Through the Dark Veil: Part Six

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, or click here to read Part 5.

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.

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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