Through the Dark Veil

Through the Dark Veil

By Allen Woods

Royal Arrivals
"The old histories do not give much attention to where Gelvin the Spriteleng's quest began, but we believe it is of the utmost importance. To understand why he took on a quest that would force him to make the ultimate sacrifice and change the world of Illuria, it is first necessary to understand his relationship with the noble Pithian Whiteshield."

From The One History of Illuria
By the Council of Prophecies

Gelvin was a small gray Spriteleng with dark green eyes and a constant smile spread across his face. He was curious by nature and loved to listen to older Spritelengs tell stories. Gelvin was happy living among the trees with his mother and father. Gelvin had no siblings, but he did not mind because Spritelengs had very little precious time to play. Spritelengs spent most of the day working for the benefit of the community.

As long as Gelvin could remember he loved to watch the stars. As a child living in a Spriteleng village, he worked hard in the fields all day, but relaxed under the moonlight sky at night. Almost every evening, well after darkness fell, Gelvin would sneak out of the expansive tree trunk his family lived in, and find a good spot to lie down in the grass.

One evening, Gelvin waited until his mother and father were sound asleep before slipping out of the tree through a large knot hole. His mother scolded him when he went out at night so Gelvin had become very adept at eluding their watching eyes, or in this case their wheezing noses. He heard his parents snoring loudly and knew that they would not catch him going out. They seldom did. Gelvin crept out of his room until he reached the small corner his mother called a cookroom. He stood on a short wooden table made of oak and looked up at the knot hole in the trunk of their tree.

The knot hole was not large enough to be a window, but Gelvin's father had decided not to fill it in because it was unobtrusive. It was high above their heads and he occasionally liked to listen to the singing birds in the morning. Despite how high the hole was though, Gelvin had developed a technique to reach it.

He had performed this aerial feat enough times to be certain that he could pull it off. The hole, a few paces above Gelvin's outstretched arms, glowed white as the soft moonlight seeped through it. Gelvin jumped off the table and snagged the bottom part of the ellipse. He strained as his arms pulled him higher until his eyes and nose barely peeked over the rim of his escape hole. Gelvin pulled harder with his short and stubby arms until his entire head, and soon after, his shoulders, were stuck firmly in the hole. He wiggled his arms out, one at a time, to the outside part of the trunk and then pushed with all his strength. A light sweat broke out on Gelvin's gray forehead as he strained and pushed himself half way out of the tree. As Gelvin felt his weight shifting to the outside of the hole he counted to himself, "One...two...three!"

With one final push on three, Gelvin soared out of the tree trunk and reached out for a thin branch very close to the ground. Gelvin straightened and tightened his body as his hands made contact with the elastic branch. He grabbed hold tightly and the branch bent and swayed with the extra weight. Gelvin's feet swung down and he felt the thick grass penetrate the spaces between his toes.

"Made it," Gelvin said to himself as he released the branch and it reverberated back into place. Gelvin took off running through the crisp night air until he was barely in sight of his village. The village was mostly Spriteleng families living in tree trunks, but there were wooden houses and structures sparsely scattered throughout the area. Those buildings were for storage instead of housing, because Spritelengs preferred the safe warmth of a tree for living in.

Gelvin stopped running once he reached a grass covered hill just above his village. He looked down at his tree and stared at the dark ground around it. Gelvin thought the color of the grass at night was fascinating. During the day, it was bright green, but at night the ground appeared quite black. Gelvin looked at his arm and even his skin looked almost black in the moonlight. He was convinced that all things changed color at night and he found it unendingly interesting. He was ready to watch the stars though, so Gelvin laid down on the ground and rested his head on the sloping hill.

"This is a good night," Gelvin thought because the sky was clear with a full moon. Each night, Gelvin would try to count the stars above him. Usually he would count as high as a few hundred before he either got bored or fell asleep. However, this night he did not count very far because of a very unusual distraction.

The air was moist and damp, but Gelvin hadn't noticed it before he stopped on the hill. He thought the air was growing thicker with each passing minute. He wondered if it had something to do with the river that ran next to the village. Perhaps the water from the ground was filling the air. Gelvin listened intently to the babbling water not far away and that explanation made sense. But then Gelvin realized that he had never before heard the water this far from the river!

Gelvin sat up and saw an unbelievable sight. A tremendous wall of water had risen out of the middle of the river and was floating towards his village. Gelvin, young and gullible, believed that the river had come to life and was trying to eat his village. He jumped to his bare feet and thought, "I've got to go home!" But before Gelvin even moved, it was too late.

The water was moving as though a giant invisible hand were guiding it, but then released the thousands of pounds of liquid above Gelvin's home. The wall of clear water collapsed from the sky and crushed the village. The impact of the water hitting the ground created a booming splash that deafened Gelvin. The young Spriteleng covered his ears and screamed in fear as the rushing water tore through his home, uprooting trees and flaying the buildings. Gelvin heard screams as the onslaught awakened the other Spritelengs, but very soon they were silenced and replaced by gurgling sounds.

Gelvin was protected from the water by his elevated position, but he wished he had died with the others. A sense of guilt filled him up. The only reason he had survived was because he was disobeying his mother. Gelvin hiked back down to the remnants of his water soaked village and stared at the dead bodies. Gelvin had never seen a dead Spriteleng before and he didn't know how to react. He didn't recognize the first body he encountered. He thought, "Perhaps she's just sleeping." Gelvin nudged her on the shoulder, but the Spriteleng did not move. Her skin was clammy and wet which compelled Gelvin to recoil his hand. The victim did not respond as the face on the body stared up at the night sky, with her mouth open and her heart stopped.

Gelvin quickly found a thin long stick amongst the debris and ran through the village poking every Spriteleng he saw. None of them moved and Gelvin finally realized that they were all dead and he was alone. Gelvin eventually found his mother. It looked as though she had tried to crawl out of their tree, but she did not make it. A large branch laid across her neck as her entire body was slowly sinking into the mud. Gelvin drug her body out of the sinking puddle of earth and clutched her tightly around the chest. "Please come back," he whimpered as he held her crushed limp body. "I don't want to be alone." Gelvin cried as he experienced fear for the first time in his short life.

Two suns passed and a young warrior galloped through the forest on the back of his white stallion. The warrior wore shiny white armor over all his body and his long blond hair whipped back and forth in the wind. He breathed deeply and clean fresh air filled his lungs. He urged his steed forward, faster and faster. The horse's thunderous hoofs scared away the small animals that lived on the ground and the warrior watched as woolly spiders and sparkling pixies scurried away through the dew laden grass of the early morning.

Far off in the distance the warrior heard a faint sound. "Eh, what's that?" he asked his horse. He listened more closely and believed it sounded like a sob. He turned his horse around and galloped up a small hill in the direction of the mysterious cry. As the warrior crossed over the grassy hill he saw Gelvin sitting in the middle of the remnants of his village.

In the daylight, the village looked like a mass of wet splintered wood laden with cold unmoving bodies. The warrior remained calm and quickly realized that a disaster must have destroyed the village. There was no evidence of battle or of any incursions, and the Spriteleng boy was the only creature left alive.

Gelvin sat with his head buried between his bony knees in what used to be the center of his village. He was still holding his stick because it made him feel a little more secure, but not much though. The warrior slowly rode his horse up to Gelvin and he stretched out his hand. Gelvin felt the man's shadow cover him so he looked up and saw the enormous human. He had never seen a human before and did not know what to say. Gelvin clenched his fists together and prayed to himself, "Please don't hurt me."

The warrior recognized that the Spriteleng was in shock so he said, "Come with me now. I will not harm you." A gigantic human on a horse, with a large sword at his side, scared Gelvin even though he was too weak to move. However, the man's voice erased all of those feelings. It was angelic and comforting. Gelvin felt assured and protected as the man looked down upon him. Gelvin looked into his deep blue eyes and somehow he knew that this man was here to save him. Gelvin, for the first time since the disaster, smiled wearily as he felt safe with the stranger.

Gelvin was emaciated and exhausted, so the warrior got off his horse and reached down to pick him up. Gelvin still had a little spunk left though, and as soon as the man firmly gripped him with both hands, Gelvin threw his arms around the warrior's neck. He started to sob again and the warrior picked him up and held Gelvin in a reassuring embrace. "It's okay now," he said as he patted Gelvin's back. "What's your name?"

"Gelvin," he spat out through the tears of relief and desperation.

"Hello Gelvin. I'm Pithian. You'll come with me now." With that greeting, Pithian placed Gelvin on the back of his horse and the two rode off together, leaving Gelvin's village forever. A lifelong friendship of respect and trust was born.

Long ago, before the ubiquitous age of man, there existed a world simply called Illuria. On this small green world the forces of good and evil did battle for a thousand generations using the unending resources of magic and the strength of mighty warriors. This is the story of a young hero seeking to find his place in this constantly changing landscape. The annals of history call him Gelvin the Spriteleng.

You may ask what a Spriteleng was, for they no longer exist today (their time has come and gone). Spritelengs were woodland creatures who could be recognized by their gray or green skin, their wiry frame, and their large ears. Spritelengs had no hair anywhere on their bodies, but their skin was thick and leathery and could protect them from the elements. They had eyes the same size as a normal man, but they appeared more penetrating. Any man who encountered a Spriteleng felt that the peaceful creature was looking into his soul. Spritelengs walked erect like humans, but they carried themselves with flowing lithe movements that reminded one of a dancer. They had balance and coordination that could only be found in the most remarkable of beings. Most importantly though, Spritelengs were generous and giving by their nature. Their good nature is what most distinguished them from men.

Most people had never laid eyes on a Spriteleng, though, because they shunned the hustling and bustling world outside their forest homes. For that reason, Spritelengs tended to be reclusive and could only be found in deep woods of old oak and dark vales. After living in the forests for so many generations, Spritelengs learned and developed many skills unnatural to men. Their large ears gave them acute hearing, their environment gave them eyes that could see at night, and their rural settings forced them to learn other uncanny talents found very rarely in other creatures. Spritelengs were naturally intelligent, and those who put their minds to it could learn the arts of magic and wizardry.

The Spriteleng of this story, Gelvin, was still young (nineteen years) when his quest began and still had much to learn about what it meant to be a Spriteleng. Especially being a Spriteleng in a world of humans. Men did not fear Spritelengs, as they did orcs and ogres, but they did not understand them either. Most humans simply didn't care about Spritelengs and considered them weak in body and mind. Gelvin was forced to live among those bigoted men because one good man, Pithian, accepted the responsibility of raising the Spriteleng he saved from the forest eleven years ago.

Pithian took Gelvin back to his temple in the city of Caledan where they lived until the day of our story. Caledan was a large city ruled by King Zendon the wise. His polished stone castle gleamed outward from the center of town and many wealthy merchants and hard working craftsmen managed their trades within the thick city walls. A delicate balance of soldiers and civilians teetered back and forth in Caledan. As more civilians came to Caledan, King Zendon conscripted more soldiers to help maintain control.

The soldiers of Caledan were a motley bunch. Most of them were young men who couldn't find work and turned to the army to support themselves. They were given a coat of armor, bearing the blue color of Zendon's flag, and a sword to carry. Most of the soldiers were uneducated and, in Gelvin's opinion, rude. Whenever he traveled through the city, Gelvin tried his best to avoid passing any of the conceited infantrymen, who usually overemphasized their worth to the kingdom.

Gelvin never understood why, but Zendon maintained a large army that had been training for war over many years. War was not a Spriteleng concept. In fact, throughout the annals of time, nobody ever heard of or witnessed a war between Spritelengs. Gelvin simply thought war was kings' methods of venting frustration against each other. Therefore, Gelvin always wondered why the kings never fought a duel against each other to settle their problems. That made much more sense to him, but then again, Gelvin did not understand the nature of war Zendon's soldiers served for little gold but a great deal of respect. Gelvin could not comprehended why a man would join the army (surely they must know that wars are wrong), but then again, he never needed to.

In the years following his rescue, Gelvin learned that Pithian was a powerful and well respected human who, in the opinion of most people, was incredibly wise. Gelvin observed many humans come to Pithian's temple, not only to pray, but to seek advice and help. Pithian was always ready to advise, but, just as frequently, he avoided taking an active role in helping others, even when Gelvin thought it was an immensely good cause. Pithian was sympathetic, for he hated evil and injustice, but he always argued that he was saving himself for something more important. It was many years before Gelvin learned what that was.

Pithian labored hard to maintain the appearance of his temple and he worked even harder in teaching Gelvin about the world. For eleven years Pithian regimented Gelvin's daily life. In the morning they would pray together at the altar. Then, Gelvin would read until the afternoon. Pithian had an enormous library that satisfied Gelvin's diverse curiosity. He read about history, magic, adventuring, healing, and even a little bit about Spritelengs (though Gelvin concluded that most of what was written about his people was spurious). After reading, Gelvin would polish the floors and prune the garden. Finally, he would spend the rest of the evening cooking dinner and practicing his swordsmanship. Pithian would not let Gelvin practice with a real blade, but the wooden ones were sufficient. Every night Gelvin and Pithian would spar for hours outside the temple. In eleven years, Gelvin never defeated Pithian. The schedule was always the same and very long, as it kept Gelvin occupied for the entire day. He did not mind though, because the work was much more interesting than the farming he remembered working on all day as a child. Pithian had reasons other than Gelvin's enjoyment for pushing him so hard though.

From the first day he saw Gelvin, Pithian decided that he must raise him as his own child because he somehow knew that the Spriteleng would one day face an incredible challenge from an unspeakable horror that would threaten Illuria. The day before Pithian's fateful journey through the forest, he had a vision that he was going to meet a Spriteleng that would one day play a pivotal role in his battle against evil. Gelvin never understood why Pithian thought he was so important, but he soon learned, as all people who knew Pithian came to realize, not to question his judgment. Pithian seemed to have some knowledge and foresight about the future but not even Gelvin knew where this fountain of information came from. Pithian's suspicions about what the future held is why he tutored Gelvin in all forms of education and skills. The challenge Pithian foresaw was tremendous and even he was mildly surprised that Gelvin's quest would begin early on a spring morning, almost eleven years to the day after he rescued him from the forest.

Early that morning Pithian heard a booming knock at the door to his temple. He knew immediately that only a representative of King Zendon would have the audacity to disturb a sacred temple so early in the day. Pithian had known the king for over twelve years and had come to grudgingly respect him. He met the king in battle and over the years Zendon likened Pithian to a sage. Whenever he needed free advice or assurances, he visited Pithian. Pithian never could understand, though, why the ruler felt the need to disturb him without an appointment. Everyone else who wanted his counseling came during the open hours for prayer. But Zendon was the king after all, so Pithian sent one of his apostates, Grizon, to answer the door.

Grizon was a short, stout man who appeared even smaller next to the large white doors of the temple. He swung the creaking doors open and in marched the biggest man of the kingdom, Thraxus, the leader of the elite guard. The elite guard was the king's special detachment of soldiers who performed important, and usually, secret missions for their ruler. Thraxus was a renowned warrior whose size was only exceeded by his greed. He was loyal to King Zendon beyond all else, but still, the glint of shining gold always seemed to distract him. He stood nearly seven paces tall, almost an entire pace larger than Pithian, and he had arms the width of tree trunks. His curly brown hair matched his thick brown beard. A massive iron sword rested in a loop on his back. Thraxus was well known in these lands because he had won more than a few fights just by roaring at his opponent. His menacing scowls along with the flex of a few muscles were usually enough to scare any enemy into submission.

Behind Thraxus stood a man with a trimmed walnut colored beard and a modest gold crown. He was, of course, King Zendon the Wise, ruler of Caledan, and dispenser of justice and equity (or so he liked to call himself). His crown sparkled in the marble white temple and Gelvin wasn't sure, but he thought the king smelled very much like a flower. Little did Gelvin know, but the king bathed in perfumes every morning. He thought that the fragrances supported his regal demeanor. Gelvin just thought he smelled like a wild patch of honeysuckle.

Pithian and Gelvin rose from the altar at the front of the temple to greet their guests when the Spriteleng asked, "Who are these people Pithian? Why are they here so early in the day?"

"Be quiet Gelvin. It is respectful to bow your head in the company of a King." As King Zendon marched into the temple, past the endless rows of long wooden pews, Pithian knelt down to one knee and forced Gelvin to the floor with his free hand. Gelvin did not know how to act in the company of a king and he instantly felt awkward. Not because he was concerned for himself, but because he did not want to embarrass his master.

Zendon looked admiringly at the ivory stones of the temple. Above him was a small white dome decorated with holy ankhs and ancient runes. The entire temple radiated positive energy and the king observed that bowls of blessed water sat at the end of each pew. He smiled as he reached the bowing Pithian and said, "Rise up my friend. You know I have never required you to kneel before me. We are equals." Or at least near equals the king thought to himself as he reached down and shook Pithian's hand. The king's hand was encrusted with jeweled rings and noble trinkets. Gelvin hoped Zendon would not reach to his hand, for fear he may cut it on the king's armored fingers. Pithian, wearing his thick red silk robe that stood out against the white back drop of the temple, rose and signaled for Gelvin to stand tall as well, saving him from the danger of the jewelry. Gelvin stood up was nearly as tall as Pithian. That made him large for a Spriteleng.

Gelvin could not help but stare into the king's dark green eyes because they were the same color as his own. Zendon smiled and looked back into Gelvin's eyes as well. The king stood there awkwardly, waiting for the Spriteleng to acknowledge him, but Gelvin did not know what to say when greeting a king (Gelvin had never cared to learn much about etiquette). Pithian quickly deflected Zendon's focus away from his speechless ward by saying, "I am honored that you consider me your equal my lord. What service may we offer you. Do you wish to pray at our altar?" Previous experiences with Zendon taught Pithian that the answer would be no.

"Of course not Pithian. I have a land to rule and no time for such things. That is why I leave the prayer to devout men such as yourself and your ward. A king only has time for prayer during weddings and funerals."

"Then why have you honored my temple, Lord?"

"Stop calling me Lord! And send these people away. You and I have much to discuss." Zendon's nose wrinkled in disgust. As king, he expected people to read his mind and know what he wanted. He turned away from Pithian, exhaling loudly, to show his impatience. Pithian anticipated that Zendon had important news or else he would not have come to the temple. Instead he would have ordered Pithian to come to the castle concerning any trivial matters. Therefore, with a nod of Pithian's head, Grizon and the other followers exited the main chamber to the inner recesses of the temple. Gelvin took one step towards the door when he felt Pithian's firm hand again on his shoulder. Gelvin wore a thick brown tunic but even it could not insulate him from the penetrating icy touch of his mentor. Spritelengs neither liked nor disliked the cold, but this sensation was different, and quite unappealing. Gelvin understood that his master had something serious to discuss with the king just by looking in his eyes. Pithian's dark, unmoving face called out to Gelvin and commanded him not to leave. Even if it were not a serious subject, Pithian would still want Gelvin to remain present with him. Pithian believed that experience was the best training and today's lessons would start earlier than usual.

He often said, "You never know when you'll learn something just by keeping your ears open." Gelvin wondered whether that axiom only applied to Spritelengs and their relatively large ears.

"I need to speak with you privately, Pithian," the King said as faint lines of stress began to show on his forehead. Gelvin did not care if he remained or not, but he knew it was important to his master.

"Ah, but you have not asked Thraxus to leave. I merely keep Gelvin here to balance this side of the room," Pithian said. Gelvin silently laughed because he knew he could never balance Thraxus. Even though Gelvin had grown into a strong young gray Spriteleng, he and Pithian together could not match Thraxus' size and weight. "After all, I tell him everything," Pithian continued, "Anything you say to me will eventually reach his ears."

"I wish he'd tell me why I must stay when I'd rather not be near this king," Gelvin thought to himself as he felt uncomfortable. As a Spriteleng in a world of humans, Gelvin stood out, but even more so in the company of Zendon. Gelvin could feel the king and Thraxus watching and examining him. That made him feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.

"Very well then." Zendon had learned long ago that it was no use to argue with Pithian when he had made a decision. Pithian was the most obstinate man Zendon knew and he hated it. It infuriated the king to no end, that a man half his age could have such impudence mixed with wisdom. But Zendon had no real reason to complain because Pithian always remained a loyal servant and a trusted advisor. That day especially, the king knew that he needed his loyalty. "I have good news old friend. My long running feud with Lord Kenyson of Rocwhelm has neared an end. We have reached an agreement which I believe will avert an all out war."

"War?" Gelvin thought to himself as images of the Caledan soldiers filled his head.

"What agreement is that?" Pithian asked aloud.

"I have agreed to save Kenyson's life. In return he will give back the gold his pirates stole from my villages along the Grandean Lake." For years Zendon and Kenyson, the ruler of Rocwhelm (a city and region separated from Zendon's realm by a barren savanna), argued and battled over small ports along the Grandean Lake. This huge body of water, really more a sea than a lake, swelled over into both Zendon's and Kenyson's kingdoms. For years, Zendon accused Lord Kenyson of sending pirates to plunder important trading villages on his side of the border. Zendon felt confident though that he had finally found a way to resolve the situation without risking a conflict.

Pithian, on the other hand, realized the missing piece of Zendon's diplomatic puzzle, "One element escapes me though, Lord. How are you to save the life of Kenyson?"

"I'm not going to, you and Thraxus are." The King smiled because he thought that under Pithian's stoic expression he had intrigued the paladin. Even though Pithian would never admit it, he was curious as to why Zendon had approached him. "You and Thraxus are going to prevent an assassination attempt on Lord Kenyson."

"I am," Pithian said while trying his best to imitate the sound of surprise. Pithian was astonished and shocked by very little as a result of those special senses of his, but, to conform to human custom, he spent years working on new expressions to convey emotions that were not natural to him. Sometimes it worked, but never in front of Gelvin. He knew his mentor too well to be fooled.

"Let me start from the beginning," Zendon said as he sat down in the first long pew next to Pithian. The wooden bench creaked as Zendon sat down and took a deep breath to tell his story. "Two days ago I met secretly with Lord Kenyson near the border. He told me of a plot against his life by his own people. He discovered that a contract for assassination was sent to Koraz the Mad." Zendon whispered when he said that name for fear that the wind may carry the words far to the south where Koraz might hear them. Koraz the Mad was a legendary, almost mythical, master assassin. Only sparse rumors about his whereabouts existed and no living person had actually ever seen him, but his reputation reached far and wide across many lands.

Gelvin just thought it a strange name. He wondered why a person would be dubbed 'The Mad'.

Quickly comprehending what the king required, Pithian responded, "And Kenyson wants you to eliminate Koraz for him." Zendon was taken aback by Pithian's bold statement. He never imagined that any man would use Koraz's name in such a flippant tone. Pithian, with his reasonable nature, did not fear the name of a man who lived many miles away, assuming he existed at all.

"Yes, yes, that's it exactly," the king said as he rose to his feet, still rubbing his head in shock at Pithian's lack of concern.

"I cannot help you my Lord," Pithian said as he turned away and walked back to his altar. Pithian knew that his abrupt answer would infuriate Zendon but it did not concern him. Gelvin, on the other hand, froze in a state of amazement. He never imagined that his mentor would show such irreverence to a man as important as the king. Zendon had come to expect it from Pithian though.

"But I have not even asked anything of you yet, Pithian," Zendon pleaded as he realized that getting angry would hardly convince him to help.

Pithian turned back to the king and spoke in a rapid and abrasive manner because he hated when Zendon would not give up an argument, "You were going to ask me to join Thraxus in a hunt for Koraz so that we may murder him and fulfill your part of the bargain with Kenyson. My answer is no." Gelvin was impressed that his master had such foresight into Zendon's plan but worried at the same time that Zendon might throw them both in his dungeon.

"You coward!" Thraxus shouted as he finally stepped away from his statuesque position next to the temple doors. Gelvin almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of the booming voice. He was not afraid of Thraxus, but he was surprised by his loudness. "King Zendon says that you are the greatest warrior he has ever seen but yet you are afraid to face even one man!" Gelvin became somewhat fearful for his master because he thought there might be a battle between Pithian and this giant man. Pithian, being far wiser than most men though, avoided a confrontation over something as meaningless as insulting words.

"I am not afraid Thraxus, but I have more important work to attend to. I must prepare myself for a coming battle with an evil you cannot yet conceive. I will pray and prepare for the day when that ultimate confrontation emerges from the cloudy image of an unborn future." Thraxus looked confused because he was not the smartest man and he had no idea what Pithian was talking about. Gelvin understood only too well. Through the years he listened Pithian speak of this inevitable duel against the forces of darkness. Pithian was convinced that an unnatural evil would one day be released into Illuria from the shadows and only he stood between it and the annihilation of all things good and true. Most people would have thought Pithian crazy, but Gelvin believed every word of it.

Pithian recognized that Zendon wanted help though, and he proposed an alternative he had in mind all along. "Instead of myself, King Zendon, I will send Gelvin to assist Thraxus in your search for Koraz." Gelvin's light gray skin almost turned white with surprise.

"The Spriteleng?" Zendon shouted in genuine disbelief. Gelvin felt somewhat embarrassed by the king's dumbfounded tone, but relieved at the same time. He was not ready to venture out into a world he knew very little about, nor was he ready to find a man and murder him. This temple and city were the only world Gelvin knew and it was limited to Pithian, Grizon, and Chauncey, the merchant from whom Gelvin bought the temple's food. Gelvin ventured into Caledan from time to time and he studied many things from the books in Pithian's library, but he had little real experience. He gravely doubted whether reading a thing was the same as knowing a thing.

"Why not Gelvin?" retorted Pithian. "He is ready and is a fine lad with a sword. He will serve you well in battle, Thraxus." Pithian spoke true, and thought back to the many evenings outside the temple where Gelvin practiced with the wooden sword. Gelvin had become quite good and even though Pithian would never say so, Gelvin possessed skills that could match any warrior. Even though Pithian lived in a holy temple and believed in the potential goodness of all creatures, he never hesitated to use a sword to carve the evil out when necessary. He had tried to instill the same philosophy in Gelvin.

Zendon stood up and walked over to Pithian by the altar. He moved slowly, with a purpose, and tried to hide his thoughts. He covered his mouth with his hands to conceal his words. Obviously, King Zendon did not have any knowledge of a Spriteleng's superior hearing. "He is just a boy and a Spriteleng at that. He knows nothing of assassinations and adventures. What good will he be?"

"I have trained him Zendon. He is a master swordsman and being a Spriteleng is not to his disadvantage. You and Thraxus have lived in Caledan most of your lives and have not had much experience with Spritelengs. They shun the worlds of Men, but they are not weak. They have special abilities and instincts that might surprise you my Lord." Gelvin heard what Pithian boasted but he was not sure if it was true of him. He did not feel any different than a man like Pithian and he certainly did not believe that he possessed any abilities unique to his kind.

"I am not sure about this idea old friend," the king said with hesitation but Pithian had heard this before. When Zendon began to hesitate, he always caved in.

"Trust me Zendon, Gelvin can help you in your quest for Koraz. I have foreseen it."

Zendon's eyes widened when Pithian said he had foreseen Gelvin taking part in this quest. After all, as Zendon had witnessed first hand in the past, Pithian was usually right when it came to seeing the future. If Pithian saw Gelvin contributing in this adventure, then it must be so. The decision was made.

"So be it!" shouted the king, using his most regal and commanding voice. He turned away from Pithian and marched towards the door. "Gelvin when the sun moves directly overhead you will join Thraxus and the others outside my castle to begin your trek. Prepare him Pithian."

"It will be done my Lord," Pithian shouted as Zendon and Thraxus exited the temple. Pithian looked at the awkwardly nervous Gelvin and said, "Come, we have much preparation if you are to find Koraz." Gelvin squared his shoulders and felt a lump forming in his throat. He was not sure about this quest.

The Faceless Wizard

"Records reveal that Koraz was not alone in his murders. He had a great many underlings who he called the faceless. Koraz would become complacent with killing and send his faceless out to do the dirty work."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

Pithian reached behind a large blue hued tapestry and pulled a small hidden lever revealing a secret door in the brick wall behind his altar. The wall was constructed of solid bricks, but this entrance was built separately and on a sliding rail. Pithian pushed the wall inwards, exposing a stone staircase leading downwards to a sub-level of the temple. He looked back at Gelvin and waved for him to follow him down to the depths.

Gelvin always knew that there were secret parts of the temple. He had even found a few hidden compartments throughout the years, but he never imagined that there was an entire chamber below the structure itself. Gelvin cautiously followed Pithian down the stairwell that was illuminated by some kind of strange glow. The glow hung in the air like a thick smoke and Gelvin recalled the mists of the forest he used to see early in the morning. There was no evidence of any torches or lanterns so Gelvin assumed that the dark yellow iridescence was of a magical origin.

"I built this chamber years ago when I first found this temple.

Down here is where I keep most of the artifacts that saved my life at one time or another," Pithian said as they reached the bottom of the staircase.

Pithian was not very old for a human and Gelvin wondered, "How much does he have to hide? Pithian hasn't been adventuring as long as I've known him."

Gelvin stepped onto the cold dirt floor and was taken aback by the incredible sight. This large earthen chamber was filled with a sea of gold, jewels, and weapons. The glowing light along the stairs was not magical, but the dull radiance of the treasure Pithian kept hidden from the outside world. Gelvin realized that Pithian must have done a lot of adventuring before they met.

"Master, if anyone finds out of this horde they will surely kill you and steal it," Gelvin said as he looked at the radiating fortune.

Pithian chuckled and looked back at Gelvin, "First they'd have to kill me. Besides nobody knows it is here. This treasure is what I accumulated through years of questing, before I came across you. Remember the sword I told you about, the Defender?"

Gelvin had heard Pithian speak of the blade before. Pithian told him stories of its magical powers to guard the being of its owner. "Of course, you told me many times how it saved your life."

Pithian picked up a longsword in a black scabbard and threw it over to Gelvin. "Now it is yours."

Gelvin snatched the sword out of the air and looked at it with a shocked expression on his face. Gelvin had always assumed that Pithian no longer possessed the sword, or else he would keep it with him at all times. As Gelvin examined it more closely he realized it was the same silver sword Pithian was wearing the day he met him. It was an unblemished blade with three blue jewels fixed in the hilt. It shined brightly and Gelvin saw his distorted face reflecting back at him in the metal. He felt uncomfortable even holding the sword of his mentor, let alone wielding it in battle. "Master, I cannot...."

"Keep the sword. I had planned to give it to you soon anyway," Pithian responded and Gelvin felt a little more comfortable with the idea. "It will serve you well in your forthcoming adventure." Gelvin stopped examining the sword with that statement and he looked up at his master.

"You call murder an adventure?"

Pithian had expected this question eventually and had already prepared an answer. "Murder is never an act to be revered Gelvin. But we do live in violent times and any wise man must be prepared to do battle when the moment comes. Death is sometimes the only way to destroy evil. I have battled many men and beasts through the years and only regretted my actions once, but that is a story for another time. Come, I have one other weapon for you." Gelvin wasn't sure if he agreed with Pithian, but he was content to consider his argument for a while. Gelvin stood closely behind Pithian as he dug through his piles of gold. After a moment or two Pithian stopped searching and pulled a massive black hammer out from under a swelling pile of red and green jewels.

Gelvin had never seen a hammer as large as this one and he knew immediately that it must be used for battle. The hammer was placed on a short notched staff and the giant blocked head was blunted on every side. Pithian handed it to Gelvin and, despite its enormous weight, he held it high to admire the quality of the iron. "What is this hammer for, Master?"

"Don't you know?" Pithian asked rhetorically.

"I know it is a war hammer, but is it special?" Gelvin asked as

he rubbed his palm across the large flat head and felt the coldness of the iron run up his arm.

Pithian stood up from the floor and smiled as he replied, "It is thunder from the sky, it is iron forged in a star, and it is the bane of all beasts larger then men. It is called the Giant Killer," Pithian stated as a riddle. The hammer's name made its purpose obvious, but Pithian tended to use evasive language to keep Gelvin on his toes. Gelvin smiled at the riddle, even though it was an easy one, because it was a form of affection from Pithian. Gelvin thought about his favorite riddle, which asked where a pit can be surrounded by soft fur. The answer is in a peach. But Gelvin's thoughts quickly returned to the hammer as it weighted down on his arm.

"I have never held a tool so heavy," Gelvin said as he compared the hammer's mass to that of the sword.

"It is more than a simple tool Gelvin. A wizard, long since dead, forged this hammer to drive the giants away from his land. Legend says that the wizard took the Giant Killer into battle early one morning and by the time the sun rose the next day, the ground could not be seen because of the dead bodies stacked and strewn about." Gelvin wanted to hear more about the wizard but Pithian was already busy searching for something else. Eventually, he handed Gelvin a black leather back strap and belt to fasten his arsenal onto and then took him back to the main part of the temple.

"Who is Koraz?" Gelvin asked as they slowly ascended the stairs.

Pithian did not turn around but replied in stride, "Koraz is a

legendary master assassin who nobody has seen in many years. I have heard that he is a director of chaos and evil. That he kills for fun and wreaks havoc for pleasure."

"If nobody has seen him for years, how does King Zendon know that he exists?"

"He doesn't," Pithian replied sharply as they reached the top of the stairs.

Gelvin thought, "I wonder if that's how all kings rule? By guessing and chasing legends."

"It is time for you to join the others Gelvin," Pithian said as he placed his hand on Gelvin's shoulder where it met his neck.

"Before I leave master, tell me, why did you suggest I go on this adventure?"

"It is your destiny Gelvin. I would not have trained you for so many years if it were not for a higher purpose. I knew this day would come and it is your turn to learn the lessons of life that can only be found through exploration. You will grow and mature in ways I could never teach you. You will also learn more of what it means to be a Spriteleng. Koraz, whether he is real or not, presents an interesting challenge and I feel that Zendon is in for more than he bargained. You will become a leader and savior in this quest. Go now, I await your return."

With that final message Gelvin exited the temple and looked back as Grizon shut the doors. As he stared back at the memory provoking building, Gelvin wondered whether or not he would ever see his adopted home again. He genuinely hoped so.

Gelvin walked through the roads of Caledan towards the castle in the center of the city. It was a typically busy day in the streets, with dirty peasants begging for food and well dressed merchants trying to sell their goods. Everyone stared at Gelvin as he passed and he was well aware of it.

"Can't you find something better to do," he thought as he quickened his pace. Gelvin had come to expect gawks from humans who had never seen Spritelengs, but still, he never got used to it.

Gelvin stared up at the castle as he continued to walk towards it. It was a beautiful structure made of thick gray stones. One huge tower caught Gelvin's eye, because it was the largest and the most prominent. It jutted out of the citadel from the center and towered above all of Caledan. Gelvin thought, "I wonder what the world looks like from up there?" Sometime soon, he would find out.

Gelvin approached the outskirts of the King's castle and instantly realized that he was the last member of the group to arrive. Gelvin walked into a small dusty courtyard surrounded by the smooth stones of the castle wall, and he looked at his new companions. Thraxus and three other humans already had their packs on and appeared ready to embark.

Thraxus placed his hands on his hips and looked towards the approaching Spriteleng. "Its about time you got here. Grab a pack and lets get going," he barked. Gelvin picked up the final brown leather pack and looked at the provisions inside it. It contained mostly what Gelvin expected: some dried meat (not at all the quality Gelvin was accustomed to), eggs wrapped in a thick cloth, water (though Spritelengs drank very little), a thinly twined piece of rope, a blanket, flint, and a small rust encrusted lantern. "Get your pack on Spriteleng!" Thraxus berated impatiently.

Thraxus was not naturally mean spirited, but seeing as how his king asked him to seek out the most brutal killer ever known in these lands, his obtuse manner was quite explainable. Gelvin was even more impressed by Thraxus' size outside of the temple. Compared to the other three humans in the group, Thraxus was a giant, wearing thick black leather armor and carrying that enormous iron sword on his back. Thraxus, like most big men Gelvin had met, did not keep his thick brown beard very clean. His hair was already stringy and sweaty from standing in the sun a few moments. Gelvin wondered if big men were required to have a beard and after looking at the disgusting dirt and hair caught on Thraxus' face, Gelvin was delighted that Spritelengs could not grow such repulsive things.

"You must be Gelvin," said a robed man standing behind Thraxus.

He approached Gelvin to shake his hand. "I am Flynton the magician at your service. I am a member of the King's court." Flynton was an average fellow, just shorter than Gelvin, with a very agreeable voice. He had acorn brown hair and wore small round spectacles that hung on the end of his nose. His long robe was colored royal blue and Gelvin became convinced that Flynton would surely trip over the hanging garment before the day was out. Flynton smiled as he extended a hand to Gelvin. Gelvin smiled back and decided he liked this man already.

"A magician? I've never met a magician," Gelvin said in complete honesty.

"And I've never met a Spriteleng before. I saw one once, but he did not talk." Or at least the Spriteleng's slaver wouldn't let him, but Flynton decided to omit this minor detail. Gelvin did not have much to say to Flynton because he was too busy admiring his robe. It was a fine garment, not as nice as Pithian's silk though, and it matched Flynton's boots in color.

Gelvin was surprised that Flynton did not have a weapon on his back though. Gelvin thought, "Perhaps this quest won't be as dangerous as I feared." Then Flynton pulled back his robe to put his hands on his thin brown belt and exposed a shortsword attached to his waist. "Danger ahead," Gelvin thought in silence.

"I assume you've met Thraxus," Flynton continued, in an attempt to break Gelvin's silence. "My short friend here is Slade Quickhand," Flynton said as he opened his palm towards the shortest member of the group. Gelvin looked at Slade, dressed entirely in black cloth with mischief flickering in his eyes, and knew exactly what he was.

"I didn't know the king kept thieves in his court," Gelvin said and Flynton laughed.

"I'm not a part of the King's court. I just do favors for him from time to time," Slade said and turned away from Gelvin. Gelvin felt bad, because he didn't mean to embarrass Slade, but merely to acquaint himself with the thief.

"Ignore him Gelvin," Flynton said as he waved Slade aside. "The fifth member of our cadre is young Fyndon Oakhart. Try not to confuse our names please." Fyndon was thin, short, and wore a green hood covering his face. Gelvin was surprised when he pulled the hood back though, because he was not a he. He was a she.

"Nice to meet you Gelvin," she said extending an ivory white hand. "Many of my best friends are Spritelengs. I hope to count you among them."

"I do too," Gelvin responded as he shook her hand. Fyndon really wasn't all that young, but sixteen years of age did make her the baby of the group. She had long blond hair pulled behind her neck, which reminded Gelvin of Pithian, and a gentle look to her face. He wondered why the king would send a woman to perform such a dirty act as murder. Then it occurred to him that there must be a special reason. "What do you do?" Gelvin asked promptly realizing that it was a very ridiculous sounding question.

"I am here to help us with the forest," Fyndon said very plainly. Her voice was like a beautiful bird singing in the night and Gelvin hoped she would talk more because it was better than listening to the hoarse roar of Thraxus. She continued, "I have much experience with nature and Thraxus says that we will be spending a good deal of time outdoors on this quest." Gelvin recognized that Fyndon did not have the appearance of someone who had lived in a city. Her voice, her face, everything about her seemed unspoiled by the filthy metropolis around them.

"So now we all know each other. Let's get moving so we can make some distance before dark," Thraxus insisted as he handed out small scrolls of beige paper to each member of the group. Gelvin looked at the seal on his, but he did not recognize the symbol. It was a red eagle, but much larger than any bird. "These are important documents," Thraxus bellowed to make sure he had their attention. "Lord Kenyson has prepared these scrolls that will allow us to travel through his land unmolested. Each of us has one in case we are separated."

"Why would we get separated?" Gelvin, ignorant of the problems wrought with quests, thought to himself.

"Just show it to any of Lord Kenyson's forces and they should grant you passage," Thraxus continued. "Any questions?" Everyone looked at each other but nobody said anything. Slade's expression seemed to say let's just get on with it and Thraxus was only happy to oblige, "Good, then let's get moving." Thraxus started down the main road towards the south and the others followed. Eventually they exited the city and continued to follow the stone laid road south, towards the domains of Kenyson. Their journey had begun.

Once outside of Caledan, the road changed from stone to packed earth. But Gelvin didn't seem to mind. As he marched down the wide well traveled road, he looked up at the sky and estimated that they had two hours of sunlight left. The sun was sinking in the west and streaks of pink and purple slowly filled the late afternoon sky. He anxiously awaited the darkness because it was mostly clear and he wanted to engage in his favorite hobby: star watching.

As the sun slowly disappeared, Gelvin and his companions passed a few traveling merchants in horse drawn carts and the occasional grassy field or silent pond. For the most part though, the brown dirt road was surrounded by thinly grouped trees and a few scattered granite rocks. Not exactly what Gelvin or Fyndon thought of as a forest, but it seemed to be a rural wilderness to urban men like Slade and Flynton. The light wind stirred the dirt road and it began to irritate Gelvin's eyes. "Exploration indeed," Gelvin thought to himself as his eyes began to water. He didn't feel like he was learning much yet and he needed a diversion from the, up until then, fatuous journey.

To pass the time until nightfall Gelvin decided to converse with his new friends (or at least he hoped they would all become friends). After all, he had spent most of his life in a long since destroyed village and the temple of a recluse. He was curious about these new humans and what they were really like.

"How do you know the king, Fyndon?" Gelvin asked as he quickened his pace to keep up with the swiftly walking woman.

"I don't really. The King once did a favor for my father and now I am repaying it."

"What did the king do?"

"Are Spritelengs always this inquisitive?" Slade asked as he butted in on the conversation. Slade did not intend to sound rude (he thought he was making a funny joke), but his crass manners did not appeal to Gelvin at all.

"No, they just don't have anything to hide like you do Slade," Fyndon retorted before Gelvin could stand up for himself. Gelvin wished she hadn't spoken for him, but it didn't matter after the fact. She turned her head back towards Gelvin and continued her story, "Years ago a builder planned to construct a stone bridge in the forest east of Caledan where my father lived. He begged the king to stop the builder for fear that his work might disrupt our happy community. The king respected my father's power so he insisted that the builder work further downstream." The tale intrigued Gelvin because he wondered what power Fyndon's father wielded. Perhaps it was like Pithian's extra senses he imagined.

"What power did your father have?" Gelvin asked, hoping to learn more about Fyndon's strange heritage.

"Here I'll show you," Fyndon said and she put her hands to her mouth. She made a squawking sound like an animal, but unlike anything Gelvin had ever heard. She squawked again and a small white feathered bird flew out of a small nearby tree and landed on her hand.

Gelvin was shocked by the display. It was a beautiful bird with a full chest of feathers. Gelvin wondered how she did it and then he realized what the squawking was, "You can talk to animals?!"

"Of course, I am a Comwen."

"A Caw-went?" Gelvin muttered as he tried to pronounce the new


"A Comwen," Thraxus said. "You know, a person who communes with animals."

"Incredible! Are there more like you?" Gelvin asked with a huge smile. He had never seen something so remarkable outside of a wizard. Of course, Gelvin did not have much experience and he did not know that Comwens were as common as Spritelengs, if one knew where to look.

"Yes, of course there are Gelvin. I even know a few Spritelengs who are Comwens." Gelvin's face brightened at the idea that he could speak with animals as well. He had always wanted to ask a hawk what it felt like to soar through the sky or to ask a snake why it shed its skin.

"That's nothing Gelvin," Flynton interrupted. He was always eager to impress a new audience. "Watch this." Flynton pulled a shiny red gem out of his pocket from under his robe. It looked like a ruby of some kind, but finer than any jewel Gelvin had ever seen. It's dark red color and incredibly detailed cut made it almost hypnotizing to look at. Before Gelvin could become too enthralled though, Flynton put his index finger against the stone and pulled it away sharply. A line of fading red color streaked across the air, following Flynton's finger from the ruby. The magician began to make small spirals in the air and the red line spiraled larger and brighter. Flynton stopped abruptly and the line exploded into a small, yet dazzling, shower of silver stars. The bright explosion scared away the bird on Fyndon's hand and almost blinded Gelvin.

"Very impressive Flynton," Gelvin said as he rubbed his startled eyes. "How did you do that?" he asked as the magician pocketed his red stone.

"Ah, that is the secret of my magic."

"Not much of a secret," Slade interjected again. "I've seen that

amateur trick in every bar I've visited." Again Slade did not endear himself to the others, but he could not help his bothersome nature.

"Don't you mean every bar you've been chased out of," Thraxus said and everyone laughed, except of course Slade. He simply grunted and walked faster to escape the jeers of his companions.

As the others continued to laugh, Thraxus abruptly stopped dead in his tracks and held both of his arms out as far as they could stretch. Thraxus had a wingspan as large as the giant eagles of the north, but far more menacing. His feet sunk into the road as though they were taking root and everyone behind him halted. Gelvin had no idea what was going on but was quick enough, and curious enough, to be the first to ask, "What is it Thraxus?"

"Don't move. I smell something. Kinda smells like an ogre but someone else too."

Gelvin took a deep breath to calm himself because he had read about ogres in one of Pithian's books. They were horribly large beasts with razor sharp fangs and breath like death. He never imagined that he would have the chance to meet one up close.

"Wherever you are come out. I can smell you and I'm certain we outnumber you," Thraxus said in an authoritative manner as he slowly reached over his shoulder and drew his gigantic sword. "We don't want any trouble with you." Thraxus loved to fight, but he hated ambushes and that thought had already crossed his mind as he tightened his grip on the weapon.

"Then you shall not have it," a voice responded to Thraxus' command. Thraxus moved like lightning to the side of the road where he heard the confident and clear voice. Behind a small trove of trees there stood a short man in gray clothes with a long white beard. Next to him was a putrid ogre. The ogre was as big as Thraxus and had sickly pale skin, almost the same color as Gelvin, smattered with thick patches of black hair. He smelled terrible, like spoiled meat, and Gelvin wondered if that odor was some secret weapon of ogres. "We have no wish to confront you," the short man said as he straightened his glasses on the end of his pointed nose. He and the ogre approached the road and Gelvin realized just how minute this man was. Barely four paces tall, he was the size of a dwarf, but obviously a human. He did not have a dwarf's length of beard, nor the brash impoliteness.

"If you wish to avoid battle then just stop where you are. I hate ogres," Thraxus commanded in his most menacing voice.

"Ma-bee I hates you back ug-lee," the ogre said as his keeper held him back with an oaken staff he carried in his withered left hand. Thraxus tightened his grip on his sword as he already began to determine how he would attack the pair.

Gelvin and the others had never encountered an ogre, but they all knew that they were not supposed to be able to speak. Gelvin felt nervous and thought that maybe they were dealing with an unnatural beast. "What trickery is this?" Fyndon shouted as she also drew her weapon. A small dagger with a beautifully carved wooden handle.

"Put your weapons away. We are travelers. We go south," the short man said in a raspy yet clear voice. Gelvin immediately distrusted him but he was not sure why. Perhaps the odor of the vile ogre clouded his thoughts.

"How can that ogre speak?" Gelvin questioned. "That's not typical for a beast."

"This is a special ogre. My ogre!" the old man shouted. "I taught him many things. Do not be afraid, it will not hurt you. I am Narus and the ogre is Tong." For Gelvin, Narus' assurances didn't relieve his concerns. The ogre looked menacing as its teeth pushed out of its gigantic jaw. Gelvin feared that a monster that size could swallow his head in one gulp.

"If it is all the same to you Narus, we will be on our way," Thraxus said, still not quite ready to sheath his sword.

"Tong and I will go with you. I see you are walking south as well."

"We prefer to travel alone," Thraxus barked at the short man.

"Come now, I'm sure a man of my experience could be of some

help to you. I hate to walk without the company of others. Tell me what I can do for you and it will be done."

"Tell us where we can find Koraz," Flynton said jokingly. He did not expect a weary old man to know what he was talking about, but still Thraxus stared at the magician with antipathy. He considered their mission to be of the utmost secrecy and he did not want to inform strangers he did not trust.

"Ah, you seek Koraz, father of all assassins and leader of a faceless many," Narus said with an animated face, enticing the adventurers to ask more. Gelvin was shocked that Narus had heard of Koraz and he began to consider what a strange coincidence they had stumbled upon.

"What do you know of Koraz?" Thraxus asked anxiously as he put away his sword.

"I know many things. Follow me and I will tell you more."

Thraxus and the others followed Narus and Tong as they continued their journey south, this time using the road instead of the shrubbery.

Gelvin had always been fond of plays on words, because Pithian used them in his riddles. Narus' language and words piqued Gelvin's curiosity as he tried to understand what the little man meant. Despite his reservations he could not resist asking Narus, "What are the faceless many you spoke of?"

"The faceless many are the followers of Koraz. He is not alone.

He has an army of assassins who follow him to the death. They are called the faceless many because nobody knows who they are. Anyone can be an agent of Koraz. Thus, his assassins have no faces." Again Gelvin felt concern creeping in at the back of his mind. Why did this man so conveniently know of Koraz? How did he hear this story about the faceless? And why would he want to travel with people so hostile towards him? Before Gelvin could get the answers to these questions though, a horde of goblins chose that opportune time to interrupt the conversation.

Suddenly from the short trees and the concealing rocks a small group of disgustingly vile goblins, drool falling from their pink lips and crude knives glinting in their hands, jumped into the road and attacked without warning. Goblins were disgusting little creatures with pear shaped bodies covered in coarse hair. They spoke a language of grunts and ugghs which few people outside of their clans could translate. They had pug noses and large floppy ears which gave them a comical appearance, but there was nothing humorous about them. Goblins were known for their guile and hatred of all things not goblin.

Gelvin swiftly drew his Defender but not quickly enough. Before he raised the sword one of the nasty goblins sliced him across the hand with a blade. Gelvin winced in pain and stared at the blood welling up below the hilt of his sword. Almost instantly another snarling fang toothed goblin was on him. The rotund little monster lunged at him with his knife, aiming straight for Gelvin's heart. Fear and panic was all Gelvin felt, but his Defender rose at the last instant to knock the goblin to the ground. Gelvin was not even sure if he had acted on instinct or if the sword had raised itself. Nevertheless, it had saved his life, and not for the last time.

A third goblin, this one with brown fur and wildly raging red eyes, charged at Gelvin but by then he had recovered some of his senses. He side stepped the lunging beast and pushed it to the ground, knocking it unconscious and causing a small puff of dust to rise into the air. Gelvin quickly gathered himself and surveyed the situation. Thraxus was crushing the much smaller goblins, breaking open their skulls and creating a pile of dead bodies soaked in blood at his feet. Slade was surprisingly ferocious and used his quickness to avoid the snarling beasts and stab at them with his silvery dagger. Flynton and Fyndon were barely holding their own against a goblin each when Gelvin noticed that none of the monsters dared to approach Narus or Tong. Gelvin wasn't sure who to help because this was the first real combat he had ever experienced. His heart raced and his senses became sensitive to everything around him. Adrenaline filled his blood and he began to breathe much more rapidly. Before Gelvin could decide what to do next though, Narus eliminated the threat.

He stepped forward and struck his small wooden staff on the ground. It resonated like a wind chime and Gelvin thought he felt the ground quake slightly. Narus shouted cants at the goblins in languages Gelvin did not recognize. Certainly they sounded magical, or at least mysterious, and Gelvin hoped the powerful words would end the fray because his hand still stung. Narus finished the cants by saying 'Tobah! Tobah! Tobah!' repeatedly and there was a blinding flash of red light. Moments later, when Gelvin regained his sight, the goblins had all disappeared. Even their dead carcasses were gone.

"What happened to the goblins?" Gelvin thought as his eyes widened in disbelief.

"That is a powerful magic Narus," Flynton said with great respect.

"How did you make the goblins disappear?"

"Study my magic someday boy, and you might learn."

"I thank you Narus the wizard," Thraxus said extending his hand

in friendship, much to Gelvin's surprise. "We could use your help in our travels south. There is safety in numbers, should the goblins return." With that offer Narus joined the group and Gelvin did not feel it was his place to ask his prying questions of the man who had just saved them all. Gelvin was not yet confident of his instincts with the newly acquainted humans. He would have told Pithian about his suspicions, but Gelvin wasn't sure if any of these humans would listen to him. Still, he decided to keep a watchful eye on the old man. When Gelvin looked deep into his eyes something disturbed him and made him constantly wary.

The party of travelers continued south until nightfall. Fyndon gave Gelvin a special leaf to treat his wound with. He wrapped the wet green leaf around his hand and felt a soothing sensation. She told him to keep it on there until morning and his hand would probably be healed.

As soon as the sun had completely set, the group found a small clearing among the trees to the side of the road. There was an oasis of clear green grass between the trees that gave the travelers just enough room to build a camp. The ground was dry and the firewood abundant, so Thraxus felt confident that this area would be a safe refuge for the night. He gave everyone assignments to make camp for the night. Quickly they built a fire and were eating their dinners. It was some kind of foul soup cooked from the dried meat and Gelvin had to hold his breath to choke it down. It tasted like a sweaty neck scarf, boiled in a pot of snake venom. "I've had better food cooked by a frog," Gelvin imagined as he wrinkled his nose when he held the bowl to his mouth.

The humans carried on their custom of conversation at dinner, but Gelvin simply looked up at the stars. He had always been fascinated by the bright constellations and the shooting streaks of red across the sea of white dancing lights. Pithian told him that the Gods lived among the stars and watched the people of Illuria to help them in their times of need. Gelvin always watched the sky hoping one day that he might catch a glimpse of one of those Gods staring back. Star watching reminded Gelvin of his family and the flood, but he did not let those memories ruin the one hobby he took great pleasure in.

"...and the bartender said, 'The goat doesn't work here anymore!'"

Gelvin heard Slade telling the end of a joke and everyone laughed. Gelvin tried to laugh also, as though he had been paying close attention. Really he never understood the concept of humor. For Spritelengs it just seemed trivial. Gelvin tried to tell jokes to conform with other humans, but he was rarely funny.

"It has been an exciting day," Narus declared as he stood up and stretched. "I thank you for letting me walk with you. Now I think we should get some rest so we can get an early start. Tong and I will get more firewood and then I will tell him to watch over us while we sleep." Narus and Tong got up and walked away from the fire together to the surrounding trees. Everyone else began to unroll their blankets from their packs and prepare for bed. Everyone that is except Gelvin.

It seems that Narus, like most humans, did not know about Spritelengs and their sensitive hearing. Even though they were standing some twenty paces away from the camp, Gelvin could faintly hear Narus tell Tong, "Wait until they are all asleep. Then we take them. Go after the big one first."

Gelvin was too tired to become panicked but he was instantly concerned. He rolled over to Thraxus and whispered in his ear, "I don't want to alarm everyone because maybe I misunderstand humans like Narus, but I heard him tell Tong to do something to us once we're asleep. Did I misunderstand?" Gelvin thought perhaps Narus was planning another human joke.

"Probably not," Thraxus whispered back as an expression of concern and tension filled his face. Thraxus was quick to recognize trouble and he created a hasty plan. "Don't alert the others. I never trusted Narus and I expected something like this. I am going to feign sleep. You do the same and in a few minutes make up some excuse to leave camp. Wait behind the trees and then follow my lead." Gelvin wanted to ask more about Thraxus' plan, but there was no time because Narus and Tong quickly returned with more wood. He was happy to know that he was not the only one who suspected Narus though. Gelvin concluded that Thraxus, as the leader of the King's elite guard, must have some sense of such things after all.

"Good night all," Narus said and he laid down. Flynton, Fyndon, and Slade were all asleep very quickly because it had been a tiring day. Thraxus and Gelvin were more anxious though. Gelvin had never practiced being covert when he trained with Pithian and his nervousness grew with each passing moment. His weariness was replaced by a building rush of adrenaline. Gelvin's hand began to quiver and he quickly put it between his thighs to keep it still.

It had only been a few moments when Gelvin, through his cracked eyelids, saw Tong slowly reach for his wooden spear. Gelvin jumped up, out of breath and Thraxus and Narus sat up from the ground as well. "What's wrong Gelvin?" Narus asked as the Spriteleng's heart raced.

"Tell them you need to relieve yourself," Thraxus thought to himself, hoping they had not lost any element of surprise in his plan. Gelvin was a terrible liar though, and in the heat of the moment he simply blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"I'm uh, uh, going to get more firewood," Gelvin said even though the fire was still high and burning hotly. Gelvin quickly walked behind the nearest trees. It would have been a good excuse if Tong and Narus had not just collected so much wood. Once he was out of Narus' line of sight, Gelvin turned back towards the camp and gripped a tree trunk. He prayed that his justification had not cost Thraxus his plan or their lives. Gelvin gripped the tree tightly and took deep breaths to slow his throbbing pulse.

"I should have told the others," Gelvin thought to himself as he began to doubt Thraxus' plan.

"Strange boy," Narus said as he looked at Thraxus. The wizard suspected that something was amiss.

"Yes he is," Thraxus responded as he reached down to the small wooden ankh he always wore around his neck. He began to rub it slowly between his thumb and forefinger. Narus noticed Thraxus' action and he squinted at him. It was a known fact that blessed crosses could hold minor magical powers. Often these crosses could instinctually help its wearer determine if someone be friend or foe. Unfortunately for Thraxus, Narus knew this trick all to well. His eyes seethed with rage as the small wizard jumped to his feet and grabbed his staff.

Tong grunted and rushed at Thraxus, who barely made it to his feet in time. He grabbed Tong by the wrists and stopped his charge, but left himself open to an attack from Narus. The wizard smiled devilishly as he reached far back with his staff and prepared to swing it into Thraxus' ribs when Gelvin jumped out from behind the trees. The Spriteleng tackled Narus, moments before he could strike Thraxus with the oaken staff of magic. The others awakened at the sound of battle and were thrown into instant confusion. They gathered themselves and quickly got to their feet.

Gelvin jumped up to help Thraxus and Narus scowled because knew that the battle was lost without his element of surprise. As Gelvin added his strength to press on the ogres' broad wrists, Narus waved his staff back and forth in the air and the wind, which had been calm all day, suddenly became strong. Narus' hair whipped back and forth in the howling wind and he shouted, "I warn you, do not go south. Death awaits you there!" With that proclamation, Narus struck his staff on the ground and he and Tong disappeared in a flash of white light.

"What just happened?" Flynton pleaded in a confused desperate tone.

"Koraz just sent us the first of his faceless many," Thraxus said

and he sat back down. No one else said anything and eventually laid back down to go to sleep. Gelvin laid down on his blanket and wondered, "Does Narus work for Koraz?" Then he rolled his head on its side and saw Thraxus standing next to the fire with the point of his sword pressed into the ground. Slowly, Gelvin fell asleep.

Thraxus stood guard for the rest of the night.

The Threshold of Rocwhelm

"The early records concerning Koraz are very sparse. No legitimate historian seems to have been concerned with him before the twelfth year of the Dragon, when Gelvin began his quest. Most of our information from before that time was recovered from the memoirs of Lord Kenyson of Rocwhelm."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

The sun began to rise early the next morning and so did Gelvin. Spritelengs did not need as much sleep as humans and even the faintest rays of sunlight were enough to waken him. He rubbed his puffy tired eyes and saw that Thraxus still sat next to the embers of last night's fire, with his sword sitting between his crossed legs.

Thraxus looked exhausted and Gelvin knew that he must have guarded the camp for the entire night. Thraxus saw Gelvin get up and stretch, but he was too tired to turn his head and acknowledge him. Gelvin was much more amiable though. He walked over to the warrior and sat down next to him.

Thraxus was staring across the grassy field which stretched endlessly beyond the tree line and the road. The sun's yellow rays clashed with the green savanna creating a beautiful struggle of competing hues. Thraxus did not even blink as Gelvin admired the scenery. After a moment of awkward silence Gelvin asked the question they both wanted to know of each other, "Why'd you suspect Narus?"

Thraxus stared straight ahead, watching the rising sun and responded like a zombie, or at least responded how any man would after sitting awake all night, "He was too obvious. Ogres don't travel with humans, I don't care how special they are. It just didn't make sense that a man with a magical staff and a pet beast would want to travel out in the open with other people." That answer did not satisfy Gelvin. He had suspected Narus all along and he blamed himself somewhat for not saying anything when the wizard joined his companions.

"Then why did you invite him to join us?" Gelvin pried, looking for a reasonable explanation. Gelvin never would have allowed Narus into their group and he wanted to know why Thraxus would.

"I needed to know more about him. It wasn't just coincidence that he chose to reveal himself to us."

"I never would have guessed that," Gelvin sarcastically thought to himself.

Thraxus continued, "He and his ogre could have stayed down wind. I had a feeling that someone sent him to find us. I still want to know who and why."

"I thought you said it was Koraz who sent them," Gelvin said as he remembered Thraxus' grave proclamation about the first of the faceless many.

"I did," Thraxus said as he finally stopped staring at the sun and looked Gelvin square in the eyes. "It's really just a guess though," Thraxus said reluctantly. "I'm not absolutely sure, but he knew a lot about Koraz and he was too cocky. He thought he would kill us, so he told us some of what we wanted to know. Maybe he just wanted to distract us or maybe he just felt like toying with us. I don't know," Thraxus said in frustration with a slurred voice.

The explanation seemed most logical to Gelvin and if Thraxus was correct, Narus' plot seemed to work on most of the group. Neither Fyndon, Flynton, or Slade seemed to suspect Narus after he talked about Koraz's faceless many. They were too occupied pondering what Narus told them. But then Gelvin thought that perhaps the group naturally looked to Thraxus for leadership. If Thraxus welcomed Narus, why should they question him? That thought bothered Gelvin because he still didn't fully trust Thraxus' hasty judgment. Gelvin concluded that eventually, if the situation were desperate, perhaps someone else would have to stand up and become a leader. Gelvin decided it wouldn't be him.

"So you believe in Koraz?" Gelvin asked as he realized the implications of Thraxus' reasoning. It was a question Gelvin had asked himself many times since this quest began the other day. Some people, like Zendon, believed in the assassin and others, such as Pithian, thought he was just a myth, designed to scare and frighten people. Or did Pithian really believe that? The more Gelvin thought about what his master said concerning Koraz, he realized that Pithian was being ambiguous as usual.

"He's real," Thraxus responded. "He has to be. I've heard too many stories about him. Most of them were when I was younger and still a mercenary." Thraxus' voice sounded distressed when he spoke of Koraz. Finally, Gelvin understood why Thraxus acted so rudely and mean most of the time. He was afraid and Gelvin knew why. It was more than just his voice that gave him away though. Gelvin looked back into his eyes and somehow he understood that Thraxus, despite his size and strength, was afraid of the man they sought.

"I hope you're wrong," Gelvin said as he turned his sights back on the emerging sun.

"Me too," Thraxus said as he laid down on his back and finally went to sleep.

The sun rose higher and the others began to wake. Gelvin had let them sleep because he thought they would enjoy the rest, especially Thraxus who badly needed it. Gelvin had removed the special leaf from his hand and Fyndon was right. The wound had healed and only a slight mark of discoloration was left where the skin had been lacerated.

"Isn't that amazing," Gelvin said as he examined the scar from all angles. In order to show his appreciation for her care, Gelvin prepared a breakfast of fried meat and eggs. Actually, Gelvin was somewhat surprised that the eggs had not cracked open inside his pack. All of the walking and fighting surely would have ruined them. But the thick cloth wrapped around the eggs seemed to protect them. That made Gelvin happy because a fried egg in the morning was his favorite breakfast. Gelvin decided it would be rude to prepare the meal for only Fyndon and himself, so he cooked enough for everybody. As Flynton and Slade woke up they heard the sound of sizzling food.

"Thank you Gelvin," Fyndon said as she rolled up her dark blue blanket and grabbed a fork to eat with. She gobbled up the eggs in a hurry because she liked the warm feeling of hot food sliding down her throat.

"I did not know we were bringing a chef on this tour," Flynton joked as he thanked Gelvin and dug into his plate of food.

Everyone ate except for Slade. He was not used to people giving him things, but then again he had never been with a Spriteleng. It was Gelvin's nature to be generous, even to thieves. Gelvin could not just sit by and watch Slade starve while the rest of them ate, so he picked up a plate of food and carried it over to the thief. "Here you are Slade. There's enough for everyone." Gelvin shoved the plate right under his nose and the steam from the meat filled Slade's face.

Slade wanted to lick his lips because he was hungry and the warmth rising off the hot food during the chilly morning enticed him more and more. Yet still, he was obstinate, "Who asked you to make me anything. I can fix my own food, Spriteleng." Slade said with the emphasis on Spriteleng. He was determined not to appreciate anyone. His whole life he had fended for himself and he didn't want to start accepting charity.

"But it was my pleasure," Gelvin said as he pushed the plate into Slade's hands. Gelvin decided long ago that the best way to win over a human's respect was to shower them with kindness. Eventually, they would grow fond of his caring.

The smell of the warm food filled Slade's lungs as another cool breeze swept through the camp. The wind, tempered with the thought of a good egg, were too much for Slade to resist any longer. He grabbed the plate away from Gelvin and tore into the food like a starving dog who had found a bone. "Don't let it happen again," Slade mumbled with a mouth full of eggs. He hadn't paid for the food, but Slade allowed himself to think it wasn't given to him. It just happened to be there and he ate it. "I likes to make muh own food," he said as a piece of meat dribbled out of the corner of his mouth.

"Whatever you say Slade. It won't happen again," Gelvin said happily as he returned to his seat by the fire. He knew Slade's weak spot now, his stomach.

After breakfast Thraxus ordered everyone to their feet and the march towards Rocwhelm continued. Thraxus hoped that they would be there by late afternoon because they had made such good time the day before. The road was still very dusty but the surroundings became more interesting. There were rolling hills and rock faced cliffs far off to the west of the road. From one hill, Gelvin even saw the Grandean Lake. It shimmered with glistening water and even from this distance it appeared huge. Eventually the view of the far away lake faded and Gelvin again felt himself drawn towards conversation to pass the time. Fyndon had the same idea as well.

"Where do you come from?" she asked Gelvin.

"I live in the white temple on the north side of Caledan."

"I know that," Fyndon said with a roll of her eyes. "I mean where did you come from before that?"

Gelvin felt the warming spring winds on his face and he thought back to that day in the forest eleven years ago. "My master, Pithian Whiteshield, found me in the forest alone. He saved me and took me to the temple."

Fyndon was puzzled because she knew that Spritelengs lived in forests and really didn't need to be saved from them. "Why did Pithian have to save you? Didn't your family look after you."

"Oh, my family took good care of me for many years, but when Pithian found me, they were gone." Gelvin tried not to dwell on the thought of what happened to his family. In time, he had come to accept their fate, but still, he did not always feel like reliving it through his memories.

Fyndon realized that something was wrong with her new friend. Spritelengs don't leave each other. In fact, most Spritelengs live in close communities for their entire lives. "Where did your family go?" she asked, not noticing that Gelvin's head was facing the ground as his voice became softer and more reserved.

"They died two suns before I met Pithian. My whole village was destroyed and I was the only one left. I guess I was lucky."

Fyndon's mouth opened slightly with horror because she did not mean to resurrect such a painful memory. She had never experienced such a loss and she could not imagine how Gelvin must of felt. She was embarrassed and ashamed for reminding him of his pain. "I'm so sorry Gelvin," Fyndon said with great emotion as she squeezed his arm. "I had no idea."

"Its all right," Gelvin said and he patted her on the hand to assure her that he meant it. "I was sad for a long time, but Pithian took good care of me and now I can talk about what happened."

"What did happen?" Flynton asked in a curious tone. He had been listening to their conversation and he could not help but ask. "I mean, how does an entire village get destroyed with only one survivor?"

"A flood rose out of the river and crushed my people," Gelvin coldly responded, wishing not to describe it.

"That can't be," Flynton said in mild astonishment. He didn't realize that his disbelief trampled the truths of Gelvin's past that he fervently believed in. "People survive floods. Sure, some always die, but a river flood never destroyed an entire village."

"This one did. It was special," Gelvin said as he stared towards the horizon, lost in thought. "This was not a normal flood. A wall of water rose out of the river. It was taller than any tree. It approached my village and then smashed it to pieces like an avalanche." Gelvin thought he could still feel the moist air of that night on his sensitive skin.

"How did you survive," Fyndon asked, intent on learning the resolution to his story.

"I was in the forest, away from the village the night it happened. All I saw was the approaching water and the sound of it crashing into the trees."

"Well we're lucky you survived and are here with us today. It is part of our good fortune," Fyndon said with a smile. "I will give you something to commemorate our journey and help you forget the troubles of your past." Gelvin silently forgave Flynton's prying as Gelvin knew he intended no offense. Fyndon ran to the side of the rode and picked up a few clovers that grew in a patch next to the trees. She covered the small greens with her porcelain white hands and held them up to her face as she started whispering at them. She pulled her hands back and in their place was a small red flower with a yellow stem. She ran back over to Gelvin and handed it to him. "Here. This will make you feel better."

Gelvin looked at the flower, with its delicate petals, and held it up to his nose. He took a deep breath and was reminded of warm honey on a cold winter day. He had never smelled any flower so refreshing. "How did you do that?" he asked merrily and curious.

"I told you, Comwens are good with nature," Fyndon said and she skipped ahead of Gelvin, relieved that she was successful in changing the dreadful subject. Gelvin forgot what they had been discussing and happily put the flower away in his pack for safe keeping.

The day pressed on and by early afternoon the adventurers reached the border with the lands of Kenyson. They approached a small stone tower, not larger than a sapling tree, and looked further south where they could see the top of a great castle looming in the sky. The tower was a squat building, wider than it was large. It was painted red and had small slots around the bottom level in the place of windows. As Gelvin stared at the slots he came to realize that they were not windows at all, but arrow slots for shooting enemies. The top of the tower was surrounded by a stubby notched wall of stone and as they reached the border on the road a voice called out from above, "Halt! Who are you and what business do you have in Rocwhelm?"

Gelvin looked up and saw a soldier standing atop the tower. The soldier was a tall man with sandy brown hair and a menacing voice. He held a bow at his side, but it was not raised to fire. Thraxus stepped forward and shouted back, "I am Thraxus of Caledan! We have urgent business with the Lord! Come down and I can show you the documentation!" Thraxus held high his scroll bearing the red seal of the eagle. The soldier on top of the tower motioned behind him and a few moments later a scruffy guard emerged from an iron door at the base of the structure.

He wore bright red armor which featured an eagle on the breastplate. Gelvin realized it was supposed to represent a roc, the giant eagle creature of legend. A few still existed here and there, but nobody is really certain why Kenyson chose it as his symbol. Gelvin was pleased that he finally figured out what the seal on his scroll portrayed. It too was a roc.

The guard approached Thraxus and he held out his scroll. The guard stared at it carefully and then asked, "Have the rest of you got one?" The other members of the party quickly produced their scrolls with the red seal and the guard performed a quick inspection to make sure they were all in order.

"Everything's proper down here, sir," the guard shouted back at the man on top of the tower.

"All right then," he responded. "Escort them to the Lord."

"Follow me," the guard said and with a wave of his hand he started down the road towards the castle.

As he walked past the guard tower, Gelvin looked up and glanced at the man on top giving out the orders. The man looked back with an angry scowl on his face. Gelvin felt the rage seething within him and anyone, not just a Spriteleng, could see anger in his eyes. Gelvin did not know what made the man hate so much but he hoped it didn't concern him or his companions. Gelvin remembered that, after all, he had just crossed over into the realm of a man King Zendon, until recently, called his blood enemy.

The group continued down the road as it wound up and down more hills. Gelvin hurried up the apex of one large hill along the road and saw the breathtaking lake again. The water stretched to the horizon and Gelvin spotted many small boats sailing along the wavy waters. The thought of swimming in the lake refreshed Gelvin as he felt rushing wind encompass him.

As the guard led the party closer to the castle, Gelvin began to notice that a community surrounded the citadel. A full blown city actually, even though it was not as large as Caledan. "This must be Rocwhelm," Gelvin thought to himself. Rocwhelm was protected by a large stone wall that formed a circle around the city. It was about ten paces high and as thick as Slade was tall. Gelvin passed his hand over one of the stones and realized the wall was constructed of mossy smooth rocks from the lake. The city itself was dominated by the gigantic castle that stood directly in the center. Lord Kenyson's keep was taller than any tree, with one wide cylindrical tower bursting out of the center. Most of Kenyson's people (Gelvin hated that expression) were hard working and, for lack of another ruler, followed the Lord of the castle. There were not as many merchants in Rocwhelm, but just as many soldiers, each wearing red armor and outfitted with swords and bows.

The guard led Thraxus' party through the dusty dirt streets to the front gate of the castle. The gate was made of rusty, once black, metal with rocs carved into the top of every other post. At the entrance, another man, dressed in a velvet black robe, led them into the castle. He claimed to be Lord Kenyson's vizier and promised them that the Lord would meet with them shortly. Gelvin thought the vizier mysterious. He had a bald head, like himself, but that was not common among humans. His eyes were deeply set and the shadows of his large nose and brow created distorted features about his face.

The vizier led them into a small waiting room immediately inside the castle doors. The room was small, containing two green cushioned chairs and a pitcher of water sitting on a diminutive wooden table. The vizier turned to the visitors and said, "The Lord will be with you shortly. Do not leave this room." And with that statement, the vizier left.

"How rude," Gelvin thought as he looked around the waiting room. It was filled with vain paintings of Kenyson himself, framed in pure gold. The most interesting rendition showed Lord Kenyson on horseback, decapitating an orc with his axe. Most of the other paintings were scenes of Kenyson in battle and Gelvin wondered why someone would want paintings of themselves killing other people and creatures?

After a few moments of anxious anticipation the door to the room swung open and the vizier led the guests to an enormous banquet hall. The hall was the largest single room Gelvin had ever been inside of his whole life. The walls were lined with lavishly colored tapestries which stretched from ceiling to floor. Where there were no tapestries, the walls were painted into multi-dimensional designs of manifold colors. The iron banquet table was covered with food of all sorts and at the head of the table sat Lord Kenyson. Gelvin thought Kenyson was an average looking human covered in the gold and silver armor that seemed to adorn many kings during this age. Kenyson had black hair with a touch of gray and a congenial face, much more so than King Zendon.

"Greetings weary travelers," Kenyson said politely as he stood up from the table. He was a large man who had taken care of himself through the years. He had a large chest and a thick neck. Gelvin wondered if that came from decapitating orcs? Thraxus immediately bowed to one knee and the others followed on cue, even Slade bowed though he was somewhat reluctant. "Rise and join me for this meal. Your journey from Caledan has been long and we have much to discuss."

Thraxus sat down in a large wooden chair next to Kenyson and tried his best to appear attentive, even though he was still tired from his lack of sleep. Gelvin chose an oak chair to sit in and the others followed suit. Servants gave them large helpings of delicious food. There was a finely roasted animal, that Gelvin did not recognize, as well as a rich dark wine and a white cake. Gelvin gobbled up a piece of the cake ravenously as Kenyson leaned towards Thraxus to begin an important conversation, "I assume Zendon has told you why you have been sent here."

"Yes my lord," Thraxus replied. "And I hope our efforts can help bring peace between our people."

"I hold no grudges against the people of Caledan," Kenyson stated in a feeble attempt to justify his past transgressions. Gelvin observed that Kenyson would not look them in the eyes when he wandered off on one of his speeches. It made Gelvin wonder how often he had rehearsed them. "Peace is natural to myself and my people. We wish Caledan the best of fortune. My fortune, on the other hand, has taken a turn for the worse. You have heard of Koraz?"

"Yes we all have," Flynton replied, taking the initiative for the first time. "What I want to know though, is why do you not send your own men to find this Koraz?"

It was a good question which Gelvin had not thought of. Why would Kenyson negotiate with Zendon and wait for his people to arrive? "I cannot trust my own people, boy," Kenyson said. "I know that it was the men from my own kingdom who have contracted Koraz to kill me. I cannot rely on them to eliminate Koraz before he can fulfill the contract. If I put the traitor in charge of finding the assassin and stopping him, surely it will never be done. That is a risk too great to take. Zendon knows it is to his advantage if I live and that is why he has agreed to send me trustworthy men such as yourselves," Kenyson said with confidence, obviously forgetting that Gelvin and Fyndon were neither men.

"Why do your own people want you dead?" Gelvin asked ignorantly. Even if Kenyson knew the answer, which he didn't, he would not have laid bare the problems of his house for a stranger, let alone a Spriteleng.

"I do not know and I don't care. I just want Koraz stopped at any cost."

"We are ready to pay that cost," Thraxus said even though he probably should have only spoken for himself. Gelvin and the others had never considered the costs and weren't really sure how far they'd be willing to go to complete this quest. "Tell us what you know of Koraz and where we can find him," Thraxus continued.

"I intend to," Kenyson said as he leaned forward on the table to speak to the entire group. Even though Kenyson had good reason to fear Koraz, he seemed more willing than Zendon to discuss him in the open, "Almost twenty years ago, during the twelfth year of the Wolf, the grandmaster assassin, Penzant Blackfoot, discovered a new protégé. The boy, rumored to be only thirteen at the time, somehow found his way into the assassin's guild house at Lankar." Gelvin remembered reading about Lankar. It was a huge city that lay far to the west on the coast of an ocean. Lankar was a den of thieves and murderers ruled by an wicked king, but Gelvin could not remember his name. "He took a dagger with him and tried to kill Penzant," Kenyson continued. "The boy seemed crazy, but really he only wanted to make a name for himself by killing the famous assassin."

"How do you know that?" Gelvin asked impudently.

"I have collected all the known information on Koraz. Many people lived barely long enough to recount this tale. Penzant disarmed the boy, but still he was impressed. The boy would not tell Penzant his real name and only acknowledged people when they called him Koraz. Koraz was brazen and Penzant liked that. So he took him in, won his trust, and trained him to be a master assassin. Penzant sent him far and wide to study the art of killing until one day, four years later, he was ready."

"Koraz returned to Lankar and took his place with Penzant next to the evil King, Dansten the Black. Dansten ruled the lands to the west with an iron fist and nobody opposed him for fear of Penzant and Koraz. The Elven prince, Anis Shanklar, openly opposed Dansten and paid the price. Koraz disguised himself as Anis' father and killed him in his own house. Koraz narrowly escaped, but the elves learned first hand the cost of defiance."

"Over the next two years Koraz upheld the commands of Dansten and Penzant until one day he asked to leave Lankar. Koraz told Penzant that he had 'unfinished business' with a dwarf he met during his years away in training. Penzant let him leave and Koraz traveled to the Valley of Overgrowth, presumably to settle a debt with an old enemy. That valley is just south of Rocwhelm," Kenyson said as sweat began to trickle down his forehead. His discomfort was becoming more apparent. "Koraz stayed in the valley for a year and then returned to Lankar."

"What business did Koraz finish while in the valley," Thraxus wisely asked.

"Nobody knows for sure," Kenyson said nervously as he shuffled his feet. "But something had changed in the assassin when he returned from there. Legend says that he was no longer willing to take orders from Penzant. Others reported that Koraz was seen laughing at the moon from rooftops in the middle of the night. Penzant wondered if his protégé had gone mad and my guess is that he probably did. From that day forward people started calling him Koraz the Mad."

"In the following year Koraz caused more havoc in Lankar than any mortal before him could have possibly done. Koraz stabbed and killed Dansten in a public ceremony."

"In shock, Penzant drew his sword and asked Koraz, 'What are you doing?'"

"'Now you can be king, Penzant. There is no stopping us!' Koraz shouted back at his master. Penzant had never considered killing Dansten because he was content with his position, but suddenly the idea of ruling intrigued him. He hesitated in front of Koraz and did not live long enough to regret it. Koraz pounced on him and severed his head with one stroke of his sword. But Koraz did not take the kingdom. He didn't want to be king, he just wanted to cause chaos. He left the realm for Dansten's lieutenants to quarrel over, and they decimated Lankar in a struggle for power. Koraz disappeared."

"Since then, only sparse tales have circulated about Koraz. Some people never believe there was a man named Koraz and that Dansten's lieutenants made him up as a tale to justify their competition over Lankar. I think those people are wrong. Too many similar stories about Koraz have cropped up in the last ten years."

"Such as?" Thraxus asked, still eager for more information about the opponent he feared.

"One tale says that he killed the dwarf, Thorus the Elder, the King of the blue mines," Kenyson continued. "After that he killed Dirk Derlithian, the high paladin of Anese and protector of the throne. Koraz really made his reputation on that kill because Derlithian was known far and wide among men. People with secret knowledge continued to find ways hire Koraz. Eventually, he had too many contracts and he formed an assassins guild."

"The faceless many!" Gelvin interjected excitedly.

"Yes, how did you know?" asked Kenyson.

"Lucky guess," Gelvin responded without mentioning their encounter with Narus. Kenyson surely would have broken down with fear if he knew that Koraz's assassins had already made contact with his secret saviors.

"Koraz's reputation grew to mythical proportions," Kenyson continued. "He and his many killed anyone for the right price and Koraz, bored with the ease he found in killing, began to study the black art of dark magic. After that, he would kill his victims with searing magical fire and other horrible powers. Through every assassination though, whether magical or a knife in the back, Koraz laughed a horrible and maddening laugh. He has not been seen for some time but now I fear he will try to kill me."

"My soldiers used their bows to shoot down a hawk leaving Rocwhelm and flying towards the Valley of Overgrowth. Attached to the hawk's leg was a message. It read: The time is now, Koraz. Kill my Lord Kenyson during the next lunar cycle and I will complete your payment. Your reward will be larger than anything you can imagine. The new lunar cycle began yesterday." Gelvin felt worried and became hypersensitive. He was instantly aware of everyone and everything around him. He half expected Koraz to be around every corner and behind every tapestry in the hall.

"Its a miracle you're still alive," Thraxus thought to himself. Thraxus was scared but still hopeful. He thought maybe Lord Kenyson could provide them with some advantage against Koraz. "You believe Koraz is again hiding in the Valley of Overgrowth?" Thraxus asked.

"It only makes sense," Kenyson responded. "He has been there before and the hawk was flying in that direction."

"Is there anything you can give us, a map, a weapon, anything to help us against Koraz?" Thraxus pleaded.

"The valley has never been mapped but I can give you the Lord's shield for your protection," Kenyson said as he snapped his fingers. Moments later a young squire hurried into the chamber with an enormous platinum shield. It too bared the emblem of a roc. Kenyson handed it to Thraxus and said, "It is my highest honor to give you the Lord's shield. It has guarded my life through many battles and may it guard you as well." Thraxus accepted the shield but could not help but wonder what it was worth.

"If I don't stop Koraz, maybe I can sell this," Thraxus thought greedily as the imagined the aftermath of Kenyson's death.

"If there are no more questions then I suggest you eat well and get some rest for the evening. Tomorrow morning you will start for the valley." Kenyson stood up and marched towards the door without waiting for a response. Gelvin thought he was preoccupied with other matters and he wondered what could be more serious than Koraz. As the Lord left though, he told his vizier, "Introduce them to my son. Have him show them to their rooms for the night." With that, the Lord was gone.

Everyone continued to eat quietly without saying a word because they were busy considering what Kenyson had told them. The Lord seemed to know much about Koraz and everyone was ready to believe him, save for Slade. Slade had never heard any assassin speak of Koraz, he had never seen Koraz, and no thief had ever sung about Koraz. It sounded like an elaborate ruse to Slade, but he did not care as long as Zendon paid him well.

They finished their meals when a short thin man walked into the hall and whispered something to the vizier. The vizier straightened up and introduced the thin man as the Lord's son, Marcus. Gelvin thought Marcus was surprisingly short, as he stood a full head shorter than Slade and probably only half his weight. Marcus had short black hair and a rugged look about his face. His eyes seemed to be lost in deep thought and Gelvin could not feel anything about him. Gelvin thought he looked very different from his father, Kenyson, who appeared regal and noble. Marcus looked like any common man off the streets, but he spoke clearly and politely, "My father has asked me to show you to your rooms for the rest of the day and evening. Please follow me."

Marcus led them up a series of winding stone staircases that ascended higher and higher into the castle. They were lined with torches, but were generally unremarkable and quite a change from the banquet hall. Marcus hummed a tune none of them ever heard before as he led them through a maze of dank corridors. Eventually they reached a hallway with five doors. "Here are your rooms, I hope they are satisfactory," Marcus said as he stared back at the group waiting for any kind of response. His eyes started to wander again and his humming returned.

"Tell me Marcus," Thraxus started because he still wanted more information about their quest. "Do you know why anyone would want to kill your father?"

"No idea," Marcus said and he pushed past the group to escape back down the corridors. He left them quickly and Gelvin decided that either he didn't know about the assassination or, for some reason, didn't care.

"Well that was rude," Flynton said as he chose the first door on the right.

"Good night everyone," Thraxus said as he went into a room. He was ready to collapse and catch up on his sleep.

Gelvin chose a room and settled down next to the window. The room was dank and gray with a simple bed and a stained brown wool rug on the floor. From the window Gelvin looked out onto Rocwhelm, from far above in the Lord's tower, and he could not help thinking about home. This was the first full day of his adult life he had been without either the temple or Pithian. He wondered what his master was doing and how Pithian would prepare on the eve of a dangerous quest.

As Gelvin thought about those questions he heard a faint tapping on his door. Before he could respond it opened and Marcus walked inside. The room was sufficiently large but Gelvin felt strangely cramped with the prince, despite his diminutive stature.

"Are you a Spriteleng?" Marcus asked boldly and to the point.

"Yes, I am."

"I've never seen one before, but I thought so. I've read about them and seen drawings, but never in the flesh."

"I hope I'm all you expected," Gelvin responded, not really knowing what to say.

"Oh, you'll do," said Marcus. "I'm sorry I don't mean to pry, but I was just fascinated from the first moment I saw you." Marcus could have fooled Gelvin. He thought the prince always looked distant and unresponsive.


"Because you are new. I love to meet and see new things."

Marcus looked up and down as he sized up the Spriteleng. Gelvin began to feel that he was being gawked at so he tried to change the subject. "Let me ask you a question," Gelvin said, feeling more confident since Marcus had begun the series of personal queries. "Why do you look so different from your father?"

"Because he's not my real father. Kenyson does not have a male heir, so he adopted me last year."

"That explains it then," Gelvin said as he wondered why the Lord would adopt such a peculiar boy. "I lost my parents too, when I was a young boy."

Marcus did not reply as he finished staring at Gelvin. He examined him from head to toe and tilted his head curiously as he slowly exited the room. Gelvin thought that maybe Marcus seemed so distant because he was not happy being the Lord's son. Gelvin wasn't really sure why, because, after all, he was content being an adopted son. Gelvin continued to look at the world below him outside the window, but he could still hear Marcus humming even all the way down the hall.

A Mad Dwarf Indeed

"One fact that is certain about Koraz is that he feared only one man from a young age. The dwarf, Rexel Tyras, defeated Koraz in combat and kept from the assassin the one thing he coveted above all else."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

There was not much of a farewell the next morning. Gelvin and his companions were greeted by the vizier and told how to find the Valley of Overgrowth. The vizier explained that it was a leisurely hike a few hours to the south where they could not miss it because of the valley's size. Thraxus thanked him for the directions and they were on their way.

The adventurers left Rocwhelm behind them and journeyed across the grassy fields leading to the valley. There were no more roads because people never journeyed that way. There was no reason to travel to the valley and thus nobody ever did.

The reeds of grass were tall and began to tickle Gelvin's legs as he walked through them. He tried to scratch the discomfort away, but it was no use since he would just walk through more of the itchy vegetation. "I'd hate to see what an overgrown valley looks like," Gelvin said and the others laughed. Gelvin looked at them in surprise because he did not realize that he had just told a joke. He was completely serious and his imagination drifted far south to the valley. He wondered what it would be like, to explore an unknown wilderness. Gelvin felt excited as he imagined the abundant sounds of insects and animals he would hear in the valley. Then he remembered the true reason he was traveling there. To face Koraz and his assassins. All of the images of a mysterious valley faded from Gelvin's mind and were replaced by the sound of a maddening laugh. Gelvin hadn't thought of a face to go with Koraz's laugh yet, and he wasn't sure that he wanted to imagine one. Gelvin wondered why it seemed his quest became more serious the further he traveled away from Caledan.

"I wish we knew more about where were going," Gelvin stated as he tried to ignore his nagging thoughts about Koraz. He was becoming more anxious as they got closer to the valley and his mind was flooded with more and more horrible images of what awaited them. Instead of kind woodland animals, Gelvin began to imagine dark trees and monsters with sharp teeth and hungry stomachs.

"I wish we knew more too," Thraxus said in a less than reassuring voice. "I don't think anyone can help us though."

"Maybe not someone, but something can," Fyndon said as her eyes intently watched the air around them. Gelvin wondered what she was looking for because all he saw was a sunny sky, tall reeds of yellow grass, and small swarms of bugs. Then a buzzing sound resonated from Fyndon's lips. She forced the sounds out between her barely cracked teeth and it created a rhythmic hum and buzz. Fyndon stopped walking and the buzz got louder. Everyone stopped to watch her when suddenly a larger bug, from one of the swarms overhead, flew down at Fyndon and stopped right in front of her nose.

Fyndon's powers never ceased to amaze Gelvin as he watched a large fat honey bee float in the air, only a handspan away from Fyndon's face. "This is a queen bee," she said as she started her buzzing sound again. "She can help us." Gelvin didn't notice anything unique about this bee, except that it was a little larger than most. It was colored yellow and black, with a barbed stinger on its tail and two antennas emanating from its head, feeling the air around it.

"What do youzzz wantzzz?" the queen bee asked as Fyndon smiled at it. Gelvin was amazed to learn that a bee could talk. He had never heard one speak before, but then again he had never been listening either.

"What do youzz knowzz abouse zzeee valley?" Fyndon asked as her lips vibrated with the buzzing harmonics passing through them.

"Zzee valeey izzz not farzz. Large. Veryzzz large."

"Whatzzz izzz inzzz zzeee valley?" Fyndon asked as the bee slowly bounced back and forth like a pendulum. Gelvin noticed that the queen seemed to float more anxiously as Fyndon asked about the valley.

"Zzee monsterzz. A giantzz wormzz!" the queen bee said as its wings buzzed more and more loudly. Fyndon could tell that the insect was ready to rejoin its swarm, so she thanked it and the bee flew away.

"That didn't tell us much," Thraxus shouted, obviously not appreciating the effort.

"Yeah, what's a giant worm?" Flynton asked as he scratched his head.

"I don't know," Fyndon replied and Thraxus ordered the group to march onward.

Gelvin remained conspicuously quiet during the next few moments. As he marched through the rolling fields of grass he thought about a book he read once at the temple. It was about creatures that were sometimes called worms. They weren't actually worm like at all, but the name was meant as a derogatory insult. Gelvin silently hoped to himself that the bee was wrong, because he knew that worm meant dragon.

Time passed as the sun rose higher and the grass eventually changed to green from yellow. Much to Gelvin's relief, it also became shorter and less itchy as they approached the valley. Thraxus led the party up one final steep hill and from the apex they saw their final destination. Below them was the Valley of Overgrowth.

Gelvin peered over the hill and stared down into the gigantic valley. The name was well deserved because Gelvin's keen eyes cold not penetrate the thick and lush gulf. The valley's trees stretched for as far as the eye could see and Gelvin noticed that not all the trees in the valley were the same size. Many were taller than others as the trees stretched outwards in a wavy landscape. It occurred to Gelvin that there may be smaller valleys within the larger one. He searched every direction in the land below him, but Gelvin saw no signs of Koraz, or any other people for that matter. The valley appeared to be an overgrown wasteland of jungle combined with the thickest forest.

"How are we going to get down there?" Flynton asked in a whiny voice. Gelvin realized the magician was right, because the valley seemed to have steep walls of grass, creeping vines, and rock. There were no paths or ropes leading down the sheer cliff. Everyone turned to Thraxus for the answer but he was dumbfounded. He assumed all along that they would be able to reach the valley with ease.

Nobody said a word and Gelvin decided that he would find a way down if nobody else would. He surveyed the steep cliff directly below them and searched for any sign of a path. Then Gelvin saw, through a thick green bush and between two willow trees that were growing at angle along the wall of the valley, a few circular stones packed into the ground. "Look!" Gelvin cried out and pointed down at the rocks.

"What, I don't see anything," Slade said as jumped up and down in a futile attempt to get a better view.

"Yes, I see it," Thraxus said as he fixed his eagle eyes on the narrow stone path. It was not a wide trail, but it appeared to traverse the side of the cliff in a very round about way. The path wound its way down into the valley which would make using it a long and arduous journey, but there was no other choice. "Follow me," Thraxus shouted as he ran down the hill and across the rim of the valley. The others followed behind Thraxus as he ran twenty steps along the edge and then stopped. He pointed into the valley where Gelvin saw the beginnings of a stone path packed into the dirt. The trail originated only a few paces below them and wound back and forth through the steep vegetation until it disappeared into the thick trees near the base of the valley.

Thraxus hopped down to the path and Gelvin quickly followed. The two then helped everyone else down, except for Slade who refused their assistance and proceeded to somersault his way down to the stones. Gelvin was excited because he felt that he had done something for the entire group. Flynton and Fyndon smiled and told Gelvin he had done well. His eyes glowed as he tried to say it was nothing. Once they were all on the path, Thraxus started the descent and his companions filed in behind him.

It was a long walk to the bottom of the valley, because the stone path wound its way back and forth across the steep cliff until it reached the tree line. Gelvin thought he had seen larger trees before, but never trees so lush with leaves. All of the woods was thick, with different shades of green adorning their branches. Some trees had fur, or at least it appeared that way. Actually, they were covered in a fine moss, while other trees had leaves larger than a shield and thicker than plate armor. As Gelvin passed under the first branches, he felt the sun disappear off his back and a chill crept up his spine. The trees provided a shade that the sunlight could barely penetrate. As Gelvin fell under their shadow he could not help but feel that he was passing from the world of light and goodness into a world of darkness and evil. Then Gelvin understood why Koraz may be living in that dark valley.

The stone path changed to earth as the group reached a level part of the valley. The ground felt cold and dry from the lack of sun and rain and the trees formed a canopy above their heads. The air began to feel a little warmer though, as they stood motionless under the canopy, which trapped what little heat there was. Gelvin heard many of the sounds he expected, such as insects and small animals, which made him feel a little more comfortable. But still, he wondered where Koraz was hiding and how they would find him.

Then Gelvin heard a different faint sound from far away. It sounded like a hissing and there were voices too. Gelvin couldn't make out what the voices were saying, but he knew they were close.

"Which way now?" Slade asked as the adventurers examined the valley around them. There were no paths in this wilderness, but there were many opening between the trees and bushes, through which they could walk. Thraxus didn't know which direction to start in, so he simply decided to hike to his left.

"Wait!" Gelvin said as he held his head still and listened to the voices. "There's something that way," Gelvin said as he pointed in the opposite direction from Thraxus.

"How do you know?" Thraxus asked as he held his arms above his head in a gesture of frustration. He wanted the others to follow his lead, even if he didn't know where it might take them. He did not expect Gelvin to intercede with his own suggestions.

Gelvin did not respond because he was still concentrating on the voices. His muscles stiffened from tension as Gelvin focused all his energy into trying to hear what the voices said. Fyndon knew what Gelvin was attempting and she leaned over to Thraxus and whispered, "Spritelengs can hear many things. Gelvin is trying to hear a specific sound."

"What do you hear Gelvin?" Flynton asked quietly.

Gelvin did not turn his head or move a muscle as he responded, "Voices. They are close by, in that direction." Gelvin pointed through the trees towards the east.

"I don't hear anything," Slade interjected.

"You wouldn't!" Fyndon angrily whispered as she squinted her eyes in disgust at Slade.

"Lead the way Gelvin," Thraxus calmly said as he nudged the Spriteleng on the shoulder. His curiosity had overcome his frustration.

Gelvin crept slowly along the twig and leaf covered spaces between the trees as he continued to listen. His companions followed a few paces behind him, hoping that their movements didn't disrupt Gelvin's senses. Gelvin tried to walk silently like a thief in the night, but the crackling twigs scattered about the earthen ground made his inaudibility difficult.

As Gelvin drew closer to the origin he heard more hissing and more voices. The only words he could make out were 'chest' and 'armor.' Then, as Gelvin walked up a slightly inclining mound of earth he recognized one of the voices.

Narus! It had to be.

Gelvin motioned for the others to lie down on the ground as he did the same. Flynton and Slade reluctantly followed Gelvin's lead and the group slowly prostrated themselves and crawled their way to the top of the dirt embankment where they could view the people talking on the other side.

Gelvin and Thraxus peeped their heads over the top and saw a small grassy clearing where the trees did not form a complete canopy and bright rays of sunshine filled the air. The clearing was only a few paces below the mound and Narus was there! Even though he only saw the top of the wizard's head, Gelvin was sure it was him. Narus did not move, with Tong at his side, while Lizard Men stood across from them.

Lizard Men were creatures of little intelligence and inhuman appearance. They walked erect, like a man, and even wore their armor and spoke man's language. But that was where the similarities ended. Lizard Men had thick green tails that they drug along the back of their bodies. Their skin consisted of sharp scales and slimy secretions. They had razor sharp teeth and yellow eyes that never closed. Even though they spoke like men, they could not rid themselves of the hissing that characterized most reptiles.

There were four Lizard Men standing a few paces across from Narus, carrying a large wooden chest that was reinforced with iron. On the front of the chest there was a thick lock that rattled against the wood as he Lizards held the box up for Narus to examine. Behind the Lizards stood another erect creature chained around the neck. It did not speak and stood there motionless. It had a brown hairy face, like a dog, but was large. Almost the same size as Tong or Thraxus. Two long fangs protruded from its mouth to its chin like sabres and Gelvin hoped that the creature would never get a chance to sink the incisors into his skin.

Gelvin and Thraxus backed away from the edge of the mound and huddled with the others. "It's Narus and Tong with a group of Lizard Men and some other creature," Thraxus whispered.

"Narus!" Slade whispered in shock. "What's he doing?"

"It looks as though he is receiving a chest from the Lizards," Gelvin responded as he covered his mouth to stay as quiet as possible.

Fyndon slowly pulled herself up to the top of the mound and got a look at the scene for herself. She inched her way back down and informed her friends, 'That's a Howler with the Lizard Men."

"A what?" Flynton asked. Gelvin was about to ask the same question because he never recalled reading about such a beast.

"A Howler," Fyndon whispered. "They can scream very loudly to disable anything that threatens it."

"Then why do the Lizards have it on a chain?" Gelvin wondered aloud.

"I don't know. I've never seen one captured before, but somehow the Lizards have it."

"Tobah!" Flynton suddenly whispered in excitement.

"What?" Thraxus asked.

"Tobah. It's what Narus said when the goblins attacked us. I knew I'd heard that word before," Flynton said as his eyes became lost in the memories of his magical texts.

"What does it mean?" Fyndon asked as she took Flynton by the arm to focus his attention.

"Tobah is a magical cant used for conjuring."

"You mean Narus conjured those goblins," Gelvin said as he realized what Flynton was thinking.

"Probably, but he also used the cant to send them away. Tobah is a powerful word."

"You mean that Narus created and destroyed a hoard of goblins just by saying one word?" Slade asked skeptically.

"Not entirely," Flynton explained. "Tobah is a puissant word, but a wizard needs a magically endowed artifact to harness and channel its power."

"His staff!" Gelvin said.

"Exactly," Flynton replied as he pointed at Gelvin. "The staff channels his magic and allows him to conjure other creatures out of thin air."

"Good, then we know how to defeat him," Thraxus said confidently. Gelvin became scared because he knew what Thraxus had in mind.

"You're not going to attack him," Gelvin said rhetorically. He knew Thraxus would. It was part of the spirit of a soldier to confront a battle head on and Gelvin was slowly realizing that Thraxus would always chose to fight when presented with many options. Especially when the soldier had an opportunity to face an opponent that had once escaped him.

"We're all going to attack Narus," Thraxus said as he slowly drew his sword. "Just separate him from his staff."

Gelvin was content just to let Narus be. He didn't like the idea of attacking a wizard when it wasn't necessary. He put his hand on Thraxus arm and said, "Wait, let's think about this. We don't have to attack them."

Thraxus stared menacingly at Gelvin's hand and his eyes told Gelvin to remove his palm. "Narus might lead us back to Koraz," Fyndon said as she pleaded with Thraxus not to attack him. "We could follow him."

Thraxus was furious. He was a warrior and prided himself on facing every battle and he had special reason to want this conflict. He regretted that Narus got the better of him last time they faced. Gelvin, a simple Spriteleng, saved him from Narus' staff and that embarrassed Thraxus. None of the others even remembered that Gelvin had saved him, but Thraxus would never forget. He wanted revenge and, even though he would never admit it to his companions, he also wanted to know what was inside the chest. "We'll capture Narus and force him to lead us to Koraz. He'll have no choice," Thraxus explained.

"No wait," Gelvin said, but it was too late. Thraxus leaped over the mound and landed in the clearing with sword in one hand and Kenyson's shield in the other. Thraxus screamed a warrior's rage, scaring Narus and the Lizards if only for a moment.

Gelvin did not hesitate. He had no wish to fight, but he also wasn't going to leave Thraxus to clash with Narus alone. Gelvin unsheathed the Defender and charged up the embankment. Flynton, Fyndon, and Slade all followed his lead.

They jumped down into the clearing and created a panic among the Lizard Men. They were easily frightened by well armed humans and their only instinct was to run. They dropped the chest and left it, and their Howler, as they ran for other parts of the valley.

Narus and Tong quickly recovered from the initial shock of seeing Thraxus and the wizard struck his staff on the ground causing the earth to quake. Gelvin was the only one who kept his balance as the others stumbled, and he helped Thraxus back to his feet.

Narus opened his mouth and prepared to form the magical cants with his wrinkled lips when Thraxus charged him. Thraxus was a veteran of many battles and he knew how to disable any opponent, especially a wizard. As Narus filled his lungs with air to shout his mighty 'Tobah', Thraxus took the broadside of his enormously thick sword and smashed it across Narus' mouth.

As the sword impacted with Narus' face he tried to shout 'Tobah', but all that emerged were bits of broken teeth and viscous crimson blood. Narus fell to his knees, dropping his staff, and screamed in pain. He looked at the ground around him and saw what was left of his broken teeth scattered everywhere. He put his hand to his mouth to ease the flow of the gushing blood, but it was no use. Thraxus stood tall above him and turned his sword back to the sharpened edge. Then he pulled it down from above his head and split Narus' skull in two.

Gelvin's jaw fell open in shock as Thraxus screamed triumph over his prey. He pulled his sword out of Narus' head and wiped the blood onto his leather armor. Tong became enraged and flung himself at Thraxus, who caught him in mid-air and pinned him to the ground. Thraxus held Tong down with his large thick boot as he raised his sword again in a piercing fashion.

"NO!" Gelvin screamed as Thraxus thrust the blade downward with all his might. He drove the sword straight through Tong's heart and the ogre did not even have a chance to scream before he died.

The commotion of the battle frightened the Howler and it slowly crept away from the battlefield as Thraxus killed everything in sight. Slade watched the monster trying to escape and he ran towards it, not realizing just how dangerous a Howler could be when threatened.

The snarling Howler crouched down as Slade charged at it with his dagger in his left hand and the beast reacted as it always did. It wailed a thunderous roar that ripped through the air, deafening everyone in sight. Slade, who received the brunt of the scream head on, was knocked backwards and to the ground from the impact. He lay there motionless, and the Howler, confident that it had killed the human, moved towards Slade with its fangs exposed.

Gelvin saw what was happening and he acted on instinct. He ran at the beast and prayed it wouldn't scream again. Flynton pulled out his red stone and wiggled his fingers as Gelvin moved closer to the animal. Flynton threw the stone on the ground in front of the Howler creating a sparkling red flash, which blinded it for a mere second. But that was long enough.

Gelvin dove past the ferocious animal as it snapped at him with his jaws. Gelvin landed behind the Howler and saw that it was taking a deep breath to scream again. Gelvin knew he only had one chance. He grabbed the chain that was slack behind the Howler and jumped for its neck. Gelvin moved as quickly as possible and hugged the beasts shoulders from behind as he felt the Howler's chest fully expand. Gelvin took the chain and wrapped it twice around the beast's throat as it began to exhale. Gelvin pulled back on the chain with all his strength and the beast emitted a choking cough instead of its deadly scream.

Gelvin pushed his knee into the Howler's back to give himself more leverage as he continued to pull on the iron links. The Howler spit and coughed and then it finally slumped to the ground. Gelvin was confused because he did not feel the creature's throat break, nor did he intend to really hurt it. Then Gelvin looked up from the ground and saw Thraxus pulling his sword out of the creature's belly.

"Why did you do that?" Gelvin shouted as he jumped to his feet.

"It might of howled again. We couldn't risk it."

"It was just scared!" Gelvin shouted in rage. He respected Thraxus' strength but he no longer feared it. Gelvin realized that in the end, Thraxus was not a leader. He was just a brutal killer and Gelvin decided that he was correct the other morning. Eventually, Thraxus would act rashly and jeopardize them all. The only question was when, and Gelvin wondered what he would do when that moment came.

"Oh, Slade is fine by the way," Fyndon said sarcastically as she rubbed a handful of water on the thief's face to waken him. Slade's head rung like a bell and Fyndon had to tell him what happened.

Flynton recovered his stone and examined Narus' staff. As soon as the wizard perished, the staff splintered and withered like rotting wood. He placed it next to Narus' splattered body, certain that it no longer posed a threat. Meanwhile, Gelvin scowled at Thraxus who was determined to ignore him and find out what was in the chest.

Gelvin kneeled down next to Slade and Fyndon as Thraxus pummeled the lock with his sword. He was still trying to learn how Thraxus could become so enraged. Gelvin thought his leader was loosing control, and that frightened him. "I guess I owe you thanks for saving me," Slade said reluctantly.

"Forget it," Gelvin said as he watched Thraxus pound away at the lock. "Something's wrong with him. Did you see the rage in his eyes?" Gelvin did not have much experience with bloodthirsty warriors like Thraxus and he didn't was not confident that he wanted to learn anything more about them either.

"Nothing's wrong," Fyndon responded. "I've seen many warriors enter a berserk rage when they face battle. Maybe Thraxus revels in the rage too much."

"And there's nothing wrong with that? He lost control," Gelvin quietly said as Thraxus finally knocked the lock off the chest.

"I mean to say that Thraxus' actions are natural, not necessarily correct. To be honest, his rages frighten me too," Fyndon said worriedly.

Thraxus pulled the lid open and smiled in awe at the contents. Gelvin and Fyndon stood up as Thraxus reached in and pulled out a jet black suit of armor. Gelvin thought it looked darker and more consuming than any blackness he had ever seen. Thraxus held the suit high in the air and grinned as the sun reflected white light off the smooth dark surface. Thraxus let out a solitary laugh and started to put the plates of armor on.

"I don't think you should do that," Flynton said as he approached Thraxus to look at the armor more closely.

"Why not?" Thraxus asked as he fixed the breastplate across his chest.

"We don't know where it came from and my guess is Narus was receiving the armor for Koraz," Flynton explained.

"We can't be sure of that," Thraxus defended himself as he slid on two chain mail gauntlets.

"We could have been sure if you hadn't killed Narus," Gelvin poignantly stated to remind Thraxus that his rage had cost them their only link to Koraz.

"We'll find him," Thraxus confidently assured Gelvin as he attached the final plates to his armored frame.

"But we don't know anything about this armor. It is too big for Narus and I thought we all agreed he worked for Koraz. Who knows who it was intended for or what kind of evil powers this metal contains," Flynton pleaded. He was right, Gelvin thought. If this armor were forged for Koraz, then it must have some properties of evil. Fyndon felt concerned as well. She looked at the menacing plates and something instinctually told her that the armor was not normal. Then they all watched and learned what properties the armor held.

Thraxus was looking at his arms, admiring his find, when he started to fade. "Thraxus, what's wrong?!" Fyndon shouted. Thraxus expression was one of terror. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound emerged. He was being erased from existence as his entire body slowly disappeared. Suddenly, Gelvin could see right through Thraxus, as though he were a ghost or a spirit. Then Thraxus face calmed as his substance slowly returned. He smiled and looked up excitedly at the others.

"I can control it," he said. "I can become non-corporeal at will."

Again Thraxus began to fade and then slowly reappear again. It was an eerie unnatural sight and Gelvin turned his head as Thraxus shifted between substance and nothingness.

"By the Gods, what is that doing to your body?" Gelvin asked in terror. Thraxus picked up a rock and tossed it in the air. He began to fade and when he tried to catch the stone, it fell right through his hand on an uninterrupted course. Thraxus' substance returned and he smiled devilishly. He was like a child with a new toy.

"I'm fine," he said as he returned to the top of the mound and threw everyone their packs. "Come now, we'll continue this way," Thraxus said as he started to march south out of the clearing. Gelvin shook his head in disgust but he knew that they had no choice but to follow.

They moved along uneventfully as the adventurers tried to map their way though the lush valley. The armor scared Gelvin and he tried not to think about it. He knew there would be no talking Thraxus into taking it off. Instead, Gelvin focused on the trees and concluded that even though they were not too tall, they were very old. The rings along the branches were very thin and the trees seemed able to survive in the dry ground. Gelvin hiked upon an area of trees that were much shorter than the rest. He knew that he could climb them easily as he tried to judge how high up the tops reached.

"They are beautiful," Fyndon said as she noticed Gelvin staring at the trees.

"Yes, I've always loved trees," he responded. "When I was a child I climbed them all the time."

"And lived in one I'd venture," Fyndon said with a smile because she knew she was correct.

"I did," Gelvin replied, realizing that Fyndon really did know a thing or two about Spritelengs. "How have you learned so much about Spritelengs and the forest?"

"All Comwens study nature, but I studied Spritelengs because I like them. You are a such a peaceful race of creatures that are in harmony with the world."

"What do you mean?" Gelvin asked.

"Just as I said, Spritelengs are in harmony with the world. You are tranquil, good spirited, and loved by nature," Fyndon explained.

"How are we loved by nature?" Gelvin asked because he always assumed the relationship was reversed. Nature was loved by Spritelengs.

"Not every tree would let a race inhabit them," Fyndon said. "The trees like Spritelengs and thus allow you to live in them."

"What do you mean?" Gelvin cried in disbelief. He had never spent enough time among his Spriteleng village to understand what Fyndon meant. "How does the tree let the Spriteleng inhabit it?"

"Many trees are alive," Fyndon began. "More so than most plants. Trees have feelings and can communicate. I've even met some trees that can uproot themselves and move around."

Gelvin was fascinated as he accepted every word Fyndon said. Slade was more skeptical. "Trees cannot move around," Slade said skeptically. "That's ridiculous."

"And how much time do you spend in a forest?" Fyndon asked the silent Slade as a smug grin covered he face.

Gelvin enjoyed the conversation and Slade's debate until he noticed a glinting out of the corner of his eyes just above the tree line. Gelvin squinted and he saw what he believed to be the top of a tower, just a few paces away. The sun was reflecting off some kind of carved wood. "I see something," Gelvin said as he pointed at the barely visible tower. Fyndon stood close to Gelvin and trained her eyes to follow along Gelvin's outstretched arm until she too saw it.

"Yes, there it is," she said excitedly. They hadn't seen any signs of life since the clearing and even if this tower were not Koraz, it was at least something different than the monotony of the trees. "I think it's a tower."

"Me too," Gelvin agreed.

Thraxus looked up at the tree tops and saw the structure as well. "We'll have to examine it," he said as he led the others towards the landmark. The party reached the structure moments later and confirmed that it was a tower. Not a very sturdy one though. It was barely as tall as the short trees and it was constructed out of poor wood. It was free standing without a base and Gelvin thought that it was abandoned.

"It appears deserted," Fyndon said as she had the same thoughts as Gelvin. The wood was rotting and there were no tracks of anything coming or going from it. There was one wooden door at the bottom of the tower and a small square window on each side of it near the top. There was no light coming from the windows and Thraxus, who didn't see any evidence of gold or Koraz, decided they would leave.

"Heh heh heh! Hah Hah Hah!" a laugh wafted downward from the upper level of the tower.

"What was that," Flynton asked as he rapidly reached under his robe and firmly gripped his shortsword.

"Hah Hah Hah!' the laugh boomed and echoed throughout the valley. The laugh was maddening and Gelvin thought back to what Kenyson had told him about Koraz.

"A maddening laugh!" Gelvin shouted as he made eye contact with Thraxus. The two looked at each other and no words were necessary. They both knew it had to be Koraz. Thraxus charged at the large door of the tower and kicked it in with one swift boot.

Gelvin was the next to rush in behind Thraxus and he was surprised by what he found inside. The tower was nothing more than an open air shaft. An empty shell. It smelled dank and musty, as though the door had not been opened in years. Green mold and mildew grew on most of the rotting wood. Gelvin glanced to the southern corner and saw a dilapidated staircase leading to the next level of the tower.

"Hah hah hah!" the laughter echoed down on Gelvin from above. Koraz was upstairs and the rotted staircase looked like the only way up there. Thraxus went first and steeped on the initial landing of the stairwell. The old wood creaked as Thraxus eased his weight onto it, but still held firm. "It's safe," he shouted and the others followed behind him.

As he rushed up the stairs, Gelvin looked straight above him and saw a platform. He assumed that the platform was the landing to the next level, and above it he saw the ceiling of the tower. He thought the tower was a strangely constructed building, but then he learned why it was basically nothing more than an open shaft.

Half way up the flight of stairs, a tremendous forceful wind blew down from the top level and knocked Thraxus to his knees. The wind howled like a thunderstorm and Gelvin felt particles of dirt flecking at the skin on his face and hands. The force became stronger and they all lost their grips along the thin banister. Gelvin felt himself falling as the wind threw him from the stairs. He looked to his side and everyone else was falling with him. Panic set in as nobody knew how far they far from the stairs. "Please don't let Fyndon be hurt," Gelvin prayed to the Gods unselfishly for his friend.

Fortunately, the floor was not too far away and nobody landed on each other. Thraxus was the last to crash with a large thud, but he jumped back to his feet quickly, as the wind halted.

"Heh heh heh!" the laugh mocked them.

Thraxus became enraged at the laughter and he flung himself back up the stairs again, only to be blown back down. He was ready to charge a third time when Gelvin said, "Wait. Let's use our rope."

"Brilliant," Fyndon said as she reached in her pack and pulled out her strand of twine. Everyone else did the same as Gelvin went around and tied each piece together.

"I can get up there," Gelvin said confidently. "I'll lower the rope and the rest of you can use it to help against the wind."

"You'll never make it through those gusts," Thraxus protested.

"Just watch," Gelvin said and he ran up the first couple of steps. Just as reached the spot where the wind had knocked him down, Gelvin grabbed the rickety banister and swung himself underneath. The wind burst forth with gale strength, but Gelvin was shielded by the stairs.

The rotted wood provided ample openings where Gelvin could grip and climb. He crawled up the underside of the stairs one hand over the other. Gelvin was an excellent climber and the stairs reminded him of trying to get out of the knot hole in the tree trunk when he was a little boy. "Another gymnastic challenge," Gelvin thought merrily as he momentarily forgot what waited for him on the next floor. Gelvin pulled and strained until he reached the top of the staircase, just below the platform. He waited for the wind to stop blowing and he swung himself back to the topside again.

"Incredible," he heard Fyndon say as he looped the rope around the top of the banister and dropped the slack to the floor below him.

Gelvin could not wait on the others because he wanted to know where the laugh had come from. He had not heard it since he started climbing the stairs and that worried him. Gelvin jumped up to the platform and entered the top chamber of the tower.

"Koraz," he thought to himself as Gelvin realized how stupid it was to charge in there against him. But Koraz was nowhere to be seen. Instead, all Gelvin saw was a short dwarf standing in a corner grinning. This floor was smaller than the other, but just as empty. The dwarf was the only thing in the room besides dust and dirt. The dwarf was no taller than Slade but he had large arms and stout legs. Gelvin knew this was an older dwarf because his white beard almost stretched all the way to the floor as did his mussed and unkempt hair. The dwarf was filthy, with dirt coating his long and broken fingernails and with smudges spotting his face. The dwarf held an axe between his crossed arms, but he did not move as he sized Gelvin up. Gelvin thought that maybe he'd never seen a Spriteleng before. Perhaps he could talk to him instead of fighting which he slowly feared might become inevitable. "I am Gelvin. Who are you?" he asked politely.

The dwarf's lips parted and he began to laugh quietly. "Your friends can't defeat my magic," he said as he waved his arm in the air. Suddenly, Gelvin heard the sound of the wind barreling down the staircase again. Before Gelvin could help his friends though, the dwarf declared, "You can't have my guardian. I won't let you take it." The fierce dwarf then charged at Gelvin, laughing as he lunged across the room.

The dwarf moved quickly and Gelvin narrowly avoided the sharp edge of his axe. Gelvin raised his Defender and looked deep into the eyes of the dwarf. Gelvin sensed his confusion. The dwarf seemed consumed by a madness it could not control. He lunged at Gelvin again but the Spriteleng stepped away. The dwarf hit the floor with a loud thud and his foot became entangled with the breaking and rotting wood. Gelvin seized the opportunity and smacked the dwarf on the back of the head with the hilt of his Defender. The dwarf fell unconscious and the wind stopped, just as Thraxus, tied off to the rope, reached the top of the platform.

"I've subdued him," Gelvin declared as Thraxus shimmied the rope off his waist. Thraxus didn't care what Gelvin said and the memory of the dwarf's maddening laugh was still burned into his thoughts.

"I won't let you laugh at me ever again," Thraxus maniacally thought as he drew his sword and crushed the dwarf with one blow, before Gelvin could stop him.

"What did you do!" Gelvin shouted as he grabbed Thraxus' wrist that wielded the sword. "He was subdued." Thraxus pulled his wrist away and pushed Gelvin aside. Thraxus almost hoped he'd start a fight, because he was thirsty for battle even after killing the dwarf. Gelvin was not a fool though, and he walked away from the seething warrior.

"Did you get Koraz?" Flynton asked with excitement as he and the others reached the top of the stairs.

"No, it was just some strange dwarf. We had to kill him though," Thraxus said as he looked down upon the bloody dead body.

"You liar," Gelvin whispered under his breath from the other end of the room as he felt rage start to burn away at his soul. Gelvin was peaceful at heart, even though Pithian trained him to be violent when necessary. But something new was emerging from Gelvin as he spent more time with Thraxus. Gelvin had never experienced rage or hatred. He started to hate the warrior though, not for the kind of person he was, but because Thraxus brought out the worst in him. Gelvin felt hatred and rage for the first time as he watched Thraxus murder the poor dwarf. They were feelings he did not like as a small part of his innocence slipped away forever.

"You had to kill him?" Fyndon asked suspiciously.

"Yes, he attacked us."

"But his foot is trapped," Fyndon said as she pointed at the boot caught between the cracking floorboards. "Was it like that before or after you split his head open?" she asked sarcastically. Everyone looked at the dwarf and saw that she was right. Silence filled the room and Thraxus felt their condemning eyes staring at him. But he did not care.

"Let's search this place," Thraxus ordered. He did not expect to find any gold from this reclusive old dwarf, but Thraxus decided that it would be worth the effort to try. After all, he had four other people to do most of the searching for him.

Gelvin was still upset about Thraxus murdering the dwarf, but still, he pushed himself away from the wall and joined his comrades in searching the tower. He only felt repugnance for Thraxus, but Gelvin followed his order for his own reasons. He hoped to find some clue, anything that would tell him who this dwarf was. Then, maybe, he could the poor soul's family or friends and let them bury the wretched thing.

The upper level was a dusty barren room, much like the bottom floor, but Gelvin noticed that it wasn't as large. From the outside, the tower appeared symmetrical and Gelvin noticed that there was no window on the east wall. He distinctly remembered seeing one window on each side of the tower from outside. Gelvin tapped on the wood of the east wall and it rang hollow. "Over here," he shouted to the others.

They all gathered around Gelvin as he knocked on the wood. Thraxus smiled and pushed everyone back. He ran at the wall with all of his speed and burst through it, into a small room on the other side. The hollow wall shattered into tiny splinters as the secret room was revealed. It was a small chamber, comprising the rest of the tower, but it contained a contraption like nothing any of them had seen before.

A large metal machine occupied the entire room. It looked like a toy top that Gelvin remembered playing with as a child, only thousands of times larger. Instead of having a pointed end for spinning, this top had a rounded bottom so it could not be turned over. The machine was many paces in width, with four rounded corners on opposite sides. Each corner had a rung built into it, so a person could pull himself up to the top of the machine and see what was sitting on it. Even from his vantage point, Gelvin saw that there was a dark green glass bottle of liquid sitting atop the contraption.

"It must be important," Flynton said as he, along with everyone else, stared at the device and the elusive bottle.

"What is this thing?" Fyndon asked. "I've never seen anything like it."

"Neither have I," added Thraxus.

Everyone paused for a moment, not sure what to do next. Slade quickly grew bored with the indecision and took it upon himself to act.

"I can get that bottle," he said as he threw caution to the wind and reached up to one of the rungs. Slade pulled himself up and the top drooped to the side with the extra weight. Suddenly a blade sprang out of a slot right below the rung and Slade released his grip just before the razor had a chance to sever his hands. He landed on the floor and counted himself lucky to be alive.

"Are you unhurt?" the concerned Fyndon asked as she reached over to help lift Slade up.

"Just a little shaken up," he said with wide eyed fright. Slade realized how stupid he was for acting rashly and he decided to stand behind everyone else. The blade slowly retracted and disappeared back into the slot.

"We'll never get it!" Thraxus declared as he turned his back and started to walk towards the staircase.

"Don't be so hasty," Fyndon said. "I think we can still retrieve it."

"Yes, I see a way," Gelvin said as he guessed how the contraption worked. "It's based on weight."

"More precisely, uneven weight," Fyndon added. "The blade shot out when Slade's weight pulled the top down on one side."

"So we just have to keep the weight balanced," Thraxus said as Fyndon nodded. He was starting to understand their plan.

"Each of you grab a different rung and keep the top steady," Gelvin said as he dropped his sword and pack. "I'll get the bottle." Gelvin's companions surrounded the top and placed their hands firmly on the four rungs. Slade was reluctant, but as long as Gelvin climbed from the other side of the machine, he agreed to do it.

Gelvin reached up and gripped the rung Fyndon was holding. He called out to Thraxus at the opposite corner, "Get ready." Gelvin took a deep breath and cautiously pulled himself up the corner. Thraxus and the others strained, but the top remained steady. Gelvin knew he had to be more careful and deliberate than when he climbed the stairs and he concentrated on reaching out to the middle of the machine where the bottle rested. His hand could not reach, so he climbed another step higher.

The top slowly started to tilt in Gelvin and Fyndon's direction and he yelled, "Have you got it?"

"Yes, just hurry!" Thraxus called back as his muscles began to tire.

Gelvin stretched again and he was barely able to touch the bottle with the tips of his fingers. The floor below the top creaked from Gelvin's added weight and he thought it would be ironic if, after being so concerned with the blades, he fell through the floor to his death.

Gelvin took a final deep breath as stretched with all his might and his fingers grasped the narrow neck of the bottle. "I've got it!" he yelled and Gelvin slid his way back down to the floor very quickly. Everyone breathed more easily as they released the device and backed away from it into the other room.

Gelvin held the bottle up in the light that was streaming in one of the windows. The green glass was adorned with runes carved into each side of the square base. Gelvin did not recognize any of the elaborate designs, but he found them fascinating. He uncorked the bottle and took a deep breath of the contents. It was not like any liquid Gelvin had ever smelled. It was neither foul nor sweet, but simply unknown.

Gelvin passed the bottle around but nobody could identify the black liquid sloshing inside. "Why don't you have a drink," Slade joked with Fyndon as she sniffed the contents.

"Oh no, I insist you go first," she retorted.

"Yes, but my mother taught me to show deference to ladies," Slade spoke eloquently as a joke.

"Did she teach you that lesson before or after you stole all her money?" Fyndon asked and even Slade laughed.

"Let me see the runes," Flynton said as he took the bottle from her hand.

"Do you know about runes?" Gelvin asked. He was curious as to how one went about studying such things, and he hoped to have the time someday to do it himself.

"I know a little," Flynton said as he held the bottle in the light. "See these markings," he said as he pointed at a curved line with two flags coming off of it. "It means to curse with insanity." Flynton turned the bottle around and examined the markings on the obverse side. He looked at another rune shaped like an eye with wavy lines crossed through it. "This mark means cure."

The last word seared through Gelvin's mind as he looked down at the deceased dwarf. "A cure for insanity," he said as he turned his eyes away from Thraxus. he could not stand to look at him. Gelvin felt his rage returning because they had an opportunity to help this dwarf, but didn't. Gelvin hated Thraxus for killing him, but he hated himself even more for letting it happen. "He was cursed! And we killed him. It wasn't his fault," Gelvin said as he slowly walked over to the dead body and sat down on one knee beside it.

Tension filled the air as everyone knew that Gelvin was disturbed by the events. Thraxus didn't say a word but actually regretted killing the poor dwarf. It was too late though, and Thraxus solemnly walked down the staircase to exit the tower. The others followed him, but Gelvin and Fyndon stayed behind for a moment. He shed one tear for the dwarf, but could not bring himself to provide anymore. He was exhausted and said to himself, "If this is adventuring, then I have had enough." He hoped they would find Koraz soon, so he could return to the temple where the world made sense to him.

"I'm sorry Gelvin," Fyndon said as she held his hand.

"Its not your fault," he replied as he jerked his palm back. "I should have stopped him."

"You couldn't have," Fyndon pleaded. "Thraxus may have hurt you instead."

Gelvin's eyes lit up with concern. "You really think Thraxus would hurt one of us?"

"Not intentionally," Fyndon said without much vigor. "If he were in a rage though, I'm not sure what he's possible of doing." Gelvin squatted in silence as he looked at the poor dwarf. The idea of Thraxus turning on them was inconceivable. Right? Gelvin was not so sure. "I'll leave you," Fyndon said as she walked down the staircase.

Gelvin sat still for another moment and then he got up to leave when he noticed a small square bulge under the dwarf's shirt. He reached under it and felt a small book attached to the dwarf's belt. Gelvin pulled it out. It was a thin journal, with thick paper for covers, but no name on it. Gelvin placed it in his pack and thought, "Maybe I'll find someone to give this to." He covered the broken mass that was the dwarf's body with its shirt and exited the tower in remorse.

Gelvin decided that this valley was either gigantic, uninhabited, or maybe both because he and his companions saw no other signs of life the rest of the day. As darkness fell, they found a secure circle of thick and lush trees where they made camp. Gelvin used some small stones and the surrounding twigs to build a campfire. It had been a day of realizations and everyone seemed content to eat in silence and let the time slowly pass. Their moods had changed from the two previous nights where Slade joked and Flynton performed tricks. Gelvin felt their somber dispositions had something to do with all the killing they'd seen. This quest was no longer an interesting adventure as Gelvin felt when he set out. It was serious and Gelvin feared it would only get worse as they moved closer to the dark future that held Koraz.

"I'll take the first watch," Gelvin said as everyone else laid down to sleep. They were the first words anyone had spoken since they made camp, but nobody felt like responding. As the others drifted off to sleep Gelvin looked skyward and realized that he may never see the stars again. The canopy of the valley obstructed his view and Gelvin began to think about what would happen if he died in this place. Would Pithian come looking for him? Would he be eaten by some monster with a taste for Spritelengs? Those thoughts started to scare Gelvin and he needed a distraction. He reached in his pack and pulled out the dwarf's journal.

He opened it to the first page and saw that it was a personal journal. Gelvin quickly closed it and looked away. The dwarf's memories weren't any of his business. Then he had second thoughts. The dwarf was gone and who would it hurt if Gelvin read his journal. Gelvin wanted something to do while he stayed awake and that book was all he had to read. He opened it again and read the name on the first page, 'Rexel Tyras'.

Much later, Fyndon woke up when she heard the loud crackling of the wood burning on the fire. She rubbed her swollen and tired eyes and looked over at Gelvin. He was intently speed reading each page of the journal and was nearing the end.

"What are you doing," she asked Gelvin with a sleepy yawn as she rolled over to her side and propped herself up with one elbow.

Gelvin held his hand up and paused because he was intently reading the final page. Moments later he looked up from the book and Fyndon observed that he was out of breath from reading. Her eyes widened and she suddenly felt more awake, "What's wrong Gelvin?"

"This is the dwarf's journal," he said as he scooted next to Fyndon and placed it in her lap. "He knew Koraz!" Gelvin said as excitement danced in his eyes and an expression of joy filled his face.

"What do you mean?" a confused Fyndon asked as she sat up. She looked at Gelvin's face at she could sense his excitement. It jumped off his face and consumed her, as Fyndon felt ecstatic.

"He knew Koraz. Even when Koraz was still young," Gelvin said rapidly.

"I don't understand," Fyndon said shaking her head.

Gelvin slowed down and summarized from the beginning what he had just read, "Remember when Kenyson told us that Penzant sent Koraz far away to train as an assassin."


"He passed through these lands. Koraz met this dwarf, Rexel, and became fascinated with a magical guardian the dwarf wore."

"What kind of guardian?" Fyndon asked.

"The journal doesn't say. All Rexel wrote is that it was a talisman called the 'guardian' and it extended life." Gelvin thought back to what Rexel said when he entered the room. Rexel was trying to protect the guardian from Gelvin.

"Perhaps we should go back and look for it," Fyndon suggested.

"No, its not there anymore and besides we wouldn't want to."

"What do you mean?" Fyndon asked as she became intrigued by the story.

"The guardian extends life, but with a price," Gelvin explained. "It drives the wearer insane."

"So that's what happened to Rexel," Fyndon said excitedly. She finally understood what cursed the dwarf.

"Not exactly. Let me finish. Koraz had heard of the guardian and went to find it. He discovered that Rexel possessed it. Koraz challenged him to a duel which Rexel, with the help of the guardian, easily won."

"He defeated Koraz?" Fyndon asked in astonishment. All this time, every story they had heard characterized Koraz as an invincible assassin. Fyndon gained some hope that they could defeat him when Gelvin told her Rexel's story.

"Yes, Koraz was defeated but he vowed to take revenge someday on Rexel. During the years before Koraz returned, Rexel learned the curse of the guardian and he gave up wearing it. Instead he vowed to hide it from the world so its power could not corrupt anyone. He moved deep into this valley and built the tower. Then one day Koraz returned."

"On the unfinished business Kenyson spoke of."

"Exactly," Gelvin confirmed. "Koraz returned to steal the guardian. He was successful and he devised a revenge against Rexel worse than death. He cursed him and drove him insane. Then Koraz constructed the machine which held the antidote as a way to torture Rexel. The cure was right next to him, but he could not reach it."

Fyndon felt fear creep into her mind and she wondered what kind of a black heart would devise such a cruel scheme. "So Koraz has the guardian?&qcenter> F "Yes, he stole it."

"Then we must tell the others," Fyndon said in a panic. Gelvin took her hands and gently caressed them. He waited for her to calm down and told Fyndon, "No, we can't. Thraxus is driven by lusts of greed and power. If we tell him he will surely seek to take the guardian from Koraz. He won't be able to resist the temptation of using it and that could doom us all." Fyndon listened to Gelvin and imagined what Thraxus would be like if he were invincible and insane. Nobody would be able to stop him and anyone who tried, he would kill.

"Perhaps you're right," she said quietly.

"Trust me for now Fyndon," Gelvin pleaded and she nodded in agreement. "Besides, Rexel never said what the guardian looks like. For all we know, it could be a ring Koraz wears around his toe or a band he uses to pull back his hair."

Fyndon knew Gelvin was right as she looked into the fire. Then she stared at Gelvin's innocent and tired face. "Get some rest. I'll relieve you."

"Thank you," Gelvin said as he tucked the journal back into his pack and rolled over onto his blanket. He was asleep as soon as his head touched the ground.

A Sword, Two Worms, and a Tomb

"Until Gelvin's adventure, the Valley of Overgrowth had never been fully explored. It certainly would have been, if people had known what it contained. The fact that this valley served as the tomb for Necron the Destroyer may seem merely coincidental, but the Gods do act in strange and mysterious ways."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

The explorers woke the next morning in somewhat lighter spirits. Gelvin had not forgiven Thraxus for killing Rexel, but Thraxus didn't seek his forgiveness. Still, the companions were talking again, which could be attributed to the freshness of a new day. After a meager breakfast of eggs and water, the travelers set out again to explore the Valley of Overgrowth. The sun still could not penetrate the valley's trees, but it was much hotter this day as the canopy trapped every degree of latent heat.

Gelvin sought a diversion from the temperature so he turned to Fyndon and said, "I want to know more about Comwens."

"Why, are you interested in becoming one?" Fyndon asked.

"I don't know," Gelvin replied honestly. "I just find your powers interesting."

"They aren't powers," Fyndon explained. "I studied for a long time to learn my abilities."

"What did you have to study?"

"I learned about the relationships between creatures and their environment," Fyndon told Gelvin. "It was very interesting.

"What was most interesting?" Flynton interjected as he listened to Fyndon talk about her past.

"For me," Fyndon began, "Learning about odor ecology was very intriguing.

"Odor what?" Gelvin asked in confusion.

"Odor ecology," Fyndon repeated. "There are many parallels between smells and the environment. Some odors help create emotions."

"Like flowers make me feel good," Gelvin said in excitement.

"Yes, that is one example. But there are more complicated relationships as well. Some odors have a spirit and essence."

"You mean a smell can live?" Gelvin asked skeptically.

"And have a soul," Fyndon explained. "Special smells have a conscious and make decisions that affect beings like you and me."

"You're not fooling me," Flynton said as he waved his hand in disbelief at Fyndon.

"It's true," Fyndon said with veracity. "There are odors that can control your mind with hypnotizing scents and other odors that can cause animals to become enraged or sleepy."

It was an interesting idea, but Gelvin still wondered how an odor could think. Gelvin grew tired under the steamy trees as sweat slid down his back and he knew what his odors were telling him to do. After a short time of endless hiking through hills and dry ditches, he asked the others for a break.

"I agree," Thraxus said as he removed his pack and set it down on the ground.

"I never thought I could be so hot in the shade," Gelvin thought as he sucked down the warm dry air into his lungs.

Fyndon moved off the path between the trees to sit on a collapsed and rotted log. She hopped up on the wood and felt a cool breeze pass by her from the right. She was surprised, because it was the first cooling winds she had felt al day in this valley. She looked to her right and behind a large green shrub she saw a cave. "I've found something," Fyndon called out as the men reluctantly stood up and walked over to her. "Look, it's a cave," she said as her hand pointed towards the dark rocky hole.

Another cool breeze swept out of the cave and relaxed everyone. Gelvin felt the wind rushing against his face and the cool sensation soothed him. "Let's see what's in there," Thraxus said because he was getting sick of the heat and he knew that the cave would be much cooler. Gelvin liked that prospect, but he wanted to remain focused on finding Koraz.

"Koraz is not down there," Gelvin complained.

"How do you know that?" Thraxus snapped back. "For all we know, Koraz lives underground."

"That's ridiculous," Gelvin said as he waved his hand at Thraxus in a way that discounted the idea.

Flynton, Fyndon, and Slade watched on as their companions argued. They stood there in silence, afraid to speak up. Thraxus noticed that their eyes were trained on him and he knew what he had to do to establish his authority.

Thraxus walked right up to Gelvin and looked at him face to face. "I'm in charge and I say we're exploring the cave. You were sent with me to follow orders, not to question them." Gelvin mashed his lips together and didn't say a word. He grabbed his pack and strapped it on his back. "Good then," Thraxus said as he formed a path down to the cave entrance. Gelvin decided at that moment that he wasn't going to blindly follow Thraxus' orders for much longer.

Gelvin and the others all pulled out their rusty lanterns as they descended into the cave. The lanterns did not provide much illumination, but they all could still see a little of their new surroundings. The passages were narrow and the ground was rocky, but there was still enough room to maneuver. The walls felt damp and cool as they moved deeper into the cave. Gelvin latched his lantern onto the black strap Pithian gave him, just in case he needed a spare hand. Gelvin had never been in a cave and did not know what to expect. Little did he know, but Thraxus had never been in one either.

The chilly underground air was refreshing and Thraxus led them down long winding passages. The side walls of the tunnel were ice cold as they descended further underground. There was no light from any direction except their lanterns. The cave appeared desolate as they spelunked deeper and deeper until Gelvin thought he heard something. "Wait a moment," he said as he stopped in his tracks. So far, his Spriteleng ears had served him well on this journey and he didn't see any reason to stop relying on them in the cave.

"What do you hear?" Fyndon whispered.

"Footsteps," Gelvin replied in an equally quiet voice.

"I don't hear anything," Flynton said.

"Shhhh!" Gelvin sounded angrily. "I know I hear footsteps. It could be an echo, but I think they're just up ahead a little ways."

It was a struggle in the cramped rocky passage, but Thraxus drew his sword and cautiously led the party down the sloping path. After a few feet the corridor leveled again and Gelvin no longer heard the sound.

"I know they were close," he said trying to explain himself. Gelvin knew there wasn't anything wrong with his hearing, but he could not understand how the sound disappeared. Of course, Gelvin did not consider the possibility that whoever was making the sounds had stopped walking.

Thraxus turned back around to face forward and suddenly the light of his lantern outlined a tall thin figure standing in front of them. Thraxus stepped backwards and almost knocked Gelvin down. Everyone was surprised because nobody knew where the figure had come from. It was still too dark to observe the stranger's face, but that would soon change.

"Who are you?" Thraxus barked at the dark outline. Thraxus was still a few steps away from the stranger and the light only shone on his brown, knee high boots. Then the figure stepped forward, revealing his face and Gelvin saw a sight he thought he would never see in all his years. The stranger was a Dark Elf.

Dark Elves were almost mythical creatures that lost the Elven Wars over a thousand years ago. Rumors said that they were pursued underground and banished from the light of day. They were never seen again amongst men, but frightened travelers would always tell stories about how they saw a Dark Elf on the road late at night, usually eating the head of a chicken or other such nonsense.

This Dark Elf was as tall as Gelvin with a thin frame and the pointy ears that characterized all elves. His skin was a dark shade of purple tinted with black, and his straight black bangs hung over his forehead like the fur of a Hager beast. His eyes, like all Dark Elves, were completely yellow with no white. Legend said that Dark Elves were intelligent and inquisitive. This one, though, said nothing as the light rolled over the features of his face.

Thraxus also knew the tales about Dark Elves as the expression on his face would have made you think he had seen Koraz himself. "What do you want?" Thraxus asked as he continued to stumble backwards onto Gelvin.

"Get off me!" Gelvin yelled and he pushed Thraxus forward into the arms of the elf. Thraxus looked into the yellow eyes and saw the elf curl his lips back to reveal its sharp and rotting teeth. The elf pushed Thraxus away and charged at him with the largest, sharpest sword Gelvin had ever seen.

Gelvin grabbed Thraxus around the waist and hoisted him out of the way as the elf charged past them. Unfortunately for Gelvin, he couldn't move everyone to safety. Slade bounded away from the elf and disappeared into a shadow as he blew out his lantern. Fyndon was not as lucky.

As Slade avoided the charging elf, Fyndon was caught between the oncoming sword and Flynton, who was too panicked to move. Fyndon tried to shove Flynton aside, but as she did, the elf's black sword ripped through her shoulder creating a deep laceration. Blood spurted everywhere as Fyndon yelled in agony. Assuming Fyndon done for, the elf turned back towards Gelvin and Thraxus.

Gelvin stared at the elf's glowing yellow eyes as he heard his friend screaming out in pain and suddenly, the deep seated rage Gelvin harbored towards Thraxus took shape. Gelvin stood up and gripped his Defender with both hands. He felt all of his hatred and frustration build up in his hands as he charged the elf.

"Ahhhrahhaarhhh!" Gelvin screamed in fury as he drove his sword into the elf's chest. The Dark Elf tried to bring his blade around to retaliate, but the sword was too large and he could not parry with it. Gelvin pushed the Defender deeper into the elf's chest until it pierced his back and stuck out the other side, covered in putrid green blood. The elf slumped to the cold rocky floor of the cave and Gelvin felt the creature's blood filling in the cracks of the cave around his boots. Gelvin pressed a boot against the elf's head and pulled out his Defender in one swift stroke. With the elf vanquished, Gelvin's rage subsided and he turned his thoughts to Fyndon.

"Are you all right?" Gelvin asked as he rushed to he side. Her clothes were soaked through with blood and the cut on her shoulder almost reached the bone.

"I'll be okay," she whispered in pain. Gelvin held her tight as he ripped part of his tunic off to fasten a tourniquet.

"It's okay," Gelvin said as he tied the material in a tight knot just below her shoulder. Gelvin took Fyndon's head and rested it in his hands as he tried not to cry. She was injured very badly and he didn't want to imagine going on without her. Fyndon had become the only person in this company that Gelvin felt genuine affection for. Her kind and caring nature reminded him of Pithian and he could not stand the thought of losing her. "Please don't go," he whispered in her ear so the others would not hear him.

"I'm not going anywhere," she said as she gasped for air and reached into her pocket. Fyndon removed a small black pouch and handed it to Gelvin. "Rub this into the wound," she said as her arm dropped from the effort of lifting.

Gelvin opened the pouch and it contained a fine white powder. It looked like flour but Gelvin assumed it couldn't be something so simple. He took a pinch of the substance and rubbed it into Fyndon's bloody shoulder. Fyndon jerked because the powder stung when it made contact with the wound. Still, the sting was a relief compared to the searing hot feeling of having her shoulder torn open. Gelvin then heaped an entire handful of the powder onto her shoulder and Fyndon cried out again in pain.

"I'm sorry," Gelvin said, believing he was killing her.

"No, it's okay," Fyndon said after the pain eased. Gelvin was just relieved to still hear her voice. She actually forced her way up to a sitting position as Slade and Flynton gathered round to see what affect the powder had. Fyndon took her left hand and wiped away the powder that had not mixed into her blood and wound. When she removed her hand, Flynton gasped because the wound was completely sealed.

"How did you do that?" Gelvin asked in amazement.

"It's a Comwen herb," Fyndon said as she gingerly got to her feet. "Comwens can mix herbs together to make powerful powders. This one heals."

"Does it still hurt," Gelvin asked as he untied the tourniquet and slid the cloth off her arm.

"It will hurt for a few days and it will be weak for an hour or two," Fyndon said as she rubbed the inflamed skin where the cut had sealed itself. "Oh, and Gelvin, thank you," Fyndon whispered in his ear and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Gelvin smiled and felt relieved that his friend was okay.

While Gelvin and the others were taking care of Fyndon, nobody noticed that Thraxus had picked up the Dark Elf's enormous sword. It was made of some kind of black steel the same color as Thraxus' new armor. After caring for Fyndon, Gelvin turned around and saw what Thraxus was doing. The blade was almost six feet long! Gelvin understood why the elf wasn't able to defend himself with it. He couldn't bring it around in the corridor. Thraxus held the sword up to his eye and looked at the unblemished steel.

"Let me see it," Slade said as he approached Thraxus with his hand open.

"No!" Thraxus shouted as he held the blade away from Slade. "I'm the only one who touches it."

"Relax," Slade said slowly and he backed away from the angry giant.

"It's useless in here," Gelvin said trying to quell Thraxus' greed. "The sword is too big to wield and you'd need two hands."

Thraxus stared at his new treasure and realized that Gelvin was right. But he had a solution. He dropped Kenyson's shield and his iron sword. Then he sheathed the black blade in the place of his old weapon. "Problem solved," Thraxus said and he picked up his lantern to continue exploring the cave. "Let's get moving again. There's nothing more here."

Gelvin didn't know how to react. He thought Thraxus was more concerned with his arsenal than the mission, but he didn't know how to stop him. Even Thraxus' greed seemed to be consumed by the new sword. Thraxus no longer cared what Kenyson's shield was worth and he did not hesitate to leave it. Gelvin looked into Thraxus' eyes and sensed an avarice beyond human greed. From the moment Thraxus grasped the new sword he coveted it. Gelvin hoped Thraxus would not go too far to possess the blade, but Gelvin concluded that he could not stop him as long as he held it.

"Can you travel?" Gelvin asked Fyndon in frustration.

"Yes, we'd better follow him." Gelvin and his companions picked up their things and hurried to catch up with Thraxus, who had already started down the next passage.

Nobody spoke to Thraxus as he walked through the cave as fast as he could. Gelvin wasn't sure why, it could have been the sword or the armor maybe, but Thraxus seemed to lose all touch with reality. He hadn't said a word about Koraz since the tower the day before. Gelvin thought that maybe he had forgotten about their mission altogether. "Then we'd be in a fix," Gelvin thought silently. "Stuck out here with a madman for a commander."

Gelvin looked at Fyndon and she was still in pain but was hiding it well. "Are you sure you're okay?" Gelvin asked tentatively.

"I will be," Fyndon as she rubbed at her shoulder. "I just wish I knew what that was that attacked me."

"It was a Dark Elf," Gelvin said, surprised that Fyndon had not heard of them.

"What is a Dark Elf?" Fyndon asked ignorantly.

"They are a race of elves that are hardly ever seen above ground."

"Why?" Fyndon asked Gelvin.

"Legends say that many generations ago the Dark Elves lost the Elven Wars. See, the Elven Wars occurred when men had not overrun the land," Gelvin explained. "The Dark Elves lived in harmony with the Land Elves and Wood Elves until they began to study forbidden magic. The Dark Elves became immensely powerful and tried to dominate the other elves. The Land Elves and the Wood Elves were no match for the Dark Elves new found power, so they formed an uneasy alliance with the men who were beginning to venture out of the north. With the help of the humans, the Dark Elves were vanquished and driven underground for eternity."

"How fascinating," Fyndon said as Gelvin looked into her eyes. Gelvin sensed some deception from his friend.

"You already knew all that," Gelvin said slyly.

"Yes, but I like talking to you," Fyndon replied and Gelvin smiled as he turned his head in affectionate embarrassment.

Before Gelvin could become to involved with their conversation though, a light from around a corner captured his attention. The light was brighter than any lantern or torch and Gelvin thought it must be an army or something equally as large. But down here, in a cave? Everyone waited silently behind Thraxus to see what he would do.

He paused and rubbed his chin for a moment until he motioned for Slade to walk next to him. "This is your job," he whispered in the thief's ear. "Sneak in there and see if it's safe."

Gelvin was reluctant because he did not want to place himself in harms' way. But he knew Thraxus would insist and he assumed he would be fine. After all, Slade thought, "While all these others read their books and practiced with their swords, I was sneaking into houses and taking their gold." Slade was confident he could hide from anything.

"If it's not safe, you'll hear me scream," Slade said dryly as he dropped his pack and pressed his body against the rocky wall. He slid around the corner as discretely as possible and disappeared from the sight of the others. Gelvin listened intently but heard nothing. He was curious about what Slade would see but his imagination was interrupted by a voice.

"Come out little one. No need to hide."

Gelvin and Fyndon looked at Thraxus. He looked back at them with a blank expression on his face and shrugged his shoulders. He held his hands up in the air, not knowing what to do next. They didn't hear Slade, but Gelvin decided that someone or something must have already seen him. Gelvin drew his sword and pushed his way past Thraxus, around the corner.

The light shone brighter as Gelvin moved down the passage, which emptied into a large cavern. The cavern was filled with gold and sparkling jewels reminiscent of Pithian's hidden treasure but much larger. Slade was standing there in plain sight staring at the riches when Gelvin saw where the voice came from.

A small stocky man was sitting on top of a giant pile of gold. He had very little hair and a fat round face. "Oh, there's more of you," the man said congenially.

"Who are you?" Gelvin asked as his eyes wandered about the treasure filled cavern.

"I am Trogen," the man said plainly. Gelvin searched the room but he didn't see any weapons, nor any guards. How could this man protect such a horde, Gelvin pondered. After a few moments Thraxus, Fyndon, and Flynton all carefully walked around the corner as well, and entered the cavern.

"My goodness there are a lot of you," Trogen said cheerfully. "Rarely do I receive so many visitors down here."

Thraxus' eyes were filled with delight as he surveyed the endless sea of riches. He approached a black cauldron, filled with diamonds, and held one of the stones tightly in his hand. "This is fantastic," he said in amazement.

"You like my jewels?" Trogen asked as he slid down the pile of gold he was resting on. "Come, tell me your story and maybe I'll share a trinket with you."

Thraxus smiled with delight like a child receiving a present, but Gelvin was far more cautious. "Why do you want to know?" he asked.

"I don't receive many visitors down here," Trogen said as he turned towards Gelvin. "I like to hear stories. If I like yours, maybe I'll tell you mine."

Gelvin was curious as to how this unremarkable man acquired so much gold and that nagging question enticed him to tell Trogen their story. "We are explorers," Gelvin began. "We are searching for a man known as Koraz."

"Ah, you seek the mad assassin," Trogen said.

"Yes, you've heard of him?" Gelvin asked excitedly.

"Of course, everyone in this valley has heard of Koraz."

"Then you know where he is?" Thraxus asked as his attention turned away from the pot of diamonds.

"Perhaps," Trogen said coyly. "Tell me more of your story first and maybe I'll remember."

"We traveled many days to this valley," Gelvin continued. "We vanquished an evil wizard and found a mad dwarf living in a tower."

"Yes yes, but how did you come down here?" Trogen asked.

"It was hot," Thraxus interrupted. "The cave was much cooler and we decided to explore it."

"That is not a very interesting story," Trogen said in disappointment as he returned to his mound of gold.

"What do you want from us?" Flynton asked.

"I never see people and I want to hear a good story when I do meet them."

"I have a good story," Gelvin remembered a tale his mother told him when he was a boy. "It's about a Spriteleng sitting at a river. A Spriteleng was sitting at a river one day, trying to spear fish out of the stream, when he heard another Spriteleng running through the forest."

"This has potential," Trogen said as he placed his chin on his hands and leaned forward to hear more of the tale.

"The Spriteleng who was fishing saw the other one collapse next to the stream out of breath. The fisher went up to the Spriteleng and rolled him onto his back. 'What's wrong?' he asked. The out of breath Spriteleng responded, 'A wolf is chasing me.' The fisher turned around quickly but didn't see any wolves. 'Are you sure?' he asked the exhausted Spriteleng. 'It was right behind me,' he responded. Then the wolf appeared from the trees.

"It was a large white wolf, with blood stained fangs and a chilling snarl. The wolf looked down at the two Spritelengs and licked its furry lips. 'Give me your friend,' the wolf said, 'And I will leave you alone.'"

"The fisher wasn't sure what to do. He was very afraid of the wolf, but he looked down at the other Spriteleng and knew he couldn't abandon him. 'I won't,' the fisher shouted."

"'Then I will eat you both,' the wolf said angrily. 'So be it!' the fisher responded. The wolf crept down to the bank of the river and put its snout, teeth fully exposed, right in front of the fisher's face. The fisher did not move, even though he had never been so scared. Then, for no reason at all, the wolf backed up and stopped snarling."

"The fisher exhaled and look bewildered. He knew the wolf could have killed them both, but it didn't. Then a red aura engulfed the wolf and the unconscious Spriteleng and there was a flash of light. The fisher looked up and the wolf and the Spriteleng had been transformed into wood spirits. The two powerful spirits looked at the fisher and said, 'You acted with courage young one. Your people are brave and shall have our protection.'"

"'Thank you,' the fisher said in shock. He never imagined that he would ever see a wood spirit. The two spirits looked like angelic ghosts who shined and floated in the air. They smiled and then disappeared into the trees in another flash of light. The fisher simply went back to his work, but from that day forward, no wolf or any creature threatened his village again."

"An excellent story," Trogen said clapping his hands together. "Would you make the same sacrifice as the fisher?" he asked looking at Gelvin.

"I don't know. I've never had to make a sacrifice," Gelvin said as he considered the question. "I suppose I would."

"Yes, I think you would at that," Trogen said as he slid back down from his gold and stood in front of the storyteller. "It was a fine story, and now I will show you mine." Suddenly, Trogen's entire body started to glow with a golden radiance. Gelvin shielded his eyes but still watched as the radiance grew brighter and larger. Finally, the golden hue began to contract back into Trogen and when it was gone a small golden dragon remained.

Gelvin and the others looked at the smiling dragon in awe. It was not large, like most dragons, but just as brilliant. Its golden scales reflected all the light in the cavern and its bright blue sapphire eyes had a soothing affect on everyone who looked at them. Trogen had a long slender body with two golden wings tucked away on his back with small black designs creating stark patterns all over his body. "This is my story," Trogen said in a deep voice.

"Oh mighty Trogen, how may we serve you?" Fyndon respectfully asked as she fell to her knees.

"Please stand, I do not ask for your service."

Fyndon rose but remained hypnotized by the dragon's sheer magnificence. "It is our honor to be in your presence," she replied.

"And mine yours. You are good people," Trogen said. "I can see such things."

Gelvin was impressed by the dragon's brilliance but not hypnotized like the others. He didn't understand what a dragon was doing in this cave, but he wanted to find out. "Why are you here great Trogen?"

Trogen sensed the goodness in Gelvin's heart and decided it was safe to reveal his true purpose. "I guard a secret gateway."

"Where is this gateway?" Gelvin asked as he swiveled his head back and forth searching the cavern.

"Oh, it is hidden," Trogen responded. "I have to keep it hidden."

"Why?" Gelvin asked as his curiosity was piqued.

"It is a gateway to a horrible place. It leads to a layer of hell which contains unspeakable horrors. To even look through this gateway, you would lose your soul."

Gelvin began to feel nervous and decided that this cavern was not safe. Certainly a golden dragon could protect itself from the gateway, but Gelvin was not so sure about himself.

"Let us not speak of such things," Trogen continued. "You have been kind to me by telling the story. Now what service can I provide you?"

"You said you know about Koraz?" Gelvin asked.

"Yes, I know that he lives somewhere in this valley." Gelvin felt a cold chill run down his back. He assumed that Koraz lived in this valley somewhere, but having that fact confirmed for the first time frightened him. "He built a keep many years ago," Trogen continued.

"Where is it?" Thraxus asked as his face revealed his excitement as he anticipated another battle.

"I do not know," Trogen replied succinctly.

"Then we must leave to search for it," Thraxus said, now recommitted to his goal of finding Koraz. Fyndon was not ready to leave because she felt safe near the dragon, but she, as well as the others, knew that Thraxus was right.

"Then I wish you the best of luck," Trogen said.

They thanked the mighty dragon and waved as they left the cavern to walk down a different rocky corridor than the one they entered. "What an incredible discovery," Flynton said.

"Yes, Trogen is magnificent," Thraxus said as he nodded his head in amazement.

"Golden dragons are quite incredible," Gelvin said. "Imagine the magical power it requires to change into a human."

"Only the greatest of wizards and the most powerful of creatures can change their shape," Flynton said in agreement with Gelvin.

They talked on and on and laughed about their luck in meeting Trogen rather than another Dark Elf, when Flynton asked, "Are we close to the surface yet?"

Thraxus froze as he realized that he had not been keeping track of their path in the cave. For the first time since they left Caledan, Thraxus did not have an air of confidence about him. "I became distracted when we met Trogen," he tried to explain. "When we started talking about him I lost all sense of where we were going."

They realized they were lost and had no idea to get back to the surface. Gelvin looked at the walls but knew it was hopeless. All the corridors looked the same and they had passed so many branches and forks that the cave seemed like an endless maze. "I guess we'll just have to keep exploring," Gelvin said calmly. It was a voice and expression he'd impressed from Pithian. There was nothing else they could do and Gelvin prayed that this cave was not too large.

They wandered until their legs grew weary and the cramped air tasted stale. They all became worried that the fuel for their lanterns would soon run out. "We'll have to hurry," Thraxus said. He led them down a new corridor that seemed to slope further and further down.

"Are you sure this is wise?" Gelvin asked as they continued their descent.

"What choice do we have?" Thraxus responded as they hurtled down deeper into the depths. "It has to come back up eventually."

But it didn't. Eventually it leveled off, which was a little more encouraging, but not much so. "We have to turn around," Gelvin declared as he stopped running.

"No, it will take too long. We'd have to start down an entirely different passageway," Thraxus explained. They had passed the point of no return.

"Maybe Gelvin is right," Fyndon said weakly as she slowly lost what little confidence she had left in Thraxus. Gelvin knew that an argument was about to begin, even though they didn't have the time for it. But then a discovery by Flynton changed their mood.

"Look!" he shouted as he pointed at the walls of the cave. They had been running so quickly that nobody noticed that the corridors were covered with runes.

"Can you read them?" Fyndon asked as everyone held their lanterns close to the rock face.

"I don't know," Flynton said as he straightened his glasses. "These runes are much older than the ones on the bottle. Flynton stared at the runes and ran his finger across some of the etched lines. He mumbled a few words very quietly and then finally stood up to announce the results of his effort. "I understand very little of it, but there are a few words I can read."

"What," Thraxus asked anxiously as the flame in his lantern burned duller and smaller.

"The words evil, danger, release, and escape all appear here."

Everyone was silent as they tried to understand what the runes meant. Gelvin didn't like the sound of evil or danger but even he admitted to himself that escape sounded promising.

The group stared at Thraxus as he sighed. "We have to go forward. Maybe escape means a way out," he said with exacerbation. Nobody spoke but everyone seemed reluctant. Gelvin looked at the disappearing flame in his lantern and nodded his head at Thraxus. Evil sounded frightening, but so did the prospect of being lost in a pitch black cave.

Thraxus ran down the corridor with the others close behind. After many paces the rocky passage started to widen and enlarge until they came to an iron door. Thraxus stopped in front of the door, which was nearly twelve feet high and blocked the entire passageway. "Slade, quickly," Thraxus said as he backed away from the obstruction.

"Please, let this be a way out," Gelvin thought.

Slade knew exactly what Thraxus wanted and he dropped to his knees in front of the keyhole. It was fixed right below the large iron ring that was used to yank the door open. Slade pulled a set of thin metal tools out of his pocket and he began to jam them into the lock. He fumbled around for a moment and then jerked the tools out. "I can't pick it," he said desperately.

"Back up," Thraxus said as he pushed Slade away and unsheathed his gigantic black sword. There was barely enough room in the wide passage to wield the weapon, but Thraxus was determined to use it. He drew the sword back and swung it into the iron obstruction with all of his might. The door rattled loudly, but did not budge.

"This is useless," Gelvin whispered to Fyndon as Thraxus continued to thrash at the door.

"I know, but it may be our only chance," Fyndon said quietly as she took Gelvin's hand and squeezed it tightly. Gelvin knew how she was feeling, because he was scared too.

Thraxus was getting winded as he pummeled the door to no avail. He doubled over, out of breath, and frustrated when he decided to try one final time. Thraxus raised his sword and screamed as he lowered it onto the lock of iron. As the blade made contact with the lock there was a spark, like striking two pieces of flint together, and a clanging sound. Slowly, the door crept forward a little.

"You did it!" Flynton yelled as Thraxus bent over trying to catch his breath.

"Well done!" Gelvin declared. "But we must hurry." Gelvin grasped the iron ring and pulled the creaky door fully open. The others rushed in, but they did not find an exit.

The door opened into a small room. It wasn't a cavern because the room appeared to be man made. It was carved out of the rock in the shape of a perfect cube. Gelvin hurried inside behind his companions and stopped dead in his tracks as he looked around the chamber.

It was filled with old cobwebs and a copious layer of dust covered the floor. The air smelled vapid as though something had been decaying for a thousand years. Runes covered all the walls from ceiling to floor, but the most disgusting part of the chamber was at the back. Against the wall there sat a rotting wooden throne with a decayed corpse sitting on it. The bones of the corpse seemed to be falling apart and cobwebs covered its eye sockets. The skeleton was very big and Gelvin guessed that this person was once as large as Thraxus. That's when Gelvin quickly realized where they were. He was staring at a dead body in its tomb!

"Let's get out of here," Gelvin said as he slowly backed up towards the entrance. Everyone agreed by their stepping backwards as well, but Gelvin could not help but stare at the poor rotting soul that sat across the chamber from him. Then he noticed a red sparkle coming from that end of the room.

Suddenly, the head of the corpse moved and it sat upright. Its eye sockets glowed an angry red color and it raised its skeletal hand to point at Gelvin. "It won't be that easy," the corpse croaked in a high pitched voice.

A ball of fire flew forth from its hand and knocked Gelvin to the floor. Gelvin patted his tunic and rolled on the ground to put out the small flames that danced on top of it. Thraxus did not hesitate. He charged across the chamber at the corpse, but as he reached out with his sword, it slid out of his hand and clanged on the floor.

"Gelvin!" Fyndon screamed as she ran over to him and helped him up.

Thraxus was trying to pick up his sword, but it kept sliding out of his hand, as Flynton pulled his red jewel from his pocket. The jewel began to glow as the corpse turned its head in Flynton's direction. Its decaying bones creaked as it turned and the corpse pointed a grotesque finger at Flynton. Suddenly, his jewel cracked and made a loud popping sound. He dropped it and fell to his knees, searching the floor for the precious catalyst of his magic.

Gelvin finally stood up and drew his Defender. He raised it high and charged the throne, while screaming a war cry that made Thraxus proud. Just as Gelvin reached the throne and brought his blade down, the corpse exploded in a puff of black smoke. The smoke filled the chamber to the ceiling and then rushed out the entranceway. Finally, Thraxus was able to pick up his sword but it was too late.

"What happened?" Gelvin asked as he watched Thraxus examine the hilt of his sword. It was not slick and Thraxus was puzzled as to why it kept slipping away.

"I don't know. I just couldn't get a grip."

Fyndon dropped to floor to help Flynton look for his stone just as he pulled up. It was covered with a dusty film and had a large crack running down the entire length of the jewel. "Will it still work?" Fyndon asked.

"I don't know," Flynton responded as he wiped the dust away and looked at the crack closely. Before he could examine it too acutely though, Thraxus' and Fyndon's lanterns both spent their last drops of fuel. They all realized that the other lanterns would only last a few more moments.

"What do we do?" Fyndon cried out. The thought of complete darkness crept up in Gelvin's imagination and he started to breathe harder. Thraxus tried to remain calm as he looked around the room and saw the solution to their problem.

He ran up to the wooden throne and started pulling the legs off it. The first one splintered into a thousand pieces but the next two remained intact, creating two long thick sticks. Gelvin realized what Thraxus was trying and he grabbed Slade's lantern which still had the most fuel left.

Gelvin removed the bloody rag he used as Fyndon's tourniquet and ripped it in two. Thraxus took the pieces and tied them off on ends of the sticks as Gelvin poured what little precious fuel they had left onto them. Then they took the dying flame from Flynton's lantern and ignited the sticks, creating two torches.

Fyndon and Gelvin each held a torch, which illuminated even more detail within the tomb. Runes and wards covered all the walls and Gelvin felt that an evil presence was surrounding them. "Let's leave," Gelvin said and they quickly rushed out of the tomb and ran back down the passage.

With their new torches casting a bright orange glow, the explorers lost any sense of urgency and they stumbled around the cave for a good while. "What more can happen to us," Gelvin wondered to himself. He was frustrated at being lost, even though they had new light sources. Gelvin held his torch high and stared at Fyndon's shoulder. Remarkably, it was completely healed and Gelvin, remembering the cure, asked, "How did you make such a powerful powder?"

Fyndon knew that Gelvin was speaking to her and she replied, "Comwens are taught how herbs act when mixed together."

"Do they make animals go to sleep?" Flynton asked with a laugh as he recalled Fyndon's argument about odors.

"No," Fyndon responded sarcastically. She turned back towards Gelvin and continued, "The healing powder is mixed from the roots of the crete plant and bull flower."

"That is impressive. What other powders can you mix?" Gelvin asked.

"Oh, many types," Fyndon replied. "There are powders that can make a person sneeze, make them gorge themselves on fish, that can blind an animal, or even make someone appear dead."

Gelvin imagined how a powder could feign death and his thoughts returned to the tomb. "I wonder if that corpse was using such a powder?" Gelvin speculated.

Mentioning the tomb sobered everyone. They were not certain what they had done yet, but they all regretted having broken through the door. "What do you think was in the tomb?" Gelvin whispered to Fyndon.

"Whatever it was, I've never seen it in nature. I've never heard of a dead body coming to life. Maybe it was just an illusion created by those strange runes." Gelvin didn't believe that idea. He did not know anything about runes, but his head felt clear and he felt the smoke surround him when the corpse disappeared.

Eventually, they again wandered to Trogen's lair. He was still sitting on his pile of gold, but he had transformed back into the stocky man again. "My friends, you have returned," Trogen said with outstretched arms as he slid down the gold. "I have good news for you, I know how you can find Koraz's keep."

"We can't even find our way out of this cave," Flynton declared in disgust.

"I can help you with that as well," Trogen said.

"How did you find Koraz?" Gelvin asked curiously.

"I have not exactly. Some of my friends who inhabit the cave told me where you can find a map to his keep though." As Trogen explained Gelvin thought back to the tomb. He hoped that corpse wasn't one of Trogen's friends and he wondered whether or not he should tell the gold dragon.

"Where is the map?" Thraxus asked.

"It is in a hillside lair above ground," Trogen explained. "But to obtain the map, you will have to defeat the hill's inhabitant, a young green dragon." Gelvin began to sweat at the thought of another dragon. He assumed that when the queen bee spoke of a worm, Trogen was it. Now there was a second dragon to face, and Gelvin knew that green ones weren't as congenial as Trogen. Gelvin read that Green Dragons were large violent lizards that could poison the air and spoil clear water.

Trogen gave Thraxus directions out of the cave and to the hill. Gelvin listened intently to the directions because he was going to make sure they didn't get lost a second time. Trogen wished them luck and said his farewells. But as Gelvin started to leave Trogen's cavern, he felt compelled to ask him about the tomb that lingered in his thoughts.

Gelvin turned around abruptly and asked, "Trogen, do you know of a tomb deep inside this cave?"

Trogen's genial expression changed to solemn and he slowly responded, "Yes, what of it?"

"We wandered into it and found a skeletal corpse," Gelvin explained.

Trogen's eyes widened and he put his hand to his mouth in an expression of disbelief. "You broke through an iron door?" he asked.

"Yes, we were able to break it down," Gelvin replied without understanding the importance of the question.

Trogen placed his hand to his head and threw his neck back to look up at the ceiling of his cavern. "By the Gods, that should not have been possible. Where is the corpse? Did it escape?"

Gelvin became worried because Trogen was outwardly concerned about this accident. Gelvin saw fear in Trogen's eyes, even though he did not yet understand why.

"The corpse exploded into black smoke," Slade said.

Trogen lowered his head and slowly shook it back and forth, "That's means he escaped."

"Who escaped?" Gelvin asked as he saw the tension build up on Trogen's face.

"Necron the Destroyer escaped!" Trogen shouted.

"Who is that?" Fyndon asked inquisitively.

"Necron was a horribly powerful necromancer who threatened many worlds, including this one, a millennia ago. The Gods intervened and after a titanic struggle they subdued him. Necron protected himself with a dark veil of negative energy which made him nearly invulnerable. The Gods were able to destroy him though, but Necron's dark magic returned him to life. Realizing that he could not be killed, the Gods imprisoned him for eternity in the tomb you found. I would have warned you, but I never thought you would travel so deep and you should not have been able to penetrate the iron door to his chamber."

"So we released Necron?" Gelvin asked in shock. He didn't understand how the corpse re-animated itself, but then Gelvin thought about the dark magic Trogen mentioned. Slowly, Gelvin felt his heart sink as the realized the severity of what they had done.

"Yes, somehow, I don't know, you did," Trogen said as he stumbled through the words. He rubbed his forehead with his palm and waved his hand. "You must leave. It is not your fault, but still, I must communicate with the Gods to tell them what has happened," Trogen said without even looking up.

Gelvin did not know what to do. He felt responsible for releasing Necron even though he did not yet fully comprehend the magnitude of their actions. "We should stay and help," Gelvin said in Thraxus' ear.

"There's nothing we can do. Leave this to Trogen. Come on, we are close to Koraz," Thraxus said as he pulled the reluctant Spriteleng out of the cavern.

Thraxus followed Trogen's directions and very soon they were on the surface again. While the others concentrated on climbing out of the cave, Gelvin thought, "What is Necron?" He didn't have an answer to that question yet and Gelvin felt much better when he saw the sunlight outside the threshold of the cave just ahead of him. It was late in the afternoon and not as hot, which was a relief to everyone. He felt better in the wide open area and he tried his best to forget what he had done in releasing Necron.

"Which way to the hill?" Fyndon asked as Thraxus looked in every direction.

"I'm not really sure," he confided.

"Weren't you listening to Trogen?" Slade asked in disgust. They were all tired of getting lost.

"Yes, I listened. But there are no paths up here. All the trees look the same to me. I can't find any landmarks."

"Need some help strangers?" a confident voice called out from above their heads.

Gelvin looked up and saw a short man crouched on the branch of a tree. He had long brown hair and wore a green shirt matching his green pants. Around his neck was a silver necklace which held a silver star in the middle. The man carried a crossbow in one hand and was balancing himself with the other.

Thraxus immediately drew his sword, for fear that the man would attack. The memory of Narus was still fresh in his mind. "We outnumber you," Thraxus declared. Thraxus was a warrior and never trusted someone with a weapon in an elevated position.

"I won't hurt you," the man said in disgust. "I just thought you looked lost."

"We are looking for a hill," Gelvin said as he forced Thraxus to sheath his weapon. "We would appreciate your help." Gelvin didn't sense any hostility from the stranger so he thought maybe he could help them.

"There are many hills in this valley. Which one do you want to find."

"The one that holds a green dragon," Flynton told the stranger.

"Oh, that hill. It is not far from here. Why do you seek the dragon?" he asked.

"It has something we need," Thraxus replied coyly.

"After its treasure are you?" the stranger asked in a flippant way.

"Just some of it," Gelvin said cautiously. He didn't know this man and didn't want to reveal too much about their true reason for venturing into the hill. Gelvin peered into the stranger's eyes but felt nothing. He peered deeper, as his eyes locked in place, but Gelvin still felt a blankness from this man. Even though he did not know why, Gelvin trusted his senses completely. He felt no hostility from this man and he grudgingly decided that he would listen to what the man had to say.

"I can help you defeat the dragon," the stranger said. Thraxus was interested because, at the very least, he thought this new man could serve as fodder for the battle.

"What do you want in return?" Thraxus asked.

"Just my share of the treasure. I would go there myself but I could not defeat the beast alone. I do know a way we all could vanquish it though," the man said.

"What's your plan?" Thraxus asked as the man jumped down from the tree. He plummeted to the ground and landed on his feet between Slade and Gelvin.

"The name's Riverwind," the stranger said as he held out his hand for Gelvin to shake.

"What are you doing here?" Gelvin asked, curious as to why a man would travel alone in this dangerous valley.

"I am a woodsman. This is my home."

"Where?" Slade asked.

"Everywhere," Riverwind responded. "The entire valley is my home." Riverwind was barely taller than Slade and spoke with an eloquence that Gelvin did not think was common for a woodsman. Riverwind had a scarred face and dark skin which helped him blend into his natural surroundings. Again, Gelvin stared into his eyes but he still felt no emotions or reactions.

"Tell us your plan," Thraxus insisted again.

"This dragon is young and foolish," Riverwind began as he looked Thraxus in the eye. "All dragons love presents and we can make this one think we're bringing it one. I have learned a few words in dragon tongue and I can tell it we bring a gift. Then, when we are close enough, we can strike while the dragon is distracted."

Gelvin thought it sounded like a reasonable plan, because he had read that dragons were greedy and young ones could be easily manipulated. The plan would never work against an elder dragon, but perhaps against a neophyte. "I agree," Gelvin said as his eyes lit up. "And I know where the perfect gift is."

Gelvin led the others back to the clearing where they battled Narus. All the dead bodies were gone, probably eaten by other animals, but the wooden chest still laid there empty.

"We take this to the worm," Gelvin said as he pointed at the box. "It's big enough that the dragon will think we all need to carry it. That way, it'll be less suspicious."

"An excellent idea Gelvin," Fyndon said in agreement.

"Good, then follow me and we will take this to the dragon," Riverwind said as Thraxus and Gelvin picked up the chest and marched behind the woodsman.

The dragon's lair was not far, but Gelvin's arms grew tired and numb from carrying the huge chest. The hill was a large grass covered mound of earth with a hole dug into the side of it. The hole was barely large enough to squeeze the chest through, so Gelvin walked behind it and pushed it towards the worm's lair.

They crawled through the earthen tunnel and spilled out into the den. The interior of the hill was hollow and contained the vicious green dragon Trogen had warned of. It's teeth were as long as swords and its green scales glowed as sunlight reflected off its hide. Gelvin looked up and saw that there was no peak to this hill. Instead there was a giant hole at the top of the lair, through which the dragon certainly came and went. All green dragons had small wings which would let them soar through the air and this worm was no different. Its wings were folded behind its back and the stench of its hissing breath choked Gelvin as he tried desperately to breathe.

"Hsssia cisssa cressa," Riverwind hissed at the angry dragon. The dragon reared back with its head and looked perplexed at the small people who brought him the chest.

"Take the dragon the gift and be ready," Riverwind said as he pointed towards the opposite side of the lair. The dragon had not attacked immediately, which Gelvin thought was a little more promising, but he began to doubt the sanity of this approach as he moved closer to the worm. The plan seemed less wise as Gelvin saw more of the dragon's sharp rows of teeth.

Gelvin, Fyndon, and Slade lifted one end of the chest while Thraxus and Flynton hoisted the other. They slowly crossed the earthen floor of the circular lair as Gelvin stared at the giant opening above his head. The dragon was barely small enough to squeeze through the hole and Gelvin thought, "I guess that's knot hole size for worms." Gelvin could see the ever increasingly cloudy sky pass over head and then he looked back into the eyes of the dragon.

It hissed as they carried the chest towards it and Gelvin could not help but feel awe from the beast. It had a long whip like tail with spikes on the end and claws that could surely rip a man to shreds.

"Kisssesnz shemsss. Sessszz azsksss ussss," Riverwind called out and the dragon looked at him.

Fyndon understood a few words in this dragon language, but she saw no reason to mention it before. After all, they had their new friend Riverwind to communicate. But she heard him say something to the worm that caught her off guard. Azsksss means attack!

"By the Spirits, he told the dragon to attack us," she said to Gelvin.

Gelvin did not know that Fyndon could speak the dragon language, but he did not care. He had grown to trust her in the short time since they met and if she said that Riverwind told the lizard to attack, then that was enough for him.

Gelvin let go of the chest and leapt at the dragon with lightning quickness. In mid air, Gelvin pulled out his Defender and slashed at the dragon's chest. The dragon screamed and hissed in pain and anger as blood spurt out of its body. It was surprised by Gelvin's tenacity.

Gelvin landed on the ground and turned to strike the beast again. The dragon swiped at Gelvin with a huge claw, but the Defender rose in time to block the monster's hand. Thraxus and Slade sprang to the attack with their swords and pierced the dragon's scaly hide from behind.

The dragon turned to see what had dared to attack his rear and Gelvin struck the worm with another tremendous blow. The dragon, bleeding and hurt, fell to the ground with an earth shattering thud. Thraxus jumped over it's limp claws and sliced open the beasts neck with his black blade. Blood splattered everywhere as the dragon made a gurgling sound and stopped breathing.

As the dragon died, Thraxus screamed in a berserk rage and pulled his sword from the mauled remains of the dragon's throat. Thraxus held the blade high in front of him and it began to vibrate and resonate with power. Thraxus' arms shook in harmony with the sword as he screamed a rhythmic war cry. Suddenly, he lashed out with the blade striking the nearest thing to him. Thraxus heard a chopping sound followed by a thud. As he looked to the side he swung the sword, Thraxus saw Slade's dead body lying next to his severed head.

"You madman!" Gelvin yelled as he charged at Thraxus. The warrior was still in a frozen shock at what he'd done and Gelvin was able to tackle him quite easily. As the two landed on the ground, the black sword was knocked away and spun across the floor. "What did you do!" Gelvin screamed as he grabbed Thraxus by the collar and started to throttle him.

"I'm sorry," Thraxus said with his eyes wide open and tears beginning to roll down his flush cheeks. Any rage he felt melted away and genuine sorrow entered Thraxus' heart. He had not meant to strike Slade, but an uncontrollable lust to strike out gripped him, and he could not resist.

Fyndon and Flynton rushed over to Slade's bloody remains and knew there was nothing that could be done. He died instantly from the sword.

In the chaos of the moment everyone forgot about Riverwind. He casually walked over to the small pile of gold the dragon kept in a corner and rifled through it until he pulled out a single sheet of scrolled paper. Thraxus remained motionless on the ground in a state of shock when Gelvin saw Riverwind out of the corner of his left eye.

"You tried to kill us," Gelvin said as he raised his Defender and menacingly stalked towards the woodsman. All the rage he felt towards Thraxus he was ready to take out on the man who had fooled him.

"I think I've found what you're looking for," Riverwind said with a strange complacency as he unrolled a map and held it up high for everyone to see.

"How did you know?" Fyndon asked in a state of shock. They had never told Riverwind that they were looking for a map to Koraz's keep.

"You're looking for Koraz. You are successful," Riverwind said as a crazed expression overtook his face and he began to laugh. Gelvin stopped his approach because he was scared motionless. Koraz stood right in front of him and he didn't know what to do.

Riverwind laughed at them all and then ran at Gelvin with incredible speed. Gelvin raised his sword and Riverwind jumped into the air and performed an acrobatic flip. Before he landed there was an explosion of magical energy and Riverwind disappeared. The map slowly wafted down to the ground and Gelvin heard an echoing voice call out, "Come and get me."

"Was that him?" Fyndon asked Gelvin.

"I guess so," Gelvin replied, not really sure what to think.

As Gelvin looked at the map, Thraxus had gathered himself and stood up next to Slade's dead body. "Of course that was him," he said confidently as he walked over to his sword and sheathed it on his back.

"There's something wrong with that blade Thraxus," Gelvin called out as he walked over to the warrior. Gelvin didn't know what exactly, but everyone had just seen what happened.

"I can control it," Thraxus said as he pushed past the Spriteleng and snatched the map out of his hand. He coveted the sword and if he had to, Thraxus would be willing to fight to keep it.

"No you can't," Gelvin called out. "Somehow that sword makes your rages worse. It's controlling you I think."

"How would you know. You're just a Spriteleng!" Thraxus vehemently spat out.

He was right though. Gelvin wasn't sure what was wrong with Thraxus and he only guessed it had something to do with the sword. He wished Pithian were there to tell him what to do and Gelvin fondly thought of the comforts of home. He had not bathed or eaten a good meal in many suns and it felt as though he hadn't been to the temple in years. Gelvin had experienced more during a few suns than he had during his whole life and it was taking a toll on him.

Thraxus studied the map and said, "Come on, we have a quest to finish."

Everyone remained silent as Thraxus put his pack on and prepared to leave the hill. None of them wanted to follow him after what he'd done to Slade, but nobody knew what to say. Gelvin had reached the breaking point. He wanted to go home and he knew that if he followed Thraxus he might never make it back. Gelvin looked into Fyndon's and Flynton's concerned eyes and he knew what he had to do. The moment had finally come when someone needed to stand up to their leader. Gelvin did not want the responsibility, but he accepted it.

"We're not going," Gelvin said calmly.

"You coward!" Thraxus raged as he reached out and took Gelvin by the throat. Thraxus tightened his grip and Gelvin began to choke.

"Let him go!" Fyndon called out as she placed one hand on her dagger. "Gelvin is right." Fyndon feared Thraxus' strength, but her friendship with Gelvin gave her courage.

Thraxus looked back at Gelvin's squirming face and he released his grip. Gelvin coughed and gasped for air. "You're a fool Thraxus."

"Be happy that I didn't kill you Spriteleng. I never should have let you join my quest."

"It's a trap!" Gelvin yelled in a much louder voice. "Don't you know it's a trap. If Koraz wanted to kill us he could have while I had you on the ground and the others were distracted." Thraxus paused because Gelvin's argument made sense, even if it did come from the mouth of a coward. "Koraz is toying with us," Gelvin continued. "He left us a map because he wants us to go to his keep. He probably has his entire guild of faceless waiting for us. You're playing into his hands."

"Then what do you suggest?" Thraxus asked angrily.

"We should return to Rocwhelm," Gelvin pleaded with his hands outstretched. "We have the map and can return with more of Kenyson's men. Don't be a fool Thraxus."

Thraxus looked at Fyndon and Flynton and he knew they agreed with Gelvin. Still, he had to ask, "What of you two?"

"We're going back with Gelvin," Fyndon said without even looking to Flynton. He nodded in concurrence and Thraxus realized he had no choice. He could not attack Koraz himself.

"I guess we march back to Rocwhelm then," Thraxus conceded as he dropped his head in defeat.

They each gathered up their packs and started back through the tunnel. Gelvin was reluctant to leave Slade's body, but he had no choice. There was no way to carry it out of the valley and all the way back to Rocwhelm. "Farewell Slade," Gelvin whispered reluctantly, regretting that he had not interceded against Thraxus sooner. Gelvin sighed as they exited the side of the hill and he looked at the sun which was not above them. Soon it would be dark and he didn't want to be in this valley with Koraz looking for him.


Strength and Honor

"Historians know very little about the man called Zatu before he met Gelvin the Spriteleng. He seems to have had no important role in history before that night but he was pivotal in Gelvin's quest. The fact that he met Gelvin because of Thraxus' greed is quite ironic."

From The One History of Illuria
By the Council of Prophecies

Gelvin led the others back to the stone path they used to descend into the valley. Now it would be their salvation as they used it to escape a place where they had seen nothing but death and chaos. Fyndon and Flynton deferred to Gelvin as leader now because Thraxus had lost what little respect he had left during his berserk rage inside the dragon's lair. The winding stone path criss crossed its way up the side of the steep valley and Gelvin began to relax a little because he thought they had almost reached safety.

As they climbed the valley wall Fyndon looked at Gelvin. She knew he was uncomfortable taking charge. He doubted himself, even though she and Flynton were more than willing to follow him. "Are you okay, Gelvin?" she finally asked.

"I just don't know if what we're doing is right. Maybe we should have gone forward to Koraz's keep."

"Trust your instincts Gelvin," Fyndon replied. "I have faith in you and so does Flynton."

"I just never thought I'd be doing this," Gelvin said discouragingly. "Slade is the first person I knew that has died since the disaster at my village." Gelvin did not count Narus as someone he knew, but the violence of all their other battles was also starting to take its toll on the Spriteleng. "I feel like I'm changing and I don't like it."

"But you will learn from these experiences," Fyndon explained. "There are many things in this world you had never seen before this quest. I know it is difficult to see so many horrible things, but you must struggle and fight any bad feelings you may have." Gelvin listened closely to Fyndon and he wished he had her strength. Ironically, she wished she had Gelvin's innocence.

They continued their climb in morose silence when Gelvin heard a familiar sound that was quite unexpected. The galloping sound of hooves filled the air and Gelvin stopped to listen. "Do you hear that?" he asked his companions.

"Those are war horses," Thraxus said as he turned his head both directions to locate the source. Gelvin wondered what war horses would be doing in this remote valley.

"Down there!" Flynton cried as he pointed behind them to their right. Gelvin turned and stared at the tree line of the valley where he saw a black carriage being drawn by two black stallions.

"What is that?" Thraxus asked.

"I don't know, but it's coming this way," Gelvin said as he carefully moved off the path. The others followed him as the carriage moved in a straight line right up the side of the deep valley.

Gelvin ducked down behind some tall grass next to the stone path and his companions followed his lead. Gelvin peered through the reeds as the carriage got closer. The horses were black with black eyes except for their manes and tails. The hair was fiery red and whipped back and forth in the wind as they hurtled up the valley. Gelvin wondered how anything could move straight up the valley without using the path, let alone at that speed. Then he saw his answer. The steeds were galloping on air. Their feet never touched the ground!

The passenger in the carriage was concealed by black curtains covering the windows. The carriage slowed as it neared Gelvin and came to a complete stop a mere ten paces away from him. The mystical stallions hovered, their hooves still never touching the ground as a curtain in the cab was pulled back by the figure inside.

A man with bright red hair and bushy eyebrows stuck his head out the window and starting laughing. He sounded just like Riverwind and was wearing the same silver necklace. Gelvin held his breath and remained as still as possible, even though the man was looking right at him.

"You can't hide from Koraz, Gelvin. Too bad, I expected you at my keep, but maybe we'll meet again later. Right now I have business to finish." The man continued to laugh heartily as he sat back down in the carriage and pulled the curtain. The horses suddenly began moving again and Gelvin watched as they galloped over the rim of the bowled valley.

"Was that Koraz?" Flynton asked.

"It had to be," Gelvin said as he stood up and stepped back onto the stone walkway.

"But I thought Riverwind was Koraz," Flynton rationalized. "That man didn't look anything like him."

"His appearance can be deceiving," Fyndon said as she hopped back onto the trail. "Remember Anis Shanklar."

"Who?" Thraxus asked.

"The Elven King Lord Kenyson told us about. Remember, Koraz killed him by disguising himself as the elf's own father," Fyndon recounted the tale. "If he can convince someone he's their own father, he can probably come up with any disguise he wants."

"We've got to hurry," Gelvin said as he bound up the path. "I have a bad feeling I know where he was going."

The same thought had crossed Thraxus' mind as well. "To kill Lord Kenyson?"

"Exactly," Gelvin confirmed as each of them picked up their pace.

After a while the sun had set in the west and Gelvin led the others as they approached Rocwhelm. But then he stopped as he noticed something unusual. "Why is the city glowing?" Gelvin asked.

"Those are fires," Thraxus answered. "Parts of the city are burning."

Many thoughts ran through Gelvin's head. At first, he thought maybe Koraz started the fires as a distraction. Then Gelvin concluded that he wouldn't require such petty and dubious strategies. As they got closer to the city screams could be heard from everywhere. Gelvin became frightened and wasn't sure what he was going to do when they got there. Fyndon and Flynton were looking to him for leadership and Gelvin wasn't confident he could provide it.

Moments later they reached the stone wall of Rocwhelm and saw a city in chaos. Buildings were burning, screams shrieked through the night air, and soldiers were arresting and beating people in the streets. "What should we do, Gelvin?" Fyndon asked as she gripped his shoulder in fear.

"I don't know yet," Gelvin said. He hoped that answer wouldn't give Thraxus any satisfaction because Gelvin still thought he was right to leave the valley.

People were running in every direction as order had broken down in all quarters of the city. Gelvin stopped a man running past them. He was scared out of his wits. His eyes were wide open and he could barely speak. "Lemme go!" he screamed.

"I won't hurt you!" Gelvin shouted over the noise as he tried to settle the frightened man down. "Tell me, what's happened here?"

The man mumbled something and Gelvin shook him until his speech became coherent. "Koraz!" he shouted. "Koraz killed the Lord. Now his son Marcus is the Lord and he's arresting everyone. The army is preparing for war I think."

Gelvin released the man who darted away and the Spriteleng looked up at the castle which was surrounded by burning shops and homes. "If Marcus is the new Lord then we're in grave danger," Gelvin said slowly as he looked back at Fyndon. "Marcus must have hired Koraz. He knows who we are. Marcus has seen us and he'll send troops to arrest us!" Panic slowly gripped Gelvin as memories of his unusual conversation with Marcus swamped his mind.

"Then we have to get out of here!" Fyndon shouted as she held Gelvin by the arms in an attempt to calm him down.

"We'll return to Caledan," Thraxus said as he stepped forward. "King Zendon can protect us."

"But we'll have to get through this city first," Flynton whined.

"Then we should get moving," Gelvin said confidently as the initial shock of his realization passed. "Follow me and don't stop for any troops or guards."

Rocwhelm was a chaotic mess, but Gelvin thought he still remembered the way to the other side. He decided to follow the main road through the city until they exited the northern side of the wall. People were fleeing in the streets and Gelvin had to run slowly so everyone could keep up.

They passed the castle and were nearing the northern end of town when Gelvin saw a detachment of soldiers blocking the road. There were almost two dozen men, blocking the road to the north. They each held swords and were striking innocent civilians who ran wildly in the streets. Gelvin came to an abrupt stop and Fyndon ran into him. He stumbled forward which drew the attention of the soldiers.

"Those are the ones Marcus told us about. Arrest them!" the commander shouted. Suddenly, twelve troops charged at Gelvin as Thraxus pulled out his sword.

"No," Gelvin said as he put his hand on Thraxus' shoulder to gain his attention. "There's too many of them." Gelvin looked to the west and saw a dark alley where nobody was fleeing. "That way!" Gelvin ordered as the soldiers rushed towards them.

The fleeing citizens congested the main road but Gelvin and the others slipped by them into the alley. The soldiers pushed and shoved their way past the people until they were right behind Thraxus. He looked back at the pursuers and he called out to Gelvin, "Keep going, I'll hold them off."

"You can't kill them all," Gelvin yelled over hi shoulder as he ran down the alley.

"I won't have to," Thraxus shouted back as he stopped to face the Rocwhelm troops. Gelvin looked back but kept running. If Thraxus felt like committing suicide, that was his choice. Gelvin had had enough of his violence and battles.

"Hurry," Gelvin said to Fyndon and Flynton. "Thraxus will catch up." Gelvin led his companions around a corner and they ran towards the northern end of the city.

Meanwhile, Thraxus turned to face the oncoming soldiers. He did not draw his sword, because even he knew when he was outnumbered. He put his hands on his hips and stuck his chest out to appear as large as possible. The first soldier charged at Thraxus and swung with his sword. The blade went right through Thraxus' fading body and clanged on the dirt covered stone road.

"What is this?" the commander of the guard asked as each of his men swung and punched at Thraxus to no avail. Thraxus laughed in silence as his magical armor protected him. He faded until he was barely visible. Then he backed into a shadow of a building and the soldiers were convinced that he disappeared.

"It was a trick!" one of the soldiers yelled and they continued to run down the alley to catch up with Gelvin.

"Kenyson's soldiers never were very bright," Thraxus thought to himself as his substance returned. He watched as the soldiers turned the corner to chase Gelvin and thought, "I hope that gave them enough time."

Gelvin ran through the streets with Fyndon and Flynton on his heels. Citizens were still searching for cover when Gelvin saw the opening in the northern part of the city wall. It was the same place he peacefully entered only a few suns ago and now it was his escape. But there was one final obstacle. A guard was standing on top of the wall with a bow. He had one arrow cocked and took a bead on Gelvin.

"Halt!" he shouted. "Nobody leaves Rocwhelm!"

"Flynton!" Gelvin yelled as he slowed his pace. The magician knew what Gelvin wanted, but he had to pray that his cracked stone would still work.

Flynton pulled the red jewel out of his pocket and looked at the crack created by Necron's magic. He had not tried to use it since then, but he knew that they must have a diversion if they were going to escape. He rubbed the stone and it glowed a gentle red, but then faded. "Come on," Flynton thought as he rubbed the stone harder, but still there was no flash.

The guard pulled his arrow back on the thin string of his large wooden bow and prepared to fire when Gelvin shouted, "Now Flynton!"

Flynton didn't know what to do. He couldn't summon his magic, but then it occurred to him that there was one final possibility. As the archer prepared to release the arrow, Flynton threw his red jewel at the wall, just below his feet. As the stone collided with the rock wall it exploded in a blinding flash of red. The jewel released what little magic it had left in a jarring eruption.

The guard tried to cover his eyes and shot his arrow into the air, missing everyone. As he rubbed his eyes and tried to maintain his shaky balance Gelvin and his companions raced past him, through the opening, and disappeared onto the dark road outside Rocwhelm.

Gelvin ran a few yards down the road, until he thought they were out of the guard's sight, and then he stopped to catch his breath. "Well done Flynton, I'm sorry you had to lose your stone," Gelvin said as he panted for air.

"It's okay. I don't think it had much left anyway."

"Where's Thraxus?" Fyndon asked as she suddenly remembered that he stayed behind to distract the pursuing troops.

"Not far behind," Thraxus called out as he ran towards them from the burning city.

"How did you escape?" Gelvin asked in amazement. He assumed that the foolish warrior had died in a needless battle with the troops.

"It's easy to sneak around when you can fade away," Thraxus said as his substance disappeared and Gelvin realized just how difficult it became to see him at night.

"Good that you're still with us," Gelvin said and wondered whether or not he meant it. "I say we walk all night to get back to Caledan. We won't be safe until we reach there. Do you agree?"

They all said yes, but Fyndon added, "Let's stay off the roads. There could be troops on patrol and I don't want to face them if we don't have to."

"Good idea," Gelvin confirmed as he looked to the side of the road and led them through the light patches of trees and bushes. The grass and trees to the side of the road provided adequate cover and not even Gelvin could see the road through the darkness and foliage. "We should be in Caledan by next night fall," he said and everyone breathed a quick sigh of relief that they had survived Koraz and avoided Marcus.

Gelvin led his friends as quietly as possible along the side of the road. They passed over the rolling hills Gelvin saw the lake from a while ago, but in the darkness of night, the water was not visible. After crossing the hills, they approach the guard tower at the border. Gelvin paused as he heard sounds of a battle waft down from the road.

"What's going on?" Flynton asked as Gelvin carefully listened.

"It sounds like a battle," Gelvin said as he heard a man scream in pain. "Stay here, I'm going to see it," Gelvin said as he crouched close to the ground and started to crawl up to the road.

"Wait," Fyndon said desperately. "What if it's soldiers or something worse," she said as she imagined all of the horrible creatures that wander at night.

"I'm sure I'll be fine," Gelvin responded reassuringly.

"Just be careful, remember we need you here," Fyndon said as Gelvin continued to crawl forward. Gelvin felt better about his role as their leader as he crawled upwards. Fyndon said she needed him, and that gave Gelvin deep feelings of faith in his decisions.

Gelvin peered past the trees and rubbed his eyes as he stared at dead bodies strewn across the road. A feeling of disgust and horror overwhelmed Gelvin as he looked at the bloody corpses. Their faces were smashed and their limbs severed. There was a brutal battle and it had just ended. As Gelvin crawled closer he recognized Rocwhelm soldiers and Stone Giants laying dead across the road and in the tower. One corpse even hung over the edge of the top of the post and Gelvin hoped it was the officer who had sneered at him. Gelvin knew it was wrong to hope a man dead, but he didn't care. He couldn't change his feelings and Gelvin began to realize that he was not as forgiving as he was just a few suns ago.

Gelvin crept off the road a little farther to try and find who or what had caused such a massacre. Gelvin hoped it would be Zendon's soldiers come to rescue him and give him a horse to ride home on. But the killer was anything but a soldier. Gelvin looked past the tower and saw a large woman with blond hair and dark eyes pulling her sword out of a Stone Giant's body. The woman looked strong, with muscles as large as Gelvin. She was removing a black sword that reminded Gelvin of Thraxus' blade but this one was much smaller.

Gelvin watched her intently when he had a strange feeling. He didn't know what it was, but suddenly the woman looked in Gelvin's direction and stared him straight in the eyes. Gelvin jumped backwards. He didn't expect her to see him in the shadows, but she had and she was walking towards him. Gelvin drew his sword and was ready to call on his friends when the woman put her blade on the ground and said, "I won't hurt you. You're not one of them."

Gelvin assumed the them referred to the dead giants and soldiers. He calmed down a bit as she approached him unarmed. The woman wore dark armor, not as black as Thraxus', but still dark. She had dark unmoving eyes and a stern face with no wrinkles or markings.

"Who are you?" Gelvin asked as he kept one hand close to his sword.

"I am an enemy of Marcus of Rocwhelm. Who are you?" she snapped back.

"I'm just trying to get out of here. I'm escaping to Caledan."

"That's where I'm from," the woman said as she walked into the shadow next to Gelvin. Gelvin did not know his home very well, but he had never seen this woman in Caledan before and he became suspicious.

"How do I know you are from Caledan?" Gelvin asked cautiously.

"You're that Spriteleng who lives in the temple," the woman said as she pointed at Gelvin in surprise. Gelvin was surprised as well. He was not well known in the city and he concluded that she must be from Caledan to recognize him. "I'm Mendibone," she said. "What are you called?"

"My name is Gelvin." He looked into her eyes and a new sensation overcame Gelvin. Suddenly, he trusted this woman without question and he felt more relaxed and calm.

"We must hurry Gelvin. More troops will be along shortly."

"Why did they attack you?" Gelvin asked.

"Who said they attacked me," Mendibone retorted with a snort from her nose. Gelvin had not considered that possibility and he was impressed by Mendibone's bravery. She had defeated four men and three giants by herself. Gelvin decided that she was the kind of ally he wanted and he felt compelled to introduce her to the others.

"I fear Rocwhelm will soon attack Caledan. We must hurry back to King Zendon to warn him," Gelvin explained. "I have other friends to the side of the road, but we can always use more. There is safety in numbers."

"I believe you are right," Mendibone said as she returned to the battle scene to retrieve her sword. "For some strange reason, I trust you."

Gelvin did not think it so strange, because most people trusted him and he felt the same about her.

"I hate Rocwhelm and would welcome the chance to join Zendon's army. I will travel with you," Mendibone said as she returned from the road with her sword recovered. "Introduce me to your friends."

Gelvin led her to his companions and informed them that Mendibone had defeated many soldiers and giants. She wanted to travel with them to inform Zendon of Kenyson's assassination. Fyndon was wary, because she did not trust women who traveled alone at night. It just didn't sit well with her. Thraxus liked the idea though, because he was impressed with her obvious strength. Mendibone felt an immediate attraction to Thraxus as well and they began to talk about battle and service in Zendon's army.

"Do you trust her?" Fyndon whispered to Gelvin.

"Of course," he replied as though the feeling were mutual.

Fyndon did not say anything because he wanted Gelvin to feel confident but something bothered her about Mendibone. Fyndon held her head backwards and smelled the air around the newcomer deeply. It did not smell unusual, but certainly different. Mendibone's odor was like nothing Fyndon had ever smelled in nature.

The travelers pressed on through the night and fortunately did not see anymore soldiers. Eventually the night yielded to the sun rising again from the east. Gelvin was weary and his legs cramped from the weight of his weapons and pack. He looked at his companions and they were exhausted as well, except for Mendibone. She never seemed to tire.

They were out of food and water was becoming scarce, yet Gelvin urged them forward. "How much further?" Flynton asked in an exhausted tone.

"I don't know," Gelvin replied. "What do you think Thraxus?"

"We've still got a long march in front of us," Thraxus replied to their chagrin. They all wanted food and rest but nobody would say so. They knew it wouldn't do any good and the thought of a warm comfortable bed in Caledan is all that kept them moving.

"I'm going to need water soon," Thraxus said. "I know where there's a river nearby."

"Stop us when we're close," Gelvin said as he stretched his neck to stay awake. After walking a few more paces, Thraxus stopped him and pointed down to a small brook further away from the road, hidden in an oasis of trees.

"It's down there," Thraxus said as he pointed. He led the way down to the shallow stream and everyone rejoiced, if only for a moment, as they drank the cool water. Thraxus lapped it up into his mouth and then ran handfuls through his hair and beard. As everyone else drank, Thraxus looked downstream and saw a figure bathing in the water.

Thraxus couldn't see much except that it was a nude man washing his hair and thin body in the shallow stream. Thraxus looked at the shore and saw the man's clothes and sword hanging from a tree. Thraxus looked back at Gelvin, who was busily drinking the water, and decided to get a closer look at the man and his weapon.

Unbeknownst to his companions, Thraxus crawled along the bank of the stream towards the nude man's possessions. Thraxus was eager to see the sword up close and his avarice urged him on faster. Thraxus reached the tree and stood up. He ignored the clothes, which were mainly brown and black swabs, and took the sheathed blade into his hand. It was not a long sword, but it was crafted from a fine metal. The scabbard was of thick brown leather and had carvings like nothing Thraxus had ever seen. The hilt of the sword had the same curvy etchings and Thraxus stared at it, determined to decipher its meaning.

He took to long though and the man in the river saw Thraxus' reflection in the water. Without saying a word the man moved out of the stream silently and crept up behind Thraxus. He carefully reached in front of the unknowing thief and drew his sword from the scabbard with incredible speed. Thraxus turned around, breathless from the surprising maneuver and the man thrust his blade onto Thraxus' throat.

"Why do you steal my family sword?" the man asked through his tight lips as he pressed the sharp blade against Thraxus' pulsating neck. Thraxus felt his heart skip a beat and he did not know how to answer.

"I..I...I, Thraxus stumbled.

"Please, he meant no harm," Gelvin said as he approached with his palm open in a gesture of friendship. He heard the commotion and hurried down the stream to save Thraxus from his own greedy shortcomings.

The man was thin, with dark tanned skin and short black hair that was soaked from the stream. He turned to Gelvin, with the blade still pressed against Thraxus, and his mouth suddenly opened wide. The man dropped to one knee and bowed his head, holding his sword in front of him. "I am sorry Spriteleng. Please accept my sword as an apology."

Gelvin was dumbfounded. He didn't understand what he had done to warrant such a response. "Please, stand up," Gelvin said as Thraxus slowly backed away rubbing his throat. The man rose, but still would not look Gelvin in the eye.

"I am sorry for threatening your friend mighty Spriteleng, but I could not let him touch my family sword."

"Then why did you offer it to me?" Gelvin asked.

The man looked up and shook his head slightly, "Spritelengs are honorable creatures. I would be proud to serve a Spriteleng."

"Serve me?" Gelvin asked as he stuck his head out to make sure he heard the man correctly. "I don't want anyone to serve me."

"I am sorry if I have offended you," the man said as he lowered his head again.

"You didn't offend me," Gelvin said as he took his hand and forced the man's face up. "Who are you?"

"I am Zatu, Kensai weapon master. I seek a master worthy of serving."

Gelvin began to understand this new man. Zatu was part of a clan of Kensai, weapon specialists who serve masters until their deaths. Gelvin had read about them during his studies with Pithian. He had no idea they had such respect for Spritelengs though. "I cannot be your master Zatu," Gelvin explained. "I am too young and belong to a master I already serve. You can travel with me though. My friends and I are journeying to a large city where you could seek a new master." Gelvin knew that a Kensai would not lie and his peaceful eyes created a sense of trust. But Gelvin also had another reason for inviting Zatu to join him. He wanted to learn more about Kensais. What Gelvin read about them was very interesting and he wanted to learn more. Gelvin's curiosity urged him to accept Zatu, because where better to learn more about a Kensai than from one.

Zatu felt embarrassed for attacking the Spriteleng's friend, even if he did deserve it. He wanted to makes amends for his action and he hoped that traveling with him would present such an opportunity. "I will travel with you Spriteleng."

"My name is Gelvin," he said with a chuckle. "It is my honor to have you travel with me." Gelvin understood that honor was very important to a Kensai, even though he knew very little about it. Gelvin hoped that he was saying the right things.

"I will travel with you, Gelvin," Zatu said and Gelvin smiled. Zatu put his clothes on and joined Gelvin and the others when they finished drinking at the stream. Fyndon felt more conformable with Zatu than Mendibone. his politeness and deference to Gelvin impressed her and she too wanted to learn more about this mysterious wanderer. Once they had all drunk from the brook, they continued to march on towards Caledan and Gelvin was cautious enough to keep Zatu in front of him, away from Thraxus.

New Objectives

"The passage of time has made it unclear as to when Pithian Whiteshield realized that he must join Gelvin in his quest. Some have speculated that he knew all along that he would play an important role, while others suggest that Pithian only became aware of his own usefulness when Gelvin returned from the valley. In either case, the importance of Pithian's contributions cannot be overstated."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

As the morning stretched on and his legs became sore, Gelvin thought it an apt time to talk to the new Kensai. He walked quickly to keep up with the swift and tireless Zatu. Gelvin matched his pace and finally asked, "Where do you come from?"

"My home is far from here," Zatu said. "I left it many years ago."

"Why?" Fyndon asked curiously as she too tried to learn more about their newest companion.

"My village was destroyed." Before Zatu could say anymore Fyndon nervously looked at Gelvin. She hoped Zatu's past would remind him of his own and upset him. "A great army rode through my village and killed all the men. I was a child who they let live, but sold as a slave."

Gelvin could not help but be reminded of his own misfortune, but also his luck. His home had been destroyed too, but he found Pithian to take care of him. Gelvin could not fathom being sold as a slave. "Do you mind if I ask who you were sold to?" Fyndon cautiously and politely queried.

"It is acceptable," Zatu replied. "I was sold to a Kensai clan. After many years, the master of the clan recognized my potential with a sword. Their swordmaster had recently died and they needed someone new to fill his place in their order. I trained for years and through a difficult search, found my family sword of honor," Zatu said as he held his blade high and looked at the emblem on it.

"What happened to your clan? Why do you seek a new master?" Gelvin asked. He knew that Kensais served a master, usually of their clan, for their whole life. Something must have happened to Zatu for him to be away from his.

"My master was killed and the clan with it," Zatu replied. "Now I wander in search of a new master."

"I'm sorry about your misfortune," Fyndon said. "But I'm sure we will do everything to help you find a new master."

"Yes," Gelvin confirmed. "There are many men in Caledan. I'm certain someone would want a Kensai as a follower.

"Yes, but my master must have honor," Zatu stated bluntly. "That is the most important." Gelvin understood that honor was part of Zatu's heritage. Kensai clans emphasized honor above all else, including loyalty.

"Well, you may have just eliminated most of the men in Caledan," Fyndon joked. "But I feel things will work out for you Zatu." Zatu appreciated Gelvin's and Fyndon's kindness, but he had been searching far and wide for many years. he began to doubt if he'd ever find a master again.

It was the longest sun cycle of his life, but Gelvin finally reached Zendon's castle in Caledan near nightfall the day after he left the Valley of Overgrowth. He had been awake for almost two full suns and he could barely walk straight. His eyes stung from tiredness and his muscles cried out in pain with every step. As Gelvin approached the castle he let Thraxus walk ahead of him to greet the guards.

"Halt," one guard called out as Thraxus walked up to him. "Who are these people?" he asked.

Thraxus leaned on the other man because he was so exhausted and he was barely able to hold his head up to speak. "These are the people Zendon sent with me." Thraxus recognized these soldiers as elite guards and he knew that they were all well aware of the quest to Rocwhelm. Thraxus had hoped Zendon would have sent more of them with him, because Thraxus knew he could count on them to obey orders. But the guard had to stay behind, in case their quest failed, which it had, and a war broke out, which also seemed a real threat. The guard were there to protect King Zendon above all else.

"I didn't know he sent two women," the guard said as he stared at Mendibone.

"Just let us in," Thraxus pleaded as he tried not to drool.

"But the other woman...."

"Let me in now!" Thraxus screamed and the guard stood tall at attention. The second guard opened the gate to the castle and Thraxus motioned with a wave for everyone to follow him inside.

They entered the castle and Thraxus stopped in a large greeting room. It was much larger than Kenyson's waiting room, but there were no chairs or tables. It was a plain white room, where guests stood to wait on Zendon. "You all stay here," Thraxus said. "Gelvin and I will tell the King what has happened. We'll be back shortly." The others sat down on the cold floor along a wall as Gelvin followed Thraxus through a bronze door into a long corridor.

The corridor was filled with rows of torches and Thraxus had to balance himself against the wall just to walk straight. Gelvin followed behind him closely until they traversed half the hallway and stopped in front of a green door. "This is the king's personal chamber," Thraxus said as his eyes started to roll back in his head. Gelvin held him up with both hands and kicked at Thraxus' knees to wake him up. "Sorry," Thraxus said. He knocked on the door and Zendon called for them to enter.

"Thraxus, what has happened/" Zendon asked as he looked at his weary and worn elite soldier. Thraxus was an unclean and bloody mess. His eyes rolled back in his head as struggled to remain awake and Zendon thought him near death.

Thraxus slumped down to a chair and held his head steady long enough to say, "All is not well my lord." Then he fell asleep. Zendon looked towards Gelvin who was too tired to feel any of the pressure or anxiety that consumed him when he first met the king.

Gelvin proceeded to tell Zendon the entire story of what happened, including meeting Trogen, releasing Necron, and encountering Koraz. Gelvin took full responsibility for deciding to leave the valley, but Zendon agreed that it was a sound strategy.

"You and your friends will stay in the castle tonight," Zendon said. "It is for your own protection. I fear that with the death of Lord Kenyson, war looms on the horizon. Sleep until morning and then I will decide what actions must be taken next."

Zendon summoned guards to carry Thraxus to a bed as Gelvin returned to the waiting room. He found all of his friends asleep on the floor, except for Mendibone, who was still somehow full of energy. Gelvin woke them up and servants led them each to a room for the night.

Gelvin slept well past sunup the next morning, which was late for him, but he felt very refreshed. It was the first bed he had slept in for many suns and he felt much more secure sleeping without looking for Koraz or Narus over his shoulder. He was the first to rise, but soon the king summoned Thraxus, Gelvin, and all the others to the breakfast hall. The hall was really just a large chamber with a round wooden table. There were chairs waiting for each of them and places were set for breakfast.

A large meal of all kinds of food awaited them and the food helped those not as spry as Gelvin to wake up. There were fired eggs, which Gelvin ate tow of, fresh fruits, a large loaf of fresh bread, milk, and numerous fine wines. Once the satisfying meal was finished, Zendon appeared to address the group. The King looked exhausted, as he had spent the entire night awake, talking with his advisors. "You have all acted bravely and I am sorry that you were unsuccessful." Zendon looked at Mendibone and Zatu and said, "I do not know you, but Thraxus and Gelvin tell me that you are honorable and trustworthy. I include you here because I hope you may be willing to help me. Without Slade, Thraxus will need the support of others. I firmly believe that you two can more than fill his role." Neither Zatu nor Mendibone knew who Slade was, but, despite their confusion, they listened to the weary Zendon out of respect for his position.

Gelvin was intrigued by what Zendon had to say so far. He spoke as if another quest had begun, yet Gelvin had no memory of agreeing to do anything. Gelvin wanted to return to the temple and see Pithian and Grizon. He missed the comforts of home and had found nothing but misfortune as an adventurer. Gelvin was ready to give Pithian back his Defender and retire to a life of gardening and cooking.

"I have bad news," Gelvin heard Zendon say as he paid closer attention. "My spies have informed me that Marcus plans to go to war." Gelvin's head slumped to the table in frustration. He thought that avoiding war was the whole reason he had gone to find Koraz, but now it was unavoidable.

"Marcus intends to sack the villages along a peninsula on the Grandean Lake. These villages are very important to my trading network and I cannot allow this to happen."

"How can you stop it though?" Gelvin asked with his hands raised in a symbol of defeat.

"I have a small army and I think I can raise a larger one."

"A larger army," Gelvin thought. "Just what we need! More soldiers." Gelvin thought about mentioning his solution of a personal duel, but then he thought this might not be the right place, or the right king, to suggest it to.

"How can you raise a larger army?," Thraxus asked.

"I believe the dwarven ruler of Ankearth, King Bolen, will be willing to send an army to the field."

"But why?" Gelvin asked, still not knowing what reason this dwarf would have to spend his men.

"Because Koraz is leading Marcus' army," Zendon said as a series of gasps filtered back and forth across the table. Gelvin did not understand why Koraz would help Marcus and he was curious about their relationship. After all, assassins usually do not act as generals. But then again, Gelvin thought, maybe a special bond is somehow formed between a son and his father's killer. Perhaps they play games together and become best friends or some other nonsense like that.

"King Bolen's brother, Thorus the Elder, was brutally murdered by Koraz many years ago," Zendon continued as Gelvin thought back to Kenyson's similar story. "Bolen vowed revenge against Koraz and I think he would be willing to send an army."

"Where is Ankearth?" Fyndon asked because she had never heard of the subterranean city.

"It is underneath Skull Mountain, far to the north of Caledan."

"It will take us many suns to travel that far," Thraxus stated the obvious. "Won't Koraz's army already have overrun the peninsula."

"No," Zendon responded harshly. He had already thought of every contingency and he hated being questioned by a man he employed. "Koraz is building an army of Marcus' men as well as giants and monsters. It will take him at least twelve suns to prepare them for battle." Gelvin thought of the Stone Giants that lay dead at Mendibone's feet and imagined what other horrible beasts Koraz might bring to bear. As long as it was not another worm or Dark Elf, Gelvin would be hesitantly satisfied.

"Thraxus, I want you to lead a quest to Skull Mountain," Zendon ordered. He obviously ignored Gelvin's descriptions of Thraxus' rash judgment and uncontrollable nature. Gelvin told Zendon about those things as Thraxus slept the previous night, but the king had his own opinion of the leader of his elite guard. Thraxus felt smug, though, because he realized that Zendon had reestablished his authority. He looked over at Gelvin and smiled as Thraxus felt the Spriteleng had been put back in his proper place. "Flynton, as a member of my court, I request that you join him as well. As for the rest of you, that is your decision, but I can pay you well should you decide to join Thraxus."

HA! Gelvin thought to himself. Why would I want to risk my neck for someone like Thraxus. Gelvin yearned to return to his temple to read his books and practice with his wooden sword.

"I'll go!" Mendibone said as she jumped up from the table. "Anything to help spill Rocwhelm blood." Gelvin still didn't understand why she hated Rocwhelm so much, but her response didn't surprise him. All she talked about the whole trip to Caledan was the thrill of battle and her eagerness for carnage.

"I'll go too," Fyndon said quietly. Gelvin looked at her with bewilderment. She knew what Gelvin was thinking. Why would she do this? Her father's debt was certainly paid in full and she had nothing to gain.

"Koraz must be stopped," Fyndon said quietly to Gelvin. "I must do what I can to help."

Gelvin paused as he thought about what Fyndon said. She was willing to sacrifice her own safety in order to stop Koraz. Gelvin had never considered making such a sacrifice. He had only come this far because he knew Pithian wanted him to. But the idea of acting because you believe in the rightness of the cause never crossed Gelvin's mind. He realized that he had been selfish. Yearning for the temple was natural but self-seeking. Gelvin had constantly considered Thraxus the greedy member of their entourage, because he lusted for gold. But Gelvin began to wonder whether or not he was the most self centered of them all. He didn't like that thought and as he looked into Fyndon's caring eyes he realized what he had to do.

"I'm with you too," Gelvin said to Thraxus' surprise. Gelvin felt relieved for agreeing to journey to Skull Mountain. He was a little scared and he still preferred to go home, but he felt as though he were making the decision Pithian would want him to make. Perhaps, he thought, that is some of the growth Pithian said he would experience.

"I shall guard your side Gelvin," Zatu said as he placed his hand on Gelvin's forearm.

"You don't have to come for my sake," Gelvin replied. "I told you Zatu, I have no wish to become your master."

"True, but you are a good Spriteleng and I like that," Zatu said. "I wish to spend more time with you and this Skull Mountain seems to be the only way to do it."

"Then you have all your companions," Zendon said happily to Thraxus.

Gelvin wasn't satisfied though. True, the addition of Mendibone and Zatu would help them and also true, Gelvin did not know what awaited him at Skull Mountain (really the name alone was enough to cause Gelvin angst), but his experience in the valley taught him that one can never be too prepared.

"Let us wait a while before we depart," Gelvin said as he quickly stood up from the table.

"But why Gelvin?" Zendon asked.

"I am going to see if I can add a seventh member to our group," he said as he rushed out the door and headed towards the exit from the castle.

Within moments, Gelvin was outside the castle, running to the temple. He understood why Pithian refused to join Zendon's original quest, but Gelvin hoped he would change his mind about this journey. Gelvin thought he would mention how they needed to stop an evil army, or perhaps he'd try and convince his mentor that only he could defeat Koraz. None of those were the real reasons Gelvin wanted Pithian to join him. Actually, he missed his master very much and he felt safer with him close by. A few times in the valley, Gelvin questioned whether or not he would ever see Pithian again. If the same circumstances arose at Skull Mountain, Gelvin wanted Pithian to be the last person he saw.

Gelvin ran up to the temple and pushed open the white doors. "Master," he called out before he had even taken a step inside.

"Welcome back Gelvin," he heard Pithian's voice call to him from the altar. Gelvin bounded down the aisle of pews and stopped in front of Pithian who was kneeling and praying at the front of the temple.

He was not wearing his usual robe, but instead was armored from head to toe. Gelvin recognized the armor immediately because it was the same white metal that Pithian wore the day he rescued him from the woods.

"Master?" Gelvin said in a questioning tone.

Pithian stood up and turned around. He was draped in white armor and holy symbols. At his side was a magnificent sword that radiated like the sun. Pithian looked into Gelvin's experienced eyes and said, "I am ready to come with you."

Gelvin had not seen Pithian with a sword or in his armor since that day in the forest and he was awestruck. Pithian looked more regal than any king and no warrior had ever appeared more powerful. Then it occurred to Gelvin, "How did you know?"

"Prophecy told me that you would return this day. Now you and the others are ready to venture to Skull Mountain. You are here to ask me to join you and I accept." Gelvin smiled as his mentor rattled off the facts. Unlike Zendon, Gelvin liked it when Pithian was correct and especially this time. Gelvin was relieved that his master would be joining them.

"Tell me about your adventure," Pithian asked as he walked over to Gelvin and put an arm around his shoulder.

"Don't your visions already tell you what happened?" Gelvin asked.

"My knowledge of the future or the past is never that clear," Pithian explained. "I can only see blurry images that give me a general idea, but never all the details or the ultimate outcome. My knowledge is like the riddles I tell you, they aren't always obvious."

Gelvin began to understand the nature of Pithian's power, but not fully. He still didn't know where the knowledge came from, or how Pithian interpreted it. Gelvin realized though, that Pithian was still waiting for an answer to his question.

"Well, first we met an old wizard on the way to Rocwhelm...."

"No, none of that," Pithian said as he shook his head. "I want to know about Necron."

Gelvin felt anxious when Pithian said that name. He had not thought about Necron since he fled Rocwhelm and the mention of his name rekindled the fear Gelvin felt when Trogen described the necromancer. "What do you want to know?" Gelvin asked cautiously.

"Did you find him in a deep tomb covered with runes?"

"Yes," Gelvin responded.

"I was afraid of that," Pithian said as he faced Gelvin and stared into his face with a deadly serious expression. "I fear that the evil I have been training to face has been released."


"I'm sorry master, it is my fault. I helped release it," Gelvin said as emotion and regret poured out of his soul.

"Don't blame yourself Gelvin. Necron's release was inevitable. I must face him and when the time comes, you will help. Somehow, I know that I must travel with you to Skull Mountain. From there we will hurtle onward to our confrontation with the Destroyer. It is our destiny." Gelvin did not fully understand destiny. Was it absolute, or could it be changed? Why did it have to be me, Gelvin thought? And if destiny were true, then Gelvin feared that all of the blood and destruction he had seen was merely a precursor to the horrors that awaited him.

"Master," Gelvin said slowly. "Do your visions reveal if we will defeat him?"

"I don't know," Pithian replied and Gelvin gnashed his teeth and lips together in terror.

"Skull Mountain was once the stronghold of a great king whose name has been lost to the ages. Many believe that this king's reign ended as a result of a curse associated with the mountain. Whether it was cursed or not, Skull Mountain was, and still is, a home for many brutal and truculent creatures."

From The One History of Illuria
By the Council of Prophecies

Gelvin returned to the castle with Pithian to the delight of his friends, especially Zendon. He never believed that anyone would be able to convince Pithian to leave his temple ever again. Zendon felt confident that, with Pithian's help, Thraxus would soon return with the armies of King Bolen. Then Koraz and Marcus could be crushed and the land would be his.

"I will provide horses for each of you," Zendon declared to the adventurers. "My sages tell me that it is a three sun ride to the Skull Mountain range. I suggest you leave soon," Zendon said as he looked at Thraxus. "May you be granted the speed of the Gods."

Outside the castle, the explorers found horses waiting for them near the royal stables. Gelvin wondered why they had not received horses during their first quest. Then he thought about how close Rocwhelm was to Caledan and it seemed to make sense. Skull Mountain, on the other hand, was far to the north and even on horseback it was a long and arduous trip. As he mounted his large brown steed, Gelvin noticed that nobody would talk to Pithian or even acknowledge him. Thraxus, Flynton, Mendibone, and Fyndon must have known who he was, but still they refused to even look at his face directly. Gelvin knew that Pithian had a strange reputation in Caledan. Those who did not seek his advice thought of him as the strange priest who rarely left his temple. Zatu had no idea who he was but showed Pithian the same respectful deference he gave to Gelvin.

By high sun they were off, galloping north out of Caledan across the untamed wilderness of the northern frontier. as he passed through the stone wall that surrounded the city, Gelvin felt as though this new quest would be far more difficult. He had lived in the forest before and understood valleys, but climbing a mountain was a new experience for him and Gelvin was not confident that he should look forward to it.

The land north of Caledan really was not all that wild, but people still called it a wilderness because there was not much out there. Pithian told everyone that the journey to Skull Mountain should only take a few suns of riding across grassy fields and passing the occasional abandoned village. "How do you know?" Mendibone asked after Pithian finished his explanation.

"I have journeyed far to the north before," he responded.

"How far?" she continued to pry.

"Very far, past Skull Mountain and to the great tundra beyond Bzaerbole."

Nobody knew where Pithian spoke of because he had traveled further and farther than even Zatu. The horses were trotting rather than running, because Pithian did not want them to tire too quickly. Gelvin appreciated the speed because he liked the light breeze it created against his face. He looked to his left and watched Pithian as he rode beside him. Never had Gelvin imagined that he would be riding with his mentor. He knew very little about Pithian's past, but even Gelvin recognized that Pithian was once a renowned warrior. The opportunity to ride with him to Skull Mountain was a once in a Spritelengtime chance. The group did not yet realize that they were traveling with one of the most important men in Illuria.

"Tell me what you personally experienced on your first quest?" Pithian asked Gelvin. Pithian knew that Gelvin wanted to talk, because they had not had much of an opportunity since his return from the valley. The original quest was Gelvin's first experience in the world by himself and Pithian hoped that he had prepared him well.

"I found many things about myself, but some of them I did not like," Gelvin responded as he thought about the rage he felt towards Thraxus on more than one occasion. It was not a Spriteleng's nature to be hateful or fierce, but Gelvin's experiences brought forth deep seated emotions from his psyche.

"But lessons can be learned from even your bad experiences," Pithian said.

"What do you mean?" Gelvin asked inquisitively.

"Did you act on the impulses you did not like?"

"I guess not," Gelvin said. "I felt rage and experienced emotions I've never had before. I did not like those feelings."

"But you were able to control them." Pithian explained. "We all have those feelings sometimes during our lives, even Spritelengs. But you mastered those feelings and did not let them control you."

Gelvin nodded in agreement as he began to understand what Pithian said. He had been able to keep his rage in check and that made Gelvin feel better. He thought those feelings were wrong, but Pithian helped him understand that acting on negative feelings was the mistake one could make. "What about you?" Gelvin asked as he wondered how Pithian learned such a lesson. "What happened to you the first time you experienced those feelings?"

"I did not have your control," Pithian said solemnly. "But that was a long time ago and I have since tempered my emotions with wisdom."

Gelvin had not intended to strike such a personal chord with his master and tried to quickly change the subject. "How do you know that Necron is the evil force within your visions?"

"I can't be certain," Pithian began. "But I believe it is Necron. I have known for many years that a timeless evil would be accidentally released into Illuria in the form of a necromancer. It would be my fate to confront and do battle with this force. I sensed something was gravely wrong when a vision showed you and the others releasing Necron from his tomb."

"How did you know that?" Gelvin pried.

"It's part of my power that I will explain to you one day."

"The dragon we met, Trogen, became fearful and distant when I told him of Necron," Gelvin recalled. "Do you know why?"

"There is much you do not know about Necron," Pithian responded.

"Trogen said he was placed in the tomb by the Gods."

"That is correct," Pithian confirmed.

"What else do you know?" Gelvin asked in an attempt to learn more about Necron. Gelvin was scared of what little he knew about the necromancer already and he hoped that Pithian would somehow reassure him that Necron was not someone to fear. Gelvin was disappointed by the answer.

"I have studied much about Necron," Pithian began. "It is known that he was once a man who ruled vast lands. Not here on Illuria, but on another world. His lust for power compelled him to study dark magic. But even those negative forces were not enough to quell his desires. Somehow he found a way to tap into the field of negative energy."

"What's that?" Gelvin asked.

"The negative field of energy is a dark and evil force that creates the shadows and gives evil its power and appeal. A man should not have been able to access this energy but when Necron did, it consumed him. That power became his curse as well as the fulfillment of his ultimate dream."

"The negative energy transformed Necron into a malevolent force. He became a living shadow cursed with the horror of his appearance and the inability to escape the evil forces that powered him. It also gave Necron his dark veil."

Those two words passed through Gelvin like a distant memory. He remembered Trogen saying something about a dark veil, but he could not remember why it was important. Gelvin was about to ask Pithian what the veil was, when his master, always one step ahead of him, had anticipated the question and started on an explanation.

"The dark veil is the essence of the negative energy Necron controls. It is the physical form of evil and it surrounds Necron, making him invulnerable."

"Then how can he be defeated?" Gelvin asked desperately.

"The Gods used a very powerful spell of positive energy to crack Necron's dark veil. They could not vanquish him though, so they imprisoned him for eternity in a powerfully guarded tomb."

Gelvin was not encouraged by the answer. Everyone who knew something about Necron made him sound invincible. Pithian at least seemed to remain calm and composed when he spoke of the Destroyer, but that was hardly reassuring to Gelvin. "If the Gods could barely stop Necron, how do you plan to defeat him?" Gelvin asked desperately.

"I have studied the magic the Gods used to imprison Necron. If that is enough to break through his dark veil, then I might triumph."

Gelvin didn't really understand what the dark veil was but it didn't matter to him. He believed that Necron was unbeatable and he hoped that Pithian would never come to face the dark wizard.

As the first sun of their quest began to set, Gelvin rode alongside Fyndon. She had been unusually quiet so far and Gelvin wanted to learn why. "Is something troubling you?" Gelvin asked his horse approached her.

"No, I just don't know what to say around a man like Pithian."

"Whatever do you mean?" Gelvin asked. He had lived with Pithian for so long that he could not see him through a stranger's eyes. To Fyndon, Pithian was an unapproachable warrior.

"Look at him," Fyndon pleaded. "He is greater than all of us. I would have nothing to say to him."

"Nonsense," Gelvin said. "Pithian is not a king, and he hates it when people treat him differently. He's actually very receptive to meeting new people."

"But his voice," Fyndon said. "He speaks so properly and with an air about him."

"But that is just the way he talks," Gelvin explained. "Pithian is not much older than us," he said to Fyndon's surprise. She assumed he was a wise old man. "You should talk to him."

"Perhaps I will," Fyndon said as she reassessed her feelings about Gelvin's master.

Two suns passed and as the sun began to set for the third time since they left Caledan, the adventurers reached the base of the Skull Mountain range. It was a gray and cloudy day, with occasional rain, all of which made it difficult to see the top of the Skulls' peak. The mountain was spread wide and mostly gentle slopes, but one giant peak rose out of the center and towered towards the heavens. It had no trees or vegetation and from the ground, Gelvin thought it looked like one giant orange spire of rock.

"How do we get up there?" Fyndon asked as they all stared at the steep rock face.

"I don't know yet," Thraxus replied.

"I wasn't talking to you," Fyndon snapped. "I was asking Gelvin," she said as she looked in his direction with a smile.

Gelvin did not expect the others to look to him for leadership. He had saved them in the valley, but that was a desperate time. Still, he did not like the idea of deferring to Thraxus. "Which way?" Gelvin asked as he turned towards Pithian.

Pithian glanced at Thraxus, who had an annoyed look about his face as a result of Fyndon's snub. he stared back at Pithian and knew there was nothing he could say. He had already lost the confidence of the others and he remained silent, in anger, as Pithian surveyed the rocky cliff.

"There," he said slowly as he raised his arm to point at a small crack in the rocks. "I think that is a path."

Gelvin and Zatu ran up to the split in the stones and found a narrow crevasse that led up the side of the mountain. The split rocks were not entirely stable, but Gelvin thought that the stones surrounding them should make the climb possible. "I think we can make it," he called back to the others.

"How high does it go?" Flynton asked as he and the others joined them in front of the crevasse.

Gelvin followed the path high into the air until he lost sight of it. "I don't know," he responded. "But I believe it reaches very high. Maybe not the top, but very high."

"I can lead us," Zatu said as he sprang like a cat into the gravel filled tunnel between the rocks. "Stay close behind. I will test the rocks as we climb." Zatu turned around and immediately began to climb.

Fyndon and Gelvin looked to Pithian who simply nodded and said, "Follow him." Gelvin pulled himself into the wedge shaped crevasse and began to climb the rocks hand over hand.

The climb was not too difficult and the crevasse even leveled out in some places as it wound its way up the towering peak. Gelvin guessed that the crevasse was probably once a river. The sides of the stones around him were smooth and worn. He saw no water coming from this mountain though. In fact, the whole range seemed to be a lifeless chunk of rock. After an hour, Gelvin looked back down and could no longer see the place where they started. He looked above him and saw Zatu, not too far ahead, still climbing the mountain with ease. It appeared that the crevasse would continue all the way to the top, or at least Gelvin hoped it would.

They climbed higher and higher until the foggy low hanging mists of the mountain engulfed them. Gelvin waved his hand in the air to diffuse the mist which was cold and stuck to his skin. "I can't believe how high we are," Gelvin said in amazement as he looked at the vast expanse of ground far below him. far to the south he could see the wilderness and to the far north the grass disappeared and turned to snow. Snow was something Gelvin had read about, but seeing it for the first time was a unique experience. The light shined off the unblemished white landscape and Gelvin hoped he would someday get a chance to hold some of it in his hands.

"And it's not much further," Thraxus said as he pointed upwards. Gelvin balanced himself as he looked high above his head where Zatu was only the height of two more trees away from the apex of the mountain.

"You're almost there!" Gelvin shouted to Zatu as the Kensai looked between his legs and saw that his companions were falling behind. He held a rock along the crevasse tightly and swung out with one arm to wave to Gelvin below him. But as he swung, the rock, which had not been disturbed for many years, gave way under the added weight. Zatu felt his body shifting towards the open air and he grasped and reached for the cliff which was slowly moving away from him.

"He's falling!" Flynton screamed as Gelvin started to scramble up the crevasse as quickly as possible. Zatu balanced himself on the thin gravel of the crevasse as his weight shifted ever more closely to the open air beside him. Gelvin rushed to his aid and pushed Zatu back towards the safety of the rock. Zatu lunged for a crack along the rock face and secured his fingers inside as Gelvin strained to keep himself inside the crevasse.

Gelvin had reached Zatu at the last possible moment, but his hasty climb up the rocks had loosened the gravel in his path. Just as Gelvin pushed Zatu to safety, the interior of the crevasse gave way to the sliding pebbles, until larger rocks, the size of a man's head or fist, began to tumble with them.

"Pithian!" Gelvin screamed as he reached in vain towards his friends who were caught in the sliding maelstrom.

Pithian reached into his pack as the first small pebbles rolled past them and he removed a large iron black hook. The hook had a small loop on the end, just large enough for a rope, which Pithian slid through and tied off with remarkable ease and grace. Pithian dropped the rope, which fell some twenty paces before the slack ended. "Grab on!" he shouted to the others who gripped the rope in terror as the larger rocks plummeted towards them. Pithian placed the hook inside the cracked rocks of the cliff and took a deep breath.

As soon as everyone had taken hold, Pithian pulled himself up on the rope and planted his legs against the cliff side of the crevasse. A jagged rock hit him in the shoulder and Pithian winced in pain despite his armor plating. Just as the largest of the rocks fell towards them, Pithian pushed off with his legs and they all swung out into the open air. The boulders rushed past them with a thunderous crack as they collided with the crevasse and the cliff. Fyndon looked below her, as she swung away from the rocks, and gasped as she saw the abyss of open space that dropped thousands of paces towards the ground. Pithian's and the others' weight pulled them back in, just as the final rock passed them by. The narrow escape had lasted only the blink of an eye.

As Pithian yanked his hook out of the rock, Thraxus, who was still in shock from barely escaping the certain death, called up to Pithian, "How did you do that so quickly?"

"I've been doing this much longer than you," Pithian yelled back as he wound his rope back into the pack.

"Very impressive," Zatu said to Gelvin whom he had held tightly during the ordeal. "Your master is a sagacious man."

"Yes, he is," Gelvin confirmed as he and Zatu waited to make sure they were all able to climb through the decimated part of the crevasse.

Soon they reached the summit of the mountain. The crevasse ended on a hilly crest that was made of darker black rocks that appeared scored by a great fire. Burned into the rock itself was the image of a giant skull. As Gelvin stared at the foreboding marker he looked ahead and saw an old castle further up the summit.

"We can find an entrance to the mountain there," Pithian said as he started walking towards the gates. Thraxus stopped to look at the others. He did not know why, but they followed Gelvin and Pithian without question. Thraxus wasn't sure why Pithian was so confident, but he realized he could not stop him. Thraxus trotted to catch up with the others as they approached the old ruins.

The castle was constructed of decaying rocks and rusted steel. It was obviously deserted and it looked as though nobody had been inside it for a millennia. As Pithian led the cadre over the final hill in their approach to the mysterious stronghold, he saw the black iron gates ahead. In front of those gates, curled into a large coil, was a giant snake.

The serpent heard Pithian approaching and it raised its head with a hiss. But the head was not one of a snake. Though the body was a huge coil of silvery scales and slime, the head was that of a woman. It had bright yellow eyes and two huge fangs protruded from its mouth. As the strangers came closer the snake rattled its tail creating a menacing resonance.

"A Spirit Serpent," Pithian said quietly as he slowed his approach. Besides Pithian, none of them had ever seen or even heard of such a creature.

"What is it?" Fyndon asked as her hands began to tremble. The snake was longer than any coil of rope and its body was as thick as the hull of a war ship. It hissed more as they inched ever closer to the bars guarded.

"It is a guardian." Pithian explained. "It will try to trick us and not let us pass." "What do you mean?" Zatu asked.

"It will ask us a riddle and if we answer correctly it will let us pass."

Pithian extended his arms and stopped ten paces in front of the serpent. Its head bobbed back and forth on its long neck as it hissed and looked at the strangers. This Spirit Serpent had not seen travelers in many years and it became excited as the prospect of a large meal filled its thoughts.

"Who placed you here?" Pithian called out. He knew that Spirit Serpents acted as guardians for someone or something else.

"Answer my riddlessss and you ssshall passss," It hissed as its green tongue whipped out of its salivating mouth. "I come at night but am gone by morningsss. I bring horrorss and joyssss when I visitssss yousss. You alwayss see me but cannotssss dessscribe me. Whatsss am I?" the serpent hissed.

Gelvin believed that Pithian knew the answer. He thought back to the many riddles his master used to tell him. Many of them seemed difficult to Gelvin, but Pithian always had the clever answer. Gelvin was sure that he must know this puzzle.

He looked at Pithian but his expression was blank. Pithian turned his head to Gelvin and candidly admitted, "I don't know. I've never heard this riddle."

"Yoursss time issss almossst up," the snake hissed as its forked green tongue whipped out of its mouth again.

Gelvin felt his heart begin to beat faster. There must be an answer. Gelvin could not think of anything that visited him at night and everyone else looked at each other with blank expressions of ignorance.

Then a quiet voice emerged from the panicked silence. "It visits you every night and can bring things both good and bad," Fyndon said as her voice slowly rose in pitch and timbre as she worked through the riddle aloud. "You cannot describe it because you do not remember it even though he you see it every night. You do not remember it because I am a dream!" Fyndon shouted in triumph.

The snake's yellow eyes widened and the pupils became large as it tried to figure out how Fyndon knew the answer. "That issss correct," it said with an evil and jealous hiss.

The group rejoiced and Gelvin hugged Fyndon around the shoulders. Pithian made them quiet down as he raised his hand and stated, "Now you must let us enter. We have answered your riddle and you must yield."

The serpent exposed its fangs and hissed as it slowly slid to the side, revealing the unlocked gate which was falling off its hinges. Pithian nodded before the snake in a show of deference as he pushed everyone along towards the gate.

Pithian stood by as everyone filed through the corroded gates one at a time. He kept one watchful eye on the Spirit Serpent because he still did not trust it. And with good reason. The serpent had waited many years to confront warm bodied creatures again. It was certain they would not be able to answer its riddle and now that they had, the snake only wanted revenge. It was disappointed that it had not received a warm supper and suddenly it decided to stave off its hunger by gobbling one of the tall men.

The serpent struck out at Pithian, who was standing alone on the other side of the gate. He was the last to pass through, and the serpent hoped he never would. It lunged at him with its fangs, but Pithian, who had been wary of such a trick, jumped out of the way and drew his sword.

Pithian's sword was magnificent. Gelvin had never seen it before and he wondered if Pithian had hidden it all these years under the temple. As Pithian held the sword in front of his face the silver metal began to shine with a bright orange radiance. The blade hummed and shimmered as Pithian leapt onto the snake's back and drove the sword through its neck. The snake cried out in agonizing misery, but then fell to the ground suffering an instantaneous death. Pithian carefully drew his blade out and wiped it off before he sheathed it.

The sword ceased glowing and humming once it was restored to its scabbard and Pithian calmly walked through the gate. "An impressive weapon," Zatu said in respect for Pithian's sword. "Too bad it was used to slay such a dishonorable creature."

"Zatu," Pithian began as he patted the Kensai on the shoulder, "You'll soon learn that most creatures are without honor."

The castle was falling apart and all that remained of the original structure was four short towers forming a square. Inside the walled in area there was a courtyard of tan and orange rocks spotted with a few patches of thick clay and dry earth.

"Look around," Pithian ordered. "We need to find a passage, anything leading underground." The city of Ankearth was somewhere beneath Skull Mountain and now that they had reached the top, the explorers would have to return to the bottom.

The sun had almost set and the growing shadows gave the orange rock an eerie feel. As Gelvin searched the western tower he looked out onto the courtyard at the changing color of the rocks. The orange changed to black as the shadows of the castle fell over them. The changing color reminded Gelvin of playing in the forest at night as a boy. He wished he could recapture that innocence, the feelings of complete joy and living without fear or worry. But those days were gone and Gelvin knew it.

"I've found something," Mendibone called out from the eastern tower. Gelvin jumped down the stairs in his tower and ran across the courtyard to see what she had found. Gelvin was the last to arrive and he saw Mendibone and Pithian crouched over a stair case that had been hidden in the floor by an old and worn wool carpet.

"It goes down," Pithian declared as he looked up at the others.

"Then let's get started," Thraxus said as he stepped towards the trap door and placed his foot on the first wooden step with a creak.

Pithian, still knelt on the floor, put his hand around Thraxus ankle and said, "No, its late and we should rest. The castle is abandoned and secure. It can protect us until morning."

This was Thraxus defining moment. He was determined to descend into the mountain that night and he thought he could recapture his respect by convincing the others to come with him. "King Zendon is waiting on us. Each cycle we rest is another moment Koraz draws closer to our border."

Pithian stood up and spoke to his friends and companions. "You are wrong Thraxus. We must have our rest if we are to find Ankearth. Even King Zendon believes we have at least nine more suns until Koraz will be ready." That logic appealed to the crowd and Thraxus saw it in their faces. He knew that there was no hope of them listening to him over the man who had killed the Spirit Serpent with one blow. Thraxus stepped out of the hole in defeat.

As they worked to set up a camp, Gelvin sat next to Fyndon to help her build a fire. There was very little wood on top of the mountain and it was old and withered. Gelvin tried to assist Fyndon in building the best fire they could.

"How did you know the answer to the riddle?" Gelvin asked her excitedly.

"It was easy, really," she said. "Just so long as he you don't limit your answer to the physical."

"I love riddles," Gelvin said. "Pithian tells them to me all the time."

"It is the darkest thing you will ever see, but yet it is visible only when there is no light. What am I?" Fyndon asked.

Gelvin paused for a moment and then had the answer. He should have known immediately, "The night sky."

"Very good," Fyndon replied with a smile.

"Okay, my turn. I grow and spread everywhere, yet I am weak. I have many colors, but I am always the same. I am always covered, even when nothing is upon me. What am I?" Gelvin asked.

Fyndon had heard this one before, "Human flesh. Hair always covered it even when clothes do not. Now I have a riddle that will stump you. I live in the forest and can be found anywhere. I am born very small but my body has a pattern that is always the same. I have thousands of feet, until I lose them all. I gorge myself on every plant I see, yet I become beautiful. What am I?"

Gelvin thought he should know this one. After all, it was about a woodland animal, but he was stuck. "I don't know. Please tell me."

"I will another time," Fyndon replied to Gelvin's disappointment as they went back to work on the fire.

The companions shared a small meal and soon went to bed. Gelvin and Pithian spent turns guarding the camp, but it was an uneventful night. The next morning, Gelvin prepared a breakfast and after they ate , Pithian led the descent into the mountain.

The stairwell was constructed of wood and did not appear to be too old. Light filled the blackness of the tunnel that lay at the foot of the stairs. This time, Gelvin had come prepared. Both he and Fyndon had carried enough lantern fuel to last five suns. The panic in the cave was still too fresh in their minds to allow that mistake to happen again.

Pithian reached the bottom of the stairs and placed his hand on the ground. He felt grainy dirt mixed with pebbles. The earth was cold and he could sense that it ran deep. "These passages are the way," Pithian called back to his companions who watched him from the top of the stairs. "These tunnels will take us to Ankearth."

The others descended one at a time into the tunnel. Similar in size to the cave, these tunnels were far less rocky but Gelvin's echoing voice told him it would be just as deep.

"Bolen!" Gelvin said and heard the voice returning to him quietly many times over. Gelvin smiled at the trivial amusement as he lit his lantern. The others did the same and Pithian walked in front of them as the passage immediately began to slope downward.

The tunnels were dark and seemed barren. They consisted of a mixture of rock, clay, and earth patched together. It was as black as the cave but there was no cool air. The atmosphere felt stale an unbreathed for a thousand years. As Gelvin sucked down the nasty air he was reminded of the green dragon's lair and Koraz.

"Master," Gelvin began, "How does an assassin disguise himself?"

"If you speak of Koraz, I'm not certain. It is part of his trade I believe."

"What do you know of him?" Gelvin asked bluntly.

"I already told you before you left on your first journey," Pithian recalled.

"Yes, but there must be more," Gelvin complained.

"Mostly rumors," Pithian said. "Koraz is a man and can be dealt with. Necron concerns me much more."

Gelvin did not like the thought that his master was concerned. he had never seen him frightened and he wondered how Pithian would react if they ever saw the necromancer again. Gelvin was ready to ask him about the Destroyer and how they would encounter him when a strange smell distracted him.

As they moved deeper, horrible odors filled the air, but Gelvin could not discern where they were coming from. Then a dull red light crept up the walls of the tunnel from a passage to their right. Gelvin took a deep breath of the air down that passage and felt the same horrible stench fill his lungs. "What is it?" Gelvin asked.

"I don't know," Pithian replied calmly.

"This is where I'd send Slade if he were here," Thraxus blurted out. "He was our scout." Gelvin remembered Slade more fondly now that he was gone. Gelvin began to realize that the small thief held them together throughout the valley. His wisecracks and distracting nature prevented the serious nature of the quest from consuming Gelvin and the others. Gelvin wished he had not left his body to rot in the lair.

"Then we shall have to find a replacement for him," Pithian declared.

Gelvin, who felt responsible for Slade's death, looked at his companions and knew that there was only one choice, "I'll go," he said.

"No, Gelvin. You're no spy," Fyndon said with concern.

"It makes sense," Gelvin explained. "My skin color can hide me better. Besides, there's no one else."

"Well, I can't let you go alone," Fyndon said as she pushed her way to the front of the tunnel to join him. Gelvin looked at Pithian who considered the idea for a moment and then nodded.

"Come on, perhaps we can put your odor ecology to work," Gelvin said as he and Fyndon slowly inched their way down the illuminated passageway.

The passage was not very deep, but there were many winding twists until it reached the end. Then Gelvin realized where the smell was coming from. The passage emptied into a gigantic chamber.

The chamber was filled with large mud houses and stone buildings. A red glow from hundreds of small fires filled the stinking city. Gelvin peered at the community from the shadows until he saw one of the inhabitants. A huge lumbering man walked from one building to another. The man was many paces taller than Thraxus and twice as large through the chest and arms. He had bright red eyes and flaming red hair. He wore a metal helm that Gelvin believed was large enough to hold the contents of a fountain, and he carried an iron sword as large as Fyndon in his left hand. "What is he?" Gelvin whispered to Fyndon. He had never seen such a menacing creature.

"They are Fire Giants," Fyndon said quietly. "Vicious giants that live underground. We've stumbled onto one of their cities."

Gelvin was ready to sneak back to Pithian when he heard his voice yelling from another passage. Gelvin and Fyndon looked at each other in desperation because they could not determine where the sound was coming from. As the voice drew closer, Gelvin looked out into the Fire Giant city and saw Pithian being dragged by the head out of another tunnel. Soon after him, more giants emerged carrying the other members of the group until a final giant followed behind them, carrying all of their armaments.

"Lock them up!" The biggest of the giants ordered. The giants took their prisoners into the city, near Gelvin's tunnel, and he watched in horror as they were forced into iron cages not even large enough to stand in. They sat there, wallowing in defeat, and Gelvin began to wonder what would happen to them. Perhaps, he thought, the giants might eat them or worse, keep them as pets.

"They must have been ambushed," Gelvin whispered to Fyndon.

"What do we do?" she replied in a panic. Gelvin held her hand to help calm the Comwen and then he looked down at his belt. Hanging on the black leather strap was the hammer Pithian had given him. The Giant Killer. Gelvin took it off his belt and held the hammer in his left hand. It was heavy and he bobbled it in his palm to become accustomed to the weight.

"We'll need a distraction," Gelvin said. "I'll deal with the giants while you use your dagger to free the others."

"Are you crazy," Fyndon said as she turned Gelvin around to look at his face. "There are probably a hundred giants in there. Do you think that little hammer will protect you?"

"I'm not sure," Gelvin said nervously. "But I have to try."

Gelvin looked across the cavern to the building where his friends were being held. They were locked in a series of iron cages lined along the front of one of the stout stone buildings. There were two huge guards standing with their backs to the building and the cages. Gelvin looked up and down the building which was not constructed very well. The stones that comprised it were jagged and of different sizes. Gelvin looked at the side of the building and knew he could climb up it.

"Follow me," Gelvin said as he slowly crept out of the safe tunnel and stayed close to the ground as he made his way towards the stone edifice. The giants were very tall and Gelvin and Fyndon were able to sneak past them under their noses. Gelvin tiptoed past the monsters until he reached the side of the building, which shielded him and Fyndon from the beasts' view.

Gelvin took a firm hold of the sharp orange rock and looked back at Fyndon who was breathing shallow in order to make as little sound as possible. "I'll take care of the two in front of the cages. Then I'll distract any others. While they chase me, free Pithian. He can help get the others out."

"How are you going to eliminate the two guards?" Fyndon asked desperately.

Gelvin wasn't really sure yet. He hadn't thought that far ahead, but he believed he'd think of something. Gelvin shrugged his shoulders at Fyndon who covered her face with her sweaty hand. "This is never going to work," she thought to herself.

Gelvin silently pulled himself up the stone wall until he reached the roof of the building. He walked over to the edge and looked down. The cages were directly below him and the giants had their backs to him. Gelvin took a firm grasp of his hammer and measured the distance to the giants. The building was not much larger than them and Gelvin thought he could pounce them with his blunt weapon. He was prepared to jump when he looked at their helms. The thick metal covered their entire heads and Gelvin began to ponder whether or not his hammer could penetrate the shielding.

"Maybe I can jump over them," Gelvin thought. But then he realized he would lose any element of surprise and he would have to face the monsters straight on. Gelvin thought back to the story Pithian told him about the hammer. It worked well for that wizard, but Gelvin still wasn't ready to attack a giant toe to toe with or without a magic hammer.

Then Gelvin thought, "Maybe I can jump down and strike on the neck while I fall." He thought it was a good idea because then he would still be able to attack from behind. Then he realized that he might miss. Gelvin had never trained with a hammer before and he guessed it was quite different from swinging a sword. "There has to be a way," Gelvin thought hopelessly. "If only they would bend over or something. Then the back of their necks would be exposed." That would make it much more difficult to miss. Gelvin rubbed his chin for a moment when he suddenly realized the answer.

"I can make them bend down," Gelvin thought as he tore open his pack and frantically searched through it. "Yes," he thought as he found the red flower Fyndon had given him. "By the Gods, I hope this works," Gelvin prayed as he crumpled the soft petals in his hands.

Gelvin edged as close as possible to the drop off and blew the petals out of his hands. They floated slowly outwards a few feet and then drifted harmlessly to the ground, at the giants' feet.

"Huh," the two giants grunted as they saw the shower of red falling at their feet. One of them bent over to inspect the petals. The other scratched its head and wondered where the flower came from. The giant looked up to see, just as Gelvin's boot crashed into its face.

The other giant, still bent over, never saw Gelvin as he lowered the Giant Killer onto the back of his unguarded neck. There was a thunderous cracking sound and the giant screamed in pain for one instant before it collapsed to the ground in a heap. The other giant rubbed its face as tears welled up on his flattened face. As its eyes began to clear, the last thing it saw was the black square end of the hammer crashing into its nose.

"Artghh!" the giant screamed as it fell down dead.

"Gelvin help us!" Thraxus yelled as he shook the bars of his tiny cage.

Gelvin caught his breath as his heart raced and he looked at his desperate imprisoned friends rattling their bars. Suddenly, another giant ran out of the building with its sword raised high. Gelvin jumped to the side as the monster lowered the blade into the ground. As Gelvin moved to the side he spun around, using the extra momentum, and struck the giant in the side with the hammer. Ribs cracked in a loud popping sound as the giant bellowed and fell to the ground.

Fire Giants emerged from every hut and building as the screams grew louder. They were shocked to see a tiny Spriteleng standing over three dead comrades. "The Giant Killer!" one of the giants yelled out. Every giant knew of the legendary weapon because it had been the bane of their existence for many generations and had slain countless members of different giant clans.

The Fire Giants grabbed their weapons and poured out of everywhere like rats scurrying out of a collapsing building. They charged at Gelvin in a mad rage, determined to destroy the dreaded Giant Killer. Gelvin flashed his eyes in all directions and knew the giants would follow him. "Ahhhhhh!" Gelvin screamed as he held the hammer above his head and ran down the road towards the southern part of the cavern. All the giants began to chase him, leaving the prisoners unguarded and Gelvin smiled because he knew his plan had worked. Now, if he could only find a way to stay alive.

The giants followed Gelvin towards the other end of the town and Fyndon, who had watched the mad chase from the safe shadows of the side of the building, rushed out to the cages and revealed her dagger. She fell down to her knees in front of Pithian and popped the lock off his cage with her blade. Pithian pushed open the gate and rolled out of his personal prison. "Well done Fyndon," he said as he took her dagger. "Go inside the building and find our weapons. They took them in there," Pithian said as he pointed at the stone building across the road.

Fyndon crossed the street and carefully opened the door. The Fire Giants' rooms were amazing. They looked very human, with beds and chairs and tables, but they were all so large, Fyndon would never even be able to reach up to one. The room was abandoned and Fyndon saw their packs and arms piled neatly in a corner. She quickly gathered them up and ran outside where everyone was crawling out of their cages. Fyndon gave them each their arms and asked, "What now?"

"Now we find Gelvin," Pithian replied confidently as he placed his scabbard on his armored waist.

Gelvin's lungs gasped for more air as he ran full speed through the Fire Giant city. The city had hundreds of stone and mud structures that all looked the same. Fires lit the passageways and alleys between the buildings, which gave the cavern its reddish glow. Finally, Gelvin saw the source of the foul odor, as he sped past a large pit of refuse the giants had dug into the floor. Gelvin saw a small tunnel leading out of the cavern just a little ways ahead of him. The tunnel was a dark passage and Gelvin did not care where it led him as long he got away from the giants. The entrance to the tunnel was still a few building lengths away and Gelvin looked back at his enraged pursuers. They had longer legs, but Gelvin was much more swift and stayed comfortably ahead of them. He looked forward again and thought, "This will work."

Gelvin's spirit was lifted as he got closer to the tunnel, but his elation abruptly vanished as six more giants ran out from the alleys along the side of the road in front of him. They stood menacingly between Gelvin and the tunnel and he slowed to a stop before he reached the beasts. Gelvin spun around and the army chasing him slowed to a stop. The giants surrounded him and Gelvin desperately looked in every direction for an escape. There was none.

"He's too small to make a good supper," one of the giants said as they all laughed.

Gelvin was terrified. He had the hammer, but there were too many of them and he did not see any way out of the predicament. Then there was a bright flash of white light high in the cavern above Gelvin's head. The giants looked up and tried to shield their eyes with their hands. The white light collapsed into a flickering white star and Gelvin looked at it curiously, not knowing where it came from.

The giants stared at the light until it shimmered even more brightly and then exploded. Cold frost poured out from the explosion and covered Gelvin and the beasts. It chilled Gelvin's skin instantly, but to a Fire Giant, cold air can be deadly. The giants screamed as the frosty, freezing air surrounded them and filled their eyes.

"Too cold!" one of them screamed as it scraped away at its skin in pain.

"I can't see!" another giant yelled as it rubbed its eyes.

Gelvin did not know where the frost came from, but he seized the moment. He lifted his hammer and felled giants on both sides of him with thunderous blows. Then Gelvin felt a hand on his arm, easing the hammer down slowly. He turned and saw Pithian, followed by the others, standing with him amongst the giants.

"Quickly, they will soon recover," Pithian said as he led them through the screaming monsters towards the tunnel.

"Was that your magic?" Gelvin called to Pithian as they hurtled towards their escape.

"Yes, a Fire Giant's hot skin cannot tolerate cold air," Pithian responded.

Gelvin wished he'd had some of the snow with him to throw at the monsters, but then he decided that his hammer might be the more appropriate weapon.

They reached the tunnel just as Gelvin heard a giant boom, "After them, they are getting away." Gelvin looked back and the giants that could still run, bolted towards the tunnel.

"Hurry!" Gelvin shouted as he pushed Pithian faster.

Pithian held his lantern high and ran down the tunnel as it branched and forked into many directions. Pithian ran left and then right, hoping to lose the giants who were catching up from behind. The giants knew the tunnels better then the explorers and they were able to follow close on their heels.

Gelvin looked back and saw the infuriated giants catching up with them. Their eyes flamed with anger as their huge bodies barely squeezed through the passage. The giants snarled with disgust at Gelvin as they stared at the hammer he held firmly in his hand. "They're on us!" Gelvin screamed as a giant reached for him and barely missed snagging his belt.

Pithian didn't know what to do. He kept running, hoping he'd find a tunnel too small for the giants to enter. As Pithian ran faster he didn't see any narrow passages so he turned quickly to his right, into a new tunnel. He thought it was a vain attempt but the giants suddenly stopped at the edge of the dark burrow.

Gelvin looked back as the lead giant held his arms wide, urging his comrades not to cross the barrier into the new descending tunnel. The giant looked frightened and surprised that its supper would chose that path. Gelvin thought nothing of it and yelled, "They've stopped!"

"Keep running until we can no longer see them," Pithian called back.

Gelvin continued to run hard as he thanked his good luck. He couldn't believe that he, with a little help, had freed his friends and aided their escape. He said to himself confidently, "If I could do that, I can face any challenge." Little did he know of what awaited him.

Chapter 9

"Testimony proves that Pithian Whiteshield joined Gelvin because he believed that their quest would lead him to Necron the Destroyer. He didn't anticipate that Necron would find him though."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

Pithian finally stopped running when he was convinced that the giants were not following him. Everyone leaned against the walls and caught their breath as they took off their packs. Thraxus looked at Pithian and asked, "Why did they stop?"

"I don't know," he responded.

"They look frightened," Gelvin jumped in.

"Of what?" Flynton queried as the group stared at Pithian for an answer.

"I suppose we'll find out," Pithian said as he stood erect and picked his pack off the ground. "We should keep going."

With that command everyone gulped down more air and picked up their belongings to continue their descent. The passage continued to slope downwards until it opened again into a large cavern. This hollow was ten times as large as the Fire Giant city and Gelvin believed that it occupied most of the mountain. The rocks were jagged and crushed in many places. There was a strange sound emanating from the far end of the cavern where there was no light.

The sound was a rhythmic wind, but this wind sounded thunderous as it grew loud and then faded away. The wind echoed through the cave, but Gelvin did not feel any pass by him.

"What is that?" Fyndon asked as everyone concentrated on the sound.

"I'm afraid I know," Pithian said with fright. He looked back and waved for Gelvin to come to the front of the tunnel. "You can see through this darkness," Pithian said as he pushed Gelvin to the edge of the giant earth chamber. "Go beyond that rock and see what's in here," Pithian said as he pointed towards a large jagged rock that almost entirely blocked the entrance tunnel to their cavern. from the cavern. Gelvin nodded his head and jumped out of the tunnel onto the rocks below him.

He climbed along the rock as the light of Pithian's lantern slowly began to fade from sight. Gelvin looked downward and saw that the ground was not far below the sheer stone he clung to. The sound became louder as Gelvin neared the edge of the craggy outcropping. Gelvin stuck his head around the end of the rock and looked out into the vast cavern.

His eyes glowed as he searched the darkness for the origin of the sound. Gelvin grasped the hugeness of the chamber as he surveyed in all directions. The cavern was filled with rocks and patches of earth. Then he saw a surprising sight. Gold. Tons of it. Gelvin hoped Thraxus wouldn't see it or else they'd be there forever while he thought of a way to haul it out. "what's all that doing here," Gelvin wondered to himself.

He looked at the sea of gold as the sound rose again and deafened him. The thunderous wind seemed to be moving two directions in the cavern. First, it would push Gelvin backwards, then it would pull him forwards, flush against the rock. Finally Gelvin noticed that the gold ended as it became obscured by a gigantic red rock. Gelvin stared closely at the rock because it was like none he had ever seen. It glistened and had a pattern etched into it. The sound washed over him again and Gelvin noticed that the rock moved in rhythm with the sound and breeze.

Gelvin understood why Pithian had become so nervous as his eyes traced the rock. The rock covered half the cavern until Gelvin saw a head attached to it. The sound rang in the Spriteleng's ears and he realized that the sound was snoring.

Asleep in its nest across the huge cavern lay a huge red dragon. Gelvin's teeth began to chatter as he felt panic overtake him. He had heard about red dragons. They were the most vicious and the eldest of all the horrible worms. They spat fire and could hypnotize a person with their sheer magnificence. This worm was as large as the entire hill where the much smaller green dragon lived. The dragon snored again and the outpouring of sound from its nose smacked Gelvin in the face.

This worm was enormous with perfectly pointed black claws and whiskers that dropped off its enormous nose, down to the lair's floor. The fire in its belly created a steam that rose off the beast, even as it slept. Its scales shifted between crimson and a dull pink under its neck, but it appeared thick everywhere. It tail rested underneath the worm and it was as wide as any tree trunk, with sharp ridges lining it.

Gelvin turned around and scampered back to the others. "Its a ruh-ruh-ruh-red dragon," Gelvin said nervously. A collective gasp filled the air as Pithian shook his head.

"That is what I feared," he said. "Was there an exit anywhere?"

Gelvin tried to calm himself as he visualized the cavern. The sight of the dragon panicked Gelvin so much that he wasn't really sure what he had seen. Gelvin took a deep breath and brought his fear under control. He visualized the cavern and remembered that there was another tunnel leaving the lair, but it was very near the worm.

"There was an exit, but it was too close to the dragon. We have to turn back," Gelvin cried as Flynton nodded in agreement.

"We can't," Pithian declared. "If we turn back we will face an army of Fire Giants. We must slip past the dragon while it sleeps."

"It will wake up!" Thraxus said in a panic.

"Not if we are very careful," Zatu said as he spoke with confidence. "Walk slowly and quietly. Dragons sleep very deeply."

Gelvin looked at his companions and knew that they were all scared, including Pithian. But he was right, what other choice did they have. "Let's do it," Gelvin said. "Keep the light in your lanterns low and follow me. I can lead us through there."

Gelvin climbed out to the rock as his eyes glowed brightly in the darkness. The others carefully followed him onto the steep outcropping. Once Gelvin reached the end he peered around to make sure the worm was still sleeping. Gelvin peeked around the edge and saw that the dragon's eyes were still shut. Another wave of snoring hit Gelvin flush in the face to confirm his suspicion.

Gelvin pointed towards the ground a few paces below the rock as he let go and dropped down. He carefully landed on the rock laced floor of the lair and looked out over the vast expanse they would have to traverse. The lair was as large as the Fire Giant's city, but there were no smooth roads. Instead, there were jagged rocks and crevasses that filled the lair.

The others followed Gelvin down. and held their breath, hoping that their landing was not loud enough to wake the sleeping beast. The snoring remained constant and loud as Gelvin led his companions out into the open field of the lair. He looked across the vast field of stones and saw that he was right. There was a small tunnel, certainly not large enough for the dragon, just past its unmoving jaws.

Gelvin crawled across the rocks and scurried along the floor of the cavern, moving ever closer to the sleeping beast. The humans became accustomed to the roaring vibrations of the snore, but Gelvin's sensitive ears made him wince every time the dragon slowly exhaled. As they drew closer, the low lit lanterns revealed the beast to everyone but Gelvin. It was huge and Thraxus opened his mouth wide as he stared at the creature. It was larger than a small village and was as magnificent as any castle. Its scaled hide reflected the soft light as they cautiously walked past it.

As Gelvin approached the head of the worm he felt the force of its wind as the beast exhaled violently. Gelvin looked back and waved for the others to hurry. He was only a few paces away from the tunnel as the others filed past the worm. They walked as silently as possible, but there was one other perceptive dragon sense they had not counted on. As the dragon breathed deeply after another thunderous snore it caught the smell of the humans in its lair. The worm inhaled and the odors of human soap, from Pithian, and Fire Giant blood, from Gelvin, tickled its nose.

Pithian and Zatu hiked in the rear to make sure everyone made it across the floor of the lair and just as they walked across the path in front of the dragon's nose, its eyes slowly opened. The dragon watched as the humans crossed through his lair. It had been a long time since she had seen anything but a Fire Giant and the unique smell of the humans tickled her nose.

"You maggots dare to enter my mountain!" the dragon boomed as it awakened from its slumber. Gelvin looked up and watched as the towering beast sat up on its hind legs. "I do not allow maggots into my home," the dragon said as it spread its leathery wings. The wingspan was gigantic and Gelvin cowered in fear of the dragon's black claws and shiny white teeth.

"Run!" Pithian screamed as he reached for his sword. "Run now!"

Pithian turned to face the dragon as it slapped its tail on the ground, causing the floor to quake. Gelvin barely kept his balance, but Zatu fell down and rolled under a rock to hide from the frightening worm.

"You puny thing! You dare raise your sword at me!" the dragon bellowed as its dark eyes shined. It tried to hypnotize Pithian with its penetrating stare. Pithian felt the dragon's internal magic reaching out to his mind and enthralling him. Feelings of hot steamed filled his mind and his knees began to buckle in confusion. But Pithian was too strong. He peered through his cloudy thoughts and regained his focus on the worm, expelling its magical power from his mind.

"Go now," Pithian screamed as he stood firm with his sword in front of him for protection.

The others scrambled towards the tunnel as the dragon laughed at Pithian's futile defiance. Fyndon was the first to reach the escape and she scrambled several paces down it. Quickly, Thraxus and Mendibone joined her, followed by Flynton. Gelvin waited by the threshold of the exit and shouted, "Pithian I cannot leave you."

"Run now!" Pithian shouted in anger as his eyes did not waver from the enormous beast. Gelvin could not refuse the command. He jumped into the tunnel and peered out into the lair. "What is he doing?" Gelvin thought to himself as he prayed his master would survive.

The dragon continued to laugh at the minuscule human until finally she bellowed, "You chose to face me, so be it!"

The dragon reared back on its hind legs as its throat swelled until it spit fire all over the lair. Pithian stood firm, his sword glowing and resonating. The fires washed on top of him, but somehow Pithian, standing in stoic defiance, resisted the flames. The fire reached his sword and then spread around him in a sphere. Zatu cowered under the rock until the barrage subsided. He crawled out to find Pithian facing the dragon alone.

The dragon roared in disgust as its fire had no effect on the resolute Pithian. "I shall crush you then!" she shouted as she lowered her clawed fist onto the floor. The dragon had not tried to strike Pithian, but merely shatter the ground. As the lair quaked again Pithian lost his balance and fell to the ground. His sword was knocked away to his side and Pithian could do nothing to recover it. His foot was trapped under a piece of falling debris that broke free from the ceiling during the quake.

The dragon hissed and laughed at its helpless prey. "Pithian," Gelvin screamed out from the tunnel as he reached in desperation. He knew there was nothing he could do to save him. The dragon lowered her head to the ground and intended to swallow Pithian whole, when Zatu jumped off the ground where he had been hiding.

Zatu had waited until the dragon drew close, because he realized he would have only one chance at his plan. The dragon's right eye widened as it glimpsed Zatu charging at her lowered head. Zatu moved as fast as lightning and thrust his sword directly into the eye of the worm. The eye was the only place it was vulnerable, without the protection of its scales, and Zatu hoped that the Gods would carry his blade straight through to the lizard's brain.

Dragons were quite intelligent and had large brains, but relative to the size of their enormous skulls, reaching the brain by driving a sword through the eye was virtually impossible. Zatu pushed the blade as far as it would go until the dragon roared in pain. He quickly drew it out and the dragon stood tall and covered its eye with her claws. The dragon wobbled as its black blood poured like a river to the surface of the lair. She let loose one final scream and then fell backwards into her treasure, her brain punctured.

Zatu's strategy worked, but as the gigantic beast hit the ground the entire cavern began to collapse. Rocks and stalactites from the ceiling hurtled downward on top of Zatu and Pithian. Zatu reached down and moved the rock covering Pithian's foot. Pithian sprang to his feet and winced as he shifted his weight off of the injury. He grabbed his sword as he and Zatu raced towards the tunnel.

"Hurry!" Gelvin shouted as he watched the entire cavern fall down around them. They were only a few paces away when a crumbling rock crashed into Zatu's head. He slumped to the ground as Pithian barely reached the entrance to the tunnel.

"Zatu!" Gelvin called out as he leapt into the maelstrom of debris.

"It's too late Gelvin!" Pithian said as he tried to hold him by the tunic. He was too weak to stop Gelvin though, and he charged into the collapsing cavern to save his friend. Gelvin narrowly avoided a falling boulder as he got to Zatu's body and threw him over his shoulder. Gelvin reached down to snatch Zatu's sword and he ran back towards the tunnel. It was half covered by the debris and the air grew thick with dust and particles of rock. Gelvin could barely see through the clouds as he exerted the last of his energy to throw himself into the tunnel, seconds before a huge boulder crashed into the threshold, blocking the lair.

Pithian picked Gelvin up and asked, "Are you injured?"

"Yes." Gelvin heard the concern in Pithian's voice. He knew that his master did not approve of what he had done, but Pithian also respected his valiant and selfless act. Gelvin looked down at Zatu, whose head was bruised and black. But far worse, he was not breathing.

"No!" Gelvin screamed as he fell to the ground. he had not risked his life just to watch Zatu die. "Wake up," Gelvin cried as he slapped Zatu on the cheek. Gelvin looked at Fyndon and desperately asked, "Use your powder. Save him."

A tear rolled down Fyndon's cheek as she placed her delicate hand on Gelvin and said, "I cannot save him." She knew her healing power could not help a wound to the head. The Comwen mixture only knitted cuts and lacerations.

"No, there must be something," Gelvin said as he began to cry. "He gave himself to save us. He killed the worm and he must not die." Gelvin turned his face towards the Kensai and wailed. When Slade died, Gelvin was upset but he did not feel any connection to the thief. Zatu, on the other hand, was an honorable warrior, who, unlike most humans, had treated Gelvin with respect and fairness. He cared for the fallen warrior and he began to wish he had died instead.

Then Gelvin felt Pithian's firm hand on his side and his mentor whispered, "Back off Gelvin." Gelvin stood up and collapsed back onto the wall of the tunnel. Fyndon balanced him upright as he continued to cry. Pithian knelt down on one knee and removed the gauntlet from his right hand. He placed his palm over the black bruise on Zatu's forehead. Pithian whispered something as his hand began to tremble and shake. Pithian said a prayer and then stood up.

Suddenly, Zatu's eyes opened wide and he gasped for air. He coughed up a few drops of blood and then bent over and clutched the bruised area on his forehead. Gelvin rushed over to him as his tears changed to those of joy. "You're alive!" he shouted.

"Thanks to you I believe," Zatu said as his foggy memories of what had just happened filled his mind. "That is twice you have saved me, Gelvin. I am in your debt."

"It is enough to know that you have not left us yet," Gelvin said with a smile. He reached to the floor and handed Zatu his sword. Gelvin knew that as a Kensai, Zatu's family sword was more important to him than his own life. As Gelvin handed him the beautiful weapon, Zatu's eyes sprang to life and he held the sword.

"I knew you were an honorable Spriteleng," Zatu said as he grasped Gelvin by the arm. Gelvin pulled him to his feet and everyone rejoiced that their comrade was still alive. Even Thraxus cheered, relieved that Slade's fate did not befall Zatu. Mendibone was the only one who had no reaction. She seemed not to care and simply wanted to move on to the next battle. She would not have long to wait.

The tunnel continued deeper into the mountain. Gelvin walked along the gentle slope and asked Pithian, "How did you save him? How was that possible?"

"Have faith Gelvin. The power of good is strong. I can use my magic to harness those positive powers and channel them into life energy."

Gelvin never knew his master possessed such incredible magic. He had watched him pore over ancient texts before, but Gelvin never realized the extent of Pithian's powers. Pithian, though, was more interested in his ward's actions.

"Why did you go back for Zatu?" he asked.

Gelvin remembered that he had disobeyed Pithian's command and he dropped his head in shame. "I'm sorry," he muttered.

"Don't be," Pithian replied as he forced Gelvin to hold his head high. "It was risky, but risks are often worth taking. I want to know why you chose this particular risk?"

"I'm not sure," Gelvin said as he thought about the question. "I just felt compelled to save him. It's strange though."

"What do you mean?" Pithian asked.

"Just a few days ago I never would have done that. All I was thinking about was returning home to you. But now my mind is filled with a sense that I must stop Koraz and help you confront Necron. I have not thought about the temple since we left for this desolate mountain."

"That is good," Pithian replied. "You have grown in the ways I did as a young adventurer."

Gelvin was curious about what Pithian had done as a young man on a quest. What had he learned that he could not have taught Gelvin in Caledan? Gelvin wanted to know, but it quickly became apparent that it was not the right time to ask.

The tunnel widened and expanded into another small cavern. Not nearly as large as the dragon' lair, this expanse was filled with a giant skeleton though. As the group piled into the cavern their lanterns shone brightly on the gigantic skeleton and everyone recognized it immediately. It was the remains of smaller dragon. The structure was unmistakable and a tension filed the mountain as everyone looked over their shoulders for another sleeping beast.

"Is there no end to these dragons!" Thraxus shouted in frustration. He had already encountered three worms during the last few suns and he was not prepared for another.

"It appears that whatever was living here has long since perished," Pithian said as he held his lantern up to the rib cage of the skeleton. But then another faint light appeared on the other side of the cavern away from the dragon's bones.

Gelvin peered through the nearly complete darkness and saw a tall robed figure walking slowly towards them. Suddenly the entire cavern was illuminated by a magical light that filled the interior of the mountain. The robed figure wore a hood to conceal its face even as the chamber grew brighter. It stopped its approach and stood there in silence, looking at Pithian.

"Who are you?" Pithian demanded to know as he drew his sword. He did not desire to use it, but he wanted the stranger to know that he had it. The robed figure slowly moved its covered arms towards the hood. Gelvin could not see any hands because the baggy black robe concealed everything about this mysterious stranger. The light from the ceiling grew brighter and their lanterns faded in comparison. Finally, the figure gripped his hood with his concealed hands and quickly threw it off.

Gelvin gasped as he looked at the figures' face. It was a rotting skull with red glowing eyes that danced in the inner recesses of Gelvin's soul, stirring fear he never knew existed. It was Necron!

"I have not forgotten about you,' the necromancer said in a piercing high pitched voice. Gelvin was scared but he knew what had to be done. He raised his Defender high and ran at the evil wizard as he shouted a menacing war cry.

"Gelvin, don't!" Pithian shouted, but it was too late. Gelvin only heard rage as he squashed his fear in a mad charge. Necron's skeletal jaws opened and he laughed while the helpless Spriteleng ran at him with his sword ready to topple the evil one. As Gelvin began to strike downwards at the necromancer he felt a collision with an invisible barrier and he stumbled backwards.

As Gelvin collided with the mystical force, a sphere of sparkling darkness appeared around Necron and then disappeared very quickly. Gelvin then understood what Pithian feared, the dark veil.

"Attack!" Thraxus foolishly announced.

In the heat of the moment, everyone charged except for Pithian who knew that the assault was useless. Necron laughed as the heroes hacked away with their weapons at his shimmering veil. He was invulnerable and the adventurers, either out of fear or stupidity, could not comprehend that important fact.

"Fall back!" Pithian shouted and Necron obliged for him. He waved his rotting arm and a pulse of red energy repelled everyone away from his veil. Gelvin slid across the ground as he recovered from the shocking power of Necron's dark magic.

"What do we do?" Gelvin asked Pithian as he jumped to his feet.

"Regroup!" Pithian shouted as everyone huddled towards him.

"You'll never break that veil with your swords," Pithian explained. "Maybe my magic can break it," he said with a lack of confidence.

"How do we help?" Flynton asked quickly as he kept one eye on the unmoving Necron. The wizard seemed to be waiting on something, and before Pithian could answer Flynton, they all discovered why Necron paused.

"Nyyawhhh!" Thraxus screamed in pain as he fell to his knees. Gelvin looked at him and saw Mendibone pulling her short black sword out of his back. She held the blade to her mouth and slowly licked the blood off the dark metal. Mendibone hissed and exposed two large fangs that Gelvin had not seen before. She quickly grabbed Thraxus' enormous black sword as two black leathery wings spread from her back.

"By the Gods, what are you?" Fyndon gasped in horror.

"Back foul demon!" Pithian shouted as he held an ankh high in the air. Mendibone hissed again and then flew over their heads and joined Necron inside his dark veil. She handed him the enormous sword and he drove the sharp tip into the ground. Mendibone's clawed hands groped at Necron's robe as he examined his gigantic sword.

"Thank you for finding my sword," Necron said to Mendibone.

Mendibone smiled and hissed at Gelvin. "You were a fool to trust me little one."

"I will kill you!" Gelvin declared in a fit of anger.

Mendibone's forked tongue emerged from her mouth and she said, "I will taste your blood one day Spriteleng."

Necron's rotting head turned towards Pithian and he placed the sword on his back, in similar fashion to Thraxus. The necromancer waved his hand again and suddenly his magical light that filled the chamber disappeared. As his lantern grew in brightness once again, Gelvin watched as Necron's veil glittered in the dark chamber and the walking corpse looked up at the ceiling.

Suddenly, the roof began to fall. Pithian held his sword high and his magical energy deflected the falling pieces. Some small rocks fell through and the others jumped and dodged to avoid being hit. One piece knocked Fyndon to the ground and she covered her head as a large boulder plummeted towards her. At the last moment, Zatu jumped to the ground and pulled her out of the way.

"Thank you," Fyndon said as she grasped Zatu's neck. The debris settled and Gelvin was thankful that this cave in was not as complete as the one he experienced in the dragon's lair. He looked to the middle of the cavern, but Necron and Mendibone were gone.

Gelvin then rushed to Thraxus' aid. He did not like the man, but empathy poured from Gelvin's soul. Thraxus has been backstabbed by a demon, and no matter his failings as a human, nobody deserved such a fate. As Gelvin bent down next to him, Thraxus spat out his dying breath, "Avenge me Spriteleng. Avenge me." Then Thraxus eyes closed and his heart stopped. Gelvin solemnly bowed his head.

"What was that thing?" Zatu asked in ignorance of the demon. Gelvin actually wanted to know as well. All along Mendibone had seemed as normal as the rest of them. Not even Pithian, with all of his experience and knowledge, suspected her.

"Mendibone is a hellspawn," Pithian said plainly. "Necron probably summoned her from the depths of hell to search for his sword."

"But how did she know Thraxus' had it or where to find us?" Fyndon asked.

"I don't know how she found us on the way to Caledan, but Necron saw Thraxus with the weapon in his tomb," Gelvin hypothesized. "He knew who to send Mendibone after."

"Of course," Flynton said as he came to an important discovery. "Now I know how we released him."

"What do you mean?" Gelvin asked.

"Remember, Trogen said it should not have been possible to open the tomb. But we had Necron's sword. Thraxus beat the door down so we could enter. The sword must have contained enough of his evil magic to break the seal to his prison."

"What do you mean evil magic. In a sword?" Gelvin asked in confusion.

"Yes," Pithian began. "A sword can do more than conduct magical energy, it can also store it. Necron probably left part of his dark power in the blade when he was captured."

"Enough to break into a tomb of the Gods?" Fyndon asked.

"Perhaps," Pithian replied. "Dark magic is quite powerful."

Gelvin synthesized what Pithian and Flynton were saying and he realized they were correct. "Yes, that must be it. Thraxus even dropped the sword when we tried to battle Necron in the tomb."

"Magical swords never bite their owners," Pithian said.

"That's why it kept sliding out of his hand," Gelvin declared. "It's starting to make sense."

"We'll never defeat him," Fyndon said discouragingly. "We can't even make it to the bottom of this mountain. How are we ever going to defeat Necron."

"I will defeat Necron," Pithian declared. "You must worry about stopping Koraz. Leave Necron to me. I sense that this is not the last time I will confront him."

"We cannot give up now," Gelvin said to Fyndon and Flynton. "The three of us have come so far and done so much. Don't lose hope now when we are so close to the end."

"And I am with you," Zatu said as he stepped forward. "I am with you until the end. If you say we must defeat this Koraz, then I am compelled to help."

"All right then," Fyndon said as a little of her confidence returned. Gelvin looked at Fyndon and he knew she could not concede defeat.

"What of Thraxus' armor and his map?" Flynton asked.

Gelvin looked at the dead body and most of the armor had been crushed by the falling debris. The map was somewhere underneath it as well. "I don't think it will be of much use to us now," Gelvin said as Flynton stared at the cracked and shattered plating.

"We'd better keep moving," she said as they crossed the rubble filled chamber and continued down another tunnel.

The tunnel descended deeper and deeper into the mountain as Gelvin's confidence sank deeper as well. He put on a brave show for the others, but he felt worthless and cowardly. "I should have known," Gelvin whispered in disgust.

"Known what?" Pithian asked.

Gelvin did not realize that his mentor had been listening, but it was too late not to talk about it. "I should have known Mendibone would betray us," Gelvin said quietly as he made sure no one else heard him.

"How could you have known?" Pithian asked.

"I should have seen it in her eyes," Gelvin said despondently.

"So you've learned to see into peoples' souls, have you?"

"What do you mean?" Gelvin asked Pithian. He still did not fully grasp his own potential.

"Spritelengs have the sense to look in a person's eyes and understand their true nature."

"We do?" Gelvin said in surprise. He had no idea that he possessed such a unique ability. He just assumed that he was a good judge of character.

"Yes," Pithian continued. "I was not sure if your ability had developed yet, but now I suppose these quests brought it out in you."

Gelvin's spirits lightened as Pithian explained his newfound ability. But then, as Gelvin rejoiced in the idea that he could read a person's soul, he felt more responsible for not recognizing Mendibone's true nature. "Why did she fool me then?"

"Demons have vast powers," Pithian explained. "She was able to hide herself from you. She used a trance to convince you to trust her. The power of your eyes were negated."

"But how?" Gelvin whined. He wanted to make sure it never happened again.

"Your powers are not absolute," Pithian clarified. "Have you considered the fact that you cannot read my soul. Nor were you able to read Koraz when he disguised himself as Riverwind."

Gelvin thought about Pithian's words and he began to understand. He could not count on his senses because sometimes they would be unreliable. Koraz was a madman, which Gelvin assumed would be easy to sense, but still Riverwind deceived him. Gelvin thought back to the moment when he saw Koraz disguised in the tree and he remembered that he felt nothing. That seemed strange by itself. Perhaps, Gelvin thought, I should be sensitive to that feeling as well.

Gelvin had no sense of what time it was because there was no sun under the mountain. Still, it felt late and he was getting tired. The tunnel finally leveled off and Gelvin hoped they were nearing Ankearth. It seemed as though it had taken twice as long to travel through the mountain than it did to climb it.

As they walked cautiously down the corridors, Pithian noticed a wooden sign that had been embedded in the earthen wall. The sign displayed no words, but had a symbol drawn in orange. Pithian put his hand to the wood as he mumbled words across his lips. The drawing depicted a goat's head and a pick axe floating above it. "We are near Ankearth," Pithian said as he examined the sign.

"How far is it?" Flynton asked.

"Very close now. Probably just down this tunnel."

Pithian led the way as the others followed him down the darkened passage. Gelvin was elated at the idea of reaching the city. He wanted rest and a good meal. But then he began to wonder how comfortable a city could exist underground. Most dwarves were miners, and Gelvin couldn't imagine that they lived in a very nice place. When he thought of miners, he envisioned hunched over dwarves, with dirty beards and nasty dispositions. Gelvin hoped that someone else knew more about Ankearth and could allay his concerns. That would have to wait though, as a dilemma rose, or fell you could say, as they walked down the tunnel.

The lanterns were bright, but it was still difficult to see and Pithian did not notice the carved grooves in the path just ahead of him. As he stepped forward, the ground gave way, and a deep pit emerged below him. Pithian started to slide into it as Gelvin stretched out and caught him by the hand. "Help me!" Gelvin clamored as Pithian's weight slowly drug him into the pit.

Zatu's reached for Gelvin and took him by the hand. "Pull," Zatu shouted Flynton and Fyndon reached around his waist. Everyone exerted all their strength until finally Pithian was retrieved from the abyss.

Pithian and Gelvin looked over the edge into the hole and saw large metal spikes planted on the ground below. "I guess they don't like visitors," Gelvin said as he pushed his back against the wall. He carefully inched his way forward on a ledge left next to the wall by the collapsing ground. As soon as everyone had made their way across, they continued down the tunnel.

Within moments they began to see lights and soon their lanterns were not necessary. "There it is," Gelvin bellowed as he pointed at the city which lay beyond the small tunnel. The adventurers emerged from the dark into a great hollow within the mountain.

It was magnificent. Gelvin twirled around as he looked at a teeming city with a lake calmly shimmering below it. From the lake there stretched a river, going south, that seemed to disappear back into the rock of the mountain. To the east there was a vale, filled with plants and foliage that did not seem to require sunlight to grow. Gelvin had never seen a more amazing sight. There was some sunlight in the city though and Gelvin looked about the Ankearth to locate the source. He small many small openings and cracks throughout the rock where faint sunlight shined through. Then Gelvin realized the true ingenuity of these dwarves. The cracks did not provide enough light on their own, so the dwarves erected mirrors near them and reflected small beams of sunlight many times throughout their city. One opening could probably illuminate the entire vale.

"Who goes there?" a short stubby dwarf said as he approached the interlopers. "Why are you here?" The dwarf was a small fellow with bright blue eyes and solid brown colored clothes. His white hair and beard were long, but not by dwarven standards.

"We apologize for the unannounced visit," Pithian said as he laid his sword on the ground in a gesture of good faith. "We are travelers from the south. We seek an audience with the noble and wise King Bolen."

"King Bolen is very busy," the dwarf complained as his white beard shook back and forth along with his head. "You will have to come back when he has time."

"But we've traveled so far," Gelvin said desperately.

"I do not care," the dwarf said rudely and he started to turn around.

"We bring news of Koraz," Pithian said succinctly as he picked up his sword and sheathed it.

"Did you say Koraz?" the dwarf whispered as he looked at Pithian with a critical eye.

"Yes, we need to see King Bolen immediately."

Once the dwarf confirmed that he had heard the human correctly he waved his hand for them to follow and rushed down towards the lake.

It was a large body of water considering it was underground. Gelvin looked out across it and saw many small boats sailing on it. He wasn't sure where the wind came from, but then again, the boats were not moving very swiftly.

"King Bolen!" the dwarf cried as he ran down to the shore of the lake where a group of dwarves were finishing construction of a larger wooden boat.

"What is it?" Bolen asked rudely as he turned around to see what the commotion was. King Bolen was a stout dwarf, about Fyndon's size, with large glasses and a wrinkled face. He had a shortsword, shaped like a scimitar, at his side and he wore quite plain clothes for a king. He had a puffy white shirt on, with baggy green pants that were tucked into his black boots. His long white beard matched his even longer white hair. The length of one's beard in the dwarven world indicated their age and level of respect. Bolen's beard was longer than anyone around him.

"These people have heard of Koraz!" the dwarf screamed as he jumped up and down in front of his king.

Bolen pushed the jumping fool aside and walked right up to Pithian. "What do you know of Koraz, human?"

"He is building an army to attack my king, Zendon the Wise. I know what Koraz did to your brother and King Zendon requests your assistance. He needs more men if he is to defeat Koraz's evil army."

Bolen turned around and began to stroke his long beard. He raised a finger in the air and spoke to the strangers without facing them. "My people have searched for Koraz ever since he killed my brother Thorus. My people have sworn revenge against any person bearing that name." Bolen turned to face Pithian and extended his hand in friendship. "I cannot refuse your request. What do you need from us?"

Pithian shook the king's hand and said, "I am Pithian Whiteshield. My companions and I request the help of your army to defeat Koraz."

"Then you shall have it," Bolen said confidently. After all the years since Thorus' death, the king would have the chance to avenge him in battle.

"Prepare the ships," Bolen called out and dozens of dwarves began to scramble about the lake. "Prepare the army and supply yourselves for war!" Bolen shouted to the cheers of his people.

Gelvin did not understand why they became so excited at the prospect of a war, let alone with the deadly Koraz, but Gelvin decided that maybe it was just something about dwarves he would never understand. "We will be ready soon," Bolen said to the travelers. "You can eat and rest with us on the boat. We sail south tonight."

As soon as the boats were loaded with dwarves and their monstrous weapons of war, Bolen marched to the bow of his personal ship. He raised his scimitar to the delight of his armored followers. He pointed the sword forward, towards the underground river, and the fleet of dwarven ships began to row their way out of the mountain. The river flowed down a long tunnel and Bolen told Pithian that they would be well outside of Skull Mountain by morning.

Gelvin and the others enjoyed a banquet that evening. Bolen always said that a warrior should eat well before battle. Gelvin had never been on a ship before, but he did not find it difficult to sleep that night. He awoke early the next morning and ventured out onto deck. The sun shining as Gelvin surveyed the water. It was vast and blue and as Gelvin saw the continent of land to his right he realized that the river they set out on the night before had reached the Grandean Lake. Gelvin was traveling south, towards his first tastes of war.

Chapter 10
The Duel

"Nobody has ever questioned Zatu's bravery. He showed it time and again throughout Gelvin's quest. However, sometimes Zatu's passion and bravery got the better of him and nearly cost him dearly, as it did during the War of the Peninsula."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

Soon, Zatu and Fyndon joined Gelvin on deck to look out at the beautiful lake. It shimmered in the morning sun and Gelvin looked deep below the water at the fishes that swam underneath. "A beautiful sight," Gelvin said.

"Yes, it is breathtaking," Zatu agreed.

Gelvin looked at his new friend as he leaned over the stern to view the water. Zatu was still such a mystery, but nobody had ever suggested that he was not trustworthy. After their experience with Mendibone, it seemed that someone would have brought up the question. But they never did. Zatu showed them all the respect, because they were friends of Gelvin, a Spriteleng. Gelvin wondered why Zatu respected him so much and he finally asked, "Zatu, what do you know of Spritelengs?"

"I've known one Spriteleng before you, Gelvin, and he was the most giving creature I ever met."

"How so?" Fyndon asked. "What did he do for you?"

"When my clan was destroyed there were many men hunting for me. I hid in the forest where I fell ill. A Spriteleng named Kwanis found me and took me to his tree. This Spriteleng lived alone and he spent his time nursing me back to health. As I recovered in the tree, the men hunting me stumbled upon Kwanis in the forest. They asked him where I was, and when he refused to tell, the men threatened to kill him. I expected Kwanis to give in and I would not of thought less of him for doing so. But he was resolute. He would not yield and the men killed him. On that day, I learned the true honor of Spritelengs."

"That is an amazing tale," Gelvin said as he understood why Zatu held his race in such high regard.

The three friends turned their sights back to the lake and watched the paddling dwarves row further south. "I wish we could help them," Gelvin said. "They are working so hard."

"Maybe we can help," Fyndon said as she stretched both her arms out over the side of the ship. She hesitantly stared down at the water and began to wave her arms in elaborate flowing motions. She reminded Gelvin of a dancer and her lithe arms relaxed him. Then Gelvin looked back towards the water and he saw a sight he did not think possible. The water foamed and rippled as dozens of schools of fish began to skim the surface.

"What are you doing?" Gelvin asked in amazement as the fish showed him the answer. Fyndon waved her arms high and suddenly the fish swam more rapidly until their mouths nudged against the hull of the boat. Gelvin almost lost his balance as the ship's speed doubled.

"How is that possible?" Gelvin asked in shock.

"Fish are busy little creatures," Fyndon said as she lowered her arms with a smile. "They love to work and all one needs to know is how to give them an order." Gelvin and Zatu laughed as Fyndon smiled at her handiwork.

The ships sailed throughout the entire morning, and by the time the sun shone high in the midday sky, the dwarves arrived at the peninsula to meet King Zendon. Once the boats docked, Pithian led King Bolen into Zendon's camp so the two warrior kings could meet.

"It is my honor to meet you," Zendon said as he emerged from his brown command tent.

"Any enemy of Koraz is my friend," Bolen said as he extended his hand to Zendon in friendship. "You and I shall vanquish him together."

"Well said," Zendon declared. "We are fortunate that you arrived when you did. Koraz's army prepared more swiftly than I anticipated and they began unloading their boats on the south end of the peninsula last night. Today we will take the field against him."

"Do we know what Koraz intends to do?" Pithian asked.

"Marcus has ordered him to sack the villages along the peninsula. There are three of them spread across the field. Then Koraz is to proceed against our army and rout us."

"That will never happen," Bolen said confidently.

"Normally I would agree," Zendon said apologetically. "But Koraz has gathered a very unique and menacing army. We must be cautious."

"What do you mean my Lord?" Pithian asked.

Zendon frowned at Pithian for calling him Lord and replied, "Koraz's army is comprised of Rocwhelm soldiers as well as horrible monsters he controls. Ogres, orcs, and Stone Giants have chosen to take the field with him."

The mention of giants seemed to unnerve Bolen because the large creatures were the bane of tiny dwarves. Bolen had many a battle against the Fire Giants of Skull Mountain and lost many friends in the process. "Do not worry," Pithian said. "The giants can be dealt with," Pithian assured Bolen as he thought about Gelvin and his hammer.

"I will prepare my troops," Bolen announced as he walked back towards the ships.

"I have a final favor to ask you Pithian," Zendon said as he took him aside, behind the tent.

"It is never a final favor with you Zendon. What do you need?"

"Generals," he bluntly replied. "I do not have enough officers to lead the army. I want you and Thraxus to command my forces."

Pithian lowered his voice, realizing that the king had not heard the news yet, "But sir, Thraxus is dead."

A numbness filled Zendon's face as he took a step backwards. He had counted on having Thraxus to lead his armies into battle, and now he believed all hope was lost. "What am I to do?" he asked rhetorically.

"I will lead part of your forces," Pithian declared. "It has been a long time, but I think I can still lead an army."

"But one man is not enough," Zendon fretted aloud.

"Gelvin and the others will help me," Pithian replied confidently.

"The Spriteleng," Zendon said with a lack of confidence. "I know he performed well on the quests, better than I even anticipated, but war is another matter. He cannot lead other men."

"The men will follow me," Pithian said. "I will make them respect Gelvin. Besides, it seems you have no other choice."

Zendon nodded his head in reluctant agreement because Pithian was right. There were no other men to lead the forces, so the Spriteleng would have to do. "Come, I will show you the strategy," Zendon said as he pulled Pithian into his tent.

Gelvin watched as the dwarves unloaded their catapults and battering rams. Gelvin could not conceive their destructive power, nor did he want to. He was happy the dwarves and agreed to come, though, because Zendon now had enough forces to stop Koraz. And Gelvin believed he would get to watch from the safety of the camp.

"Zendon needs our help," Pithian declared as he rejoined his friends. "We are going to help lead the army."

"We're going to do what?" Gelvin asked in shock. He didn't like the idea of war itself, let alone helping direct it.

"But Pithian, we don't know how to lead an army," Flynton said as Fyndon nodded her head in agreement.

"I will show you. We have a very simple plan," Pithian said as he spread a crude map of the peninsula onto the ground. The map showed the triangle shaped land, dotted with three spread apart villages near the coasts. "Gelvin, Zatu, and I will lead the cavalry. We will embark for the villages to establish a forward defense. Then the rest of you will help King Bolen and King Zendon lead the infantry up the middle of the peninsula. Hopefully, we will converge on Koraz at once and surround him."

Pithian looked into their faces and they were filled with doubt. "You will get through this," he assured them. "We have many good soldiers ready to fight and I believe we will be victorious."

None of them wanted to lead the army, including Pithian. But as they looked across the peninsula, to the smoke rising from the far off southern camp, they all thought of Koraz. He and Marcus had to be stopped. Their reign of terror must be destroyed. With that thought in mind, Fyndon and Flynton joined the infantry, while the other three saddled themselves on war horses. Gelvin's horse was a brown steed, spotted with patches of black. It held him high off the ground and he combed its thick mane to calm the animal.

Pithian took Gelvin to his detachment of cavalry and introduced the men to their new commander. "This is Gelvin!" Pithian shouted. "He will lead you to the village along the eastern coast. Defend that village until the army has completed its march through the peninsula. Then join the fray from your flank."

"We don't want a bald Elf leadin' us," one of the men called out.

"He's no Elf," Pithian cried sternly. "He's a Spriteleng and he's worth ten of each of you! I've seen this man kill dragons and slay wizards," Pithian lied. "You will do as he orders or answer to King Zendon. Any questions?" The cavalry remained silent in fear of Pithian's rage.

"Then let's move out!" Gelvin barked.

As the cavalry began to gallop towards the eastern coast Gelvin reached out and shook Pithian's hand. "Good luck general," Gelvin said as Pithian rode off in the opposite direction, to join Zatu in defending the western villages.

Gelvin led his cavalry down the coastline as he peered into the distance at Koraz's army. It looked as though it was still preparing and Gelvin pondered whether or not their plan would work. He knew very little about war, but assumed Pithian would not send him into the field if it were not safe. Gelvin rode first into the small village to look for places to set up a defense.

The village was a single dirt street, surrounded by a few wooden shops and homes. There were some fields to the west and a larger packed dirt road leading to the shore along the east. The streets were deserted and Gelvin peered through the windows of the shops. He saw frightened faces on the other sides and so he called out, "We are with your King, Zendon. Do not be afraid." The people inside were far from receptive. They actually ducked down and hid. Gelvin wondered why they would do that after he told them who they were. Then he realized the answer.

"It must be an ambush," Gelvin said to himself at the exact moment a group of Stone Giants rushed out of the homes and stood up on the roofs, surrounding Gelvin's cavalry. Koraz knew they were coming and he had a surprise waiting.

The giants picked up tremendous boulders and began to hurl them at the defenseless cavalry. Gelvin quickly abandoned his horse and scampered out of the way of the avalanche. His men were not as fortunate though. As the giants hurled the tons of stone down on them, every man was either injured or crushed. Within moments, the horses were scattered and fleeing from the village. Gelvin looked to the villagers for help, but they were still hiding.

Out of rocks to throw, the giants descended from the roofs and formed a circle around Gelvin. He took a deep breath and slid his hammer into his hand. It was his last and only hope.

Besides their size, the giants were very human looking. Their gray granite bodies and bald smooth heads reminded Gelvin of himself. He watched closely as the giants moved closer to him and he realized their weakness. Unlike the Fire Giants, they were very slow, and Gelvin hoped he might use that to his advantage. He lunged out at the first giant, and as it reached for him, Gelvin rolled under its grasp, breaking the circle. As the giants turned to face him, Gelvin jumped to his feet and slung his hammer at the chest of one of the adamantine monsters.

The blunt hammer impacted square on the giant's chest with a thunderous boom. Its chest began to crack and pieces of it crumbled away as the beast fell to the ground and shattered. The giant made no sound as it perished and the others continued to move at Gelvin like mindless zombies. Gelvin balanced himself and delivered another crushing blow to a giant. It fell down in a heap, yet still the others kept coming ever so slowly. Gelvin reared back and felled another, and then another before he finally shouted, "Stop. Give up! I don't want to hurt you!" Gelvin realized why he hated war so much. It was killing. Killing without thought or remorse. There was no just cause, such as killing the Fire Giants to save his friends, or felling the Spirit Serpent in self defense. War was premeditated and savage.

The Stone Giants ignored Gelvin's pleas even though he was correct. They had superior strength and numbers, but Gelvin had the Giant Killer. He hated murdering such seemingly defenseless creatures and Gelvin wished that just one of them would cry out and make the others listen. None of them did though, and Gelvin methodically brought each one down.

After all of the giants had been slain, Gelvin fell to his knees and breathed irregularly, as though he were crying. His chest heaved, but no tears came from his eyes. He already hated war, and in the distance he heard the real battle beginning.

With the village secure, Gelvin rushed to the enormous grass and sod field in the middle of the peninsula to see how his comrades were faring. Gelvin rushed onto the plain and saw Zendon's infantry engaged in a titanic struggle with Koraz's forces. Gelvin hoped that Zatu and Pithian had survived any ambushes in the other villages. He looked far across the field and saw his two friends riding high on their steeds and he was immediately relieved.

Zatu and Pithian rode next to each other and seemed to be discussing something. Zatu pointed at a small detachment of ogres on their side of the field, and Gelvin wished he could hear what they were saying. Alas, even his Spriteleng ears could not pick up sounds from that distance. Zatu and Pithian finished their conversation and galloped towards the ogre line.

"What's so special about them?" Gelvin wondered as he watched his comrades ride towards the large gray monsters. Then Gelvin saw the reason. A small man dressed in black, with bright red hair, was leading the detachments charge. It had to be Koraz. Gelvin started running across the field of collapsing and bloody bodies, hoping that he would not get there too late. "I will help you just as Kwanis once helped you," Gelvin thought as his feet carried him more swiftly.

Pithian and Zatu charged the ogres and attacked their line head on. The ogres surrounded Pithian who deftly defended himself and began to attack the beasts. Zatu was more lucky. He broke their line and urged his horse forwards towards Koraz. He raised his sword to strike a deadly blow, just as Koraz ducked and chopped the thin legs off his hard charging horse.

Zatu was thrown into the air and landed with his face driven into the grassy ground. He looked up and he was surrounded by repulsive ogres armed with spears. The ogres prepared to lacerate the Kensai when a voice called out, "Wait! He is mine."

Zatu sprang to his feet and turned around. Koraz stood there grinning at him as he wiped the horse's blood away from his sword. "You are the one they call Koraz," Zatu shouted.

"I am," Koraz replied as he bent his knees and waved Zatu forward to do combat. Koraz wanted a duel. The killing of a battlefield did not carry the same thrill as one on one combat. Koraz yearned to slit a man's throat and he decided that Zatu would receive the honor.

Zatu picked up his sword and wiped the mud off of it. As he looked at his family emblem. He stared at Koraz and said, "I must warn you. I am Kensai and you do not fight me alone. You fight the courage and honor of my entire family. I spill your blood in their memory."

Koraz just stood there and laughed. His laugh was that of a madman and Zatu became infuriated. No opponent would laugh as he professed the honor of his family. Zatu charged at Koraz who waited on him carefully.

Zatu's rage had unbalanced him and as he lunged at the assassin, Koraz stuck his foot out and tripped the Kensai. Zatu fell face first into the mud and heard Koraz laughing behind him. Koraz was not ready to kill him yet and decided he would enjoy the duel as much as possible before disposing of this wretch.

Zatu slowly rose, determined not to lose his focus again. This time he approached Koraz slowly and let his swordsmanship carry his rage. Metal clanged as each combatants' sword met the other. Zatu spun around for another angle, but Koraz parried. The duel went back and forth, neither man able to gain an advantage over the other until Koraz became frustrated.

It had been many years since he dueled such a formidable opponent and instead of rising to the challenge, Koraz became careless. He took massive strokes with his sword, trying to end the contest with one swing. As Koraz missed, Zatu saw his opening and sliced the assassin across the chest. Koraz backed up as he groped at the wound in pain. Koraz rubbed his silver necklace and the wound began to clot and heal. Angry that he had not drawn first blood, Koraz charged again.

Zatu used Koraz's momentum against him. He knocked the charging opponent off balance and sliced his back wide open with one fluent stroke of his sword. But this time, Zatu would not wait for Koraz to recover. He stayed on top of him and Koraz gave ground with each blow from Zatu's blade. Koraz was shocked by his tenacity and he feared he might actually lose. Zatu lunged forward and pierced Koraz's chest, causing him to bleed profusely. Koraz almost dropped his sword and realizing that he was almost beaten, he waved his hand as he uttered a magical cant and disappeared. Koraz had been beaten.

Gelvin cheered in victory towards his friend as he raced across the field. "Zatu has defeated Koraz!" Gelvin screamed in victory.

Zatu raised his hand in triumph and waved to Gelvin. Then he turned to Pithian, who had driven off the last of the ogres. "I have beaten him!" Zatu cried to Pithian. Pithian smiled back and rejoiced in the small victory, but then Zatu watched as Pithian's smile slowly melted away. He raised his hand to point behind Zatu, but it was too late. Before Zatu could turn around, he felt a dagger being thrust into his side by Koraz. The assassin had reappeared and wounded the Kensai. Zatu, bleeding but not yet dead, began to slump to the ground. Koraz cradled the fallen warrior and waved his hand. A puff of black smoke appeared and when it cleared, both Zatu and Koraz were gone.

"No!" Gelvin cried as he reached the spot where Zatu disappeared. He dropped to the ground and felt the earth. There were no traces of either man as Gelvin held his head up in despair. "He killed him," Gelvin said to Pithian as he approached on his horse.

"I'm sorry Gelvin," Pithian said sympathetically. But it did not change Gelvin's feelings. Gelvin shouldered the blame even though there was nothing he could have done. He wanted to be Kwanis, and fulfill Zatu's image of a noble Spriteleng. But Gelvin had failed.

Word quickly spread of Koraz's disappearance and the morale of his troops evaporated. The infantry lines broke and ran back towards their ships. Zendon's men and Bolen's dwarves pursued them in a rout. The Rocwhelm soldiers and horrible beasts were cut down in a blood bath of arrows and clanging swords. Pithian did not join the rout, but he did ride into the fray to pick one man up and carry him out on his horse. He was a Rocwhelm soldier and wore the rank of lieutenant.

Zendon approached on his horse and said to Pithian, "The battle is ours. We have routed them. King Bolen is riding forward to set fire to their ships. I see you have captured one of the officers."

"Yes," Pithian replied. "I think we can interrogate him."

Zendon moved his horse close to Pithian's and pulled the lieutenant's head up by his stringy black hair.

"You are a fool," the officer called out in a mad rage. He was bloodied in the battle and did not realize what he was telling his enemies. "Koraz will be back. This battle was a ruse. He plans to kill Zendon so Marcus can claim the throne." Zendon became infuriated and slammed the man's head onto the body of Pithian's horse, knocking him unconscious.

"What was he babbling about?" the King asked.

Pithian paused as he synthesized the lieutenants ramblings. Then it all became clear to him, "Koraz is going to try and assassinate you."

"Surely you don't believe this raving lunatic," Zendon said as he lifted the man's head and then dropped it again with a thud.

"Do you want to take that chance?" Pithian asked as Zendon pensively considered the consequences. "And what he said makes sense. Koraz is not a general and cares nothing about his troops. He wanted you to feel secure in victory so you will be unawares when he comes for you."

A panicked expression covered Zendon's face as he grabbed Pithian by the collar, "What am I to do?" Every story he ever heard about Koraz and his brutal murders filled Zendon's mind. The thought of being decapitated, burned alive, or strung up by a rope caused the king to quiver and shake in anticipation of his own death.

"We will defend you," Pithian said as he looked down at Gelvin who was slumped over on the ground. "Let us return to your castle. It is secure and we can wait out Koraz there."

"If you think that is best," Zendon replied timidly.

"It is best. Gelvin," Pithian shouted and the Spriteleng sprang to attention. "Gather Fyndon and Flynton. We have one final confrontation to prepare for." Gelvin did not want any more confrontations. He just wanted this ridiculous feud to end so he could go on with his life and forget about poor Zatu. Gelvin thought about the Kensai though, and he resolved himself to complete what his friend has started. He would battle Koraz in his place.

"Will the four of us be enough?" Gelvin asked, realizing that they had already lost four others during the course of this conflict with Koraz.

"Perhaps you are right," Pithian conceded. "Go to the temple and bring Grizon. He can help us guard the king. Hurry, and meet us at the castle."

Gelvin hurried across the field to locate his friends, but his thoughts were still with Zatu. "I'm sorry I was too slow," Gelvin said as he stared up into the sky. He hoped that somewhere, Zatu heard his apology.

Far away, at Koraz's keep in the Valley of Overgrowth, Zatu awakened. His wounds had been dressed, but he found himself strapped to an uncomfortable wooden table. He struggled, but he could not move. He looked around the room, but it was empty except for a large tome that lay open on a short wooden chair. The door to the room creaked open and Koraz slowly entered.

"I hope you are not too uncomfortable," he said. "I have important plans for you."

"You have no honor," Zatu said as he spat at Koraz's torn and ripped shirt. "I defeated you and you attacked me from behind. I would not have done that."

"And that's why you lost in the end," Koraz said as he picked up the book and studied the page that lay open. "I'd love to discuss this matter further, but I am in a rush and there is something I must do before I leave."

Koraz closed the book and set it down on the chair. He stood over Zatu and gently caressed his face with the back of his hand. His touch was gentle and Zatu became confused by Koraz's act. The assassin smiled and removed his hand. He placed both of his palms above Zatu and dark crackling energy poured from his hands, engulfing the Kensai. Zatu screamed in pain, but Koraz did not care. He continued to punish him with the dark magical energy as a smile formed on his face. It began as a quiet laugh, but as Zatu's screams grew louder, so did Koraz's maddening guffaws.

Chapter 11
An Uneasy Alliance

"No historian can deny that Koraz was an evil genius, despite his chaotic nature. The subterfuge he used to try and kill King Zendon was unmatched. His use of unorthodox strategy separated him from all other assassins before or since."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

Gelvin arrived at the castle with Flynton, Fyndon, and Grizon from the temple. He found Grizon scrubbing the floors at the temple and he picked him up and brought him to the castle without saying a word. The sun was beginning to set as they got there and a guard greeted them at the front gate. "Pithian is waiting for you in the top of the tower," the young man said as he led them inside.

Gelvin and the others climbed a long flight of stairs until they reached the highest level of the central tower. Another guard stopped them at the door leading to the top level. "State your name," the guard said sternly.

"I am Gelvin. These are the other people Pithian requested." The guard recognized who he was from the battle, but still he followed procedure. He opened the door and let the four people pass through. The door opened into a single large room that filled the entire uppermost level of the tower. There were a few small beds and some food sitting on a wooden table. The floor was covered with an elaborate blue rug, but there were no lavish tapestries or fine treasures adorning this rarely used chamber. Pithian waved Gelvin and the others to the middle of the room where Zendon sat nervously on his bed.

"This is the most defensible position in the castle," Pithian began. This is the only room on this level. That doorway you came through is the only entrance or exit. There is a large balcony that encircles this room outside. For tonight, King Zendon's most loyal guards are patrolling it. Tomorrow you will relieve them, but for this evening we will all take turns in guarding the King's life while he sleeps. Does everyone understand?"

It was a simple enough plan and Gelvin, Fyndon, and Flynton understood, but Grizon stepped forward awkwardly. "Master," he said. "I am not a warrior. I do not know what to do."

Pithian reached inside his pack and pulled out a small dagger. He handed it to Grizon and said, "You keep this and do as I say with it. Tonight you'll sleep and I'll keep you close to me tomorrow." Grizon nodded in reluctant agreement and soon laid down in one of the beds. Pithian watched his apostate fall asleep and he hoped Grizon would never have to use the dagger he had just given him.

It was not until very late that Zendon fell asleep. He was too scared to rest easy and he did not sleep until the complete exhaustion of the day's battle overtook him. Everyone except Grizon took a turn guarding the room that night and it was remarkably uneventful. The morning came and Pithian barked out new orders.

"Gelvin, Flynton, and Fyndon you three go outside and guard the balcony. Relieve the men who have been out there all night. Grizon will help me guard the King's body in here." Gelvin nodded in agreement, but before he could climb out onto the balcony there was a knock at the entrance door.

Pithian raised his hand for everyone to pause. He crept over to the door and slowly cracked it, just so one eye could see through it. "I have a report for King Zendon," a tall gruff soldier called from outside the door.

"Let him in," Zendon ordered Pithian. Pithian carefully allowed the man to enter. He wore the symbol of Zendon's elite guard and he marched in and saluted his King.

"I bring a message from King Bolen," the guard shouted.

"Let's have it," Zendon said anxiously.

"King Bolen reports that in the night his dwarves have raided and pillaged Koraz's ships. There is nothing left of his army. All of the opposing forces have been captured or destroyed."

"Very good," Zendon said even though he was barely paying attention to the report. "Invite King Bolen and his army to stay in Caledan. Tell him we will soon have a feast to celebrate our great victory."

"Yes, sir!" the soldier barked as he spun around and marched out of the room. As Zendon watched him leave he wondered whether or not he would be alive for any feasts the next day.

Pithian locked the door behind the guard and soon everyone had taken their positions. Gelvin walked out onto the balcony and found a breathtaking view. From the top of the tower he could see everything. The entire city buzzed along like flies below his feet. To the east, he could see King Bolen's army on the smoke filled peninsula. Gelvin estimated that he was at least two hundred paces skyward and he backed up against the wall behind him, just to make sure he didn't lose his balance.

The sun rose slightly higher and nothing had happened. Gelvin began to wonder whether or not the informant was wrong or lying. It had been almost half a sun cycle and there had been no sign of Koraz. Gelvin's thoughts drifted back to the battlefield and again he wished he had reached Zatu in time. The image of him and Koraz disappearing in a cloud of smoke was etched permanently into his mind. But as Gelvin began to ponder the details of that event, he heard the crackling of mystical energy and there was a flash of darkness to his left.

Fyndon, who was at the other end of the balcony, heard the sound and saw the darkness as well. She and Gelvin watched in amazement as a black hole ripped open the sky, just above the balcony. Suddenly, two short men, dressed in black, with whips and hooks fell through the hole and landed on the stone surroundings. Smiles spread across their scarred faces and their thin muscles tensed as they gripped their weapons. The portal disappeared and the assassins smiled as they saw Gelvin and Fyndon waiting on them. Gelvin knew that they had to be the faceless.

"Assassins!" Gelvin screamed out loud so everyone could hear him. Flynton began to run around the tower from the other side, while Pithian threw himself between the King and the doorway to the balcony. Grizon nervously cowered behind Zendon holding his dagger.

Gelvin rushed at the two men, who seemed to be waiting on him. Just as Gelvin reached their position, the lithe assassins jumped and flipped over him. Gelvin was taken aback by their quickness and as he turned to face them he felt a boot striking his face with tremendous thrust. Gelvin was knocked down and sat there on the balcony as his eyes watered and swelled. Then the two killers turned their eyes on Flynton and Fyndon.

Without his magical stone, Flynton was almost helpless in individual combat. He could join in a group effort to say, attack a dragon, but a contest of individual skills was not his forte. An assassin charged at him and easily knocked him to his knees. Flynton swung with his shortsword, but to no avail. The assassin easily jumped over him and wrapped his whip around Flynton's neck.

Fyndon was not faring much better. The other assassin lunged at her with his hook, but Fyndon narrowly avoided its sharp curved edge. She thrust with her dagger, but the assassin was equally adept at avoidance. Fyndon continued to spar with the opponent for a few moments until the assassin caught Fyndon off balance and struck her on the head with blunt end of the hook. Fyndon dropped her dagger and fell to the balcony unconscious.

Fortunately, Gelvin could recover much more quickly than the assassins anticipated. He cleared his blurry eyes and looked in both directions. To his right, one assassin had his back to him while he held his whip over the edge of the balcony. Gelvin did not know what he was doing, but his attention quickly turned to the other direction. The other assassin was stalking Fyndon's limp body. He had his hook raised and was ready to strike.

"No!" Gelvin screamed as he got to his feet and charged the killer. The assassin turned around just in time as Gelvin barreled into him. Gelvin was filled with rage. He had already seen too many people die and he wasn't going to let anyone hurt his friend. The anger he had learned and developed since Thraxus killed Narus spilled out of Gelvin's mind. Yet, Gelvin maintained some control over his emotions. He hated the assassins, but he would not let his hatred guide his actions.

The assassin swung with his hook, but Gelvin ducked and kicked him hard in the stomach. The assassin fell backwards and lost his balance by the edge of the drop off. Gelvin dove, and caught his left had just as the killer slid over the edge. The assassin dangled in the air as Gelvin held his hand tight trying to pull him back in. Gelvin wasn't sure why he was trying to save this wretch, but he knew he was sick of watching people die. Especially, if they died at his mercy. Gelvin did not want the rage to control him. he believed that if he spared the assassin he could win some small victory over himself.

"Pull up," Gelvin said as his armed strained. The assassin looked up into Gelvin's eyes and the Spriteleng stared back. Evil was all he felt emanating from this person's soul. Gelvin was trying to save him, but he did not want it. The assassin reached up with the hook in his right hand, and Gelvin let go of him, seconds before the hook ripped through his arm. The man plummeted towards the ground screaming and Gelvin turned his head before the man spattered in front of the castle.

Gelvin rolled back over onto the balcony and watched Fyndon slowly rise from the blow she suffered. She was groggy and could barely make out Gelvin sitting in front of her. All she could say was, "Where's Flynton?"

Fear filled Gelvin's heart because he had forgotten about the other assassin. Gelvin jumped to his feet and raced down the wide balcony towards the other man. He was still standing there with his legs bent and spread apart as his arms strained to hold onto his whip. Gelvin was prepared to stab him in the back, but he remembered Zatu. Honor mattered above all else, and Gelvin did not want to be like Koraz. He was not a cold blooded killer. But, as Gelvin hesitated, the assassin saw him and threw a dagger at the Spriteleng.

Gelvin ducked the sharply hurtling blade and, since the killer then faced him, he kicked the assassin in the neck. The assassin released his grip on the whip and Gelvin realized where Flynton was. Gelvin dove and grabbed the end of the whip just before it slid over the edge of the balcony entirely. He peered over the boundary to the open air and saw Flynton's neck strangled by the whip. His face was turning blue and Gelvin yelled, "Hold on Flynton, I'll pull you up." But as Gelvin struggled to get leverage to pull him up, he felt the shadow of the assassin stand over him. Gelvin peered over his shoulder and saw the grinning assassin about to drive a dagger into his back.

Gelvin shut his eyes and prepared for the pain when he heard a voice say, "Did you forget about me!" The assassin looked over his shoulder and Fyndon lodged her dagger into the crouching man's chest. The blood splattered and landed on Gelvin.

"He would have done the same to you," Fyndon said as Gelvin thanked her. Gelvin did not like to kill, but he knew he would have done anything to stop the assassin if he were bearing down on Fyndon. She felt the same way about him.

Fyndon bent down and helped Gelvin reel Flynton in. They quickly removed the wire around his neck. He was still breathing but barely. "I can help him," Fyndon said as Gelvin moved aside. She began to lightly massage his throat and neck and Gelvin decided to stay out of the way. Both the assassins were dead and Gelvin knew Fyndon could best help Flynton.

As Gelvin backed away he heard the sound of another portal opening behind him. He drew his sword and turned to face the threat when he saw a familiar figure drop out of the dark hole. It was Zatu.

"You're alive!" Gelvin screamed as he dropped his sword. Zatu's head rose and his face appeared darker. He said nothing and Gelvin paused as he looked deep into his eyes. It was not Zatu, or at least not the Zatu he remembered. "Zatu, what's wrong?" Gelvin asked. The Kensai did not respond except to draw his sword and charge at Gelvin.

Gelvin could not believe what was happening. His Defender barely rose in time to deflect Zatu's blow. Gelvin parried his attacks and slowly backed up. "Zatu, what are you doing?" Fyndon called out as she and the recovering Flynton turned to witness the fight.

"Please don't do this," Gelvin begged as the Kensai continued to swing his sword. Zatu did not answer as his expressionless face did not change. He moved like a trained animal, unthinking and uncaring.

As Gelvin backed into Fyndon he looked once again into Zatu's eyes but felt nothing. Then, from somewhere in the deepest recesses of Zatu's soul, Gelvin saw a flickering glimpse of the man he once knew. Gelvin knew that Zatu was in there somewhere and he laid down his sword.

"What are you doing?" Fyndon asked in shock as Zatu approached them.

"Trust me," Gelvin whispered back to her. Gelvin fell to one knee and began pleading with Zatu. "Please you have to recollect. I am Gelvin, don't you remember me?" Zatu said nothing and drew close to him, ready to kill him with his sword. "You must remember me, I saved your life," Gelvin said as he covered his face from the sword. But Zatu paused and his expression changed to an inquisitive one. "I saved your life inside the mountain. The dragon's lair was falling around you and I rescued you. I even saved your sword and you said I had honor." Zatu stared at his blade when Gelvin mentioned honor. Finally he opened his mouth and said:

"I remember."

Zatu turned his face back to Gelvin and Fyndon and his eyes had returned. Zatu felt a dark presence flee his mind as his thoughts cleared and his feelings returned. Zatu smiled and said, "You are with honor, Gelvin the Spriteleng." Koraz's spell was broken and Zatu reached down to help Gelvin up. Gelvin hugged him as Fyndon clasped her hands together in a thankful prayer.

"I knew you couldn't kill me," Gelvin said excitedly.

"You broke Koraz's spell," Zatu explained. "Somehow, I heard your voice and it drew me back. Koraz's evil influence is gone."

"Then we've done it!" Gelvin said excitedly.

"Done what?" Zatu asked.

"Foiled Koraz's plan. He obviously sent you here to assassinate the king."

"He did, I don't remember anything," Zatu said.

"We are guarding the king's life. Come, we must tell Pithian the good news." Gelvin and Zatu rushed through the doorway to the tower room and Gelvin called out, "Pithian, look who has returned!"

"Zatu?" Pithian asked in disbelief. "I thought we had lost you." Pithian walked to the threshold of the door and shook the Kensai's hand. Gelvin could not remember ever being more happy. He felt they had won. Koraz had been defeated and Zatu was returned. All of those feelings then slipped away in a moment of pain.

"Agghh!" Zendon screamed as Grizon thrust his dagger into the king's back. Zendon turned to face the traitorous boy, but suddenly Grizon pulled a sword from under his cloak and slashed the king's throat.

"Grizon?" Gelvin asked in confusion and disbelief. Fyndon and Flynton rushed into the room when they heard the scream just in time to see Grizon sheath his blade.

"That's not Grizon," Pithian said as he drew out his weapon. Gelvin looked into Grizon's eyes as he started to laugh in a way that had become all too familiar.

"Koraz," Gelvin said as his blood boiled. The assassin wiped away the paint that concealed and changed his face. Then Koraz ripped away a wig, to reveal his bright red hair and then he wiped his eyes to reveal his true appearance. Finally, he removed Grizon's robe to expose his black assassin's suit.

"How did you do that?" Zatu asked as he prepared to do battle once again.

"I am a master of disguise little boy. I can be taller, shorter, larger, smaller. I can be anyone. You disappoint me Zatu, I thought you would have at least killed one or two of your friends."

Zatu remembered the pain of Koraz's magic and he stalked across the room towards him. "Wait!" Koraz shouted as he held his hand up. "I have another surprise for you fools." Koraz lifted his hands to his face to remove a second disguise.

Gelvin gasped and put his hand to his mouth. Koraz began to hum a strange little song as he removed his hands to reveal his true face. "Marcus!" Gelvin said in disbelief.

Koraz laughed and said, "You never knew. I killed my father and King Zendon. I have been the harbinger of chaos since the beginning of time and you cannot stop me. Even if you kill me I will continue to exist," Koraz said as he exposed his silver necklace from under his shirt and began to rub the star in the center.

"Why?" Fyndon shouted. "You would have succeeded Kenyson. Why kill him?"

"Why not?" Koraz asked with a laugh.

"Is that the same reason you murdered Dansten in Lankar?" Gelvin asked spitefully as he advanced with his sword in hand.

Koraz held his hand up begging Gelvin to pause as he laughed wickedly. "I killed Dansten because he was there. Then I killed Penzant because he thought he was better than me. I'm the greatest assassin!" Koraz shouted. "I could have killed you all in the valley, but I let you live."

"But why even summon us? Why send the note to be intercepted?" Flynton asked in confusion. "There was no need to contract yourself."

"I wanted to occupy my father's best men. I didn't anticipate him bringing in strangers to perform the job. But I became intrigued when I saw the little Spriteleng in the castle. I decided to play a game with you and I won. I let you live so we could play again another day. Now you owe me in return."

"We owe you!" Flynton shouted in disgust.

"Yes, I have a proposition."

"Never," Zatu said as he raised his sword to attack.

"Wait!" Pithian shouted. "Hear him out." Gelvin was amazed. Pithian was the last person he expected to side with Koraz. What could the assassin possibly say that Pithian wanted to hear?

"Pithian, what are you doing?" Gelvin asked desperately.

"Yield Gelvin," Pithian said sternly. "He is cornered and cannot escape. I must hear him because I sense that he has important information."

"What do you mean!" Gelvin shouted at his master in disgust. "He is a killer who would slit our throats without thinking twice!" Koraz laughed loudly as he enjoyed the image Gelvin described.

"It is part of the prophecy. I feared this moment would come. I am destined to ally myself with one evil to face another."

"I don't understand," Gelvin said as he pleaded with Pithian.

"It seems your leader has spoken," Koraz said as Gelvin scowled at him. "You must help me and when I tell you why, I know you will not resist."

"Enough riddles," Zatu shouted. "What do you speak of?"

"I speak of Necron the Destroyer," Koraz said as his eyes widened and Gelvin felt the name crush him like a giant wave of fear. "When you released Necron he found me and we struck a bargain."

"You struck a bargain with that monster!" Gelvin bellowed.

"Why not?" Koraz said coyly. "I had information he needed and he gave me some of his dark powers in return."

"What information?" Fyndon asked.

"I told him who you were," Koraz said as he pointed at everyone in the room. "He knew you had his sword but he did not know where to find the thieves. He needed the blade to strengthen his powers. I agreed to tell him where you were going."

"That's how Mendibone knew where to find us," Gelvin concluded.

"Yes, she waited until the time was right and took pack the Dark One's blade. Necron kept his word and granted me access to his dark magic. But that wasn't enough. I wanted more, and when I tried to take it, Necron vowed to kill me."

"That is what you deserve for double crossing a devil," Fyndon spat at Koraz.

"Perhaps, but I knew I could count on you honor bound fools to help me confront him."

"What makes you so sure?" Gelvin asked spitefully.

"Him," Koraz said as he pointed at Pithian. Everyone slowly turned to look at Pithian's blank face.

"We will help you," Pithian said deliberately.

"No!" Fyndon cried out.

"We must!" Pithian barked angrily. "We have no other choice. Necron must be destroyed at any cost. Even if it means teaming with this cold blooded killer." Koraz laughed at their suffering. None of them wanted to ally themselves with the man who had caused them so much pain, but they had no choice. Gelvin followed his master's lead, and the others followed him.

"We will follow you Pithian," Gelvin said confidently. "But when this is over I will kill you!" Gelvin said as he held his sword in Koraz's direction.

"I would have it no other way," Koraz replied as he grinned eerily.

"But how can we defeat Necron?" Flynton asked. "We know we can't penetrate his dark veil."

"I can penetrate the veil," Pithian said as he stepped to the middle of the room. "My magic should be able to break it open. But then what?" Pithian asked as he turned to face Koraz. "You seem to know more about Necron than any of us."

"We'll never be able to force him back into his tomb, but there is another way." Gelvin was intrigued by Koraz's answer because no one had ever mentioned a way to actually stop the Destroyer. "Someone must pierce his black heart with his own sword. That will release an explosion of necromantic energy that will destroy Necron and everything near him."

"That's impossible," Gelvin complained. "Even if he could be separated from his sword, it cannot be used against its master." Gelvin vividly remembered the blade sliding from Thraxus' hand in Necron's tomb.

"Foolish child," Koraz sneered. "Necron's magic is the only thing that keeps his sword from being used against him. He will be too occupied trying to resurrect his veil to worry about the sword."

"How do you know all of this?" Gelvin asked acutely. "Not even the Gods could kill Necron. They had to imprison him. What makes you so sure that you can?"

"I have had access to Necron's magic," Koraz explained. "In that moment, I gained infinite knowledge of the necromancer. More than the Gods ever realized. Only the dark magic of Necron's own sword can destroy him."

Gelvin looked at Pithian pleadingly. He did not trust Koraz, but Pithian could not deny his destiny. And if it included Koraz, so be it. "Where will you face Necron?" Pithian asked Koraz as Gelvin dropped his head in defeat.

"The Destroyer is searching my valley for me," Koraz said in reference to the Valley of Overgrowth. "He has probably already taken my keep by now, so we must find a place to battle him."

Gelvin hated the thought of battling by the side of Koraz, but he followed Pithian's decision, even if he did not respect it. Gelvin looked up and said, "I know where we can face Necron."

"Where?" Fyndon asked.

"The lair of the green dragon," Gelvin replied as warily he stared at Koraz out of the corner of his eye.

Chapter 12
Koraz's Last Stand

"The first confrontation with Necron is not the most famous, but is probably the most significant. Many of the important revelations from that battle were not discovered until years after the event. Neither Gelvin nor Koraz knew at that time what an important turning point they were approaching."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

Koraz and his new uneasy allies rode south on their horses, down the same road where Gelvin's journey first began. The sun was still low in the sky and Koraz estimated that on horseback, they would reach the valley by nightfall. As Gelvin trotted forward on the back of his steed, his mind was filled with the events of the last two suns. Koraz had tried to kill him on more than one occasion, but now he rode side by side with him. Gelvin could not understand the concept of compromise. For him, there was good and there was evil. An in between did not exist. But then he thought about what he'd done during the quests. Often, Gelvin killed, even though he thought it to be evil. But he told himself that he did it to save his friends. Maybe that's what Pithian did by allying himself with Koraz. As Gelvin looked at Pithian, a man he had believed in without question for eleven years, he began to doubt whether or not he could trust his master, or his teachings, again.

"Why?" Gelvin asked as he rode his horse next to Pithian.

Pithian did not require an explanation, he knew what Gelvin asked. His ward could not understand how he could compromise his beliefs and align himself with Koraz. "I have never told you about a recurring dream I have. I have always known that it is connected to the prophecy. Before the Gods captured him, Necron conquered many worlds. Once he became the unquestioned master, Necron created living hells. Every night when I lay down to sleep, my head is filled with images of those damned worlds."

"In Necron's realm, there is no blue water. All the seas and rivers boil over and turn to blood. The sky changes into a red nightmarish landscape without any stars or suns. Black clouds of electricity create tumultuous storms that destroy the cities. Demons of all sorts roam the land looking for souls to torture. The land itself becomes a vast wasteland of scorched earth and jagged peaks. And finally the people and every other creature of flesh who somehow manages to survive that long, are transformed into a shadow. No creatures of flesh exist on this world except for Necron and his decaying body. As the people are changed into the two dimensional shades I hear them call out, "Save us Pithian!" But I cannot."

"This is not a dream though, and Necron is here, in Illuria. I will not let my dream become a reality and if that means trusting Koraz, then I will."

Gelvin lowered his head. He had no idea that Pithian suffered through so much in preparing for his ultimate conflict with Necron. Gelvin hated nightmares and did not have them frequently. The concept of a recurring vision of horror tapped a sense of understanding in Gelvin's soul. He knew why Pithian was compelled to face Necron at any cost.

"But why Koraz?" Gelvin still asked. "Is he really that necessary?"

"Yes," Pithian replied. "He will take us to Necron and I must confront him now, while he is still weak." Pithian adjusted his saddle to face Gelvin. "You see, when you released Necron he was still emasculated from eons of imprisonment. He has regained some dark power, especially with the addition of his sword. The longer I wait to confront him, the stronger he will become. My only hope is to meet him now, and Necron is seeking Koraz. He will never look for me because, if he knows anything of the prophecies, he will fear my magic. But Koraz has stirred a sense of vengeance in the old wizard and will attract him like a lodestone."

"I understand," Gelvin said as he nodded. "Do the prophecies reveal the final fate of Koraz?"

"As is often the case, the prophecies are not entirely clear, but I assure you Gelvin, one way or another, Koraz will not leave the valley ever again." Gelvin was taken aback by the proclamation and as Pithian stared off into the sky, Gelvin pondered what he could have meant.

The day passed quietly and nobody dared ride near Koraz, he rode nearly twenty paces in front of the others. The sun was nearing the ground along the western plains and the travelers rode up and down the hills as they approached Rocwhelm. Gelvin remembered the hills fondly as he stared out across the Grandean Lake. Only a few suns ago this lake seemed to be a beacon of peace and symbolized Gelvin's hope that he and his companions would emerge from the valley victorious over Koraz. As Gelvin looked out over this lake a second time he again hoped that he and his friends would triumph over an even greater evil.

The shimmering calm waters glistened in the light of the setting sun and Gelvin watched as the wind stirred the waves and created ripples all throughout the lake. The air felt humid as they rode over the hill and Gelvin wondered what was causing the lake to stir so much. He didn't feel any wind nor were there any storms overhead. Gelvin did not yet realize that there was no natural cause for the disturbance.

Suddenly thunderous waves began to rise and crest out of the lake. The travelers stopped their horses to watch as foam sprayed forth from the shore. They were a far distance from the body of water, but they could still appreciate the violence of the watery uprising. The waves grew larger until finally, the water rose out of the lakebed and moved across the air towards Rocwhelm. A thick sheet of water, containing millions of barrels of liquid, floated across the landscape until it reached a hovering point over the small city. The water fell down from the sky and the sounds of crashing buildings and screaming people filled the countryside. Within seconds the city of Rocwhelm was crushed by the raging waters and the magnificent castle in the center of the villa had been toppled.

"Noooooo!" Koraz screamed as he shook his fists in the air. "You will not get away with this Necron. I recognize your magic. You cannot destroy my city. I will have vengeance!"

Pithian looked at Gelvin as the young Spriteleng sat motionless staring at the horrendous display of destructive magic.

Necron killed my family!

"Gelvin look at me!" Pithian commanded but Gelvin did not move.

Necron destroyed my village!

"Please Gelvin, you must listen to me," Pithian begged.

Necron left me to die alone in the forest!

"Gelvin you must stay focused," Pithian shouted as he positioned his horse closer to Gelvin.

Necron killed my family!

"Gelvin please," Pithian said as he reached out and took his hand.

Necron killed my family!

"Gelvin listen to my voice," Pithian begged.

Necron killed my family!

"Gelvin!" Pithian shouted as the Spriteleng finally turned his head and looked at his master. A blank stare covered Gelvin's face.

"Necron killed my family," he said steadily and calmly.

"Gelvin you must not lose your focus. Rage will unbalance you. I need your help if I am to defeat him."

"Necron killed my family," Gelvin repeated.

"I never knew, Gelvin, but now is not the time. All will be explained later, after this is finished. I swear I will show you everything."

Gelvin said nothing. He turned his head and rode out ahead of everyone. Koraz kicked his heels into his steed and followed behind him. Soon everyone was riding again. They charged down towards Rocwhelm to see if anyone survived the flood. The whole ride down the hill Gelvin thought to himself in content quiet, "Necron killed my family." Now he had his own reason to confront Necron. Revenge.

When Gelvin previously felt rage boil up within him, he tried to control it and question it. But that had changed. As he thought about all the Spriteleng's Necron killed, he no longer guarded his furious passions. Rage filled Gelvin's heart and for the first time, it felt good.

As the adventurers reached the city they found very little to salvage. There were still a few people alive, struggling to gather their shattered possessions and move on. Koraz surveyed the remnants of the city he killed and murdered to acquire. Everything was destroyed. The castle was a heap of collapsed stone. The walls were crushed by the onrushing water. The livestock and supplies were washed away in raging torrents of water. Koraz seethed and cried out in anger, "You will die Necron!"

Gelvin gazed at the crushed and soaking wood from the city structures and he thought of his village. It had been many years since he visualized the details of that disastrous day. For eleven years Gelvin attributed that calamity to a freak natural disaster. But he knew the real reason. He wasn't sure how yet, but Necron had destroyed his village. The water crossed from the lake the same way it rose out of the river by Gelvin's home. It hovered in the air and paused in the exact same way. But the most telling evidence was Pithian. Gelvin looked into his eyes as his master could not hide this fact from him. It was true, Necron had killed his family. Pithian's eyes could not lie.

"What now?" Fyndon asked as she stared at the ruins of Rocwhelm all around her.

"We ride to the valley," Koraz said confidently as he slapped his horse and charged forward.

Necron killed my family!

The others followed Koraz as he steered his horse down the stone path into the valley full of foliage. The sun was disappearing in the west and darkness was beginning to overtake the land. "How are we to use this lair to our advantage?" Zatu asked Gelvin as their horses fled across the floor of the valley.

Gelvin did not respond.

Necron killed my family!

"Gelvin, stay focused," Pithian whispered to him.

"The lair is a hollow area inside a hill," Gelvin explained as he turned towards Zatu. "We can spread out around the wall of the lair. That way we cannot be attacked from behind and hopefully we will be able to encircle Necron and confront him from all directions while Pithian weaves his magic."

"A surprisingly good plan," Koraz said as he smirked at Gelvin. "When I first met you in Kenyson's castle I did not believe you would amount to much."

"Pardon me if I don't grow into a maniac willing to kill my father," Gelvin replied.

"What spunk," Koraz laughed. "But don't you worry about surrounding Necron. As soon as that veil is broken, I'll steal his sword and finish him," Koraz said as he groped for his silver necklace.

Once they reached the hill everyone tied their horses off outside and crawled through the entrance tunnel. The lair was rank with the odor of the decaying dragon and Slade's body. Gelvin felt no remorse as he saw his fallen comrade because his mind was focused on only one thing, revenge.

Flynton took hold of Slade's carcass by the clothes and drug it off to the side. Pithian sized up the arena and said, "An excellent idea Gelvin. This will serve us well."

"But where will Necron enter from?" Flynton asked as he looked around to re- familiarize himself with the hill.

"From up there," Koraz said as he pointed at the opening high above them at the peak of the hill. "Necron will never crawl through that hole."

"How do you know he'll come if we're in here?" Fyndon asked as she drew her blade.

"Oh, he'll come," Koraz said as he drew his sword and licked the sharp edge with his tongue until it slit the flesh into an open wound. Koraz swallowed his own blood and laughed ever more loudly as he jumped up and down like a madman. "He'll come!" he said excitedly.

Everyone took their positions around the room and Gelvin grew nervous with the anticipation of battle. Necron was powerful and nobody besides Koraz seemed confident in victory. Even Pithian only felt confident that he must face Necron, not that he would actually defeat him. Pithian's destiny was tied to effort, not the result. Gelvin wished he could create a way to tip the scales to their favor. Then an idea popped into his head like the bright sun awakening him from a deep sleep.

"Pithian, I must check on something," Gelvin said excitedly as he ran towards the entrance tunnel.

"Gelvin, is now the time," Pithian said as he anticipated a battle very soon.

"I'll be back," Gelvin said confidently. "This is important." Gelvin barreled out of the tunnel without waiting for a response as he swiftly untied his horse. He jumped on the animal's back and galloped across the valley towards the cave. "Trogen," Gelvin thought as his horse galloped faster and faster. "He can help me kill Necron."

The wind rushed against Gelvin's face as he looked up into the nighttime sky. The trees covered most of the view, but through the occasional cracks in the foliage Gelvin saw the bright stars. He prayed the Gods from those stars were with him that night.

Gelvin slowed his horse as he reached the entrance to the cave. After the disaster of getting lost deep in the caverns, Gelvin paid close attention to Trogen's directions to the surface. He still remembered them. Gelvin lit the flame of his lantern and ran down through the rock corridors.

As Gelvin drew close to Trogen's lair he heard an unexpected sound. There was a roar followed by a nefarious hiss. Gelvin did not recognize the sounds and he set his lantern down on the cave floor. He crept around the corner and peered into Trogen's lair from the shadows.

Gelvin's hopes sank as he watched in horror. Trogen was transformed into his golden dragon form as he lay helpless on the ground. Blood the color of nectar poured from the wounded worm's body. His scales were lacerated and Trogen tried to swing his weakened claws in the air at his attackers. Two demonic creatures floated above his battered body. The demons ripped at Trogen with their claws and split open his scales with their fangs. Trogen roared in pain as one of the demons bit into his huge neck with truculent ferocity. The demon drew its head back from the neck and laughed with glee.

Gelvin cowered in the shadow and studied the duo as they reveled in their killing. As Gelvin's eyes fixed more intently on the laughing demon's face it looked up and stared directly at him. Gelvin saw the vicious face and knew who it was. Mendibone. Gelvin jumped up and snatched his lantern off the ground.

He ran out of the cave, not looking back once. He hoped Mendibone hadn't seen him, but Gelvin did not know much about demons. He wondered whether or not they could see through darkness, like him, or perhaps they could sense nearby beings. In either case, Gelvin did not want to be in Mendibone's proximity when she finished with poor Trogen. Gelvin jumped back on his horse and kicked it hard as he galloped back to the hill.

As Gelvin approached the hill he heard a rumbling overhead and he looked up. There was a black cloud billowing outwards from the clear air. It thundered with rippling lightning and power as Gelvin leapt off his steed and climbed back through the tunnel into the lair.

Everyone was waiting along their positions on the wall. There was one space between Pithian and Koraz waiting for Gelvin to assume.

"Nice of you to join us," Flynton said in a vain attempt to break the tension among the others. They were all watching the sky through the hole overhead. The black cloud grew thicker and slowly descended towards the hill.

Gelvin took his place along the circle and viewed the lair. To his left was Pithian and the grinning Koraz stood to his right. Zatu stood firmly with his sword in hand directly across from Gelvin. Fyndon stood opposite Pithian and the same held true for Flynton facing Koraz.

There was a crack of thunder and Gelvin's head again turned upwards. Suddenly a small triangle emerged from the dark cloud and began to sink into the cavern. As it grew closer, Gelvin saw that the triangle was almost a pace thick and constructed of wood. On top of it stood Necron, flanked by the two demons that slaughtered Trogen. As Gelvin looked more closely at the demons he concluded that one of them was definitely Mendibone. The other demon was similar to their old foe. She had fangs, wings, claws, and the same menacing eyes. Gelvin raised his upper lip in disgust as he looked at the traitorous wench. She stared back down and hissed while she exposed her fangs. Gelvin hated her, but most of his feelings of antipathy were directed at Necron himself.

Necron's skeletal jaws were flung wide open and his arms were spread wide as he made his descent. The giant black sword still rested on his back as Necron hissed at Koraz. The wind escaping his mouth sounded like the dying breath of a man and it filled the lair with a stinking gas that made Gelvin want to retch. The platform suddenly stopped, just out of reach and Necron pointed his emaciated hand at Koraz.

"Kill him," Necron hissed as the two demons flew off the platform and darted at Koraz.

Koraz stood there in serene calmness and urged the demons forward. "Come and get me," Koraz said as he waved his hands forward. The demons flew at him rapidly and swiped at the assassin with their sharp claws, but Koraz had not lived this long without knowing a few tricks. He dove under the demons' outstretched arms as two small daggers emerged from the sleeves of his black shirt. He threw the blades backwards over his head, and each embedded itself in the back of a demon.

The demons squealed in pain as they flew higher and pulled the weapons from each other's back. Then they dove at Koraz again. The demons ignored everyone else in the chamber because Necron's hatred for the conniving Koraz consumed him. He hissed as Koraz struck back at his spawns with his sword.

Fyndon and Gelvin looked to Pithian for what to do. The demons concentrated entirely on Koraz and Pithian realized that nobody was willing to help the assassin. "Necron!" Pithian shouted in defiance as the necromancer turned his attention to the holy warrior. "You will be scourged!" Pithian screamed as he drew his sword high above his head and pointed it towards the sky.

"Attack him!" Zatu bellowed and everyone unleashed all of their strength and power at the necromancer. It was no use though. Every sword, every Koraz of magical energy, and every angry word simply reverberated off his shimmering dark veil. Necron laughed as air escaped and seeped through the burned and mangled remains of his throat. He turned his attention back to his demons, believing that the pitiful humans could not harm him. Necron did not notice though, that Pithian deliberately caressed the holy ankh fixed to the breastplate of his armor.

The demons continued to ignore the others and slashed away at Koraz. Koraz was defiant though. Every time one of the demon's drew blood, he laughed as the searing cuts closed shut magically. Gelvin watched as Koraz hacked away at the demons, but also to no avail. Zatu, Flynton, and Fyndon watched intently as well, but they joined Gelvin in his reluctance to assist Koraz. Just as Necron was content to take delight in watching the duel, so were Gelvin and his friends.

Koraz finally found an advantage over the demons as he seriously wounded Mendibone on her thick black wings. The demon cried in pain as Koraz pointed at Necron. "You're next," Koraz said as he began to laugh hysterically. Koraz unleashed a furious display of savagery like nothing Gelvin had ever seen. He sliced at Mendibone and the other demon with his sword, until their black blood covered him.

The demons flew back towards the platform to regroup and Necron hissed something at them in a language nobody understood. "Send back your spawns!" Koraz hollered. Necron complied and the demons rushed at Koraz with renewed rage. Koraz swung at them, but missed. Mendibone tackled him and pinned the assassin to the floor as the other spawn ripped at Koraz's face with her claws.

Koraz's face was shredded. Strips of skin and flesh dangled from his cheeks and forehead, yet still he laughed. The skin somehow seemed to grow back and replace itself as Koraz struggled to break free. "It's no use Necron," he screamed through the laughing. "You cannot hurt me. Nobody can! I am Koraz!"

The demons hissed because it seemed that Koraz was right. They had attacked him with all their strength, yet he resisted and remained strong. Then Necron stepped closer to the edge of his platform and pointed again at Koraz. "Remove the talisman," Necron commanded as he pointed at Koraz's silver necklace.

Suddenly Koraz stopped laughing and his expression changed to panic. "No, you can't," he screamed as Mendibone ripped the necklace from around his head and threw it across the room. "No, it's not possible!" Koraz screamed as he turned his head to the side and looked at Pithian who stood stoically against the wall.

"Please, you must help me!" Koraz urged as fear covered his face.

Pithian paused from rubbing his ankh and looked Koraz in the eyes as the demons hissed in his face. "You have chosen this path," Pithian said plainly. "Now you alone must pay the consequences."

"NOOOOO!" Koraz screamed as Mendibone's claw ripped through his cheek while the other demon gouged his eyes out.

Gelvin turned to look at his master and understood what he said about Koraz's fate earlier that day. Pithian made certain that Koraz would not ever leave this valley again. His plan all along was to allow Necron to kill him. In a small way, Pithian ended the menace of Koraz by opting not to save him and Gelvin felt that the assassin got what he deserved.

When the demons had finished feeding on Koraz all that remained was a bloody mass of flesh. The Koraz the Mad was finally dead. "May you live long in hell!" Gelvin thought spitefully as his rage boiled again.

The demons flew back to the platform and joined their master in victorious triumph. Necron laughed and hissed as he had avenged the treachery of Koraz. "Now, kill them all," Necron hissed as the demons again flew down from the platform.

"Pithian," Gelvin called out. "What about the veil? We need your magic." Pithian gripped his sword as the demons descended on his companions. He raised the blade in front of him as it began to glow and hum. The demons turned towards him as the sound resonated throughout the chamber.

Pithian's hands and arms began to vibrate and tremble as he shouted, "Evil demons, I send you back to the bowels of hell!" Suddenly a vortex of red light and howling winds sprang forth from the sword and a swirling maelstrom appeared in front of Pithian.

"No, I will not go back," Mendibone cried as the winds of the vortex sucked her back towards the red light.

"I compel you!" Pithian retorted. "Your power is weak. I am strong!" Pithian strained to maintain the vortex as the other demon lost ground and tumbled into the maelstrom. Gelvin heard the evil creature scream as it was pulled back down from whence it came.

"Master, please help me," Mendibone said to Necron as the wizard watched in disbelief. The necromancer did not anticipate such power from Pithian and Necron's triangle slowly began to float towards the ground.

"I vanquish you!" Pithian screamed as he pulled back on his sword with all his strength. It was too much for Mendibone and before Necron could reach her, the vortex sucked her in. With the demons abjured, Pithian dropped his sword and fell to his knees shaking.

Necron landed gently on the ground as Zatu ran towards him and swung his sword. It was still no use. The dark veil protected Necron as he released a croaking laugh at the Kensai.

"Pithian," Gelvin said as he ran over to his master. "Are you okay?"

"I'm tired Gelvin," he said trying to catch his breath. "We need to regroup." With that proclamation, Pithian waved his hand and a shimmering white portal opened vertically in the room. "Everyone leave!" Pithian shouted.

"No, we cannot!" Gelvin screamed as he pulled Pithian to his feet. "I must kill Necron!" he shouted as Pithian saw the rage in Gelvin's eyes. He had tried to keep his feelings in check, but they had come so close. If only Pithian could break the veil, Gelvin could have his vengeance. "I will not leave!"

Gelvin's rage overtook him and he ignored Pithian's command. He wanted to kill Necron so badly that he could taste the feeling revenge would grant on the tip of his tongue.

"Run Gelvin!" Fyndon shouted as she was the first to jump through the portal. Flynton soon followed as Zatu continued to hack away at the dark veil of energy. Necron slowly pulled his black sword from his back and struck Zatu, knocking him across the chamber.

"Zatu, leave!" Pithian shouted as Gelvin carried him towards the portal.

The blow from the sword knocked Zatu senseless as he shook his head. He realized that with his sword and the veil, Necron was too powerful. Zatu dove across the floor, sliding under the sharp edge of Necron's weapon and then jumped into the portal. The necromancer slowly turned round and raised his blade against Gelvin and Pithian.

"Quickly, Gelvin," Pithian said exhaustibly as Gelvin tossed him through the portal.

Gelvin prepared to jump as well, but he paused. He looked back at the grinning skull like face and pointed straight at the evil one. "I will kill you," Gelvin said vehemently. Necron gasped out another laugh and moved closer to the Spriteleng. Gelvin felt his rage consume him and for a second, he considered turning to face the sorcerer. But then a glint of silver from across the lair caught his eye.

Just several paces beyond Necron laid Koraz's silver necklace. Gelvin paused as he thought about Koraz. Necron could not hurt him until the talisman was removed from his neck. The silvery star centered on the band twinkled and caught Gelvin's eye. He wasn't really sure why, but Gelvin had to have the necklace.

Necron's decrepit body was slow and cumbersome. Gelvin took a deep breath and dove past the necromancer, just before he could bring his sword down on Gelvin's neck. Gelvin scrambled for the necklace and clutched it in his right hand. He turned back around just as Necron turned as well. The wizard hissed as Gelvin held the talisman close to his heart. Gelvin ran as hard as he could and jumped. He sailed over the surprised Necron and landed inside the portal a mere second before it closed.

Chapter 14

"One could conclude that Gelvin the Spriteleng learned the lessons of adventuring and much more. Pithian Whiteshield sent him on a quest to grow and develop. He would have been pleased with the results. Gelvin learned about himself, human nature, friendship, sorrow, and most importantly, sacrifice. Those lessons would serve him well in the future as he faced other challenges, but that is explained much later in this history."

From The One History of Illuria
By The Council of Prophecies

Zatu, Fyndon, and Gelvin rode on their horses through the night. Gelvin had not said a word since the keep and he rode five paces ahead of his two friends. Fyndon wanted to comfort him, but she didn't believe a flower would be enough this time, and she didn't know what to say.

The night faded to day and the threesome reached the outskirts of Caledan. Gelvin stopped his horse and turned around to finally look at his friends. There was an awkward silence as Gelvin stared at them until he said, "I thank you both. You are the closest of friends and I owe you both more than I could ever say."

"The let me serve you," Zatu said. "You are a worthy master, Gelvin."

Gelvin blushed and actually smiled at the offer again but said, "No, Zatu, I cannot. I do not want any followers and you should seek a more worthy master."

"I shall never find one."

"I hope you do someday. I can take you to Caledan if you wish."

"No, I must go forward," Zatu said as he pointed to the sun rising out of the east. "I will wander the lands until I find my purpose."

"I hope you are successful," Gelvin said as he rode alongside Zatu and embraced him.

"Perhaps our paths will cross again someday," Zatu said.

"Nothing would please me more," Gelvin said as he released the embrace. Zatu said good-bye to Fyndon and slowly rode off into the green fields below the shining sun.

As soon as he was gone from sight Fyndon and Gelvin continued their ride to Caledan. Fyndon smiled at Gelvin but he could not bring himself to return the gesture. Fyndon's expression changed to pensive and she finally asked the questioned she had pondered the whole night. "What happened Gelvin?"

He turned his head to face her and somberly said, "Pithian broke the dark veil and I went through it. Necron had weakened Pithian but it did not matter. I seized his sword and drove it through his heart. I tried to kill all three of us. I didn't want Pithian to die alone. As the heart split in two an explosion of dark energy occurred just as Koraz said. Necron, his sword, and Pithian were instantly vaporized and I felt the powerful energy engulf me as well. But then this talisman somehow brought me back," Gelvin said as he looked down at the star. "I survived."

"I know it is difficult Gelvin, but you should be happy. Pithian would be elated that you endured the explosion."

"But he didn't!" Gelvin shouted. "I know it was not possible, but I wished it had been me instead."

"Oh Gelvin, you mustn't think that. Pithian fulfilled his destiny and you, yours. Now you will have to carry on."

Gelvin said nothing and Fyndon became concerned. He was so innocent when this ordeal began and now she was the only one left of his original companions. He had watched them all die and then was forced to sacrifice the man who saved his life and raised him as a son. "Gelvin," Fyndon began. "I could return with you to the temple."

"That is kind of you," Gelvin said as he took her hand. "But I know your place is in the forest. Go now, and return to your woodland home," Gelvin said as they rode up to the city walls of Caledan. Your place is not with me."

Fyndon knew Gelvin was correct and she did miss her home dearly. She looked at Gelvin's face as he forced a weak smile. Fyndon could feel his pain, but she also knew that Gelvin could work through it, alone.

"I'll go then," she said as her horse turned away from the city and started towards the nearby forest. "But I will call on you one day Gelvin."

"I would like that," he responded in complete honesty.

As Gelvin rode into Caledan he found a celebration. True, Zendon was dead, but the city had won a great victory over Rocwhelm. Gelvin found King Bolen and told him that Koraz was dead. The dwarves cheered and proclaimed Gelvin part of their brotherhood. Gelvin thanked King Bolen and wished him a safe journey back to his underground kingdom. Gelvin rode back to the temple and walked inside. He made his way to Pithian's study where his master used to sit by the fire in a large comfortable chair and read. Gelvin sat in Pithian's chair and did not move. Slowly, one solitary tear rolled out of Gelvin's left eye and caressed his cheek.

One hundred suns came and went and everything returned to normal in Caledan. Zendon's brother, King Gawlin, arrived from the west to claim his sibling's throne. The people liked Gawlin because he was a wise and prudent ruler. With Rocwhelm destroyed, trade and commerce in Caledan thrived and many people grew rich.

Many stories circulated through the city about 'the Spriteleng' who killed Koraz the Mad and vanquished a demon. But most people thought it was just a myth. After all, a Spriteleng could not do all of that!

Gelvin allowed Pithian's followers to keep the temple open, but he spent most of his time reading in the study. Pithian had a vast library of books and Gelvin read one a day. In the time since Pithian's death, Gelvin's sorrow faded. He accepted what had been done and eventually forgave himself.

One afternoon, Gelvin was reading by the fire in the study. There was a window to this room, but Gelvin always kept the curtain shut. He liked the glow of the fire and it provided just enough light to see the words on the page. Gelvin had just finished reading a book about astrology when he heard the wood on the fire crack and pop loudly. Gelvin looked up but saw nothing. His Defender rested easily against the fireplace and was collecting dust. Gelvin had not touched it in weeks. Above the sword, the silver necklace sat on the mantle. Gelvin did not know what to do with the talisman, but he felt more comfortable with it up there, instead of down below in the secret treasure chamber.

The wood popped and crackled again as Gelvin wondered what was making such a noise. Then Gelvin heard a familiar voice softly fill the room.

"Hello Gelvin."

Gelvin smiled and calmly responded, "Hello Pithian."

The fire grew bright and the flames jumped out of the hearth onto the floor. The flames grew larger and formed a human shape. There was no definition or any face, but it was certainly a human form. "You don't seem surprised to see me," the fire form said.

"I knew you'd be back Pithian," Gelvin responded with a smile as he sat comfortably in the chair. Gelvin was excited to see Pithian again, but not surprised. Somehow, he knew that this day would come.

"I never had a chance to thank you," Pithian said. "You did the right thing."

"I know that now," Gelvin said much to the relief of Pithian. "What happened to you and Necron? Is he still out there somewhere too?"

"Necron and I were both destroyed," Pithian explained. "At least our physical forms were. My spirit lives on, at least for now. And Necron, I don't believe he can ever be truly destroyed. But still, your blow weakened him and he lost much of his dark power. He was cast into the nether void and I don't believe he will emerge for many years. But I have returned to answer your other questions Gelvin. I know you have them."

He did. Gelvin had accepted what happened to Pithian and he knew for certain that the same magic that destroyed Rocwhelm also destroyed his home. What Gelvin wanted to know was how.

"Necron was entombed when my village was destroyed. How could he have done it?"

"Necron was vastly powerful," Pithian explained. "No single tomb could contain all of his power. The sword somehow escaped the Gods and carried his evil spirit. So too, some of Necron's magic still wandered Illuria."

"What do you mean?" Gelvin asked in confusion.

"Dark thoughts, negative energies, they both escaped from Necron's prison. Even though the Destroyer was trapped when your village was crushed, it was still his magic that performed the deed. Necron's wild sorcery manifested itself in the river and caused the destruction."

"So Necron knew that I would be a threat to him one day and his magic tried to kill me?" Gelvin asked.

"Necron had no knowledge of the future. It was coincidence that his magic ravaged your village. When I found you I knew that you would grow to help me fight the evil power that was growing in that cave."

"How did you know?" Gelvin asked. His whole life he had wanted to know how Pithian knew about future events. "What is the source of your visions and knowledge?"

"That is what I have come to tell you. For many years before I met you I have been the protector of an important set of books called the Prophecies. Below the temple, hidden behind all my treasure, is a small bookcase with twelve gilded tomes. Those are the Prophecies."

"And they tell you about the future," Gelvin said excitedly.

"Some of the time. They also tell you about the past and some pages are not yet written. As you read them they will become visible."

"I am allowed to read them?" Gelvin asked as he already began to imagine what new things he would learn.

"You are to do more than read them," Pithian said. "One day, many years into the future, a council will be formed to guard the information in the Prophecies. But until then, you will be their protector. There is much that can be gleaned from the tomes and you must never let them fall into the hands of evil."

"I will try my best," Gelvin responded.

"Yes, I know you will. But now I must leave."

"But why?" Gelvin asked, hoping he could talk to his master longer. There was still so much he wanted to know.

"You have another visitor. Do not fear Gelvin, I will return again another day. I will be watching you and will always remember our time together. Good- bye."

"Good-bye," Gelvin said as the flames reduced their size and jumped back into the hearth.

Gelvin walked over to the fireplace and stirred the wood with a prod when there was a knocking at his thick wooden door. "Gelvin, you have a visitor," one of the apostates called out.

"Send them in," Gelvin responded as he placed the prod next to the Defender. The door swung wide and Fyndon walked inside. She looked much different than the girl in the green cloak with her hair pulled back and a dagger in her hand. She stood in front of Gelvin, wearing a long green dress, with her hair neatly hanging. Her head was covered with tiny flowers and her smile lit up Gelvin's heart.

"I told you I would call on you one day," she said with a smile.

Gelvin crossed the room and lifted her off the floor with a great hug. She laughed and Gelvin set her down again. "You seem to be better," Fyndon said. She had not seen him since the day they returned to Caledan.

Gelvin smiled and said, "I'm more than better. I've just seen Pithian. Somehow he appeared and said that he is watching over me." Any other person would have thought Gelvin crazy, but Fyndon saw the clarity in his eyes and she had learned of Pithian's vast powers in the short time she knew him. It did not surprise her either.

"What did he say?" Fyndon asked.

"He told me that Necron has been cast out of the physical world and Pithian thanked me for making it possible."

"You saved us all," Fyndon said thanking him. "I know you could not understand that at the time, but by sacrificing Pithian, you saved everything he held dear."

"In time I learned that," Gelvin responded.

"So what do you plan to do now?" Fyndon asked.

"I'm not sure. I've thought about leaving the temple to search out my own people. I have not seen another Spriteleng since I was a boy."

"An excellent idea," Fyndon said as her face lit up with excitement. "I could help you."

"I would like that," Gelvin said with a smile. "Come, you must stay for dinner. We can talk and you can tell me what you have been doing."

"I've been writing a story," Fyndon said. "I think Trogen would have liked it."

"Let me hear it," Gelvin said eagerly.

"It's the story of a caterpillar," Fyndon began. "The caterpillar was smaller than all the other creatures in the forest and it was ignored. None of the other creatures thought it could do anything. It simply inched along blades of grass and ate the leaves hanging off trees. Then one day it built a cocoon. Many suns later it emerged transformed. The caterpillar had changed into a beautiful butterfly and all the other creatures became jealous of it. The caterpillar had grown beyond them, and flew high up into the sky out of their reach."

"Is that it?" Gelvin asked after a long pause. "That's not much of a story."

"No," Fyndon conceded. "But it does remind me of you. An innocent child when I first met you and now you are the bravest and wisest person I know."

Gelvin blushed as he realized a caterpillar was the answer to the riddle she had asked him on top of Skull Mountain. "Thank you. You are a good friend."

"Come now," Fyndon said trying to lighten the mood. "Let us talk about the future more. What do you think it holds?"

"I'm not sure," Gelvin said with a smile as he thought about the books that were hidden below their feet. "But I think I'll find out very soon."

The End

Copyright 1997 by Allen Woods

In the writer's own words:

"My name is Allen Woods. I am a 22 year old writer from Nashville Tennessee who enjoys writing adjectives, adverbs, the occassional noun, and science fiction. I am an affiliate member of the HWA. I have written two dozen short stories, some of which have been published in "Pablo Lennis", "Art:Mag", "Lost Worlds", and "Pleiades". I am finfishing work on a novel length space opera and I encourage readers to give me feedback via e-mail:"

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