The deep silence of the darkest time of night filled the temple. Its main doors leading to the Street of Temples in Magnus stood open, allowing fresh night air to enter. Darkness shrouded the ceiling high above the altar. Flickering candles lit the sanctuary, highlighting shadows behind the altar veil. Pungent incense drifted in the air. A bowl made of beaten gold holding coins, gems, pieces of jewelry and other items, sat atop a marble pedestal before the altar.
Somewhere within the temple, the sound of stone grating upon stone followed by a gust of wind and a few softly spoken words momentarily broke the silence. Leather clad feet scooted across the floor, then silence once more.
Voices carried through the darkness from outside, “Find her. Do not let my daughter escape. Bring her and her child to me.”
Tears dripped onto the face of Rachel’s daughter as Rachel placed her lips on the child’s forehead. The baby’s dark brown eyes were open, looking up. She made no sound.
“Rachel, do not run,” a man called. “You were born for this. It’s why I bought your mother. She was to have my child, which is you.”
Rachel slipped from her hiding place into a hallway. Moving as silently as she could, she made her way deeper into the temple. Could this man be her father? She had never known her father; all her life she had belonged to the temple of Stevene.
“You don’t need to fear what is to come,” the man said. “There is no pain. You just close your eyes and go to sleep. The teachings of the Stevene say when you wake, you will be in a much better place.”
Rachel slipped through an open door into a prayer room. Her breath caught, and she froze when she saw the body of Brother Joseph lying on the floor in a pool of blood, his throat cut. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed silently. “Stevene, forgive me. It’s all my fault.”
“You cannot get away,” the man said. “My followers have killed all the priests in this temple, and are watching the ways out.”
“All dead? Even Father Rackar?” Rachel asked herself. “Why is this happening?”
“Your mother did not run when it was her time,” the man said. “You never knew your mother. I sacrificed her when they told me you were old enough to live without her. Then I gave you to my follower inside of the temple of Stevene so they would raise you.”
Rachel crossed the prayer room and then snuck down a hallway leading to the rear courtyard. As she neared the door, she heard men talking outside. She could not escape this way.
“If it’s your daughter you’re worried about, don’t.” the man said. “It’s not her time to die. Never waste a life you can use later.”
Rachel retraced her steps, and when she entered the prayer room, she saw a tall, lanky man wearing black robes waiting for her. His hair was black, stringy and hung limply over his shoulders. In the dim lighting, she could not see his face.
“There you are,” the man said. “And you have the child with you. Good. Rachel, my name is Sandore and I am your father.”
Rachel’s body shook as she looked around for some means of escape. She turned to put her daughter behind her to protect her, but a man stepped up and took the child from her arms.
“Give me my daughter!” Rachel lunged for the child.
The man turned his side toward Rachel and knocked her to the ground with a fist. Then the man looked up at Sandore and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“Bring her to the altar,” Sandore said. He frowned and left the room.
A few menes later, Sandore stood in front of the altar to Stevene while two of his followers held Rachel over the bowl of offerings. Another man held the child a short distance away so she could see what was happening to her mother. The child did not cry.
“Rachel,” Sandore said, his voice almost musical, “it may seem that I have been uncaring and distant, but that was for your good. You were safe here in the temple until I needed you. And I did have some of my followers check on you through the years to make sure the priests were taking care of you.”
Sandore removed a knife with a long, thin blade from a pocket inside of his robe, touched the tip of the blade to his finger and drew a single drop of blood. Then he put his finger to Rachel’s forehead and left a red smear of blood.
“And look at the beauty you have become. I can see your mother in you, as well as myself. You have her face, but you have my eyes. I would say You have the best of both of us.”
Rachel struggled to get free from the two men holding her, but they were too strong. She screamed for help, but no one came.
“I hope the Stevene accepts your spirit,” Sandore said. “All I want is your blood.”
With a quick slash, Sandore opened a thin cut across Rachel’s neck. Rachel watched her blood cover the offerings to Stevene in the bowl as her life slowly left her body. Her last thought was a prayer to protect her child.
“It’s been seventeen years since that night,” Father Ronalt said. He sat behind his desk looking at a young priestess sitting in a chair on the other side. “The temple has been your home, but your eighteenth name day is only a sennight away. You must decide what you are going to do. Are you going to stay with us and discover the deeper mysteries or make your way in the world? Just think of all the things you could do. Few of us are able to channel the divine power the way you can.”
“I’m going to find my grandfather.” Leashea rose from the chair and began pacing around the small office.
“Leashea, this path you are placing yourself on will only lead to death. If not yours, then someone else.”
“I know.” Leashea turned to face Father Ronalt. “I will kill my grandfather when I find him.”
“The teachings of the Stevene tell us to forgive those who have done us wrong and to pray for them. Surely, you should forgive your grandfather. It is the way of Stevene.”
“I will never forgive him.” Leashea clenched her hands into fists and held them pressed tightly against her sides. She felt the anger and hatred for her grandfather growing inside of her. “All my life I have had to live with the deaths he caused that night. I was too young to remember what happened, but I saw it. He intended for it to leave a mark upon my soul. It hasn’t been easy for me, hearing the taunts from the other children and the whispered insults behind my back.”
“Still, no matter how much you may have suffered, is there any reason for you to take another’s life?”
“Yes.” Leashea slammed both fists down on the desk. A sudden gust of wind blew through the room, blowing out the candle sitting on the desk and the papers the father had been reading onto the floor. “My grandfather is evil, and I have to stop him.”
“Leashea, please sit down and remain calm.”
Leashea returned to her seat. She tried to calm herself, to slow her rapid breathing and her pounding heart, but it was hard. The dark emotions raged and threatened to overwhelm her. Using her training, she took a few deep breaths, counting to four between each one.
“After your grandfather desecrated the Stevenic temple in Magnus, they tried to find him. But he seemed to be nothing more than a shadow. I heard rumors from some of the priests who were around then that even the Elders searched with their magic and found nothing. How do you expect to find him?”
“I have something they didn’t,” Leashea said, once she was again in control of her emotions. “I have blood on my side.”
“I regret you have chosen this path,” Father Ronalt said. “I wish there was something else I could say, some way I could turn you from it, but I can hear it in your voice. You are free to seek your grandfather. Go with caution. I will keep you in my prayers so that you will be safe and follow the way of truth.”
“Thank you, father,” Leashea said as she rose from the desk. “This means everything to me.”
“Your home is here,” Father Ronalt said. His voice was heavy with emotion. “All I ask is that if you come through your trials, you return to us.”
With the permission of Father Ronalt, Leashea continued to live in the temple while she searched for her grandfather. She sought any information about him she could find. She looked in the many libraries in Magnus. She checked the College of Bards. She spoke with any wizard who would give her an audience. Most of the wizards turned her away for fear of the name of her grandfather.
As time passed, Leashea grew increasingly more frustrated. She found nothing. Some remembered her grandfather and the events that had taken place at the temple, but none knew where he was. Just when Leashea was on the verge of abandoning it all, Father Ronalt asked her to come to his office.
“I have some information about your grandfather,” Father Ronalt said. His study had not changed in the three years since Leashea was there before. “But it troubles me. I am not sure if I should share it with you.”
“What have you learned?” Leashea asked. She sat on the edge of her chair. “You have to tell me, whatever it is.”
“As you know, your twenty-first name day is only a couple of months away,” Father Ronalt said. He fidgeted with a quill pen he held in his hands, turning it over and over.
“Yes, I know,” Leashea said. “What does that have to do with my grandfather?”
“That is what troubles me,” Father Ronalt said. “Your mother was the same age when …”
“I know,” Leashea said. She could not sit still. She wanted to hear what the father had to say, she just wished he would get to the point. “And you think my grandfather will come to take me on my naming day just as he did my mother.”
“To put it bluntly, yes,” Father Ronalt said.
“I don’t care,” Leashea said. Deep inside herself, she knew she was right. “Let him come. I am not as helpless as my mother was.”
“Another thing that troubles me is more of a moral dilemma.” Father Ronalt set the quill aside and placed his hands on his desk, intertwining his fingers. “Do I have a right to help you murder another person? You know Stevene taught us to live in peace and forgive. If I help you, I’m not helping you to forgive. I’m helping you to take the life of another.”
“Father, I must kill my grandfather.” Leashea leaned closer to Father Ronalt. “I know I am the only one that can do it. I’ve had dreams of him, horrible dreams. In them, I have seen the things he has done and they must stop.”
“I love you as if I were your father.” Father Ronalt gently placed his hand on top of Leashea’s. “You know that, don’t you? And that is why I don’t want to see you throw your life away.”
“I love you too, father, but I must do this.”
Father Ronalt sat for a moment looking at Leashea in silence. Then he opened a drawer and removed a wax-sealed scroll and set it on the desk.
“What is it?” Leashea asked.
“I’m not sure,” Father Ronalt said. “An old trader came to the temple, asking for you.”
“Asking for me?” Leashea said.
“Yes,” Father Ronalt said. “He heard you were searching for your grandfather at the college of bards. I met with him and bought the scroll. At first, I was going to keep it.”
“Why would you keep it from me,” Leashea asked? “When you know it might help me find my grandfather.”
“For that very reason,” Father Ronalt said. “When you find your grandfather, you will be in danger. I will do everything in my power to protect you, even if I have to protect you from yourself.”
Leashea picked up the scroll and examined it. “What is the seal? It looks familiar.”
“I thought so too,” Ronalt said. “It’s the seal of J’mirg. Your grandfather desecrated the temple that night by painting the same symbol on the altar in blood.”
“Have you opened it?” Leashea asked.
“No,” Father Ronalt said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s yours.”
Leashea picked up the scroll. She held it in her hands for a few breaths and felt a faint tingle coming from it. When she broke the seal, the wax turned to dust and then the dust turned to smoke that quickly dissipated in the air. She unfurled the scroll and on the inside, drawn in blood, was a map to a remote area in the Darst Mountain range in Northern Baranur.
“This is going to be a very long journey,” Leashea said.
“You’re not going to make it by yourself, are you?” Father Ronalt asked. “That would be very dangerous.”
“I haven’t thought that far yet,” Leashea said. “Until now, I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
“I suggest you hire a few mercenaries to escort you,” Father Ronalt said. “Make sure they are men you can trust.”
Father Ronalt was right. She would not be able to search for her grandfather alone. The world outside of Magus was far too dangerous for a woman to be traveling alone. Even though she mistrusted most older men, she knew she would need a couple who knew how to use weapons for protection.
Leashea hired a trio of mercenaries to protect her. Their names were Cedartic, Handros, and Transtiz. She did not like any of them, but they were the best she could find for the money she had. Leashea told them as little as possible about why she needed them and what they would be doing. She did guarantee when it was over they would either be dead or very wealthy. Each agreed to go with reasons of their own. For Handros, it was the gold. For Transtiz, it was magic. For Cedartic, it was the challenge of the adventure.
“Transtiz, I thought you said the castle was in this area,” Handros said. The dense forest around them deadened the sound of his voice.
“Exploring is not something you can just get done in a single day or even a single sennight,” the wizard said. “It’s not like this is a street map of Magnus. What we are looking for is only a mark on a piece of parchment. It’s not the exact location.”
“Are you sure the map is good?” Handros asked. “We could be wandering around, lost in this forest.”
“The map is good,” Leashea said. Instead of her usual priestly robes, the young priestess wore leather breeches, a long-sleeved blouse, and a tabard to protect her from the thick undergrowth. Emblazoned on the tabard was the symbol of Stevene, a hangman’s noose.
“How can you tell if any map is correct until you find where it goes?” Transtiz asked. “Now is not the time to be questioning whether it’s good. Why didn’t you do that before we left Magnus?”
“I did ask,” Handros said. “If you will recall, we were sitting in the Fighting Unicorns, and I asked if the map was good and Leashea said it was. And she also said it was a treasure map, not a map leading to the castle of an evil wizard.”
“So, you’re saying we could be wandering around lost in this forest forever,” Cedartic said. Other than the portly wizard, Cedartic was having the most trouble moving through the dense foliage. The heavy armor he insisted on wearing all the time kept him drenched in sweat and made his movements slow and ponderous.
“That is one outcome,” Leashea said. “But I do not expect our endeavor to come to such an end. I acquired that map from a very reliable source.”
“Priests,” Cedartic said. “They never give a straight answer unless the answer is another question.”
“Here is a straight answer for you,” Leashea said. “If I am correct, this map came from the evil wizard himself. I was on the verge of giving up searching for him, and a map just appears when even the Elders could not find him. I think he wants me to come to him. No, I know he does.”
“So, instead of being lost this map could be leading us into a trap?” Handros asked.
“I suspect that it is,” Leashea said. “Yes, I suspect that it is.”
A short time later, they were making their way through the dense forest when the sound of running water drifted up from the bottom of a ravine. Steep banks covered with dense undergrowth on both sides led down to a rapidly moving stream. Even though the adventurers were very noisy as they forced their way through the forest, birds and insects still whistled and chirped over the noise of the stream.
“If we go down,” Cedartic said. “I don’t think we will be able to climb back out. Especially the wizard.”
“What was that?” Transtiz asked. “You’re not talking about me, are you?”
“No,” Cedartic said. “I’m not talking about you. Why would I be talking about you?”
“You’re always jesting about my size,” Transtiz said. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“You could try eating less,” Cedartic said. “I’ve seen you eat two entire chickens for breakfast. You picked the bones clean.”
“The use of magic requires energy,” Transtiz said. “I need to keep up my mana supply for when I invoke it. The food is fuel for my magic.”
“Just shut up,” Handros said. “Give me the water skins, and I’ll fill them up.”
Handros took a length of rope out of his backpack, tied one end to a tree at the top of the ravine and then slowly descended the steep slope to the bottom. The undergrowth was thick and hard to press through. Thorns caught in his clothing and flesh leaving small scratches on his hands.
Once at the bottom, Handros saw the stream was broad and shallow, with rapidly flowing water. Whitecaps covered most of its surface. The undergrowth grew right up to the edge of the river; there was no bank to stand on. As Handros knelt to reach the water, he felt someone watching him. He looked around, but all he saw was a raven sitting on a tree limb.
Handros began filling the water-skins but could not shake the feeling of someone watching him. He looked up again and saw the bird had moved closer and was looking at him. Handros picked up a rock from the stream and hurled it at the raven. The bird did not move as the rock hit the branch it sat on.
“Yay!” Handros hurled another rock at the raven, again missing the bird. “Get away, fly. Go.”
The raven did not move. It continued watching Handros.
After that, Handros ignored the bird and finished filling the water-skins. Then he climbed out of the ravine. As Handros reached the top of the ravine, the raven flew over his head and nearly hit him with bird droppings as it flew away to the north.
The next day, around the seventh bell, Handros spotted something through the forest to the north. “I see a clearing up ahead,” he said. “The trees look less dense, and I think I see sunlight.”
“Finally,” Cedartic said. “I’m tired of this gods cursed forest. Anything would be a welcome change.”
Handros stepped out of the forest into the clearing with Cedartic close behind him. Both men stood there for a moment before Cedartic said, “Anything except a graveyard.”
A few feet into the clearing a section of stone wall had collapsed, giving entrance to a cemetery. Moss and vines covered the wall, and thick, patchy fog drifted among the cenotaphs and grave markers.
“There’s something wrong,” Leashea said. “Something vile and unnatural.”
“Really?” Handros asked. “We find a graveyard in the middle of a forest while looking for the castle of an evil wizard and you sense something wrong?”
“Shut up, Handros.” Cedartic sat down on a section of the stone wall that was still standing. “Give the lady a chance.”
“I don’t need for you to defend me,” Leashea said. “I can protect myself.”
“As the lady wishes,” Cedartic said. “Except isn’t that why you hired me? So be it, after you.”
Leashea turned her head toward the sky and closed her eyes. She held her hands out before her, with the palms up as she uttered a silent prayer. Drawing upon her inner strength, she summoned a soft blue glow that enveloped her hands.
“Can someone do something about the fog?” Handros asked. “If something attacks us we might end up hitting ourselves. Or we might just step into a grave and break a leg.”
“Let me see,” Transtiz said. “Should be simple enough.”
Transtiz sneezed, coughed, cleared his throat, and then farted.
“You find this amusing?” Transtiz asked.
“Straight,” Cedartic said. “I always have. Every time you use your magic, you fart.”
“The priests pray. I become flatulent.” Transtiz reached into a bag hanging from his belt and removed a feather. “Now, if you will keep your amusement to yourself, I will try to get rid of the fog.”
“You have to admit it is rather funny,” Cedartic said.
Transtiz turned to face the graveyard. The feather dissolved into a puff of gray smoke and formed into a tiny ball of vapor that Transtiz enclosed in his hand. He concentrated for a breath and then tossed the gray ball into the graveyard. The ball drifted into the fog and began absorbing the mist and growing. As it grew, it increased in speed until it was moving rapidly through the graveyard. When the gray ball reached three feet in diameter, it dropped to the ground with a watery splash.
“How’s that?” Transtiz asked.
“So, does your gas grow more odiferous for more powerful magic?” Cedartic asked.
“Leave me alone,” Transtiz said. “I have no control over it.”
“That’s no answer,” Cedartic said. “I just hope you don’t have to work your magic in close quarters.”
A mene or so later, Cedartic asked, “Have you ever cast a spell so powerful, it caused you to soil your robes?”
“Cedartic,” Handros said, “shut the fark up.”
“I’m just asking,” Cedartic said. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”
“The graveyard looks empty,” Handros said. He turned to face Leashea. “Do you want me to go first?”
“No,” Leashea said. “I’ll lead.”
The graveyard was well over one hundred feet across, and two hundred feet wide with a stone wall encircling it. On the far side, away from the collapsed section of wall was the gateway leading to the castle. Within the graveyard, only a few cenotaphs or grave markers stood upright. Most of the others markers were either broken or lay on the ground.
Leashea stepped through the collapsed wall into the graveyard. Smoke rose from her feet when they touched the dirt inside, but she did not notice.
“As I thought, this is unholy ground.” Leashea slowly scanned the graveyard. “I can see a path that will lead us through, but you must follow me. Put your feet when I place mine.”
“Why can’t we go around?” Handros asked. “It looks like there is room to walk around the wall. If we can find another way around, we should stay out of the graveyard.”
Leashea retraced her steps out of the graveyard. “Good idea. Cedartic, why don’t you go that way? Handros, you go the other way. Check the path and see if it is passable.”
While Cedartic and Handros walked away in opposite directions, Leashea looked across the graveyard toward the castle. An ancient oak tree grew in the center of the graveyard, its limbs reaching high into the sky. The roots at its base had engulfed several grave markers, which had become part of the tree. A raven sat on one of the tree’s lower branches.
Leashea looked at the raven. The raven looked at Leashea. A moment passed and Leashea realized she had been either sleeping or in a trance. The raven was gone.
A few menes later, both men returned with the same results. The forest pushed in so close to the stone wall there was no way around. They had to go through the graveyard.
The path across the graveyard was visible to Leashea, and it was not hard for the others to follow her. Wherever she stepped, the grass turned black underneath her feet. Handros was second, and then Transtiz. Cedartic was last. Leashea led them on a winding path around gravestones and past a few open graves.
As Leashea drew near the oak tree, Cedartic stumbled over a root that suddenly rose out of the earth under his feet. He fell face first onto the ground with a metallic thud. As soon as he touched the ground, the graveyard rumbled, followed by fountains of dirt erupting into the air from three nearby graves.
“Cedartic, you’re a clumsy clod,” Transtiz said. Then he sneezed, coughed, cleared his throat and farted.
“I couldn’t help it,” Cedartic said. “The root moved to trip me.”
Three skeletons climbed out of the graves and started toward Leashea, ignoring everyone else.
“What unholy magic is this?” Cedartic clambered up from the ground, drawing a two-handed sword from the scabbard strapped to his back. He ran forward to place himself between Leashea and the skeletons, but could only interpose himself between two of them. The third one continued its staggering shuffle toward the priestess.
“I will protect you, Leashea!” Cedartic swung his sword, but it passed through the skeleton without any effect. He swung again with the same results. The creature seemed unaffected by the sword strikes. “My sword does not find flesh or bone to hit.”
Transtiz made a punching motion directed toward the second skeleton. A small wave of magic, shaped like a large boulder, swept from his hand and passed through the thing with no effect. Transtiz farted.
“Something is very odd,” Transtiz said. “They’re not real.”
Leashea faced the skeleton shambling toward her. When it was at arm’s reach, it lunged at her. She struck at the thing with her open palm. When her palm touched the creature, the light that encircled her hand flared brightly and then went out. The skeleton faded into a puff of vapor.
Cedartic continued to strike one with his sword, without effect.
“Handros,” Transtiz said. “Are you just going to stand there?”
“The short answer would be yes,” Handros said.
“I always knew he was a coward,” Cedartic said.
“I am not a coward,” Handros said. “If your giant sword is not having much effect on them, what do you think my stuff would do? My sword is smaller than yours.”
“Ha, you finally admit it,” Cedartic said. “You’ve got a small …”
“Silence, all of you!” Leashea waited for the third corpse to get to her. When it was within reach, she tried to strike it with her palm. The skeleton avoided the attack and grabbed her by the tabard, its claws raking at her face leaving faint scratches along her cheek.
“They are an illusion,” Transit said. “Not real. That’s why we can’t touch them.”
“I guess this was the evil wizard’s idea of a joke?” Cedartic asked. “Does he think this is a game?”
Transtiz took out a black bandana and tied it around his head so that he could not see. Then he muttered a few mystical words, spun around in a circle gesturing in all directions and farted. As he pointed at the remaining skeletons, they faded from view in a puff of vapor.
“Do not move.” Leashea touched her cheek and felt a faint trickle of blood from the scratches. “There may be more waiting. They may not be a danger to you, but if I’m right they can do a lot of harm to me.”
The three mercenaries stood in place for a full mene while Leashea prayed. When she was through, the glowing light appeared on her palms once more.
“Follow my exact steps,” Leashea said. “And this time be more cautious. Watch out for the roots. We are almost out and once we are through we should be fine.”
The late afternoon sun had dropped below the tree line, and the shadows were beginning to grow when they made it through the graveyard and into the castle courtyard. The castle was still a good quarter league away to the northwest. Dead grass, weeds, and stunted trees covered the grounds around the castle. Nothing appeared to be living.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” Handros said. “Should we make camp out here and wait or move on now?”
“Sleep on the doorstep of an evil wizard for the night,” Cedartic said. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“It’s just about as good as going in at night,” Handros said.
“We do not need to sleep the night,” Leashea said, “but a few menes’ rest would not be unwelcome.”
Handros looked around the area for wood to make a fire. The many oak trees at the edge of the graveyard offered plenty of limbs and branches. As he gathered the wood, he felt the presence of someone watching him and then he saw the raven sitting in a tree looking at him.
While Handros looked for wood, Cedartic examined his sword for any nicks or notches or other damage. When he found one, he used a sharpening stone to smooth out the damage.
Leashea knelt just outside of the graveyard near the wall and prayed until Handros returned with the wood. Then she watched Transtiz rifle through his bag and take out a small red crystal and a magnifying glass. Transtiz held the crystal in his hand and it emitted a soft glow of red light. He held the magnifying glass so the red glow shone through the glass onto the dry wood. In a few breaths, the wood started to smolder and smoke and finally caught fire. After a moment, the fire was ready.
“Tea will be on in a couple of menes if anyone is interested,” Handros said once the fire was going. He removed a teapot from his backpack, filled it with water and then hung it on a tripod over the fire.
Everyone sat around the fire in silence until the tea was ready.
“What’s between you and the evil wizard?” Cedartic asked. “You never said why we’re looking for him.”
“No, I didn’t tell you.” Leashea breathed a heavy sigh and turned to face Cedartic. “When I was a newborn, my mother was murdered by her father. And worse, she was sacrificed on the altar of Stevene to the evil he served.”
“That would make the evil wizard your grandfather,” Cedartic said.
“Yes,” Leashea said. “He also said I would be next. I will be twenty-one in a few days, and I am not going to wait for him to come for me. I am going to kill him first.”
“How do you know this isn’t a trap?” Cedartic asked. “You could be walking right into his hands.”
“Oh, Stevene!” Leashea gasped as she held her hand to cover her mouth. “You’re right. I didn’t think of that. Please Cedartic, would you protect me from the evil wizard?”
“I am just trying to be helpful,” Cedartic said. “You don’t have to be such a …”
Leashea rolled her eyes as she threw the remnants of her tea into the fire and walked away toward the castle laughing. Then she turned back to face the three men and said, “No, I fully expect it to be a trap. To search for three years and then finally have the answer just appear? I’m not that stupid. It’s why I hired the three of you. Just make sure you live long enough for me to get to my grandfather and I will take care of everything else.”
The three men sat in silence, not sure how to respond. After everyone rested a few menes and had tea and hard tack, Handros put the teapot back away. Transtiz extinguished the fire.
Forest surrounded the castle on north, west, and south sides. On the east side was an abandoned village. A road led from the main entrance of the castle to the village. The only way someone could gain access to the castle would be by the road, or cutting a path through the forest as they had done.
A walled stone courtyard with several gates and portcullises filled the area in front of the castle. A cobblestone walkway led to stone stairs up to the main entrance. Ironbound doors, ten feet tall, blocked the entryway. Painted on the doors in blood were mysterious runes. The blood was still wet.
“Anyone want to bet those runes are magical?” Handros asked.
“Only a fool would accept a bet such as that,” Leashea said. The closer she was getting to their destination, the more irritable she was becoming.
“I was joking,” Handros said.
“Leashea, don’t take everything so seriously. I’m sure Handros was trying to be amusing,” Transtiz said. “Yes, the runes are magical. I do not know what they are for.”
“Can you remove them?” Handros asked.
“Of course I can remove them,” Transtiz said. “What would happen if I did? I don’t know.”
“Straight,” Handros said. “Give me a mene to look around for a better way in.” Handros walked away from the others and quickly vanished from sight in the darkening gloom.
“What do we know about the evil wizard?” Transtiz asked. He took a seat on the stone stairs. “Other than he’s your grandfather.”
“He’s very powerful,” Leashea said. “He has followers who will kill at his command, or if asked, they would die for him.”
“What about them?” Cedartic asked. He tapped his sword hilt. “Do we kill them? I thought Stevene looked down upon killing.”
“If they follow my grandfather,” Leashea said, “then they have passed the point of redemption.”
“So, you think you can kill him?” Transtiz asked.
“You cannot kill something as evil as he is,” Leashea said. “From the rumors, he has made pacts with the creatures he serves and is protected by them.”
“Straight,” Transtiz said. “If you cannot kill him, then what are we going to do to him?”
“He cannot die, but he can be banished or dispelled,” Leashea said. “If you kill his physical form, that only releases him to roam around on the spirit plane. We can trap him.”
“You are not very encouraging,” Transtiz said.
“Have faith,” Leashea said as he touched the hangman’s noose pendant around her neck. “I do.”
“Faith is fine,” Cedartic said as he pulled his sword halfway out of its scabbard, “but I put my belief in a sharp sword.”
“There are things far beyond your comprehension that a sword will never touch,” Leashea said.
“In that case,” Cedartic said, smiling as he pushed the sword all the way into the scabbard, “I would use a hammer.”
Just then, Handros came running around the corner. “I think I have found another entrance. Follow me.”
Handros led the others around the castle toward the outer edge of the graveyard until they came to a large mound of dirt sitting against the base of the castle.
“Over here,” Handros said, “is a door covered with grass. If we can get it open, we should be able to slip into the castle.”
“I don’t see a door,” Cedartic said.
“Neither do I,” Transtiz said.
“It is right here,” Handros said.
Cedartic looked where Handros pointed, but he still could not see anything.
“Straight,” Handros said. From his pack, he produced a small shovel and started clearing away the dirt from the door. After a few menes, he uncovered a door set into the ground.
“Most castles have a door like this,” Handros said. “The castle owners don’t want servants, serfs, and slaves coming in and out of the main castle doors. In the summer, most of the cooking is done outside.”
“Cedartic, can you open it?” Leashea asked.
Cedartic planted his feet, squatted above the door, and then grasped the door’s handle with both hands. He strained, his arm and shoulder muscles bulging with the effort. He pushed against the earth with his legs as hard as he could until slowly the door gave way. It creaked as it swung open and landed with a loud thud and a puff of dust. The doorway opened onto a dark tunnel leading underneath the castle. It was silent inside, and a coating of dampened dust layered everything. The musty scent of wet stones mingled with the smell of rot drifted up from the tunnel.
“Very impressive,” Leashea said.
A big smile lit up Cedartic’s face.
“Ok, now we go into the darkness,” Handros said. He gave a torch to everyone except Transtiz. He lit one with flint and steel and then used that one to ignite the rest. The torchlight caused the shadows to dance on the worn stone floor. Transtiz farted and then a ball of magical light appeared above his head that gave off as much luminance as a torch. Instead of flickering orange, the mage’s fire was a constant blue in color, and it did not cast shadows.
“This way,” Cedartic said as he led the way into the dark tunnel. The sound of his heavy plate and chainmail echoed slightly from the stone walls.
“Where does this lead?” Leashea asked.
“To the lower level of the kitchen and storage rooms,” Cedartic said. “They would bring fuel for the fires and supplies in this way.”
“Are you certain?” Transtiz asked. He followed behind a few feet behind Cedartic.
“Yes,” Cedartic said. “I’ve walked through many castles, keeps, and great houses. This one is no different.”
“Unless my grandfather changed the floor plans,” Leashea said.
“If you get lost, call. I’ll be happy to help you out,” Transtiz said. His blue light made him look slightly sinister.
“Thank you, wizard,” Cedartic said. “But I am sure I will not need it.”
The tunnel descended under the outer walls and then ran straight into the castle. It ended at a wooden door with a tarnished brass ring in the center of it.
Handros moved forward and examined the door for a mene or two before he said, “No one has opened this door for a very long time.”
“Just how old is it?” Transtiz asked.
“Hard to tell,” Handros said. He inserted a short metal rod through the brass ring and turned. A loud click echoed down the tunnel. “I think that’s it. Now, kick it open.”
Torch in one hand and a long sword in the other, Cedartic kicked the door as hard as he could. His two-handed sword was still in its scabbard on his back. The door crashed open with an echo from inside. After the echo died away, silence filled the area one again.
Cedartic charged through the door ready for anything. On the other side was a large storage room with several other doors. The smell of mold and decay filled the room. Rotten wooden crates, barrels, and other containers lined the walls. Sitting on a wooden table in the center of the room was a large, fat, white rat. The torch light reflected an eerie red in its eyes. The creature watched as Cedartic charged into the room, but it did not flee.
“Watch out, it’s a hideous monster,” Cedartic said. “Be careful, lest it kills us all.”
The rat twitched its ears and nose. It looked from Cedartic back to the others.
“Ol’s balls,” Handros said. “It’s just a rat.”
“I have asked you many times not to curse in my presence,” Leashea said. “I find it offensive.”
“Sorry,” Handros said.
“Yes, it’s a rat,” Cedartic said. Cedartic swung his sword at the animal. The rat ignored Cedartic and sat upon its hind legs as if begging. It was holding something between its paws and continued to nibble on it.
“I’ll get it,” Transtiz said. He cleared his throat, farted and then he pointed his finger at the creature. A thin stream of fire erupted from the tip of his finger and lanced through the air. The rat squeaked loudly, leaping from the table. It vanished in the darkness underneath, dropping what it was eating.
“You missed,” Cedartic said. He walked to the table and picked up what the rat had been eating. He dropped it as soon as he saw what it was. “It’s a human finger.”
“Did you see where it went?” Transtiz asked.
“No,” Cedartic said. “It just vanished.”
Transtiz moved to the center of the room. The blue light above his head grew brighter until it illuminated the room.
“Missing the rat may have been a bad mistake,” Leashea said. “If it was one of my grandfather’s pets, it may be on its way to warn him of our presence.”
“But isn’t he expecting you?” Transtiz asked.
“Yes,” Leashea said. “I think he has been watching us for some time. Has anyone else seen the raven?”
“I saw it,” Handros said as he examined the doors leading from the room. “There’s a draft under this one, I think it leads up.”
Cedartic kicked the door, shattering it with the force of his blow. It opened onto a spiral ramp leading upward into the darkness above.
“Follow me.” Cedartic charged up the ramp, moving around and around the spiral ramp until he came to a thick velvet curtain. The curtain was in tatters with huge holes in it. As Cedartic tore through the curtain, the entire curtain ripped away from the top and fell around him.
“Fark,” Cedartic said.
“I keep asking you not to use foul language,” Leashea said. “I understand that you have no manners, but you don’t need to make it so clear.”
“I’m sorry,” Cedartic said. He untangled himself from the curtain and stepped into the main chamber of the castle. “I’m not used to having a lady such as you along with us when exploring.”
“A man with manners will show them no matter what the circumstances,” Leashea said.
“It’s too dark,” Cedartic said. “I cannot see anything in this room.”
Transtiz went through his pre-spell routine and then chanted a few words in an ancient language and two breaths later a large yellow moth appeared in his hand. Its wings started fluttering, and it flew away into the darkness.
“What good is that going to do?” Handros asked. “And next time, could you warn me first? I’m standing right behind you.”
When the insect reached a spot above the center of the main hall, it started hovering. From its wing’s, sparkling dust drifted downward. As the dust spread out, the glow intensified until it was giving enough light to see vague shapes in the room. The dust clung to everything it touched.
The room was large, filling up most of the first floor of the main building. The remnants of tables, chairs, and other furniture littered the room. Across the room, a grand staircase led up to the second floor. Across from the staircase was the main entryway. Several other small openings led farther into the castle.
“If Sandore is here, he knows we are too,” Transtiz said.
“Of course he is here,” Leashea said. “We are close enough so I can sense his evil presence upstairs. If I can sense him, he can sense me.”
“Straight,” Transtiz said. He walked to the center of the main hall and sat down in a chair at one of the remaining tables. The rickety chair supported his bulk with no problem. He reached into his robes and withdrew a large piece of beef jerky, which he began to eat.
Cedartic sat in another chair at the table, facing Transtiz.
“You’re not going to say something about me eating?” Transtiz asked.
“No, I’ll give you pass this time,” Cedartic said. “Wouldn’t be very funny right now.”
“From here, it’s only going to get worse,” Leashea said. She looked up toward the second floor. “So far, I don’t think Sandore has considered us a threat. And that may be his mistake. But the closer we get to him, the more resistance we will meet.”
“I don’t think so,” Cedartic said. He gestured toward upstairs with the beef jerky. “He’s been waiting for you for at least twenty years, so why would he risk accidently hurting you now?”
“What are you trying to say?” Leashea asked.
“You said he had followers that would die for him,” Cedartic said. “Have you seen any? So far, we have not met anybody. It’s been easy to get this far. I don’t think you are in any danger until you come face to face with your grandfather.”
“I see,” Leashea said.
“Us on the other hand, we are fair game,” Cedartic said. “To be honest, I think it would be better for your grandfather if he managed to kill us first.”
Leashea started so say something, but Cedartic interrupted her, “It’s fine. That’s why you hired us. We will not die easily.”
“I have some wine left,” Handros said. He took out a wineskin, drank from the spout, and handed it to Cedartic. Cedartic took a swig and offered it to Leashea. She did not reach for the skin, so Cedartic handed it to Transtiz. Transtiz took the skin and drank until it was empty.
“There was enough left in than skin to go around again,” Handros said.
“There was?” Transtiz asked.
“Straight,” Handros said.
“Sorry,” Transtiz said. He tossed the wineskin back to Handros.
Leashea knelt some distance away from the others. She turned her thoughts inward, blocking off the sounds around her until she could no longer hear them. She tried to quiet the sense of evil she felt from above her until she reached the state of peace needed to pray. When she was in her secret place, she prayed for inner peace and the patience not to kill her followers. Before she left to search for her grandfather, she lived in peace at the temple. Now chaos and confusion surrounded her.
When Leashea was calm, she opened her eyes. What she saw made her want to run back to the temple. Cedartic was holding Handros up by the throat against a wall while Transtiz sat on a table watching them fight.
“Can’t you wait until we find my grandfather?” Leashea asked. “Like Cedartic said, I think he would be glad to kill both of you. He’ll do it without your even having to ask.”
Cedartic put Handros down and turned to face the priestess. “I was not trying to kill him,” Cedartic said. “We are just having fun. Aren’t we?”
“Straight,” Handros said. “If I want to kill the big metal encased beast I would never let him get close to me. I would riddle him full of arrows before he crossed the room to get to me.”
“Oh, would you?” Cedartic said, and then slammed his full weight into the much smaller man. Handros flipped over backward, rolled across the floor, and landed in a crouch.
“Stop it!” Leashea screamed. “Stop it! Stevene help me, I can’t take this anymore.”
“What’s her problem?” Handros asked. “She acts like she’s never been exploring before.”
“I don’t think she has,” Transtiz said. “I bet this is her first real experience outside of Magnus.”
“I’m sorry,” Cedartic said. “We fight each other because we all know that any mene we might die. When it is my turn to die, I will be ready. Handros and Transtiz feel the same way I do.”
“No, when I die I want to be a rich old man in bed with women all around me,” Handros said.
“What would women want with a shriveled up old man?” Cedartic asked.
“Gold, of course,” said Handros. “They will all treat me like a king until I’m dead, then they can fight over what’s left.”
“I think we need to continue,” Transtiz said. “I feel rested enough.”
“Yes,” Leashea said, “let’s go.”
The grand staircase leading up to the second floor seemed to be as wide as Merchant Street in Magnus to Leashea. Polished marble and hardwood, now rotted, lined the stairs. Broken handrails and banisters lay on the stairs. Tile murals covering the walls were missing many of their pieces.
“This place must have been amazing,” Transtiz said. “How could all this beauty just turn to rot?”
“Before evil took hold in my grandfather’s heart,” Leashea said, “they told me he was a good man. But his thirst for power drew him to search the darkness, and when the darkness took him, he was lost.”
Cedartic was first to reach the top of the staircase. “Ol’s balls,” he cursed. “What is that?”
Leashea could not see what Cedartic was looking at, but from the sound of his voice, she knew it could not be good. Then she heard footsteps — loud, meaty footsteps– so she ran the rest of the way up the stairs. About twenty feet farther along on the second level was an abomination. The thing was man-shaped and over nine feet tall. Four arms, each with hands the size of a small barrel of beer, extended five feet to either side. The torsos of at least four men made up its chest. Its legs were the size of tree trunks. Compared to its body the thing’s head was tiny.
“Transtiz,” Handros said, “now would be a good time for you to fart.”
Not only did Transtiz fart, but he also sneezed, coughed, and then cleared his throat.
Cedartic tried to move to the side, avoiding the creature’s grasping hands so he could come in behind the thing. The abomination was slow, but it was strong.
“How are we supposed to stop that thing?” Handros asked. Then he threw a balanced blade at it with enough force to bury the blade up to its hilt into the flesh of the creature. The thing did not notice, and there was no blood.
“There’s no life in it,” Transtiz said. “It appears to be made from the parts of dead people, magically held together. I don’t think cuts and blows will do anything to it, it does not bleed. We would have to chop it to pieces to stop it. I think either fire or acid would be best, anything that destroys flesh.”
Transtiz took an olive from one of his pockets and popped it into his mouth. He twirled it around and ate the meat of the olive, leaving the pit. Then he spat the olive pit at the creature as he farted again. The pit hurtled through the air until it struck the thing in the center of its chest and bounced onto the floor.
The abomination stepped on the olive pit, and when it did, a viscous fluid squirted from underneath its foot. The oil rapidly spread, forming a large puddle. When the abomination’s next foot touched the floor, it stepped onto the goo. Its foot did not find a firm foundation on which to stand, and it started to skid and slip. The slow, massive creature’s legs moved in directions they were not meant to. The liquid continued to spread, flowing down the stairs. The magical construct tripped on its own feet, fell face first on the floor and slid down the slippery stairs.
Leashea and Transtiz moved onto the second-floor landing, barely managing to stay out of the spreading fluid. The creature kept moving until it ended up on the first floor.
“That’s not a solution,” Leashea said. “How long will that last?
“Not long enough if we don’t move,” Transtiz said. “There is one more thing I can do.”
Transtiz performed his pre-spell gestures and then reached down to the floor and picked up three pieces of the tile mosaic. He held the pieces in his cupped fists and blew on them. Then he threw them toward the creature at the bottom of the stairs. When they landed, the tiles began to multiply. Three became nine. Nine became twenty-seven. Twenty-seven became eighty-one, and so on until the tiles had increased in number until they buried the creature under an undulating mound of them. The slippery liquid coated each tile.
“That should help,” Transtiz said. “For a little while.”
“Straight,” Leashea said.
They stood on the second-floor balcony looking down upon the monster buried underneath a pile of ceramic tiles. Cedartic and Handros were further down the balcony looking through an open archway that led deeper into the castle.
“Which way?” Cedartic asked.
“Give me a mene,” Leashea said.
Handros walked farther along the balcony and found three more open archways.
“Transtiz,” Handros said, “you need to see this.”
Leashea and Transtiz walked to where Handros stood and peered into the room. The archway opened onto a circular room lined with drape-covered mirrors mounted to the walls. Each mirror was larger than man-sized. Directly across from the archway was a closed door. In the center, a burning brazier sat inside of a gold ring inset in the floor. Runes inscribed into the circle’s surface flickered in the soft light coming from the brazier. Large rubies and sapphires around the rim and base of the brazier also glittered in the flickering light.
“Mirrors,” Transtiz said. “It’s a ring of mirrors.”
“I can tell it’s a circle of mirrors,” Handros said. “That’s obvious. Why are the mirrors all covered?”
“My first guess is they are portals,” Transtiz said. “Gateways to other places. When the drapes are in place, you can’t use the mirror from the other side.”
While Leashea and Transtiz looked the hall of mirrors, Cedartic checked out the rest of the second-floor balcony. “The arches down at the end lead to more hallways and doors,” he said.
“Don’t enter the room yet,” Transtiz said.
“Sandore is that way,” Leashea said, pointing through the hall of mirrors to the door on the far wall. “We have to go through.”
“Of course we do,” Handros said. “Why would Thyerin make it any less difficult now?”
“I didn’t know you followed the weaver,” Leashea said.
“I don’t,” Handros said. “But it never hurts to have fate on your side. I don’t follow any one of the gods. I tend to pick whichever one that can help me the most at that moment.”
“You are a faithless jackal,” Leashea said. She wanted to be back at the temple, not for the first time and not for the last time. Anywhere but here, but she must face and defeat the evil that waited for her. Leashea began praying loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Give me the strength to resist the urge to kill those who are supposed to be helping me.”
“I’m not faithless,” Handros said. “I have enough faith for all of them.”
Transtiz sneezed, coughed, cleared his throat, and then farted. From his pocket, he pulled out a small velvet bag and opened it. A fine white powder poured out into the air. The particles drifted into the room, swirling around in the gentle currents. When the dust settled to the ground, it formed a pattern that to Leashea looked like arrows pointing from each of the mirrors to the brazier in the center of the room. None of the dust drifted inside the circle of gold.
“Good,” Transtiz said. “It’s inbound. The arrows show someone coming through one of the mirrors into the room activates the trap. See how there is no arrow pointing at either the archway or the door?”
“So, it’s safe to go in?” Leashea asked.
“Isn’t that what I just said?” Transtiz asked.
“No,” Leashea said. “You said … Never mind.”
Leashea stepped into the room. Nothing happened.
“Don’t touch the mirrors,” Transtiz said. “That might activate the trap.”
Leashea walked across the room and stood in front of the door. She turned to face the brazier, just as she saw Handros reaching out to touch it.
“Look at the size of these rubies,” Handros said. “I’ve never seen rubies so big.”
“I don’t think that is a good idea,” Leashea said.
“Don’t touch that,” Transtiz shouted.
“I’m not going to touch it,” Handros said. “Do you think I am that stupid? It’s obviously a trap.”
After everyone was in the room, Cedartic moved to stand before the door that Leashea said they must go through. Leashea stood next to him with Transtiz. Handros kept looking at the rubies in the brazier. As he watched, dark black smoke rose into the air from the brazier and in the smoke, two malevolent red glowing eyes opened.
“Watch out,” Handros shouted.
“What have you done?” Leashea asked.
“I didn’t do anything,” Handros said. “I swear by Ol’s Balls I didn’t touch anything.”
The eyes in the smoke looked around the room and then ended up staring at Handros. A face formed around the eyes, and arms extended from the smoke. Hands picked up Handros by the throat and lifted him off his feet into the air. An instant later, the hands hurled Handros backward away from the brazier. Handros flew across the room, his arms flailing like a windmill before striking one of the draped mirrors. When he struck the mirror, his body passed through the mirror pulling it’s covering long with him. The surface of the mirror rippled like water as Handros vanished from sight. The curtain fell back into place as if nothing had happened.
“By J’mirg’s blood,” Transtiz cursed. “Cedartic, get Leashea through the door.” Transtiz farted. A red shimmering shield of energy expanded from Transtiz hands and grew until it was a wall between the remaining trio and the brazier. The smoke’s arms pounded on the wall, and each blow pushed Transtiz toward the door.
“Transtiz,” Cedartic said, “I see what you mean. Gods that stinks.”
“Just hurry up,” Transtiz said, “Get that door open. I can’t hold this for long.”
Cedartic slammed his full body weight into the door. It withstood his first charge and did not budge. He drew back and hit the door repeatedly. Each time he hit the door, the wood splintered, until finally, it broke into pieces and fell into the room. Cedartic went in first. Leashea was second, and Transtiz was last. As soon as they were out of the hall of mirrors, the smoke receded into the brazier.
Cedartic looked around the room for a moment and then stopped moving. Leashea ran into his back, nearly knocking herself unconscious. All she saw was Cedartic’s large armored back. Cedartic was not moving; he stood frozen in front of her.
“Cedartic, get out of the way,” Leashea said. Then she tried to push him out of the way, but he did not budge. “Cedartic, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t look …” Leashea heard Transtiz start to say, and then stop in mid-sentence.
“Come,” said a voice inside of the room. “I will not harm you, at least until we have had a chance to talk.”
Leashea stepped around Cedartic. The room was not what she expected. She thought it would be a massive room, filled with furniture, artwork and other expensive items displaying the wealth of a powerful wizard. What she saw was not much more that an extensive study. Across the room from the door was a large red oak desk covered with papers. Sitting at the desk was her grandfather. Paintings hung on the walls to either side of it. The one to the left was a glorious golden dragon with its wings extended crouched upon a mountaintop. The one to the right was a beautiful older woman filled with an inner radiance. The painting was so enchanting Leashea could not take her eyes off the woman.
A mirror completely covered the wall directly behind the desk. In the mirror, Leashea saw the reflection of Cedartic and Transtiz, the desk piled with paper, and the doorway. She did not see herself or Sandore’s reflection.
“I see you admire her too,” Sandore said. “She was truly beautiful.”
“Who was she?” Leashea asked.
“She was my first wife,” Sandore said as he pivoted to look up at the painting. “My only love. There have been other women, of course. Including your mother, but I felt nothing for them.”
“What do you know of love?” Leashea asked. “Where your heart should be, there is nothing but evil.”
“Leashea, you wound me,” Sandore said. “I knew love. I was happy, but death took it all away. When she died, I swore that not even death would stop me.”
“So, the darkness filled your soul,” Leashea said. “All that remains is an empty husk where once there used to be a man.”
“So easy for you to judge,” Sandore said. “You, who have seen so few years and experienced so little.”
“You used my mother and then cast her aside,” Leashea said. “You left me to be raised by the priests. How many women have you used?”
“I used your mother, just as I am going to use you,” Sandore said. “When I received word that you were looking for me, I made it simple for you. When the time was right, I arranged for you to receive that map which led you here, saving a few priests’ lives. And yes, it’s true, you are nothing to me. You’re little more than a tool.”
Even through Leashea knew her grandfather did not care for her, it still hurt when he said it. Deep inside, she wanted him to at least feel something.
“You will pay for what you did to my mother and the other priests,” Leashea said. “You do not deserve to live. You are evil, and I will send you to the fate that awaits all that is evil.”
“What do you know of life, or of evil?” Sandore asked. “You have only heard the words spoken inside the temple. The empty words of priests falling on mindless ears.”
“No,” Leashea said. “I have heard the voice of God.”
“Oh, you have?” Sandore laughed. “Which of the gods is that? Stevene speaks to you, does he? Well then, tell me what word he has for me.”
“Abomination,” Leashea said. “You have taken the most precious thing there is and turned it to dust. For that, you will find that everything you touch will rot and decay. You will be cast out to drift through the spirit world, unable to feel naught but fear. Your life will hang on the altar of the earth.”
In reaction to her words, Sandore rose from behind the desk and then reached out toward Leashea. Even though they were ten feet apart, Leashea felt his hand close around her throat.
“Petty words from someone who stinks of purity,” Sandore said. “What gives you the right to tell me what I can and cannot do? I don’t believe in you, or your god. I will do what I want when I want. Right now, I think I want to feel the life drain out of your body. What comes after that? You will know very soon.”
Leashea could not speak. Sandore’s grip was cutting off her breath as well as crushing her throat. He stepped from behind his desk and moved to another door on the right side of the room. He stepped through the door and unable to resist, Leashea followed along with him by an invisible force holding her suspended in the air.
The only thing in the room was a large mirror mounted on a wall opposite a bed. Leashea caught a fleeting glimpse of the mirror, but it did not reflect anything that was in the room. The reflection in the mirror was a different place.
“Are you a virgin?” Sandore asked. “This part is always much more fun if you’re a virgin. Can you imagine it? The power we can generate together is far more powerful if you’re pure. From your smell, I would say you are a virgin. I am right?”
Leashea still could not speak. She was almost unconscious from lack of breath. She would not last long and the fear of what was about to happen terrified her.
“Don’t try to speak,” Sandore said. “Just shake your head if you’re a virgin.”
Sandore made Leashea’s head move as if she were nodding yes. “Wonderful,” he said.
Leashea struggled against Sandore’s control, trying to claw away the hands from her throat, but she only succeeded in leaving deep scratches on her neck. She flailed her arms and legs, tossing from side to side. Her vision was starting to turn dark.
“Where is your Stevene now?” Sandore asked. “What is that? I can’t hear you. Having trouble speaking?”
Sandore kept some distance between them. Leashea thought it was the magic on her palms keeping him at bay. But she knew that if something did not change soon, the magic would fade, and she would die.
Something moving behind Sandore caught Leashea’s attention. She could not turn her head to look, but she could see it out of the corner of her eye. Handros stepped out of the mirror right behind Sandore. He slowly, silently crept up behind Sandore and thrust a long dagger into his side.
“You worthless piece of excrement!” Sandore screamed. Blood flowed freely from the wound. “You cannot kill me, but that hurt.”
With a wave of his hand, Sandore hurled Handros across the room through a mirror. Handros hit the far wall in the other room with the sickening sound of many breaking bones. Handros fell limply to the ground and did not move.
Distracted, Sandore released Leashea as he removed the dagger and dropped it to the floor. The pressure around Leashea’s throat eased. She took advantage of the momentary reprieve and stepped farther away from Sandore. She gasped for breath, her chest heaving. The light around her hands had faded, and already the blood flowing from Sandore’s wound was slowing.
“You will serve the Light in the afterlife,” Sandore said, as he turned his attention back to Leashea. “I serve the Dark in this one.”
Leashea backed as far as she could from Sandore before running into a wall. Sandore followed her, only a step away. As he reached out to grab her once again, Leashea placed her hand over where his heart should have been. From deep inside of her spirit, she summoned all the life she had left.
“I curse you,” Leashea screamed, but her voice was not much more than a whisper. “In the name of the Stevene, I curse you to whatever foul afterlife that waits for you.”
“You’re a priest,” Sandore said. He grabbed Leashea once again by the throat, this time with his hand. “You can’t curse anyone. Only wizards can curse.”
“I’m not a wizard,” Leashea said as Sandore’s hand closed over her throat. “But my grandfather was.”
A pulse of light the color of blood throbbed beneath Leashea’s hand. Sandore’s face contorted in agony as the light expanded across his chest, pulsing in time to her heartbeat.
“You wanted my life,” Leashea said, her voice failing, “take it.”
The pulsing of the light started to slow, even as the beating of Leashea’s heart did the same.
“You can’t,” Sandore screamed, his eyes filled with hate. “No! It cannot end this way.”
Sandore released Leashea and staggered backward. Leashea collapsed to the floor, almost lifeless.
“It could have been different,” Sandore coughed. “I loved once. Maybe I could have loved again.”
When the red light ceased pulsing, so did Sandore.
Leashea lay on the floor next to her grandfather.
Leashea stood in a dark place and nothing looked like it should. Everything lacked color, being shades of gray. She looked down and saw her body lying on the floor. Her flesh was pale, almost white.
Cedartic ran into the room leaving trails in the ethereal air. The spell holding him in place released him upon Sandore’s death. He picked up her body and placed in on the bed.
“Transtiz!” Cedartic screamed. “Get in here. Now!”
Transtiz rushed into the room. “Get out of the way,” he said.
“I don’t feel a heartbeat,” Transtiz said. “I think she may be dead.”
“Can’t you cast a spell and bring her back?” Cedartic asked. “You are a wizard after all.”
“I’m neither a necromancer nor a healer,” Transtiz said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Do something,” Cedartic said. “Just bring her back.”
Leashea moved over to Transtiz and placed her spirit hands upon his head.
“May the Stevene give you peace and forgive you your transgressions,” Leashea said. “May he show you the way to the light so that you may live the life you deserve.”
A soft glow enveloped Transtiz’s hands, and he placed them on Leashea. He closed his eyes and repeated Leashea’s words, “May the Stevene give you peace and forgive you your transgressions. May he show you the way back to the light so you may finish the life you deserve.”
The soft glow spread outwards from Transtiz’s hands and encompassed Leashea’s before fading. Leashea coughed and started to shake with tremors from head to foot for a moment. When the tremors stopped, she opened her eyes.
“I’m glad Handros will recover,” Cedartic said. “Stupid fool that he is.”
“So, after the smoke thing threw Handros through the curtain,” Transtiz said, “he landed in a room somewhere else? But he couldn’t get back here because the curtain was closed?”
“That’s what Handros said,” Leashea said. “But he also said someone opened a different curtain for him that led to the room behind where my grandfather was standing.”
“Who was that?” Cedartic asked. “Transtiz and I were frozen by that other mirror. And if Handros didn’t set off the trap, who did?”
“Handros did not see anyone,” Leashea said. “I think it was the hand of God.”
“Which one?” Cedartic asked.
“Maybe it was Ol’s balls.” Transtiz snickered.
“I will listen to no more of this blasphemy,” Leashea said. “I want to get back to the temple as soon as we can.”
“What about the thing downstairs?” Cedartic asked. “We only avoided it; we did not defeat it.”
“If one of these mirrors goes someplace useful,” Leashea said, “we can leave without having to face that thing. I know at least one should go back to Magnus.”
“If it stays down there,” Cedartic said, “we can gather the things of value from up here.”
“If you must,” Leashea said. “I know I agreed that you could take what you wanted, but I would rather you leave everything behind.”
“No,” Cedartic said. “That’s not the way things work. As you said, you agreed. So, we get to take the spoils.”
It took several days before they could move Handros. Cedartic and Transtiz were happy as they continually argued about who was going to keep what. They nearly came to blows three times over particular pieces of value they found.
After some experimentation, they found a mirror that made travel to Magnus simple. They piled up their bounty in front of the mirror. Before leaving the broke every other mirror they could find, no matter the size.
“Are you sure you want to break the one on the other side of this?” Handros asked. “There are more things downstairs we could come back and get.”
Leashea was the last to step through the mirror to Magnus. As she did, she felt her grandfather watching her.
“I may not have been able to kill you properly,” Leashea said. “But I did manage to trap you here so you cannot spread your evil any further.”
Leashea stepped through the portal. Once through, she turned back and shattered the mirror on her side, sealing off all magical contact to her grandfather’s castle.
Silence descended over the castle.