Prologue

The tavern door burst open as a tall young man tried to fight the winter gale and reach shelter.  He stumbled through the doorway and managed to shut the door.  He walked to the barkeep and spoke a few low words with the man.  The barkeep smiled and nodded towards the center of the room.  The stranger inclined his head respectfully and walked to the spot in two long strides.  There, he slung his pack off of his shoulder and carefully pulled a beautifully carved harp out.  The harp looked like it had been carved for the stranger, fitting perfectly into his arms.  The instrument depicted a woman wearing a crown and holding a sword above her head to one side, and a young man dressed in a robe and carrying a staff, indicating his profession as a wizard.  The reverse side had two more wizards, this time female, each beautiful in different ways.  One had the pointed ears and raised eyebrows of a faerie, the other had long black hair and a mysterious smile.  After strumming on his most valued possession for a time to warm it up, the man loudly introduced himself to the crowded room.

"Greetings!"  The man was clearly trained by a bard.  Everyone in the room put down their mugs and turned to listen to the man.  "I am Toma, bard of the green land of Ire."  He paused and looked at the crowd for a reaction.  The people stared blankly at him.  "Ah, I see my name hasnít reached you yet," he said, smiling wryly.  "No matter!  I will tell you such a story that everyone five lands away will know of me.  My story," he spoke dramatically, "begins at a time when the word Ďheroí had been all but forgotten."  Toma strummed a few chords on his harp to set the mood.  "One man had already played the hero part, freeing three lands from evil.  Now, he is on his most dangerous quest yet.  He is surrounded by darkness, but he is strong and can hold it off.  For now."  The harp had risen out of Tomaís hands and started to spin slowly in midair.  Patrons of the tavern noticed that the pictures on each side changed as it spun.  A dark picture had begun to form around the harp, and all in the room leaned closer to lookÖ

Devon walked to the staff in the town of Mordavia.  He had obtained a one-time-use spell from the Faerie Queen, Tatiana.  Now, with the vampire girl and the loyal beast, he knew what to do with the Ritual.  He cast it on the staff, feeling the knowledge of the spell leaving with it.  The beast, Toby agreed to the staffís demand for sacrifice, and Tanya was a living girl again.  "I love you too, Toby," she whispered.

Chapter 1

Tomaís voice came through the spell.  "Meanwhile, far away on a sacred isle, one who had yet to become a hero left his home."

A new image formed, the picture showing a man.  This man, however, was not like other men.  Other than the fact that he was taller than normal, he had great, white wings growing out of his back, like a birdís.

Tomaís voice again broke through.  "Azrael was a Winged One, from the Isle of the Sacred Mountain in the Land of the Green Isles.  He was not content with his peopleís isolation from the rest of the world, and resolved to see the world for himself.  With only food and water for a few weeks journey and changes of clothes, he flew out into the unknown.

The picture changed.  Azrael was landing before a great city in a desert.  Not wanting to upset the locals, he had put on a cloak over his normal toga.  He walked up to the guard by the gate.  "Where is the adventurers guild?"  His voice was soft and musical, reflecting his bodyís beauty, but its tone was slightly condescending.

The guard gave Azrael directions, which he followed.  Going inside the guild, he met a man with long hair and beads around his neck.  He greeted the man and introduced himself.  "I am Azrael of," he was about to say Ďthe Winged Onesí, but thought it best to keep his race a secret for the moment, so changed his speech, "the Land of the Green Isles.  I have come to explore the world, and see what it has to offer me."

The man listened politely, replying when Azrael finished.  "Whoa, Iím not, like, the Guildmaster here.  My name is Salim Nafs and Iím just stayiní here until Iíve met my true love, Julanar, and taken her to my new home in Silmaria.  In fact, there isnít a Guildmaster here right now.  Since Uhura left, no oneís taken up the position."

Azrael stiffened.  "This town," (even though his home was much smaller than Shapeir, he still dubbed it a town), "doesnít even have a suitable adventurerís guild?  Unacceptable."

Salim stared, astonished at the strangerís arrogance.  "Whoa, Iím sensing some totally negative vibes, man.  You need to chill out."  He thought for a moment.  "Oh, I know what always gets me cool.  I sit by Julanar and talk to her and hug her."  At these words, Azrael looked at the hippie with mild curiosity, and raised an eyebrow.  "Oh, thatís right, youíve never met Julanar.  I forget about these things.  Julanar is a tree."

Azrael could hardly keep the contempt from his voice.  "You need to lay off the hookah pipes."

"No, honest, sheís, like, out there in the desert.  Here, Iíll show you."

Chapter 2

The desert was a very dry place.  Azrael had to drink constantly from his waterskin he had bought by trading food to keep from burning up.  At last they pair reached a solitary tree growing beneath the tall rocks surrounding it on two sides.  Azrael had to look twice, it looked like a woman, but surely that couldnít be true.  Salim walked over and hugged the tree.  "Hello, Julanar, my sweet, I have brought someone here to see you."  He beckoned Azrael over.  "This is Azrael, he is from a faraway land, and wanted to visit you."  The last part was new to Azrael.

"Uh, greetings tree-woman," Azrael had no idea what to say to a tree.  "I hope you are well."  He looked at the apothecary as if to ask Ďare we done, yet?í

Salim smiled.  "Hey, man!  Ya gotta show her some love!"

Azrael blanched at the thought of hugging the tree as his companion just had.  He bowed slightly in the treeís direction.

"Ya gotta hug her, man," Salim pushed Azrael to the tree.  The Winged One hesitated, then wrapped his arms around the tree, planning to let go of it quickly.  Instead, the tree moved its branches to hug him back.  Salim smiled.  "There, ya got it!  I knew you would open up!"

"Does that- tree always hug back?" Azrael asked as he brushed the limbs off of him.

"Hmm, come to think of it, it doesnít.  Whoa, I gotta check the books to see what this means.  Stay here, Iíll be right back, man!"  The man ran back in the direction of the metropolis.

Azrael toyed with the thought of leaving the strange man and even stranger tree, but decided he had nothing better to do.  Besides, a tree that hugs back is most likely magical.  And he had wanted to see some real magic on his journeys.

Salim interrupted the Winged Oneís reverie by shouting at him.  "Hey, man!  I found out!"  Azrael waited as the apothecary got nearer.  "The book says that she will only hug back when faced with one who will perform great deeds.  It also says she needs two such people to hug her before she can change."

Azrael stared suspiciously at the man at his last words.  "Youíve been referring to the tree as Ďsheí.  Why?  And change how?"

Salim grinned ruefully.  "Oh, yeah.  I didnít tell you yet.  Julanar isnít a true tree.  Sheís a human."  Just as Salim said the word Ďhumaní, the tree gave out a cry and started to shake.

"What in the Oracleís name is happening?" the Winged One shouted.

"Sheís changing!" Salim had his mouth open in awe and joy.  Remembering for a moment his guest, he turned towards Azrael.  "This will take a while.  Iím going to stay with her tonight to help.  You can stay if you wantÖ"  Salim trailed off, hinting at his wish for privacy.

"Oh, no.  Itís time I explored the city, anyway."  Secretly, Azrael was just as relieved to leave the strange pair.  "Good-bye!"  Salim had already turned back to his soulmate.

Chapter 3

As soon as he had left Salimís range of vision, Azrael took off his cloak and flew to the city.  Replacing the stifling garment in the sunís blaze, he entered once more the gates to Shapeir.  Returning to the Guild, the man looked around him in the hopes of finding something worthwhile.  He noticed a large book opened on a table to the right, and a board with job postings and announcements in front of him, and a sign bearing the letters EOF.  He went to the book and briefly perused the pages.  The only entries he could understand were of a man named Devon, and a katta from Raseir.  Devonís entry read:  "I, Devon, have come to Shapeir to become a wizard and to free the city of Raseir."  The kattaís read:  "I, Sharaf, have come from Raseir to bring its people, the katta, home."

Azrael thought to himself, "Perhaps I could lower myself to ask them for adventuring advice."  He then signed the book himself, writing, "I, Azrael of the Land of the Green Isles, have come to become an adventurer."

Walking to the notice board, he saw nothing of interest, consisting mostly of cheap and degrading jobs.  A message was posted, asking for ingredients by the apothecary.  "Why should I risk my neck killing monsters for a little money?" he thought.

About to leave the building, a small notice caught his eye.  It simply stated four lines:  "The Way of the Paladin: To seek.  To learn.  To do."  Curious, he looked for any other messages on Paladins, but found none.  Disappointed, he looked at the EOF sign.  Scanning its contents briefly, he turned away in disgust.  Barbaric fighters society.  He had no such need for one.  Although an adequate fighter, he had no love of killing, or truly even of fighting.

Finding nothing else in the Guild, he left, returning once more to the searing desert sun.  Wandering the city, he eventually came across an odd door.  The door had an eye painted on it.  He knew the eye was a symbol for practitioners of magic, and decided to meet whoever live inside.  Walking up to the door, he knocked.  A voice asked, "Who is it that seeks to enter?"  Startled, Azrael didnít know what to do.  After a momentís hesitation, he shouted to the air, "My name is Azrael of the Land of the Green Isles!"  The voice asked again, "Who sent you here?"  He replied, "No one sends me!  I come by my own free will!"

There was another pause as this time the voice hesitated.  "All right, since you are new here and obviously inexperienced," Azrael fumed at these words, "I will let you in without a test."  The door opened, showing a room of ice.  Azraelís sandals did not, however, slip on the cold surface.  A woman looking like a typical Shapeirian yet having a great bearing stood near a table.

"Welcome, Azrael, to my home.  I am Aziza.  Please, sit."  She gestured to the table.

The Winged One replied stiffly, "I would rather stand, thank you."

The woman looked dismayed at Azraelís choice of wording.  "Very well, we shall remain standing."  Her voice matched Azraelís tone of cold aloofness.  "Why have you sought me out?"

Increasingly uncomfortable with the enchantress, the man looked around the room as he thought of what to say to her.  He noticed the water motif:  the pond in the room, the carpet made to look like a river flowing into a lake, and a tank holding a carp.  Before he could stop himself, he asked the enchantress, "That fish seems," he paused, looking for the right words, "It seems unusual."  Immediately regretting it, he started to amend, "Not unusual, thatís not-"

Aziza interrupted him.  "You had better sit down.  I can tell you have some meager knowledge of magic."  She gestured to the table, and this time he sat down.  "The fish you noticed is my familiar, Amed."  Seeing Azraelís look of confusion, she explained, "A familiar is a creature summoned to aid human spellcasters in their work, and that best reflects the casterís soul.  The ritual to summon one can only be done once.  Amed helps me with my spells that take a long time to perform, such as my far-seeing spells.  Do you not have magicians in your homeland?"

"Ah, yes but-" he stopped, not sure if he should reveal the fact that he wasnít human, so his magic users could not summon familiars.  "We are not permitted into their houses if we are not his or her apprentice."

Aziza nodded slightly and frowned, sensing the manís dishonesty.  "If you cannot go into their houses without becoming an apprentice, how do you recognize magical things?"

Seeing that he had worked himself into a corner, he gave in.  "All right, what I said before was a lie.  My people have only one who deals with magic, and she has no such familiar.  That is because," he tried to build up the suspense, hoping to get back at this human who had humiliated him, "I and my people are not human!"  He threw off his cloak and opened his wings to their full length.

To his dismay, Aziza only nodded thoughtfully.  "I thought as much.  You knew how to detect magical objects, but I sensed no magical abilities in you.  The only people that can do this are the Winged Ones."

Azrael sat back down, ashamed of his obvious outburst of childish behavior.  Aziza smiled for the first time since his arrival.  "Good.  Now you are willing to listen.  Amed and I have noticed you before your entrance.  No, no, we were not spying on you.  We had merely noticed an increase in the energies of Shapeir.  You," she looked him straight in the eye, "will become a very powerful hero."

Chapter 4

Azrael stared at her for a moment, the words ringing in his skull.  A hero.  He had always liked the tales of heroes he had heard as a fledgling, even if they were of lesser peoples, but had never thought he would become one.  Even when he had set off for adventure, he hadnít sought to be a hero.  Finally, he asked, "What do you mean?"  He realized this was a dumb question, but could think of nothing else to say.

Aziza smiled again.  "This is not certain.  You yourself must strive to become a hero.  This will not happen on its own.  If you act honorably and justly, you have the potential to become one of the greatest types of heroes-a paladin."

Azrael remembered the sheet on the notice board.  ĎThe Way of the Paladin: To seek.  To learn.  To do.í  He was intrigued by the idea, but still had no clue what the words meant, or what a paladin was.  Still thinking about paladins and heroes, he decided to let Aziza reveal the answers to his questions.  "How do you know this?"  He didnít trust the enchantress enough to believe her.  "How would I become a paladin?  What do paladins do?"

Aziza answered, "One at a time.  As Amed and I sensed you, we sensed too that you had great honor in you.  Knowing as well the prophecy, I decided to check with the Council of Twelve.  They told me that it was almost time for a new paladin to be born, and another to be reborn."  She looked thoughtfully at the Winged One.  "Iím not sure about the reborn, but Iím pretty sure that you are the paladin to yet be born!"

Azrael was even more confused than before.  What prophecy?  What was the Council of Twelve?  Seeing Aziza continue, he listened, hoping she would explain these things.

The woman went on.  "To become a paladin, one needs to go before the Council of Twelve and undertake the tasks they set before the individual.  Once that individual has actually completed the quests and become a paladin, they go out into the world and act selflessly to aid others.  They have special abilities to help uphold honor and justice."

Azraelís hopes deflated quickly.  Help others selflessly?  Of all the jobs in the world, that one sounded the worst.  Still, what harm would there be in going to the Council?  Aziza said he would receive quests from the Council, and that was what he left his homeland for.  Deciding to meet the Council, he asked, "How do I get to the Council of Twelve?"  And what, he added silently, is it?

Aziza smiled warmly, pleased that one would try to enlist in such an honorable profession.  I will contact the Council immediately, and open a portal to them for you.  Will you meet me tomorrow at daybreak?"  Azrael agreed and left the enchantressí house.

Since he still had most of the day to explore the city, he decided to try to find the other hero from the adventurerís book.  "Sharaf," Azrael murmured to himself.  "Now where will I find him?"

Still wandering the streets of Shapeir, he returned once again to the Gates Plaza.  Seeing an inn he decided someone there might know of the adventurerís whereabouts.  A katta stood up at his entrance, and bowed.  "Welcome to the Kattaís Tail Inn.  I am Shameen, and my mate is Shema."

He clapped twice, and another katta came out of the back rooms.  She bowed to the stranger as well and said, "I am Shema, if there is anything you require, let me know."  She bowed again and returned to where she came from.

Shameen told Azrael the boarding price, but nodded graciously when Azrael told him he did not have the money.  "Then tonight you shall be our guest.  You shall have our finest guest room at the end of the hallway.  That one used to be the Princeís room, before ever he was a prince."

Surprised at the generosity of the innkeeper, Azrael finally inclined his head.  "I thank you for your kind offer, but I will pay you before I leave.  No one can say that I have ever cheated them of their due."  Turning, he left the inn before the katta could respond.  As he walked out, Azrael thought of the prince that Shameen spoke of.  He was curious what human nobility were like, and decided to ask about him when he returned with the room payment.  Then he strode into the desert, ignoring the guardís attempt to warn him.

Shameen stared at the closed door for a while, then sat down on his pillow.  "A strange candidate for a paladin.  Still, Prince Devon seemed unlikely to be a hero or even a wizard in Spielburg."  Shaking his head, his mind wandered back to that cold northland where he and Shema met the future savior of Shapeir and Raseir.

Chapter 5

In the land of Mordavia, far to the north of where the paladin-to-be wandered, Devon struggled in the chains Katrina had teleported him into.

"How dare you!" the vampire screamed at him.  "I loved Tanya!  She was the only one I had ever loved!  YOU took her away from me!  I will have your blood for it!"  She started towards him, but stopped.  He had started talking.

"Do you really think she could have been happy as an undead with you, away from her parents, away from everyone but you and Toby?  It is not your place to choose her destiny for her.  I have made her happy."

"Happy!  I gave her immortal life, never to have to grow old and ugly!  You gave back old age and death to her!"  He was about to speak, but she held up a hand to stop him.  "No!  I will hear no more of your excuses!"  Turning away from him, she was quiet for a moment, then said quietly, "I have decided to spare your life for now.  The reason I returned to Mordavia was to retrieve the Dark One Rituals.  I have found but one.  You will find the rest for me."  She stated this matter-of-factly, knowing he could not resist her.

"Why?  Why would anyone want to unleash that horrible darkness onto the land?"

"Why?!  Why do you think!"  She flung the words bitterly at him.  "I am all powerful.  Nothing can harm me, except daylight."  Devon thought it best not to mention the fact that stakes could hurt her, too.  "By bringing Avoozl here, I will no longer need to hide in my coffin in the daylight, for there will be no daylight left!  I will be invulnerable!"

"But what of the people?  What about Tanya?"

She jerked her head around sharply.  "She would have been safe if it wasnít for you!  She would have been safe from the fate the rest of the world would have to undergo.  But now-" she faltered, realizing what would happen to the people of Gloriana.  "Now she will die."  She whispered the words in horror.  "So many deaths!  No!"  She turned back to Devon.  "You try to avert your own fate!  Coward!  Can you not simply stand firm in your fate?"  She licked her fangs.

"I am no coward," he said coldly.  "I care more about the fate of the world than my own."

"Awww!  How touching!  The hero stands up to the evil vampire, conquering even in his defeat.  But the time has come, great hero.  Embrace your destiny."  She walked towards him, fangs bared.  "I will make you my slave, leaving my mark on you until you die!  Then you will have to find the Rituals, even if you wanted to save the world."  Brushing against him, she rubbed his neck.  "Now that wouldnít be that bad, would it?  Being my slave would have definite, rewards."  She smiled darkly.  "Say good-night!"  Her teeth sank into his flesh, and he screamed.  After draining most of is blood, she cut her own wrist and held it to his weakened lips.  "Thus I geas thee."
  *    *    *
Azrael flew low over the moonlit desert.  He had spent the entire afternoon searching for a monster to fight.  As little as he enjoyed fighting, even with beasts, he would not sleep at the inn if he had not paid.  He had flew close to where he had left Salim, but from his distance he couldnít see anything.  He wondered if the tree woman had completed the transformation, or if Salim had just been delusional.  Returning in the direction of the city, Azrael saw ahead a nest on the cliffs.  Flying up to it, he greeted the griffin occupying it.

"Hail, brother."  Both griffins and Winged Ones were part of the flying monster category, and therefore Ďrelatedí.

The griffin turned his head to the Winged One.  "Greetings go to you, as well.  What brings a Winged One so far from home?"

"I left my isle in the hope of finding adventure.  Now I find that the adventure is more than I thought."  Briefly he told Merv what had happened to him so far in Shapeir.  "So, I will try to become a paladin."

"Ah, a paladin.  It is a good job.  And honorable.  That would suit a Winged One well.  Your species has as much self-honor as Liontaurs."

Feeling he could trust a fellow flying monster not to reveal that he was ignorant of many things, he unloaded his questions on Merv.  "I have heard much about a Prince of Shapeir.  Who is he?  He seems to be in high regard by the locals."

"Devon came with the innkeepers to Shapeir to stop Ad Avis from ruling the city and its sister city, Raseir."

Azrael interrupted, "Isnít that the city the adventurer Sharaf comes from?"  Maybe he could find out where the katta was and could talk to him.

"Yes, I think he is in Raseir now, with many katta from Shapeir, to re-populate the city."

Oh well, Azrael thought, I guess I wonít talk to him soon.

Continuing, the griffin said, "As I was saying, the Prince of Shapeir had already saved a land to the north, and saved our cities.  But as a hero must do, he left again for the land of Tarna to the south.  He disappeared there, and no one has been able to find him."  The griffin shrugged.  "I heard this from the dervish.  Iíve never actually talked to Devon.  Except for that one time he tried to talk to me."  He frowned, remembering the young manís vain attempt to understand the griffin language.

Seeing Mervís attention turned away, Azrael asked quickly, "Do you have any idea where I can find or earn some money?"  He didnít want to explain why.

The griffin looked at him for a moment, still thinking of the prince, before he spoke.  "My only advice to that would be to go to Julanar, the plant woman."

Azrael would have protested, since he needed money to escape owing money to Shameen.  But he thought maybe the griffin knew what he was talking about, so he thanked the creature and returned to where the tree grew.  Only now it was gone, with nothing but a large hole remaining.  Hmm.  So Salim was telling the truth after all, he thought.  Looking in the hole, he saw several shiny dinars.  Debating whether they were a present from Julanar or had happened to be some brigandís secret cache, or part of the enchantment the tree had been under, he decided not to question it, and picked up the coins.  Flying back to the city, he landed and walked back to the inn.

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