizardess too?” En Shevil shook her head vehemently. “Maybe I’ll come visit some time,” Achim said after a pause. He seemed almost hesitant. She did not reply, though her heart was for some reason pounding. He had stopped at the bridge. “Well… goodnight.”

As Dazah turned briefly and waved goodbye before stepping into the portal, Achim’s eyes moved to her stomach and the bumpy red line visible through the wreckage of shirt and undershirt. Why had it disturbed him like that to see her wounded? So much that he’d had to seek her out after the battle and inquire after her well-being? The fight had almost made him forget about Rakeesh and the other events of the day. Now he turned and headed thoughtfully away from where Dazah had disappeared, towards the lower plaza.

It was with slight trepidation that En Shevil stepped into the transporter that night and was diluted off into another reality. Hopefully Marete would actually be there this time, but she was still a bit worried.

It looked normal enough, but something was strange about this Silmaria. It took some time for her to realize that there was music playing. There was definitely a guitar involved, but she wasn’t sure about the rest of the instruments. Looking around futilely for the source, she finally shook her head in confusion and moving on. Things around her looked strangely flat and surreal; she even got the feeling that if she had tried to move on through the Nob Hill neighborhood, she would have run into an invisible wall just past the Arena. She couldn’t even see half of the houses down that way. She began to scroll along… stroll along. Where had “scroll” come from?

It took her a moment to recognize the man running up the stairs from the lower plaza. His face was expressionless and he wore, instead of the leopard-skin vest, loose white shirt and green pants she had seen him in a few minutes ago, some heavy chain mail of glowing silver above grey-blue tights and large black boots. His face was half-hidden by a tacky helmet of green, blue, and gold that shone with the same pulsating light as, though off-rhythm with, the armor below. It was Achim. As he approached her, he kept running, until he stopped directly in front of her in what seemed an arbitrary, you-must-stop-walking-and-talk-to-me-now way. She got the feeling that, for whatever reason, he only had a limited number of things he was going to say to her, and was trying to choose between them. In a strange motionlessness the world seemed to hang waiting for his words. For several moments nothing happened, and then a massively loud voice rang out across space — it was that of a young girl, supremely confused:

“What the heck?”

En Shevil tried to look around for the speaker, but found that she could not move. Everything — including her — was waiting for the Hero to speak. Finally his still frame seemed to awaken. “Hello. I’m Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr, Prince of Shapier and Hero of Tarna and Mordavia.”

En Shevil giggled. “What?”

“Let me tell you about my adventures. First I rescued Elsa von Spielburg and her brother Barnard from enchantment in Spielburg. Then I rescued the city of Shapier from vicious elementals, and freed Rasier from their master, the wicked Ad Avis. In Tarna, I stopped a war between the Liontaur and the Simbani tribes and defeated the evil demon king who was behind all the mischief. Then in Mordavia I battled vampires to stop the rise of the Dark One, and freed the soul of Erana to pass on into the next world.”

En Shevil was more than a bit confused. “Why are you telling me all this?”

There was a momentary silence while Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr apparently changed directions. “What is your name?” he said.

“My name is En Shevil,” she replied, willing to play along with this evidently less-than-sane version of Achim.

“Nani?!?” cried the girl’s voice from nowhere. “En Shevil?!?”

The conversation seemed to be over, for En Shevil found herself free to move again. But what she really wanted was an explanation. She looked around through the sky in an attempt to find that huge voice. The sky looked like a painting.

“You can’t see her,” Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr said softly. En Shevil looked back to find him scanning her up and down curiously. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m En Shevil,” she repeated.

“I’ve never seen you before,” he protested, “throughout the whole game.”

“What game?”

“This one! Dragon Fire! You must be a bug or something.”

En Shevil, puzzled and a bit annoyed at being called a bug, started to explain the reality portal. Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr didn’t seem too interested, as he continually scratched one leg with the other, yawned and stretched, gazed blankly at his wrist, and rolled his head from side to side.

“So you come from an actual, real Silmaria?” he asked in wonder when she’d finished.

“Yes… What is this place, then?”

“This is just a computer game. None of it’s real, except what you need for the exact story.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This Silmaria’s like a stage, and everyone you know’s job is to amuse the great Voices who tell us what to do. I’m not allowed to talk candidly like this when a Voice is around.”

“What, are they gods?”

“We think so,” he whispered. “And I remember now why the one who was just here was so excited — I’ve heard your name before! I think your destiny is controlled by a Voice too.”

“Wonderful.” En Shevil threw up her hands. “This is the craziest place I’ve ever been to.”

“I think the Voices are crazy,” Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr continued, still in his low tone. “You should see the names I’ve had.”

“What, this one isn’t weird enough?”

“This one is the weirdest, and the weirdest permutation of a long string of Buggies. But I’ve been JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAN, and Mogru the Awful and Bad, and T, and Pi — you know, like the number? — and Woodless Graphite Pencil… and one Voice likes to play me all the way through the third game just to hear Rakeesh’s ‘This is Dark Magic’ line with my name in it: Be Safe, You Idiot, Who Cares?, I’m Hungry, Duhhh, and a million other things. Of course, that’s the same Voice who’s had me slay, between loadings, over four hundred Silmarian guards! He’s got a saved file for it, called Doing Bad Things. With so many guards in the city, I wonder why Silmaria’s worried about invasion!”

En Shevil was becoming increasingly angry. “I don’t know what in Tartarus you’re talking about, but you’re getting boring,” she snapped, and turned to walk away.

“Don’t do that!” Buggy the Lovey Female Beadle Salt Eatr hissed. “The Voice is coming back!”

“Whatever,” En Shevil said with a roll of her eyes, and headed for the stairs to the lower plaza. There, she scanned her surroundings, taking in the various strange differences. The guitar and ensemble, she noted, was still playing, and at the same volume as before. Buggy the Lovey Female Beadle Salt Eatr had remarked that this Silmaria was like a stage — did that include a musical score? She considered asking someone, but most of the citizens that usually collected on this plaza were gone: a few women, identical but for their dress colors, wandered aimlessly back and forth, and over by the apothecary a man walked in endless circles. En Shevil couldn’t help wondering what kind of sick being would want to do this to someone — and also what these people’s names were. She was about to walk up to one of them, against her better judgement, when a voice spoke out clearly to her.

“A Voice is coming.” It was Sarra, and oddly enough she easily overrode the all-permeating music. “Hide here in my stand.”

En Shevil was tired of being confused no matter where she went, so she gave up and followed orders. She jumped into the stand and crouched down beside Sarra under the counter. Surprisingly enough, it was completely empty. Not only was there no merchandise concealed there, where one would think it ought to be, but the entire inside of the stand was a featureless grey that didn’t even resemble the wood and cloth of which she’d always thought it was made.

“– ou talking about?” a Voice demanded; En Shevil wasn’t sure how she knew it was a Voice, but somehow the shivers it sent down her spine confirmed it.

“I’m serious!” squealed another, the one she’d heard before (the second was older). “She was just up there, talking to Buggy!”

Sarra greeted someone — En Shevil assumed it was Buggy — “ “ Buggy said nothing in response, but the Voices continued to converse.

“Squee, I’m going to go back and continue checcing my email,” the older one was saying.

“No! I’m so serious, she was here!”

“Yah seely.”

“No, no, no, please stay! Wait for me to check the other places!”

And the Voices stopped.

“They’re gone,” Sarra said quietly. En Shevil stood to find everyone in the plaza looking intently at her. “How did you get here?” En Shevil started to explain the transporter for the millionth time. “So, you really are the En Shevil we’ve heard about.” Sarra’s tone was filled with wonder, and other onlookers were beginning to crowd around the stand.

“What do you mean?”

“The Voices are as powerful as we thought…” someone said.

“To create something like this…”

“Somebody kill me and send me home,” En Shevil said in exasperation, “because I’m getting sick of all this.”

“That older Voice you heard just now created you,” Sarra explained. “She talks about you all the time: why you are the way you are, why she likes you, and what you’re going to do.”

“Oh, wonderful. Are you sure you don’t mean the En Shevil of this reality that was created by your mighty Voice?”

“There is no En Shevil of this reality. This is the original reality: a computer game. Your reality that you think is real is only a fanfiction.”

“My head is starting to hurt. Do you have anything logical to say?”

“I can prove it if you like; I know every world you’ve been to so far, I know the Voice’s crossover plans, and I know how the book’s going to end.”

“What book?”

“The one about you. Pride of her Parents.”

Finally she was paying serious attention. “That’s what my name means.”

“And it’s the title of the book about you. If you’re here, the end isn’t far off.”

“So how’s it going to end?”

“I really shouldn’t tell you.”

She rolled her eyes. “I knew you’d say that. So you don’t actually have any real proof to offer.”

“What can I tell you that won’t hurt you? It’s dangerous to know your own future. There was once a king, Silmarian I believe, named Oedipus…”

“I don’t even want to hear about it.”

“Very well, I’ll tell you something. But don’t blame me if your future is destroyed because of it.”

“All right.”

Sarra searched her mind, looking indecisive. Finally she nodded. “Katrina.” Others around her seemed to agree.

“Katrina?” It was a woman’s name, which was not promising; moreover, it was a name that somehow filled her with foreboding.

“The Voice says she’s going to make you worry about Nawar, but that it’s Katrina you should really be worried about.”

“With Achim?” En Shevil squeaked; if the Voice wanted her to worry, it had already succeeded.

Sarra nodded. “But apparently, even when you think you know when and why to be worried, you’ll still get it wrong.”

“Complimentary,” En Shevil noted. “What kind of weird sadist is this Voice? She controls your reality, I guess, with her little pet Hero, and now you’re saying she controls mine too? Why don’t I ever hear her there?”

“We don’t know,” Sarra replied softly. “We don’t know much about what she is.”

“This is beyond stupid.” En Shevil jumped out of the stand and headed for the stairs. “See you all back in real life.”

They all looked after her as she climbed towards Nob Hill. But then with a flurry of movement they returned to their various places around the plaza as the Voices returned. En Shevil crouched in the shadows in the arch over the top corner of the stairs and watched Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr stand motionless at the doorway to the gate area. “– see her, why don’t you save your game right there, OK?”

“Oh, yeah! I saved my game right before I met her… I’ll restore.”

“Hurry up; this is getting boring.”

With a strange noise, suddenly everything froze: the wanderers on the plaza, the flying bananas in Marrak’s juggling paws, and even En Shevil. Only the music continued as they all waited for whatever was going to happen. After a moment, it did — En Shevil died.

It was of all things at that second the least expected. There was no pain, only confusion: what in the world had killed her? She continued to wonder as she floated back towards her own reality.

The next morning she awoke feeling well-rested but still scratching her head at the night’s adventures. She hadn’t believed, didn’t believe any of it — of course — but who was Katrina? Why should she be worried about her? And there was no way she could stop worrying about Nawar. She didn’t believe it, but she was still worried.

“I meant to give this to you several days ago,” Rawn said, settling onto her feet inside En Shevil’s bedroom — the Shapierian had specifically requested gravity in her bedroom. En Shevil slid out of bed, trailing the blanket onto the floor and approaching the half-faerie. “I thought it would be useful for a sojourner who does not wish to be known to many,” Rawn was saying.

“Oh, wonderful,” En Shevil laughed, pulling on a robe and accepting the crystal ball Rawn held up towards her. “You three are having a bad influence on me.”

Rawn smiled lightly. “You have only to command it verbally, and it will show you anything that is not hidden.”

“Well, let’s see how Achim’s doing on this Rite of Valor.” En Shevil set the crystal down on the table beside her bed, which wobbled on its uneven legs that had not been made to rest on the floor. “Show me the Prince of Shapier.” The sphere’s interior swirled from black to grey to white, and the scene she wanted appeared. Achim was still running around town, looking hyper and talking to people. En Shevil rolled her eyes, smiling. He’ll never win like that. “Show me Elsa von Spielburg.” The crystal rapidly shifted to a much more disturbing scene: the warrior running through a wild countryside towards a rocky hill. As Elsa rounded a massive wall of stone, En Shevil heard, from far off, the sound of some great beast. Elsa continued on towards it, and of a sudden the crystal went hazy and dark. She lowered her brows. “What happened?”

“Your friend has approaching something that cannot be scried,” Rawn replied calmly.

“Like I can’t be scried… a dragon? The hydra!” Arrogant fool, she thought, though her annoyance was affectionate. She’s going to get herself killed, trying to fight that thing alone.

“You could help her,” said Rawn, approaching and managing to guess En Shevil’s thoughts.

“How?”

“Teleport to Hydra island and join her in the battle.”

“I…” She gazed back at the crystal, which was still clouded. “Where’s that weird guy? Gort? Show me Gort!” The image shifted to show the monstrous man standing with his back to a wall in a dim room. “He hasn’t even left yet. But how can I…?

“Someday,” said Rawn slowly, “you must accept what you are.”

She took a deep breath. “So how do I teleport? Is there some spell I should know?”

“Have you forgotten what I have told you? Will it to be, and it shall be.”

“How can I help her once I’m there?”

“The Hydra’s necks must be burned as the heads are cut off. You can create fire with your magic as well.”

“Wish me luck.”

“Good luck.”

Taking hold of her courage center, she willed herself to Elsa’s side. Everything went blurry in her mind and she felt her body dissolving in much the same way that it did in Erasmus’ transporter. Almost that same instant the particles of her being reassembled, and as she opened her eyes she saw her friend gaining visual coherence before her. Still agitated from the magic, which hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d expected, En Shevil tried to smile. “Need some help?” She raised her fist to eye level and willed it to flame without burning her. She barely restrained herself from trembling as half-familiar power bade her hand spring into fire; she felt the heat but no pain. It was so easy, but the unfamiliarity of it made it frightening.

Elsa smiled back. “En Shevil. I did not expect you here, but I did not look forward to fighting this battle alone. Let us defeat this monster!”

They ran, Elsa readying her gold-glowing sword as they approached the ledge beside the rightmost head. En Shevil looked at the ugly thing they were to fight, and felt at once a strange and dismal sense of kinship with this monster. The five heads, their long, thick, snakelike necks blocking whatever body lay within the cave, resembled no beast she’d come into contact with before; yet she was related to it, and something evil and familiar in her blood drew her to it. No doubts about it, it was a dragon. As Elsa hacked at the first head En Shevil stood staring, not liking to think about this affinity. At last tearing her attention from it, she looked at the other woman.

Her strokes were quick and effective. Slowly she was cutting away at the Hydra’s neck, while the various heads hung poised above her, spewing weak acid over her again and again. Finally the first head fell. Willing fire to her hands, she sent an overlarge ball of flames at the severed neck. She was tired already, but she found that the magic was, overall, not as bad as she’d thought it would be, though severely taxing.

She tired herself even more when by a sudden decision she switched from fire to water and doused her friend to remove the corrosive saliva of the Hydra. Elsa, after a flickering moment of surprise and a half-glance back towards En Shevil, nodded her thanks and stood firm. By the time the Hydra was defeated, the Shapierian was ready to collapse.

“Thank you,” said Elsa. “I knew you were a skilled fighter; I did not know you were a skilled magician.” En Shevil bowed her head in acknowledgment of this, and took a few steps towards the cave in hopes that there might be some treasure there. But she sank to her knees, a terrible headache springing upon her and weakness taking her limbs. Elsa was at her side in a moment. “Are you all right?” She nodded. “Do you need help back to Marete?”

En Shevil shook her head. “I’ll talk to you again,” she gasped, and willed herself to Erasmus’ house.


Pride of her Parents 12

…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 12 – Silmaria

En Shevil climbed over the gate and made her way into the little town. This valley, compared to all the places she’d been in the last month and a half, was somewhat unpleasant, although she really had no idea where she was other than Somewhere In Mordavia. Before her was a flower-covered, grass-surrounded mound strong with the feeling of Erana. She sighed; Erana was everywhere. She passed the place and came between sets of buildings, eerie in the night. She knocked on the door of what was obviously an inn. It was opened by a large man with a pipe, who ushered her inside without a word. “Good evening,” she said. “I’m sorry to bother you so late, but do you have any rooms available?”

“Welcome to the Hotel Mordavia,” he said in return. “We do have one room left; the last door upstairs. It is 15 kopeks for a room; please pay in advance. I am Yuri, the keeper of this inn. My wife, Bella, will provide meals for you included in the cost of your room.”

“I’ll only be staying a few days,” she said with a look around. Three men were at a table across the room, drinking and laughing. There were comfortable noises coming from a doorway she guessed led to the kitchen. “But I am rather hungry.” She looked through the various currencies in her moneybag and managed to locate 15 kopeks.

“Have a seat, and you will be served,” said Yuri. He did not seem very friendly. After a moment a woman whose size matched her husband’s came out of the kitchen with a tray that smelled of garlic. En Shevil pulled her hood from her head and slowly ate, still looking around at the foreign decor of the place. She noticed the drunken men eyeing her approvingly, but not in a way to make her uncomfortable, so she smiled. Desiring some amusement, she rose and went over to their table.

“Good evening,” she said. “My name is En Shevil. Who are you all?”

“I am Hans,” said the first, fat man. “Pleasure’s all yours. I’m a farmer of pumpkins and corn, and a person of great importance here in lovely Mordavia.”

She looked at the next man, who was thin and had bags under his eyes. At that moment the third man interrupted. “Listen, I’m tellin’ you, Igor’s death must be avenged!”

“Shut up, that’s all over now,” said Hans. “Franz was about to introduce himself, dontcha know.”

“That’s right,” said Franz, the thin man. “I am a wealthy garlic grower.”

“I’m Ivan,” said the third, “an elephant herder. Unfortunately, there are no more elephants in Mordavia, so business is kinda fallin’ off a tad.”

“Elephants?” she echoed in surprise. She’d not heard of elephants in these areas.

“Pardon me while I wax eloquent,” began Hans, “but once, many years ago, huge herds of fragrant elephants roamed freely in this particular valley.”

“Oh, yeah,” put in Franz. “In the good old days, peanut farming woulda made you a billionaire!”

“Once,” said Ivan, “long ago I had a successful career. And I was also an elephant herder.”

“You kiddin’?” said Hans. “Everyone used to have a pet elephant.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Franz. “I remember mine: I married her!”

“Yeah,” said Ivan wistfully. “She was great for vacuuming up peanuts from your rugs.”

“Not only that,” said Hans, “but elephants are very clean, and modest as well. They always went bathin’ with their trunks, dontcha know.”

“Heh,” Franz wheezed, “nice thing about elephants: very easy to housebreak, you know. They hardly ever made mistakes, unless they got excited, OK?”

“Unfortunately,” said Ivan, shaking his head, “elephants get excited easily. A lot of houses got broken that way.” His lips trembled and tears welled up in his eyes. “This really brings back sad memories. Let’s talk about something uplifting.”

Not to be deterred, she asked, “But why are there no elephants in Mordavia now?”

Hans sighed, and sat back in his creaking chair. “One dark day, a large, fragrant stranger came to town.”

“Oh, I remember,” said Franz excitedly. He seemed easily excited. “He was dressed in dark clothes, and he wore a hood over his head so we couldn’t quite see his face. I thought it was Tony Fields.”

Ivan scrunched up his face in pain. “He spoke in a deep, sibilant voice reminiscent of Vincent Price, and had a… cruel chuckle.”

Hans continued. “He moseyed up to each and every elephant in Mordavia, and whispered a little somethin’ in its ear.”

“Yeah,” Franz said, “and by the next day, all the elephants had left town.”

Ivan choked suddenly, putting a hand to his pained face. “I just can’t bear this. You gotta tell it.”

Hans continued in a dire tone that broke halfway through his sentence. “After that, only the stranger was left in town.”

Franz continued. “I ran up to him! I said, ‘What have you done? What did you say to all the elephants? My wife left me!’”

“Then,” said Hans, “he just threw off his clothes and cape, exposin’ himself to the whole world, and revealed that he was an elephant!”

“Yeah, he said, ‘Ha ha! You fools! I am an elephant!’”

“Then he just packed up his truck and left forever.”

“But to this day on dark, cold nights, you can still hear the echoes of elephants trumpeting their mournful cries. My wife — how I miss her.”

Ivan raised his head from where he’d had it cushioned in his arms. “And I call out, ‘You forgot to write! Not even a fax!’ But the elephants don’t listen, and they never remember.”

“Well-I-really-must-finish-my-supper,” said En Shevil, desperately seeking any excuse to leave their company so she would not burst out laughing in their faces. “Thank you for the useful information. Good night.”

When she was finished (what terrible food!) she headed up to the door Yuri had indicated. She removed her backpack, cloak, and swords and lay down, falling immediately asleep. But as she did she thought she heard voices. “Odd,” said one, a girl’s. It was familiar to her, but she could not think from where.

“What’s she doing in Mordavia?” A man, and elderly too, but not that she had heard before.

“Still looking for the Prince, no doubt.”

“Perhaps she’d be interested in helping us here.”

“Maybe.”

That was all she heard, and the next thing she knew it was morning. She left the inn for the dry goods shop next door, hoping to buy some supplies so she could continue on her journey. She wondered, though, about the conversation she had dreamed last night. What had the girl meant, ‘still looking for the Prince?’ Had Achim been here? She entered the shop.

“So you’re the new woman in town,” the shopkeeper greeted her. “I’ve heard all about you already. Rumor has it that you’re a relation of our Hero-Prince.”

“Your what?” she said in a sort of hopeful gasp.

“Our Hero, of course. Achim, Prince of Shapier. If you don’t know him, you must not be related.”

“I do know him. When was he here?”

“He only left a few days ago. He was here for the longest time — months, if it was days — always running about in the middle of the night and getting himself hurt.”

“What did he do?” This was the first news she’d heard of Achim for so long, and she was drinking it like wine.

“At first we didn’t trust him, but after he brought me and my Boris back together I thought he was a good man. And then he started doing things for us. He burned the monastery of the Dark One’s Cult, returned Bella and Yuri’s lost child, and I hear he even reunited old Nikolai with his wife. Though she was dead, of course. Then there was some mystery up at the castle. Seems the master there, a vampire they say, and a wizardess too if rumors can be believed, wanted to summon up the…” She looked around nervously. “…the Dark One from that cave. She and a man with her. Well, our Hero stopped them, and freed Erana to pass on into death or some such thing, from what I hear.”

“All that in so short a time,” En Shevil murmured, tears coming to her eyes. Had she truly left Sechburg to look for Achim when he was but a few short miles to her north? And then missed him here only by a few days? “How did he get here?”

“That, no one knows,” said the woman. “But he left here right after the celebration. Some wizard asked him to go to Silmaria to deal with some problems there. But that’s a Hero — always going where he must.”

En Shevil’s heart fell. “Silmaria?”

“Oh, I don’t know where it is — some far-off place that makes little difference to such as myself. But he went.”

“Do you have any travel rations?” she asked dully.

Not wanting to waste the latter, which were rather dear and not very appetizing to begin with, that evening she sat in the Hotel Mordavia picking at a bowl full of garlic-heavy vegetable stew and feeling depressed. She wasn’t sure why she was still wandering around after her Prince–when she found him, what would she do? She’d thought about this a lot lately, and wondered whether or not she should even let him know she was still alive. Certainly he had more Heroics to do, and would she not get in the way? Her thoughts were interrupted by a call from one of the drunkards (Franz, she thought) for more beer.

“Know what?” came a child’s voice from nearby, and En Shevil looked around for a moment, noting the smile on Yuri’s face, then realized the girl was in the kitchen.

“Tanya! Back to bed with you, babushka!” This was the innkeeper’s wife, who by the sounds was pouring the men more liqueur.

“But I had a dream!” The voice was scratchy, as if from a lengthy sickness, and somewhat grating.

Bella sighed, and along with a clattering of dishes En Shevil heard her say, “Tell me your dream, darling.” The large woman emerged from the kitchen, trailing a chattering, nightgown-clad girl with brown braids. Tanya continued speaking very quickly as Bella brought the men their beer, took their old glasses, and returned to the kitchen.

“Trina… or some lady… lived in the castle in the prettiest room because she was the boyar. But she took red paint an’ painted her room red, an’ so she was sad. So she did servants’ work an’ lived in the servants’ rooms ’cause she thought it was ’cause she was the boyar she was so sad. But it wasn’t, it was that her room was red an’ it hurt her eyes. An’ the servants wanted her to be the boyar again, but she thought that would make her sad so she said no. An’ I dunno if she ever knew that it was ’cause of the red paint, ’cause I woke up.”

“What an odd dreamer you are, Tanya,” said Bella. “But you must be getting back to bed now.” If she said any more, En Shevil did not hear. Noticing that she had finished eating she stood and walked up the stairs with a wave goodnight at the men.

Entering her room, she sat on the bed and removed her boots. Suddenly she felt some magical influence, and stiffened as she attempted to keep her cool. “What is this?” she asked into the air.

“Just a contact.” It was the young woman whom she thought she’d heard in her sleep the night before. “I am sorry, but there is really no other way to talk to you. Do you remember me?”

“I know I’ve heard your voice,” said En Shevil apologetically, beginning to grow used to whatever spell was on her, “but I can’t place it.”

“Perhaps you remember can if I as this speak,” said the invisible girl.

“Rawnmé?”

“Correct.”

“What do you want?”

“I was wondering if you would like to come to Silmaria.”

En Shevil’s heart gave a sudden flutter at the thought, but she remained calm. “What are you doing there?”

“Magical experiments with a friend of mine. But your Prince is here, and we thought you would like to come see him.”

“I… would… perhaps. Where is Silmaria?”

“I am afraid it is an island,” said Rawnmé, “in the middle of the Med Sea.”

En Shevil sighed. “Well…”

“We can bring you here magically.”

“Wonderful,” she laughed. “I either cross the sea or get zapped by magic. What a choice.”

“Do you want to come? If you like, I can wait until you sleep to transport you.”

“What is it you want my help with?”

“So you heard that, did you? I will tell you of it when you arrive, for it is a complex matter that requires thought on your part.”

“More magic?”

“Yes.”

“My life seems full of magic.”

“Again, yes.”

“Well, make sure you wait until I’m fully asleep.”

Though this last took her some time, as it always had since the eve of her madness, she eventually drifted out of consciousness. Then as her dreams began she was aware of a change–from the conventional comfort of the Mordavian bed to something soft and light as air. She felt as if she were floating, and when she awoke she found that she was. In a small room she lay in/on a hammock that only lightly responded to her weight. Everything here was floating, and as she attempted to remove herself from the strange bed she found that movement required a great deal of effort. As she pushed herself through the air by waving her arms, she wondered where exactly she was. “Are you awake?” came Rawnmé’s booming voice from all around her, startling her into yelling,

“Yes!”

“Beg pardon, I often forget to check my volume. The door is to your left.”

“I’d be awake now anyway.”

She felt strange at the thought of being watched, and turned haphazardly to her left. There was no door, only a blue circle depicting in it some stars. She had a vague feeling of fear that this was a magical portal of some kind, but as this entire place felt like magic she brushed it aside and made her awkward way forward. The circle tingled as she went through it, and she determined as she entered the next room that it definitely was magical.

In this chamber she had her gravity back. Small and octagonal, it had windows that showed her, from where she stood, nothing but clouds. She wondered how high up this building was. In the center of the room was a platform surrounded by lone-standing pillars, and on the far side was a narrow cot. In armchairs to her left, across from each other at a table, sat Rawnmé and an old man. The former looked as she had a few months before, save that she now wore a long white robe over an armless bodysuit of black. The man was clad in a star-covered purple robe that only reached to his thighs, under which he wore short pants cut off at the knobby knees. His pointed hat was also violet in hue with the same cosmic emblems. A large rat sat on a shelf beside the window above the table, wearing a silly blue hat like the man’s. Rawnmé stood up and smiled faintly at En Shevil. “Good morning,” she said. “This is Erasmus.”

En Shevil’s mouth opened, and she put a hand to her face. “You…”

“Yes, I did,” he said jovially. “And a good job of it I did too.”

For a moment she could not speak. Finally she said, “Achim is here?”

“I haven’t told him anything.” How did he know exactly what she was thinking?

“He needs to know,” said Rawnmé. “You cannot let him think forever that you are dead.”

En Shevil shook her head in mild confusion at their information. “I haven’t decided that yet. I’ve been searching for him, but I don’t yet know what I’ll do when I find him.” Then she gave them both a suspicious look. “Why this sudden advice?”

“We’ve been debating the point for some time,” said Erasmus casually. “You and your deeds are quite the topic nowadays in magic-using circles. Of course, you can’t be scried, but there are ways of getting around that. I always found mine to be quite ingenious.”

“What?” said En Shevil, flabbergasted.

“Since you are part dragon, you cannot be scried,” Erasmus explained, “so I sent a spy with you. Would you like to see?” En Shevil, her jaw slack, nodded dumbly. Erasmus turned to the crystal ball that sat between him and Rawnmé on the table. “Korpha delyos.”

En Shevil stepped forward, leaning over and looking into the ball. What she saw made her stand up straight, eyebrows lowered and jaw dropped in sudden surprised comprehension. She was looking at six images of herself, from the back, tinted red. She turned and stared at Antwerp, taken completely by surprise. “I can’t believe it,” she said at last. “You were…” Her loyal pet bounced forward to rub against her leg. “How did you do it?” she asked Erasmus.

“While I prepared the spell to bring you out of insanity, waiting for Achim’s arrival in Spielburg, I perfected a magical compound I’d been working on for years. It was a loyalty powder, which I then fed to your friend here. Then I simply link my crystal ball — or usually my much clearer, technically superior 180” viewscreen — to his eyes, and I could follow your progress.”

“I can’t believe… So you’ve been watching me since I left Spielburg?”

“When Achim told me you’d killed yourself, I quickly checked on you to see what you were up to, and until you reached Sechburg I was mostly watching to make sure you really were cured of insanity and wouldn’t start up with your problems again. Then I was interested, and kept watching you just for my own amusement.”

“And mine!” Fenris added.

“Of course, since Rawn began helping me with my latest teleportation experiment, I haven’t looked in on you much. We were quite surprised to see you’d found your way to Mordavia. Your life has been quite an interesting one, and not only is there much philosophical discussion about your motives and the rights and wrongs of your situation, there is also much speculation on what you will do next. No one seems to be able to justify or condemn anything you do.”

“Isn’t that a surprise,” En Shevil muttered. “So is everyone in the world watching me?”

“Oh no!” Erasmus laughed. “Just bored old wizards like me, and only the ones clever enough to find a way to get past the dragon barrier.”

This was unfathomable, so she decided not to think about it. “Well, could you keep me a secret from Achim? If I do decide to tell him, I’ll do it myself.”

“Of course.”

“So what exactly do you want from me here?”

“Rawnmé has told me of your fear of magic, and that you wish to overcome such a fear. Therefore we decided to invite you to be the subject of our newest experiment.” He gestured to the platform.

She stared at them, trying to think of a polite way to ask if they were both insane. Instead she merely asked, “What is it?”

“It is a transporter,” said Rawnmé. “It will, we hope, send someone to other possibilities of this world.”

“What?”

“I told you of such when you looked at the book in the Shapier Adventurers’ Guild.”

“Other layers, then,” said En Shevil, remembering the word Rawnmé had used then. “Why me?”

“Because,” said Rawnmé slowly, “the only way we have found for the subject to return from these other possibilities is to die.”

Words came back to her then — ‘Can I die a hundred times over?’ This was her chance to perhaps atone somewhat for the deaths she had caused, to truly die for every life she had taken. But would not that still be an easy way out? She was lost in thought for several moments. “Does it actually work?” she asked.

“We do not know yet,” said Rawnmé. “That is one reason we hesitate to enter it ourselves. If it does not work, the subject could be trapped in limbo between existences for all time.

“And you want me to test it for you.”

“Only if you wish. You are under no obligation.”

“To him I am,” she said, pointing at Erasmus. “I owe him everything.”

“I was merely doing what I have sworn to do as an Archmage,” said Erasmus: “aid and protect innocents. You owe me nothing.”

She shook her head, disagreeing but deciding not to argue further. She had no idea what to say next anyway, so she directed her attention to the rat. “And you! Do you have any opinion here?”

“Amazing! Someone who’ll talk directly to me!” squeaked the rat. His voice was rather unpleasant to her ears. “My opinion is that you’re all silly humans and there’s no hope for any of you.”

“Thanks,” she said dryly. “Nice to know I have so much support.”

“You should look around Silmaria for a while,” said Rawnmé. “Think about this.”

“Rawnmé…”

“Call me Rawn, please.”

“Rawn, exactly how much magic will this process involve?”

Rawn went to the window on the opposite side of the room. “You would be transported to the other possibilities through this portal here.” She tilted her head towards the platform. “You would, if our theories are correct, remain in that other possibility until you died, during which time you would not age. Then, through the clear-and-spell magic we have painstakingly woven together, you would be returned and your body recreated from the energy produced by your soul’s reentrance into this world.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“The portal, I am afraid, would have a magical hold on you the entire time you were in the other world. It would be small, though.”

En Shevil stood silently, digesting this. Except for the magic parts, it sounded like… fun? When was the last time she’d truly enjoyed herself? Did she deserve to enjoy herself? She shook these thoughts off. If she did this, it must be in atonement for her crimes. “I’ll think about it.”

“Excellent! For now, take a look around Silmaria; find your man.” Erasmus waved a hand, and the world sucked itself in around her. As shapes in the room distorted, she closed her eyes and held her courage. Upon looking again, she found herself standing in a little gazebo-like structure capped by a strange, huge hat like that Erasmus wore. It was spinning. She shook her head and stepped away from the transporter, as she guessed it to be. She looked around. Pretty, lush foliage of deep green surrounded the many trees–some almost like pines, conical and foresty, others she did not recognize with bending trunks and clusters of large leaves at the very top. Huge rocks masked the view of whatever lay behind, but in front was a large stream blocked off by a stone railing. She crossed the bridge over this and walked on through a myriad of more rocks, trees, and bushes.

Here was a huge round building of finely-textured stone, massive columns supporting an open circle that was not quite a roof, creating quite a striking impression. Between the pillars she could vaguely see rows of seats. The small jutting entrance archway was blocked by a metal grate upon which she could see a sign: “There will be a combat competition tonight at 8:00. General admittance will begin at 6:00.”

Must be an arena, she thought, continuing on her way. Noting the row of fancy-looking houses to her right, she pulled her hood down over her face and checked the clasps of her cloak. After the houses came the emerald grounds of a large palace-like structure, surrounded by a spear-topped fence. The gate was flanked by two guards in strange armor–she’d never seen armor cut short and leave the thighs exposed before (at least, not on men). Their helmets totally concealed their faces, and she did not look at them long. An archway covering the beginning of a flight of stairs seemed to lead to a lower level of the city. Beside it was a large board bearing neat pieces of paper, protected by a cute little roof. She approached this.

The first paper read, “The Rites of Rulership has begun.” En Shevil was no expert, but this seemed grammatically askew to her. She read on. “Contestants: Kokeeno Pookameeso, Guard of Silmaria; Magnum Opus, Gladiator of Nova Roma; Elsa von Spielburg, Heroine of Spielburg; Gort, Graduate of the Science Academy of Silmaria; Achim, Prince of Shapier, Hero of Tarna and Mordavia.”

The second paper said something that did not look interesting about fishing villages. The text on the third proclaimed the beginning of the Rites of Rulership, this one with the verb in the plural. “First Rite: The Rite of Freedom,” it read. “Contestants must free a fishing village from the mercenary Invaders and return with the Sigil of the village.” En Shevil lost interest and did not read the next paper. Instead she went to the stairs.

A figure was emerging from the doorway, large and golden. As the liontaur stepped aside for En Shevil to pass, she suddenly took a closer look at the human. “En Shevil? Deathscar?”

The maruroha winced at the other warrior’s bluntness, turning to face Reeshaka. “Yes,” she said evenly. “Hello, Reeshaka.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Magical stuff with Erasmus.”

“You know your Prince is here?”

En Shevil almost rolled her eyes. Still mistress of the obvious, aren’t you? “Yes, I did know that. What are you doing here?”

“Logos is an old friend of my family, and he asked my father to come and help with the Rites of Rulership. My father invited me to come with him; he wants me to try and take over the EOF chapter here –“ Reeshaka chuckled — “try and bring them some honor. He thinks the problems here may require a lot of warriors eventually.”

“What do you think of this first Rite?”

“We’ve had some terrible weather here lately,” Reeshaka said with a leonine teeth-baring grimace. “Nobody’s left the city yet, as far as I know.”

“Listen, will you not tell Achim about me if you see him?”

“Why?” Reeshaka looked confused.

“I don’t want him to know I’m here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Never mind, just please don’t tell him.”

“All right, if you insist. I promise.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you planning on fighting in the arena?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ve not been here a day.”

“If you do, we’ll have to see about that rematch.” The other woman’s grin was toothy and shining. En Shevil returned the somewhat feral smile, nodding emphatically. They might never be friends, but they were certainly not enemies.

“Goodbye.”

The stairs turned two corners before reaching ground level in the next plaza of Silmaria. Across the plaza ran the same stream she’d crossed earlier, plunging down to this level by a pretty, musical waterfall and fenced off on both sides by stone railings. It flowed out of the plaza through an arch in some building, and she heard the noise of another, larger waterfall in that direction. To her left was an imposing building of dubious aesthetic value, its doors flanked by massive statues of winged lions. To her right was a narrow walkway, between the stream and the stands of merchants, leading to a doorway beside the stream’s exit-arch. She did not look around any more, for she had noticed that the first merchant, apparently one selling junk or something, was a katta.

En Shevil smiled as she approached the woman. She had not expected something so familiar in this island city; her day had just become much happier on seeing someone from her homeland. But she still kept her hood drawn down. “Good morning,” she greeted the katta in Shapierian.

The katta woman smiled, looking pleasantly surprised. “Good morning, effenda,” she said happily. “It is good to hear my native tongue from the mouth of a stranger. I am Sarra, a merchant of jewelry and gifts. May I ask your name?”

“I am… I am called… Dazah.” This was a last minute decision; why hadn’t she thought about that before?

“Dazah?” repeated the katta curiously. The word meant ‘silence’ in Shapierian. “It is an acceptable name. You are familiar with my homeland?”

“I lived in Shapier for many years, in the city of Shapier.”

“It is good to hear. I lived with my family in Rasier. When the katta were driven out, we came here to Silmaria. We have lived here happily since, but I have heard that a Hero saved our city and our land from destruction. I have also heard that he is in this city even now.”

“I had also heard that,” En Shevil said, “but I have not seen him. He is competing in the Rites of Rulership, isn’t he?”

“Is he? That is excellent news. Such a man as he would make a good king.”

“Thank you for talking with me, but I’m going to explore the city now.”

“May you find whatever your heart seeks,” said Sarra, quoting part of a katta proverb.

En Shevil crossed the little bridge. To her left was the porch of a building apparently carved into the stone of the ridge on which the upper plaza sat. It held a familiar symbol, that of the magician’s eye. En Shevil made a mental note not to try and pick the lock on that building. Before her was another katta, this one a man, but rather than stop to talk she simply murmured, “Nharak sa’id, effendi huldawa.” A third katta, this one barely out of kittenhood, sat on a bench beyond the male katta’s fruit stand. She held in her hands a set of pipes, and beside her stood a tall jar-like amphora that was apparently for coins.

En Shevil was suddenly most desirous to hear this girl’s talents. Unfortunately, she did not yet possess any of the currency of this land. She said as much in Shapieiran, at which the young katta smiled shyly and lifted her pipes to her mouth. The tune was very brief, as befitted a charity playing, but brought tears to En Shevil’s eyes nonetheless: it was a Shapierian children’s song, ageless, innocent and nostalgically evocative. She thanked the girl and moved on.

She walked through the arch in the wall that apparently led to yet another area of the city. This was like Shapier without any streets. The slope on which she now found herself ended at a ramp leading onto the deck of another, opulent-looking building. The deck, after a few turns, landed her on the sand of a beach, the open ocean before her.

As she stared out at it, she had to find her courage center rather quickly. Though an innocent fear, it was certainly a prominent and rather annoying one. Her eyes were locked on the gentle tide, following the ebb and flow of the waters until she thought she must become part of them. At last she shuddered and turned away.

“The Dead Parrot Inn?” She stared at the sign over the rich building’s door, remembering vaguely another establishment of similar name in a somewhat warmer locale. The guard near the door reminded her uncomfortably of a eunuch, but she decided to enter anyway. Inside, it was a pleasant enough place, with tables scattered across the room. Men and women sat, most of them quiet, eating nice-smelling foods and drinking bad-smelling liqueur. She made her way farther into the large room towards a woman in Shapierian dress. As she drew closer she was surprised to find that she recognized the woman’s face, and scrambled for a name. Fortunately, it was the one name she remembered from that time. “Nawar?”

“And do I know you back?” asked the woman curiously.

En Shevil revealed her face. “Hey, you’re that girl from…” said another, fatter woman from behind the bar nearby, also dressed like a harem girl. En Shevil thought she knew this one too.

“Yes! The one who got kidnapped by the Shelhar!” Nawar smiled now. “How nice to see old friends unexpectedly. What brings you to Silmaria?”

“Business with Erasmus,” said En Shevil lightly. “And you?”

“I came with Ferrari, of course,” said Nawar. “Zayishah is ruling Rasier now, and she put an end to the harem, which left most of us girls without positions. Budar and I took Ferrari up on his offer to work for him in his new place up here.” En Shevil nodded.

“Does the Prince of Shapier come in here often?” she asked.

“Mmm, yes,” replied Nawar with a smile. The look on her face was unmistakable, and En Shevil was not surprised.

“Please don’t mention me to him. I don’t want him to know I’m in Silmaria.”

“You don’t?” said Nawar, flabbergasted.

“Well, there he is,” said Budar, pointing across the room to the door. “You come back and tell us why one of these nights and we won’t tell him about you.”

En Shevil sighed, nodded, and left them, reestablishing her hood as she went. Upstairs were more seats, and on the wall she noticed a sectioned board with writing on it. Beside it sat a bored-looking man at a small square table. Approaching she asked, “What’s this?”

“This is the betting board of the arena combatants,” he replied. She looked at the listings, which stated this week’s Champion as the Rites-contender Kokeeno Pookameeso, and several challengers. Their names included Elsa von Spielburg, Magnum Opus, Gort, Toro, Abduel, and Achim Prince of Shapier. She smiled. It was a seven-day week, of course, and there was one slot left for a challenger, empty. Turning to the bookie at his small table she asked, “How do I challenge this… Kokeeno?”

“Kokeeno,” he corrected her emphasis. “It will cost you 100 drachma.”

Her eyes went wide. “Well, I don’t have any… drachma at all right now,” she said. “I just got here today.”

“You’re a smart girl,” he said with a sly look. “Go rob the bank or something.”

“Thanks,” she said dryly. “Maybe I will.” Pulling her hood farther down over face once again, she took a seat at the nearest table, in the most shadowy corner she saw, and waited. Hopefully Achim would leave quickly. She chided herself inside — she had just spent a month and a half searching the mainland for her Hero, and now she was trying to avoid him!

He appeared at the top of the stairs.

She could not help staring at him, such a blessed sight was he. That moment obligingly froze, kindly allowing her to search his face, his frame, memorizing him all over again. Her heart beat faster and tears sprang into her eyes. She had but to pull off her hood and speak his name and he could be hers again. But that would not be fair, so she remained as she was. Still, she had the greatest of trouble not revealing herself when he approached her and said, “Good evening.” She merely nodded at him, her eyes still searching his face. She thought his tone was somewhat sarcastic, and wondered why. “Thanks for your advice,” he said. “Knocking was a great idea.” What was he talking about? She continued to stare at him. Finally he moved off and she breathed more easily, though in sob-like gasps at first. She watched him do some business with the bookie and eventually point himself towards the far-off door. When he was safely gone she rose.

“So, what was that all about?” asked Nawar as En Shevil reached the harem girl’s side.

Instead of answering, En Shevil’s head was turned by the passing of a man who bore what smelled unmistakably like Rasierian coffee. “Is that what I think it is?” she gasped.

Budar turned and filled a mug, setting it down on the counter as En Shevil approached. “Rasierian coffee,” she said, “on the house this once. Don’t tell Ferarri.” With more gratitude than she could express (her mouth being rather busy), En Shevil accepted the drink. “So you’ve been traveling, huh?”

“Quite a bit. I was in Shapier a while ago, but only for a little while.”

“And the prince?” prompted Nawar.

“We had a… relationship,” said En Shevil carefully, “which has since ended. I’d rather not confront him again.”

Nawar nodded sagely. “I know where you’re coming from. Men never know what they want. That one’s better than most, though.”

Don’t I know it. “It’s been wonderful talking to you again. This place is open every night?”

“After sunset, the doors are open till midnight, and you can stick around till dawn.”

“Then I’ll probably come back tomorrow.”

“Good night.”

Where to go now? she wondered. She had been avoiding thought on the subject she most needed to contemplate, and perhaps what would do her the most good was to sit for a while and reflect. In peace, preferably. Cautiously she left the inn and walked up the hill away from the docks. She passed through an archway and stiffened as a small wave crashed against the cliff now to her left, spraying her with saltwater. To her right was a large building with the upper windows lit, and a little way ahead was a bridge over the river that joined with the ocean. Walking to the far edge of the cliff next to the bridge she looked down at the rocks and cattails below, near the waterfall’s great foot. Nodding to herself, she crossed and made her way there. She clambered up onto the rocks before the waterfall, where the spray somewhat concealed her from view, and sat.

The main question was this: could she overcome her fear of magic enough to do what she felt she needed to? It would be easy enough to try, but if she could not conquer that unreasonable disliking she might drive herself crazy, and that was not an experience that it was particularly wise to repeat. She had pushed Deathscar far below the surface, and a return to carnage was not really the most desirable thing in the world.

What about this fear? Could she face it down? She thought about the reasons behind it: she’d been amnesiatic, moving towards insanity, and with a couple of bad personal experiences with magic to color her subconscious. Although, thinking back, she could only remember two: the mishap at Aziza’s door and Bandis’ transportation to Ytsomo Kwai. The former had been unpleasant, surely, but of her own doing. The second had been what had saved her life, as well as the ensuing power exchange from the dragon-djinn to the human. So really, what had she to fear? She knew that it had been the uncertain state of her mind in those first days after her awakening that had made her an enemy of magic. And thus she could certainly master the issue, could she not, by exposing herself to helpful magic and becoming easy with it?

She smiled, feeling suddenly confident. A noise startled her, a grinding sound as of a heavy door swinging open. It was from nearby, and looking around she observed Achim emerging from an opening in the lower foundation of the bridge. Thieves’ Guild, she thought as she watched him glance around and hurry up the hill. Her heart was pounding. If he had turned around, he probably would have seen her, and she’d been half-wishing he would. But he was gone now. She slid from the rock to the next, lower one and picked her way back to shore. She watched him enter the building at the top of the hill, and with a wistful smile went up the hill in the direction (she hoped) of Erasmus’ transporter.

“I need some money,” she said to Rawn as they sat down to breakfast the next day.

“Whatever for?” asked the faery mildly. “You can have what things you need here.”

“I want to fight in the arena — just to keep my skills up, you know — and it costs 100 drachmas.”

“Drachma. I would offer you some, only I have none. The only thing I can think is if you happen to find some on your… travels. Have you decided yet?”

“I have,” said En Shevil with a deep breath. “I’ll do it.” Rawn nodded without a change of facial expression. “The least you could do is act happy!” the other protested. “You don’t know how nervous I am about this.”

Rawn forced a smile. “I am happy.”

“Good. Where’s Erasmus?”

“Downstairs, I think. I will fetch him.” Rawn disappeared, and En Shevil gasped. Well, if she was finally going to face up to this stupid magic business, she might as well get used to it.

A moment later she stiffened as she felt power entwine her and yank her from the room. She found herself for a second time in the octagonal tower room with the transporter. Rawn and Erasmus were just appearing as En Shevil solidified. “I am so excited!” Erasmus said to her at once. “I am highly pleased that you have decided to help us with this.”

“Well…” En Shevil was still too startled by all this magic to say anything more.

Rawn was nodding. “Especially because of the danger,” she added.

“Now, explain that part again,” said En Shevil, recovering quickly.

“Perhaps I should in more detail explain the entire process,” Rawn began.

“Please do.”

“The presence of a body in the transporter should activate magic that will create a tunnel from this plane to another, and you will be sucked through. In that world, you are living a triangle with one point here and an entire line-side there.”

“In other words,” Erasmus interrupted, “your life here is cinched to the point where you enter and exit the other world, but your life in the other world may extend indefinitely.”

En Shevil just stared at them while they looked at her expectantly.

“What they mean –“ this was Fenrus, who had appeared a bit earlier and was standing next to En Shevil — “is that you won’t get any older in the other world, and when you come back it will be only a short time after you left.”

“Oh,” said En Shevil with a nod of understanding, recalling that they had mentioned this before.

“At least, that’s how we hope it will work,” Erasmus added with a chuckle.

“To continue,” Rawn said smoothly, “in the other world you must be killed to return, theoretically, for the magic that holds you the entire time you are there will be released upon your death and will reopen the tunnel — which would never have been truly closed, only set in a sort of stasis so that magic could still pass through it. You will be sucked back here, and the energy of the tunnel’s closing (if our spells work correctly) will be used to reform your body in a living state, at which point your soul will have no reason to leave it and you will live again.”

“Um,” said En Shevil.

“Of course the danger enters the scene at the return,” said Erasmus. “We are fairly certain you will be able to travel to the other worlds — we have, after all, seen them and are confident in our ability to contact them — but your return, and the reformation of your body, worries us.”

“So what might happen?”

“The tunnel might close while you are there,” Rawn speculated, “and you would be trapped in the other layer. Your death there would be just as real as any death here. If that did not happen, even then your death might not cause the tunnel to reopen, only close completely. Or, on your return, the tunnel might close too soon and trap your soul in limbo between worlds. Or, perhaps the energy of the tunnel’s closing might be too little, and your body could be… deformed, perhaps.”

“Fun,” En Shevil murmured. She looked around, not really wanting to think about any of those possibilities. “Well…”

“Do you still want to try it?” Erasmus asked, and the hope in his voice would have been too much for her even if she had not already made up her mind.

“Yes,” she replied. “If anything happens to me in there, will you tell Achim everything?”

“Of course,” they replied.

“No, wait. Don’t do that. Tell him…” Why hadn’t she thought about this earlier? “Well, tell him… Don’t tell him anything, I guess.”

Erasmus and Rawn nodded, but En Shevil sensed the conspiratorial thought between them: the instant they lost hope of her return they would run to Achim like the gossips they were and tell him her life history. She did not know if she minded, and even smiled in small amusement. Magicians were all the same.

“So, what do I do?” she asked. Erasmus practically jumped to her side to guide her to the transporter. She stood before the open spot in the small pillars, ready to step into the unknown. “Wait!” she said, almost frightened. “Do I need to take anything with me?”

Erasmus frowned. “We don’t know yet if things you take with you will appear there at all.”

“You mean I may show up naked?”

“That is a distinct possibility.”

En Shevil shook her head at the strangeness of wizards and said, “Goodbye.”

She had the sensation of stepping forward, and falling, her foot never touching the ground. She dissipated, separating into invisible particles, so tiny they were innumerable, and yet each one held in it a fraction of her consciousness — so that she was aware of being sucked in a stream, like a spray of dust, through some minute pinprick in the world’s fabric, flowing like water to another place. There was no precipitance, no violence; all was calm in her mind with the transition, and even the fearful magic, in embracing her, seemed not so terrible as fascinating and wonderful. The next moment she was materializing again rapidly, and there was an airy rushing in her newly forming ears. Her body felt remarkably clean and pure, like she had been bathed from the inside out with liquid sunshine. She was sensitive to the strength in her bones, the steady pumping of blood through her heart, the muscular impulses that tensed her body as she reformed, the prickling and stretching of her tanned skin–and best of all, the rustling of clothing covering her frame.

She had appeared in Erasmus’ transporter near the arena. Shaking her head briefly in a vain attempt to clear it, she realized that she must, in fact, truly be in another world. At least, that was what she inferred from the strange sense of magic hovering about her. She looked around, as if expecting to see a dark tunnel behind her leading off into a hypothetical distance, and Erasmus and Rawnmé at the end.

“Wonderful,” she muttered. “So where am I supposed to go now?”

Since nobody answered her, she stepped from the transporter and started forward.

The arena appeared the same, as did the fine-looking houses stretching down the lane beside her. The Hall of Kings also bore no visible differences, and En Shevil was beginning to feel she must have been mistaken and she really was back in her own world, when suddenly an unfamiliar voice called out her name from behind. Turning, she saw a city guard approaching, and to her surprise he bowed.

“Your pardon for my familiarity, your highness,” he said; “you did not hear me before.” She simply stared at him, and he hastened, embarrassed, to deliver his message. “Erik sent me to wait for when you had finished your business with Erasmus, and tell you that he will be awaiting you outside the city gates.”

“Erik?” she replied in astonishment, and the guard just gave her a puzzled look. “Thank you.” He bowed and hastened away.

She stood still beside the notice board, trying to digest this. The guard had obviously recognized her, which meant that En Shevil existed in this world as well, and was also in Silmaria. But ‘your highness?’ And Erik? She only knew one Erik in her world. Could it be…? Hoping for some explanation, she turned her face to the notice board, letting her eyes drift across it until something caught her attention.

“Contestants: Kokeeno Pookameeso, Guard of Silmaria; Magnum Opus, Gladiator of Nova Roma; Elsa von Spielburg, Heroine of Spielburg; Gort, Graduate of the Science Academy of Silmaria; En Shevil, Princess of Shapier, Heroine of Tarna and Mordavia.”

She stared and stared. How had this happened? “En Shevil, Princess of Shapier,” it said. “Heroine of Tarna and Mordavia.” She could not remove her gaze from the words. It certainly gave her mixed emotions to read them. What were the implications of such a thing? She stood still, puzzling through how this might have come about.

“Excuse me,” said her own voice, and for a moment she thought she was imagining things until it repeated itself. Her hood was not over her face, and she had no choice but to turn and regard the speaker. What she saw was not so very surprising.

This Princess of Shapier was dressed in heavy, Shapierian-style clothing of cream and burgundy, with a great black cape overall. She wore a large, heavy-looking pack, and a long spear, glowing green along its blade, strapped across her back. Her hair, which commanded En Shevil’s attention, was even longer than En Shevil’s had been when it was cut, and was still the bright, rich blonde that it had been in En Shevil’s early teen days. The Princess still had it in a long ponytail. Looking at this woman was one of the oddest experiences of En Shevil’s bizarre life.

The Heroine of Tarna said something very blunt and continued, “Who are you?”

“I’m… you… I guess,” En Shevil replied.

“Ha ha ha,” replied the Princess. “You do look like me, I guess. Who are you really?”

“Ah…” En Shevil wondered how to explain. “There are different worlds that are like this one, and I’m from one of them.”

“What?”

“In the different worlds, the same places and people exist, but they’ve had different lives. In my world, I’m not a princess.”

The Princess gave a disbelieving laugh. “All right,” she said, “tell me about your world.” The next moment she looked around as if remembering something. “Well, tell me about your world on the way. I have to find my friend.”

“Erik?” En Shevil supplied. “He’s waiting for you outside the gates. A guard thought I was you and told me that.”

They set off walking at the Princess’s quick pace, and En Shevil decided hastily which details she should relate about her own world. “In my world, there’s a man called Achim…” she began, but the Princess interrupted her.

“Achim the Hero of Spielburg?”

“Yes, and he came to Shapier to…”

“To try and solve the problems there, of course. But –“ and here the Princess gave a professionally disdainful laugh — “he decided he had to rob Issur’s house for some reason — I think Dinarzaad put him up to it — and they beat him to death. EOF, I mean.”

En Shevil gave a slight gasp, staring at the Princess in horror. “He’s dead?” she asked.

The Princess looked at her curiously. “Well, yes. When someone beats someone to death, they usually die.”

En Shevil looked away, and finally asked, “Did you know him?”

“Well, I saw him once walking Agi’s tightrope, but I never met him.”

“I know the Achim of my world,” En Shevil said. “…very well.”

The Princess recognized the tone in En Shevil’s voice (considering it was the same tone she would have used to speak those words if they’d applied, this was not surprising). “Oh,” she said. “Well, sorry. I hope he’s alive in your world.” It was clear that she still did not fully believe En Shevil’s story.

“He is, though…” En Shevil said.

“Well, you’re lucky you met him in Shapier,” interrupted the Princess with a laugh, waving to the guard as he began to open the main gate for them. “I didn’t find my –“ she giggled — “special friend until I came to Silmaria.”

And there he was, beyond the gate, waiting for them as the guard had said. Dressed nearly exactly as En Shevil remembered him from her own world, and looking every bit as handsome as he had there, Erik Heimst — Singing Man — stood before them. En Shevil stopped and stared, but the Princess went forward towards him. “Are you really the one I should kiss?” he asked jokingly, looking from one En Shevil to the other. He didn’t seem to have any concrete worries, however, and after an overlong kiss he asked, “So who exactly is this?”

“She claims to be me from another world,” the Princess laughed, putting her arm around Erik’s waist and leaning her head on his shoulder as she faced En Shevil. “She seems to have a problem with you, though.”

En Shevil shook her head, fishing for appropriate words. “I’m sorry,” she said; “the Singing–er, Erik of my world died.”

The Princess’s brows lowered. “We’re just opposites, then,” she said, and explained to Erik. “Her boyfriend in her world, she says, is Achim, that Hero who died.” She says–the words were spoken almost mockingly, still obviously disbelieving.

“How sad,” Erik said. “Well, are we going?”

“Yes, of course.” The Princess disentangled herself from Erik’s arms and pulled out her spear. “We’re going exploring,” she said to En Shevil. “Would you like to come along? I’d like to hear more about this world of yours.”

Erik seemed about to protest, but the Princess gave him a hard look that En Shevil did not miss. Humoring the madwoman, En Shevil thought. I can’t blame her.

“Yes, I’ll come. I’d really like to know how you became the Heroine and all that.”

So they started walking again, the Princess and Erik hand in hand. En Shevil wondered what he had actually been planning for this afternoon. “Well, you can start talking any time,” said the Princess with a laugh, and En Shevil was beginning to think that she didn’t much like this version of herself.

“Ah, well… I’m not sure what you want to know,” En Shevil said, a little embarrassed.

“About you, of course! Why is your hair so much darker than mine, and so short? What’s up with that scar on your face? Why aren’t you a princess too?”
“Well…” En Shevil quickly worked through an abridged version of her life history. “I was the one who went to rob Issur, not Achim. Achim went on to become the Prince of Shapier and the Hero of Tarna and Mordavia. I had to leave town.”

“And…?” prompted the Princess impatiently.

“Well, I became a warrior, and I traveled a lot — at first alone, and then for a while with Elsa and Toro and… and Erik.”

The Heroine poked her lover as if she thought that was funny, and he tickled her in response. He seemed to know exactly where she was ticklish. When they were finished, En Shevil continued.

“I came to Silmaria afterwhile to find Achim again, and Erasmus told me about this transporter he’d built with a friend that would take people to other possibilities of the world.”

At that moment they all three tensed, picking out the sounds of large creatures approaching from behind. “Goons, I think,” the Princess whispered. “Let’s take ‘em down.” She turned, with Erik, to face the approaching threat, while En Shevil took a place behind them to watch.

The number of the enemy was three, and it was interesting to watch Erik and the Princess in battle. Neither was very good at it — Erik fighting with the dagger of Cvonyet, the Heroine with a magical spear that was a bit large for her — and they both received a few wounds in short order. “You could join in any time, warrior,” the Princess said crossly to En Shevil.

En Shevil nodded and drew Sulah, launching herself forward towards the third goon that was taking potshots at Erik with a large club. Her triple flip turned into a double, however, and fell short of her mark, for as she pushed herself into the air she felt a strange weariness overcoming her, arising from her very bones. She landed on her feet a bit woozy, and decided to stay grounded throughout the rest of the battle. Driving her sword swiftly and cleanly into the goon’s neck, she killed him without a bit of trouble. Next she dispatched of Erik’s opponent, and turned to see the Princess felling the last goon with a clumsy spear-thrust. Self-taught, En Shevil observed to herself.

“Well, that was fun,” the Princess said, stooping to search one of the goons. En Shevil tentatively took a few steps around, wondering how much energy she had. Surprisingly, the weariness of the battle had fallen from her — perhaps it only applied when she was fighting? That was odd.

“Now,” the Princess said with glee, “let me tell you about here. After Achim died, this fire elemental appeared in Gates Plaza. Somebody had to take care of it, so I thought, why not me?” She laughed. “I figured water was the best way to get rid of it, so I brought a great big bucketful with me. And I thought that of course I couldn’t really destroy it — I’m no magician, after all — so I’d probably need somewhere to trap it when I’d weakened it with the water. So before I even went to the plaza I bought a brass lamp from Tashtari — you know, the brass merchant katta.”

En Shevil rolled her eyes — as if she didn’t know who Tashtari was!

“Then I splashed all this water around the plaza, and put the lamp on the ground, and pretty soon I had my very own Fire Elemental Lamp!” She laughed as if this were a joke.

En Shevil listened with interest to the further accounts of the Princess’s adventures in Shapier, Tarna, and Mordavia, though she soon tired of the Heroine’s attitude: everything she’d done was apparently a stroke of genius, and she never seemed to have made a mistake. “And anyway,” she was finishing up, “I decided to come to Silmaria, when Rakeesh asked me, to go for Queen. Not as if I needed it or anything, but I’m glad I did.” She smiled sweetly up at Erik, who kissed her. “I met Elsa here, and her bodyguards Toro and Erik.”

“It’s getting dark, hon,” the latter said suddenly. “Maybe we better go home.”

“Oh!” the Princess exclaimed, turning to En Shevil. “We can get back to Gnome Ann’s Land with our Mystic Magnets, but you’ll have to walk. Will you be all right?” En Shevil gaped that they would just leave her out in the wild like this, but was preparing to say that she would when the Princess spoke again. “And will you have a place to stay? In Silmaria, I mean? I wouldn’t want you to starve, after all.” She laughed.

“Ah, not really, but I probably won’t…”

“Well, come to Gnome Ann’s Land, or even go to the Dead Parrot — that’s over by the docks,” she added as if En Shevil had never been to Silmaria before. Only further proof that the Princess still did not believe En Shevil’s story.

“All right, thanks,” said En Shevil, feeling annoyed. And at that moment they were attacked again.

Five strange-looking creatures, green-skinned and red-eyed, burst silently from the bushes around them, bearing long scythe-like weapons. “Weirdings!” the Princess cried. “They usually have lots of money.”

Battle ensued, and En Shevil found herself actually having to fight this time — and fight hard — just to stay alive. These creatures were tough, well-organized, and nowhere near as stupid as the goons of earlier. She felt again the strange fatigue she had when fighting the latter, and knew this was a battle she probably could not win. “You two get back to town,” she cried breathlessly to the others. “I’ll be fine!” At least, she hoped she’d be fine — it was time to test Erasmus’ and Rawnmé’s magic.

“We can’t do that!” the Princess gasped, driving her spear through a weirding’s chest and killing it. “We’ll win this battle yet.”

Then En Shevil felt something sharp penetrate her back at an angle, pushing through her spine into her heart. She cried out in pain, and the last thing she heard was the Princess’s gasp of astonishment as En Shevil faded into nothingness and a flash of darkness followed. Disembodiment followed briefly, in which she felt herself, what was truly herself, floating in nonexistence for moments evanescent. Fear sailed with her, fear of being trapped in this nether region forever, but it was fleeting, for she was caught up in thinking of what she had just seen and done. I died, she was saying to herself. I can’t believe I just died. The pain was gone, but the memory of it still remained, and the feeling was beyond odd. But soon her thoughts turned to another, bitterer subject.

The Princess had everything — experience, respect, love, renown as a great Heroine. She had never lost someone close to her, she had never gone on a killing rampage, and she was destined to be either Sultana of Shapier or Queen of Silmaria — perhaps both. And she seemed so happy! Totally at ease with her surroundings, always laughing, even easy in a battle. How could fate be so unfair as to give one life all the benefits, the other all the trials?

But something dogged inside En Shevil was determined to argue, and she recalled the Princess’ demeanor: how rude she had been in constantly interrupting and laughing at En Shevil; how arrogant in all that she said, specifically her accounts of her own heroism; and especially, how childishly she had acted around Erik. The more this stubbornly optimistic side of En Shevil argued with the other, the less envy she felt for the Princess’ situation. At last, just as rushing again filled her ears, and she began to feel physical sensation when her body reformed, she admitted, Maybe my life isn’t so wonderful, but at least I’m worth something.

She stepped from the transporter into the octagonal room, and immediately fell to her knees. Such a wave of exhaustion washed over her then, her eyes closing down on their own, that she could barely stand. Rawnmé was instantly at her side. “It works,” she said softly as she took En Shevil’s arm, and her near-whisper was drowned out by Erasmus’ shout of joy. Rawn helped En Shevil to stand, and guided her over to the cot beside the wall. There, to the fading sounds of the magicians’ delight, En Shevil fell quickly asleep.


Pride of her Parents 11

…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.


Pride of her Parents 10

…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 10 – Trouble in South Spielburg

Spielburg had not always been a nation. Less than a century before it had been a bloodstained land ruled by various warlords, all that remained of the even older nation of Alchenwäd. Every town and city stayed defensively shut behind its great stone walls, valuables safely stored in its war-time retreat vault. Even after the nations to the east destroyed each other and peace fell over what would become a great kingdom, it was still fifty years before the land could recover from its heritage of violence and open its doors and gates to outsiders. Some wartime traditions still remained, though, and few cities could be found without a near-useless stone wall and vault.

Eventually the place became merely a tame sort of wilderness dotted with small cities and tiny towns, hardly united by their common tongue and the more common merchant language. Little leaders devoted to peace, none claiming titles greater than perhaps baron, often held several of these villages under their casual rulership. The countryside was peaceful, prosperous, and happy, but there were a few who sought to unite it. Some of these went about this violently, but the people, mindful of their gruesome past, always resisted. Some sought to gain the lords’ approval and thus their loyalty, but none could perform a feat great enough and of enough wide-spread interest. That is, until the Baron Stefan von Spielburg (the first) led his small but well-trained army against a particularly troublesome wizard and his seemingly endless hoards of devils. Inspiring loyalty in the towns he passed on this particular quest, he managed to rally an army larger than any that part of the world had ever seen, united for a just and righteous cause (and dispersed immediately the battle was ended), to defeat the enemy. After this, nearly every minor ruler put themselves willingly under his jurisdiction, and by a generation later the land of Spielburg was formed. Certainly there were pockets who refused to acknowledge Stefan as their master (though he unassumingly retained his title of baron instead of claming a rightful kingship), but these were few and not powerful enough to trouble the small-time fiefs (as they now called themselves). Or so everyone thought.

Among Stefan’s efforts to further unite the country was the setting up of a post, the ordination of a more structured tier-government system, the regulation of goods prices and currency laws, and the dubbing of his land “Spielburg” after the name of his little town. The latter was now the capital, but the huge nation-wide festivals (established by Stefan himself) were held in the greater city of Piek to the northeast across the mountains. Stefan did not find the duties of a near-king particularly difficult, for the nation looked after itself to a large degree. He merely had to receive reports from his various under-lords (who out of respect had discarded the title of baron from among their ranks) and keep track of the general state of finance and economics across the country. The matters of his own valley were of more direct concern to him, however, and thus his life was as busy as it could reasonably have been expected to be.

His son Stefan (the second) did not relish his upcoming position as both Baron of Spielburg and Baron of Spielburg, and by the end of his teenage years was known as quite the hooligan in all the surrounding towns–in the hopes that his father would reconsider passing the position on to him. However, upon the assassination of the first of Spielburg’s royal line, the younger Stefan settled down with a heavy heart to assume his father’s place. Only his marriage to the lovely Elisse von Ärden a few years later cheered him up enough to put any enthusiasm into the job. The search for Stefan’s murderer was soon given up when no sign nor remotest clue could be found leading to his identity. Apparently there were still those who wished Spielburg to be unruled, or to be ruled by other hands than the current. A great deal of trouble might have been saved if his lordship had been a little more attentive to his rebels, or had not been so quick to abandon the search for his father’s killer upon the birth of his first child.

But En Shevil did not know all this. Had she, she would not have cared, for she would not have realized how it pertained to her. Her personal dealings–Deathscar, Achim, and all that–had almost made her forget that there was a real world out there that just might be willing and able to pull her into its own dealings for an adventure or two that was totally irrelevant to her own life, however much heartbreak it caused her in the process. She would have done well to have asked Achim about his troublesome adventure previous to his heroics in Spielburg.

The little party traveled for days along the foot of the Spielburg mountains, enjoying the beautiful countryside and each others’ company. Actually, Elsa did not enjoy Singing Man’s company, though Toro seemed to put up with him fairly well. En Shevil found herself more and more fond of the man every day, though he always did put off her questions with bits of song. She also grew to like Elsa a great deal: the warrior’s stoic, straightforward manner and perfect honesty were quite appealing to the other warrior. En Shevil taught her a few basic maruroha moves — there was one spin-kick in particular Elsa liked — and helped her brush up on her thief skills. In return Elsa showed her something that En Shevil had never thought in her lifetime to see.

Toro and Singing Man were not present, both having gone to a nearby pond to bathe. Elsa, seated on a rock, unslung her pack and pulled it out in front of her. “There is something you would like to see,” she said, looking around. “I have brought it from Spielburg as I did not want to leave it in the care of my brother.” She drew out a large, heavy-looking object wrapped in cloth and held it out.

Only mildly curious, En Shevil took it and pulled its padding off. Startled beyond expression, she nearly dropped it on her own feet when she saw what it was. “The Blackbird!” she gasped.

“I attained it sometime during my time with the brigands,” Elsa said.

“I — I don’t believe it!” En Shevil stammered. “It’s so…” Staring at its fine detail and sleek silvery-black coloring, she had no word to describe it. “I was once hired to steal one of the fakes…” she murmured. “I still can’t believe — is this really the real thing?”

“It is. I thought you would enjoy seeing it.”

En Shevil ran her hand up and down the bird’s chest longingly. Hearing the approach of the two males she regretfully began wrapping it up again. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I don’t know yet. But I will put it to good use, I assure you.”

It was exactly one week later that they reached the somewhat large (for Spielburg) town of Stuartsgeiden. En Shevil was not very interested in helping.

“But you must!” the innkeeper cried. “We have no warriors here, not even any adventurers. He’s been taking our children and threatening to kill them if we tell the baron; then he demands taxes of us, and food. We’re starving! Not a single adventurer has passed here in weeks — the last one refused to help us too. We’re running out of resources.”

“Who is this man?” asked Elsa, coldly angry.

“All I know’s that his name is Telmiquor. He’s got lots of men holed up in there, and creatures under his control too. I think he wants to rule Spielburg, and he’s been there for more than a year raising a secret army. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got other towns like us. He has our children!

En Shevil sighed at the weary desperation in the man’s eyes and voice, and finally asked, “How many children?”

“Thirteen.”

“Great mother of Iblis, thirteen? How can you let him take your kids like that?”

“We have no choice when he sends ten men and four saurus rexes into town and breaks down people’s doors. As far as I know he hasn’t killed anyone yet, ‘cause we’ve been good with his demands. But we can’t hold out much longer. Our winter stores were enough, but we don’t know if we can afford what he needs for the summer. And his demands don’t get any smaller, either.”

En Shevil glanced at Elsa, annoyed, and saw the determination in the other woman’s face. And to be honest, En Shevil didn’t think she could refuse at this point anyway. But it was a nuisance. Achim could be dead for all she knew, and here she was preparing to play Heroine for a little town with no connection to her. She knew she was being selfish, but she could not help regretting the time she knew they were going to lose.

Singing Man spoke a few brief, rhyming lines about what a devoted parent would do for their child, and Toro remained silent. “We’ll help you,” En Shevil said heavily. “Where’s the vault?”

Stuartsgeiden was tucked into a corner where a mountain arm jutted westward from the main range. An out-of-the-way little place, En Shevil was not surprised that this Telmiquor had managed to keep his residence and tyranny a secret from the rest of the inattentive country. Like the innkeeper, she also would not have been surprised to learn that the despot held other towns under his sway: the apparent scouts she had met some time earlier suggested he was at least branching out. Leaving Antwerp and most of their equipment at the inn, the adventurers headed up into the mountainous back yard of the town towards the vault in which Telmiquor had taken residence. Routing a minor tyrant and keeping a dozen children alive in the process was not her idea of fun. She’d had enough of that in Sechburg. But children were children, and she was not backing out now.

It was dusk, and they had reached the approximate location of the vault’s main opening. Proceeding with extreme caution, they skirted as best they could the wall of the overhanging cliff until they were within view of the door.

Like most vaults — Elsa had given them a brief rundown on that particular tradition — the latter was designed to be accessible by only one man at a time in order to be the most defensible. A guard stood before the door, looking alert but not very watchful. Apparently the invaders had not experienced any resistance from the villagers to make them vigilante. Still, En Shevil’s party had decided, on the way up, not to risk a frontal assault if at all possible. As Elsa reminded them (and she knew from experience), every fortress had a back door. They retreated to where they could talk.

“I say we split up and search for another way in,” said En Shevil uncertainly. Her knowledge of tactics was what she’d picked up twelve years ago playing Capture the Banner in school. That had been in a desert. “We can meet back here in an hour or so. Any of us can take down whatever comes our way –” She glanced uneasily at Singing Man, not sure whether this applied to him — “so we should be safe.”

Elsa nodded. “We should split into groups of two.” Without hesitation she added, “I will go with Toro around the guard and to the west.”

En Shevil smiled in the darkness, resisting the urge to laugh. “All right, we’ll meet you back here in an hour.”

“Good luck,” Elsa bade them, and was gone — doubtless glad to be away from Singing Man.

“Can you climb?” the latter asked immediately.

What a lucid question! “Yes.”

He gestured back behind them and said, “Let’s climb the cliff.”

Still surprised at his sudden prose, she accepted the idea and started back eastward. She did not quite know how far to go, but assumed it would be wise to leave the guard far enough behind that their ascent would not be heard.

Singing Man pulled a rope and grapnel from his pack, and after pulling loose a few tangles from the cord he flung the hook into the darkness, where it took hold of the cliff with a clack. En Shevil found a handhold and pulled herself upwards as Singing Man tested his rope. “Race you,” he offered in a quiet, challenging tone.

“Very well,” En Shevil grinned, and began to climb.

Minutes later he was several feet ahead of her when his grapnel slipped and his feet scrabbled on the rock to find a hold. En Shevil took a firm grip on the edge of the alcove where her hand was, and swung out to catch him as he toppled backwards. Bracing her joints for his weight, she held his wrist tightly, knuckles white and arms straining, until he could find a place to stand. “You win,” he gasped, staring up at her with startled eyes.

She looked away; his eyes were so blue! “Come on,” she said firmly, and they continued.

On the top of the cliff, Singing Man disentangled his rope from where it had wound around his arm and leg upon falling, and hooked his grapnel onto his belt. “Now which way?” En Shevil wondered.

“If we are searching for a back entrance, we ought to start at the back,” he replied. “That means south.”

En Shevil pursed her lips, brows lowered. Why was he acting so differently? Because Elsa was gone? She began to think there was more to this man that she’d originally guessed. Besides how handsome he was in the moonlight, of course. “South it is, then,” she agreed, and started in that direction. They walked quietly for about three quarters of an hour before they found anything, and this was not quite what they were looking for.

In a dense, rocky thicket of immense size they stumbled on a nest of huge eggs, each one at least a foot across, off-white with veins of darker cream. Stumbled was indeed a good term for their discovery, for En Shevil nearly fell on top of them as she forced her way out from between three trees and a thick, prickly bush. To avoid crushing the eggs she was forced to do a half-flip, landing quite painfully on her lower back a little way ahead. “Watch out for the eggs,” she groaned to Singing Man who followed.

Climbing sorely to her feet to the sounds of his careful removal of self from the bush, she realized they were not alone in the tiny clearing. Before her was a low, natural ‘tunnel’ of close shrubbery that plunged into blackness and was probably an easier way out than that they had taken in. Emerging from this, crouching low, was an irate, though rather frightened-looking, young saurus rex. The closed scratch-wounds on En Shevil’s neck throbbed and itched just looking at the creature.

“Uh-oh,” Singing Man said as he hopped on one foot in an attempt to disengage the other from the underbrush.

“If we can get to the tunnel, we could back out of here and she probably won’t hurt us,” En Shevil said tensely, hoping desperately that they could get out of this one without being forced to kill a young mother. Singing Man glanced at the eggs and nodded.

At that moment the beast attacked, darting out at En Shevil so quickly that only instinct saved the maruroha from losing a limb. Dodging out of the way at the last possible moment, En Shevil rolled up to her feet to gape in shock at her apparently insane companion; for Singing Man had tackled the creature and was now attempting to wrestle it from behind, strong arms holding the gigantic tooth-filled mouth shut. The saurus was tossing its head and whipping its tail, and several times Singing Man’s feet were thrown out from under him. “What are you doing?” En Shevil shouted, forgetting herself for a moment in amazement at his actions.

Singing Man actually laughed. “I’ll catch up to you!” he replied, grinning, and En Shevil simply stared at him. He was crazy. She backed, crouching, part of the way into the tunnel and watched him. It was a strange rodeo, the bucking saurus frantically trying to throw the playful man and he laughing like an idiot as he was flung here and there and dragged off his feet. It was not long before the saurus gained the upper claw, as it were, and Singing Man fell violently to the ground under its great legs. He rolled, but was not fast enough to avoid a hard swipe in the stomach. The saurus hissed and growled, lowering her head for a deadly bite, but was knocked backwards by En Shevil’s foot as she sped forward and jumped to her friend’s defense.

“You idiot!” she said, though not entirely unkindly. “I’ll cover you.” The saurus thrashed on the ground, struggling to gain her feet once again, and Singing Man crawled from the thicket through the narrow tunnel. En Shevil backed into it behind him, swords out to deter the creature from following.

Once out on the rocky slope beyond the cramped home of the saurus, En Shevil turned on Singing Man accusingly. “What’s wrong with you? You almost got yourself killed in there!”

Panting and smiling widely, he responded happily, “I haven’t had a good wrestling match in months!”

“You’re crazy. We’re supposed to be looking for a back door to a stupid fortress, not wrestling stupid saurii.” He continued to grin, and she looked away from his flashing teeth. All at once the image of him bouncing and flopping around on the saurus’ spine came into her mind, and she began to giggle. “Let’s head back,” she said, taking the lead down the mountainside and trying not to laugh out loud.

“We did not find any sign of another way in,” Elsa said dejectedly. “What did you find?”

“Nothing but a saurus rex and her clutch,” En Shevil replied with a yawn. “What do you say we go for the front door? I want to get this over with.”

Elsa frowned. “I still do not believe that is the wisest way.” They were all silent for a moment, though Singing Man was humming softly.

“Man in inn say bad man have animals,” said Toro at last. “Maybe saurus rex bad man’s animal.”

“That is a possibility,” Elsa considered. “Perhaps it was a guardian of some kind.”

“So we have to go back up there?” En Shevil said in a dull tone.

“You will have to lead us,” said Elsa, totally ignoring the fact that Singing Man had gone with En Shevil as well.

En Shevil glanced doubtfully at Toro. “We’ll have to go up around to where the cliff is lower,” she said, “unless you can climb, Toro.” The minotaur shook his head, so En Shevil turned and led the way eastward up the mountain.

This time it took them nearly an hour and a half to reach the thicket again, mostly because approaching it in the dark from the opposite direction made it difficult to find; even when they were there En Shevil was not entirely sure it was the right place. “If we don’t find anything,” she asked wearily, “can we please go in by the front?”

Elsa did not respond, but began skirting the trees and scrambling over rocks, looking carefully for some sign. En Shevil sighed and followed. “Toro take Singing Man other way,” the minotaur said, and the two males headed off around the thicket in the other direction.

“Look here,” Elsa hissed, stopping short and dropping to her knees. It was the proverbial clue, a scrap of cloth. “I was correct.”

“Either that or this saurus has an offensive streak,” En Shevil muttered, but Elsa was pushing her way into the thicket. En Shevil took a few running steps backwards to where they had separated from the others and called, “Come here!” Then she followed Elsa.

The latter had stumbled, her foot caught deeply in a mess of branches and leaves that almost looked, upon close examination, hand-woven. Elsa was twisted around trying to get free, and remarked when En Shevil appeared, “I believe we have found it.”

“Elsa OK?” Toro asked from over En Shevil’s shoulder.

“Yes, I am fine, Toro,” Elsa said as she finally yanked her foot out. “Help me clear this away.” The two women tugged at the mess, and began to expose a blackness that breathed forth cool, wet air into the foresty dimness around them.

“Well, this may be the back door,” said En Shevil as she stared into the hole. Under the deep shadows of the trees in the pre-dawn, there was no way to tell how deep it was or what lay inside. For all they knew it could be some creature’s nest. “Who goes first?”

“Toro tallest,” Toro said. “Go first.”

“Be careful, Toro,” Elsa said as the minotaur seated himself with his legs dangling into the darkness. Then he was gone.

There were scuffling noises below as of hooves on stone, and Toro spoke in an echoey voice. “Tunnel. And ladder.” A moment later the ends of ladder slats clacked against the side of the hole, and the three humans looked at each other. “Let’s do this,” En Shevil sighed, and pulled herself down.

For a moment her mind was clouded and she could see nothing, but then the tunnel came into focus: low, mostly natural it appeared, rough and downward sloping. The draft was stronger, with a cold, definite moisture on it, and it chilled her. Shivering, she stepped forward to stand by Toro as the others descended. When they were all gathered, she unhesitatingly and wordlessly took the lead, deeming her vision to be the best. Ducking an outcropping, she walked carefully through the narrow way as it twisted, rising and falling, in no coherent direction.

It was featureless, the blank, ragged rock faces around and above her. There was little rubble or other loose material, and their footfalls were hushed. Her movements became mindless as she stared before her into deep greyness and interminable turns of the tunnel. Soon she had lost all sense of where they went, and her hand instinctively sought the wall to her left. The world shrank to vague blankness in her thoughts.

The way forked, each road looking equally level and the branch to the left slightly smaller. The others drew up even with her as she stopped, dulled mind not registering the need for decision. She might have remained there for several minutes, still as the stone around her, until Singing Man said, with an apparent effort, “Which way?”

His hushed voice fell onto their ears strangely loudly, like a stone into calm water, startling them all. No echoes spread from it, yet off to the left they imagined they caught an answering noise like a whispered word. En Shevil took a hesitant step in that direction, then stopped. A heaviness had gripped her and a desire to be in a warm inn bed, not here in this cold darkness seeking something she did not remember.

“Careful,” Singing Man murmured, and she wagged her head rapidly to clear the cobwebs from her mind. Looking around at her companions, she found the same dullness in their eyes, and wondered obscurely, not really wanting to know, what it was.

“Left?” she said in a thick tone, and Elsa gave a slight shake of her head — of confusion, not disagreement. Toro stood silently, eyes nearly closed.

Singing Man pushed past her, almost roughly, and started into the left tunnel at a walk that was almost a stagger. Groping at the stone to either side, En Shevil followed like a beast, intent on staying with him. The darkness pressed around them as the other two stumbled after.

This path was straight; they could not go wrong. Grey walls sank into blackness as vision gradually departed, and the heaviness of the air calmed En Shevil’s actively apathetic desire to be elsewhere into a passive, stuporous indifference that was content to let her keep walking until she ran into something and stopped.

The boundaries disappeared, and they were walking through shallow water. It was shockingly cold, and a start went through her as she realized what that had done to partly awaken her. Something was wrong. But now Singing Man had stopped inexplicably before her, and as she halted Elsa ran into her, fumbled with her hands, and also ceased movement. Toro’s heavy, bestial breathing was the only sound for some time.

At last En Shevil roused herself a mite and looked around. All was in darkness. Why could she not see? She was falling rapidly into a daze once again, and almost struggled to regain what she had forgotten; did she want it? Elsa was by her. Toro was a few paces back. Singing Man was on her right as she turned. Eyes glowing in the blackness were before her.

She studied them carelessly. They were bright grey-silver with irises of blue almost indistinguishable from their massive black pupils. They were sharp and downward-turned, not like a human’s. Their was a familiarity in their tilt that made them pleasant, somehow. She did not know. And then the ring of steel came as a second cold awakening to her.

She grappled with listlessness and gained some ground. Pulling her own swords free, she repeated Elsa’s silent challenge of the thing. Presently came the short sswish of Singing Man’s dagger and, finally, the slow creak of leather as Toro took his great axe from its bands at his back.

The creature blinked slowly, but made no move. Whatever it was in those eyes that she recognized was stronger now, and some faint smell entered the air as a sound like spreading wings broke the silence. She shuddered at the scent, for some unrecollectable memory was connected with it. The animal gave a whining, hissing growl and took a splashing step towards them.

Dully they awaited it, weapons held slackly in their numb hands. As the eyes bobbed to the left and right, as if with the swinging of a great head, they seemed to take in acutely each of the companions in turn. They settled on En Shevil, narrowing, and in her they found the same familiarity she had found in them.

The creature struck her, sharp claws raking her chest and throwing her backwards. In the fractured moment wherein they touched, En Shevil could feel along with the pain a contact with the enemy: it hated her, in a way that a nation of men might have blood feud with another.

Malevolence. Blood. Pain. An open wound, and she held ready weapons. Her mind, blunted as it was, lay unprepared as torrents of replying rancor swept over it, bringing madness and a sudden hunger for death. Death. Her hands tightened, and she sprang to her feet, her unweakened Deathscar side taking total control in that one moment. Rage driving her, she hurled her body, all deadly kicks and sword-thrusts, at the monster, the creature that was her kin and had dared harm her. Its wings beat, its claws slashed, but it could not withstand her sudden fury. She found its neck and hewed it, driving her swords deep into its body with delight and wrath. She stabbed it until it was dead, and its blood coated her.

Then she turned to find other prey.

As the invisible foe struck at their companion, its mind-numbing influence fell from the others like a veil and the world was clear once again. They could not see, but could hear well the scufflings of battle before them. Elsa fumbled for the torch at her belt, stepping backwards cautiously as she did so. As she struck a light, all fell silent.

There was a dragon dead before them, decapitated and bleeding at a number of points across its body. Its blood mingled with the water at their feet, which seemed to spread the entire length of the good-sized cavern. Beside it stood En Shevil, drenched in blood, hunched by the beast’s severed neck. A light was in her eyes, and a darkness. She panted like some unwholesome creature, and her empty hands twitched. Her lips curled as she looked at them, and Elsa took another step backwards in dismay. En Shevil gave a distracted shake of her head, and sprang forward towards the bearer of the light.

“En Shevil!” cried Singing Man suddenly, in a tone so commanding and forceful that Elsa turned her head in amazement. En Shevil stopped, crouching like a beast in the water, and gazed at him with throbbing eyes. A grimacing expression of agonized confusion, of struggle, passed over her, and her clenching hands lifted and half-clawed at her face. Collapsing to her knees and bowing her head to the ground, she pulled herself into a trembling ball, shaking and gasping.

As that voice spoke her name, the haze lifted from the human side of her mind and she contested bitterly, momentarily, for the regain of her sanity. Deathscar could not overwhelm her so suddenly when she was at full mental strength, not when the killer had been pushed so far back over the last few months. And it had been that voice that brought her out, that gave her back her will and let her fight. But she could not face them.

Elsa, in no way bereft of human understanding, put out her torch. With an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and a deep breath, En Shevil sat up. Echoes of rage and madness were still singing through her mind, and she turned her thoughts at once to the distracting pain of her new, latest wound. Many more wounds and she would be totally unable to move. She struggled to her feet, and stiffened as she felt someone’s hand on her shoulder.

“Do you need help?” Singing Man asked in her ear.

She had the sudden impulse to fling herself into his arms, put her head on his chest, and cry. But that hadn’t done much for her the last time she’d tried it, and now she was covered in blood anyway. Some of it was hers. Yes, she did need help. “Bandages,” she gasped. What she really wanted, she realized, was for him to sing a song to comfort her. But this was hardly the time.

“Toro has,” said the minotaur. He of all of them, most likely, least understood what was going on, and that was to En Shevil’s liking. As she bandaged herself blindly, she fought an increasing sense of shame that threatened to consume her. She had shown him — shown them — her worst side, and now how could he — they — ever trust her again? This was intuitive, and her logic gave her the reasonable conclusion that he understood. Elsa had already told her as much, in not so many words. She cast about for her swords, and remembered she had left them in the beast’s smoldering body. Not looking too closely at its cooling carcass, she found her blades and wiped them clean, replacing them at last and readying herself to move onward. They still had a quest, and to it she now looked forward as a distraction from her feelings and a noble task to ease her conscience.

“This was obviously a trap — a guard,” Elsa had been saying, to cover the awkward silence. “We should have taken the right path. Now we must go back.”

This time Singing Man led the way, silently, followed by Elsa, En Shevil, and Toro. The maruroha’s last action before leaving the room was to splash water from the far side onto her arms and face, cleansing — she hoped — the dragon’s blood from her skin. On the creature she spared not another glance.

The right path led down, curving gently and seeming more worn than the left way had been. The moisture in the air increased, and the cold became greater, so much that they were shivering after not very long. En Shevil became more and more nervous, and realized eventually that her thief’s instincts, dulled before by the dragon’s strange effects, were giving her a warning. Finally with an effort of will she stopped them.

“If there was a trap down the wrong way, there should be a trap down the right way as well; probably one that can be bypassed. We should look out.”

Singing Man smiled, stepped aside, and gestured that she should take the lead. “Of such manners my awareness falls to naught,” he said, speaking again in his old manner.

En Shevil stepped forward, putting all her thoughts to watching for traps and forgetting what had just happened. Her throbbing chest helped, but also hindered as it brought back emotional images. The fact that she found no traps did not do her any good either. However, eventually she reached it, and it was not difficult to spot.

The alcove in the ceiling held a massive slab of stone that would be dropped instantly onto the path if the triggers on the walls or floor were so much as brushed. These were easily avoided, but to what use they could not see: the tunnel’s ending was closed by a low door of rock, smooth, that quite obviously contained another trigger for this trap — or perhaps a different one. The trap could not be set off from afar and then bypassed because the door would be blocked by the stone, which would also make quite an impressive noise in its falling.

En Shevil described the layout to her less darksighted companions. “Let us hope that the door does not need magic to open,” Elsa said. They all stood uneasily for a moment just outside the trapped area.

En Shevil shook herself, pulling her long-retained lockpick from her pocket. Oddly, it was the same lockpick she had won from her parents so long ago, and almost the only thing she still carried from Shapier. “You all stand back here,” she said, and went forward with extreme care to the door.

The weight she seemed to feel hanging above her head was not just that of the rock. The trap on the door was intricate, involving quick-moving stone chips that had to be lined up by even quicker fingers. She began to sweat as she maneuvered her way through the long and complicated process of disarming before she was even able to pick the lock beyond the trap.

Something snapped, and she froze as a wave of hot fear washed through her and she waited motionlessly for the stone to fall. But all the sound signified was the realignment of the trap components to form a small keyhole. From there it was relative child’s play to pick the lock, and finally the door swung ajar.

Further examination showed that to open the door all the way was to set off the suspended trap, and so they must pass through one at a time with profound delicacy. En Shevil took it upon herself to guide them all, one by one, into the opening, trembling in fear each time one of them came too close to the wall. But finally they were all through, and leaving the door half open behind them they faced the next room.

The moisture which had for so long chilled them came from the lake, widening out from blackness to grey reflection across the high-ceiled cavern in which they now stood. Its depth could not be guessed, but its span could be placed at more than a hundred feet across. Its opposite bank met the cavern’s far wall, and a huge tunnel opened onto it and shed light over the dark stone, spilling forward onto the water. The bank on which they stood was fairly smooth, composed of stone and some loose almost-dirt, sloping very gently into the mere. A narrow, crumbling path, perhaps a foot above the pristine surface, led along the wall to their right. It looked treacherous, slimy and very small, but it was the only way across.

Hugging the wall carefully, none of them wishing to risk the depth of the black water or the noise of swimming (those that knew how), they made their slow way over the lake to the other shore. They gathered at the far side by the mouth of the new tunnel, looking at each other for a plan.

“So now we have a frontal assault from the back?” En Shevil said softly, voice trembling. Her entire body was still subject to flutters from the fading nervousness of the trap. “I hope this helps us.” She examined the tunnel from where she stood; it looked recently-dug.

“I will go forward and look,” said Elsa.

“No, let me,” En Shevil replied at once.

“You braved the trapped door,” Elsa told her firmly. “Now it is my turn.” As well as En Shevil could have done it, she crept forward into the tunnel and disappeared. She returned a while later, as softly as she had gone. “There is another cavern beyond,” she said, “but this one has been hewn by men. It is filled with great stores of food, barrels and chests and so on. There are many openings to other chambers. I could not tell which might lead out of the vault. There are also many men there: some seem to be guarding, but most are relaxing, it would seem.”

“We fight?” Toro asked, his voice gravelly with quietness.

“We need a better-constructed plan,” Elsa said, “and I may have such a plan. There is a sort of catwalk, a natural thing, along the room’s wall near the ceiling. If we could climb up to this without being seen, we would be invisible to the men, and would be able to survey them as long as we needed without their notice.”

En Shevil nodded. “How close is it to the opening of this tunnel?”

“It is not very accessible from there, I am afraid. We will have to sneak some way into the room before we will be able to climb to it. But the room is only lit by torches on the walls –” she gestured to the tunnel, where two similar torches provided the light they had seen from the other side of the lake — “and we should be able to hide behind the crates and barrels far enough.”

“Toro not thief,” the minotaur said worriedly. “Cannot sneak so good.” Singing Man nodded his head in rueful agreement.

“Maybe you and I should go up there just to make a plan on how to attack them best,” En Shevil said to Elsa.

Elsa was still for a moment, then nodded. “We will see the points at which they most need to be taken by surprise. Then we will attack from above, and you two can enter when you hear the sounds.”

“Is this even going to work?” En Shevil asked, doubting once more. She was about to continue by saying that none of them were particularly superior warriors with the power to take on an entire roomful of men, but stopped, remembering a cave full of trolls and, earlier, bands of mercenaries sent to kill Deathscar. Think of the children, she told herself, and stop being silly. You’re not going to think about Deathscar any more, remember? “I guess we have to try,” she finished belatedly.

Elsa nodded shortly, and headed for the tunnel. Silently En Shevil followed.

The room was as Elsa had described it, and they had little trouble darting from barrel to box to massive chest without the notice of the men. These the maruroha studied as they went. They were mostly of Spielburg line, tall and blonde or brunette with middling amounts of facial hair and blue or brown eyes. Many were clad in simple, clean clothing of various middle class varieties, but some were armored. All bore weapons, and even those relaxing on benches by the long tables in the middle of the room seemed wary and ready for a battle. This was not going to be easy, for En Shevil would like to kill as few of them as possible.

They made their way to a spot where a long crevice in the wall sloped backward out of the reach of torchlight, slimy with dripping water but probably the only place they could climb undetected. With a wary backward glance at their enemies they quickly clambered up the treacherous rocks one at a time, both nearly falling at several points, arriving slimy and wet at the top. There they flung themselves down and surveyed the scene.

From above, the view was startlingly comprehensive. Their obvious target for surprise was the clustered group of armored men standing near another passage across the room from the women’s entrance point. With this bunch gone, the others would be fairly simple to take out. But En Shevil had the itching suspicion that nothing good would come of this raid until they had removed Telmiquor himself.

She looked to Elsa, who nodded with shared thoughts, and they began making their silent, vigilant way along the catwalk towards the other end of the room. Once there, they crouched, ready to jump. En Shevil found one man minus a breastplate who was destined to break her fall, and probably his back. After a fingered countdown, they leaped.

The ambush effect was completely lost when Elsa, her long upward-flying braid catching on a sharp rock outcropping, cried out as her head was jerked up and her entire weight was borne up by her neck. Only by some strange miracle of physical impulse was she saved from having her neck snapped. The men looked up at her shout, and En Shevil’s fallbreaker moved out of the way. The maruroha rolled painfully to her feet as Elsa slashed clumsily with her sword at her restraint. A foot and a half of braid was shorn away and left hanging from the catwalk’s edge as the warrior fell to join her companion on the floor and commence the attack. All thoughts of surprise now ruined, the two of them began to fight back-to-back, calling for their friends to join them.

En Shevil let instinct move her, the battle impulses of her blood moving her body for her, mind elsewhere. Chaos ebbed and flowed around her, and she dodged and wove between its torrents to the point of exhaustion. Still thinking of something else, she opened her sanoko and reawakened her tired frame. She kicked and drove and ducked and leaped and almost danced, until she found herself in a little square with her friends, standing in the middle of the room with the few remaining, wary men skirting the walls and watching them with hatred in their eyes. They did not dare attack again.

“We’d better split up,” said En Shevil, panting, watching the retreating men alertly. “We need to find the prisoners and make sure they’re safe.”

Of all the things they did not expect at that moment, an explosion was fairly high on the list. As it tore through the wall to their right they were all flung aside, friend and foe alike, and new blood was in her eyes. Rocks fell from the ceiling, pounding into the ground with cracking noises all around her. Rubble spattered against them like glass, and men cried out. The tunnel from which the fireball had issued was blasted to new dimensions, a gaping hole into a newly-visible chamber from which now came a host of monsters.

“Slay me these intruders!” cried a man’s voice, and the beasts jumped forward: saurii of both common and rex varieties, a number of blue-black, almost liontaurish animals, and two small dragons.

At the sound of the voice En Shevil was filled with momentary inner confusion, for the command was so powerful as to make her almost believe she had to obey it. What kind of magic did he possess to control people in this way? For most of those creatures — the dragons at the very least — were sentient beings of intelligence. Probably not the saurii, she reflected, but still they deserved their free will.

She screamed as the giant blade of an axe came down inches from her hand as she propped herself up on the ground. Looking around in startled bewilderment, she saw that Toro had raised his weapon high for another stroke. She rolled out of the way and jumped to her feet. “Toro!” she cried, but he swung at her again. “Elsa, he’s under that guy’s spell!”

“Toro!” Elsa shouted in a high-pitched, almost frightened voice. Toro continued to assail En Shevil, who now had to worry about other attackers behind her. The men, newly confident now that their master had released his creatures, were rallying once again. The creatures themselves were enough of a problem without having to deal with an entranced member of their own party.

In a blur of motion she fought, chaos taking her thoughts and few coherent ideas entering her mind. Dodge Toro’s practiced swings, fight her way through masses of enemies towards the right side of the cavern. She had to find Telmiquor. This was her one clear objective. Every now and then she called out Toro’s name in the hopes of bringing him out of his hypnosis or whatever it was.

A dragon was before her, and even in her fighting mode she saw the same strange familiarity in its eyes as she had in those of the dragon she’d killed earlier. It reached out with a claw and batted at her, but hesitantly as if fighting some inner struggle. She darted forward and touched it, remembering how she’d been able to understand the other dragon’s thoughts with physical contact.

The dragon did not want to hurt her, but he felt compelled to obey the commands he had been given. En Shevil was suddenly angry at the mistreatment of this noble creature, and wished even more that she could find the wrongdoer and make him pay. With all her heart and soul she willed the dragon free of his enslavement, that he could fight at her side.

Magic moved through her blood, responding to her will somehow, and there was a flash of light where the palm of her hand lay on the dragon’s neck. He gave a great bellow and cried out in the dragon tongue. “Now for vengeance!” Whipping around, he took a huge bound, ten feet forward towards the blasted tunnel. En Shevil, still reeling and terrified from what she had just inadvertently done, could make out the shape of a man standing in the open way, arms crossed at his chest, watching the fray. He opened his mouth in surprise and anger as the dragon approached him, and cried,

“Traitor! My men, to me!”

A small explosion trembled the floor, and the dragon was flung to his side with a gaping wound. The invaders flew towards Telmiquor at his bidding, swarming over the dragon with furious attack. En Shevil could watch no more, for Toro was about to cleave Singing Man in two as the latter struggled with one of the huge catlike creatures. En Shevil seized Toro’s arm, knowing that if she could not repeat the wonder she had just accomplished, she was lost. She grasped her courage center, as Tsukishiro had taught her, and concentrated on whatever magic lay within her. Not knowing quite how she did it, she willed Toro back into his own mind.

The minotaur’s tensed arms slackened, and he dropped his axe and bellowed. Singing Man, startled, looked behind him in time to receive a slice across his shoulder from the claws of his opponent. En Shevil cast a dagger at the cat thing and felled it. “Toro free!” said Toro from behind her. “Thanks!”

En Shevil, still shocked beyond believing at her own powers, realized that they would have a definite advantage if she were to free all the enslaved creatures. She darted between Elsa and a saurus rex and quickly flashed it out of submission. It did not seem to have much effect, for the monster turned immediately on her. At least Telmiquor could no longer command it.

A black cat thing fell on her, and she grasped its wrists as its claws dug into her arms. A moment later it screeched, teeth gnashing, and let go of her. “Thank you, my friend,” it hissed in a feminine voice. “Now I shall be paying someone back.”

Soon En Shevil encountered the second dragon, and it too was freed. Its words to her were, “So, child of the south seas, our breeds shall fight side by side for once.” She did not understand, but nodded anyway.

The other dragon was dead, she saw as Telmiquor’s men retreated from its broken body. The man himself was still standing calmly in the doorway, having ordered his men to fight the now-freed creatures bent on Telmiquor’s destruction. En Shevil had to get to him. He had to pay for doing this to dragons. As she fought her way towards him, she liberated more of the enemy, bringing them over to her side. Soon she was close enough for a challenge.

“Telmiquor!” she cried, and he regarded her with a look of scorn. She wasn’t sure what to say next, knowing from experience that she was not very intimidating, so she simply pressed forward. Once she stood beside the body of the dead dragon, about ten feet away from him, she brandished her swords. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done to those people, and these creatures.”

He laughed, and pointed both fists at her feet. She jumped out of the way just in time to avoid the ground’s exploding underneath her. But she rolled towards him and came up too close for him to try the same trick again. Darting behind him she prevented his retreat down the passage. Then she stepped forward, swords out, driving him towards the battle.

But at the end of the blasted tunnel he turned sharply and ran along the wall of the greater chamber, heading for the lake room. He’s trying to escape! she thought, following faster.

“To me!” cried Telmiquor hoarsely, obviously afraid. Was it the blood all over her clothing? Perhaps it was the battle-light in her eyes, or her new-found magical powers that frightened even herself. Or maybe he was just a coward who could do no more than hide behind his men and animals. She thrust at him with Oyin, dodging a blow from something to her left that she could not see. Telmiquor sent a badly-aimed shot behind him, and a point on the ceiling exploded. Huge boulders showered down across the entire far side of the room, and several torches went out. The battle was significantly quieter then, and En Shevil hoped fervently that none of her companions had been caught under the rain of stone. She killed a man who attacked her in a defense of his master that she found bizarrely fanatical. Telmiquor was far ahead, and she put on greater speed. He sent another explosion to rock the room beneath their feet, dropping nearly everyone to their knees or worse. En Shevil knew she would have bruises later, on top of the other injuries she’d taken this evening.

But scrambling to her feet she pressed onwards, swords scraping the floor as she stood and arms flailing as she strove to keep her balance while running before she was fully upright. Telmiquor turned in the archway, his shape framed against the darkness of the next room, and saw her plunge towards him through the tunnel. Raising his hands he fired several wild shots, standing still and trying to aim but still missing wildly. There were flashes, rumblings and crunchings, loud cries. She had reached him, still not quite coordinated on the heaving cavern floor, when the world came crashing down around her.

When En Shevil awoke from her thirty-second blackout she found herself literally in pure darkness. Harmless rubble covered her from head to toe, and as she climbed cautiously to her feet she coughed as flurries of dust filled her nose and mouth. Her throbbing head and shifting eyes would not let her concentrate enough to see; she had to have light. Searching her pockets she found her tinderbox, somewhat battered, and a small candle-like torch she’d picked up somewhere. It did not provide much light, but gave her a fairly good idea of her situation.

Half in the lake, the color of its dark waters guessable but not apparent, lay Telmiquor, quite dead with Oyin through his chest. She stepped forward gingerly and retrieved her weapon, swishing it through the water a few times to clean it. She did not replace it in the scabbard immediately, but set it aside to dry. Sayeto lay where she had fallen, probably having been turned away by that delightful little magic she’d unconsciously worked on it so long ago. She glanced back at Telmiquor again with satisfaction. They had won the battle, then, but what was to become of her? She turned.

The passageway was completely blocked; of this there was no doubt. A draft was coming at her from somewhere among the massive heap of stones that plugged her escape from this hole; the cool air, after the heat of battle, made her skin prickle. If air could get in, perhaps sound could get out. “Elsa?” she called, hoarsely for her volume and not as loudly as she wished. “Toro?”

The rumble of distant rockslide sent tremors through the floor, and she tensed with worry. “Can anyone hear me?” Her shouts sent a flurry of little echoes reeling through the darkness, eerily twisting her voice and throwing her words back to her as a taunt. She sat down.

If Telmiquor was dead, the fight was over. Effectively. But from what she had gathered so far, his men were loyal to an extreme and the battle could well go on for some time. Of course, she had no idea how many might have died in this latest explosion. She was lucky she was still alive.

“What is it?” said a voice from nearby.

En Shevil jumped, heart thumping, to her feet, Sayet at the ready. She nearly dropped her little light.

“It can’t be…” said the voice, which she now recognized as Singing Man’s. Taking relieved steps forward, she held out her candle — and recoiled in horror as she caught sight of him. Half-buried under more rocks than she could ever lift, his broken body was spreading a pool of blood that threatened to trickle down into the lake and join Telmiquor’s. But Singing Man’s eyes were open, his face expressionless. As he turned his head from side to side absently and rambled, delirious with pain, she watched his blank, unseeing eyes with horror. “Tell me? Don’t…” He gave a sudden cry, a gut-wrenching half-scream of pain. “En Shevil?” he gasped, and she fell to her knees at his side.

“I’m here,” she said. He struck out with a hand, blindly hitting her in the face, and she took it in hers. Immediately he applied a painful amount of pressure, his visage contorted with agony, and gasped.

Then the wrinkles smoothed and his look was distant again. “Stefan… I don’t… No!” En Shevil, brows lowered, shook her head in sorrow and growing pain: his nails were digging into her hand. “Cursed… father… …sin?”

What did all this mean? “Singing Man,” she said. “Please don’t do this…”

He snapped out again suddenly with a scream. “In the name of all the gods…” he began, his voice so bestial with suffering that she nearly tried to shake his grip on her hand. But he calmed momentarily, and repeated her name. His calm led to another lapse of clarity. “Must atone… will protect my sister.” He shut his eyes tightly, tears squeezing from them in torrents. “Devote my life…” His voice sank to a whisper. “…she must never know.”

His eyes sprang open, full of pain and awareness once more. For a third time he spoke her name, so softly she had to bend over to hear him. “En Shevil,” he said again, and a fifth time, “En Shevil.” The last syllable was inaudible.

With his last strength his raised his head, his lips meeting hers for one ephemeral moment. Then his eyes went dull, his hand limp; the air was very still, very cold.

It was years before she moved again, as if after having been turned to stone. With solemnity she laid his arm at his side, and very slowly got to her feet. With a jerky sluggishness she turned and took a halting step away from him, her motions belying her inward heart. Torrents of grief, meaningless sorrow in waves, strange abstract misery of a kind she’d never felt before–washing through her like a sudden tide. This was an ocean she did not fear, but drowned in none the less. She suddenly stumbled, falling over something in the darkness and landing in a crumpled ball in the hard floor. She did not get up.

After long moments she drew herself upright again, cold and forlorn, and felt for what she’d fallen over: Singing Man’s pack. Searching for her dropped light she rekindled it and sat there, hugging the bundle to her as tears fell from her eyes in streaks through the blood, dirt, and sweat that grimed her face.

Mechanically she opened the bag, absently reaching into it for no reason her mind could dredge up. To her surprise, she found it mostly full of papers, neatly folded or rolled to create the most possible space. One of these parchments she opened, and at first only stared at it, her mind not registering the symbols before her as letters and words she knew. Finally her brain became unclouded and she read:

Oh, beauty love, I see the stars upon your eyes a-streaming,

And they like emeralds set in gold do blind me with their gleaming.

And so I turn my eyes away, and look not on their light,

For mine, unworthy of your gaze, are only fit for night.

Elsa’s eyes are blue, she thought, though the relevance of that statement she could not tell, for the phrase, ‘only fit for night’ was continually echoing through her head. Shuffling to another paper she frowned as she read:

When dark the morn, from misted cove the jealous foam-tide sliding,

To grasping world to bare the face of emerald pools abiding,

The passage of the salted birds to open sea-bed hiding,

Went, glimm’ring, on the light of starvéd winter sunrise riding.

Asleep within the brilliant shimm’ring light of morning falling,

The music of the heavens far upon her ears recalling,

Removed from whims of tempest-riven songs of ocean squalling,

A maid, a syren, lay in airy, earthly glare appalling.

Awake to find no ocean waves into the tide-pool spilling,

Trapped within the bed of lazy stars and urchins milling,

Malignant wind her salty, sea-soaked tail of azure chilling,

With terror of a brittle, sun-carved death her heart was filling.

Trembling from the lack of that his mortal frame demanded,

His nature sea, his stumbling feet on sunny dull-beach landed,

The vessel of his love and life by treachery disbanded,

A youth for his own self-made fate, survival, was short-handed.

Twixt sea and sand, by no familiar constancy surrounded,

His tortured ears by unheard songs of hunger ever hounded,

Haunted by the vengeful roar of waves that in them sounded,

Across the rock-strewn waste of dueling worlds his pleas resounded.

She did not quite understand it, but shuddered at the vivid oceanic images, so like her fear and her sudden new sorrow. She grieved, though, that he would never finish it. She pulled free another, this one nearly empty:

My fields may not as yet be wide or proud,

My harvest small, though healthy, strong, and fair,

But any lands I have-these I have plowed,

Each furrow deep and cut with greatest care.

She shook her head, turning to look at his cold face not far from her. What did it all mean? She could not tell. Tears were beginning again to brim in her barely-dry eyes–tears of sorrow deeper than those she shed for his death. This man had been great. Could have been great. The strange sadness of his first poem contrasted with the thoughtfulness of this one… I can’t take any more of this. She rose quickly, but her hands still grasped his pack. As papers spilled out, she scrambled to catch them before losing them to the draft and the lake. In doing so she could not keep herself from reading the next poem to cross her eyes:

With solemn haste the agitated painter’s hand

The untouched canvass sweeps with laden brush,

Though eager to be done and farther back to stand,

Aware that nothing good comes out of rush.

The colors swirling from his tools in sweeps of light,

Imagination’s full strength in his grasp,

Meshing as the hoped-for picture comes aright,

Prayed for with his paint-stained hands a-clasp.

In frenzied meditation now the notes are laid,

When in a moment’s triumph they are wrought

And through the blithe composer’s mind are quickly played,

Upon the staff, to writing now from thought.

The music, independent, swiftly glides along

In smoothness to his great felicity.

The oft-imagined sound of his inspired song

At last has from his thoughtful mind come free.

To play but for a moment angels at their toil
Is ever in the thoughts of man on Earth,
Unashamed the treasures of the heart to spoil,
And to astounding works of art give birth.

“Angels at their toil?” she repeated. It seemed to fit him somehow, though again she did not really comprehend the poem’s meaning. She pressed the paper to her heart, tear-filled eyes turned downward. He was so… What was the word she wanted? It did not matter. He was gone.

Eventually, possibly after a hazy, dreamless doze, her common sense returned to her and she remembered the path around the lake to the back entrance. As she was bundling his papers back into his pack, she happened to catch sight of one that was not like the rest. Unrolling it she read what appeared to be a signature:

“Erik Heimst, bastard of baronet Stefan von Spielburg, protector of royalty, poet extraordinaire — Hero of the eastern lands.”

Crumpling the paper in her hand, she nodded as all the pieces fell into place in a mystery she’d never really known existed and didn’t want to think about. “She must never know,” she said, quoting him and understanding the words now. Protector of royalty. She raised her candle-torch and touched it to the paper’s edge, then set the signature down on the floor and watched it burn. The draft blew it suddenly out onto the lake, where the flames died sullenly down and the ash dispersed across the rippling black mirror. With one last forlorn look at him, certainly a hero in her eyes, she left the cavern.

***

The battle, after Telmiquor’s violent exit, had become early a slaughter. Those men who did not retreat and had not been killed in the various collapses of roof and wall were confused, frightened at the loss of their master and the sudden free will of all their former allies. They were easily defeated.

At last the prisoners were reached, after the seemingly endless few hours of carnage spent to find them. A cheetaur led Elsa and Toro to the barred-off room where a surprisingly calm group of dirty children and one grown man were held. Toro smashed the lock with the butt of his axe, and their quest was completed. As Elsa absently took into her arms a miserable youngster that threw itself at her, she was worrying about En Shevil. She’d come to like the Shapierian woman a great deal, and feared En Shevil might now be dead. She knew the other could take care of herself, but did not think even a warrior of the maruroharyu could survive an avalanche.

“Toro like kids,” Toro said, and Elsa looked down at the wide-eyed rescuees that were beginning to forget their fear in delight at the minotaur: he could lift them with a hand as if they were weightless. One shrieked as Toro effortlessly placed it on his high shoulder. Elsa’s own shoulder was serving at that moment for a nose-wipe, after which the little girl, her tiny hand clenching tightly a lock of Elsa’s newly shorn hair, buried her face in the warrior’s neck with a whimper.

Elsa pursed her lips. “We must bring these children home. If En Shevil is still alive, she will take the passage and meet us in the town.”

“I will show you the way out,” the strange man said. He also had a child in his arms, and others were crowding nervously around his legs. “My name is Jaladior.” He set his burden down and took it by the hand, and led them from the room.

As they went, Elsa firmly took her mind off En Shevil and asked Jaladior if Telmiquor had kept any treasure, other than that of the town, in the vault.

“He’s been gathering money from across Spielburg for a year at least,” Jaladior replied. “This town isn’t his only project. Since his goal was ultimately to rule Spielburg in your father’s place — yes, I recognize you,” he added with a smile — “he sent men and creatures to play this same game in towns all over this southern area. Some were more successful than others.”

“My brother should be warned of this immediately,” Elsa said, brows lowered. Then she looked at Jaladior. “Who are you?”

“I’ve been his prisoner since he came over from Faledioa.”

“Faledioa is across the eastern no-man’s-land,” Elsa said in confusion. “It is days’ travel from Spielburg’s eastern border. Why would a Faldeioan want to rule my father’s kingdom?”

“He always was a greedy child,” Jaladior sighed ruefully. “Ever since his brother was killed trying to pull this same ‘vault’ trick in Fehlover, Telmiquor turned sincerely beastly. More than he was before, of course.”

“But what was his interest in you?”

“I’m an armaments development specialist, trained in Alsioacor.” He looked at her expectantly, but she admitted to never having heard of the profession or the location. “I suppose not. Perhaps you know the name Bindwei?”

Elsa nodded, but their conversation was cut short as a group of men ambushed them. Elsa, putting the girl-child forcefully down and shoving her back, stalled her first attacker with a high kick En Shevil had taught her. As she drew her sword, she heard Jaladior’s urgent shout: “Not in front of the children! Come on, kids!” Elsa changed her tactic and attempted to drive the men into the small room where they’d been hiding. With wide sweeps of her sword she sent them dancing backwards, and Toro’s axe was even speedier.

Once secluded and away from easily-disturbed young eyes, the two rescuers dispatched the new threat with ease. Elsa strangely found herself trying to avoid any more blood on her clothes. She’d never before even considered the effects of bloodshed on innocent minds, and thought back to when she’d been an eight-year-old child in a campful of brigands. She didn’t remember ever having cared, but perhaps that had been one of the side effects of Baba Yaga’s spell. Lack of squeamishness had certainly been a part of it later.

Reunited with the children, who were looking uneasily at the doorway from which the men had come, Elsa tried to remember what she and Jaladior had been talking about. Conversation had never been one of her strong points. But there was no need, for they reached the bottleneck exit of the vault. She and Toro went out first, back to back, to ensure there would be no further ambush. When they were certain, they brought the children out and set off with all haste for the town.

The exuberant, ecstatic and overwhelming response from the townsfolk was rewarding enough, but in that afternoon they were offered the entire town treasury, rulership of Stuartsgeiden, endless free food and lodging at the inn, a festival named in their honor, and any number of other minor treasures from individual parents. But Elsa said, “We do not even know the fate of Telmiquor yet,” and declined all recompense for the more beneficial prize of several hours’ sleep at the inn–in a room for which she’d already paid. But her dreams were contented.

When she awoke, much refreshed, after at least eight hours of untroubled sleep, she found En Shevil sitting silently by a massive fire, perfectly still. Silhouetted against the roaring blaze on the hearth, the wounds and grime that covered her were not visible — only her attitude of deep weariness and sorrow. With a cry Elsa sprang up and ran to the other woman’s side, but the maruroha did not move. “I am glad you are alive,” she said, placing a hand on En Shevil’s chair.

“Yes,” En Shevil said dully. “I’m alive.”

A new thought struck Elsa, who realized at that moment she had not given a thought to their fourth companion. With a concern and sudden fear she’d never thought to feel, she opened her mouth to speak. But she could not find the words, and they went on in silence. Finally she tried again. “Is he…?”

En Shevil nodded. “Singing Man is dead.” She continued to stare into the fire, and Elsa bowed her head. It seemed like hours before either one spoke further.

“And Telmiquor?”

En Shevil nodded again, wordless.

They slept for several more hours, as it was now the middle of the night, and arose quite prepared to face a grateful populace the next morning. En Shevil seemed out of sorts, but somewhat recovered, and advised them to stay in the inn’s parlor and rest. “If we wait here until about noon, the mayor will show up. We can tell him what he needs to know, and be gone.” They had all agreed, unanimously, to depart as quickly as possible, when their duty was discharged, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a banquet or such nonsense. It turned out they’d all had awkward experiences with banquets.

“How do you know he will come?” Elsa said.

En Shevil shrugged and said nothing, as if she did not care.

They were first joined by Jaladior, who sighed as he sat down at their table. “Well, how am I to thank you for rescuing me?” he asked.

“I will have none of that,” Elsa commanded. “We are sure to receive far too much praise from this little town as it is.”

As if to punctuate her remark, there was a knock at the door, and the friendly innkeeper popped his head through. “A family wishes to visit you and thank you for rescuing their daughter,” he said. “Do you wanna see them?”

Elsa and En Shevil exchanged a look, at which the latter sighed and stared down at the table. “We will see them,” Elsa said.

The meeting with the Nähehälte family was brief and tear-filled, involving much wringing of hands and squeezing of daughter. So were the ensuing meetings with the Eientriff, Pilzefallendorf, and Schau families, although two of these had sons to squeeze instead of daughters.

It was about noon when the mayor showed up.

The innkeeper, by now probably sick to death of announcing their visitors, put his smiling head into the room once again. “The burgomaster is here,” he said a little wearily.

“We will see him,” said Elsa, nodding. She had a little smile on her face at how true En Shevil’s words had been.

The innkeeper’s smile widened. “She’s not a he,” he said. “I’ll show ‘er in.”

The burgomaster was a tall, curvaceous woman with large red lips, long flowing hair, and deep blue eyes. Surprisingly she was alone. She greeted them with a smile so warm it dispelled all their immediate thoughts (that she must have been elected for her looks) “I am burgomaster Dierch,” she said, “but you must indeed call me Scharne.” She took Elsa’s hand, since the latter was the only one standing. “You, of course, are Elsa von Spielburg, but I don’t know your companions.”

Elsa returned the woman’s smile and looked at En Shevil. “This is En Shevil,” she said, “a maruroharyu warrior from Shapier.”

En Shevil unsmilingly stood to shake the mayor’s hand, then returned to her seat.

“And this,” Elsa continued, “is Toro, my bodyguard and faithful companion.”

“My, my,” said Scharne brightly, not hesitating to shake his large hand, “but you are big. I’m pleased to meet you as well.” She turned to Jaladior.

“And I,” he said with a wave of his hand, “am merely a former prisoner of Telmiquor.”

“Congratulations on your escape, then,” said the burgomaster heartily, shaking his hand like the rest of them. Then she turned back to the other three. “And you are the heroes of our town. You’ve saved our children, given us back our vault — they’re up there right now getting our things out; then they’re going to close it up for good — and destroyed our enemy. How can we thank you?”

Elsa could not help continuing to smile, this woman was so open and friendly. “You may thank us by allowing us to depart in peace,” she said. “We were glad to have helped, but we do not wish excessive thanks.”

Scharne opened her mouth to protest, but En Shevil cut her off. “There is one thing you can do for us. There were four of us when we came to this town. You can reward us by burying our friend.”

A silence fell in the room at this somewhat blunt statement, and finally the burgomaster spoke in a hushed tone. “I’ll see to it. Who was it?”

“A man named Erik,” En Shevil said. Elsa looked up at her sharply, surprised that En Shevil knew his real name. “He killed Telmiquor.”

They agreed to stay for his honor-memorial service, to be held tomorrow; they would depart the next day, and Jaladior would go with them.

The whole town had gathered for the service, which was to be conducted by the burgomaster herself. With bowed heads they stood around the grave, where Scharne had promised they would erect a monument to him. When asked if they had anything suitable to put on it, En Shevil had wordlessly made a copy of one of Singing Man’s poems, and written under it his name with the epithet, “Poet extraordinaire, Hero.” The song did not really fit the situation, but somehow it seemed to fit her own personal relationship with him, and its haunting, mysterious tone made her think of him. Now as Scharne spoke, hushed and calm, the words were running through her head.

Under the dog star sail

Over the reefs of moonshine

Under the skies of fall

North, north west, the stones of Faroe

Under the Arctic fire

Over the seas of silence

Hauling on frozen ropes

For all my days remaining

But would north be true?

All colors bleed to red

Asleep on the ocean’s bed

Drifting in empty seas

For all my days remaining

But would north be true?

Why should I?

Why should I cry for you?

Dark angels follow me

Over a godless sea

Mountains of endless falling,

For all my days remaining,

What would be true?

Sometimes I see your face,

The stars seem to lose their place

Why must I think of you?

Why must I?

Why should I?

Why should I cry for you?

Why would you want me to?

And what would it mean to say,

That, “I loved you in my fashion?”

What would be true?

Why should I?

Why should I cry for you?

“And we will never forget him, nor what he has done for us and for our children.” These were the burgomaster’s last words, and the assembly stood silent for long moments. En Shevil realized she was crying, and Antwerp was forlornly bouncing into her hand, trying to get her attention. She turned away, and Elsa looked at her. “I’ll be back,” she murmured, heading away from the memorial and moving east. She needed to be alone for a while.

She walked for some time, eventually climbing a rocky ridge to stand on a little ledge far from the ground below. She stared out over the forest, thinking wearily over the last day and a half. Somehow she had to come to grips with what had happened: she had gone back, if only for a few moments, to Deathscar. Singing Man had died. Erik had died. Had he died thinking her an inhumane killer? Was she an inhumane killer? She tore her mind from that path, trying not to fall into her loop of Deathscar thoughts. She nodded slowly, though, a resolution forming: she would no longer conceal her identity. She would allow those whom she had hurt to find her, to claim some sort of recompense from her, any sort besides her life. She would push Deathscar so deep within herself that the killer would never emerge again. It was frightening, though — the thought of dropping her disguises and allowing the world to know who and what she was. It was frightening and strange.

Too strange. It was strange in a way that even its strangeness was frightening. There was no way she could possibly get across to herself or anyone else the volume of the strangeness she felt, not even if she mentioned the fireflies.

Fireflies… Where did that come from? Where had she heard that before? She slapped a hand to her mouth abruptly, a violent shudder paralyzing her body. “Sweet sandy mother of Iblis,” she swore between her fingers.

She was going insane. Again.

A tingle ran up and down her spine, and lowering her dark eyebrows she turned. The demoness stood straight from a crouching position — she’d been climbing the rocks — and held out her empty hands. En Shevil pulled her swords free and took a defensive stance.

The demoness sat down on the crag and hung her feet off the edge, swinging her legs. “I don’t suppose you want to give me my sword back,” she said.

En Shevil stared at her suspiciously, slightly surprised. “How do you know I have it?”

“I don’t,” said the other sarcastically. “I’m just making shots in the dark.” She turned and looked at the human. “Who in Hades else would have it?”

“Well, I don’t,” said En Shevil. “I have a silver dagger, though, with the same design on it.” She had been hoping to interest the other woman, and she succeeded.

“You have the dagger of Cvonyet? Let me see it!” She jumped up and faced En Shevil, tail flicking back and forth.

The human backed warily away. “Why do you care?”

The demoness’ face softened slightly. “It was forged by my ancestor, as was my sword.”

“Chollichihua is your ancestor?” laughed En Shevil, congratulating herself on almost saying the name correctly that time.

“Chollichihaua,” said the demoness coldly. “Yes. After she finished forging the weapons for the five nations, she returned to Tejato to…”

“I know that part,” En Shevil interrupted brusquely, wondering why she stood there listening rather than killing the woman again. “She came back to be queen and was killed by your people.”

The demoness raised her eyebrows. “Killed? Is that what you humans think? Typical. Not killed; kidnapped.” En Shevil, still holding her swords, half-folded her arms, face unchanged. “Oxinlingkaeuou, a second in the attacking force, took her as a prize as well as the sword of Unus whom he slew in taking Chollichihaua. But he became enamoured of her and sought for years after a way to return her to her own world. It was this selfless effort that made her begin to care for him. I am of their descendants.”

“And what is your name?”

“Askgaella Chekghaera.”

“And what do you want from me?”

Askgaella smiled. “I only want to possess you, and be free of Hell forever.”

“Forever until I die,” growled En Shevil.

“I can’t…” The demoness turned her head, and then her whole body, away from En Shevil and walked several paces. But the maruroha had caught that look in her face, the tone in her voice. Under the other woman’s sarcasm and self-assurance there was fear, and anguish. She seemed trapped somehow, by something even En Shevil the ultimate prisoner could not understand. She felt a strange stirring of pity inside her, and realized suddenly that without this woman’s intervention she would have been successful in killing herself. Now in her clearer state of mind she realized that that at least deserved some thanks.

“You know me only as Deathscar?” she asked the demoness in a softer tone than she’d used before.

“Deathscar is all that matters to me.”

“Is that true?”

“No, I just said it to mess you up.”

En Shevil had never met someone so sarcastic before. “My name is actually En Shevil.”

“And I care because…?”

“Maybe you don’t have to possess me to be free of Hell.”

“And you’re such an expert on the demon military that you would know, of course.”

“It’s impossible talking to you!” cried the human, brandishing her swords once again. “Why don’t you just leave before I kill you?”

“Fine, but you just look out: you can’t watch for me all the time; I’ll have you and you’ll never get free again. Just like me.” She turned and made as if to walk away, waiting only until En Shevil lowered her guard to fling herself backwards into the unsuspecting human’s chest and throw her to the ground. “I won’t be trapped in Hell,” she growled as they wrestled, Askgaella trying furiously to break the swords from En Shevil’s grasp and En Shevil attempting to wriggle her way out of the demoness’ hold before they both rolled off the rocky cliff.

Scratching and kicking, the two women grappled for mastery of each other until finally En Shevil managed to throw her dark assailant partway off, enough to regain one of her swords and force Askgaella away. Panting, muscles tensed, demoness and human regarded each other. En Shevil bent slowly to retrieve her other sword, then took a step nearer Askgaella menacingly. “Go; leave me and never come to me again,” she commanded.

“You’ll have to kill me,” growled the other.

“I won’t.”

Askgaella straightened in surprise. “Whyever not?

“Maybe I’m not as cruel as you are,” En Shevil snapped. “Maybe I don’t want to send you back to Hell.” Maybe I want to thank you for saving my life all those months ago.

Askgaella quickly regained her composure. “I think not,” she taunted. “I think you’re worried about your precious soul. Well, you’ve lost it already, human. No Elysium for you.”

“You fiend!” screamed En Shevil, enraged. “You devil!”

“Demon,” corrected Askgaella coolly. “Will you kill me now?”

“No!” In a fit of anger, En Shevil threw herself over the edge, catching hold of rocks immediately beneath her and clambering down at a dangerous pace. So irate she could barely see, she reached the forest floor before she realized it, and shrank into a tight ball of anger on the mossy ground. “No,” she repeated sulkily. “I’m not going to Tartarus, I’m not.”

On the clifftop, Askgaella stared at the spot where En Shevil had last stood. I don’t believe it, she was thinking. That I could say that and she still wouldn’t kill me. With a slight pang of remorse, she turned and headed back, away from the human forever. She could not bring herself to hurt her now.

Whatever her resolutions, no one else knew of them, and that was her downfall. For at that moment Askgaella was conscious of a great wind all around her, a sudden searing heat at her back as if some huge creature were breathing directly behind her; a massive force slammed her to the side, sending mountains of pain screaming through every limb with the shock that threw her into the rock wall to her right. Her body dissolved before it could slide to the ground, only long red stains remaining on the rock to indicate she had been there. The dragon that had killed her blasted the spot with flames, evaporating the blood and the last trace of Askgaella, then descended towards where the human still crouched on the cold ground.

“En Shevil?”

En Shevil’s head snapped up in shock, and brushing her tears away she stood. “Orono!”

“I have slain thy foe,” the dragon informed her, settling to the ground and wrapping her tail around En Shevil’s leg.

“The demoness? You killed her?” The dragon inclined her great head and brought it down again. “You shouldn’t have.” Even as the maruroha knit her brows, shaking her throbbing head, she felt a certain pang of satisfaction. She pushed it strongly away. “So what are you doing here, anyway?”

“I feel that in thy deserts is an explanation.”

“An explanation of what?”

“Thy state, thy past, and thy future.” En Shevil just shook her head in confusion, so Orono continued. “Bandis was my daughter. She gave to thee her life essence that though mightest live. Why, I know not. But the bond that before her death I shared with her liveth on in thee, for thou carriest now her life force in thy body. Thou art my daughter in her place.” En Shevil was beginning to cry, in sorrow and bafflement at this strange story.

“Why your daughter?”

“I loved my daughter,” said Orono softly. “And though I oft neglected them, I loved those duties that were mine as a parent. I will not so easily let them go.” En Shevil almost laughed through her tears. I’m her daughter because she has to have someone to baby, she thought. “However, that part of Bandis which was dragon and now liveth in thee proveth far too strong for thy mind, and is that which caused your madness.”

En Shevil took a step backwards in sudden shock, forgetting the tail about her ankle and falling to the ground. “You mean…” she faltered. “You mean I went crazy because I’m part dragon?

Orono nodded slowly. “Thy dragon half hath given thee power and madness: magic thou hast now, that thou hadst not before; but far too strong for a human’s holding is the essence of a dragon. Thy madness, though cured, will after time again return.”

“It already has,” En Shevil said quietly. “I just noticed it today.”

The dragon sent a spiraling thread of magic through the human’s body, so suddenly that En Shevil gasped and sprang to her feet, away from Orono, in startled fear. Orono bobbed her head and said, “Thou art cured, for the time. Take a care that thou killest not too much in anger, for the heating of the blood wilt bring to the surface thy dragon side, which in thy poor frame turneth thee only to ill.”

“But what can I…” En Shevil began, but Orono interrupted her.

“I cannot understand thy speech unless thou usest magic or touchest me. At any rate I must go; thy human friend approacheth, and thou hast now much to think on besides.” She rose into the air with a great beating of wings and stirring of winds.

Hair whipping out behind her, the human stood and reached out her hands. “But Orono, wait!” she cried.

“Find thy true path, and we shall meet again!” the dragon cried, clearing the treetops now and wheeling about to face the south. Her next words brought back sparklingly distant memories of En Shevil’s father: “Live up to thy name, my child!”

“En Shevil?” Elsa said in wonder, gazing up at the receding shape. “What was that?”

“A friend of mine,” the maruroha said softly, eyes upraised until the dragon was out of sight. Then she looked at Elsa. “Shall we go?” The other woman nodded slowly, and together they began the trek back to the other side of the ridge and Stuartsgeiden.

The song En Shevil provides from Erik’s collection is Sting’s Why Should I Cry For You? The rest of Erik’s poetry is stuff I started and never finished.


Pride of her Parents 9

…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 9 – On the Road

A smiling En Shevil took light steps through the fragrant pine wood. “Antwerp,” she called, watching for the little creature to come hopping back from his circuitous exploration nearby. She’d had to do this every so often to make sure he’d not lost her. He appeared between some trees a little way ahead, bouncing in place, and waited for her to signal him off again. She waved, and he disappeared.

She took a deep breath of the late afternoon air of spring, cool rather than cold, and smiled again. On such a day as this she could almost forget, could almost let go. The sun might, as it hovered just in her sight above the treetops, light the darkness inside her, were the black center of her soul not so dense. As it was, she was relatively happy.

She really had no idea where she went. After making her difficult way down the snowy slopes of Rustinmount (she’d almost wished for a horse as she’d floundered through some of those icy, detestable drifts), she’d simply continued southward for two days in the hopes of finding a town where she could make some concrete travel plans. But she had found nothing as yet.

With half a troll-chest of money, her pack was considerably heavier than it had been, and felt hot on her back over her new velvet cloak. Nevertheless, as the sun vanished from her view and the trees’ shadows began to lengthen, she felt a chill surrounding her and the wind, formerly pleasing and cool, seemed icy. This was nothing a little firewood-cutting would not cure, so she found a place to stop. She dropped her pack carelessly, hearing the chink of coins, and took off her cloak. This she folded. In her heavy, functional clothing, still bright and diversely colored in Shapierian style, she did not mind so much chopping wood, but the cloak she would rather preserve from sweat and dirt as long as possible.

She heard footsteps immediately behind, but before she could turn something impacted with her head and flashed the world into a brilliant white around her. She toppled, feeling her senses going numb, and struggled inwardly with the desire to allow unconsciousness take her. But if she let herself go now she might never reawaken. As the instantaneous decision to survive was made her instinct kicked in and opened her sanoko. Pain accompanied the energy that flooded her, and her head began to throb as a prickling tingle spread through her limbs. She rose, not as quickly as she would have liked, and ducked another kick as she spun to face her attacker.

She could have been wrong, but had not this demoness had wings at their last encounter? She crossed her swords, unable to remove her eyes for several moments from the bizarrely lovely face, as a warning. “What do you want?” she asked.

“Ooh, aren’t you a smart one?” the other woman responded as she lunged at the human, sword drawn. En Shevil met the red-shining black blade with her own flashing weapons, but even as the demoness’s charge was halted her serpentine tail whipped around En Shevil’s legs and threw her to the ground. “What do you think I want?” the dark woman said as she searched for an open spot to place her sword tip to prevent En Shevil’s movement.

The Maruroha slid her swords on opposite sides of her enemy’s, twisting the long dark blade upward and raking Oyin across the demoness’ clenched hand. At the same time she rolled to the side and stabbed Sayeto down at the tail holding her legs. The demoness relinquished her grip with a growl, and En Shevil scrambled backwards and jumped to her feet. “Why me?” she asked as if she didn’t know. “And why you?” She hoped to throw her enemy off with this.

“Why you?” laughed the demoness, empty hand twitching as the two women began to circle each other. “You have powers no other human has. As for me…” En Shevil fell to her left hand, kicking out at the other’s head with her right foot. The demoness leaned back enough to dodge the blow and snaked her tail out to grasp at En Shevil’s wrist even as she swiped her sword towards the Maruroha’s hips. To block this latter move she was forced to bring Sayeto, in her right hand, up to a level that prevented her from shifting her weight and escaping the tail. But even as she fell once more to the damp ground, craning her head up to take the impact on her shoulders, she thrust her left foot out into the demoness’ abdomen. Oyin lay beneath her where it had of its own accord twisted from her hand rather than let her body fall on its point, and her hand, as well as the tail that held it, was uncomfortably wedged between her side and the ground.

As the demoness regained her balance after the kick, En Shevil swiped Sayeto at her stomach, and the hellish woman took the blow, allowing the weapon to draw a bright red line across her exposed belly, in order to press the tip of her own sword to the Maruroha’s ribcage. With her other hand she seized En Shevil’s wrist and twisted it until Sayeto fell to the ground. “As for me,” she said again, “I just got lucky. I hate Hell, the demon world,” she continued as she crouched, hand still firmly on her sword’s hilt, “and now I’ll be free to wander this world in your body, killing to suit my king’s will.”

Askgaella chose not to mention the humiliating fact that her king had recently been defeated, and that since the portal to her world had been closed, the only way to return there was to die, at which point she could not return here again. And that this was not a battle she could afford to lose.

En Shevil decided in that split second that she would rather perish than let this monster possess her, or rather possess Deathscar, so she reached for her dropped sword. Unfortunately, as both her weapons lay on her left and her right hand was the one free, this availed little. The other woman grasped her wrist and pulled her arm up, twisting it around the long black steel perpendicular to En Shevil’s chest. The latter gasped as the hot blade cut a large gash through her upper arm. The demoness let En Shevil’s hand go and put her own on the human’s shoulder. Panic filled the grounded warrior, and she realized the only way to escape possession would be to kill herself on the sword pressing into her bosom. Glad of the energy still pounding through her blood, she summoned all her strength.

At that moment her assailant stiffened, arm falling away from the black sword, which fell backwards over En Shevil’s stomach, and her tail’s grip loosening. Her right hand slipped slowly from En Shevil’s shoulder as she crumpled ponderously forward over the Maruroha and dissolved into smoke. The arrow that had felled her, its steel head disfigured as if melted, dropped as the back that had housed it vanished, and landed beside En Shevil on the ground.

Panting, she sat up and absently retrieved her swords as she looked for her deliverer, who presently appeared from behind a tree. It was a woman, blonde hair braided behind her, clad in a leather tunic, fine white shirt, brown breeches, and light boots. A sword and three daggers hung at her side with a waterskin, and at her back was slung a quiver. She held in her hand a worn bow, and moved as quietly towards En Shevil as the latter could ever have hoped to in a wood. She took up the arrow and examined it. En Shevil, climbing to her feet, held her bleeding arm out so as not to stain her clothing. “Thank you,” she said.

The stranger, throwing the arrow aside, startled En Shevil greatly by drawing her own sword. It was plain, the type a large-town weaponsmith might have in stock. “You have much to learn about swordplay.” Her tone, somewhat patronizing though not unfriendly, drew forth a rather belligerent response:

“I can block daggers.”

“Let me show you something,” said the stranger, shifting the weapon back and forth between hands as she shrugged her quiver from her shoulders. Somehow the arrows all stayed in place even as it hit the ground and fell to its side. “If I am going to connect, I must have my weight balanced to pull away for your next move.” She demonstrated by tapping En Shevil’s shoulder with the flat of her blade and pointing to her feet. En Shevil watched, interested. “If I’m doing a sweep or a feint,” suiting the actions to the words, “I need to keep my weight moving for my next move.” She pointed again to her feet as she showed how she used her legs. “This way, I can have the most force possible on each blow.”

En Shevil was still attempting to defend herself. “But Maruroha swords,” indicating hers, “are offensive weapons, and depend on what attack you’re using.” She went to where her pack and cloak lay to look for a bandage.

“Patience! If you are to dodge the blow of a swordsman you must watch where their weight is centered so you will know their intent. The tail may have been entirely a surprise, but you could have known when she planned to stab you.”

“Have you ever fought a demoness before?” En Shevil asked crossly. Her ethics as a warrior had certainly been challenged in the past, but never her abilities. Also, she had no bandage and her wound was throbbing. Pulling out a ripped shirt she wrapped it around her arm and began attempting to tie it tightly. In the meantime the stranger took a few steps forward and answered,

“No. But a wide range of combat abilities will help against any creature.”

“Well, the last time I fought that particular demoness I won. Not to sound ungrateful, but I did know what I was doing.”

“I do not wish to offend, but you did not know what you were doing against that woman’s sword. A more experienced swordsman could have easily defeated you.”

“I guess you are a more experienced swordsman?” She tried very hard not to make it a challenge, and failed.

“Let me show you,” said the woman coolly.

“Help me with this bandage.” The stranger complied, and the pain eased slightly as the makeshift bandage was tightened around the bloody wound. Then En Shevil took up her swords and faced the other blonde. “I’m ready,” she said.

The stranger seemed to undergo a transformation then, from the jovial, casual visitor of before to an intense, mysterious, and altogether deadly warrior. With her stabs, slashes, parries, and quick feet she very soon convinced En Shevil of her words’ truth. She could not really defeat the Maruroha, who was able to dodge the stranger’s every blow, but En Shevil could not hope to slide a hit of her own in when she could never tell where the stranger’s sword would be next. And eventually she would tire of jumping around like this.

Finally, and almost by luck, she found an opening, and gave the other woman a spin-kick in the jaw. The stranger stopped, raising a hand to her face in surprise, and smiled. Her sword lowered. “You are most skilled,” she said.

“So are you.”

“If you would join me and my companion at our camp, I would be glad to show you some techniques.”

“Certainly,” said En Shevil. “Who is your companion?”

“You will meet him.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Tarna, though at this moment I am simply trying to avoid a most presumptuous man who… but perhaps it is better not to discuss others in their absence.”

“I’m going to Tarna too.”

“You have heard, then, the news of the Hero?”

“What news?”

“He saved Tarna from demonic invasion, but a strange magic took him. I thought to search for him, in case he needs help.”

En Shevil was speechless. “Magic? But… where is he now?”

“No one knows. But as he once helped me, I feel it is my duty to try and help him.”

“I have to find him,” En Shevil murmured to herself. She’d known it would be difficult to rejoin Achim, but now it appeared it would be harder than she’d expected. Her spirits were falling with every new thought on the matter.

“Allow me to accompany you,” the woman requested.

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“I am En Shevil, of Shapier.”

“So you no longer call yourself Deathscar.”

En Shevil’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”

“I saw you when the Hero brought you into the Spielburg valley.”

“Are you Elsa von Spielburg?”

The woman nodded. “May Toro and I travel with you?”

“Toro?”

“My friend. He is a minotaur.”

En Shevil thought for a moment. “Of course. Do you know anything else about Achim?”

She shook her head. “Only what I have said already, and things you doubtless already know. He told me you were his friend.”

“Yes,” she said simply. “I can’t believe…”

“We’ll find him,” Elsa assured her. “Toro and I have made camp not far from here. I came when I heard your swords.” She stared down at the demoness’ dropped blade on the ground. “Have you any interest in this weapon?”

En Shevil shuddered. “Certainly not.”

Elsa nodded, taking the sword up gingerly and hefting it, nodding. “It is better than mine. Follow me.”

En Shevil nodded, and took up her things with her left arm. She would not be curling much weight with her right for a while. Following Elsa, she left the small clearing and made her way to another.

Here was Toro, and En Shevil tried very hard not to stare. At least eight feet tall, he was a formidable creature who wore only a blue loincloth and silver bracers. His long cream-colored horns shone as if polished, and his eyes were a startlingly bright, fierce, deep black. She could barely meet his gaze as Elsa introduced them.

“Toro, this is En Shevil.” She added more quietly, “Deathscar.”

Toro gave her a calm look, if any look from those eyes could ever be called such. “Toro pleased to know warrior woman.”

“This is Toro. He has been my friend since childhood.” En Shevil bowed, Shapierian style, and expressed her equal pleasure. “Let me get you a healing potion.”

“I don’t think it’s deep enough for that,” replied En Shevil. Healing potions really only helped with internal injuries, and thus only very deep wounds would be affected by them.

“We can try.” Elsa brought her pack over to where En Shevil stood and dug through it on her knees. She handed a small bottle to the Maruroha, who uncorked it and drank. The pain eased slightly as the inner quarter inch of her cut healed.

“Thank you,” she said. “Now what about those sword moves?”

For the next darkening hour Elsa painstakingly taught En Shevil some of the things she knew until they could no longer see each other. Toro watched them silently, nodding his horned head at every point Elsa brought up. Then he built a fire and they sat, wordless, for some time, all eating: En Shevil some of the rations she had bought before she left Sechburg, and the other two small bread cakes. The Maruroha stared at the fire, which seemed bright and almost cheerful, the brilliant wavering gold edges surrounding the calmer blue center.

She did not know it, but Elsa watched her carefully, noting the reflection of both gold and blue sparkling in her eyes. “When you left Spielburg, you made it appear that you had died,” she said after a while. “Does the prince know that you are alive?”

En Shevil lowered her eyebrows. “Prince?” Was there some other ruler who was displeased with her?

“Did you not know of the Sultan’s reward?”

En Shevil gaped. “You mean…”

“That Achim is the prince of Shapier? I think we have much talking to do.”

***

The long, light, shining dagger was silver from tip to hilt, set with a single, gleaming black gem where the blade began. Thin lines of white ran along it, carved skillfully into the image of a dragon cramped into the grip with its tail wrapping the blade. En Shevil stood alone in the complete darkness, darkness so thick it seemed to be solid, except for the circle of light that fell about her from above. It was pale light, cold and white and dusty. She clutched the dagger, torn with indecision. If she drove it into her heart in order to kill herself, she would not kill the dragon on the blade but free it to drink her blood and consume her. The dragon was the problem. Then suddenly she was confused: why did she want to kill herself again? Oh, yes, the dragon. But the dragon was on the knife. So she had but to cast away the weapon and be free of the dragon. But then how could she kill herself? Wait, why did she want to kill herself?

Suddenly Achim stepped to her side, putting his warm hands on her arms and looking over her shoulder at what she held. Gently he reached over and took the blade from her trembling hands, putting it away in its silver sheath that hung from her pack — put it away to have it never out again until she took the first step in her quest for acceptance and destruction of the dragon. As the knife clicked loudly into the sheath the light sprang up around them, and smells of flowers and magic assailed her. They stood in Erana’s Peace, back in Spielburg, but somehow the magic was not so distasteful to her as she had once thought it must always be. Overwhelmed with the desire to be held by her lover she turned to kiss him, raising her arms, and stopped. For above his head, hovering in the air, was the half-transparent image of a shining crown that revolved slowly and illuminated his face. Hesitantly she reached for his hand, only to have him disappear from before her.

Then she found herself in another dark place, the sweet smells of Erana’s Peace gone and replaced now by the long-since-mollified stench of death and decay. In the moment before she started awake she realized that she lay on her side, surrounded by ancient bones, on the backbone of a monstrous skeleton.

A soft voice spoke from nearby. She looked around groggily to find the speaker, and saw sitting beside the newly-built fire a man, a stranger. Her eyes did not rest on his shoulder-length blonde hair, thin face, lean frame, worn clothing, or the black boots at the end of his outstretched legs, for that they first rested on what hung at his belt: a silver-sheathed knife with a black gem by the grip and the white-carved image of a dragon on the rounded hilt. She stared at it, convinced she was still dreaming, as he continued. “You, since I sat myself here, have not lain still for two minutes together. Why look you so heavily?”

“Who are you?” She sat up in her rolled blankets, scrambling for her swords.

He drove his gaze into hers. “Come, come, answer me directly unto this question that I ask: in faith, I’ll break thy little finger, an if thou wilt not tell me all things true.” She simply stared at him, amazed at the petulant tone of voice in which he spoke these odd words.

He’s talking like a dragon or something. “Why should I answer a stranger who just appears at my fire?” she demanded.

“The fire is Elsa’s,” he said in a reproving tone, “and you are but a guest.”

“Then let me wake Elsa up,” she said sarcastically, annoyed by his strangely-tuned phrases, “and she’ll answer for me.”

“How shall Elsa answer for what is in your heart?”

“Toro!”

He smiled at her kindly and murmured, “You know me not. Why then should you betray me thus?” Toro started up with a snort, seizing his unbelievably huge battleaxe, and in two steps was between En Shevil and the stranger, staring down with his fathomless eyes at the man by the fire. Elsa was stirring at his noise when he roused her completely:

“Elsa — singing man back.”

At that she sat up abruptly. “You again!” she said, her eyes devoid of any weariness. “I told you to stop following me!”

“You draw me, you hardhearted adamant!” he cried. “Leave you your power to draw, and I shall have no power to follow you.” He struck his hand to his breast.

“Who is this?” asked En Shevil, confused, for what was that look on the man’s face? She spoke to Elsa, as addressing the man directly seemed somewhat futile.

“This fool has followed me from Spielburg,” Elsa snarled, “despite my repeated warnings for him to be off.” Her stare met the man’s with such ferocity that En Shevil felt he must turn away his gaze. Instead, rapt, he spoke in a wan tone:

“Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.”

Elsa gave a groaning sigh and turned away from him, lying down once more with her back to the fire and the stranger. Toro, seeing his mistress’ acceptance of the man’s presence, merely gave the ‘singing man’ a snort and returned also to his sleeping place. But En Shevil was more awake than that, and looked more curiously on the man. “What is your name?” she asked.

The man began to sing. “Don’t need to read no books of my history — I’m a simple man; it’s no big mystery.

“Um.” En Shevil pressed her lips together in confusion.

He noticed the direction of her gaze and frowned. “This interests you?” he said, lightly drawing the silver dagger from its sheath and tossing it. Impressively, he caught it by the hilt after it had spun several times in the air and handed it to her. She took it gingerly without a word, examining it. Yes, there was no mistaking that it was the dagger from her dream. But why a prophetic dream all of a sudden? It made her anxious — did that mean all her dreams had some sort of hidden meaning?

“Odd,” she murmured. The more she looked at it, the more she felt she’d seen it before, and not just in her dream. The dragon design, the black gem, somewhere… She turned her head slowly to where Elsa’s things lay ready at the woman’s side. It was certainly true — the sword formerly belonging to the twice-slain demoness was adorned with the same draconic design. She rose to her knees and leaned over Elsa’s half-sleeping form to grasp the hot hilt of the red-black weapon. Pulling it clumsily over the other with her left arm, she dragged it from its scabbard. The pattern was exactly the same, save only that this weapon was black with the inset lines red. She held up the dagger. Was it her imagination, or did the colors seem to shiver as she brought the weapons close?

She touched steel to steel, and chill ran through her. With a start she watched as the long sword went silver from pommel to tip, and the dagger turned black. “Wonderful,” she said, a hesitant smile touching her lips. She separated the weapons and touched them again. For a second time they switched hues, and En Shevil grinned outright. “Wonderful!” she repeated. “Where did you get this dagger?” she asked, looking up at the stranger.

His intent eyes were locked on her, and she blinked several times as she met his gaze. Finally he answered, “An heirloom with bold legends twining as the dragon its length.”

“Ehah.” En Shevil was becoming somewhat annoyed with this man. “Can you say anything in a normal way?”

“What is normal?” the man mused, seemingly to himself. He put on a strange accent. “Normal is what everyone else is, and you’re not.” She sighed and started switching the colors of the weapons again. “Chollichihaua,” the man said. She did not look up at him again, not wanting to lose her temper and being more interested in the weapons at any rate. “And care you? Not at all.”

“What are you talking about?” asked En Shevil in frustration.

“Chollichihaua.”

“Choyicheehowhat?”

“Chollichihaua.”

And is that supposed to mean something to me?

“En Shevil, go to sleep,” grumbled Elsa from behind her. “Do not waste your time speaking with him.”

En Shevil took a deep breath. “Here,” she said, handing the dagger back to the man slowly after making sure it was silver. When he took it, she replaced the sword in its sheath and laid it down in its former spot beside Elsa. “Goodnight.” Grumpily she turned her back on the man and put her head on her outstretched arms, closing her eyes. As the slight noise of the fire and the louder, more distant sounds of the forest blended with her fading consciousness, the sound of singing threaded its way softly into the approaching greyness of her dreams.


Rahaña had a daughter fair and wise;thief-queen of old she was by right of birth.
Tejato was her nation most despised, thief-nation oft esteemed of little worth;
For who with such a nation should ally? Or with confirméd robbers deal in grain?
A people without sustenance must die, and so respect must be won back again.
This to achieve, did write the dustrus queen scripts, Tejato’s faith to represent,
And in diverséd lands with humble mein to varied rulers did these scripts present,
For, lab’ring long, she’d to her people gone, her person told Tejato of its plight,
Convincing them that, if they would live on, they must assure the world ’twas safe from slight.
The people’d to her wisdom swiftly bent, Chollichihaua’s soft persuasive word,
And to her all the nation’d voices lent for other lands to have their peace assured:
Tejato would Tejato’s practice feel, its folk but on themselves their thiev’ry show.
From narry an outsider would they steal, and to all other nations honest go.
The queen Collichihaua met success in ev’ry minor country in her way,
But five the greater kingdoms did confess reluctance, and did halt for manya day.
Severally their leaders then conferred, and endly to her messengers did send:
Requiréd from her hands for each, she heard, was proof that openness she did intend.
So took she careful thought, and also gold, and purchased endly smithies, numbered five,
And swore that, though her hands grew weak and old, they’d not stop work while she was yet alive
Until, her purpose met, she could present those proofs from her own hands demanded her;
This bold demand she never did resent, nor took it to her nation as a slur.
So, as she were a weaponsmith of yore, she toiled the forges of her raiséd sheds,
And weapons made, with her own strength waxed sore, magical, and’f worth unlimited:
For windy, brilliant Shapier made a bow of copper-gold and shining like the sands
That the Sultana Ibshiyah might know her safety in Chollichihaua’s lands;
Silmaria, the ocean-land of might, received the sword of watery grey-blue
To show King Unus, on Atlantis’ height, that to their word her people would be true;
The Tsar of old Surria, cold and grim, the dagger ‘tained, white-silver as a wraith:
With it she pledged her honesty to him, by it Cvonyet had sure’ty of her faith;
Northward Lokgard, land of ice and fire, had axe of her, red-black of mighty heft,
That Lord Hrothkani might have no desire to war neighbor Tejato for some theft;
The last for noble Alchenwäd, now gone, the spear of yellow-green and brazen size
Was forgéd for Fürien Keidetion, ever to hold good standing in her eyes.
She also on these weapons left a mark: the dragon flying, carved into the steel,
Inset with precious stones of color dark, that their receivers might their worth more feel;
Thus bound together by this common sign, the weapons to each other all could speak,
And if Tejato any land maligned, five lands swiftly could their vengeance wreak.
So pledging faith laboriously by, Chollichihaua’s efforts did not fail:
Five nations did her swear their loyalty, so long Tejato’s word should prove not frail.
Thus with her lengthy years of toil complete the queen returned to rule her land again,
And did with nationwide affection meet to cheer her heart and wipe away all pain.
But soon would end Chollichihaua’s reign, for demons broke into her thieving land.
Five nations came to aid her, but in vain: the valiant queen was lost to hellish hand.
So dead, but ne’er forgotten by her friends, her legacy lives on in weapons sharp,
And in the songs and tales that never end so long as men do live by flute and harp.

With these words came images, hazy and soft, dream-like — a tall raven-haired woman of ruddy complexion, unspeakable beauty, a face patient though sarcastic, and a strong frame. Her features, familiar somehow, were lit from below by the white-glowing light of a forge as she hammered at something with a muscular arm. Darkness suddenly seized her, and she was gone. En Shevil’s waking thought was, Chollichihaua — what a name to be burdened with…

“Good morning,” Elsa bade her, observing she awoke. En Shevil shook her head and sat up, looking around for Singing Man. Her brow lowered when she did not see him.

“Is he… that man… was there a man here last night?” She was now not entirely sure she had not dreamed his existence. That would explain the dagger, but not the song. She had never been a poet, and did not think that even in her dreams she could come up with such a ballad.

Elsa sighed and rolled her eyes. “He is still here. He has been following me since I left Spielburg, and I do not even know why.”

“Elsa, my darling, you know perfectly well why,” came Singing Man’s voice as he approached.

En Shevil fancied Elsa blushed.

“You know I do not wish you to follow me. Why do you not respect my wishes, when you claim to love me?” This was certainly blunt, and in front of a stranger no less. En Shevil guessed Elsa must be weary of humoring him.

“Well, someone has to look after you,” Singing Man laughed, causing Toro, on the other side of the smoking remains of the fire, to snort loudly.

“I take care of Elsa — if Elsa not take care of Elsa.”

“You see? I have no need of your protection. Even were I to become hurt and unable to fight, Toro would care for me.” En Shevil refrained from speech, merely covered her smile with her hand. Elsa, however, knew exactly what the Shapierian was thinking. “Ready your things, En Shevil, for we shall soon depart.”

En Shevil smiled openly as she stood and tightly rolled her blankets after shaking them out. Running a brush through her hair and taking a drink of water, she felt ready to leave; but the others had made no moves for the predicted departure. Elsa and Singing Man were having an argument, so En Shevil took the opportunity, abandoning her things, to move towards the nearby stream in the hopes of washing her face and hands. Toro rose quickly and came with her.

“Not like singing man too much,” he said as they walked, tilting his head to avoid a scraping of branches with his horns.

Something rubbed against her leg. “Hello, Antwerp,” she said absently. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” Addressing Toro she asked, “When did you leave Spielburg?”

“Elsa and I travel for two weeks, singing man follow.”

“Has he caused any problems besides annoying you?”

“He talk too much.”

En Shevil bent and scooped up water, splashing it on her face and slicking back her hair. The breeze felt chill and fresh on her wet scalp, and she breathed deeply, smiling. Then a worried expression overtook her face, and she stood to lean against a tree while Toro drank on one knee. “I wonder if Achim is all right,” she said, directing it at Toro but really requiring no answer.

“He good man,” said the minotaur, standing straight again, “Good hero. He sneak right past me, I never notice. He thief, I think.”

En Shevil smiled. “Yes, he is a thief. I never knew Achim had seen you. He didn’t mention you. Were you connected with the brigands, then?” They began walking slowly back to camp, where Elsa was standing and preparing to leave, obviously quite annoyed. Antwerp bounced along behind them.

“I Elsa’s bodyguard. No let brigands hurt Elsa. Teach Elsa to fight when little. Elsa good.”

En Shevil felt a pang of loneliness at this — she had no friends left. “Elsa’s lucky,” she said quietly. She picked up her cloak, fastened it around her neck, and donned her heavy pack. With its weight on her back she wished often for a walking stick, but had not the tools nor the particular knowledge to cut one.

Singing Man appeared to be in the middle of a song. “…I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight…

“We will continue heading south,” said Elsa decisively, “and keep to the mountains until they end.”

…and though a million stars were shining…” sang Singing Man.

“By only striking west at the end of the Spielburg range, we can take the Winder Pass into Shapier.”

…my heart was lost on a distant planet…

“A caravan will take us to the other side of the desert — unless you know it well enough to guide us yourself — and in Rasier we can inquire into another pass out of Shapier into Tarna.”

…that whirls around the April moon…

“I had thought to go around Shapier entirely, but I felt you would like to see your homeland.”

…whirling in an arc of sadness.

“Is this acceptable to you?”

En Shevil had been trying to follow both the song and the dissertation, and laughed as her mind repeated what she thought she’d heard: they would take a pass to a distant planet, where she would guide them around the April moon.

I’m lost without you.

“How long have we to the end of the Spielburg range?” she asked instead of giving the answer Elsa had requested.

I’m lost without you.

“A few weeks, if we travel quickly. They are thin and shrink to a point at the southern end.”

En Shevil jumped the stream, and looked back as the others followed her. She caught Singing Man’s gleaming eyes and her heart skipped a beat — only in that moment did she realize what a handsome man he really was. He smiled sadly and dramatically as he sang the next lines, and it seemed in that moment he was singing only to her. “Though all my kingdoms turn to sand, and fall into the sea, I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.

She shook herself out of it, wondering whence that fit of madness had come, and found herself walking next to Singing Man behind Toro and Elsa. She did not look at him, but watched the rippling muscles in Toro’s back as he walked. “And from the dark secluded valleys, I heard the ancient songs of sadness; but every step I thought of you, every footstep only you.” Images swirled through En Shevil’s head, of her own desert home in darkness, forlorn, dreamy, offering no comfort to the weary traveler.

“Elsa,” she said very suddenly, “why did you leave home?”

Every star a grain of sand…

Elsa shook her head as if in annoyance. “After the Hero gave me the memory of who I was, I led my father’s men against the brigands and drove them from the valley.”

…the leavings of a dried up ocean.

“My father retired as the baron, as you probably have heard.”

Tell me, how much longer? How much longer?

“Will you please be quiet!” Elsa growled at Singing Man.

“When my song is finished, my dear,” he replied, and continued. “They say a city in the desert lies…

Elsa heaved a great sigh through clenched teeth and gestured for En Shevil to come to her side. Once there, En Shevil tried not to listen to the captivating song. “My brother, as the new baron, was most troublesome to me.”

…the vanity of an ancient king.

“He did not approve of my warrior’s ways, nor of Toro my friend.”

The city lies in broken pieces, where the wind howls and the vultures sing.

“We had many arguments, and often came nearly to blows.”

These are the works of man. This is the sum of our ambition.

“He would not attempt to fight with me, for he knew me to be the better fighter.”

It would make a prison of my life…

“He thought he would rid himself of me by marrying me to a local lord.”

…if you became another’s wife.

“I told him very bluntly what I thought of this plan.”

With every prison blown to dust…

“He was not used to being told such things, and he was probably happier when I left, taking Toro with me.”

…my enemies walk free.

“And your father?” asked En Shevil, still trying to ignore the song and the words she thought must be coming next.

“He is content knowing that I live.”

I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.

Elsa looked at En Shevil. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

And I have never in my life felt more alone than I do now.

“What have you done since… I saw you last?”

En Shevil looked away and sighed, but felt no reason not to answer. “After Erasmus cured me, I wandered northward for a while, spreading the story that ‘Deathscar’ had been killed by the Hero.”

Although I claim dominions over all I see, it means nothing to me.

“Then after a while I changed my story and said she’d killed herself.”

There are no victories…

“I reached Sechburg, and stayed out the winter there.”

…in all our histories…

“I had a few adventures, but I finally decided I wanted to… see Achim again, so I left.”

…without love.

“You are troubled,” said Elsa slowly, “and restless — and I do not blame you. For anything,” she added.

A stone’s throw from Jerusalem…

“Thanks,” said En Shevil simply. It was good to hear those words from anyone.

“We should be approaching the village of Galfein by the end of the day,” said Elsa, as if to change the subject.

…I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight…

En Shevil’s face darkened. “Shall we stop, or pass by?”

…and though a million stars were shining…

“Toro and I are low on supplies, as we have encountered no town since we left the valley.”

…my heart was lost on a distant planet…

“I would rather…” began En Shevil uncertainly, but stopped. Though still uncomfortable with the idea of showing her face this far south, she was not yet sure whether avoiding towns would be morally right.

…that whirls around the April moon…

“We will not stay long,” said Elsa in a tone that conveyed nothing.

…whirling in an arc of sadness.

“Stay at inn!” said Toro gleefully, and En Shevil smiled. Even a great, tough ‘monster’ like the minotaur must be glad of a bed when he could get it.

I’m lost without you. I’m lost without you.

“We will arrive after dark,” said Elsa.

And though you hold the keys to ruin of everything I see…

“Eat good food, not from campfire!” gloated Toro.

…with every prison blown to dust, my enemies walk free…

“We can leave before dawn.”

…though all my kingdoms turn to sand and fall into the sea…

“Town good. People friendly.”

And so the nonexistent debate was won, and En Shevil was convinced without having ever objected. She nodded absently, and they all fell silent at once for the last, sorrowful lines of Singing Man’s song.

…I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.

By an hour before dusk, Singing Man had gone through perhaps twenty songs, and Elsa informed them they were nearing the village. “We have made good time,” she said. “We are earlier than I expected.” En Shevil sighed, still not feeling at rights with this entire town idea. But she said nothing and walked on with them, looking around at the changing scenery. More and more trees in the area had been reduced to stumps, and they heard the sound of an axe hacking away at another not far off. The noise was somehow foreboding to the Shapierian warrior.

The sound of a horse nearby startled her even more, and she unconsciously began sneaking along, even in the midst of her party, as silently as possible. Antwerp made furtive little bounces beside her, as if in support of her movements. They encountered the horse and its owner soon enough: a young girl, in her mid-teens perhaps, sat on a tree stump reading a book, untethered horse nearby. She looked normal enough — brown hair in two braids, freckled face, red cloak and hood over white shirt and brown trousers — until she looked up at them and they saw her eyes. About these there was nothing particularly unusual in the shape or color, only in the air. She held them wide as if in fear, and in their gleam and the dilation of the pupils there was some indescribable attitude of horror and unfathomable loss. She stared at them for long moments, her facing rapidly taking on a cloudy color which made her freckles stand out oddly. Stumbling to her feet, she backed away into her horse.

En Shevil nearly chuckled — had she never seen a minotaur before? — until she realized that the girl was staring at her.

“Your eyes!” the girl howled. “Your eyes!”

En Shevil put a hand to her face and touched her eyelids. Nothing seemed to be wrong with them. Blinking several times she stopped and asked, “What about them?”

“Ye gods have mercy!” the girl moaned. “I prayed never to hear that voice again; apparition, why do you come ever to torment me?”

“What do you mean?” asked En Shevil in a quavering tone, for of course she knew.

The girl’s visage turned in a moment from fear to rage, and she flung herself at the older woman. “You killed my family!” she shrieked, mouth twisted open to show clenched, slavering teeth. Her face was a mask of madness and anger beyond description.

En Shevil reflexively raised a hand to block the punch aimed at her face, and the girl recoiled in an instant and fell back once more, fear again dominating her features. “Deathscar!” she sobbed. “You destroyed my life! You destroyed me!” The hideous change came over her once again, and as a monster she sprang forward. “I’ll kill you!”

“Stand back!” Elsa commanded, but the girl did not seem to hear.

En Shevil had once again merely to put out a hand, and the girl stopped her onslaught and shrank into herself again. “You… you… I’ll… you killed them in front of my eyes…” she wailed, sinking to the ground in a trembling heap. “Those ghastly eyes, that demonic voice, ever in my dreams to torment me.” Her head was in her hands now. “Why do you not now leave me in peace and let me die to join them?”

“I…” began En Shevil, her heart reeling and her thoughts swimming in a sea of dark misery.

At the word, the girl upstarted like a wild creature and cried out, “I will be free of you!” Then, leaping on her horse, she tore off through the forest, her sobs still audible for some time after she was out of sight.

Everyone was silent for long moments while En Shevil held her breath and tried not to scream. Finally Elsa said awkwardly, “She was crazy.”

The Maruroha could bear it no longer. Throwing her purse down on the ground she cried, “I can’t go in there! Buy me some food and I’ll meet you at the other side tomorrow morning.” Pulling her hood down over her face she began to run, forward and to the left in order to circumnavigate the town ahead. Her breath coming ragged and tears streaming down her cheeks, she wanted to slam her head into something solid and end this agony.

The fading sound of Singing Man’s voice followed her: “If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one, drying in the color of the evening sun, tomorrow’s rain will wash their stains away, but something in our minds will always stay.

Trying to drown out the sound, En Shevil ran faster, pushing her way between trees and never taking the easiest path. A wall sprang up in front of her suddenly, imposing stone seeming to condemn her with a thousand mouthless, soundless voices. She veered left, avoiding the town, and ran onward. Her brief tears now gone, she concentrated on calming herself. She had always known this was coming; there was no chance she could cross Spielburg again and have no one recognize her. She had only one option, and that was to deny their accusations and… Abruptly, she stopped running, clenching her fists. She could not deny what she was, to herself or to anyone else, and what she was… she was a killer. She was Deathscar.

She walked on more calmly now. Wasn’t that a depressing thought? The extent of its truth she did not know, but it certainly had arisen unbidden from her subconscious. She sighed, her spirits sinking ever quicker, and sat down against the cold wall of the unfriendly town. She did not feel like crying any more, and did not want to continue thinking about the way she was. She did not want to do anything. Fitfully she tossed a rock into a tree, watching it bounce off and return nearly to her feet. She pulled her pack from her shoulders and cuddled up to it in the shadows, throwing her cloak over it like a blanket. Antwerp, finally having caught up to with her after her long run, anxiously nuzzled her side. She closed her eyes. In a grey half-doze she remained until darkness had swallowed her up.

What awoke her was the sound of snuffling, and she jerked awake from a sleep much deeper than she remembered falling into. A horned head, crimson and dark purple, swung towards her on a long, bent neck. Great yellow eyes narrowed; a wide, toothy mouth snapped an inch from her face. Gasping, she scooted backwards in time to avoid the swipe of a clawed hand. The great lizard bounded forward to attack again, but En Shevil rolled out of the way, ignoring the cutting pain that shot through her wounded arm when it was pressed into the ground, and jumped to her feet. As she reached for her swords, her eyes went wide when she found nothing there. She backed into a tree, looking around for help, as the creature approached her. It was then she noticed the man going through her pack. Dispelling all panic, she took a few running steps forward and vaulted herself cleanly over the creature’s head, rolling forward and jumping to her feet to kick the man in the knee.

He stumbled backwards, tripping over the straps on her sword-sheath which he held. “Imu, on ‘er!” he commanded, and En Shevil spun to see the beast approaching her once again. This time, she did not give it any advantage. She stepped forward, then crouched on her right leg and kicked upward with her left, striking the monster squarely in the jaw. It stopped, shook its head, whimpered, then looked beyond her to its master. She kicked it in the chest. The thing howled and waved its head around, then brought its evilly glowing eyes to bear on her with anger and pain. She kicked it again before dodging out of the way of its claws. This was all beside the point; she needed to get back to the man before he made off with any of her things. Avoiding a tailswipe she looked quickly over to see that he was in her pack again. Beside him was another man.

Targeting this one with the dagger she pulled from her ankle, she skipped aside as the creature came at her once again.

“Hinnaeu, she’s got a knife,” her target hissed, apparently thinking she would throw it at the crouching man. Corrected, the speaker fell with the dagger in his chest. Hinnaeu dropped whatever he was holding and spun with a gasp, for the other man’s hand had slapped him as he fell. Hinnaeu flipped the fallen man over to expose the cause of his demise, and made a choking sound in his throat. As En Shevil once again ducked a blow from the monster the man hissed out the word ‘bitch’ and made some movement she could not see.

Attempting to knock the saurus rex out, she jump-kicked the back of its head. In return she was slammed to the ground by its tail, but the lizard did seem stunned. However, the man Hinnaeu, armed with his own dagger, seemed bent now on killing her himself. She tossed him off and sprang to her feet, aiming a kick at his chest for good measure, and then cried out as claws slashed shallowly across her neck. Inadvertently but instinctively slapping her hand to the wound, she felt blood running between her fingers.

The man dove at her, and she jerked her body to the side without moving her feet to avoid both his knife to the right and the tail flick to the left. She felt a strong urge to repeat the move she’d used only once, on Nagokama: a high, hard kick to the jaw to snap his neck. She restrained herself, barely, and flipped to the side as he came at her again. She slammed into a tree and fell to her knees, groaning: her right arm had hit the trunk. Darting forward, she made it to where her open pack lay, and found her swords. With a rinngswishh they came free of the sheath, and she turned with a grin to face her foes.

“Inu, back!” Hinnaeu commanded, but not before the creature had come close enough for her to slice off one of its arms. It screamed and howled in agonized ire, and she took the opportunity to survey the condition of her pack. Several items had been removed and were lying around it on the ground. It would take her many moments to gather it up; so much for just grabbing her things and scaling the wall. “Back!” Hinnaeu roared, and she realized maybe she wouldn’t have to get away quickly.

She watched warily as the groaning monster, head still tossing, retreated to its master’s side. The man was glaring at her with such an intense look of hatred he almost frightened her. “You killed Sotóra, you whore.”

“I’ll kill you too, if you don’t leave now,” she growled back. She had little patience for people who called her names. “Don’t think I can’t, unless you’ve never heard of the Maruroharyuu.”

His face twisted horribly with a mix of emotions, Hinnaeu stepped back, his hand on the back of the squirming monster. “Inu heel,” he snapped, and slunk away from her. “Beware of coming south, bitch,” he swore. “You killed Sotóra, and Telmiquor’ll skin you for it.”

“I’m not afraid of you or any of your friends,” she called back. Her neck was smarting and throbbing, and she only wanted to find her way to somewhere safe and get to sleep. When they were out of sight in the night shadows, she stood only one moment in the forest silence before repacking her things. Antwerp, who seemed to have intelligently hidden during the fight, appeared at her side with a questioning look. She scooped him up into her pack without a word and immediately tackled the wall. As she climbed she smiled. She was not a killer. Deathscar had told her to kill the man, but En Shevil had resisted and merely driven him off. It was true that she’d killed his companion, but that had not been her intent. She regretted it, but at least now she was on the road to truth.

She resolved never to think of Deathscar again.

When “Singing Man appeared to be in the middle of a song,” he’s singing Sting’s Mad About You. In this chapter he also quotes Sting’s Epilogue – Nothing ‘Bout Me and Star Trek: Generations, and probably other random sources I’ve forgotten.


Pride of her Parents 8

…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 8 – Magic and Mayhem

And so the winter passed. En Shevil cleaned house, cooked meals, washed clothes, and sometimes fed goats. In making herself some new apparel she found she had no idea how to sew the kind of shirt she needed for this climate. When she told this to Axel he silently went into his room and brought back a faded and worn woman’s shirt of the type common to Spielburg, and she gratefully pulled it apart and used it for a pattern. Once she was clothed again (in bright colors reminiscent of Shapierian styles she could not quite leave behind), her Maruroha gear went into the chest at the foot of her bed and was half-forgotten, though at Axel’s insistence she grudgingly kept the swords strapped to her back. She so rarely left Endensol as to have almost forgotten an outer world existed, until Axel’s second trip into Sechburg during her time of employ brought disaster.

“Now you’re sure you don’t want to come with me,” he said again, and she nodded, not looking up from her stitching. “All right,” he said. “Could you have something hot for me when I return tomorrow?”

“Of course,” she said, shooting him a smile as he buttoned his coat and left the house. He was really a pleasant man to live with: always courteous and often amusing. She felt that in his company she might possibly learn to like even herself again. She looked up at the portrait above the fireplace and, for the thousandth time, wondered what kind of woman could have won Axel’s heart. Not that En Shevil was jealous, but there was some quality Axel had that she could not quite understand. Some greatness of mind that was above her own. She wondered if Katharine had possessed it as well.

The next day she cooked goat sausage falafel at around lunch time and kept it in a warm oven for his return. But he did not come. She fed the goats, played with Antwerp, and shook out the things in the closet, but still no Axel. She only began to worry when the sunlight filtering between the top of the stockade and the cave’s roof dimmed and only lamplight remained. Brow furrowed, she decided to venture out into the bowl and see what was going on.

Nights were chilly even in Teildip, and she took her cloak and a lantern as she left Endensol behind to look around, leaving Antwerp behind. Walking aimlessly into the forest, she moved silently away from Axel’s home through the dark trees, the steady flame of her light creating a show of shadow and movement with the trunks of the pines and aspens. She attempted to avoid the strong magical threads that wafted through her consciousness from Erana’s Grove, and soon found herself on the eastern side of the bowl. Taking a moment to step out of the trees onto the forlornly snowy mountain slope, she shivered with cold and an eerie sense of fear, and went back down. At the edge the trees were frosted, and the white needles glimmered with a thousand tiny sparkling points of color, at which she gazed curiously before passing on. Extensively as she’d seen it throughout Spielburg, snow would always be a wonder to her.

Finally assuming Axel had decided to stay in Sechburg another night, she headed back home. Halfway there she heard footsteps approaching her at a fast pace. She turned and, full of strange apprehension, waited for whoever it was. As Axel stepped into the reach of her lamplight she breathed more easily. “I was getting worried,” she said.

He smiled at her, though he looked a bit worn. “Let’s go,” he said quietly. “There are trolls out tonight.” Her eyes widened, and she followed him back towards Endensol at the brisk pace he set. Suddenly he stopped and turned to her, a finger to his lips. She listened, and to her dismay heard loud crashings that seemed to come from all around. “They’re not too close,” he said, though he didn’t sound certain. “We should make it home.”

Just then shapes appeared on all sides, massive forms converging on them, increasingly visible as they approached. Ugly faces and massive arms looking green in the lamplight, the trolls stood a moment looking down at them before attacking.

En Shevil, shocked as she was, failed to stop a backhand from one of her assailants, and her lamp went spinning out of her grasp. She heard the glass breaking and Axel crying out in pain, but had no time to turn and look at him. All her concentration was now spent on forcing herself to fight.

Her first kick did practically nothing to the troll. He would be bruised at the spot, but she could not drive him away in that manner. With a sinking heart she realized she would have to use her swords. She would have to kill. Drawing the weapons she again forced herself to move, flipping forward at a low level, slower than she would have liked due to her silly cloak, towards the troll who had hit her. Not expecting such an attack and unable to counter it, he went down, his mace dropping to the ground with a thud. She tripped over her cloak as she tried to regain a fighting stance, and sprawled to the ground, rolling away just in time to avoid the blade of a large two-headed axe that buried itself several inches deep in the turf where she had been. Standing, she slipped lithely under the troll’s arms as he dislodged his weapon, and killed him.

Throwing off her cloak she prepared to face another opponent just as she saw Axel fall with a club slammed into his belly. She sprang forward, flipping gracefully over her inert companion, and quickly slaying his attacker. Three more trolls remained, and they came at her as one. However, their tactics needed a bit of work, for she slid out from between them and stabbed one before they reacted. His body fell onto the other two who, while dealing with this encumbrance, died by her blades.

She looked around, panting. Eight bodies lay strewn over the moss and grass of the forest floor, nine if you counted Axel. Was it her imagination, or did she feel magic here? Her jaw dropped as she watched, for the troll forms vanished before her very eyes, fading away as if they had never been. Only the blood from their wounds and their dropped weapons remained as proof of the battle. Looking at Axel by her feet, she caught a quick breath as she fell to her knees. Why? she wondered mutely, gazing on her friend with tear-filled eyes. Why does this happen to me?

In an absolute panic she carried the man home, laying him on the deep rug before the fire in the main room. Quickly and with shaking hands she rebuilt the fire, clearly conscious only of the thought that heat might do him good. She had not the faintest idea how to treat any sort of hurt beyond a minor scrape. How had she dealt with wounds as Deathscar? Certainly she had received them. She shuddered and shook her head, trying not to think of the dark powers she must have used to heal herself. Antwerp bounced worriedly against her leg, and she ordered him into the bedroom. He, having grown surprisingly well-behaved in the last while, obeyed.

Once she looked at Axel’s stomach she determined, in her pathetically inexpert opinion, that there was nothing she could do for him. He seemed to have broken ribs, and his entire belly was a disgusting blackish-blue. There was also a burn and a few cuts on the side of his head and face, she guessed from the lamp striking him, but these meant nothing beside his other injury. She shook her head, tears coming to her eyes. She was doomed, it seemed, to be responsible for death through either abuse or neglect, and there was not a thing to do. She took Axel’s hand and waited.

Eventually she dozed, leaning up against the armchair on the edge of the rug, her neck cramping and her legs falling asleep with her. The pale light of the fire flickered lower every minute, and there was no sound to disturb her weary sorrow. But in her half-sleep she dreamed.

Axel lay before her, a grey featureless shape on a dim frosty plain. As she watched, his figure divided in two, a white form leaving and a black remaining. Panic filled her, and she seized at the spectral image’s hand, clutching at him and keeping him with her. You’re all I have left… She was unsure whether this thought had been hers or his, but she gripped his hand tightly, her grey fingers interlocked with his white ones. Hours passed — days, years, ages — she did not know how long she knelt before him, strength waning but never allowing him to leave her. Finally a noise jarred her awake, and she started up into the cold dark room.

The feeling of morning and heavy magic was about her, and she gasped as if the air were thick with dust. The sound came again, a pounding at the door that seemed overloud next to the silence of the last several hours. Stumbling up and between the furniture, she made her way through the blackness, fear clinging to her as she left the site of Axel’s death and the strange magic that had come over them during the night. Tugging the door open with a shaking hand, she was blinded as light streamed in and a figure spoke. “Good morning.”

“Ribbon!” En Shevil, clutching at the visitor whom she could not yet see. “Name of Iblis, you’re here!”

“What’s wrong?” asked the girl. Ribbon was the daughter of a Sechburg cloth merchant, and enjoyed taking long walks up to Teildip to wander the warm forest and visit Axel. Such excursions were naturally discouraged by her acquaintances, but she was never deterred, which seemed nothing short of a miracle to En Shevil at the present moment.

“I think Axel’s dead,” En Shevil said, pulling Ribbon into the room and leaving the door ajar.

Dead?” echoed Ribbon. “What happened?” She followed this by something very unladylike as she saw the massive bruise that was Axel’s stomach. Falling to the floor beside him she took his pulse. “He’s not dead.” She ran her hand lightly over his stomach, closing her eyes, and En Shevil stepped back in alarm as she felt magic radiating from her visitor. “But… I don’t know how he’s alive.” She closed her eyes and spoke a few words. En Shevil cringed at the casting but stood still. “He’s got a lot of bleeding inside.” She worked another spell. “Bandages?”

“I’ll get some,” mumbled En Shevil, glad of any excuse to leave the room. She had never seen any sort of medical items in Endensol, other than the heavy ones used for the goats, so she opened the door to Axel’s room. She hastily seized his matches and lit his lamp, knowing she would not get anywhere floundering about in the shadows. Not that she really wanted to invade his privacy like this in the first place.

Her eyes fell immediately on the picture standing on the dresser, and despite her haste she paused to look at it. Again extremely well done, with fine detail painted by a careful hand, it bore unlike the larger a caption: Waltraud Katharine Zimmersonn. Zimmersonn was Axel’s surname of course, and En Shevil wasn’t surprised that with a name like Waltraud she’d chosen to go by Katharine. She crinkled her brow. Where had she heard that name before anyway? She shook her head and pulled open the top drawer.

Eventually she located a wooden, rusty-hinged box full of bandages and took it back to Ribbon, pondering what else she had seen in those drawers, though it had been mostly clothing. She had also found a few keepsakes: a jewelry box, its top beautifully painted; a silver band bearing Axel’s engraved name with symbols of love around it, to which she assumed there was a now-buried match; a dried bouquet that sent up a sweet smell as she touched it. All further proof of how dearly Axel had loved his wife.

Ribbon was still using magic. “Is there anything I can do?” asked En Shevil, hoping guiltily that she would say no.

The girl looked up at her earnestly, and said in a serious tone, “You’ve done enough already.”

Wondering what she meant by that, En Shevil said, “I have to feed the goats.” She wanted to hit herself then, of course, for such a callous remark. “Will he live?” she asked.

“Yes, I think he will. You do whatever you have to do.”

En Shevil went about her tasks with trembling hands. She changed out of her sweaty, wrinkled, bloodspattered clothes, brushed and tied her hair. With Antwerp accompanying her she threw out the spoiled food from last night and went to care for the goats. They were all well, she was glad to see. She hesitated before leading them from the keep though, wondering how Ribbon would get on. But she finally decided the girl had spent enough time there even during En Shevil’s time to know the house. She opened the door and led them into the forest.

The western meadow she usually avoided because it was close to Erana’s Grove, but today she went there because it was also closer to Endensol — in case Ribbon should need her. It would be a slow, lengthy day no matter what happened. She sat in the long grass watching the goats who were ill-pleased to be cooped up in a forest while the snow lay on the mountain, trying to ignore the magic from the Grove, and worrying about Axel. If he died it would be nobody’s fault, she told herself. But of course it was a lie.

She must have fallen asleep, for when she awoke it was near dusk and time to return the goats, half of which had wandered off. Antwerp bounced into the forest to round them up while she called, the other goats bleating agreement, and when their full number was again congregated she headed back for Endensol.

Walking into the room again was like entering a burning building, magic clogging the air like smoke and making her skin crawl. Ribbon sat in an armchair asleep, and Antwerp bounced over and started playing with her hand that dangled over the arm. She awoke with a start and looked around. “En Shevil,” she said.

“How is he?” asked the latter.

“He’ll live,” said Ribbon. “You got him through the worst of it.”

“What do you mean?” asked the other. “You said something like that earlier too.”

“I mean you held him here when he should have died. You have strong magic.”

“No,” En Shevil said. “No. I don’t.”

“I know how you feel about it, but someday you’re going to have to admit that you have magic!”

“Stop.”

“But you saved his life. Without you, he would have died.”

“No. You saved his life.”

“True. But he would have been dead when I came if you hadn’t…”

“I don’t want to argue with you,” said En Shevil, staring down at Axel. “What am I supposed to do with him now?”

“Keep him warm, give him only liquids to eat and a lot of them. And above all, don’t let him move. He shouldn’t be walking for at least a week, and then only a small bit.”

“All right. Thank you, Ribbon.”

“I have to get back to town or Detlev will come looking for me.” Ribbon was engaged to the innkeeper’s son. “He’s absolutely terrified that I’ll get kidnapped by trolls or something, and he never stops worrying unless I drop by his place whenever I go for a walk.” En Shevil looked at her worriedly. Detlev had seemed a good type to her, but this sounded a bit strange. “Oh, he’s not controlling me or anything. He’s just heard all the rumors.”

“What rumors?”

“Oh, you know, the ones about… people… getting carried off by trolls and things.”

“I haven’t heard those.”

“Remind me to tell you next time I come. They’re silly.” She opened the door and gave En Shevil the same earnest look she had earlier. “You can’t keep denying your power,” she said, and was gone.

The events of that day were important not only for our heroine but also our Hero, each lost as they were in the deepest cold of their respective winters. “I can’t bear to see a woman trapped like that,” Achim muttered, his reflections rather painful as he drew comparisons that probably weren’t any more logical than they were healthy. He approached the cage. The rain tore down between the thick bars, drenching the unfortunate leopardwoman as she sat, chin on knees, bearing it as best she could. The wind steadily beating at her back, the miserable-looking woman did not turn her head towards him, though her eyes were open. “I can’t stand that,” he said, and the guard on the opposite side rolled his eyes in Achim’s direction.

Finally, in an impulsive moment, the prince removed his cloak and draped it swiftly over the cage’s windward side, efficiently barring the prisoner from the effects of the weather. Startled, she moved and looked at him, but he was already walking away.

Later he was summoned to stand before the laibon, who gazed sternly down at the Hero, his feather-framed visage somewhat intimidating. “Why have you sought to give our enemy comfort, friend of Rakeesh?” the Simbani leader asked.

Frustrated, Achim replied. “Oh, how do you expect her to tell you anything if you’re so cruel to her? Keeping her in a cage like that, in the rain — what exactly do you think you’re going to get out of her?”

“The Leopardman be sneaky, the Simbani be direct. We do not bring words from her with tricks.”

“Tricks? Trying to save her from this…” he bit his tongue momentarily, “this rain is a trick? I’d call it common courtesy myself, but I’m just an ignorant Hero.”

“The Leopardmen will not meet the Simbani with fairness; why should we meet them with courtesy?”

“How do you know?” cried Achim. “How do you know any of this? You have no idea they stole your stupid spear, or who she is, or what she wants — why don’t you talk to them?

“The worth of the spear…” began the laibon, but Achim interrupted him.

“I don’t care! We’re talking about lives here! Lives that don’t need to end! Your stupid, stupid war is going to kill innocents and heal nothing. If you fight now, your people will forever be at war with the Leopardmen. Every one of your people as well as theirs is loved by someone. What will it be like, then, for those who survive?” Having little more to say, and less inclination to say it, the prince stalked out of the hut before the laibon could speak further.

That night, using every possible bit of stealth he possessed, he crept up behind the staunch Simbani at his post beside the forlorn captive. Smoothly he tugged the streaming cloak free from the cage and draped it over the drum he held under his arm; then he pulled at the simple latch and threw the cage-door open.

Not waiting to see the results of his actions, he took to his heels, tearing away from the place at the highest speed he could command. Though he could barely see through the gushing nighttime torrents, he managed to vacate the village without any sign of pursuit, heading past the night-watch and southward towards the Pool of Peace. He slowed once he was well beyond the walls of the village, wrapping the Drum of Magic more securely in the zebra skin. Perhaps he had just made a mistake, but there was no turning back now.

In Sechburg, more specifically in Endensol, the next few days were filled with a vague sense of guilt dependent upon the irrational fear of Axel’s death. This was a strange feeling which En Shevil attempted to push aside, simultaneously telling herself that she deserved it. But Axel grew better, as far as she could tell, regaining consciousness and, to a certain extent, lucidity after about the first day.

Later, he requested that she bring to him the wooden box standing beside his bed. “What is it?” En Shevil asked suspiciously, for he had been constantly trying to overexert himself since he’d awakened.

“Paints,” he responded. “It’s about… all I can do… in this… position.” His voice was soft and all his sentences broken because to draw breath pained him.

“Are you sure it won’t…”

“Quite.”

“Very well,” she said doubtfully, and went to fetch the box. “Did you do those pictures of your wife?” she asked as she set it down beside him.

“Yes,” he said.

“You are a very good artist,” she said admiringly, viewing the portrait above with a new eye. He did not respond, and after building up the fire again she went to feed the goats. She worried about Axel, but with the cougars that stayed in Teildip for the winter as alternative to hibernation she could not leave the goats alone. Soon winter would be over. She tried not to think about the temptation of clear mountainside, the snows gone, but her dreams were haunted less with death and more with a handsome blonde whom she desperately wanted to see again. She could not leave her friend, however.

She feared he would never regain his full health after this: though his ribs and stomach would heal, he would be weak; and also he had found some kind of illness she could not identify, making him cough (which eventually made him bleed internally) unless he was kept very warm. It was for this, as well as her personal convenience in tending him, that had induced her to keep him on the makeshift bed of rugs, blankets, and pillows before the great fire in the main room rather than move him to his own chamber with its small hearth.

And now he painted, with a small easel, like a picture frame holding a square of canvas tightly, standing on the floor to his right. She never knew what the picture was because she never looked, but he was lost to all conversation from the moment he picked up his brush. If she wished to speak with him she must wait until he dropped his arm from weariness and leaned back against his high-stacked cushions, eyes closed.

Meanwhile, every day En Shevil cooked him soup, kept him from hurting himself, helped him (staunchly refusing to blush) to bathe and into a change of clothing, and washed his bedding. Other than that she had only to pasture the goats (which took nearly the whole day) and feed the geese. Ribbon paid her a brief visit once to confirm Axel’s continued existence, but left soon after she arrived to meet Detlev for a romantic moonlight walk home. Even though it was not yet sunset. En Shevil, jealous, sighed as she watched the younger girl go, and returned to the side of her sleeping friend.

Ribbon came again, a week later, and stayed for supper. En Shevil didn’t really enjoy her company, but was still eternally grateful to her for saving Axel when En Shevil hadn’t been able to do a thing. After they’d eaten, sitting around the fire so Axel wouldn’t feel neglected, Ribbon stood. “I’m meeting Detlev again,” she said, “so I must leave.”

With another twinge of jealousy En Shevil asked, “Do you do this walk thing often?”

“Not in the middle of winter. He doesn’t like the cold.” En Shevil wanted to laugh at these ridiculous Spielburg people who thought this freezing pseudo-spring weather was warm, but did not.

“Have fun,” she said, and Ribbon left.

En Shevil then cleaned up from dinner while Axel painted. “Finished,” the latter suddenly announced, and though calmly, yet with a growing excitement she could sense. “Come see,” he bade her, never removing his eyes from his work. She wondered at his emotion, and came to look. “When I finish a picture I become, for a time, obsessed with it and must stare at it repeatedly. It is my one source of true joy. Arrogant, I know, but every man takes pride in his talents.”

En Shevil, who had been studying the superior picture and not really paying attention, marked this last and tried not to think about it. She looked again to the painting. It showed a lovely and fine-featured lady in rough peasant’s garb, standing with folded arms and her back to a full washtub, complete with scrubbing board. On a wall-peg behind her hung a brilliant green gown of excellent make, embroidered in detail, bestudded with white gems, and perfectly suited for the young woman’s complexion and figure. The lower hem was at least two inches stained with something reddish brown, as if the wearer had once waded through mud, now long since dried. “It’s you,” Axel laughed, breaking into a mild fit of coughing before he could continue. “It’s you, not wanting to do the wash.”

She looked again at the depicted maiden, noted the stubborn expression on the face, and laughed as well. “All right,” she said, amused, and would have continued but for the knock at the door.

“Ribbon?” wondered Axel idly as En Shevil went to see.

Detlev Sonders stood without, his hands behind his back. “Is Ribbon here?” he asked.

En Shevil felt immediately the cold heat of fear. “No, she left a while ago.”

“There are trolls about,” said Axel then, his voice like stone. En Shevil shivered; how he knew about the trolls she had no idea, but she did not doubt him.

Detlev swore faintly, his face more pale and terror-stricken than anything she had ever seen. He swayed slightly, then spun and ran away, leaving scattered flowers on the ground outside Axel’s door. En Shevil took off after him, seizing him by the shoulder. He struggled to escape her, so she laid hold of his arms. “Let go!” he said almost pleadingly. “I have to find her!”

“No. I will. You stay here with Axel.”

“But how can you…” he began as she dragged him back to the house.

“You just watch,” she said grimly, realizing she would have to give him hard evidence of her rescuing abilities before she could safely leave him with Axel. Pushing him roughly into a chair, she suddenly stopped. “Can’t Ribbon’s magic protect her?”

“She’s a healer, not a fighter,” said Detlev. “And she gets frightened easily.”

En Shevil shook her head and went into her room, scrambling for her Maruroha gear. This felt stupid, as if she were dressing up for a party — what a waste of terribly precious time! But if Detlev tried to catch or fight trolls she would have two townspeople to rescue. She only hoped she wasn’t already too late for the first.

Detlev’s eyes widened as she stepped from the bedroom in her warrior’s weeds, but her gaze went to Axel’s face, for it had blanched to such a degree as to worry her. “Detlev,” she said brusquely, “warm up the soup on the stove and feed him. I’ll make sure Ribbon’s safe. I promise.”

“Can you…” he faltered.

“I can. Stay here.” She raced out the door into dusk.

Not stopping for a lamp, she sped out of Endensol into the woods. The dimming light was not a problem, but Axel’s ability to sense trolls in his valley would have been useful. She ceased movement and listened, knowing the bowl’s propensity for silence, but heard nothing. Apprehension and a sudden doubt in her own powers filled her. What if Ribbon should die? But Ribbon had saved Axel’s life, and so to fail her was to fail him. And she had just promised Detlev, Ribbon’s fiancée, which made her fairly near beholden to Uwin and Elaine and the rest of them. Eventually, she realized, she would be letting down practically all of Sechburg with the death of the cloth merchant’s daughter.

Without discernable purpose, she ran to the east and north. Axel had mentioned a troll fortress of some sort in this direction, and thither, if they did indeed have her, En Shevil guessed they would take the girl, to wreak upon her whatever evil such creatures of low intellect might devise. That is, if they had not simply killed her already. A coldly optimistic thought threaded its way through En Shevil’s head: what if Ribbon were safe to begin with? She would be making quite a fool of herself chasing after trolls in the dark. But she didn’t have much of a choice.

The snows of late winter were shallow and wet, stretching in an oft-broken expanse of white up the mountainside. She looked again, noting the nature of the smaller breaks. Footprints, too large and separated to be human, went upwards into the growing darkness. As she looked at them she guessed at three or four trolls, but peering up the frosty vista, seeing white lumps of boulders and the occasional pine tree, she could make out no sign of any personage. A raspy scream met her ears, and she began to run once more, her mind full of the things that stupid, mischievous young trolls might do with a female human in their power.

Finally she overtook them. The skirmish was more of a slaughter, but she managed to keep her cool throughout by detaching her thoughts from the process of killing and letting her instincts and training do the work. Ribbon had been thrown to the ground by her bearer at En Shevil’s first assault, and now after the last troll had fallen in a mist of blood to the Maruroha’s twin blades she lay in a heap crying pitifully. En Shevil knelt in the snow, regardless of its soaking through her pants, beside the shuddering creature and touched her shoulder.

Ribbon flew at her, clinging like an infant and clawing her with clenching fingers. Her words came out in a terrified slur, completely unintelligible and punctuated by quick, deep gasps. “Ribbon,” said En Shevil gently, but the girl did not quiet. “Ribbon!” Though the heat of her exercise was fading but slowly, a stabbing gust of frigid air made her skin prickle, and Ribbon gasped in the midst of her hysterics. Her heavy cloak was gone, and her dress seemed torn in several places. “Ribbon,” said En Shevil a third time, “We need to go. It’s freezing.”

Ribbon tried once again to say something, waving her hands randomly in the air. En Shevil climbed to her feet and helped Ribbon up as well. The healer buried her face in the warrior’s shoulder as they began to walk. Then they heard from above them the unmistakable sound of heavy footsteps descending, rough voices laughing harshly and speaking in some crude language. Ribbon moaned in fear and her hands clenched like vises on En Shevil’s arm.

The latter woman knew that with Ribbon the way she was, it would not be long before the trolls discovered them. Assuming also that Ribbon in this state could not run very fast, and taking into account the distance between them and safety, she wondered for a moment if she could get out of this with the girl’s sanity still in tact. “Ribbon,” she said softly, “I want you to try and be quiet.” With that she slung the other over her shoulder like a full sack and sped off down the hill. Ribbon screamed, and En Shevil thought that this was perhaps the way the troll had carried her (although he, most likely, with far more ease, due to his size).

After a moment there were angry cries behind them, and En Shevil guessed the approaching vulgarities had sped up at the sound and found their comrades’ dead bodies. She had but a little time to get back to the bowl before they would be on her. She was not afraid of battle, but of what effect more bloodshed might have on Ribbon’s mind. But then, perhaps not everyone went crazy when… but that was fruitless.

She was not used to added weight on only one shoulder when running down a slippery mountain, dodging rocks and trees and pursued by trolls. After a few moments she slipped, her ankle twisting and her feet crumpling under her as she and Ribbon crashed to the ground and went sliding painfully over a myriad of stones at least seven yards into the lee of a great boulder. It was this that caused the trolls to miss them entirely, running past at great speed as En Shevil pulled herself achingly over to Ribbon’s side a few feet away. “It surely would help if you could get a grip,” she muttered, standing up after she’d ascertained that Ribbon was less hurt than she was. “Come on. We can’t stay here.”

Ribbon looked around with blank, timorous eyes, still weeping with abandon. En Shevil sighed her frustration and once again picked the other girl up and restarted in a westerly direction to avoid the trolls. Oh, that ankle hurt! She reached Teildip without incident, Ribbon still crying and giving the occasional wail or harsh scream when her courier stumbled. And not surprisingly, the trolls were onto them before long, blocking effectively, though doubtless not intentionally, their way to Endensol. She ran the other direction.

Wonderful, she thought. Here I am with trolls after me, a hysterical girl over my shoulder, and only one place in the entire forest I can take her. She continued running, heading for Erana’s Grove.

It was round, a perfect circle of straight, close-set trees forming almost a wall around it. A slight hill rose up in the center, moss-covered and soft, and around the interior of the trees was a sweep of impossibly large, brilliantly-colored mushrooms. They were set in a rainbow pattern, and as she followed their melting, glowing colors with her eyes she lost track of how many times she’d looked around the circle before she stopped. Throwing Ribbon down on the ground in the midst of them none too gently, she knelt beside the girl and seized her shoulders. “Ribbon,” she said, but with little coherent response. “Ribbon!” She stood, walking over to the mushroom ring to wait until the girl decided to calm down.

She stooped, grasping the off-white stem of a huge green-topped mushroom. Somehow, she reflected, the magic didn’t feel so bad once she was actually inside it. She broke off the mushroom’s cap, which was wider than the palm of her hand, and bit into it. It was a nice earthy taste, but hard to think about when her ankle hurt the way it did.

Ribbon’s wild crying having faded to a slight whimpering, En Shevil turned again and looked at her. “Ribbon,” she said. “I want you to stay here. You’re safe here, but if you leave this circle you’re likely to get killed.”

“Leaving me?” the other gasped, and En Shevil’s heart rose to hear her speak so intelligently.

“Just for a little while. I’ll be back soon to take you to town, or Endensol.” No need to tell her where she was going.

“Don’t!”

“I have to. Don’t worry. Erana will keep you safe.” She gestured to the mushrooms. “And if you’re hungry…” While Ribbon was looking over at the mushrooms, En Shevil slipped quietly out of the circle. She made the quickest, most direct path away from Erana’s Grove towards Endensol, killing two trolls on the way. “Ribbon’s safe,” she said as she burst through the door of the house. “There are still trolls about, so don’t leave. I’m going to…” Should she tell them her plans? No, they would worry too much. “I’m going to drive them away; and then I’ll come back. Build up that fire!” She was giving all too many orders tonight, she felt.

The troll fortress was easily found when she followed the tracks of Ribbon’s captors to where they met the tracks of the other trolls and continued. Like Axel’s home, it was a walled-off cave, this one of massive size. However, for the less intellectual trolls there was no magically locked door, only a massive gate far too large to break down. This was no trouble, for she simply climbed the wall and squeezed through the space at the top.

Using her thief’s instincts she sneaked up on the inattentive guard, putting her swords through his heart and throat before he was able to alert the others. Creeping around the sharp turn she followed the left-hand passage in a choice of two into a lower, darker room. In the doorway stood three more trolls bickering over something inconsequential. Breathlessly creeping towards them, she tried not to understand their vulgar speech. It was just as well that she killed them quickly.

She felt Deathscar stirring restlessly inside her, and concentrated on not thinking about what she did. By cutting herself off from the sweet rush of death she made the experience boring. Sneak, stab, sneak, stab, with the occasional skirmish thrown in. Altogether the trolls were not expecting any sort of attack and died complacently. She did not like to kill them all, but there really was no other choice. There must be no more kidnappings in Sechburg. Finally, when they were all dead and the floor was red under her feet, she determined she must burn the place to prevent its being used as a fortress again. She decided first to look for anything valuable that they might have owned, for she had seen several chests and strongboxes tucked away in alcoves of the extensive caverns. Upon examining them she found that every one had a broken lock, and doubted very much the existence of individual ownership amongst these stupid people.

As she inspected the first rancid container, mostly filled with things better not mentioned, more trolls showed up. She killed them, fighting Deathscar every bit as much as the trolls. After the engagement, she leaned back against the wall clutching her side, which was bruised and bleeding, her clothing torn, both from her long mountain slide and the three or four battles of the night. She hoped there would be no more, for the wild killing lust inside her was awakening and beginning to rage. She realized, though, that at the same time she was using her fighting abilities for something at least relatively good. Confused, she returned to her search.

The second chest held little more than the first, and by the third she was ready to give up. However, the next, small strongbox she found was heavy with coin. She dug through it, trying to ignore the building stench of blood that mixed with the already disturbing scent of troll-at-home, which included several very smoky fires. Her hand met something of not quite the same make as the golds, silvers, and coppers, and she pulled it forth. It was a silver band — a bracelet — reading on the inward side, “Waltraud Katherine Zimmerson.”

She stared at it, the world disappearing around her and an endless succession of cold shivers running down her back. So, this was how Axel’s wife had died. Words he had said became painfully clear. A hideous fear, paralyzing, filled her with no cause, and for several minutes she knelt there in the midst of the smoke and the blood, her wounds throbbing in her side and her ankle throbbing underneath her. Finally she replaced the bracelet in the chest and turned to a much more unpleasant task.

Having burned the trolls’ remaining firewood as well as their bodies, she brought the last sparks of her victory to the wall itself, destroying the last of the fortress entirely. She killed a few more trolls on the way out, and with the heavy strongbox on her shoulder made her weary way back to Endensol.

The next morning she was awakened by a mad pounding on the door. Her first thought was, How do so many people know the gate password? Naturally Ribbon and Detlev… She sprang up and instantly regretted it: every inch of her body ached like never before and she nearly fell over as she put weight on her twisted ankle. Moving very slowly, she opened the front door.

Uwin, Elaine, Detlev’s sister Dane and two of her eight children, as well as Ribbon’s parents piled into the room. “Detlev and Ribbon didn’t come back last night,” Uwin said grimly, and En Shevil wondered if it were only his son’s physical safety for which he feared. “We thought we’d ask here before we formed a search party.”

So this isn’t a search party? She’d put Ribbon in her room last night, and Detlev in Axel’s, and now she chose her words carefully, not wanting to worry anyone more than was needed. “We had a little problem with trolls last night, and they had to stay here.” Silence ensued, and she realized they were all looking at her attire. Glancing down unnecessarily she saw that she was still wearing her Maruroha garments as she had when she’d collapsed into the chair last night after bringing Ribbon back. Torn and greatly bloodstained, it showed her bruised and opened skin in many places down the side.

Where is she?” asked the cloth merchant’s wife with all the intensity of a mother who thinks the world is coming to an end.

“You should let her rest,” said En Shevil, putting her off.

Where is my daughter?” the woman shouted, her tone desperately urgent.

“I really don’t think…” En Shevil began, and then everyone started talking at once. Some wanted to know where Ribbon was, some said they should trust En Shevil, and all begged to hear the story of the previous night, especially Detlev’s twin ten-year-old nephews.

A door creaked open, and a second silence filled the room as they looked at Ribbon, her apparel far worse than En Shevil’s. The girl gave a sob and rushed into her mother’s arms. The noise began again doubly loud, and En Shevil resumed her place in the chair with Axel at her feet. Her glance met with the chest beside her, the strong box from the troll cave, and she remembered the silver bracelet. She knelt, feeling bruises on her knees, and opened the chest, drawing the band out.

Axel mumbled something and awoke. “What’s this?” she heard him say from behind her, his words most likely in reference to the crowd in his house. Turning, she kept the wristlet concealed beside her.

“I found this in the trolls’ fortress last night,” she said.

“You went to the troll for-” He saw what she held, and sluggishly reached out a hand for it. Almost hesitantly he closed his fingers around the treasure and took it. “You have avenged her,” he whispered.

“I killed them all,” she replied in like tone, “and burned their place.”

He looked at her in wonder. “Who are you?”

Her fingers crept to the scar on her lips. “I am she who was called Deathscar,” she said.

For several moments he continued to stare at her face. Then he sat up and threw his arms around her, weeping almost inaudibly, pressing her bruises and rubbing the chafing cloth of her oron against her raw skin. He clasped her tightly for some time and did not release her until someone spoke her name.

“En Shevil,” Ribbon repeated as she climbed slowly to her foot (the other she kept a little above the floor). The girl left her mother’s protective embrace to hug the warrior, to the latter’s further discomfort and probably Ribbon’s as well. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

“It’s fine,” said En Shevil. “But why wasn’t something done about the trolls earlier?”

The townspeople all looked at the floor. Nobody answered. It was finally Axel who spoke. “When Katharine disappeared, I asked the town to help me destroy the trolls’ fortress. Trolls had never been seen on Rustinmount before, and they thought I was crazy. There were also a lot of strangers moving through Milau at the time, and the general belief was that Katharine had tired of Endensol, run off, and thrown in with them.”

“Not everyone thought that,” said Karl, Ribbon’s father, quietly. “Old Angeldorf — her father — never really had all his wits, still to this day thinks she’s lost on the mountain somewhere.”

Uwin’s face held its typical starry-eyed expression, and he broke the trance long enough to say, “I’m sorry, Axel,” then returned.

“Even when Ribbon told us about your fight, we only half-believed in trolls and didn’t take much heed,” said Karl.

No one spoke for long moments. Finally Ribbon, who had returned to her mother, said, “I want to go home.”

You’re not the only one, was En Shevil’s inadvertent thought. She wondered what Achim was doing. “I’ll wake Detlev,” she said. She was brimful of slender annoyance at nobody in specific, more a restlessness than an emotion. Katharine might have been saved if it hadn’t been for the stubbornness of the Sechburg people. Had Diande had anything to do with that? Not only this, but En Shevil hadn’t seen the man she loved in months. “Good morning,” she said loudly towards the pile of bedding that was the innkeeper’s son.

He started up with a gasp. Last night when she’d returned she’d found him half-distracted, alone with a sleeping Axel and his endless thoughts to wonder what would become of his fiancée. His nervousness had apparently not yet worn off. “Ribbon’s going home; I assume you want to go with her.”

He sprang from the bed, seized his boots from their haphazard position on a chair, and ran into the common room, where the noise immediately recommenced. En Shevil followed sedately and dropped once more into a chair beside Axel. They listened to the chatter and hesitant laughter, and finally Axel remarked, “You’ve changed.”

“I hope so,” she replied.

“We’ve got to leave,” said Uwin. “We’ve go to get some men to deal with these trolls. And make sure they believe… us… this time.”

“Oh,” she said, jumping up (which was stupid). “Didn’t I mention that?” She took great pleasure in her next words, for what reason she knew not, though feared Deathscar had some part in it. “I did that last night. They won’t bother anyone again.”

“You…”

“Destroyed their entire fortress.”

Here was the third long silence of the morning. In their eyes she saw awe and respect, and in Uwin’s intensely thoughtful gaze a new understanding.

“Come to Sechburg,” said Ribbon.

“The burgomaster will want to reward you,” said Karl.

“I’d like to,” she said, “but I’ve got things to do up here, and there’s Axel.” She gestured as she spoke. Why don’t they just leave?

“We’ll find some way to reward you,” said Karl sincerely.

“Fine,” she almost snapped. “I’ll be in town again soon enough.”

Finally they left. She sat down, leaning her head back and trying to rest before she even thought about getting herself cleaned up.

“You told me you weren’t a warrior anymore,” said Axel in a mild, thoughtful tone.

“I lied,” she said, eyes closed.

Later that day, in a far warmer setting, Rakeesh dropped down beside Achim’s prostrate form on a sunny rooftop. “You must find it pleasant simply to relax,” he said. The prince sighed and rolled over, sitting up.

“Yes, I suppose so,” he said at last. “Being ‘Hero of Tarna’ on top of everything else is getting tiring. The parties are fun, but I will need to go home sooner or later.”

“To which home do you refer?” Rakeesh’s brow lowered as he followed Achim’s face after this remark; it had touched a bitter chord somehow, and the liontaur assumed he knew what it was.

“Shapier,” he said quietly. “It’s been a long time since I had much of a home in Spielburg, but I have a definite place in Shapier. The sultan plunged me into administrative business so quick it made my head spin, but now I’m almost anxious to return.”

Rakeesh knew that there was more reason for this than that the prince had become accustomed to activity, and felt he must say something. “Your pain will ease over time.”

“I know. I just don’t understand how…” He waved a hand in the air, pulled his knees up to his chin, and let out a long breath.

“We cannot understand,” said the Paladin. “We can never understand. And even if we put ourselves in her situation we cannot say we would or would not have done the same thing, not without the emotion to temper the decision. Nor can we judge her for it.” He fell silent, looking as did the prince over the bright savanna, glowing in the red light of a massive sunset. Achim’s eyes crept to the long triple scar across his arm where his skin had been ripped by liontaur claws as he fumbled for a dispel potion in a lost city. He could not help but think of her when he saw it — think of the scars on her forearms, the pain in her eyes when she spoke. She had been haunted, lost, and now she was gone. He stood abruptly and turned from the dusky splendor of the horizon, letting the heat warm his back.

“I–” he began, but never finished. For just then something gripped him, so powerful and intense that he writhed under its influence. The world went black around him, tiny stars lighting his way into unconsciousness. Rakeesh, who had jumped up at the first tingle of danger, rushed to the prince’s side, reached out to grasp the Hero. But Achim was gone with a flash of light that left the liontaur blinded for several moments.

“Dark magic,” he murmured to the air. How was he going to explain this to his brother?

***

The runoff from higher up the mountains saturated the ground, making it impossible to sit. The goats were discontented as well, as she and Antwerp prowled the east meadow. Not that she liked walking any more than sitting, being as sore as she was and her ankle being so tender, but having her pants soaked was equally disagreeable and not nearly as healthy. A shadow of her old thought circle had returned as she went over last night again and again. What right had she had to do what she’d done? The prospect of having been in the wrong did not particularly frighten her, for she knew what it felt like to have misbehaved without another choice; at least this time she’d consciously acted in response to someone else’s needs rather than instinctively to her own sadistic hungers. Surely that must justify some of the deaths she had caused last night. But had she reawakened Deathscar? That was the most important question in her mind.

At any rate, either because she had become hardened to guilt or because her tattered emotions were learning by evasion to avoid its effects, her thoughts left the trail for a fairer one and she began to think about Achim. She remembered what she knew of his history:

Born in the northeast of Spielburg… where? An orphan child, he’d been practically raised in the thieves’ guild of his town, and there he’d earned his bread until, though he must by that time have been fairly high up in the unsavory ranks, he’d become an apprentice… what had it been? He’d only mentioned that part briefly and hadn’t given his age, though apprenticeships usually began in the early teens. Somehow he’d applied to the F.A.C.S. and eventually graduated, at which point he’d grown bored of his town and position and gone out as an adventurer, even though he must have been almost old enough to make journeyman. Then of course he’d found his way to the valley that gave name to this disjointed country that swore its loose allegiance to the noble line of the barony and was lucky no nearby countries were warlike. He’d mentioned some minor adventure on the way to rescue Stefan’s children, but hadn’t told her about it; she guessed its outcome had not been favorable.

Then after he’d become Hero of Spielburg he’d come to Shapier… where he’d met her. And what had she done to him? Almost destroyed him, perhaps. She thought she had a vague memory of him detailing his victory in Rasier, while they’d walked in a forest that now seemed dark in her recollection, but she could not fill in his Shapierian story. But he must be the Hero of Shapier by now, whether officially or not. She hoped the Sultan had rewarded him well for… whatever he’d done. And now he was in Tarna, being a Hero there. Maybe with Rakeesh. Where would he go next? Would he ever think of her? She was dead to him, but what she wouldn’t give to see him again…

She breathed deeply, feeling the peculiar pressing on the inside of her ribcage, an old, odd, throbbing, aphysical desire for what she knew not. It was then she realized that, not matter what she’d done to him, what he thought of her, or what new person she’d made of herself here, she had to see him again. She hadn’t been able to kill Deathscar in Sechburg, but at least now she had a reason to let them both live for a time longer. She would have to tell Axel. She knew, though, with a pang of very mild, quickly-repressed annoyance, that she would not let herself leave until he was taken care of.

Such thoughts, comparatively cheerful, kept her company more than uncommunicative Antwerp on the way back to Endensol. She put the goats away, and went inside to get a hot drink and join Axel where he sat in the main room. They went for some time thus without speaking, she staring at the portrait over the hearth and he turning the silver bracelet over and over in his hands. Finally he spoke. “You’re leaving.”

She nodded.

“Where will you go?”

“Tarna.”

“I’ve never been out of the Lost Towns. There was never a need.”

“For seventeen years I stayed in Shapier,” she said with a sigh, thinking of her parents. “If my hair weren’t blonde I’d be there still.” She gave a slight chuckle and waited for the inevitable question, but he was apparently determined not to pry and said nothing. After a moment she continued. “As I told you, I was once a thief, and being one of maybe four blondes in the whole city makes you pretty recognizable, even in a dark room.”

He apparently took her meaning. “So you decided to travel?” he guessed.

“Not really. I went to…” She chose to leave out the embarrassing details. “…Rasier, and through something I haven’t figured out yet got transported far away.”

“Where?” he asked when she did not continued. He was clearly fascinated by her history.

“Itsumo Kawai.” He shook his head to show his lack of recognition. “It’s an archipelago southward of the Punjabi coast; people on the mainland say it Ytsomo Kwai.”

“And Punjabi is to the east of Shapier?” he said with his brow crinkled.

“Yes. Shapier is in the greater land of Fricana, and the lands of Inja lie to its east. Punjabi is one of them. Itsumo Kawai is leagues out to sea, very isolated.” She sighed from some subconscious realization that presently surfaced: she was going to tell Axel the entire story, which meant talking about things she would rather forget. “I learned the Maruroharyuu in a school there and something…”

She fell silent abruptly, staring into the dying fire as if in its embers she saw the smoldering relics of everything she’d lost. Like a poison ponderously creeping through her blood came over her a stilling depression, congealing her emotions and enervating her will. This is eternal, it told her: this dying light of a fire you can never be again, this cold sorrow.

Axel stood suddenly and threw a loose-barked log onto the hearth. After a moment the flames swelled once again, forcing her melancholy into retreat like a night-loving creature at the touch of dawn. But as it fled it sent out a parting shot: Without me, nothing is real… Thus she was left with a strange fantastic sense of the room being disproportionate around her, and a resultant desire for the depression to return. This confusing ring of emotion was going to destroy her unless she defeated it first. How she wished she could simply cast it into the fire! But would even dragon fire avail against such a nonsensical web? She shook her pained head — too many symbols.

Axel had returned to his chair, and obviously wanted to hear more. She did not remember where she’d left off until he prompted, “Something?”

She looked at him, following the ghostly flickering golden light up his haunted face out into the shadow-ballroom beyond. “Something drove me crazy,” she said at last. “I don’t know what, though I have my guesses. I killed some people, and forced a ship captain to take me from the island. I wanted to get away from something there, but I still don’t know what it was. And then… I’m sure you’ve heard… through Punjabi, Avva’rel, and Spielburg until Achim found me.”

“You l–what happened then?” She stared at him, her gaze sharpening. What had he been about to say? He knew she would continue; there was no need for such urging. And why had he looked so thoughtfully surprised at the mention of Achim’s name?

“He had Erasmus cure me of insanity. Then, so he wouldn’t have to drag me around with him, I faked suicide.”

“So he thinks you died,” Axel said, totally deadpan. There was something behind that remark, but En Shevil could not tell what it was. “Why are you here?”

“I thought I could kill Deathscar. She’s still here,” putting her hand on her breast, “not far inside.”

“And you have not succeeded.”

“No. I think I have…” This was hard to say. “I think I’ve come to grips with the fact that I am a warrior. But Deathscar still lives.”

“When Katharine died someone told me this: No matter how fast you run, you can never catch time that has already passed. You can only keep up with the time that is passing now.”

En Shevil did not understand, and said so.

“Perhaps this Deathscar you hunt is an illusion of the past — something that died in truth with your madness. Perhaps what is left for you now is to lose that past, and find a future.”

“Perhaps,” she said, appreciating the concern but knowing him to be wrong. The light was falling once more, and she roused herself before apathy could take her again. “I’d better start supper,” she said.

The next morning she was cooking breakfast as usual when there came a knock at the door. Axel, though well enough now to move about the house, still did not arise at his previously accustomed hour from the bed to which he’d at last returned. Since she simply could not leave eggs unattended on the stove and did not want to awaken her employer by shouting, she ignored the knock. This agitated her (she hated not answering a knock), but she had no choice. She heard the knob rattling as the visitor decided simply to enter and found their way locked. Wondering how long they were willing to wait she continued her task. Her cooking, though still not what she would have called good, had certainly improved, and she would not have her hard work spoiled by some impatient caller.

Finally she had the eggs finished, the meat strips laid out, and the sweet buns in the oven (she had still not mastered breadstuffs, and these did not look very appetizing). Of course, even after months of practice, she’d still managed to do things in the wrong order: the eggs and meat would be cold by the time the buns were done. She shook her head and went to the door.

Antwerp was bouncing lustily up against it. “Yes, I know,” she said as he moved out of the way, looking at her expectantly. Antwerp loved it when people came to the door.

Without stood a man she did not know. Rather portly, he had an indifferent-looking, somewhat ugly face adorned with a long grey, black-streaked beard. He was finely dressed, even for the relatively wealthy Sechburg people, and after a moment she realized from the medal-like pendant around his neck that this was the burgomaster himself.

Here she had a momentary confusion, for just as sometimes before, two respectful gestures came to mind immediately: the half-bow of Shapier, hands pressed together before her breast, and the full bow of Itsumo Kawai, hands clasped behind her back. As it was, she somewhat awkwardly bent her upper body forward and lowered her eyes.

The burgomaster stepped in quickly, followed by another, shorter man she did not know, and Ribbon’s parents. Wonderful, was En Shevil’s sarcastic thought. Here we go. “Good morning, sir,” she said.

“En Shevil of Shapier,” began the important one imperiously. “It has reached my ears that you, a stranger to our town, have done what no native has had the strength, will, or courage to accomplish: that is, destroying a group of loathsome and detestable trolls in the act of kidnapping one of our esteemed townspeople. Those men who went yesterday to inspect the scene of this most advantageous destruction have reported that your actions were well and succinctly done.” Men? Why hadn’t Axel mentioned that? “Moreover, besides having served the valley by this removal, you have also given present couple cause to rejoice at the prolonged life and safety of their daughter, one Ribbon by name. Thus, with the thanks of all Sechburg and on behalf of our good Kleiderbonnens, I now present you with this purse of fifteen golds for your deeds and extend to you an official invitation to a banquet in your honor to be held at the town hall on the evening after tomorrow.”

En Shevil was now speechless, only because she was unused to such verbosity from a visitor who hadn’t even been offered a seat yet. She received the heavy purse from the man she now guessed to be an aide of some sort, and stood holding it while they all looked at her. Finally she said the first thing that came to mind: “A banquet? But… Axel…”

“He’ll stay with us,” said Tallien, Ribbon’s mother, stepping forward to seize En
Shevil’s arms. “Please, you must accept these things. They aren’t really enough, but they’re the only way we can begin to thank you.”

“Uh-of course,” En Shevil stammered, seeing the tears in the woman’s eyes. “Yes, of course I’ll come to the… banquet, provided Axel will be taken care of. He still shouldn’t be walking too much, you know.”

“We’ll send horses for you both,” Karl assured her. This was rather a surprise, for such creatures, though not rare, were neither common, and hers had sold at quite a handsome price. She doubted the Kleiderbonnens had any horses of their own, which meant they would have to rent some. And as the burgomaster did not seem to want to step forward for costs, the expense would have to come from Karl and Tallien’s pockets. But what polite way was there for her to refuse, or else offer to hire the horses herself? Probably none, so she would have to be rude.

“Let this be for horses, then.” She pushed the moneybag into Tallien’s hands. “I don’t need it.”

“But…” protested the burgomaster’s aide.

“I have sufficient money of my own.” She thought of the troll chest.

“But…” protested the cloth merchant.

“I refuse to have you paying for horses to carry me to my own banquet. If I must go, let me get there on my own money.”

“A horse doesn’t cost nearly…” began Tallien.

“Then save the extra for Ribbon’s wedding.”

They could argue no further, and the burgomaster was decorously silent during the discussion. Looking at him, En Shevil had the sudden thought that he disapproved of the entire reward scheme and had other uses in mind for the money.

“Truly you are a most honorable person,” said Karl. “A Heroine!”

She actually smiled as she heard this, for the very word gave her more felicity than she’d felt for some time. Of course she modestly denied it, saying she’d only been helping a friend, but the idea became set in her brain, and something whispered the word redemption to her mind. Was it possible to dismiss her evil past in the face of a virtuous future? What Axel had said last night came back to her. No matter how fast you run…

She smelled her sweet buns suddenly, and excused herself to check on them. When she returned she found Axel up and speaking with his guests. How many days had gone by lately when he had not been awakened by unexpected visitors at some time in the day?

“We must take our leave of you,” the burgomaster said as she appeared. “There are preparations to be made.”

“Of course,” she said with a polite smile.

“Are you sure you won’t…” began Karl.

“Yes,” she said firmly, and they were gone.

“Herr Schatz did not want to reward you at all,” said Axel. “Monnal stopped by here yesterday to ask the way to the fortress, and he said the burgomaster wanted to give you a title only. I have no doubt this banquet was all Monnal’s doing, and the money was probably a collected sum acquired by the Kleiderbonnens.”

“Well, I didn’t want the money,” she snorted. “I’m no mercenary.”

“No,” he said, “you certainly aren’t.”

Ignoring the odd tone in his voice, she headed for the kitchen. “A trip into town should do you good, at any rate,” she said cheerfully. “Come on. Breakfast should be ready.”

***

En Shevil hated horses. This one was so slow and kept stumbling and threatening to throw her off. Axel’s, in front of her, was gentler (a good thing, though it had been pure luck she’d chosen the worse mount), but the man still looked a bit jostled by the time they rode into Sechburg. They dismounted at the stables, where the stablemaster offered to keep the horses for free though she insisted on paying him. Then Axel slowly (she wouldn’t let him walk any quicker) led her to the town hall; she had quite forgotten where to find it.

Torches and lanterns adorned this entire street area, and tables were set out for those not favored enough to sit in the hall itself. The torches outside its double front doors were blazing, and townspeople were clumping around its exterior. When she and Axel appeared an enthusiastic cheer went up, and En Shevil wanted to roll her eyes. A banquet? What stupidity! She smiled at the villagers, who pressed themselves into the already-crowded building after her.

They were immediately ushered out again, and En Shevil was presented to the small group with which she was to eat. This entire banquet thing was becoming increasingly more embarrassing and awkward, and she felt terribly self-conscious as she was gestured over to the burgomaster’s side to face the small assembly. The latter included Monnal, the Sonderson parents and Detlev, the Kleiderbonnens, and Kelli Machein the guildmaster. She was given at place to Schatz’s right (she was unaware of the offense she could have taken at this, as the “head-of-the-table” custom did not apply in Shapier and she’d never been to a banquet elsewhere), and Axel sat beside her.

The food was good, especially compared to her dubious cooking, but she found herself terribly restless. Not only that, the doors of the town hall remained open the entire time, letting in a draft that the Spielburg people didn’t seem to mind but she did. She realized at last what her problem was: the snows were melting, and she wanted to be off. She chided herself that no thought of Axel’s condition crossed her mind.

The other people at the table were chattering loudly to one another, which sound mixed with the subtle roar of the rest of the assembled folk outside: not the whole town, but a great many voices. Even the burgomaster talked to his aide about the price of wheat and other spring imports. Only En Shevil and Axel partook in silence.

“En Shevil,” said Uwin after a while, obviously in response to something within his conversation, “what manner of fighter are you?”

She smiled politely, still not wanting to be here. “Maruroharyuu,” she replied. “It is a ninjutsu-kenjutsu method used and taught in Itsumo Kawai.”

“And how long have you practiced this art?” asked Monnal curiously.

“I was trained last summer,” said the warrior, knowing it sounded strange. She still wondered herself at her own proficiency, and could only attribute it to her katta pin, now lost, and her previous acrobatics training that she’d never used. There were murmurs of amazement from all at the table, except the mayor and Axel.

“Were you never any kind of warrior before?” Karl questioned.

“None,” En Shevil answered, allowing the woman waiting on her to refill her mug with coffee (had Erich told them? otherwise how had they known?).

“No previous training?”

“I did learn some acrobatics from my parents, but never really practiced it after I’d learnt it. I knew how to throw daggers fairly well.”

“Is it true you were a thief?” shouted old Machein suddenly, almost as if he had not been listening to the conversation and the thought had just occurred to him.

The entire table fell silent, some eyes on En Shevil but most downcast: how could he ask her such a question? The burgomaster cleared his throat as if to speak, but no words followed. En Shevil smiled broadly, seeing no reason to lie and amused at their discomfort. “Certainly,” she said, opting for a longer word just for effect.

Ribbon, down the table, giggled suddenly, and the noise resumed, somewhat embarrassed. “The dignity of certain professions is still in question here,” said Axel in a low tone.

“I’m not a thief anymore anyway,” she responded, wanting to say it to someone.

“I know.”

The burgomaster stood ponderously, pushing his chair back a full five feet before he was able to stand straight. “I would propose a toast!” he said in his thick voice. The table quieted, as slowly did the outside noise. “A toast,” he continued more loudly, “to our noble visitor and friend from Shapier, who had the courage and resources to complete a daring rescue and annihilation most profitable to our valley and the one neighboring.” They were all standing up as he spoke, except En Shevil (she hoped she was doing this right — toasts like this were not customary in Shapier), and fumbling for their small wine glasses. En Shevil guessed there was more fumbling outside, due to the fact that there was more beer. “I give you En Shevil!” Tremendous cheering from outside, where the laughter and speech immediately recommenced, while inside the others voiced their agreement and drank the toast quietly. After resuming their seats (En Shevil hoped she didn’t have to do anything specific at this point), they all smiled at her and continued eating.

All in all, the evening lasted far too long, and En Shevil was almost shaking from excessive politeness by the time they dispersed. She pitied those who had to clean up after the more rowdy villagers outside the town hall, shaking her head as she headed for the Mien. The Kleiderbonnens had offered to put her up for the night, but she’d refused on the grounds that she would not inconvenience them further.

As she walked, stopped periodically by home-going townspeople to shake hands (that she was not used to), she felt that the entire banquet had been strange. Wryly with mild and endurable resentment she realized that Herr Schatz had arranged it all very nicely for himself: the town had apparently come together for the cost, all appreciative of what she’d done, and he’d gotten away with no more than a toast. No title, no particular euphemisms of gratitude, and very little money. She smiled.

The Mien was crowded, filled with villagers who wanted heavier liqueur than the light beer from the banquet. A general cry of drunken good will was raised at her entrance, almost making her more nervous than the approbation of those sober, and a path was made for her through their ranks to the bar. Not that she wanted to go to the bar, but that was where the company inadvertently forced her. When she reached it, Erich smiled, and six or seven drink offers hailed from different sides. She shook her head, powerless but to smile, and turned towards the room she’d rented earlier.

“So,” slurred a voice she did not want to hear from nearby, “I hear there weres’m trolls up there afterall.”

Hot anger at the thought of Katharine’s fate slowed her turn as she faced Diande. He leered at her, intoxication hazing his eyes and his mouth slackly grinning. With a vindictive smile she backed up and kicked him, not so hard as she would have liked, in the face. His form went reeling backwards into the crowd, who basically parted until he hit the ground. Then after a moment another cheer filled the room, drowning out her low statement: “We’re even.” Smiling genuinely now, all the tension of her high-strung nerves quite released, she turned to go to her room. Pats on the back followed her there, and even Erich was openly showing his approval with a half-smile. Her general state of mind much improved, she left the room and climbed the stairs to go to bed.

Wandering dark streets and somehow unable to see — why weren’t the sconces lit? — she felt her way along the wall. Where was she? The street markings were gone, and she did not recognize the turnings. Where was she headed? There was something ahead, someone. Or was it someone behind? As she came to what seemed the same turning again, she realized it was both: she was moving in circles. Horror crept over her, fear of the dark nature of that which she pursued — and fled. Or was it herself that she sensed, ever behind and ahead because she continually walked the same path? She could not tell, but knew she must keep moving. Whoever overtook the other would be the destroyer. The sound of her dark companion’s footsteps reverberated between the walls — or was it the echo of her own footsteps? Their originally near-inaudible breath sounded loudly in her ears — or was that her own breath? The occasional swish of their garments slid through the hallways to her hearing — or was that the cloth of her Maruroha attire? As the darkness increased and she was finally blind to all senses but hearing and the feeling at her fingertips, she lost track of the differences. She was her pursuer, the one she hunted. They were one, and yet not a unit. Their hearts beat on the same pulse, their breath was drawn in the same rhythm, their eyes saw the same sights, and yet they were separate entities. For time unreckoned she plodded on, tracing the same path through darkness in search of herself.

When she awoke from the endless journey that still continued somewhere within and without her, she squinted at the room around her, puzzled. Something did not feel right; the world was unreal. Dressing and gathering her things, she left the bed in disarray and went downstairs to buy breakfast. Erich had coffee waiting especially for her, and though Sechburg coffee was, comparatively, quite terribly bad, she was glad of the caffeine and the thought. When she had eaten her bread topped with meatballs and thick sauce — there was a disturbing lack of fruits and vegetables in this country — she headed for the Kleiderbonnens, hoping she remembered the way. She wasn’t sure for how long, or even if, Axel wanted to remain in town, and she intended to go back to Endensol at any rate.

“You want to leave,” he said when she arrived and sat with him in Ribbon’s house.

“Yes; the goats do need tending.”

“I meant you want to leave Sechburg.”

Though she’d known it before, it suddenly struck her like a blow to the head that she did, and very much. “Yes, I do,” she said.

“I thought so. I’ve arranged with Detlev that he’ll come help me until I’m up to goatherding again. I’ll be staying here for a few more days; you can leave any time you want.”

Her mouth opened, but no words came. She was overwhelmed with gratitude towards him, for his friendship, insights, and acceptance. “Thank you,” she said at last. “I can’t…” She didn’t even know what she was trying to say. “You’ve helped me. You’ve shown me something. Or, Endensol has. I’m not sure.”

“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said. “I have something for you.” He leaned over and drew out something folded, deep blue and velvet. She knew it at once. “You have avenged my wife’s death and given me a treasure I never thought to see again to remember her by. I think it’s only right that you should have this.” He shook it open, revealing the soft trimming fur, and held it out for her.

Again she was speechless, but somehow very happy. She took the cloak in her arms and held it to her like a loved one. “I’ll always remember you as my friend,” she murmured, realizing as she did that her eyes were stinging.

“If you ever,” he said with a strange intense tone to his voice, “find your peace of mind — if you ever meet your goal and destroy Deathscar, promise me you’ll come back and see me.”

“Of course,” she said, pitying him. She saw now that Katharine had been his world, his all, his total happiness, and her death had made it impossible for him to live more than a shadow of his old life except through others. Thus her conquering of sorrow would be a triumph for him as well. She stood, smiling at him. “I’ll drop by tomorrow, on my way out.”

“All right,” he said, his voice light again. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”


Pride of her Parents 7

…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 7 – Sechburg

Rustinmount held the debatable honor of being the northernmost peak in the Spielburg range before the latter met the Malignant Mountains at the border. The four Lost Towns, situated in two adjoining valleys on the side of Rustinmount, were almost only accessible in late spring and summer, and then only from Spielburg — nobody came south from Mordavia through the passless Malignants. So the quiet secluded Lost Men, as they were called, lived and died and raised their goats and sheep, bred their horses, brewed their beer, and mostly carried on in peace and comfort with little outside meddling. There were traders that came every spring after the melting of the harsh monster drifts that blocked off the Arias and Dabei valleys all fall and winter, but they were the same people year after year, and in fact usually walked in their fathers’ footsteps. No one vacationed in the Lost Towns, there being little to draw them and the fear of an unexpected blizzard to keep them away. Strangers never came to the Lost Towns; or if they did, became quickly ‘Found’ again.

As for the people, they were gently rough, of good but rubbery morals, with little enough inclination for travel but a voracious appetite for news. However, as they were slightly inwardly suspicious of outsiders (usually until after the latter were gone, at which point the congenial villagers would state that ‘he was a wonderful fellow’ and go back to their drinks), and were just as well pleased with an oft-repeated tale or ballad as with the cares of other kingdoms, a learned man or well-read woman had as much of an audience, on any given night, as the most eloquent traveler holding council at the local inn. The one thing that made the Lost Men atypical was their lack of provincial mentality, some said due to a half-forgotten visit, years and years before, from Erana. Though stubborn in their own ways, they were accepting of others and not in general so ignorant of worldly things, such as science and magic, as one might expect to find them.

In Sechburg, the western town in Dabei, stood an inn. The swinging sign above the door, depicting a poorly-clad teenage girl who looked anything but what she was supposed to be, was long since gone, it having been stolen by some of the rowdier drunkards during their festival midnight rampages and never replaced. This was the popular evening gathering-place for men, and the occasional bawdy woman, of both Sechburg and often its eastern neighbor Milau, and tonight was obviously no exception. The cloaked stranger, of the kind that never became Lost, glanced up, noting the absence of the marker, and wondered, not really caring, what the place was called.

The stable master of Sechburg, through a window, watched the stranger cross the street from his building, where she’d left her horse, and enter the inn. As her nondescript figure was silhouetted against the door, more clumps of snow fell from the folds of her cloak. He shook his head, wondering how long she’d last in that place — so quiet, so inexpert handling her animal! How such a person had made her way up the mountain at all, through the early winter snows no trader dared walk, he did not know. Perhaps she was a thief, and came to avoid some sentence in the lower country. He knew the type of hardened criminal that would do anything, go anywhere, to evade captors, but she did not seem to fit the mold. What and whoever she was, she’d certainly given him little to guess by, saying barely words enough to get her point across, and never deliberately showing him her face. He hoped she wasn’t in trouble, for she would only find more at the Mien Waif tonight.

***

Usually Uwin had a good notion of beauty, and could pass practiced judgement on face and figure within moments of first seeing a girl. Thus the stranger, whose face he saw as she leaned forward to question him over the noise of the room, caught his attention. For though her features demanded his approval for their faultless shape and the brilliance of her green eyes, something about her, some half-recognized flaw that had nothing to do with her aesthetic appeal, struck him as bizarrely unlovely. Eyes battling with instinct, he could not begin to decide whether or not she was attractive. Suddenly he realized she had spoken and he had lost her words in his thoughts. Shaking his head, he said, “Pardon?”

“How much is a room?” she asked again. It was in her voice as well — a sense of something being not quite right with her, something he should perhaps fear. Whatever answer he might have given her was again thwarted, this time by drunk Diande who slapped a hairy red hand on her shoulder and pulled her around with a query:

“Axel?” But when his gaze met those bright green eyes with their unfathomable sorrow, he dropped his arm and looked at her in puzzlement and growing anger. It did not take much to get a drunken man angry. “Who’re you?”

She was angry herself then, he could tell, but was mistress over it in an instant like one who had through endless practice come to know and govern her emotions. As if accustomed to lonely silence, perhaps not realizing she should probably answer, she simply stared at Diande with a gaze that might have been intimidating in its placidity but for that surreal sense of imperfection she held around her. This only angered the man further, predictably, and he repeated the question harshly, with a few slurring words that Uwin wouldn’t have said in front of his grandchildren. She continued to stare as if she did not know the answer. Uwin’s hands curled agitatedly around the edge of the bar as he watched Diande’s fists form and appear at face level, as always.

“Diande,” he said warningly. The big man turned his head, and the stranger took the opportunity to step nearer the bar, again, for safety.

“Don’ ‘old w’strangers ‘oo won’ teller namz.”

“My name is En Shevil,” she said calmly in her southwestern accent, and Diande looked at her with a drunkenly exaggerated expression of surprise. Uwin shook his head at the stupidity of his customers, some of whom were unable even to recognize a woman until she spoke.

“A room is four silvers for a night; please pay in advance. I’d advise you to head up there pretty quick before they,” gesturing to the general content of the room, “figure out you’re a girl, or a brawl starts.”

She had been watching Diande, but now she gave Uwin a surprised, appraising look, the shadows shifting and darkening on her hooded face as something set the lamp behind him swinging. “You’re a bartender?” she asked, at the same time fishing money from a hidden pocket. He smiled and took the coins she offered him.

“I own the inn. But Erich had a family emergency in Milau and I’m filling in. Quite a change, doing actual work.” She caught his mild joke after a moment and smiled belatedly, wanly. He glanced around, handing her a key with one hand while the other steadied the lamp above him. “Through that door” –it was at the right end of the bar– “up the stairs, second room on the left.” She nodded her thanks, then turned to go.

But Diande was not finished with her yet. He staggered after and pulled her to face him again. “Now, look,” he said loudly into her face, making her balk at his obviously sour breath, “strangerzarn’t welc’m ‘ere.”

She looked at him with a strange expression and said dully, “Leave me alone.” He swung his fist at her face, and her reaction was as odd as any Uwin had ever seen.

Her hands jerked up and her framed tensed, and then she actually stilled her arms, stood firm, and took the blow to her cheek. As Uwin sprang forward to join another man in holding Diande back, he watched the stranger touch her face lightly with her fingertips and wince. She could have blocked it, he was thinking. She could have dodged. She probably could have turned him upside-down. Diande was struggling as they pulled him towards the door, curses flying all the way. Uwin, not being a particularly muscular man, left the task to some who were, as well as that of reminding the drunkard that women were not struck at the Mien, and made his way back to the victim.

“I’m sorry,” he and she said in the same moment. “Do you need some ice?” he asked.

“No, thanks,” she assured him, looking around anxiously at all the attention she’d attracted. She added very softly, as if to herself, “I’ve had worse.”

Uwin had heard men brag using those words, but this was obviously not the woman’s intent. He looked at the wickedly mottled bruise darkening on her cheekbone, and sucked in his breath. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Thank you,” she said with a shake of her head. “Goodnight.” Amid stares of curiosity she left the room.

The chill was not only in Sechburg. “It is good for you to get away from the many temptations of Tarna,” said Rakeesh. “Tarna is not a place for one of your skills.”

The prince sighed, reflecting on others who shared his skills. “Is it always this warm in winter?” he asked, pulling his hood of his zebra-skin cloak lower against the heavy rain.

“There is little winter in Tarna,” replied Rakeesh, who was practically oblivious to the water streaming through his mane and adding perhaps ten pounds to his body weight, “only the rain.” The Prince of Shapier bowed his head in reflection as they walked on through the muddy savanna towards the Simbani village. They would have no fire tonight. His tears were almost colder than the rain, and with his face pointed downward he thought, underestimating Paladin powers of perception, that Rakeesh would never notice he wept. “My friend,” the liontaur said at last, “what has been troubling you? Since you returned from your quest to Spielburg, you have said so little. What happened there to cause you such grief?”

Achim choked and splashed his foot down into a puddle. “En Shevil,” he said.

Rakeesh shook his head very slowly, wondering how to tell a prince he needed a life. “I’m…” he began, but the royal youth cut him off.

“She was Deathscar!” he cried. “I left my search for her just to find her in the least likely place imaginable!”

Rakeesh was shocked as he had not been for years. “Deathscar the killer? En Shevil?”

Hearing his tone Achim quickly continued. “She was crazy,” he sobbed, “and I don’t even know why or how. I had Erasmus help her, but she…” He clenched his fists and shook them in helpless sorrow. “She hated herself.” Rakeesh nodded slowly, unable to do more. Even a Paladin was left speechless now and then. “And she…” His frustration with the world — with her for not understanding, with himself for not being able to help her, with Rakeesh for making him explain — overwhelmed him, and he stopped and looked into the sky, his hood falling back from his damp hair. He gave a nondescript cry, stamping his feet, and then felt the liontaur’s hand on his shoulder. He pulled away and began walking again, very quickly, without fixing his hood. “She killed herself!” he shouted, and repeated it a few times. Weeping again, he slowed and allowed Rakeesh’s arms to go around him in friendly comfort, though the gesture did not help.

“I’m sorry,” said the Paladin. “I’m so sorry. You have shown yourself to be a force for great good, and I sense that you consider this event a failure. Do not let it discourage you! You are Tarna’s hope now; war must be prevented.” The liontaur was going off again, smoothly returning to the previous subject, and Achim restrained another sigh: he was growing used to the Paladin’s somewhat annoying ways. “I do not know how your skills will aid us in our mission for peace, but I trust you will think of something. One with your skills must be very clever as well as physically fit in order to survive. But please try not to dishonor us amongst friends. It would be difficult to justify your actions to the Simbani if you decided to ‘borrow’ something from them. Particularly since we will be their guests.”

“I’m the Hero,” he mumbled, almost angry. “You can always count on me.”

***

“Good morning,” said Uwin as the newcomer, En Shevil, came into the barroom and closed the door almost silently behind her. He had just stepped in to make sure Erich was all right (a sick mother in the next town and all the bartender could say was ‘rngnf’) and that he’d gotten back to Sechburg in one piece, which he had. He’d shown up at the Mien at dawn, as punctual as he’d been every day for the last eight years. “Erich will get you breakfast.” He looked at her, now that he had the chance, as she nodded politely. She had almost shoulder-length hair, golden like that of many girls he knew, strangely shadowy sparkling eyes washed with sunlight and sorrow. He wondered what she was, for she was like a leaf written in some foreign language. He could see the phrase, oft-repeated, that gave the writing its tone, but, ignorant of the tongue, was unable to identify it or put it in perspective with the rest of the work. Still, the book was open and, given time, he would puzzle through it. He wondered if she would stay.

He noticed she’d gone to the bar, and reflected that she’d probably said something to him while he’d been staring and thinking. He sighed and returned to his study.

En Shevil sat at the far end, in the coldest corner of the room. Her side to the counter, she looked out the window at the new snow, light and shallow, of the night before. Her cloak was much too thin for this place, and it seemed she would be here for some time. But then, what need had she for warmth? She turned abruptly to look at Erich, who was busy getting breakfast for one of his regulars. The latter was a rather fat woman, of progressing years, who provided a pleasing contrast to the last set of regulars En Shevil had seen here. What she didn’t know was that there were several different sets of daily consumers at the Mien (the name she had as yet to hear), and Erich was versatile enough to serve all of them. His standard greeting was ‘hnf,’ his farewell a look appropriate to how he felt about the person. She waited until the woman had been served, and then cleared her throat.

Erich approached, his hands behind his back. This gave him a rather comical appearance as he was a large, gutful man with stubble and a red nose. “How much for bread and water?” she asked softly.

He glared at her, angry at what she could not tell. She did not think it was her directly. “Prison fare,” he said, and the old woman’s chin jerked up in shock.

En Shevil nodded ponderously. “How much?”

“One silver, five coppers.”

Her eyebrows lowered. “I don’t have coppers,” she said.

“One silver,” he said. She gave him two. He grunted as he went to get her food. She turned to the window again.

“You’re from Shapier?” This was a man who’d walked in a few moments ago and witnessed the miracle of Erich’s commentary speech. The old woman’s head wagged imperceptibly.

En Shevil rotated slowly on her stool to give him some of her attention, or attempt it. He was tall and gaunt with a greying head and blonde facial hair. So many questions! Simple confrontation she was prepared for, but not naïve interest. “Yes,” she said at last, “but more recently Itsumo Kawai.” The old woman raised her eyebrows minutely.

“Ytsomo Kwai? So you’ve come north across the mainland,” the man said, and continued at her nod. “Dangerous, that, what with — what was the name? Deathscar.” En Shevil tensed and said nothing. The man took a seat and continued conversationally as the girl chewed forcedly on her bread. “I hear he killed hundreds before the Hero finally killed him.” At last the old woman spoke.

“Who’ve you been listening to? Deathscar’s a woman!” En Shevil let out a breath through her nose, which drew their immediate attention. The woman’s face softened. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Did you… lose someone?”

The Maruroha nodded, bitter tears springing to her eyes. “Someone I loved,” she said, standing and walking towards the door. “And you’ve got it mixed up. The Hero didn’t kill her. She killed herself.”

Unsure of why she’d alienated them so, she headed away from the inn, conscious vaguely that she should at some point check on her horse in the stable and sleepy Antwerp in her room. A sweep of cutting wind pierced her cloak and prickled at her skin, but she ignored it. Deathscar: she was not dead; that had been a lie. But En Shevil was here to kill her. Deathscar could not escape herself.

As she walked the narrow, busy streets with her hood drawn up, pretending she did not see the many questioning eyes lingering on her, she was reminded of home. The walls of the close-set, multi-storied buildings darkened the snowy ways just enough to recall the streets of Shapier. She remembered, suddenly, tearing away from Saif Darb with a bit of meaningless jewelry, a passel of drunken brutes at her heels. Somehow this memory prompted her to smile as she realized she did not even know what ‘EOF’ stood for.

That a stranger should smile without visible cause was obviously not allowed, and a boy perhaps her age stopped in front of her and smiled himself, hands in pockets. “Good morning,” he said, holding his hand out. She wanted to bow properly then, but was momentarily confused as to which of the two bows she knew would be more appropriate. So she gave him her hand after a hesitant second and he kissed it. “You must be Diande’s new love interest.” He laughed at his own joke.

“Hmm, no,” she said.

He waited, expecting something more, and eventually said, “Where’re you from?”

She knew she’d seen the turn of his pale, handsome face somewhere, and that color in his hair. “Most recently, Itsumo Kawai — Ytsomo Kwai.”

A vague, searching look came over him, one she recognized, and from recently. She nodded slowly as she recalled the innkeeper’s expression as he ignored what she said. “Are you–” she began, at the same moment when he said, “You’re–” She let him continue, “staying at the Mien — the inn by the southern gate?”

“Yes — what’s it called?”

“The Mien Waif.”

“What an odd name!”

He laughed and spelled the first word for her to make sure she was convinced. “That’s what everyone says. When my grandfather died — he named it — my father couldn’t bear to change it.” That look came over him again and his mouth closed abruptly.

En Shevil, deciding to make a test, said, “So you are the innkeeper’s son.” He did not hear her. She waited until the sky in his eyes was replaced by earth and asked him again.

“Yes,” he said as if he’d never blanked out, “that’s me: Detlev Sonders.”

She frowned. “Does everyone in Spielburg have a surname?”

“I think so. I’ve never heard of anyone who doesn’t. Well, a couple of people, actually.”

“What’s the Hero’s surname?” She attempted to think why she did not know.

“The Hero who saved Elsa and Barnard? He doesn’t have one.”

“Why not, I wonder.”

His face went half-blank; she feared he was going away again. But he answered her, absently and with airy eyes. “Something about not knowing exactly who his parents are, I think.” En Shevil began to contemplate this, but fell to thinking why this boy in Sechburg knew a personal detail even she had never learned, or why she expected him to. In Shapier surnames were rare, as most people identified themselves as the son or daughter of one of their parents if they needed to add to their given name, and she had never been prompted to ask Achim; perhaps such things were generally known in Spielburg.

“I’m only curious,” she said as he began to come out of his thoughts. “My name’s En Shevil.”

“Glad to meet you,” he said. “How long are you staying?”

She sighed. “All winter, I guess.” His eyes were moving away from her more and more, and she thought he must want out of the conversation. “Can you tell me where I’ll find a traders’ or adventurers’ guild?” She hadn’t thought of this before, but realized that the latter would be an excellent place to discover the general state of things here and decide whether this was the place to stay. Not that she had much of a choice, but she did not wish to linger in a problem town.

“There’s the Guild Hall uptown — it’s an all-purpose hall, for all — well, most of the guilds. Walk up this street until you reach the estates — you’ll know them from the aspens outside — then turn left on Bluemstrass and follow it until the first intersection. Then turn right on Beherrschweg and follow that to its end, which is the Guild Hall.

“Thanks,” said En Shevil.

“Quite all right. Good morning.”

As she walked northward up the road, the latter widened, the buildings drawing farther apart, and any lingering reminder of Shapier was lost. There were many rich-looking shops with small windows, and the only people on the street itself were pedestrians, creating quite a different atmosphere from the open markets of Shapier and Itsumo Kawai, but one consistent with what she had seen through Spielburg on her way here. However, in the previous towns she had visited her reception had been warmer; here, though she received no looks of enmity, nobody met her eye or smiled either. Many stared, curious, but made no overtures either of friendship or animosity. Then the view changed completely. Upon approaching the northern end of town it gave way to massive, aspen-shaded houses with yards, flanking the narrowing, leaf-strewn road as it became a lane immediately after the intersection.

This shadow of what she once was may still have possessed the skills of a thief, but the thrill she should have felt at viewing these fine houses, the longing to explore each one in search of nice things, was cold in her heart. She didn’t know who she was now, but she realized Deathscar had spoken at least one truth: En Shevil the thief was dead. All she needed now was to kill Deathscar and find a new identity. En Shevil the adventurer? En Shevil the craftsman? What about En Shevil the farmer? She shook her head and turned onto Bluemstrass: these all sounded so innocent, and she had lives for which she must pay. But she wanted to avoid such contemplation, and had become rather practiced at doing so in her travels. She pushed the thoughts from her head with further reflection on her surroundings.

The street was now made up of houses, many of whose upper levels hung out over her head and blocked the light from her face. They were close-set and seemed each to contain a few residences, and she began to wonder exactly how many people lived in this valley. It was a busy town, to be sure, but the number of people she guessed she did not see far surpassed those she did. The Shapier feeling was back, though, and for that she was grateful. In this cold it was pleasant to have about her any trace of her desert home.

The small houses gradually changed to larger ones, still without yards but looking to have more wealthy inhabitants. Then the houses became once again shops and larger edifices and she found the next intersection. Walking up Beherrschweg she saw a courthouse, a spacious jail, and finally the Guild Hall.

It was a wide, one-story building (though it had a gabled attic) with two chimneys, double doors, and large windows through which she could see the glow of firelight and the shapes of men and women. She took a deep breath and entered, the ponderous, simply-carved wooden slab in the doorframe swinging surprisingly gently as she opened it. As was her habit, she made sure to shut the door with little noise.

There were three groups in the room. One, of men sitting in armchairs around the fire in the left wall, talked and laughed lightly. The other, comprised mostly of women, sat around a table by the other hearth, working on various things, and chattered loudly. The third was two elderly men and a woman in rocking chairs in a corner. One man was asleep, the other two spoke softly. The room, though ventilated through open windows flanking each fireplace and in the back wall, was as hot as any Shapierian day En Shevil could remember, and she decided she would stay here for a while.

Only the old man and woman noticed her entrance, but the man called attention to it by shouting at her. “Welcome to the Guild Hall, stranger!” All eyes were then naturally upon her. “Feel free to look around! I am the Guildmaster, Kelli!” She got the feeling that this man was more than a little deaf, an idea somewhat contradicted by the volume of his conversation previous to his greeting.

“Thank you,” she said necessarily. Half of the men returned to their doings in an attempt not to stare, though their surreptitious glances were not lost on her. Considerably less of the women even made the effort. En Shevil walked forward to the rear wall, on which hung, arranged around the two open windows, several plaques depicting the symbols of various guilds, some of which were familiar to her as she had seen them many times on her travels. There was the Traders’ Guild, the Workmen’s Guild, and several she did not recognize. To her utter shock there was also an EOF plaque. She shook her head and moved on to the wall’s dominant feature: a large, paper-cluttered bulletin board taking up nearly all the space between the windows. It was marked ‘Requests,’ and she began at the top.

It was mostly uninteresting. ‘I have lost my walking-stick. It is oak…’ ‘Please bring all post to the Post Bureau or hand it to the post delivery man, and it will be delivered to…’ ‘Whoever is leaving dead rats on my windowsills, you better stop because…’ ‘All crimes, as stated in the laws of the Sechburg Ledger, are punishable with an appropriate sentence to be agreed upon in court by a competent judge…’ ‘If you are looking for a witty, intelligent girl who is not too tall, please come to…’ ‘Please extinguish your lamps when walking too near the orphanage windows, as it is waking the children…’ And here was one that caught her attention, faded and cracked: ‘Lost: Waltraud, daughter of the milliner Otto Angeldorf. Twenty golds for her rescuer.’ This notice looked old, and she assumed that the unfortunate girl had either been rescued already or was lost forever. Not a problem town, she concluded, only a weird one. Just in case, she left her place by the board and went over to speak with the guildmaster.

“Good morning,” she began.

“Good morning, child,” said the old woman.

“Hello!” shouted the man, causing all the other people in the room to briefly look up again.

“I’m new here, and I…”

“New, are you?” the man interrupted. “I was new here once, and look where I am now! I’m guildmaster, that’s where! Don’t you go thinking you can’t make nothin’ of yourself just because you’re new!”

“I know. I was just wondering…”

“And if you’re looking for adventure, you won’t find any here! This is a peaceful town, though we are quite lively, and I’ll let you know that there hasn’t been a monster within the boundaries for forty years!” He gestured upward, and for the first time En Shevil saw the heads: four trolls, a moose, and two cheetaurs. The old man continued. “Back when I was the only adventurer in town…”

“You were never the only adventurer in town, you old duck,” said the woman, raising her voice enough to break into his speech. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“Well, back when I was the best adventurer in town…”

“You whistle-mouthed fool! You were never the best! You couldn’t hold a sword to me if I were unarmed and blind!”

“You are blind, Lollie!”

“And you’re a crotchety old has-been who never really was!”

En Shevil watched in amusement as these two apparently former adventurers argued, growing impatient after a moment at their endless string of insults. Then her eye caught movement behind them, and she saw that the third man, up till now undisturbed by their squabbling, was awakening. He gestured for her to come over, and she did.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“I was just wondering where I could find some work in town,” she said. “I have to stay here all winter.”

He smiled ruefully and put his soft, bony hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry to say that I spend most of my time here, and thus know little of the needs of the general people. You might ask in at the mayor’s.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing straight once again. She turned to exit the hall when suddenly the argument behind her broke off.

“Girl!” called the old woman. “You carry yourself like a thief, but you have the air of a warrior, and a great deal of magic on top of that. Who are you?”

“You’re mistaken,” said En Shevil in a quavering voice. “I have no magic.” The two groups of people by the fires were instantly murmuring about this new enigma, and she bolted for the door.

How the gossip spread from that hall so quickly she did not for some time understand, but at every shop where she inquired the answer was the same: ‘No, we have no need of you,’ with a nervous or unfriendly look. And as she left she usually caught the whispered words ‘thief, warrior, magic.’ So it was with a weary, frustrated and rather bored spirit that she headed back to the inn as the sky grew dark.

As she approached the Mien, after a brief stint in the stable to inform the master of horses that she would like to sell her animal, she sighed: through the windows she could see the shadows of drinking-men, and wondered whether someone else would make trouble tonight. She entered the room, and realized belatedly that she should probably put her hood up, remembering what the innkeeper had said the night before.

Men gazed at her but said nothing, and she sighed again as she recollected she was out of SPIM and would have to remain in this room to eat supper unless she wanted to starve until morning. She reflected on the small number of coins she had left. Taking a place at the bar, as far from everyone as she could position herself, she was startled when the bartender (Erich?) set a glass of something unappealing in front of her. Rolling his eyes he leaned closer and pointed to the other side of the bar. “A gift,” he said. She followed the line of his large arm and saw the man who had hit her last night, conversing with someone quite a bit more rationally than she would have expected.

“Please take it away,” she said. Erich nodded with a half-smile and removed the drink from before her. “What do you serve here?”

“Food,” he grunted, “liqueur.” But his succinctness was not meant to offend her.

“Give me some of the first,” she said. Her stomach was making noises. “And do you have any avocado?”

He looked at her askance, but when her order came it was accompanied by an entire, sliced avocado on a separate plate. “Three silvers,” he said, and she paid him. The meal consisted of bread, strong meaty soup, bread, and more bread. “Drink?”

“Do you have any coffee?” she asked, remembering wistfully the favored drink of her homeland.

“Only mornings,” he said.

“Tea?” she asked without much hope. He shook his head. “Water, then.” Her attention was drawn away from the clear glass he gave her by a general cry taken up by the entire room. At the same moment she fancied she heard Erich groan.

“Axel! Axel! Axel’s here!” The door opened, and the men fell into relative silence as a sandy-haired man in heavy clothing walking through them towards the bar, ignoring the teasing jabs they all gave him in the sides and back. The focus of their gazes seemed to fluctuate between the newcomer, Axel, and her attacker of last night, Diande.

Axel approached the bar and spoke softly to Erich, who brought him a drink. By then Diande was at his side. “So, Axel, have you seen any trolls lately?”

En Shevil listened closely, curious.

“You again,” said Axel. “Will you give me no peace?”

“He asks if I will give him peace!” roared Diande to the surrounding men, several of whom had moved closer to watch. En Shevil grew tense, wondering what was forthcoming. Axel was a bit shorter than she was, dressed for perpetual winter, it seemed, with a pleasant round face and shoulder-length hair. Lean and apparently strong, he looked like he saw hard work on a regular basis. But trolls? What exactly was this about? Diande, who was at least four inches taller than Axel, towered over him and laughed with a bitter tone. “Axel!” he continued. “What kind of peace have you given people in the past?” There was semi-amused murmuring in the background.

“It does no good to bring this up, Diande,” said Axel, and En Shevil found herself standing up and edging closer to catch his softly-spoken words.

“It does no good?” Diande displayed alarming symptoms of being one of those people who repeated everything their companions said in the form of a question. “What good have you ever done anyone?” Axel took a breath, his eyes closing and opening slowly. En Shevil knew the look from too much experience: it was pain. Soft anger began to tingle through her at any drunkard who waited around in an inn only to torment people.

But then, how could she be angry with him? Had not she herself behaved in exactly the same manner — worse, in fact, she having traveled and specifically sought out people to hurt? Did not this man deserve pity? Of course Axel, whatever his crime might have been, needed concern as well; she did not want to see anyone in pain. But what right had she to step in, to stop an offense that was only a shadow of her own? These two thoughts conflicted in her mind as more words, disturbing and acrimonious, were exchanged between the parties.

“Does everyone get this from you?” she asked at last loudly, moving towards the men. When Diande recognized her he blushed, his large nose going from pink to vermilion.

“I’d like to offer my apologies for last night,” he said, and she shook her head.

“You’re not apologizing by hurting him,” she said with a gesture to Axel. “Don’t talk to me; just leave him alone.” Why was she doing this? She was only thrusting herself into the eyes of every man here, and probably earning more enemies in the process.

“You don’t know what’s going on here,” said Diande, getting angry. “You think that just because I won’t hit you while I’m sober means you can say anything you want. You don’t know who he is!” He was shouting now, and En Shevil realized that in this night’s hassling she only saw a corner of a ruined building buried in the sands of time.

“Diande,” said Axel, “if she doesn’t know what’s going on, how can she be expected not to step in?” He looked at En Shevil. “You’ve got courage.”

She felt sick to hear what seemed like gratuitous praise. Courage? Her only desire was to see no more pain. Why had she not gone up to bed earlier? “Then what is happening?” she asked.

“It’s none of her business,” muttered someone from behind her.

She felt a surge of anger and moved up closer to Diande, turning her head to look around first. “Maybe I’m making this my business, seeing that I’m going to be here all winter at least. So what’s the story?”

“Full of drama and mystery,” Axel remarked dryly, and Diande gripped his shirt. En Shevil, still reluctant yet tiring of this escapade, seized the larger man’s wrists and forced him away.

“Don’t touch him,” she ordered. “This may be your town, I may be a total stranger, and this may be what you do to him every night for all I know, but…” she searched for a means of justifying herself, and found none. She gritted her teeth, heart sinking as she continued: “But I’m stronger than you and I will make you sorry if you touch him.”

“Stronger than me?” scoffed the man, irate; he took hold of her wrists and twisted her arms around, trying to hurt her. With very little effort she flipped him and slammed him to the floor.

“Enough!” bellowed Erich, hastening around the bar and hauling Diande unceremoniously to his feet. “No fights!” For the second time that sevenday, Diande was expelled from the Mien, and En Shevil, feeling a fool, returned to her place at the bar to eat as much as she could before the bartender returned to throw her out. The men were all eyeing her suspiciously, and the noise level was considerably lower. At least they were leaving Axel alone; she knew this because a moment later he was at her side.

“So what is the story?” she asked without looking up.

“I think now is not the time or place for it,” he said, “but it involves one of your sex and a scathing rivalry.”

“With him?” He heard the skepticism in her voice and breathed loudly through his nose, a sound almost laughter.

“May I speak with you here tomorrow morning?” he asked.

“Of course,” she responded, raising her face finally. Her eyes caught the belly of Erich behind the bar, and she turned to look at him. His dour expression held an obvious hint of amusement, and his mouth was twitching.

“No fights here,” he said sternly. “Understand?”

She replied, though her voice shook a bit. “Yes, I think I do,” she said.

The next morning she found Axel in the same place she’d left him last night, as if he had never moved. Indeed it seemed he had not, and as she sat down beside him he did not look at her.

“Good morning,” she said softly.

He shook his head. “I didn’t notice you come in,” he said.

“Nothing this morning,” she said to Erich. “I’m out of money. I’ve got to find a job.”

“Work for me,” said Axel suddenly, surprising her.

“What do you need?” she asked.

“A housekeeper.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Where do you live?”

“Up the mountain.”

“Wonderful. When I do start?”

He smiled. “I would guess that your times with the shopkeepers were not pleasant.”

“You would be correct. They think I’m a magic using warrior-thief.”

He gave her a critical look. “And which of the three are true?”

“I was a thief, then I was a warrior. Now I am neither. I never was a magician.”

“A perfect combination for living on Rustinmount.”

“Why?” Her memory caught at two things. “Are there really trolls?” He nodded, and she saw definite pain in his eyes. She decided to change the subject, at least slightly. “You were going to tell me about you and Diande.”

“Oh.” He waved his hand. “That. There was a beautiful girl in this town once, called Katharine, with whom both Diande and I were infatuated. However, when she and I fell in love and were married, Diande always insisted I had coerced her into it. When she died, he said I had driven her to that as well by forcing her to live on the mountain with me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I never would have asked if…”

“It’s quite all right. It was over a year ago, and I have learned to live with the pain.”

She felt a sudden empathy for the sorrows of this man, and her brow furrowed as she attempted to tell him so. “I’m sorry. I was also… separated… by death… from the one I love.” A curious look came into his eyes and he stared at her so long she almost felt he guessed the true meaning of her words. But that was impossible, so she repeated her earlier question. “When do I start?”

“Today, if you please,” Axel said. “I come into town only once a month to buy various things, and we’re both lucky I found you here. Let me buy you breakfast before we leave.”

“No, thanks.”

“I insist. We’ll be making somewhat of a climb.”

She shrugged as he motioned Erich over, and then ordered her light meal. Once she was finished eating, she went to her room to collect her things. It was a terrible mess, Antwerp being now fully awake and tired of captivity, and she hoped the innkeeper’s wife, whose name was Elaine, did not mind. Opening the door, she let Antwerp exit the room. He immediately bounced off every wall and the ceiling in the hallway, so excited was he to be free after his nap and the ensuing imprisonment. She went down the stairs and back into the barroom, where Erich gave an inarticulate sound of surprise to see a baby antwerp following her. The regulars at the bar stared.

“You have a baby antwerp,” Axel commented, deadpan. She nodded. “Well, come with me.” They exited the inn together. Walking first west and then north, they passed the estates and left the town entirely.

Immediately they encountered a foot and a half of snow, covering a vast upward-sloping plain, through which they were forced to walk. En Shevil began to wish she had kept her horse, but knew she would certainly need the money. She had no business with a horse anyway, especially when someone would eventually find out it was stolen. By then she would be gone. Looking up the mountain, she could see dark pines perhaps a mile and a half away.

“I can’t believe how cold it is here,” she breathed as she put more care into her stride.

He pointed up at the jagged line of trees ahead. “It’s warmer in there, but your feet will freeze before we arrive.”

There was at least a half hour between them and the forest, and En Shevil, who was still relatively new to snow, felt that her feet must detach and shatter as they fell (and she would neither care nor, after a while, even notice when they did). Her Maruroha shoes, certainly not made for these conditions, were soon soaked through. She wondered anew why Antwerp did not solidify.

Instinctively she flooded her body with energy from her sanoko as her steps grew sluggish, but immediately let it ebb with a sick feeling of horror: her sanoko was what had sustained her as Deathscar when she’d had no food for too long, a purpose for which it was not intended, and now she could not help but link it, in her mind, to the sweet adrenaline of death; it had been an agent of her survival while she killed. Vaguely conscious of Antwerp’s worried bounce-rubbing against her leg, she kept pace with Axel and vowed never to use her sanoko again.

“Doing all right?” the man asked in a carefully-toned voice, making it sound like he were referring to her frigid toes, obviously having noticed her sudden inner turmoil but not wanting to pry. Why not? she wondered. Everyone else does. Out loud she merely replied affirmatively. Axel continued, apparently having decided that some conversation was necessary. “You’ll find I pay well,” he began. “This last year has been very successful for me, financially. Then of course there is the benefit of a place away from gossiping townspeople who, as you may have noticed, have an unhealthy fascination with irrelevancies. You’ll have to eat a lot of goat and goose, but you’ll get used to that. It’s cold, but you’ll get used to that too.”

She shivered. “I hope so. And we used to have goat all the time at… in Shapier.” She expected a question at this point, but he only nodded.

Antwerp bounced out ahead of them in an elliptical path around them, falling back and appearing again like a dog taken hunting. He seemed more hyper than ever since his week-long nap, and seemed also to have grown. En Shevil shook her head as she looked at her little coadjutor. When the trees were finally at their faces, Axel turned around and stopped. “Sechburg,” he said with a wave of his arm. She stood beside him and looked, down the long, long slope they had climbed, to the barely-visible town below them half-hidden by the valley’s lip. To the left she made out the shape of Milau, and symptoms of another valley to the far right.

“It seems we’ve come farther than we have,” she said, and he looked at her with his eyes, wondering at the odd tone in her voice. He turned to the trees.

“This is the southern edge of the Teildip,” he said. “It’s very warm, and even has a meadow or two. I live on the other side.”

“How is there snow lower down the mountain when it’s warm inside?” she asked as they began walking down into the tree-covered bowl.

“I don’t know.”

“So tell me about these trolls.”

He sighed, and she was sorry that she had to bring it up. “There seems to be an entire colony of them above Teildip,” he began. “They are rather oversized, not cognitively superior, and occasionally decide to pay me a visit, which caused me, quite some time ago, to move my base of operations away from the center into a large cave at the opposite side. It is closer to their home, but more secure from attack. Their movements have decreased in the last several months. They are not easily slain, but it can be done.”

She drew in a quavering breath, and he visibly restrained himself from looking over at her. “You fight, then?” she asked, to hide her discomfort.

“Lollien at the adventurer’s guild taught me.”

She stopped walking. “There’s magic in this forest,” she said. “It’s very strong off to the left here.”

He gave her the same curious look he had when she’d mentioned separation by death, so calculating that she felt he must see directly through her. But all he said was, “You are correct: we are not far from Erana’s Grove.”

“Erana?” she asked, once again hearing that tauntingly familiar phrase, ‘An Erana of the night.’

“It is said she visited here long ago, and that it is her grove which keeps the bowl so warm.” She nodded, and they walked on.

The pines were quite lovely, with here and there an oak amongst them. The forest was completely still, no bird-cries or animal footsteps breaking the silence that seemed strangely unmarred by their conversation. Axel seemed to belong in this hushed world, and with his inherence drew her in as well. And eventually they reached his home.

She started back as they entered the clearing, disconcerted by the sudden feeling of magic that struck her from the fortress-like place before them. An overhanging rock wall roofed and shadowed a building of high, thick wooden posts with sharpened tops, and from inside came the noise of goats. There was a small door, about Axel’s height, covered with metal strips and bolts. And some sort of magical protection covered the whole thing, giving her a sick feeling of being pushed away. But it was not unlike the delirious peace she felt from Erana’s former haunts.

“This is Endensol, my home,” he said, and stepped forward to the door, which had no means of opening that she could see. “The password to open the door is kriff.” As he spoke it the door swung open, inward and he went forward. Steeling herself, she followed him into the darkness of Endensol.

Inside, what she could see of the overhanging rock proved to be the edge of a cavern, many yards high and stretching back to where a house had been built into the rock. To the right was a huge open yard, fenced in strong wood and containing a large barn. Ten or twelve goats roamed and bleated, most of them rushing to the gate at Axel’s approach. “Yes, yes, I’m home,” he said with a grin at them. “They always become antsy when I go.” Antwerp gave a leap and jumped onto the fence, where he hopped along just out of the goats’ reach until he lost his balance and fell into their midst. An amusingly chaotic scene followed and it was some moments before Antwerp returned to En Shevil’s side.

Axel took a low-burning lantern from the wall, turned the gas up so it flared bright, and they walked on towards the house, which En Shevil realized was quite large. She also noticed that the disturbing magical aura had faded once she was beyond the stockade-like wall. She felt it again briefly at the door of her new abode, but it tingled at the edge of her senses and vanished immediately she entered.

The ceiling of the common room upon which the front door opened was high, and the entire place smelt deliciously of pine. In this chamber was a massive fireplace guarded by fur-covered chairs, and four doors. One of those on the left turned out to be a closet; Axel opened it and shed his long grey coat. “I’ll light a fire,” he said, leaving the closet door open. En Shevil took a deep breath and hauled her brown cloak over her head, glad his back was turned. She placed it in the closet on one of the wooden pegs. She noticed with a sad start a long, fine, deep-hooded woman’s cape of dark blue velvet, trimmed with white fur, hanging beside where Axel had hung his garment. Antwerp, who had bounced into the closet and traversed its height by aid of the walls, flew out and sped across towards Axel. She closed the door with a shake of her head.

He was looking at her, Antwerp having procured his attention. “I did not realize,” he said with an obviously careful choice of words, “that your stint as a warrior happened so recently.” Then he immediately turned back to the hearth, where he was piling logs into the grate, as if to say she need not answer. “Your room is the first door on the right,” he said, and she pushed it open. The bedroom was tiny but comfortable, nearly everything there being covered in some kind of fur.

“You are quite the trapper,” she called out the door.

“My wife loved fur,” he replied, “and I never got out of the habit.”

She placed her things on the large, soft bed and left the room again. Reentering the common room she took a closer look at the decor. She was glad to see that, for all the fur in the house, there were no glassy-eyed heads on the walls to disconcert her. There were only pictures. She gazed closely at a few of these, amazed at the richness of their workmanship. They were mostly landscapes, but the place of honor above the hearth was dominated by a large, detailed painting of a pretty blonde woman in wedding attire. “She was lovely,” En Shevil remarked. “How did she… how did you lose her?”

“You put that delicately, and consequently quite well,” said Axel, standing after having finished the fire. She wondered for a moment where the smoke went, but did not think about it. There was something familiar about the tone in his voice, and after a moment she recognized it as the same self-hatred and guilt that had so colored her recent thoughts. In that instant she felt simultaneously a kinship with him and a selfish resentment against him, at once wanting to confide in him and to lash out at him. He might be the only one who would fully understand her, but probably not. After all, what right had he to feel guilty when whatever he had done, no matter how bad he thought it was, came nowhere close to her own shame? But this was becoming too much of an almost-cherished obsession, and certainly was not healthy. So she hid her startled look and asked innocently what he meant by his statement.

He waved her question away and said casually, “Only that I’m not so gallant as I’d like to be. This is the kitchen,” he continued quickly, walking into the next room and lighting a lamp with a hiss. It was a fairly large room, spacious and apparently rather comfortable, but also in need of cleaning. “Having hired you on impulse I forgot to ask the important questions, such as whether you can cook.” He turned to her with a mockingly over-polite expression. “Madam, can you cook?”

“Technically,” she replied with a giggle.

“That is sufficient,” he said, “as anything including bacterial pond-slugs tastes better than my cooking.”

“Including what?”

“Never mind.”

“One thing I forgot to ask too — how is this whole arrangement going to look to the town? I know in Shapier people would say we were…”

“Engaging in acts inappropriate and not in accordance with our employer-employee relationship?” She laughed again, and realized as she did that it was for the third or fourth time today. This man made her laugh! For a moment she was puzzled, but brushed it aside, having had quite enough of being confused and curious for one day. Emotions were wearisome enough without wondering why she felt them. “I think we need not worry about that. The villagers will gossip their eyes out about you for the first month, then completely ignore you until you leave, but I don’t think they’ll suspect us of anything more than Platonism, given their general good nature.”

Though she did not quite comprehend this statement, the gist of it was easy to pick up, and she nodded. Following him into another door she entered what looked like a hallway-pantry that gave her fleeting memories of the Rasierian harem. Through it they entered a very large storage room filled with chests and shelves of odd things. A ladder leaned against one wall, and above it a trap door in the wooden ceiling was shut. “What’s that for?”

“In case the roof is in need of repair,” he replied. “So what do you think of my house?”

“I think it’s lovely, the nicest I’ve seen here,” she said truthfully. There was an air of comfort in this house that did not exist in the town. It felt warmer here as well, but that might have been due to the general state of Teildip.

“And you, as a woman, do not see anything amiss with living here?” There was not bitterness in his light tone, but somehow his words were brittle.

“No,” she said. “And I think that…” Words failed her just then, and she turned away. There would be time for comfort when she learned to know him better. For now she had to become used to this new life before she could do anything. “I need something else to wear,” she said suddenly, mostly to herself. He went to a large round-topped chest on the floor and opened it, displaying cloth of many hues and textures, neatly rolled into bolts.

“Can you sew?” he asked. “I’ll never use any of this on myself.”

She smiled. “Can I sew?” she repeated. “I spent fourteen years of my life sewing for hours every day.”

“Good!” he said. “I’ll just move this whole thing to your room, then. And I’ll cook dinner tonight, just so you won’t ever ask me to do it again.”

She laughed. “I’ll carry the chest, you start cooking. I’m starved.”