Chapter 1

Erasmus stared at the intruder.  Fenrus was not as easily caught off-guard, however, and cast a spell of holding on the armored giant.  She easily broke free of it and approached the wizard cautiously.  The teleportation left her feeling dizzy and she didn’t want to be surprised by this white haired young man and floating rat.  

“Fenrus, I’m not the only one who sees a giant blue thing standing on ‘Enry, am I?”  The wizard scratched his head worriedly.  If this wasn’t real he’d have to go back on the potions the local healer prescribed.  

“Yeah, I see her.  Can’t say the same for ‘Enry, though.”  Fenrus turned upside-down to get a better look at the squashed hermit.  “Can you hear me ‘Enry?  How many fingers am I holding up?”  He lifted one foot and wriggled it.  

“Why do bluebirds fly over the rainbow?” Erasmus interjected.  

“If Train A leaves at 10:00 and Train 3 crashes into a wall, what will Zara be wearing at the time?”  

“How can you make an omelet without breaking any eggs?”  The conversation escalated into a series of unidentifiable chirps as the wizard and his familiar became more and more excited.  

“Enough!”  The armored woman waved her hand in an attempt to silence the pair.  

“Well hello!”  Erasmus waved back.  “I don’t think we’ve met, have we?  I am Erasmus, archmage extraordinaire, master of Zauberberg, and connoisseur of fine cheese.”  

“Cheese!” Fenrus added.  

“Cheese.  May I have the pleasure of learning who you are?  I feel I have a right, seeing as you arrived here without my permission!”  The wizard shouted at the giant before regaining composure.  “And I don’t think ‘Enry likes the way you’re standing on him.  Perhaps you could find a better position?”  

The giant awkwardly got off the unconscious hermit, earning a quiet “oomph!” and faced Erasmus.  “I am Hagatha, warlord extraordinaire, master of the hinterlands, strangler of annoying wizards.”  She advanced.  

“Oh no, that won’t do at all!”  Erasmus shook his head in mock despair.  “We’ll have to rid you of that horrible attitude right away.  Fenrus!”  He clapped his hands, creating a purple cloud that surrounded him and Fenrus.  When it dissipated, the pair were dressed in what appeared to be barber suits.  Fenrus’ whiskers were arranged to resemble a large mustachio.  Both held various grooming instruments.  

“I think we have our job cut out for us this time, wouldn’t you say?”  Erasmus clicked his scissors with glee.  “Would you like to start or shall I?”  

“By all means, be my guest!”  Fenrus did a little bow in the air and floated back to allow the wizard a better reach of the giant.  

“Don’t get near me with those!”  Hagatha backed up, stepping on ‘Enry in her haste to rid herself of the magical menace.  “I could crush both of you without trying.  I could destroy your puny house in an hour and finish off the countryside before dinner.  My armies are feared across the globe.  They—no!!!”  She was cut off as Erasmus reached her and began to cut away her armor.  

“Struggling will only make me poke you.  Stand still!”  Fenrus joined in the fray, wielding what looked like a rubber ducky and a can opener.  

The resulting screams echoed throughout Spielburg valley, causing many of its inhabitants to glance fearfully toward the mountain.  

‘Enry slept on peacefully.  

Chapter 2

The Merlin stared at the waters ahead of the ship.  It seemed the right spot.  Raising his hands, he pointed his oak staff toward the ocean’s waves and slowly rotated it;  while the Merlin concentrated, the water began to roil and seethe as if angered.  

Gradually the crests pulled away from a hole at the center of the circle, forming a whirlpool.  Sailors’ voices shouted over the din of the emerging danger and men ran across the decks in a vain attempt to steer to safety.  

The pull of the whirlpool sucked everything nearby to it, including the ship;  soon the vessel began its descent into the watery depths.  The Merlin watched calmly as the crew and passengers screamed in unison, their fates sealed beneath the waves.  

        *                *                *

Mwabi awoke to strangers.  A pale, dark haired woman watched her, seated next to a younger version of Kreesha.  This liontaur, however, appeared to be a warrior, if the sword strapped to her side was any indication.  The young apprentice struggled to get up and was pushed to the floor by the warrior.  

“You need to regain your strength,” the liontaur commanded.  “Rest, you have been through much.”  

“Who-?”  Mwabi managed to croak the word out, discovering her throat to be filled with what felt like the Shapeirian desert.  

The liontaur held a dish of water to her lips.  “I am Reeshaka dar Kreesha.  This is my companion, the wizard Katrina.  We are passing through on our way to South Fricana.  I apologize for being so abrupt, but can you tell us anything about your assailant?  Any information you can give us would be helpful, and we must be moving on soon.”  

Mwabi nodded weakly.  “I understand.  I will try to remember.”  She shifted her weight slightly and went on.  “I was taking care of the house while Kreesha was at Council when a man entered.  He looked very much like the hero Kreesha and Rakeesh have described to me many times over.  He was tall, blond and fairly athletic, though his skin deed seem a bit…”  

“Pale?” Katrina interjected.  

“No, the opposite.  It seemed as if he had other colors under his skin, almost like—like every imaginable color pooled there and tinged his body.  It reminds me of something Kreesha taught me, but I’m afraid I don’t remember.”  She looked into space for a moment, reliving the horror she had encountered.  “His eyes…”  

Katrina leaned forward to catch the whispered words.  “His eyes glowed when he cast a spell.  They seemed to fill with blood…I’m sorry, that’s all I remember.”  

Reeshaka patted the liontaur’s arm.  “All that matters is that you are safe.  You have been more than helpful.”  She smoothed Mwabi’s forehead.  

Katrina stood up.  “I do not think you were meant to die.”  She didn’t see the pained look on the liontaurs’ faces at the mention of death.  “Whoever did this-and I am certain that it was not Devon- wanted to leave a message.  You were chosen to be the carrier.”  

“But how could I help him?”  Mwabi’s eyes filled with tears at the thought of aiding such a person.  

“This man wanted us to think Devon was alive, and that he had passed through Tarna recently.  He could still be in the city.  What is he waiting for?  What does he want?”  The wizard shook her head at the riddle.  “There is nothing we can do here without thorough investigation.  We do not have that kind of time.  If we want to reach South Fricana and Shadrack, we must leave immediately.”  

Reeshaka looked at her mother’s apprentice, who had fallen asleep from exhaustion, and back to Katrina.  “You are right.  With my father and mother here, Mwabi should be safe from further attacks.  And if your theory is correct, our mystery assailant won’t bother her anyway.  I just can’t help feeling like we should help.”  

Katrina saw the indecision in Reeshaka’s face and softened slightly.  “We do not even know if he remains in Tarna.  Perhaps he has gone onto other lands to torment new victims.”  

Reeshaka knew there was nothing more she could do, but she hated feeling so helpless against an unknown foe.  The pair left Mwabi to sleep and returned to Reeshaka’s parents.  Goodbyes were brief, as Katrina continuously reminded the young paladin that time was running out.  Soon, Kreesha formed a portal to a South Fricanan town that would be close to the lich’s lair.  

Rakeesh and Kreesha watched the portal shrink into nothingness until they were alone.  Then they too quietly padded out of the room, leaving nothing but shadows in their wake.  

        *                *                *

Another watched the portal close, remaining to make sure the liontaur couple would also leave.  Then, he emerged from the shadows and stepped into the light.  Noved smiled as he thought of the fear and helplessness surrounding the household after his attack on the apprentice.  It was moments like this that brightened his day.  

With a last survey of the shattered emotions he caused, the demon stepped back into the shadows and vanished for good.  

        *                *                *

Devon woke to the sound of his own voice screaming.  His last memories were of casting thermonuclear attack, then of the golden wreath from the Merlin melting onto his head.  The pain from being torn apart hadn’t been as horrible as he would have imagined; in fact, it wasn’t remarkable enough to have left a lasting impression in his memory.  The scream originated in his lungs, as they filled with what felt like fire, and had nothing to do with his memories at all.  

After the air left him he admitted defeat and stopped trying to yell anymore.  He realized that his eyes were still closed and tried to open them.  ‘Though I already know what Hades looks like.’  To his surprise, his eyelids seemed to be sealed together.  To his further horror, the rest of his body didn’t seem to be obeying his commands, either.  Only his mouth was open and able to take in air.  

Devon suddenly had the sense that he wasn’t alone.  No sound came to his ears, and he certainly didn’t see anything amiss, but his sixth sense was sending him warning beacons.  

He tested his vocal chords and found that, albeit rusty, they appeared to function as well as his lungs.  “Who’s there?  Where am I?”  

Devon felt a shadow pass over him, though no light reached his eyes.  He tried to shiver with no success.  Fear crept into his throat as he realized that he was completely helpless to his unseen visitor.  

“Hello, Devon.”  The voice mimicked his own identically; a third person would have had a hard time distinguishing who was talking and who was listening.  “I heard you had a bad accident and wanted to cheer you up.”  

“Who are you?” Devon repeated.  

“You know who I am, brother.  I’m hurt that you would try and forget me!  Is it possible to forget your own soul?  We are one, Devon.  Think back to Tarna.”  

Devon tried to remember, but images of screaming beast-men consumed by fire blocked all other thoughts from his mind.  He began thrashing around, not realizing that he was regaining control of his body in the process.  

Several new voices intruded upon the dialogue, though they were farther away, as if in another room.  They grew louder.  “He should be awake by now,” one breathed.  “Yes, he has been recovering for the past few years.  I don’t know what we’ll do if he doesn’t come out of the coma,” a second fumed.  “There is nothing to worry about.  Our charge can handle what Fate has dealt remarkably.  Most others would need centuries to heal, vampirism or no,” a third bubbled.  “Still, we can’t wait forever,” the last rumbled.  

“Looks like you’ve got a welcoming committee to handle.  I’d better be on my way, but don’t worry- we’ll be seeing much more of each other soon.”  Devon felt a hand touch his temple and a surge of magic filled him.  Then the hand, and its owner, disappeared just as the four voices reached him.  

“Ah, you see, he is awake!  How are you feeling, Devon?”  “What can you remember?”  “Let him catch his breath first.”  “We can’t wait forever!”

Devon let the voices flow over him without responding, still puzzling over his first visitor.  What had the stranger meant forgetting his soul?  Tarna?  The voices wouldn’t let him wonder for long, as they continued their inquisition.  

“Can you hear us?”  “Don’t tell me his brain is fried.”  “He was almost disintegrated into millions of particles, after all.  Give him some credit.”  “We can’t wait forever.”  

Devon cleared his dry throat.  The third voice exclaimed, “Out of the way!  He needs water!”  The second voice muttered something to himself that Devon didn’t quite catch.  Soon he felt a cup against his lips and let cool water rush down his throat.  Nothing had ever tasted better at that moment.  

After a few greedy gulps, he attempted to speak again.  “Where am I?”  

“You are safe.”  “No one can harm you while you’re under our protection.”  “Do you feel all right?”  “I thought we were going to have to wait forever.”  

The voices paused, then in unison, they said, “You are home!”  

“Home?”  Devon considered few places on Glorianna to be his home; his quarters in the Sultan’s palace, Erasmus’ houses, Rakeesh and Kreesha’s home, and Katrina’s castle on Zante.  This was none of those.  

“You are in the Wizard’s Institute of Technocery,” the voices explained.  “We rescued you from certain death and brought you here.”  “You have much to thank us for.”  “We have healed your scars and eased your pain.”  “We’ve been waiting for a long time.”  

Devon digested these facts slowly.  He must be talking to the leaders of WIT, whom he had only met briefly during his initiation months ago.  ‘Or has it been longer?’ he asked himself, recalling the fire wizard’s words: “He has been recovering for the past few years.”  If that was true, why didn’t he remember?  

“How long have I been here?” he asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep panic out of his voice.  Katrina would believe him dead!  She was alone on Zante, and apparently had been for a few years now.  Devon pictured her reverting to her old isolation and hoped it wasn’t so.  

“You don’t have to worry about that right now.”  “It’s been a while, let’s leave it at that.”  “But don’t worry, things aren’t as they seem.”  “You’ve been away for fifty years.”  

“Fifty years!”  No doubt about it, Katrina and all his friends would think he was dead.  ‘Poor Katrina,’ he thought.  

There was a zap followed shortly by a grunt.  “It’s not as bad as our colleague makes it out to be.”  “It’s only been fifty years to you.  The outside world hasn’t aged at all.”  “We’ve kept you in stasis through ritual so you could heal properly.”  The last wizard said nothing, apparently sulking over the magic reprimand he had received for telling Devon too much.  “We needed to heal you quickly, you see.”  “There is no way to heal from a thermonuclear blast except with time.”  “Normally there wouldn’t be enough of you to heal, but luckily, you survived.”  “It took long enough.”  The earth wizard spoke gruffly.  “Without the Merlin’s wreath you would have been blown to infinitesimal particles and that would have been the end of you.”  “And vampires heal more quickly than most.”  “And it still took fifty years for you to regain consciousness.  Maybe next time you’ll think twice before casting that nasty little spell.  We’ve been trying to eradicate it since some foolish Leopardman invented it centuries ago.”  “And we took it out of your head in case you try something that stupid again.”  

Devon looked inside himself and realized that he no longer knew how to cast thermonuclear attack.  He didn’t miss it.  A new thought occurred to him.  “Why can’t I see?”  

The wizards said nothing for so long that Devon repeated himself.  “We heard you the first time.”  “We were increasing dramatic tension.  Wizards do that, you know.”  “You aren’t fully healed, Devon.  You still have a few more months until your body is fully functional.  Until that time, we plan on completing the training you never finished.”  “You’re going to become a true wizard!”  

Devon mentally groaned.  Months of healing was one thing, but being trained by these wizards was going to be a living Hades.  He took comfort in the fact that Katrina hadn’t been alone for all that time.  And the sooner he recovered and learned what these four wanted him to learn, the faster he could return to Zante and the woman he loved.  “I’m ready to learn.,” he announced.  

“Wonderful!”  “We’ll get started immediately.”  “You have great potential, Devon.  You’re one of the strongest we’ve seen for a long time!”  “It’s about time.  I thought it was going to take forever.”  

        *                *                *

Katrina and Reeshaka arrived in the town with no problems, and after thanking the magic user for helping them with the portal, the duo started walking in the direction of Shadrack’s tower.  Katrina could sense the dark magic emanating from his abode without using magic.  “We are still a few days from the tower,” she explained, “and I can feel the vileness.  This is not someone we should take lightly.  He knows more Dark Magic than anyone else on Glorianna.”  Reeshaka nodded, nerves keeping her from replying.  

Together they walked toward certain death.  

        *                *                *

Erasmus and Fenrus stepped back from the job they had done on Hagatha and gave each other high fives.  “Fenrus’ I do believe that this is the first successful makeover we’ve ever performed!”  Erasmus’ face lit up like something flammable.  “And we hardly hurt her!”  

The rat nodded sagely.  “You too can look this good with Fenrus and Erasmus’ patented Armor-B-Gone Solution from the same folks who brought you Razzle Dazzle Root Beer!”  Fenrus held up a bottle labeled Armor-B-Gone and gestured to his cohost, Erasmus, who was drinking a frosty mug of root beer at the same moment.  

‘Enry clapped enthusiastically as the Applause sign flashed into neon splendor.  

“Thank you.  Next up, we’ll be learning five new ways a calm spell can destroy the moon, so stay tuned!”  

‘Enry clapped again, this time adding a whistle.  

Hagatha, still shaking from her rough treatment, managed to grab the remote control from ‘Enry’s hands and push the Off button.  Fenrus vanished with a squeak.  

“You will pay for exposing me!” she thundered.  “It is forbidden to remove a warrior’s armor without her permission!  When I rejoin my army you will wish you had never seen me!”  

“I’m already wishing that,” Erasmus muttered with a yawn.  

“I call upon the powers of darkness and might to return me to my people, where I can resume my position of command and get a change of clothes!”  Hagatha grimaced at the last part; the wizard and rat were starting to affect her.  

A sick looking cloud of smoke feebly puffed from her feet to the crown of her head, where after a half-hearted attempt to appear menacing, it dissipated.  The smell of unwashed latrines filled the air.  

‘Enry coughed, obviously not impressed.  He grabbed the remote from Hagatha’s hands and pressed the On button.  Fenrus popped into view, dressed as a large yellow bird.  

“Oo!  Saysa-me Avenue, my favorite!”  ‘Enry leaned in closer to watch as Fenrus talked to Snuggleuffalips about his lost teddy bear.  

Without warning, Hagatha began to cry.  Nothing seemed to be going how she wanted;  her magic was gone, her army scattered or out of her reach, and the crazy wizard held complete control over her.  And now her magic armor was gone, exposing her wrinkled old hag’s body to the world.  She tried to keep the impending tears from bursting past her eyelids, but she was forced to wipe them away quickly with one hand.  She hoped no one had noticed.  

Of course, someone had.  Immediately, Hagatha found herself suspended from the ceiling in what appeared to be an adult-sized cradle.  Fenrus was rocking it back and forth, crooning softly to her.  “We know how to make baby stop crying, don’t we?”  His furry paw rubbed her cheek gently.  Her eyes started to close on their own accord, and she fought to stay awake.  

“Enough!  I am the Blue Warlord, conqueror of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, and I will not let a pair of insane wizards,”  

“and me!” ‘Enry added indignantly.  

“coddle me against my will,” she finished, ignoring the ‘ermit’s outburst.  “Release me or face the consequences!”  

“Release you?  Who said you couldn’t leave whenever you wanted?”  Erasmus looked genuinely surprised.  

“Psst.  I think she’s scared of the guard dog!”  Fenrus nudged his companion and surreptitiously pointed at the dog-shaped shadow blocking the tower’s exit.  

“Oh, yes.  Well, in that case, vamoose!”  The archmage waved his hands at the shadow, which consequently sank into the darkness under the stairs.  “There.  Free to go.  Out of curiosity, where do you plan on going?”  

Hagatha strode toward the tower stairs and answered without stopping.  “I will take my rightful place as Warlord in Jotunheim as soon as I find a new suit of armor.  If it’s any of your business.”  

“Ah, I was afraid of that,” Erasmus muttered gravely.  

“Why?  Can’t stand to see a good warlord return to her evil ways?”  

“Nope.  The army’s been wiped out.”  He paused for the resulting exclamation of disbelief to subside before going on.  “After you journeyed to Silmaria to find the blackbird-”  

“Which I still don’t have,” Hagatha growled.  

“-The remainder of your army tasted freedom for the first time and liked it.  A dispute over who should rule in your absence broke out.”  The wizard gestured to a screen supported by a tripod in the corner, and an old projector started playing.  The lights dimmed.  

Hagatha watched with horror as the half of her army which remained in Jotunheim began to squabble and bicker, then to trade blows.  Before long, soldiers lay still and didn’t get back up again.  Her men were killing each other before her eyes and she could only watch helpless.  

The reel ended and the lights flickered into life.  “The victors relished their power, but were soon overthrown by the frost giants who had labored under your blue-plated tyranny for so long.  And as the portion of your army in Silmaria was also decimated, you have nothing to rule over.  Any questions?”  

‘Enry raised his hand.  “Oh, oh, me!”  

Erasmus sighed.  “Yes, ‘Enry?”  

The ‘ermit grinned at the acknowledgement.  “How did the fight start?”  

Erasmus nodded.  “Good question.  A rebel faction insinuated itself in the army and started rumors on both sides.  Paladin Magnum Opus, aka Lisha, led the insurrection.  He is now enjoying the peace he and the frost giants worked so hard to achieve.  Now, what have we learned today?”  

“Don’t leave home before turning off the stove?”  

“Three wrongs make an okay?”  

“Two plus two really does equal five?”  

“No.  Never take up the family business, especially if said business is warlording.  Now, Hagatha, I think you’ll want to stay here for a little while longer.  After all, there’s nowhere else for you to go.”  

The hag drooped her shoulders in defeat and concurred silently.  Without an army or her armor, she was powerless against a gust of wind, let alone an archmage.  She collapsed on a comfy chair and listened to what Erasmus had to say.  

“As I said, there is nothing left for you in Jotunheim.  The giants would lock you up in an instant, or worse.  Instead, you can help me here.  What do you think?”  

“What kind of work would I be doing?” she asked suspiciously.  “I don’t do windows, and I want extra if I have to baby-sit.”  

“No, no, Fenrus cleans the house!  What I want from you is knowledge.  You claim to have owned the blackbird at one point in time.  Now, through research I’ve been doing, I have discovered that the blackbird is somehow connected to the Dreamstone.  This stone was stolen from me by the lich Shadrack, who was in turn robbed by an unknown wizard.  As far as we know, this unknown person still has the stone.  I must get it back; in the wrong hands, the Dreamstone could shatter countries!”  He dropped off, picturing the potential devastation on the world.  

“And where do I fit in?”  

“Tell me what you know, anything that can help.  We need to track down the Dreamstone.”  

Hagatha remained quiet for a long time, weighing her options, or lack of.  Finally, she spoke.  “Fine, I’ll help you.  But I want a chance at the blackbird when all this is over.  It’s worth a fortune, and it’s rightfully mine!”  

“Deal!”  Erasmus shook the hag’s hand.  “This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” he mused.  

‘Enry wiped away a tear.  “I love a happy ending.”  

Chapter 3

Azrael stared at the ceiling of the hut.  He has woken up several hours ago, observing his confines as best he could.  Whoever his captives were, they had tied his arms and legs to a cot, allowing for little movement.  He craned his neck around and discovered that he was in a small hut holding nothing save for himself and the cot.  An opening lay temptingly close, leading to what appeared to be a small village comprised of identical huts.  For some time, Azrael had lain quietly, waiting for someone to come and spread some light on his situation.  

His captors had taken his belongings and presumably stored them in a barrel next to the door.  The ropes were held to tightly for him to break, and the knots were on the underside of the cot, out of his reach.  He had confidence in his paladin abilities to aid him if the villagers turned hostile.  

As he waited, he thought about his life.  Did he truly have what it took to be a paladin?  All those weeks ago- how long had it been?- he had accepted what seemed to be three simple tasks.  Now he knew that they had been intended to discourage him from taking the paladin’s mantle.  Had the Council seen something that he had not?  Did they know that he could never be a true paladin, that he would mock the honored title by pretending to join their ranks?  An incredible, almost suffocating, sense of shame overcame him.  What was he trying to prove?  

He recalled everything he had done during his tenure as a ‘paladin.’  He had found Piotyr and Lightbringer, true, but now Lightbringer was at the bottom of the sea, lost forever.  He had killed Baba Yaga, who turned out to be innocent of any crimes she was accused of, and let the Dark Master kill Frankie, his charge.  He couldn’t even keep Nawar safe;  now that he was captured he could certainly not help the harem girl.  

At that moment, all will to escape left him.  What would be the point?  He would simply let more people down and probably get them killed.  

Tears of self-pity coursed down his cheeks unchecked.  A noise sounded nearby but he remained still; what Winged One pride he had crumbled in the space of an instant.  There was no point in hiding his tears from the world.  After all his adventures he would die in a strange land with no one who loved him.  

Unseen, the gem he still carried from Mordavia gained a tiny fracture, almost too small to be seen by the naked eye.  

“I’ve gotten tears of joy before, but this is a first,” a voice smirked from the door.  Azrael could almost see the grin on its face through his tears.  “I promise to change that as soon as possible.  Care to join me?”  A hand reached for Azrael.  

The Winged One turned to the door and sobbed his relief.  “Nawar!  You’re safe!  How did you…”  He broke off, smiling through his tears.  “I’m glad you’re not harmed.”  He couldn’t think of what else to say to her; she was the last thing he expected to see in his last hours.  

His eyes gradually cleared and he noticed what the harem girl was wearing.  Her torn, dirty dancing suit had been replaced by what appeared to be a mismatched medley of silk clothes fashioned in a mockery of a noblewoman’s finery.  Somehow Nawar made it look good on her.  

Behind her on all sides stood twisted mockeries of people, deformed almost to resemble animals and monsters more than anything else.  Azrael involuntarily cringed from the sight of so many of them so close, and their eyes shone brightly, as if feeding off of his revulsion.  To Nawar, however, they fawned and cooed flatteringly, never meeting her gaze and stepping out of her way when she moved.  

Nawar noticed Azrael’s confused expression and pointed to the golden ring on her finger.  ‘The djinni ring,’ he remembered.  She must have used the djinni’s powers to escape her bonds and win over the…things.  

“Untie him and take him to my hut,” the harem girl commanded, then turned and sauntered out of the hut more confidently than any queen.  The creatures obeyed instantly, shuffling toward him and clumsily undoing the knots in his rope.  The Winged One rose and shifted to avoid the beasts’ touches and rushed out of his erstwhile prison cell.  

Once outside, he slowed down to take his bearings; the drab brown village was perched in a clearing of a forest of dead trees, skeletal and haunting.  The ground was charred and barren, and looked as if nothing had grown for a long time.  Even the horizon gave no color to the landscape: stars couldn’t pierce the inky blackness of storm clouds tinted dark purple.  

Azrael felt a poke behind him and jumped.  One of the things was touching him.  Hastily he took his possessions from the barrel and followed one of the creatures to a larger hut near the center of the village.  On the way, he affirmed that nothing had been taken from his pitiable belongings: his knife, the cursed gem, and the ebony statue of a bird.  He still wondered where the statue came from, surely it hadn’t been on the Dark Master’s ship and fallen overboard, had it?  

His escort halted in front of the larger shack and glared at him expectantly.  Uneasily, he walked through the doorway.  

Nawar lay on a crudely made divan of dead wood from the surrounding forest.  Around her were rotting objects which were once no doubt luxurious items from some unknown household.  Azrael had no idea how they had wound up in the middle of nowhere.  

The girl grinned wickedly and sat up to a lounging position.  “Isn’t this fun?  I have them eating out of my hands!  I wish I had known about this ring sooner.”  She admired the jewelry with an outstretched hand.  “I was tied up like you at first, but something made them,” she jerked her head at the door, “treat me with respect…”  She trailed off, still smiling.  “And you’ll never guess what my loyal followers found.”  She pulled something from behind her seat without letting the Winged One say anything.  

He gasped as the object in her hands became visible.  It was a sword.  “Lightbringer?” he whispered.  He reached out to touch it, but recoiled, not wanting his hopes shattered if the weapon was an illusion.  

Nawar nodded excitedly.  “One of them caught it in his nets by the ocean.  Can you believe these things actually have boats?”  She continued rambling about what she had learned of their captors; Azrael drowned her voice out as he accepted the sword.  

So his work hadn’t been for nothing, there was still a chance of salvaging something from the wreckage that had become his life.  

“And now they’re going to summon some kind of help for us against the Dark Master.  How sweet.”  Nawar’s voice dripped with uncontained self-adoration.  She ushered him back into the open and pointed to a previously unnoticed chalk summoning circle.  Azrael recognized the design from what he had seen in Katrina’s castle on Zante.  

A figure stepped up to the circle and raised its arms above its head.  A crowd of the villagers had gathered, and at the figure’s gesture, they fell silent.  Fires burned at four edges of the circle, casting more shadows than light.  The figure stepped into the circle and firelight shone on its face: spider like features covered every visible surface.  Azrael felt a chill go through him and wondered what these people were- monsters from nightmares or some mad scientist’s creation, like Frankie.  

The spider creature lifted a second pair of arms and began speaking in whispered, chittering tones.  A soft glow emanated from the direction of the circle, and Azrael found himself looking away.  The light didn’t bother his eyes, but a vague sense of uneasiness filled his head.  Something wasn’t quite right.  

A dagger flew through the air toward Nawar’s head, and Azrael barely had time to reach her before it.  He pushed her to the ground and saw the weapon knock harmlessly off of one of the chanting figure’s arms.  

The paladin jumped to his feet and spun around, looking for the assailant, but the twisted creatures had already pinned someone down in the dirt.  To his surprise, Ferrari’s face stared up at Nawar with hatred.  

“Well, it seems I can’t even kill a damn harem girl, can I?” he spat with contempt and self-loathing.  “If I ever have another chance, I will make sure that no one interferes.”  He glared at Azrael while the creatures tied his wrists together and stood him upright.  

Nawar gathered herself from where she had fallen and brushed her tattered dress.  “Take him away,” she said coldly, not bothering to look at him.  “Do what you want to him, just make sure I never see him alive again.”  

Azrael stared in horror at this stranger before him.  Never before had he seen such quiet rage in someone, let alone the girl he had grown close to.  It took a few moments for him to react to the situation and settle his emotions.  “No!” he shouted.  “No.  I cannot let you kill him.  Though I would like to see an end to such a devious man, we must not be the ones to take it from him.  We do not judge and carry out punishments so lightly; let him go.”  He spoke to Ferrari’s holders at that point.  He ignored Nawar’s outraged cries of anger and disbelief and continued.  “Let him go out of the village and find a way to safety.  We shall not disturb his search, but if he comes back here, then Nawar can have her way.”  

He waited with held breath until the girl grimly nodded her consent and walked away without looking at her former boss.  Ferrari also turned away from Azrael wordlessly and wandered away from the collection of huts.  Azrael was left in the middle, feeling empty after such a peaceful conclusion.  Hadn’t he done the right thing?  Nawar couldn’t kill Ferrari in cold blood, and she would regret it after her anger had passed, he was sure of it.  Why then did he feel like he had only increased the problem?  

He didn’t have time to ponder this as the chanting and light from the summoning circle abruptly stopped and the blackness once again silenced the living.  

The spider creature still stood in the circle, but someone else had joined him; a tall man stared out at the assemblage in awe.  He was larger than an average person but otherwise looked normal- except for his greenish skin and large tusks protruding from his mouth.  He was garbed in animal skins and held a giant axe.  He warily stepped out of the circle, gripping his weapon closely.  

“Who steals Gorsh Orc-man from his home?” the man roared.  Everyone around him skittered back a step as he bellowed into the crowd.  “Me want answers!”  He waved his axe menacingly.  

Nawar walked over to him.  “Thank you, Anansi,” the spider thing who summoned Gorsh chattered a reply and backed away, leaving the summoned stranger alone with her.  “Do you know why you are here?”  He shook his scraggly head.  “I want a strong warrior to help me defeat my enemies.  Someone hurt me and took me to this place.  If I try to leave, he will find me and hurt me again.  I don’t know what he wants with me, but I need your help.  You are strong and brave and are the only one who can save me.  You will help, won’t you?”  Nawar’s face developed a slight pout for the green-skinned man and she leaned closer to him.  

“What in it for Gorsh Orc-man?” he growled.  He slurped a stray strand of spittle from his chin.  

“I can give you anything you want; I have a magic ring that will reward you with your wildest dreams!  Wouldn’t you like that?  Anything you want, after you help me.”  

Gorsh licked his lips.  “Anything?  Even a frozen kurmic-den-hzrigi with gunflo?”  

“Mmm, yes, that sounds good right now, doesn’t it?” Nawar agreed.  “Just help me, then anything is yours,” she whispered.  

“Okey-dokey.”  The stranger seemed content with the proposal, and willingly followed Nawar docilely.  “When me hurt bad guy?”  

“Soon, I just have a few things to do.”  Nawar walked over to Azrael.  “Not bad, hmm?”  

Azrael stiffly overlooked Gorsh.  “And you plan on giving him what he wants?  We could use your last wish on something much better.  These people need help, and your wish could go a long way with them.”  

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to give away anything.  I’m sure big-dumb-and-ugly over there will find something to distract him after a while and he’ll forget all about our deal.  And if you have any of those selfless ideas about these people, don’t bother.  They call themselves Wild Ones, and from what I can tell, they were servants to our old friend until he started experimenting.  He let them loose and they set up here.  We’re not far from his tower, you know.  All we need to do is have our friend over there go and kill the lich, then we take his boat and return to Silmaria.”  She watched Gorsh with a look of faint disgust and amusement on her face.  

“And we wait here for your ‘friend’ to fight our battles?  We bring an innocent into our problems and turn our backs?”  Azrael shook his head.  “No, this isn’t how I plan to fight the lich.  I will not stay here and hope the Dark Master doesn’t notice me.  And I would have hoped you would have felt the same.  Nor will I lie to him and promise false rewards.”  He walked away from the stunned girl.  

Nawar was going to run after him and remind him that no one should talk to her that way, that she had the power of a djinni at her command, but she only had the chance to open her mouth before a set of claws swooped down and grabbed her, taking her above the village.  She screamed out of surprise, then looked up at the scaly hide of some monstrous beast and screamed again in fear.  

Azrael wheeled to see Nawar carried south, towards the tall spire he had seen before and now knew to be the Dark Master’s tower.  The same dragon he had barely escaped before held her tight and sped by more quickly than Azrael could fly; he would have followed but knew that he had no chance of rescuing the girl by himself.  He might as well try to see if the Wild Ones would help, and much as he hated to think it, he would need Gorsh Orc-man’s help.  

He quickly returned to the crowd of twisted creatures and one tall green stranger from unknown lands to make plans.  

        *                *                *

Reeshaka looked at the new ring she wore; it was the same ring Logos and her father had given her, but it had changed.  Before it had been a king’s ring with no real significance, now it was a Ring of Truth.  The ring had already been dipped in Styx water, and she had bathed it in her blood after one of the battles in Silmaria, but it had still needed one more component: blood of the earth.  She had shown the ring to Katrina and explained the missing ingredient, and the mage had taken her to a dormant volcano where a small stream of lava pooled into rock.  With emerging the ring into the lava, Reeshaka had finished the Ring and completed her honor-debt to the missing paladin Azrael.  She had sworn to finish his tasks for him, as he had never had a chance to complete them himself.  The paladin could now rest in peace.  

After their little side trip, the pair continued onto the dark lich Shadrack’s spire where Katrina hoped to eliminate the threat he posed on Gloriana forever.  They were only a few hours away from the tower when they happened upon a small village.  Cautiously, they stopped to investigate.  A community so close to the lich was either in great danger or trouble itself.  

Though Reeshaka looked at the twisted inhabitants with compassion, Katrina had no such feeling.  That was the price for working with evil, she declared, and after making sure that the villagers posed no threat, they went on.  Reeshaka silently vowed to return to the village after helping Katrina.  

When they finally arrived at the tower, they found they were not alone.  To their surprise, the Winged One Azrael was watching the spire from a safe distance, accompanied by a tall green man.  Reeshaka joyfully related what had happened in Silmaria since Azrael and Nawar had gone missing, and listened carefully as he explained his escape from the Dark Master’s ship and Nawar’s double abductions, once by the Wild Ones and once by the dragon.  Reeshaka looked to Katrina at the mention of a dragon.  They hadn’t known of such a powerful ally.  

Katrina also listened to Azrael’s story without comment, and when he finished, she mused aloud, “Shadrack must have bound the dragon to his will; dragons do not easily obey others.  I think we could use that bond to our advantage.  If we destroy it, the dragon will help us against the lich.  At the worst, it will leave and we won’t have to fight it as well as its master.”  

A thought occurred to the liontaur.  “We thought you and Nawar were dead because we found two skeletons near the Gnome Inn.”  

Katrina answered the unspoken question.  “The lich has much power over everything dead.  I suspect he already had some dead bodies that he molded to look like Azrael and Nawar’s corpses to fool us.  That way, we wouldn’t try to follow him and rescue you.  He was right about that, but here we are nonetheless.”  

Reeshaka sadly thought of the two unfortunates who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She rejoiced in the fact that the Winged One hadn’t been killed, but death was a terrible tragedy to her, no matter who it was.  

Suddenly, she remembered the Ring she had recently finished and gave it to Azrael.  “I wanted to let your spirit rest in peace by completing your deeds.  I am sorry that I took your duty away from you.  Had I known-”  

He interrupted her.  “I understand, and I thank you for thinking of me.  It is a burden lifted from me, as well as knowing that Erana is once again alive, even if I myself did not bring that about.  My thanks.”  He looked away, realizing he had only completed one of his assignments by himself.  

Katrina looked impatiently at them.  “I believe it is time we get back to more important matters, yes?  Do you know how well Shadrack is defended?”  Azrael shook his head.  “Then I suggest that we take a look.  We don’t want to be caught unprepared.”  Everyone agreed, even Gorsh Orc-man.  As he said, “It better to know enemy than have head bashed in later.”  They couldn’t agree more.  

        *                *                *

Shadrack looked at his prisoner in her cell.  He had kept her alive because he wasn’t sure how she fit in the prophecy, and she might need to be alive.  The prophecy tied in to the Dreamstone somehow, and he needed to unravel it to regain the stone.  

He suddenly felt a prick of pain as one of his zombie guards died.  ‘Died’ wasn’t a good description, as it was already dead, but the magic sustaining it had left it.  Each and every undead here was connected to the lich by magic, so he felt their destruction and knew exactly where they were at each moment.  

Another prick, another death.  Something was attacking his guards, something that could break his ties to the zombies, something powerful.  He left Gort in charge of the prisoner and went down to investigate.  

        *                *                *

Azrael and Reeshaka used their paladin abilities to snuff the dark magic holding the zombies together while Gorsh Orc-man swung his axe to and fro.  While his mundane weapon couldn’t kill the undead, he weakened them so that the paladins could undo the dark magic more quickly and easily.  

They had attacked as soon as day broke, though an eternal storm still clouded the sun and made the undead stronger.  Now, zombies crowded around them as they fought their way to the Dark Master and Nawar.  If they could get past the zombie guards they could weaken the lich enough to slip by him and rescue the harem girl.  If their plan worked, they wouldn’t have to fight Shadrack directly.  

The zombies pulled back as a cloaked figure slowly crept toward them.  The paladins and Orc-man couldn’t help but shiver as the area became darker and the figure moved closer.  “Come on, Katrina,” Reeshaka whispered.  

The lich stopped in front of the trio and pushed back its hood.  A skull with glowing red eyes grinned at them and a black tongue flicked out at them.  “Welcome.  I see that the angel has come to me.  Good, I don’t have to look for you now.  Soon you and your friend will help me find the Dreamstone.  Then I will rule the world!”  Shadrack’s voice rasped throughout the ruined ground around his spire.  

Gorsh Orc-man yawned.  “Why bad man always tell plans before he die?” he asked.  “Not good policy, if ask me.”  

“I shall eat your face, fool!” the lich screamed.  Gorsh merely yawned again.  

“Me kill now?”  

He was answered with a gust of flame.  He jumped back quickly before his dull mind realized that the fire wasn’t meant for him.  Where the lich had stood was now a pile of smoldering bones.  He grunted and turned to smash one of the zombies, but they had all mysteriously fallen to the ground without needing his axe’s help.  “Aww, now who I hit?”  He looked at Azrael with a raised eyebrow.  

“Don’t even think about it,” the Winged One said, holding his flaming sword in front of himself protectively.  

Further argument was stifled as the dragon landed next to the ex-lich and spoke.  “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” it boomed.  “My thanks, wizardess, for releasing me.  I am in your debt.”  It bowed its snout to the ground in front of Katrina, who had just landed from her own flight.  

Everyone except for Katrina stepped back in awe and fear.  

“I have had some dealings with servitude before.  I know it never works out,” she stated, though she didn’t explain any more.  “However, I do not think such a powerful creature could be destroyed so easily.  I believe there is a phylactery somewhere that contains Shadrack’s essence.  We must destroy that in order to truly end the lich’s threat.  And I think there is something else to do here?” she asked Azrael.  He nodded.  “Then hurry, I do not know how long this has stopped the lich.”  

        *                *                *

Shadrack teleported into his laboratory and started rummaging through his equipment.  The fools had released his dragon!  It had taken him ten years to subdue and bind the beast, and for nothing!  Now he must escape to fight another day.  Not too soon, he hoped.  He grabbed his phylactery and ran to the stairs, but heard footsteps and retreated.  

Seeing Gort’s collapsed body near the prisoner’s door, he had an idea.  He destroyed the remains of the lifeless body carelessly and blasted the door open.  Inside, Nawar trembled and clutched one of her hands protectively to her chest.  Shadrack grabbed her and pulled her to the staircase, where the footsteps had grown louder.  He twisted Nawar’s arm behind her back and clutched her throat with one hand.  His fingers seemed like bone daggers to Nawar’s exposed neck.  

Azrael was the first up the stairs.  He paused when he saw them.  “Wait, please,” he whispered.  He held up his empty hands and slowly took a step back.  “We’ll let you go if you release her.  I swear on my honor.”  

Reeshaka and Gorsh arrived next and paused next to the Winged One.  Katrina pushed through them in her haste, then she too halted to take stock of the situation.  “Give up,” she shouted.  “You’re weak after that burst of dragon fire, you’re running on nothing.  One spell and you are gone.”  She held up her hands, bathed in black fire.  

“No!” Azrael shouted.  “Let him go.  There are more important things at stake.”  

“More important than the lives of the villagers you saw?  Or the people who he killed and made his undead slaves?  How much is one life worth to you?  The rest of the world?  This thing is evil and if we let it go it will kill again.  We must strike now while we have the chance.”  

“No.  We would be just as evil as he is if we let him have his way.  We will track him down and destroy him, I promise.  Please, what if it was Devon he held?”  

Katrina’s eyes took on a faraway look and she lowered her hands.  “I…very well, I leave his deaths on your shoulders.  I want nothing more to do with this.”  She stepped back.  

Shadrack stared at the small group.  They were actually stupid enough to fall for this trick?  Better to take the opportunity before they changed their minds.  He pulled Nawar down the stairs and ran past the others.  When he had reached the bottom of the stairwell he released the girl long enough to blast the stones above the stairs into rubble, blocking off his pursuers.  

Nawar frantically rubbed her ring and ran away from the lich.  Shadrack ran after her, hearing noises coming from the stairs.  A stone moved, then another, as his foes fought to reach him.  Another sound from his right alerted his attention, and his former dragon reared its head, ready to shoot flames.  In desperation, the lich shot a bolt of darkfire at the retreating girl, determined not to let the others have their prize.  Then, he faced the dragon.  

        *                *                *

Nawar saw the wound in her side, saw her lifeblood seeping away before her eyes.  She heard sounds of a fight, but that was far away.  Now the only thing in her world was the blood that coated everything.  

A voice rang through her head and the djinni’s orange face swam into view.  “What is your command?” the djinni repeated.  

“Help…me. Help…” Her voice barely escaped her lips as her breaths grew fainter and slower.

“You must wish it, mistress,” the djinni said. Was it smiling, or was she seeing things?

“I wish…I wish…help.” She gasped her final words out with a cough of blood. The last thing she saw was the djinni clapping his hands together.

“As you wish it, mistress.” The two were covered with an aura of fierce orange light that obstructed outside view, and Nawar felt herself rising, rising to the sky.

‘I’m finally free,’ she thought.

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