Through the Dark Veil: Part Five

Through the Dark Veil

By Allen Woods

If you haven't read the beginnings of this story then click here to read Part 1, or click here to read Part 2, or click here to read Part 3, or click here to read Part 4.

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.

To be Continued...

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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