Curse of The Dragon Kings - Smashwords

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Elves, of the lost city of Dragoras and of the coming of the age of men and dwarves ..... had been stolen by a nomadic band of brigands on horse-back, who had ...... of high caliber, and really needed no other great wizard to secure his throne.

Curse of the Dragon Kings By Anne Spackman

Smashwords Edition copyright 2012 by Anne Spackman All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 by Anne Spackman All rights reserved. No part of this book may be redistributed or used in any form without permission from the author.

Curse of The Dragon Kings tells of the mythical origins of the noble Dragon Race, the Dragorians, of their magic and dealings with the Elves, and of their connection with the wizard Myrddin (Merlin was his name as he appeared in the Arthurian Saga) and his brother, Calatin. It tells of the love story between Dragoras the King and Grainnewyn of the Elves. Arcaendria is the setting of Curse of the Dragon Kings. There, in the land of Daegoras, the noble race of Dragorians once dwelled, long before the coming of dwarves and even the Elves to their land. But the Dragorians were divided by the slow seduction of the light to the power of evil. A war broke out between the dark Dragorians and the ancient forces of light. It was then, as the Dragorians’ magic battle came to a climax that the dark Dragorians came to be transformed into their reptilian shape—the Dragons, cursed in a tale of the tragic betrayal of their noble King Dragoras. Curse of the Dragon Kings is the story of the wizards' battle against the Dark Wizard and his minions, of the lost city of Dragoras and of the coming of the age of men and dwarves and Elves into the mythical birthplace of Dragonmagic.

Dramatis Personae of Curse of The Dragon Kings Aiovel—a mysterious elf stranger Gil—an orphaned youth in the city of Gyfen Prince Dylan of Dunlaith—the hapless youngest son of the King of Dunlaith, a charming lady's-man with a heart of gold and an expert with the sword Culan—Dylan's aged, loyal manservant and etiquette coach Ronan / Rodruban—a half-elf living under a curse Mygdewyn the Dwarf—Ronan's adopted brother, a dwarf Galanor—a mysterious stranger Lilia Silversmith—an incorrigible half-Sea Elf pickpocket and treasure-hunter who gets cranky on dry, sunny days Niel—a carpenter Marnat the Innkeeper—the cruel tyrant in charge of The Pegasus Inn Moc—a retired warrior and card cheat Deimad—a young, misguided brigand Penelope—an amorous pixie Scathaechir—King of the Black Dragons Olierin—King of the Emerald Dragons Wistid, Vertilio—quarrelsome Emerald Dragons Lorne—a journeyman wizard Bewbachod Shellycoat—a bogle, a wily water sprite Charley—a leviathan with a man-grudge Melesian—crafty King of the Wind Dragons Nynnia—daughter of Alator, King of the Gold Dragons at Dragoras

Omierdin Brae—an agent of the Dark Wizard Calatin—cantankerous wizard of Gyfen Myrddin—High Priest of the Bressilen priests and druids on the Summer Isle and Ronan's grandfather Galadon—an elf known as the "Dark Wizard" Vaelcruithir—a young black dragon, son of Scathaechir Alator—the second High King of Dragoras

Chapters 1. Wanderer 2. Elf? 3. Quest 4. Ronan's Calling 5. Brigands 6. Pixie 7. Ambush 8. Separation 9. Transformation 10. Aiovel 11. Reunion 12. Wraith 13. Wizard 14. King of the Wind 15. Gildorland 16. The Magic Gate 17. Battle 18. Rewards

I: Wanderer Crash!! The earthenware plates slipped from the boy’s fingertips in rapid succession, making a rat-tat-tat sound as they shattered against the age-worn stone. Gil stopped three paces shy of the kitchen door, his mouth dropping open in horror. He stared blankly at the quiet aftermath of jagged pieces strewn across the floor. Gil was a pleasant enough sort of youth. He was tall, thin, and sinewy, and the local grocer’s wife Mrs. Faraday was always stopping to pinch his cheeks when he was sent to the Gyfen market for fresh supplies. “Why, Gil, you do need fattening up!” she would always remark, though she herself was in no position to do it. Gil lived at the Pegasus Inn where he worked for the Innkeeper. Gil was now more a man than a boy. At age seventeen, he still appeared deplorably underfed, but he was growing up, and he had reached his full height. A little fleshing out of his bones would have to wait for later. Gil was strong enough for the work he had to do at the inn. He was, however, remarkably agile and quick for his size. Gil had unruly, dark brown hair that never stayed tidy for long. His eyes were green as dandelion leaves. Gil had been trying hard to get all of the lunch plates cleared from the tables of the tavern quickly. Only a few moments ago, Marnat the Innkeeper had been busy haggling with the butcher's boy over meat prices in the kitchen. Folk seldom spoke well of Marnat, for all that they kept coming to the Pegasus in honor of the place and of Marnat’s father, Darnat, the jolly old Innkeeper who had passed on well nigh on ten years before. Marnat ran the Inn well, but he was a greedy, brutish sort of man with a short temper. Gil’s heart thumped in his chest. Several moments of ominous silence had passed since he had dropped the lunch plates. Gil heard a scuffling sound in the kitchen. He dropped to his knees and began scrambling on all fours to pick up the broken plates. He started to heap them onto the giant tray he had been carrying. Gil felt a hole wearing through his thinning hose as his knees scraped over the hard floor. Sharp shards of crockery began to rub his skin raw on both kneecaps, but he kept working. He was just finishing when the heavy kitchen door abruptly swung back. Marnat caught Gil by the scruff of the neck and yanked him upright. The pieces Gil had been gathering were scattered about the floor. "Curse you, you careless boy!" Marnat spat. Marnat’s ice-blue eyes blazed angrily. Gil bobbed about in the giant man's grip. His body threatened to fall through his thin, dirty, linen shirt. Marnat squinted hard at Gil and tightened his grip. Then he raised a meaty hand. Gil felt a jarring blow on the back of his head. His ears were ringing for a while.

His feet returned to solid ground. “You better learn to be more careful, boy," Marnat raged. He could be a fair man to his patrons, but he was not so to Gil. Gil wanted to cry, to scream, to deliver a blow in return for the indignity bringing an angry flush to his cheeks. He nodded, clenching his teeth and swallowing his pride. Marnat released Gil and left him to his work. Gil began his task anew, his shoulders slouched, not looking up. He gave no outward indication that Marnat had not broken him. He would bide his time. The noise in the Pegasus Inn returned. Marnat headed back to the kitchen. Gil brushed off the dust and grit from his raw knees, then moved to the bar to retrieve a bucket and a broom. The lunchtime traffic was waning, but there were still men and elves drinking together in the cool tavern to escape the bright, mid-afternoon sun. They took little notice of Gil. One stranger caught Gil’s eye as he moved back to his work. A man, or a woman, sat at a table, with a cloud-grey traveler's cloak wrapped tightly around him against the chill in the air. Gil could not see his face. It was hidden by the shadows. His grey, mud-caked boots were crossed at the ankles and propped on a threadbare, scarlet silk footstool. The stranger seemed to be sleeping. His lunch remained untouched. Gil returned to his work. He had learned never to tarry when Marnat was watching him. The Pegasus Inn had already been Gil's home for nine years, nine hard years. He seldom chanced a moment to let his mind wander. But it was there that his imagination freed him from the immediate drudgery of his work. The Pegasus Inn was the most popular inn in the city of Gyfen. The interior was crafted of dense, rich reddish wood, with thick, low beams now chipped in patches and age-worn. The kitchen fires kept the place warm. At times it grew stifling and close. The dark carpets were stained from spilled wine and the steady traffic of dirty travelers. The inn may not have been what it once was in its glory, but it was comfortable, and the spacious rooms above were reasonably clean. The bedding was kept free of lice. Each room had a great wooden basin for bathing. Gil and the scullery maids shared the job of upkeep. It was a never-ending task, and there was still dust and cobwebs in the corners. Marnat had no money for expensive cleaning spells. The recent drought in Gyfen had also raised the cost of everything. Magicians were hard at work trying to divine the weather, but even they couldn’t explain why there had been no rain for months, and no one could bring an end to the drought. Gil headed into the kitchen to wash some dishes. He set the metal basin on the fire to reheat the soap-water from the morning; there was no more water to be had until dinner. Gil’s stomach rumbled. He hoped that the stranger would leave his bread on the table.

***** "Master Dylan, I must advise you against this—" A cultivated voice cracked and broke off. The owner was a lanky, reed-thin old man named Culan. He hovered protectively over the young man sitting at a game of cards. Dylan waved Culan away with a sharp gesture. He did not turn from his opponent. The short, stocky man across from Dylan kept his ruddy face unreadable. Dylan’s opponent took a drink of ale and cleaned his rotten teeth with the back of his tongue. His dark hair glistened from months without water. His dirty linen tunic and body gave off the pungent smell of the unwashed. Dylan leaned back in his wooden chair and rubbed his nose. "Give up, son. No one beats old Moc," one of the onlookers in the small ale-house advised. Dylan ignored him. "You in or out?" Moc said, surveying his opponent. The youth’s angular face was clean-shaven, and his dark eyes were expressionless. His skin was pale, his cheeks ruddy and lips full red, and his hair was raven black. Moc’s gaze came to rest upon the figure of a gold griffin in the center of Dylan's burgundy-colored tunic. “In.” "But, Master Dylan, you can’t—” Culan interrupted. Dylan whirled upon him in a tight, quick movement like a fierce animal, and bestowed him a silencing glare. Then he stopped himself abruptly, seeming to realize that this was not the appropriate behavior. He turned back around, and laid his hands on the table with deliberate calm. Meanwhile, Moc was laying down his hand. His quick brown eyes squinted in triumph, beads of sweat trickling down his round, florid face. The patrons in the ale-house gave a low, ominous murmur. Dylan looked at the cards and compressed his lips tightly. In his mind’s eye, he saw his chestnut stallion Seacoast Wind, corralled outside the tavern. "Treat him well." Dylan said stonily. “He is a fair bit stubborn, like his master. But of superior breeding, and used to good hay and a good brushing every evening. If you can’t afford to maintain him, he would fetch an outstanding price in his current condition.” "What about another game—at double the stakes," Culan suggested quickly. “I have nothing left to wager.” Dylan reminded him patiently. Meanwhile, the on-looking crowd began to disperse. Still," Moc chuckled, his eyes narrowing in calculation. "I tell you what. For a couple of copper, I will tell you something useful.” Dylan kept his face a blank, but he leaned one ear closer. “It could save a treasure hunter such as yourself some time," Moc added persuasively, his callused hands clasped in a gesture suggestive of a dealer. Dylan reluctantly fished out a copper coin from his dwindling purse and

handed it to Moc. "I'm listening." "If you're thinking of heading to northern Gidrior I will spare you the effort of all that would entail. Save your time and your money. Avoid the city altogether.” Dylan’s eyes flashed. “May I ask why?” “You want what you can’t get—not the way you’re planning." Moc pronounced after a pause, shaking his head sadly. "The Elves keep their treasures well hidden, and those who try to steal them never sleep without an eye open again. They are vengeful.” Dylan was surprised. “Yes, vengeful. Pray you never see their vengeance. Cross an elf, and his revenge will be swift and merciless. They are not as you know from the few fair folk who have come to make the city their home. I was followed for seven years by one who bore a grudge against me, and in that time I never slept a careless night, or kept my back turned. You have not heard of this, son, and I’ll warrant it is because few have understood their tactics of retribution. “A curse it is they will lay upon you. Oh yes, son, they can curse you as well as bless you. Food that never gives pleasure or nourishment. Water that burns and leaves your throat dry and coarse. And worse—you might think me a foul beast, but I prefer the smell of my skin to bathing in waters that burn like fire or itch like plague. Can you imagine seven years of terror, of nights unending without sleep and an attack of paralysis in the midst of a battle? Can you conceive of such a powerful curse, son? “I could tell you more, and yet I won’t. No. Such things are too terrible to speak of out loud. But heed my warning. Do not make my mistake. There are too many rumors you have heard of riches in lands beyond the western divide, and few who have made the journey and returned. What that lad found that has the whole city wagging tongues is a dragon horde.” “A dragon horde?” Dylan was so mesmerized by Moc’s description, that he did not know how to respond. “But—there are no… no dragons. The last was killed, I think it was—more than five hundred years ago.” Moc gave a low, controlled laugh. “Was it?” Moc paused and took a drink. He moved slowly, deliberately, as though doubt did not touch him. “The token that boy found,” Moc continued, “was a golden helmet from a time when more Elves inhabited these lands—and more creatures such as you have never heard of. They hide in the open. They are few. And they watch us.” This information completely confounded Dylan. “You are saying that the lad found a dragon horde? Why did he not mention a dragon?” “Because he did find a dragon horde. And he did find the dragon. The dragon is hunting him, to take back the token he stole.” Dylan laughed. Moc shrugged and took another drink. “Never mind, son. I can spin a good tale when I’ve had plenty of ale. But you would do better to hunt a rich Sea

Elf merchant in Windfall. Or get yourself an army and rid us of the pestilence of these horseback plunderers.” “You’re referring to the brigands?” “We call them the scourge. Pestilence they are upon this land. Riding around, rootless, homeless, stealing treasure from honest merchants along the Great Highway—a pack of disgusting highwaymen they are.” “I had no idea they were so hated here in Gyfen.” “Hated? Oh yes, well—you could never tell who is actually a rider. They come into the city dressed as you and me, and they can act like anyone. I might even have had a good blether with one, no telling. But yes in Gyfen the people call them pestilence for untold generations of thievery.” “I hear they have been living outside Gyfen for as long as there has been a city here. From perhaps before the founding of the city—“ “I do not know about that.” Moc said, his conversation at an end. “Take my advice or not, as you please. I've given up the treasure-hunting business. If you're looking for honest work, I hear there's a shortage of field hands in Dunlaith for this year's crop," Moc added with a light-hearted laugh. Dylan bristled, his face flushing. Moc had unknowingly found Dylan's weakness—his pride. “Shall my serving-man or I show you to your prize, sir?” Dylan suggested with outward civility. Sensing he had given offense in some way, Moc paused, then cleared his throat. “I suppose we should take care of that as soon as possible. No hard feelings, my young fellow. I shall look after your mount.” Moc got up from the table and followed Culan toward the door. The afternoon sun poured into the room as he opened it; Dylan squinted a moment, watching them. Culan ducked his head under the awning and disappeared. For the first time, Dylan noticed a decided limp in the old, stout warrior’s gait as he followed after. Dylan wasn’t handling the loss as well as he led them to believe. For a while he sat brooding, combing his fingers through his short hair in a distracted way. His mind wandered as he sat still, drawing his mood from the surrounding dark of the close tavern. The heat from the nearby firelight put him into a kind of trance. His hand woodenly clutched a heavy pint of ale suspended in mid-air. His cloak, torn and threadbare, had fallen and drooped low on the dirty thoroughfare. In the center of his faded tunic blazed the embroidered figure of a golden griffin, a symbol of the Kingdom of Dunlaith. The burgundy coloring had the faded look of watered-down wine, and was little protection against the cold. It hung loose over his shoulders, as though there had once been more meat to his bones. His eyes held the look of a man inured to hardship and misfortune, but his mien was still proud. The music of the tavern, soft and low, picked up in pace. Dylan felt sweat prick against his skin and took another draught of cooling ale. Thoughts of his older brother Nolan cycled through his mind. His mind took him back to the last time he had been practicing with the

palace guard of Dunlaith. Nolan had appeared on the parapet overlooking the palace courtyard in the clear cold of a winter afternoon. Dylan was engaged in a mock-battle against the King's captain, a great warrior called Brastigus. It was Brastigus who had taught Dylan the art of swordplay, and Brastigus he always recalled with no small measure of affection, respect, and humor. It was not an easy friendship to start. On occasion, memories of the early trials of his training could draw a buried strain of laughter from Dylan. The laughter that afternoon had been Nolan’s. Nolan suffered from a perpetual ill humor no priest could cure. Nolan’s dry, corn-colored hair reminded Dylan of the fields east of the city. "Your tail is on fire, whelp!" Nolan called below, snickering derisively. His attempt was to humiliate, and it was not lost on his brother. Dylan whirled around. As he did, Brastigus scored a mock-fatal blow. But it was of little matter. Dylan’s pants were indeed ablaze! Dylan’s heart raced as he dropped his wooden sword and attempted to slap out the flames with his cloak. His cloak passed through the flames with no effort. The flames were only an illusion. "Your brother could learn to occupy his time better," Brastigus said. Nolan gave a low, perverse kind of laugh, exposing the cruel bent to his nature. Nolan shuffled further along the wall, his laughter long and protracted, like an onerous wind wailing intermittently. “I would not say it to another, but your father might have disciplined him better.” “Ah, but Nolan is very careful never to let father see anything but an illusion of perfect obedience.” “His magic is a rare gift. Would that he was worthy of it.” Brastigus said. “Come, let us not let talk of your brother waste the afternoon. Keep up your spirits, he will do it again, you can be sure. One day your father will see his beloved’s true nature.” "Your faith will have to do for both of us.” “Heaven help him the day he runs into an adversary immune to his illusions.” Dylan and Brastigus resumed sparring for several hours. When the sun hung low, Dylan returned to the palace for a hot bath. “I am pleased to see my brother no longer weeps like a milk-sop when others attempt to draw him from his surly humor.” Nolan said, appearing from behind a column. His timing cleared away any doubt that he had been skulking around the southern wall of the palace near the sparring field, waiting for Dylan to return. “I am in no mood for another battle.” Dylan said peaceably. “I said nothing to incite one.” Nolan returned, his eyes narrowed. His gaze was passively hostile, as always. “Then by all means let me pass. I am anxious for a quiet evening and some rest. Brastigus has been merciless this afternoon.” Nolan seemed to catch hold of the last few words, and they added fuel to

his malice. “All the better. If a man has no other talent, he is always wanted on the watch.” Nolan said. “It is the best place for a man who cannot keep an eye attuned farther afield into the doings of the world.” “Have you developed an eye for divination as well, brother?” Dylan asked. “You see our enemies and their kingdoms massing for war against us? You will save father the expense of entreating the services of the wizard Myrddin, when he can afford them.” Dylan made a small, curt bow, more elaborate than necessary. His eyes flashed with false deference. The act was not lost on Nolan. “You flaunt your ignorance when you attempt to be clever, brother.” Nolan laughed. “But your mother was nothing more than a palace whore, and what can one expect from a peasant’s son?” “And where is your mother since our father married mine?” Dylan threw back. Nolan’s face blazed red hot. “You beast! I will make you squirm!” Before Dylan could even lay hand to his practice blade, Nolan's image multiplied tenfold. A small fireball hurled toward Dylan, and he quickly stepped aside to avoid it. He felt the heat in the air and knew that this one was real. It was the one skill Nolan had with real magic. Nolan could cast fire. His fire-casting ability was the backbone of a frail body and mean character that sought to belittle others by intimidation. Dylan lunged forward, testing an illusional Nolan with the dull blade of his sword. He began to lose his already waning strength as he moved from one illusion to another and tested them. The images continued to multiply, reappearing in place of the ones he had ruptured. Nolan showed no signs of slowing down. Nor did his tenfold Nolan companions. After several moments, Dylan collapsed to the floor, his chest heaving heavily. As he fell, he caught the tail of a small fire that singed the edge of his burgundy tunic. The many Nolans diminished to one. Nolan stood in triumph over Dylan, ridiculing him with a long, malicious laugh. “As one would expect from the pathetic spawn of a palace whore." Nolan said cruelly. Dylan felt his cheeks stinging with wounded pride. It was surprising that defeat still hurt, even after so many times. Dylan’s sword was useless against magic. It gave Nolan the unquestionable advantage. Nolan stepped over his brother, retreating into the shadows until his odious laughter finally faded away. In the present, Dylan fingered the frayed edge of his tunic where Nolan’s fire had burned him. It was a gesture that, surprisingly, afforded him great resolve in moments of doubt. That evening, Dylan had left Dunlaith. Six years he had traveled western

Daegoras, and he was now twenty-five years old. The years in between had not been kind. Culan's approach made Dylan look up. He set his ale down. "That horse has served you well these long years.” Culan said softly. “He’s as sound as the day we left Dunlaith.” “I would rather not speak further on this,” Dylan said, without admonishment. “Then, shall we look for lodgings for the evening? I kept enough back when I saw you heading into peril, master.” Dylan laughed. “You were wiser than I. But I didn’t wager everything. I could hardly tempt the old cheat with a handful of copper coins.” His shoulders at last began to sag with fatigue. “You haven’t had much luck, master, but that can turn around. Give it another day. I hate to see you gambling away your future in a place such as this." He passed over five gold coins. "Perhaps you are right. Let us go. It will be an even brighter tomorrow, I hear.” “We might try heading south.” Culan suggested. "I'm not going home." Dylan said, rising quickly.

II: Elf? "At long last. I have never been so glad to see the city!" Mygdewyn the dwarf declared, surveying the horizon. From the summit of a large hill, he could see the city of Gyfen stretched before them, nestled comfortably in a large valley, where the rivers from the north fed into the River Gyfen. Mygdewyn and his companion, Ronan, whom, by a strange chance, was also called Rodruban, had traveled many long months through the southern fields and mountains of western Daegoras, one of the continents of the world of Arcaendria. “Well, my friend, shall we have a hot bath and a warm meal?” Ronan suggested with a laugh, clasping the stout dwarf on the shoulder. Like all dwarves, Mygdewyn was the height of a human youth, but much stockier. The stone walls of the city rose high above the outlying buildings that had grown around the great city. Ronan began to falter. His reserve energy was dwindling, despite his brightness of mood. When their supply of food ran out on the rolling fields of Tindor, Ronan had braved a spell of conjuring, one of the most dangerous of natural magic spells. For, to produce food from nothing but dried grass and brush drained away the life and spirit of the conjuror. Facing the certain starvation of both himself and his companion, Ronan had nonetheless cast this rare, ancient spell of the Elven priests of the Summer Isle. It was a spell that turned the grasses of the field into a rough bread. In desperation, Ronan was forced to cast his spell. There had been no sign of any other friendly habitation on the rolling plains, no one from whom to call for aid. Ordinarily, they would not have needed any food on the long journey; but their rations of hard bread had been stolen by a nomadic band of brigands on horse-back, who had demanded as tribute for safe passage all of their possessions. It was only luck that the brigands had no use for the dwarf’s small ax nor the elf’s walking staff. “We’ll see my uncle Nieli about supplies and assistance.” “He doesn’t much care for visitors, Mygdewyn. Perhaps we can find our own arrangements?” “I should hardly think Nieli would turn away his own kin. Let us pay him a visit, and then find lodgings elsewhere. We can look into some lasting work in the morning.” “Agreed. We shall turn our fortunes around tomorrow.” ***** "Do I have to fetch water for myself?" Lilia Silversmith shrilled, her voice a hoarse crack. A show of her hot temper seemed imminent. Her eyes and nostrils flared with a dangerous fury. Then, just as she sat poised on the edge of releasing a conflagration of fire, the door of the Pegasus let in a cascade of bright sunshine. Lilia gave a little shriek and averted her eyes until the light diminished. She was momentarily blinded.

A few of the patrons laughed. Lilia calmed down slightly as her vision returned. A tall, dark-eyed warrior was moving towards one of the nearer tables, his aged man-servant in tow. Gil came running from the kitchens with a pint in hand to serve the belligerent patron he could only barely hear from behind the kitchen fires. "Not ale, you idiot—water!" The young woman croaked. Gil stared at her. Her hair was a long, green-tinged black, and her eyes were a huge, luminous green. Her skin was the pale green of a lilypad. Her face was lovely, so lovely he caught himself. It seemed strange that she would have been the one with such a grating voice. Gil filled a mug from a pitcher obligingly, then set it down in front of her. Lilia grasped the water feverishly, and drank it down quickly. She wiped the sides of her mouth in relish, then put the empty vessel down on the table, inclining her chin so that he would fill it again. "Much better," she said after a moment, and this time her voice was clear and smooth as honey. "Thank you, boy," she said gracefully, as prideful as a princess. She tossed him two copper coins and smiled. "What are you?" He asked, his eyes wide. "I'm a Sea Elf.” "Then I apologize for any discomfort you had waiting. I didn’t hear you until just now," Gil said. “No harm done,” said the young woman, gracious now. “I’ve never met one of the sea folk before.” Gil said, thinking out loud. “I’ve never met you, before, either,” said the woman. “Name’s Gil.” “Lilia Silversmith. Pleased to meet you.” Said the woman. “I’ll try to keep fresh water coming for you,” Gil said amenably, remarking at her fine manners now that she was being served. “It’s just—you see we are short of servants here.” He explained. “The maids are all upstairs putting fresh linens on the beds. You… forgive me, but you picked a terrible time to visit the city. For a Sea Elf, I mean. Gyfen has been affected by a dry spell for several months now.” “I am beginning to agree with you,” said Lilia, “but I had little choice.” She did not elaborate. Gil smiled, wondering what she meant. Land-dwelling Sea Elves lived in the western coastal city of Windfall, and not for very long. Rumor had it that the Sea Elves had built a great city under water in the Bay of Windfall, and they usually ventured onto land only to sell wares. The Sea Elves on land were in general a mercantile group, and many of the rare treasures of the eastern kingdoms of the country of Daegoras originated from under the sea. Travelers' tales circulated regarding the goings and comings of the strange sea folk. It was told that they ate little but needed a lot of water to survive. Gil had not believed the stories before. A few years back, a Herbroath trader had told Gil that there was a settlement of land-dwelling Sea Elves far to the north, in the icy waters of the Hibernian Sea. And there they kept to themselves, mostly, trading but a little with the humans who lived further south. The Sea Elves had

no troubles with extreme cold or wet. Their trouble came venturing too far onto dry land. Gil had heard that there was nothing worse that a Sea Elf temper when he found himself burning alive in bright sunlight or dry weather. That was why the sea folk were rarely seen in Gyfen or the kingdoms of southern Daegoras. Gil stared at Lilia’s raven black hair. His brows drew together for just a moment. He had an unsettling thought that there was something he should be remembering. Lilia caught on to his questioning gaze far quicker than she might. "Actually, I'm not a Sea Elf. Just half," she admitted. “I didn’t think there was such a thing,” said Gil. “Oh, there is. But I think I am the only one. Or, maybe there are a few more, I don’t know.” She bit her lip and hesitated. “You wouldn’t find a Sea Elf in Gyfen in this weather, but I can just manage it,” she laughed unhappily. Gil scratched behind his left ear. “Can I get you anything else?” “Fresh fruit if you've got any, and if not, bread and cheese. I can tolerate a little.” Gil hurried away, returning with a platter from the kitchen and another pitcher of water. All at once, Marnat stormed in the front of the inn. “Gil!” he shouted. “Where are you, boy?” Gil’s whole body tensed where he was serving Lilia. His smile vanished. Lilia’s eyes narrowed on the florid Innkeeper, who had just caught sight of Gil. “Get out there and clean those stables. We have important guests tonight —a train of nobles from Rostend.” “Yes, sir.” Gil said quickly, hurrying so fast to comply that his flight to the door seemed clumsy. Watching, Lilia’s eyes narrowed on the Innkeeper. ***** “You boy Sal sweet on Wattle’s daughter, Old Niel?” said Ferias the Blacksmith with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Gil had finished his evening chore. Darkness had settled over the city by the time he finished lining the stalls with fresh hay. A large group of local craftsmen had gathered in the Pegasus to enjoy the cool evening in pleasant company. “I hadn’t heard about it,” said Niel, the local carpenter. “Why?” Niel took a long, appreciative drink of ale. After a long moment, he brought down his mug hard against the wooden bar with an audible thud. Niel was strong from years of carpentry, and far less careful than he was in his shop. Drops of ale glistened on his red mustache. Ferias waited, a sly smile on his lips. “Cause yer lad’s been seen with young Viola, I hear.” Niel spewed some ale while the company made sounds of interest. “Well I never! The rascal never told me a word,” Niel exclaimed in surprise and puffed

up with a father’s pride at a moment’s notice. “He is a fine-looking lad.” Said Ferias generously. “Takes after his father.” Nodded Niel proudly. “When did you hear such things, there, eh Ferias?” “At Wattle’s yesterday, trying to see if he’ll sell some of my work in his shop,” replied Ferias. “You won’t get him to take your old iron in all that finery, Ferias!” one of the local tailors teased. “And I say I will!” he returned. “Anyway, I heard young Viola’s been raked over the coals for staying out late a few evenings.” “Them two ain’t been getting into any trouble, there—” Niel began in concern, but hesitant to speak on the subject of wooing and young people’s misadventures in love. “No, but you won’t hear the old merchant singing Sal’s praises, to be sure.” Ferias said. “Fancies himself a cut above the likes of us. I reckon they’ll be keeping Viola indoors as much as they can from now on.” "Say there, Niel, how long yer boy been apprenticed?” Asked Harfen the trader. “Oh, well nigh on six years. Round at old Pemble’s. Saved him from a life of building houses I did!” "What they teachin’ him now, Niel?” one of the local farmers asked. “Lord if I know!” Niel laughed. “’Bout herbs and weeds mostly. Lore of the land and what have you.” He added. “It’s a rare thing to be blessed with true magic.” "And a good thing, too, or he’d be in a fair heap of trouble.” Ferias said. “Who says he won’t be if he keeps sweet-talking merchant’s daughters!” one of the weavers exclaimed. “Another round, Gil!" Ferias called cheerfully to Gil, catching sight of him near the tap. Gil leaned in to whisper to Niel, drawing one hand over his face. “How many has he had?” he asked in good spirits. “It’s all right, there Gil. I’m looking after him.” Returned Niel pleasantly. “A pint of the best, then.” Gil went to the best tap and returned with a pint brimming over. “Ah, thank you there, Gil lad. Aye, you are a good lad, aren’t you, boy? Take a copper for yerself,” said Niel kindly. “And don’t you be telling old Marnat I gave you any.” “No sir,” said Gil earnestly. “Where is Marnat?” he whispered in a low voice. “In the kitchens, haggling with some elf from the south by the looks of him. Keeping company with a dwarf, stranger and stranger. We didn’t ask no questions. They’re from away.” Gil shook his head in serious agreement, a quietly amused smile on his lips. “How is Sal these days?” Asked Gil. “Turnin’ Pemble’s hair white, I’m afraid. But a help to him, to be sure.

Pemble’s got an extra hand I could use round my place. But, say, you know what Sal did for me last time he come home?” “No,” said Ferias. “What all ‘e do this time, eh?” “Cured my lame bull—remember that special breed cost me a month’s wages? Well he was lame, for all his quality. ‘Was a cheat who sold him to me. I got ten gold for him last week at the auction.” “He stops in here every so often,” said Gil. “He always has a tale or two about old Pemble.” “Oh, you’ll never catch old Pemble in here, to be sure,” agreed Niel. “The Pegasus isn’t quite an ale-house, but then it ain’t much better—to the likes of him. Pemble’s got funny ideas against drinking. And yet see all he puts in him magical potions?” Niel made a grimace. “I tell ye I wouldn’t drink that brew of his for any money. A foul use to make of clean water!” The others laughed. “But,” Niel said, “I do take that paste he give me on my bread every evening. Just a little, and I sleep sound. Wish I’d had the stuff twenty years ago when I took a poor back.” “Well, that magic costs too much for the likes of me,” said Ferias. “But a good draught of ale, now that will do wonders.” “How bout yer boy, Mel, Ferias?” asked Gordon, the local butcher. “We’re countin’ the days when he’ll be off to the castle.” Ferias returned in an ever-growing good humor. “What?” Niel and the others gave a shout of astonishment. “That’s right,” said Ferias with relish. “Mel finished his apprenticeship to the guardsmen. Our fortunes are likely to turn around with a commission any day. And it couldn’t come sooner—I have three daughters!” “Weren’t there talk he wanted to be a warrior?” Niel said, in a tone meant to stir Ferias from flaunting his good luck. “Oh no, I’m not letting the lad go off and do a crazy thing like that. What, a warrior living the life of a ruffian, and no better than one of the scourge, the horse-riding brigands? No son of mine will live the life of a wanderer. He’s to be a guard and stay near his family. ‘Less there’s war." “And there may be,” Harfen, one of the local-born traders said quietly. The conversation halted. “What do you mean—war?” Asked Ferias, his face growing pale. "Have you heard news?” Asked one of the others, as the company swarmed round Harfen to hear of any tidings from beyond the city wall. “I have,” said Harfen carefully, “though I don’t know what it bodes.” “Tell us,” said Niel. “Yesterday, on my way back through the gate,” Harfen said, his voice low and full of mystery, “I overheard a story from an eastern farmer near the forest.” The crowd gave a murmur. Sane folk did not linger long around those parts. “I heard tell that folk around there caught sight of a strange beast—a black and treacherous thing.” “A bull, perhaps?” asked Niel.

“Oh, no,” replied Harfen. “The eastern farmers have been losing livestock. Sheep and cows both, anything left out of doors past sundown." “What you suppose it could be then?” asked one of the local farmers. “I don’t know, but it didn’t sound like no ordinary wolfhound or the like. They say it left marks behind—and tracks as big as a man’s head.” Niel shivered. “A likely tale.” “Maybe, but these farmers were talking like it was going on some time. And there’s help to be sent from Gyfen for the eastern holdings.” “A waste of our taxes,” said another. “An invention so’s they can get more money to hold off the brigands.” “Not so many easterners been selling at the meat markets these days." Gadli the dwarf nodded thoughtfully. “I wonder if there isn’t something to what you heard.” “Surely not.” Said Niel. “Did your fellow describe the tracks of this foul beast, friend?” A strange voice, low and resonant, asked from amidst the company. The stranger was a young man wearing a hood over his wide brow. He was fair of face, like an Elf from the north but longer, with the bluest of eyes, full of cold integrity and rimmed with full black lashes. His skin was pale, and his manner unyielding. "He… said it was the size of two men—” Harfen stopped to remember. “And dark grey, an unwavering shadow blending with the night to seem but a trick of the eyes, yet from the edge of nothing, hovering near, it strikes, and it gives no quarter,” the stranger continued, low, in an earnest persuasiveness. “It has eyes of red fire, a deep flame into the abyss. It has no soul. It is a terrible beast, moving swift and soundless, yet yielding up a shrill cry in attack that would send shivers into the heart of the bravest knight. I have seen it.” Gil stared at the stranger, his heart racing. “What is it?” “I do not know.” There was a long silence. “And how is it you fared so well with such a beast?” asked one of the locals. “I cannot tell you how, but I am not defenseless against the creatures of foul sorcery,” returned the stranger, drawing aside his outer cloak from his left shoulder. Beneath it he held a sleek, silver-studded bow like a slim cleft of pure moonlight. It was a weapon so beautiful that a new murmur of awe came from those around him. “This is my weapon against them,” said the stranger. “Its arrows fly straight and true for those worthy enough to bear it. In these many years I have earned that honor.” “Well, Prince Cormac will send aid to the east, no doubt.” Said Ferias. “We can do nothing. What mention of war did you hear, Harfen?” “Only that Prince Cormac fears the creature’s appearance to be the threat of a hostile kingdom. He will know more, when the army is dispatched east.” “I am hungry. I would very much like something from the kitchen, lad.” Said the stranger to Gil. He moved to sit down just before the bar, where there was an empty seat in the shape of a wood carved swan. He drew aside the rest of

his cloak with a light gesture. His hair was a pure silver, the same as his bow. “Yes, sir.” Said Gil. “No bread.” Said the stranger. “Just meat.” “There is some meat, but it may not be much. I will bring you our best this evening.” “I will pay you extra for it.” The stranger lifted a heavy purse at his side for only a moment. And as he did so, Gil caught a brief glimmer of bright silver hanging low from his belt. ***** “Culan, would you firmly tell the lad over there that I want a drink,” said Dylan. “Yes, master,” Culan said, rising. “Two pints, please.” He said, taking in the tradesmen’s hearty conversation. “Two pints it is,” said Gil cheerfully, as Culan gave him a handful of copper coins. Gil filled the pints under the tap. As he passed them to the customer, a woman descending the stairway from the rooms above caught his eye. She moved with speed but a subtle grace. Her hair was dark gold. She was tall and slender in a fine silver dress, and as she came into the tavern light, he saw that she was beautiful. Her face was ageless and youthful. She was most certainly of the fair race of Elves. “Lovely lady, will you have a drink?” One of the tradesmen shouted with a chorus of loud whistles. “I thank you, but I think I had better fetch one myself,” returned the woman in a clear, saucy voice. “If you could find your feet, good sir, I would gladly accept.” Several of the tradesmen laughed. The woman abruptly stopped, and a cloud of anxiety passed over her face. Her eyes held the gaze of the stranger seated at the bar. She paused, and closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them, the silver-haired elf had disappeared. The Elf woman summoned courage and smiled. “A glass of wine, if you please,” she said brightly to Gil as he was serving the pints to Culan. “No trouble, miss.” Said Gil, flushing crimson. Her eyes were green-gold with diamond-shaped pupils. He had trouble looking away. Culan returned to his master. “Did you find out who the lady was?” asked Dylan, taking a pint from the servant. “The lady?” Culan turned around, puzzled. “Where was she?” “Take a look back,” Dylan instructed. “Oh. No, no, I hadn’t.” Culan said. “I tell you I don’t know how I missed her. She is lovely.” “That is exactly why I asked if you had caught her name,” said Dylan, exhaling.

III: Quest "Where's that boy?" Gil heard Marnat holler from the kitchens. A moment later the door to the kitchen creaked. Marnat and the two strangers he'd been negotiating with appeared. “These two have paid for dinner," Marnat ordered gruffly, "and as much ale as they can drink. I'll just go see if that fool girl Eloise has got your rooms ready," Marnat said to the strangers and headed up the stairs. Gil nodded and headed into the kitchen. Mygdewyn and Ronan sat at a table near the tap. “If the rooms are as nice as it is in here, how long can we afford to stay here?” asked Ronan. “No more than a week. Nieli wouldn’t have steered us into ill winds. I think we could have done far worse. The house is full tonight, and most of them seem to be from around this part of the city.” “Let’s keep our wits about us until the company clears a little.” “What—you go easy on the ale?” Mygdewyn laughed. “I would rather rest and be merry this evening after our long journey. But we have little choice but to find work now, and there are many about this room who might need a hired hand. What can you fetch for that old ax? And what is this staff worth?” “Easy, there, Ronan. You’ll find more than one way to put your magic to a golden use, and more than one buyer. I can hire myself out to a farmer to clear fields if it comes to it. But can we sort that out after a good night’s sleep?” The noise died in the room as a small troupe of musicians gathering in the corner of the tavern began to play a bright tune. “I suppose. We can also look for more permanent lodgings,” finished Ronan, not quite able to quiet down. It had been a long day, on foot, and they had paid a visit to Mygdewyn’s Uncle Nieli, who had no advanced warning of his nephew’s coming. Ronan was still weary from strenuous spell-casting, but the taxing effect on him had reached a point that it would take much to set him at ease. Mygdewyn was very patient with him, and not displeased to be. He wanted the Elf to be merry, but in an odd way, he was also comforted by Ronan’s keenness of mind and conduct. The Elf’s character set his own spirit at ease. “Here you are, sirs,” Gil said, setting down a tray with two pints of ale and two platters of stew and bread. “That music is splendid,” remarked the dwarf. “Is it like this every evening?” Gil stopped and smiled pleasantly. “Two nights a week, we have a lady who sings to the lute, lovely as a nightingale. Those evenings are generally slow, but some of the locals prefer it that way, so as to enjoy the music. But I would say we have a good number most nights.” “Are there any lodgings in the area where we might stay as long as a month? Somewhere not likely to cost more than a few gold?” “I wouldn’t know about that,” replied Gil, briskly, scratching his head. “I

can ask around, if you want. A couple of the locals do rent out small rooms for traders and laborers.” “Yes, thank you,” said Mygdewyn, giving Gil a copper. Gil nodded and took the tray back to the kitchen. On his way, he nearly ran into the silver-haired stranger. He stepped back quickly with a shiver. The air seemed colder than it had a moment ago. “Oh, pardon me,” said Gil. “No trouble. A moment?” “You want something?” asked Gil, looking ahead to the kitchen. “You have many friends who speak well of you in this city,” observed the stranger, drawing closer to keep his voice down. Gil noticed the diamond-shaped pupils of his eyes. “I do?” He said, shivering again. “The tradesmen.” Said the silver-haired stranger. “Oh,” Gil almost blushed. He took the observation with a measure of genuine surprise. “I have known them many years. I see and hear a lot that goes on in this part of Gyfen. I may have met half of the folk who live in the city.” “Indeed,” said the stranger. “Can you tell me, have you heard of this lad who returned to Gyfen with a golden helmet from the west?” “Artur Hamils’ son? Oh, well, most everyone has heard about him. You don’t have to go far to catch all the gossip. He’s been in here to crow about his treasure a few times this week. But he’s not a regular customer.” "You know him then? And where he lives?” asked the stranger. “Not too sure,” said Gil, narrowing his eyes. “Why do you want to know?” Gil continued without caution. “You wouldn’t be after him, would you? You don’t look the type.” “What do you mean?” asked the stranger. “Like the men around here—mercenaries mostly—who would follow a treasure hunter to steal what he found. Some people think it’s all right to plunder a man who plundered another. I don’t. If you’re a mercenary, I would advise you to find another target.” Gil spoke with quiet conviction. “Artur is my age, and foolhardy, but he has a wife and two children. They do not eat meat but once a month.” Gil paused, averting his eyes again from the stranger’s flashing eyes. “If you do not want anything else, I must return this tray to the kitchens,” he said, his defenses having abated. The stranger made no movement as Gil headed away. The song ended in time, and another took its place. “I should never have thought to find you here, Galanor. Will you trouble yourself to sit down?” “What a strange coincidence to meet you here, Aiovel,” said Galanor, taking a seat at the table where the Elf woman had gone to enjoy the music. “I certainly did not arrange it.” Said Aiovel. “I would not seek to draw you from the comfort of your golden baubles. What brings you here?” “Your frost, fair lady, attempts to wound me.” “So, it is a matter of money.” She laughed. “No, of vengeance.” He threw back. “I think you would understand.”

“Your expression did not lend that impression,” remarked Aiovel. “The boy said something to you that has made you falter.” Aiovel said. “Yes, the boy gave me a reason to hesitate. And I am not without mercy,” replied Galanor. “My vengeance can wait. Are you alone?” “I am—at present.” “That man has been watching you these five minutes.” Said Galanor. “The one with the faithful old servant? Yes, I know.” “He thinks he is being discreet.” “Do you think he would make a good companion, for want of a better?” Galanor sighed, with a new breaking humor. His affection was undeniable. And, it seemed, his affection rendered a transformation in his manner. “Tell me simply, what business brings you here?” “Is it any of your business?” “No, but I did once risk my life to save you—“ “And I suspect I will never hear the end of it. It is an uneasy rest, to know such security as I am able to relish in my forest, while all the while, I can feel the darkness encroach upon the unprotected world.” Galanor’s smile faded. “All this year, I have noticed a change in the air. The spring was dank and chill. The summer brought hellish heat and now a drought. The crops have failed. I smell darkness churning up the elements of nature to turn against mankind. And now, the black beasts have made their presence known once more. My people talk without purpose on the fate of the human kingdoms if these beasts propagate and ravish our farms and holdings, but still those in the western cities do not fear for themselves. And that is not wise.” “What you have sensed is the reason I am preparing to make a long journey.” Said Aiovel. “I am here to seek aid on that journey. The Dark Wizard has awoken from his long sleep. A black army crossed into Ellwellyn Forest— and many hundreds of my people were slain.” Galanor shuddered. “I came also to bring word to the west that the black armies are headed this way. I have had my audience with Prince Cormac, little good though it may do to prepare him for the danger that has turned its malicious eye towards him. Prince Cormac has never heard of the Dark Wizard. His main interest was in keeping his people safe from the black creature terrorizing his western holdings. I fear that he will send no aid further west than that to look into the source of the danger. And I do not know who else would. Cormac’s kingdom borders Elwellyn Forest. It is the closest to the evil stirring. Why should Windfall or Rostend or Dunlaith listen to my warnings? They also have never heard of my people, or of the Dark Wizard. If I can expect any assistance in a journey to Dun Rigor, I must arrange it myself, and as soon as possible.” “What are you going to do?” asked Galanor. “I am going to kill the Dark Wizard.” Galanor paled. “That cannot be done.” “I know.” “I will go with you.”

“I did not ask you to.” “There is no need. I do not make it a habit to cross into the territory of those not of my sect. But I have no other choice. If the Dark Wizard has awoken from his sorcerer’s sleep, there will be no mercy for my people. He will try to destroy us. And then, all of Arcaendria.” ***** “Your pardon, but my master wishes to buy the lady a drink.” Culan interrupted. “What do you take, lady?” “Wine. I thank your master.” Aiovel said. Culan bowed. “Here, he is coming over,” observed Galanor with a playful, sly droll. “You have found yourself an admirer. The youth has been bestowing me with evil looks these last few minutes.” Galanor finished with a laugh as Dylan approached. “I could not help but notice the poor manners of your companion, lady. Pardon my intrusion, but a lady should never have to buy her own drink, not when decent men are about her.” Dylan bowed lightly, his eyes courteous and also blazing at Galanor. “Your generosity is appreciated, good sir.” Said Aiovel. “I am Aiovel, and this is an old friend of mine, Galanor.” “Would you care to join us?” Said Galanor in a festive mood, taking no offense to Dylan’s mute hostility. “I would not intrude—” said Dylan. “Your servant is welcome, also.” Said Aiovel. “Look, the music is about to start again. Come, sit with us and let us enjoy this fine evening.” “Very well, I accept,” said Dylan honorably. He motioned to Culan, who was just returning with a glass of wine. “Another wine for our new friend Galanor, if you please, and one for yourself. Bring that chair over to join us.” “Right away, sir,” said Culan. “Have you been long in Gyfen, lady?” Asked Dylan. “Three days,” returned Aiovel. “You have been staying at the Pegasus Inn?” “I arrived this afternoon.” “And your companion?” Dylan asked, his voice becoming tight and mechanical. “I am not Aiovel’s companion. I only just came into Gyfen yesterday,” returned Galanor. “My business has been elsewhere. But I did not expect to encounter anyone I knew at the Pegasus today.” “Your business, sir?” Dylan asked. “I am a hunter.” “Master Dylan is also a treasure hunter,” said Culan, as he set down the wine and took a seat. Dylan’s mild smile betrayed his affection and toleration of Culan’s presence in the conversation. “I have only just taken up that profession,” Dylan added. “For some time I have been hiring my sword arm for a price, and a worthy cause.”

“Have your endeavors taken you far abroad?” asked Aiovel, noticing the shabby state of Dylan’s tunic. He drew himself upright. "We spent the first half of this year on the fields and banks east of the fork in the river,” said Culan. “But last year we lived entirely up and down the many villages of Rostend.” “Then I am surprised. There is little mercenary work in Rostend.” Said Galanor. “But many worthy causes, young sir.” Observed Culan, taking a defensive posture. Galanor eased back, but never lost his smile. “The eastern fork, that is where the troubles have started,” said Galanor. “Have you heard of them?” “I know of the black beast that folk say walks the fields at night,” said Dylan, taking a drink, “but I have never seen it. Culan and I stayed many nights at an inn by the forest. The evening talk was nothing but tales that would set any man’s hair on end. And the women and children are afraid to go out, by night or by day.” “You stayed at an inn by the forest?” Aiovel asked. “Elwellyn Forest.” Explained Dylan. “A fair stretch of woodland, but dark, dark and haunted. Folk do not go there. They say it is bewitched, and I fair well can believe them. The roaring wind does not make sound in that forest, nor does the humid summer air penetrate the cool of that shadowed place.” “You speak as though you went into the forest.” Said Aiovel. Dylan nodded. “I did. I did not go far, mind you. I could not bear the chill of the air. I cannot adequately explain. At first, all of my senses came alive. It was exhilarating. But with every step further from the field I felt inclined to tarry under the trees. My steps slowed, but I was not weary. I could hear and see things—“ “Voices on the air.” Said Galanor. “I have been to that forest.” “Yes, I suppose so,” said Dylan, coming alive, his hostility towards Galanor abating. “Like a soft whispering wind. There were birds, clear-throated songbirds and twittering sparrows. I could hear so distinctly, and every smell seemed to penetrate my mind like an incense through the mist in the air. I could not bear the colors of the flowers. They were so bright, so beautiful, but my senses were overwhelmed. The leaves were like pure silver-gold. The sun managed to filter in, there by the edge. The light seemed to trick fantasies and illusions out of me. I was mesmerized. I sensed the presence of an ancient magic, and creatures of great power. “But then the mist began to turn my heart cold with fears. And the moment I began to fear, the canopy seemed to grow dark. The air was muted of sounds, and my feet grew weary. The mist seemed to draw a veil over the forest, until it was no longer beautiful but dark and terrifying, and the lower branches caught at my tunic. I had no armor to protect me. I had not the sense to walk in armed. It took my remaining strength to escape from that place.” “Have you had no time to mend your tunic?” said Galanor. “Tell me, how can it be that the Prince of Dunlaith can ill afford a tailor?” Dylan turned to him, stunned into silence.

“How did you know?” he managed at last. “The crest, and your conduct. You are the youngest son of King Eroskar, whom they call the Black Horse, missing these six years." “I do not speak of who I am. It is not wise.” Dylan said. He eyed Galanor with a great curiosity, becoming aware of a deep mystery surrounding him, and of the man’s noble mien. Galanor parried with words like a swordsman. Dylan saw that he had made a great mistake in underestimating Galanor’s character, but he said nothing to indicate what he was thinking. “Does your family not long for news of you?” asked Aiovel. “They may,” said Dylan. “I do not know. Tell me, lady, what business brings you here to Gyfen?” “I come for assistance. I expect to make a journey quite soon, one that will lead me through the forest you spoke of.” “You cannot go in there alone, lady,” said Dylan urgently, half-rising. “It is a fearsome place, even if none of the tales of black beasts are true.” “Galanor has agreed to accompany me on my journey.” Dylan turned to the silver-haired man. “I do not fear the forest,” said Galanor. “But in the lands beyond where Aiovel is going, I can be of invaluable assistance to her. The quest she has undertaken is a perilous one, but unavoidable.” “Lady, clearly you are an Elf, and I do not know much of them but that they are strong with magic and great wealth. Why forsake comfort for danger? I cannot advise you to take such a risk—” “You are kind, sir, but I have no choice.” Said Aiovel. “There is an evil brewing to the east, and Prince Cormac will hear none of my counsel to him to defend his border. The forest is not his enemy, nor is it the source of the black beasts.” “What evil do you speak of?” said Dylan in alarm. “A sorcery more foul than any terror you have known, Prince,” said Galanor. “The black beasts are his minions, and they are not the worst.” “You spoke to Prince Cormac?” asked Dylan. “What did he say?” “I tried to warn him that the black beasts are only the beginning of a terror that is encroaching upon us. But he did not take my words to heart. He would grant me no aid. Nonetheless, I cannot sit idle and let darkness engulf the land.” “Do not go, lady.” Said Dylan. “How is this any of your concern?” “I bear the burden,” said Aiovel, “that is all you need know.” “Then you must take companions,” said Dylan. “Are you certain that Gyfen is in danger from this evil? What of Dunlaith?” “All the lands of Daegoras are in grave peril. The evil I speak of is an ancient one. Long ago he plagued the land, but there were those who sealed his power. At the end of a great battle, this sorcerer was cast into a deep sleep, and cast into an oak tree, where he has slept for thousands of years. Untended, his creatures swarmed to the center of Daegoras, in the great wilderness that lies beyond the forest. But the sorcerer has awoken. It is only a matter of time before he fully recovers his power. I seek to destroy him before he enslaves this land. And if you found the enchantment of Elwellyn Forest evil, then your people have

much to fear.” Dylan’s eyes flashed. “There is nothing evil in Elwellyn Forest, Prince,” continued Aiovel, “though you fear what it reflects from the depths of your own soul. The sorcerer I speak of is evil, and he would blacken this land with an enchantment more fearful than any army your people have faced. His other ally is a horde of dragons, and beasts that feast on the flesh of humankind. And yet some would say these beasts are lesser terrors than the creatures that feast on the human mind. There are those who have lived since that dark time, thousands of years ago—I say they live, but they are not as mortal men any more. They are enslaved to the evil that keeps them alive, a remnant of his darkness bending them to his evil will. “You will not know them, for they wear a glamour of his making. But nothing good can exist near them long. Their touch is the curse of a subtly growing malignancy. They reek of the potency of his malice—the chill of their hearts penetrates bone and flesh of those who draw near, and yet the spell they work on human minds is such that no being has ever seen them as they are, nor suspected himself to be cursed by them. They have moved through the world unfettered thus far for an age, and yet they were weak during his long sleep. Now their power shall grow again.” “Is there a danger to my people from these abominations?” asked Dylan. “There was no danger until now.” Said Aiovel. “The wizard Myrddin who lived by the magic gate has kept the west free of the scourge of his minions. But his power is not strong enough to stop the evil, and should he leave the west, the servants of the Dark Wizard would find no barrier to stop them from coming here. I had hoped to reach Myrddin and beg assistance from him, but it has been many months since I sent word to him in Bressilien on the Summer Isle, and I have had no response. I left my forest to look for him, and I took a ship to the Summer Isle, but he had disappeared from the druids’ city there with no forewarning. I fear now that there is no time to look further for him. Without his magic the west is defenseless.” “What can be done to save my people? I will go with you, if I may,” said Dylan. “I thank you, I will accept your assistance, for as long as you are willing to offer it.” “You are from that forest, lady.” Said Dylan, with a strange sense of wonder. “I am. And thither I shall return, once I have secured more companions. I have treasure enough to secure a few mercenaries, but I do not trust to keep them long.” “Pardon me, master,” said Culan. “But I heard that an elf and dwarf were asking round for work.” “Where did you hear this?” asked Dylan. “From the serving boy. He was asking the traders if they could use any labor. Said the elf is a priest and can move stones and bless crops.” Galanor’s eyes narrowed. He exchanged a long, meaningful glance with Aiovel.

“Can you ask them if they would speak with us?” said Aiovel. “I can, lady,” said Culan pleasantly. “I don’t think the boy had much luck with the traders, anyhow.” Culan returned well into the hour with the elf and dwarf. “I am Ronan, and this is Mygdewyn” said the tall elf priest. His hair was long and pale yellow, and his eyes shone in the dim light of the tavern. “At your service,” bowed the dwarf.

IV: Ronan's Calling "I do not like the sound of your tale,” said Ronan. “You say that the wizard Myrddin has gone missing?” The Elf wore a clouded expression. The news troubled him deeply. “You are from Bressilien?” asked Dylan. “We are,” answered Mygdewyn gravely. His tone was low, almost mournful. “I am sure Myrddin has not just disappeared. If there is danger—” “Mygdewyn,” said Ronan. The dwarf closed his mouth and said no more. “This news would be of interest to Myrddin, I am sure,” said Ronan. “And as a member of his order of priests, he would wish me to investigate further this matter.” “I am offering you compensation for my safe passage to the East with you as my protectors,” said Aiovel. “Our quest is to Dun Rigor, the fortress of the Dark Wizard.” Aiovel picked up a traveling sack from the floor. It was made of a sturdy, grey leather. She opened it and pulled out a piece of old parchment. She untied the red string around the parchment slowly. “This is a map of the lands to the east," she said. She laid it down.

The city of Gyfen lay in the center of all Daegoras. To the east of it was Elwellyn Forest, and beyond that a vast wilderness of fields, mountains, forests, and plains. At the edge of the wilderness was the city of Gildoren, and nearby the fortress of Dun Rigor. "Can you read the runes, Ronan?" Mygdewyn asked. “They are in Elvish—yes,” said Ronan. "East of Elwellyn Forest lies the plains. It will take us many months to reach the Hills of Briodun on the edge of the River of Argolen. I hope to pass over the Silver Mountains in a few weeks. Beyond the mountain pass, in the valley of Gildoren," she pointed to the edge of her map, where the mountains ended, "lies the city of Gildoren, and Dun Rigor, the Dark Wizard’s mountain fortress.” "What is this marking?" Ronan asked, pointing to a rune between Elwellyn and the Hills of Briodun. "That was Argolen. Once a great city more than three thousand years ago, now only ruins." “Pardon me,” a voice piped up nearby. “I could not help but overhear your conversation. My name is Lilia Silversmith.” The owner of the voice turned out to be a green-eyed young woman of no more than twenty years. “If you are willing to hire these mercenaries to assist you, may I offer you my services as well?” “Who are you?” asked Dylan. “This is no trifling matter, little girl.” Lilia had a blade to his throat faster than he could see it coming. She smiled and lowered her knife. “Pardon that necessary demonstration,” she said. “I have learned many skills on the road, and I am fast with a knife.” “Where are you from, Lilia?” asked Ronan. “You are a Sea Elf, surely, from Windfall?” “Yes,” she nodded. “The Sea Folk cannot travel so far from water,” said Ronan. “I am half-Sea Elf. And I have traveled this far on my own. I do not tolerate the heat well. Still, I can tolerate it. But to the point—money is always in short supply, and my services are not otherwise engaged at present. I have been a mercenary. I have experience in combat, with and against the brigands outside Gyfen.” “Thieving lot!” Mygdewyn cursed. “A plague on them!” “I work for hire, I cannot afford to judge.” Lilia shrugged. “But my last employer met with an unfortunate end, and his fellows were not honorable. Yes, it is possible for thieves and mercenaries to have honor. I do not harm the innocent. Since that time I have traveled alone. I do not like the idea of going where you are headed, but as I listened to your story, I have grown more interested in what you are doing. It is a long time since I have found anything in this world of genuine interest. I am not brave, but I would rather go with you than not, whatever happens.” “Then if you accept what I have to offer as compensation, I would gladly accept your services.” Said Aiovel. “Please join us. But if you accept, you must

be willing to leave Gyfen as soon as it can be arranged.” Lilia nodded and drew another chair round the table. “Gold I can give you once we reach Gildoren,” said Aiovel, “for none of you can carry it over land where we are going.” "Agreed,” said Ronan. “However, I have small tokens which may do for your services, if you accept them. You will need a better weapon, I think, priest.” Observed Aiovel. “You will have my staff,” she decided. “I shall bring it to you tomorrow, for it is in safe-keeping in the chest by my bed. It has its own magic. While you carry it, you will feel much less hunger and thirst than those around you and require only a fraction of your usual food. With it, you will feel strong and hale far longer than your natural limits. Is it acceptable payment?” “Yes,” said Ronan in wonder. Surely her staff was blessed with the rare magic of the Elves. “Now for you, friend dwarf,” said Aiovel, looking over Mygdewyn. “Perhaps—this.” She removed a finely spun, neatly folded, grey woolen cloak from the sack. "A bit big for a dwarf, but very comfortable. It is also magic, of the kind that may save your life. What you cannot outrun will not easily see you in this.” Mygdewyn accepted the gift. The cloak warmed his hand as he took it. It was bound by a bejeweled clasp in the shape of a silver leaf. He stood and put it on. The cloak fell neatly to his heels, though it had appeared much longer. “It is a fine gift, lady.” Said the dwarf in delight. “I accept it as token for my services.” “Done,” said Aiovel. “I am pleased, for that is a cloak of the Elwellyn Elves. Its magic is precious, for it will protect you from a dragon's fire and breath." “Hmmmh!” snorted the dwarf. “Small use that will be! But I thank you, all the same. I have use for a warm cloak, for I prefer to travel the wider world with Ronan. If I had wanted great wealth, I would have returned to my kind, where many jewels are mined and adorn our mountain halls. A hearty meal at the end of the day is all else I could wish for.” “I cannot guarantee that where we are going, but you shall enjoy a feast in the land of my people,” promised Aiovel. “Well, well, I do look forward to that!” said the dwarf. “Who are Elwellyn Elves?” Asked Lilia. “Your goods are rare and costly, if they truly hold magical properties.” “Then treasure them and use them as protection where we are going. You will not find me so generous in time, I fear.” “You look tired, master.” Observed Culan. “It is nothing.” Said Dylan. “I shall not keep you much longer this evening,” said Aiovel. “Prince Dylan, you have a fine sword. But I wager even in the palace at Dunlaith, you will not find anything such as this." Aiovel withdrew a small gold wand from her sack. The wand was adorned with snaking golden tree branches. She put it lightly on the table.

"This magic wand was forged in dragon fire." She explained, with a penetrating gaze, as though she knew of Dylan’s secret yearning for magic. “To use it, point it to your enemy and speak the incantation, Dragoras Rasar! From it will surge a beacon of flame as hot as the flames of a dragon's breath. Take the utmost care with it, for a dragon’s fire will melt through solid rock.” “I thank you, lady,” said Dylan courteously, keeping his voice artfully calm. The wand seemed to burn his hand for but a moment. As he grasped it, he felt a tingling sensation in his fingers that penetrated into bone. A hidden fire coursed through him. His heart thumped in his chest, and in his mind’s eye, he saw an image of his brother Nolan, laughing above the parapet. As he thought of his brother, his anger flared, and the blood boiled in him, swelling the vessels of his reddening right hand. Aiovel watched Dylan closely. “On second thought, good Prince, I have something better to give you, I think.” Dylan put the wand down, but the fire in his hand took some time to dissipate. And yet he was immediately relieved, for the wand had incited a curious temperament in him that he did not like. “Here,” Aiovel said. She passed to him what looked to be nothing more than the twig of a silver birch sapling. “This wand holds the last of an ancient magic.” She explained. “It was once far more powerful than the other wand, but its power is all but faded. Do not use it except in great peril. For once used, its power will be further spent. I do not know how little of its magic remains. Four dragon spells there were contained within this wand.” Ronan's brows drew together. "I've never heard of dragon spells before." He commented, a note of skepticism in his voice. “What does it matter what you have heard or not?” she asked, but not unkindly. “It is a gift. Dragoras Ombera!” She said, and this time, her voice took on an unimaginably low gutteral sound, like thunder. The sound was primeval, ancient, and it sent a jolt of instinctive fear through every human who heard it, except Galinor. “That is the language of the dragons.” He explained. “It means, ‘Dragon Breath.’ Another magic spell. But there are other magics within that wand, if I’m not mistaken.” “Yes,” said Aiovel. “Arcaen Ellera.” She said, and the sound was not thunder, but a low, resonant music, haunting like a wood instrument. “Ancient Language, a spell of understanding far more priceless. Galadon Dragor Brio!” She said, and now her voice was clear and hard and proud in that thunderous tongue. “Dragon Shield. Something our friendly dwarf will not need—a spell that protects its bearer against dragons; and, which conveys a dragon’s invulnerability." “Do not tell them of the last spell, Aiovel. They cannot pay the price of the Death Curse.” Galanor said. “There is no telling, Galanor, what price a mortal might pay, and what effect it may give. I do not counsel the Prince to use the spell. I give him only the means to choose whether he will or not.”

Galanor stiffened. “The words are Vitrii Mordren.” She had not touched the wand, and, though she only whispered the words, several patrons in the Pegasus clutched at their hearts, as though affected by a life-numbing shadow. The laughter in the room died out. Underneath it a sound resounded hissing low, and it was at once like a horrid screeching terror, colder than the lash of a whip or the sting of a blade, and then all at once like a mournful wailing. A sharp argument broke out at the next table, and a sword was drawn. Galanor leaped over to intervene. He returned a moment later, breathing heavily. “I would have advised you against intoning those words here, Aiovel.” He said sharply. “There would have been more than one death among the innocent.” “I shall summon a spell of blessing in amends, Galanor.” Aiovel returned, her eyes flashing without remorse. The company kept silent. At last the realization penetrated their collective understanding that this was a demonstration of far greater power than any they had known. “Tell me,” said Dylan at long last, “this magic is but a taste of the dangerous powers lurking in the world beyond?” “It is but a taste of the powers that once possessed this land. Your idyllic kingdoms were founded on the ashes of dragon cities. But the powers that governed opposing forces in an ancient war still linger at the boundaries of your pristine cities, waiting to reclaim the lands that were lost to men. Man was the interloper in Daegoras. The history of your kingdoms can be measured as the short lives of children. There are creatures, not the Dark Wizard, who is not human, and not Elves, as old as Elves are, who would take back the lands stolen from them.” As Aiovel spoke, Dylan and Lilia began to wonder at the small silver ring Aiovel had dropped on the table. It was made of the purest silver and engraved with strange runes. "That cannot be given to any ordinary man.” Said Aiovel. “What is it?" Lilia asked in wonder. "A magic ring. A ring of dragon tongues," Aiovel said. "This ring was crafted in the city called Dragoras. There were but three of them ever made." “What can you offer our mercenary?” asked Galanor, deftly changing the subject. “For our young treasure-hunter, I think—the wand of fire.” Said Aiovel. “I suspect you, Lilia, will need its protection more than the others. Do you accept it?” Lilia took the wand up in her hand, and as she did, she felt less irritable in the heat of it, for it seemed to draw out an inner strength and hardiness from her human half. “I am delighted.” Said Lilia with a genuine smile. “And yes, I accept this gift, along with the promised gold we shall expect when we reach Gildoren. I shall endeavour to earn my rewards.” “Good,” said Aiovel. “Now shall we all get some sleep? We have an early start tomorrow morning, if we are to acquire provisions.”

"Yes, plenty of water, confound this drought." Dylan added. “Good evening to you all, then," Mygdewyn said, rising, and the company made ready to part ways. "What are you doing there, boy?" Suddenly the voice of the stout innkeeper echoed across the room, directed to the spot where Gil sat secretly crouched under the table next to Dylan. Dylan and the others watched the boy rise, his face flushed with fear. "He was attending me," Dylan said and quickly strode forward to the bar ahead of Gil, where the angry Innkeeper appeared ready to bust a vein. "Oh? And who are you?" Marnat demanded gruffly. “Dylan, Prince of Dunlaith. Prince Cormac’s young cousin. Forgive me, but I required the services of an attendant. The boy was obliging me. Can you spare him?” ***** Marnat dropped Gil. "Prince Cormac…” He began in the manner of a man looking over his shoulder. “Sends his best regards to the people of Gyfen," resumed Dylan. “His highness spoke highly of The Pegasus for the fine quality of ale. His guardsmen enjoy the refreshments, I take it. I have enjoyed them myself.” Dylan’s voice and manner had reverted to the impeccable manners of a nobleman. Marnat took no notice of his dull attire. "Forgive my rudeness," Marnat said graciously. "I thought Gil was idling away there while my customers waited for their refreshment. If you wish Gil to serve you, I will dismiss him to your charge." Marnat's beady eyes blinked with elaborate cordiality. And yet his gap-toothed, wide smile was genuine. Dylan fished out the last of his gold—five coins—and passed it to the Innkeeper. “Your fairness shall be remembered.” Said Dylan. Marnat took the gold coins and drew his body upright. “My pleasure, sire.” Dylan returned to the table, where Culan sat shaking his head. "Gallantry like that deserves a reward," Galanor declared. He handed the serving-man Culan a small bag of gold under the table, a token he himself would not miss. A moment later Gil returned with the ale. "Sit down with us, Gil, and have some ale," Dylan invited him. “Marnat will not require your services further this evening, and we can all stay a few moments longer. How old are you, boy?” “Seventeen.” Gil's bright green, gold-flecked eyes wandered to Aiovel's map. They grew round with curiosity. “Seems a bit scrawny for his age,” remarked the dwarf with pity. “Is there enough spare water in my rooms for a bath, boy?” asked Dylan. ”Yes,” said Gil. “But you and your servant have to share it.”

“Then get yourself in it first.” Said Dylan. “Yes, sir,” Gil said, realizing how he must have appeared. His face had been stained with splashes of food and dirt from the mop he had been using. His filthy apron was cinched tightly about his waist. His short hair was usually a fawn brown, with a hint of gold and red. But at present, it clung to his skull from standing over long near the heat of the kitchen fires. "You were eavesdropping, weren't you, Gil?" Aiovel asked. Gil nodded. "I am sorry. But it is small pleasure to listen to the doings of others, and I am very curious about magic. I am very curious about, about dragons..." Gil ventured, but his voice cracked. "What do you know of dragons?" Galanor asked. "Very little.” Gil said, his eyes clouding with a memory. His hand clenched, holding the edge of the tablecloth. “Yet you react as though you have reason to be afraid of them,” Galanor observed. “As though you had seen one.” “I have,” said Gil, with a curious stutter. “Where?” Asked Dylan. “I don’t remember. I was a child. It happened long ago. Before I came to live with Marnat.” Gil said, scratching his head. “Here? In Gyfen?” demanded Galanor. “No, we lived outside the city.” Answered Gil. “Then one day, a dragon killed my mother.” Dylan said nothing, taken aback. “It was black, blacker than coal. A horrible beast. I could feel the heat from its wings. And that is all I remember. And… and my mother screaming.” Galanor bowed his head low, his fingers lightly touched to his forehead. “Do you have ties holding you here?” Said Aiovel. “Family?” “None,” said Gil. “Marnat took me in, but not as an apprentice. I do his work and I keep a roof over my head, and food in my stomach.” “Yes, I see,” remarked the dwarf. "Have you any skills apart from working for your dinner, Gil?" Galanor asked. “None—I am good with horses, and I can cook.” Said Gil. “Good enough. I am considering apprenticing a warrior.” Said Galanor. “Are you interested?” “I can leave tomorrow.” Said Gil. ***** "I'll need you to go back to Dunlaith, tomorrow," Dylan said to Culan once they had reached the top of the stairs. "Sir, you would have me leave you?" Culan asked, affecting an injured tone. Dylan crossed into the large room the serving girls had so recently prepared, somewhat disappointed that they had already left. "Yes, Culan." Dylan said kindly; after all, he did not wish to hurt Culan's

feelings. But in truth the loyal old servant wouldn't last a day in the wilderness. "You must take a message to my father. Tell him to tighten his borders and prepare for a war. If he asks, do not mention that you were here. The enemy is unknown, and he would do well to make peace with his other enemies. We will need every available ally. "Yes, sir." Culan nodded. "Sir?" Gil said. "Please don't tell Marnat I'm leaving with you." "Not a word." Dylan agreed. "Boy, where was your father when your mother was killed?” "I think he is dead. My mother told me he was a warrior, though not from Gyfen. We went in search of his people. But the dragon found us." "How old were you when she died, boy?" Culan inquired. "I don't know—about nine." Gil replied. “I am sorry.” “I don’t remember much about it,” said Gil. “Thank you for what you did.” Dylan laughed. “Sleep well.” ***** “Gil, if you are to be apprenticed to Galanor, you will have to learn to carry a weapon.” Aiovel said the next morning. “Dylan tells us your father was a warrior, and that you also wish to learn the sword." "Prince Dylan has offered to help me teach you,” said Galanor, “if there is any spare time on the journey.” “This is yours. I trust you will earn it.” Said Aiovel. Gil looked at the sword that Aiovel handed to him. The embroidered scabbard had darkened with long use. The embroidery had turned an oily black. The hilt was a pure silver, unmarked by scratches. Though simple in design, it held the light hypnotically as Gil turned it over in his hands. As Gil pulled on the hilt with one smooth motion, the blade whisked lightly from the scabbard, easily as magnificent as the hilt had been, its keen sharp edge undulled by the years. "Be careful," Dylan admonished. "Remember the training blade, first." "Thank you, Aiovel," Gil said sincerely. “Put it on the wagon. You best not use it until you know how.” “By all means.” Gil nodded. "Mygdewyn and Ronan are not so early to rise," Lilia said, looking about. When the serving girl came by, Lilia ordered more fresh fruit. "Perhaps we should wake them," Galanor suggested a few minutes later. "Aiovel, are we going to require horses?" Dylan asked. "No, we’ll make our journey on foot, with a pack donkey for the first leg of the way," Galanor said, picking meat from his teeth with a shard of wood. "We’ll leave the donkey behind when we reach Elwellyn Forest, but he won’t cost much." "Who is that?" Gil asked suddenly, as Mygdewyn appeared at the table with a stranger, a tall, darkly handsome human dressed in a coal black cloak.

“Who are you?” Asked Lilia. "And where is Ronan?" The stranger’s dark amber, mercurial eyes flashing congenially. "You can call me Rodruban," he said in a smooth voice, tucking the long black strands of his hair behind his ears. Mygdewyn sniffed derisively. "You can call him whatever you want, if you ask me. Confounded druid can't make up his mind." "What?" Dylan asked, perplexed. "Rodruban is Ronan," Mygdewyn said. "Are you a shapeshifter, then?” asked Dylan. “No,” Rodruban returned, sitting down. “How then can a man change completely overnight?" Lilia asked, pointing a knife accusingly at the dwarf. "It's his own choosing, to be sure," the dwarf stuttered. "Or lack of choosing, to be more precise. Ronan is more than a mere priest healer. His training is in healing arts, but he is a wizard. A wizard of a line of ancient magic. But he is cursed.” “A priest cannot be cursed.” Said Dylan. “But a wizard can. Ronan was never able to choose his calling. All priests are required to choose their calling before they begin training for orders." “Where did you meet Ronan?" Lilia asked. “Years ago I came to live with Fildenod to teach his son the dwarvish tongue and the ways of a warrior," the dwarf paused. "Fildenod was the son of Myrddin. He adopted me into his house and home, though his son never took to a warrior’s life. As it turned out, Ronan was born a wizard, like his grandfather Myrddin." "So, Ronan, you are half human, like me." Said Lilia in surprise. "The grandson of Myrddin.” Said Galanor. “I noticed how ill you took the news of his disappearance.” "Yes.” “You still wish to go with us, rather than look for him?” asked Aiovel. “Yes,” replied Rodruban. “For I believe that is what he would do in my place.” They were silent for some time. “Ask Mygdewyn what happened when he went looking for his people." The druid grinned. "He says I can't make up my mind, but he's not even sure he's a dwarf." Mygdewyn was not amused. "I traveled many years. When I returned, Ronan was already well into his training with the ancient priests of the Summer Isle. And already cursed. When I met him, he was this fellow Rodruban you see before you. The most arrogant, obnoxious ruffian ever to foul the name of—" "We came to blows until I recognized Mygdewyn," Rodruban interrupted. "And took your time doing it, fool." The dwarf snorted derisively. "You knew me from the moment you saw me, but I didn't recognize you—" "Yes, I admit I was playing around with you that day." Rodruban chuckled congenially. "Ah, but how could I resist? Mygdewyn never did care much for games." He explained to the others. The dwarf glared at him, not sharing the druid's mirth. "At first I was

skeptical to believe Rodruban's strange tale," Mygdewyn continued. "Who cursed him?” Asked Lilia. “Why, his own grandfather, Myrddin, of course.” Said Mygdewyn. “To try to help him, I can only presume. Ronan could never decide which order to choose." Mygdewyn explained. "On the Summer Isle, there are two orders: the priest healers, who create and follow the laws, and the druids, who maintain touch with the more chaotic elements of the land. The druids answer to no manmade law. Their secret devotion is to the natural balance, but rational men will call it chaos. Ronan had a great love of healing, and of the land, but little respect for the law. He was always up to mischief. So Myrddin cursed him. Split him, as it were, to make the choices he faced more clear. “I have heard folk say that the Bressilen druids are evil,” said Gil. "That is not true," said Rodruban evenly. "No druid, no man, is inherently evil. Priests and those who obey the law are not all good. Some of the druids can become evil, if they are tempted to misuse the great chaotic powers of Nature that they learn to summon. You think druids' spells are destructive, but they learn some spells of creation. You think priests are not capable of working destruction? To cure poison for example, is, in a manner, destroying poison." "Is it at all like wizardry?” "Yes. Like magicians, priests and wizards use natural herbs and lore. But only a real wizard can tap into the raw elemental power of nature, and they are few. True wizardry is almost a divine gift. They have power at their bidding without the need for potions and elixirs. Many said that Ronan had the gift of wizardry. But he has been through a priest’s training and his spells are of the kind practiced by druids and priests. Some say that Myrddin himself is actually a druid. That may be how he was able to curse Ronan. I know of no priest who can summon such magic.” "What is his curse?” asked Dylan. "Myrddin put a curse of choosing on him, that could not be removed until Ronan made up his mind and chose a path for himself. Nothing except his own decision can free him." "So where did Rodruban come from?" asked Lilia. "Every three days, Ronan becomes an elf, a true follower of the priesthood and order." Mygdewyn said. "The next day, Ronan becomes Rodruban, a human rogue, a druid named after the first Bressilen druid." "The last day, Ronan again returns to own self." Mygdewyn went on. "As an elf Ronan is quiet and unobtrusive, honest, and astute. I have found him quite easy to get along with. Animals warm to his touch. He is a master at calming and communicating with them. He does not tolerate cruelty to harmless creatures. "Rodruban here can be too self-serving for my taste, and he likes to have his own way. He has a fondness for beautiful things—jewels, tapestries, wellbound books, and ladies. But he can be trusted, all things considered.” There was a silence, for the surprise had not yet sunk in. “Good, then let us tarry no further,” said Aiovel at last. “We shall have to hurry. The market closes at midday.”

***** Lilia glanced around the market stalls, inhaling the scent of spicy meat from streetside vendors. The marketplace was alive with activity. Vendors sold goods and weapons of supposed magical enchantments, all kinds of ordinary items from furniture and wagon wheels to candles and laundry soap. Little of it interested her. The others had stopped at the meat vendor to buy dried meat to augment the other tasteless rations for their long journey. In all of the haggling, Lilia slipped away. She tripped, surprising herself. Then, she bent down to scrutinize the large rock in the dirt street. The bright sun above fairly blinded her. She wished for a moment that she had been offered a cloak such as Aiovel’s as a gift, instead of the wand. Her own cloak was shabby and the too-large hood was always falling back—not the ideal handicap for a poor girl who had become a pickpocket. But it was a gift from her father the Silversmith shortly before she left Windfall. For that reason she had kept it, though it had never been lovely. In truth, Lilia didn't really like pickpocketing. She had made it a point only to liberate funds from those who seemed able to afford losing a bit, and in order to survive. If she found something, she kept it; she wasn't in a position to worry about whether or not someone had lost it. She didn't want to get rid of the last thing her father had given her, even if the cloak was getting a bit threadbare. Maybe instead of selling it, she could sell the wand instead and buy another cloak, one that would shield her delicate skin from the strong mid-summer sun. As she looked up, she saw a bright, embellished emblem painted on a wooden sign swaying in the breeze. The sign hung outside a sprawling stone and thatched-roof dwelling on the other side of the street, surrounded by an iron gate. A magician’s guild. Her lips parted into a broad smile. So the door had been opened to sell the guild's items on the Great Market Day. Lilia headed over to the entrance with quiet footsteps and peered inside the door. ***** "Five gold for a week's rations? We would have starved on our own, eh Rodruban?" Mygdewyn said. “With your appetite,” agreed the druid. “Is he a brigand?” Mygdewyn asked after a moment, regarding the merchant, if he was a merchant at all, for his attire marked him as a rider. As the merchant gave them a sidelong look, Mygdewyn imagined that the man was appraising their goods. "I do not like the look of him, either," Dylan said quietly. “The way he is sizing up our belongings… He is a warrior, and a merchant when it suits him, I think.” The man's bad eye had been marred by a long scar that sewed the eyelid shut, and his large, callused hands also suggested he had only recently given up

his previous profession. "Perhaps, but we could not afford any of the others' prices," Galanor offered agreeably. "I don't trust him," Mygdewyn sniffed, speaking softly. “The locals will not do business with him. How do we know the rations won't be poisoned with sleeping salts?" the dwarf continued grimly, unplacated. “And he sent to follow us and murder us in our beds?” "Keep your voice down, or he may just do that.” Galanor sighed. “Do not trouble yourself so, master dwarf. We shall have more need of your sharp eyes, but not here. Besides, we have a druid, and he can cure poison!” "I'll test the food before you eat it, old friend!" Rodruban said, clapping the dwarf on the shoulder. "Galanor here is a good hunter. We will not go hungry.” Said Aiovel. “But we can ill afford the time hunting, unless we must.” “The more potential danger is the water shortage," Galanor said. “But if we follow the course of the main springs and rivers, that should be less of a concern at present.” “It may be our only recourse, but in that case I advise caution to you all.” Said Aiovel. “There are many creatures of the wild that linger on the edge of the water supply.” "How shall our Sea Elf fare so far inland, do you think?” laughed the dwarf. “Where is Lilia?” Rodruban looked about. “She seems to have disappeared.” "I am just here," a voice said, growing louder. Lilia seemed to appear from nowhere among them. Her velveteen silver cloak was cinched by a jeweled clasp of silver-inlaid onyx in the shape of an oval, glinting like a speckled starlit night. "Where did you get that shadow hood cloak?!” Aiovel exclaimed, but not too loudly for the merchant to hear. “It is worth more than all of the items for sale in this marketplace," she whispered in a grave voice that managed to conceal all but a little irritation. “I found it.” Lilia laughed in a voice like tinkling silver. “Isn’t it marvelous?” The merchant returned with an armful of rations. He accepted Galanor's coins but bit into each one. Satisfied that they were real, he offered a chilling grimace that passed for a smile. "Anything else?" he wheezed, and his breath was foul. “No, that is quite sufficient for our needs.” Said Dylan. The company stowed the rations in their packs and turned into the main road. "And now, I'd like to see about getting this sharpened," Mygdewyn said, holding up his axe. "Halt, Renegades!!" A voice resonated through the square like thunder. All at once, they found themselves surrounded by a group of Gyfen guards and several mercenaries allied to one of the magician's guilds. Dylan whirled about, but the other way was blocked, too. "And what have we done?" Dylan demanded of the leader of the guard, a

tried warrior of thirty-odd years. The warrior pointed to Lilia, who stood strangely poised and unsurprised. "That one has stolen goods belonging to Master Iolo, head of the Iolo Wizard's Guild," the guard said gruffly. "Master Iolo has ordered us to retrieve them. As her accomplices, you will of course bear the same penalty, but if any of you wish to surrender now, Master Iolo may be better disposed towards leniency." He waited a moment, but no one stepped forward. "Guards!" The leader cried and motioned for his soldiers to advance around the group. Several grim-faced guards in chain mail drew their swords. "Have we given some offense—" Dylan began, but the leader cut him off. "Attack!" The leader shouted. Dylan and Gil drew their swords, Dylan's hands sure and his gaze steady. He only hoped Brastigus had prepared him well enough. Gil clasped his hilt tightly, and drew his sword, but it took all his strength to bear it up. For a moment, he was unbalanced by the weight in his hands and the sword swerved in an amateur’s arc. Meanwhile, Lilia pulled the shadow hood around her and disappeared. Mygdewyn exhaled in disgust and hefted his axe with expert menace, his eyes suddenly alight with battle fury. Aiovel and Galanor didn't move. Mygdewyn's axe swung deftly left and right, meeting swords with a loud crash of steel. His sheer strength knocked two of the soldiers guarding their rear back to the ground. Mygdewyn didn't really want to kill them, only incapacitate them. He had no taste for blood, for he could see that the guards were mere babes in arms. Mygdewyn turned for a moment and winked at Dylan. Nodding, the young prince headed toward the other guard blocking their retreat and pushed him back, parrying with effortless expertise. Gil watched openmouthed, then suddenly remembered the guards on the other side. He spun around where Aiovel and Galanor stood, still unmoving. Arms still raised as if to strike, the guards stood paralyzed. "What's going on?" Gil asked, confused, sheathing his heavy blade as best he could. "Don't ask," Rodruban advised. "Just run!" "But where?" Gil wondered. He'd lived the whole of his life in Gyfen, but he really only knew the Pegasus Inn and the marketplace. "That way, of course," Rodruban said. "To the East," he added, pointing to where Mygdewyn and Dylan continued to fight the guards. Rodruban broke into a run, heading between the dwarf and the prince, Gil close at his heels. ***** Gil was out of breath by the time Rodruban stopped. They path they had taken wound like a snake back and forth through the streets for more than a quarter of an hour. Gil was glad Rodruban knew where he was going. Yet he was also distressed.

"Will the others be able to find us?" he asked again. "Have no fear, boy," Rodruban replied in amusement. "They can take care of themselves." Rodruban began to walk down the road, clutching the staff Aiovel had given him. He felt confident and hale while holding it. He was even able to muster a smile. "Where are we going?" Gil asked, following him but still glancing backward. "Outside the city," Rodruban answered calmly. "I'm certain we can meet the others there. Mygdewyn knows his way—he's even a good tracker, but he'll never know where we've gone with all the people passing over our tracks. He'll be heading outside the eastern gate, no doubt." "Stop!” Gil cried. “What is it?” Rodruban asked. “Lilia has vanished again!" "Are you so interested in my welfare?" Lilia laughed suddenly, appearing next to them. It seemed a pale outline of shadow took form into Lilia as she pulled back her hood. "She was never lost, Gil, or I should have stopped to search for her," Rodruban said, completely unsurprised by either Lilia’s vanishing or by her miraculous reappearance. "I would almost imagine you saw me, Druid!" Lilia exclaimed. "Exactly.” Rodruban returned. “A word of advice for you, though, Gil.” “Sir?” Gil leaned in an attentive ear. “Look to her footsteps.” The druid pointed down to Lilia’s tracks. "Explain to us now, fair thief, what happened back there?" Rodruban demanded, a slight smile twisting one side of his mouth. Lilia’s gait stiffened. “You stole the cloak.” Said Rodruban. “No,” rejoined Lilia. “It was a gift.” “Then how is it we find ourselves being pursued by half of the Gyfen guard?” “I suppose there is little I can say in my defense that you would believe. But Master Iolo gave this cloak to me, on the condition that I could escape the city before he called the guards to hunt me down.” “Why should he do that?” Rodruban asked. “That would be his own understanding, and not mine. But from what I might guess, the wizard enjoys crafting little games for his own amusement. He saw me admiring the cloak and asked if I was willing to play a game. Take the cloak as a gift, but he warned me he would try to get it back. He would send out guards to hunt me down, and if I wanted to keep it, I must be able to clear the city before they found me.” "I do not like the sound of his character," said Rodruban. Lilia laughed. “A fine thing for a druid to say!” “Tell me, why did you let him bait you that way? Surely the cloak was not worth the cost of putting our lives in peril.” Said Rodruban. “I did not think so clearly when faced with the temptation,” said Lilia. “I

am not so greedy, master druid. I live by what I can steal, and it has not been an easy living.” “I cannot forgive you.” “That is fair. I hope you change your mind in time. This cloak may save my life." "How?" Gil asked. "I am half-Sea Elf, and it is just past mid-summer." Lilia explained. "My strength is likely to fail where we are going, east away from the sea. I was once told that a shadow hood would protect one of my kind from the dryness of the air, and the heat of the sun. I have been searching for years to find one. What a strange chance it was that, at long last, I went into the guild and saw the cloak lying there. The wizard introduced himself to me and asked my name. And when he told me that the cloak was a shadow hood, I lost all ability to reason. I could only see how in all these long years, it has been the one thing I have yearned to have. So I took him up on his strange little game. Then I hurried back to the market as quickly as possible." Rodruban listened. “You might have told us sooner.” He said in low tones. “However," Rodruban stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I can't imagine why the wizard sent out so many guards—even for a shadow hood cloak." “Because of this, I believe.” Said Lilia, pulling a wand from the inner pocket of the hood. It had the look of a charred branch of a young oak tree. “I don’t know if he intended to leave this in his pocket when he made the challenge.” She passed it over to Rodruban. The druid took it in his hands firmly. His eyes glittered momentarily as he registered what it was, and as the power within the wand sent waves of pleasure coursing through his arm. He hesitated passing it back to her. And he wondered if the wand produced the same euphoric effect upon Lilia. He doubted it, or she would not have let him touch it. "Well, what is it?" Gil asked. “A wand… of lightning,” he said. His voice betrayed his own desire for it. “I have never heard of such a thing,” Lilia said in a light, unfettered voice. “You had better treasure it then!” Returned the druid with some anger. “That is priceless. No, your friend wizard did not intend to lose that, and I expect he will be after us to get it back. And yet I wonder.” He added, after a moment. His eyes turned thoughtful, more than thoughtful. They were hard and quick, looking inward into an idea that had only just caught hold of his imagination. “What can you tell me about it?” Asked Lilia after a moment. Rodruban snapped out of his thoughts. “Only three wizards in all of Daegoras have ever made one, and one of them is my grandfather, Myrddin. When he fashioned the wand of lightning, a measure of his own magical power was lost in the making. Yet he thought it wise a thing to create, for the power in a wizard’s wand may be used to defend him, when other defenses are not at hand.” “I can’t see why a wizard would need a wand to defend him,” said Gil. “Because a wizard’s power is not infinite, boy. He can only cast so many

spells at once, and if they fail he is as mortal as any man, and all but defenseless against a horde.” Gil seemed interested. Rodruban continued. “There is a price to be paid for the use of magic. Can you imagine the power of the elements surging through your body as a beacon of their infinite energy? It is like no elation you will ever know. But the burning fire that courses through you does not leave your body unscarred. The power slowly destroys the body of its vessel, and every time a wizard lends his body to that raw energy, he loses some of his own. For some, it takes only a few hours to recover. For others, it can take longer. My grandfather Myrddin lost a month to the spell that fashioned such a wand. And that after a year in the making of it.” “Why did he cast it then?” asked Lilia. “I do not know,” said Rodruban. “For a time, he was creating as many of such wands as he could afford. Many months he spent asleep in a deep sleep from which none could wake him. At last, he ceased, when it was clear he could cast no more.” Rodruban closed his eyes, summoning an image of Myrddin, his hair turning pure white in only a few short years. “He had some idea that there would be a need for such weapons, but there has been no war now in Daegoras for well nigh on ten years.” Lilia began to perceive that Myrddin had kept all such treasures to himself. And that perhaps was what vexed Rodruban.

V: Brigands Mygdewyn kicked the unconscious soldier to make sure he wouldn't get up. "That takes care of these fellows." Dylan said behind him. Mygdewyn looked around. "Where are the others?" he wondered. "Rodruban and Gil?" "We'd better go," Aiovel said as she and Galanor approached. "That spell won't hold the guards for very long." Spell? Mygdewyn looked over his shoulder, where half a dozen guards stood magically frozen. "Come on, Mygdewyn. We'll find the others." Dylan grasped his shoulder. "I saw Rodruban heading east. Most likely they're halfway to the eastern gate by now. And don't worry about the city guards," he added. "The magicians may recruit the local soldiers stationed near their guilds, but the city belongs to Prince Cormac. Iolo will have to approach the castle for permission to pursue us, and that should buy us some time." Mygdewyn nodded and slung his axe across his back. ***** "So, Aiovel," Dylan ventured half an hour later as they approached the eastern gate, "are you and Galanor magicians?" Mygdewyn had been wondering the same thing. The swords each carried and the armor and bows slung behind them suggested that they were warriors, not magicians. But then, Mygdewyn hadn't seen either of them draw their weapons back in the market. He had seen the guards around them freeze up. That meant that at least one of them possessed magical abilities—if not both of them. "I, for one, am not a magician." Galanor replied, laughing. "Certainly I have— many talents. As for Aiovel," he said with a wink, "she is a magician of sorts, though not in the common way. Most magicians are not trained to handle weapons, but she can use a sword." Dylan stopped several paces from the portcullis. The four guards posted at the gate raised their eyebrows but asked no questions. Such an unprecedented number of people wishing to leave by the eastern side in one day! Mygdewyn heard the guard above the portcullis shout to raise the inner gate, and a short staccato noise followed as the way before them cleared. Ahead the heavy drawbridge creaked in protest at being lowered and fell with a deafening thud; though the other gates of Gyfen were embellished, the heavy unadorned oak doors of the outer eastern gate, open in daytime, appeared more suited to an ancient fort than the splendid city of Gyfen. When the company had passed through to the farmland beyond, the drawbridge over the moat squeaked shut behind them, cutting off access back into the city. They had entered the wild lands and left civilization behind. ***** Outside the city, the air smelled of wildflowers, and a cool breeze stirred.

The sun was shining but obscured by puffy white clouds above, the road under their feet easy to tread. Little sparrows and swallows sang a sweet tune. "So there they are!" Dylan laughed; up ahead by a small stream the boy Gil sat on a large boulder, idly kicking pebbles into the water. Rodruban stood pacing, then looked up and saw them coming. "Where's Lilia?" Galanor wondered as they approached. Gil pointed to the stream, where Lilia waved under the water, her long dark hair floating lazily around her. They noticed her new cloak and belongings sitting on a smaller rock. Dylan sat on the rock next to Gil and began to watch Lilia swimming; she was as graceful as a nymph in her own element. Dylan regarded her long limbs appreciatively. "How long has she been down there?" He asked Gil. "Ten minutes, maybe more." Gil said, suppressing a smile. "She found the stream." Rodruban added. "Headed toward it like a moth to a flame." With a great splash, Lilia's head surfaced as she sent a crescent playfully in Gil's direction. He jumped back and off of the boulder, but not in time to avoid getting soaked. ***** The dirt pathway branched into roads to the little farmhouses dotting the region and led over a great bridge built across the river Gyfen for the farmers to bring their harvest to the city. For hours as they walked, the company passed fields of summer wheat swaying in the wind with soft whispers, bright yellow fields of rapeseed, and the dark green of the turnip fields. Calls sounded from a distant field of cattle as the company trudged on. Lilia's clothes had long since dried enough for her to put on her new cloak; after exchanging stories about what had happened to each group after the guards had split the company, silence reigned in the still, fragrant air of the rich countryside. After several hours, however, the quiet order of the tended fields began to give way to open countryside and tall grasses. The plains appeared, wild and free, and the pathway fell into uneven, stony ground. The bright sun climbed high in the sky and began to dip again; the company stopped for a brief lunch under the shade of a tall oak. They sat spaced apart from each other to keep from being easily surrounded, thus discouraging any unwelcome surprise attacks. Bees hovered around the flowers, buzzing from one to another, but to Dylan's mind they were far less intrusive than the ants who had discovered their dining spot. With his right heel Dylan squashed one that scurried aimlessly over his left boot; he had been too preoccupied to notice when it got there. He was remembering the last time he had been to this region, during Prince Cormac's campaign to the southern fens. The brigands had remained conspicuously out of sight as the royal guard first moved east, then turned south. No doubt the guards had bypassed several dangerous bands, unmolested. It was no wonder, though, that they had seen no one but the local farmers in their fields; if the brigands ever attacked Prince Cormac, the King's retaliation was likely to be swift and final.

So why had the King never bothered to take firm action and get rid of the brigands? Dylan wondered about that. Did the King secretly fear the brigands for some unknown reason? No, that couldn't be it. More than likely, he just wasn't bothered about them. Then Dylan reconsidered. Maybe the King feared what might happen to Gyfen if he spent his guards fighting the brigands; or maybe the brigands unintentionally protected the city, as some kind of monster-buffer. Dylan sighed. There were always two answers for every question. At least two, and not all were contradictory. Dylan finished the last of his dried meat and watched the boy Gil flick an ant away from his food. No doubt they would be pressing on soon. Nevertheless, Dylan found that he appreciated the quiet of the scene far more this time than he had before. The last time he had been Cormac's second-in-command, and he had the burden of responsibility for many men. This time, Dylan was not in a position of authority; he found this freedom a welcome relief. As he sat and pondered, he tried to force away nagging fears for their safety; surely, they must be safe this close to the city. But the high grasses and trees, fallen trunks, and the whispers of wind and nearby brooks drowned out the sound of the brigands. Just as Dylan was finishing his last piece of fresh grapefruit, an arrow sang in the air above him, landing with a rustle in the grass. A man garbed in stained brown leather rushed toward him, his sword drawn. Without hesitation, Dylan whisked out his sword to defend himself, parrying blows, then took advantage of a break in the man's defense and cleft him neatly in two with one blow. Sidestepping to avoid spatters of blood, Dylan turned around, his senses heightened. Another brigand tore toward him, but this one was not nearly as easy. ***** Hearing Dylan draw his sword, Mygdewyn pulled his axe and waited. Only a second later, two bloodthirsty brigands came at him. Mygdewyn dodged their blows. They aimed too high, unused to fighting a dwarf opponent. Kicking one in the groin, Mygdewyn pushed him back to even the fight. The remaining brigand stepped back to plan his moves. A smart one, eh? The dwarf mused. Confound it! So much better when they aren't thinking. Mygdewyn couldn't afford to allow the man time to analyze his weaknesses. Heading toward him with a wild cry, his eyes flashing with fury, the dwarf cut under the man's arms and sliced his unprotected midsection. The man screamed, clutching at the deep rend just below his navel, and aimed his sword under the dwarf's axe, hoping to wrest it away. But the injury had weakened him. Catching the sword with his axe, Mygdewyn twisted. The man fell forward, exposing his head to the blade of the axe. Mygdewyn dispatched him with one quick stroke. Rodruban saw the gleam in the brigand's eye, but Rodruban was no weak

target. There wasn't time to draw his new silver mace—the staff would have to do. The brigand thrust with his sword... and was amazed by the strength of the staff Rodruban held. Rodruban deftly flipped him over. The brigand fell back onto the ground, momentarily stunned. It was enough time for Rodruban's natural magic spell to take effect. The brigand screamed as dark roots sprang from the ground, twisting and wrapping around him. The roots condensed and hardened into iron-like chains, holding him immobile. Galanor watched the brigands facing them, and knew that the boy beside him was untried and vulnerable. He whipped his sword from his belt with a menacing grin, his teeth suddenly and quite strangely sharp and razor-like. The brigands hesitated while Galanor summoned a spell. At once, vapors began to wrap the boy Gil in an invisible shield, rapidly crystallizing in thick, accumulative layers. Satisfied, Galanor ran into the thick of the brigands, his sword darting in and out madly. Dark vermilion stained his hands, and still he slashed with inhuman strength, letting nothing stay his arm. Lilia saw the brigands coming and disappeared. In two years of wandering, she had grown adept at the sword, but knives— these were her specialty. She pulled a silver blade from her belt and balanced it between her fingers, waiting until she caught an opening in the brigand band. The knife hurled through the air end over end, then sank with an audible thump into her target's body. The warrior running toward Gil suddenly jumped back as though he had ricocheted from an invisible barrier. Gil drew his blade, but found he could not pass through the shield himself. Several brigands began to surround him, hacking at the barrier, gouging small chunks out of the shield. Though created by magic, it seemed to have been formed of invisible, physical matter; a few more strikes, and soon they would be through it. The brigands must also have realized this, Gil thought. Their eyes glittered with malevolent intent, and they redoubled their efforts, striking madly at the shield. Gil drew back from their gleaming blades, horrified. Then one by one, they began to fall, as Galanor and Lilia came to Gil's rescue. When the last brigand fell to Galanor's hand, Gil dropped to the ground inside the shield, relieved and exhausted from the trauma. Or perhaps from lack of air? ***** Dylan looked around, exhausted, when the second brigand finally fell to his blade. But by then the last of them had fled or been killed, except one brigand wrapped like a human tree before Rodruban. Dylan looked over at Gil, who crouched unmoving. Gil's lips moved as though he were trying to speak. Strangely, his voice came through so low and muffled that Dylan couldn't make out a word. "I think he's saying he wants out." Galanor chuckled. Now that Dylan

looked closer, he saw the faint spherical outline of a giant crystal surrounding the boy; several chunks of the shield had been gouged out by brigands. The shards lay on the ground now, glistening in the sun. Dylan looked up. Galanor had crossed over the bodies in his way and stood before Gil's shield. As Dylan watched, Galanor raised a hand and laid it on the crystal structure. Dylan heard a hiss like a King Cobra's tongue flicking out; vapors began to rise into the air as the shield disintegrated. Gil stumbled forward, breathing hard. His hair and clothes seemed damp. Galanor's magic had to be strong, Dylan thought. Gil looked like he'd been cooked. "I thought you said you weren't a magician!" Dylan exclaimed. "I'm not—exactly," Galanor said, mildly chagrined. "All of my people share this talent," he explained. "Perhaps you would call it magical, but I assure you it is quite natural to us." A cold, spreading puddle touched Dylan's boot. Suddenly, realization dawned. The shield had been made of ice! No wonder the brigands had been able to damage it. Yet Dylan wasn't satisfied with Galanor's explanation. What kind of people could conjure ice from thin air? And then melt it with the touch of a hand? "But—" Dylan protested. "Are you all right, Gil?" Galanor asked. The boy had fallen to the ground, heedless of the giant puddle. Dylan sensed that Galanor was being evasive; he had learned by now that questioning Galanor was pointless in any case. Well then, let him keep his secrets, Dylan thought darkly. He didn't really care anyway. If Galanor weren't Aiovel's companion, he would have— He stopped. "Where's Aiovel?" Dylan asked, for she was missing. The others shook their heads. They looked around; she was nowhere in sight. Nor was Lilia, but she had a shadow cloak. Dylan felt a curious panic; it would not do for the leader of their company to have been vanquished so easily. To his relief, the elf woman soon appeared from behind the oak tree, her bow in hand. "Their archers are dead," she said. Dylan remembered the arrow that had narrowly missed his head. So that's why the arrows had stopped coming, he thought. "You sure that's all of them?" He asked. "Quite sure," Aiovel replied and reslung her bow. "Yes, elves see far better than humans," Rodruban observed, kneeling before the trapped brigand who had been silently watching the interchange between the companions. "Now what do we do with this one?" Ronan said, drawing his mace and slapping it in his right hand. Mygdewyn shrugged. "Kill him," Galanor replied and stepped toward him. "We can't risk letting them find us again." "A moment, Galanor," Aiovel said, drawing beside the strange elf. The two spoke quietly, and when Galanor turned around, the menacing glare in his eyes had gone, replaced by the same soft features and insouciant grin from before the attack. Dylan suddenly noticed the bright spatters of blood soaking the elf's fine clothing.

Why doesn't he wear any armor? Dylan wondered, fingering the gold family crest and fine links of his own silver chain mail shirt. "Who are you?" Mygdewyn asked the brigand, his eyes narrowing. "I—I am ca'd Deimad," the young man rasped; he appeared to be a pleasant-faced lad of about seventeen. "Please, let me live," he whined plaintively in a rustic dialect while looking about in a panic. "I promise I willn'y follow you's, honest. You've killed all the others but Ermok, and he ran away, coward as 'e aye was. We're a sma' band, or were, and much smaller noo. Please—I see we were wrong ti'attack such strong warriors, but Milac thought you's were only a huntin' party from Gyfen. Warriors dennay usually come this way." "If we let you go," Lilia said, appearing from thin air, "what will you do?" "I— anythin' you want, fair lady." He said, his eyes rounding. Lilia smiled, relenting. "All right, let's free him," she said. "As long as he promises to return to Gyfen and take up an honest profession. Agreed?" she asked, turning again to Deimad. "Yes, yes," he said. "I'll try. At least I'll go to back tae Gyfen. But there're so many skilled in the city that a puir warrior likes a' me isn'y likely to find any honest work. That's the reason I left ma hame in Dunlaith and come back to Gyfen, and then left Gyfen to join a brigand band." He tried to shake his head, but found it held fast by the roots. "Anyway, I haven'y got any other choice noo," he added. "Oh?" Lilia cocked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" "The other bands willn'y take me in— they'll ken who I am. And I cann'y survive oot on me own outside the city, not wi' those creatures roaming aboot." "What kind of creatures?" Mygdewyn asked. "Horrible things." Deimad said with a shudder. "Things such as will devour a man whole, I tell ye. Seen it with ma' own two eyes, I did. Giant manshaped creature over ten feet tall it was. With eyes—just like a slithering reptile, aye— and sharp horns 'likes 'ee a goat ye never saw, great big horns that could slice a man's head clean off, an' make no mistake aboot it. Huge strong jaws it had, and a fast devil it was, too, even on them big muckle feet. Tha' foul creature ate up poor Grimmle before he knew it were coming, poor Grimmle." The youth paused, blinking tearfully with the recollection. "Big hoofed hands picked Grimmle up, y'see, like he were no mor'n a leaf. Then tha' foul devil took upon batterin' brave Frilest when he come and tried tae stop it. Poor auld Frilest..." "A brubachwyc," Aiovel said, stepping forward. "I know the beast you speak of. Well, Rodruban, will you do the honors?" she said, jerking her chin toward Deimad. Rodruban shrugged. As the druid spread his arms, the roots slackened. "You'd better be off, boy, or we may change our mind about freeing you." Aiovel added to speed him on, and the last brigand ran back toward the city as fast as he could. "Let's see what these brigands were carrying with them," Mygdewyn suggested, then he suddenly noticed the rend in Dylan's side where a brigand had punctured Dylan’s chain mail. Dylan had been hiding the wound so far with his cloak, but the ugly red stain had spread beyond concealment.

As the brigand spoke, Dylan had let his cloak fall, but the decision was in part moot. He realized he couldn't have held onto it much longer; the world had begun to spin. "It's nothing," Dylan protested valiantly as the others gathered about him. At least, it hadn't felt so bad at first, during the heat of the battle. Yet in actual fact, the wound was beginning to hurt like hell. Dylan sat down on the ground, light-headed and dangerously close to passing out. "Rodruban, see what you can do," Mygdewyn urged. The druid shrugged again noncommittally and raised his arms. In a moment, Rodruban's body was wrapped in a white aura as he made a silent prayer of invocation. To Dylan, it seemed that the light and vapors had first coalesced in the air, forming a wide arc around the druid. Then the vapors had converged tightly upon Rodruban, binding him in a haze of natural power. Suddenly, Rodruban swept his arms wide in one quick motion, and the energy around him dissipated as the light and vapors rushed in to seal Dylan's wound. Dylan tensed, expecting a shock. But to his relief, he felt only a pleasantly cool sensation, an invigorating shiver of renewed strength. In fact, he felt rather giddy; in this state, he felt as though he could conquer anything standing in his way. Even Nolan, had he been there. "Not the best job in the world," Rodruban said diffidently, "but I don't like conjuring healing spells very much. They take a lot more out of me, for such little benefit." He sniffed tiredly, heading over to rejoin Lilia and Mygdewyn in searching the brigands' booty. ***** As it turned out, the brigands had been a more pitiful bunch than the adventurers themselves. Among the bodies, they found little gold, and only a few items of any use, a couple of ropes, some rotting rations, several plain useless swords, and other smelly torn attire and blankets. They kept the gold and ropes and left the rest, and hurried on into the wild land to avoid further trouble. Aiovel judged that they would not reach the forest before nightfall and warned that they would have to be alert once night set in. Though she knew of a relatively safe spot to make camp for the night, they would have to hurry to make it there before nightfall, even this close to the longest day of the year. Gil trudged along, in retrospect somewhat annoyed at being kept from the fighting. How could he learn how to be of use if they all kept protecting him excessively? "Hey, boy, what is wrong?" Dylan said, coming up along side him. "Tell me." He already knew somewhat; but, he thought, at least Gil's conscience had been spared from taking part in the slaughter. Dylan himself had had far more difficulty than he acknowledged in adjusting from practice to the reality of battle; killing bothered him, though he tried not to dwell on it. After all, it was the brigands who had attacked their company, and they had only defended themselves. "I wasn't any use to anybody," Gil replied unhappily and shook his head. "If I'd been any more useless, I could have gotten someone else killed back there."

He added, kicking a dark grey stone with his boot. Ouch! he kept the thought inside. His boots were thin and threadbare, unlike the others', and the unaccustomed walking stung his soles. Thanks to Lilia, there had been no time to look for anything else in the market, even assuming that someone with money would have bought new boots and clothes for him if there had been time. Dylan looked down at Gil's feet, and his eyes narrowed in understanding. "Tell you what, once we make camp in the forest— assuming all Aiovel's talk about being safe there is true— I'll give you a lesson in swordsmanship. How about that, eh?" Gil said nothing, but he smiled. ***** That evening, Lilia and Mygdewyn slept soundly wrapped in their magical cloaks, but Rodruban tossed on the bare ground, the cold grass separated from his sore legs by only a thin, wool blanket. Dylan had a more comfortable rest curled up on the two large woolen blankets he'd been carrying in his pack, but the dank night wind was still chilling. Gil lay huddled in the blanket Galanor had given him, facing the inside of their group. They had stopped on a small hill above the plains, a little north of Gyfen. A copse of trees enshrouded them, and the low bushes of the hill hid them from the unwanted attention of dangerous eyes. It was Gil's first night out of doors, and although he felt vulnerable and slightly uncomfortable out on the open ground, how free he felt too! He heard sounds in the night that he had never noticed before; the soft movement of insects stirring in the grass, the hoot of a night owl, the wind that passed unfettered over every living thing in the wild. Aiovel and Galanor had volunteered for the first watch. Soon Gil was having a dream about the Pegasus. Old Marnat was beating his knuckles with a switch of green wood for another accidental mistake. Gil awoke with a start; it seemed he hadn't been asleep for long, for perhaps an hour at most. In the camp circle, Aiovel now sat in front of the pile of wood she'd been gathering. As she raised her hands above the pile, Gil watched in wonder. Two sparks shot from Aiovel's palms and set the twigs alight. In moments, a small but warming fire was blazing; the smoke faded into the dark night. Gil closed his eyes quickly and pretended to be asleep. He lay unmoving for a long time, unable to shake the feeling that he'd witnessed something he shouldn't have. Hadn't Niel said something about magicians being able to create fire? But Gil had thought that only humans were capable of magic. At least, Niel had once told him that. But supposing Niel had been wrong? Ronan was a halfelf, after all, and he had natural magic. So perhaps elves were only more discreet with their magic than humans. Oh, why couldn't he have all of the answers? he wondered. Or at least some of them, he amended. Still, one thing was certain; Aiovel's fire was no illusion. In his blanket Dylan settled, no longer shivering.

Rodruban stopped tossing. And after a while, even Gil found himself drifting off in the warm comfort of the blaze. ***** The next morning dawned misty and cool, and Gil awoke to Lilia's bright face. "Good morning, Gil!" she caroled, beaming, obviously cheerful now that the sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and cool, wet weather had set in. "What's for breakfast?" Gil asked, folding the blankets he'd borrowed from Galanor. "Cold dried meat and stale oat biscuits." Lilia said, her raised hands displaying both like cards. Gil looked around the ring to where Mygdewyn the dwarf sat next to another figure and blinked. Rodruban had turned back into Ronan; only this time, Ronan was a tall half-elf with silvery black hair and a look of disquiet about him. A moment later Ronan smiled. The smile did his face remarkable good, Gil thought. No sense in being dour. Gil was glad Ronan had returned, though he'd become accustomed to Rodruban. Ronan would be more willing than Rodruban to help heal anyone if they were injured. "So, did you wake anyone else for the watch?" Dylan asked Galanor, but Galanor shook his head. "Don't worry about me," Galanor said. "I can survive a night without sleep," he laughed. "But I thought the rest of you needed yours." Dylan stopped rubbing his sore knees and frowned. True, he was not used to all of this walking. Why didn't it bother Galanor? The man's perpetual good humor was really beginning to annoy Dylan. Soon after breakfast, they traveled onward. The mist that had descended through the night never cleared. Instead of brightening to a hot but bright summer's day, the dark clouds stayed low, and the air grew hot, humid, and stifling. Her enthusiasm only marginally abated by the muggy weather, Lilia strode to the head of the group beside Galanor. Gil thought she looked better than ever; but then she was perfectly amiable in the gloomy, grey weather. Gil's boots squelched in the damp grass. One large tuft of grass sent up a cold spray that found his bare leg through a hole in his pants. Now they were stained with mud spots, but he could hardly tell the difference between the stains and the color of the pants, as dirty as they already were. Gil studied the waterdarkened toes of his boots. With every step, the dew soaked further into his socks. He had to remind himself not to look down as he walked! He wasn't in his familiar marketplace, and he really should keep his eyes open for more brigands. Actually, the day wasn't so bad, Gil thought upon reflection as he looked about. At least it wouldn't have been, were it not so humid. The bright grass smelled good; and no matter how unpleasant the damp heat was, the wind still felt nice against his face. As Gil looked over to Dylan, who was clearly uncomfortable, he was glad

for once that he didn't have any heavy armor to wear. Yes, things could have been worse, he thought grimly. At least it wasn't raining. But Gil should have known better than to second-guess the weather. Shortly after noon, the rain that had been predicted by the magicians of Gyfen began to fall. It came lightly at first but then the downpour came some time after lunch. Now a steady stream of water fell from Gil's clothes and from the bangs plastered to his forehead, blinding him. Why had he agreed to come along on this quest? Gil wondered. Nothing was turning out the way he had imagined it would, the way he had wanted it to be. He was cold and tired and getting thoroughly soaked; at least he would have been dry if he had never left the Pegasus. No, he shook his head. He was better off where he was, rain and all. It was only his disappointment talking. The weight of his magnificent sword also taxed his strength and spirits; no doubt it would continue to do so until he learned how to use it. Yet Gil wasn't alone. Beside him, Ronan and Dylan were getting just as soaked. As if in reminder of this, the prince suddenly cursed, no longer having anyone to advise him otherwise. Only Aiovel, Mygdewyn, and Galanor appeared somewhat protected from the weather; no doubt their cloaks kept them drier and more comfortable, Gil thought jealously. He looked ahead for signs of cover, but even the trees on the plains seemed wilted by the torrent. Lilia, however, skipped cheerfully beside the dwarf, positively radiant. "Curse this mud!" Dylan repeated vehemently, watching the dark waters of a deep puddle enveloping the fine gold-threaded embroidery on his leather boots. "Actually, we should be grateful for the rain," Aiovel's voice said; she appeared beside them abruptly. Gil had difficulty containing his surprise; last time he had looked, Aiovel was walking up ahead alongside Galanor, Lilia, and Mygdewyn. "All of this cloudy, rainy weather is what has kept any monsters from seeing us." She went on. "If this had been a bright, clear day, we would certainly have been attacked by now. Fortunately for us, brubachwycs don't like rain very much, and chamaelaeons are less common this far north, away from the fens. There usually isn't enough water up here for them." Dylan listened and nodded, appearing to relent. "I suppose you're right," he admitted. "But all the same, I wish the rain would stop." Gil sneezed. He couldn't have agreed more. ***** Dylan's wish came true shortly before nightfall. By that time, a cold northern wind had set in with the clearing skies. Dylan and his companions shivered. Except, Dylan noticed darkly, Mygdewyn seemed quite snug in his new cloak. For that matter, so did Aiovel and Galanor. And then there was the Sea Elf girl. Lilia, of course, adored the cold

weather, just as all Sea Elves did. Dylan muttered something as she skipped past him. Her cheerfulness had begun to gall him, but he reminded himself to look on the bright side. At least in this weather she made more pleasant company for everyone. "There it is up ahead," Aiovel announced at last and pointed to the distant horizon. Dylan squinted in the pale light; a long, low line of bright green trees shone ahead. "Elwellyn Forest. We'll be safe there." Safe? Dylan balked. He still didn't like the idea of going in there; but, he reflected, at least they had a better chance of staying dry in the forest. "You aren't afraid, are you, big man?" Lilia teased, but not maliciously. She seemed to have a special talent for discovering his insecurities, Dylan thought. Or did she? Maybe it had only been a casual remark to ease the tension. However, unwitting or not, she had managed to upset him. He wasn't going to let her know it, though. "Certainly not," Dylan huffed and stalked ahead. He decided that she was more endearing when she didn't talk to him. If only he could learn to ignore these insults! Perhaps if he had learned his lesson before, with Nolan— but then he wouldn't be in this mess. Nolan's contest had driven Dylan from Dunlaith, many years earlier, and he had been wandering since. Oh, Dylan, what have you gotten yourself into? he thought. His footsteps slowed as he approached the trees. Despite Aiovel's conviction that they would be safe within, Dylan involuntarily shuddered, unable to shrug off the stories he'd heard about this enchanted place. He paused as the others reached the canopy of trees, still hesitant to go in alone. Lilia marched up and halted beside him. Wonderful. Now she was going to shame him if she could by showing no fear of the place. Then behind them some distance, a horrific screech echoed over the plain. "It's a brubachwyc," Galanor said, alarmed. "We've reached the forest just in time." Gil stood beside the prince. Dylan had craned his neck around to catch a glimpse of the horned creature back in the field, but Gil refused to look around. The continuing sound sent a shiver down Gil's spine, and he hurried ahead. As they moved with definite alacrity under the first tree, Gil heard a sigh in the rustling branches overhead. "The forest welcomes us," Aiovel said, a bright, joyous light in her eyes. Didn't she realize that the forest was only the lesser of two evils? Gil thought in amazement.

VI: Pixie The sweet song of songbirds, thrushes, and nightingales and the rustling of small forest creatures in the branches of the forest began to ease Gil's nerves. He realized he had begun to enjoy their march as he hopped over a tree root in the path. Thankfully, the soft, dark dirt path didn't hurt his feet as the trek over the plains had. Flowers grew under the wide canopy of trees, bluebells, lily-of-the-valley, and late daffodils and others he didn't recognize, and fragrant ferns and bushes of wild berries grew over the underbrush, cascaded from above by shafts of fading sunlight filtering through the leaves. "What kind of trees are those?" Gil asked. He had directed the question to no one in particular, but Dylan stood closest to him. "I don't know," Dylan replied thoughtfully. Gil hadn't expected he would, but Gil's question distracted the prince from dwelling on his own thoughts. "They are Elwellyn trees, of course." Galanor laughed heartily from slightly ahead of them. A moment later, he fell back beside them. "I assume you've never seen a forest before, Gil. But Elwellyn trees grow in no other place but here. I'm rather glad Aiovel talked me into coming this way— it has been a long time since I visited this forest." He laughed pointlessly, merely for the sake of laughter. Gil found Galanor's good humor pleasant and reassuring. "They're beautiful trees," Ronan said appreciatively, eyeing the pale grey trunks and bright green and silver leaves. "I believe they would lend quite powerful magic to my spells." He added. Gil began to stray from the path, his attention drawn toward a small glade, carpeted by soft moss. Several clumps of bluebells grew under a small thicket of trees. "Watch out for those bluebells," Aiovel called from up ahead. There was a distinct warning in her words, no doubt intended for Gil's benefit, but Dylan suspected some of it had been directed to Galanor as he observed Galanor's reaction. "Yes," Galanor agreed, rather chagrined. "Pixies live in them, you know." "Really?" Gil murmured, stepping back onto the path. "I didn't think pixies were real." "They are real creatures I assure you," Galanor responded, enigmatic and evasive. Dylan didn't care to talk about imaginary creatures, however; his mind was focused elsewhere. "How are we going to pass the river?" he asked. "The map didn't show any bridges over it." He had been thinking about Aiovel's map as they marched, pondering the obstacle each natural feature presented. He hadn't seen the map since Gyfen, but even Nolan had once admitted that Dylan's memory was very good. This comment hadn't really been intended as a compliment, though. Dylan's memory was not merely good; it was excellent. Dylan could recall images with perfect clarity, when he thought about it. The problem was

that too often he forgot to think first before he acted. Even so, at times Dylan had relied upon his power of recollection to get him out of trouble. He just had to use his power of recollection to remind himself more often to think things through first. Galanor looked at Dylan, clearly impressed. Dylan hadn't necessarily stopped worrying about the present danger, but he was now thinking ahead. It was a good sign. "The river Elwellyn has many bridges." Galanor told him with a broad grin. "Do not worry, Prince of Dunlaith." "I don't remember any river," Lilia interrupted, shuffling her feet on the stones bordering the path as she moved beside them. "The river Elwellyn is one great source of the river Gyfen." Aiovel explained, a step ahead of them. The path had widened considerably, enough for four to walk abreast of each other. She, Ronan, and Mygdewyn had the lead now, but soon they would have to change; even with his magical staff, the half-elf appeared on the verge of exhaustion. "Except at the meeting of the rivers in the heart of the forest," Aiovel amended her statement. "From there the course of one branch of the Elwellyn River was altered to travel north to Herbroath. A present to an ancient king from the grateful Elwellyn Elves, long ago." "Hmmm, I wondered about that," Dylan said. "But the people of Herbroath no longer use that river for trading." "The city built at the delta was moved many years ago," Aiovel explained. "To where Herbroath lies now. Anyway, it will be at least a day before we reach the main part of the Elwellyn River," she added. A moment later, Aiovel went ahead to guide the others through the branching paths on the forest floor, her course always taking the most direct line east. They passed into a small ash grove. "We'll be stopping soon," Galanor said after a while. "I think I know where Aiovel is headed. There's a clearing nearby, but remember, Gil, to watch out for the bluebells. That goes for any other strange plants," he added, reconsidering. "The animals will, no doubt, avoid us, but the plants cannot help themselves, being stationary as they are, so we must avoid them. Don't be alarmed, Gil," he said hastily as Gil presented him with a perplexed expression. But Gil wasn't afraid; he was curious. Galanor was talking as though plants had minds of their own! "There is nothing in Elwellyn that will do us real harm, as long as we intend the forest no evil." Galanor explained. A moment later, Aiovel called them to a halt. As they left the path, Galanor looked over at the half-elf priest, his eyes narrowing. "All the same," he added seriously, "we should try to be out before our friend Rodruban comes back." Which of course was impossible. *****

Gil woke early the next morning. Nearby, the others dozed, though it seemed Aiovel had disappeared. The sparrows, tits, and wrens chirped at him, but it was not their call that had awakened him. Gil tiptoed away from the clearing and headed into the trees. At a safe distance from the camp, he halted and found a large bush that would serve for urgent personal business. Gil begain to relieve himself. When he had finished answering the call of nature, Gil hurried away toward camp again. He had only managed a few steps when he heard a faint sound like ringing chimes dancing in the breeze. He looked around but saw nothing unusual. A few steps more— a faint shriek came suddenly from the ground in front of him. Gil stepped back as though he had been burned, then stooped down to take a look among the ferns. "Be careful you don't step on me." He heard a small, sweet voice say. Then there was silence. Gil was about to leave, when suddenly he noticed a cluster of bluebells beside the ferns, their rounded cups tossed by the breeze like bells in a church tower. They were pretty flowers, Gil noticed, though admittedly, he didn't have much experience with flowers. Gil almost turned away, but found himself reluctant to leave. Why rush off? It was so nice here in the forest. He looked back to the bluebells. They were beautiful, enticing. What had Galanor said about bluebells? Gil stooped forward. A sweet perfume wafted toward his nose. Go ahead. The flowers bounced in delighted frenzy. Gil bent down and gently held one under his nose, then inhaled deeply. He felt a cloud descend over his thoughts. But why worry? He felt indefinably content. The bluebells were ringing, soft chimes tinkling merrily. "I'm so glad you happened by," piped the same sweet voice that he had heard before, and this time Gil saw a tiny creature peering from under the rim of one of the flowers. He squatted to get a closer look and angled his head to look inside the bluebell. Even upside-down, Gil had no difficulty in discerning the small feminine form of the pixie. "Would you like to join me?" she asked enticingly, and Gil nodded weakly. In the blink of an eye, he found himself sitting on a small sofa, reduced to the size of an ant. The bluebell was much larger from the inside, a lavish home, really. Gil looked around and saw his host standing a few pixie-feet away. What an amazing creature she was! The pixie had been small before, and her features indistinguishable; now she was a beautiful, well-endowed creature with long eyelashes, scantily clad in a short dress of spider silk. The pretty pixie jumped for joy at the sight of her captive, and her blue curls bounced around her face. As she danced toward him, Gil swallowed, overcome by sensations he had never felt before. "Let him go, Penelope," A voice boomed above them, and the pixie abruptly stopped. She drew back, throwing a protective arm around Gil. Gil looked beyond Penelope's white arm to the rim of the bluebell, where a large, green-gold eye had appeared. Gil cringed, horrified by it. "I won't!" Penelope protested. "Not this time!"

"You dare refuse?" The booming voice came again. "Yes!" Penelope cried. "I found this one. He's mine. Just ask him. You don't want to leave, now do you, my lovely man?" She turned to Gil imploringly. Gil shook his head mutely. "You see?" The pixie said, glaring at the intruding eye. "Now go away and leave us alone, bigfoot!" For a moment, no answer came. Then the ground began to move— violently. Gil was tossed to the wall, and Penelope fell into him. No sooner had they landed than they were swept across to the other side. This time, Gil's sword found the wall and rent a toothpick-sized hole into it. "My home!" The pixie shrieked, though her ire was directed at the intruder, not at Gil. "Will you give him up?" Gil could just barely make out the words in that deep rumble. "A pixie's bluebell is sacred!" Penelope exclaimed. Gil didn't understand what that meant, but he was tired of being thrown about. "I don't want to have to pull out your roots," the voice threatened. "You wouldn't!" The pixie screamed, horrified. "You leave me no other choice. Your magic spell cannot be broken any other way. I'll do it since I must— unless you relinquish the boy." "Just a moment. Give me time to consider it," Penelope attempted to stall. They heard a boom from the stem below, like the sound of pressure being applied. The bluebell rocked from side to side like a boat; Gil felt faintly nauseous. Penelope looked mournfully at Gil. "All right, you can have him back," she said at last. "Such cruelty of the bigfoots. My man would have been happier here," she added tearfully. Suddenly Gil stood looking down on a small clump of blue flowers; there was no sign of the pixie Penelope. "Are you all right, Gil?" Aiovel laid a hand on his shoulder. Aiovel had saved him! "Yes," Gil replied, having found his voice. Now he recalled what had happened. What an insidious trap! "Weren't you listening to Galanor earlier?" Aiovel said, amused. Gil nodded, then light dawned. "You mean he—" "Not Penelope of course, but one of her many sisters trapped him, too." Aiovel said, laughing. "Freeing him was more difficult by far, as I recall. And Galanor couldn't help himself, any more than you could. Pixies have strong magic, stronger than you might think." "But they're so little—" "Nevertheless, they are ancient creatures and must be dealt with cautiously. Pixies were not always of such stature, you know. But when the world changed, the pixies withdrew from it. Still, as with all ancient creatures their enchantments are strong—but they usually only affect the unwary, and dreamers." "I never thought they actually existed." Gil admitted. "In Gyfen, mothers

tell their children stories about pixies, but they're supposedly harmless." Gil blushed, remembering how he'd reacted to Penelope's advances. But perhaps it was because she had called him a man, while everyone else referred to him as "boy". "Yes— a kinder portrayal than the pixies deserve," Aiovel continued. "But do not feel embarrassed, Gil. Their magic can even hold sway over a— over Galanor," she corrected herself quickly before she let the word slip. Gil wondered what she might have said, but he was not really in the mood for conversation. "You won't tell the others what happened?" He ventured a moment later, as they approached the camp. "No," Aiovel assured him. "As long as you promise to pay better attention to warnings from now on." ***** "No, no, Gil, you've got it all wrong. Like this," Dylan lunged slowly, giving Gil a chance to copy his movement. "And don't hold your sword so close to your body," he added, watching the boy, trying hard not to smile. "He's terrible," Lilia said, munching on a slice of hard tack. Gil's face fell, and he frowned. "Now don't listen to her, Gil," Mygdewyn advised. "Or you'll never get any better." Gil nodded, then lifted his sheathed sword again. He slashed forward toward Dylan. "No, no," Dylan said, watching Gil overextend his sword. He deftly avoided the blow, then brought his own sheathed blade soundly across Gil's back. "First lesson," Dylan said. "Never let anger influence your movement. You have to be patient, Gil. Wait a moment and study your opponent's tactics, and look for weaknesses. Parry as long as you can, then look for an opening in your opponent's defense. That's the smart way to fight." "Balderdash," The dwarf shook his head. "I've charged in more times than I can count." "And how many of those times did I have to save your neck?" Ronan chuckled, sitting on a rock by the stream where they had made camp the previous evening. "Mygdewyn, your way is not for everyone." "But sometimes you don't have the time to think." The dwarf insisted. "Like back there in Gyfen. There were too many opponents at once to hesitate." "Now that I think about it," Ronan considered, "you weren't exactly following your own advice back then, Prince Dylan." Ronan reminded him, his smile almost congenial. "And I seem to recall you rushed into the fray first, back there with those brigands." "Yes, well, perhaps I did," Dylan admitted, chagrined. "But first I learned how to fight one-on-one. Patience is a good thing to learn for any fight, especially for a beginner. Once Gil has mastered the basics, then we can discuss how to deal with multiple opponents." "Hmmmpf," the dwarf shrugged. "Well, I suppose the boy has to start somewhere."

"If you don't trust our friend Dylan with his education, why don't you give Gil a lesson with the axe sometime?" Ronan asked. "That I will, when we have the time for it," the dwarf agreed, a twinkle in his eye. ***** By noon, Gil's arms and shoulders were aching from the morning's practice. Even though his new blade was light, his palms were not used to the weight of wielding it, and small blisters had begun to form on the inside of his hand. He had only just begun to understand how to hold the blade properly by the time the others were ready to press on. "Don't worry about it so much, Gil. You'll get better," Dylan said suddenly, as though reading Gil's thoughts. He plucked a handful of wild raspberries from the bushes that now lined the forest path and gobbled them quickly, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. If Culan had seen me do that, Dylan thought, but shook his head. He didn't have to worry about princely etiquette out here. "I thought there would be elves living in this forest," Lilia said suddenly, sounding deflated. "I'm beginning to think nothing lives here except all these stupid birds." Gil blushed when she said that; Galanor laughed, though not at Gil. "We have already passed many creatures, dryads, and sprites in the forest, whether or not you took any notice of them." He said. "I've been watching the tracks," Mygdewyn added. "You can be sure this forest is inhabited." The dwarf nodded in satisfaction. "We'll be stopping soon," Aiovel said from up ahead. "There's a small pond of fresh water a few paces down the pathway coming up on our left." "A pond?" Lilia echoed, smiling, already thinking about a swim. "Not again," Ronan said and threw up his hands. ***** "Where are you going, young thing? Come, stop for some refreshment." Lilia thought she heard a voice call as she swam about under the water. The pond had turned out to be more of a small lake, really, and extended even further underwater, leading away into a dark, underground cave. Lilia looked around for the source of the voice; a few large, tangled green weeds floated nearby, anchored by a great boulder. Their undulating motion was hypnotic, as though enticing her to come take a bite of the weeds; if she were a fish, she probably would have, but Sea Elves in general had no appetite for sea weeds, much less fresh water ones. She listened again, but heard nothing more. Convinced she had imagined the sounds after all, she kicked away and back toward the surface, oblivious to the fresh water leviathan's trap. The leviathan, a magical sea monster, watched her escape and started to rethink its approach.

"A nice refreshing swim," Lilia sighed, emerging from the water with a great splash. Dylan deftly avoided it, attuned now to the girl's tricks. "Now that you mention it, a bath would be nice," Dylan said on reflection and dipped his hand in the water of the large pond to test it. "It's chilly, though." He admitted, somewhat less inclined now to take a dip. "Can't you conjure up something better than this to eat?" Mygdewyn complained, eyeing Ronan ruefully as he chewed another piece of dried meat. "Sorry, dear Mygdewyn," Ronan shrugged. "But I'd have to be really hungry to be able to conjure up a spell, and I'm afraid with this staff," he raised his staff, "I feel less hunger, and I lack the motivation to do so. Besides," he added. "Aiovel's picked us so many nice berries. It would be a shame not to eat them." Ronan plucked one from atop the pile on a large stone. Galanor sat nearby, showing Gil how to cock an arrow on his silver bow. Aiovel stood leaning against a tall tree, her arms folded thoughtfully across her chest. "How strange!" Ronan exclaimed, watching Galanor draw an arrow and present it to Gil. Gil struggled to hold the bow steady as he fitted the arrow, ignoring Ronan's comment. "I would have sworn you had only one arrow in your quiver," Ronan went on in explanation and shook his head. "But now I see there is still one more." Galanor smiled involuntarily. "Ah, Ronan, truly you have the keen eye of an elf. Yes, my quiver holds but one arrow, but is it truly in Gil's hands?" he asked enigmatically. "Eh?" Gil said, lowering the great silver bow. "Fire the arrow, if you will, boy." Galanor instructed, and Gil raised the bow again. With a loud twang, the arrow fell into the ground only a few feet away. "Try again," Galanor advised, handing him another arrow. Ignoring Lilia's laughter, Gil succeeded marginally better this time as the arrow sailed into a branch on the other side of the large pond. "Now you have no more arrows—" Ronan began, then stopped. There was yet another arrow in Galanor's quiver. Even Gil had now noticed something odd. "This is a magical arrow," Galanor said, taking the bow back from Gil. "Only one arrow it is that remains in my quiver. The arrows drawn from it are only of material substance for a short time. The arrows my friend Gil has shot will turn to vapor in time and disappear. They are of magical creation, you see." No, he didn't. How could an arrow just turn into vapors? Ronan had never heard of magic weapons like this before. "I only hope that one Gil shot across the water was not poisoned." Galanor continued. "Still, the tree may yet survive even if it were." Galanor shrugged, chuckling. "The poison in my pack was not created to harm trees." "Where did you get the arrow?" Gil asked, wide-eyed. "Ah, the silver bow and arrow were a gift from Aiovel. A very fine gift I have treasured for many years, along with the sword." Gil turned to Aiovel, about to ask something else, when suddenly a shout

interrupted their talk. "On your guard!" His sword already drawn, Dylan rushed past the tree where Aiovel stood to face the shadows beyond. Gil and the others turned their attention to the rustling in the trees as Aiovel came behind Dylan and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't be alarmed, Dylan," she said, moving past the prince. She smiled as a figure appeared in the clearing from the rustling trees. "Is he an elf?" Gil asked Galanor, watching the strange reunion between Aiovel and the intruder. "Yes, a Shadow Elf." Galanor nodded. "A Shadow Elf?" Lilia repeated, coming up beside them. The wide grin on her face showed that she was pleased they had at last encountered one of the forest's inhabitants. "I imagine he has come from the Living Palace to meet us," Galanor added. "So, what is that place?" Lilia demanded. "It is the home of the Shadow Elves." Galanor replied. "All elves live in such places, in palaces in the forest, just as dwarves usually prefer to live in caverns in the mountains where they build their jeweled halls. Everyone who has been in the world a while knows that! Yet we'll be welcome there— and safe for a while, away from the perils of the wilderness and the creatures of the wild. Aiovel hoped to reach the palace by nightfall." Safe? Gil swallowed. Aiovel had said they'd be safe in the forest, but he'd already had a close brush with a doom of oblivion in the pixie's lair. By her definition of safe, Gil figured he'd better stay alert. Or was it that the dangers to come were so dreadful that the forest was really safe by comparison? Gil didn't like to think about that as a possibility. The others seemed to share no similar reservations. However, they hadn't any reason to be wary— yet. "A palace full of elves?" Ronan said in excitement. "Oh, such hospitality we shall receive, Mygdewyn!" Mygdewyn smiled broadly. If he remembered correctly, a feast among elves was something truly magnificent. He had just finished lunch but thought he heard his stomach rumbling already. ***** They traveled on until past nightfall. Then gradually the path grew lighter, as though illuminated by the light of many fires ahead. The silver trees to either side of the pathway towered above them, over a hundred steps high. Finally the avenue widened into a large grove, arranged in a rectangular pattern with interlacing branches and high platforms built between the trees. It was a great city made of living trees, hidden among the high whispering branches. The Living Palace glowed with the silver light of the moon cascading through interspersed openings above, and with the orange-red of bright fires

below. They continued on to a great feasting hall, the walls of which were made of trees grown together. Their elf guide halted near one of the feasting tables as a dozen richly dressed elves, wearing robes of embroidered silks and brocades and fine woolen or linen tunics, approached Gil and the other companions. The approaching elves, like Aiovel, were unnaturally beautiful. Some had silver or silver-black hair; others were golden-haired, and still others had pale green hair the color of the forest leaves! Their eyes were silver or green. Gil wondered briefly why they were called Shadow Elves. Aiovel and Galanor spoke a few words with the elves as the others were invited to sit at the table; the dwarf rushed ahead eagerly without compunction and sat down. "Now now, Mygdewyn, remember what Myrddin said about gluttony," Ronan reminded the dwarf, hurrying after him, but Mygdewyn didn't seem to be listening. "Can you understand what they're saying, Ronan?" Gil asked, having lost his earlier circumspection somewhere between the grandeur and hospitality of the Living Palace. One of the Shadow Elves appeared at the feasting table with a fluted vessel of sweet white wine and poured a drink for Gil and Ronan. "They're asking about her journey, I think," Dylan said, raising his goblet on the other side of the table where another elf waited to fill it for him. "You understand elvish?" Mygdewyn asked in surprise, chewing heartily on a slice of sweet bread. "I am a prince, you know." Dylan shrugged. "'It goes with the territory." The elf beside Mygdewyn and Ronan said something to them that was unintelligible to Gil and Lilia, who sat beside Dylan. "He wishes us to eat our fill and welcomes us as Aiovel's companions," Mygdewyn said for Gil's benefit once the elf went away. "And we'll be happy to oblige, hmmm?" the dwarf added, nudging Gil's arm with his elbow. Then suddenly, the gentle music of reeds and soft pipes began to play, filling the feasting hall with the sound. In the midst of the music, Galanor appeared. "Aiovel will join us later. There are things she must attend to first, but they won't take her long." He said, sitting next to Lilia. The companions ate until they could eat no more, listening as the elves sang and the night wore on. At last, Mygdewyn patted his round stomach in satisfaction. "That was the best meal I've ever eaten," he said. "Even better than at King Torven's table. I feel strangely revived by it all." Gil nodded, realizing that the pain in his own upper body had gone. He felt new strength returning even after four long days of travel. "Ah, my dear Mygdewyn," Galanor said, "that is the effect of the food of the Shadow Elves. The food you have eaten is blessed with healing properties." The dwarf snorted. "Well, I can't say I care about that, but I'm content right now." He leaned back, suddenly sleepy. "Time for a nap." The dwarf muttered, drifting off to sleep.

VII: Ambush Gil's dreams were pleasant as he slept under the silver branches. He awoke to the morning sun and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. The last thing he remembered was the sound of Ronan's laughter the previous evening as he talked among the Shadow Elves. Aiovel had returned at last, and while the others were led away to rest, Galanor, Aiovel, and Ronan had joined in revelry with the elves. As Gil looked around, he saw the still forms of the others about him. They were sleeping on a platform built high in the trees, the low walls formed of green vines laced among the branches. They had lain on soft bedding with but a light blanket, but Gil couldn't complain. Despite the breeze, he'd felt warm throughout the night and safe for the first time since leaving Gyfen. He imagined the others would be waking soon, no doubt feeling the worse for their indulgence last night. Gil flinched, suddenly fearful. Near where the dwarf lay, he had spied the form of Rodruban and remembered Galanor's warning about him. A moment later, Gil stood up and peered over the edge of the platform. Now he noticed the long connecting walkways of the city that he had not remembered from the evening before. Below, Galanor looked up from a circle of elves speaking in musical voices. The silvery-blue haired elf dismissed himself and walked toward one of the circling staircases to the upper platforms. "Ho, young Gil," Galanor hailed him in a voice subdued so as not to wake the others. Gil hurried down the walkway to meet him. "It's past sunrise," Gil said. "Don't we have to leave soon?" Galanor shook his head. "We'll be resting here another day." He turned to watch the activities below. "It would be unwise for us to leave the safety of the Living Palace while Rodruban is among us." "Why?" Gil inquired. "Rodruban doesn't intend the forest any harm." Not unless there's something in it for him, Gil amended inwardly. "Nevertheless, his chaotic power would be ill welcomed by a certain creature in this forest." Galanor explained. "Though you're right—Rodruban won't harm a leaf as long as he believes that the forest is strengthening his powers." "Does it?" Gil wondered. "Why, yes," Galanor admitted. "But that isn't the point. Whether he wishes to or not, it doesn't matter; Rodruban will draw the attention of more creatures than we can face alone, and one in particular. So for his sake and for ours, we'll wait until tomorrow to continue our journey." Galanor paused, then regarded Gil amiably. "But don't worry about all of this, Gil. Go down and enjoy your breakfast. And there is much to do if you aren't hungry yet." He turned away. "I'll go and wake the others; they'll join you soon." Galanor left, but Gil hesitated. He turned to the east and looked toward

the horizon. In the morning light, Gil saw that the Living Palace was indeed far larger than he had imagined, maybe even as large as Gyfen. To the east, the palace stretched around the meeting of two rivers, and the branches drew back, affording a clear view of the large shimmering silver lake that lay in the middle of the palace, the vineyards just beyond, and small, enclosed, green pasture lands. Now Gil knew why the Shadow Elves were unknown outside their forest; what more could they possibly want that they didn't already have? He found their city even more enticing than the pixie's lair. As he stood still, Gil heard voices carried on the wind. He descended the stairs, eager to join them. ***** The company found Gil sitting at a table among the elves. Rodruban's appearance surprised the elves, as did the strange disappearance of their new friend Ronan. While Mygdewyn began the long explanation of Ronan's plight, Dylan decided instead to go to find Aiovel. He was anxious to see her again, and he also wanted to ask her about their plans to re-stock their supplies. They had a long journey ahead and little food left, and Dylan didn't really trust Galanor's hunting skills. Nevertheless, he was momentarily distracted as a beautiful elf woman passed him; perhaps spending another day here wouldn't be so bad, after all, he thought. As his eyes followed the lady, he spied Aiovel talking to the elf guide who had led them to the palace in the main courtyard up ahead. Dylan approached quietly so as not to interrupt, but the guide was talking, and neither seemed to notice him. "... but it would be advisable to avoid going near the Black Mountains. It seems Scathaechir is awake, and you know he will not be idle long." "Yes." Aiovel admitted, but she didn't appear to like this news. "The warrior Guilian's spell did buy us some time, yet if Scathaechir has awakened again—" "My Queen—" the elf stopped, glancing around the tree. "One of your companions—" "Yes, Prince Dylan?" Aiovel asked in Roste as Dylan appeared. "Do you wish to speak with me?" "Yes, about supplies," Dylan offered, his mind reeling. Aiovel, a Queen? Was Aiovel really Queen of the Elwellyn Elves? Why hadn't she said so before? And if she was, why was she roaming about the countryside alone? And why was she on a mission heading east in the first place? "Filfin, you will bring us bottles of water taken from the lake." Aiovel said. "Yes," the elf nodded and disappeared. Literally. Dylan blinked, but the elf did not reappear. "As for supplies, I am having them brought over to us after breakfast." Aiovel said, nonplussed. She walked with Dylan back to the others, but Dylan's thoughts had turned to wondering about her. And who was this Scathaechir? No doubt someone he wouldn't want to meet.

***** Six Shadow Elves appeared before the company as if they had materialized from thin air. Galanor laughed as Lilia swallowed a piece of fruit whole, almost choking herself. "How did they do that?" She managed in a hoarse crack, her eyes narrowing as Dylan pulled back the jug of water she had been reaching for and let it dangle by its handle on the tip of his forefinger. Everyone knew elves didn't work magic! Or at least, that was what she had heard. "Shadow Elves have the ability to fade away and reappear," Galanor explained. "That's partly why they're called Shadow Elves. They can travel miles in the blink of an eye." He laughed. "But I'm afraid they have a mischievous sense of humor. You usually only ever see them use the skill to astonish visitors," he added. "So you're not a Shadow Elf, then." Lilia surmised after draining the jug that Dylan had relinquished. "No, far from it," Galanor said. "I prefer other methods of travel." "Here you are, Gil!" Aiovel interrupted from the other table. Gil looked over where Aiovel stood with several elves who had been carrying supplies to the nearby table. She raised a new, finely embroidered green and silver tunic and dark brown pants, but Gil didn't yet comprehend that they were for him. "What?" was all he could manage. "These are for you, Gil." She added, then laughed at his perplexed expression. "To replace those old things," Lilia said, gesturing to the tattered work clothes Gil had worn at the Pegasus. It was true his clothes were hardly decent; his plain undershirt, tunic, and pants had been stained from the ale, wine, and food in the tavern and from dirt and splashes from the mop. The shirt and pants were torn in several places, and had been remended a score of times. And in the past few days, rain and mud had saturated his garments and turned them nearly black. "Come on, Gil, don't you know that it isn't polite to refuse a lady!" Aiovel continued with an amused smile. Gil stood uncertainly, then headed self-consciously toward the other table. He didn't like to accept charity, however well-intended, but his sense of chivalry urged him to accept the gifts as a loan. Aiovel presented a pile of clothing to him. He reached out a hand and tentatively stroked the silky, silver-threaded undershirt, then the fine brown pants that were especially treated against water, wear, and stains. At the bottom of the pile lay a pair of sturdy but soft leather boots. "Boots," Gil managed, his voice thick. "And a new cloak." He added, eyeing the finespun grey woolen cloak with its silver-leaf clasp. "But I don't deserve this!" he protested. These were costly goods; Gil didn't feel worthy of them. He was only a tavern servant, a pauper, and an orphan

after all, and Aiovel had already given him so much. What had he done to deserve such gifts? Galanor's ice bubble had kept him from doing anything useful that might have earned such rewards. "Tut tut! You'll take them!" Aiovel retorted, and Gil realized it would be better not to argue. She seemed to have a temper after all. At least, she wasn't used to being gainsaid. "Besides," she added, "I'm the one who dragged you all the way out here, and there won't be any tailors around until we reach Gildorland. I highly doubt you'll have a scrap about you by the time we get there." Lilia giggled. "They're just what you needed, boy." Dylan added, appearing beside him. "And a bit of leather armor for you, it looks like." Gil nodded, overcome for the moment. "Anyway, we can't have you traveling with us in those old clothes!" Lilia cried. "Any beast would be bound to smell you coming a mile away!" ***** In the afternoon, the others joined Lilia for a bath in the cool lake. Dylan had dried himself an hour before and sat by the water with Rodruban and Aiovel. "What are the vials of lake water for?" Dylan asked. "Surely you don't expect we'll run out of water after we leave the forest?" Aiovel shook her head. "No, but the water from the sacred lake has an effect like a healing potion and cures fatigue—or rather, I should say it staves off fatigue. This magic water keeps a person alert and awake, but it only delays a need to sleep. However, I expect it should be useful for its medicinal properties alone, since we didn't have a chance to buy any healing potions in Gyfen." "Come now, Gil," Mygdewyn said, drying himself on the shore. "Time for a lesson." Mygdewyn hadn't ventured farther than a few steps into the lake. Dwarves liked being clean, but they didn't much care for water, for, inevitably, heavy as they were, they sank like stones. Mygdewyn had been taught to swim as a young dwarf, and could tread water by sheer strength and will of mind for about half a minute. After that, his dense muscles ran out of energy, and he required swift rescue. "Oh, come on," Lilia said, splashing her way to the surface. "If Gil leaves, I'll have to swim by myself. Stay, Gil, please?" She inveigled, batting her long lashes. "You've been away under the water somewhere for nearly half an hour," Gil commented. "So it's not as though you need company." He swam to the shore, passing as he emerged by the druid lying on the sand. "And besides," he sputtered, looking back at Lilia's crestfallen face. "Galanor's still swimming somewhere around here." Gil paused, wondering about that. If he hadn't known any better, he would have thought Galanor was part Sea Elf, too. Gil hurriedly dressed in his undershirt and new pants, then grabbed his scabbard and headed to the clearing by the water where the dwarf stood waiting.

***** After an afternoon spent mostly in practicing swordplay and axemanship with Mygdewyn and Dylan, Gil slept soundly. Early the next morning with Ronan an elf once again, the companions said good-bye to their elf hosts and left the Living Palace. The Shadow Elves had been pleased by Ronan-elf's appearance and were understandably disappointed to see him leave before the evening's feast. But Gil was glad that they had resumed their march east into the forest. And Galanor guessed that with any luck, they would reach the forest's eastern border in only two days. Then, well into the afternoon the air grew suddenly very chilly, and shadows seemed to spring out at Gil from behind the trees and ferns. He glanced around warily, more anxious than he had been since escaping from Marnat. "I feel it, too," Dylan said, nodding. "Like a shadow has fallen on the entire forest when it should be the warmest time of day." His hand fell unconsciously to his sword's hilt, and he hurried ahead. "Ronan," Dylan said to the elf, "you priests are all vessels for natural powers, aren't you?" "Yes," Ronan nodded. "Well, do you sense any creatures around us, following us perhaps?" The elf's ears strained to the sounds of the forest, but after a moment, he shook his head. "If there is something following us nearby, it isn't natural." He said, shivering. The company continued steadily until late afternoon, when they crossed a small waterfall on the side of a stony shelf flanking the trail. Roots clung to the steep incline, and one tiny tree jutted from a steep ledge. As Gil cupped his hands to get some of the cold, clear water, Mygdewyn sat on a boulder and picked up a stone to sharpen his axe blade. "Where will we go once we get out of this forest?" Lilia asked suddenly. Aiovel looked at her and shrugged. "East for a while, then south. You wanted to go to the ruins of Argolen, didn't you?" "Yes," Lilia's face brightened. "If that's where the treasures are." "I must admit," the dwarf added, "that I wouldn't mind finding some treasure myself. Not that I don't appreciate your gifts, Aiovel." "The ruins of Argolen aren't far from the Black Mountains, are they?" Dylan asked thoughtfully, tugging on his forelock. "Well," Aiovel admitted, "they're far enough from it." "So who's this Scathaechir?" Dylan decided to be frank, looking her in the eye. "Scathaechir?" Aiovel echoed. "You know, the person who woke up in a bad mood." "Are you sure you want to know?" She hedged. "Quite sure." Dylan nodded. "Well, Scathaechir is the King of the Black Dragons." Aiovel replied. "Dragons!" Lilia shrieked, wrinkling her nose distastefully. "I don't think there's much of a chance we'll meet him, though." Aiovel

reassured them. "He's safely trapped by the River of Argolen. And it's not him I'm worried about, but his dragon children." "Dragons have children?" Gil wondered. "Of course they do!" Galanor cried. "How do you think dragons got here in the first place?" "Well, I sort of thought they were created by magic." Gil shrugged, and Galanor sighed. "Hopeless," he muttered. "Can't we avoid them, though?" Lilia asked, tugging on Aiovel's sleeve. Aiovel shook her head. "We can try, but if we're going to Argolen, there's always a risk we'll meet them, so it might do us some good to sharpen our skills before we head over the Hills of Briodun. Gil here, for one, needs time to learn the sword." She said. "I'm getting better." Gil offered. "When you can use that thing to best me, I'll agree with you," Lilia laughed. Gil frowned. "Aiovel, I don't think we should head directly over the hills." Galanor interrupted, shaking his head in concern. "Not with all of the wyverns, evil bogles, and the other beasts that inhabit every valley and glade. We'll be lucky even to make it to the ancient highway from here! If you ask me, we should avoid the hills altogether and follow the River of Argolen from Argolen up into the mountains." "But we'd have to skirt the Black Mountains that way." Aiovel said. "If Scathaechir is once again able to cross the river, even if only for a short time—" "Aiovel!" Mygdewyn shouted as a shadow stepped from the trees. The company turned to look where the dwarf pointed helplessly. Dylan and the others felt their movements slowed as if suddenly moving through water. Yet the clarity of his own thoughts consoled Dylan that this feeling was no dream, but part of some kind of spell. The creature was a dark grey-skinned elf, with large silver eyes that glittered like ice. Gil shuddered to look at them, feeling sudden despair and cold creeping over his limbs. The elf creature spoke in a rumbling whisper; even Ronan couldn't understand the strange elven language. As the creature moved toward them, Lilia shrieked and scrambled up the steep incline, clinging to the tree a few feet above. But Aiovel stepped forward. Dylan was about to pull her back when the creature appeared to recognize her and relented in its advance. "What is it?" Lilia's asked, her teeth chattering in fear. "He is the Death Elf," Galanor whispered to the others. "The ancient guardian of this Forest." "Who is he?" Gil asked in a hoarse voice. "A Shadow Elf, of course," Galanor said. "Though a very powerful, ancient Shadow Elf; a wizard-warrior, in fact. No one remembers his true name, but he was once the faithful guardian of Queen Elwellyn, the first queen of this forest and of the Shadow Elves."

"S-so why is he still here?" Gil stuttered. Galanor chuckled. "Long ago, when malicious creatures first came to Arcaendria, he swore to protect the forest from them forever. He is the reason many of your Gyfen adventurers have vanished, prince," Galanor added, turning to Dylan. "He doesn't take kindly to malevolent intruders, or any adventurers who attempt to plunder this sacred forest." "Why is he here then? We're not any threat." Gil insisted. "No," Galanor shook his head, "but the Death Elf doesn't know that for certain." He laughed, strangely unconcerned. "Do not worry, Gil. He will not harm us while Aiovel is with us." How could he be so sure of that? Gil wondered. A moment later, the dark elf bowed, his eyes glaring horrifically, then he disappeared into the trees. "He tells me he has seen a large group of unnatural creatures in the pass to the south," Aiovel said, turning to the company. "How many?" Dylan asked, concern creasing his brow. "I can't imagine he means more than a handful." Aiovel replied. "Still, this means it's a good thing we came through the forest, even though it seems we took a roundabout way of heading to Argolen. A few of the mindless creatures dared to enter the forest, and he has been hunting them down." Aiovel looked over at Lilia, who still clung to a branch above them. "He didn't intend to frighten you, Lilia." She laughed. "In fact, I'll wager he wouldn't even have noticed you, since you're half-Sea Elf." "Anyway, I'm glad he went away." Lilia shivered again. "But we might encounter something far worse than the Death Elf in the ruins of Argolen." Aiovel said. "As long as it's alive, whatever it is, I'll be fine." Lilia said. "And what if it isn't?" Galanor inquired, halfway serious. ***** Three days after their encounter with the Death Elf, the companions came to the end of the Elwellyn Forest. With Rodruban among them the day before, they had pushed ahead cautiously but with as much speed as they could muster, in case the Death Elf followed them. However, Aiovel reassured them that he had gone on southwest following the group of maruading chamaelaeons, brubachwycs, and other unnatural monsters. By mid-morning they had made it to the fringes of the woods. Ahead in the valley lay the lightly wooded plains between the forest and the Hills of Briodun. They walked east for several hours until the path from the forest ended and the trees behind vanished into a haze on the horizon. "What was this place?" Mygdewyn asked as the company halted. The open ground ahead may once have been a great road to the East, but was now only a few broken stones. "Ah, this, my friend, was the ancient highway." Galanor said. "We'll head due south from here toward Argolen. Providing all goes well, it should take

us four days to get there," Galanor added. "But we'll be crossing over the eastern pass, so it may take longer." "What are you doing, priest?" Dylan asked, as Ronan half-elf summoned a spell, kneeling beside the fallen stones, his body wrapped in a white aura. "I was communicating with the stones," Ronan answered finally, drawing himself up. "Oh, and what do the stones tell you?" Lilia said sarcastically, and the half-elf glared at her. "This was once the crossroads used by a great number of elves." Ronan replied. "How long ago it was, I can't say. But the stones were brought here by them from far away. Since that time these trails have seen few travelers." "What about stones in the city?" Dylan wondered, thinking of the intrigues in his own palace. "Can they tell you secrets?" "I sort of have a problem talking to city stones, what with all the city noise," Ronan shook his head. "It's hard enough getting their attention in the first place, but stones also tend to be dull and rather stupid. It's much easier talking to trees. They're quite intelligent. But stones?— well, they usually aren't very agreeable, being stepped on all the time— ouch!" Ronan's heel had come down on a sharp pebble as he shifted his weight. "Of course some stones are smoother than others," he said, rubbing his sore foot. Then he picked up the pebble and stared at it. "This little pebble seems to have a chip in its shoulder." He joked, and listened as the pebble slipped in his fingers restlessly. "So, what does the pebble say?" Lilia inquired, nudging his shoulder. "He says I have an awfully big mouth for a priest." Ronan glared at the pebble. "I could have told you that," Lilia sniffed, "and without any help from rocks." "Ah, yes," Ronan nodded, "but could you have told me about the dragons?" "Dragons?" Galanor repeated, suddenly animated. "What kind of dragons?" "A group of Emerald Dragons passed by here not long ago according to the pebble—it says it got kicked out of the stone bed by a dragon's tail." Ronan shrugged. "Though I can't say that I've ever heard of Emerald Dragons before." "How strange," Dylan said thoughtfully. "I thought all dragons were black." "We'd better get moving," Galanor said quickly. ***** Late that afternoon, Aiovel spotted the trail of monsters in the distance heading toward them from the East. "Get down!" she commanded suddenly from the head of the company, and they dropped to the ground, obscured by the tall grasses of the plains. They waited in silence until the monsters had passed out of sight in the West. "I don't

understand it." Aiovel said. "The Death Elf was right. I've never seen such a large number of them." "W-were they—" Gil began, stuttering slightly. "Sent by the Dark Wizard?" Aiovel finished. "Yes. But they won't all be able to pass through the barrier at the river. I wonder why he sent so many this time?" She lapsed into ponderous silence. "Does he know we're coming after him?" Gil asked. "I don't see how he could," Aiovel said, chewing her lower lip. "But why didn't the native beasts stop more of them?" She wondered aloud. "Native beasts?" Lilia shivered. "Why would monsters try to stop other monsters?" "Because the native beasts already compete with each other for food and space." Galanor said. "The monster armies of the Dark Wizard were magically created, but they are not invulnerable to the native creatures of this area. Even a brubachwyc is no match for a hungry Earth Dragon. And that is why the Dark Wizard's creatures have not swept over Gyfen by now through some weak point in the magic barrier. "But there could be all manner of reasons why the monster army passed unmolested this far— disease or famine could be responsible for a decline in the number of native beasts. And a catastrophe for them could also mean trouble for Gyfen. "Although," he added, "I had heard that the native monster population had been growing recently, and the magical boundary contains them as well, so..." he paused, bemused, then shrugged. "Maybe they simply aren't desperately hungry, not enough to want to attack a large army yet." Aiovel raised an eyebrow. "I admit that last conjecture is rather unlikely," Galanor conceded. "To tell you the truth, I think it's strange that we haven't been attacked by any native creatures yet, either." Aiovel said. "They've been predictably aggressive up until now." "Maybe the Dark Wizard considers them an obstacle." Dylan suggested. "You think he's decided to get rid of the animals and monsters that already live here?" Galanor wondered. "Possibly." He paused, considering, then broke into a smile. "Though, it is rather difficult to persuade a hundred-armed sea serpent to move from its dwelling place, and it's still more difficult to kill it, with magic or without. However, perhaps other weaker beasts are less immune to the Dark Wizard's magic. If he has used his magic to reduce them in number, it would certainly be easier for his monster army to reach the West." "Who knows? But they're gone now," Ronan said, relieved, pointing to the western horizon. The line had passed out of sight. ***** The sky was clear that evening. They dared not light a fire in case it were seen. Galanor and Aiovel shared the first watch, Dylan and Mygdewyn took the second, then Lilia and Ronan took the third. Lilia had hoped to see Ronan's

transformation into his elf form, but he had already changed by the time Dylan awakened them, only a few short hours before dawn. Lilia yawned, managing her way to the lone tree at the edge of their camp. "We're lucky not to have had the second watch," the elf commented after about an hour. Lilia had been nodding off, and Ronan had been forced to speak as loudly as he dared to keep her awake, but Lilia said nothing in response. "What do you think we'll find in the ruins of Argolen when we get there?" he asked, switching tactics. Lilia looked up. "Hmmm. There's nothing in the world I like better than sapphires," she said. "But any gems will do. Maybe a trove of gold coins— or enchanted mirrors and amulets. Things I can sell back in Windfall—" she stopped just before she really got going as Ronan waved her to silence. "Just a minute. I think I heard something." He said grimly. They stilled, and Ronan's sharp elf ears twitched. "Wake up!" he shouted suddenly. "Wake up!" There was no time for Lilia to ask what he had heard. A loud screech sounded over the camp, followed by a deep roar that echoed over the plains. ***** Gil woke to the sound of a shout. In the fog of a wet morning, it was pitch dark. He groped for his sword lying on the ground beside him, slung his pack over his back in case he needed to light the torch in it, and hopped to his feet. The loud cry of a monster suddenly pounded his ears, and he resisted the urge to cover them, letting the deafening noise pass. Meanwhile, something grazed his left wrist, and it started to bleed slightly. Gil jumped aside, swashing his sword to fend off any attackers. The blade made contact with something moving and stuck. Gil was dragged several feet. He tried to free the sword and pulled once with all his might. He was thrown back, clutching his sword. Stumbling, he stood again and waited. He had been awake only about ten seconds. A great puff sounded near him, and Gil blinked as a bright spark shot through the air at a dark, vulpine form more than ten feet tall. Some distance ahead of Gil, Aiovel's arms were raised, one hand grasping her blood-stained sword as her spell faded. A spark of light struck the creature, and Gil heard a great echoing wail. He hadn't seen anyone but Aiovel in the brief light, and the noise of monsters drowned out the voices of the others, making it impossible for him to find them. Gil headed toward Aiovel, smelling burning rotted flesh, when he suddenly collided with something—or someone. "Stay still," Aiovel advised in a whisper. Gil hardly dared to breathe as he made out Aiovel's hands rising again. This time, they glowed with a bright flame. Gil could detect monsters encircling them but holding back, wary of the one with glowing hands. Then as he looked about, Gil caught a glint of a sword far away. How did I get so far from camp? he wondered, realizing that more than a hundred feet lay between him and the sword's owner, Dylan. And in between

them a horde of unnatural monsters had descended. Gil blinked as the illusion of a dragon's head formed in the light between Aiovel's hands and grew above her head. With a deafening, groundshaking blast, the light dragon roared, extending its flaming claws toward the front of the ring of monsters. As the dragon claws slashed, Gil heard the hiss of flesh burning. The smoldering forms of a dozen creatures fell with a heavy thud. "Now, draw your sword!" Aiovel shouted, and she and Gil charged toward the remaining monsters. Gil struck out madly, forgetting every lesson he'd had from Dylan and Mygdewyn. The monsters retreated from him, unsettled by his fervent but aimless strokes. Fear alone drove Gil on, fear for himself and for his friends. He tried to stay with Aiovel to protect her back as they were pushed farther away from the others. As seemingly unending creatures waited to strike, Gil began to wonder if he and Aiovel were the only ones left alive. How could they manage to fend off so many? Gil recognized creatures that matched the brigand's description of brubachwycs, but they seemed the least menacing of all that he had seen. Black, twisting forms writhed beyond the light of Aiovel's spells. Another horned beast rushed toward Gil, but this time he waited until it neared and thrust his sword at the head, severing it from the neck with one hard blow. As he struck, the sword he held began to glow with an inner light. It thrummed with a kind of power he could only begin to perceive. How easily he had sliced through the creature! The sword had passed through it as though it had been made of air. Now Gil felt the blade growing lighter in his hands, and his grip more sure. Minutes passed as other creatures rushed in on them, and he and Aiovel did their best to drive them back. Gil heard Aiovel's blade sing through the air, felling the quick, dangerous brubachwycs as they charged and a great vulpine beast that had been heading toward Gil's weak flank. Gil felt a warm stream of blood at his heels, repelled by the elven magic of his new boots. Monster bodies lay piled around them, but Gil realized he and Aiovel would soon be trapped by the dead. Understanding this, Aiovel tapped his left shoulder as though she intended to move, and he followed her back as she quickly moved through a gap in the bodies. Several of the foul creatures headed toward them, sensing a momentary advantage. But they had no chance against Aiovel. A fine blue luminous mist began to spread from her fingertips. As she moved toward the nearest creatures, this mist descended upon them, then suddenly turned into dragon-headed lightning bolts that sent them screaming back or left them writhing on the ground. Aiovel nodded in satisfaction then staggered back a moment, as though substantially weakened by the exertion of her spell. Gil looked around at the lifeless forms. None of the nearest creatures had survived. "Gil," Aiovel said, tensing. "You've got to get out of here." She shuddered, though the air had been heated in the wake of her spells. She raised her sword again. Blood dripped down the blade and ran onto her fingers. "But—" "There is only one great creature left, Gil. It appears that the brubachwycs

have decided to retreat. They know well enough when to give up, and the chamaelaeons will follow them, but the ibrun will follow us to Argolen if I do not face it now." Ibrun? Gil wondered. What was an ibrun? "Then let me fight this beast with you." Gil said bravely. "That is a noble gesture, Gil, and it shows the worthiness of your heart," Aiovel said, "but you cannot help me. You have no experience against such a creature. Gil, you have to get out of here—" "But I can't leave you," Gil hesitated. In any case, he didn't know where to go. "Gil, you will not survive if you stay here." Aiovel shook her head firmly. "Do as I ask— go and find the others, if they have managed to escape. If Galanor isn't with them, their lives may depend on you." "All right," Gil said reluctantly. "But, what exactly is an ibrun?" "An ibrun," Aiovel replied, summoning grave composure, "is a young black dragon hatchling before it has gained many of its powers. It was stunned by the lightning earlier, but I fear it is recovering." She shook her head. "I thought I smelled their kind around here during my watch, but I was sure it was only the— They heard a sudden eerie sound, a haunting, trumpeting call made by a very large beast. "Listen, Gil," Aiovel said, taking something from the inner lining of her undershirt with her left hand. "Take this." She handed him something wrapped in two leaves from an Elwellyn tree. He unfolded the leaves and felt a silver ring in them. "Put that on your finger." Aiovel continued. "If the others are up against ibruns, they'll need your help to escape. Escape they must. I warn you, do not try to fight the beasts. Now, go Gil. Hurry!" Gil hesitated only a second to slip the soft circle around his finger. At once, he saw the path below. The moon above must have appeared from behind the clouds, he thought. As he hurried away, he heard another deafening blast behind him.

VIII: Separation A moment after Ronan's warning, Lilia saw dark shapes surrounding them. "Aieee!" she screamed as a large wolfen creature with great jaws leered at her. She jumped back and bumped into Ronan, knocking the staff from his hands. Several creatures rushed toward them as she fumbled in her cloak. Her fingers found a rough piece of bark, and she pulled the Wand of Lightning from her cloak. "Do something, quickly!" Ronan managed, quickly retrieving his staff. Lilia waved the wand in the air several times in circles, then she waved it up and down. Nothing happened. "Blast this thing, it doesn't work!" She cried. The elf was busy, wrapped in a white aura that dissipated into the creatures around them. Lilia peered ahead in the fading light, looking to see if any of them fell. They blinked at the girl and the elf as though undisturbed by the magic. "What did you do to them?" Lilia asked, curious. "I asked them not to hurt us," the elf replied as though the answer were quite obvious. "Wonderful." Lilia whined. "Just my luck that you've turned into Ronan the elf idiot." "Watch out!" A voice shouted nearby, and a figure jumped in front of them from their rear. A bright sword flashed in the air above them. A brubachwyc fell to the ground in front of them, gushing a fountain of blood that spurted up into the face of their savior. "Galanor!" Lilia could have hugged him, but not now. "You have to say 'Mel-ar Regnio!' for that wand to work," Galanor said, cleaving another monster that tried to attack them. Lilia blinked, then gripped the wand and moved beside Galanor to get a clear shot. "Mel-ar Regnio!" she shouted, but something unexpected happened. She felt the charge of electricity under her hands; the charred wand began to wave about as if of its own accord. Instead of releasing a solid bolt in the direction she pointed, it began to send scattered beams this way and that into the air, some hitting the monsters, others shot straight into the air. "Yaiee—ch!" Lilia wailed, as electrical jolts snapped in her hands and shocked her. Galanor looked over his shoulder and slapped his forehead. "You've got it pointed in the wrong direction," he commented, then thrust back his sword, gutting a monster behind him. Lilia rolled up her sleeves, turned the thing around, and began to incinerate their monster assailants. ***** Dylan had not been asleep long when Ronan shouted. He jumped up and

grabbed his sword just in time to stop the young two-foot long chamaelaeon that was about to take a bite out of his leg. Dylan thrust the sword into its back, holding its head down with one boot while he pulled out his sword. Blood oozed out of the rend in its head as Dylan kicked it over, a stream running out onto the ground. Dylan deftly avoided it, but came face to face with a giant brubachwyc. A horde of young chamaelaeons surrounded him. Having failed in making a meal of his leg, they now clawed at his chain mail, too stupid to know that their efforts produced nothing. Dylan's mail shirt was tight, the rings finely crafted. Their claws slipped over it. The brubachwyc was far more clever. With Dylan detained, it glared at him, ready to strike. An axe sang in the air above it, twirling end over end before cleaving the brubachwyc's head in two like a piece of fruit. The brubachwyc wailed, then crashed to the ground with a mighty thud. "Away, you disgusting things—" Dylan shouted and raised his arms, batting away the chamaelaeons with blows from his sword. Mygdewyn appeared behind the brubachwyc and pulled out his axe. "I saw the brubachwyc in that sudden burst of light," Mygdewyn said, his white teeth still bright enough to see in the dimness. "I decided it was worth a chance," he added. "Good aim," Dylan nodded gratefully and stooped down for his pack. He wondered if he would have time to light a torch later. Probably not. He still wanted to know what kind of creature had made that first mournful cry, but not now. Not before their assailants were safely dead. "What was that?" he asked, turning around. A sudden light had flashed behind him. A moment later, they saw bright sparks of lightning coming from the direction of the look-out tree. In the light it created, Dylan realized that the creatures were beginning to run away from the light and toward him and Mygdewyn. But he couldn't worry about that; something else was slithering nearer, his senses warned him. Dylan stopped, straining his ears. He turned around at the sound of thunderous steps approaching them, coming from the same direction as the brubachwyc had moments before. Dylan turned just in time to face the glare of two wide-set reptilian eyes. The head of a great black creature now rested on the ground only a few feet away. The eyes of the black creature narrowed maliciously, and Dylan detected the creature's slow grimace as the head lifted, the jaws widening. Dylan reached into his shirt desperately and clutched a silver branch, still held against his rapidly-beating heart. "Galadon Dragor Brio!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, grabbing Mygdewyn with the hand holding his sword and pulling him into the enveloping spell. The dragon's teeth clinked off the Invulnerable Dragon Shield as off an enormous turtle shell, and the surprised creature opened its eyes. Mygdewyn looked up uncertainly. The young dragon's jaws unhinged like a snake's as it made an attempt to swallow them whole, Dragon Shield and all. But as the dragon's mouth approached them, the shell of the Dragon Shield grew,

preventing the creature from eating them. Dylan sighed, temporarily relieved, and beads of sweat cascaded down his temples. The dragon narrowed malevolent eyes on them, irate at being thwarted. "H—hh—how long do you suppose this spell will last?" Mygdewyn stuttered. "I don't know," Dylan said. "Aiovel didn't say how long it would hold. But it's supposed to be powerful magic, and the other spells she mentioned lasted at least a day." "Well, whatever you do," Mygdewyn swallowed. "Don't let go of that wand." "How do you know that will make any difference?" Dylan said. "Let's not find out if it doesn't." The dwarf persisted. He made a good point. Dylan nodded, but his grip slackened anyway as they were jarred by a blow from the dragon's tail. Dylan squeezed the wand tighter. The Dragon Shield appeared steady, much to his relief. The dragon eyed them in irritation, its great gleaming pupils flashing. Suddenly they found themselves drawn in between its claws. The dragon squeezed them tightly, Dragon Shield and all, as it began to beat its wings and lifted into the air. Dylan and Mygdewyn were carried above the fog up into the pale pre-dawn light. The first time Mygdewyn opened his eyes since the dragon took off, they were flying over rivers and fields of green cascaded by the morning sun. The Dragon Shield remained invisible under their feet, leaving the impression that they were suspended in mid-air below the dragon's claws. Ahead on the horizon, amid mists and low-lying clouds loomed the snowcapped peaks of a long, black mountain range. ***** Lilia heard the heavy sound of flapping wings, and motioned to Galanor and Ronan. Slowly they made their way to the source of the sound, but found no sign of any of the others or whatever had made the flapping noise. "Look!" Ronan shouted, peering into the dim light of pre-dawn. "There, up ahead!" Galanor looked further ahead in the direction they were going. Reinforcements of unnatural monsters were coming toward them from the looks of it, now that the companions had destroyed the other monsters. "How much magical energy is left in that wand?" Ronan asked, watching the second legion of monsters, who had seen them by now and broken into a run toward them. "Not enough!" Lilia shouted, eyeing the fast-approaching creatures. "Time to get out of here!" She said, turning right and charging away over the plains to the south. Ronan and Galanor shrugged, then followed fast at her heels. *****

Dylan held fast onto the Wand of Elwellyn magicians. Still the Dragon Shield spell had not broken, though an hour or more had passed as the dragon flew holding them. Finally the dragon slowed and began to descend, heading to a dark natural cave in the sheer side of a black mountain. They left daylight far behind. Inside the twisting passages, the darkness blinded them. But the dragon flew on unerringly. Here and there flickering flames appeared to either side, illuminating sparkling jewels that protruded from the face of the rock tunnels. The light cast horrific reptilian shadows that grew and shrank as the dragons puffed flames that died out. Dylan heard low snores coming from all around; apparently, the shield didn't protect them from sound. Ahead of them, the light began to grow. Now that his eyes were growing somewhat accustomed to the dimness, Dylan saw the main dragon-passage widening, now large enough for several dragons to pass them by. Or so he guessed. It was impossible to gauge their dragon captor's size in relation to other dragons. Dylan hadn't seen any of the others yet, though he feared that he was about to. Finally, the passage widened into a great hall. A great black dragon lay on a pile of new, cracked bones, jewels, and gold, mingled with the dust of ancient skeletons. His coal black, sharp-edged scales overlapped like plate mail, but without reflecting the light. How fortunate for the dragon! Dylan thought, now studying the dragon above him, whose scales were much the same. No doubt black dragons had a great advantage in the dark; not even the light of other dragons' flames could disclose a black dragon's location. Dylan stiffened and braced himself as the dragon holding them dropped them before the enormous creature. Mygdewyn shuddered violently as they stopped rolling and came to a rest before the pile of bones. Dylan heard a rumbling sound as the great dragon swung its head at them, its large black and yellow eyes like the waning moon effectively paralzying the young prince with their chilling expression. Then the dragon suddenly stopped glaring at the man and dwarf to listen to more low rumblings from the young dragon who had brought them. In a moment, the large dragon's expression turned pleasant, at least as pleasant as a large dragon could be. His mouth gaped open, drawn into a hideous smile; his teeth, like thick swords, hung darkened and stained from blood and rotting flesh. The dragon raised its foreclaw in anticipation, ready to bat them until Dylan let go of whatever protecting talisman it was that he held. Dylan knew there was a real chance that he might be worn down by the spinning, and decided to risk using another spell. Their companions would never find them now. Dylan knew that the only thing for him to do was to try to talk his way out of this mess. This dragon seemed fond of treasure, as all dragons reputably were. Dylan only hoped he could entice the creature with promises of his father's treasure in Dunlaith. "Arcaen Ellera," Dylan said softly and waited to see if the magic spell worked. "What are you doing?" The dwarf asked, speaking for the first time since

they'd been taken airborne. "Just relax, Mygdewyn," Dylan whispered, satisfied at least that the spell of invulnerability still held. "I'm trying to figure out a way to get us out of here." He said, looking back at the large dragon. The dragon had waited, eyeing their interchange curiously, as if wondering why they ignored him. They were not showing the appropriate sense of fear! The dragon turned to the younger dragon that had brought the captives to the lair. **You say these two somehow made it all the way to the northeastern monster trail?** the regal black dragon inquired. Dylan swallowed his surprise at the effectiveness of his spell. Though he had been forewarned that he would understand ancient languages through the magic of the spell, it nonetheless seemed very, very strange to him. The deep rumblings hadn't changed; only now, they made perfect sense! **Yes, my King,** the young dragon answered. **The first of their kind I have ever seen in our territory.** **My territory,** the King of the black dragons corrected primly. **Forgive me, my lord. Of course, your territory.** **Um, excuse me.** Dylan decided to interrupt. The great dragon paused, stupefied, then looked down at them and blinked for the first time. But the Dragon King was not the only one to be surprised. Beside Dylan, Mygdewyn shook his head in wonder. The words Dylan had spoken were not the low rumblings of the dragons, but they were clearly understandable to the dragon race, and somehow familiar to the dwarf, even though Mygdewyn couldn't understand the language. Where he had heard the like of it before he couldn't remember now. **Who are you?** the Dragon King suddenly bellowed, seeming to cover up a momentary loss of words. Wait a minute, Dylan thought. Their captor had called this one King. So, this creature was Scathaechir? Dylan suddenly realized. **I am Prince Dylan of Dunlaith, your majesty,** Dylan began, bowing deeply to show his respect. Culan's lessons in etiquette had not been a waste of time, after all. The Dragon King seemed at least a little pleased by Dylan's humility, their predicament notwithstanding. They were the King's captives, but that didn't mean Dylan was exempt from the traditions of royal courtesy. **Forgive my companion and me,** Dylan continued, **but we did not know that we had traveled into your kingdom, your majesty. We were only seeking passage to the eastern lands. If you will only let us go, we would gladly return to our homes in the west and find another way to reach our destination.** The dragon began to tap his claws on the ground, another grimace curling back his lips, revealing his rotten teeth. Dylan was glad that the spell of invulnerability also protected them against the dragon's foul breath. He couldn't quite work out how he was able to hear and not smell his surroundings, but then again, magic wasn't inherently logical. **And why would I release you?** the dragon demanded. **You who have trespassed into my domain? Other, greater creatures have done so, and have never left this cave.**

**As a Prince of Dunlaith, I can offer you great wealth,** Dylan replied. The dragon blinked uninterestedly. **Ah. Petty promises now, is it? And why should I trust you to bring it to me, young human? Nevertheless, I am intrigued. You do not seem a foolhardy, mindless worm like the rest of your kind.** Scathaechir paused. **Therefore I might consider granting your request, if you can answer me one question. How is it that you speak to us in the ancient Dragorian language?** Dylan hesitated to answer. He had no reason to believe that the dragon King would let them go, even after Scathaechir had considered doing so. Worse, if he spoke the truth, Dylan was afraid to remind the dragon about the wand protecting them with its spell of invulnerability. Yet for now it seemed Dylan had piqued the ancient dragon's interest, and that wasn't likely to be something very easy to do. If Dylan refused to explain, there was always the chance that the dragon would bat their Dragon Shield until it cracked, but as Scathaechir had already turned down Dylan's offer of wealth in exchange for freedom, Dylan felt he had nothing to lose by refusing to answer. At the very least, the dragon's curiosity might keep them alive. When Dylan remained silent, the Dragon King eyed him impatiently. Then, after a moment, he gave a deep roar, something Dylan suspected approached laughter—derisive laughter. **Well, young prince, I have plenty of time to draw your secret out of you. Keep silent if you will, but how long can you hold on to your spell before you fall asleep? Fatigue is one weakness of your kind. Only remember, the longer you wait, the less likely I am to let you go instead of making a meal out of you.** Dylan could hardly believe it! His gamble had worked this time! But who knew how long his luck would hold? ***** The sun had risen. Gil stumbled along, following fresh tracks away to the south. A great horde of monsters had gone that way, diverted from their western trek. Gil reasoned that the monsters were in pursuit of his companions, but he had a long way to go before he caught up to any of them. Here and there lay the telltale bodies of slain monsters beside the path, charred to ruins no doubt by Lilia's stolen wand. Gil kept looking back, wary in case more monsters appeared, but also on the look-out for Aiovel. By noon there was still no sign of her, and Gil's stomach growled fiercely after the exhausting battle. He dared stop only briefly to take out a piece of hard tack from his pack, the last one he had. He ate it hungrily, aware that the others may not have had time for lunch, assuming they had not been lunch — Gil swallowed, and the hard tack stuck like glue in his throat without any water to wash it down. Suddenly, he stopped. The monster trail had come down to one large set of tracks, then turned rapidly west again, disappearing five minutes down the trail.

Back at the fork in the trail, the deep imprint of Ronan's staff marked the abrupt end of his companion's march. But there was no sign that a struggle had taken place. If his companions or the last creature had been victorious, there should have been a trail of one or the other of them leading away. Whatever it was, it had some large footprints, Gil shivered. Gil continued south past the trail, hoping to find signs of his friends, but there were none. After an hour, the ground ahead sloped upward near two large, deep-rooted trees. Gil felt his steps slowing, and with an effort charged up the incline. He stopped just inches short of a hundred foot decline. He peered ahead to make sure the others hadn't fallen below. But he wasn't used to the dangers out of doors, and as he stepped nearer, his foot slipped on a tree root and lost purchase; he was sent tumbling forward feet first down the jagged hillside, while his arms clutched wildly behind him for something to hold onto. His hand caught a stone jutting from the side of the steep hill, and it broke his descent further down the side. Yet his hands were scratched and throbbed painfully as he held on, certain he would last only a few more seconds. **What is that?** a loud voice sounded below. The voice shook the hillside and Gil suddenly slipped, letting go of the stone. He tumbled down, landing squarely onto a large, shiny green, reptilian head. As the head moved, Gil slid down the neck, scrambling to find a grip on the enormous, smooth-skinned dragon who had inadvertently caught him. Gil fell to the ground with a definite thud and then stood, rubbing his sore posterior. He spied several other green dragons nearby in the great glade of trees surrounding them; a few were swimming in the small, rocky river that cut through the forested glen. Then Gil looked up. The large dragon blinked and opened its jaws, and Gil jumped back. **Wait, don't eat me!** he cried, drawing his sword. The dragon's gaze fell upon the blade, and it stepped back as though avoiding hot coals, its shuffling feet making hurried but deep prints into the soft soil. The dragon cringed yet glared at Gil with great, faceted emerald eyes. It was, actually, quite a remarkable creature, Gil realized— long, sinuous, and surprisingly dexterous. **So, you've come to kill me, eh, small one?** It said finally. **N-no,** Gil stuttered. The dragon looked at him with a mixture of sudden curiosity and vestiges of anger. **Then explain your weapon, human. You wield a magic sword of Inverlen, the only sword that can kill a dragon. You expect me to believe you didn't come here to kill me with it?** It leaned forward a little, angling its short foreleg toward Gil as though preparing to swipe at Gil. **Well, you may be protected from my fire and breath with that thing, but it can do nothing to help you against my claws.** And with that it raised its arm, extending cat-like claws as great as spears. **No!** Gil cried, jumping back out of range. The dragon waited uncertainly. Clearly, it had been bluffing; it really did seem to fear Gil's sword. Sensing this, Gil put down his sword and stepped away from it. The dragon peered at Gil again, this time confused.

Gil smiled amiably, secretly hoping the dragon wasn't going to chomp him now. **You see, I am quite harmless,** Gil offered peaceably. **Tell me, though, are all dragons as magnificent as you?** Gil asked on impulse, noticing the dragon's smooth, shimmering scales and large, crystal clear eyes. This was not the foul creature who had killed his mother! The dragon tilted its head, apparently delighted by Gil's comment. **What a polite young gnat!** he remarked. Gil heard low footsteps and turned to his right. No doubt sensing that it was safe for them now, the other Emerald dragons finally approached. **Who is he?** one of them asked. **My name is Gil,** Gil offered. **He speaks to us in Dragorian,** one dragon puffed in surprise. **Is he a Dragorian, then?** **Don't be silly, Wistid,** one of the others said. **He is most clearly a human.** **I think he's an elf.** Another said smugly. **Vertilio's eyes have gone.** Wistid bellowed. **But look at what he's wearing,** Vertilio argued peevishly. **He certainly looks like a Silver Elf.** **Well, he doesn't smell like one,** another said. **Are you going to eat me?** Gil ventured. **Certainly not,** the dragon who had caught his fall shook its great head. **I wasn't going to eat you, anyway. I merely yawned when you interrupted my sleep. Humans are so tough, not at all as delectable as a nice, juicy antelope. And I would not harm a creature who can speak to dragons. It makes it quite impossible, once we have communicated on a personal level. But you should be careful, young one. There are many dangerous creatures roaming around here in these days.** **I haven't seen any, but my friends warned me of land monsters— and wyverns.** Gil agreed, satisfied that he had remembered Galanor's warning this time. **Wyverns!** The first dragon snorted. **Nasty, slinking creatures! Two-legged, sons of an overgrown salamander dragon pretenders!** Gil sensed he had touched a nerve. **Nothing compared to a real dragon! ** He chimed in. The first dragon regarded him with delighted approval. **Actually, I was following some tracks nearby—** Gil began again. **Vulpex tracks, I'm sure.** The first dragon nodded. **We found a vulpex not far from here.** **Were there any other creatures nearby when you saw it?** Gil asked, wondering about the mystery surrounding his friends' vanished tracks. **No, just the vulpex,** the dragon replied. **Where is it now?** Gil inquired. If they could just tell him where it was, he might still find the others. **Why, we ate it!** the dragons cried unanimously, as if it were the obvious thing to do to one's enemies.

**Nasty disgusting taste it had, too.** The great one added, as though it had expected otherwise. **But we didn't care for it coming and disrupting our nest.** Gil cringed, hoping Galanor and the others had not been eaten by the vulpex— or, for that matter, by the green dragons. **So, how do you speak Dragorian?** Wistid continued, intrigued. **Are you a Silver Elf?** Gil paused, considering. What was a Silver Elf? He'd never heard of them. Then he thought of his companions. Were the dragons talking about Galanor? Was a Silver Elf some kind of culinary delicacy for dragons? **I was traveling with a strange elf.** Gil admitted hesitantly. **But I don't know what kind of elf he was. Galanor never did tell me.** He shrugged. **Galanor? You know young Galanor?** the great dragon breathed suddenly, his eyes glowing.

IX: Transformation Lilia, Galanor, and Ronan had been running since dawn. The sun had climbed into the sky, and the day had turned bright. They continued south over small rocky hills and under trees, through woods and high grasses and back over rough ground flattened by the passing of some giant creature. Ronan clutched his staff tightly, grateful once again for its powers of strengthening his endurance. Again Ronan ventured a glance over his shoulder and shouted involuntarily. The monsters chasing them had been steadily gaining ground. Now they were only twenty feet away. "Do these creatures ever give up? Lilia cried. "No," Galanor replied. "They have greater endurance than natural creatures. My guess is that they will follow us until we tire completely." "So what do we do?" Lilia asked. She had been sending back bolts of lightning every time the monsters got too close, but now she felt the wand's waning powers in her hand and knew its power was fading without a wizard's invigorating touch. Galanor shook his head. "We'll have to fight them." "Oh no!" Lilia exclaimed, managing to stomp her foot despite their pace. "I knew you were going to say that. All right then," she added, pulling over her shadow hood, and she disappeared. Galanor turned to the creatures following them. There were a few brubachwycs and chamaelaeons left and large, hairy, black rowdynchods. The rowdynchods looked like giant rats with red eyes and a wolfish maw. Then Galanor saw an enormous, hideous black vulpex looming behind and above the others, now revealed by daylight. The wolfen creature had long, protruding fangs and stood on its hind legs, with thick yellow claws on its diminished forelegs. Swords would not be enough this time, Galanor realized. He lifted his arms, and circling blue vapors began to wrap around his body. Galanor blinked, and when his eyes opened, they had taken on a terrible glare, the cat-like pupils somehow more pronounced than before. A stream of blue vapors shot into a high arc above the monsters, then coalesced into ice daggers that rained among the startled creatures. The creatures wailed pitifully as the ice daggers continued to fall. Only the vulpex appeared unharmed; many of the other monsters fell to the ground, impaled by hundreds of fragmented ice shards. "And now we run!" Galanor shouted. "That vulpex is immune to lightning—and the power of my ice storm," Galanor said, already running south again. "How do you know?" A voice asked on his right, and Galanor saw Lilia's shadow running alongside him where few would have seen it, though he could just barely make it out. "Can't you just take my word for it?" Galanor said. "I can't go much farther," Ronan wheezed beside them. "We've been running since dawn, more than six hours now." He dug his staff in the ground,

stopping for breath. Fifty paces behind them, they heard the vulpex's loud roar. "Oh, damn!" Galanor shouted. "Aiovel made me promise not to change myself for our own safety, to keep our mission a secret, but— I have no choice." He said, sighing enigmatically. "Stay behind me, but give me some room," he added with new resolve. Then he motioned for them to move away. Ronan took a few steps back obligingly. But Lilia appeared again beside Galanor. "Are you crazy?!" She screamed. We can't hope to stand against that thing!" "Get ready to hold on," Galanor advised her. "And don't panic, whatever happens, okay?" "But—" "Lilia!" Galanor shouted. "Yes, you're right, my dear." He waved her to silence. He could see that a short explanation wasn't going to work. "You and Ronan don't stand a chance against that thing. And I could not protect you while I try to destroy it. I would ordinarily be able to destroy it, but you see, I spent much of my powers before dawn, fighting an ibrun that almost attacked you." He paused briefly. "I don't know how long it would take me against this vulpex— too long, as far as your safety is concerned," he added, smiling bleakly. "But what are you going to—" "For once, Lilia, please just shut up and get ready!" Galanor snapped as the vulpex stopped. Sharp teeth glistened in its wolfish maw. Galanor turned toward it, his eyes grown suddenly equally terrible, his small teeth glittering as he smiled. Suddenly, Galanor began to grow. His shirt popped open at his front. His legs seemed to swell and his pants fell down to his ankles, now sticking on the end of his tail. His tail? Lilia stifled a scream. Galanor had turned into a small bluewhite lizard, half again the size of a human, his belongings and clothing now hanging from the ridges along his great, spiky spine. Then, as though inflated like a hot balloon, he began to grow. Rapidly. A second later, Lilia blinked at the magnificent, glittering wall of reptilian flesh obscuring her view of the vulpex. Galanor's tail flicked in agitation. "Hurry up and get on!" His deep, booming voice managed in Roste, though Lilia barely understood. Ronan had already climbed to the top of the fifty foot high dragon, now fervently holding onto Galanor's neck with both arms. Lilia jumped on. Galanor opened his mouth and shot flaming vapors alternated with ice daggers at the vulpex. Apparently, some things were true for all dragons; fire-breathing was one of them, and Galanor was no exception, despite his ice-breathing ability. Lilia flung herself on top of the dragon's backbone and scrambled for a handhold under one of Galanor's smooth scales. However, she nearly jumped off in panic when she heard the vulpex shriek. To her immense relief, it soon sounded as though the creature had run away. But now realization hit her; she was sitting on top of a dragon! In a moment, Galanor flapped his great wings, his back muscles moving like ocean waves, almost knocking Lilia off. Thank goodness she was a Sea Elf

and used to dealing with waves! she thought to herself. Then Galanor the dragon lifted high into the air, but she could see nothing, clinging to Galanor's spiky spine, sliding and dangling when her feet refused to catch Galanor's smooth, soft skin. "So, where are we going?" Lilia said through chattering teeth as she lurched from side to side like a puppet. Nearby, Ronan grimaced weakly, no doubt stricken by seasickness. "To Argolen, of course," Galanor bellowed. "We'll just have to hope the Black Dragons don't see us. Oh, and make sure my things don't fall off, will you?" ***** Dylan knew he and Mygdewyn were in real trouble. It was only a few hours until sunset, he guessed, and the Dragon Shield was fading. At least, he thought he sensed the spell's power waning as he held the wand in his sweaty hand. The knuckles and muscles of his hand ached from holding the wand all day, but he dared not let go. The dragons were dozing around them. Dylan and Mygdewyn had been moved to a corner away from the Dragon King lest they tried to steal some of his treasure while he slept. Dylan felt despondent; he was about to give up hope. Mygdewyn had fallen asleep several hours before, escaping the real nightmare, but Dylan had to struggle to remain awake, tempted to sleep by the snores about him. "Dylan." Suddenly, he heard a faint whisper. Great. So now he was hearing things! "Dylan, it's me, Aiovel." This time Dylan decided to chance a look about. Rubbing a crick in his neck with his other hand, he glanced past the dwarf where a shadowed figure in a grey cloak stood. Aiovel pulled back her hood. How did she know where they were? Dylan wondered. And how had she gotten there to rescue them so quickly? They were at least five days away, if not more. Come to think of it, Dylan wondered, how did she get in here— and unnoticed, too? And even if she had used her skill as an Elwellyn Shadow Elf to travel in and out of the realms of substance, her presence was likely to be discovered. In due course, the dragons stirred. Soon the room was filled with their bellowing roars as they sensed their newest visitor. Scathaechir awoke with the clattering of falling gems and coins from his unstable throne. **Who dares to—** he stopped, sniffing the air with great flaring nostrils. **Ah, what are you doing here, Dragorian?** he asked. **This is my domain!** He added, seeming no longer in good humor. Why didn't he just roast her? Dylan wondered. Aiovel was standing right in front of the dragon King, yet he did nothing to her. Dylan couldn't help but stare as Scathaechir's snout stopped inches from Aiovel, and he blew an innocuous puff of smoke into her face. Then the dragon drew back and glared down at her officiously.

**I have come to reclaim my companions, Scathaechir,** Aiovel said patiently, in the same tongue Dylan had used. No wonder she hadn't needed the wand! Dylan thought. Aiovel spoke the dragons' language without it! **You will not take what is mine!** King Scathaechir bellowed louder than before, shaking the cave with his reverberating echoes. Several fragments of the roof fell onto the dragon shield and bounced off harmlessly, but Dylan had wrapped his arm over his head involuntarily. **No one dares invade my cave— not even you.** Scathaechir seethed, flames licking around his jaws. **I have overlooked your interference before, Dragorian. I will not do so again. If you do not leave my cave at once, I and all my subjects will eat you for dinner!** He finished, rage swelling his yellow pupils. Dylan didn't deny the dragon King's ire, but he wondered why Scathaechir did nothing to fulfill his threats. Could it be that Scathaechir was only bluffing? But how could that be? Scathaechir dwarfed Aiovel a hundred times over; he could have dealt with her with a single sharp claw. **Words, words.** Aiovel said, undaunted, as though she didn't believe the dragon could harm her. **However, I do intend to leave, Scathaechir. At the same time, I'll be taking my companions with me. And, let me offer you some words of advice—don't try to stop us,** she added in an irreverent manner. What was this? Aiovel was threatening the black dragon King? Dylan wondered if he could reach her in time before Scathaechir struck her dead. But could he even draw her into the Dragon Shield? Dylan blinked, horrified. Aiovel's gaze had grown suddenly as fearsome as the dragon King's; her cat-like eyes glittered with malicious intent. Suddenly the Black Dragon King leaped up, his jaws opening. The other black dragons gathered around him, ready to attack the small Shadow Elf Queen. Aiovel stood her ground. A silver light drew around her, illuminating the chamber, and Dylan saw clearly how truly formidable the dragon horde was. He watched as Aiovel spread her arms wide, uncertain which dragon would be first to pounce. To his amazement, the dragons were swept back heavily into the walls with a resounding crash, driven away as though by a tremendous gust of wind. Dylan expected them to move, but they remained pinned against the walls of the cave, frozen and helpless. "Now hurry up and let go of that wand!" Aiovel shouted. "I cannot hold them for long. And when they're free, they'll be in a truly vengeful mood." She began to run away toward the mouth of the cave. Behind them, the Black Dragon King bellowed with what passed for laughter, a kind of triumphant laughter that seemed to disturb Aiovel. "You don't have to tell me twice!" Dylan screamed, realizing that Mygdewyn had awakened at last. Grabbing the dwarf by the shoulder of his cloak, Dylan ran, dragging Mygdewyn along. At the mouth of the cave, Aiovel stopped. The Dragon King's laughter grew faint behind them. "Take my hands," she instructed, and they formed a ring. A golden aura enveloped them, and from it grew two giant, vaporous wings. A moment later,

Dylan found himself floating down to the foothills below the black mountain. What convenient talents Aiovel had! Next time he faced Nolan, he had to remind himself to bring her along. On the ground, Aiovel let go and sank to her knees, panting for breath. A few moments later, she rose and started away again, though she was clearly exhausted. "Did you have a nice nap, Mygdewyn?" Dylan asked as they hurried away from the cave headed north. The dwarf nodded. "There didn't seem much else to do, after all." He shrugged. "So, Aiovel, where is everyone?" Dylan wondered as they jogged along. Aiovel was stumbling, her face haggard and drawn by exhaustion, but necessity kept her going. Now that Dylan and Mygdewyn were safe, though, Dylan's thoughts had turned to the others. Had they faced as great a danger? Were they even alive? "I don't know," Aiovel admitted, little wrinkles gathering between her fine brows. "They were alive when they left camp, that I know. I sent Gil to find them, but I didn't have time to follow their tracks." Gil? Dylan grew alarmed. What in blazes could Gil do? "I only hope he is safe." Aiovel responded as though reading his thoughts. "And at least Galanor is with the others." She added. Aiovel sounded certain that Galanor could protect them all singlehandedly! Dylan sniffed, vaguely aware that he was jealous. "No doubt they will be heading to Argolen." Aiovel continued. "At any rate, I hope we will meet them there." "We're going to Argolen?" Mygdewyn asked. "I thought I saw some kind of city below us," Dylan said, remembering their morning flight. "Big piles of stones where the hills ended, and a river cascading down, flowing into the wide river we crossed." "We shall have to cross that river before we are safe from Scathaechir." Aiovel nodded. "Only Scathaechir's youngest children can cross the River of Argolen, you know— like the ibrun that brought you to the caves. So once we're on the other side, we should be quite safe. The River Inverlen feeds into the River of Argolen; they will lead us to the ruins." Dylan stumbled along tiredly, feeling every step in his knees. They couldn't get there soon enough for him. ***** **Who is Galanor?** The great green dragon blinked at Gil. **Why, if you are traveling with him, I would assume you knew. Galanor is an Ice Dragon of course, only he prefers to travel outside his home in his Dragorian form. **Galanor comes from the other side of the boundary, you know.** The dragon continued to gesture in the air with his foreclaw. Gil was too shocked to interrupt. Galanor, a dragon!? That was impossible! **He tells us there is a hidden city of Ice Dragons over the river; I don't remember much of that side, myself. There used to be a place called Dellfalland over there, though, that I

remember. I went there once, looking for a— oh, I can't remember. Some trinket no doubt.** The dragon's eyes glazed as he searched his dusty recollections. **What do you mean his 'Dragorian form'?** Gil finally managed. **You don't know?** The dragon sighed, incredulous. **The original form of the dragonkind was as you see Galanor.** He replied, as though the answer were obvious. **Our fearsome dragon shape is the physical representation of Dragorian power.** **Dragorian power? Don't you mean dragon power?** Gil said, confused. **I mean what I say, boy.** The dragon snapped. **Dragorians are dragons. Dragoras was High King of all the dragon races and the eleven Dragon Lords.** **Then you can also turn into an elven shape, too—a Dragorian?** Gil asked, folding his arms across his chest. The dragons narrowed their eyes at him unexpectedly, somehow irritated by Gil's comment and persistence on the subject. But they did not oblige by changing into elven shapes for him. **Enough questions, boy.** The great dragon wheezed. **You are lucky we haven't eaten you by now. My people have no loyalty to any other dragons but ourselves, and they follow only me, Olierin, King of the Emerald Dragons. However, it is true that young Galanor once did our kind a favor, when he was passing though our lands. He rescued a fledgling from Scathaechir before that warrior— what was it Smath called him?** **Guilian?** Wistid supplied. **Ah yes, before Guilian strengthened Grainnewyn's spell, the one that kept Scathaechir from passing the River of Argolen. We have only one fledgling every five hundred years if we are lucky, and they are infinitely dear to us. Galanor brought our fledgling back to us, without any expectations of reward. Something strange it was.** Olierin nodded. **But if he's a dragon—** Gil began. **Ah boy, truly you must know nothing of our race. But you are so young, as all your kind are. Almost no point in telling you. You'll only remember for a short time, yet... your ignorance grieves me, yes indeed.** Olierin looked down at Gil sadly. ***** The three companions plodded on until they came to the River of Argolen. The slow-moving waters gleamed brightly even in the fading light, and the mountains behind were reflected in their depths. "There's no way I can swim to the other side," Mygdewyn sighed, looking over at the far shore longingly. "I hadn't thought about it," Dylan said, "but neither can I— not if I want to hold on to my chain mail. It's too heavy to swim in." "There is an ancient bridge, further up the river," Aiovel said, pointing. "It's not far. If you look east, you'll see where the river Inverlen meets the River of Argolen. The bridge lies just beyond, assuming it will still support us."

"And if not?" Mygdewyn inquired nervously. Aiovel appeared to be considering a solution to their problem, then shook her head, dismissing whatever it was. "Then we'll have to hope Dylan's got something on under his armor, because we'll have to try carrying you across, Mygdewyn..." Her voice trailed off, and she stopped walking to listen. "Well, it looks as though Galanor has returned, and now he's done it!" She sighed in resignation. "I just hope no one saw him when he changed." Dylan stilled; a moment later he also heard the strange sound riding on the breeze, a steady beat against the air. "It's a dragon!" Mygdewyn cried, already running for the cover of the foothills behind them. The dragon circled and landed on the riverbank. Dylan stared at the fast approaching, shimmering, silver-blue creature; the dragon fixed its head in Dylan's direction and stared back at him, its large fine head and bright, white teeth forming a hideous grin. But there was something familiar about that smile. **Hello, Aiovel.** The great dragon offered sheepishly, idly flapping his wings. **I thought perhaps you three might need a ride to the city. This one here is about to drive me crazy, though. Her feet are tickling me.** He complained. The dragon was Galanor! Dylan knew that voice too well to doubt it. But how had it happened that Galanor had become a dragon? And was Galanor really a dragon, or a wizard who could turn himself into one? Galanor had claimed he wasn't a magician—but he hadn't denied having magic! "Have we reached Argolen?" Dylan heard the voice of Lilia Silversmith coming from somewhere behind the dragon. Lilia! Dylan was overjoyed; the others must have survived! Suddenly Dylan realized how much his companions had grown to mean to him; he would even venture to call them friends, though he'd never had friends before. After his ordeal in the dragon's cave, even Lilia's face would be a welcome sight! Dylan heard a scuffling noise from the cover of a nearby tree. He turned to where the dwarf hid, no doubt wondering why the dragon hadn't eaten them all. After a moment, the dwarf began to slink surreptitiously toward them. Dylan started to laugh as Mygdewyn approached. "What's so funny?" The dwarf glared at him. **Keep her from slipping about back there, will you please?** The dragon continued. "All right," Aiovel replied, this time in Roste, heading toward the dragon's spiky tail. "Y-you know this dragon?" Mygdewyn stuttered. The dwarf's expression of surprise was too much for Dylan to bear. "I think," Dylan laughed, "this is our friend, Galanor." ***** Galanor carried them over the joining rivers in no time at all; soon they found a clearing and landed just outside Argolen. Nearby the crumbling silver towers of the ancient city threatened to pierce the clouds. There was no moat

around the city, and if there had once been one, it was now buried under piles of stone that had fallen from the tops of the outer city walls. To their left, a great gate faced eastward and toward a small lake that had formed in the nearby valley, fed by the river. Far away and barely visible, the river Inverlen emerged as a small stream from the hills directly north of them and continued snaking its way southwest of the city toward the River of Argolen. Galanor asked the others to turn away once they were on the ground, while he changed back into his Dragorian form and into his clothes. They waited for him by the outer castle walls; Ronan sat on the grass while the others leaned against a stone rampart. The immediate dangers now behind them, Dylan began to wonder about the nature of dragons. He had never regarded dragons as more than a single type of entity, but his experience with Galanor and the King of the Black Dragons now persuaded him that they could be as different as elves and trolls. Perhaps Galanor's smooth skin and fair coloring as a dragon was an indication of his age, not his temperament. Then he remembered the serrated, scaly underside of the young black dragon who had captured him. It seemed rational to him that the most aggressive dragon species would have such fearsome scale plating. Then again, perhaps dragons had features adapted to their particular environments. The black dragons lived in cold mountains and on rocky nests that had perhaps hardened their exteriors. Still, Dylan wondered, if Galanor were a wizard, perhaps his dragon form was not like any true dragon species, after all. But that explanation could wait until later, he supposed. Gil was still missing, and they had at last reached Argolen; Dylan was more interested in finding the boy and in fulfilling his purpose for their long eastward journey. He imagined great mountains of gold beyond the stone walls of the city, just waiting for the taking. Granted, he wasn't exactly sure how they were going to carry it all the way across the wilderness and then back to Gyfen, but he would worry about that later. "So, when are we going into the city?" Lilia asked when Galanor returned, strapping his sword onto his belt. Ronan had just finished telling them about the vulpex and Galanor's transformation when Galanor reappeared; Dylan had listened idly, but Ronan's observations explained nothing. Only Galanor could provide any real answers. Mygdewyn, still recuperating from his ordeal in the black dragons' cave, eyed the former dragon warily. "Not until I find Gil," Aiovel said. "By yourself?" Lilia asked. "But that will take forever!" She wailed. "How about we send Galanor away to find him?" She suggested. "He's much faster!" Aiovel shook her head. "Galanor expended too much energy in the fight this morning and needs more time to recuperate than I do," she said. "Anyway, where I am going, it would not be wise for him to follow." "Huh?" Lilia arched a dark eyebrow. "I'll explain later." Aiovel said hurriedly. "Besides, you're safe here outside the city. No creatures will come near these ruins, and for good reason.

But that also means you should not go exploring the city until I return. Explore around it, if you wish; just don't go in, and you'll be fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I must hurry." And hurry away she did, still muttering something about finding Gil. Then Aiovel vanished. With a twinge of guilt, Dylan remembered that Gil was all alone out there somewhere, assuming he was still alive, and all Dylan had been thinking about was treasure. Dylan felt a tinge of guilt that he had been thinking selfishly of his own problems while Gil was still out there, all alone. He hoped Aiovel found the boy, and soon. They made camp near the shimmering lake and distributed the remnants of their food rations. They would have had more, but two of the bags holding the food, ropes, and gold had been left behind at the battle that morning. Dylan had lost his fine blankets for good, but Galanor had been able to bring Mygdewyn's abandoned pack along. The dwarf accepted his pack back from Galanor, relenting in his mistrust of the dragon-man. Half an hour later, urged on by Lilia, they decided on a quick bath in the waters of the small, nearby lake. Her head disappeared for several minutes, and when she finally surfaced, she hopped quickly out of the water and tugged on Galanor's sleeve. He had remained by the edge of the water while the others bathed. "What is it?" Galanor cocked an eyebrow. "There are bodies down there!" Lilia wailed, shivering. "I saw something shiny on the bottom and went down for a look. There must have been a hundred suits of armor lying on the lake bottom, reflecting the sunlight! How did they get down there?" She asked. "Don't worry, Lilia. They can't harm you now." Mygdewyn laughed. "Yes," Galanor agreed. "They've been down there for centuries. But I'm surprised, Lilia. I thought you were looking for treasure." Lilia sniffed. "I'd rather not be a grave-robber, if it's all the same. I prefer to get things that I won't be cursed for lifting." Galanor laughed heartily. "Maybe we can just go in for a look around." Lilia said, turning toward the gate into the city. "I won't take anything, just scout ahead—" Galanor had her arm in a steel grip before she could move. "You will not go in." Galanor said, his voice dangerously quiet. Remembering that he could become a dragon and was capable of swallowing her whole, she reluctantly nodded. As the others reappeared on the shore, Galanor stood and headed into the water, wading out to his knees. With a hand faster than the eye, he had pulled a large fish from the lake and tossed it over to the elf. "I'll wager Ronan can make us a decent meal out of that," Galanor said, returning to them. The dwarf nodded eagerly. "Yes, make us a feast fitting King Torven's table," Mygdewyn said, licking his lips. Lilia sat down moodily, kicking her toes in the water.

By the time Ronan had finished cooking the fish with a little help from Galanor to start the blaze, the sun had set, and stars appeared in the clear night sky. The companions sat in a circle around the fire. "So, how did you ever meet Aiovel?" Dylan wondered aloud, rubbing a hand over his smooth face to check for stubble before putting away his shaving knife. "I never even knew dragons could turn into elves," he added. "We don't 'turn into elves' as you call it," Galanor laughed. "I am a Dragorian, and this is my natural shape, though you would call me a dragon. Dragon I am, when it suits me to be one." Galanor shrugged. So he was a dragon after all! Dylan almost fell over in shock, but he managed to keep his composure; Culan would have been proud, had he been there! "As for Aiovel," Galanor continued. "I met her for the first time seven hundred years ago in Dellfalland, the city of the Ice Dragons northwest of Gyfen. I was only a young dragon then of four hundred years." Dylan frowned. Seven hundred years ago? "Aiovel doesn't look that old." He said, trying to be objective, but there was doubt in his voice. "She is still young for one of her kind." Galanor said, laughing at the prince. "So, young Dylan. Your tastes run to elven women as well, I take it?" "So do you know how Aiovel found us, Galanor?" Mygdewyn asked. "Dylan and I were separated from the rest of you for a long time." "Ah," Galanor turned to him, smiling secretively. "Yes, I have an idea. But to explain it, I would have to tell you about Aiovel and her journey to the East." He turned aside, as though dismissing the idea. "Well?" Ronan said patiently, not moving. "So what's stopping you? We aren’t going anywhere for a while, are we?"

X: Aiovel "Very well, then," Galanor paused, turning back to his audience, "what do you most want to know about Aiovel?" Mygdewyn considered thoughtfully before asking. "I have the feeling Aiovel doesn't like being near this city. If that's true, then why did she lead us here?" Galanor suppressed an urge to laugh. "Oh, I wouldn't say Aiovel hates this city. In fact, she was born here." Dylan choked on a draught of water. "She was?" he sputtered. "I thought she was from Elwellyn." Galanor smiled. "Her mother was Queen Grainnewyn of the Elwellyn Forest. That is why Aiovel is now Queen of the Elwellyn Shadow Elves." Galanor added. Dylan shrugged. "So why in Daegoras was she born here?" "Well, Dylan, for once you've asked the right question!" Galanor cried, evidently pleased. "But where to begin?" He shook his head with elaborate patience, then spread his hands thoughtfully. "For the answer, just consider Argolen's location." He said at last. "What about it?" Ronan whispered to Lilia. She shook her head, unable to guess. "You see," Galanor explained, "Argolen lies between Elwellyn and the ancient kingdom of the Dragorians. My mother used to say that both Dragorians and Elwellyn Elves came to Argolen to celebrate Aiovel's birth." "You still haven't explained why she was born here," Dylan said. "Yes, yes, I know!" Galanor sighed, somewhat deflated. "The reason is simple, if you bother to piece together the facts, young prince. Aiovel was born here because her father was Dragoras, the first Dragorian. Now do you see?" He asked, satisfied at last that he had their attention. "Aiovel!" Dylan cried. "You mean she—" "Is half-Dragorian?!!" Ronan finished. "Yes," Galanor said. "The Silver Elves of Elwellyn Forest came here too, in homage to their queen, though now they dare not leave their forest, and so for many years they have been known as Shadow Elves." "But you say they were originally called Silver Elves?" Lilia interrupted. "They were, indeed," Galanor admitted. "But not, as one might expect, for the color of their eyes. I'm afraid they once had a particular fondness for silver. Every magical creature in Arcaendria figured that out pretty quickly. The Silver Elves had come to our land first of all intelligent creatures, and they had already named the mountains and river— and any other place that reminded them of that precious metal— after it." "Arcaendria?" Lilia echoed. "What's 'Arcaendria'?" "The name of our world, of course," Galanor sighed as he met blank expressions. Apparently, his audience didn't understand simple geography. No doubt they still believed the world was flat.

"Anyway, the Silver Elves had lived here, pretty much alone, for fifteen thousand years, in peace with the gentle creatures of Arcaendria in the forests all across the two continents—now called Daegoras and Vilna." "Ah yes." Ronan nodded. "The Killian Elves have found ruins that suggested their forests were once inhabited by others, but we never figured out who had made the vanished palaces," Ronan interjected. "Yes." Galanor agreed. "The Silver Elves had left long before your time. But you see, they left no one behind when they moved from your forest, for they had no dead to bury— but all of this happened much later in my story!" he added in exasperation. "Are elves not all the same, then?" Ronan inquired. "No, not exactly," Galanor replied, "though I assume all elves must be related in some way. Certainly the Elves of Killian resemble Silver Elves more than the Faerie Elves of Vilna, over the ocean, or the smaller Dark Elves of Rhian Norrow. However, the Silver Elves were the only human-sized inhabitants of Arcaendria when Dragoras led the eleven Dragon Lords here, searching for a land of beauty and tranquillity." "What about the water-people? The Sea Elves? When did they come?" Lilia inquired. "And the pixies?" Gil added. "Now that you mention it, when did the dwar—" Mygdewyn began. "All of that came later!" Galanor snapped. "Maybe the pixies, brownies, sprites, and gnomes were already here, I'm not sure. Suffice it to say for now that the Silver Elves welcomed the dragon lords first of all the human-sized, intelligent creatures to come to Arcaendria. And in a short time, Dragoras, King of the eleven Dragon Lords, built his city in the rich forested hills at the heart of the continent." "So," Dylan interrupted, "Argolen lies between the city of Dragoras and Elwellyn's Palace. Guess Aiovel was born here so both sides of the family could visit." "Exactly," Galanor nodded. "In those days, Dragorians got along with the Silver Elves, and both sides shared a peculiar fondness for fine treasures." Galanor shrugged. "They established a trade between Dragorians and the Elvish mining colony in the silver-rich Silver mountains to the far north of Dragoras City." "But what made the elves willing to share their silver?" Lilia asked. "There was plenty for all," Galanor replied, shrugging. "And Dragoras and his hundreds of Dragorians helped the Elves to build the city of Maedera to the west of the mine. Dragorians also helped transport loads of silver to the Elwellyn Forest before the ancient highway was completed." Galanor shrugged. "Oh," Lilia nodded. "At the same time, the Silver Elves began adding to a small city near the southern edge of the Elwellyn Forest. In time, it grew larger and greater with the completion of a new Silver Castle." Galanor went on. "And there the Elwellyn Elves began to craft magical items which they traded for silver with their elven cousins of the city of Maedera."

"Where is that city?!" Lilia cried. "Here!" Galanor declared. "For when the castle was finished, the elves renamed the city Argolen," Galanor said with a smile. "And to Argolen we have come. Queen Grainnewyn chose to live here when her mother Queen Elwellyn and father King Gwyngalian left Arcaendria for another world." "So this is the Silver Castle?!" Lilia cried excitedly. Now her visions turned from piles of gold to piles of silver. "And when does Aiovel come into all of this?" Dylan asked. "Be patient!" Galanor laughed. "First came the dwarves and the elf cousins." "Where did they come from?" Mygdewyn wondered. "Why, through the magic gate, of course," Galanor replied. "Oh sorry, I suppose I left that bit out." "The magic gate?" "Actually, back then it was much larger, and growing." Galanor explained. "That was how we Dragorians came, though my mother says the gate closed to our home world when the dwarves arrived from theirs. That was more than five thousand years after we came. Not that we ever wanted to go back to our homeland. Arcaendria had become a magnificent meeting place of magical creatures.” “But it must have got better when the Sea Elves arrived.” Lilia chimed in. "Anyway,” Galanor cleared his throat and waited until he had their attention, “when the dwarves appeared in the Black Mountains, the elf cousins also appeared in the forests for the first time. In actual fact, Ronan, Silver and Killian Elves lived together at that time," Galanor paused, "which might explain why Killian Elves look more like Silver Elves than the others do—" He broke off and shrugged. "So what happened to the dwarves?" Mygdewyn asked. "Yes, well, some of both the elf cousins and dwarves were invited to join Argolen and made their home in this city." Galanor replied. "Other dwarves moved away to form their own settlements. But they quickly retreated to abandoned caves, when the invading humans took over the plains to avoid the monsters in the hills." "Humans?" Dylan brows raised. "Yes, about five thousand years after the dwarves and elf cousins came, humans started to appear," Galanor looked to Dylan. "There were soon more humans than any other group of people." "Just imagine! Humans. Living here," Dylan said, shaking his head. Where did they come from?" "I don't know," Galanor replied. "But I'd guess that they came through the magic gate which lies somewhere near Gyfen. Or the one on the continent of Vilna." "There's another magic gate?" Dylan asked, surprised. "Yes, near the city of Ligri." Galanor nodded. "Where is the Gyfen gate?" Dylan persisted. He didn't like the idea of an unguarded magic gate hidden somewhere in the city.

"Actually, I don't know," Galanor admitted. "I've looked for it, but I haven't ever been able to find it." "You were looking for it?" "Yes," Galanor nodded. "That was why I came to Gyfen in the first place. Yet now I believe the gate is guarded, or else I would have found it." "Boring!" Lilia exclaimed. "I don't care about Gyfen! I want to know what happened when the humans got here!" Dylan regarded her suspiciously. Why the interest in humans? Then he remembered that she was only half Sea Elf. "That, my dear, is obvious. Of course, they eventually took over the land!" Galanor said and shook his head. "But that was our fault. At first none of us magic creatures bothered to deal with the humans; we were so busy arguing with each other that their population grew and grew before we could ask them to please not take over so much of the land that had been ours. But eventually, the encroaching humans managed to push all of the other races to a small area in the center of this continent of Daegoras. "In the beginning, however," Galanor continued, "the very first sort of humans to arrive were dependable, orderly wizards and priests— the kind of humans that we could tolerate. They were even invited to come to live in Argolen. My mother told me that in no time at all, this city became famous across the continent of Daegoras for its wealth and beauty. "So much that when the tales of Argolen reached Dragoras, he decided to visit the city. It was during this first visit that Dragoras first beheld the beautiful Queen Grainnewyn and fell in love with her. “Dragoras was an interesting looking fellow, with bright golden hair and yellow-green eyes; he was the forerunner of the Gold Dragorians, before they became known to you as dragons. "In any case, Dragoras decided to remain permanently in his Dragorian form, and the ten other dragon lords followed suit. They and their half-elven children became known as Dragorians to the rest of the city of Inverlen, though most of the true Dragorian kind remained in the city of Dragoras." "There are gold-colored dragons?" Mygdewyn was surprised. "Then what are you, Galanor?" Dylan inquired. "Me?" Galanor shrugged. "I am a Dragorian descendant of one of the eleven Dragon Lords. An Ice Dragon, if you will." "So what's this difference between all these dragons, besides the different colors of their skin?" Mygdewyn persisted, still dubious. Galanor looked at the dwarf. "A world of differences, some no longer as important, I suppose. For when Dragoras married Grainnewyn, the dragons all lived together, and their names and talents were somewhat different from what they are today. Their former attributes in that time have long since been lost, though I think some of the original dispositions remain. But they became specialized over the years, after the dragons' curse, when as dragons they began to inhabit different environments." "Ice Dragons aren't evil, are they?" Lilia asked, scrutinizing Galanor. "No. Well, most of them are somewhat cold, reserved creatures, you understand, but not evil. Sensitive to insults, yes. But very affectionate when you

get to know them. This all comes from having a soft skin, you see." "That's funny," Lilia said. "You don't seem to me to be the reserved type." "Aiovel taught me how to be more amiable," Galanor admitted. "I was still an impressionable child when I met her, long ago." "What about the other dragons? You seem quite reasonable, but the others —" Ronan broke off. He was thinking about the Emerald Dragons he'd learned about at the ancient highway; Dylan had other, darker recollections. "Well, as Dylan can no doubt attest, Black Dragons are not nearly as hospitable. They're somewhat greedy as far as dragons go and heavily plated creatures, which comes from living in caves. They have to protect themselves from falling rocks, of course, and to protect their treasures, but the dull plating also helps them blend in to mountainous terrain. They are indubitably cunning, as you'd expect, and quite bad-tempered, but they're also extremely intelligent. Not as intelligent as Ice Dragons, though," he added thoughtfully. "And the Emerald Dragons?" Ronan asked. "Yes, I remember. We saw tracks of the Emerald Dragons, didn't we? So of course we had to get away as soon as possible." "Why?" Ronan interrupted. "Because they don't often go far afield from their nests." Galanor explained. "They live in forests and green fields— you can hardly see them in their normal environment, for they are well camouflaged. So you can see why I didn't want to linger around. You never notice them coming, and suddenly they've found you." Galanor laughed. "You've met with them before?" Mygdewyn asked. "Actually, I know quite a few of them," Galanor replied. "What are they like, so I know when to run if I see one?" Mygdewyn asked. Galanor considered. "Well, the skin of all Emerald Dragons is smooth and like new grass. Because of this they do tend to be somewhat neurotic about their vulnerability. Doubtless, though, they are the prettiest of the cursed dragons and understandably a bit vain about that. "Still, they can be... almost cordial, which is another good reason to avoid them, since they have a tendency to detain their guests indefinitely. Old Olierin and his crew— they're quite a bunch of characters. Unfailingly receptive to flattery, if you want to get on their good side!" Galanor chuckled reminiscently. "Yet their vulnerability has made them secretive and somewhat indecisive, I'm afraid. They prefer hiding to open conflict, and have grown relatively lethargic as far as dragons go. "Anyway, if I refer to the dragons in their present forms, it is only for clarity." Galanor waved his hand dismissively. "For all of the Dragon Lords were splendid to behold in the ancient days, even the mighty Scathaechir, youngest of the Dragon Lords. My mother tells me he was once a stunning creature with coal black eyes and hair blacker than midnight. I think she must have had a liking for him—" Galanor broke off, mildly embarrassed. "What do you think a cross between a Black Dragon and an Ice Dragon would look like?" Lilia wondered.

"Enough of these tangents!" Galanor said gruffly, coloring crimson, despite being an Ice Dragon himself. Lilia just chuckled, delighted to have found a sensitive spot in Galanor. "What is this curse you keep mentioning?" Dylan asked. "Yes, the curse," Galanor replied, composing himself. "I'm getting to that part. Where were we?" "Dragoras came to Argolen," Lilia said. "Right," Galanor nodded. "Well, Dragoras soon won the heart of Grainnewyn and settled in Argolen with his loyal Dragorian lords. But, as you might have guessed, their happiness was short-lived." "No, don't tell me!" Lilia cried. "It was the Dark Wizard's fault!" Galanor peered at her, this time in mute surprise. "Very perceptive of you, Lilia," Galanor agreed, with open admiration. "Grainnewyn and Dragoras lived happily in Argolen? I doubt it." Dylan said, glancing about at the ruined city. "Yes, you see, their demise was inevitable." Galanor nodded. "Grainnewyn had unwittingly sown the seed of discord herself years before, when she established a Great Hall for the Elwellyn wizards in Argolen." "Oh, how sad!" Lilia cried. "You mean the Dark Wizard came from Argolen?" "In a manner of speaking," Galanor answered. "Grainnewyn herself was the most powerful wizard among her people, a practitioner of the ancient magic, similar to the magic practiced on Bressilen today but more powerful." Galanor laughed. "By that I mean the elves could cast real spells, create their own if you will, not merely conjure spells that amplify the powers of Nature. Because elves don't rely on written spells or scrolls to practice their magic, humans don't believe that elves have magic at all. The truth is that the elves possess a different magic, an older magic. A magic with fewer restrictions to use but more consequences when it is used. "Anyway, when Grainnewyn's castle was being built, she brought her beloved younger brother Galadon with her. He had been a mere infant when their mother and father left for another world, and his sister had raised him. In Inverlen, Grainnewyn began to train Galadon in the arts of magic. "Galadon grew to adulthood here, but when he left, he founded the city of Maedera out of devotion for the sister who had raised him. It was his suggestion, you know, to build a city nearer to the mines of Briodun in order that many beautiful objects of silver could be created as gifts to adorn his sister's palace when it was finished." "You said the dragons helped," Lilia reminded him. "Yes, but Galadon only grudgingly accepted the aid of the Dragon Lords." Galanor nodded. "Still, the three cities lived in prosperity for more than five thousand years— until Dragoras made the decision to visit Argolen. "Galadon was sitting in the Garden of Argolen with his sister when the Dragon King came. But unlike his sister, Galadon had always mistrusted dragons, and Dragoras most of all. He believed that the Dragon King sought only to steal his sister's wealth, and that Dragoras wanted to humble the Silver Elves

and take their lands, and perhaps even bring armies through the magic gate to take them. Soon Galadon's mistrust grew to a secret loathing. "When Grainnewyn agreed to marry Dragoras, Galadon abandoned Argolen and took up residence in Maedera. There, in secret, say the dragon legends, chaos grew in his heart and turned at last to evil. In no time, he began to plan the destruction of the Dragon King." "Preposterous!" Ronan interrupted. "Chaos does not necessarily lead to evil!" Galanor smiled. "No, it doesn't. But as you know, chaos and order are forever at odds, trying to balance, forever fluctuating—forever unbalancing each other, if you will. There is both good and evil in chaos, as there is in order. Chaos makes us do destructive things, yes, but it also moves us to do spontaneous acts of kindness and charity, and chaos gives us the ability to make a quick joke, to laugh at ourselves, and to suddenly fall in love. Moreover, order is not merely following the law, which is good. It is not merely the source of logic or our ability to recognize the causes and effects of situations. You see, order doesn't permit change; order is also stagnation, like a still pond where disease might begin to grow. Living by order alone can be boring as well, and it can make us bitter. No one can enjoy a life that becomes entirely predictable and routine. So you see, there is good and evil in both chaos and order, and chaos and order need each other." "I never thought about it like that," Dylan said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Yet in Galadon's case," Galanor resumed, "the chaotic aspect of his nature alone turned evil, for he could not control his instinctive jealousy of Dragoras. The ordered, logical side of his personality remained as it had always been. Thus when both the good and bad of his chaotic side became corrupted to evil, he became a man possessed of a cool logic, with a heart that was full of evil governing all his mind and action. That is why he became so dangerous." "But those Silver Elves seemed so nice!" Lilia wailed unhappily. Galanor laughed. "Perhaps it was not entirely Galadon's fault." Galanor conceded. "Indeed, some said the influx of order and pure reason brought to Argolen by the methodical, unspontaneous human wizards and priests had caused an imbalance in Arcaendria's magic, or that the appearance of the hard-working dwarves had made order so strong that the higher powers that balance Nature set off a disastrous ripple of destructive chaos—and brought the legions of new, chaotic humans." "That's right! Blame it all on the dwarves!" Mygdewyn sniffed, as though injured by the barb. Ronan suppressed a laugh and clapped his brother on the shoulder in sympathy. "I didn't intend to, Mygdewyn," Galanor shook his head. But chaos and order had long been balanced in the hearts of all the Dragorians and in the Silver Elves—yet suddenly that balance was upset. Each person turned to one side or another. Some people clung to following only what their leaders told them, to law-abiding order, while others refused to listen to any one and did as they pleased, embracing the chaos."

"I still don't understand," Lilia whined. "There's the priests' Natural magic, and dragon magic and something in between that the Silver Elves used, and something else that humans seem to have, and all of it stems from some balance between chaos and order? Plus the magic gate that leads who knows where and works who knows how. And is possibly the reason why magic in Arcaendria is such a hodge-podge. How in Daegoras does all of the magic work?" She sighed, out of breath. "Well, actually, I don't know how magic works." Galanor admitted, a bit uncomfortable. "No one does. That's the mystery of magic." He shrugged. "And everyone has a different notion about it, so I suppose there never will be a definite answer. Simply put, magic defies logic." "But you did say the powers of order and chaos had never been balanced." Ronan admonished Galanor. "Myrddin also reminds us that if either force of nature becomes too strong, they check themselves through the actions of living creatures." Ronan said. "If order surpasses chaos, it will only be superseded by the necessary breakdown of imposed order. Chaos results. Balance is restored— for a while. So the dwarves and other factors would merely disrupt the balance temporarily." Ronan smiled at the dwarf; Mygdewyn appeared mollified. "Yes," Galanor smiled. "But whatever the reason for his fall toward evil, Galadon soon set about seducing seven of the Dragon Lords to his service, promising them great power and wealth over the world and its new inhabitants, the other lesser elves, dwarves, and men. At first, they refused to listen to him, but at the same time, they were tempted by what Galadon had offered them. So, they foolishly kept Galadon's promises a secret from King Dragoras. "Meanwhile, more elves migrated to the northeastern forests of the continent, and humans came in greater numbers to the West and to the East, establishing cities by the coast on either side of the continent Daegoras and on the continent of Vilna. I suspect the power of chaos in so many humans empowered the Elwellyn Prince." "How, if there wasn't any chaos left in him?" Lilia wondered. "It was part of the balance." Galanor shrugged. "Or imbalance. The more chaos there was dissipating around, the less order there was in general, so those few who thrived on the power of order gained more power as the forces tried to balance. In fact, this is why Galadon hoped to breed more chaos in the hearts of men and dragons, for the more quarrelsome they became, the more his own powers grew. "About that time, an ancient spell of protection that Queen Elwellyn had created around the forest lands began to wane in its power, and the Elwellyn Forest dwindled to an area surrounding the River Elwellyn and Elwellyn Lake. We've seen what remains of the forest when we went there. The rest of the magical Elwellyn Forest disappeared. The unprotected trees of the continent of Daegoras were cut and burned by human settlers to clear land for farming to feed their growing numbers, and most of the Silver Elves burnt out of their homes retreated to the Living Palace. The West, your western kingdoms, that had been theirs became known as Lewgyr, the "lost land" to the Elwellyn Elves. You can see why they have little to do with humans these days, why they became known

as Shadow Elves. "However, the elves who lived in Argolen stayed there, of course. Grainnewyn's magic protected Argolen's people, human, elf, and Dragorian alike, from uninvited intruders. Maedera also became a haven for powerful human wizards, priests, and warriors, and the remaining Silver Elves of Briodun. But in time, the corrupting spirit of Galadon began to influence the city, and the Silver Elves of Briodun who had not left Maedera were cut off from Argolen. Maedera became a city of evil, the city of Galadon. "Then at last Galadon succeeded in seducing seven of the Dragon Lords to his service with his promises that the Dragorians would help him rule over Arcaendria, over the growing humans who had driven all magical creatures from their western homes. Scathaechir, once idealistically devoted to his King Dragoras, had in time grown jealous of the Dragorian King and resentful that Dragoras did nothing to stop the humans from taking all of the West. So, Scathaechir began to entice the other dragons to join him and side with Galadon. "Seven of the Dragon Lords promised to help Galadon because they were tired of living in fear that their lands would be taken by invading humans, until they learned that Galadon wished the death of Dragoras. Unable to destroy their King, five of the Dragon Lords betrayed Galadon in the end. They refused to attack Grainnewyn's domain where Dragoras lived." "But they besieged the rest of the city?" Dylan inquired. He couldn't imagine how that could have been done without the aid of dragons. And someone obviously had destroyed the outer walls. "No," Galanor shook his head. "At least not all of them joined in the attack. The Dragorians had come as guests to the city to join in the festivities when Aiovel was born. But the Black Dragon Lord Scathaechir and the Fire Dragon Lord Rilath soon transformed into their dragon state at Galadon's command, and they and their minions attacked Argolen from inside the city. "Then Dragoras drove the Black Dragons and Fire Dragons from the city, aided by the Gold, Ice, Silver, and Water Dragons— the last of the faithful— and the others whose secret pact with Galadon hadn't yet been discovered. Grainnewyn's spells kept the Black and Fire Dragons, now revealed as traitors, from re-entering the city, and as far as I know, none of them have ever returned. "After the attack, Dragoras and the elven smiths began to forge magic weapons to defend themselves. Dragoras still didn't know that five of the other Dragon Lords had betrayed him, or rather, that they had promised to betray him and recanted. Likewise, Grainnewyn didn't know that it was her own brother who conspired against her husband, but still she feared another dragon plot against the city, so she sent the infant Aiovel to the protection of Elwellyn Forest. Aiovel spent most of her childhood and adult years in the Living Palace, before the fall of the eastern cities." "What happened to the other five Dragon Lords?" Dylan wondered. "Ah, yes. " Galanor nodded. "Dragoras discovered their disloyalty in the end, of course, though the news was devastating to him. I think it hurt most of all that his trusted advisor Melesian had been one of the traitors. It was my father who was eventually compelled to tell Dragoras of the treachery of the five, for he

had overheard Scathaechir talking with the others in one of the feasting halls at the time of Aiovel's birth. Scathaechir had been persuading the other five to join in the attack on Inverlen; they gave their word to him but never did attack the city. "As reluctant as Dragoras was to believe their involvement in the plot, he at last learned the truth by confronting Olierin, who has ever had a running mouth. Dragoras' retaliation at being betrayed was absolute and swift, as is the nature of injured dragons; he banished the seven fallen Dragon Lords forever from the city of Dragoras and cursed all of their kind to never again return to their Dragorian form. So it was that when they left Argolen that last time, they remained forever after as dragons, the form that represents Dragorian power. They became magical creatures, giant beasts who will never again walk as noble lords in the fair city of Dragoras." "How sad, never to be Dragorian again!" Lilia exclaimed. "Still, they deserved no better," Mygdewyn spat. "But wasn't it dangerous to punish them so severely?" Dylan wondered. "How could Dragoras risk banishing them? It seems like he was driving them right into Galadon's camp." "Ah, but you don't really understand the mind of a dragon, young prince," Galanor countered. "Dragons live a thousand mortal lives and more; they do not make abrupt decisions—well, not usually. Remember, Galadon had been trying to recruit them for centuries the first time." Dylan sat back in silence. "The shame of the five banished lords who hadn't openly attacked Dragoras kept them from siding in the matter between Argolen and Daegoras. Instead, they began to dwell on the issue that had brought enmity between the dragons: the growth of the human populations. The seven dragon races disappeared into their new homes, yet more and more they began to harbor hatred of humankind for the wrongs that had been dealt them. All dragons do, in a sense, resent humans for taking their ancient lands away and the ancient lands of all magical creatures. "In any case, Dragoras and Grainnewyn left the city of Argolen many times to fight off Scathaechir and Rilath's subjects and the hordes of unnatural creatures, mostly chamaelaeons and brubachwycs, that had appeared around the Hills of Briodun. In the end, though, Dragoras could not prevent the Black Dragons from settling near his own city on the southern peaks of the Silver Mountains, near the southern marshes. Tales of our kind record that the Black Dragon's home turned black as dragon ashes, as black as Scathechir's heart, and it became known thereafter as the Black Mountains." "So, Scathaechir wanted to punish the city of Dragoras for his woes," Dylan guessed. "I can see that. That dragon had a really sadistic streak." Galanor chuckled. "Yes, quite." "But Grainnewyn still didn't know about her brother?" Lilia asked. "No. He refused all invitations to Argolen, but Olierin told me that eleven years after Aiovel was born, Galadon ordered the seven Dragon Lords to attack the city of Dragoras itself. The five recently fallen Dragon Lords refused, again betraying Galadon despite their exile from Dragoras."

"Why didn't they attack the city of Dragoras?" Ronan asked. "King Dragoras had punished them!" "Well," Galanor explained, "once they had permanently taken on their dragon forms, they had forsaken the doings of Dragorians, humans, and elves alike and withdrawn from the world, vowing never again to follow another or to listen to the will of others. So, they no longer obeyed Dragoras, but they wouldn't follow Galadon, either." "Wasn't Dragoras living in Argolen then?" Mygdewyn inquired. "Dragoras and Grainnewyn lived in both cities, moving from one to another each year. Yet when Dragoras learned that hordes of Black and Fire dragons, evil wizards, and unnatural creatures had descended upon the city of Dragoras, he rushed to defend it. To protect the burning city from the invaders, he cast a powerful spell upon the city walls that forever keeps it from being located. Dragoras city shifted into a formless state in the outside world, appearing as nothing more than a mirage or mist to eyes that would see it, while it remained intact within, and only Silver Elves, the faithful Dragon Lords, and the other true Dragorians can find their way into the lost city." "So Dragoras won?" Dylan asked. Slowly, Galanor shook his head. "In order to cast the spell, Dragoras remained outside." Galanor replied in a low, grave tone. "As Dragoras finished casting his spell, Scathaechir and the bitter Fire and Black Dragons attacked the Dragon King. At the same time, the evil wizards of Galadon in their company sought to somehow destroy the vanished city. They cast such destructive spells of fire and energy that the forested hills surrounding Dragoras for hundreds of miles were reduced to bare desert." So that's how the deserts had been formed! Dylan shuddered. Where had all of these evil wizards gone, exactly? "And the King?" Lilia asked, then held her breath. "Before the other dragons could come to his rescue, the worst came to pass. Dragoras was killed." Galanor replied solemnly. "I don't like this story!" Lilia wailed, kicking her feet. "We dragons shared your sentiment, Lilia." Galanor said. "You see, dragons are potentially eternal creatures, but we can be killed, and for this reason every dragon fears the blades of Elwellyn, imbued with the Silver Elves' most ancient magic. I have no doubt that Galadon forged the sword that killed our King." "What happened to Grainnewyn?" Mygdewyn asked. "She traveled to Dragoras to visit the King's Tomb, and remained there several years, I believe. Then on her return to Argolen, she recalled her brother Galadon, still unaware his heart had turned evil, or that he had ordered the death of Dragoras. And so Galadon returned to Argolen, still secretly joyful at the Dragon King's death." "Wasn't his treachery ever discovered?" Ronan asked. "Yes—by Aiovel herself." Galanor said. "When Aiovel turned one hundred years old, the Elwellyn Elves sent her to rejoin her mother in Argolen.

As Aiovel met her uncle, she perceived his dislike of dragons, and she began to fear that he had been responsible for Dragoras' death. So she used her elf powers and hid in his chambers, where, undetected, she overheard news of his plot as he spoke with his wizards in Maedera. Thus Galadon's treachery was revealed at last. "Banished from Argolen, the evil Galadon journeyed east to Maedera and led the wizards on an attack on Briodun before it could receive aid. The mines were destroyed, but Galadon crossed the mountains when he discovered that his sister and the Silver Elves had reached Maedera behind him. With the aid of the remaining four loyal Dragon Lords, the elves utterly destroyed the evil city. Believing Argolen to have perished in the destruction, Grainnewyn returned to Inverlen. "However, Galadon dwelt safely in the town of Gildorland over the mountains, and his power slowly grew. Later, Galadon seized the ancient elven Dun Rigor from the human hands that now occupied it; Dun Rigor had fallen to the ownership of the human kings of Gildorland in times long passed, and from that shining castle Galadon's malevolent creations soon poured west. You see, Galadon was not content taking back only the East from human hands. He wanted to reclaim all of the West as well, and he was bitter that both Grainnewyn and Dragoras had let their kingdoms dwindle. When the dragons betrayed him, he thought to conquer the entire continent, human and dragon lands alike, and restore the ancient lordship of the Silver Elves. "Galadon never has taken back the West, but his influence spread on the eastern coast of Daegoras, where he remains the feared overlord called the Dark Wizard." "He's the Dark Wizard!" Lilia and Mygdewyn cried at once, only a moment ahead of the others. Dylan had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Aiovel's quest must be to depose her own uncle! Galanor nodded. "Only after two hundred years did Galadon return to the Hills of Briodun to claim Inverlen with creatures spawned by his evil experiments." Galanor continued. "Unprepared as the city was, the people who could not escape in time remained with Grainnewyn in Argolen as Galadon's creatures and armies besieged the city. Then, a few of Scathaechir's Black Dragons appeared and destroyed the outer towers. "To protect the Elwellyn Forest and Argolen from Scathaechir's horde, Grainnewyn cast a spell to prevent the Black Dragon King and his most powerful captains from ever crossing the River of Argolen. Nevertheless, the city was already in ruins, and as the walls crumbled around her, she cast another spell with the last of her magic power, the spell that created the magic boundary. Though she knew casting the spell would exhaust her power, Grainnewyn used the last of her magic to protect the innocent descendents of the human invaders that had taken the ancient elf lands. Her spell is what has kept any monsters, including Galadon's abominations, from crossing the Elwellyn River and into the West— even I cannot cross the magic boundary in dragon form." "So Grainnewyn died?" Lilia asked, sniffing. Galanor balked slightly. "Not exactly. As she was finishing the spell,

Galadon perceived her actions and cast a counter-spell upon her; in the backlash she died horribly, I guess you might say— but she didn't die, either. She became a—a ghost. A wraith that cannot rest." "Oh, how horrible!" Lilia cried. A wraith was a dead spirit cursed to remain in the world without retaining any of its former memories, yet bound by unfinished business in its life to linger near the place of its death until its business could be finished and its curse could be removed. Usually only the wraith's former identity knew what that business was, so that the wraith's release almost never happened. Lilia stole a glance over to the castle's outer walls. "Of course, this all happened more than three thousand years ago, and the city has lain undisturbed, except by Aiovel and me, and magically preserved by the wraith's power as it was when Grainnewyn died." Galanor continued. "Those brave Dragorian and Silver Elf warriors who fell in its defense were thrown into the lake by the creatures that destroyed this place. But Galadon's monsters no longer tarry around these ruins, aware of the power of the tormented soul that haunts the castle within. "As for the Dragorians, many of them remained in the hidden city of Dragoras. But with the High King of the Dragons gone, it will never again match its former glory. I have never seen it myself because we Ice Dragons don't like going to the east, since we run the risk of encountering the banished seven Dragon Lords— not to mention the other foul land monsters in the wilds. "So, many of us have spread across Daegoras and across the Great Western Ocean to East Vilna, creating our own cities. You'd be surprised how many dragons there are living in Gyfen alone! But your people aren't the only ignorant creatures in the West. Until I encountered Aiovel again in Gyfen four hundred years ago and she told me who she really was, I thought that the daughter of Dragoras had been destroyed in the fall of Argolen, as is told in the history of our race." "And now Scathaechir knows she's alive," Dylan said. "Yes." Galanor agreed. "Still, who knows what will happen? Scathaechir no longer obeys Galadon, though his fledgling ibruns do join in on a few monster raids for the sake of blind malice, and because it is good practice for them to learn the art of attack." "It's hard to believe that none of your people knew about Aiovel." Mygdewyn said. "When they had once got along so well with the elves." "Well," Galanor admitted, "after the elf Galadon had made the dragons turn on each other and attack the elves, the Dragorians and Silver Elves went their separate ways. My mother told me that the Dragorians have had nothing to do with the Silver Elves since the fall of Argolen. We travel among the human races out of our own interest, to live where we please, and the humans see us as strangelooking Elves. We have no use for those who dwell in Elwellyn Forest. At least, the others don't." Galanor amended sheepishly. "I certainly never imagined you were a dragon," Dylan agreed. "As for Aiovel," Galanor went on, "she has traveled across Daegoras for three thousand years, hoping to free Queen Grainnewyn from her uncle's spell, waiting until her powers grow enough to confront Galadon. I have no doubt that

Aiovel has kept her identity secret because the cursed dragons resented her. You see, they believe her birth brought the fall of the dragons. And now, with Queen Grainnewyn's spells of protection growing weak, Aiovel has little time left to reach Dun Rigor to stop her uncle from conquering the entire continent." "Can Aiovel fly?" Mygdewyn wondered. "I mean— can she transform?" Galanor nodded. "Then why doesn't she just fly east?" Dylan asked. "That would save her a lot of time." "And Galadon would see her coming miles away," Galanor said. "As would every other monster from here to Gildorland, and the dragons as well. Dragons do not like others invading their territory, you know. Even Aiovel is no match for a flock of them, and they won't be asking her questions first— if they see her presence as a threat. If she comes as a dragon, they certainly would; as a Dragorian, they are more likely to be curious." "I see," Dylan nodded, reflecting. "Say, why does Aiovel care about stopping her uncle, anyway?" Dylan wondered. "When she could be safe in her forest and leave the humans to fend for themseves." Galanor stared at him incredulously. "I suppose because her mother died trying to save your people."

XI: Reunion **Some meat, young Gil?** One of the Emerald Dragons asked, indicating the charred carcass of a deer. **No, thank you,** Gil said, queasily eyeing the slavering dragons. **Ah, yes, so you see, Scathaechir led us Emerald Dragons to believe that we would receive a great treasure if we agreed to help him conquer humankind. A horrible trick it was, and we were forced to leave our beautiful city behind forever.** Olierin continued his story wistfully. **But, as you can see, we have made our home here in the hills. Those days were long ago, and we now prefer being dragons.** Olierin added. **As for young Galanor, well, we can hardly feel bitter toward him any longer, considering what he has done for us. But the other dragons, the high and mighty Gold dragons, the oh-so-pure Silver—** **But it was the Sun Dragon Lord's fault we agreed to join Scathaechir,** Wistid broke in. **They told us the others had all joined him.** **No, I remember it as the Wind Dragon Lord's fault,** Vertilio interrupted. **Can't abide Scathaechir, in any case.** Olierin silenced them. **It was his fault in the first place, but he still won't leave us alone. He even tried to steal our fledgling.** Fearing the Emerald Dragon King was about to launch into another tale of woe about their youngest, Gil coughed loudly to clear his throat. **Galanor will be searching for me. I ought to go find him.** Gil said. **Oh no, that won't do. That won't do at all.** Olierin protested pleasantly. **We can't let you leave, Gil, or the monsters out there will have you for dinner. And I don't mean for your entertainment,** he added. **There's a nuckelavee roaming about some place, and fresh water monsters, land serpents— ** **Nasty, bogle pests!** Vertilio put in. Olierin eyed him, disapproving the interruption. "**Bogles, yes, and evil sprites,** Olierin continued. **Tramping giants and ogres, cannibal plants, giant boars— though the boars are quite tasty! And cruel fairies that throw forget dust and cause one to lose the way back to the nest — No, no. Surely you don't want to go out in all that!** Gil sighed. He wasn't entirely sure that the Emerald Dragons would play hosts much longer, either. After all, even if they had once been these Dragorians they claimed to be, they had long since been set in their dragon ways, and that meant eating adventurers like Gil. **I smell a dragon!** Wistid called suddenly. **Coming towards us.** The others stopped, sniffing the air. Several of them jumped up to protect their King, and Gil peered cautiously toward the direction where they were looking. Suddenly, Aiovel emerged from the trees. **Who are you?** Olierin bellowed beside Gil, still sniffing.

**She's— she's a—** one of them began. **Smells like a dragon,** Wistid said. **No, like a Silver Elf,** Vertilio countered. **It can't be!** Olierin cried, drawing himself up to full height. His keen eyes peered forward as Aiovel pulled back her cloak. Olierin puffed into the dark, illuminating her green-gold eyes. The great dragon drew back as if from hot coals. **Like the eyes of Dragoras himself!** Olierin exclaimed sadly, suddenly remembering the ancient King of Dragons and the glorious city of the Dragorians, and as he remembered, his voice took on a bittersweet majesty that sent shivers down Gil’s spine. **So, the Queen of Dragorians survived after all.** ***** "Are we never to rest tonight?" Mygdewyn griped. The moon had risen, and though he had slept most of the day away in the Black Dragons' cave, he was considerably tired. "Ah, sleep if you want to," Lilia said, pouting. "Galanor still hasn't answered all of my questions!" Galanor grimaced weakly, but Lilia refused to cower. "I don't fancy being gobbled by anything stupider than I am," she whined, receiving a glare from Galanor. "But if you don't care, Mygdewyn, then go ahead. Go to sleep." "I can't with all the noise you're making," Mygdewyn huffed, still sitting by the fire. "Now, Galanor," Lilia urged. "About the evil dragons?" "Ah yes, Fire Dragons," Galanor replied. "I hope to avoid them by keeping away from the eastern Black Mountains." "They live in the Black Mountains?" Lilia looked over her shoulder. "Not that they can't be found elsewhere," Galanor amended hastily, "but they have to live in deep caves— their breath is the hottest, you know, and they have a tendency to destroy any other kind of home. "I only met one once— and he had an awful, quick temper; thankfully I managed to get away, since he was rather stupid. I told him so, but he seemed a bit thick-skinned about it. Of course he would have to be, to protect himself from his own heat— still, Fire Dragons seem to have a nasty habit of burning themselves. That's why they're all crimson." "Why did you suggest traveling so close to their territory, then?" Dylan asked, remembering that Galanor wanted to follow the River of Argolen. "To avoid other dragons." Galanor replied, shrugging. "There are far more cunning and dangerous dragons about these eastern lands, and that is of course why Aiovel won't go south through the deserts and grasslands. The Sand dragons live there, you see." "Sand dragons?" Lilia shivered. "Yes," Galanor nodded. "Sand Dragons are like enormous salamanders, long and stream-lined, and have sharp, short claws to swim through sand. They cannot fly, for their wings have shrunk. Yet they are dangerously crafty, and the second quickest of dragons."

"The second quickest?" Lilia inquired. "So who's faster? The Ice Dragons?" "No, the white Wind Dragons, of course." Galanor said. "They're the best flyers. Yes, even better than we Ice Dragons. They might fly for ten hours a day in the air if they wish. Wind Dragons live in high altitudes, being able to tolerate the cold well, though not as well as Ice Dragons— "We get the point." Mygdewyn interjected. "Wind Dragons aren't scaly, of course," Galanor resumed, "but thickskinned to protect from the cold, and hard to insult as you can imagine. Melesian is their King, and he's very cunning, but the others tend to be a bit flighty." "You mean they could swoop down on us without us knowing?" Lilia looked up and around nervously. "You should fear the Earth Dragons more." Galanor said, gesturing down at the ground. "They live around here. They aren't as fast, but infinitely more deceptive. Their scales make a pattern that looks like rocks strewn across soft brown dirt, or the rugged face of a cliff— but even though they look vulnerable, they can't be harmed from above. On the other hand," Galanor winked conspiratorially, "their underbellies are soft to allow them to settle into the ground. So Earth dragons tend to keep a low profile when other dragons are around." "You dragons seem to know each other's weaknesses," Ronan observed. "Yes, well, what I didn't know I learned from Olierin when I met him several years ago— including my own observations about Emerald Dragons," he added, laughing. "Olierin can't stand Earth Dragons, since they interfere with his territory." "I think I'll stick to water." Lilia shivered. "We Sea Elves don't care for dirt." "Ah." Galanor grinned. "There you might encounter a Water Dragon." "A Water Dragon?" Lilia asked. "Yes. They don't even make a sound when they swim." Lilia blanched, her face turning a paler green. "Don't worry, Lilia, they're harmless creatures!" Galanor said, laughing, clapping her on the shoulder. "You'll probably only ever see them in Dragorian form— like me." He reassured her. "As for the others, well... Gold Dragons will probably be in that form as well, though they're such stay-at-homes. You probably wouldn't be able to tell if you saw one, anyway; most people think they look like Faerie Elves, with their gold hair. "And though I've never met a Sun Dragon, I hear Sun Dragons' scales are supposed to be so reflective that they blind their victims. I think they're orangeyellow, with a bright red crown. You don't see them much at night, though." He admitted, gesturing around in the dark. "Thank goodness!" Lilia cried. Footsteps approached wthout warning; Galanor stopped and turned around. Dylan drew himself up, his hand on his sword. Mygdewyn stilled, listening, one hand on his axe. Lilia sat very still and made ready to draw her shadow cloak over her head.

"You wouldn't believe what a hard time I had finding him!" Aiovel called suddenly, surprising the company as she and Gil appeared in the camp. Lilia let go of her hood and rushed over to hug Gil. "Never thought I'd see you again," she laughed, not letting him go despite his obvious embarassment. Galanor smirked. "Gil seems in a bit of shock. Don't tell me—" "She turned into a dragon!" Gil said, shaking his head in disbelief. "A great golden creature she was, then—" he stopped, suddenly blushing. Dylan remembered Galanor's transformation back into Dragorian form and imagined Gil had seen something of far more interest. Just his luck to miss that one! "I landed over there in the fields." Aiovel said, nodding. "Gil was really tired, and I didn't want him to let go. I think the Emerald Dragons I found him with must have been talking his ears off half the day." "Old Olierin never changes!" Galanor laughed. "It's a good thing you found him. Those Emerald Dragons are a fickle crew." "Why didn't they eat him?" Mygdewyn wondered aloud. "I gave Gil the Ring of Dragontongues before we were separated." Aiovel said and shrugged. "Gil already had Olierin eating out of his hand before I arrived— so to speak." "I imagine it was the other way around." Galanor said, chuckling. "But what took you so long finding him? If he had the ring with him, he should have been easy to locate," Galanor added, confused. "Yes, he should have been." Aiovel agreed. "But it seems there is magic around our young friend that prevents him from being found." "Stronger than the Ring of Dragontongues?" Galanor's eyes widened. He shook his head, laughing wanly, but could not hide his strange anxiety. "It's a curious thing," Aiovel admitted absently, nodding. "Well, I wandered well past sunset looking about for our young friend. Then I remembered what Ronan had said about the Emerald Dragons passing nearby, and I thought I'd risk a visit to their late summer nest just to see if they had any news. Olierin may not have told me if he'd seen Gil, but the Emerald Dragons have no love for Scathaechir, that much I knew. That alone seemed reason enough to trust them." "Did Olierin recognize you?" Galanor asked, in a low, grave tone. "Yes, Olierin knows I'm still alive now," Aiovel replied. "I couldn't conceal my identity from him and rescue Gil." "Why is that such a bad thing?" Mygdewyn asked. "Remember what I told you about the Emerald Dragon King?" Galanor asked. "He can't keep his mouth shut. All of the Emerald Dragons of this area will know that Aiovel is here very soon, but at least dragons don't like to speak of their affairs to others— unless they are asked directly. It's the direct part I'm worried about. Ask Olierin the right question, and he's sure to tell you the answer." Galanor nodded. "Actually, I'm more concerned that Aiovel slighted Scathaechir. While Galadon has no spies here in the wilderness except his monster horde, and we destroyed the only troop of those in this area, we can't rely

on Scathaechir's silence forever." "So we don't have very much time, then, for Aiovel to reach Dun Rigor unnoticed?" Lilia interrupted, tugging at Galanor's sleeve. "I'm afraid not," Galanor replied. "Well then," Lilia said, her lower lip pursed. "Now can we go into the ruins?" Galanor nodded. Lilia's face broke into a smile. "But it's the middle of the night!" Mygdewyn grumped as the others headed toward the castle. ***** The Great Gate of the city of Argolen held fast. The companions searched for another way inside. They found an ancient breach in the outer rampart to the left of the gate, which seemed to have become the city's main thoroughfare for the small, harmless animals that did not fear the power of the ghosts that haunted the city. Aiovel led the companions inside, picking her way over piles of rubble and animal droppings. The outer wall of the castle was about ten feet thick. They certainly didn't want to meet whatever creature had been able to knock a whole through it, Dylan thought. Aiovel raised her arms, and her hands glowed with a pale white light. With a gesture, she threw the light into the air. The glowing orb she had created cast a silver light somewhat brighter than moonlight on this part of the city. It was a simple spell, but effective. As they emerged into a grand city built around the castle grounds, Lilia whistled. "Wow! Just look at all of these old buildings. Drat! It'll take us forever to find anything in here!" she added, growing dejected. It was true, there were too many places to wander about aimlessly in; they simply didn't have the time, if Aiovel was trying to hurry east. The entire city of Argolen appeared to have been built with the same great blocks of silvery grey stone as the outer wall. They glimmered in Aiovel's silver light. "How sad." Dylan shook his head thoughtfully, eyeing the cobbled stone pathways twisting through the great city. Weeds and bushes now peeked through where the stones had been broken. With a trained eye, he admired the craftsmanship of the architecture, the tall towers, and the once decorative statues and fountains further along the road. "It looks as though this was once a really nice place." "So, where to?" Mygdewyn asked. Aiovel shrugged. "When Galadon's dragon armies and monster horde destroyed Argolen, they did not remain long after my mother appeared. They dropped much of their plunder in a hasty retreat— just ask Galanor. He found treasure lying around here last time we came." Mygdewyn turned to the dragon. "So, Galanor, where do we go?" Galanor shook his head. "I don't know. I wandered about a long time, mostly by the outer walls of the city. I left a lot of treasure behind that I couldn't

carry, but that was many years ago." "Convenient memory loss," the dwarf grumbled. "Be patient, Mygdewyn," Ronan said gently. Kneeling down and placing a hand on a large stone by the wall, Ronan closed his eyes, and a pale white aura surrounded him. He shivered as the mists circled around him and grew tighter. A moment later, the vapors erupted outward and spread out across the city. "What was that all about?" Lilia asked. "I was communicating to all of the stones of the city through this one. They will guide us to the treasures outside the castle." He said. "I thought you said stones were stupid and disagreeable." Dylan put in. "Most are," Ronan agreed. "But these ones have been most helpful." "So, there aren't any treasures inside the castle?" Lilia eyed Ronan dubiously. "Yes, actually, there are," the elf admitted. "Far more than there are on the grounds. But I wouldn't go in there—" he shivered again. "The creature that haunts that place is not agreeably disposed towards strangers." Lilia moved toward the nearest of Ronan's white markers illuminating the stones of a nearby building. But when she stopped to check the door, she found it locked. "You should be glad you have an expert treasure hunter with you," she beamed, pulling a set of lock picks from inside her cloak. A moment later, Lilia heard the lock click and smiled in satisfaction. "There we go," she said. It took them a great while to find the stash of gold and silver behind the fireplace in what appeared to be the former guard's residence. Lilia beamed ear to ear as she ran her fingers through the coins that had tumbled out of an old, rotted sack. "Don't stop to count it now," she said to Mygdewyn, who had pulled out a bag and appeared ready to do just that. "Yes, Mygdewyn, put the bag away," the smooth, honeyed voice of Rodruban said from behind the others. "Now isn't the time to hang about. I feel the chaos lingering around this place— and while I rather like it, for it seems to have strengthened my senses and abilities— it may be rather dangerous to stay here. We ought to keep moving." Lilia spat. He'd done it to her again! Blast that Rodruban! she thought darkly. He knew she'd been waiting to see his transformation. She wanted to know if it were a gradual change, or if the elf suddenly turned into the human like a spell of transformation taking effect. "I have to admit," Galanor said reluctantly, "I agree with the druid." ***** A few hours later, shortly before sunrise, the company made camp in a barn that had been an armory long ago. A thick layer of dirt submerged the ancient stone floor. Their steps kicked up billowing grey clouds that settled on their cloaks like fine mist. Lilia lay awake a while thinking about the treasure they'd already found.

After the sack of gold, Rodruban had led them to a jeweler's secret horde, a set of white gold flatware still on the table in a merchant's house, and a shop filled with finely crafted silver trinkets: tinkling bell, silver statuettes, circlets, pins, and clasps. Lilia had been disappointed with their last stop; they'd discovered a stock of what had obviously been costly tapestries, but they simply fell apart whenever they were touched, despite the power of the wraith's preservation spell. It seemed the spell had its limits and could only slow the effects of time on the castle. Soon afterward, they had gone to the armory, where they had picked up several nice inlaid swords and daggers, and one broadsword still unfinished by the bellows. After being awake so long— since the watch that morning when she and Ronan had been attacked— Lilia began to drift off, grateful that Aiovel and Galanor had offered to keep watch all night and let the others catch up on their much needed rest. She supposed dragons didn't need to sleep as much as ordinary people did, or else they made up for it later by sleeping years away in their nests. She didn't really care. If Aiovel insisted on keeping watch with Galanor, Lilia wasn't about to argue. After the excitement of the long day, Gil also found he couldn't sleep, though at first he wasn't sure why he should be so restless. After all, they'd already found enough treasure that Gil would never have to return to the Pegasus. Then he realized what it was that was bothering him. They'd found Argolen— and the treasures Aiovel had promised them. But how did Aiovel know that the others wouldn't abandon her when they left the city, now that they had what they wanted? Gil considered that. Lilia might abandon her, but would the others? He doubted the Prince of Dunlaith would; Dylan was a man of honor, and acutely aware of the binding power of his word. But Mygdewyn? Aiovel had also saved Mygdewyn's life, but the dwarf wouldn't necessarily want to risk losing it again. And wherever Mygdewyn went, Ronan went, too. If they lost the dwarf, they lost their healer as well. As for Gil himself, there was no question of his turning back. Gil fumbled in his shirt for the silver ring Aiovel had given him that morning. As he fingered it, he wondered why she had not asked him to return it yet. The Ring of Dragontongues, crafted in the city of Dragoras, he remembered, feeling the smooth but finely engraved surface. Lilia had been telling Gil about Galanor's story as they walked, the parts Gil hadn't learned from the Emerald Dragons. But he hadn't really believed old Olierin until Aiovel turned into a dragon before his eyes. That I would not give away, except to one who would truly treasure it, he remembered her saying back in Gyfen. Truly it was a gift he would have treasured above all others, if he did not believe Aiovel would take it back. It had already saved his life. Nevertheless, Gil hoped Aiovel would re-claim it. He did not feel he deserved such a gift, since she had already given him the sword and the clothes. Gil recalled Olierin's reaction to the sword. How the dragon had scurried back to avoid it! Gil had never seen anything more unusual in all of his life. Now

it seemed the sword had come home at last; for it had been forged here in this city, according to Olierin, perhaps in this very armory! Yet now Gil knew how valuable it truly was; even the great King of the Emerald Dragons had feared it. And if this was the only kind of sword that could kill a dragon, why had Aiovel entrusted it with him? She was a half-dragon herself, after all!

XII: Wraith Galanor awoke the companions mid-morning the next day with a loud shout. Mygdewyn stirred a moment later, though reluctantly. He was exhausted from the long day before, and his body ached all over. His stomach growled fiercely, and he thought of searching for something left in his pack, but they had eaten the last of the provisions the night before. Suddenly, his nostrils flared with the scent of something cooking nearby in the pit of ancient coals once used to forge blades. Galanor appeared in the barn with an offering of freshly cooked venison for breakfast. He gave the dwarf one of the sticks spitted with roasted meat. "This is water from the Elwellyn Forest, so only a swig for everyone," he said to the dwarf, handing him a flask. "Aiovel's found us a well not far from here where we can get some real water." He added, spying Lilia waking up, her eyes fixing greedily upon the flask in the dwarf's hand. Mygdewyn took a sip before relinquishing the water to Lilia and felt his fatigue and hunger diminishing. After breakfast, the companions left the armory and headed for the well. It was really only a decorative well, Aiovel explained, since at one time running water had run throughout the great elven city. Lilia's eyes widened; of all the Western cities, only Windfall had some measure of plumbing for its part-Sea Elf population. Unfortunately, the well's pulley mechanism had decayed, but Aiovel had found a bucket made of copper and tied a rope around the handle. After they had drunk as much as they could, they continued toward the interior of the city. "I'll have to re-cast Ronan's spell," Rodruban said as they walked. He paused, kneeling to touch one of the stones. "There," he said in satisfaction, pointing to a nearby ruined building with a wide entrance. "There seems to be a lot of treasure in there." Dylan went in first and peered around circumspectly. The dwelling appeared to have been a school of some kind, with hundreds of old, slowly rotting desks and chairs. "Watch out for rats," Mygdewyn advised from behind as the others tumbled in, pointing to several dark scurrying forms on the floor. "So, what was this place?" Gil wondered, looking about. "Of course you wouldn't know," Lilia said with a laugh. "It's a school, of course! Look over there," she said. "There's a book on one of the desks." On the largest desk lay a closed, age-worn book. It had not crumbled to dust, and was, therefore, probably magical. Since it was the only material object in the room, they headed toward it. However, the book smelled musty and rotten despite the wraith's preservation spell and the rejuvenating power of the book's own magic, and the writing on the cover had faded. Then, just as Mygdewyn was about to open it, Rodruban shouted. "A minute, you fool!" The druid shoved past them and stood before the

thick, heavy volume. "I can't cast a spell of restoration if you unsettle the pages!" He barked, pulling back his sleeves to his elbows and lifting his arms. His body glowed more brightly than usual as dancing white flames enveloped him. The vapors coalesced into a bright spark around the book, and Rodruban stepped back, a complacent smile twisting the corners of his mouth. Then suddenly, he frowned. Gil peered forward. "A book about buildings?" "No." Mygdewyn shook his head. "It's the science of building— things like bridges, buildings, and so on. I've seen only a few books like this— in the Killian Forest." The dwarf added, trying to assess it fairly. Though he had no use for books himself, at least he recognized their value to others. "When did you learn to read?" Lilia caught the front of Gil's shirt, her eyes narrowed in surprise. Gil shrugged. When had he learned to read? He thought back a moment. "I've always been able to," he said finally, "but I'm not very good at it. I think my mother must have taught me when I was young." "Useless," Rodruban sighed in disgust, shaking his head. "I have no need for science! 'Tis against Nature!" He dropped the book back onto the table and walked away. Galanor laughed as though at something absurd. "Hey, watch it!" Dylan exclaimed, then picked up the book to examine it. It remained intact, no thanks to the druid's carelessness. "Actually," Galanor began. "Science actually explains Na—" "Don't bother," the dwarf advised, shaking his head. "It's not wise to get him started. I'm afraid Rodruban will never understand." "I'll wager my father could use this," Dylan said as he flipped through the book's pages, trying to put less enthusiasm in his voice than he felt. A book such as this, about the science of building, one of the lost ancient arts, could be used to restore Dunlaith to glory! But if the others knew he wanted it so badly, he was afraid they would want it, too. "Dunlaith's city center is in a terrible condition, you know." He continued. "And our sewer systems need to be entirely redone," he admitted, taking the book gingerly and putting it into his pack. "You can say that again!" Lilia said, pinching her nose closed and letting go of Gil. "Dunlaith smells like a sewer, too! You can have that book as far as I'm concerned," she added. "But I'm going to go see if there's any real treasure in here," she said and disappeared. Ten minutes later, Galanor shouted from one of the upper rooms. When they found him, he gestured toward an ancient wooden chest he'd come upon in the corner of a store room, blackened with age but still strong and intact because of the wraith's preservation spell. No doubt if they carried it outside the city, the spell would fade and the chest would crumble to dust, but then again, whatever was inside might also be rendered equally useless. "Just step back," Lilia said, heading toward the chest with one of her keys. Suddenly she looked down at her feet as she passed Rodruban, distracted by a shuffling, clicking noise and a faint squeak. A long, segmented tail protruded

from the druid's robe. "Aiieeee!" Lilia cried and jumped away, pointing to the ground. "Watch out!" The druid chuckled, waved his hand dismissively, then said something unintelligible toward the ground. A large rat emerged from the bottom of his cloak and glanced about uninterestedly. "Oh no, not again," the dwarf slapped his forehead with his palm. "Huh?" Dylan said. "Rodruban likes to play mind games with dumb creatures." Mygdewyn sighed. "It's not a mind control spell," Rodruban corrected. "But this one tried to gnaw a hole through my boot. I couldn't let him get away with it, now could I?" He peered down at the rat with some affection. "Just keep it away from me!" Lilia cried and went over to pick the chest's lock. After a moment, she frowned. "It's no good." She declared. "The hinges are rusted shut." Rodruban stepped forward and tried another restoration spell. The preserved wood fibers of the ancient chest grew light and new again, and Lilia tried the lock excitedly. "It still doesn't open," she said in agitation, and Rodruban shrugged. "I thought it might not." He admitted tiredly, magically drained and exhausted from the second spell. "My restoration spell only works well on organic things— not on metallic hinges." "So glad you bothered!" Lilia quipped sarcastically. The druid glared back at her with malevolent eyes. "Hmmm." Rodruban paused, considering what to do. He reached an arm out to hold Galanor when the dragon appeared ready to open the chest by force. "A moment, if you please. Come here, rat," he added, snapping his fingers. The rat scurried toward the druid, and set its teeth to work around the hinges, gnawing the chest until the lid slid away and landed with a heavy thump onto the stones. "I knew those great, hungry teeth would come in handy!" the druid laughed. Even Lilia's eyes widened at the contents within the box: two jeweled necklaces made of green and blue stones and a large ruby heart. "Too bad there isn't any magic around them, though," Aiovel said. "But then you'd have to look in the Wizards' Guild for magical charms." She added. The others turned toward her. "How do you know?" Lilia asked. "I know where everything is in Argolen— or was, actually." Aiovel said. "This building was once a school for the Elwellyn Elves and humans alike, a place of great learning. The craftsmen created the fountains, the system of running waters, aqueducts, and sewers throughout the city. And they constructed many more things of wonder— but all of these have slowly fallen to decay. The Wizard's Guild lies closer to the source of the preservation spell and may yet have some things of value." "I wonder that you did not take me there before," Galanor said.

"Well, dear friend," Aiovel replied, "I did not want to venture there before, but now I see that it is the best way to get out of this city as quickly as possible. Remember that because the Wizard's Guild lies near the castle where the wraith dwells, the magical spells around the guild, which were created to deter those who would claim its treasures, are still quite powerful." "Even now?" Dylan inquired. "I think so." Aiovel nodded. "In the fall of the city, the human wizards also cast protection spells over their guild's belongings, hoping to keep them from destruction at the hands of Galadon's beasts and to retrieve them one day when Argolen was reclaimed. Yet that never happened, and the wizards have never returned." "So, lead on," Lilia said excitedly. ***** The guild of the wizards was almost a castle itself. Its high, crumbling towers pressed against the castle moat, its grand stone architecture making it seem a part of the castle from a distance. The company followed Aiovel through the streets, and it was well past noon by the time that they reached the guild. "What do those runes say?" Dylan asked, peering up at the inscription etched in gold letters in the wide gateway made of blackened oak. "The name of the great wizard who was head of the guild." Aiovel answered. "But part of the letters have fallen out of the wood. It used to read 'Calatin'." Gil's eyes narrowed on the warped wood that had buckled inward and also cracked much of the gold. Lilia reached up a hand to see if she could pull any of it out, but Gil slapped her hand away. "What did you do that for?" Lilia huffed. "Just leave it alone," Gil said. "Time is just going to knock them all loose anyway," Lilia insisted. "Maybe," Gil admitted, "but you won't be able to carry many real treasures if you fill your pack with those." Lilia shrugged, but she left the lettering alone. Meanwhile, Mygdewyn was testing the oak gate with his heel. "I think it'll give," the dwarf said, but Lilia shoved him aside, lock picks in hand. With a loud click, the magically preserved deadbolt gave in. Dylan, Mygdewyn, and Gil pushed one heavy door aside while Galanor single-handedly took care of the other and stepped back to allow Aiovel and Lilia inside the wide green courtyard. "Show-off," Dylan muttered, wiping his brow. ***** As it turned out, the front doors of the guild proved more formidable than the gate had been. To Dylan's delight, even Galanor could not get them to budge. "Stand back," Aiovel said, "I think there may be a spell warding off

strangers, but the wizards' spells were not cast to have any effect on Elwellyn elves here in Argolen." Gil glanced around at the wooded courtyard, full of chirping birds in the cool afternoon. Wild flowers poked through a nest of overgrown weeds; bees buzzed among them, collecting nectar. When Gil looked back, a green light flickered about Aiovel, and then a loud, echoing, snapping sound like a clap of thunder came from the great oaken doors. "Now we can go in." Aiovel said with a grin. The guild hall within seemed dark compared to the bright afternoon sunshine outdoors. Gil blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. Like everything in Argolen, the walls had collapsed here and there, creating piles of rubble on the floor. Aiovel led them down many corridors and up three winding stone staircases to a large, brighter storage room near the center of the building. "This is where the magicians kept their magical weapons," she said. "But be careful where you step." The room had no windows, but there were several cracks in the ceiling above. The fifth floor above them had partially collapsed in several places and had left large heaps of stone on the fourth floor; the roof far above had entirely collapsed long ago, probably destroying much of the fifth floor with it. Lilia rushed ahead excitedly, but Galanor caught her by the sleeve. As he pulled her back, Lilia heard the floor ahead creak, settling, and the sound of ceiling falling to the third floor below. Mygdewyn edged his way around the strongest looking wall and found a golden, bejeweled scepter protruding from a pile of stones. "Yaaaiiii!" The dwarf shouted in pain as the scepter burned his hand. The room reverberated with the sound, threatening to further collapse. "Drat this thing!" Mygdewyn said, lifting his swollen, red fingers. Rodruban and Gil had taken the route of the dwarf, and now Rodruban chuckled behind him. Rodruban raised a hand and cast a small healing spell on the dwarf's hand, enough to keep a blister from forming. It would be better to have a dwarf who could wield his axe, after all. Rodruban eyed the beautiful scepter greedily, but he had more sense than to repeat Mygdewyn's mistake by touching it. Over at the other side of the room, Aiovel and Dylan had come across a wizard's staff and a round black orb. Dylan had jerked his arm back with a start at the dwarf's shout, now less inclined to touch the oak staff. He decided to risk it at last; as he touched the orb and then the staff, nothing happened. Relieved, Dylan put the orb in his pack and held onto the staff. Lilia had gone ahead and found several glass vials crushed by falling stones, the precious magic elixirs inside drained away. Muttering softly under her breath, she headed toward a pile of stones and began scrabbling away in hopes of uncovering something that might have been buried under them. "Easy, there," Galanor said beside her. "Or this floor is going to collapse right under you." Lilia shrugged and continued digging. Finally, she felt the sharp edge of a gemstone and began brushing away the dust. Carefully she pulled an electrum necklace from the pile, set in the center with a large round sapphire.

"Ha!" Lilia squealed, putting the necklace into her bag. Meanwhile, Galanor had found three metallic rods in a recess in the wall behind her. Mygdewyn had moved on, and began working in another pile of stones under which a lay tattered cloth, perhaps buried in the battle over the city. Halfway through the pile, he found a jeweled dagger. The tattered cloth turned out to be a sack holding several small items: two rings, a pair of golden sandals, a green, discolored silver key, several round, polished stones marked with a single rune, and a belt. Rodruban had gone to the wall to inspect a collection of tools, a small stone basin and pestle sitting on a shelf in which powders had once been ground. He picked up several pouches lying beside the basin and the basin itself. Opening the sack, he sniffed the acrid contents and poured some of a fine white sand into his palm, ready to taste it. Across the room, Galanor stopped. Gil remained rooted in front of the beautiful, golden scepter. "Don't!" Galanor suddenly yelled across the room at Rodruban. Then the ground began to rumble, loudly. Gil felt the tremors under his feet as the floor protested the ruptured silence. A few stones fell from above and onto the piles in the corners. A large boulder was sent slowly rolling off it toward the center of the room. Before anyone could stop it, it fell through to the ground below with a deafening thud. "The floor's going to collapse! Everyone out!" Aiovel said as loudly as she dared. The company hurried toward the door. Without thinking, Gil grabbed the scepter and pulled. The force sent him tumbling backward. As he came to a rest, he blinked uncertainly. To his surprise, he found the scepter grasped comfortably in his hand. "Hurry, Gil!" Galanor called, rushing past him. Gil tucked the scepter into his sword belt and followed the others into the corridor. A long way down the corridor, Dylan had stopped, breathless. Dylan looked behind him to see if the others were coming. Gil, Galanor, and the others had just made it. Aiovel followed them, waving her arms as though trying to get their attention. As the others sat down, Aiovel stopped. "No, don't stop there!" she began. The floor fell. ***** Gil looked up as the world suddenly dropped beneath him. They fell perhaps a hundred feet down a wide cylindrical shaft and plunged toward a small pool of water. Gil suddenly felt himself caught in a large blue claw, the great eyes of the dragon Galanor peering at him, blinking in concern. "Ouch!! Watch it!" Lilia said, pushing Gil off her and standing on the uneven surface of Galanor's large foreclaw. She stumbled back and fell onto Gil. "Oh my head," Mygdewyn muttered from Galanor's other hand. "Where are we?" he wondered, looking out over the small pool of water they had landed in. Nearby, he spied another, golden-hued dragon in the dim light of Aiovel's

light spell. "Hmmm, this is humbling," Dylan said from Aiovel's claw. "Don't worry, Mygdewyn, the water isn't very deep." Aiovel's dragon voice rumbled. Gil looked toward the claw where the dwarf crouched, peering nervously at the waters below. The dwarf's distress was growing; Aiovel's reassurance didn't appear to have helped very much. "Funny, it doesn't smell like sewage," Lilia said, shaking her head. "That's because it isn't," Aiovel corrected her. "There hasn't been any sewage in this city for thousands of years. But the water system connects the entire city. I was trying to warn you that Dylan had sat down in the wizard's storeroom for unwanted items." "So when their load of garbage gets too heavy, its dumping time, eh?" Rodruban said from Aiovel's other claw. "You got it." Aiovel said with a wide grimace that passed for a smile. "Just our luck they were so worried about hygiene," Rodruban muttered. "Looks like the water system must have sprung a leak somewhere," Dylan said. Looking around, he saw that the tunnels around them had collapsed. The only way out seemed to be back up the shaft they had fallen through. Whatever retractable platform the wizards had used to contain their garbage had fallen with them and broken into pieces as it landed in the water. Planks of decayed wood floated in the three-foot waters around Galanor's toes. "I we think broke the spring mechanism for good." He added. "Why don't you float us back up there, Aiovel, like you did outside the Black Dragons' cave?" Mygdewyn suggested. "Because my magic doesn't work that way." Aiovel shook her head. "I can slow our fall to keep us from injury, but I can't make objects fly. That isn't a natural spell. Of course, Galanor and I could fly out, if the opening were wide enough, but it isn't." "Hey, Galanor, how about making an ice ladder so we can climb out?" Lilia suggested. "An ice ladder?" Rodruban repeated, his eyes narrowing. "An ice pole?" Lilia amended meekly. "How are we supposed to climb a pole made of ice?!" Rodruban retorted. "Okay, so it's not such a hot idea." Lilia grinned. "Well, we can't get back up that way," Dylan said, looking at the dim ray of light coming from above. "Look over there—" Gil said suddenly, pointing to a dark corner of the great underground cavern. If it led nowhere, Gil knew he was going to feel really foolish. But where else could they go? "Hmmm," Galanor nodded. "It looks like one of the sewage tunnels has survived, but who knows how far it goes?" He wondered. "Time to find out! Down you go, Gil," Galanor said, dropping Gil onto a dry bank. Lilia jumped into the water when Galanor lowered his hand. Then the dragon brought Mygdewyn down to join them. Meanwhile, Aiovel had put Rodruban and Dylan down on the shore. Dylan peered over at her, anticipating her transformation back to elven form.

"You're terrible!" Lilia cried, and flung her hands in front of his eyes. "Lilia, get off!" Dylan shouted and wrenched himself free. But Aiovel's light spell had faded, and he couldn't see, anyway! Meddlesome girl! Dylan thought darkly. A moment later, Rodruban cast a bright globe at the end of his staff, but Aiovel and Galanor had already joined them in full attire. Aiovel and Galanor led the way down the narrow tunnel. They passed an intersection that crossed a much wider tunnel, but Aiovel continued down the same passage for five minutes until it came to an abrupt dead end of collapsed stones and earth. "Let's turn around," Dylan suggested. Aiovel looked meaningfully at Galanor but said nothing, and Galanor nodded soberly. Uh-oh, Dylan thought. He'd seen that look before, and he didn't like it very much. Obviously, they were keeping something to themselves. "All right," Galanor agreed. "But let us go first." He said firmly. They backtracked to the wide corridor and changed directions. After a few minutes, there seemed to be fewer gaps in the stonework. The sturdy, smooth texture of these sewers implied that someone had taken great care in building them. A dark water line bisected the walls, but the tunnel was bone dry. "Exactly where are we going?" Rodruban asked querulously half an hour later. "This passage should eventually lead us to the Inverlen River," Aiovel answered. "Unless the tunnels have caved in again." Gil shivered. He hoped they hadn't walked this far only to reach a dead end! "Hey, it looked like we just passed a stone staircase to the surface!" Lilia cried excitedly and tugged on Galanor's cloak. "We did," Galanor nodded and pulled free. "But I for one am not going to risk going up there. You can go by yourself if you really want to." "Oh you!" Lilia exclaimed hotly. "Why won't you go up there?" She demanded, thin-lipped. "Because we are directly below the Silver Castle!" Galanor explained. ***** Gradually, they began to hear the sound of rushing water. Lilia hurried ahead. Several minutes passed before the source became visible. "What is that?" Lilia asked as the others arrived, pointing to the swift underground current that intersected the tunnel. Their passage had come to an end; the wide canal before them stretched interminably in both directions. "I think this canal comes from a tributary that feeds into the river Inverlen." Aiovel explained. "Most of these branches lie above. I believe the waters were once used to create the moat around the castle, but the elves also diverted part of them to run under the castle when they built these tunnels." "So, all of the sewers runs into the river?" Lilia said, holding her nose. "Yes." Aiovel nodded.

"As interesting as all of this is, how do we get to the surface from here?" Mygdewyn interrupted, eyeing the rushing waters as only a nervous dwarf could. "Sorry, Mygdewyn, old boy," Aiovel said, mussing the top of his hair. "But there's nothing for it. We'll have to swim for it this time. But if you can hold on to me—" she stopped. Behind them, a loud, piteous wail echoed through the passages. Gil felt the hair on his arms and neck stand on end. He hadn't seen the creature yet, but he felt its blind malice already, even from so far away. He turned to Aiovel, but she had turned white. "What was that?" Lilia ventured nervously. "Hurry, you've got to get out of here!" Aiovel shouted and waved the others back. "Into the canal!" "But—" Mygdewyn choked. "No time to argue!" Aiovel cried. As Aiovel spoke, Gil saw a ghostly form appear behind her in the passage some distance away. Only it wasn't a ghost, but a wraith. The malignant cry had given it away. Even the children of Gyfen knew the difference between ghosts and wraiths; ghosts were harmless creatures, spirits of former men being punished for ill deeds they had done in life. But a wraith was a legendary specter, a creature who had been a victim of unnatural death, who wreaked vengeance for its suffering upon any living creatures who chanced to come near it. Wraiths had been caught between life and death, and were supposedly made of an airy physical substance. It was precisely this partial materiality that allowed them to use the abilities they had possessed in life to harm mortal creatures while they themselves remained immune to injury. Meanwhile, Rodruban had turned toward the creature and was trying to drive the wraith away with his magic. But as Gil watched, Rodruban's eyes glazed over with madness. A moment later, he ran screaming into the water and disappeared in the current. "Don't look at her!" Aiovel shouted, just in time, as far as Gil was concerned. Gil blinked several times and deliberately looked away, though he had caught a glimpse of the creature's unshod feet and once rich, royal clothing now luminescent, swaying like translucent cobwebs caught in a breeze. Already he could feel despair rising in his throat, threatening to turn his mind senseless. "I thought I told you to get out of here!" Aiovel said to the others, but Gil, Galanor, and Dylan stood their ground. Lilia grabbed the protesting dwarf's arm and dragged him to the water. "Don't worry, Mygdewyn, I'm stronger than you in the water. If you just hold on to me, you won't drown!" she said assertively, and they disappeared with a loud splash. The creature wailed again piteously and slowly moved a step toward them. Gil felt suddenly deadly cold. Then he heard a hiss that resolved into words. You will feel my pain. Gil shivered and jumped back, refusing to listen anymore. He reached down for his sword, but found the scepter in his belt first.

"Is it—Grainnewyn?" Dylan breathed. "Yes," Aiovel said hurriedly and nodded. "I can't seem to free her spirit from whatever it is that holds her here, though I've already tried several times. But all of you have to get out of here! I can resist her so she won't follow you beyond the castle—" "No, you can't!" Galanor disagreed. "If you do, you'll be too weak to continue on your journey!" "I'm not leaving you here, lady," Dylan insisted, his sword bravely drawn. "She'll think twice before she attacks me." "No! Her magic is far too powerful for you!" Aiovel yelled and stepped in front of Dylan. Aiovel raised her arms, and from the dimness a pale dark blue aura formed tightly around her. As Gil stared, it seemed to him Aiovel's magic drew strength from the very stones around her, and from the rushing waters behind them. Galanor stood and joined her, adding his own magic power. As the brightness of their combined spell grew, the wraith wavered and stepped back. A minute passed as Gil looked on, feeling helpless. Then it became clear that Aiovel was weakening. "It's no use!" she cried at last. "I don't know how to break the spell, and we can't hold her back!" The wraith moved toward Aiovel, lashing out with her ghastly hand. Without hesitation, Dylan leaped in front of her. He screamed and fell writhing to the ground, clutching at a deep red gash across his chest that had melted through his armor. Then Galanor stood before the wraith; Gil watched in horror as the Dragorian fell beneath the wraith Queen's quick attack. In a panic, Gil gazed down at the scepter. He felt its power burning his hand. Now the scepter gleamed in the pale light, turning in his hand as though of its own accord. What could he do? Gil's mind searched for an answer. But he was only an orphaned servant boy! In his wildest imaginations, he'd never thought he might have to do battle with a spirit! Free her soul! The words formed in Gil's mind. Was it the scepter talking to him? But how did it know?— Gil didn't have time to think. The wraith was closing in upon Aiovel. Without hesitation, Gil raised his arm toward the wraith— or had the scepter taken hold of him? Suddenly, a bright flash of light burst from the scepter toward the wraith Queen. Gil heard faint words again, this time further away: Remember your name! Your life was just. Now out of your time, Return you must! With a great, mournful cry that shook the castle, the wraith fell. Gil

chanced a look; the furious eyes softened as they at last recognized Aiovel, and the Elf Queen stood, blinking. It had worked! She knew who she was. Now if only the Elf Queen could remember her unfinished task! Gil stoof a moment, when words again poured from the scepter. A moment later, he realized the scepter's power was flowing through him! The whispered words were coming from his own lips! Your spell fulfilled, the barrier holds, the gate now opens between two worlds! Gil blinked and stepped back. The white aura surrounding the wraith Queen faded, though a deep rumbling continued to sound through the castle. The Queen raised her arms like Aiovel often had, as though intoning a spell. For a moment, Grainnewyn was magically whole again. Gil watched, stunned, as she embraced young Aiovel. In spite of himself, Gil felt tears stinging his eyes. Watching the two of them, Gil found himself wishing he could say goodbye to his own mother, now that he was old enough to feel the loss of her. "Thank you both," Grainnewyn said to Aiovel, then looked kindly at Gil. "You have broken the spell holding me here in torment, and now the way has opened for me to leave this world." Grainnewyn looked down at the fallen companions. "One more thing I may still do, while my power remains." She said, lifting her hand. A ray of white light fell from her fingers onto Dylan and Galanor— after being around Ronan so long, Gil recognized the healing spell, though he sensed that this one was much stronger. In a moment, Galanor and Dylan stirred and groaned hoarsely. Then, Queen Grainnewyn's body began to fade away, until at last nothing remained of her. Where her original body lay buried there was no telling, but Gil was certain her soul had been freed at last. He felt strangely relieved— and gratified that he had played a small part in bringing her suffering to an end. However, with her departure, the rumbling around them grew, and several stones began to fall from the ceiling above. "Now we've really got to get out of here!" Aiovel shouted, holding a vial of sacred water to Galanor's lips, then she quickly administered it to Dylan. "With my mother's power gone, this castle will collapse any minute!" Gil nodded; they dived into the water as the great stones began to fall. ***** The water swept him along, pressing inward into his lungs as Gil struggled to stay afloat. His body ached as they were tossed along. He had lost sight of the others. The dark waters had enveloped them. Then it grew lighter. The waters cascaded over a small rise and they fell from the tunnel into a pool and into the

bright sunshine. Gil treaded to the surface, his lungs near to bursting. Spitting water out of his mouth, he turned around as the noise of the falling castle threatened to deafen him. He swam quickly to the far shore of the fountain, still inside the city. Across a courtyard, he saw stones falling into the wide castle moat, filling it with rubble and spreading onto the grass, upturning turf, dirt, and rock, and still more stones tumbled toward them. A few fell into the deep fountain, as the others climbed out onto the far, wide, circular bank. From the fountain a deep, stonewalled stream continued to the East, no doubt emptying into the River Inverlen. Lilia, Mygdewyn, and Rodruban were following the water ahead as far away from the crumbling castle as they could. Suddenly, the soggy dwarf looked back and shouted. The trio ahead waited as Gil and the others caught up. "What happened?" Mygdewyn asked, eyeing the strangely smooth gash in Dylan's chain mail, baring inches of his midsection, the bottom of his gold family crest now eaten away. Dylan sighed sadly. It was the second gash in it; would the armor look like holed cheese before they got to Gildorland? "I think Aiovel broke the spell around the Queen," Galanor said in amazement. "I don't remember anything after she attacked me until Aiovel healed us." Aiovel looked at Gil, but he shook his head to silence her. "That's pretty much what happened," Gil said, nodding vigorously as the companions' eyes turned to him. After all, would the wraith Queen have remembered who she was without Aiovel there? And even if that wasn't the case, Gil felt he couldn't take the credit anyway; it was the scepter's magic that had saved them. Aiovel narrowed her eyes at him as though she would have protested, but Gil smiled sheepishly, then shook his head as if to say no. He couldn't have the others making a fuss over him, not when the scepter had done everything on its own. Aiovel nodded hesitantly, a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth. If Gil wanted to keep what he had done a secret, the very least she could do would be to honor his wish. "Such a shame that castle had to fall!" Lilia whined. "All those treasures!" "Grainnewyn's magic and Galadon's curse were what was keeping it standing all these years," Galanor reminded her. "Yes, and we'd better hurry out of the city." Aiovel said. "Why?" Rodruban raised an eyebrow, still shaken by the panic that had taken hold of him back under the castle. Gil saw the imprint of a hand on Rodruban's cheek; no doubt the druid had suffered several humiliating blows before returning to his senses. "Because the magic is what kept the entire city from falling." Aiovel explained. "The protection spell surrounding it has begun to fade, and soon the castle will collapse. We'll be caught in the cascading debris if we don't get out of here." "Feeling better now?" Lilia said, slapping the bedraggled wet dwarf on

the back and sending him into a coughing fit. She turned to Aiovel and offered an impish smile. "Well, I've never been one to wear out my welcome!" ***** "So, what was it Rod-boy was about to eat back there?" Lilia asked late that afternoon as they stopped by the River of Argolen to find food. The druid shuffled in his pack for the basin, pestle, and powders he's obtained back in the wizards' guild, and fingered them, then hefted each powder in turn and set them on a small rock. Galanor had come over from the river with more fish for lunch. He opened his mouth, and a bright blue flame enveloped the writhing fish. It snapped and cooked rapidly in the dragon's breath of fire. "Neat trick. Can all dragons do that?" Lilia asked officiously. "Of course," Galanor answered, "but the key for me is not using my ice daggers and fire at the same time." He added with a laugh, then coughed. "Anyway, that powder Rodruban had is dragon ashes." He went on. "I could smell them from the other side of the room. Throw it and boom— you'd better hope you've got good aim. Unfortunately, eat that stuff and you'll feel like this fish here on the inside!" He made the fish nod agreement. Lilia rolled her eyes at the dragon's perverse sense of humor. "Although," Aiovel laughed. "The wizards used to use dragon ashes for a powerful potion of strength. After a few days, Rodruban would have started to feel better..." Rodruban didn't appear to appreciate her humor. "Here, take a look at them," Rodruban said, tossing the pouches to Galanor. "I don't want to explode myself accidentally." The Ice Dragorian fingered the dust inside and sniffed the contents. "Well," Galanor said, laughing, "this one is soap powder." He tossed the blue pouch to the frowning druid. "But this one—is invisible dust." The druid caught the other pouch and tucked it into his belt, smiling. "Your lunch, my lady," Galanor said, putting the hot fish on a stick and handing it to Lilia. "What about this?" Mygdewyn asked, pulling out the jeweled dagger he had found. Galanor peered at it and shook his head. "That's an Elwellyn dagger," Aiovel supplied. "And does it do anything special?" Mygdewyn asked. "Well— yes," Aiovel admitted. "It's awfully sharp." She laughed, and the dwarf narrowed his eyes. "All right," she waved her hands. "Actually, it does protect you from dragon magic. But it won't keep you from being roasted, so I wouldn't go charging up to any if I were you." "Ah, but with the cloak, I can," Mygdewyn reminded her. "How does this work?" Gil asked, pulling the scepter from his belt. The dwarf stared as Gil held it painlessly in his open palm; Mygdewyn was remembering the nasty burn that he'd received. "I've never seen anything like that before," Galanor admitted.

"Nor have I," Aiovel said. "It is not the craft of Elwellyn Elves. However, I do sense a powerful magic in it." She looked meaningfully at Gil. "Do you want it?" Gil offered it to her, but Aiovel waved him aside with her hand. "No, Gil, you're very generous, but I don't think it's wise. I can't say it would burn my hand as it did Mygdewyn, but it is not meant for elves. That scepter must have once belonged to a powerful human wizard, long ago. "It is strange that it seems to have accepted Gil as its new owner, though," she added as an afterthought. "But perhaps Gil has inherited some magic powers of his own." "Gil?" Lilia repeated skeptically, her eyebrows raised. "Gil?" she said again, uncomprehending, and looked blankly at him. Meanwhile, Gil shook his head vigorously in denial. "My father was a warrior, not a wizard!" he protested. "Oh?" Galanor said, his eyes narrowing. "I wonder."

XIII: Wizard "Master Iolo?" the magician ventured again, knocking more loudly on the heavy, blackened oak door of the wizard's private chamber. No answer came. But he'd come too far to give up now! It had taken all morning for him to reach the small guild where Master Iolo insisted on keeping residence. Iolo's magicians' guild really was some distance from the other guilds; Lorne had the sore feet to prove it! As far from the castle as one could be and still remain within the wall containing greater Gyfen, Jowan Lorne thought darkly. Imagine a wizard living just barely within the wall! It was simply unimaginable! Especially one of Master Iolo's standing. Not that Iolo ever seemed to remember his duties as High Wizard. Cormac had bestowed the honor upon him three years ago, and Iolo had yet to appear at the castle. Word had it he'd even missed the banquet given in his name. And why had Cormac bestowed the honor upon an unknown wizard? Lorne couldn't figure it out. Most of the other wizards talked about the High Wizard with a less than favorable assessment; Iolo had not even given a demonstration of his talents to anyone to quiet the rumors. But perhaps that was why Iolo chose to live out here in relative seclusion, Lorne thought. At least it deterred the other wizards from seeking him out, had they been inclined to challenge him. Few would ever make it far enough to find the place. Lorne himself had never met the man, but he'd been selected to carry a message as the head Castle Wizard's new magician journeyman. Lorne's predecessor, Kip, had brought back stories about Iolo for the past two years but had never succeeded in returning with the wizard. Yet this year Master Ivesen sounded determined that Lorne would prevail. Iolo would have to come; to refuse this time would be an open insult to the Prince himself! Lorne gathered his courage and rapped the door again. So far, he'd passed through the entire guild hall this way, knocking and entering empty rooms and connecting corridors until he reached the interior of the building. He began to doubt that Iolo actually had a working guild; for one thing, Lorne hadn't seen any apprentice magicians so far, though there had been signs that at least one journeyman might live here back near the entrance. But it took far more courage to invade the wizard's sanctum than it had inviting himself inside the unguarded building. After a moment, Lorne pushed the heavy door inward. The flickering light of a candelabrum barely illuminated the small windowless chamber; though it was surely a bright and warm afternoon out of doors, Lorne felt a chill as he entered the room. The wizard sat in a great chair facing away from him as he leaned over a book at his writing desk. Lorne edged around toward the bare fireplace. So far the wizard appeared to have taken no notice of him, but Lorne watched him closely. Used to the wizards of court, Lorne found Master Iolo anything but conventional. Instead of a long grey beard, Iolo was clean-shaven, and he had a rugged

face full of character, bearing evidence of former laughter and smiles. Not the ancient man Lorne expected, but certainly well past middle age, though Iolo showed no outward signs of frailty. Yet such outlandish garb he wore! Ivesen and the castle wizards wore the embroidered linen tunics of the court; few donned robes that would give any indication of their chosen profession except on special occasions. But even in the dim light, the silver moons, bright yellow suns, and odd colored runes that adorned the High Wizard's robes sparkled like polished steel, set in billowing folds of deep navy linen. Lorne stood agape, staring; the wizard finally looked up and stared back at him. Iolo's cornflower blue eyes twinkled in amusement, and finally Lorne realized the wizard was waiting for him to say something. No doubt, he wanted an explanation for this intrusion. "Master Iolo, I am Lorne, a messenger from Master Ivesen and Prince Cormac." He offered sheepishly. "Iolo?" The wizard repeated, bemused. "Master Iolo you said?" He continued to stare at Lorne with those piercing blue eyes. "Oh, yes, of course, now I remember!" Iolo cried suddenly, as comprehension dawned. Such an oddity that he had not recognized his own name; Iolo's eyes darted over Lorne, as though summing up Lorne's entire history in a glance. "So many names to keep up with, you understand." Iolo closed the heavy tome. "Iolo, yes. I've been using that name recently, haven't I?" He chuckled. "So what brings you here, young Lorne?" He asked at last, quite pleasantly. "Do sit down, lad." He gestured to a stool across the desk, and Lorne obliged. "Well, sir, it's about the apprentices. Ivesen wants you to—" The wizard waved him to silence with a small flick of his hand. Only the tips of his fingers showed from the billowing sleeves of his robe. "Yes, I suppose it is that time of year." Iolo nodded. "I'm sorry you came all this way, young man." He shook his head sadly. "But I just can't be concerned with all that hullaballoo right now." Lorne looked at the wizard in confusion. What was so important that Iolo wasn't willing to come to the castle for a single afternoon? "But, Master Iolo, the guild masters are planning a big occasion for their apprentices this year, and Kallias has already invited Prince Cormac to speak in the ceremony!" Lorne stopped. Iolo had stood and was shuffling toward the far wall where he kept his books and important artifacts. "I have more important things to do." Iolo said firmly. "But they can't have the ceremony without you!" Lorne protested. This was ridiculous! The High Wizard had obligations to fulfill. How could Lorne return to the castle without him? "Oh?" The wizard asked, intrigued. "Can they not? The King engages the services of a High Wizard to protect his kingdom and its people, not to entertain guests with silly little tricks." Lorne was taken aback. He considered a moment; it was true that Ivesen and the wizards at court usually performed their more showy tricks at the apprentices' leaving ceremony. Come to think of it, they often engaged in

contests of power to satisfy their own vanity and to entertain the King's courtiers. But what else was magic for but to show tricks to those who had no magic? There was, of course, an odd time when a show of magic was called for to protect the kingdom from outside threats, but the King himself was a wizard of high caliber, and really needed no other great wizard to secure his throne. What then, did the High Wizard hope to protect him from? Lorne realized suddenly that Iolo had turned his attention back to the wooden shelves lining the western wall of the small room, the long, dark blue robe swirling around his ankles as he searched among the tomes. "What are you doing, sir?" Lorne wondered, then chastised himself for being too forward. "Ah... " Iolo replied. "Patience, lad." In a moment, Iolo seemed to have come upon something hidden among the books, and he withdrew a spherical ball of smoky crystal. The wizard rubbed the fine dust off of the ball with his sleeve and held it up to the light of the candelabrum which lent it a soft white glow. "Go ahead, take a look at it," Iolo said as he returned to the desk and sat down. He put the ball in front of Lorne. "A crystal ball?" Lorne asked, peering into the finely crafted globe. Inside the ball, thin vapors swirled in perpetual motion. "Of course it's a crystal ball," Iolo sniffed. "Take it in your hands, lad." Lorne picked up the ball. It was considerably lighter than he had expected, and warm like a fresh loaf of bread from the ovens. Lorne remembered it was getting close to lunch time, and he had brought no provisions with him. Lorne held the crystal up to the light and watched, waiting for something to happen. The wizard regarded him curiously, and for several seconds all was quiet. Suddenly, the vapors in the ball parted and cleared, and Lorne caught a glimpse within the Palace courtyard. Then the familiar image faded, replaced by the startling sight of a giant horned creature sinking into a deep bog. Nearby, another charged across an open field. Lorne almost dropped the crystal like a hot coal, but before it could fall, Iolo reached his hands out and snatched it. "Be careful!" He snapped. "It would take longer than your lifetime to replace such a valuable tool!" Lorne hung his head, chagrined, and nodded. But his heart was still racing. "W—what was that?" He panted, ashen-faced. Iolo smiled secretively. "Nothing to be afraid of, my lad." He laughed. "At least, not for the present. But such matters are of great concern, and it is to them that I turn my energies. You must ask Prince Cormac to forgive me for missing the ceremony, but I believe he will understand." Lorne's attention was distracted as the wizard took the crystal ball into his hands. It still held the image Lorne had summoned, only now the wizard's hands moved deftly over the surface, bringing the running creature closer and into focus. Suddenly, a bright white light erupted under Iolo's hands, and in the crystal ball, a crack of lightning flashed in a cloudless sky, striking the creature on its great, horned head. Lorne could almost hear the creature's loud echoing wail as it fell to

the ground, bathed in the thin vapors of singed flesh. "How did you do that?" Lorne asked, amazed. Iolo only shrugged. "That will have to wait for another day, when we both have time for it. But these tricks are of little use, I'm afraid," he admitted, setting down the crystal. "Hardly effective at all, considering how many of these things there are. The effort of directing magic through a medium greatly reduces its strength, you understand, but is just as tiring. Of course, I have been preparing to deal with the situation for quite some time—" "What situation?" Lorne interrupted. "Goodness, what's this?" Iolo said, looking at the crystal ball. As he put it down another image had been forming. Now the wizard gazed at it attentively, his grey eyebrows knitting together. "Blast that Myrddin!" He exclaimed suddenly, glaring at the ball. Lorne studied the image. A throne room? No, it looked more like a temple. Yes, that was an altar, not a throne. Yet Lorne had never seen a temple so finely decorated, so rich with tapestries, gold— and feasting tables, he noticed as his stomach rumbled ruefully. What were all those standing stones for, though? He wondered about that when the image suddenly shifted. A hundred men and women clad in linen robes stood assembled around the altar now, talking, likely arguing. Expressions of fear and concern marred their faces; now that was unusual! For they were clearly druids and priests and as such supposedly not given to confrontations. Certainly they were far from Gyfen. In fact, Lorne was fairly sure the image came from the Summer Isle, from Bressilen, center of the priesthood. It had to be Bressilen; no other city in Daegoras claimed so many of the followers of Nature. Lorne glanced up at Master Iolo, who seemed somehow to be listening to the conversation going on in that far-off kingdom. "Such a bother!" Iolo shouted. "The moment my back is turned, that Myrddin decides to go off again, meddling where he's not wanted!" What was this? The High Priest had disappeared from the Bressilen Temple? Suddenly, Lorne understood the unusual discomposure of Myrddin's disciples. Without their leader, pandemonium would break out among the priests and druids. "I suppose I'll have to go after him," Iolo muttered, standing. He grabbed his hat and made his way over to the shelf. He then began pulling out items and stuffing them hurriedly into the long sleeves of his robe. "He is likely to get himself killed!" Iolo murmured querulously and placed his pointed hat on his head. "I trust you can find your way out, lad." Iolo said to Lorne. "And do give my regards to Cormac." Then without a word, the High Wizard disappeared without so much as a puff of smoke. *****

"It takes more than a lizard to make a meal out of me," Dylan muttered as he pulled his sword from a chamaelaeon carcass and began to wipe his bloodspattered blade on the grass. He picked up his walking staff from Argolen, then looked around to the others and spied Lilia over near the riverbank. "Drat!" Lilia waved her wand about, but nothing was happening. She supposed she must have exhausted the last of wand's waning magic on the pack leader. Well, at least there had been enough to take care of him. Guess I'll have to rely on you now, she thought, fingering the sapphire amulet about her neck that seemed to warn her if danger approached. "And now that that's over with..." Nearby, the dwarf slung his axe onto his back and smiled. Three dead chamaelaeons lay poleaxed on the ground. "Looks like someone's losing his touch." Lilia teased, drawing beside the dwarf. She pointed. Two long scratches had left a trail of blood on Mygdewyn's cheek, but the dwarf only shrugged; he didn't feel their sting until he sat down on the riverbank a minute later and returned to his unfinished breakfast. "Blast these flies!" he spat, waving away a swarm from his half-eaten fish. "We'll have to get going," Dylan said judiciously as he sat down by the dwarf. "Pretty soon the smell of these corpses is going to be an open invitation for every scavenging monster in the area to come this way." Mygdewyn nodded. They had traveled eleven days since leaving Argolen, following the banks of the River of Argolen steadily northeast. As much as he hated the water, if the river hadn't been flowing in the opposite direction from the Silver Mountains, he would have suggested building a boat and floating to the mountains. Only one thing disturbed him more. The monster attacks had been getting worse, and a time might come when they weren't so fortunate. Last week, they'd run across a small wyvern and two chimeras, but the reasonable wyvern had responded to Galanor's Dragorian diplomacy and had agreed to leave them be. The chimeras had been more difficult to deal with, and Mygdewyn had the bruises to prove it. "All clear!" Galanor shouted from further down the river. Aiovel and Galanor had been giving Gil lessons with the bow; Ronan had been indisposed with the call of nature when the chamaelaeons attacked but now appeared from behind a nearby copse of trees. An hour later, they resumed their eastern march. The River of Argolen had been narrowing as they traveled further east, and as they skirted the edge of the desert on the farther banks, the air grew arid; it was shaping up to be a scorching day. By noon, the cloudless blue sky stretched interminably. "My skin is shriveling like parchment!" Lilia wailed and flung an arm around her head, pulling her shadow cloak further down. Gil smiled in amusement as Lilia's voice seemed to come from the empty air beside him, but the truth was, he didn't care much for the weather, either. Dry heat was all right, as long as it wasn't this dry, or quite this hot. "And what are you smiling about?" the invisible Lilia asked; Gil heard the acerbic edge to her voice. It was time to beat a hasty retreat, he realized. Gil jogged ahead and stopped beside Dylan and Aiovel. They were talking about

governments and politics, a topic Gil found uninteresting and little understood. Gil lost himself in thought for a while, remembering his last sword lesson and trying to imagine how to make improvements in his technique, when Galanor called them to a halt for lunch. They stopped at a bend in the river that had formed a little peninsula. A short distance ahead, the course of the river carried the waters over a steep decline; the loud waterfall made it difficult to speak in an ordinary voice and be understood, but it also made a wonderful view. They sat in a circle by the water. The spray thrown up from the falls cooled the air. Mygdewyn was about to bite into his second piece of fish when he spied Galanor under a circle of trees, raising the dwarf's axe to chop a fallen log into pieces. Horrified, Mygdewyn jumped up from his seat by the bank and crossed over to the Dragorian just in time to stop him. "You'll ruin the edge!" Mygdewyn huffed. Galanor only shrugged. "I need something to spit the fish with." He offered peaceably. "Not with my axe you don't!" Mygdewyn retorted hotly, glaring at him, then marched back to the circle, squeezing the axe tightly in his hand. Suddenly he stopped, and his features blackened. "Hey, who stole my fish?!" He whirled around accusingly, sweeping the axe into an arc. Behind him, Aiovel ducked quickly. "Was it you, your highness?" Mygdewyn demanded, and his vitriolic gaze fell on Dylan. "Don't look at me." Dylan waved his hands in protest. "I don't even care for fish." "You know I wouldn't have eaten it Mygdewyn," Ronan said reassuringly when the dwarf's attention turned to him. "I hear dragons have an insatiable appetite," Mygdewyn began, now regarding Aiovel. "Are you suggesting that I ate it?" Aiovel arched a fair brow, incredulous. "Come come now. If I wanted more fish, Mygdewyn, I would merely have gone out and caught some more." Mygdewyn nodded reluctantly, seeing her point. "Maybe you forgot you'd already eaten it, Mygdewyn," Lilia put in. Gil thought the dwarf still looked unconsoled, but he grudgingly shelved the issue. Some time later, Galanor returned with more fish for everyone. Lilia refused her third piece and gave it to Mygdewyn, placating him somewhat. Instead she lay back on the ground for a moment's rest, her head by the water. She squirmed in the hot sun a few minutes before deciding to pull her cloak from under her; then she put it on top of her face to protect her from the mid-day heat. "Sourface!" She heard someone mutter nearby and sat bolt upright, knocking off her cloak. Next to her, Gil turned and offered her a broad smile. "You little twerp!" Lilia cried and suddenly seized Gil by his earlobe. "Take it back!" "Me? I didn't say anything!" Gil protested painfully. "Yes, you did! You called me a sourface!" Lilia wailed unhappily. "I am not a sourface!" "Good one, Gil," Dylan said, chuckling.

"Honestly, I didn't!" Gil cried. "Something tells me that more is going on here than we think," Aiovel said judiciously, looking about with a degree of circumspection. "Yes!" Lilia exclaimed. "Gil is about to get dunked!" And with that, she dragged Gil into the water. Gil knew better than to resist, for Lilia's strength magnified several times in the water, but he kicked about anyway, hoping at least she might let go of his hair. His scalp was really beginning to hurt. Lilia pushed his body down under the water just as he took a breath; sensing his predicament, she let go. But not before he had seen the face under the water. Gil came up for air, spluttering water and gasping for breath. Before Lilia could apologize to him, he scrambled madly to the shore like a man on fire. "There's someone there!" He wheezed at last and pointed to the water. Lilia's eyes widened in horror, and she jumped to the shore just as quickly. She dived behind Gil for protection and peered over his shoulder at the river. With a great splash, a small creature half the size of a dwarf surfaced its shaggy head and hopped onto the shore, tittering gleefully. "I fooled you!" It cried and danced about upon two spindly legs, its great coat of clattering sea shells making a terrific noise. The creature had a stringy tangle of sea weed hair, bright green eyes, and smelled like raw fish. "A bogle!" Aiovel cried. "I thought I sensed foul play." "So it was you who stole my fish!" Mygdewyn exclaimed. The creature nodded and patted his stomach. "Tasty, tasty!" he said. Mygdewyn scowled unhappily but made no move toward the creature. "W-who are you?" Lilia stuttered nervously from behind Gil. "Bewbachod Shellycoat at your service!" the bogle bowed. He cut a fine figure, Gil thought, even with the stringy hair. At least he could be pleasant and polite when it suited him. "What's a bogle?" Lilia asked, confused. "Imagine a Sea Elf not knowing that!" The bogle fixed its merry eyes on her and laughed. Gil thought his laughter was as high pitched as a child's. And he seemed to employ it with the same whimsical abandon. "A bogle is a kind of water sprite that delights in making mischief," Aiovel answered Lilia's question, following the bogle's movements carefully with her eyes. "But bogles are usually harmless, once their trickery is discovered." In a flash, Shellycoat stuck his pink tongue out at Aiovel, jammed his thumbs in his ears, and twisted them obnoxiously. Then just as quickly he clattered over toward Gil. "I've heard of bogles. They live in the sea." Lilia said, nodding. "So why are you so far from the ocean?" She asked, moving out from Gil's shadow. She reached out to touch the bogle's shell coat, but Shellycoat rapped her hand and danced back. "I might ask the same question of you!" the bogle retorted gleefully as Lilia clutched her throbbing fingers. "But since you asked, water sprites can live anywhere near water. Real Sea Elves know that!" He sneered. "What's the matter, aren't you a real Sea Elf?" Shellycoat waited, fixing his eyes on Lilia in

an annoying stare. Lilia hmmphed, nettled beyond words. Meanwhile, Gil changed his mind about the bogle. Lilia had asked but a simple question. That was no call for insults! Sensing Lilia's irritation, the bogle continued to pester her. "You're a land dweller, aren't you!" The bogle snickered. "A sea scammer! A man-in-the-water!" He called, borrowing a derogatory sea folk expression regarding creatures out of their element. Lilia had attempted to ignore the hideous diatribe, but the last remark seemed to have hit home. "All right! So you know the truth!" Lilia screamed tearfully. "I wasn't raised in the sea at all!" What was this? Gil was surprised by her admission, but more so about her sudden sensitivity. But then, in his experience, those with the most painful secrets sought most to hide them. "My father was Raff the Silversmith. He took care of me when my mother left us to return to the ocean." Lilia admitted. "I visited her a couple of times, of course, until she died a few years ago." The bogle stopped jumping about and regarded her with an odd expression. "The truth is," Lilia said, swallowing the lump in her throat, "I don't really understand Sea Elves. Of course, I do know enough to speak with them and get along with my ocean side of the family for a while. But others called me a land lover, and a flat foot and a—" she gulped. "Man-in-the water!" Lilia burst into tears, and Mygdewyn went to her side, patting her on the shoulder consolingly. Lilia looked up at him, seeming to feel better. "I see, so you've always lived on land." Dylan said facetiously. "No wonder you get along so well with humans." He had hoped to cheer her up, but saw that his attempt at humor was not appreciated. Lilia started to cry again. "You see?" Lilia wailed to the dwarf. "Humans aren't any better! To them I'll always be seaweed girl, or fish face, or water hog!" "Not to all humans," Gil reassured her. Dylan also winced at Lilia's words. He perfectly understood what it was like to bear the brunt of cruel childish jokes. "And the worst part is, the bogle was right." Lilia went on sadly, unmollified. "I am a land lover! It's true I'm half Sea Elf which keeps me tied to the water, but I can't live there all of the time. I crave flowers and trees and open air, too. But I never could play in the summers with the other Windfall kids. It's no fun being misunderstood— and unwelcome, everywhere you go! "On land, people think I'm a repellent, shady crafts dealer, but the Sea Elves don't think I belong in the sea with them, either." She went on. "So I left home. At least that way I choose to be an outsider. And I intend to be the greatest treasure hunter of them all! Gil listened, stunned by Lilia's sudden disclosure. He looked to the bogle, for the creature had also remained uncharacteristically silent during Lilia's tirade. To Gil's surprise, two fat tears trickled down Shellycoat's face! The

creature flung himself at Lilia with a great clattering of shells and latched his scrawny arms around her neck. "Oh, forgive poor Shellycoat!" he wailed. Lilia stopped and stared uncomprehendingly at the water sprite's sudden affection. "Shellycoat knows what nasty sea creatures say, oh yes! They call him cruel names and kick him unmercifully! Shellycoat had to flee from them, too!" "What a little suck-up." Dylan muttered, but the creature must have had good ears, even though they were buried under his mop of seaweed hair. Shellycoat turned to glare at Dylan. "You see? Meanies on land wouldn't welcome a poor lost bogle." Shellycoat looked back to Lilia. "Poor Shellycoat had to wander far away, to very lonely country. But he remembers cruel land folk! But now he pledges friendship to Lilia! "That is, if she will ever forgive him," he added, whining plaintively. Lilia nodded. "As long as that's the end of your pranks," she said at last. "I don't have a very high tolerance for them, you know." "When it isn't you being the prankster, you mean." Ronan interjected, and Lilia narrowed her eyes at him. "Well, isn't it time we get going?" Galanor said, having finished covering up the leftover fish bones. "Too dangerous!" Shellycoat cried and pointed up ahead, just beyond the waterfall. "There are lots of river and land monster dens that way." He said and shivered. "But," he added, brightening, "I can guide you around them!" So, Shellycoat only referred to himself in third person during his dramatics, Gil observed in amusement. What a strange little creature he was! "All right," Aiovel said. "You're sure about that, now?" Shellycoat nodded. "Monsters leave a bogle alone. But Shellycoat knows all their nasty, dirty tricks. You'll be safe with him!" He tittered, grasping Lilia's arm and pulling her to her feet. Dylan didn't like it. How could they trust a water sprite? No doubt Shellycoat was in cohoots with the monsters, an accomplice set out to lure other creatures to the monsters' dens. The bogle had to be lying! Or would he lead them faithfully, knowing that Dylan was wise to him, hoping the Prince would persuade the others to take a different route? Dylan sighed and allowed the bogle to lead them. It was the only way to find out the answer. ***** "There he is!" Shellycoat exclaimed and began a little dance. "The Leviathan's lair!" He stopped and pointed toward a large sandy spot on the right side of the trail, near the basin of a large waterfall. "I don't see anything," Lilia said, regarding the sand circle dubiously. "If that's a trap, why would any one fall for something so obvious?" She wondered. "Yes, quite!" the bogle replied, his head bobbing up and down. "A simple trap, but it works. You see, if it's not a trap, what else could it be? People always

wonder that. But anyone who is curious about the answer finds himself—or herself the Leviathan's dinner." He narrowed his eyes at Lilia. "But Charley's not too bright, so if you just walk around him, you'll be safe." "Charley?" Gil asked. "The Leviathan!" Shellycoat said, exasperated. "You know this creature?" Dylan asked, suspicious. The bogle glared at him. "Can't say I like him very much, but at least he's never bothered me. He moved up here a few years ago from down south somewhere. The fisherman were plundering the seas of so many fish that there were hardly any left for the sea creatures. Then one of the fisherman got the fool idea to try and harpoon old Charley. He'd never had much of an appetite for humans before, but since then he hasn't had any problems about eating them. Still, if you want to get to know him better— Oh, do be careful, friend Lilia!" The bogle cried, hurrying around the sand pit to catch up with the girl. As impatient as ever, Lilia had already charged ahead, risking life and limb. "Why did you never mention the Leviathan before? Dylan asked, turning to Aiovel. "Well, I haven't come this way in a long time." Aiovel offered, shrugging. "Some creatures move in, others move out. And I prefer traveling on the ancient road myself. There, you only have land monsters to deal with." "Sounds like Lilia's gotten herself caught in a Tangle Vine." Mygdewyn said, laughing. "Those things don't let go very easily." He slung down his axe and headed down the path to help her. The others followed, but Dylan lagged behind. He hesitated on the other side of the sand spot. Was it really a trap? Or was it just Shellycoat's way of getting them to trust him? Out of curiosity, Dylan idly tapped the sand on the edge with his foot. Suddenly, the sand circle began to quiver. In a second, it had collapsed. Dylan had no time to react; his foot sank, and he nearly slid into the gaping pit along with the falling sand. But he was far enough away from the center to grab hold of a nearby tree branch with the handle of his staff. He quickly pulled himself away from the trap, narrowly missing being sucked below by the writhing, ascending tentacles of a giant green monster. Dylan grimaced; each serpentine, flagellate arm was the thickness of a giant snake. A moment longer, and he would surely have been the Leviathan's dinner. Up ahead, Shellycoat laughed gleefully, his arms on his hips. "Now do you believe little Shellycoat?" He tittered. Dylan nodded, deciding it was time to give up. The next time Shellycoat warned him of danger, he was going to take the creature's word for it.

XIV: King of the Wind Nine days passed without further incident. At least, without any major catastrophe. There were of course certain obstacles and inconveniences to the wilderness, though the company was growing accustomed to them by now. And with Shellycoat and Aiovel as guides, the companions reached the lower peaks of the Silver Mountains without any scrapes with the local wildlife. The rugged landscape of the wilderness prevented them from making as good time as they had in the open fields of Gyfen, but at least they knew that the wilderness would be just as rough on the Dark Wizard's horde of monsters. As their path by the River of Argolen climbed higher into the foothills of the mountains, more and more they began to look down on the high, rugged hills of Briodun on their left. Crystal lakes and lush green woods dotted the countryside below, obscuring the dangers of the wilderness; the river dwindled on their right, coursing over high stony banks under the shadow of the mountains. "Ooh, I love mountain air!" Lilia cried enthusiastically. The temperature had been dropping steadily since they began to ascend into the foothills of the Silver Mountains, but it was still well above freezing. Still, for once, Dylan agreed with her. Though the long upward hike really was becoming murder on his calves! Behind him, Ronan puffed noisily. Dylan wondered again about the elf's terrible endurance. It was truly uncharacteristic for one of his race; elves were supposed to be hardy. But as Mygdewyn had explained, Ronan's fatigue was something magical, a side effect of the spell of choosing Myrddin had laid upon him. "What's that up ahead?" Ronan cried suddenly, pointing. Gil looked up, but he saw nothing unusual at first. He had been trudging alongside Dylan, carefully avoiding stones in the path that might have tripped him. Now, he began to make out the meandering silver line that intersected their path up ahead coming from the West. Beyond it, the River of Argolen branched away to the left following the highway. "The ancient highway at last!" Galanor said, letting out a long whistling sigh. "So what does that mean?" Lilia asked. "We're almost to the Elven mining colony," Aiovel replied. "Look there!" She pointed ahead to their right. For the first time since they had left Argolen, they saw a high, narrow bridge over the River of Argolen. "Are you sure it's safe to cross over?" Lilia asked, hesitating once they reached the bridge. Ahead, the middle of the wooden bridge swayed in the strong wind. As Lilia stepped tentatively on the first plank, the bridge protested with an ominous groan. She leaped back to the safety of the bank. "Allow me," Ronan said, stepping forward to touch the railing. A ripple of magic eddies effused from the priest's hand, blanching and rejuvenating the age-worn wood. "Good job!" Lilia squealed, hugging him around the neck so tightly that Ronan began to choke.

"I'll go first—in case it might still break," Galanor offered, and headed over to the other side without incident. They crossed over in tandem one at a time. Gil followed Mygdewyn with Dylan still behind him. Gil clasped the railing tightly as he shuffled to the other side. He wasn't trying to hold things up, but he discovered too late he didn't much care for heights as he eyed the rushing waters far below the thin wooden slats. If only he weren't always looking down! After all, Galanor had made it across, and Galanor was far heavier than he was, Gil tried to reassure himself. However, Galanor could save himself from a fall! Still, Mygdewyn had made it, too, despite the dwarf's understandable reservations. At least Gil could float in water should he fall into the river below. Gil passed over the final step and flung himself to the ground, panting now in relief as he waited for the knots in his stomach to work themselves out. Gil was so grateful to have reached dry land again that he didn't notice when Dylan rejoined them. "I can't go with you, Lilia." Shellycoat said suddenly as they made ready to resume their eastern march. "Huh?" Lilia halted, looking down at the water sprite in confusion. "Why not?" She insisted. "Mountains are too cold for a poor lost bogle!" Shellycoat said and shook his shaggy head. "Alas, all the water turns to snow and ice!" "But you can't leave us now!" Lilia protested, dismayed. Ronan nodded in agreement. Even Mygdewyn seemed at a loss for words. But then, that was usual for the dwarf. "Good-bye, Lilia!" Shellycoat cried, flinging his scrawny arms around her for a farewell hug. "Don't forget your friend Shellycoat," he sniffed, taking a step back toward the bridge. "He'll be lonely, so lonely!" "I won't forget you." Lilia nodded, smiling in amusement in spite of the situation. It was certainly true that she wouldn't forget him! "But why don't you move somewhere where I can visit you?" She suggested. "I'd never make it to the River of Argolen on my own, and I'm sure you'd be happier somewhere where there are people to play your pranks on." Shellycoat brightened, his eyes twinkling. He hopped up onto the bridge and whirled around in a circle. "Yes, yes, Lilia knows best! Shellycoat will go home to say good-bye to the river creatures. And then he will go back to the cities of the land folk and make merry!" Shellycoat danced around with an excited clattering of shells, then turned and gave a slight wave. A moment later, he jumped off the bridge and into the rushing water with a mighty splash. Then there was silence. As they headed away without their impish guide, Dylan realized the sprite had even grown on him, though he wouldn't have admitted it to anyone. Shellycoat's mischief was harmless, after all, not malicious as Nolan's taunts had been. And the bogle had been a welcome distraction from the dangers they would soon face. Dylan only realized that now that Shellycoat was gone. Ahead the great gate of the Elven mines loomed above them in the side of a mountain. Around it lay the scattered ruins of makeshift homes and workshops

and the dust of three thousand silent years. The hundred foot gate still held fast, but Aiovel quietly muttered some words in an ancient tongue that swung the doors back noiselessly on their hinges. As they passed under the silent rubble of the colony and under the great yawning mouth of the mines, Ronan and Aiovel lit torches on two dried branches that Aiovel had found under a tree across the bridge. They held them aloft as the companions descended into blackness. Gil felt the chill creeping into his bones as the shafts of daylight diminished behind them. He could almost taste the bitter wind stirred up by the opening of the gate. The air was dank and stale and full of strange hollow echoes of distant water dripping into deep pools. Gil's eyes refused to adjust to the dim light. Still, they darted from side to side uneasily, wary of the distant walls to either side of the wide passage, of what might lurk beyond the range of their torches. Gil was glad Dylan was behind him! He wouldn't have wanted to worry about what might be following them, either. After a while, side tunnels appeared in the main passage; at least Gil guessed that's what they were. Actually, Gil could sense them better than he could see them, for the air became biting cold as they passed by the obscure arching apertures. "How many elves lived here?" Ronan wondered out loud, his voice echoing unpleasantly loud against the far walls. "A lot of them came here from Maedera, two days travel west of here." Galanor replied quietly. "But as you might imagine, they didn't live here long. This was a working mine, not a city. There never was enough food to be found up here to sustain a large number, and the road getting here is too steep and stony for wagon wheels. In the old days, the Silver Elves had the Dragorians carry supplies up the mountain." "How did they see what they were doing?" Gil asked, looking around. Aiovel chuckled. "There used to be torches along the walls. Galadon destroyed them all to deter the Silver Elves from following them when he fled to Gildorland." Gil tripped suddenly on a loose rock in the path. He fell face first into the dirt, but quickly brought his hands down to stop himself. He climbed back to his feet, brushed the dirt from his cloak with hands stinging with raw scratches, and bent down to pick up the stone. It glinted in his dirty hands under the flickering light of the torches. Silver! It was a small lump of pure silver! Gil felt giddy. He tried, but he couldn't manage to hide his smile. A moment later, Lilia had caught sight of it. "What is that?" she asked, narrowing her eyes, but Gil could barely discern her features. Gil held the silver piece out in his hand but snatched it back before Lilia could grab it. "You did that on purpose!" Lilia whined. "Fine, don't share! I didn't want your precious rock anyway!" But inside, Lilia made a mental note to return here on her way back to Windfall.

"Do you think it's lunch time yet?" Mygdewyn ventured after they'd been walking several hours. "Who can tell?" Ronan said. "It seems like this tunnel goes on forever." "This place is nothing compared to the great dwarf cave ruins in the Black Mountains." Galanor interjected, musing aloud. "They have passages hundreds of miles long that take you from one end of the mountains to the other." "Dwarf caves?" Mygdewyn asked, intrigued. "Where are they?" "Actually, there are hundreds of different clan caves in the Black Mountains." Galanor replied thoughtfully. "But years ago when the dwarven Kings hid from Scathaechir when he would have driven them out of the ancient dragon lands, the dwarves sealed all of the entrances to their caves, except one in the west of Daegoras, on the northeastern most arm of the mountains. "Actually, it's not too far from the marshes, if I remember it correctly. The last entrance is hidden among the great boulders, small and unobtrusive as far as cave mouths go. Only just wide enough for a wagon, and too narrow for even the smallest ibrun." "They're still there?" Mygdewyn asked, excited. "Oh, yes." Galanor nodded. "I'm surprised you didn't know. Only they have to keep to themselves in order to survive. A few years ago I heard that a dwarven kingdom near Dunlaith tried to open their caves to trade with the Western cities, thinking they were far enough away from Scathaechir. "But then, sometime later, I heard that their venture had ended horribly. Their kingdom was destroyed; King Agar and his dwarves were all slaughtered by Scathaechir's son Vaelcruithir. So, you see, the other dwarves are not likely to show themselves outside of their mountains." "D-do you think they were my people?!" Mygdewyn cried. "Hmm," Galanor said, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. "I suppose it is possible. There might have been a few survivors from Agar's kingdom, but I've never heard of any." "Well, I was only a young child when Ronan's father Fildenod found me in Dunlaith." Mygdewyn observed. "I don't remember anything before that and little of the years immediately after. But it could be that I came to Dunlaith from the Black Mountains." "Yes," Galanor said, "but there's no way of knowing for certain. You could always go back to the Black Mountains and see what the dwarves know about Agar's kingdom..." Mygdewyn cringed as an image of Scathaechir's lair flashed through his memory. "I think I'll have to forego that journey." He said grimly. "What are we going to do about lunch?" Ronan asked. "Well, unless there's something in here you'd be willing to eat, I'd say we'll have to do without." Aiovel replied. "Surely I can conjure up something—" Ronan began. "No." Aiovel shook her head. "Not here. Magic attracts attention, especially when there are magical creatures about. Dangerous magical creatures. But don't worry. We should reach the upper pass by dinnertime tomorrow." "Tomorrow?" Mygdewyn's jaw dropped open.

"Wasn't it the upper pass where you had to turn back on your last attempt at this quest?" Dylan asked, remembering what she had said when they met in Gyfen. That meeting seemed more like two years ago, not three weeks ago. "You've got quite a good memory," Aiovel admitted, nodding. "Yes, the upper pass is what I'm mainly worried about." "Exactly what is the upper pass?" Ronan interrupted seriously. "This tunnel extends only halfway through the Silver Mountains," Aiovel explained. "That was as far as the elves had reached when Maedera and the mines were destroyed. Since the tunnels extended so far, the elves cut several steep roadways up through to the top of the mountains above where the Dragorians could collect the mined silver. The last and largest was known as the upper pass." "So why don't we take an earlier roadway? I'd rather climb over the mountains and have some dinner, if it's all the same." Mygdewyn snorted. "The other passes were narrow and have been filled in by falling debris over time with no one around to keep them clear." Aiovel explained. "I've tried to clear them out, but I haven't had much success. But the upper pass leads to a cave at the top of the highest mountain; the passage was clear not three months ago when I came after the snows melted." So why couldn't Aiovel get through it then? Dylan wondered. ***** Aiovel left her torch burning that evening, leaned against the left wall of the passage. The bedrock below them was too hard to support the torches. Gil shifted uncomfortably on his thin blanket before settling onto his side, his face toward the torch. His stomach rumbled fiercely, but he was too tired to care. A moment later, he turned again, deciding it would be better not to leave his back exposed to the wide unknown. Gil wasn't sure why he found it difficult to sleep. Aiovel and Galanor were on watch, and he knew that they weren't likely to nod off. Even had they been so inclined, Mygdewyn would have made it difficult; he was snoring loudly not far away. Ronan managed to bat the dwarf with his right arm, though Gil had been sure the elf was asleep. The effort produced the desired effect, though; Mygdewyn stopped snoring, and Ronan settled back into sleep. Gil turned over, and the hard edge of his scepter pressed into his hip. He moved quickly, but the scepter had pinched bone, and his skin throbbed painfully. It was strangely quiet. Gil opened his eyes and turned over. Aiovel sat slumped against the wall. Her eyes were closed! Gil stared. Galanor looked the same! He looked around to the still forms of the others, all asleep, when he heard a soft rustling sound behind him. Gil whirled around and cast aside his blanket, peering into the darkness. A large, gelatinous form rose above Lilia and Ronan. The head swayed, undulating, spraying a fine mist onto them. Lilia's necklace glowed in warning, but she didn't stir. The great circular jaw of a giant worm gaped horrendously, ready to strike

its unwary prey. So far, it had taken no notice of Gil. Gil drew his sword and leaped to his feet, kicking Mygdewyn as he rushed in front of the worm to defend the sleeping companions. But the dwarf remained where he lay. "Get up!" Gil screamed in warning, but no one stirred. Gil slashed at the giant worm frantically, his sword glowing a pale blue in the dark. The worm recoiled from its light, and Gil cut a great gash along one of its segmented rings. The creature balked and slithered away, apparently unused to its victims fighting back and not equipped to defend itself from the cruel bite of Gil's blade. It was a creature of stealth and surprise, but it was no match for lively prey. Gil waited, uncertain how to wake his companions. He knelt beside Dylan and kicked him hard in the ribs, hoping the prince would respond. Nothing happened, and Gil drew his boot back to try again. "Take it easy there, Gil!" Rodruban said, grabbing Gil by the arm and pulling him from Dylan. A moment ago, he'd been Ronan! Then Gil heard Aiovel and Galanor stirring by the wall. "You're awake!" Gil cried, overcome with relief. "Yes," Rodruban nodded, an amused smile twisting one side of his mouth. "Natural magic only works on me when I'm caught unaware, and then not for long." He observed, now smiling complacently. "But I believe we owe you our lives, Gil." Rodruban added and clapped Gil on the shoulder. "Yes, indeed." Aiovel agreed, drawing beside them. "It's a good thing you heard it coming before you were put to sleep." "I didn't think creatures like that could affect a dragon." Gil said, perplexed. "The next time it won't be able to." Aiovel nodded briskly. "It takes our kind only one encounter with such a creature to develop a counter-magic defense against its spells. It wouldn't have eaten Galanor and me, but we would have awakened too late for the rest of you." Aiovel added. "You'll notice how it went for Lilia and Ronan first—the weakest targets, or so it thought." "Why didn't you warn us about that thing?" Gil asked wanly, shivering. "If I hadn't been unable to sleep—" "I'm sorry, Gil. But I didn't know about the worm specifically." Aiovel shook her head. Galanor appeared beside them and nodded agreement. "I told you all there are many monsters we would have to look out for." Aiovel continued, undismayed. "But the worm at least will not bother us again." "All the same," Rodruban put in. "I think I shall keep watch with you this time. In case he decides to return." "I do hope he does." Galanor said, grinning widely. "I haven't had a decent meal in days." ***** The next day, the others woke to a groggy start. Gil supposed it was morning. He really couldn't tell anymore what time it was outside the mines. The time they gained in missing breakfast was soon lost in sluggishness as they

continued down the main passage. The tunnel dipped in and out at times but remained predominantly constant. Dylan thought he was going to go crazy if they didn't get out of the mines soon. Aiovel's explanation of what had happened the previous evening certainly cleared up the minor mystery of why he'd dreamed he was drowning in a pool of slimy goo in the marshes near Dunlaith. When he awoke that morning, the first thing he'd noticed was the film coating his armor. Dylan had shot up in alarm, to the supreme amusement of Lilia and Rodruban. Late in the afternoon, Aiovel stopped them as the tunnel widened sharply. "There it is ahead." She shouted. "The upper pass at last!" Dylan didn't see anything until they were almost upon it. The passageway had been cut into the steep side of the wall ahead, twisting over outcroppings up thousands of feet and out of sight. "I don't see any light up there. How do you know the pass isn't blocked?" Dylan asked, stalling despite his earlier eagerness to get out of the mines. He really wasn't in the mood to scale a mountain. Or a passage cut inside of one. "Why don't you just fly us to the top," Lilia suggested sweetly, looking at Galanor. "There's plenty of room in here." Apparently she didn't care much for rock climbing, either. Galanor said nothing. "Good idea," Mygdewyn put in. Galanor's brows knitted together in concentration. "I don't think that would be a good idea." He said. "Why not?" Lilia demanded, pursing her lips. "I can't climb all the way up there on an empty stomach!" "I can't either," Mygdewyn agreed. "Well, Galanor?" Aiovel said, giving him a significant look. "Should we risk it?" What risk? Dylan didn't like the sound of that. "Wait a minute—" he began in protest, but Lilia and Mygdewyn shushed him. "I suppose we could fly up part of the way." Galanor conceded. Before Dylan could object, Galanor turned into his dragon form and flapped his membranous wings. "Marvelous. Extra weight and no air currents." Galanor commented dryly in a deep, rumbling voice. Lilia, Mygdewyn, and Rodruban jumped onto Galanor's tail, happy at the prospect of sitting down for once. "What's Galanor so worried about?" Gil asked as he, Aiovel, and Dylan followed the others. Aiovel chose not to answer. "Just hold on." She said, smiling bleakly. "We've still got a lot of climbing to do, and we won't have time to rest later." ***** At the top of the shaft, Galanor stopped ascending. His wings beat furiously as he tried to maintain a stationary position while the others climbed to

the top of the passageway. The shaft had narrowed to the point where Galanor could go no further in dragon form, but Aiovel assured them that they were only a few hundred feet from the top of the mountain. A moment later, Galanor hopped adroitly to the passageway, already in elven form, his cloak drawn about him, his clothes grasped tightly in his hand. They waited a moment while he reclothed himself, and then set about hiking up the rest of the way. Galanor kept to the rear. Gil supposed it was because he and Aiovel were the most sure-footed, and that he hoped to stop any of them from falling if they stumbled on the rocky path. Gil couldn't imagine how any wagon would make it up the passage, though it was wide enough for one. At one time perhaps the stones had been laid smooth, but now several jutted askew. In the dark, a single misstep could become fatal. Finally the passage leveled, and a narrow opening appeared in the wall of the mountain. Gil supposed this was the beginning of the passage through the upper cave; by Aiovel's account, the cave extended only a half mile before opening up into the side of the largest peak in the Silver Mountains. To Gil's surprise, Aiovel stopped in front of the opening and cast her torch down into the shaft behind them. It sailed down, diminishing from sight and sound. They could not even hear it hit the bottom. Then Aiovel tried to grab the druid's torch. "What do you want me to give it up for?" Rodruban exclaimed, aghast. "We'll be no better off than blind men!" "Give it to me!" Aiovel cried. "You'll just have to try to follow in my exact footsteps!" She said and wrested the torch from him. Gil stared at her in the even dimmer light; this wasn't the Aiovel he thought that he knew at all! He supposed she had a good reason for being forceful, but he understood the druid's objection only too well. It was bad enough being trapped in here in the first place. But trapped in the dark? As Aiovel tossed the torch away, blackness descended. There was nothing else, only darkness. Gil couldn't even see his hands when he brought them up before his eyes. Gil almost panicked, but Galanor caught his shoulder. "Hold on to me." Galanor said reassuringly. "Take two steps forward until you find Dylan and hold on to his cloak." Gil did so, and a moment later, he found himself shuffling over rocks and into a wide passage. The cold struck him like a blow to the stomach. He gasped for breath, but the frigid air stung his lungs. His nostrils began to freeze up; he closed his eyes since he couldn't see and angled his cloak down over his aching forehead with a toss of his head, still holding on to both Galanor and Dylan. "Good grief!" Mygdewyn spat, and began to curse up ahead until Aiovel hushed him. "Don't make a sound!" she said forcefully, but in a whisper. It seemed an eternity later when Gil noticed a faint light ahead. The light grew, and the passage wound around a corner. Gil's nostrils were assaulted by a strange acrid smell, and suddenly he felt his heart sink into his boots. He knew that smell!

The reason for Aiovel's behavior became clear. As they turned the corner, Gil saw that the light ahead was not daylight. More than fifty white dragons lay curled together, pressed against the walls and everywhere in between. Puffs of flame illuminated the walls in random perpetual motion, like fireflies turning off and on. Gil stifled a scream. Aiovel had stepped between them and began picking her way to the far side of the cave toward a narrow shaft of daylight. ***** The wizard stepped from the rubble onto a tuft of new grass, coughing vigorously. The dust stirred up from the fall of the city of Argolen still clung to the air, though much of it had settled onto the ruins and nearby vegetation in a fine layer. Still more had run into the River of Argolen after a rain shower, and the current struggled its way over the silt-swollen banks. The tip of the high, rubble mountain was obscured by low-lying clouds; still even its environs proved more formidable than a real mountain could be. The rough, newly broken stones jutted unevenly, cutting the wizard's feet. After a few attempts at combing through the rubble, he decided to give up. It was an unforeseen catastrophe. Who would have thought that Grainnewyn might be freed while Galadon still lived? Now it was all lost, buried far too deep to be found, at least for the present. Perhaps one day, he might return to excavate the ruins— but at the moment, he had little time. He would just have to continue without it. And hope that the years of rest had amply prepared him. He stalked onward, not looking back. ***** Gil unashamedly watched his steps. Mountainous walls of thick, almost furry white flesh rose to either side of him. Aiovel led them through a narrow spot, where two Wind Dragons leaned against each other. There was only a small three foot high gap between them. Gil ducked, but as he passed through, his boot accidentally grazed one of the sleeping dragons. Gil cringed, alarmed, sure that the loud beatings of his heart must have been heard by all. After a moment, nothing happened. Behind him, Galanor was growing unusually impatient; the Dragorian booted Gil through the gap. Gil scrabbled forward on hands and knees, but a moment later, Galanor caught him by the neck and put him back on his feet. The shaft of daylight grew closer. Gil felt an icy draft blowing through it and heard the distant howl of the wind beyond. The Wind Dragons' breath seemed to have heated the air in this part of the cave. Gil had begun to sweat uncomfortably, and though he dreaded the prospect of freezing on the top of a mountain, he was willing to take that chance if they could escape the dragons' lair. Gil grasped Dylan's shoulder. Ahead of him, Lilia had disappeared via her shadow cloak. Gil wasn't surprised. But did she actually think the Wind Dragons

wouldn't be able to smell her if they did awaken? Thankfully, the dragons all seemed to be in a deep sleep. Gil wondered about that. Were they sleeping off a recent meal? He shuddered, appalled by the thought. What could have possibly fed such creatures he didn't want to know. Then he remembered that Aiovel had been unable to pass through here on her last visit. That meant Wind Dragons were ordinarily active creatures. So maybe they were hibernating for the summer. He hoped so; in that case, they weren't likely to awaken any time soon. And that might explain why their King hadn't posted any guards. But then again, how many creatures had passed through this way in the last thousand years? Gyfen now seemed such a very long way away. Dear Gyfen! Warm, safe Gyfen! They had almost cleared the largest dragon, a giant creature with beautifully streamlined folded wings shaped like a bat's but feathered like a bird's. Gil felt excruciatingly vulnerable as he moved past the dragon's great maw, but they couldn't go any faster without risking awakening the dragons. Suddenly, Gil felt Galanor's hand growing heavy on his shoulder. The Dragorian seemed to be urging him to speed up. Gil looked over his shoulder uncertainly at Galanor's pallid face. The large Wind Dragon's nostrils had flared as Aiovel passed by; they positively twitched when Galanor followed a second later. Before Gil had taken another step, the dragon's eyes flashed open. The enormous creature drew himself up to full stature and leered down at them with malicious intent. Gil was impressed; it took but a moment for the dragon to digest the situation. His roar echoed in the close walls of the cave. "Aieee!" Lilia screamed ahead as the other dragons began to awaken. **Reveal your name, Dragorian intruder!** The dragon seethed, glaring at Galanor. Gil realized he hadn't taken off the Ring of Dragontongues yet, for he understood every word the dragon bellowed. **I am Galanor. Son of Galinas and Alein.** Galanor replied, shooing Gil away with a quick flick of his hand while he had the dragons' attention. "Hurry up and get out of here," he whispered sidelong. Gil obliged but stopped a few paces away as one of the other dragons made a move toward him. Somehow he got the feeling that if he took another step, the creature was going to pounce on him. Gil swallowed. A precious few steps ahead, Dylan had made it to the crevice with the others. They had turned around when the dragons awoke. Aiovel pushed aside the others and took a step toward Gil as though coming to his defense. She was too late. The second dragon jumped with lightning speed, its large foreclaw descending upon Gil, cutting off all view. In a panic, Gil realized he'd been trapped like a mouse. But the dragon hadn't crushed him yet; apparently it enjoyed playing with its food. **Enough, Hwelin!** The largest dragon bellowed, and Gil felt the foreclaw above him quiver with trepidation. **Are you the King, or am I? Fool!

Did I ask you to make a move toward our guests?** **N-no, King Melesian,** Gil heard the dragon holding him offer apologetically. The creature unfurled its massive claw and removed it from above Gil. Gil sighed as cool, fresh air rushed in on him. But the dragon still stood within striking distance. Gil eyed it warily. **Such hasty creatures. Now, Galanor,** King Melesian turned to the Dragorian. Apparently even Dragon Kings were aware of the rules of decorum among their own kind. **Son of Galinas, you say?** His bright blue eyes narrowed to unblinking reptilian slits. **You remember Galinas, don't you?** He turned his head to address his fellows. The other dragons nodded dutifully. Gil wondered if they would have agreed whether they knew Galinas or not. **Galinas, the one who betrayed us to Dragoras.** He bellowed into the silence. **You were the betrayers,** Galanor said quietly, firmly. Gil grimaced. Galanor certainly had guts! Gil only hoped he wasn't about to see them first-hand. Melesian glowered at Galanor as though the remark had somehow stung him. Gil was confused. He thought he remembered Galanor saying it was difficult to insult the Wind Dragons. But then again, Melesian was supposedly far more cunning and quick-minded than his subjects. Maybe that also made him more sensitive. **I never raised a claw against Dragoras!** Melesian insisted defensively. **That ingratiating Galinas planned to ruin me from the start! Spreading rumors about me the moment my back was turned— and then he presumed to replace me as Dragoras' advisor!** Melesian snorted, his ire growing by leaps and bounds. Little wisps of smoke curled into the air as he spoke. **Thought you could trick me, eh?!** Melesian thundered suddenly, leaping between Galanor and the exit. Galanor had taken advantage of the Dragon King's tirade and had begun inching toward the crevice where the others waited. **Don't insult my intelligence by thinking you can get away that easily. I've been waiting a long time to settle the score with your father!** Melesian said sharply. **As his son, you should have known better than to intrude into my domain.** Before Galanor could speak in his own defense, Melesian had sprung, pouncing on him with ferocious malevolence. But the Dragorian had already transformed. The two great dragons collided and rolled, scratching and hissing, creating deep resounding echoes through the mountain. Gil leaped back, barely avoiding being crushed as they rolled toward him. Galanor had once told Gil there was an honor code even among dragons; as the battle between the two took place, Melesian's subjects kept a respectful distance. For a moment, Galanor seemed to have the upper hand; then Melesian broke free, gushing a great river of flame toward the Ice Dragon. Undaunted, Galanor countered with a quick stream of ice daggers. The clash of dragon breath sent a torrent of water into the air. Gil felt a few drops descending before the great splash soaked him through. He stepped back to avoid another wave when the dragon Hwelin saw his chance to grab a

quick bite. Gil caught the gleam in the dragon's eye and jumped back, drawing out his sword. Hwelin came to a sudden stop, recoiling in horror, but still leaning forward unsteadily. After all, he had been going very quickly. Now Hwelin cringed ludicrously, holding enormous foreclaws over his face as he peered, terrified, through his stubby dragon fingers. The dragons' fear of his sword was such an unreasonable thing! Gil thought, cogitating his experiences. It was only the size of a small needle, after all. But who ever said fear was a reasonable thing? Gil would have been terrified, too, if the one weapon in the world that could kill him was aimed in his direction. Though admittedly, it would have been difficult for Gil to reach any of the dragon's vital organs. Meanwhile, Gil sidestepped another wave, though his boots were immersed in the eddying puddles of water. Gil was thankful that his boots were watertight; his clothes might take hours to dry, but once wet, his feet would have taken longer. Gil turned slightly, keeping Hwelin in his sight while he looked to see how Galanor fared against the larger King of the Wind. There was a wicked gleam in Melesian's eye, as though he were planning a sly move that could not fail to bring down the son of his old rival. Galanor waited uncertainly. Gil owned that he looked quite fearsome, but next to Melesian, Galanor's inexperience and youth showed. **Enough of this!** A voice cried in Dragorian. Gil whirled around. Aiovel stood just behind him, along with the others. They had come back! Gil was relieved, but they should have saved themselves! What hope could they be against a tribe of the swiftest dragons in Arcaendria? Melesian seemed inclined to agree. Without hesitation, he unhinged his gaping jaws and let forth a stream of yellow-white dragon fire. Gil screamed, but found the flames washing over him without harming him. He looked directly into the fire, but the swirling flames broke and parted before him, without so much as raising the temperature around him. Mygdewyn jumped in front of Lilia and Ronan bravely, taking the full force of the onrushing flames. But the cloak of Elwellyn Elves Aiovel had given him in Gyfen protected him from the fire and vapors, just as the magic of Gil's sword had saved him. Of course, Mygdewyn had known of the cloak's supposed protective properties, but he still had the courage to take their effectiveness on faith. A moment later, the dwarf looked up; the flames had dissipated in a wide arc around him. But the right side of Mygdewyn's mustache smoldered; it appeared the cloak's fire-resistant magic had taken a moment to begin its defense. However, Mygdewyn remained unharmed. Behind him, the others were rolling out a few scattered flames from their cloaks. Like Gil, Aiovel had been unaffected. Meanwhile, King Melesian blinked in confusion. **Who are you?** he bellowed, mystified. His nostrils flared as he sniffed a moment to investigate, then turned and puffed flames at a subordinate to test his flames' potency. The younger dragon yelped in protest, much to

Melesian's satisfaction, but now the King understood his fire's ineffectiveness on his intruders. Melesian craned his head forward toward Aiovel, as though to sniff again, but suddenly his jaws gaped open. Apparently, he had decided to use other means to deal with her. He was going to eat her, and that would be that. **Wait!** Galanor cried. **She is Aiovel, daughter of Dragoras!** Melesian stopped and drew himself to full height, turning his head aside to get a good look at her. Galanor stumbled toward Aiovel protectively, still a little rattled from the effort of his fight. Now that Gil thought about it, it seemed dragons had difficulty effectively using their abilities against each other. But from what Gil had seen and heard, Aiovel possessed far greater magical abilities unheard of in the other dragons, no doubt inherited from her powerful elven mother, which gave her a potent advantage over all of the other Dragon Kings. An advantage that would hardly be lost upon Melesian. Gil now understood why Aiovel was holding back. She was giving Melesian an opportunity to save face! Even though the companions would have been outnumbered in a confrontation, Aiovel would surely be able to cause the King's ego status irreparable harm before either side won—or fled. **Daughter of— Dragoras?** Melesian repeated, taking in this surprise with regal equanimity. He swung his great head down toward Aiovel and sniffed again, then nodded. Now Gil thought he looked somewhat bewildered, and strangely wistful. **Very well then.** Melesian said at last. **Out of respect for your father, I will allow you to pass through my mountains.** Melesian waved a claw at one of his subordinates, and the smaller, sleek young dragon toddled forth from the other side of the cave. Gil chuckled. Wind Dragons may have been exquisite flyers; they pounced with cat-like precision and grace, but when traveling long distances on dry land they tended to waddle in a manner similar to ducks. Or maybe it was just that the young ones started out somewhat clumsy; Gil didn't know. **My messenger will fly to our other warrens to warn them of your coming.** Melesian resumed. Gil heard the dragon Hwelin stir beside him in surprise. No doubt it was something rare for the King of the Wind to release his prey, much less to grant them safe passage through his territory. **And I will spare Galanor's life, but he must go back the way he came.** Melesian went on, waving a foreclaw with exaggerated generosity. **I will not have him in my lands. Well he should have known to keep clear of me.** Melesian glared meaningfully at Galanor. **For many years, there has been no love lost between the Kings of Ice and Wind. But it is not unexpected that Galinas sent his son to face me,** Melesian added slyly. **No doubt he is too much of a coward to come himself.** Melesian's comment clearly nettled Galanor, but the Ice Dragorian said nothing. "The Dragon King has made a proposal," Aiovel said, turning to the others when it appeared Melesian was waiting for some kind of response to his

magnanimous offer. To refuse it might be the end of their quest— and their lives. After all, the Wind Dragons were the swiftest dragons of all—and possibly pounced faster than the time it took to summon a spell. "He asks that we leave Galanor behind in exchange for our freedom." Aiovel said quietly. "We'll miss you, old friend!" Lilia blurted tearfully, waving at the blue dragon. "Now hold on a minute," Dylan interrupted. He had to admit he hadn't liked Galanor much at first, but abandoning someone to save his own life was definitely not the chivalrous thing to do. "Just get out of here," Galanor-dragon managed in Roste. "I'm a big boy. I can survive on my own." He eyed Aiovel meaningfully. After a moment, she nodded understanding. **If you don't leave soon, I may change my mind,** Melesian interjected with a warning, seeming irritated that he couldn't understand their deliberation and that it was taking too long. He began to eye Lilia as though she would have made a tender morsel. **Very well, your majesty,** Aiovel said quickly. She deliberately avoided looking at the Ice Dragon; Gil suspected she might lose her nerve if she did. **We accept your terms.** Melesian nodded, and Hwelin accompanied them to the exit. Now that Gil looked at it, he realized that the cave mouth was far wider than he had guessed, but of course it had to be for the dragons to enter the cave. It angled sideways, between an overlapping ridge that cut out much of the natural light from outside and kept out the cold wind. Gil looked back one last time as the companions turned in the mouth of the cave, but Galanor had returned to Dragorian form, and it was too dim to see him. They trudged down an exiguous landing ledge, then skirted its edge until it came to an end. Now the hard part began as they were forced to climb down the steep side of the mountain. The sun was near setting as they reached another, wider ledge below and took temporary shelter between a cleft in the rocks, away from the full sting of the chilling winds. Gil felt them acutely in his damp clothes, but Aiovel offered him her cloak in exchange for his sodden one. His tunic felt clammy and clung to his skin, but at least the dry cloak kept him from feeling the full brunt of the mountain gales. Aiovel disappeared for a while, taking Galanor's place as she went off to hunt for food. Already exhausted, Ronan had difficulty conjuring more than a small loaf of bread, even though they could use magic freely again. As usual, his bread had a texture like glue; the forces behind his natural magic didn't seem to be concerned about the trivial things, like taste. When Aiovel returned, she brought a few white snow rabbits with her. Gil had been concerned that she might freeze out in the air without proper protection, but he supposed dragons were better equipped to deal with adverse weather conditions than humans. There was no wood for a fire this far above the tree line, but Aiovel

cleaned the rabbits and then laid the carcasses on a wide rock. She cast fireballs to cook them; the meat crackled in the flames and turned an oily brown. Without wood to keep warm and with the temperature dropping in the evening, Gil knew they were in for a long and difficult night. They huddled together under blankets as the sun went down and Aiovel finished preparing the rabbits. But as they ate for the first time in two days, no one spoke a word about what had happened. Gil felt a hollow pain inside such as he had not felt in many years. Again he felt the horror of leaving someone close to him behind and the guilt that he had survived that long-ago first encounter with dragons while his mother had not. Yet Galanor wasn't dead when they left him. Still, Gil wondered: would they ever see the Ice Dragon alive again?

XV: Gildorland "Hachoo!" Gil sneezed loudly. "You all right, boy?" Dylan asked, tossing his black orb into the air and catching it in one hand as they descended the shallow base of a mountain and into a small valley. They were almost out of the Silver Mountains, but had lost a day when Gil couldn't travel. The poor youth had developed a terrible fever the morning after they left the mines, and they'd been obliged to stay in the shelter on top of the mountain until the following morning, when Gil had recovered enough for travel. He still suffered from the terrible cold after six days, though the fever had broken. Rodruban had tried to cure the boy the first day, and Ronan the half-elf had attempted another healing spell the second day, but it seemed that not even natural magic could cure this most common ailment, though Ronan claimed other potent healing abilities— regenerating lost limbs and strengthening weak hearts, and the like. Dylan remained skeptical about that. But a good teeth cleaning spell, now that would be priceless. "Do you really think you should be playing with that?" Lilia inquired disagreeably, drawing alongside Dylan. "You might drop it and break it, and then you'll never know whether or not it's valuable." She shook her head in derision. "It's mine, so I can do what I want with it," Dylan retorted, but he put the orb away, anyway. Dylan had loaned his staff to Gil while the boy was ill only to discover that he himself had grown quite attached to it. Now that they were on surer ground, Dylan needed something to fidget with. "Well, Gil?" He turned to the shivering boy who stumbled on beside him. Gil had yet to answer him. "Do you need a rest, Gil?" Lilia shifted her attention, peering closely at him. Gil shook his head bravely, but he looked on the verge of collapse, Dylan thought. "It's about time for lunch, anyway," Mygdewyn put in, patting his stomach. "Think we're almost out of these mountains, Aiovel?" He asked. "I don't know any more than you do," Aiovel replied with a shrug. "I've never been here before." "Well, I can see you all desperately need my help," Ronan said affably. "Have no fear. I'll find out where we are." He finished, brandishing his staff. When he was an elf, he had a marvelously selfless attitude, Dylan thought. Ronan knelt to the ground and laid his palm on a large stone. A misty white aura surrounded him, and he inclined his ear nearer to the stone as though listening attentively. "The stone says it thinks there's a river not far from here— to the northeast," Ronan said good-naturedly. "Hmmm. That might take us the most direct route out of the mountains." Aiovel bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "Oh?" Lilia chortled, regarding Ronan with open skepticism. "And how does a dumb stone know anything about, well, anything?" She couldn't help asking, even though the stones in Argolen had been helpful and knowledgeable;

she enjoyed antagonizing Ronan too much. "The stones hear the river swelling every spring when the snows melt." Ronan responded in a matter-of-fact tone. "And a lot of the animals that come to drink from it pass by here regularly." "Yeah, well, your stone friends forgot to warn us that they were going to collapse on us in the Wizard's Guild in Argolen." Lilia pointed a finger in accusation. "Wonder what they aren't saying now." She muttered. "Rodruban doesn't pay attention to warnings," Mygdewyn offered in reassurance. "But you can trust Ronan doesn't miss anything." Meanwhile, Aiovel had pulled out her map again. Gil held the top for her as she smoothed out the furling edges. "Well, according to my map, a branch of the River Gildorland begins on this side of the mountains," Aiovel confirmed. "I wouldn't mind a drink of fresh water, myself," Mygdewyn said enthusiastically. "And I've eaten enough snow to last me a lifetime." They found the small, stony river not far away. After turning north, they had continued along the valley floor, which wound unexpectedly east. A rocky stream coursed down from a high western mountain and flowed down between the last two mountains into the foothills of Gildorland. Gil felt relieved. If they had continued directly east instead of turning north, they would have had another mountain to scale; now they could follow the river down into the wide, open terrain of eastern Daegoras. At least, it looked wide and open from this vantage point. What a glorious sight! Gil found his spirits raised, not only because their journey was nearly over, but because they would finally be leaving these dreadful, cold mountains behind! Gil heard a loud splash and jumped back reflexively. The last thing he needed was another dunking. Lilia erupted into a fit of laughter, but softened at Gil's woebegone expression. That water had to be cold! "Relax, Gil," she said pleasantly, paddling around in a giant circle. "I'm not going to drag you in here." "But I am." Aiovel interrupted suddenly. "What?" Mygdewyn gasped, appalled. "I can't risk flying us out of here so close to the Tower in case Galadon's spies see us, but it looks like the current picks up speed up ahead, and we can use that to our advantage." Aiovel pointed down into the valley. Dylan looked; sure enough, the river sped up and widened ahead, disappearing in a forested glen below. "Oh no, you're not thinking what I think you're thinking," Dylan said, suppressing a smile. "I'm going to transform." She nodded. "And you'll have to hang on. It's going to be a bumpy way down, by the looks of those rocks." Aiovel grinned. ***** Galanor wheeled around, riding the air currents, then came in for a soft landing on a sun-bleached rock, claws first. The sun beat down mercilessly in a

cloudless blue sky. Half-blinded from the glare of the sands, he blinked several times before he realized he'd landed too far away. Maybe the city wasn't by the river, after all. The branch had ended abruptly a few miles back. One minute there was a wide open river, the next— nothing. It was as though the river had been frozen and sliced in half, and the rest of it had been stolen away. Still, the gateway to the city was supposed to be near a weather-beaten rock in the shape of a horse's ear. He thought he could see it there in the distance, or was it only an illusion? With an effort, he flapped away from the flat rock and headed toward the other marker in the barren desert landscape. He felt his wings weakening as he circled the area, looking for the elusive rock. Now he was certain it had been but a mirage. Then suddenly there it was beneath him. He sighed in relief and fluttered down to an abrupt landing before resuming his Dragorian form. **Really, you ought to know better than to display yourself in public,** a sweet feminine voice said. Galanor blinked. Now he was standing knee-high in a water fountain in the midst of a giant city! He looked over in the direction the voice had come from and saw a beautiful golden-haired girl staring at him, hiding her smile with a demure hand. **S-sorry,** Galanor offered sheepishly, hurriedly pulling his clothes on again. **I'm Galanor. I was looking for the city of Dragoras.** He offered, glancing around at the grand parapets and turrets in the surrounding city. **Silly! This is Dragoras!** She snickered, shaking her head. **I've never been here before,** Galanor explained, suddenly refreshed by a cool breeze. Now the sun overhead shone behind puffy white clouds. He truly was out of the desert, so to speak. The city courtyards were a lush green, the buildings separated by tree-lined avenues. No doubt this was where the waters of the River of Argolen had disappeared to, literally. **In that case, I suppose I should show you around.** The girl said hospitably. **My name is Nynnia. My father is Alator, King of the Gold Dragons and the Dragorians of this city. So, Galanor, would you mind getting out of my fountain?** She added in an undertone. **Look, I haven't really got the time for a tour,** Galanor said, clambering out of the water. **I've flown across the desert to deliver a message to this city.** **It must be an important one then.** She interrupted excitedly. **I've never been outside the city myself, but I've heard stories. You look like an Ice Dragorian, you know. That means you're supposed to hate the desert the most. Tell me, was it truly a perilous flight? Father's advisor Bairak says there are Sand Dragons and Fire Dragons crawling everywhere, but I used to think he only said that to keep me from leaving the city. But you would know best about that. So was it? Perilous, I mean.** **I suppose it was,** Galanor conceded. **About my message—** **Ooh, tell me first!** She cried. **I'm always the last to know anything around here. But I found you, so I'm going to be included this time.**

**I'd really rather speak with the King—** Galanor began. **Well, father's sleeping right now and won't be disturbed for another month.** Nynnia said slyly. **But if you really want to talk to him, I can arrange it— as long as you tell me first.** She smiled prettily. **All right then.** Galanor sighed. **I have news that Queen Aiovel is still alive. She's heading to Dun Rigor to face the betrayer Galadon. I've come on her behalf to seek the aid of the last of the faithful, the Dragorians of Dragoras.** **And I'm a wet-nosed son of a harpy!** Nynnia laughed. **If you say so. But I meant what I said,** Galanor said seriously. Nynnia stopped. Ice Dragons weren't known for being imaginative, and none of the faithful ever spoke an untruth to each other in earnest. Little wrinkles gathered between her brows as this thought sank in. **What was that again?** She asked hoarsely. ***** Gil held on with all of the strength in his knees as they sloshed down the river. Lilia had taken the higher ground of Aiovel's neck and sat upright. Behind her, the dwarf shared the choice spot, his head buried in Aiovel's spiny backbone. Ronan and Dylan were somewhere behind Gil. Gil lay sprawled over a large, man-sized scale at the base of Aiovel's neck. His arms barely reached to both edges, but his hands found purchase there in between the thick scales. He clasped the ridge more tightly as they veered to the left. One thing was certain: Aiovel was no water dragon. Several times, they had hit the banks, knocking stones loose behind them. With each jarring impact, Gil's grip had slackened. A moment later, Gil felt his stomach lurch as they fell down another waterfall. His knees were weakening. Suddenly, he felt his legs sliding backward, and the hard edge of the scales threatened to cut his hands as gravity dragged him down. Gil let go. The momentum picked up over the smooth scales was about to carry Gil over Aiovel's rump, when a hand caught him by the scruff of his neck and held on to him. Gil looked over to Dylan, who had leaned far over to reach out an arm to stop him. His face showed the strain of Gil's weight. "Hurry up and hold on!" Dylan said through clenched teeth. Gil reached forward and got a firm hand-hold. Dylan eased the tension in his arm, and righted himself before he, too, could be dislodged. They held on for several more minutes when Aiovel stretched her wings and slowed to a halt. "You can open your eyes now, Mygdewyn!" Ronan exclaimed, still sitting between Dylan and the dwarf. Aiovel stepped onto the bank and shook herself, dropping them like flies. "Ouch!" Ronan said as he slid to the ground and landed on his derrière. Dylan hopped off adroitly, pulling Gil with him, just in time to avoid Lilia, who zigzagged down feet-first. Mygdewyn was still holding on to Aiovel's neck when she transformed.

"Do you mind letting go of me now?" She asked, and the dwarf blushed three shades of crimson. He let go, then spread Aiovel's cloak about her shoulders for her. "Where are we?" Gil wheezed, glancing about. Outside the wooded glen of the river, the grassy land appeared flat and mostly treeless. Gil nudged Dylan for a response, but the prince only reluctantly redirected his attention to Gil. "There aren't any road signs, of course, but I'd venture a guess we're in some grasslands." Dylan said with a trace of sarcasm. "Well, of course we are," Lilia put in. "But the question is, how far would you say we are from Gildorland?" She looked at Aiovel. "I don't know." Aiovel shrugged. "But the river was taking us too far south to keep going that way." "Can you get a bearing on the city, Ronan?" Mygdewyn asked. "You can do that?" Gil said, surprised. "Of course," Ronan replied, and his lips quirked into an amused smile. "With all of the people living in them, cities are like magnets for magic-seekers." Dylan looked up at the wide purple sky and burnt orange sun. Sunset was only a few short minutes away, and it was already turning cold, though not as cold as the mountains had been. "Shouldn't we stop here for the night?" He suggested, rubbing a knot in his neck. At least the trees were shelter, and he doubted it would be very easy to find water in the miles of dry land ahead. "You said it," Lilia agreed, collapsing. ***** Three days later, the wild grasslands gave way to the tended fields of a nearby city; hedgerows of young hazel trees partitioned the land into ordered pastures. In due course, they came across a rough path between two farmers' holdings that led north; the deep ruts of a hundred wagon wheels had long ago caked and cracked under the hot sun, leaving crumbly, upraised lanes of dried mud. They plodded on as the dirt path wound its way around stone farmhouses, past shabby wooden huts and fields of livestock. Dylan gouged a stone loose from the ground and kicked it along, until some time later the road branched. The northern road widened ahead; to the right it canted toward another farm. They took the main road, pausing for a brief lunch of leftover dried fish. "I need water." Lilia griped, grabbing the last flask of ordinary water from Ronan. "Easy there, Lilia." Mygdewyn said, taking back the flask from Lilia's weak hand. He had to admit, he pitied her condition. Well into her bad-tempered phase, she hadn't even enough remaining energy to resist. "We have to ration our supply." He added, softening. "We may be a long way yet from the city." "He's right," Dylan nodded. "What would you do if you had to go a day without water tomorrow?" "I wouldn't have to if Aiovel would be reasonable!" Lilia spat. "Why

doesn't she just fly us into the city?" Lilia grumped again. "Look, we've made it this far without being discovered," Dylan said diplomatically. "If Aiovel transforms here, we're likely to run into more trouble than a dehydrated fish girl with a bad temper." Gil snickered; the dwarf guffawed loudly, slapping Ronan on the back in the process. "I won't stand for it any more!" Lilia cried, stamping her feet, although what she was prepared to do about it remained a mystery. "If I don't get a drink soon, I'm going to shrivel up and die!" Gil chuckled, knowing this was an exaggeration at the least; Lilia had already gulped away more than her share of water by three times since breakfast. Even given the warm sunshine, she was hardly near expiration. In the dwarf's dying laughter, they heard the clattering sound of a wagon up ahead. The road wound to the left, obscured by high hedgerows. As they turned the corner, they nearly collided with a peasant farmer sitting atop a large horse-drawn cart, hauling a load of manure to his fields. "Whoah, Nellie!" The farmer shouted at the large, heavy-boned work horse. Nellie had reared up in surprise, but the heavy weight of the cart kept her from charging away. Ronan laid a hand on the beast's muzzle. Nellie's wild-eyed gaze softened into a look of gentle affection, and she snorted playfully as the priest scratched behind her ears. The farmer watched, his bushy eyebrows drawn together in amazement. "May we ask, is the city of Gildorland up ahead?" Ronan asked mostly for confirmation, taking advantage of the farmer's silence. "Well, I'll be damned!" The farmer blurted in a strange version of Roste speech. "Nellie's taken t'ye!" The farmer spoke more than with a rustic twang; Dylan recognized elements of old Roste in the man's speech. It took a moment for him to follow the man's words. "How fa' to Gildorland? I suppose ye'll be up from Gildford ta pay yer tribute, eh?" The farmer's face screwed up in concentration. "Hmmm, now let me see. Two miles to Halney's place, then another on't Mill Farm... no, Fland's first, then Mill Farm, and only a half mile 'tween 'em..." "Geez, this stinks!" Lilia sighed in the meanwhile and crumpled to the ground. Unfortunately, the smell of the manure was no less overwhelming there. "At this rate, we'll be here all day! Oh, why did I ever leave Windfall?" She grumbled. Gil looked down sympathetically, but he couldn't help smiling. "Wait a minute!" Lilia brightened. "If there's a mill, there's bound to be a water wheel driving it!" She cried, clapping her hands together. The farmer paused a moment as though trying to work out what Lilia was saying, then continued. "And afta' the Mill Farm, Gildorland lies strait ahead o' ye, 'bout a mile down in't valley there. A' in a', no mor'n four mile." The farmer finished with an affable but crooked, gap-toothed smile. "Now, I best be headin' aff. Got to get

t'other field done th' day." He lifted his straw hat to them, then pulled on his reins. Nellie obliged reluctantly, and the farmer turned the corner behind them, passing out of sight. True to the farmer's word, the dark silhouette of the city walls appeared ahead after they passed the mill. To Lilia's disappointment, there had been no water wheel, only several large windmills and a mill house clustered on the plain. As they neared the city, they saw Dun Rigor away to the East. Like a black needle atop a small hill surrounded by dark, barren fields, it loomed starkly over the surrounding valley. "Well, it looks like our partnership is almost at an end." Aiovel observed, as they stopped to survey the landscape. "Huh? Oh, yeah," Mygdewyn said, nodding, though Gil thought he seemed disappointed about it. Dylan glanced over at the other horizon; beyond, near the city's harbor, schooners, sloops, and cutters of various sizes sailed up and down the waters of a wide river. A bustling road hugged its banks; wagons swarmed in and out of the city's wide gates like tiny ants. "You aren't going to confront Galadon today, are you, Aiovel?" Dylan inquired. "No." Aiovel said, narrowing her eyes in curiosity. "Well, then why should we be in a hurry to break camp?" He said, clearing his throat. "Good point," Mygdewyn agreed. "I know I can't pay for anything until we sell some of the treasure we found. But I'll bet you anything the market has already closed for the day. I don't know of many that keep open long past midafternoon." "Right. So what do you think that was about a tribute?" Ronan interrupted. "Huh?" Mygdewyn's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "You're right." Dylan said, picking up on Ronan's train of thought. "The farmer did mention something about a tribute. That doesn't sound good." He considered it a moment. "If there are guards waiting inside the gate to take tribute, we'll be in some hot water. They'll know we aren't from around here when we can't pay them in local coin." "I have an idea." Lilia ventured with a conspiratorial wink, drawing their attention. "Why don't you let me go in and scout out some information?" she suggested. "They won't be able to see me with my shadow hood. I'll find out what's going on and come back for you when the coast is clear." "How about it?" Gil said, brightening. "Lilia's got a point there. We should let her check things out, don't you think?" "Well," Mygdewyn said, hesitating. "I don't know..." Dylan nodded, agreeing with the dwarf. "Don't try sparing my feelings or anything." Lilia said playfully. "Look, if I say I'll be back, I will." Lilia insisted. "Or do you have a better idea?" she added. "When you put it that way..." Dylan said reluctantly.

"Agreed," Ronan added, affable. "Don't forget," Aiovel warned. "We don't want to attract too much attention to ourselves, so no pickpocketing." "'Bye!" Lilia chirped, already headed briskly down the rolling slope of the hill toward the city in the valley. Mygdewyn shook his head in exasperation, though with some affection mingled in. "Are you sure it was wise to send her in there alone?" Dylan wondered, concern creasing his forehead. "She'll be back," Gil said firmly, quashing his own doubts. ***** The afternoon wore on as they waited for Lilia; Dylan was about to give up on her when she returned in the early evening, maybe two hours before sunset and before the city gates closed for the night. Mygdewyn jumped when she appeared suddenly in their midst, her hand on his shoulder. Lilia laughed gleefully at the dwarf's ashen face. "Got you!" She tittered. Mygdewyn turned, scowling at her. "What took you so long?" he barked, seeming to recover from the surprise, though Gil suspected Lilia's prank had inflated his ire. "It took me a while to find the market place." She said, sitting down. "Actually, there wasn't a market today. There's a Great Market once a week; the next one's three days from now. We could try selling our treasures at a local guild, but it appears that the guilds have to report any unusual artifacts that come to their attention." "So we'll have to wait around for a few days for the market," Dylan surmised. "How much will that cost?" "Oops. I forgot to find out." Lilia said sheepishly, sprawling on the grass. "But it won't do to try any comparative shopping." She shook her head. "There's a large inn where most of the travelers stay, pretty much the only decent one in town to speak of, even though Gildorland seems to be quite a large city. Almost as big as Gyfen from the look of it." "There's only one inn?" Gil asked, incredulous. Lilia nodded. "Only one you'd want to see." She grimaced as though remembering others less desirable. "I gather there are few visitors to Gildorland, and those who come here are from the other eastern kingdoms. Let's see, there's Murmanek and Naemar, and a few others. Anyway, they all pay tribute to the Dark Wizard, or else he sends his armies of beasts against them. From what I gathered, he's pretty much in control of the entire eastern half of Daegoras and has been for ages. "One of the traders from Murmanek told me that he's been trying to conquer the continent of Vilna over the ocean. That's where Murmanek and the other cities' wealth comes from. The people of Vilna have got an entire fleet of trading ships. But the Dark Wizard seems to want more than tribute now. There's talk that he's sent an army to actually depose his puppet, the King of Naemar." "How did you find all of that out?" Ronan wondered.

"Money talks," Lilia said, shrugging. "But we haven't got any local money," Mygdewyn protested. "You didn't give them any of your necklaces, did you?" "Heavens, no!" Lilia exclaimed, horrified. She rummaged inside her cloak and pulled out a handful of leather pouches dangling by strings tied together in a large knot. Lilia shook the pouches lightly, making the coins inside jangle enticingly. "Aiovel told you no stealing!" Ronan exclaimed. "How were we supposed to pay for lodgings, then?" Lilia countered. "Anyway, I took these from the Dark Wizard's tax collectors." "But—" Ronan started. "Just relax. No one caught me." Lilia 's smile was anything but contrite. "—you could have given us away!" the elf finished, flustered. "But I didn't." Lilia said. "And now we've got enough money to last until Market Day." "That isn't the point!" Ronan cried. "As much as I'm enjoying this, we can't just stand around here talking all day." Mygdewyn said. "I haven't eaten since breakfast." "What about the guards?" Gil interjected. Dylan and Aiovel looked anxiously at Lilia. "I didn't see any near the gates," she said, shaking her head. "But then again, who needs guards when you've got an army of beasts keeping things under control?" "Good point," Gil had to admit.

XVI: The Magic Gate "Come on, are you going to take pity on a hungry dwarf and buy us a big dinner or not?" Mygdewyn said to Lilia as she led them through the narrow, bustling, cobbled streets of Gildorland. "I suppose so," Lilia said at last, shrugging. "It won't do for you to starve in the street, now would it?" Gil suppressed a smile; he had some idea that they had grown on Lilia, even though she didn't want to admit it. Of course, they would all be parting company soon. Gil didn't know what the others planned to do, but he had promised to stay with Aiovel. It seemed strange that none of them had spoken of their intentions yet; they had been so occupied in getting to Dun Rigor that they hadn't really considered what they would do when they got there. Or how they would ever get back home. "Here it is," Lilia announced as they reached the inn. The wooden lintel hung so low across the doorway that Dylan, Gil, and Ronan had to stoop under it, but Ronan still managed to bump his head. Behind them, Mygdewyn snickered. He sauntered through the doorway under the low beam with overt pleasure. Aiovel pulled the door closed behind them, cutting off the draft, and they sat down at one of the tables inside, a large empty one near the back. The tavern was filling up this far toward evening but seemed less busy away from the bar. Several oil lamps hung from the dingy walls, casting pale shadows on the age-darkened floor. As Gil's nostrils were assaulted with the stench of beer, sweat, and other more offensive odors, he could hardly believe that this was the best inn that Gildorland had to offer. Still, if the people of this city lived under the yoke of a tyrant, what incentive was there to aspire to live in any better place than this? This realization surprised Gil; a month ago he would never have thought to draw these conclusions. A serving girl wound her way over to their table and set down a few tankards of ale, then made another trip. She was a pretty girl with raven hair and big green eyes, as Dylan quickly noticed. "The first one's free." She offered amiably, returning again with more ale. Dylan smiled appreciatively, and the girl blushed. "Free?" Gil echoed, confused. Marnat had never given anything away for free! Well, perhaps things here weren't as bad as he thought! "Why, yes," the girl nodded, stealing glances over at Dylan. "But no one ever stops at one, and the others aren't cheap." She laughed. "Can I get you anything, sir?" she asked, looking at Dylan. "How much for a meal and a night's stay?" Lilia asked. To her credit, she attempted old Roste. The group had decided to try to safeguard their identities by speaking in the local dialect, though the serving girl seemed to puzzle over Lilia's strange accent a moment. "Two gold each." The serving girl finally replied. "That includes another

beer, too. After that beer is five silver coins each. But you don't get another one free if you go out and come back in." She warned. "We'll take a room, then." Lilia said. The serving girl nodded and withdrew. "You don't look like you're from around here." A tall, burly man sauntered over from the bar; Gil had the feeling that he had been watching them since they entered. He was dressed in what passed for ordinary peasant attire for these parts and had short, greasy hair that was near black. No doubt a good scrubbing would have turned it back to brown. Though the man's half-smile was pleasant enough, Gil felt uneasy as the man headed toward them. Aside from the serving girl, the rest of the town's denizens had ignored them thus far. The stranger, however, seemed to harbor an ulterior motive. At least Gil thought so. "What's it to you?" Mygdewyn challenged, trying to imitate the intimidating smile Galanor had always used so effectively. The man laughed heartily, then sat down at their table, uninvited. "Peace, friend." He said, then turned to Dylan, eyeing the melted hole in Dylan's armor, the bare traces of his former family crest that now looked more like melted cheese. "It seems you've had a rough journey," he observed in amusement. On closer observation, Dylan realized that this man was something above a peasant. His clothes were not roughly cut but were well-sewn; no doubt he was a merchant of some sort, and reasonably affluent. With dismay, Dylan realized his own cloak had long since gone past threadbare and was well into tatters, and that the gaping holes in his armor were hardly complimentary to either his sense of self-worth or his social position. "Who are you?" Ronan asked suspiciously, wincing as he took a drink of dark, bitter ale. "Omierdin Brae's the name." The man smirked crookedly. "And you are?" "Ronan," Ronan answered reluctantly. It would have been rude not to answer, after all, since Ronan had asked the same question. Still, Ronan didn't much like the look of the man. A moment later, Omierdin turned to Aiovel, his eyes narrowing in a mixture of curiosity and vague recognition. "I'm Gil." Gil offered, in an attempt to distract Omierdin's attention. Gil figured he at least had little to lose in revealing his identity. Omierdin nodded slightly out of politeness, then turned to scrutinize Dylan and Mygdewyn. Dylan eyed Omierdin noncommittally; Mygdewyn glared at him with open hostility. "Well, your friends seem to have lost their tongues, young Gil." Omierdin said with a farce of jocund laughter. "I'm sorry to offend. Just being polite, you know. And who are you, my lovely?" He turned to Lilia. Lilia vacillated, no doubt flattered by the comment. But she refused to answer. Pickpockets were generally loathe to declaring their identities; Lilia was no exception. "Here you are," the serving girl interrupted, placing a platter in front of Dylan. She circled the table with dishes of bread, cheese, and gobbets of charred meat, then returned to Dylan. "Milea will be getting your room ready, sir," she

said, holding out her hand for payment. Lilia dug around for the gold and paid the girl. "And bring some water, please," she added. The girl gave a slight bow. "Enjoy your meal," she said and scuttled back to the kitchen. "Master Tattercloak can't even pay for his own meal, eh?" Omierdin guffawed loudly, clapping Mygdewyn on the shoulder. The dwarf appeared ready to sever it at the wrist if he didn't remove it. Luckily, Omierdin chose that moment to right himself in his chair. "Come now, sir, you'd let the lady pay? What kind of gentleman are you? Or are you a rogue?" He threw the last question in a challenging manner. "I am most certainly not!" Dylan retorted. "I'll have you know I am the Prince of Dunlaith!" "Are you indeed?" Omierdin said, considering that. His eyes narrowed to slits as he looked Dylan up and down; finally, his gaze fell on the telling signet ring on Dylan's right hand. "The Prince of Dunlaith?" Omierdin repeated slyly. "Hear that, fellows?" He shouted above the noise in the tavern. "We've got royalty here! Prince Tattercloak and his friends!" He howled, and the tavern erupted in derisive laughter. Omierdin stood abruptly, then returned to the bar. Dylan sunk down in his chair, feeling less than regal. Would even Culan have recognized him now? "Are you really a prince?" The serving girl ventured, returning with another round of ale and a large tankard of water for Lilia. She stared at Dylan, round-eyed. Dylan nodded weakly. Why not admit to it? No one here would believe him, anyway, Dylan thought ruefully. But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Here, his deeds would matter more than his social standing; if people judged him, it was Dylan the man they saw, not a royal prince. A minute later, the serving girl was called away. Gil stole glances to the bar where Omierdin sat; suddenly, the man got up. He headed to the side door of the tavern, then glanced back one last time at their table. He and Gil locked gazes. As the man departed, Gil felt a strange anxiety. "That man just left." Gil said, pointing to the side door. "You don't suppose he's working for the Dark Wizard, do you?" Lilia breathed, turning to Dylan. Gil shivered, hoping she was wrong. "Maybe he was looking out for strangers!" Lilia cried, working herself into a panic. "Come on, Lilia. Why would Galadon need to rely upon human spies? This fellow is probably just some local tradesman," Dylan disagreed, taking a large bite of some bread and cheese. "But he would need spies to keep an eye on things here in the city—" Gil began to protest. "I'm also inclined to agree with the lady," a voice carried from the corner of the room, a few feet from their table. Gil turned around to get a look at the speaker, whomever he was. A man in a fine, oak brown linen cloak sat hunched over a plate of food regarding them. His eyes twinkled in the pale light, though his face remained in shadows. "It would have been better to say nothing at all, or

at least wait until he left to confess your true identities to anyone." The stranger advised, shaking his head. "And what's it to you?" Lilia asked hotly, picking up one of the dwarf's favorite expressions. "Ah, well, you see, I've been waiting for Aiovel." The man explained with an airy wave. Dylan tensed, and his hand slipped to his sword. "Though I must admit, I expected you days earlier than this." The figure added, then pulled back the hood of his cloak. Underneath it, a beardless man with keen blue eyes and full shock of reddish-brown hair peered forth. "Master Myrddin!" Ronan cried, shocked. "How did you get here?" "Myrddin?!" Dylan echoed, flummoxed. The High Priest of Bressilen? Why was he here? The High Priest wouldn't just abandon his temple for nothing. But if he'd wanted to help Aiovel, why hadn't he shown up before? And how had he known where to find them? More than that, how had he gotten here ahead of them? "I'm still in my prime, boy!" Myrddin said, waving aside Ronan's questions. He stood abruptly, then came over to join them. "How do you know Aiovel?" Mygdewyn inquired. Myrddin smiled at the dwarf affectionately as he settled into his chair. "That is a long story, Mygdewyn." Aiovel said quickly. "But why are you here, Myrddin?" "Ah." Myrddin paused, collecting his thoughts. "When I saw the city of Argolen crumbling in my crystal ball, I suspected something of a magical nature was afoot in the wilderness. At first, I thought I had to be mistaken, that one of my druids had cast an illusion spell over the ball as some kind of practical joke. I assured myself that whoever the culprit was, he was going to pay for it by cleaning out my stables for a month. "But on close investigation, what did I see but Aiovel and that dragon friend of hers leading Ronan and Mygdewyn and a group of helpless innocents into the East!" Myrddin exclaimed. "I knew I had to do something to stop her from getting you all killed. I had a clear image of you outside Argolen, but then I lost you for a while. I reasoned that Aiovel would be guiding you here—and well, here you are! "Do I suspect aright, Aiovel? You are, of course, planning to vanquish Galadon?" Aiovel nodded. "I thought as much. Well, I suppose I'll have to help you to defeat him." Myrddin sighed. "Master Myrddin, you can't risk it!" Ronan cried, standing. "And why not?" Myrddin arched a bushy brow. "Galadon has an army of evil beasts. You could be killed, and then who would lead the Priesthood?" Ronan protested. "Let me go in your place!" He went on, without hesitation. "Ah, I knew there was conviction in you, boy," Myrddin nodded admiringly, as if at last confirming long held suspicions. "But I have no other choice in this. There comes a time when those of us who can must make a stand

for our beliefs. I don't much care for violence, but if a conflict must come to protect the innocent, I will not run from it." "But Master—" Ronan protested. "No more objections." Myrddin declared. "Galadon has held the East for far too long already, and I have sat idle long enough. At first, I thought his power would fade as the elven races diminished and retreated into their own kingdoms. Then I did nothing because he left the West relatively alone, and I had other matters to attend to. Other realms on other worlds to worry about, and problems to sort out in Vilna. But, my lad, I can't struggle with my conscience any longer. A right-minded person can not enjoy freedom bought by the slavery of his fellow creatures." "Well put, Myrddin!" A voice came faintly from just outside the window. A moment later, the door to the tavern swung back. "But must you always rush into things?" The owner of the voice continued, this time a little short of breath. Gil followed Myrddin's gaze to the doorway where a man in dark blue wizard's robe appeared; silver moons, bright yellow suns, and oddly colored runes sparkled in the fabric. Like Myrddin, he was beardless, and had a rugged face. Gil stared in open-mouthed wonder as the stranger headed toward them and sat down next to Dylan. A wizard! Gil felt himself trembling down to his toes. Why had he come? First Myrddin, now a wizard! Gil stole another glance toward the tavern door, half expecting the Dark Wizard himself to appear at any moment. "Ah, Aiovel you're looking lovelier than ever." The wizard said briskly, his cornflower blue eyes twinkling. "Nothing, thank you," he added, dismissing the serving girl who hovered nearby. "Flattery will get you nowhere, my friend." Aiovel flashed him an amused grin. "Well, it's been a long time, hasn't it, Calatin?" Myrddin said, a bright gleam in his eye. "I haven't seen you since you closed off the magic gate and trapped me here," he added affably, with only a trace of resentment. The magic gate? Gil almost fell off his chair. Could this really be the wizard who controlled the magic gate of Gyfen? Maybe the stories he'd heard from Niel were true, after all! Yet who was this Calatin? Gil found the name strangely familiar, though he couldn't seem to remember why. "Still sore about that, eh, Myrddin?" Calatin chuckled. "But you see, I didn't close the gate off— exactly. The gate closed itself." He shrugged. "Excuses, excuses." Myrddin sighed dismissively. "Hold on a moment. Just who are you?" Mygdewyn said, peering into the wizard's face. "Calatin is my brother." Myrddin explained. "Your brother?" Ronan gasped. "But that's— impossible!" "I assure you it is possible, lad," Myrddin said kindly. "Though as you can probably tell, Calatin is much older than I am." "A bit," Calatin admitted. "Ah, yes, I remember young Mygdewyn." Calatin said, turning to the dwarf. "The one who always used to eat all of my

strawberry tarts. It's all right. I'd long since forgiven you for it." He added, when Mygdewyn would have apologized. Then Calatin's gaze found Lilia, and his eyes narrowed. "So we meet again, my dear!" He exclaimed. "I wondered why I couldn't find you in my crystal ball. Are you a wizard of some kind?" "Lilia? You can't be serious," Dylan laughed, incredulous. "Well, that is curious." Calatin pondered, shaking his head. "I even sent out a guard to get my wand back, but they returned without it. After that, the thief vanished. Of course, it was only a minor nuisance losing my wand, but I did wonder how she got away." "I thought that was Iolo's wand." Dylan objected. "Yes, I was using that name." Calatin admitted. "So it was you who made the wand of lightning?" Ronan rasped, struggling to follow. "Yes." Calatin shrugged slightly. "And the shadow cloak?" Ronan wondered. "Ah yes, I had forgotten about that." Calatin nodded. "I had just laid it out that morning. My apprentice was supposed to take it to be mended." "Of course!" Gil blurted, interrupting. "Calatin. That was the name etched in gold on the Wizard's Guild in Argolen!" Dylan and the others turned to stare at Gil in mute surprise. Aiovel nodded admiringly. "And who are you, lad?" Calatin asked, his gaze falling on Gil. For a moment, confusion clouded the wizard's features; Dylan thought he seemed strangely moved by the sight of the boy. But why? "I'm Gil." Gil replied obligingly, cocking his head nervously under the intense glare of the wizard's eyes. Suddenly, Calatin's eyes widened in surprise, and he peered at Gil closely. "It's you! You survived!" He cried. In an instant, Calatin had dragged the boy over and into a tight embrace. Gil began to choke. Things were getting stranger and stranger! Dylan thought, rubbing his eyes. "Survived what?" Gil managed, as Calatin squeezed the breath out of him. "Dear boy, I thought you died with your mother!" Calatin went on; only Myrddin seemed to have a clue about what he was saying. "Would somebody please make some sense around here?" Lilia whined, stamping her foot. ***** "Tell me, young Gil, was your mother's name Renay?" Calatin asked several mintues later, releasing Gil's neck. Gil coughed a moment, then sat down, watching the wizard warily. "Yes," Gil said slowly, searching his memory. In his recollection, he heard a distant voice calling her name. Of course! Renay! How could he have forgotten his mother's name?

"Renay's son? Well, I'll be!" Myrddin exclaimed, his eyes bright. Aiovel looked at Gil, an odd, quizzical expression on her face. "Did you know my mother?" Gil asked, scrutinizing the wizard. Calatin nodded slightly. "But h-how?" Gil stuttered. "If you lived in Argolen—" he broke off in confusion. "Yes, I lived in Argolen long ago." Calatin admitted. "I was the head of the Wizard's Guild there." "But you left when the city fell." Lilia observed. "No." Calatin shook his head. "But—" Lilia began. "I left several years before." Calatin corrected her. "You see, Aiovel's mother charged me with the great responsibility of controlling Daegoras' magic dimensional gate and its traffic. At first, I did not wish to leave the city of Argolen, for Gyfen was but a small settlement on the plains back then, and a dangerous entry point for creatures from other worlds who passed through the dimensional gate." "If you didn't create the gate, how could you hope to control it where the elves had failed?" Dylan wondered, perplexed. "I'm not certain they had ever tried to control it before." Calatin pursed his lips. "But it did take me quite some time to work out how the gate operated. After many years of observation and attempts to monitor its activity both into and out of Daegoras, I did gain some measure of control over it. Though the gate often seems to have a mind of its own. Guarding it has never been an easy task; I cannot say I actually control it." "Then why did Grainnewyn want you to try?" Gil inquired, intrigued. "Well, Gil, at the time, many of the cursed dragons had escaped through the gate and fled to pillage and conquer other worlds." Calatin spread his palms wide. "After their betrayal of Dragoras and attack on Argolen when Aiovel was born, Grainnewyn began to fear that the cursed dragons would all escape Dragorian justice if the gate remained open to them; or worse, that the ones who had escaped might return some time after they had fled at an unexpected moment and in greater numbers. So to prevent this and to keep the cursed dragons from destroying other, innocent worlds, I had to contain the gateway. Unfortunately, a great many of them had already gotten through and traveled to different worlds, where they were trapped forever." "And the trapped dragons couldn't return to our world once Calatin took control of the gate." Myrddin added. "Nor could I visit realms on other worlds, when Calatin closed it off." "I didn't close it off, Myrddin." Calatin protested again. "The gateway closed itself off, when Guilian came through." "Guilian? Who's Guilian?" Lilia asked, scratching her cheek absently with her forefinger. "Who indeed," Calatin chuckled, holding up a palm. "For many years after Grainnewyn's death, there were no wizards or warriors great enough to challenge Galadon's power in the East." He explained. "Myrddin had gone to

other realms to help guide men against the dragons and the dark creatures of Arcaendria who had escaped through the gate. I was left alone to safeguard the West. In due course, I began to consider that if no one on Arcaendria could defeat Galadon, perhaps one from another world might be able to. So I began my search for a warrior." "If you're the greatest wizard of Argolen, why couldn't you stop Galadon yourself?" Lilia asked stubbornly. "I wish I could have." Calatin admitted. "At one time, I might have been able to defeat Galadon alone. But in order to continue maintaining the gate, much of my magic has gone into preserving my life— what I have not spent trying to use and control the gate itself." "You still haven't explained who Guilian was." Gil reminded him. Calatin fixed his blue eyes on Gil and smiled. "Ah, you see, dear boy, I brought him through the gate from a distant realm. Magic had long been waning in his world, even before the humans there helped magic vanish by slaying their dragons and other magical creatures. Many of that world's wizards and magical creatures had begun to flee to other worlds through the weakening magic gates on their own planet—quite a few came here to Arcaendria." He winked at Myrddin. "What was that place called?" Lilia inquired, idly drumming her fingers against the table. "Over the years, it had several names." Calatin replied evasively. "For like the images in my crystal ball, the doorway on the other side moved around and was not fixed in one particular location. So, I searched many lands, until finally, I found a young knight called Guilian." "The warrior who strengthened the magical boundary!" Dylan blurted, at last remembering why the name seemed familiar. Of course! Aiovel had mentioned him way back in the Elwellyn Forest, during a conversation with one of her subjects! "Yes." Calatin said, nodding judiciously. "But before I fetched Guilian through the gate, I'm afraid several, shall we say, less than worthy warriors managed to come across to Daegoras. Many of them marauded the city of Gyfen, and their descendants became highwaymen." "The brigand bands!" Gil cried. So, Niel had been right about that! "Yes." Calatin admitted, suitably contrite. "For two thousand years I searched, but when Guilian translated to this dimension, I believe most of the last magic of his homeland of Europa came with him. So, you see, he became more than just a great warrior, but a powerful wizard as well. And with his passage now nearly twenty years ago, the gate inexplicably closed itself off. Perhaps because Guilian was the final straw, so to speak; Daegoras may have been saturated with as many different magics as it can tolerate." "But if this person was so powerful, why didn't Guilian stop Galadon then?" Lilia argued doggedly. Calatin forced a smile. "You must understand, though Guilian was a remarkable young warrior, he'd never been trained in the magical arts. He simply wasn't able to control his magical powers right away, despite his great potential." Calatin replied, steepling his palms. "So, for a time, I set about teaching him how

to use his magic." "So what happened?" Mygdewyn pursued. "While he stayed with me, my daughter Renay fell in love with him." Calatin admitted, shaking his head. "Because I felt she was too young, I foolishly forbad her to marry him. But that girl turned out to be every bit as stubborn as her mother." "She disobeyed you?" Lilia suggested, excited. "Yes." Calatin nodded heavily. "Because I disapproved, the two of them eloped before Guilian was fully prepared for his quest." "You mean—" Gil gulped. Guilian was his father? Calatin was his grandfather? This was too much to take in so suddenly! Every pair of eyes turned to stare at Gil, but he was too stunned to notice. "Yes, my boy, you are the child of Guilian and Renay." Calatin continued gently. "You are Guilian, named after your father, but your mother called you Gil to distinguish you. That and—well, Guilian was rather difficult to pronounce," he added with an amused smile. "But if they left you, how do you know all of this?" Gil wondered in bewilderment. "I can replay events both past and present in my crystal ball." Calatin replied, then he withdrew a smoky crystal sphere from the inner lining of his robe. His deft fingers moved across the surface, summoning an image of a bustling city Gil didn't recognize. "I knew when Renay had a child, but she refused to let me visit you." Calatin went on. "She was afraid I would take Guilian away from her by encouraging him to face Galadon. Also, well, the truth is, I believe she felt alienated by me when she was growing up. It isn't easy being the child of a wizard, you know." Calatin shook his head sadly. Lilia patted the wizard's shoulder consolingly. "I don't remember my father at all." Gil said, now feeling sad. "You used to follow him around, imitating everything that he did." Calatin cracked a bittersweet smile. "You even had your own little practice sword. I used to watch the two of you; Guilian was, at least, a good and loving father." "How did he die?" Gil asked with forced composure. "Mother and I went out to look for him, when—" Gil broke off, swallowing back tears. Calatin nodded. "Yes, your father was killed, boy. Soon after you were born, I heard news from Dunlaith's guard that the black dragons had begun to menace the south lands; they had just destroyed the dwarven colony in the Black Mountains, and were hunting down the dwarves who escaped." Calatin explained. "I imagine as soon as Guilian heard about them, he rushed to the fens to strengthen the magic boundary. No doubt he spent his magic in that effort, for when the young black dragon Vaelcruithir caught him unaware, Guilian lacked the strength to defend himself. And so it was that Vaelcruithir killed him." "But my mother—" Gil said. "I couldn't stop Renay from looking for Guilian any more than I could stop your father from going to strengthen the boundary. Renay never found

Guilian, but she was a powerful wizard in her own right. At least, she would have been." He amended, shrugging. "She refused to believe that growing up, and never would let me teach her how to use magic. I think she resented magic because she thought it had it had robbed her of a father. But in her dire need, she was able to cast a spell that led her to the field where Guilian had died. It was there that Vaelcruithir found her." "Why didn't you save her?" Gil demanded. "The sight of my crystal ball was obstructed by powerful magic— perhaps by Renay herself. I have never been able to summon an image of what happened." Calatin said, his eyes glistening. "Vaelcruithir flew away." Gil supplied, remembering. He had suppressed these memories for so many years, but Calatin's presence now stirred them up. "You mean— Vaelcruithir didn't devour her?" Calatin suggested hopefully. "No— but she died!" Gil cried bitterly. What did it matter if she had been devoured or not? She had been killed, and that was enough. But Gil had matured enough recently to recognize Calatin's feelings; he imagined it was easier for the old wizard to bear his daughter's death knowing that she had not been dragon food. "She stood bravely against him." Gil tried to remember. "There were— white flames around her." "Hmm. Then she was casting a spell." Myrddin nodded. "I had my face buried in her dress when she fell." Gil continued, swallowing. "She wouldn't move. Her dress was stained with blood— I stayed beside her for hours after the dragon left, until a caravan came. The man who found me buried her in the field— but why didn't you come looking for me when she died?" Gil blurted suddenly. "I didn't know that you were still alive, Gil." Calatin shook his head sadly. "When Renay never returned, I searched for you in vain, and finally I assumed you had died with your mother. I think now, however, that the final spell she cast was on you; a ward to protect you from being found— by the dragons or anyone else. It was a powerful spell, and its magic power still holds you. I believe it is what keeps you from being found by magic." "So that is what kept me from locating you all." Myrddin interjected. "And why my thief disappeared so effectively." Calatin surmised. "Gil's power must have kept her whereabouts unknown to me." Calatin nodded, his gaze lingering on Lilia. "Now I understand!" Aiovel said. "Galanor and I wondered why I couldn't find Gil." Aiovel said. "I should have known that some kind of warding spell must have been protecting him, or else the Ring of Dragontongues would have led me directly to him." "And Gil must have rejoined you in Argolen." Myrddin said. "Because that was the last time that I detected any of you. Just before the city collapsed." Myrddin explained. "Wait a moment." Dylan said, struggling to follow. "If that was the spell Renay was casting, why did Vaelcruithir fly away? Surely he could still see Gil." Dylan observed.

Calatin looked to Gil, pausing. "I can only imagine that Gil himself repelled the dragon on his own somehow. My guess is that urgency focused Gil's latent powers. He must have tried to cast a spell of protection around his mother, but succeeded too late." "I don't have any magic," Gil protested stubbornly. "If I did, my mother would have lived." "It isn't your fault that she died, Gil. You were just a child. You couldn't do anything to save her." Myrddin said consolingly. "Magic is inherited, Gil." Dylan reminded him gently. "If your family has a strong history in magic, chances are you'll be a wizard, too." "If I had any magic talent, it would have shown up by now." Gil insisted. "Not if you're trying to repress it." Dylan observed. "Along with your most painful memories." "Are you sure there have been no signs?" Calatin asked, his keen eyes turning to Gil. "How do you know that your magic abilities did not lead you to this quest, or lead this quest to you? Do you suppose we have all been assembled here by chance, or have our powers converged by design? Now I am curious, Gil; how did you manage to meet Aiovel?" Calatin wondered. "I was working in the Pegasus Inn." Gil replied, shrugging. "You were there in Gyfen all that time, right under my nose!" Calatin cried, amazed. "I do believe that Prince Cormac was right. I should get out more often. To think that I may have seen you in the market had I gone! But there is no time now for what might have been." He sighed. "I followed Myrddin here for the same reason that he came. It is time for us to act against the Dark Wizard." "Why do you care so much about stopping him?" Lilia asked. "Why?" Calatin echoed incredulously, as though the answer were obvious. "Because I love Arcaendria. It saddens me to think what damage Galadon has already done by dividing this continent, and for once I'm willing to do something about it— before Galadon conquers Vilna, and the magic gate at Ligri." Calatin paused thoughtfully. "I do hope we get a chance to make up for the lost years, Gil," he said, turning to Gil. "But if not, at least I know that you are alive." "I'm still going with Aiovel to the Tower," Gil said, tight-lipped. Even if Calatin was his grandfather, Gil was not going to let anyone leave him out of the action this time! "Then it's a good thing I came." Calatin smiled kindly. Gradually, Gil realized Calatin wasn't going to interfere in his decision, and he relaxed again. Calatin opened his mouth, but his lips moved mutely; whatever else he was saying had been drowned out by a loud peal of thunder. Dylan's eyes darted over to the tavern's western window; lightning bolts sizzled around the tower in the distance. "What's going on?" Dylan shouted when the thunder abated. The tavern's patrons continued drinking as though unaffected by the brewing storm outside, but Dylan thought their mirth seemed a bit strained. "It seems that toad Omierdin Brae has made fast work." Myrddin

observed. "Why do you say that?" Lilia said, nervously shivering. "I'll wager that Galadon created that storm to gather his reinforcements." Myrddin declared. "Huh?" Mygdewyn's nose wrinkled in confusion. "I think Aiovel just ran out of time." Myrddin went on. "My guess is that Omierdin Brae knew who Aiovel was the moment she entered the tavern; she is rather unmistakable. Galadon's dragon allies are, no doubt, already on their way." "How could he have gotten word to them so fast?" Lilia wondered. "The same way he has always contacted them." Calatin said. "Myrddin and I are not the only wizards to possess a crystal ball. The various magics of the ancient creatures in the wilderness usually interfere with magical sight through and beyond the wilderness—they scramble the images we receive through the crystal ball. However, crystal balls are effective even in the wilderness when you know exactly where the person you want to reach is. And of course, Galadon already knows where to find Scathaechir." "But Myrddin isn't a wizard—" Lilia protested. "In a manner of speaking, he is." Calatin countered. "A wizard of Natural magic, the most ancient and powerful magic of all— that is what a High Priest is. Sometimes, there is little distinguishing between wizards and High Priests. But we have no time for these explanations now!" He broke off. "I thought Galanor said that the dragons had abandoned Galadon." Dylan objected. "The Fire Dragons will come just for the opportunity to wreak havoc in the valley." Calatin explained. "No doubt, Galadon has promised them an entire city to plunder and devour. And I suspect Scathaechir will take little persuasion. He seemed already quite angry at Aiovel for interfering in his affairs." "The storm!" Gil realized suddenly. "They'll be able to see the tower from miles away!" "How are we supposed to defend ourselves from dragons?" Lilia wailed. "Indeed." Myrddin said. "We'll have to hurry to the tower— and hope we get there first."

XVII: Battle The sun slipped behind Dun Rigor, and the sky erupted in crimson. Rutilant beams tinged Aiovel the dragon's golden skin russet as she banked and landed on the top of the wide hill in the vast courtyard, in front of a high black gate with iron reinforcements. The Tower spanned easily a hundred feet across and rose more than a thousand feet high. Gil stole a glance over at the outer wall at the base of the hill. Just inside the wall, a dark sea of vile beasts swarmed, pressed against the outer ramparts. As Aiovel landed, the monsters turned back toward them in surprise; Gil judged that if they did not break into the tower soon, they would be trapped by the hordes of creatures now charging up the hill. "Are we planning to move any time soon?" Dylan said. At the speed the monsters were coming, they had only a few minutes left to avoid them. "I'm working on it," Aiovel said, delivering a jarring blow to the gate with her tail; worn-out hinges squeaked and dried wood splintered in protest, but the gate held fast. Still, there wasn't any other alternative to brute force; the gate was protected from magical spells. "Well, at least we avoided a siege," Dylan observed, looking into the distance. "That outer wall would deter an army." "Your father's army, certainly," Lilia said facetiously. Dylan bridled at the comment, smiling wanly back at her. "Why are you here, Lilia? You know you didn't have to come." Mygdewyn asked, shaking his head. "Are you kidding? I wasn't about to leave you all!" Lilia said, shrugging. "Just try to keep me out of the action!" She cried, rolling up her sleeves, then tried a ferocious grin that ended up being cute. "Besides, can I lose?" She added. "If things start to look bad for us, there's always my shadow hood." "Your shadow hood?" Myrddin asked, pursing his lips. "She can keep it." Calatin gave a dismissive wave. "But I'll have my wand back." He had already reclaimed his staff from Dylan, who had found it in Inverlen's Magic Guild, and had promised him one magical favor in return for it, to be arranged at a later date. In any case, the staff would not suit Dylan's style in battle, so he had easily relinquished it. "Okay," Lilia chirped, eyeing the waiting wizard. "It wasn't working anyway." She added, shrugging, rummaged in her cloak and pulled out the charred branch, then handed it back to the wizard. Having passed over several other items in her search, she suddenly remembered the wand Aiovel had given her. Joy leaped in her eyes, and she grinned broadly. "What is it?" Dylan asked suspiciously, but Lilia refused to disclose what it was she was thinking about. No doubt, she was pleased about getting to keep her shadow hood cloak, he thought. "Tell me, Aiovel, how did you manage to break the spell surrounding Grainnewyn?" Calatin wondered as Aiovel drew back for yet another blow. He

had lost precious time on a detour to that city, but couldn't help wishing that he'd arrived there a few days earlier. Imagine! They'd been to his storeroom— but no one could have withdrawn the object he wanted most. "Actually, it was Gil." Aiovel replied, surprised at the question. But she didn't have time to wonder about it; turning back, she whacked the gate with her tail again. This time, they heard a crackling noise, followed by a low shudder of warped wood. A few more hits, and it seemed certain that they would breach the gate. "Gil?!" Lilia narrowed her eyes. "It wasn't really me," Gil objected, arms raised. "It was the scepter." He said, and hunted inside his cloak. He pulled the golden instrument from his belt and held it up to the wizard. "You found it!" Calatin cried, taking the scepter from Gil gingerly. "I thought my scepter was buried in Argolen!" He paused a moment to caress the object suitably, then turned to Gil with a scrutinizing gaze. "But this proves what I suspected—if Gil was able to use my scepter, then he does indeed possess magical talent." "Your scepter?" Gil echoed, stunned. "Could you move it along there?" Dylan forced a smile, nervously watching the charging deluge as thousands of brubachwycs and other creatures swept over the field toward them. He grimaced apprehensively; thousands might have been a conservative estimate. "Wait a minute, Gil used that thing?" Lilia demanded. "Where was I?" "Look out!" Gil cried suddenly. A horde of brubachwycs had appeared from around the other side of the tower. The brubachwycs were crossing the narrow strip of field between them, fanning out and converging upon them from two sides. Gil abruptly realized their peril; if the brubachwycs detained them long enough for the rest of the monster army to reach the tower, they could give up on the idea of ever meeting the Dark Wizard face to face. Gil hurriedly drew his sword; nearby, Mygdewyn hewed at the creatures with his axe. One of the hideous beasts rushed at Dylan, horns lashing with murderous intent, but the prince deftly leaped aside and whirled about, lopping off the monster's head with one crisp blow. The head tumbled to the ground; the body twitched, fountaining blood, then fell with a heavy thud. Gil looked away, sick to his stomach. But this was no time for hesitation. Even Lilia fought bravely; at least he assumed she did. She had disappeared with her shadow hood, but several knives sailed through the air with deadly accuracy. Aiovel thrashed her sinuous tail as the brubachwycs sallied forth, knocking several of them aside. But the brubachwycs drew back, undaunted, and regathered to renew their attack. Dylan hacked left and right, while the dwarf continued to chop them with his axe. Ronan looked around the hollow circle. Lilia had disappeared, but a knife flew through the air, striking a brubachwyc poised to devour him. Ronan drew back from the fray and closed his eyes in concentration to summon a spell. He felt the powers rushing round him, and snapped his eyes open, just in time to release the tornado onto an onrushing brubachwyc. The winds carried it high

above; Ronan abruptly cut off the spell, sending it crashing to the ground below. The creature fell on a troop of charging monsters in the middle of the field, killing more than just the brubachwyc itself. "Good idea!" Myrddin exclaimed, dodging a brubachwyc's blow. He extended a hand toward the creature, and the beast erupted in flames, howling ferociously. In its agony, it collided with another brubachwyc, sharing its fiery doom. "I'll leave these brubachwycs to you. I'm going to try to hold the rest back," Myrddin said— and vanished. Myrddin stood instantly in the middle of the field, halfway between the gate and the monster army. Now more lightning cracked from his fingers and surged forth into the monster horde. Gil finished off a brubachwyc that had broken through their circle and looked around fretfully. Calatin was gone. Then on the other side of the field Gil caught sight of him. Calatin stood poised on a small mound above the slope, his arms raised. A bright ball of fire grew in his hands. He hurled the fireball down with a powerful stroke; the flames crashed between a far-off group of brubachwycs, rowdynchods, and chamaelaeons and burst into a thousand sparks of light. A dozen creatures fell writhing to the ground. Gil stared in amazement at the two great figures standing between the companions and the monster ranks; he knew he would never see such a sight again. Was this how the battle at Argolen had been, so long ago? With but a few holding off so many? Meanwhile, Aiovel continued to pound the gate. Gil was startled by a sharp crack behind him. Aiovel beat the doors two more times with audible force; at last Gil heard the unmistakable snap of splintering wood. With the tip of his sword, Gil lanced a chamaelaeon that had charged him, then he turned around. Aiovel had already transformed back into her Elven form and was heading through the gate alone. "Wait—" Gil called frantically. "Don't try to stop me, Gil." Aiovel warned, turning back briefly. But he couldn't let her face the dangers of the tower alone! Granted, she had taken care of herself for longer than he could even imagine and had managed to defend herself until now, but what if this proved to be the time she ran up against something she couldn't handle? "I'm going with you!" Gil shouted firmly, dodging a charging rowdynchod. He turned abruptly as the beast loomed above him, but a sudden blast of lightning dispatched it. "Hurry!" Ronan advised, and Gil nodded gratefully. "No, Gil!" Aiovel called, waving Gil back as he ran toward her. "I never expected any help— nor do I ask it now from you." She shook her head. "If you come with me this way, you aren't likely to come back out again, Gil, and I can't let that happen to you. When I've been gone a few minutes, I want you— all of you— to get out of here." But Gil wasn't listening. Sensing this, Aiovel held a hand up against him; Gil was running full speed when the blast of air hit his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. With effort, he took another slow step; as Aiovel disappeared,

he felt the force holding him dissipate. Gil shook off the last of the holding spell's effect and made ready to follow her, despite her warning. Without warning, Gil felt a hand clasp his shoulder. He whirled about, ready to strike. It was Dylan. "Don't try to stop me!" Gil shouted. "I'm going after her!" "I have no intention of it." Dylan said calmly, raising his hand and the sword in it in protest. "I'm coming, too. The others can take care of themselves," he added, looking over his shoulder. "But Aiovel's foolish if she thinks she can defeat the Dark Wizard alone." The crash of battle behind them seemed to have temporarily diminished; as the others fended off the last of the surprise attackers, Dylan and Gil plunged into the aperture. Mygdewyn watched as Dylan disappeared. Several brubachwycs stood between him and the sundered gateway; in a minute, he had cleared the area. Just like the others to rush into things! he thought darkly. He made it within a few steps of the hollow entranceway when a snarling vulpex leaped before him from the tower above, barring his way. The giant lupine creature moved with surprising dexterity; Mygdewyn eyed the slavering canine teeth distastefully for a moment. Then, axe raised high, he charged it furiously. Caught off guard by Mygdewyn's fearless attack, the creature slashed back with claws sharp as knives. Mygdewyn ignored the burning sensation in his side and hacked at the thick, furry hide. The creature's claw caught on his cloak, jerking him to one side abruptly, but Mygdewyn dug his heels into the ground. He heard an agonizing tear in the fabric; irate, he swung his axe around hard, striking the creature soundly on its head. The tension in the claws ripping his cloak subsided, and Mygdewyn came free. Blood dripped onto him as the creature slumped to the ground, grazing his chest with its massive head. Mygdewyn pulled the cloak up to examine the sixinch tear; as he watched, the loose threads writhed of their own accord, twisting together and pulling tight. In a moment, the cloak was whole once again; Mygdewyn stared, agog. What magic was this?! A heavy sound in the air forced him to look up; in the distance, he saw the dark, serpentine shapes of black dragons and red dragons, sending swaths of flame up into the darkening skies. Mygdewyn swallowed hard, then held his axe up defiantly. His eyes locked on the sinuous black creatures gliding the skies, and rage welled in his heart. It was time to give a little retribution, in the name of the dwarf King Agar. Dylan and Gil would just have to find Aiovel on their own. ***** Inside the twisting corridors, all was deadly quiet. Gil and Dylan had yet to encounter a single guard or sentry, though the light of endless torches

illuminated their way; the Dark Wizard didn't seem to be expecting company, but Dylan still kept on the alert. They passed through a long hall, their footsteps now echoing hollowly on cold stone. Dylan felt ill-at-ease, but they continued without being attacked. At an intersection, Dylan stopped to examine the floor, carefully surveying the swirling patterns of dust. "It looks like someone went that way," he said, pointing left toward a spiraling staircase, grateful for Brastigus' many lessons. Though not the best tracker in the world, Dylan could detect recently made footprints on a dusty floor reasonably well. They followed Aiovel's trail up the winding staircase; the climb seemed interminable, until at last a flat-bottomed stone roof appeared above. "No guards?" Gil wondered as they passed into another wide hall flanked by dark passageways; the chilling quiet was worse than in the ruined Elven mines. He felt the sensation that eyes were watching him, but there seemed to be nothing there. And there was no sign of Aiovel. "I guess Galadon doesn't need any." Dylan shrugged. "He probably assumes that no one would want to come in here. And I have to say, he'd be dead right." Gil licked dry lips, nodding weakly. But if that was so, why all the lit torches? Of course they might burn magically, but— Gil leaped back reflexively as a figure jumped in front of them from a dark doorway. "So we meet again, Prince Tattercloak." The warrior said, straightening. He was a tall man, wearing immaculate chain mail complete with a plumed helmet; either he wasn't an experienced swordsman, or he just didn't like rusty, well-seasoned armor. Dylan hoped it was the former but had a suspicion the latter was true, as the stranger brandished a blood-stained broadsword that gleamed silver in the dim torch light. Wait a minute—Prince Tattercloak? Dylan narrowed his eyes; anger smoldered in them, but he bore himself with regal composure. "Defend yourself, Omierdin Brae," Dylan grated, tight-lipped. "Very perceptive, Prince Patchwork." Omierdin admitted snidely. "Of course, I'll be happy to oblige you." He added and slashed at Dylan, but also pressed forward toward Gil. A loud clang ensued; Gil leaped back, his ears ringing, admiring Dylan's self-possession. Dylan didn't even flinch. "Go ahead, Gil. I'll deal with him." Dylan urged. Gil nodded but reluctantly obliged, edging carefully around the warrior. Omierdin drew back as though to prevent Gil's escape, but Dylan quickly lunged with his sword to reengage blades. "Hurry, Gil!" He shouted through clenched teeth, struggling to redistribute his weight to better advantage, then leaned into Omierdin with all he was worth. Gil didn't need to be told twice. Their swords clashed again and again; apparently, it wasn't Omierdin's style to parry. He had the greater weight and used it to his advantage, but Dylan was a lot stronger than he appeared. Whatever Omierdin's opinion of him, Dylan

had a lot of experience in combat. Dylan continued to slash— Omierdin to lock blades. Dylan knew he had to conserve his energy and wait for a weakness to develop in his enemy. For a long time, they see-sawed back and forth, stirring up dust, neither one willing to give ground. Then Dylan realized Omierdin was tiring; the larger man repelled Dylan's blow and drew back, panting slightly. Dylan knew it was time to act, and to act quickly. He feigned a parry, then suddenly leaned his blade heavily into Omierdin's sword with all of the energy he could muster. In a moment, Omierdin's sword slipped aside, and he slid backward, staggering. Before Omierdin could regain his balance, Dylan lunged forward, aiming high. His sword sheered through armor, bone, and muscle; and the large man toppled to the ground. ***** Gil hurried ahead blindly, listening for any sign of activity; luckily, there seemed to be only one main corridor, and it headed back toward the southern side of the tower. After some time, he thought he heard running steps ahead. Following them, he turned a corner that opened up into a wide, grand chamber decorated with rich tapestries and bright candelabra. Gil heard voices before he saw anything. Then, rounding the open doorway, he spied Aiovel standing several feet away; her bow and quiver of arrows were lying on the floor. She spoke a few terse words in an ancient elven language he didn't understand, her voice raised in what sounded like defiance. Gil headed toward her. Suddenly Gil's words died in his throat, and he stopped, paralyzed by shock. Gil guessed the elf facing her was Galadon, the Dark Wizard— but he looked like Aiovel! No wonder Omierdin Brae had recognized her! A robe much like Gil's cloak in its style hung about the elf-wizard's shoulders, adorned with beautifully embroidered runes. Underneath, a shirt of fine silver links sparkled brightly over a pair of grey breeches, girded tightly by a silver belt. Gil continued to stare, agog. This magnificent warrior was the Dark Wizard? His bearing was noble; his stature tall and well-muscled. His silveryblonde hair fell to the shoulder, framing a handsome face that was young and yet not young in the manner of all elves; the blue eyes held an expression of cunning mixed with cleverness, but were also steady with the memory of long years and dissembled hidden thoughts; he moved with astonishing speed, sidestepping Aiovel's blow as she charged him, with serpentine agility more than a match for any Dragorian. "So your companion has arrived at last." Galadon said in Roste, as though the movement had been no effort at all, and he turned keen eyes on Gil. Aiovel turned in surprise, having been too preoccupied to notice Gil's arrival— and almost fell prey to a spell that the wizard hurled at her. Gil's eyes widened in alarm, but Aiovel whipped around just in time. She crossed her arms in front of

her chest protectively, then thrust them wide, shaking off the effects of his magical assault. A shower of sparkling lights fell from her arms, then fizzled into nothing. "What are you doing here, Gil?" Aiovel said, eyeing her uncle warily as Gil moved beside her. "I gather this is your protector, Aiovel." Galadon said pleasantly, watching Gil. "Have you come here to take her home, young man?" He sneered, arching a fair brow. "Aiovel and I have come to stop you!" Gil shouted angrily. "Have you indeed? Why, pray tell?" Galadon said calmly, one corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. "Because you're evil!" Gil threw back hotly, but Galadon remained unruffled. "Oh?" He said, intrigued. "And what exactly constitutes evil?" He asked, almost reasonably. Gil stopped, realizing he had no ready answer. This was not at all what he had expected! The Dark Wizard was neither grotesque nor ugly— and certainly not like any practitioner of dark magic he had ever imagined. He hadn't even tried to attack them until provoked! Gil had imagined him the wrathful representative of dark powers, cruel and merciless, inciting fear with but a glance. On reflection, that last description applied; but at the moment Galadon, seemed perfectly pleasant, logical and self-possessed— yet insidiously so. If Gil had met him under other circumstances, he might have thought he was some kind of hero, or a noble at court. Certainly not the overlord of the East. "I admit I am self-serving, but evil?" Galadon continued agreeably. "Really, don't be absurd. You call me that merely because I know what I want and stop at nothing to get it." He waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Well, yes," Gil admitted, flummoxed and losing conviction. Galadon was trying to reason Gil out of his reason! "Don't be ridiculous." Galadon purred. "What you call evil, I call selfpreservation." Self-preservation? How did that involve sending an army of beasts to the West? "After all, we Silver Elves are the rightful rulers of Daegoras. My mother ruled this land before any humans or dragons came here." Galadon went on. "Am I not entitled to rule as her successor? Or to defend myself from an attack, as any person would?" Gil stopped, considering the Dark Wizard's words. "Don't listen to him, Gil!" Aiovel advised. "Ah, Aiovel." Galadon said, turning back to her with an amused smile. "I must say I have enjoyed this little family reunion. But," he added, "I can hardly have your little minions messing the place up." He made an airy gesture to indicate Gil, then swept his hand aside, drawing Gil's attention to the wide, open, south-facing window. "Do take a look, if you will." He entreated them. "My dragon armies have arrived. I have no doubt that they will soon deal with the rest of your friends, if they haven't already."

Galadon drew aside, and with a gesture invited them over to witness the battle below. "But I am not an unreasonable elf." He went on generously. "Therefore I will give you an opportunity to reconsider this foolishness—and for your companion to return to his land. As you will see, this battle is pointless." Aiovel stiffened but allowed the Dark Wizard to lead them onto a small, fortified ledge outside the window. Gil trudged behind; he didn't trust Galadon's cool manner. Gil was used to acting on his feelings, but Galadon seemed bent on diffusing Gil's anger. Gil only wished he knew why. As Gil moved to the railing, he discovered that the ledge hung over the gate and afforded a clear view of the battle going on—though they weren't as high up as he had initially guessed. Perhaps sixty feet, and no more. The scene below was chaos. The dragons' roars filled the air like artificial thunder; the dark masses of creatures below swept over the field, most concentrated where they converged upon the figures of Calatin and Myrddin. Both the wizard and High Priest had cut a clearing around them; a random beast might make it within fifteen feet of them between magic spells. Galadon's dragon armies had arrived. Like the monster ranks, most of the dragons gathered about the two figures on the plain. A few others seemed bent on wanton destruction. Gil saw no sign of either Ronan or Lilia; he hoped they did not lie among the slain creatures. Then Gil spied a black dragon circling down toward Mygdewyn. The dwarf's stature had, no doubt, kept him from detection thus far— from above, Mygdewyn seemed chest-high in corpses; the dwarf staggered over a field of the fallen before the gate, alone among the thinning monster ranks. **Hey you, sootsnoot!** Gil shouted as loudly as he could, hoping to divert the creature's attention from the defenseless dwarf. He moved down the ledge, toward the dragon. Meanwhile, the dragon had stopped, fluttering in bewilderment. **That's right, you, toast for brains!** Gil called out. It wasn't the best taunt that he had ever come up with, but it would suffice. This time, the dragon turned toward the direction of the insult, and his angry eyes fell on Gil. He opened his maw to let loose a torrent of flame, but closed it abruptly when Gil drew out his blade. It gave off a pale blue glow in the waning light of sunset; wide-eyed, the dragon sheered off abruptly and almost collided with the tower. **That's right, run away!** Gil shouted triumphantly. When he looked about, Galadon and Aiovel were gone. Gil hurried anxiously back to the chamber where, to his relief, Aiovel stood waiting. "Now that you have seen how matters stand, I've changed my mind. I will do you a favor and offer you one chance—to join me," Galadon said enticingly, watching Gil carefully. Gil didn't answer. "I could use another able warrior to keep the peace in my lands," Galadon explained, "and you have shown your courage, even though you seem to lack sense. Consider this: join me, and you can have all you ever desired—Gil was it? You could be rich and respectable, Gil. To refuse would hardly be rational. Please, do accept. No one will blame you for seeing what is best for you."

Gil could hardly believe his ears. What was this? Galadon wanted Gil to join him? But why? he wondered. What could the Dark Wizard possibly see in an orph— no, Gil wasn't an orphan any more. That was it! Gil was the child of powerful wizards, even though he had never been taught how to use his magic. Of course, Galadon must have sensed his latent talent! Sensed it, and wanted to use it. But I don't have any magic! Gil thought in protest, refusing to believe it. Why did everyone else seem to think he did? "And what do the dragons get in exchange for their loyalty?" Gil asked, unable to mask his hostility. "The dragons?" Galadon chuckled. "What do dragons always want? Permission to plunder, of course. A figurehead to sanction their behavior. Specifically, I have promised them the city of Kelder in exchange for helping me quash this little disturbance. They will get to devour people and livestock, and I will have maintained the peace in my kingdom. And then, once I have figured out how, I will liberate your western kingdoms from the tyranny of all dragonkind. After the people have chosen me to lead them, of course. Yes, yes, I will even allow the humans to remain in our elf lands, lands which they stole from us, as long as they pledge their allegiance to me. Once I have all of Daegoras under control, that name will be the first thing I change, of course, and I will have no more use for Scathaechir and his kind." "You are evil!" Gil shouted, horrified. How could Galadon sacrifice a city to the very dragons he despised? Gil wondered. "I hope Aiovel stops you!" "Why Gil, you seem distressed." Galadon said, incredulous. "Truly it is for the best. Rilath and his dragons will attack my cities without warning if I do not keep order. You must see that I am doing what must be done to achieve the best for all involved. Hardly reason enough for name-calling." "When you subjugate kingdoms, force people to pay tribute, and murder your own family— yes, I would call that evil." Gil said harshly. Galadon winced. "And who are you to make judgments about me?" Galadon demanded, regarding Gil like he would an insect— and also seeming genuinely disturbed for the first time. "How do you know anything about it?" He went on in an injured tone. "Murder? I never intended to harm my sister, but she got in the way. She should have trusted me, instead of taking Dragoras' side. She should have known that Dragoras had deceived her, that he only wanted our land and treasures for himself!" Galadon added, eyes narrowing, clearly nettled by Gil's interference. Before Gil could react, Galadon's hand flicked toward him. A strong gust of wind pushed Gil back violently into the wall; he felt the breath knocked out of him. It was the same spell Aiovel had used, and though he found it hard to breathe, Gil had at least seen it coming this time. He rasped once before making up his mind to charge the Dark Wizard. Then, with distress, he realized that he couldn't move. With Gil rendered helpless, Galadon lunged forward to attack Aiovel, his air of perfect composure gone. Gil blinked, startled; the Dark Wizard's sword was nearly identical to his

own! And that meant—Gil swallowed. Galadon's sword had been crafted to slay dragons; it had to be the sword that one of Galadon's wizards had used to kill Dragoras! Only now, it was aimed at Aiovel. Oh, if only he could move! The clash of swords rang as Aiovel parried blows with great skill. Gil stared, entranced by the superior expertise of both opponents. Of course, they had certainly had a lot of years in which to practice! With each blow, however, Galadon's ire seemed to inflate ten-fold. Gil supposed he wasn't used to being challenged by any one who came close to his ability. Gil struggled again to free himself, to no avail. Then, with a mighty slash, Galadon pushed Aiovel back to the wall. As she struggled to hold off his deadly blade, she made a slight gesture with her hand toward Gil. Gil heard a hiss as the air holding him dissipated. Meanwhile, Aiovel had wrenched away from her uncle's advance, and stood catching her breath in ragged gasps. But Galadon didn't give quarter. He leaped forward in attack; Gil quickly blocked it with his own sword. Galadon stepped back, smiling malevolently. Gil half-expected another holding spell, but now Galadon's full fury had turned on him. "As for you," he rasped, "perhaps this will teach you not to interfere." The Dark Wizard made no overt gesture, only glaring at Gil with his eyes. That was enough. Gil suddenly felt weak in the knees. He saw the world as if from a great distance, and through a kaleidoscope lens. He blinked. All had returned to normal, only now he had a clear view of the Dark Wizard's boots. What was going on? Gil suddenly realized he sat squatted on all fours! He looked down in dismay at his webbed, green front feet. Gil watched as Aiovel fended off another blow high above; then as Galadon made ready to strike again, Gil opened his mouth in warning. And let out a deep, throaty croak. Gil shuddered as comprehension dawned. He'd been turned into a toad! In desperation, Gil hopped forward. And was almost squashed by Aiovel's boot. Gil hopped back adroitly with lightning fast reflexes. At least, being a toad had some advantages. But now was not the time to explore them. Gil felt desperation rising in his throat—and croaked again. He had to stop Galadon! But how could he? Then an idea struck him. If he could believe what Calatin had said, then he did possess magic abilities. A counterspell could get him out of this predicament! But how could he summon one? Gil had never attempted magic before in his life! Meanwhile, Galadon dived at Aiovel, grazing her arm. A red stream welled on her sleeve, and she staggered back, weakened and wincing as though from a wound far greater than the cut had been, but she held on to her sword. As he watched, horrified, Gil felt something change within him. A current of energy flooded into his limbs from the very ground beneath

his feet. He felt tapped into the infinite source of the elements; magic poured into him, tingling up his spine, illuminating his fingertips. So this was magic! Delicious magic! He peered through a wash of white vapors encircling him; then, they rushed away. Gil blinked again at the world, now grown smaller. The Dark Wizard turned to him, but now with fear in his eyes! ***** Lilia pulled over her hood and disappeared when the dragons descended over the battlefield. Beside her, Ronan looked up as deafening screeches filled the air. The dragons wheeled about angrily, searching for their prey, raining random bursts of fire down into the field, incinerating friendly forces of brubachwycs and other creatures. Their flames and the bright spells of Calatin and Myrddin lit the darkening sky now that Galadon's lightning storm had abated. Ronan yelped and leaped aside a random torrent of fire. He sizzled a charging brubachwyc with a bolt of lightning, then stopped and began to rummage around frantically in his cloak. At last, his fingers found the pouch of magical dust he'd been carrying since Argolen. Ronan pulled open the sash and sprinkled them over his head. Nothing happened! Ronan spied a young dragon high above; the creature stared back at him, its mouth widening into a hideous grimace. Ronan felt his knees beginning to quake. He raised his arms to summon lightning, hoping to ward off the flying monster, when a bit of white powder fell into his eye, making it burn. Of course! He'd put the soap powder next to the invisible dust! Ronan hurriedly felt for the other pouch, then ripped it open, splashing the contents over him, losing some of the sparkling dust to the ground. As Lilia reached to pull the elf priest out of the way, he suddenly winked out of sight. The dragon wheeled about, searching for its missing prey, then flapped off toward the wizard on the hill. Ronan sighed in relief. But now that he and Lilia had disappeared, Mygdewyn was certain to draw more creatures than he could handle. Ronan headed back to where the dwarf swung bravely at the last few brubachwycs of the first wave, but others were already on their way across the field. Ronan reached for his last pouch of magical dust; he'd been saving the dragon ashes to use in a strength-boosting spell, but protecting Mygdewyn was more important. He reached into the pouch and withdrew a handful; like wet sand, the dust congealed easily in his palm into a small ball. As the legion of brubachwycs charged toward the gate, Ronan drew back his arm and hurled the handful of ashes at them, then grabbed Mygdewyn, pinning him to the ground. Mygdewyn struggled with his invisible attacker, but Ronan somehow found the strength to hold him down. A loud explosion erupted in the midst of the legion; clods of dirt and

organic matter rained on the two companions in profusion; Ronan brushed them off and stood, looking out across the field. The explosion had left a reasonable number for the dwarf to deal with; most of the brubachwycs had been vaporized or crippled by the blast. Ronan thought he saw several dragons above them pause, hovering stationary to sniff the air. "You almost got me killed, you idiot!" A shrill, bodiless voice screeched. "Tell me next time when you're going to do that!" Mygdewyn smiled briefly, then rushed ahead, axe raised high. Meanwhile, another legion of brubachwycs and chamaelaeons was converging upon the gate from the other side. Ronan reached into his pouch again and hefted the ball of ashes lightly in his palm. "Get down, Lilia!" he cried, hurtling the explosive. If the brubachwycs reached the gate, he knew it would be the end for Gil, Aiovel, and Dylan. Ronan heard a flapping of wings and chanced a look up; a dragon had descended nearby to investigate the area. "You idiot!" Lilia exclaimed, though not loudly. "He can probably smell those ashes!" Ronan looked down at his hand, covered in dust. The dragon loomed closer. "Put that away before you get us both killed!" Lilia screamed. Ronan nodded weakly, twisting the pouch, and stuffed it into his cloak. He brushed his hands vigorously, then dropped to the ground and covered his hands with dirt. After a moment, the dragon seemed to lose interest and flapped away. Thankfully, it didn't seem to notice the dwarf, who fought a cluster of brubachwycs nearby. But as the dragon left, Ronan spied another legion of brubachwycs closing in on them, a smaller troop that had been obscured by the giant creature. Ronan hesitated a moment in indecision, then stooped to the ground and laid a hand on the grass. He was getting too tired to cast any more lightning spells, but he had another idea. In the distance, new roots sprung up from the grass, twisting around the brubachwycs' feet; several of them fell to the ground, then tried to stand, only to find themselves held intractably fast. Yet more brubachwycs kept coming. Ronan moved the staff that gave him strength into his left hand, and withdrew his silver mace, ready to defend himself—and to do some serious damage. "Dragoras Rasar!" A shrill voice suddenly cried. A swath of dragonheaded fire burst forth beside him. The fireball fell among the brubachwycs; the startled creatures moaned piteously as the flames consumed them. The Wand of Dragon Fire! Ronan had forgotten Lilia even had it. "Take that!" Lilia cried gleefully, getting ready for another blast. *****

How long had it been since he'd had this much fun? Calatin wondered to himself. With a chuckle, Calatin cast another illusion between two brubachwycs; the two creatures tore at each other, each one seeing the other as one of the enemy. Calatin enjoyed the challenge of the battle— and coming up with creative ways of dealing with the monster horde. With alarm, he realized he had allowed a vulpex to approach in his distraction; as the creature sprang toward him, Calatin shapeshifted into a giant turtle. The vulpex rebounded off him harmlessly. In a moment, Calatin had turned into a giant wyvern and engulfed the vulpine creature in flame. Yes, he was enjoying himself, but he wondered if he had overdone it a bit. Shapeshifting drained more energy from him, though it was not as draining as conjuring living creatures. If he'd created a wyvern from nothing—that would certainly have exhausted his magical reserves for the day. Illusions were by far the easiest magic to use but usually the least effective; however, Calatin had been having fun with them, and using fireballs liberally. For a moment, he faltered, feeling a momentary headache from overuse of his fire spells. How fortunate he was to have regained his scepter, he thought. He drew much of his magic reserves from the magic stored in it, and it intensified the power of his spells while reducing his spell fatigue. He had even channeled a bit of magic from the dimensional gate into it, turning it into a dimensional key— no doubt Myrddin would soon insist that he try to open the gate with it. After the battle was won and they both had a long rest, though, he thought. Before Argolen fell, Calatin had been saving the scepter for a rainy day— but now a stormy night would have to do. In a break in the attack, Calatin, still in wyvern form, turned to check up on the others; nearby, he saw Lilia through his own enchantments, using a Dragorian wand against a black dragon that had taken an interest in Mygdewyn. Blinded by the fire, the dragon crashed to the ground in the middle of the field and began to roll out the flames, destroying a legion of chamaelaeons on its own. Extinguished, the dragon returned to the skies, peering about for the one who had sent the fire. Calatin stole a glance over his shoulder. At the other end of the field, Myrddin's arms were raised to summon a Nature spell. A deep rumbling added to the chaotic symphony of sound around the tower, as an earthquake ruptured the ground below the greatest density of the monster horde. Hundreds of creatures fell into the deep crevice Myrddin had created; then the High Priest made a wide sweeping motion with his arm, and the land closed over them with a horrendous grating sound. Myrddin fell to the ground, exhausted, letting Nature strengthen him for the battle yet to come. ***** Mygdewyn whirled around as a brubachwyc leaped forward, teeth

snarling, aiming for his throat. In a fury, Mygdewyn batted it aside, crunching bones. Dark, thick blood coated his axe. But the brubachwyc wasn't dead. Enraged, the creature tore toward Mygdewyn, horns thrashing left and right. With a howl, Mygdewyn chopped the creature's head in two, but the world was spinning. He looked down anxiously; the brubachwyc had torn a gaping hole in his side. Mygdewyn collapsed weakly into invisible hands. "Hold on, Mygdewyn!" he heard Ronan whisper affectionately as if from far away. Vaguely, he registered a new clamor rising in the distance; this close to the ground he felt the tremor of thousands of feet approaching. Reinforcements were on their way from beyond the outer ramparts, but Mygdewyn no longer cared. Ronan looked up in alarm at the sound, but most of the fresh troops surged toward the High Priest and the Wizard Calatin; Mygdewyn lay on the ground, out of sight for now. Where was Lilia with the vial of healing water from Dragoras Spring? He knew he had no time to wait for her to appear. Despite his fatigue, Ronan put all of his energy into summoning a final spell. He knew Mygdewyn's wound was bad; the brubachwyc had gouged the dwarf with both horns, and Mygdewyn was rapidly losing blood. Above, Scathaechir's horde circled around aimlessly, bellowing into the sky. A fire erupted between the claws of an enormous dragon, sending out dark vapors; Ronan sensed a spell sweeping out over the field as he concentrated on healing Mygdewyn. A moment later, the dwarf sat up, disoriented but recovered, thanks to Ronan's healing spell. Then a fine black mist swirled around them, obscuring all. Ronan shrieked and dived behind the dwarf, cowering. A few feet away, the invisible Lilia coughed violently, then shook back her hood and began to reappear slowly. "Get me out of here!" She screamed in panic, rushing toward the dwarf. What was happening? Mygdewyn wondered, peering through the thick black fog. Looking down, he saw the small dagger of Maedera at his side, glowing brightly. Of course! Aiovel had told him that it warded off dragon magic! So, the black mist was affecting the others, some kind of fear spell, no doubt. Mygdewyn grabbed the others and held on to them until the mist cleared; the field grew relatively quiet as the dragons waited for their victims to flee. Lilia tried to wrench herself out of Mygdewyn's grasp, but the dwarf's grip was firm. Ronan's healing spell had invigorated him, and he wasn't about to let go. "Do let go of me, Mygdewyn," Ronan said calmly after a moment. Mygdewyn peered into his face, then obliged, satisfied that the spell had lost its effectiveness on the priest. It took a moment longer for Lilia to recover. The mist at last began to clear. "Let me at them!" Lilia screeched at last. "I'll teach them not to make a fool of me!" and with that, she left in a huff, drawing the shadow hood over her

head. Invisible again, Lilia picked her way over fallen carcasses toward the clearing around Calatin and waited for the enemy's reinforcements to arrive. Under the protection of the wizard, she hefted a knife; it twirled end over end, and struck a chamaelaeon at the fore. Meanwhile, Mygdewyn glanced over the field and shuddered. Galadon's creatures flowed forth like an unending river, and now Ronan's invisible dust was losing effect. His faint outline grew readily discernible, making him seem like a ghost; Mygdewyn could still see clearly through him. But more discouraging than that was Ronan's obvious state of exhaustion. The priest leaned on his staff heavily, now drained of magic. Not now! Mygdewyn thought. He couldn't fight and defend the priest at the same time! Mygdewyn felt a sudden despair rising in his heart. Was his heart racing? The steady beating sounded louder. Mygdewyn looked up. That wasn't his heart! The thunderous sound of hundreds of wings beat the air. Dragons! More dragons were coming! Mygdewyn groaned hoarsely. What was the point of fighting any more? Suddenly, the new fleet of dragons appeared in the distant sky. The bright full moon emerged from behind the clouds, illuminating the leader. Mygdewyn jumped up in disbelief. At the fore, a bright blue dragon soared; in a moment, the other dragons dropped from the sky. Descending with claws extended into the monster legions, they seized several creatures and rose up, dropping them onto others far below. With a horrendous cry, the black dragons and fire dragons sheered off the battle and plunged toward Galanor and the last of the faithful Dragorians. Only one dark form still lingered by the gate.

XVIII: Rewards "My, my, so the boy has magic," Galadon purred, turning to Aiovel with a guarded smile. "But can he control it?" Gil stepped forward circumspectly. Galadon was right! Coming up with a counterspell was one thing, but Gil had no idea how to summon an offensive one. "Maybe not," Gil admitted and drew his sword; the blade sang as it slipped easily from the scabbard. "But there are always other means." He added, trying to sound threatening, but there was more of a tremor in his voice than he had intended. And for good reason. Gil was trying to be brave dealing with limited options, but from what he had seen, Galadon was a far better swordsman than he would ever hope to be. However, Gil reflected briefly, being sensible had never been one of his strong points. Galadon smiled in amusement, his earlier apprehension negated by Gil's inexperience. Gil sensed he had made the wrong move, but now he was committed. Resigning himself to do his best in the duel, Gil raised his sword. And found himself launched toward Aiovel, his blade aimed with horrifying precision. Gil struggled, but the Dark Wizard held him firmly in his thrall. Aiovel darted aside, but Gil kept coming with his deadly sword. Under the influence of Galadon's magic, Gil felt himself move with Galadon's expertise. It was an eye-opening experience for him, but he balked at the price. He didn't want to kill Aiovel! Gil tried to stop, but instead he rushed over the smooth ground, gaining momentum. With a clang, he and Aiovel locked blades. "Take the sword from me!" Gil cried, trying to hold back. "I can't!" Aiovel replied, gritting her teeth. "No Dragorian can wield a sword of Argolen. They hold magic that can harm a dragon!" "But you're only half Dragorian!" Gil protested in despair, leaning toward her. "Maybe. Yet it burns my hands to wield it." Aiovel explained, pushing back, and drew in a long whistling breath under the strain. "I can only hold that sword unsheathed. Why do you think I entrusted it to you?" Gil was beginning to gain the advantage. He felt desperation rising in him as Aiovel began to weaken. What could he do? He didn't want to kill her, but he wasn't strong enough to stop Galadon himself. Then when hope seemed lost, Gil heard the loud trumpet of a dragon near the ledge outside, a roar that began deep and long then rose in pitch; the eerie call struck a chord of memory in him and sent a shiver down his spine. He knew that sound. Gil suddenly broke off; the spell holding him extinguished. Without realizing the enormity of what he had done, he turned to the ledge. A gigantic black shape hovered just beyond, above the battlefield. Gil swallowed, overcome. At last he had found the dragon who had killed

his father and mother! Only now Galadon stood between him and the beast. In a fury, Gil leapt at the Dark Wizard. If he had to kill Galadon to get to the dragon, well then he would! "No!" Aiovel shouted, running up from behind. But Gil didn't hesitate. He lunged forward, extending his sword— and jerked back in shock. With her talent as a Shadow Elf, Aiovel had appeared between him and Galadon. "I can't let you kill him, Gil!" Aiovel exclaimed. What? Gil's mind was reeling. Even Galadon seemed to share Gil's surprise—not that he was at all grateful for what she had done to save him. Still, surprise at what Aiovel had done seemed to have momentarily incapacitated him; Galadon's brows knitted together in fierce concentration as he tried to puzzle out Aiovel's motives. But Gil couldn't worry about them; all he could think about was Vaelcruithir, and with vengeance burning in his heart, he charged out onto the ledge. **Come back, coward!** Gil screamed at the retreating dragon; all of the dragons seemed to be heading in one direction. **I'm talking to you, Vaelcruithir son of Scathaechir!** Gil waited as the dragon turned about and locked its horrific beady eyes on him. **And how is it that you know who I am?** Vaelcruithir seethed in an attempt to dissemble his apparent curiosity. Most dragons reacted the same way; Gil guessed it wasn't every day that a human addressed them in their own language. **You killed my father Guilian, and my mother Renay, and for that I'll have your hide tanned into shoe leather!** Gil cried. Now the dragon was irate. **I'll silence that irreverent tongue of yours, and gobble you whole!** The dragon retorted. **I am a Prince of the Black Dragons! How am I to remember an insignificant human like your father? But I'm sure you will be as tasty as he must have been.** He added mockingly. The dragon shouldn't have said that. Gil set his chin in determination, feeling a new rush of strength. Vaelcruithir was nearly upon him when Gil brandished his sword above his head. The young Vaelcruithir regarded it with marked apprehension, but unlike the other dragons Gil had met, Vaelcruithir did not shy away from Gil's sword. Vaelcruithir dove, slashing with his sharp claws. Realizing Vaelcruithir was going to knock the sword from his grasp, Gil leaped aside, rolling. In a moment, the dragon wheeled about with superior dexterity and attacked again; this time Gil ducked. Vaelcruithir circled about once more and lowered his head to snap at Gil, no doubt hoping to devour him and be done with it, but Gil darted aside and turned quickly to thrust his sword up, piercing the dragon's mouth. Vaelcruithir bellowed piteously, as though the sword stung him more than an ordinary weapon would. Then as Gil held onto the sword, the dragon dragged him down the ledge. Vaelcruithir maneuvered, turning about, and Gil was

obliged to yank his sword out quickly before he lost it. Vaelcruithir shrieked in pain as the sword came away and sheered off, heading toward the battle. But Gil wasn't about to let Vaelcruithir get away so easily. Gil summoned his courage and jumped onto the dragon's tail. He held on tightly as Vaelcruithir flew away, thrashing his tail and trying to shake Gil off. Gil felt grateful for all of the recent experience he'd had holding onto dragons in flight; without it, he felt certain he would have already been a part of the landscape below. After a moment, Vaelcruithir's tail stopped threshing about, and Gil saw his chance. He raised his sword and struck Vaelcruithir's tail in one heavy stabbing blow. At once, the dragon plummeted to the ground. Gil withdrew his sword quickly and held on tightly as his stomach dropped. **Nasty biting gnat!** Vaelcruithir screeched. **We'll see how you fly! ** As the dragon landed, Gil was suddenly tossed to the battlefield, more than fifteen feet below. He landed on hard ground. Standing, Gil saw that his left arm had broken with the impact, but adrenaline kept him from feeling much of the pain yet. A shard of bone jutted under the sleeve of his tunic; a widening red stain soaked the fabric. Nearby, the dragon Vaelcruithir roared in laughter; the other dragons in the field retreated unceremoniously away from Gil and his sword. Vaelcruithir hovered alone, certain of victory. **What are you laughing at, you big coward!** Gil threw back. **Some prince you are!** **I'll teach you better manners, human!** Vaelcruithir cried, and flew toward Gil one last time, claws clenching and unclenching in anticipation of ripping Gil apart. Gil broke into a run. Vaelcruithir pursued gleefully, enjoying the chase. Just as the dragon seemed about to strike, Gil stopped suddenly and ducked. As Vaelcruithir flew past him, still going full speed, Gil thrust his sword upward with all of his might into the dragon's underbelly. The dragon continued, screeching in torment, carrying Gil's sword with him. Bereft of its owner, the sword seemed to act on its own. Gil thought he saw it twisting maliciously; blue flames seethed around the gaping wound as Vaelcruithir skidded to the ground, barely missing Gil with his tail. Vaelcruithir let out a piteous wail and tried to move, his tail flicking faintly. Gil had not thought the blow would be fatal, but Vaelcruithir's life seemed to slowly flicker out, as though sucked away by the power contained in the sword. After a moment of ominous silence, the enormous dragon stilled, and the ground was steeped in a dark red river. As Gil stood on the darkened hill, he felt less elated than he thought he would be. Vengeance was not sweet; he had killed the beast who had slain his parents, but it would not bring them back. The winds changed directions, bringing the scent of death to Gil's nostrils. As he stared at the fallen dragon, Gil didn't even hear Ronan and the others

coming until they stood beside him. "Oh, Gil!" Lilia wailed, her eyes widening in horror at the sight of Gil's arm. Lilia stepped forward and offered him a sip of one of the precious vials of water from Dragoras Spring to heal it; Gil was glad that one sip was enough to stop the pain before his state of shock wore off. Gil's eyes narrowed as a small lizard scurried past them toward the plains. A moment later, it was followed by a procession of foxes, wolves, rats, and goats. "What's going on?" Gil asked, his jaw dropping. Ronan turned to him with an amused smile. "I think Calatin and Myrddin got tired of killing off Galadon's army." He shrugged. "Once the numbers dwindled to something they could handle, they started returning the creatures to their original forms." "You mean, the brubachwycs and chamaelaeons were—" "It's been many generations since they lived as natural creatures, but yes." Ronan nodded. "Galadon's monsters were once ordinary creatures. Such a pity." He added, with the regret of an elf observing the loss of life. "Galanor!" Gil cried happily, as the familiar form of the Ice Dragon flew toward them. "Scathaechir's army has fled." Galanor said with pride. "But that's typical. They weren't prepared for an even fight." Galanor turned to Gil. "Good to see you, Gil," he bellowed. "Glad to see you're still alive, too, Galanor!" Gil cried. "So, you've lost your weapon, have you?" Galanor chuckled goodnaturedly. Gil nodded. "Well, let's see if we can't get it back for you." With that, he flapped toward Vaelcruithir's body, and turned the great creature over. Gil came and withdrew the sword, abrading flesh. Now he understood what had stained the sword black; the dragons' age-old fear of this blade must have been formed by past experiences against it. As the blade was removed, the dragon Vaelcruithir's carcass erupted into flames. In a moment, it had magically burned to a fine black powder—dragon's ashes. Across the plain, Alator's army began burning the bodies of the dead before the carrion birds arrived. Myrddin aided them, burying the ashes. Already a thick black smoke swirled into the sky, obscuring the luminous white moon. Then a scream echoed over the land, coming from an open window in the tower. Gil suddenly realized he had left Aiovel alone with Galadon. "Time to send in reinforcements." Galanor suggested hurriedly. "By all means," Calatin agreed, appearing among them. ***** Dylan stared down at the wand in his hand, horrified. The death curse was working its magic, but on the wrong person. When he arrived, Aiovel had been fighting the Dark Wizard. So why had she jumped in front of him when Dylan summoned the spell?! Count on a woman to do something absolutely unpredictable! But this thought

brought him no comfort. Dylan looked up when he heard a flapping sound outside; in a moment, the companions appeared on the ledge, riding a blue dragon. Galanor! Calatin assessed the situation with solemn equanimity as they entered the chamber, but Gil gasped. On the ground before Galadon lay Aiovel, unmoving but still breathing. "Galadon hasn't moved since Aiovel fell, not even to attack me," Dylan said, shaking his head. "I think he's as confused as I am about what Aiovel did." He continued. "Ronan, Calatin— can either of you heal her?" Dylan asked gravely. "What happened?" Ronan inquired, stepping forward, his eyebrows knitted in concern. He drew back a little, suddenly feeling exposed and powerless before the Dark Wizard. "I was trying to use the wand against Galadon, but Aiovel got in the way." Dylan admitted bitterly. Slowly, Calatin shook his head. He took the proffered wand from Dylan's hands, then peered closely at the prince. "There is nothing I can do against the death curse— especially when it has been invoked with such competence." He gave the Prince an odd look, as though reassessing his merits as briefly as the situation allowed. "But I have never before seen its effect upon one of Dragorian blood. Perhaps Aiovel can survive it." "No." A solemn, sad voice said. This time, it was Galadon who spoke. His voice was musical. "I've used the spell before, and I can assure you a Dragorian is not immune to its power. Their suffering is only longer. It may take several hours to take full effect, but the spell is an ancient one, and very powerful. "Why, Aiovel?" Galadon asked, astounded, as he stared down at her. "Didn't you know that I helped to create the wand of the Elwellyn magicians? Its magic cannot harm me!" Aiovel shook her head almost imperceptibly. "But why protect me?" Galadon persisted, intrigued. And, Gil thought, strangely unsettled. "I hardly know the answer myself." Aiovel replied quietly. "For many long years, my heart burned with hatred for you for what you had done to my father, and for what you had done to my mother— your own sister! I hated you for corrupting my father's people and sundering the race of dragons and for exiling the Silver Elves to Elwellyn to live as forgotten shadows. Yet during the long years of our exile, I tried to put aside the anger and hatred I felt for you, because I knew my people looked to me as an example as their leader, and because I knew my hatred could only harm me with my own bitterness, and not harm the object of my anger—you. "Then, after many years, finally the time came when I felt I could endure my bitterness no longer, and so I set out on a great quest to the East to kill you. I knew that if I could not stop you from trying to conquer the world, no one could. For years, I had news that your foul armies passed by my people's forest, and then at last I decided I had to put an end to your conquest, or let the rest of Dragoras become enslaved.

"Time and time again I was compelled to turn back, until I encountered these worthy companions. Then, when brave Gil saved my mother from your curse, I realized something. I had intended to make you beg for mercy and bargain for my mother's release from her wraith form, but then when she was freed and I thought I no longer needed anything from you, I began to realize that there was something far important I must have from you, though I did not yet know what it was. "I realized that my mother had forgiven the creatures who stole her land, her human enemies. She had even welcomed them to her city. Don't you see, Galadon? She knew the time of humans had come, and that the elves had to accept that their time had passed or else be consumed by hatred, a hatred that would destroy them, as it had destroyed you and turned the hearts of the Black Dragons and Fire Dragons to evil. The old magic and ways were dying out or diminishing into the forests, where they could still survive. "Nonetheless, only slowly did I begin to understand that my mother was right to forgive the human invaders—their innocent descendents, by then. You could never see that. And while my heart had long burned with hatred for what you did to my father, I realized that I was slowly letting myself become what I hated most—a creature who would do whatever it took to avenge a wrong—I was becoming like you. I began to see that revenging my father by taking your life would be hollow for me, because you have never understood how wrong what you had done to him and my mother truly was. I realized I had to make you see that all things must change, and that the humans—and dragons—have as much a right to life as we do, that the humans living now didn't do anything to our people. The past has passed. "Recently, I realized that our people had decided to withdraw on their own to the Living Palace, where all is and shall remain fair and good, that it wasn't your fault they became Shadow Elves. They wanted to be Shadow Elves. Still I would let nothing keep me from what I felt I had to do—to kill you or be killed myself, as long as I stopped you from re-gaining the West, because my mother had given her life to defend it." "You make it sound as though I had no right to those lands, Aiovel. You condemn me for what you say I did, but do I get no say in my own defense?" Galadon interrupted. "When Dragoras came, my mother Elwellyn was Queen of all Arcaendria, yet Dragoras claimed half of my mother's land for himself. And when he came, he left the magic dimensional gate that had led the dragonkind here open for other foul beasts, wyverns, chimeras, and others besides the humans and dwarves to come and take our forest from us, bit by bit, until we elves were exiled to but a few of our cities and small holdings. How could I not but try to reclaim our rightful land and restore our kingdom?" Aiovel didn't answer, but shook her head weakly, as though trying to summon the strength to continue. "Was it really Dragoras who led the creatures of the wilds here?" Lilia asked, intrigued. Calatin nodded; Galadon was watching them intently. "Well yes," Calatin admitted, glancing at Galanor, who had appeared, now in Dragorian form.

"Although I do not believe it was intentional on Dragoras' part, and the elves were not exactly exiled then, even though they did have to learn to live among the many creatures who now dwell in their forests and in all of Daegoras. But, Galadon," he added, glancing toward the Dark Wizard, "you do not mention all of the good that the Dragorian race brought to this world, or how the elves themselves benefitted by the trade between themselves and the Dragorian Lords." "Nonetheless, Dragoras let our continent become a wilderness." Galadon said bitterly. "And where once great Elf Lords lived, now only wyverns raise their young." "So, if that's true, why didn't you say something about it before?" Lilia wondered, pulling the wizard's sleeve. "You led us here all this way up the mountain, letting us believe that Galadon had no other reason to want to conquer the West than evil and vengeance." Calatin sighed. "I said nothing about Galadon's reasons because it would have changed nothing. In truth, I kept neutral in this matter between Galadon's followers and the Dragorian faithful for many long years after the fall of Argolen, because the Shadow Elves and Dragorians themselves had grown tired of war and had retreated, seeking peace in their own lands. I had already returned to my own kind when I was charged to safeguard the magic gate, and Galadon was safely exiled to the East. But then Galadon left me no choice when he began to send his foul creatures to the West, creatures who, unlike the other fell beasts of the wilderness, bear ill will toward humankind and Dragorians, and whom I feared would help him to enslave the free kindgoms of western Daegoras. "Moreover, as I have said, maintaining the dimensional gate in Gyfen was my primary responsibilty," Calatin added. "Even had I wanted to stop Galadon's armies, I knew I could not do so on my own, so I searched for a warrior to aid me against the Dark Wizard, not knowing that Aiovel still lived until I met her in Gyfen a few years ago." "Do not speak of your neutrality. You know the truth, wizard." Galadon interrupted. "You knew that from the beginning the dragons only wanted to lead Arcaendria into chaos, and yet you took the side of Dragoras." "You are the one who let your own obsession take hold of you until you were blind to the truth." Calatin countered. "For whatever the Dragorians changed when they arrived in Arcaendria, a cooperative peace would have been the best for your people, as your sister believed." "I don't understand. In Galanor's dragon tales, Galadon was supposedly evil, but it doesn't sound as though he really is." Lilia said, looking at Galanor in confusion. "Ah, but the dragons would say that, wouldn't they?" Galadon said, catching her words. "You have heard only one side of the truth." He insisted. "Of course, the dragons would call me evil—my wizards killed Dragoras, after all. And it is so much easier to hate me that way, to blame all of their ills upon me, rather than look to the evil in their own hearts, the evil that exists with the good in the hearts of all living creatures." "Ah, but you twist the truth, Dark Wizard!" Galanor exclaimed. "There was never dissension among the eleven Dragon Lords until your lies corrupted the

seven—" Galanor stopped abruptly as Aiovel began to cough in ragged gasps. As Galanor made a move toward her, Galadon raised his arm, ready to strike the young Dragorian with his magic. Then abruptly, he let it fall—harmlessly. Galadon turned to Aiovel. With her strength waning, Aiovel had managed to pull at the Dark Wizard's sleeve to stop him from harming Galanor; she seemed poised on the edge of speech. Galanor remained where he had halted several paces away, not daring to move in case he drowned out her words. "Did the ends justify the means, Galadon?" Aiovel whispered suddenly. "What?" Galadon exclaimed, shocked. "Even if you had a right to suspect that the dragons, dwarves, and humans had come to take your rightful land," Aiovel continued, "how is what you suspected of them any different from what you did to the East? How is it different from your intentions of conquering the West?" "Because I am the rightful ruler of Arcaendria." Galadon said, seeming less sure of himself. "Maybe you were, once, Galadon," Dylan said harshly. "But as Aiovel said, your time has passed. For whatever reason, the land you wish to rule is not home to your people anymore. You should have accepted that. But instead you would have conquered the innocent—" "No one is entirely innocent, Dylan," Aiovel said softly. "I have seen more rulers among your human kingdoms butcher each other in the past three thousand years for the same reasons." Dylan flinched; Aiovel's words silenced him, but Dylan didn't appear to agree with what she had said. "You defend me again, Aiovel?" Galadon asked curiously. "So, why did you come all this way to kill me, or at least to stop me, only to take the death curse that was meant to be my end?" Aiovel sighed. It was a horribly ragged sound. "Because, I will not let myself be like you. I will not be consumed by hatred. I will put an end to my own bitterness and learn to live with and in the present." Dylan sensed the true nobility of sacrifice and honor in her words, even though he would never have been so forgiving of the Dark Wizard, relative or not. He would have lanced the elf through with no qualms about it. "What makes you think you could ever be like me?" the Dark Wizard asked, half-seriously, for it was clear that Aiovel did look remarkably like him. "Because I have always known more of you than you ever did of me." Aiovel said, swallowing hard, choking back pain. "Did you know that when I was a child, the elves in the Living Palace still told stories of you in the days of Queen Elwellyn?" Aiovel asked, though it seemed she did not really want an answer. "All the world spoke of your great generosity and compassion, your heroic deeds and noble character in our dealings with the dragons and the ancient races of pixies, gnomes, and sprites. Before we knew you had been the one who betrayed Dragoras, I thought there had never been a greater Elf Lord; when you betrayed my faith in you, I hated you more than any one. "I thought you had made me blind, and I felt that I had betrayed my own

father by revering you. That made me hate you more. I never let myself see that for all of the goodness in the Dragorian race, Scathaechir and Rilath were responsible for their own weaknesses. I never saw how greater was their betrayal, for they had once truly loved Dragoras, while you never professed to care for him or to trust his intentions. At least in your own way, you kept your integrity by keeping to your own beliefs, as wrong as you were about my father. But now I know why I came here; I needed to forgive you—as my mother forgave her human enemies—for my own sake as much as yours. I needed to make my peace with the past. And I knew I could trust the others—I had grown to trust them, you see—I knew they would free the East for me if I failed. I was going to confront you with my intentions after Gil left, but then Dylan came, and I attempted to save your life because—with my hatred gone, I suppose I began to pity you." The room lapsed into silence; Gil realized that in some ways, Aiovel's attitude was similar to his own recent experience. More than anything, he had needed Vaelcruithir to acknowledge his mistake in killing Guilian and Renay. The only difference between Aiovel and Gil was that he hadn't been able to forgive Vaelcruithir. Then again, that was because of Vaelcruithir's arrogance and – and because Vaelcruithir had never regretted what he had done and could not regret it. But Galadon? Gil was beginning to wonder. The Dark Wizard's face was a mask, but he hadn't tried anything underhanded since the others arrived. In that moment of silence, Gil wondered about what Galadon had said earlier. Could it be that Galadon wasn't really evil? Gil wondered. Did each side in a conflict merely brand the other evil to allay their own consciences? Was Galadon's evil really only greed and selfishness, or was it merely injured pride? Gil shook his head sharply. No, he didn't want to forgive Galadon. But Gil sensed somehow that this was because he preferred to judge people over a sharper line between guilt and innocence; the complexities of the situation, a situation he didn't entirely understand, made that impossible. And, Gil sensed that he touched a nerve in mentioning Grainnewyn and the nature of her death. Could it be that Galadon had never intended to harm his sister and regretted her death? Even so, it didn't matter. Galadon had done what he had done, and if he was ever able to face his own conscience, as all good creatures must do, that knowledge should be quite a torment to him. Gil stared at the Dark Wizard; yes, signs of distress were beginning to show on Galadon's face! Galadon laughed wanly, mulling over Aiovel’s words. "I wanted to be a great Elven King. A King to be feared, to be revered—not to be pitied." "Because you felt betrayed? Did you feel my mother had abandoned you because she chose peace with Dragoras and the humans?" Aiovel suggested, shaking her head weakly. "If she had betrayed you, why could she never bring herself to kill you, even after my father's death? Why do you think she set up the magical barrier instead? I think she hoped you would see that you had misjudged the Dragorian race. But if you still have no remorse, then perhaps I was a fool to try to save you." All was silence.

Aiovel may have believed her actions had been foolish, but strangely, Gil understood why she had done what she did— he had waited to hear the same from Vaelcruithir: an admission of guilt, some explanation, or perhaps a trace of repentance— aside from death, it was the only thing that would end Aiovel's pain. So, even when Aiovel had planned her vengeance, she could not destroy Galadon without hearing it first. "Your concern has truly touched me." Galadon said at last, then sighed regretfully. "This is a revelation to me. I cannot help but come to the conclusion that—well, I may have been in error about your father." Galadon admitted solemnly. "If I can believe that there are others like you among the Dragorian kind, then I— perhaps not all dragons are as contemptible as Scathaechir. It may be worthwhile reconsidering my judgment of them." Lilia's jaw dropped. Ronan and Mygdewyn wore skeptical expressions. "Yet you associate with Scathaechir." Gil reminded him quickly. "Yes," Galadon nodded, turning to Gil. "I have dealings with Scathaechir and Rilath, but that doesn't mean much. The occasional planned ransacking keeps the dragons from attacking my cities unannounced. One must keep the greater good in mind." "My father King Derias would never negotiate his people's safety that way!" Dylan blurted. "Oh?" Galadon said, arching a brow. "But you have never been a king, have you?" He said solemnly. "You will see what you will be willing to do, when you are responsible for thousands of lives. But Aiovel, I cannot describe how I feel to know that you of all people could forgive me for the personal wrongs that I've done to you." Galadon said, shaking his head. "In truth, I admit I have regretted what happened to your mother every day throughout these many long years. I loved her sincerely and could not stop loving her, even when I had consoled myself that she had betrayed our mother's kingdom. I never intended that she should die, or to destroy Argolen." He sighed regretfully. "It was a terrible accident, you see. Scathaechir and his army refused to obey my order to retreat that day when Argolen fell. Since then, ours has been a tenous alliance, yet I have used him as a means to an end, as you said. Channelling a dangerous force is much safer than letting it out of one's control, yet I believe we shall never again be allies. "Back then, all I could think about was keeping our mother's kingdom from Dragoras' hands—and from yours." He added. "I thought all of the creatures that came through the magic gate wanted to steal our land, and I was convinced only we Silver Elves were creatures of honor and worth. Now when I look at you, Aiovel, and your loyal companions, I see how wrong I was." Aiovel smiled faintly. "Don't listen to him!" Dylan exclaimed. "He'd say anything now that we have him outnumbered!" "I assure you I mean what I say." Galadon countered staunchly. Dylan didn't care. So what if Galadon now had a change of heart— if Aiovel was going to die! "But you became far worse than you ever thought Dragoras was!" Dylan

protested. "Don't forgive him, Aiovel!" he urged. Dylan took a step forward, drawing his sword. "Stop it!" Aiovel cried. Dylan obliged reluctantly, glaring hotly at the Dark Wizard. "Yes, I did," Galadon admitted. "But is what I did any worse than the treachery of your human kings when a crown is at stake?" Dylan flinched. Galadon had a point, though he didn't like to admit it; even Dunlaith's history was full of violent usurpers to the throne. "Tell me, young prince, is it true that you humans have no desire to be upraised beyond your present state?" Galadon asked. "Can it be that you would rather live in ignorance, though I would have offered you a better civilization, as long as you are free?" "Don't tell me you weren't planning on conquering the West with your armies," Dylan said, dubious. "Conquering?" Galadon echoed. "No. At least, not as I saw it. I admit I felt that the land belonged to me, but I thought of my armies as more of a liberating force than a conquering one. I had planned to re-create the glory of our ancient cities and unite the West. But now, I see my efforts were wasted on you. I suppose your petty kingdoms would rather squabble amongst each other." "You're right, we would." Dylan retorted. Gil suddenly noticed Calatin watching Galadon, a twinkle in his eye. Galadon turned to the wizard, following Gil's glance. "You!" Galadon exclaimed. "You came all this way, wizard— so why have you not attempted to destroy me?" Galadon demanded. "You know why." Calatin said, narrowing his eyes. "If I should destroy you for your greed, I would have to be fair and go on a campaign across Vilna and through the magic gate and punish every trader from here to Europa. Yes, I believe it would be safe to say that a fair number of others would share your fate, myself included. No, I am content merely to keep you from destroying the lives of others. And I spare you because I am hoping you will make the decision that may, in part, redeem some of your past misdeeds." After a moment, Galadon nodded, as though accepting the wizard's terms, then abruptly knelt beside Aiovel. Gil heard a loud pop in the air as blue flames burst to life from the ground, curling upward to encircle the elf wizard; the magical fire coalesced around Galadon, wrapping him in a bright sheet of light. As Galadon intoned his final spell, ancient words flowed from his mouth like an unending river. "Hold," Calatin said to Gil, who leaned forward protectively, fearing the worst. "He is the only one who can heal her from the death curse, since he created the wand that Dylan used." Gil recoiled in shock. "Yeah, so?" Dylan said, irritated at being reminded that he had thrown the curse at Aiovel. "She wouldn't be dying if it weren't for him." "If Aiovel can forgive him, why can't you?" Calatin demanded gruffly. Dylan hesitated. "And consider this," Calatin resumed, "the death curse is a powerful spell,

almost irreversible once it takes effect, and even more potent this close to the source of its power. To heal her Galadon will exhaust his own magic. Is that not a good beginning for his punishment?" Calatin added. "For a Prince of Elves to be left a magician of limited ability— a trickster? It is no small sacrifice. Galadon was one of the greatest elf wizards who ever lived. However, now his powers are exhausted, and only time will tell if he is ever to regain them." Dylan stopped, afflicted by a surge of conscience. If he himself had been as powerful a wizard, would he have sacrificed that power for anything? he wondered. "But—he would have enslaved my kingdom!" Dylan protested, though less staunchly, now that there wasn't even a remote possibility of that happening. But no matter what was said, it was going to take a while before Dylan started trusting Galadon. "I see what's bothering you, young prince. Perhaps I did change my position in a moment of weakness." Galadon admitted, rising. "In such a case, it would be the only logical thing to do, when one is on the losing side." He shrugged. "But in truth, in some way I feel a great relief to put aside this ancient grudge that has entrenched all of my thoughts for so long. I could never accept that the world had changed, but now that I have at last, I see my folly. My dreams of restoring the West to its former glory could never be; they were also misguided dreams. I see I shall have to be content that at least my mother's Living Palace still stands in the Elwellyn Forest. With Aiovel's leave, perhaps I shall go there again some day—and perhaps content myself with restoring Argolen." Gil stared at Galadon, wanting to believe what the reformed Dark Wizard said. The elf retained his former cool composure and reasonability; yet there was no mistaking the sincerity in his eyes. Against his own expectations, Gil found himself beginning to like him. Aiovel stirred and tried to stand; Galanor rushed forward to help her up, relieved that she had recovered. As the companions embraced in turn, a strange charge of electricity crackled in the still air, and Gil shivered involuntarily. "What was that?" He ventured, wondering if the others had felt it. "The balance of chaos and order has been disrupted," Calatin replied. "Or re-balanced, as it were. You could say this resolution was long overdue." He smiled. "What you felt, Gil, was the dispersal of Galadon's ancient powers. However, I fear that the evil once concentrated in him— if indeed you can call it that, will soon be swept across Arcaendria. And the magical boundary has long been waning. Monsters and the cursed dragons will be able to pass into the West some day. No doubt, there will be trying times ahead for many of the kingdoms of our world. But they have buried their heads in the sand for too long." Gil shivered. If that were true, what would happen to Gyfen? He wondered, when Myrddin suddenly returned. "Ho, there!" Myrddin called, appearing from thin air in the chamber with the Dragorian King Alator, several of the King's advisors, and Alator's daughter, Nynnia. Lilia's eyes widened in excitement at the sight of the finely-dressed Dragorian court.

The Dragorian faithful ran the gamut of dragon varieties— there was even a fine-looking, dark-haired Dragorian among them, a descendant of the city's denizens from the days before the sundering of the races! So, not all of the Black Dragons had been in the plot to kill Dragoras. Though admittedly, the faithful Black Dragons were likely to be few in number. But, as she expected, Alator's motley assembly was mostly a mixture of Gold and Silver Dragorians. **Galanor spoke the truth!** Alator exclaimed, his eyes falling on Aiovel. **The daughter of Dragoras still lives!** As he spoke, his eyes flitted warily to Galadon, who stood among the companions without attacking them! Alator stared for a moment between Aiovel and Galadon, but no one moved to attack Galadon. Alator and his company continued to stare. Meanwhile, Lilia shouldered up beside Galanor and nudged him, whispering a request for a translation. **Thanks to my uncle, Galadon.** Aiovel said. **He saved my life.** Alator and his company appeared stunned by this news. **It's true,** Calatin agreed, surprising Gil with his ability to speak Dragorian. **But, Galadon was the betrayer—** Alator objected strongly. Several of his advisors began to whisper in disquieted tones. **Perhaps. But will you deny him a chance for redemption?** Calatin said, narrowing his keen blue eyes. **Galadon's plot against Dragoras would never have succeeded if there wasn't also some vice in the hearts of dragonkind.** **You speak well in his defense, wizard.** Alator said judiciously. **But that is beside the point. I will not deny Galadon a second chance to live honorably, but only because the daughter of Dragoras wills it.** **I do,** Aiovel nodded. **For reasons which I will impart to you once we have all had a chance to recuperate from this day's battles.** **But as Aiovel no doubt wills it, Galadon must atone for his hand in Dragoras' death.** Alator added warningly. **And give up his reign here in the East. As part of his penance for the lives lost in the sieges on Argolen and Dragoras, he must also be charged with protecting the East from Rilath and our cursed dragon relations, and that he shall serve the people of this land, the humans he once hated, in any other time of need such as might arise.** **Well spoken,** Calatin said, nodding agreement. Protecting the East was going to be difficult— and dangerous, considering that there was bound to be no love lost between the Fire Dragons and their former master. Aiovel turned to Galadon to see if he agreed to the terms. **I am gratified by your leniency, and by Aiovel's faith in me,** Galadon said graciously. **In return for that, I do willingly give up my rule and pledge to do what I can to restore the East, and all Dragoras.** That word came so easily from the reformed Dark Wizard! **Aiovel,** Alator said solemnly, **now that you have returned to us, it is my duty to step aside for you as the rightful ruler— and to ask you to come and lead us.** He added dutifully, though he seemed sad to do it.

Slowly, Aiovel shook her head. **No, King Alator. The rightful ruler of our Dragorian people is the one who will do the best job. I have already one kingdom to maintain, and that is enough. But perhaps I will come to Dragoras for a visit someday.** She added, with a smile. Alator nodded, drawing himself up in regal manner again. **We will look forward to your arrival. All of Daegoras will rejoice at the return of Queen Aiovel to us.** He said solemnly and blinked, teary-eyed. **And Galanor is welcome, too,** Nynnia put in. **Just as long as he remembers to keep himself properly attired.** She laughed. Galanor cracked a smile, and Aiovel turned to the Ice Dragon, her eyebrows raised in curiosity. "Do you get the feeling we're missing out on something?" Ronan whispered to Mygdewyn. "Don't we always?" the dwarf sniffed. ***** Gil awoke at dawn. By the time the companions made it down for breakfast, the travelers' inn bustled with news that the former Dark Wizard had gone; already there was a great stir about who was going to replace him. But the town mayor had taken the reins temporarily and sent word to the south lands that the Dark Wizard had been overthrown. Meanwhile, an heir of the line of the ancient kings of Gildorland was being considered to rule the kingdom; the only problem was that there weren't any legitimate claimants to be found. The reformed Dark Wizard himself had chosen not to remain in his former city, and had left for Naemar the previous evening in well-advised anonymity, after securing a promise from Aiovel to visit now and again. Dylan sat deep in thought, letting Mygdewyn take his second piece of bread. The dwarf smiled appreciation and reached for the honey. "Master Calatin," Dylan ventured at last, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. "You didn't have to let me keep your illusion crystal." He said, referring to the black orb he had found in Argolen. Somehow the journey Dylan had made with his companions seemed far more valuable than any trinket he had won, despite the present poverty of Dunlaith. "Keep it," the wizard advised. "Then I am grateful." Dylan said, hesitating slightly. "Yet—I wonder if perhaps you would be willing to trade it for something else—such as a wand. Like the one Lilia borrowed." Calatin narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing Dylan carefully. Without asking why Dylan wanted the wand, the wizard shook his head. "You don't need one." He said firmly. The generous wizard refused to even consider it? Dylan's forehead wrinkled in confusion. But Calatin sighed, shaking his head in amusement. "You do not need a wand because no matter what you have been told to the contrary, there is a bit of magic in you, young prince." Calatin said, wagging an admonishing finger at him.

"Really?" Dylan's heart fluttered. Dared he believe that? Still, when a wizard diagnosed magical talent, he was seldom in error. "Then, can you show me how to use this magic?" Dylan asked, deciding to be bold. "Of course. What do you want to learn?" Calatin asked, then waited. Dylan's heart leapt! But he didn't need any time to decide. "A fire spell." Dylan said firmly. "That reminds me," Mygdewyn said, pulling a sack of items from his pack. "I found these in Argolen. Were they yours, Calatin?" Mygdewyn asked, emptying the contents. With a loud slap, a pair of green sandals and a belt fell onto the table, and the polished stones rolled about, though Mygdewyn managed to catch them just before they rolled off the edge. "My comfortable shoes!" Calatin cried, genuinely delighted. "And my playing dice!" he added, hefting one of the rune-marked stones. "Ah yes, my old belt." He said a moment later, hefting it, eyeing the well-worn notch in surprise. "My, I was thinner then!" Calatin said, laughing pleasantly. "One man's junk is another man's treasure!" Myrddin smiled, shaking his head. "Truly Mygdewyn has done you a favor in preserving those things, Calatin." Calatin smiled in agreement. "And if he will return these things to me, I will tell him what the two rings are that he found. In any case, they would be far more valuable to him. As for me, I no longer have use for such trinkets." "A fair trade." Mygdewyn nodded. "The first is a ring of luck. You'd be amazed how many games I won with it against Argolen's greatest wizards! Magic spells were outlawed in our games, of course, but I kept the ring well-hidden." Calatin added with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "The other is a ring of truth." He went on. "No falsehood— magical or mundane—can deceive the wearer." Mygdewyn smiled broadly. "You don't think—" he blurted, then changed his mind. He didn't want to know how much luck had played a part in the prior evening's battle. What he wanted right now was another piece of bread. Unfortunately, the serving boy was occupied. Darn it! Mygdewyn's stomach rumbled ruefully. Perceiving Mygdewyn's distress, Rodruban sighed with affection and cast a spell of bounty, conjuring a steaming loaf of bread for the dwarf. Mygdewyn pinched a bit off suspiciously, remembering Ronan's track record. But this time, Rodruban had conjured a winner! Mygdewyn rubbed his hands together greedily and drew the loaf closer. Why, his luck with the druid was improving already! "Tell me, Rodruban, my lad," Myrddin said, watching the druid. "Have you given any thought to resolving your choice of calling?" Rodruban turned to the High Priest. "Why, yes. I choose to be a druid, of course." He said easily. Myrddin sighed. Of course Rodruban would say that! But Rodruban wasn't capable of making a decision for all three of his personalities. "I should have known better," Myrddin said, raising a hand. As Lilia looked up, the druid's features began to melt into those of the true

Ronan. At last! she thought with delight. So it was a gradual change, after all. Yet the transformation had taken place so fast that it seemed almost instantaneous. "Now, Ronan, I will ask you. Have you made your decision yet? Do you wish to remain druid or priest?" Myrddin waited patiently, his eyes betraying none of his own hopes. Ronan's face screwed up in concentration. A few days ago, he would have thought that he preferred the powers of the druid, Rodruban. But after yesterday, the elf priest had shown him the strengths of that aspect of his character. In his natural half-elf state, Ronan had found the most balance, yet at times he felt there was something missing—the self-assurance of Rodruban, and the compassion and inner strength of the elf Ronan. Then at last he realized the best answer to it all! "I choose to remain as I am." Ronan declared after a moment. "I need both chaos and order in my life, but I don't need it all, all of the time. I think perhaps that is why I've flitted from one to the other my entire life. Of course, the curse you put on me has been difficult to live with at times—and not only for me. I thank Mygdewyn's patience for putting up with me, but in truth, well, this curse seems to me not a curse at all." Ronan laughed. "At least I'll never be bored! I'd grow tired of Rodruban's selfishness, my own indecision, and the other Ronan's unerring goodness. So, if I may, I would choose to remain as I am—at least for now," he added, with suitable Ronan-style indecision. Myrddin nodded, then erupted in amused laughter. "So this is your choosing!" He cried, wiping his eyes. "But I admit I was gratified by your actions in the battle yesterday. When it really mattered, you acted quickly and decisively. And if truth be told, I once had the same problems of indecision myself—back when I was a druid." "You mean you've grown out of it?" Calatin teased. "Well, at least Ronan isn't also hasty, or meddlesome, like another priest I know, who shall of course remain nameless." "Give him time," Myrddin countered. "So you were a druid?! Mygdewyn sputtered, recovering from shock. "Yes," Myrddin nodded, "though I don't like the word to get out among the priests and druids in training. Priests and druids were once not quite so distinct from each other in those days, but today I'm afraid it only complicates things unnecessarily for the acolytes to know. "Speaking of which, I imagine I'll have to be getting back soon." He went on. "No doubt the druids are all running amok without me—being there to stop them, of course." "I've been thinking," Gil said, interrupting. "Whatever happened to the magic gate in Vilna?" "I imagine it's still operating." Calatin shrugged. "Though I don't know. The magic sight of my crystal ball doesn't reach that far. However, I have no intention of finding out. I for one am looking forward to returning to Gyfen. Someone at least must inform Prince Cormac and his father of what has happened." He paused, turning to Gil. "Will you be coming back with me, Gil?"

For a moment, Gil vacillated. "You can't leave us, Gil!" Lilia wailed. "Us?" Mygdewyn echoed. "So you're lumping us in on this?" He sighed elaborately. But Lilia knew him well enough to recognize his gestures of affection. "I think I'll stay here a while," Gil said at last. "I don't feel ready to return to Gyfen, somehow." Gil's grandfather nodded. "When you are, you and I have a lot of catching up to do." He smiled. "If I don't answer the bell, just come in and find me. Everyone else does. Isn't that right?" He asked Lilia. "Hey, Dylan, you still haven't finished my swordplay lessons." Gil said, laughing. Dylan nodded soberly, avoiding Gil's eyes. "Actually, I am taking the Prince of Dunlaith home tomorrow." Calatin said. "What? How?" Lilia demanded. "The same way I got here, of course—an instant translation spell is the only way for me to travel." Calatin threw up his hands. "You don't suppose wizards need to walk anywhere, do you?" "Why the rush to go back?" Lilia inquired unhappily. How could he explain? Dylan thought. If they knew the state Dunlaith had been in when he had left it, they wouldn't have needed to ask. Dylan wanted to stay with them, of course, but he knew where his duty lay. He had vowed to return with treasure for the kingdom, to save his family. Now that he had it, he couldn't just ignore that promise! The gold they'd found in Argolen wasn't even the greatest part. Dylan had no doubt that the city's knowledge of architecture contained in the great volume he'd found would be able to raise Dunlaith to new heights— and to fortify the city. Dylan knew how important that was soon to become. Yet he wasn't sure how long it would take for word from Gyfen to reach Dunlaith that they should prepare themselves for the return of monsters to Western Daegoras. "Don't tell me—your father will be so grateful that you've saved the kingdom that he'll be naming you as his heir!" Lilia cried. When Dylan didn't give her an answer right away, she began to imagine a far more exciting alternative. Gil chuckled in amusement but surprised himself with the realization that he hadn't engaged in such flights of fancy since he'd left the Pegasus. How long ago that seemed. ***** Shortly after noon two days later, the reduced number of companions wandered among the stalls in the marketplace of the newly freed city of Gildorland. As it turned out, though the best deals were to be found among the local merchants, only the traders from Murmanek and Naemar could afford to pay them

anywhere near the value of the pieces from Argolen. Thanks to Mygdewyn's jewelry, or at least the ring of truth, they seemed to find straight answers—and avoided shady deals. But in the end, they settled on selling what they needed for immediate expenses and holding off on parting with the rest. It was going to be hard dividing up all that they had found together fairly. "What nerve!" Lilia wailed, shaking her fist at one of the vendors. "Imagine giving only ten gold for this exemplary piece of ancient flatware! Well, no thank you!" Gil smiled as Lilia stormed off in a huff. "Sir!" One of the other vendors called. Gil looked around uncertainly, and locked eyes with a stout, middle-aged man. The merchant urged him to his stall with a friendly grin, stealing glances over at his neighbor who had offended Lilia. So the man had been talking to him! Gil tried to keep a straight face and approached obligingly, in part because of the man's choice of address. "Don't let Melatad fool ya!" the merchant advised, inclining his chin toward the other vendor. "Old Melatad Jernay's the biggest crook in these parts. Take my advice. If you're looking for a good deal fer yer finer wares, take 'em to Onega, in Vilna. It should be easier to book passage there, now that the Dark Wizard's been ousted. But I'd hurry if I wur you— can't never tell how bad it'll be if they find a new rooster to lord over us." Gil nodded gratefully, then hurried to catch up with the others. Galanor was retelling his story about what had happened in Daegoras and about his encounter with Nynnia, but Gil had already heard it twice. Gil waited and relayed the merchant's advice. "Let's go there together!" Lilia cried. "I must admit, that's a good idea!" Ronan, a half-elf today, said with uncharacteristic resolution, leaning on his Staff, though only out of habit. For of course, he didn't really need it anymore. Since Ronan had made his choice of calling, he hadn't complained of fatigue— not even once. He had, however, picked up an annoying habit of setting too brisk a pace for the others to follow; but perhaps this hasty behavior came along with his new-found decisiveness. Mygdewyn seemed incredulous about the idea but showed no sign of protesting against Ronan's decision. "How about you?" Lilia asked Galanor and Aiovel. "I suppose my people can manage to continue their revelry without me for a little while longer," Aiovel shrugged. "Hmmm. Well, perhaps we could take a schooner down to Gildford first." Galanor suggested, his enthusiasm mounting. "Then take a caravan to Naemar—" Galanor stopped abruptly. Dylan had suddenly appeared on the road ahead! "Dylan!" Lilia cried, eyeing the prince's fine new armor, though strangely, the royal crest was gone. "What are you doing here?" She said. "I don't know how Calatin does it." Dylan laughed, shaking his head. "This instant translation thing is murder! I tell you, I'd rather have walked—so to speak," he amended quickly, unless the wizard had any notion of obliging him by sending him back to Dunlaith.

"I thought you had your magic spell and your treasure and didn't want to have anything to do with us!" Lilia huffed. "So what brings you back?" Gil wondered. "Well, my father was pleased with the gold, and it turns out that orb I was tossing around really was priceless. Quite a nifty little thing, actually—it sustains an illusion indefinitely until you change the projected image. And, my father really loved the book we found in Argolen." Dylan explained. "He's using the gold to repay his debts and to pay for reconstruction of Dunlaith's sewers. And, if you can believe it, he's planning to sell copies of the work to other cities for a small fortune!" "So what are you doing here, if everything was working out so well?" Ronan wondered. "It sounds as though you were a big hero, after all. Your father must have been proud." "Well, to tell you the truth, I missed you all, though I didn't realize how much I would until I left. And, I've realized something from this whole experience." Dylan said, shrugging. "Magic alone, even a long-desired fire spell, can not bring you happiness." "But treasure can?" Mygdewyn suggested. "Well, my father would certainly be one to say so." Dylan grinned. "But magic is just like treasure. You've got to use it effectively, or it doesn't accomplish anything. Anyway, I've found something far more valuable than either." "What?" Mygdewyn inquired, as Dylan withdrew something from his cloak that looked like a conical wizard's hat. "Self-respect." Dylan said with a laugh and doffed Nolan's singed cap.