“Illiena!” It was a scream in the night; a plea to a loving goddess for aid in the dark bells of life.
“Merrif,” came a sleepy answer, but not from the goddess. The reply came from a creature that was awakened by the scream.
“Illiena!” Merrif cried out again.
“Wake up, Merrif,” Niatha replied, slowly stretching out his legs. “You’re having the dream again.”
“Eh?” Merrif snorted. He rolled over onto his back, pushed some of his long brown hair away from his face and opened his eyes. “Was I screaming again?” He groaned as he rubbed his eyes. “I almost saw her …”
“I fear you’ll only see her when you die,” Niatha sighed. He curled his tail around his body while he squirmed his way deeper into the blankets. “I’m still tired and the sun has yet to strike my eyes harshly.”
“I was in a tower,” Merrif said, ignoring Niatha. “It wasn’t a tower here in Dargon or anywhere close by. I think it was quite a distance away. It was a tower that spiraled upwards. It –”
“Do you have to tell me now?” Niatha whined.
“Hush and listen! You know I’ll forget it when the sun finally shines.” Niatha let out a quiet hiss as he turned his head to look at Merrif.
“What about the tower?”
“There was an energy about it. A malevolent energy that had been sleeping until someone or something woke it. There were others with me. The man we met yesterday at the marketplace was there.”
“Raphael or Lylle?” Niatha asked.
“The day’s events always creep into dreams,” Niatha replied. “Probably him because he knew of Illiena.”
“There were others, but they were people I didn’t know. Tall skinny men and women. Some were dressed in white and others in black. There was one woman dressed in red. And all sorts of animals were about.”
“Truly a vivid dream. Is that all?” Niatha yawned.
“Nearly so. Only a mene more and you can go back to sleep.”
“What of the tower?”
“Something awoke in it. Something powerful and deadly. I don’t remember much of what happened, but we were fighting it. It was winning. The tower shook with the magic inside it. Things were going badly and I cried out to Illiena. A bright light in the form of a person appeared …”
“And?” Niatha asked.
“That’s when you woke me,” Merrif replied.
“All that talk yesterday about Illiena can’t have helped. You dream about her every night. Maybe one day you should focus on something else?” Niatha turned to settle back into the quilt when he noticed the faint light in the window. “Aah,” he sighed with a low resigned voice as his head plopped onto the bed. “No use going to sleep now. The sun is coming.”
“We have to go back to the marketplace,” Merrif told him.
“We’re meeting Raphael and Lylle again.”
“I don’t remember agreeing to that.”
“You were sleeping.”
“When did you switch from talking about Illiena?” Niatha asked. He stretched out his front legs and rolled over on his back. Squirming into the quilt, he said, “It’s so warm, I don’t want to move.”
“You’ve got to get up sometime.”
“No, I’ll just lay here all day,” Niatha replied. At that moment, the sun chose to reflect its rays in through the window to land on the floor.
“Not unless you can block out the sun,” Merrif said. “It’s creeping closer.”
“I’ll just turn my back to it and it will go away,” Niatha replied.
“I have a better idea,” Merrif said, smiling. He threw the quilt off of himself and over Niatha. “There, you won’t have to worry about the sun all day.” Sitting up, he moved around the lump that was Niatha to get to the edge of the bed. Niatha rolled and shifted until he was out of the quilt.
“Merrif!” Niatha hissed. His fur was ruffled and his wings were out away from his body. He flapped his wings a few times and then collapsed them against his body. He used his paw to smooth out his fur.
Merrif got dressed and walked over to his table. On it were scrolls, vials of liquids and powders, small empty bags, a couple of books, and a wand. “If we’re going to the marketplace again, we might as well try to sell some potions.” He sat down and started mixing some powders and liquids.
“Why did you bring me here?” Niatha asked.
“You won’t catch me by surprise,” Merrif replied. “I told you that I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You had to have a reason. Something. What were you doing?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Don’t you think I should know?”
“No,” Merrif answered in a quick, almost harsh, tone. He stopped mixing and started packing his potions and powders into his pack, slowly and deliberately. His long thin fingers carefully picked up each item and gingerly placed it into the pack.
“I won’t stop asking.”
“I know.” The room stood frozen in the silence. Even the sun seemed hesitant to strike further inward upon the floor.
“Why so silent this day?” Raphael asked as he and Lylle approached Merrif’s table in the marketplace. Raphael walked with a small limp and used a straight wooden cane to aid him. Lylle walked with a youthful spring in his step. It was a bright, sunny morning and Merrif was sitting on a stool behind his table while Niatha was lying on the ground.
“The day is lazy,” Merrif replied. There were not very many people in the marketplace.
“You won’t talk about magic,” Niatha said, flicking the end of his long tail back and forth.
“There are things about magic that shouldn’t be discussed!” Merrif retorted.
“I agree, but I didn’t say anything about magic,” Raphael said.
“I’d like to cast magic,” Lylle said.
“No, you wouldn’t!” Raphael quickly replied, a sharp edge to his voice. He turned, leaned forward a bit, and looked Lylle in the eyes. Lylle couldn’t hold his stare.
“Not a day to discuss magic,” Merrif said.
“Yes, it is,” Niatha argued.
“No, it isn’t,” Raphael agreed.
“Any day would be a good day,” Lylle said.
“We each have our own world to live in,” Merrif said. “Each of us has his own desires and his own fears, his aspirations and his failures. Yet, each of us shares the world.”
“Yes,” Raphael sighed. He relaxed some, shifted his weight and then leaned on his cane. He looked over at Merrif. “Magic has been your life and without magic, I would guess you’d be lost. Magic has been a curse in mine and without it, I imagine I’d be happy. Lylle has lived on the streets all his life without magic, and he thinks that with it, his life would be easy and rich.”
“Magic is my life,” Niatha said. “Or what I remember of it.” He got up, shifted his weight onto his back legs and in a smooth leap, hopped onto the table.
“Magic, in its own way, brought us together,” Merrif said.
“Huh?” Lylle said. “What’s that mean?”
“Yes,” Niatha agreed. “I can understand us and Raphael, but not him. Raphael can see me as I am. Lylle can’t. He thinks I’m a cat.”
“I was wondering how you included us?” Raphael asked.
“Because of magic and dreams. I can’t explain it, but since the two of you showed up, something has started stirring. It’s like a storm brewing on the horizon, gaining strength before its assault.”
“What’s that got to do with us?” Lylle asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what the storm will bring. I don’t know if the storm is really for us, but my dreams give me cause to believe we’re in for some troubling times.”
“Why don’t you use your magic to find out?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“You aren’t going to tell them the truth about your magic, are you?” Niatha asked. Merrif ignored him.
“You were in my dream last night,” Merrif told Raphael, changing the subject.
“And what was I doing?” Raphael asked.
“What about me?” Lylle asked.
“You were fighting. There were two other groups there: men dressed in all white and men dressed in all black. You were fighting both of them.”
“How many were there?”
“Too many to remember. They seemed to flood into the room from outside.”
“I don’t know. Niatha woke me before I could find out. There were other things going on, though. I thought I saw Illiena as a bright white light. And there was a woman there dressed all in red with green eyes.”
“Describe her more,” Raphael ordered. He stopped breathing and focused his attention on Merrif. His lips were closed tightly together and his brows were creased.
“That’s it. She looked like most other women, except she was dressed in red. She had green eyes … and maybe red hair. Yes, red hair. That was what made her stand out. She was all red with just green eyes.”
“Megan,” Lylle whispered.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Raphael retorted. “Where was this place you dreamt of?”
“I don’t know. Who is Megan?”
“You both were there,” Lylle said. “Maybe there’s still hope?”
“It was just a dream,” Raphael hissed. His fist hit the table, causing vials to shift and rattle. A fire lit in his eyes as he stared at Lylle. Lylle stepped back away from him, a questioning look in his eyes. “I went through living without her,” Raphael said, “and hoping she’d come back. I don’t want to go through that again.” His tone was hard and edged.
“You and Megan,” Merrif mumbled, putting pieces of knowledge together. Raphael turned his head slowly to look in disbelief at Merrif, but Merrif continued on, “She’s gone, but I dreamed of both of you.”
“She’s *gone*,” Raphael stated, his voice deep and rough. Muscles strained in his neck and a vein bulged in his forehead.
“You wouldn’t try to get her back if you had the chance?” Merrif asked.
“I am not like one of these people who come to you for potions,” Raphael spat out, his eyes full of anger. “Your magic won’t work on me. I’ve been through worse. I said she’s gone!” He turned and started to walk away.
“What if she’s in danger?” Merrif asked quietly. Raphael stopped and turned around. He pursed his lips as if to say something, but instead walked slowly back to the table. No emotion showed on his face, but the air around him seemed to swirl and swish.
“By Illiena’s whoring life,” he said, each word emphasized strongly. “She is gone.”
Merrif’s eyes went wide and his lips moved but only spittle bubbled out. Both men stared at each other. Merrif leaned back and pushed his hands outward.
“No!” Niatha yelled, but it was too late. Before he could move, Merrif’s magic spiraled outward and struck Raphael in the chest. Raphael staggered back, his breath flying out of him in one big huff.
“Ah,” Raphael groaned as he took staggering steps to regain his balance. A green light flowed around him, draping him in an eerie glow. “Oh,” he moaned, reaching out to grasp something. “Megan?”
“What did you do?” Lylle asked, stepping towards Raphael. He reached out to grab Raphael but the light sparked and burnt his hand. “Ouch,” he yelped and jumped back. Traces of green light faded from around his hand. “Stop it!” he ordered Merrif.
“I can’t,” Merrif replied. “I don’t know what it is.”
“You caused it!” Lylle yelled. “Get rid of it.” Raphael’s eyes turned green to match the light around him.
“I don’t know what I did!” Merrif yelled, staring at Raphael. “He brought it upon himself, anyway!”
“You used magic,” Niatha said, staring at Raphael also. “You know your magic never does what you want it to do.”
“Megan!” Raphael screamed as he fell forward, his knees striking the earth solidly. His cane clattered to the ground as he held his arms out, reaching for something only he could see. Pain and grief etched deep lines across his face. The green light slowly faded away. His green eyes retained their color, as if holding on to the last vestige of magic, not wanting to let go. But it was not enough. His eye color returned to brown.
“Raphael?” Lylle asked, tentatively stepping forward.
“Wha– ” Raphael stammered. “What did … did you do … to me?” His arm went out, trying to reach Merrif, trying to touch.
“I don’t know,” Merrif answered, his voice breaking up. “Whatever it was, I’m sorry.” He started to reach out to Raphael.
“Cold,” Raphael said, wrapping his arms around himself. Shivers ran up and down his body. He stumbled to his feet and swayed there, gently, like a small breeze was blowing him. “Your dream … I was there.”
“You shouldn’t have used magic,” Niatha said. “He’s going to want to go there, now.” Niatha huffed and flapped his wings once before settling them back down against his body.
“He’s right,” Raphael replied. “We have to go there.”
“Ol’s piss!” Lylle yelled, looking at Niatha. “It isn’t a cat!”
“One can hear me and the other can see me now,” Niatha sighed. “Just what did you do?”
“I don’t know,” Merrif whispered. “But I think I’ve bound us all together for the storm to come.”
“Merrif?” Niatha called sleepily. He stretched his four paws out as he yawned. Opening his eyes, he looked around slowly, almost lazily. He saw Merrif hunched over a book at his table. Above the table, there was a piece of cloth hung over the window. The cloth wasn’t thick enough to block out all of the light, but it did stop the sun’s rays from reaching the bed. “Merrif?”
“Eh?” Merrif muttered, lifting his head. “You’re awake?”
“You blocked the window.”
“You always yell about the sun waking you up. You want me to unblock it?”
“Why?” Niatha asked. He rolled over and sat up. Tilting his head down, he used both front paws to rub his face.
“I thought for sure I woke you up again, but you were sleeping sound. I got out of bed and lit the lamp and you still didn’t wake up. I thought you needed the sleep, so I put the cloth over the window.”
“You didn’t dream about Illiena?” Niatha got up and walked over to the edge of the bed. He hopped down, padded across the floor, and jumped up onto the stool. He stood on his back legs and looked at the top of the table. Sighing, he sat back down. “You’ve got the table all covered again.”
“I did dream about her,” Merrif replied. “That’s why I thought I woke you.”
“Did you dream of the tower?”
“Yes. And of Raphael and Megan and Lylle and the other men. And of Illiena. That’s why the table is so messy. I’ve been going over everything I have about her. I saw her as a bright light in the form of a person.”
“And?” Niatha yawned. He twirled around a couple of times on the stool before settling down, laying on his side.
“Everything says that she manifests herself as a beautiful woman. Why a figure of light?”
“It’s a dream,” Niatha replied. “Dreams are always twisted from reality.”
“Perhaps,” Merrif mused. “Perhaps. But these dreams may hold the key to our trip.”
“What?” Niatha asked, sitting up quickly. “Trip?”
“Yes,” Merrif replied. “I think it would be good to get out and travel again. It’s been too long since I was out of Dargon. I remember –” Merrif stopped as he saw Niatha’s ears and nose twitch. “What?”
Niatha slowly moved his head to the left and his eyes narrowed. His nose twitched again. Merrif slowly turned his head to see what held Niatha’s attention. A rat had crawled in under the door and was sitting there. Niatha used his strong back legs and launched himself upward, leaving the stool sitting there motionless. In his apex, he quietly opened his wings wide. As he descended, he glided towards the rat. Suddenly, he pulled his wings in halfway and swept them back; his descent angled steeply and rapidly towards the rat.
The rat sat unaware. Niatha’s front paws reached out and his claws extended just as he hit it. The rat squealed in a high pitch as claws sank into its body. Niatha tucked his head down, bit hard, and rolled. He held the rat firmly as he rolled once and landed on top of it. The rat was dead.
“Ugh,” Merrif squeamishly said, turning his head. “Did you really have to do that? You couldn’t just chase it outside and then kill it?”
“I can’t eat it here?” Niatha asked, still holding the rat in his claws.
“No!” Merrif yelled. “Take it outside. I don’t want to clean up the mess you’d make.”
“You’ve got the window blocked.”
“No! Don’t come near my books with that thing. I’ll open the door.” Merrif got up and walked over to the door, carefully not looking at Niatha or the rat. He opened the door, stepped back, and turned to look the other way.
“There isn’t a lot of blood,” Niatha remarked.
“It isn’t the blood,” Merrif said. “I don’t like to see something dead. Now get it out of here.”
“Things die so that others may live,” Niatha said before picking up the rat with his mouth. He took it out the door and walked around the house. Merrif was just about to shut the door when he heard Raphael’s voice.
“Does Merrif live here?” Raphael inquired. Merrif poked his head out the door and looked up the alley. He didn’t see anyone, so he turned his head and looked the other way. He saw Raphael and Lylle a few houses down.
“Raphael,” he called. “I live here.” Raphael and Lylle turned, saw him, and started walking his way. Niatha returned before they reached the door.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” Niatha asked. “I’m comfortable here in our home. I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“A good morn to you, Merrif,” Lylle greeted him. “And to Niatha,” he added.
“May Illiena smile upon you all your life,” Merrif replied.
“If you teach me magic, I’m sure she will,” Lylle said with a grin spread wide across his face.
“Oh, that’s just what Dargon needs,” Niatha moaned. “Two mages who can’t control their magic.”
“What’s he mean by that?” Raphael asked, leaning on his cane. He was standing beside Lylle and looking down at Niatha. He lifted his face and looked at Merrif.
“I forgot,” Niatha apologized. “He can hear me.” Niatha turned and entered the house. Merrif gestured for Raphael and Lylle to follow.
“Welcome and good health,” Merrif greeted them as they entered his home. Raphael and Lylle stepped into the small room. “Not many places to sit,” Merrif explained. “I don’t normally have company. There are two stools and the bed. Feel free to sit on any of them, but please don’t bother anything on the table.”
Lylle walked over, sat on a stool, and looked at what was on the table. He saw scrolls, books, powders, a mortar and pestle, empty bags, vials, and a couple of mugs. Looking around the room, he saw herbs hanging on the wall to the left of the fireplace and clothes on the right. There was also a stack of wood next to the small fireplace. A bed was opposite him, against the wall. Niatha was sitting on the bed. Merrif was hanging herbs on the wall to dry.
Raphael sat on the bed next to Niatha. Instead of looking around the room, he watched Niatha. “What are you?” he asked. Merrif moaned as he tied a bundle of herbs together.
“That’s the question I’ve been asking Merrif and he doesn’t want to answer it,” Niatha replied. His face seemed to compact some and the fur around his eyes puffed out. He looked over at Merrif, waiting for the response he knew would be there.
“I did answer that question,” Merrif stated. “I told you I don’t know what you are. A creature of magic, most likely.”
“How did I get here?” Niatha asked, then turned to Raphael. “He won’t answer that one, either,” Niatha whispered.
“I heard that!” Merrif replied. “And no, I won’t answer it. Why do you want to know?” Merrif asked. Lylle seemed to be concentrating hard on the contents of the table.
“I didn’t mean to start a fight,” Raphael said.
“We go through this almost every day,” Merrif said. He had finished hanging the herbs and turned around. “I’m not ready to give him that answer.”
“Why not?!” Niatha pleaded, his claws digging into the quilt. “I don’t know what I am, who I am, where I came from. I don’t know anything.”
“Neither do I!” Merrif spat out as he turned. “Neither do most men. We stumble about searching for answers to who we are and why we are here. We know our name and we know where we live, but we don’t know much else. Why should you be any different?” He ran both hands through his hair as he waited for an answer.
“Because I don’t even remember my parents,” Niatha said.
“Lylle doesn’t remember his parents,” Raphael said. “And my father died in the war.” Lylle looked up confused. He was only hearing part of the conversation.
“Mine died of the Red Plague,” Merrif said. “Something I wouldn’t want anyone to go through. Niatha,” Merrif sighed. “We’re all searching for something. That’s why I think we should find this tower in my dream. It may hold the answers to many of our questions.”
“Even if it doesn’t, will you tell me how I got here?” Niatha asked.
“Yes, whether or not the tower holds our answers, I will tell you how you came to be with me,” Merrif promised.
“I know where the tower is,” Raphael said. All three turned and looked at him.
“How?” Lylle asked.
“When I was struck with Merrif’s magic, I floated out and above Dargon. Then I flew straight to the tower. I know where it is.”
“Where is it?” Merrif asked.
“Somewhat south of here, near Valdasly.”
“How far is that?” Niatha asked.
“You’re really going?” Lylle asked. He had returned to staring at the top of the table.
“It’s about a month or so of travel,” Raphael answered Niatha, then turned towards Lylle. “I’m going only if you go too.” Lylle looked up from the table and over to Raphael.
“That’s asking a lot,” Lylle said.
“Why?” Raphael asked. “What do you have here? You don’t even have a place to call home.”
“I’m a shadow boy,” Lylle replied as if that would answer everything.
“Maybe it’s time to be something else,” Raphael said. He stood up, walked over and sat on the stool opposite Lylle. “How long can you live on the streets? Avoid the guard?”
“I’ll go,” Lylle said softly.
“How are we going to get there?” Niatha asked.
“The best way would be to travel with a caravan,” Merrif said. “It’s expensive though.”
“I might be able to hire on as a guard,” Raphael said. “That leaves you and Lylle.”
“I can get money,” Lylle said, smiling. “Not a lot, but some.”
“I could sell a couple of my scrolls and a book to Corambis. He’s had an interest in them for some time,” Merrif said.
“Not the Illiena ones?” Niatha asked.
“No, not those,” Merrif replied. “Never those.”
“You’re going to take all this?” Raphael asked, looking at the top of the table.
“Most of it,” Merrif said. “I’ll need it and the herbs on the wall.”
“And clothes,” Niatha said. “Don’t forget them.”
“What?” Lylle asked, knowing that he wasn’t getting all of the conversation.
“Niatha told Merrif not to forget clothes,” Raphael explained.
“I don’t suppose you can use your magic again so I can hear him, can you?” Lylle asked Merrif.
“No!” Niatha yelled.
“No, I can’t,” Merrif said.
“At least you can see him,” Raphael said. “Something only the three of us can do.”
“He might burn your tail,” Niatha said. “If you had one, that is.” Raphael looked at Niatha with a confused look on his face, but didn’t press the issue.
“Hush,” Merrif told Niatha.
“We’re really going to go?” Lylle asked. “Really leaving Dargon?”
“Yes,” Raphael replied. “I believe in Merrif’s dream. I’ve talked to May and she said Megan went towards Valdasly. I didn’t think Merrif’s dream was anything important until he hit me with his magic. And Megan’s too important …”
“She is special,” Lylle said, staring at the fireplace. “I couldn’t change her mind when she left. She was so angry at you and so frustrated.” He looked up and saw Merrif’s tilted head and questioning look. “It’s a long story. Maybe Raphael can tell it to you on the way to Valdasly.”
“It’ll be a long trip and there will be time for all of our stories,” Merrif agreed. “First, we have to find a caravan that will take us there.”
“I can ask around about what caravans are leaving, but I don’t know if it’ll help,” Lylle said.
“May might know,” Raphael volunteered. “She’s the owner of Spirit’s Haven,” he explained. “It’s a very nice inn that all sorts of people stop at. May knows a lot of different people from merchants to nobles. If she doesn’t know, she might know who would.”
“Might as well go now,” Lylle said. “If we’re going, let’s go as soon as we can.” Lylle stood and headed for the door.
“I’ll gather some potions and herbs and take them to Corambis today,” Merrif said. “Can you find your way back here?”
“I can now. Your directions yesterday were clear up to the alley. After that, I started guessing,” Raphael replied. He laughed and said, “Not very good guesses.”
“Come back tomorrow morning and let me know how you’ve fared.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Raphael agreed. He left to catch up with Lylle.
“Are you going to tell them everything?” Niatha asked. Merrif walked over to the bed and sat down.
“I don’t know. Do you think they’ll change their mind if I tell them about the dreams?”
“No,” Niatha replied. “Raphael wants to find this Megan. He’ll go with or without us.”
“I’ll tell them, then.”
“Why do you trust them?”
“I don’t trust them fully, but to meet Illiena, I would travel with a band of thieves.”
“Would you invade Beinison?” Niatha asked.
“There was a time when I would have said yes. That I would have burned Beinison to the ground, salted the earth, and killed every man, woman, and child to meet Illiena.” Niatha sucked in a large breath and hissed it back out.
“When was that?” he asked, shock covering his face.
“A long time ago. A very long time ago.”
The morning breeze blew with a slight chill. The sun shone brightly, though, giving a warmth for all to enjoy. Merrif was sitting on the doorstep of his house, watching the alley and the few people who traveled it. This was his last day in Dargon.
“Thinking about changing your mind?” Niatha asked as he brushed by Merrif.
“No,” Merrif answered. His face was tilted up to let the sun strike it. “I won’t change my mind. We are going to the tower and we are going to find Illiena.”
“You are going to find Illiena,” Niatha specified as he sat on the street in front of Merrif. “The rest of us are going for different reasons. I’m going to get my answer. Raphael is going to find Megan. I don’t know why Lylle is going. But you could save all the time and trouble and tell me now how I came to be here. Then I wouldn’t have to go.”
“Not until we get to the tower,” Merrif stated.
“What if you die before then?” Niatha asked. “What happens then?”
“You don’t get your answer.”
“I’ll just have to keep you alive, then,” Niatha replied. He sat down in front of Merrif and turned to smooth the fur on his back, using his paw and tongue.
“I hope we all get our answers,” Merrif said.
“Raphael won’t stop until he finds Megan,” Niatha warned. “He’s as single-minded about that as you are about seeing Illiena. Should your paths separate …” He let the thought drift silently away.
“They won’t,” Merrif said. “At least not until we find the tower.”
“Good day, Merrif,” Lylle called from down the alley. He was carrying a bag slung over his shoulder. Lylle was a skinny youth with long, unkempt hair. Although he smiled easily enough, there was a sly manner about him. His eyes darted about, surveying his surroundings, always looking for something.
“Illiena’s smile upon you,” Merrif replied. “A beautiful day today, isn’t it? And where is Raphael?”
“It is a grand day,” Lylle said, smiling. “Raphael will be along soon. He got us on a caravan going to Valdasly. We leave tomorrow morning.” He reached Merrif and sat down beside him, dropping the bag on the ground.
“You’re happy that you’re going?” Merrif asked. Niatha turned away from them and walked into the house.
“I am happy because I have a family that I never knew cared that much,” Lylle answered. Niatha jumped on the bed and clawed at the covers, trying to make a comfortable place to sleep.
“A family?” Merrif asked, turning towards Lylle. “I didn’t know you had one.”
“It isn’t a family like you’re thinking,” Lylle answered. He placed his hands behind him and leaned back, tilting his face into the sun. He closed his eyes and said, “I told the other boys that I had to make a decision. They asked me what it was about. I explained the whole thing to them and they threw me out. They told me I was no longer a shadow boy and tossed me and my belongings out in the street.”
“You’re happy about that?” Merrif asked.
“No … I wasn’t at first. I was mad. They just threw me out. I beat on the door, but they told me to go away. I picked up my bag and it jingled. After opening it up, I found money in it. That’s when the door opened and they all rushed out to say good-bye. Somehow they had found out what I was going to do and had prepared for it. It was their way of blessing my journey.”
“You’re leaving everyone and everything you know behind and that’s something to be happy about? I still don’t understand.”
“No,” Lylle smiled. “I doubt you would. You’ve never lived on the street, have you?”
“No,” Merrif answered. “At times in my life, it came close to that.”
“I know what it is to stay here. I’ve lived that all my life. But, now, there’s something out there and I’m a part of it. It could be something much better. Most anything would be better than what I’ve got now. Plus, I’ll be with Raphael. I’ve known him and Megan since they both got to Dargon.”
“Now we know why he’s going,” Niatha said from the bed. Half of his body was covered in blankets while the other half was curled tightly against itself.
“I thought you were asleep,” Merrif called out.
“What?” Lylle asked.
“Niatha was wondering why you were going and he said now he knows.”
“I wish I could hear him. Is there any way of getting you to teach me magic on our trip?” Lylle asked, slightly opening his eyes to look at Merrif.
“No,” Merrif replied. He turned to Lylle. “I haven’t ever taught anyone magic.”
“No one?” Lylle asked, sitting up. “Not ever? In all your life, you haven’t had an apprentice?”
“No,” Merrif whispered.
“It’s a long story,” Merrif answered, his voice seemed far off.
“Perhaps on our trip,” Lylle said.
“I doubt it,” Niatha replied from the bed. “I’ve been trying to get him to open up about his past for as long as I’ve been with him.” Niatha huffed and said, “I wish he could hear me, too. I’d know at least one person would be listening to me.”
“I’m listening,” Merrif replied.
“It would be better if I could hear him,” Lylle said. He turned around to look at Niatha. “He looks asleep.”
“Heh!” Merrif chuckled. “I believe that’s what went through many a rat’s mind before it died.”
“Rat!” Niatha exclaimed. “Is there a rat?” He stretched his neck out and upward in an attempt to see past Merrif and Lylle. He moved his head from side to side, trying to get a better view.
“No,” Merrif laughed. “There isn’t a rat. We were just talking about them.”
“He eats rats?” Lylle asked.
“He thinks I dig up tubers and eat them?” Niatha replied. He smiled and opened his mouth a little before saying, “That’s why I have these nice sharp teeth.” Merrif laughed harder and rolled backwards on his back.
“What did he say?” Lylle asked, shifting his gaze from Merrif to Niatha.
“He said he digs up tubers to eat and that’s why he has those sharp teeth,” Merrif answered, settling down to a giggle.
“Those are large fangs,” Lylle agreed. “But I would have thought he’d hunt bigger things. Rats seem too small for him.”
“Huh?” Niatha squeaked, tossing covers and sitting up.
“He said you were a bully and picked on little defenseless rats!” Merrif laughed. He was laying half on the floor of the house and half on the steps, gasping for breath between fits of laughter. His hands were on his gut, trying to hold himself still. His legs kicked out every now and then. Lylle watched intently, not understanding the humor.
“I am not a bully!” Niatha said, the fur around his face puffing out. His tail was swishing sharply back and forth. “And some of the rats around here are as big as me!”
“Is he mad?” Lylle asked. “He looks mad.”
“He sounds indignant about what you said,” Merrif replied between fits of laughter. He turned and started to get up, but caught a glimpse of Niatha’s ruffled fur and his laughter knocked him back down.
“This is not funny!” Niatha said as more of his fur puffed out, this time around his neck and shoulders. His wings opened and he flapped them once before closing them.
“What did he say that was so funny?” Lylle asked, watching Merrif.
“Rats have sharp teeth, too,” Niatha replied. Merrif laughed harder and started to gasp for breath. Short wheezes of breathing in were accompanied by tears streaming down his face.
“Is someone dying?” Raphael called from down the alley. He reached the doorway and looked at Lylle and Merrif. “Is he –” Raphael started to ask about Merrif’s health, but realized that it was laughter not death that was afflicting Merrif. “It seems I missed something rather interesting.” Raphael stood relaxed, cane resting lightly in his hand, waiting for someone to explain what was going on.
“I missed it, too,” Lylle said. “Something between Merrif and Niatha.”
“It was nothing!” Niatha replied. His fur was almost all back in place and he was once again moving the quilt to make a comfortable area.
“Nothing?” Raphael asked. “This nothing has Merrif out of breath from laughter.” Merrif was still wheezing, trying to breathe, but his laughter had stopped.
“Rats … little rats …” Merrif huffed.
“I hunt rats,” Niatha interrupted. “And Lylle thought I was too big to hunt them. There, that was what was so funny.” He turned his back on them and settled down onto the quilt.
“I don’t see the humor in that,” Raphael answered. “But I don’t see where a rat would have a chance against you. Perhaps you should hunt something bigger.” Niatha whirled and stood up, his lips drawn back and his wings open. He started to reply, but saw Raphael’s smile and realized he was being teased.
“It’s going to be a long trip,” Niatha sighed, plopping down on the quilt.
“We leave tomorrow morning,” Raphael said, changing the subject. “I couldn’t find anyone hiring or willing to take us. That isn’t surprising as I’m a stranger to most here. I asked May if she knew of anyone traveling to Valdasly and she said she would ask around. She found us a small caravan and arranged passage.”
“Are we going to have to walk all the way?” Lylle asked.
“May arranged for one of us to have a seat on a wagon. One of –” Raphael began.
“I have a horse,” Merrif interrupted. He was sitting, leaning against the doorway. “I don’t ride her often, but she’s a mellow old girl.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Raphael asked. He was irritated. “I couldn’t arrange for all of us to ride and now you tell me I didn’t have to try?”
“I kept forgetting to tell you,” Merrif explained. “We always got to talking about something and I kept forgetting.”
“Ol’s pi– ” Raphael started, but stopped himself. “Grrrrr,” he growled instead. “Not a good start.”
“It was a good start,” Lylle said, grinning. “You just needed to finish it: Ol’s piss.” Lylle laughed and Merrif chuckled.
“I’d finish it, but I’m trying not to cross any gods. I’m going to need all the help I can get to find Megan.”
“Put your faith in Illiena,” Merrif said. There was a groan from the bed. “Hush, Niatha!”
“What makes Illiena so special?” Lylle asked. “Why her over all the others?” There was another groan from the bed.
“Ahhh,” Merrif breathed. “Illiena. She is the defender and the life giver.”
“There are others in the Manifest,” Lylle said. “There is Cydrian and … Muska-something.”
“Illiena, Cydrian, Muskadon, and Osiniana,” Merrif answered. “Don’t forget Eilli-Syk, Balen-Ruk, Kessra-Nik, and Arom-Nok.”
“Too many to remember,” Lylle said.
“Illiena is all that matters,” Merrif replied. “She is the light that shines in my day and the star that brightens my night.”
“Kessra-Nik and who else?” Lylle asked. “I haven’t heard of most of those gods.”
“There are four who guide man and four who wish to destroy man,” Raphael said. “That’s the way it was explained to me.”
“There is more to it than that,” Merrif said. He got up and walked over to his table. He picked up an old book that had no cover. “This is one of the more detailed books I’ve found about the Manifest.”
“If you can read,” Lylle added.
“Yes,” Merrif agreed. “If you can read. Otherwise, you have to rely upon the word of others. That’s why I learned to read. I didn’t fully trust what I was being told. And being apprenticed to a mage, one must read.”
“My father had no use for reading,” Raphael said. “Learning to fight, learning to farm, learning to sail he said were things men should be doing.”
“Each man must follow where his soul guides,” Merrif said. “Illiena guides mine.”
“Megan guides mine,” Raphael added. “It took her leaving for me to realize that.”
“Surviving,” Lylle said. “Surviving just one more day.”
“Knowing what I am,” Niatha said from the bed. “Knowing where I came from. Where did you summon me from, Merrif?”
“When we get to the tower,” Merrif answered. “Not before.”
“Niatha again?” Lylle asked.
“Yes,” Raphael said. “He asked Merrif where he was summoned from.”
“Niatha was summoned?”
“That’s what he asked about,” Raphael said.
“I told him I’d answer that question when we got to the tower,” Merrif explained.
“What about the Manifest?” Lylle asked.
“Hmmm … oh, yes,” Merrif replied, looking down at the book in his hands. “The Manifest.”
“What does the book say about the gods?”
“As with all things, there is a beginning,” Merrif began. “In this beginning, there was only emptiness. Emptiness except for the All Creator. The All Creator looked about and felt loneliness. The All Creator knew all and felt all, but in the emptiness, loneliness and boredom reigned. You see, everything that was and everything that could be was the All Creator.
“The All Creator decided to create. He created all that we see: sun, moon, stars, animals, fish, everything including man. Man was created with free will. Man could do whatever his soul guided him to do. The All Creator looked upon man and decided man needed guidance, for man destroyed, killed, and ravaged.
“The All Creator did not want to directly guide man, so the All Creator created the eight gods. They were created to show all sides of man, good and bad. Each god was given a specific duty and then the All Creator hid from the creations, to become a watcher.
“Arom-Nok is plagues and suffering. Osiniana is healing and bliss. Kessra-Nik is war and fighting. Muskadon is peace and working together. Balen-Ruk is thievery and deceit. Cydrian is honesty and honor.
“The last two are Eilli-Syk and Illiena. Eilli-Syk is the taker of life while Illiena is the giver of life. Balen-Ruk, Kessra-Nik, and Arom-Nok follow Eilli-Syk’s orders. Cydrian, Muskadon, and Osiniana follow Illiena. So, the eight are divided into two groups. Eilli-Syk wants to destroy man so that all will go back to the All Creator. Illiena wants to guide man since that was the All Creator’s wish. So, they struggle against each other, with man caught in between.”
“Is that all in the book?” Lylle asked.
“Yes,” Merrif answered.
“Do you believe it?”
“Not all of it,” Merrif said. “It is one man’s view of the Manifest. Let me give you another. Illiena is keeping man here because she enjoys being in charge. Eilli-Syk wants to end all things so that everything goes back to the All Creator where it began. Even man would be there and it would be a place where peace and love and happiness reigned in coexistence with the All Creator.”
“That’s completely different,” Lylle said. “Who do you believe?”
“Exactly,” Merrif stated. “Who do *you* believe?”
“Straight!” Lylle said, dodging the question. “I believe it is going to be a long trip.”
“Ha!” Raphael laughed. “I believe that, too. And the day passes on and there are things yet to do. We should be going.”
“Where do we meet on the morn?” Merrif asked.
“Here is fine,” Raphael answered. “Just before daybreak.” There was a moan from the bed.
“Why is it always just before daybreak?” Niatha asked. “Why can’t we meet just after?”
“Because the caravan will most likely be gone by then,” Raphael replied. “Tomorrow morning, then.”
“Straight,” Merrif said.
“Straight,” Lylle repeated. Raphael and Lylle left and walked down the alley. Merrif walked over to the table and put the book back on it.
“Yes, Niatha. I believe it is going to be a long trip.”